E. Belfort Bax

The Ideal of the Future

(Part 1)

(April 1881)

Ernest Belfort Bax, Ideal of the Future, Part 1, Modern Thought, April 1881, Vol.III, No.3, p.90-95.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The rapidly accelerating decay of the older ideals, and at the same time the increasing craving of the human mind for a something more stable to supply the vacant place – the dread of groping in that darkness in which the creeds fast flickering out are leaving it – is productive of some strange results in our day. We see on one side an installation of the ends of commerce – material convenience, speed, luxury, &c., as the supreme goal of human life, individual and collective; on another a desperate reaction to the most extreme, and therefore most logical, form of the decaying ideal, in the hope of fanning its flame again into activity; and on a third a blank recognition of the impossibility of attaining to any, and consequently of the worthlessness of life. Of these views the first, as it has for long done, still holds possession of the field; though its influence may be waning among thoughtful people, it cannot be said to be materially weakened at present. The other two are almost admitted as makeshifts by their upholders. The thinker who, in default of finding an ideal to satisfy reason, flings himself upon one that ignores her, and thus cuts the knot; the other thinker, who arrives at the same standpoint as the former, instead of wildly rushing back, accepts the position, and (as he inevitably must) turns pessimist – both alike, tacitly if not avowedly, admit their several positions to be the dernier ressort of despair. There is yet another class, that refuse either to go back or to admit the futility of the search. Believing in the existence of a true and objective human ideal, they recognise the great and all-important speculative problem of the age to be its discovery and formulation, and the equally important practical task of the age to be the clearing of a highway for its realisation. The following is an attempt to sketch in outline the plan toward which, in the writer’s view, the Zeitgeist – the consensus of intelligence in the age – seems actually tending.

Consciousness, knowledge, (potential and actual), or which is the same thing – phenomenal existence – on analysis falls asunder into two constituent elements, a subject feeling, perceiving, and knowing and an object felt, perceived, and known. This elementary truism of metaphysics opens up a vista of controversy. It is plain that the above primary truth expresses the further fact that every act of consciousness (mental act) has two elements, of which one is active, and the other passive. One of the “burning” questions since Kant, has accordingly been to determine the relative portions contributed by each element in the formation of the whole – Consciousness – viz., which of the factors in this whole are we to regard as imposed by the inherent activity of the subject and which as resulting from an extraneous source, and received passively by the subject. It is a noteworthy characteristic of this phenomenal universe that whichever side be taken as a starting point, the whole series of phenomena is capable of reduction to terms of that side. The man of science taking the objective stand point can reduce all things to terms of matter and force, the ultimate objective data, in a manner so rigorously conclusive as to lead one to regard his exposition as an expression of absolute truth, and matter and motion as the sole existences. While the psychologist in his turn, starting from the subjective standpoint, very soon reduces in a manner equally rigorous, matter and motion themselves to being the impressions and ideas of a conscious subject (in other words to ultimate subjective data). The solution of this riddle consists in the fact, that each exponent in his special capacity suppresses, and very properly suppresses, precisely the truth upon which the whole structure of his opponent is argument is based. Physical science not being concerned with the subject – the feeling perceiving and knowing element – for the nonce ignores it, while expounding the relations of the felt, perceived, and known. The fallacy of the theory known as materialism consists in treating this legitimate temporary suppression as final, for getting that the functions of nervous and cerebral matter of which it speaks pre-suppose a consciousness in which they are cognised. On the other hand, the psychologist in demonstrating that all knowledge is of impressions and ideas ignores the fact that the very existence of a feeling, knowing and perceiving subject is involved in the existence of a permanent objective element – an object of cognition – a non-ego which is all that is contended for in the notion of matter. The former gives rise to the materialist, and the latter to the idealist position in philosophy. In Aristotelian phraseology, the materialist eliminates the formal element and the idealist the material element, both equally important factors in the whole – conscious-existence. To some it may seem that the repudiation alike of materialism and idealism leaves no alternative other than dualism – viz., the conception of mind and matter as each constituting a distinct entity. No greater mistake could be made. This last theory involves as great a fallacy as either of the others – in fact, it is at bottom the same fallacy. All three theories are alike in that they imply the separate existence of elements that are only known, and the very conditions of whose existence are involved, in their combination in a synthesis. By a process of abstraction they can be separated in thought, and for purposes of exposition or study this may be perfectly legitimate, but the restitution of the abstracted element is in the last resort necessary to avoid erroneous conclusions. For instance, physical science, in treating of phenomena from an objective standpoint, would certainly be unwarranted in introducing any other data than those of matter and motion. The object-world exhibits nothing else but combinations of matter and motion; from the most elementary mechanical to the most complex cerebral processes, all may be expressed in terms of matter and motion. On the other hand, the psychologist would have no warrant for introducing any other data than impressions and ideas, the subject-world (using the term for conscious-existence viewed from a subjective stand-point) presenting us with nothing but feelings and thoughts. But neither is justified in repudiating the synthesis as such, where the abstraction is no longer needed. In the dualist theory, the two elements are regarded as equally real but essentially independent entities, their co-existence being purely contingent. Each is capable of complete existence apart from the other. Those who have held this doctrine in a philosophic form (for with popular animism we are not here concerned) have all, like the Cartesians, felt compelled to introduce a deus ex machina to bridge over the inherent absurdity of two essentially unlike entities, acting and reacting upon one another, and have thus tacitly surrendered the whole position. Apart from this, however, the theory involves the very same fallacy as the preceding; it erects abstractions into entities.

