Studies in the Hegelian Dialectic. John McTaggart & Ellis McTaggart 1896
140. ONE of the most interesting and important questions which can arise in connexion with Hegel’s philosophy is the question of the relation between the succession of the categories in the dialectic and the succession of events in time. Are we to regard the complex and concrete Absolute Idea, in which alone true reality is to be found, as gradually growing up in time by the evolution of one category after another? Or are we to regard the Absolute Idea as existing eternally in its full completeness, and the succession of events in time as something which has no part as such in any ultimate system of the universe?
The succession of categories in Hegel’s Logic is, of course, not primarily a temporal succession. We pass from one to another because the admission of the first as valid requires logically the admission of the second as valid. At the same time there are various reasons for accepting the view that one category succeeds another in time. One of the facts of the universe which requires explanation is the existence of time, and it seems at first sight a simple and satisfactory explanation to account for it by the gradual development of the Notion from Pure Being to the Absolute Idea. And Hegel certainly explains the past to some extent by bringing the successive events under successive categories.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that such a view is incompatible with the system. There are doubtless difficulties in either interpretation of Hegel’s meaning, but there seems no doubt that we must reject the development of the process in time. In the first place, the theory that time is an ultimate reality would lead to insoluble difficulties as to the commencement of the process. Secondly, the Absolute Idea must be held to be the presupposition and the logical prius of the lower categories. It follows that a theory which makes the appearance of the lower category the presupposition of the appearance of the higher one, cannot fully represent the ultimate reality of the process. And, finally, Hegel’s language seems to be decisively on the side of the interpretation that the Absolute Idea exists eternally in its full perfection, and the movement from the lower to the higher is reconstruction and not construction.
141. Let us consider the first of these points. Hegel, of course, maintains that the universe is fully rational. Can we regard as fully rational a universe in which a process in time is fundamentally real? The theory before us maintains that the universe starts with a minimum of reality, corresponding only to the category of Pure Being. From this point it develops by the force of the dialectic. Gradually each of the higher categories becomes real, and this gradual evolution of logical completeness makes the process which constitutes the life of the universe. All the facts around us are to be attributed to the gradually developing idea, and when the development is complete, and reality has become an incarnation of the Absolute Idea, then the process will end in perfection. The spiritual character of the universe, up till then explicit and partial, will have become complete and explicit. The real will be completely rational, and the rational will be completely real.
On this we must remark, in the first place, that the process in time by which the dialectic develops itself must be regarded as finite and not as infinite. Neither in experience nor in à priori criticism can we find any reason to believe that infinite time really exists, or is anything more than an illegitimate inference from the infinite extensibility of time. Nor, if it did exist, could it form part of an ultimate rational explanation of the universe. An unending regress, whether it is true or not, is certainly not a solution which meets the demands of reason. More especially is it impossible that it should be accepted as part of an Hegelian theory. For infinite time would be the strongest possible example of the “false infinite” of endless aggregation, which Hegel invariably condemns as a mere mockery of explanation.
And, independently of this, it is clear that an infinite series in time would not be an embodiment of the dialectic. For the dialectic is most emphatically a process with a beginning and an end, and any series which embodies it must have a beginning and an end also. If the dialectic has any truth, there can be no steps before Pure Being, nor any steps after the Absolute Idea. As the number of steps is finite, either the time taken by each of them is infinite, – and in that case there would be no process at all – or the time taken by the whole series must be finite.
We may consider, then, that any theory which imagines the dialectic to develop itself in time at all, will regard it as doing so in a limited time. What follows from this hypothesis?
142. The first difficulty which arises is that every event in time requires a previous event as its cause. How then shall we be able to explain the first event of the complete series? The first event, like all the others, is an event in time, that is, it had a beginning, before which it did not exist. What determined the change which brought it into existence? Whatever determined it must be itself an event in time, for if the cause had not a definite place in the time series it could not account for its effect having one. But in this case it will itself need a determining cause, which will also be an event, and we have thus lost our finite series with a definite beginning, and embarked on an infinite series, which cannot, as we have seen, be of any assistance to us in our present purpose.
On the other hand, to deny that the first term of such a series requires a determining cause is impossible. It is perhaps not impossible that our minds should form the conception of something on which other things depend, while it depends itself on nothing. But an event in time could never hold such a place. For an event in time has always before it a time when it was not, and this coming into existence deprives it of the possibility of being self- subsistent. Time, as Hegel says, is still outside itself. <Note: Enc. Section 257.> It has no principle of unity or coherence. It can only be limited by something external to it. Our finite series in time can only have the definite beginning which it requires by means of further time beyond it. To fix any point in time is to imply the existence of time upon both sides of it. And thus no event in time could be accepted as an ultimate beginning. On the other hand, some such event would have to be accepted as the ultimate beginning, if a finite series were to be accepted as an ultimate explanation.
If we apply this to the particular problem before us, we shall find that the theory that the Absolute Idea develops in time lands us in a hopeless difficulty. Let us suppose that all the phenomena of the universe have been accounted for as the manifestations of the gradually developing Idea, and let us suppose that each of these manifestations of the Idea has been shown to be the logical consequence of the existence of the previous manifestation. Then the final and ultimate fact upon which our explanation will depend will be that, at the beginning of time, the first of the categories – the category of Pure Being – manifested itself in reality. And for this fact itself an external explanation is required. No such explanation, indeed, would be required for the deduction of the universe from the idea of Pure Being. If the system is correct, the categories are so inseparably connected that the existence of one stage in the dialectic process implies the existence of all, and the existence of any reality, again, implies the existence of the categories. The category of Pure Being can thus be deduced from the fact that the universe exists, and the fact that the universe exists does not require, as it does not admit, any outside cause. But here, to account for the existence of the universe in time, we have taken as our ultimate fact the realisation of the first category at a particular time. Time is in itself quite empty and indifferent to its content. No possible reason could be given why the process should not have begun a hundred years later than it did, so that we should be at the present moment in the reign of George III. The only way of fixing an event to a particular time is by connecting it with some other event which happened in a particular time. This would lead here to an infinite regress, and, independently of this, would be impracticable. For, by the hypothesis, the dialectic development was to account for the entire universe, and there can, therefore, be no event outside it to which it can be referred in order that it can be accounted for itself. And yet the question – why it happened now and not at another time – is one which we cannot refrain from asking, since time must be regarded as infinitely extensible.
143. Various attempts have been made to evade this difficulty. It has been suggested that the temporal process has its root in a timeless state. If we ask what determined the first event, we are referred to the timeless state. If we ask what caused the latter, we are answered that it had no beginning, and consequently required no cause.
But how could a timeless reality be the cause of a succession in time? It could, no doubt, be the cause of everything else in a series of successive events, except of the fact that they did take place in time. But how are we to account for that? No reconciliation and no mediation is possible upon the hypothesis with which we are here dealing. According to some views of the question, time might be regarded as nothing but a form assumed by eternity, or time and the timeless might be regarded as forms of a higher reality. But such a view is impossible here. The theory which we are here considering had to explain the fact of a succession in the universe, and did so by making the central principle of the universe to be the realisation of the dialectic in time. The realisation in time, according to this theory, is as much part of the ultimate explanation of the universe as the dialectic itself. By making time ultimate we certainly get rid of the necessity for explaining it. But, on the other hand, we lose the possibility of treating time as a distinction which can be bridged over, or explained away, when we wish to make a connection between time and the timeless. If time is an ultimate fact, then the distinction between that which does, and that which does not, happen in time must be an ultimate distinction; and how are we to make, if this is so, a transition from the one to the other?
