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


No thinker discussed the problem of progress with greater energy or penetration than Renouvier. The new spiritualist group, however, developed certain views arising from the question of contingency, or the relation of freedom to progress. These thinkers were concerned more with psychological and metaphysical work, and with the exception of Fouillée and Guyau, they wrote little which bore directly upon the problem of progress. Many of their ideas, however, have an indirect bearing upon important points at issue.

In Ravaisson, Lachelier and Boutroux, we find the question of teleology presented, and also that of the opposition of spirit and matter. From the outset the new spiritualism had to wrestle with two difficulties inherent in the thought of Ravaisson. These were, firstly, the reconciliation of the freedom and spontaneity of the spirit with the operations of a Divine Providence or teleology of some kind; and, secondly, the dualism assumed in the warfare of spirit and matter, although spirit was held to be superior and anterior to matter. This last involved a complication for any doctrine of progress, as it required a primitive "fall" to account for matter, even a fall of the Deity himself. This Ravaisson himself admits, and he thinks that in creating the world God had to sacrifice some of his own being. In this case "progress" is set over against a transcendental existence, and is but the reawakening of what once existed in God, and in a sense now and eternally exists. Progress there is, claims Ravaisson, towards truth and beauty and goodness. This is the operation of a Divine Providence acting by attracting men freely to these ideals, and as these are symbols of God himself, progress is the return of the spirit through self-conscious personalities to the fuller realisation of harmony, beauty and love—that is, to the glory of God, who has ever been, now is, and ever shall be, perfect beauty, goodness and love.

Thus, although from a temporal and finite standpoint Ravaisson can speak of progress, it is doubtful if he is justified in doing so ultimately, sub specie æternitatis. To solve the problem in the way he presents it, one would need to know more about the ultimate value and significance of the personalities themselves, and their destiny in relation to the Divinity who is, as he claims, perfect harmony, beauty and love. It was this point, so dear to an upholder of personality, which had led Renouvier to continue his discussion of progress in relation to history as generally understood, until it embraced a wider field of eternal destiny, and to consider the idea of a future life as arising from, and based upon, the conception of progress. It is this same point which later perplexes Bergson, when he recognises this self-conscious personality as the ultimate development of the évolution créatrice, and so constituting in a sense the goal of the spirit, although he is careful to state that there is no finalism involved at all. Ravaisson stands for this finalism, however, in claiming that there are ends. He does not see how otherwise we could speak of progress, as we should have no criterion, no terminus ad quem; all would be simply process, not progress.

"Détachement de Dieu, retour à Dieu, clôture du grand cercle cosmique, restitution de l'universel équilibre, telle est l'histoire du monde." Such is Ravaisson's doctrine, much of which is akin to, and indeed re-echoes, much in Christian theology from St. Augustine, with his idea of an eternal and restless movement of return to the divinity, to the Westminster divines in their answer to the important query about the chief end of man, which they considered to be not only to glorify God but to enjoy Him for ever. This last and rather strange phrase only seems to have significance if we conceive, in Ravaisson's manner, of beauty, truth and goodness as expressions or manifestations of the Divinity to whom the world-process may freely tend.

For Lachelier the universal process presents a triple aspect, mechanism which is coupled with finalism and with freedom. These three principles are in action simultaneously in the world and in the individual. Each of us is at once matter, living soul and personality— that is, necessity, finality and freedom. The laws of the universe, so far from being expressed entirely by mechanical formulae, can only be expressed, as Ravaisson had claimed, by an approach to harmony and beauty, not in terms of logic or geometry. All this involves a real progress, a creativeness, which differs from Ravaisson's return, as it were, to the bosom of God.

Boutroux combines the views of Ravaisson and Lachelier by insisting on freedom and contingency, but maintaining at the same time a teleological doctrine. Already in discussing his conception of freedom we have referred to his metaphor of the sailors in the ship. His doctrine of contingency is directly opposed to any rigid pre-ordained plan of reality or progress, but it does not prevent the spirit from a creative teleology, the formation of a plan as it advances. This is precisely, is it not, the combination of free action and of teleology which we find in our own lives? Boutroux is thus able to side with Ravaisson in his claim to see tendencies to beauty and truth and goodness, the fruits of the spirit, which it creates and to which it draws us, while at the same time he maintains freedom in a manner quite as emphatic as Lachelier. He is careful to remind us that "not all developments are towards perfection."* In particular he dislikes the type of social theory or of sociology which undervalues the personal life.

