Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter III
The Problem of the Evolution of Speculative Thought

In the earliest phases of man’s social and mental life we find no trace of conscious reflection on the conditions of his existence. His view of the world is a vague fluid mass of assumptions arising without conscious will or intention on his part out of a welter of crude analogies, moulded in the forms in which his mind operated, and accumulating from untold generations. This was the era of mythology, folk-lore, of primitive thought and imagination. It had as its counterpart in the material sphere the world of a common tribal and clan life, to which the individual human being was subordinated, and apart from which he had no significance. As this material side of primitive society yielded to civilisation, by which the old social bonds became loosened and the independence of the individual began to emerge, the intellectual outlook also became gradually modified. The great factor in this modification was the awakening of conscious reflection upon himself, his beliefs and surroundings, on the part of the individual.

The awakening self-consciousness of the individual took various forms, moral and intellectual, and it passed through many phases, consisting largely in a modification and systematisation of myth and traditional modes of thought, before the conscious attempt to explain the universe on rational principles, as we now term them – in other words, before the dawn of philosophy properly so-called.

But it was not given to every race of ancient times to inaugurate philosophic inquiry in its true sense. We can trace detached fragments of philosophic thought at an early stage in more than one of the Oriental civilisations of antiquity, while in ancient India something like a definite line of philosophic development is discoverable. But for universal history – that is, for history considered as a continuous evolution of man from early beginnings up to the present time – there is only one classical line of philosophic development, and that is the one inaugurated by Ancient Greece in the sixth century B.C., with which the modern thought of the Western world is directly affiliated.

Before proceeding further it is necessary to define more clearly what constitutes philosophy as such. Philosophy is something more than a mere attempt at an explanation of things in general. The early mythologies and theogonies were also, for that matter, attempts to explain the nature of things; but what distinguishes philosophy from all earlier ways of looking at man and the world is the fact that it is the product of conscious reflection, that it works through reason and its processes of logic, and not by mere imagination or by the acceptance of traditional authority. That it was a product of conscious reflection, and that its methods were those of observation and logical reasoning, as opposed to naive imagination and tradition, clearly differentiates philosophic thought from the thought that preceded it.

When Thales asked the question, what constituted the ultimate physical substance of the Universe, that to which all others are reducible, and thought that the true answer to that question was that water was that substance, he started a new era in human thought of inestimable importance for the intellectual future of mankind. This problem of the primary and ultimate physical substance of the Universe which occupied the Ionic School, of which Thales was the reputed founder, and to which his successors gave solutions differing from his own, crude and futile though it may seem to us, gave the impulse, directly or indirectly, to all subsequent thought. New problems and their attempted solutions – problems of the nature of being and becoming, of the one and the many, and (in a crude form) of reality and appearance, besides those directly concerned with the origin, the structure, and the working of the material Universe – rose successively, and exercised the subtlety of the rapidly-expanding Greek intellect until the rise, in the fourth century, of the Sophist Schools.

The comparatively sudden development of the Greek world – economically, politically, and intellectually – induced a movement of scepticism in things speculative, and in self-seeking individualists in things practical, in which the lecturers called Sophist, who formulated these tendencies and who taught their wisdom for money, found a ready market for their wares. The significance of this movement was that it implied a shifting of the philosophic problem. Hitherto, for nearly two centuries past, the inquiry had been into the nature of things considered as existing per se; first of all, as to the ultimate physical nature of the Universe, and then as to the meaning and implications of its abstract conditions, these conditions themselves being regarded as independent realities. An illustration of the latter may be found in the hypostatisation of Number ascribed to Pythagoras, the Numbers being conceived as real existences.

