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With these considerations in mind, let us examine the three currents of thought in our period beginning with that which is at once a prolongation of positivism and a transformation of it, a current expressed in the work of Vacherot, Taine and Renan.
Etienne Vacherot (1809-1897) was partially a disciple of Victor Cousin and a representative also of the positivist attitude to knowledge. His work, however, passed beyond the bounds indicated by these names. He remained a convinced naturalist and believer in positive science, but, unlike Comte, he did not despise metaphysical inquiry, and he sought to find a place for it in thought. Vacherot, who had won a reputation for himself by an historical work on the Alexandrian School, became tne director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, an important position in the intellectual world. He here advocated the doctrines by which he sought to give a to metaphysics. His most important book, La Métaphysique et la Science, in three volumes, appeared in 1858. He suffered imprisonment the following year for His liberal principles under the Empire which had already deprived him of his position at the Sorbonne.
The general attitude to knowledge adopted by Vacherot recalls in some respects the metaphysical doctrines of Spinoza, and he endeavours to combine the purely naturalistic view of the world with a metaphysical conception. The result is a profound and, for Vacherot, irreconcilable dualism, in which the real and the ideal are set against one another in rigorous contrast, and the gap between them is not bridged or even attempted to be filled up, as, at a later date, was the task assumed by Fouillee in his philosophy of idées-forces. For Vacherot the world is a unity, eternal and infinite, but lacking perfection. Perfection, the ideal, is incompatible with reality. The real is not at all ideal, and the ideal has no reality.* In this unsatisfactory dualism Vacherot leaves us. His doctrine, although making a superficial appeal by its seeming positivism on the one hand, and its maintenance of the notion of the ideal or perfection on the other, is actually far more paradoxical than that which asserts that ultimately it is the ideal only which is real. While St. Anselm had endeavoured to establish by his proof of the existence of God the reality of perfection, Vacherot, by a reversal of this proof, arrives at the opposite conclusion, and at a point where it seems that it would be for the ideal an imperfection to exist. The absolute existence of all things is thus separated from the ideal, and no attempt is made to relate the two, as Spinoza had so rigorously done, by maintaining that reality is perfection.†
[Footnote *: It is interesting to contrast this with the attitude of the new spiritualists, especially Fouillée's conception of idees-forces, of ideas and ideals realising themselves. See also Guyau's attitude.
"L'idéal n'est-il pas, sur la terre où nous sommes
Plus fécond et plus beau que la réalité?"
[Footnote † : Vacherot contributed further to the thought of his time, notably by a book on religion, 1869, and later in life seems to have become sympathetic to the New Spiritualism, on which he also wrote a book in 1884.]
The influence of Vacherot was in some measure continued in that of his pupil, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), a thinker who had considerable influence upon the development of thought in our period. His ability as a critic of art and literature was perhaps more marked than his purely philosophical influence, but this is, nevertheless, important, and cannot be overlooked.
Taine was a student of the Ecole Normale, and in 1851 was appointed to teach philosophy at Nevers. The coup d'état, however, changed his career, and he turned to literature as his main field, writing a work on La Fontaine for his doctorate in 1853. In the year of Comte's death (1857) Taine published his book, Les Philosophes français du XIXe Siècle, in which he turned his powerful batteries of criticism upon the vague spiritualism professed by Cousin and officially favoured in France at that time.* By his adverse criticism of Cousin and the Eclectic School, Taine placed his influence upon the side of the positivist followers of Comte. It would, however, be erroneous to regard him as a mere disciple of Comte, as Taine's positivism was in its general form a wider doctrine, yet more rigorously scientific in some respects than that of Comte. There was also an important difference in their attitude to metaphysics. Taine upheld strongly the value, and, indeed, the necessity, of a metaphysical doctrine. He never made much of any debt or allegiance to Comte.
[Footnote * : See his chapter xii. on "The Success of Eclecticism," pp. 283-307. Cousin, he criticises at length; De Biran, Royer-Collard and Jouffroy are included in his censures. We might mention that this book was first issued in the form of articles in the Revue de l'Instruction publique during the years 1855, 1856.]