[Footnote * : Contingence des Lois de la Nature, p. 127.]

[Footnote : Thus he agrees with Renouvier's objection to Comte's view and to Communism.]

Similar in many ways to the ideas of Ravaisson and of Boutroux are those expressed by Blondel. He is concerned deeply with the problem of God and progress, which arises out of his view of the Deity as immanent and as transcendent. He is quite Bergsonian in his statement that God creates Himself in us, but he qualifies this by asking the significant question, "If he does not EXIST how can He create Himself in us." This brings us back to Ravaisson's view. Other remarks of Blondel, however, recall the doctrine of Vacherot and of Renan, that God is the ideal to which we are ever striving. "It is a necessity that we should be moving on, for He is always beyond." All action is an advance, a progress through the realm of materialistic determinism to the self-conscious personality in man, but it is from a transcendent teleology, a Divine Providence, that this action proceeds.

This is the line of thought pursued by Fouillée, who in many of his writings gives considerable attention to the doctrines of progress. It may be doubted, however if he ever surpassed the pages in his Liberté et Déterminisme and L'Evolutionnisme des Idées-forces, which deal with this point. These are the best expressions of his philosophy, and Fouillée repeated himself a great deal. We might add, however, his Socialism and his book on L'Avenir de la Métaphysique.

We have observed the importance attached by Comte to his new science of sociology. Fouillée endeavours to give to it a metaphysical significance with which Comte did not concern himself. He suggests in his volume on La Science sociale contemporaine that as biology and sociology are closely related, the laws common to them may have a cosmic significance. Is the universe, he asks, anything more than a vast society in process of formation, a vast system of conscious, striving atoms? Social science which Fouillée looks upon, as did Comte, as constituting the crown of human knowledge, may offer us, he thinks, the secret of universal life, and show us the world as the great society in process of development, erring here and blundering there in an effort to rise above the sphere of physical determinism and materialism to a sphere where justice shall be supreme, and brotherhood take the place of antagonism, greed and war. The power at the heart of things, which is always ready to manifest itself in the human consciousness when it can, might be expressed, says Fouillée, in one word as "sociability."

Life in its social aspect displays a conspiration to a common end. The life of a community resembles a highly evolved organism in many respects, as Fouillée shows; but although he thus partially adopts the biological and positivist view of the sociologists, Fouillée does not overlook the idealistic conceptions of Renouvier and his plea for social justice. He rather emphasises this plea, and takes the opportunity to point out that it represents the best political thought of his country, being founded on the doctrine of the contrat social of Rousseau, of which social theory it is a clear and modern interpretation.

We may take the opportunity afforded here by Fouillée's mention of sociology, in which he was so keenly interested, to observe that the positivist tendency to emphasise an indefinite progress remained with most of the sociologists and some of the historians. It is seen in the two famous sociological works of Tarde and Durkheim respectively, Les Lois de l'Imitation and La Division du Travail social. Two writers on history deserve mention as illustrating the same tendency: Lacombe, whose work De l'Histoire considérée comme Science (1894) was very positivist in outlook, and Xénopol. This last writer, treating history in 1899 in his Principes fondamentaux de l'Histoire,* distinguished cause in history from causality in science, and showed that white the latter leads to the formation of general laws the former does not. History has no laws, for it is succession but never repetition. Much of his book, however, reflects the naturalism and positivism which is a feature of the sociological writers.

[Footnote * : This work, revised and considerably augmented, was re-issued in 1905 with the new title, La Théorie de l'Histoire.]

[Footnote : It was this which made Enouvier criticise sociology. He disagreed with its principles almost entirely. On this, see his notes to "La Justice," Part VII. of La Nouvelle Monadogie, pp. 527-530.]

It was his doctrine of idées-forces and its essential spiritualism or idealism which distinguished Fouillée's attitude from that of these sociologists who were his contemporaries. It was the basis, too, of his trenchant criticisms of socialism, particularly its Marxian forms. Fouillée agrees with Comte's doctrine that speculation or thought is the chief factor and prime mover in social change. For Fouillée the idea is always a force; and it is, in this connection, the supreme force. The history of action can only be understood, he asserts, in relation to the history of ideas. This is the central gospel of the évolutionnisme des idées-forces. The mental or spiritual is the important factor. This he opposes to the Marxian doctrine of economic determinism. Will is, he claims a greater reality than brute forces, and in will lies the essence of the human spirit. It is a will, however, which is bound up with reason and self-consciousness, and which is progressive in character.