The inconsistencies, the impossibility of proof, and the apparent insolubility of certain questions, resulting in a general scepticism, led the way to a new statement of the philosophic problem. Different thinkers had arrived at different conclusions. What to one man seemed true, to another seemed false; what the custom of one city approved as good, the custom of another city condemned as bad. The impetus taken by trade and travel at this time enlarged the horizon of everyone. Hence the Sophist movement, which was summed up in the well-known formula of the Sophist Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Rhetorical arts, plausible speculation, and smart tricks of controversy became the fashionable studies in the leading Greek cities, and not the least so in Athens. In the latter city there was, however, one disciple of the new movement who did not rest satisfied with the results taught him by his Sophist instructor. This was Sokrates. With the general decay of traditional standards of thought and life Sokrates was not content to rest; above all, he was not content with the doctrine which reduced virtue to a mere private or individual opinion. On the other hand, he was by no means disposed to be false to the current intellectual movement of his time. He felt there was no going back upon the prevalent Sophism. His aim was, by means of the very principle which had undermined old sanctions and assumptions, to acquire a new objective standard, as we should say in the present day, in the first instance of conduct (virtue), with which he was chiefly concerned, but indirectly of intellectual theory also. The famous saying that Sokrates “brought down philosophy from heaven to earth” meant that he definitely shifted the problem from an inquiry concerning the principles of existence to one concerning the principles of knowledge. Man was the measure of all things, it was true, yet not man considered as an individual, but the reason or the logical faculty in man, the instrument of “dialectic.” Hence it was Sokrates’ aim, by means of question and answer, to discover a definition of “virtue” and the “good” that would be recognised as valid by all men.

If he was not successful in this, he was eminently so in producing a stimulus in the minds of his contemporaries, a stimulus that inaugurated a new era in human thought. It was the dialectical Sokrates that produced the thought of Plato, and through Plato furnished Aristotle with the intellectual training which enabled him to build up his encyclopaedic system. The thought common to all men, the insight or truth that Sokrates strove to evolve by means of his dialectic, for practical purposes, became with Plato the world of general concepts, of which the world, as perceived by us, is merely the imperfect copy or appearance. The “good” of Sokrates became for Plato the supreme idea, that which embraced all other ideas, and to which they led up as their end and completion. Plato’s division of all things into the world of intellect and the world of sense would, of course, have been quite unrecognised by Sokrates himself; but it may unquestionably be traced to Sokrates’ insistence on clearness of definition and on the capacity for universal application of all valid mental concepts.

With Plato the old problems of philosophy again came to the front, but treated on the method which Sokrates had employed for the attainment of ethical truth. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, could not accept Plato’s sharp separation of the world of sense from the world of ideas. For Aristotle the universals of logic were already contained in the particular objects of sense. There were not two worlds over against each other, but one world containing two elements: an element of sense – the particular sense-impression – and an element of thought – the universal concept or idea.

For all this, Aristotle, no less than Plato, insisted on the ideal element in the real world as constituting its true “inwardness.” The alpha and omega of the real world, that which gave to it its meaning and its final purpose, was the universalising intellect. But none the less, to the realisation of the ideal purpose of the world the sense-element was necessary. To the Platonic idea of universalia ante rem, universal ideas prior to the things of sense, Aristotle opposed his universalia in rebus, universal ideas as an inseparable element in the world of things from which it is the function of the reflective reason to disentangle them through the logical process. The “creative intellect” of Aristotle realised itself in, and through, the world of appearance. The world was an eternal evolution from matter to form, from potential to actual reality. The unformed matter of one stage be-came the formed reality of the next which was its essence. The antithesis of matter and form – of sense-material and its ideal determination – is, in the world perceived by us, relative. To employ a crude illustration, the matter of the brass informed by the idea of the sculptor, becomes the reality, the essence, statue. But Aristotle distinguishes, as the ultimate elements of the real world, a primal matter and the primal intellectual activity. The ideas, however, or the general concepts, formed by this Creative Activity have not, as with Plato, any independent reality in themselves. They are realised only in indissoluble union with the sense-impression. In the real world that we perceive and know, there is no such thing as formless matter or matterless form. Reality implies the indissoluble union – synthesis – of both elements. In the perceived object the creative idea is realised as essence or substance (ούσία). The above is the root-principle of the Aristotelian philosophy, and it is to Plato and Aristotle that the main stream of subsequent thought may be traced.

In the period following the Macedonian conquest, when the whole basin of the Eastern Mediterranean came under Greek influence – the so-called Hellenistic period – under the auspices of the dynasties founded by the generals of Alexander the Great, the practical or ethical side of philosophy again came to the fore, and philosophic schools acquired prominence whose professed aim was to teach the true guiding principles of life and conduct. The ostensible objects of these schools, it may be surmised, would have been more congenial to the temperament of Sokrates, with whom they claimed a direct or indirect connection, than the speculative systems of Plato and Aristotle. These schools were the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Sceptic, which have their protagonists in those founded a century or so earlier by direct disciples of Sokrates and termed the Cynic, the Cyrenaic, and the Megaric respectively.