So far as a thing is timeless, it cannot change, for with change time comes necessarily. But how can a thing which does not change produce an effect in time? That the effect was produced in time implies that it had a beginning. And if the effect begins, while no beginning can be assigned to the cause, we are left to choose between two alternatives. Either there is something in the effect – namely, the quality of coming about as a change – which is altogether uncaused. Or the timeless reality is only a partial cause, and is determined to act by something which is not timeless. In either case, the timeless reality fails to explain the succession in time, and we are no better off than we were before. It would be equally available as an explanation if the process had begun at any point besides the one at which it actually did begin, and a cause which can remain the same while the effect varies, is obviously unsatisfactory.
144. It may be objected to this that, if the dialectic process is the ultimate truth of all change, the point in time at which it is to begin is determined by the nature of the case. For time only exists when change exists. The changeless would be the timeless. Therefore the beginning of the change must come at the beginning of time, and there can be no question why it should come at one moment rather than another.
This, however, will not remove one difficulty. Actual time, no doubt, only began with actual change. But possible time stretches back indefinitely beyond this. It is part of the essential nature of time that, beyond any given part of it, we can imagine a fresh part – that, indeed, we must do so. We cannot conceive time as coming to an end. And with this indefinite stretch of possible time the question again arises – what determined the timeless to first produce change at the point it did, and not in the previous time, which we now regard as possible only, but which would have become actual by the production of change in it? And again there is no reason why the series of actual time should not have been placed later in the series of possible time than it actually was. Actual time begins whenever change begins, and so cannot be regarded as a fixed point, by which the beginning of change can be determined. A certain amount of the dialectic process has now been realised in time. Can we give any reason why the amount should not have been greater or less? Yet, if no such reason can be given, the present state of the universe is left unaccounted for by our system.
The difficulty lies in the fact that we are compelled by the nature of time to regard the time series as indefinitely extended and to regard each member of it as, in itself, exactly like each other member. We may call that part of the series which is not occupied by actual change, possible time, but the very name implies that there is no reason why it should not have been occupied by events, as much as the actual time which really is occupied by them. And, as possible time is indefinite, it is indefinitely larger than any finite time. The question we have been discussing will then take the form – why is this particular part of the time series filled with reality rather than any other part? And since, apart from its contents, one moment of time is exactly like another, it would seem that the question is insoluble.
145. It has sometimes been attempted to ignore on general grounds all endeavours to show that development throughout a finite period in time cannot be accepted. Time, it has been said, must be either finite or infinite. If we accept the objections to taking finite time as part of our ultimate explanation, it can only be because we are bound to an infinite regress. An infinite regress involves infinite time. But infinite time is impossible – an unreal abstraction, based on the impossibility of limiting the regress in thought. Any argument which involves its real existence is thereby reduced to an absurdity. And, since the objections to finite time as part of our ultimate explanation do involve the real existence of infinite time, we may, it is asserted, safely ignore the objections and accept the principle.
The answer which we must make to this, in the first place, is that the argument might as well be reversed. If the difficulties in the way of infinite time are to be taken as a reason for ignoring all difficulties in the way of finite time, why should we not make the difficulties in the way of finite time a ground for accepting with equally implicit faith the existence of infinite time?
Nor can we escape by saying that we do know finite time to exist, and that therefore we are entitled to ignore the objections to it, while we must accept the objections to infinite time. For we have no more experience of finite time, in the sense in which the phrase is used in this argument, than we have of infinite time. What we meet in experience is a time series, extending indefinitely both before and after our immediate contact with it, out of which we can cut finite portions. But for a theory which makes the development of the Notion in time part of its ultimate formula, we require a time which is not merely limited in the sense of being cut off from other time, but in the sense of having none before it and none after it. Of this we have no more experience than we have of infinite time, and if there are difficulties in the way of both, we have no right to prefer the one to the other.
146. Since either hypothesis as to the extension of time leads us into equal difficulties, our course should surely be, not to accept either, but to reject both. Time must, we are told, be either finite or infinite. But there is a third alternative. There may be something wrong in our conception of time, or rather, to speak more precisely, there may be something which renders it unfit, in metaphysics, for the ultimate explanation of the universe, however suited it may be to the finite thought of every-day life. If we ask whether time, as a fact, is finite or infinite, we find hopeless difficulties in the way of either answer. Yet, if we take time as an ultimate reality, there seems no other alternative. Our only resource is to conclude that time is not an ultimate reality.
This is the same principle which is at work in the dialectic itself. When we find that any category, if we analyse it sufficiently, lands us, in its application to reality, in contradictions, we do not accept one contradictory proposition and reject the other. We conclude the category in question to be an inadequate way of looking at reality, and we try to find a higher conception, which will embrace all the truth of the lower one, while it will avoid the contradictions. This is what we ought, it would seem, to do with the idea of time. If it only presents us with a choice between impossibilities, we must regard it as an inadequate way of looking at the universe. And in this case we cannot accept the process in time as part of our ultimate solution.
147. We now come to the second objection to the development of the dialectic in time. That which we have just been discussing would equally perplex any other idealistic system which should adopt a time process as an original element. The new difficulty belongs specially to the dialectic. It appears, as we have seem, <Note: Chap. I. Section 6.> to be essential to the possibility of a dialectic process that the highest term, in which the process ends, should be taken as the presupposition of all the lower terms. The passage from category to category must not be taken as an actual advance, producing that which did not previously exist, but as an advance from an abstraction to the concrete whole from which the abstraction was made – demonstrating and rendering explicit what was before only implicit and immediately given, but still only reconstructing, and not constructing anything fresh.
This view of Hegel’s system becomes inevitable when we consider, on the one hand, that his conclusion is that all that is real is rational, and, on the other hand, that his method consists in proving that each of the lower steps of the dialectic, taken by itself, is not rational. We cannot then ascribe reality to any of these steps, except in so far as they lose their independence and become moments of the Absolute Idea.
We are compelled, according to Hegel, to pass from each thesis and antithesis to their synthesis, by discovering that the thesis and antithesis, while incompatible with one another, nevertheless involve one another. This produces a contradiction, and this contradiction can only be removed by finding a term which reconciles and transcends them.
Now if we suppose that the dialectic process came into existence gradually in time, we must suppose that all the contradictions existed at one time or another independently, and before reconciliation, i.e., as contradictions. Indeed, as the time process is still going on, all the reality round us at the present day must consist of unreconciled contradictions.
Such an assertion, however, would, it is clear, be absolutely untenable. To say that the world consists of reconciled contradictions would produce no difficulty, for it means nothing more than that it consists of things which only appear contradictory when not thoroughly understood. But to say that a contradiction can exist as such would plunge us in utter confusion. All reasoning, and Hegel’s as much as anybody else’s, involves that two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. It would be useless to reason, if, when you had demonstrated your conclusion, it was as true to assert the opposite of that conclusion. And, again, if contradictory propositions could both be true, the special line of argument which Hegel follows would have lost all its force. We are enabled to pass on from the thesis and antithesis to the synthesis just because a contradiction cannot be true, and the synthesis is the only way out of it. But if contradictions are true, there is no necessity to find a way out of it, and the advance of the dialectic is no longer valid. If the contradictions exist at all, there seems no reason that they should not continue to do so. We should not be able to avoid this by saying that they are real, but that their imperfection made them transitory. For the dialectic process, even if we suppose it to take place in time, is not a mere succession in time, but essentially a logical process. Each step has to be proved to follow from those before it by the nature of the latter. It is clear that it would be impossible, by consideration of the nature of a logical category, to deduce the conclusion that for some time it could exist independently, but that, after that, its imperfection would drive it on to another stage.