Summing up his work, Histoire générale de la Philosophie, Fouillée refers in his Conclusion to the idea of progress as having become the dominant note in philosophy. He looks upon the history of philosophy as, in some measure, witness to this. Above the ebb and flow of the varied systems and ideas which the ages have produced he sees an advance accomplished in the direction to which humanity is tending—perfect knowledge of itself or collective self-consciousness and perfect self- possession. This type of progress is not to be equated with scientific progress. He points out that in the development of philosophy, which is that of human reflection itself, two characteristics appear. The distinction of two kinds or aspects of truth is seen in philosophy; one section, dealing with logic, psychology, aesthetic and applied ethics, or sociology, approaches to a scientific character of demonstrability, while the other section, which constitutes philosophy in the strict sense of metaphysic, deals with ultimate questions not capable of proof but demanding a rational faith. Obviously the same kind of progress cannot be found in each of these sections. This must be realised when progress in knowledge is spoken about. He suggests, as illustrative of progress even in the speculative realm, the fact that humanity is slowly purifying its conception of God—a point for further notice in our last chapter.

However much Fouillée is concerned with establishing; a case for progress in knowledge, it is clear that his main stress is on the progress in self-consciousness or that self- determination which is freedom. This freedom can only grow as man consciously realises it himself. It is an idée-force, and has against it all the forces of fatalism and of egoism. For Fouillée quite explicitly connects his doctrine of freedom with that of altruism. The real freedom and the real progress are one, he claims, since they both are to be realised only in the increasing power of disinterestedness and love. He believes in the possibility of a free progress. Fatality is really egoism, or produces it.

Fouillée has a rather clear optimism, for he finds in the development of real freedom a movement which will involve a moral and social union of mankind. The good- will is more truly human nature than egoism and selfishness. These vices, he maintains in his Idée moderne du Droit,* are largely a product of unsatisfied physical wants. The ideal of the good-will is not a contradiction of human nature, because, he asserts, that nature desires and wills its good. More strikingly, he states that the human will tends ultimately not to conflict but to co-operation as it becomes enlightened and universalised. He disagrees with the pessimists and upholds a comparatively cheerful view of human nature. Egoism is much less deeply rooted than sympathy, and therefore, he says, war and strife are transitory features of human development. One contrasts the views of Taine and Renouvier with this, and feels that man's history has been, as far as we know it, entirely of this "transitory" nature, and is long likely to be so.

[Footnote * : L'Idée moderne du Droit, Livre IV.]

Fouillée's optimism seems to be overdrawn mainly because of his doctrine of the idée-force. He exaggerates the response which human nature is likely to make to the ideal good. Even if it be lifted up, it is not likely to draw all men to it. Yet Fouillée's social and ethical doctrines stand entirely upon this foundation. They are valuable views, and Fouillée is never better than when he is exhorting his fellows to act upon the ideas of freedom, of justice, of love and brotherhood. He is right in his insistence upon humanity's power to create good- will, to develop a new order. For the good man, he says, fatality and egoism are obstacles to be overcome Believing in freedom and in sympathy, he acts to others in a spirit of freedom and love. By his very belief in universal good-will among men, he assists largely in creating it and realising it in the world.*

[Footnote * : Conclusion to Liberté et Déterminisme.]

But did not Fouillée, one asks, overrate the number of good men (as good in his sense), or rather did he not exaggerate the capacities of human nature to respond to the ideal which he presents? Much of his confidence in moral and social progress finds its explanation here.

His step-son, Guyau, was not quite so optimistic, although he believed in a progress towards "sociability" and he adopted many of the doctrines of the philosphie des idées-forces. He attacks cheerful optimism in his Esquisse d'une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction, where he remarks that an absolute theory of optimism is really an immoral theory, for it involves the negation of progress in the strict and true sense. This is because, when it dominates the mind, it produces a feeling of entire satisfaction and contentment with the existing reality, resulting in resignation and acceptance of, if not an actual worship of, the status quo. In its utter obedience to all "powers that be," the notions of right and of duty are dimmed, if not lost. A definitely pessimistic view of the universe would, he suggests, be in many respects better and more productive of good than an outrageous optimism. Granting that it is a wretched state in which a man sees all things black, it is preferable, Guyau thinks, to that in which all things appear rosy or blue.