The old independent life of the free cities had for the most part disappeared, and the movement of introspection, of self-brooding, already apparent in Sokrates, became the dominant spirit of the age It was no longer the social life and ideals of the tribe or the city that appealed to men, it was the ideal life of the individual and his happiness that was their primary object of interest. At the same time originality in speculative thought died out. Old positions were crudely restated, where they were not taught in their original form. The Lyceum at Athens remained the seat of Aristotelian teaching and the Academy of Platonic. In the latter case the carrying out of the dialectical methods of Plato’s dialogues had resulted in a general sceptical attitude. Rome entered the political arena and began absorbing the Hellenistic States of Eastern Europe. Philosophy in the shape of the four recognised Schools, the Aristotelian, the Platonic, the Stoic, and the Epicurean, not to mention the Neoscepticism of the school of Pyrrho, got carried to Rome and struck root there. The “philosopher” now became largely a professional moralist and sermoniser, corresponding to the clergyman of modern times. It became the fashion for great families to keep a philosopher, as it was a few generations ago of aristocratic houses to keep a chaplain. The Pagan priesthood and ritual, it should be observed, were concerned exclusively with ceremonial observances and not with preaching or moral exhortation.

The next important development of Philosophy proper, however, did not take distinct literary shape till the third century of the Christian era. This was the movement which gradually absorbed all other philosophies, and ultimately the various theories and cults generally of Pagan antiquity, into itself, and which became known as the “new Platonism” (Neoplatonism). Its first systematic literary exponent was Plotinus, a native of Egypt, hailing directly from Alexandria, who settled in Rome. He is the author of numerous works dealing with the great problem of the one and the many, of the universe of thought and the manifold of sense. Unlike the early Platonists, but fully in accord with the religio-mystical movement of which his writings may be regarded as the fullest and most definite philosophical expression, Plotinus assumed a faculty of intuition, rather than intellect or logical reasoning, as the ultimate and highest source of knowledge. In accordance with this view the ultimate principle was not, as with Greek philosophy at its zenith, vows (intellect or reason), but that out of which reason arises, the infinite unity which is its ultimate source and background. This principle Plotinus calls variously the One, the Being, the First Father, etc. The world of thought, of logical universals, is an emanation from this primal alogical principle. Our real world, which, as Aristotle had shown, was a mixture of thought and sense, of universal and particular, is again an emanation from the second or logical principle, the “intelligible world,” as it was called. The creative principle of the world of ordinary reality is the world-soul, to which Plotinus ascribes a dual character, on the one hand as reaching up toward the “intelligible world,” the world of logical forms, and on the other tending downward to the purely negative matter of sense. [1] In the above we have the celebrated Alexandrian Trinity with its three hypostases, as they are termed. The human soul, it is almost needless to observe, represented a flash or efflorescence of the world-soul. After Plotinus the Neoplatonic movement tended to become more and more mere mysticism with a Pagan religious character, absorbing finally the whole of contemporary Paganism into one eclectic system, under whose auspices the final intellectual struggle with Christianity on the part of the ancient world was fought out.

The last philosophic figure of antiquity with which we need concern ourselves is Boethius, who flourished at Rome early in the sixth century. He is interesting as the very last representative of ancient philosophy in the Western world, and important for history as having laid the foundation of the Aristotelianism which dominated the schools of the Middle Ages. His works, although they seemed to have produced no effect at the time, became the text-books of early mediaeval learning.

The first figure in mediaeval Philosophy was Johannes Scotus Eregina (John the Scot of Ireland), who flourished in the ninth century, and who wrote a metaphysical treatise of strong Platonic or Neoplatonic tendencies. But the true philosophy of the medieval schools, thence termed Scholasticism, took shape later. Such writings of Aristotle as were known and the works of Boethius formed the text-books. From the eleventh century onwards philosophy as Scholasticism formed the main branch of mediaeval learning. The great problem was still the relation of the universal of thought to the particular of sense. Did ideas, did logical forms, have an existence independently of the real world, as Plato had asserted, or did they only subsist as an element in a world of objects, or, lastly, were they mere figments obtaining solely in our minds? These were the questions occupying the schools of the Middle Ages, especially of the earlier Middle Ages, but their thought was throughout dominated by the antithesis of Philosophy and Theology, profane and sacred learning. The aim of Philosophy for the Schoolmen was the provision of a rational basis for the dogmatic structure of the Church. The elaborate systems of Thomas Aquinas and of Duns Scotus were primarily concerned with this problem, though they brought within their range the whole body of the learning of their age. The doctrine known as Nominalism, originally the old Aristotelian doctrine of the universal as element in the object, became developed by William of Occam into a thorough-going theory of existence as solely attributable to the particulars of sense as perceived. This doctrine grew and acquired popularity as the philosophical side of the general tendency of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance towards individualism, political, economic, and social, grew. It had its full fruition, however, at a later time.