A conscious subject or mind apart from an object or matter proves on analysis a self-evident contradiction, since sensibility is a primary element of consciousness. Similarly, the idea of matter – i.e., the object of cognition, apart from a cognising subject, is likewise a contradiction, all we understand by matter being affections of the senses, possible and actual. The only resource left us, then, is to hold fast the truth that consciousness, being essentially relative and phenomenal, is de facto a unity, that its elements, though they can be separated in thought, exist merely in the synthesis in which we know them – in other words, that mind-matter and subject-object are inseparable correlative terms; that one implies the other, and that one is meaningless without the other being either expressed or understood.

We are here brought face to face with the question, whether seeing that the genus conscious-existence cannot be merged in either of the species it embraces – neither in the species object (matter and motion) nor in the species subject (feeling and thought) – are we to regard it as the summum genus, as the totality of all existence, in other words as the only reality, or are we to conceive it as implying in its essential nature a metaphysical or metempirical basis of some kind? [1] The so-called experiential school while professedly ignoring this question, really concede the point at issue in more ways than one. They speak of our knowledge being only of phenomena and of our ignorance of the essential or nouminal nature of things thereby admitting the fact of this nouminal nature. That thorough-going empiricist, Mr. G.H. Lewes, despite his paradoxical assertion that we know the absolute nature of things, in so far as we know them at all, in other words so far as consciousness reaches, was compelled to admit an infinite possibility of relation (“otherness of relation”) apart from consciousness, which, if it have any meaning at all, involves the assumption of a noumenon as the basis of relation or as that which becomes related, whether in consciousness or otherwise. We cannot escape the dilemma in question; either consciousness (the conditioned) is the totality of existence or it is not. In all our reasonings we must implicitly or explicitly take up one or other of these two positions. Without this, a synthesis, or in other words, philosophy becomes impossible. The moment we place before us the problem of existence in its philosophic bearing, we are forced to regard conscious-experience actual or conceivable as comprehending the whole of existence or the reverse. But while conscious-experience is conditioned, there is an unconditioned element in the mind. This notion of unconditionedness, of absoluteness, of infinity, &c., though it can never become an object of thought, is nevertheless a permanent factor in consciousness. But the notion of unconditioned existence cannot be derived from or applied to an experience which presents nothing but conditions. Even if we regard the Absolute like Mr. Lewes as the infinite possibility of relations, the same remark applies for infinity [2], the quantitative aspect of the Unconditioned is just as little to be derived from experience – can become just as little an object of thought – as its qualitative aspect Absoluteness. Now a synthesis on the basis of experience alone, that is of the conditioned, necessarily leaves out of account this unconditioned factor in the mind which, though in the sphere of thought, may be purely negative, yet re-appears in that of emotion, as the positive sense of mystery with which the aesthetic consciousness is connected. Even in an intellectual point of view, negative though it be, it cannot be disregarded without involving contradiction and inconsistency – that is, in any question regarded from a synthetic standpoint. To set aside a fundamental element in consciousness like this, as a “speculative illusion;” or, still worse, as an “infirmity of human thought” is surely unphilosophical. What other standard of validity can we have than the immediate dicta of consciousness? These must, at least, possess the same reality as consciousness itself. One cause of the unwillingness to admit this unconditioned element in consciousness, which is commonly manifested by many independent thinkers is possibly a “dread of consequences” – a dread, that is, of its opening the door to the assumptions of Theism. That this dread is misplaced, and that the main strength of Theism consists indeed in the element in question being universally ignored by non-theistic and agnostic writers I shall hope to make clear.

