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


We have, in our Introductory Chapter, reckoned Auguste Comte among the influential antecedents of our period. Here, in approaching the study of the problem of science, we may note that the tendency towards the strictly scientific attitude, and to the promotion of the scientific spirit in general, was partly due to the influence of his positivism. Comte's intended Religion of Humanity failed, his system of positive philosophy has been neglected, but the SPIRIT which he inculcated has abided and has borne fruit. We would be wrong, however, if we attributed much to Comte as the originator of that spirit. His positive philosophy, although it greatly stimulated and strengthened the positive attitude adopted by the natural sciences, was itself in large measure inspired by and based upon these sciences. Consequently much of Comte's glory was a reflected light, his thought was a challenge to the old spiritualism, an assertion of the rights of the sciences to proclaim their existence and to demand serious consideration.

Although he succeeded in calling the attention of philosophy to the natural sciences, yet owing to the mere fact that he based himself on the sciences of his day much of his thought has become obsolete by the progress and extension of those very sciences themselves. He tended, with a curious dogmatism, to assign limits to the sciences by keeping them in separate compartments and in general by desiring knowledge to be limited to human needs. Although there is important truth in his doctrine of discontinuity or irreducible differences, the subsequent development of the natural sciences has cleared away many barriers which he imagined to be impassable. There still are, and may always be, gaps in our knowledge of the progress from inorganic to organic, from the living creature to self-conscious personality, but we have a greater conception of the unity of Nature than had Comte. Many new ideas and discoveries have transformed science since his day, particularly the doctrines dealing with heat as a form of motion, with light, electricity, and the radio-activity of matter, the structure of the atom, and the inter-relation of physics and chemistry.

Comte's claim for different methods in the different departments of science is of considerable interest, in view of present-day biological problems and the controversies of vitalists, mechanists and neo-vitalists.* Although Comte insisted upon discontinuity, yet he urged the necessity for an esprit d'ensemble, the consideration of things synthetically, in their "togetherness." He feared that analysis, the esprit de détail or mathematisation, was being carried out à l'outrance. This opinion he first stated in 1825 in his tract entitled Considérations sur les Sciences et les Savants. On the social side he brought this point out further by insisting on the esprit d'ensemble as involving the social standpoint in opposition to a purely individualistic view of human life.

[Footnote * : See, for example, The Mechanism of Life, by Dr. Johnstone, Professor of Oceanography in the University of Liverpool. (Arnold, 1921.)]

Comte was slow to realise the importance of Ethics as an independent study. Psychology he never recognised as a separate discipline, deeming it part of physiology. He gave a curious appreciation to phrenology. Unfortunately he overlooked the important work done by the introspectionist psychologists in England and the important work of Maine de Biran in his own country. One is struck by Comte's inability to appreciate the immense place occupied by psychology in modern life and in particular its expression in the modern novel and in much modern poetry. An acquaintance with the works of men like De Regnier, Pierre Loti and Anatole France is sufficient to show how large a factor the psychological method is in French literature and life. It is to be put down to Comte's eternal discredit that he failed to appreciate psychology. Here lies the greatest defect in his work, and it is in this connection that his work is now being supplemented. Positivism in France to-day is not a synonym for "Comtism" at all; the term is now employed to denote the spirit and temper displayed in the methods of the exact sciences. For Comte, we must never forget, scientific investigation was a means and not an end in itself. His main purpose was social and political regeneration. Positivism since Comte differs from his philosophy by a keen attention bestowed upon psychology, and many of Comte's inadequate conceptions have been enriched by the introduction of a due recognition of psychological factors.

It is to be noted that Comte died two years before Darwin's chef-d'œuvre appeared, and that he opposed the doctrine of evolution as put forward by Lamarck. Although Comte's principle of discontinuity may in general have truth in it, the problem is a far more complicated one than he imagined it to be. Again, while Comte's opposition to the subjectivism of Cousin was a wholesome influence, he did not accord to psychology its full rights, and this alone has been gravely against the acceptance of his philosophy, and explains partly the rise and progress of the new spiritualist doctrines. His work served a useful purpose, but Comte never closed definitely with the problem of the precise significance of "positivism" or with its relation to a general conception of the universe; in short, he confined himself to increasing the scientific spirit in thought, leaving aside the difficulty of relating science and philosophy.

Comte stated in his Philosophie positive* that he regarded attempts to explain all phenomena by reference to one law as futile, even when undertaken by the most competent minds well versed in the study of the sciences. Although he believed in discontinuity he tried to bridge some gaps, notably by his endeavour to refer certain physiological phenomena to the law of gravitation.