[Footnote : Esquisse d'une Morale, p. 10.]

Guyau concludes his Esquisse d'une Morale sans Obligation ni Sanction by remarking: "We are, as it were, on the Leviathan, from which a wave has torn the rudder and a blast of wind carried away the mainmast. It is lost in the ocean as our earth is lost in space. It floats thus at random, driven by the tempest, like a huge derelict, yet with men upon it, and yet it reaches port. Perhaps our earth, perhaps humanity, will also reach that unknown end which they will have created for themselves. No hand directs us; the rudder has long been broken, or rather it has never existed; we must make it: it is a great task, and it is our task." This paragraph speaks for itself as regards Guyau's attitude to the doctrine of an assured progress.

In his notable book L'Irreligion de l'Avenir, the importance of which we shall note more fully when we deal with the religious problem in our last chapter, Guyau indicates the possibilities of general intellectual progress in the future. The demand of life itself for fuller expression will involve the decay of cramping superstitions and ecclesiastical dogmas. The aesthetic elements will be given a larger place, and there will be intellectual freedom. Keen as Guyau is upon maintaining the sociological standpoint, he sees the central factor in progress to be the mental. "Progress," he remarks,* "is not simply a sensible amelioration of life—it is also the achievement of a better intellectual formulation of life, it is a triumph of logic. To progress is to attain to a more complete consciousness of one's self and of the world, and by that very fact to a more complete inner consistency of one's theory of the world." Guyau follows his stepfather in his view of "sociability" or fraternité (to use the watchword of the Revolution) as the desirable end at which we should progressively aim— a conclusion which is but the social application of his central concept of Life.

[Footnote * : Introduction to L'Irreligion de l'Avenir.]

The next step in human progress must be in the direction of human solidarity. Guyau thinks it will arise from collective, co-operative energy (synergie sociale). Further progress must involve simultaneously sympathie sociale, a community of fellowship or comradeship, promoted by education of a true kind, not mere instruction, but a proper development and valuation of the feelings. Here art will play its part and have its place beside science, ethics and philosophy in furthering the ideal harmony in human society. Such Progress involves, therefore, that the Beautiful must be sought and appreciated no less than the True and the Good, for it is a revelation of the larger Life of which we ourselves are part. These ideals are in themselves but manifestations of the Supreme Vitality.

The same spontaneous vital activity of which Guyau makes a central doctrine characterises Bergson's view of reality. He upholds, like Boutroux, freedom and contingency, but he will not admit finalism in any shape or form, not even a teleology which is created in the process of development. He refuses to admit as true of the universal process in nature and in human history what is certainly true of human life—the fact that we create ends as we go on living. For Bergson there is no end in the universe, unless it be that of spontaneity of life such as Guyau had maintained. There is no guarantee of progress, no law of development, but endless possibility of progress. Such a view, as we have already insisted, is not pessimistic. It is, however, a warning to facile optimism to realise that humanity, being free, may go "dead wrong." While Boutroux maintains with Ravaisson that there is at the heart of things a tendency to superior values such as beauty, goodness and truth, and while Renan assures us that the balance of goodness in the world is a guarantee of its ultimate triumph, Bergson, like Renouvier, gives us stern warning that there is no guarantee in the nature of things that humanity should not set its heart on other values, on materialistic and egoistic conceptions, and go down in ruin quarrelling and fighting for these things. There is no power, he reminds us, keeping humanity right and in the line of desirable progress. All is change, but that is not to say that all changes are desirable or progressive. Here we arrive at a point far removed from the rosy optimism of the earlier thinkers. Progress as a comfortable doctrine, confidently accepted and dogmatically asserted, no longer holds ground; it is seen to be quite untenable.