The primal error of theism, in so far, of course, as it takes a metaphysical shape, consists in separating the unconditioned from the conditioned, and thus erecting a dualism. In thought, and still more in exposition, it is indeed difficult to guard against the creeping in of this transcendent dualism. Thought is, to use an allowable analogy, bi-polar, by its very nature falling asunder into positive and negative. Thesis supposes antithesis; given the conditioned phenomenon we are inevitably driven to the assumption of an unconditioned noumenon. But this separation of unconditioned and conditioned, of phenomenon and noumenon, into two distinct entities, is just as fallacious in tendency as the separation of mind and matter into two distinct entities. The terms unconditioned and conditioned, or noumenon and phenomenon, are correlatives just as much as subject-object. They can be separated in thought, but we have no warrant for supposing this separation to be anything more than logical. It is this hypostasisation, the unconditioned, being conceived as existing outside and apart from the conditioned, that constitutes the real “speculative illusion.” The universe, existence, or consciousness, by whichever name we like to term the totality of known things, presents two irreducible orders of phenomena to us, the one termed feeling-thought, the other matter-motion. We are confronted with the fact that, so far as we can know or even conceive, the former is a sine qua non of the latter, and at the same time, that the latter is meaningless apart from the former. There is obviously, then, a contradiction in the very nature of our knowledge, a contradiction whose resolution is the metaphysical unknown quantity, the X of philosophy. It is this unknown reality constituting the essential element in the self-contradictory dualism of consciousness, which we mean by noumenon, or Substance (in the Spinozistic sense) and which we regard as involving necessity, infinity, and absoluteness – in other words, as unconditioned. That this noumenon can never become an object of consciousness is obvious when we consider that an object of consciousness must be conditioned. But it is none the less given in consciousness as a fundamental postulate or basis of synthetic thought – that is to say, on once apprehending the problem of existence in its totality we are compelled to assume it in some form or shape. We are not, however, compelled to regard it as an entity distinct from conscious or conditioned existence, and we have no warrant for viewing the latter otherwise than as a moment or determination of this unconditioned existence. In a word, the fallacy consists in conceiving the Absolute as transcendent rather than as immanent.