[Footnote * : Vol. i., pp. 53-56.]

The chief work which this undoubtedly great mind accomplished was the organisation of the scientific spirit as it appeared in his time. Renan hardly does justice to him in his sarcastic remark in his Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse. "I felt quite irritated at the idea of Auguste Comte being dignified with the title of a great man for having expressed in bad French what all scientific minds had seen for the last two hundred years as clearly as he had done." His work merits more than dismissal in such a tone, and we may here note, as the essence of the spirit which he tried to express, his definition of the positive or scientific attitude to the universe given at the commencement of his celebrated Cours de Philosophie positive. There, in defining the positive stage, Comte speaks of it as that period in which "the human spirit, recognising the impossibility of obtaining absolute conceptions, abandons the search for the origin and the goal of the universe and the inner causes of things, to set itself the task merely of discovering, by reasoning and by experience combined, the effective laws of phenomena—that is to say, their invariable relations of succession and of similarity."* This positive spirit Comte strove to express rather than to originate, for it was already there in the sciences. Undoubtedly his work made it more prominent, more clear, and so we have to note an interaction between positivism in the sciences and in philosophy.

[Footnote * : Leçon i.]

It is equally important for our purpose to notice that the period was one rich in scientific thought. The work of Lavoisier and Bichat, both of whom as contemporaries of Maine de Biran, belong to the former century, was now bearing fruit. Lavoisier's influence had been great over chemistry, which he established on a modern basis, by formulating the important theory of the conservation of mass and by clearing away false and fan- tastic conceptions regarding combustion.* Bichat, the great anatomist and physiologist, died in 1802, but the publication of his works in a completed form was not accomplished until 1854. The work and influence of the Académie des Sciences are noteworthy features of French culture at this time. There stands out prominently the highly important work of Cuvier in anatomy, zoology and palæontology. The nineteenth century was a period of great scientists and of great scientific theories. Leverrier, applying himself to the problem of the motions of Uranus, found a solution in the hypothesis of another planet, Neptune, which was actually discovered from his calculations in 1846. This was a notable victory for logical and scientific method. In 1809 Lamarck had outlined, prior to Spencer or Darwin, the scheme of the evolutionary theory (Transformism). Spencer's work, which appeared from 1850 onwards, has always commanded respect and attention in France even among its critics.§ Interest increased upon the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, and its translation into French in 1862. These dates coincide with the rise of the Société d'Anthropologie de Paris, founded by Broca in the same year that Darwin's book appeared. Another translation from Darwin's work followed in 1872, Descendance de l'Homme, which aroused further interest in the evolutionary theory. At the same time the work of men such as Pasteur, Bertrand, Berthelot and Bernard gave an impetus and a power to science. Poincare belongs rather to the twentieth century. Pasteur (1822-1895) showed mankind how science could cure its ills by patient labour and careful investigation, and earned the world's gratitude for his noble work. His various Discours and his volume, Le Budget de la Science (1868), show his faith in this progressive power of science. In Bertrand (1822-1900), his contemporary who held the position of Professor of Mathematics at the College de France, a similar attitude appears.

[Footnote * : Lavoisier perished at the guillotine in 1794, and his death was a tragic loss to science.]

[Footnote : Cuvier's Anatomie comparée appeared in the years 1800-1805, following his Histoire naturelle (1798-1799). Later came his Rapport sur les Sciences naturelles (1810) and his work Le Regne animal (1816).He died in 1832. We may note that Cuvier opposed the speculative evolutionary doctrines of Lamarck, with whom he indulged in controversy.]

[Footnote : In his work, Philosophie zoologique, ou Exposition des Considérations relatives a l'Histoire naturelle des Animaux, 2 vols Paris, Dentu, 1809.]

[Footnote § : His Social Statics was published in 1850, and his Psychology five years later. His life work, The Synthetic Philosophy, extends over the period 1860-1896.]

