< Author | Library >
<< Previous | Contents | Next >>
THE foregoing pages have been devoted to a history of ideas rather than to the maintenance of any special thesis or particular argument. Consequently it does not remain for us to draw any definitely logical conclusions from the preceding chapters. The opportunity may be justly taken, however, of summing up the general features of the development.
Few periods in the history of human thought can rival in interest that of the second half of the nineteenth century in France. The discussion covers the principal problems with which man's mind is occupied in modern times and presents these in a manner which is distinctly human and not merely national. This alone would give value to the study of such a period. There is, however, to be added the more striking fact that there is a complete "turning of the tide" manifested during these fifty years in the attitude to most of the problems. Beginning with an overweening confidence in science and a belief in determinism and in a destined progress, the century closed with a complete reversal of these conceptions.
Materialism and naturalism are both recognised as inadequate, a reaction sets in against positivism and culminates in the triumph of spiritualism or idealism. This idealism is free from the cruder aspects of the Kantian or Hegelian philosophy. The Thing-in-itself and the Absolute are abandoned; relativity is proclaimed in knowledge, and freedom in the world of action. Thoughts or ideas show themselves as forces operating in the evolution of history. This is maintained in opposition to the Marxian doctrine of the purely economic or materialistic determination of history. A marked tendency, however, is manifested to regard all problems from a social stand point. The dogmatic confidence in science gives way to a more philosophical attitude, while the conflict of science and religion resolves itself into a decay of dogma and the conception of a free religion.
We have indicated the problem presented by "science et conscience," and in so far as we have laid down any thesis or argument in these pages, as distinct from an historical account of the development, that thesis has been, that the central problem in the period was that of freedom. It was to this point which the consideration of science, or rather of the sciences, led us. We have observed the importance of the sciences for philosophy, and it is clear that, so far from presenting any real hostility to philosophy, it can acclaim their autonomy and freedom, without attempting by abstract methods to absorb them into itself. They are equally a concrete part of human thought, and in a deep and real sense a manifestation of the same spirit which animates philosophy.
By recognising the sciences philosophy can avoid the fallacy of ideology on the one hand and naturalism on the other. Unlike the old eclecticism, the new thought is able to take account of science and to criticise its assertions. We have seen how this has been accomplished, and the rigidly mechanical view of the world abandoned for one into which human freedom enters as a real factor. This transforms the view of history and shows us human beings creating that history and not merely being its blind puppets. History offers no cheerful outlook for the easy-going optimist; it is not any more to be regarded as mere data for pessimistic reflections, but rather a record which prompts a feeling of responsibility. The world is not ready-made, and if there is to be progress it must be willed by us and achieved by our struggle and labour.
The doctrine of immanence upon which the modern tendency is to insist, in place of the older idea of transcendence, makes us feel, not only that we are free, but that our freedom is not in opposition to, or in spite of, the divine spirit, but is precisely an expression of divine immanence. Instead of the gloomy conception of a whole which determines itself apart from us, we feel ourselves part, and a very responsible part, of a reality which determines itself collectively and creatively by its own action, by its own ideals, which it has itself created. This freedom must extend not only to our conceptions of history but also to those of ethics and of religion.
"English philosophy ends in considering nature as an assemblage of facts; German philosophy looks upon it chiefly as a system of laws. If there is a place midway between the two nations it belongs to us Frenchmen. We applied the English ideas in the eighteenth century; we can in the nineteenth give precision to the German ideas. What we have to do is to temper, amend and complete the two spirits, one by the other, to fuse them into one, to express them in a style that shall be intelligible to everybody and thus to make of them the universal spirit."
Such was Taine's attitude, and it indicates clearly the precise position of French thought. We are apt to consider Taine purely as an empiricist, but we must remember that he disagreed with the radical empiricism of John Stuart Mill. His own attitude was largely that of a reaction against the vague spiritualism of the Eclectic School, especially Cousin's eclecticism, a foreign growth on French soil, due to German influence. The purely a priori constructions of the older spiritualism could find no room, and allowed none, for the sciences. This was sufficient to doom it, and to lead naturally to a reaction of a positive kind, revolting from all a priori constructions.