In Bergson the difficulty which besets Ravaisson reappears more markedly—namely, the relation of spirit and matter to one another, and to the power at the heart of things, which, according to Bergson himself, is a spiritual principle. Here we seem forced to admit Ravaisson's view of a "fall" or, as the theologians would say, a "Kenosis" of the deity in order to create the material universe. Yet in the processes of nature we see spirit having to fight against matter, and of this warfare Bergson makes a great point. These considerations lead to discussions which Bergson has not touched upon as yet. He does not follow Ravaisson and Boutroux into the realm of theological ideas. If he did he might have to make admissions which would compromise, or at least modify, other doctrines expressed by him. He will have none of Hegel or of the Absolute Idealism which sees the world process as a development of a Divine Idea. It is new and it is creation; there is no repetition. Even God himself se fait in the process, and it may be, suggests Bergson, that love is the secret of the universe. If so we may well ask with Blondel, "If God se fait in the process, then does he not already exist and, in a sense, the process with him?" Instead, however, of reverting to Ravaisson's view of the whole affair being a search for, and return to God, Bergson claims that the development is a purely contingent one, in which a super-consciousness develops by experiment and error.

Bergson's God, if he may be so-called, is not so much a Creator, but a power creative of creators—that is, human personalities capable of free action. The Deity is immanent in man, and, like man, is ignorant of the trend of the whole process. The universe, according to Bergson, is a very haphazard affair, in which the only permanence is change. There is no goal, and progress has little meaning if it be only and merely further change, which may be equally regress rather than progress. To live is not merely to change, but to triumph over change to set up some values as of absolute worth, and to aim at realising and furthering these. Apart from some philosophy of values the conception of progress has little meaning.

Interesting discussions of various aspects of the problem are to be found in the writings of the sociologist we have mentioned, Durkheim, particularly La Division du Travail sociale, Le Suicide and Les Formes élémentaires de la Vie religieuse. There is an interesting volume by Weber, entitled Le Rythme du Progres, and there are the numerous books of Dr. Gustave Le Bon.

Although he is not strictly a philosopher in the academic or professional sense, and his work belongs to literature rather than to the philosophy of the period, we cannot help calling attention briefly here, at the conclusion of this chapter, to the genial pessimism of Bergson's great literary contemporary, Anatole France, the famous satirist of our age. His irony on questions like that of progress is very marked in L'Ile des Penguins and in Jérôme Coignard. A remark from one of his works, this latter, will sufficiently illustrate his view on progress. "I take little interest," remarks his character, the Abbé Coignard, "in what is done in the King's Cabinet, for I notice that the course of life is in no way changed, and after reforms men are as before, selfish, avaricious, cowardly, cruel, stupid and furious by turns, and there is always a nearly even number of births, marriages, cuckolds and gallows-birds, in which is made manifest the beautiful ordering of our society. This condition is stable, sir, and nothing could shake it, for it is founded on human misery and imbecility, and those are foundations which will never be wanting." The genial old Abbé then goes on to remind socialist revolutionaries that new economic schemes will not radically change human nature. We easily see the ills in history and blind ourselves with optimism for the future. Even in Sorel, the Syndicalist, who has added to his articles on Violence (which appeared in 1907 in the periodical Le Mouvement socialiste) a work on Les Illusions du Progrès, we find the same doctrines about the vices of modern societies, which he considers no better than ancient ones in their morality; they are filled with more hypocrisy, that is all. France and Sorel only add more testimony to the utter collapse of the old doctrine of assured and general progress.

* * * * *

To such a final position do we come in following out the development of the idea of progress. The early assurance and dogmatic confidence which marked the early years of the century are followed by a complete abandonment of the idea of a guaranteed or assured progress, whether based on the operations of a Divine Providence, or on faith in the ultimate triumph of reason, or on merely a fatalistic determinism. Progress is only a possibility, and its realisation depends on 'humanity's own actions. Further, any mention of progress in future must not only present it as quite contingent, but we have to reckon with the fact that the idea of progress may itself progress until it resolves itself into another conception less complicated and less paradoxical, such as "the attainment of a new equilibrium." Some effort must be devoted also to a valuation of criteria. Various values have in the past been confused together, scientific, materialistic, hedonistic, moral, aesthetic. Ultimately it seems that we shall find difficulty in settling this apart from the solution offered by Renouvier—namely, that true progress is not merely intellectual, but moral. It involves not merely a conquest of material nature but of human nature—a self- mastery. Progress is to be measured not by the achievements of any aristocracy, intellectual or other, but by the general social status, and our criterion of progress must be ultimately that of social justice. This itself is a term needing interpretation, and to this question of ethics we now turn.

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