148. It is, too, only on the supposition that reality always corresponds to the Absolute Idea, and is not merely approximating to it, that we can meet another difficulty which is propounded by Trendelenburg. Either, he says, the conclusion of the whole process can be obtained by analysis of the original premise, or it cannot. The original premise of the whole process is nothing but the validity of the idea of Pure Being. If the whole conclusion can be got out of this, we learn nothing new, and the whole dialectic process is futile. If, on the other hand, we introduce anything not obtained from our original premise, we fail in our object – which was to prove that the whole system followed, when that premise was admitted.
We considered this difficulty above, <Note: Chap. II. Section 32.> and came to the conclusion that the answer was contained in Mr Bradley’s statement of the true nature of dialectic. The passage in which he dealt with the matter was, it will be remembered, as follows, “An idea prevails that the Dialectic Method is a sort of experiment with conceptions in vacuo. We are supposed to have nothing but one single isolated abstract idea, and this solitary monad then proceeds to multiply by gemmation from or by fission of its private substance, or by fetching matter from the impalpable void. But this is a mere caricature, and it comes from confusion between that which the mind has got before it and that which it has within itself. Before the mind there is a single conception, but the whole mind itself, which does not appear, engages in the process, operates on the datum, and produces the result. The opposition between the real, in that fragmentary character in which the mind possesses it, and the true reality felt within the mind, is the moving cause of that unrest which sets up the dialectical process.” And again: “The whole, which is both sides of this process, rejects the claim of a one-sided datum, and supplements it by that other and opposite side which really is implied – so begetting by negation a balanced unity. This path once entered on, the process starts afresh with the whole just reached. But this also is seen to be the one- sided expression of a higher synthesis; and it gives birth to an opposite which co-unites with it into a second whole, a whole which in its turn is degraded into a fragment of truth. So the process goes on till the mind, therein implicit, finds a product which answers its unconscious idea; and here, having become in its own entirety a datum to itself, it rests in the activity which is self-conscious in its object.” <Note: Logic; Book III. Part I. Chap. II. Sections 20 and 21.>
If we hold, according to this view, that the dialectic process depends on the relation between the concrete whole and the part of it which has so far become explicit, it is clear that we cannot regard the concrete whole as produced out of the incomplete and lower category by means of the dialectic process, since the process cannot possibly produce its own presupposition.
149. And finally Hegel’s own language appears to be clearly incompatible with the theory that the dialectic is gradually evolved in time. It is true that, in the Philosophy of Religion, the Philosophy of History, and the History of Philosophy, he explains various successions of events in time as manifestations of the dialectic. But this proves nothing as to the fundamental nature of the connection of time with the universe. The dialectic is the key to all reality, and, therefore, whenever we do view reality under the aspect of time, the different categories will appear as manifesting themselves as a process in time. But this has no bearing on the question before us – whether they first came into being in time, or whether they have a timeless and eternally complete existence.
Even in this part of his work, too, Hegel’s adherence to the eternal nature of the dialectic becomes evident in a manner all the more significant, because it is logically unjustifiable. In several places he seems on the point of saying that all dissatisfaction with the existing state of the universe, and all efforts to reform it, are futile and vain, since reason is already and always the sole reality. This conclusion cannot be fairly drawn from the eternity of the dialectic process. For if we are entitled to hold the universe perfect, the same arguments lead us to consider it also timeless and changeless. Imperfection and progress, then, may claim to share whatever reality is to be allowed to time and change, and no conclusion can be drawn, such as Hegel appears at times to suggest, against attempting to make the future an improvement on the past. Neither future and past, nor better and worse, can be really adequate judgments of a timeless and perfect universe, but in the sense in which there is a future it may be an improvement on the past. But the very fact that Hegel has gone too far in his application of the idea that reality is timeless, makes it more clear that he did hold that idea.
There are not, I believe, any expressions in the Logic which can be fairly taken as suggesting the development of the dialectic in time. It is true that two successive categories are named Life and Cognition, and that science informs us that life existed in this world before cognition. But the names of the categories must be taken as those of the facts in which the idea in question shows itself most clearly, and not as indicating the only form in which the idea can show itself at all. Otherwise we should be led to the impossible result that Notions, Judgments, and Syllogisms existed before Cognition.
A strong assertion of the eternal nature of the process is to be found in the Doctrine of the Notion. “Die Vollführung des unendlichen Zwecks ist so nur die Täuschung aufzuheben, als ob er noch nicht vollführt sey. Das Gute, das absolute Gute, vollbringt sich ewig in der Welt und das Resultat ist, class es schon an und für sich vollbracht ist und nicht erst auf uns zu warten braucht.” <Note: Enc. Section 212, lecture note.>
Another important piece of evidence is his treatment of his own maxim: “All that is real is rational.” To the objections to this he replies by saying that reality does not mean the surface of things, but something deeper behind them. Besides this he admits occasionally, though apparently not always, that contingency has rights within a sphere of its own, where reason cannot demand that everything should be explained. But he never tries to meet the attacks made on his principle by drawing a distinction between the irrational reality of the present and the rational reality of the future. Such a distinction would be so natural and obvious, and would, for those who could consistently make use of it, so completely remove the charge of a false optimism about the present, that we can scarcely doubt that Hegel’s neglect of it was due to the fact that he saw it to be incompatible with his principles. Hegel’s treatment of time, moreover, confirms this view. For he considers it merely as a stage in the Philosophy of Nature, which is only an application of the Logic. Now if the realisation of the categories of the Logic only took place in time, time would be an element in the universe correlative with those categories, and of equal importance with them. Both would be primary elements in a concrete whole. Neither could be looked on as an application of, or deduction from, the other. But the treatment of time as merely one of the phenomena which result from the realisation of the Logic, is incompatible with such a theory as this, and we may fairly conclude that time had not for Hegel this ultimate importance.
150. We have thus arrived at the conclusion that the dialectic is not for Hegel a process in time, but that the Absolute Idea must be looked on as eternally realised. We are very far, however, from having got rid of our difficulties. It looks, indeed, as if we were brought, at this point, to a reductio ad absurdum. For if the other theory was incompatible with Hegel, this seems to be incompatible with the facts.
The dialectic process is one from incomplete to complete rationality. If it is eternally fulfilled, then the universe must be completely rational. Now, in the first place, it is certain that the universe is not completely rational for us. We are not able to see everything round us as a manifestation of the Absolute Idea. Even those students of philosophy who believe on general grounds that the Absolute Idea must be manifested in everything are as unable as the rest of us to see how it is manifested in a table or a thunder-storm. We can only explain these things – at present, at any rate – by much lower categories, and we cannot, therefore, explain them completely. Nor are we by any means able, at present, to eliminate completely the contingency of the data of sense, which are an essential element in reality, and a universe which contains an ultimately contingent element cannot be held to be completely rational. It would seem, too, that if we are perfectly rational in a perfectly rational universe, there must always be a complete harmony between our desires and our environment. And this is not invariably the case.
But if the universe appears to us not to be perfect, can it be so in reality? Does not the very failure to perceive the perfection destroy it? In the first place, the Absolute Idea, as defined by Hegel, <Note: Enc. Section 236.> is one of self-conscious rationality – the Idea to which the Idea itself is “Gegenstand” and “Objekt.” If any part of reality sees anything, except the Absolute Idea, anywhere in reality, this ideal can scarcely be said to have been fulfilled.