Now, in its first stage the theistic argument [3] makes the above severance, in regarding the Unknown as something radically distinct from the Known, the Absolute from its relative manifestation. Once constitute that a Being, which is (to us at least) merely the potentiality of Being, and the step is easy to Anthropomorphism of every description. That which regarded in itself is properly the most barren of all abstractions will not long remain so after it has become hypostasised, the necessity of representing it as an object of thought causing it to be filled from the content of consciousness. Will, power, wisdom, goodness become successively ascribed, till the Absolute develops into a mind, and a full-fledged deity emerges. Such is the progress and shrine of the metaphysico-theistic pilgrim. He ignores the contradiction involved in the supposition of consciousness existing apart from conditions, not to speak of our having no knowledge or even conception of feeling and thought, except as the inseparable accompaniments of a highly complex material organism.

At the same time that we fully recognise the fallacies of Theism we must insist that Empiricism and Materialism fall into the opposite fallacy of denying the legitimacy of our notion or idea of Unconditioned, Absolute, or Potential Being, as the essential basis of the conscious or phenomenal world. Now, this idea is unquestionably given at once in human thought and emotion, and Theism, by recognising it at least indirectly, can defend itself against the assaults of a scepticism which ignores it, despite its weakness otherwise. By an acknowledgment that the ideas of perfection ascribed to deity exist alone in the consciousness of humanity, but exist there, necessarily and by the essential nature of things (even though at present their existence lie more potential than actual); and therefore that they point to an ideal which it is the supreme end of humanity (by which is to be understood not only existing mankind, but the highest term in the conscious series for all time) to realise, it is plain that theism itself is completely and definitely superseded, together with its “difficulties” or “absurdities,” according as we choose to style them.

To bring forward a few suggestions making for this view is the object of the following pages. The standpoint taken is distinctly that of experience, the agnostic position of our nescience of aught but what experience offers being not only conceded but insisted upon. At the same time that the notion of a noumenal order as that of which the phenomenal order is the expression is contended for as being implicitly given in our experience of the latter order, it is none the less an object of the present paper to demonstrate the impossibility of our knowledge ever extending beyond the phenomenal. We know the Absolute only as manifested in the Relative. But our experience, relative though it be, is deemed to involve in its higher developments the notions of necessity as applied to certain of its ideas. This, of course, applies only indirectly to objective experience, but the error of looking at consciousness from one side only, and forgetting its essential unity, has been before noticed. Whatever appears as a permanent fact of consciousness has reality. To confine this term to facts given directly in external perception is an entirely arbitrary proceeding.

The fallacy of looking at the objective side of existence alone blinds us to the all-important truth that the conscious is not a constant but a variable quantity, both in extension and in intension. That space of three dimensions, the known qualities, properties, &c., of matter, are the limit of the possibilities of the external world, is seen to be a mere assumption, when we reflect that in lower forms of the conscious, as, for instance, in the comparatively homoform consciousness (sentiency) of the mollusc these dimensions and qualities cannot obtain. The cognition of qualities in the object-world is consequent on differentiation of faculty in the subject-world. Our actual objective sense-faculties (the five senses) afford us five different sets of perceptions or qualities in things. Another sense would afford us another set of perceptions or qualities, and so on ad infinitum. The intensification of sense is similarly consequent on the intensive amount of differentiation. What is true of special sensation is true of consciousness as a whole. It may be conceived as an infinite possibility of cognition, both in extension and in intension. That a fundamentally higher form of consciousness than the present is not merely possible but probable I shall hope to show in the following pages. Starting from the doctrine of Evolution, we shall observe in the first place that this doctrine tends inevitably toward such an hypothesis, and, secondly, that it can be shown to be probable inductively as well as deductively.

There is an essential unity pervading modern speculation on the principle governing the phenomenal world, i.e., the doctrine of Evolution. This doctrine as is well-known in its most recent and consistent form regards nature as a progressive series, each link of which is necessarily connected with the whole. Discarding the theological hypothesis of the different orders of phenomena being the arbitrary creations of a deus ex machina, it views each as the necessary product of previous and present conditions, and the whole as representing an intimately connected series. It is a common taunt to those holding the doctrine of Evolution that the space or as it is sometimes termed “the chasm,” between the inorganic and the organic, has never been bridged over. This difficulty, representing simply an imperfect state of knowledge, will not however seriously affect those who have grasped the principle in its true character.

