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The discussions regarding the relation between science and philosophy led the thinkers of our period naturally to the crucial problem of freedom. Science has almost invariably stood for determinism, and men were becoming impatient of a dogmatism which, by its denial of freedom, left little or no place for man, his actions, his beliefs, his moral feelings.
"La nature fatale offre à la Liberté
[Footnote *: Guyau, in his Vers d'un Philosophe, "Moments de Foi—I.," En lisant Kant, p. 57.]
It was precisely this problem which was acutely felt in the philosophy of our period as it developed and approached the close of the century.
In a celebrated passage of his Critique of Judgment the philosopher Kant had drawn attention to the necessity of bringing together the concept of freedom and the concept of nature as constructed by modern science, for the two were, he remarked, separated by an abyss. He himself felt that the realm of freedom should exercise an influence upon the realm of science, but his own method prohibited his attempting to indicate with any preciseness what that influence might be. The fatal error of his system, the artificial division of noumena and phenomena, led him to assign freedom only to the world of noumena. Among phenomena it had no place, but reigned transcendent, unknown and unknowable, beyond the world we know.
The artificiality of such a solution was apparent to the thinkers who followed Kant, and particularly was this felt in France. "Poor consolation is it," remarked Fouillée, in reply to Kant's view, "for a prisoner bound with chains to know that in some unknown realm afar he can walk freely devoid of his fetters."
The problem of freedom, both in its narrow sphere of personal free-will and in its larger social significance, is one which has merited the attention of all peoples in history. France, however, has been pre-eminently a cradle for much acute thought on this matter. It loomed increasingly large on the horizon as the Revolution approached, it shone brilliantly in Rousseau. Since the Revolution it has been equally discussed, and is the first of the three watchwords of the republic, whose philosophers, no less than its politicians, have found it one of their main themes.
The supreme importance of the problem of freedom in our period was due mainly to the need felt by all thinkers for attempting, in a manner different from that of Kant, a reconciliation between science and morals (science et conscience), and to find amid the development of scientific thought a place for the personality of the thinker himself, not merely as a passive spectator, but as an agent, a willing and acting being. Paul Janet, in his essays entitled Problèmes du XIXe Siècle,* treating the question of science, asks whether the growing precision of the natural sciences and "the extension of their 'positive' methods, which involve a doctrine or assumption of infallible necessity, do not imperil gravely the freedom of the moral agent?" While himself believing that, however closely the sciences may seem to encroach upon the free power of the human soul, they will only approach in an indefinite "asymptote," never succeeding in annulling it, he senses the importance of the problem. Science may endeavour to tie us down to a belief in universal and rigid determinism, but the human spirit revolts from the acceptance of such a view, and acclaims, to some degree at least, the reality of a freedom which cannot be easily reconciled with the determinist doctrines.
[Footnote * : Published in 1872.]
In the period which we have under review the central problem is undoubtedly that of freedom. Practically all the great thinkers in France during this period occupied themselves with this problem, and rightly so, for they realised that most of the others with which philosophy concerns itself depend in a large degree upon the attitude adopted to freedom. Cournot, Renouvier, Ravaisson, Lachelier, Fouillée, Boutroux, Blondel and Bergson have played the chief part in the arena of discussion, and although differing considerably in their methods of treatment and not a little in the form of their conclusions, they are at one in asserting the vital importance of this problem and its primacy for philosophy. The remark of Fouillée is by no means too strong: "The problem which we are going to discuss is not only a philosophical problem; it is, par excellence, the problem for philosophy. All the other questions are bound up with this."* This truth will be apparent when, after showing the development of the doctrines concerning freedom, we come, in our subsequent chapters, to consider its application to the questions of progress, of ethics and of the philosophy of religion.
[Footnote * : In his preface to his Thesis Liberté et Déterminisme, later editions, p. vii.]
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