Modern Philosophy, as distinguished from that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is usually dated from the French Descartes, on the one hand, and the English Bacon on the other. These sharp divisions are, of course, more or less arbitrary. But there is a very good reason for regarding Descartes as the starting-point of modern thought. For, not unlike Sokrates in the ancient world, he radically shifted the standpoint of Philosophy. It had already become, during the Renaissance period, freed from its slavery to dogma on the one side and to the formula of Aristotle on the other, but only partially from its reliance on ancient models generally. Descartes, in his well-known formula Cogito ergo sum, which is as much as to say I exist thinking, brought back Philosophy to the bed-rock. At the same time the establishment of psychology as the central problem of Philosophy became fixed. Henceforth the problems of Philosophy began to be treated psychologically. This was notably the case with the English school, who applied the new method of Bacon to inquiries concerning the operations of the mind. Thomas Hobbes, of Malmesbury, was the first to start in a systematic form these investigations, which continue through Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and the Scotch psychologists. To this line of philosophic thought we shall revert directly.

As for Descartes, notwithstanding that he had started with pure self-consciousness, the criterion of truth which he thought he had derived from it, that a “clear and distinct idea” was the test of truth, led him to postulate mind and matter as separate substances, of which the attribute of one was Thought and of the other Extension. He thus lost his philosophical foothold, so to say, in discussions concerning the mutual relationship of the two substances, matter and mind, the attributes of which, extension on one side and thought on the other, seemed to have nothing mutually in common. That self-consciousness, considered not as an individual, but as an ultimate fact, was the key to the difficulty, never occurred to Descartes or his followers. The difficulty, raised in the form it was by Descartes, was solved in the only way possible on the given conditions of the controversy by the Dutch-Jewish thinker Spinoza, who proclaimed “God” or the Absolute as the infinite and only substance, of which Thought and Extension were the attributes. Matter and mind were reduced to a position of mere modes of these two attributes, whose only principle of unity was to be found in the “One Substance.”

In contradistinction to Spinoza, Leibnitz (born at Leipsic, 1646) solved the problem of the relation of Descartes’ two substances, mind and matter, with their two attributes, Thought and Extension, by the assumption of an infinity of souls, each individual soul being a self-contained unity or universe within itself existing for itself alone. This is the celebrated monadology of Leibnitz. The God of Leibnitz was the supreme monad from which all other monads or souls proceeded like sparks from the fire.

The criterion of truth for Spinoza and Leibnitz, as for Descartes, was the “clearness and distinctness” of ideas, but the type of the clearness which proclaimed the truth of a conception was to be found in mathematics. Hence we find in Spinoza, the most powerful original thinker of the seventeenth century. the exposition of his system carried out on the model of a treatise on geometry. Spinoza, as we have seen, postulated Thought and Extension as the attributes, not of mind and matter, but of his One Substance, or pantheistic God. In the course of the working out of his system, however, it is the attribute of Thought with its universalising that comes to dominate the whole, and we thus arrive at what is substantially a new form of the old Platonic Idealism.

The battle of the British school during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries turned largely on the psychological question of the existence of “innate ideas.” Does the individual receive all his experience from without, or is it partly derived from ideas originally obtaining in his mind? This was another way of approaching the old question of universals, but it had lost the comprehensive metaphysical character that it possessed with the ancients, and which to some extent clung to it throughout the Middle Ages, and had become reduced to the proportions of a purely psychological issue.

