< Author | Library >
<< Previous | Contents | Next >>



THE year 1851 was one of remarkable importance for France; a crisis then occurred in its political and intellectual life. The hopes and aspirations to which the Revolution of 1848 had given rise were shattered by the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon in the month of December. The proclamation of the Second Empire heralded the revival of an era of imperialism and reaction in politics, accompanied by a decline in liberty and a diminution of idealism in the world of thought. A censorship of books was established, the press was deprived of its liberty, and the teaching of philosophy forbidden in lycées.*

[Footnote * : The revival of philosophy in the lycées began when Victor Drury reintroduced the study of Logic.]

Various ardent and thoughtful spirits, whose minds and hearts had been uplifted by the events of 1848, hoping to see the dawn of an era expressing in action the ideals of the first Revolution, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, were bitterly disappointed. Social ideals such as had been created by Saint-Simon and his school received a rude rebuff from force, militarism and imperialism. So great was the mingled disappointment and disgust of many that they left for ever the realm of practical politics to apply themselves to the arts, letters or sciences. Interesting examples of this state of mind are to be found in Vacherot, Taine, Renan and Renouvier, and, we may add, in Michelet, Victor Hugo and Edgar Quinet. The first of these, Vacherot, who had succeeded Cousin as Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, lost his chair, as did Quinet and also Michelet, who was further deprived of his position as Archivist. Hugo and Quinet, having taken active political part in the events of 1848, were driven into exile. Disgust, disappointment, disillusionment and pessimism characterise the attitude of all this group of thinkers to political events, and this reacted not only upon their careers but upon their entire philosophy. "With regard to the Second Empire," we find Renan saying,* "if the last ten years of its duration in some measure repaired the mischief done in the first eight, it must never be forgotten how strong this Government was when it was a question of crushing the intelligence, and how feeble when it came to raising it up."

[Footnote *: In his Preface to Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse.]

The disheartening end of the Empire in moral degeneracy and military defeat only added to the gloominess, against which the Red Flag and the red fires of the Commune cast a lurid and pathetic glow, upon which the Prussians could look down with a grim smile from the heights of Paris. Only with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871, and its ratification a few years later, does a feeling of cheerfulness make itself felt in the thought of the time. The years from 1880 onwards have been remarkable for their fruitfulness in the philosophic field—to such an extent do political and social events react upon the most philosophical minds. This is a healthy sign; it shows that those minds have not detached themselves from contact with the world, that the spirit of philosophy is a living spirit and not merely an academic or professional product divorced from the fierce realities of history.

We have already indicated, in the treatment of the "Antecedents" of our period, the dominance of Eclecticism, supported by the powers of officialdom, and have remarked how Positivism arose as a reaction against Cousin's vague spiritualism. In approaching the second half of the century we may in general characterise its thought as a reaction against both eclecticism and positivism. A transitional current can be distinguished where positivism turns, as it were, against itself in the work of Vacherot, Taine and Renan. The works of Cournot and the indefatigable Renouvier with his neo-criticism mark another main current. Ultimately there came to triumph towards the close of the century a new spiritualism, owing much inspiration to De Biran, but which, unlike Cousin's doctrines, had suffered the discipline of the positivist spirit. The main contributors to this current are Ravaisson, Lachelier, Fouillée and Guyau, Boutroux, Bergson, Blondel and Weber. Our study deals with the significance of these three currents, and having made this clear we shall then discuss the development of thought in connection with the various problems and ideas in which the philosophy of the period found its expression.

In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant endeavoured, at a time when speculation of a dogmatic and uncritical kind was current, to call attention to the necessity for examining the instrument of knowledge itself, and thereby discovering its fitness or inadequacy, as the case might be, for dealing with the problems which philosophy proposes to investigate. This was a word spoken in due season and, however much subsequent philosophy has deviated from the conclusions of Kant, it has at least remembered the significance of his advice. The result has been that the attitude adopted by philosophers to the problems before them has been determined largely by the kind of answer which they offer to the problems of knowledge itself. Obviously a mind which asserts that we can never be sure of knowing anything (or as in some cases, that this assertion is itself uncertain) will see all questions through the green-glasses of scepticism. On the other hand, a thinker who believes that we do have knowledge of certain things and can be certain of thiss, whether by objective proof or a subjective intuition, is sure to have, not only a different conclusion about problems, but, what is probably more important for the philosophic spirit, a different means of approaching them.

Writing in 1860 on the general state of philosophy, Renan pointed out, in his Essay La Métaphysique el son Avenir,* that metaphysical speculation, strictly so-called, had been in abeyance for thirty years, and did not seem inclined to continue the traditions of Kant, Hegel, Hamilton and Cousin. The reasons which he gave for this depression of the philosophical market were, firstly, the feeling of the impossibility of ultimate knowledge, a scepticism of the instrument, so far as the human mind was concerned, and secondly, the rather disdainful attitude adopted by many minds towards philosophy owing to the growing importance of science—in short, the question, "Is there any place left for philosophy; has it any raison d'être?"

[Footnote *: Essay published later (1876) in his Dialogues et Fragments philosophiques. Cf. especially pp. 265-266.]

The progress of the positive sciences, and the assertions of many that philosophy was futile and treacherous, led philosophy to give an account of itself by a kind of apologia pro vita sua. In the face of remarks akin to that of Newton's "Physics beware of metaphysics," the latter had to bestir itself or pass out of existence. It was, indeed, this extinction which the more ardent and devoted scientific spirits heralded, re-iterating the war-cry of Auguste Comte.

It was a crisis, in fact, for philosophy. Was it to become merely a universal science? Was it to abandon the task of solving the problems of the universe by rapid intuitions and a priori constructions and undertake the construction of a science of the whole, built up from the data and results of the science of the parts—i.e., the separate sciences of nature? Was there, then, to be no place for metaphysics in this classification of the sciences to which the current of thought was tending with increasing impetuosity? Was a science of primary or ultimate truths a useless chimera, to be rejected entirely by the human mind in favour of an all-sufficing belief in positive science? These were the questions which perplexed the thoughtful minds of that time.

We shall do well, therefore, in our survey of the half century before us, to investigate the two problems which were stressed by Renan in the essay we have quoted, for his acute mind possessed a unique power of sensing the feeling and thought of his time. Our preliminary task will be the examination of the general attitude to knowledge adopted by the various thinkers and schools of thought, following this by an inquiry into the attitude adopted to science itself and its relation to philosophy.

<< Previous | Contents | Next >>
< Author | Library >