The fundamental principle of evolution is, perhaps, most simply expressed in Comte’s hierarchy of the sciences – that the different orders of phenomena in their abstract relations present a series progressively decreasing in generality, and increasing in complexity. This logical order of the sciences, with certain modifications, is now pretty generally recognised as roughly corresponding to the actual course of development in time. The simplest and most general of all phenomena are those requiring for their investigation simply a knowledge of the relations of space, time, and molar motion – in other words, those governed mainly by the laws of mathematics, pure and applied. The object-matter of the sciences of astronomy and molar physics answers to this description. Next follows molecular physics which introduces a new element in the combinations of matter and motion. This new element is, however, dependent on those preceding it – viz., on the laws of the fundamental forms of all phenomenal existence, time and space (pure mathematics) and the laws of molar motion (mechanics). In the chemical series a still further advance in complexity takes place, to which the same remarks will apply. The next step is a momentous one – nothing less than from the inorganic to the organic – from the lifeless to the living. Here the new element of complexity assumes such proportions as to amount to a new point of departure. The simple cell or group of cells the physical basis of life appears upon the scene, and with it in all probability the first phase of consciousness – namely, sentiency. Whether we have a right to ascribe even the lowest form of sentiency to simple protaplasm, and if not at what stage in organic development we are warranted in assuming its commencement may be subjects of dispute; but we are certain that sentiency is not a very remote if not immediate consequent of the change from inorganic to organic. In the organic series proper, the laws peculiar to life are super-added to those of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, living beings are dependent upon all these, in addition to those specially characterising them. The order of organic development objectively is from the vegetable to the vertebrate animal, and from thence through the vertebrate animal to the commencing term of the human. Subjectively it is from sentiency which belongs to the first of these, through the undifferentiated consciousness of the vertebrate series to the differentiated consciousness of the human personality, the point at which we now stand. I need scarcely say that these momenta are distinguished by no sharp marks of division; each insensibly blends into another, and each moreover contains within itself minor phases of development. Auguste Comte’s position is elaborated, corrected, and in many important respects modified in Herbert Spencer’s system, but the principle remains essentially the same. Instead of regarding evolution from a subjective standpoint like Comte, as a logical filiation of the sciences, Spencer considers it as the objective development of existences, incorporating there – with the doctrine commonly known as Darwinism, but which was really broached and in part worked out by Lamarck, Herder, Oken, Goethe, and others, and which in the present day has been so remarkably illustrated by Haeckel. Herbert Spencer extended the above hypothesis which had previously been confined to the organic sphere to the whole range of cosmic existence. His definition of evolution is as follows:– “Evolution under its simplest and most general aspect is the integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion” – and further, “everywhere the change from a confused multiplicity to a distinct complexity in the distribution of matter and motion is incidental to the consolidation of the matter and the loss of its motion. Hence the redistribution of the matter and of its retained motion is from a diffused, uniform, and indeterminate arrangement, to a concentrated, multiform, and determinate arrangement.” This being interpreted in the concrete, means the integration of nebulous masses into stellar and planetary systems, subjected mainly to the laws of space and motion, the integration of these systems into bodies, their incrustation, and where, as on our earth, the process is not arrested, the formation of an atmosphere and the modification of their surface by thermal, electrical, and chemical agencies, preparatory to the appearance of life. The organic series once commenced, the progress objectively from the simple cellular formation to the most highly differentiated and complex organism, and subjectively from the lowest sentiency to the highest consciousness, is comparatively rapid.