The British school solved the problem in the sense of the later “Nominalist” schoolmen. Abstract ideas, universals, were names for figments of the mind resulting directly or indirectly from the experience of real things derived through the senses. The theory of innate ideas assumed by Descartes and his followers and the Continental thinkers generally, to the effect that innate ideas existed in the human mind, was inadmissible. Out of this psychological problem the question of the reality of the material world as perceived through the senses emerged in a different form and with an explicitness it had never acquired before. The notion of substance as a substratum of the qualities of matter as also of those of mind (the two substances of Descartes, in fact) was the only innate idea corresponding to a reality beyond itself that was admitted by Locke.

It was this substance of Locke, the substratum of material qualities, which the celebrated Bishop Berkeley set himself to demolish. The idea of substance, he said, is, like other abstract concepts, merely a figment of the mind, having no independent existence corresponding to it any more than any other universal concept. The general term “matter” (i.e. physical substance) meant no more than a sum of perceived qualities, i.e. a bundle of affections of our senses perceived by the mind. The conclusion was obvious, that matter exists only as an idea in the mind, a mental concept.

David Hume took up the parable of Locke and Berkeley, showing, however, that Berkeley’s criticism of the notion of substance as the substratum of qualities did not go far enough, for that Berkeley, while he had legitimately demolished the validity of the notion of material substance as the substratum of the qualities perceived through the outer senses, had left untouched the notion of mind or soul as the mental substance in which our thoughts and feelings inhere. There is no more reason, said Hume, for accepting this concept, this figment of the mind, viz., substance, as an independent existence in the latter case than there is in the former. Psychical substance has no more rational validity than physical substance. We can affirm the existence of nothing, he contends, save a succession of impressions and ideas; all else is an unprovable assumption having no rational justification. The psychological philosophy of the British school becomes at this point, therefore, dissolved in scepticism.


We have now reached the turning-point in the history of modern philosophy. Five years after Hume’s death appeared the great treatise (1781) of the Königsberg professor, Immanuel Kant. This treatise, the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, was the product of the lifelong thought of its celebrated author, one of the greatest intellects of all time. The problem attacked by Kant was the old problem, the problem of the universal of thought and the particular of sense; or, to give it its wider signification, of the alogical and the logical in knowledge or experience. But he attacked it from a new standpoint, from the standpoint won by the thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Descartes had definitely broken away from the philosophical traditions of the Greeks and of the schoolmen, and had, with his cogito ergo sum, brought philosophy to the bed-rock of self-consciousness, though without grasping the implications of his own thought. As a consequence he fell back upon “clear and distinct ideas” as a test of truth, and placed in the forefront of his system certain dead abstractions, substance and accident, mind and matter, etc., as its principles. The British school, as we have seen, had reduced the philosophical problem to one of psychology. The individual mind considered as an independent existence over against an equally independent material world were the principles from which it started. The crisis arrived when Berkeley on the one side and Hume on the other destroyed the assumption of an independent material substance and an independent mental substance respectively.

In Kant the two lines of thought, that of Great Britain and that of the Continent, met together. The careful study of both lines of thinkers enabled the genius of Kant to restate the philosophic problem and to place its solution firmly on a new basis. Kant once for all brought philosophy back to self-consciousness as the ultimate principle and ground of its problem. He once again brought it back from being to knowing. And he not merely stated the problem in greater definiteness and completeness than had ever been done before, but he discussed it in all its bearings with a view of arriving at a solution. To this new way of looking at the philosophical problem he gave the name of “theory of knowledge,” and the method he employed in its solution he called “criticism.” The test of truth for him was not, as with Descartes, the loose and ineffectual one of “clear and distinct ideas” in the mind, but the necessity of thought as involved in the self-consistency of consciousness-in-general. He thus, at a stroke, raised philosophic discussion to a higher level. Neither the substances and attributes of the Continental metaphysicians, nor the psychological analysis of the British thinkers, proved satisfactory to Kant as a starting-point. The primary problem was the analysis of the conditions of knowledge itself as such – in other words, philosophy implied for Kant primarily an inquiry into the meaning of reality.

Kant was, of course, not the first to catch a glimpse of the true problem of philosophy. Plato, and still more Aristotle, in the ancient world, had great and, in the latter case, sustained flashes of insight in this connection, and the same may be said in the modern world of Spinoza. But the great merit of Kant, and what constitutes him an epoch-making figure in philosophy, is the fact that he was the first thinker to clearly grasp the principle, and never to lose sight of it throughout his investigations. It is not that Kant himself was altogether free, on the one hand, from the abstractions of the Continental schools, or, on the other, from the too psychological point of view of the British school. He assumed “things-in-themselves” as the basis of the object world (of external reality), while the perceiving Subject often appears to coincide for him with the individual mind, the “empirical ego,” as it is sometimes termed. But, in spite of his backslidings, Kant, in the main, holds fast the position that all that is, that reality, in the fullest sense of the word, implies consciousness, possible or actual.