In 1860 a volume dealing with the Philosophy of Art appeared from his pen, in which he not only endeavoured to relate the art of a period to the general environment in which it arose, but, in addition, he dealt with certain psychological aspects of the problem. Largely as a result of the talent displayed in this work, he was appointed in 1864 to tne chair of the History of Art and Æsthetics in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Taine's interest in philosophy, and especially in psychological problems, was more prominently demon strated in his book De l'Intelligence, the two volumes of which appeared in 1870. In this work he takes a strict view of the human intelligence as a mechanism, the workings of which he sets forth in a precise and cold manner. His treatment of knowledge is akin, in some respects, to the doctrines of the English Utilitarian and Evolutionary School as represented by John Stuart Mill, Bain and Spencer. The main feature of the Darwinian doctrine is set by Taine in the foreground of epistemology. There is, according to him, "a struggle for existence" in the realm of the individual consciousness no less than in the external world. This inner conflict is between psychical elements which, when victorious, result in sense-perception. This awareness, or hallucination vraie, is not knowledge of a purely speculative character; it is (as, at a later date, Bergson was to maintain in his doctrine of perception) essentially bound up with action, with the instinct and mechanism of movement.
One of the most notable features of Taine's work is his attitude to psychology. He rejects absolutely the rather scornful attitude adopted with regard to this science by Comte; at the same time he shatters the flimsy edifice of the eclectics in order to lay the foundation of a scientific psychology. "The true and independent psychology is," he remarks, "a magnificent science which lays the foundation of the philosophy of history, which gives life to physiology and opens up the pathway to metaphysics."* Our debt to Taine is immense, for he initiated the great current of experimental psychology for which his country has since become famous. It is not our intention in this present work to follow out in any detail the purely psychological work of the period. Psychology has more and more become differentiated from, and to a large degree, independent of, philosophy in a strictly metaphysical meaning of that word. Yet we shall do well in passing to note that through Taine's work the scientific attitude to psychologv and its many problems was taken up and developed by Ribot, whose study of English Psychology appeared in the same year as Taine's Intelligence. Particularly by his frequent illustrations drawn from abnormal psychology, Taine "set the tone" for contemporary and later study of mental activity of this type. Ribot's later books have been mainly devoted to the study of "the abnormal,"and his efforts are characteristic of the labours of the Paris School, comprising Charcot, Paulhan, Binet and Janet.* French psychology has in consequence become a clearly defined "school," with characteristics peculiar to itself which distinguish it at once from the psychophysical research of German workers and from the analytic labours of English psychologists. Its debt to Taine at the outset must not be forgotten.
[Footnote * : De l'Intelligence, Conclusion.]
[Footnote * : By Charcot (1825-1893), Leçons sur les Maladies du Système nerveux faites à la Salpêtrière and Localisation dans les Maladies du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière, 1880.
By Ribot (1839-1916), Hérédité, Etude psychologique, 1873, Eng. trans., 1875; Les Maladies de la Mémoire, Essai dans la Psychologie positive, 1881, Eng. trans., 1882; Maladies de la Volonté, 1883, Eng. trans., 1884; Maladies de la Personnalité, 1885, Eng. trans., 1895. Ribot expressed regret at the way in which abnormal psychology has been neglected in England. See his critique of Bain in his Psychologie anglaise contemporaine. In 1870 Ribot declared the independence of psychology as a study, separate from philosophy. Ribot had very wide interests beyond pure psychology, a fact which is stressed by his commencing in 1876 the periodical La Revue philosophique de la France et de l'Etranger.
By Binet (1857-191!), Magnétisme animal, 1886; Les Altérations de la personnalité, 1892; L'Introduction à la Psychologie expérimentale, 1894. He founded the review L'Année psychologique in 1895.
By Janet (Pierre), born 1859 now Professeur at the Collège de France, L'Automatisme psychologique, 1889; Etat mental des Hystériques, 1894; and Neuroses et Idées-fixes, 1898. He founded the Journal de Psychologie.
By Paulhan, Phénomenes affectifs and L'Activité mentale.
To the fame of the Paris School of Psychology must now be added that of the Nancy School embracing the work of Coué.]
The War and the subsequent course of events in France seemed to deepen the sadness and pessimism of Taine's character. He described himself as naturellement triste, and finally his severe positivism developed into a rigorous stoicism akin to that of Marcus Aurelius and Spinoza. This attitude of mind coloured his unfinished historical work, Les Origines de la France contemporaine, upon which he was engaged for the last years of his life (1876-1894). It may be noticed for its bearing upon the study of sociological problems which it indirectly encouraged. Just as Taine had regarded a work of art as the product of social environment, so he looks upon historical events. This history bears all the marks of Taine's rigid, positive philosophy, intensified by his later stoicism. The Revolution of 1789 is treated in a cold and stern manner devoid of enthusiasm of any sort. He could not make historical narrative live like Michelet, and from his own record the Revolution itself is almost unintelligible. For Taine, however, we must remember, human nature is absolutely the product of race, environment and history.*
[Footnote *: Michelet (1798-1874), mentioned here as an historian of a type entirely different from Taine, influenced philosophic thought by his volumes Le Peuple, 1846; L'Amour, 1858; Le Prêtre, La Femme et la Famille, 1859; and La Bible de l'Humanité, 1864. He and his friend Quinet (1803-1875), who was also a Professor at the College de France, and was the author of Génie des Religions, 1842, had considerable influence prior to 1848 of a political and religious character. They were in strong opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and had keen controversies with the Jesuits and Ultramontanists.]