And, more generally, if the universe appears to us to be only imperfectly rational, we must be either right or wrong. If we are right, the world is not perfectly rational. But if we are wrong, then it is difficult to see how we can be perfectly rational. And we are part of the world. Thus it would seem that the very opinion that the world is imperfect must, in one way or another, prove its own truth.
151. If this is correct, we seem to be confronted with a difficulty as hopeless as those which encountered us when we supposed the dialectic to develop itself in time. These, we saw, were due to our hypothesis being found incompatible with the system, while our present view appears untenable because, though a logical development from the system, it is incompatible with the facts. The result with regard to the first is that we come to the conclusion that the development in time cannot be part of Hegel’s philosophy. The result of the second would at first sight seem to be that Hegel’s philosophy must be abandoned, since it leads to such untenable conclusions.
We rejected the hypothesis of the development of the Absolute Idea in time upon two grounds. The first was that we had to choose between a false infinite and an uncaused beginning. Each of these hypotheses left something unexplained and contingent, and was consequently incompatible with a system which demanded above all things that the universe should be completely rationalised, and which believed itself to have accomplished its aim. Our second objection was due to the fact that the development of the dialectic at all, upon Hegel’s principles, presupposed the existence of its goal, which could not therefore be supposed to be reached for the first time by the process. But our difficulty now is not at all incompatible with the system. It is one which must arise from it, and which must, in some form or another, arise in any system of complete idealism. Every such system must declare that the world is fundamentally rational and righteous throughout, and every such system will be met by the same difficulty. How, if all reality is rational and righteous, are we to explain the irrationality and unrighteousness which are notoriously part of our every-day life? We must now consider the various attempts which have been made to answer this question.
152. Hegel’s answer has been indicated in the passage quoted above. <Note: Enc. Section 212, lecture note.> The infinite end is really accomplished eternally. It is only a delusion on our part which makes us suppose otherwise. And the only real progress is the removal of the delusion. The universe is eternally the same, and eternally perfect. The movement is only in our minds. They trace one after another in succession the different categories of the Logic, which in reality have no time order, but continually co-exist as elements of the Absolute Idea which transcends and unites them.
This solution can, however, scarcely be accepted, for the reasons given above. How can we account for the delusion that the world is partially irrational, if, as a matter of fact, it is completely rational? How, in particular, can we regard such a delusion as compatible with our own complete rationality?
To this it may be possibly objected that our argument is based on a confusion. That a thought is a delusion need not imply that it, or the being who thinks it, is irrational. Everything which, like a thought, is used as a symbol, can be viewed in two aspects – firstly as a fact, and secondly as representing, as a symbol, some other fact. In the first aspect we say that it is real or unreal; in the second that it is true or false. These two pairs of predicates have no intrinsic connection. A false judgment is just as really a fact as a true one.
Now the conclusion from the Hegelian dialectic was that whatever was real was rational. We are, therefore, compelled to assert that every thought, and every thinking being, is completely rational – can be explained in a way which gives entire rest and satisfaction to reason. But, it may be said, this is not in the least interfered with by the fact that many real thoughts are defective symbols of the other reality which they profess to represent. The false can be, and, indeed, must be, real, for a thought cannot misrepresent reality unless it is itself real. Till it is real it can do nothing. And if the false can be real, why can it not be rational? Indeed we often, in every-day life and in science, do find the false to be more or less rational. It is as possible to account, psychologically, for the course of thought which brings out an erroneous conclusion as for the course of thought which brings out a correct one. We can explain our failures to arrive at the truth as well as our successes. It would seem then that there is nothing to prevent ourselves and our thoughts being part of a completely rational universe, although our thoughts are in some respects incorrect symbols.
153. But it must be remembered that the rationality which Hegel requires of the universe is much more than complete determination under the category of cause and effect – a category which the dialectic maintains to be quite insufficient, unless transcended by a higher one. He requires, among other things, the validity of the idea of final cause. And if this is brought in, it is difficult to see how delusions can exist in a rational world. For a delusion involves a thwarted purpose. If a man makes a mistake, it means that he wishes to know the truth, and that he does not know it. Whether this is the case or not, with regard to simple perception of the facts before us, it cannot be denied that wherever there is a long chain of argument, to which the mind is voluntarily kept attentive, there must be a desire to know the truth. And if this desire is unsuccessful, the universe could not be, in Hegel’s sense, completely rational.
This becomes more evident if we look at Hegel’s definition of complete rationality, as we find it in the Absolute Idea. The essence of it is that reality is only completely rational in so far as it is conscious of its own rationality. The idea is to be “Gegenstand” and “Objekt” to itself. If this is the case, it follows that the rationality of Spirit, as an existent object, depends upon its being a faithful symbol of the rationality expressed in other manifestations of Spirit. The delusion by which Hegel explains all imperfection will of course prevent its being a faithful symbol of that rationality, and will therefore destroy the rationality itself. In so far as we do not see the perfection of the universe, we are not perfect ourselves. And as we are part of the universe, that too cannot be perfect. And yet its perfection appears to be a necessary consequence of Hegel’s position.
154. Hegel’s attempt to make the imperfection which is evident round us compatible with the perfection of the universe must, then, be rejected. Can we find any other solution which would be more successful? One such solution suggests itself. It was the denial of the ultimate reality of time which caused our difficulty, since it forced us to assert that the perfect rationality, which idealism claims for the universe, cannot be postponed to the future, but must be timelessly and eternally present. Can the denial of the reality of time be made to cure the wound, which it has itself made? Would it not be possible, it might be said, to escape from our dilemma as follows? The dialectic itself teaches us that it is only the concrete whole which is completely rational, and that any abstraction from it, by the very fact that it is an abstraction, must be to some extent false and contradictory. An attempt to take reality moment by moment, element by element, must make reality appear imperfect. The complete rationality is only in the whole which transcends all these elements, and any one of them, considered as more or less independent, must be false. Now, if we look at the universe as in time, it will appear to be a succession of separate events, so that only part of it is existing at any given instant, the rest being either past or future. Each of these events will be represented as real in itself, and not merely a moment in a real whole. And in so far as events in time are taken to be, as such, real, it must follow that reality does not appear rational. If an organic whole is perfect, then any one of its parts, taken separately from the whole, cannot possibly be perfect. For in such a whole all the parts presuppose one another, and any one, taken by itself, must bear the traces of its isolation and incompleteness. Now the connection of the different parts of the universe, viewed in their ultimate reality, is, according to the dialectic, even closer than the connection of the parts of an organism. And thus not only each event, but the whole universe taken as a series of separate events, would appear imperfect. Even if such a series could ever be complete, it could not fully represent the reality, since the parts would still, by their existence in time, be isolated from one another, and claim some amount of independence. Thus the apparent imperfection of the universe would be due to the fact that we are regarding it sub specie temporis – an aspect which we have seen reason to conclude that Hegel himself did not regard as adequate to reality. If we could only see it sub specie aeternitatis, we should see it in its real perfection.
155. It is true, I think, that in this way we get a step nearer to the goal required than we do by Hegel’s own theory, which we previously considered. Our task is to find, for the apparent imperfection, some cause whose existence will not interfere with the real perfection. We shall clearly be more likely to succeed in this, in proportion as the cause we assign is a purely negative one. The appearance of imperfection was accounted for by Hegel as a delusion of our own minds. Now a delusion is as much a positive fact as a true judgment is, and requires just as much a positive cause. And, as we have seen, we are unable to conceive this positive cause, except as something which will prevent the appearance from being a delusion at all, since it will make the universe really imperfect. On the theory just propounded, however, the cause of the imperfection is nothing but the fact that we do not see everything at once. Seen as we see things now, reality must be imperfect. But if we can attain to the point of looking at the whole universe sub specie aeternitatis, we shall see just the same subject-matter as in time; but it will appear perfect, because seen as a single concrete whole, and not as a succession of separated abstractions. The only cause of the apparent imperfection will be the negative consideration that we do not now see the whole at once.