One of the foremost scientific minds, however, was Claude Bernard (1813-1878), a friend of Renan, who held the Chair of Medicine at the College de France, and was, in addition, the Professor of Physiology at the Faculté des Sciences at the Sorbonne. Science, Bernard maintained, concerns itself only with phenomena and their laws. He endeavoured in his celebrated Introduction à l'Etude de la Médécine expérimentale, published in 1865, to establish the science of physiology upon a sound basis, having respect only to fact, not owning homage to theories of a metaphysical character or to the authority of persons or creeds. He desired to obtain by such a rigorous and precise method, objectivity. "The experimental method is," he insists, "the really scientific method, which proclaims the freedom of the human spirit and its intelligence. It not only shakes off the yoke of metaphysics and of theology, in addition it refuses to admit personal considerations and subjective standpoints."*

[Footnote * : Introduction à l'Etude de la Médécine expérimentale, chap. ii, sect. 4]

Bernard's attitude is distinctly that of a positivist, and the general tone of his remarks as well as his attitude on many special points agrees with that of Comte. His conclusions regarding physiology are akin to those expressed by Comte concerning biology. Bernard excludes any metaphysical hypothesis such as the operation of a vital principle, and adheres strictly to physicochemical formulas. He accepts, however, Comte's warning about the reduction of the higher to terms of the lower, or, in Spencerian phraseology, the explanation of the more complex by the less complex. Consequently, he carefully avoids the statement that he desires to "reduce" physiology to physics and chemistry. He makes no facile and light-hearted transition as did Spencer; on the contrary, he claims that the living has some specific quality which cannot be "reduced" to other terms, and which cannot be summed up in the formulae of physics or chemistry. The physiologist and the medical practitioner must never overlook the fact that every living being forms an organism and an individuality. The physiologist, continues Bernard, must take notice of this unity or harmony of the whole, even while he penetrates the interior to know the mechanism of each of its parts. The physicist and the chemist can ignore any notion of final causes in the facts they observe, but the physiologist must admit a harmonious finality, a harmony pre-established in the organism, whose actions form and express a unity and solidarity, since they generate one another. Life itself is creation; it is not capable of expression merely in physico-chemical formulae. The creative character, which is its essence, never can be so expressed. Bernard postulated an abstract, idée directrice et créatrice, presiding over the evolution of an organism. "Dans tout germe vivant, il y a une idée créatrice qui se développe et se manifeste par l'organisation. Pendant toute sa durée l'être vivant reste sous l'influence de cette même force vitale, créatrice, et la mort arrive lorsqu'elle ne peut plus se réaliser. Ici comme partout, tout dérive de l'idée, qui, seule, crée et dirige."*

[Footnote * : Introduction à l'Etude de la Médécine expérimentale, p.151 ff.]

The positivist spirit is again very marked in the doctrines of Berthelot (1827-1907), another very great friend of Renan, who, in addition to being a Senator, and Minister of Education and of Foreign Affairs, held the Chair of Organic Chemistry at the Collège de France. In 1886 he published his volume, Science et Philosophie, which contains some interesting and illuminating observations upon La Science idéale et la Science positive. Part of this, it may be noted, was written as early as 1863, in correspondence with Renan, and as a reply to a letter of his of which we shall speak presently.* Berthelot states his case with a clearness which merits quotation.

[Footnote * : See the Fragments of Renan, published 1876, pp 193-241. Reponse de M. Berthelot.]

"Positive science," he says, "seeks neither first causes nor the ultimate goal of things. In order to link together a multitude of phenomena by one single law, general in character and conformable to the nature of things, the human spirit has followed a simple and invariable method. It has stated the facts in accordance with observation and experience, compared them, extracted their relations, that is the general facts, which have in turn been verified by observation and experience, which verification constitutes their only guarantee of truth. A progressive generalisation, deduced from prior facts and verified unceasingly by new observations, thus brings our knowledge from the plane of particular and popular facts to general laws of an abstract and universal character. But, in the construction of this pyramid of science, everything from base to summit rests upon observation and experience. It is one of the principles of positive science that no reality can be established by a process of reasoning. The universe cannot be grasped by a priori methods."

Like Comte, Berthelot believed in the progress of all knowledge through a theological and metaphysical stage to a definitely scientific or positive era. The sciences are as yet young, and we cannot imagine the development and improvement, social and moral, which will accrue from their triumph in the future. For Berthelot, as for Renan, the idea of progress was bound up essentially with the triumph of the scientific spirit. In a Discourse at the Sorbonne given in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of his being appointed Professor at the Collège de France, we find this faith in science reiterated. "To-day," he remarks, "Science claims a triple direction of societies, materially, intellectually and morally. By this fact the role of the men of science, both as individuals and as a class, has unceasingly come to play a great part in modern states."