In the philosophy of Taine various influences are seen at work interacting. The spirit of the French thinkers of the previous century—sensualists and ideologists—reappears in him. While in a measure he fluctuates between naturalism and idealism, the predominating tone of his work is clearly positivist. He was a great student of Spinoza and of Hegel, and the influence of both these thinkers appears in his work. Like Spinoza, he believes in a universal determination; like Hegel, he asserts the real and the rational to be identical. In his general attitude to the problems of knowledge Taine criticises and passes beyond the standpoints of both Hume and Kant. He opposes the purely empiricist schools of both France and England. The purely empirical attitude which looks upon the world as fragmentary and phenomenal is deficient, according to Taine, and is, moreover, incompatible with the notion of necessity. This notion of necessity is characteristic of Taine's whole work, and his strict adherence to it was mainly due to his absolute belief in science and its methods, which is a mark of all the positivist type of thought.
While he rejected Hume's empiricism he also opposed the doctrines of Kant and the neo-critical school which found its inspiration in Kant and Hume. Taine asserted that it is possible to have a knowledge of things in their objective reality, and he appears to have based his epistemology upon the doctrine of analysis proposed by Condillac. Taine disagreed with the theory of the relativity of human knowledge and with the phenomenal basis of the neo-critical teaching, its rejection of "the thing in itself." He believed we had knowledge not merely relative but absolute, and he claimed that we can pass from phenomena and their laws to comprehend the essence of things in themselves. He endeavours to avoid the difficulties of Hume by dogmatism. While clinging to a semi-Hegelian view of rationality he avoids Kant's critical attitude to reason itself. We have in Taine not a critical rationalist but a dogmatic rationalist. While the rational aspect of his thought commands a certain respect and has had in many directions a very wholesome influence, notably, as we have remarked, upon psychology, yet it proves itself in the last analysis self-contradictory, for a true rationalism is critical in character rather than dogmatic.
In Taine'a great contemporary, Ernest Renan (1823-1892), a very different temper is seen. The two thinkers both possessed popularity as men of letters, and resembled one another in being devoted to literary and historical pursuits rather than to philosophy itself.
Renan was trained for the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. He has left us a record of his early life in Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse. We there have an autobiography of a sincere and sensitive soul, encouraged in his priestly career by his family and his teachers to such a degree that he had conceived of no other career for himself, until at the age of twenty, under the influence of modern scientific doctrines and the criticism of the Biblical records, he found himself an unbeliever, certainly not a Roman Catholic, and not, in the ordinary interpretation of that rather vague term, a Christian. The harsh, unrelenting dogmatism of the Roman Church drove Renan from Christianity. We find him remarking that had he lived in a Protestant. country he might not have been faced with the dilemma.* A via media might have presented itself in one of the very numerous forms into which Protestant Christianity, is divided. He might have exercised in such a sphere, his priestly functions as did Schleiermacher. Renan's break with Rome emphasises the clear-cut division which exists in France between the Christian faith (represented, almost entirely by the Roman Church) and libre-pensée, a point which will claim our attention later, when we come to treat of the Philosophy of Religion.
[Footnote * : Cf. his Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse, p. 292.]
Having abandoned the seminary and the Church, Renan worked for his university degrees. The events of 1848-49 inspired his young heart with great enthusiasm, under the influence of which he wrote his Avenir de la Science. This book was not published, however, until 1890, when he had lost his early hopes and illusions. In 1849 he went away upon a mission to Italy. "The reaction of 1850-51 and the coup d'état instilled into me a pessimism of which I am not yet cured," so he wrote in the preface to his Dialogues et Fragments philosophiques.* Some years after the coup d'état he published a volume of essays (Essais de Morale et de Critique), and he showed his acquaintance with Arabic philosophy by an excellent treatise on Averroes et l'Averroisme (1859). The following year he visited Syria and, in 1861, was appointed Professor of Hebrew at the Collège de France. He then began his monumental work on Les Origines du Christianisme, of which the first volume, La Vie de Jésus, appeared in 1863. Its importance for religious thought we shall consider in our last chapter; here it must suffice to observe its immediate consequences. These were terrific onslaughts from the clergy upon its author, which, although they brought the attention of his countrymen and of the world upon Renan, resulted in the Imperial Government suspending his tenure of the chair. After the fall of the Empire, however, he returned to it, and under the Third Republic became Director of the Collège de France.