The influence of Kant and his great work showed itself after a few years of polemical discussion in the works of Kant’s successors, foremost amongst whom were Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc. Fichte would have none of Kant’s things-in-themselves. He recognised clearly what Kant also recognised, although he sometimes faltered, at least in his exposition, namely, that there is nothing out-side Consciousness, which is another way of saying there is nothing outside the Ego which all consciousness implies. Here, again, Fichte emphasised a point on which Kant had expressed himself dubiously. Fichte was careful to point out the now familiar distinction between the Ego as subject of all consciousness, the “Moi premier et eternal,” as M. Jaurès has it, and the Ego as object of this consciousness, the individual object-self or personal mind with which it is identified in ordinary thought.

Fichte thus fixes and defines the philosophical ground taken up by Kant. He shows that the time-honoured problem of the One and the Many, of the Universal of thought and the Particular of sense, can be only properly understood, much less solved, from this new point of view, that of the method of the “transcendental philosophy,” as it was called. Fichte’s one-time coadjutor and one-time successor in the great philosophical movement with which we are dealing. Schelling, introduced a modification into the Fichteian system. The unconditioned principle at the root of all Consciousness or Experience he found neither in the experiencing Subject (Ego) nor in the experienced Object (perceived world) as such, but in the element of identity between them, that in which each side of this transcendental equation participated. This principle of Indifference, as Schelling termed it, i.e. the common element in the Ego experiencing and that which it experiences, was for Schelling the Absolute, viz., the ultimate principle of all reality. Schelling sometimes identifies, or hints at the identification of, this principle with Will or Energy.

Schelling’s contemporary (but in the order of thought his successor), Hegel, propounded the thesis that, not the subject of Consciousness, as with Fichte, nor an indefinite element of Identity, implicit alike in subject and object, as with Schelling, but Thought itself, the Concept, or, as Hegel prefers to term it, following Plato, the Idea, is the Absolute to which all things may be reduced. Like Plato’s supreme idea of the “Good,” Hegel’s “Idea” at once embraced within itself all reality under the forms of the logical concept, and is the supreme end and purpose of all reality. In Hegel’s system the assumption postulated by Plato at Athens in the fourth century B.C. first received its final and complete development. For Hegel the forms of thought taken in their totality are absolute. The absolute Subject, the “I” of Fichte and the “Absolute Identity” of Schelling themselves are thus mere modes of the process of the self-thinking of thought. Thought, or the categories of logic, are, for Hegel, all in all. Hence his system has been termed Panlogism, or, more correctly, from the point of view of euphony, Pallogism.

The antithesis, in the great German philosophic movement dating from Kant to Hegel, is typically represented by the metaphysic of Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer the logical, the thought-element in reality, was subordinate and derivative. The true Absolute, of which Reality was the expression, and the thought-element, in Reality a mere form of this expression, was that which we term, in its highest phenomenal manifestation, i.e. in ourselves, Will. It is this Will, the “will-to-live,” which expands itself and recognises itself in the real world with its infinity of particulars. The logical forms by which the understanding apprehends these particulars of sense are merely the products of the primal Will for the purpose of its own recognition of itself. As is well known, Schopenhauer’s pessimism assumed that the complete recognition by itself of the Will would lead to the renunciation of life altogether as futile, worthless, and evil.

We have seen now how the old problem formulated by the ancient Greeks of the One and the Many, the abiding thought-form of the Intellect, and the infinite flux of the particulars of Sense, remained still a problem for the thinkers of the great German philosophical movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and received diverse solutions at their hands. The point of view from which the problem is treated is, however, not the same. For Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and the ancients generally, hypostatised these elements or aspects of reality, that is, they treated them as, in themselves, independent realities. Plato’s ideas were reals in themselves. Aristotle, also, although aware of the fallacy in Plato’s doctrine, and in spite of marvellous insights at times, did not consistently maintain his grasp of the wider point of view reached in modern times by the German classical philosophy. This wider point of view consists in regarding the whole problem of metaphysic as having its root in Consciousness. All that is, it was recognised by Kant and his successors, is but in and for consciousness, of which self-consciousness is the apex. There are no substances and attributes existing in vacuo, but only as modifications of consciousness, possible or actual. This point of view the ancients never succeeded in reaching, with the exception, perhaps, of Aristotle, and even he, as stated, failed to retain it, and slid back into what may be termed the old abstract-metaphysical attitude proper to his time. Since Kant, it is impossible for any serious thinker to philosophise on the lines of the older metaphysics, whatever material he may draw from them. The new standpoint has to be reckoned with by everyone who aspires to be a metaphysician.