These scientific men, Berthelot and Bernard, with whom Renan was on terms of friendship, had a large influence in the formation of his thought, after he had quitted the seminary and the Church. As a young man Renan possessed the positive spirit in a marked degree, and did not fail to disclose his enthusiasm for "Science" and for the scientific method. His book L'Avenir de la Science, which we have already noted, was written when he was only twenty-five, and under the immediate influence of the events of 1848, particularly the socialist spirit of Saint-Simon and the "organising" attitude of Auguste Comte. It did not, however, see publication until 1890, when the Empire had produced a pessimistic temper in him, later accentuated by the Commune and the Prussian War. The dominant note of the whole work is the touching and almost pathetic belief in Science, which leads the young writer to an optimism both in thought and in politics. "Science" constitutes for him the all-in-all. Although he had just previously abandoned the seminary, his priestly style remained with him to such a degree that even his treatment of science is characterised by a mixture of the unction of the curé and the subtilty of the dialectician. Levites were still to be necessary to the people of Israel, but they were to be the priests of the most High, whose name, according to Renan, was "Science."

His ardour for Science is not confined to this one book: it runs through all his writings. Prospero, a character who personifies rational thought in L'Eau de Jouvence, one of Renan's Drames philosophiques, expresses an ardent love for science continually. In his preface to Souvenirs d'Enfance et de Jeunesse we find Renan upon the same theme. Quaintly enough he not only praises the objectivity which is characteristic of the scientific point of view, but seems to delight in its abstraction. The superiority of modern science consists, he claims, in this very abstraction. But he is aware that the very indefatigability with which we fathom nature removes us, in a sense, further from her. He recognises how science leads away from the immediacy of vital and close contact with nature herself. "This is, however, as it should be," asserts Renan, "and let no one fear to prosecute his researches, for out of this merciless dissection comes life." He does not stay to assure us, or to enlighten us, as to how that life can be infused into the abstract facts which have resulted from the process of dissection. Fruitful and suggestive as many of his pages are, they fail to approach the concrete difficulties which this passage mentions.

Writing from Dinant in Brittany in 1863 to his friend, Berthelot, Renan gives his view of the Sciences of Nature and the Historical Sciences. This letter, reprinted in his Dialogues et Fragments philosophiques, in 1876, expresses Renan's.views in a clear and simple form upon the place of science in his mind and also upon the idea of progress, as for him the two are intimately connected. Extreme confidence is expressed in the power of science. Renan at this time had written, but not published, his Avenir de la Science. In a brief manner this letter summarises much contained in the larger work. The point of view is similar. Science is to be the great reforming power.

The word "Science" is so constantly upon Renan's lips that we can see that it has become an obsession with mm to employ it, or a device. Certainly Renan's extensive and ill-defined usage of it conceals grave difficulties. One is tempted frequently to regard it as a synonym for philosophy or metaphysics, a word which he dislikes. That does not, however, add to clearness, and Renan's usage of "Science" as a term confuses both science and philosophy together. Even if this were not the case, there is another important point to note— namely, that even on a stricter interpretation Renan, by his wide use of the term, actually undermines the confidence in the natural sciences. For he embraces within the term "Science" not merely those branches of investigation which we term in general the sciences of nature, but also the critical study of language, of history and literature. He expressly endeavours to show in the letter to Berthelot that true science must include the product of man's spirit and the record of the development of that spirit.

Renan assumed quite definitely a positivist attitude to metaphysics. "Philosophy," he remarks, "is not a separate science; it is one side of every science. In the great optic pencil of human knowledge it is the central region where the rays meet in one and the same light." Metaphysical speculation he scorned, but he admitted the place for a criticism of the human mind such as had been given by Kant in The Critique of Pure Reason.

Kantian also, in its professions at least, was the philosophy of Vacherot, who stated that the aim of his work, La Métaphysique et la Science, was "the reconciliation of metaphysics with science."* These dialogues between a philosopher and a man of science, for of such discussions the book is composed, never really help us to get close to the problem, for Vacherot's Kantianism is a profession which merely covers an actual positivism. His metaphysical doctrines are superimposed on a severe and rigid naturalism, but are kept from conflict with them, or even relation with them, by being allotted to a distant limbo of pure ideals, outside the world which science displays to us.

[Footnote * : See particularly his statements to this effect in his Preface, pp. xxxvii-xl.]

Taine, in spite of his severely positive attitude, was a strong champion of metaphysics. The sciences needed, he claimed, a science of first principles, a metaphysic. Without it, "the man of science is merely a manœuvre and the artist a dilettante." The positive sciences he re- garded as inferior types of analysis. Above them "is a superior analysis which is metaphysics, and which reduces or takes up these laws of the sciences into a universal formula." This higher analysis, however, does not give the lie to the others: it completes them.