[Footnote * : Published only in 1895. The preface referred to is dated 1871.]
Renan, although he broke off his career in the Church and his connection with organised religion, retained, nevertheless, much of the priestly character all his life, and he himself confesses this: "I have learned several things, but I have changed in nowise as to the general system of intellectual and moral life. My habitation has become more spacious, but it still stands on the same ground. I look upon my estrangement from orthodoxy as only a change of opinion concerning an important historical question, a change which does not prevent me from dwelling on the same foundations as before." He indeed found it impossible to reconcile the Catholic faith with free and honest thought. His break with the Church made him an enemy of all superstition, and his writings raised against him the hatred of the Catholic clergy, who regarded him as a deserter. In the customary terms of heated theological debate he was styled an atheist. This was grossly unfair or meaningless. Which word we use here depends upon our definition of theism. As a matter of fact, Renan was one of the most deeply religious minds of his time. His early religious sentiments remained, in essence if not in form, with him throughout his life. These were always associated with the tender memories he had of his mother and beloved sister and his virtuous teachers, the priests in the little town of Brittany, whence he came. Much of the Breton mysticism clung to his soul, and much of his philosophy is a restated, rationalised form of his early beliefs.
As a figure in the intellectual life of the time, Renan is difficult to estimate. The very subtilty of his intellect betrayed him into an oscillation which was far from admirable, and prevented his countrymen in his own day from "getting to grips" with his ideas. These were kaleidoscopic. Renan seems a type, reflecting many tendencies of the time, useful as an illustration to the historian of the ideas of the period; but for philosophy in the special sense he has none of the clearly defined importance of men like Renouvier, Lachelier, Guyau, Fouillée, Bergson or Blondel. His humanism keeps him free from dogmatism, but his mind fluctuates so that his general attitude to the ultimate problems is one of reserve, of scepticism and of frequent paradox and contradiction. Renan seems to combine the positivist scorn of metaphysics with the Kantian idealism. At times, however, his attitude is rather Hegelian, and he believes in universal change which is an evolving of spirit, the ideal or God, call it what we will. We need not be too particular about names or forms of thought, for, after all, everything "may be only a dream." That is Renan's attitude, to temper enthusiasm by irony, to assert a duty of doubt, and often, perhaps, to gain a literary brilliance by contradictory statements. "The survey of human affairs is not complete," he reminds us, "unless we allot a place for irony beside that of tears, a place for pity beside that of rage, and a place for a smile alongside respect."*
[Footnote *: Preface to his Drames philosophiques, 1888.]
It was this versatility which made Renan a lover of the philosophic dialogue. This literary and dramatic form naturally appealed strongly to a mind who was so very conscious of the fact that the truths with which philosophy deals cannot be directly denied or directly affirmed, as they are not subject to demonstration. All the high problems of humanity Renan recognised as being of this kind, as involving finally a rational faith; and he claimed that the best we can do is to present the problems of life from different points of view. This is due entirely to the peculiar character of philosophy itself, and to the distinction, which must never be overlooked, between knowledge and belief, between certitude and opinion. Geometry, for example, is not a subject for dialogues but for demonstration, as it involves knowledge and certitude. The problems of philosophy, on the contrary, involve "une nuance de foi," as Renan styles it. They involve willed adhesion, acceptance or choice; they provoke sympathy or hate, and call into play human personality with its varying shades of colour.
This state of nuance Renan asserts to be the one of the hour for philosophy. It is not the time, he thinks, to attempt to strengthen by abstract reasoning the "proofs" of God's existence or of the reality of a future life. "Men see just now that they can never know anything of the supreme cause of the universe or of their own destiny. Nevertheless they are anxious to listen to those who will speak to them about either."†
[Footnote †: From his Preface to Drames philosophiques.]
Knowledge, Renan maintained, lies somewhere between the two schools into which the majority of men are divided. "What you are looking for has long since been discovered and made clear," say the orthodox. "What you are looking for is impossible to find," say the practical positivists, the political "raillers" and the atheists. It is true that we shall never know the ultimate secret of all being, but we shall never prevent man from desiring more and more knowledge or from creating for himself working hypotheses or beliefs.