Leaving out, for the sake of brevity, all that is intermediate, we will now turn to the consideration of the position of philosophy as regards this its main problem, in the present day, more especially in this country. This still turns mainly on the relation of the Alogical to the Logical, of the flux of sense-particulars (the matter of sense) to the abiding concepts which give it meaning (the pure forms of thought). Therewith is connected the problem of the relation of the indeterminate, the Potential, to the determinate, the Actual, both alike being elements of the real world in time.

The problem is to find a formula of explanation satisfactory to reflective thought, employing the self-consistency of Consciousness as a test, which shall explain the meaning of Reality, or, which is the same thing, of Experience. We, as individual minds, are born into a common experience, “consciousness-in-general,” as Kant termed it. The task of philosophy as metaphysic is to re-read this Experience, to analyse it, and to restate it in the terms of reflective thought.

There are two main currents in the metaphysic of the present day: (1) there is the old Hegelian Pallogism for which Thought is the ultimate principle of Reality, all Reality being in the last resort the interweaving of thought-forms – concepts or categories. The sense-element in the Real is but Thought in its lowest and barest expression, from which we can trace it upwards till we arrive at Thought in its fullest, conceived as the Absolute and immanent Reason of the world-order. The modern work in which this point of view receives its best literary expression, is Lord Haldane’s Pathway of Reality. The old Hegelian principle is subjected here to an admirable recasting in modern English literary form.

(2) This pan-logical standpoint, or Intellectualism, as it is now the fashion to call it, in its various manifestations, is confronted by its opposite, the alogical standpoint. While we can confidently recommend Lord Haldane’s book as the best all-round English exposition in modern terms of the Hegelian Logism, it is difficult to fix upon any one statement of Alogism, understanding by this the doctrine of those who regard the alogical principle of the world, Will-energy, the eternal flux of the content of time, the particulars of sense, in a word, the alogical in Reality, as the ultimate rather than the logical – it is difficult, I say, to name any single book or presentation of this point of view – as representative, notwithstanding that it may be regarded as the growing theory in modern philosophy. [2]

There is a movement very popular in Oxford of recent years, which calls itself Pragmatism, that would identify reality and truth with the serviceable, with that which most adequately subserves a given dominant purpose. This, it will be seen, is little more than a present-day adaptation of the doctrine of Schopenhauer, in which Reality or Experience, with its logical forms, is simply the expression of the means by which the infinite Will-to-live manifests itself. In the newer form of the doctrine the consistency of the older statement of it seems wanting. It is, indeed, somewhat difficult to arrive at any positive or constructive doctrine from a perusal of the works of the late Professor James, of Harvard, or of Mr Schiller, of Oxford, who may be regarded as the two leading exponents of “Pragmatism.” Whether their followers will make headway, or remain the small academic sect they are at present, remains to be seen.

Another recent exponent of the Alogical as the ultimate principle of real existence is M. Henri Bergson, who, in his work, L’Evolution Créatrice, seeks to show that the logical forms in which Reality clothes itself for the perceiving consciousness, and still more for the reflective consciousness, are secondary makeshifts, hiding rather than revealing the true nature of the Real. The inner meaning of Conscious Reality, of Life and evolution, cannot be expressed in any logical formula. It is beyond logic, the thought-categories under which reality is fixed for us, are but its mask. For Bergson, therefore, the logical, the conceptual side of things, is something unessential to their real nature, which is to be looked for in the infinite and indivisible flux of sensible particulars in time rather than in the universal concepts which seem to give them their meaning and without which they would appear to have no reality in any comprehensible sense.