It was to combat the excessive positive reaction against metaphysics that Renouvier devoted his energies, but while professing to modernise Kant and to follow out the general principles of his Critical Philosophy, Renouvier was further removed from the German thinker than he at times seems to have observed. Renouvier must undoubtedly share with Comte the honours of the century in French Philosophy. Many influences, however, prevented the general or speedy acceptance of Renouvier's doctrines. The University was closed against him, as against Comte. He worked in isolation and his style of presentation, which is heavy and laborious, does not appeal to the esprit of the French mind. Probably, too, his countrymen's ignorance of Kant at the time Renouvier wrote his Essais de Critique générale prevented an understanding and appreciation of the neo-critical advance on Criticism.
Renouvier commands respect, but he does not appear to be in the line of development which manifests so essentially the character of French thought. This is to be found rather in that spiritualism, which, unlike the old, does not exclude science, but welcomes it, finds a place for it, although not by any means an exclusive place. The new spiritualists did not draw their inspiration, as did Cousin, from any German source, their initial impulse is derived from a purely French thinker, Maine de Biran, who, long neglected, came to recognition in the work of Ravaisson and those subsequent thinkers of this group, right up to Bergson.
This current of thought is marked by a vitality and a concreteness which are a striking contrast to the older eclectic spiritualism. Having submitted itself to the discipline of the sciences, it is acquainted with their methods and data in a manner which enables it to oppose the dogmatism of science, and to acclaim the reality of values other than those which are purely scientific. Ignoring a priori construction, or eclectic applications of doctrines, it investigates the outer world of nature and the inner life of the spirit.
We have said that these ideas are presented, not merely from a national standpoint, but from one which is deeply human and universal. "La Science," re-marked Pasteur, "n'a pas de patrie." We may add that philosophy, too, owns no special fatherland. There is not in philosophy, any more than in religion, "a chosen people," even although the Jews of old thought themselves such, and among moderns the Germans have had this conceit about their Kultur. In so far as philosophy aims at the elucidation of a true view of the universe, it thereby tends inevitably to universality. But just as a conception of internationalism, which should fail to take into account the factors of nationality, would be futile and disastrous, so a conception of the evolution of thought must likewise estimate the characteristics which nationality produces even in the philosophical field.
Such characteristics, it will be found, are not definite doctrines, for these may be transferred, as are scientific discoveries, from one nation to another, and absorbed in such a manner that they become part of the general consciousness of mankind. They are rather differences of tone and colour, form or expression, which express the vital genius of the nation. There are features which serve to distinguish French philosophy from the development which has occurred in Germany, Italy, England and America.
Modern French thought does not deliberately profess to maintain allegiance to any past traditions, for it realises that such a procedure would be inconsistent with that freedom of thought which is bound up with the spirit of philosophy. It does, however, betray certain national features, which are characteristic of the great French thinkers from Descartes, Pascal and Malebranche onwards.
One of the most remarkable points about these thinkers was their intimacy with the sciences. Descartes, while founding modern philosophy, also gave the world analytic geometry; Pascal made certain physical discoveries and was an eminent mathematician. Malebranche, too, was keenly interested in science. In the following century the Encyclopaedists displayed their wealth of scientific knowledge, and in the nineteenth century we have seen the work of Comte based on science, the ability of Cournot and Renouvier in mathematics, while men like Boutroux, Hergson and Le Roy possess a thorough acquaintance with modern science.
These facts have marked results, and distinguish French philosophy from that of Germany, where the majority of philosophers appear to haye been theological students in their youth and to have suffered from the effects of their subject for the remainder of their lives. Theological study does not produce clearness; it does not tend to cultivate a spirit of precision, but rather one of vagueness, of which much German philosophy is the product. On the other hand, mathematics is a study which demands clearness and which in turn increases the spirit of clarity and precision.
There is to be seen in our period a strong tendency to adhere to this feature of clearness. Modern French philosophy is remarkably lucid. Indeed, it is claimed that there is no notion, however profound it may be, or however based on technical research it may be, which cannot be conveyed in the language of every day. French philosophy does not invent a highly technical vocabulary in order to give itself airs in the eyes of the multitude, on the plea that obscurity is a sign of erudition and learning. On the contrary, it remembers Descartes' intimate association of clearness with truth, remembers, too, his clear and simple French which he preferred to the scholastic Latin. It knows that to convince others of truth one must be at least clear to them and, what is equally important, one must be clear in one's own mind first. Clarity does not mean shallowness but rather the reverse, because it is due to keen perceptive power, to a seeing further into the heart of things, involving an intimate contact with reality.