156. This theory would be free from some of the objections which are fatal to a rather similar apology for the universe which is often found in systems of optimism. It is admitted in such apologies that, from the point of view of individuals, the world is imperfect and irrational. But, it is asserted, these blemishes would disappear if we could look at the world as a whole. The part which, taken by itself, is defective, may we are told, be an element in a perfect harmony. Such a theory, since it declares that the universe can be really perfect, although imperfect for individuals, implies that some individuals, at any rate, can be treated merely as means, and not as ends in themselves. Without enquiring whether such a view is at all tenable, it is at any rate clear that it is incompatible with what is usually called optimism, since it would permit of many – indeed of all – individuals being doomed to eternal and infinite misery. We might be led to the formula in which Mr Bradley sums up optimism: – “The world is the best of all possible worlds, and everything in it is a necessary evil.” <Note: Appearance and Reality, Preface, p. xiv.> For if the universal harmony can make any evil to individuals compatible with its own purposes, there is no principle upon which we can limit the amount which it can tolerate. It is more to our present purpose to remark that such a view could not possibly be accepted as in any way consistent with Hegel’s system. It would be in direct opposition to its whole tendency, which is to regard the universal as only gaining reality and validity when, by its union with the particular, it becomes the individual. For Hegel the ideal must lie, not in ignoring the claims of individuals, but in seeing in them the embodiment of the universal.
Mr Bradley’s own treatment of the problem is, as far as I can see, of a rather similar type. He has to reconcile the harmony which he attributes to the Absolute, with the disharmony which undoubtedly prevails, to some extent, in experience. This he does by taking the finite individual to be, as such, only appearance and not reality, from which it follows that it must distort the harmony of the Absolute, and cannot adequately manifest it. It may be doubted whether we do not fall into more difficulties than we avoid by this low estimate of the conscious individual. But, at any rate, such a solution would be impracticable for anyone who accepted Hegel’s version of the Absolute Idea, to which the individual is the highest form that the universal can take. Some of the objections which apply to such attempts to save the perfection of the Absolute by ignoring the claims of individuals will not hold against our endeavour to escape from our difficulty by ignoring, so to speak, the claims of particular moments of time. None of those considerations which make us consider each separate person as an ultimate reality, whose claims to self-realisation must be satisfied and cannot be transcended, lead us to attribute the same importance to separate periods of time. Indeed the whole drift of Hegel’s system is as much against the ultimate reality of a succession of phenomena, as such, as it is in favour of the ultimate reality of individual persons, as such. To deny any reality in what now presents itself to us as a time-series would indeed be suicidal. For we have no data given us for our thought, except in the form of a time-series, and to destroy our data would be to destroy the super-structure. But while philosophy could not start if it did not accept its data, it could not proceed if it did not alter them. There is then nothing obviously impossible in the supposition that the whole appearance of succession in our experience is, as such, unreal, and that reality is one timeless whole, in which all that appears successive is really co-existent, as the houses are co-existent which we see successively from the windows of a train.
157. It cannot, however, be said that this view is held by Hegel himself. In the Philosophy of Nature he treats time as a stage in the development of nature, and not as a cause why there is any appearance of successive development at all. Indeed he says there that things are not finite because they are in time, but are in time because they are finite. <Note: Enc. Section 258, lecture note.> It would be thus impossible, without departing from Hegel, to make time the cause of the apparent imperfection of the universe.
Everything else in the Hegelian philosophy may indeed be considered as of subordinate importance to the Dialectic, and to its goal, the Absolute Idea. If it were necessary, we might, to save the validity of the Dialectic, reject Hegel’s views even on a subject so important as time, and yet call ourselves Hegelians. But we should not gain much by this reconstruction of the system. For it leaves the problem no more solved than it was before. The difficulty which proved fatal to Hegel’s own attempt to explain the imperfection comes back as surely as before, though it may not be quite so obvious. However much we may treat time as mere appearance, it must, like all other appearance, have reality behind it. The reality, it may be answered, is in this case the timeless Absolute. But this reality will have to account, not merely for the facts which appear to us in time, but for the appearance of succession which they do undoubtedly assume. How can this be done? What reason can be given why the eternal reality should manifest itself in a time process at all? If we tried to find the reason outside the nature of the eternal reality, we should be admitting that time had some independent validity, and we should fall back into all the difficulties mentioned in the earlier part of this chapter. But if we try to find the reason inside the nature of the eternal reality, we shall find it to be incompatible with the complete rationality which, according to Hegel’s theory, that reality must possess. For the process in time is, by the hypothesis, the root of all irrationality, and how can it spring from anything which is quite free of irrationality? Why should a concrete and perfect whole proceed to make itself imperfect, for the sake of gradually getting rid of the imperfection again? If it gained nothing by the change, could it be completely rational to undergo it? But if it had anything to gain by the change, how could it previously have been perfect?
158. We have thus failed again to solve the difficulty. However much we may endeavour to make the imperfection of the universe merely negative, it is impossible to escape from the fact that, as an element in presentation, it requires a positive ground. If we denied this, we should be forced into the position that not only was our experience of imperfection a delusion, but that it was actually non-existent. And this, as was mentioned above, is an impossibility. All reasoning depends on the fact that every appearance has a reality of which it is the appearance. Without this we could have no possible basis upon which to rest any conclusion.
Yet, on the other hand, so long as we admit a positive ground for the imperfection, we find ourselves to be inconsistent with the original position from which we started. For that position asserted that the sole reality was absolutely perfect. On this hangs the appearance of imperfection, and to this real perfection as cause we have to ascribe apparent imperfection as effect. Now it is not impossible, under certain circumstances, to imagine a cause as driven on, by a dialectic necessity, to produce an effect different from itself. But in this case it does seem impossible. For any self-determination of a cause to produce its effect must be due to some incompleteness in the former without the latter. But if the cause, by itself, was incomplete, it could not, by itself, be perfect. If, on the other hand, it was perfect, it is impossible to see how it could produce anything else as an effect. Its perfection makes it in complete harmony with itself. And, since it is all reality, there is nothing outside it with which it could be out of harmony. What could determine it to production?
Thus we oscillate between two extremes, each equally fatal. If we endeavour to treat evil as absolutely unreal, we have to reject the one basis of all knowledge – experience. But in so far as we accept evil as a manifestation of reality, we find it impossible to avoid qualifying the cause by the nature of the effect which it produces, and so contradicting the main result of the dialectic – the harmony and perfection of the Absolute.
159. We need not, after all, be surprised at the apparently insoluble problem which confronts us. For the question has developed into the old difficulty of the origin of evil, which has always baffled both theologians and philosophers. An idealism which declares that the universe is in reality perfect, can find, as most forms of popular idealism do, an escape from the difficulties of the existence of evil, by declaring that the world is as yet only growing towards its ideal perfection. But this refuge disappears with the reality of time, and we are left with an awkward difference between what our philosophy tells us must be, and what our life tells us actually is.