It was indeed a belief and hope of Taine that the sciences will be more and more perfected until they can each be expressed in a kind of generic formula, which in turn may be capable of expression in some single formula. This single law is being sought by science and metaphysic, although it must belong to the latter rather than to the former. From it, as from a spring, proceeds, according to Taine, the eternal roll of events and the infinite sea of things.

Taine's antagonism to the purely empirical schools centres round his conception of the law of causality. He disagrees with the assertion that this law is a synthetic, a posteriori judgment, a habit, as Hume said, or a mechanical attente, as Mill thought, or a generalisation of the sensation of effort which we feel in ourselves, as was suggested by Maine de Biran. Yet he also opposes Kant's doctrine, in which causality is regarded as a synthetic a priori judgment. His own criticism of Hume and Kant was directed to denial of the elements of heterogeneity in experience, which are so essential to Hume's view, and to a denial of the distinction maintained by Kant between logical and causal relations. Taine considered that all might be explained by logical relations, that all experience might some day be expressed in one law, one formula. The more geometrico of Spinoza and the "universal mathematic" of Descartes reappear in Taine. He even essays in L'Intelligence to equate the principle of causality (principe de raison explicative) with that of identity.

His attempt to reduce the principle of causality to that of identity did not succeed very well, and from the nature of the case this was to be expected. As Fouillée well points out in his criticism of Taine, both in La Liberté et le Déterminisme and the concluding pages of his earlier work on Plato,* the notion of difference and heterogeneity which arises in the action of cause and effect can never be reducible to a mere identity, for the notion of identity has nothing in common with that of difference. Differences cannot be ignored; variety and change are undeniable facts of experience. Fouillée here touches the weak spot of Taine's doctrine. In spite of a seemingly great power of criticism there is an underlying dogmatism in his work, and the chief of those dogmas, which he does not submit to criticism, is the assertion of the universal necessity of all things. To this postulate he gives a false air of objectivity. He avoids stating why we do objectify causality, and he diverts discussion from the position that this postulate may itself be subjective.

[Footnote: Vol. 4.]

The particular bearing of Taine's psychology upon the general problem of knowledge is interesting. He defines perception in L'Intelligence as une hallucination vraie. His doctrine of the "double aspect," physical and mental, recalls to mind the Modes of Spinoza. In his attitude to the difficult problem of movement and thought he rests in the dualism of Spinoza, fluctuating and not enunciating his doctrine clearly. The primacy of movement to thought he abandoned as too mechanical a doctrine, and regarded the type of existence as mental in character. Taine thus passes from the materialism of Hobbes to the idealism of Leibnitz. "The physical world is reducible to a system of signs, and no more is needed for its construction and conception than the materials of the moral world."

When we feel ourselves constrained to admit the necessity of certain truths, if we are inclined to regard this as due to the character of our minds themselves (notre structure mentale), as Kant maintained, Taine reminds us that we must admit that our mind adapts itself to its environment. He here adopts the view of Spencer, a thinker who seems to have had far more influence upon the Continent than in his own country. Although Taine thus reposes his epistemology upon this basis, he does not answer the question which the Kantian can still put to him—namely, "How do we know the structure of things?" He is unable to escape from the difficulty of admitting either that it is from experience, an admission which his anti-empirical attitude forbids him to make (and which would damage his dogma of universal logical necessity), or that our knowledge is obtained by analysing our own thoughts, in which case he leaves us in a vicious circle of pure subjectivity from which there is no means of escape.

The truth is that Taine vainly tried to establish a phenomenal doctrine, not purely empirical in character like that of Hume, but a phenomenalism wedded to a necessity which is supposed to be self-explanatory. Such a notion of necessity, however, is formal and abstract. Rather than accept Taine's view of a law, a formula, an "eternal axiom" at the basis of things, we are obliged to postulate an activity, creative in character, of whose action universal laws are but expressions. Law, formula, axiom without action are mere abstractions which can of themselves produce nothing.

Taine's positivism, however, was not so rigid as to exclude a belief in the value of metaphysics. It is this which distinguishes him from the Comtian School. We see in him the confidence in science complemented by an admission of metaphysics, equivalent to a turning of "positivism" in science and philosophy against itself. Much heavier onslaughts upon the sovereignty of science came, however, from the thinker who is the great logician and metaphysician of our period, Renouvier. To him and to Cournot we now turn.

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