Bergson’s doctrine has attracted considerable attention in this country lately, and we have taken him as a typical illustration of a direction of modern philosophic development; but his doctrine, like others that occupy the same general stand-point, seems open to the objection that it ignores the thought-element that obtains in the barest sense-perception that can enter into Consciousness at all, as object, i.e. as reality. The moment we fix a given perception as this object, we can distinguish in it the thought-category, otherwise, we could not distinguish it as object at all. It would seem surely as impossible to construct Reality out of a mere alogical flux of time-content as it is to construct it out of a mere bundle of logical forms (as the orthodox Hegelian would do). This has been pointed out by the present writer, in The Roots of Reality, in which justice is sought to be done to both of these antagonistic positions. The point of view taken is that in the possibility of Consciousness as such, both the Logical and the Alogical alike have their roots and constitute the two elements in all Reality – but that taken per se either falls short of Reality, inasmuch as it is an abstract element merely, and not real, i.e. is not an independent whole, which only obtains in the inseparable unity of these two elements. The alogical and the logical are indicated as the lowest or most abstract terms into which Reality, i.e. consciousness as a systematic whole, can be analysed. To these two factors every content of consciousness may be reduced. Every real has a universal (logical) and a particular (alogical) side. The one cannot be deduced from the other or merged into the other. The thinker who would deduce the logical from the alogical side of given Reality is on this view equally at fault with the thinker who would regard the alogical, as is the case with Hegel, as no more than a low stage of the logical. That out of which both alike emerge, if I may use a metaphor, is the principle of Consciousness. In the unity of Consciousness alone have they subsistence and significance. For this view the world is not mere Reason (logic), neither is it mere spontaneous Flux.

In the foregoing very brief sketch it has been impossible to do much more than trace in the barest outline the historic evolution of one of the main problems of philosophic thought. I have been unable to follow even this out into some of its leading bearings – e.g. as exhibited in that antithesis of Will and Intellect which has played such an important part in the speculative thought of the last two or three generations. In the present essay I have had to content myself with indicating the historic development of the antithesis of the One and the Many, the Universal and the Particular, in its more immediate form as problem. Again, the desire for conciseness has induced me for the most part to omit calling attention to parallels Otherwise, I might have shown the close analogy in many respects traceable between the present Oxford movement of “Pragmatism” and the mid-nineteenth century philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, or the century-end thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, and many similar correspondences.

It may be remarked in conclusion, that the task of modern philosophy is not merely to discover entirely new problems or even entirely new solutions of old problems – Aristotle in the ancient world, for that matter, left few problems and few possible solutions entirely untouched – but rather to open out new aspects of old problems, and new formulations of solutions of those problems which in a cruder form may be by no means unfamiliar to the student of the history of philosophic thought.

The original thinker shows himself mainly in the adaptation to the modern outlook and the recasting, in the light of modern knowledge, of problems, and attempted solutions of those problems, which in other guises have presented themselves in, it may be, various periods of history.

The aim of philosophy is to formulate the conditions and the meaning of Reality in the terms of reflective thought, in a systematic guise that must prove satisfactory to the mind when adequately grasped. As yet, only a very few of the foremost thinkers of the world’s history have succeeded in even approaching this ideal. Completely actualised it has never been as yet. The history of philosophy shows us the varying fortunes of the quest for the foregoing ideal in the evolution of reflective thought. But given the accomplishment of this task of philosophy, given the formulation of a completely satisfactory system of explanation of Reality, would speculative thought necessarily become stationary and cease to have a development? By no means. Such a system could, at best, only be completely satisfactory to the age in which it was formulated. Sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, though the main positions might remain unshaken, the form in which they were expressed would cease to appeal to the new age new facets of the old truths would have to be recognised and emphasised – while their applications and the details of their working-out in the original statement would necessarily become belated by the progress of knowledge, and hence require indefinite modification as time went on. Hence the problems of life and destiny – first and foremost the central one as to the meaning of our Experience, the significance of what we term Reality – even though the general lines of their solution were acknowledged once for all, must inevitably continue to occupy their place in the progressive intellectual life of mankind.



1. By this is, of course, not meant matter in the sense of physical substance, which latter is already partly informed by the universalising reason, but matter in the special philosophical or Aristotelian sense as the formless substratum of real existence.

2. Since the above was written M. Bergson’s L’Evolution Créatrice may fairly be deemed to have conquered for itself this position.


Last updated on 15.10.2004