The aim of the dialectic was to prove that all reality was completely rational. And Hegel’s arguments led him to the conclusion that the universe as a whole could not be rational, except in so far as each of its parts found its own self-realisation. It followed that the universe, if harmonious on the theoretical side, would be harmonious also in a practical aspect – that is, would be in every respect perfect. This produces a dilemma. Either the evil round us is real, or it is not. If it is real, then reality is not perfectly rational. But if it is absolutely unreal, then all our finite experience – and we know of no other – must have an element in it which is absolutely irrational, and which, however much we may pronounce it to be unreal, has a disagreeably powerful influence in moulding the events of our present life. Nor can we even hope that this element is transitory, and comfort ourselves, in orthodox fashion, with the hope of a heaven in which the evil shall have died away, while the good remains. For we cannot assure ourselves of such a result by any empirical arguments from particular data, which would be hopelessly inadequate to support such a conclusion. The only chance would be an à priori argument founded on the essential rationality of the universe, which might be held to render the imperfection transitory. But we should have no right to use such an argument. To escape the difficulties involved in the present coexistence of rationality and irrationality, we have reduced the latter to such complete unreality that it is not incompatible with the former. But this cuts both ways. If the irrationality cannot interfere with the rationality so as to render their present coexistence impossible, there can be no reason why their future coexistence should ever become impossible. If the irrational is absolutely unreal now, it can never become less real in the future. Thus our ascription of complete rationality to the universe leads us to a belief that one factor in experience, as it presents itself to us, is fundamentally and permanently irrational – a somewhat singular conclusion from such a premise.
To put the difficulty from a more practical point of view, either the imperfection in experience leaves a stain on the perfection of the Absolute, or it does not. If it does, there is no absolute perfection, and we have no right to expect that the imperfection around us is a delusion or a transitory phase. But if it does not, then there is no reason why the perfection should ever feel intolerant of it, and again we have no right to hope for its disappearance. The whole practical interest of philosophy is thus completely overthrown. It asserts an abstract perfection beyond experience, but that is all. Such a perfection might almost as well be a Thing-in-itself, since it is unable to explain any single fact of experience without the aid of another factor, which it may call unreal, but which it finds indispensable. It entirely fails to rationalise reality or to reconcile it with our aspirations.
160. The conclusion we have reached is one which it certainly seems difficult enough to reconcile with continued adherence to Hegelianism. Of the two possible theories as to the relation of time to the dialectic process, we have found that one, besides involving grave difficulties in itself, is quite inconsistent with the spirit of Hegel’s system. The other, again, while consistent with that system, and, indeed, appearing to be its logical consequence, has landed us in what seems to be a glaring contradiction to the facts. Is it not inevitable that we must reject a system which leads us to such a result?
Before deciding on such a course, however, it might be wise to see if we can really escape from the difficulty in such a way. If the same problem, or one of like nature, proves equally insoluble in any possible system, we may be forced to admit the existence of an incompleteness in our philosophy, but we shall no longer have any reason to reject one system in favour of another. Now, besides the theory which has brought us into this trouble – the theory that reality is fundamentally rational – there are, it would seem, three other possibilities. Reality may be fundamentally irrational. (I shall use “irrational” here to signify anything whose nature and operation are not merely devoid of reason, but opposed to it, so that its influence is always in the opposite direction to that exercised by reason.) Or reality may be the product of two independent principles of rationality and irrationality. Or it may be the work of some principle to which rationality and irrationality are equally indifferent – some blind fate, or mechanical chance.
These possibilities may be taken as exhaustive. It is true that, on Hegelian principles, a fifth alternative has to be added, when we are considering the different combinations in which two predicates may be asserted or denied of a subject. We may say that it is also possible that the two predicates should be combined in a higher unity. This would leave it scarcely correct to say, without qualification, that either is asserted or either denied of the subject. But synthesis is itself a process of reasoning, and unites its two terms by a category in which we recognise the nature of each extreme as a subordinate moment, which is harmonised with the other. The harmony involves that, wherever a synthesis is possible, reason is supreme. And so, if the truth were to be found in a synthesis of the rational and irrational, that synthesis would itself be rational – resolving, as it would, the whole universe into a unity expressible by thought. Thus we should have come round again to Hegel’s position that the world is fundamentally rational.
161. We need not spend much time over the supposition that the world is fundamentally irrational – not only regardless of reason, but contrary to reason. To begin with, such a hypothesis refutes itself. The completely irrational cannot be real, for even to say that a thing is real implies its determination by at least one predicate, and therefore its comparative rationality. And our hypothesis would meet with a difficulty precisely analogous to that which conflicts with Hegel’s theory. In that case the stumbling-block lay in the existence of some irrationality, here it lies in the existence of some rationality. We can no more deny that there are signs of rationality in the universe, than we can deny that there are signs of irrationality. Yet it is at least as impossible to conceive how the fundamentally irrational should manifest itself as rationality, as it is to conceive the converse process. We shall gain nothing, then, by deserting Hegel for such a theory as this.
162. It might seem as if a dualistic theory would be well adapted to the chequered condition of the actual world. But as soon as we try to construct such a theory, difficulties arise. The two principles, of rationality and irrationality, to which the universe is referred, will have to be absolutely separate and independent. For if there were any common unity to which they should be referred, it would be that unity, and not its two manifestations, which would be the ultimate explanation of the universe, and the theory, having become monistic, resolves itself into one of the others, according to the attitude of this single principle towards reason, whether favourable, hostile, or indifferent.
We must then refer the universe to two independent and opposed forces. Nor will it make any important difference if we make the second force to be, not irrationality, but some blind force not in itself hostile to reason. For, in order to account for the thwarted rationality which meets us so often in the universe, we shall have to suppose that the result of the force is, as a fact, opposed to reason, even if opposition to reason is not its essential nature.
In the first place can there be really two independent powers in the universe? Surely there cannot. As Mr Bradley points out: “Plurality must contradict independence. If the beings are not in relation, they cannot be many; but if they are in relation, they cease forthwith to be absolute. For, on the one hand, plurality has no meaning, unless the units are somehow taken together. If you abolish and remove all relations, there seems no sense left in which you can speak of plurality. But, on the other hand, relations destroy the real’s self-dependence. For it is impossible to treat relations as adjectives, falling simply inside the many beings. And it is impossible to take them as falling outside somewhere in a sort of unreal void, which makes no difference to anything. Hence . . . the essence of the related terms is carried beyond their proper selves by means of their relations. And, again, the relations themselves must belong to a larger reality. To stand in a relation and not to be relative, to support it and yet not to be infected and undermined by it, seem out of the question. Diversity in the real cannot be the plurality of independent beings. And the oneness of the Absolute must hence be more than a mere diffused adjective. It possesses unity, as a whole, and is a single system.” <Note: Appearance and Reality, Chap. 13, p. 141.>
The argument has additional strength in this case. For the two forces which we are asked to take as absolutely opposed are, by the hypothesis which assumed them, indissolubly united. Both forces are regarded as all-pervading. Neither can exist by itself anywhere. Every fact in the universe is due to the interaction of the two. And, further, they can only be described and defined in relation to one another. If the dualism is between the rational and the irrational as such, it is obvious that the latter, at any rate, has only meaning in relation to its opposite. And if we assume that the second principle is not directly opposed to rationality, but simply indifferent to it, we shall get no further in our task of explaining the imperfect rationality which appears in our data, unless we go on to assume that its action is contrary to that of a rational principle. Thus a reference to reason would be necessary, if not to define our second principle, at any rate to allow us to understand how we could make it available for our purpose.
We cannot, besides, describe anything as irrational, or indifferent to reason, without ascribing to it certain predicates – Being, Substance, Limitation, for example. Nor can we refer to a principle as an explanation of the universe without attributing to it Causality. These determinations may be transcended by higher ones, but they must be there, at least as moments. Yet anything to which all these predicates can be ascribed cannot be said to be entirely hostile or indifferent to reason, for it has some determinations common to it and to reason, and must be, therefore, in more or less harmony with the latter. But if this is so, our complete dualism has been surrendered.