French thought has always remained true to a certain "common sense." This is a dangerous and ambiguous term. In its true meaning it signifies the general and sane mind of man free from all that prejudice or dogma or tradition, upon which, of course, "common sense" in the popular meaning is usually based. A genuine "common sense" is merely "liberté" for the operation of that general reason which makes man what he is. It must be admitted that, owing to the fact that philosophy is taught in the lycées, the French are the best educated of any nation in philosophical ideas and have a finer general sense of that spirit of criticism and appreciation which is the essence of philosophy, than has any other modern nation. Philosophy in France is not written in order to appeal to any school or class. Not limited to an academic circle only, it makes its pronouncements to humanity and thus embodies in a real form the principles of egalité and fraternité. It makes a democratic appeal both by its clarté and its belief that la raison commune is in some degree present in every human being.
Not only was clearness a strong point in the philosophy of Descartes, but there was also an insistence upon method. Since the time of his famous Discours de la Méthode there has always been a unique value placed upon method in French thought, and this again serves to distinguish it profoundly from German philosophy, which is, in general, concerned with the conception and production of entire systems. The idea of an individual and systematic construction is an ambitious conceit which is not in harmony with the principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité. Such a view of philosophical work is not a sociable one, from a human standpoint, and tends to give rise to a spirit of authority and tradition. Apart from this aspect of it, there is a more important consideration. All those systems take one idea as their starting-point and build up an immense construction a priori. But another idea may be taken and opposed to that. There is thus an immense wastage of labour, and the individual effort is never transcended. Yet an idea is only a portion of our intelligence, and that intelligence itself is, in turn, only a portion of reality. A wider conception of philosophy must be aimed at, one in which the vue d'ensemble is not the effort of one mind, but of many, each contributing its share to a harmonious conception, systematic in a sense, but not in the German sense. Modern French thought has a dislike of system of the individualistic type; it realises that reality is too rich and complex for such a rapid construction to grasp it. It is opposed to systems, for the French mind looks upon philosophy as a manifestation of life itself—life blossoming to self-consciousness, striving ever to unfold itself more explicitly and more clearly, endeavouring to become more harmonious, more beautiful, and more noble. The real victories of philosophical thought are not indicated by the production of systems but by the discovery or creation of ideas. Often these ideas have been single and simple, but they have become veritable forces, in the life of mankind.
French thinkers prefer to work collectively at particular problems rather than at systems. Hence the aim and tone of their work is more universal and human, and being more general is apt to be more generous. This again is the expression of liberte, égalité and fraternité in a true sense. The French prefer, as it were, in their philosophical campaign for the intellectual conquest of reality diverse batteries of soixante-quinze acting with precision and alertness to the clumsy production of a "Big Bertha." The production of ambitious systems, each professing to be the final word in the presentation of reality, has not attracted the French spirit. It looks at reality differently and prefers to deal with problems in a clear way, thereby indicating a method which may be applied to the solution of others as they present themselves. This is infinitely preferable to an ambitious unification, which can only be obtained at the sacrifice of clearness or meaning, and it arises from that keen contact with life, which keeps the mind from dwelling too much in the slough of abstraction, from which some of the German philosophers never succeed in escaping. Their pilgrimage to the Celestial City ends there, and consequently the account of their itinerary cannot be of much use to other pilgrims.
Another feature of modern French thought is the intimacy of the connection between psychology and metaphysics, and the intensive interest in psychology, which is but the imestigation of the inner life of man. While in the early beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy some time was spent in examining the outer world before man gave his attention to the world within, we find Descartes, at the beginning of modern philosophy, making his own consciousness of his own existence his starting-point. Introspection has always played a prominent part in French philosophy. Pascal was equally interested in the outer and the inner world. Through Maine de Biran this feature has come down to the new spiritualists and culminates in Bergson's thought, in which psychological considerations hold first rank.
The social feature of modern French thought should not be omitted. In Germany subsequent thought has been coloured by the Reformation and the particular aspects of that movement. In France one may well say that subsequent thought has been marked by the Revolution. There is a theological flavour about most German philosophy, while France, a seething centre of political and social thought, has given to her philosophy a more sociological trend.