Yet although Renan admits this truth he never approaches even the pragmatist position of supporting "creative beliefs." He rather urges a certain passivity towards problems and opinions. We should, he argues in his Examen de Conscience philosophique,* let them work themselves out in us. Like a spectator we must let them modify our "intellectual retina"; we must let reality reflect itself in us. By this he does not mean to assert that the truth about that reality is a matter of pure indifference to us-far from it. Precisely because he is so conscious of the importance of true knowledge, he is anxious that we should approach the study of reality without previous prejudices. "We have no right," he remarks, "to have a desire when reason speaks; we must listen and nothing more." [Footnote: Feuilles détachées, p. 402.]
[Footnote *: In his Feuilles detachées, pp. 401-443.]
It must be admitted, however, that Renan's attitude to the problems of knowledge was largely sceptical. While, as we shall see in the following chapter, he extolled science, his attitude to belief and to knowledge was irritating in its vagueness and changeableness. He appeared to pose too much as a dilettante making a show of subtle intellect, rather than a serious thinker of the first rank. His eminence and genius are unquestioned, but he played in a bewitching and frequently bewildering manner with great and serious problems, and one cannot help wishing that this great intellect of his—and it was unquestionably great—was not more steady and was not applied by its owner more steadfastly and courageously to ultimate problems. His writings reflect a bewildering variety of contradictory moods, playful, scathing, serious and mocking. Indeed, he replied in his Feuilles detachées (1892) to the accusations of Amiel by insisting that irony is the philosopher's last word. For him as for his brilliant fellow-countryman, Anatole France, ironical scepticism is the ultimate product of his reflection upon life. His Examen de Conscience philosophique is his Confession of Faith, written four years before his death, in which he tries to defend his sceptical attitude and to put forward scepticism as an apology for his own uncertainty and his paradoxical changes of view. Irony intermingles with his doubt here too. We do not know, he says, ultimate reality; we do not know whether there be any purpose or end in the universe at all. There may be, but on the other hand it may be a farce and fiasco. By refusing to believe in anything, rejecting both alternatives, Renan argues, with a kind of mental cowardice, we avoid the consequence of being absolutely deceived. He recommended an adoption of mixed belief and doubt, optimism and irony.
This is a surprising attitude in a philosopher and is not characteristic of great modern thinkers, most of whom prefer belief (hypothetical although that be) to non-belief. Doubtless Renan's early training had a psychological effect which operated perhaps largely unconsciously throughout his life, and his literary and linguistic ability seems to have given him a reputation which was rather that of a man of letters than a philosopher. He had not the mental strength or frankness to face alternatives squarely and to decide to adopt one. Consequently he merited the application of the old proverb about being between two stools. This application was actually made to Renan's attitude in a critical remark by Renouvier in his Esquisse d'une Classification des Doctrines philosphiques.* Renouvier had no difficulty in pointing out that the man who hesitates deprives himself of that great reality, the exercise of his own power of free choice, in itself valuable and more akin to reality (whatever be the choice) than a mere "sitting on the fence," an attitude which, so far from assuring one of getting the advantages of both possibilities as Renan claims, may more justly seem to deprive one of the advantages in both directions. The needs of life demand that we construct beliefs of some sort. We may be wrong and err, but pure scepticism such as Renan advocated is untenable. Life, if it is to be real and earnest, demands of us that we have faith in some values, that we construct some beliefs, some hypotheses, by which we may work.
[Footnote: Vol. ii., p. 395.]
Both Renan and Taine exercised a considerable influence upon French thought. While inheriting the positivist outlook they, to a great degree, perhaps unconsciously, undermined the positive position, both by their interest in the humanities, in art, letters and religion and in their metaphysical attitude. Taine, beginning with a rigid naturalism, came gradually to approach an idealistic standpoint in many respects, while Renan, beginning with a dogmatic idealism, came to acute doubt, hypotheses, "dreams" and scepticism. Taine kept his thoughts in too rigid a mould, solidified, while those of Renan seem finally to have existed only in a gaseous state, intangible, vague and hazy. We have observed how the positivist current from Comte was carried over by Vacherot to Taine. In Renan we find that current present also, but it has begun to turn against itself. While we may say that his work reflects in a very remarkable manner the spirit of his time, especially the positivist faith in science, yet we are also able to find in it, in spite of his immense scepticism, the indications of a spiritualist or idealist movement, groping and shaping itself as the century grows older.
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