The two principles then can scarcely be taken as absolutely independent. But if they cannot our dualism fails to help us, and indeed vanishes. We weretempted to resort to it because the two elements in experience – the rationality and the want of rationality – were so heterogeneous as to defy reduction to a single principle. And if we cannot keep our two principles distinct, but are compelled to regard them as joined in a higher unity, we might as well return explicitly to monism.
163. But, even if we could keep the two principles independent, it seems doubtful if we should be able to reach, by means of this theory, a solution of our difficulty. The forces working for and against the rationality of the universe must either be in equilibrium or not. If they are not in equilibrium, then one must be gaining on the other. The universe is thus fundamentally a process. In this case we shall gain nothing by adopting dualism. For the difficulties attendant on conceiving the world as a process were just the reason which compelled us to adopt the theory that the universe was at present perfectly rational, and so produced the further difficulties which are now driving us to look round for a substitute for idealism. If we could have taken development in time as ultimately real, we should have found no hindrance in our way when we endeavoured to conceive the universe as the product of a single rational principle. But we could not do so then, and we shall find it as impossible now. The process must be finite in length, since we can attach no meaning to an actual infinite process. And, since it is still continuing, we shall have to suppose that the two principles came into operation at a given moment, and not before. And since these principles are, on the hypothesis, ultimate, there can be nothing to determine them to begin to act at that point, rather than any other. In this way we shall be reduced, as before, to suppose an event to happen in time without antecedents and without cause – a solution which cannot be accepted as satisfactory.
164. Shall we succeed any better on the supposition that the forces which work for and against rationality are exactly balanced? In the first place we should have to admit that the odds against this occurring were infinity to one. For the two forces are, by the hypothesis, absolutely independent of one another. And, therefore, we cannot suppose any common influence acting on both of them, which should tend to make their forces equal, nor any relationship between them, which should bring about this result. The equilibrium could only be the result of mere chance, and the probability of this producing infinitely exact equilibrium would be infinitely small. And the absence of any à priori reason for believing in such an equilibrium could not, of course, be supplied by empirical observation. For the equilibrium would have to extend over the whole universe, and we cannot carry our observations so far.
Nor can we support the theory by the consideration that it, and no other, will explain the undoubted co-existence of the rational and irrational in our present world. For it fails to account for the facts. It fails to explain the existence of change – at any rate of that change which leaves anything more or less rational, more or less perfect, than it was before. It is a fact which cannot be denied that sometimes that which was good becomes evil, and sometimes that which was evil becomes good. Now, if the two principles are exactly balanced, how could such a change take place? Of course we cannot prove that the balance between the two forces does not remain the same, if we consider the whole universe. Every movement in the one direction, in one part of the whole, may be balanced by a corresponding move in the other direction somewhere else. As we do not know the entire universe in detail it is impossible for us to refute this supposition. But even this supposition will not remove the difficulty. We have two principles whose relations to one another are constant. Yet the facts around us, which are manifestations of these two principles, and of these two principles only, manifest them in proportions which constantly change. How is this change to be accounted for? If we are to take time and change as ultimate facts, such a contradiction seems insuperable. On the other hand, to deny the ultimate validity of time and change, commits us to the series of arguments, the failure of which first led us to doubt Hegel’s position. If time could be viewed as a manifestation of the timeless, we need not have abandoned monism, for the difficulty of imperfection could then have been solved. If, however, time cannot be viewed in this way, the contradiction between the unchanging relation of the principles and the constant change of their effects appears hopeless.
165. There remains the theory that the world is exclusively the product of a principle which regards neither rationality nor irrationality, but is directed to some aim outside them, or to no aim at all. Such a theory might account, no doubt, for the fact that the world is not a complete and perfect manifestation either of rationality or irrationality. But it is hardly exaggerated to say that this is the only fact about the world which it would account for. The idea of such a principle is contradictory. We can have no conception of its operation, of its nature, or even of its existence, without bringing it under some predicates of the reason. And if this is valid, the principle is, to some extent at least, rational.
166. So far indeed, the rationality would be but slight. And it might be suggested that the solution of the difficulty would be found in the idea that reality was, if we might so express it, moderately rational. Up to this point we have supposed that our only choice was between a principle manifesting the complete and perfect rationality, which is embodied in Hegel’s Absolute Idea, and a principle entirely hostile or indifferent to reason. But what if the ultimate principle of the universe was one of which, for example, the categories of Being and Essence were valid, while those of the Notion remained unjustified ideals? This would account, it might be said, at once for the fact that the universe was sufficiently in accord with our reason for us to perceive it and attempt to comprehend it, and also for the fact that we fail to comprehend it completely It would explain the judgment that the world, as we see it, might be better and might also be worse, which common sense pronounces, and which philosophy, whether it accepts it or not, is bound to explain somehow.
The supporters of such a theory, however, would have a difficult task before them. They might claim to reject Hegel’s general theory of the universe on the ground that, on this question of imperfection, it was hopelessly in conflict with the facts. But when they, in their turn, set up a positive system, and asserted the earlier categories to be valid of reality, while the later ones were delusions, they would have to meet in detail Hegel’s arguments that the earlier categories, unless synthesised by the later ones, plunge us in contradictions. The dialectic, being now merely negative and critical of another system, could not be disposed of on the ground that its own system broke down as a whole. Its arguments against the independent validity of the earlier categories would have to be met directly. What the issue of the conflict would be cannot be considered here, as considerations of space have prevented me from including in this book any discussion of the steps of the dialectic in detail. It may be remarked in passing, however, that several of the commentators, who unhesitatingly reject the system as a whole, admit the cogency of the argument from step to step in the Logic – which is all that is wanted here.
This, at any rate, is certain, that the possibility of explaining the existence of imperfection by such a theory as we have been considering, can give us no grounds for rejecting Hegel’s system which we did not possess before. For if the deduction of the categories is defective, Hegelianism must be rejected as unproved, independently of its success or failure in interpreting the facts. And if the deduction of the categories is correct, then the theory of the partial rationality of reality must be given up. For, in that case, to assert the validity of the lower categories without the higher would be to assert a contradiction, and to do this is to destroy all possibility of coherent thought.
167. It would seem then that any other system offers as many obstacles to a satisfactory explanation of our difficulty as were presented by Hegel’s theory. Is the inquirer then bound to take refuge in complete scepticism, and reject all systems of philosophy, since none can avoid inconsistencies or absurdities on this point? This might perhaps be the proper course to pursue, if it were possible. But it is not possible. For every word and every action implies some theory of metaphysics. Every assertion or denial of fact – including the denial that anything is certain – implies that something is certain; and a doubt, also, implies our certainty that we doubt. Now to admit this, and yet to reject all ultimate explanations of the universe, is a contradiction at least as serious as any of those into which we were led by our attempt to explain away imperfection in obedience to the demands of Hegel’s system.
We find then as many, and as grave, difficulties in our way when we take up any other system, or when we attempt to take up no system at all, as met us when we considered Hegel’s theory, and our position towards the latter must be to some degree modified. We can no longer reject it, because it appears to lead to an absurdity, if every possible form in which it can be rejected involves a similar absurdity. At the same time we cannot possibly acquiesce in an unreconciled contradiction. Is there any other course open to us?