I have not spoken of the mode or conditions of Evolution, but only of its principle and order, which are the only points that immediately concern my argument, and I shall make one more reference, and this time to Hegel’s system, as an additional proof of the essential unity pervading modern speculation. Hegel, it must be remembered, forms the culminating point of the school of pure Idealism, not following the order of things, but the order of pure conceptions. The coincidence of the contained principles is therefore the more striking. In tracing the progressive momenta of Being, or what to Hegel is the same thing, of thought, he observes the same principle as Comte. He also passes from the abstract and general to the concrete and special – from pure Being to Human Society. His Naturphilosophie and Phenomenologie commences with time, space, and molar motion, upon which follows physics, then chemistry, then vegetable and animal and human life, and, lastly, the personality as exhibited in society. I might show, from the systems of Schopenhaner and Hartmann, that the pessimist doctrine also assumes the principle of Evolution, the Unconscious Will being represented as struggling through the same successive stages to consciousness. [4] Now from all this it is seen that philosophic thought, no matter whether it proceed on the subjective or the objective method, whether it follow the order of things or the order of thought, is inevitably landed, in that greatest generalisation of the nineteenth century – the doctrine of Evolution.

We must always bear in mind that the two objective factors with which Evolution is concerned are matter and motion. All things are reducible in the objective series to terms of matter and motion. The corresponding factors in the subjective series are feeling and thought. The first in either case represents the static principle, and the second the dynamic. Differentiation and complexity of function on the one side, and range and intensity of consciousness on the other, progress in an exactly equivalent ratio. From the beginnings of sentiency – the first term of the subjective series – up to the beginnings of consciousness proper, we may regard as one epoch the organic, in which the objective or physical dominates almost as completely as in inorganic existence. With the entrance of consciousness a new epoch is inaugurated, the psychic. The subjective now becomes a modifying factor. From the commencement of the psychic epoch onwards, previous conditions tend to become more and more reversed. The causes of change or of development, which in earlier stages acted from without inwards, are now supplemented by another series acting from within outwards, which latter series progressively encroaches on the sphere of the former – in other words, the psychical progressively tends to supplant the physical as a casual agency. Thus the modifications of animals and plants result from the action of the environment on the organism, whereas in human society we see the organism tending to modify the environment. This transformation, which is first distinctly noticeable in the present stage of human society, denotes a third great epoch in Evolution, which may be termed the SUPER-ORGANIC, the first being the INORGANIC, and the second the ORGANIC.

The foregoing remarks, which with one or two exceptions, merely refer to the past and present of Evolution, probably contain little with which a moderately well-read man in the present day is not more or less familiar. But in the concluding portion of this paper I propose to enter upon the always hazardous path of prevision by means of the lights which the aforesaid principles afford us.

Ernest Belfort Bax




1. To avoid any misconception here, I should observe that by conscious-existence, or consciousness, I understand the whole world of phenomena, as we can know or conceive it, both possible and actual. I do not, it will be observed, confine the term exclusively to mental facts; it includes when used in the present paper the object as well as the act of cognition; “conscious-existence” denotes indeed phenomena as conditioned by space and time.

2. It is sometimes argued that we have a notion merely of the indefinite and not of the infinite, the first of those words being understood to imply the absence of assignable limits; and the second, the absence of all limits; but the distinction as applied to the present question is literally one without a difference, for a notion of the absence of assignable, if by this is meant, conceivable limit, is plainly coincident with the notion of the absence of all limit. For instance, it is a part of the very essence of our idea of time, that it is at once a regression without end, and a progression without end, the barest suggestion even of a possible beginning or end being an absurdity. The same applies to the infinite divisibility of space and time, and to all questions involving infinity – the notion of a limit even as possible being unthinkable, which would not be the case were our notion that of mere indefiniteness in the ordinary sense of the word.

3. I am of course referring to theism as expounded by metaphysical theologians.

4. There is distinct foreshadowing of Comte’s hierarchy of the sciences in the second book of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Schopenhauer’s mode of conceiving Evolution was however purely metaphysical. He had no notion of a connected phenomenal series.


Last updated on 4.7.2006