The French spirit in philosophy stands for clearness, concreteness and vitality. Consequently it presents a far greater brilliance, richness and variety than German philosophy displays.* This vitality and even exuber-* *ance, which are those of the spirit of youth manifesting a joie de vivre or an élan vital, have been very strongly marked since the year 1880, and have placed French philosophy in the van of human thought.
[Footnote * : It is, therefore to be lamented that French thought has not received the attention which it deseives. In England far more attention has been given to the nineteenth-century German philosophy, while the history of thought in France, especially in the period between Comte and Bergson, has remained in sad neglect. This can and should be speedily remedied.]
It would be vain to ask whither its advance will lead. Even its own principles prevent any such forecast; its creative richness may blossom forth to-morrow in forms entirely new, for such is the characteristic of life itself, especially the life of the spirit, upon which so much stress is laid in modern French philosophy. The New Idealism lays great stress upon dynamism, voluntarism or action. Freedom and creative activity are its keynotes, and life, ever fuller and richer, is its aspiration. La Vie, of which France (and its centre, Paris) is such an expression, finds formulation in the philosophy of contemporary thinkers.*
[Footnote * : The student of comparative thought will find it both interesting and profitable to compare the work done recently in Italy by Croce and Gentile. The intellectual kinship of Croce and Bergson has frequently been pointed out, but Gentile's work comes very close to the philosophy of action and to the whole positive-idealistic tendency of contemporary French thought. This is particularly to be seen in L'atto del pensare come atto puro (1912), and in Teoria generalo dello spirito come atto puro (1916). Professor Carr, the well-known exponent of Bergson's philosophy, remarks in his introduction to the English edition of Gentile's book, "We may individualise the mind as a natural thing-object person. . . . Yet our power to think the mind in this way would be impossible were not the mind with and by which we think it, itself not a thing, not a fact, but act; . . . never factum, but always fieri." This quotation is from p. xv of the Theory of Mind as Pure Act. With one other quotation direct from Gentile we must close this reference to Italian neo-idealism. "In so far as the subject is constituted a subject by its own act it constitutes the object. . . . Mind is the transcendental activity productive of the objective world of experience" (pp. 18, 43). Compare with this our quotation from Ravaisson, given on p. 75 of this work, and the statement by Lachelier on p. 122, both essential principles of the French New Idealism.]
One word of warning must be uttered against those who declare that the tendency of French thought is in the direction of anti-intellectualism. Such a declaration rests on a misunderstanding, which we have endeavoured in our pages to disclose It is based essentially upon a doctrine of Reason which belongs to the eighteenth century. The severe rationalism of that period was mischievous in that it rested upon a one-sided view of human nature, on a narrow interpretation of "Reason" which gave it only a logical and almost mathematical significance. To the Greeks, whom the French represent in the modern world, the term "NOUS" meant more than this— it meant an intelligible harmony. We would do wrong to look upon the most recent developments in France as being anti-rational, they are but a revolt against the narrow view of Reason, and they constitute an attempt to present to the modern world a conception akin to that of the Greeks. Human reason is much more than a purely logical faculty, and it is this endeavour to relate all problems to life itself with its pulsing throb, which represents the real attitude of the French mind. There is a realisation expressed throughout that thought, that life is more than logic. The clearness of geometry showed Descartes that geometry is not all-embracing. Pascal found that to the logic of geometry must be added a spirit of appreciation which is not logical in its nature, but expresses another side of man's mind. To-day France sees that, although a philosophy must endeavour to satisfy the human intelligence, a merely intellectual satisfaction is not enough. The will and the feelings play their part, and it was the gteat fault of the eighteenth century to misunderstand this The search to-day is for a system of values and of truth in action as well as a doctrine about things in their purely theoretical aspects.
This is a serious demand, and it is one which philosophy must endeavour to appreciate Salvation will not be found in a mere dilettantism which can only express ieal indifference, nor in a dogmatism which results in bigotry and pride. Criticism is required, but not a purely destructive criticism, rather one which will offer some acceptable view of the universe. Such a view must combine true positivism or realism with a true idealism, by uniting fact and spirit, things and ideas. Its achievement can only be possible to minds possessing some creative and constructive power, yet minds who have been schooled in the college of reality. This is the task of philosophy in France and in other lands. That task consists not only in finding values and in defining them but in expressing them actively, and in endeavouring to realise them in the common life.
<< Previous |
< Author | Library >