< Author | Library >
<< Previous | Contents | Next >>
HAVING thus surveyed the main currents of our period and indicated the general attitude adopted to knowledge by the various thinkers, we approach more closely to the problem of the relation of science and philosophy. The nineteenth century was a period in which this problem was keenly felt, and France was the country in which it was tensely discussed by the most acute minds among the philosophers and among the scientists. French thought and culture, true to the tradition of the great geometrician and metaphysician Descartes, have produced men whose training has been highly scientific as well as philosophical. Her philosophers have been keenly versed in mathematics and physical science, while her scientists have had considerable power as philosophical thinkers.
One of the very prominent tendencies of thought in the first half of the nineteenth century was the growing belief and confidence in the natural sciences. In France this was in large measure due to the progress of those sciences themselves and to the influences of Comte, which was supported by the foreign influences of Kant's teaching and that of the English School, particularly John Stuart Mill. These three great streams of thought, widely different in many respects, had this in common—that they tended to confuse philosophy and science to such a degree that it seemed doubtful whether the former could be granted any existence by itself. Science, somewhat intoxicated by the praise and worship bestowed upon her, became proud, arrogant and overbearing. She scorned facts which could not be adapted to her own nature, she ignored data which were not quantitative and materialistic, and she regarded truth as a system of laws capable of expression by strict mathematical methods and formulae*. Hence science became characterised by a firm belief in absolute determinism, in laws of necessity operating after the manner of mathematical laws. This "universal mathematic" endeavoured also to explain the complex by reference to the simple. Difficulties were encountered all along the line, for experience, it was found, did not quite fit into rigid formulae*, "new" elements of experience presented a unique character and distressing discrepancy. Confidence in science, however, was not shaken by this, for the perfect science, it was imagined, was assured in a short time. Patience might be needed, but no doubt was entertained of the possibility of such a construction. Doubters were told to look at the rising sciences of psychology and sociology, which, as Auguste Comte had himself prophesied, were approaching gradually to the "type" venerated—namely, an exact and mathematical character. Biology, it was urged, was merely a special branch of physico-chemistry. As for beliefs in freedom, in art, morality and religion, these, like philosophy (metaphysics) itself, belonged to the earlier stages (the theological and metaphysical) of Comte's list, stages rapidly to be replaced by the third and final "positive" era.
Such, briefly stated, were the affirmations so confidently put forward on behalf of science by its devoted worshippers. Confidence in science was a marked feature of the work written by Renan in the years 1848-1849, L'Avenir de la Science. Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, Renan himself played a large part in undermining this confidence. Yet the time of his writing this work is undoubtedly the period when the confidence in science was most marked. By this it is not implied that an even greater confidence in science has not been professed since by many thinkers. That is probably true, but the important point is that at this time the confidence in science was less resisted than ever in its history. It seemed to have a clear field and positivism seemed to be getting unto itself a mighty victory.
The cult of facts, which is so marked a characteristic of the scientific or positivist temper, penetrated, it is interesting to note, into the realm of literature, where it assumed the form of "realism." In his Intelligence we find Taine remarking, "de tout petits fails bien choisis, importants, significatifs, amplement circonstanciés et minutieusement notés, voilà aujourd'hui la matière de toute science."* It was also, in the opinion of several writers, the matière de toute littérature. The passion for minute details shows itself in the realism of Flaubert and Zola, in the psychology of Stendthal* and the novels of the Goncourts. It was no accident that their works were so loved by Taine. A similar spirit of "positivism" or "realism" animated both them and him.
[Footnote * : Preface to Intelligence.]
With the turn of the half century, however, a change manifested itself by the fact that the positivist current began to turn against itself, and our period is, in some respects, what Fouillée has called la réaction centre la science positive.† The function of philosophy is essentially criticism, and although at that period the vitality of philosophy was low, it nevertheless found enough energy to criticise the demands and credentials of Science.
[Footnote † : Compare also Aliotta's book, The Idealistic Reaction against Science, Eng. trans., 19l4.]
The publication of Claude Bernard's volume Introduction à la Médecine experimentale‡ drew from the pen of Paul Janet, the last of the Eclectic School dominated by Cousin, an article of criticism which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and was later published in his volume of essays entitled, Les Problèmes du XIXe Siècle. Although Janet's essay reveals all the deficiencies of the older spiritualism, he makes a gallant attempt to combat the dogmatism and the assumed finality of Bernard's point of view and that of the scientists in general. Janet regarded the sciences and their relation to philosophy as constituting an important problem for the century and in this judgment he was not mistaken.
[Footnote ‡ : Cf. Livre III., Science, chap, i., on "Method in General"; chap, ii., on The Experimental Method in Physiology," pp. 213-279.]
<< Previous |
< Author | Library >