168. We must remark, in the first place, that the position in which the system finds itself, though difficult enough, is not a reductio ad absurdum. When an argument ends in such a reduction, there can never be any hesitation or doubt about rejecting the hypothesis with which it started. It is desired to know if a certain proposition is true. The assumption is made that the proposition is true, and it is found that the assumption leads to a contradiction. Thus there is no conflict of arguments. The hypothesis was made, not because it had been proved true, but to see what results would follow. Hence there is nothing to contradict the inference that the hypothesis must be false, which we draw from the absurdity of its consequences. On the one side is only a supposition, on the other ascertained facts.
This, however, is not the case here. The conclusion, that the universe is timelessly perfect, which appears to be in conflict with certain facts, is not a mere hypothesis, but asserts itself to be a correct deduction from other facts as certain as those which oppose it. Hence there is no reason why one should yield to the other. The inference that the universe is completely rational, and the inference that it is not, are both deduced by reasoning from the facts of experience. Unless we find a flaw in one or the other of the chains of deduction, we have no more right to say that Hegel’s dialectic is wrong because the world is imperfect, than to deny that the world is imperfect, because Hegel’s dialectic proves that it cannot be so.
It might appear at first sight as if the imperfection of the world was an immediate certainty. But in reality only the data of sense, upon which, in the last resort, all propositions must depend for their connection with reality, are here immediate. All judgments require mediation. And, even if the existence of imperfection in experience was an immediate certainty, yet the conclusion that its existence was incompatible with the perfection of the universe as a whole, could clearly only be reached mediately, by the refutation of the various arguments by means of which a reconciliation has been attempted.
It is, no doubt, our first duty, when two chains of reasoning appear to lead to directly opposite results, to go over them with the greatest care, that we may ascertain whether the apparent discrepancy is not due to some mistake of our own. It is also true that the chain of arguments, by which we arrive at the conclusion that the world is perfect, is both longer and less generally accepted than the other chain by which we reach the conclusion that there is imperfection in the world, and that this prevents the world from being perfect. We may, therefore, possibly be right in expecting beforehand to find a flaw in the first chain of reasoning, rather than in the second.
This, however, will not entitle us to adopt the one view as against the other. We may expect beforehand to find an error in an argument, but if in point of fact we do not succeed in finding one, we are bound to continue to accept the conclusion. For we are compelled to yield our assent to each step in the argument, so long as we do not see any mistake in it, and we shall in this way be conducted as inevitably to the end of the long chain as of the short one.
169. We may, I think, assume, for the purposes of this paper, that no discovery of error will occur to relieve us from our perplexity, since we are endeavouring to discuss here, not the truth of the Hegelian dialectic, but the consequences which will follow from it if it is true. And we have now to consider what we must do in the presence of two equally authoritative judgments which contradict one another.
The only course which it is possible to take appears to me that described by Mr Balfour. The thinker must “accept both contradictories, thinking thereby to obtain, under however unsatisfactory a form, the fullest measure of truth which he is at present able to grasp.” <Note: Defence of Philosophic Doubt, p. 313.> Of course we cannot adopt the same mental attitude which we should have a right to take in case our conclusions harmonised with one another. We must never lose sight of the fact that the two results do not harmonise, and that there must be something wrong somewhere. But we do not know where. And to take any step except this, would imply that we did know where the error lay. If we rejected the one conclusion in favour of the other, or if we rejected both in favour of scepticism, we should thereby assert, in the first case, that there was an error on the one side and not on the other, in the second case that there were errors on both sides. Now, if the case is as it has been stated above, we have no right to make such assertions, for we have been unable to detect errors on either side. All that we can do is to hold to both sides, and to recognise that, till one is refuted, or both are reconciled, our knowledge is in a very unsatisfactory state.
At the same time we shall have to be very careful not to let our dissatisfaction with the conflict, from which we cannot escape, carry us into either an explicit avowal or a tacit acceptance of any form of scepticism. For this would mean more than the mere equipoise of the two lines of argument. It would mean the entire rejection, at least, of the one which asserts that the universe is completely rational. And, as has been said, we have no right to reject either side of the contradiction, for no flaw has been found in either.
170. The position in which we are left appears to be this: If we cannot reject Hegel’s dialectic, our system of knowledge will contain an unsolved contradiction. But that contradiction gives us no more reason for rejecting the Hegelian dialectic than for doing anything else, since a similar contradiction appears wherever we turn. We are merely left with the conviction that something is fundamentally wrong in knowledge which all looks equally trustworthy. Where to find the error we cannot tell. Such a result is sufficiently unsatisfactory. Is it possible to find a conclusion not quite so negative?
We cannot, as it seems to us at present, deny that both the propositions are true, nor deny that they are contradictory. Yet we know that one must be false, or else that they cannot be contradictory. Is there any reason to hope that the solution lies in the last alternative? This result would be less sceptical and destructive than any other. It would not involve any positive mistake in our previous reasonings, as far as they went, such as would be involved if harmony was restored by the discovery that one of the two conclusions was fallacious. It would only mean that we had not gone on far enough. The two contradictory propositions – that the world was fundamentally perfect, and that imperfection did exist – would be harmonised and reconciled by a synthesis, in the same way that the contradictions within the dialectic itself are overcome. The two sides of the opposition would not so much be both false as both true. They would be taken up into a higher sphere where the truth of both is preserved.
Moreover, the solution in this case would be exactly what might be expected if the Hegelian dialectic were true. For, as has been said, the dialectic always advances by combining on a higher plane two things which were contradictory on a lower one. And so, if, in some way now inconceivable to us, the eternal realisation of the Absolute Idea were so synthesised with the existence of imperfection as to be reconciled with it, we should harmonise the two sides by a principle already exemplified in one of them.
171. It must be noticed also that the contradiction before us satisfies at any rate one of the conditions which are necessary if a synthesis is to be effected. It is a case of contrary and not merely of contradictory opposition. The opposition would be contradictory if the one side merely denied the validity of the data, or the correctness of the inferences, of the other. For it would not then assert a different and incompatible conclusion, but simply deny the right of the other side to come to its own conclusion at all. But it is a contrary opposition, because neither side denies that the other is, in itself, coherent and valid, but sets up against it another line of argument, also coherent and valid, which leads to an opposite and incompatible conclusion. We have not reasons for and against a particular position, but reasons for two positions which deny one another.
If the opposition had been contradictory, there could have been no hope of a synthesis. We should have ended with two propositions, one of which was a mere denial of the other – the one, that the universe is eternally rational, the other, that this is not the case. And between two merely contradictory propositions, as Trendelenburg points out, there can be no possible synthesis. <Note: Logische Untersuchungen, Vol. I. p. 56.> One only affirms, and the other only denies. And, between simple affirmation and simple negation, we can find nothing which will succeed in reconciling them. For their whole meaning is summed up in their denial of one another, and if, with their reconciliation, the reciprocal denial vanished, the whole meaning would vanish also, leaving nothing but a blank. Instead of having equally strong grounds to believe two different things, we should have no grounds to believe either. Any real opposition may conceivably be synthesised. But it is as impossible to get a harmony out of an absolute blank, as it is to get anything else.
Here, however, when we have two positive conclusions, which appear indeed to be incompatible, but have more in them than simple incompatibility, it is not impossible that a higher notion could be found, by which each should be recognised as true, and by which it should be seen that they were really not mutually exclusive.
The thesis and antithesis in Hegel’s logic always stand to one another in a relation of contrary opposition. In the higher stages, no doubt, the antithesis is more than a mere opposite of the thesis, and already contains an element of synthesis. But the element of opposition, which is always there, is always an opposition of contraries. Hence it does not seem impossible that this further case of contrary opposition should be dealt with on Hegel’s principle. Incompatible as the two terms seem at present, they can hardly seem more hopelessly opposed than many pairs of contraries in the dialectic seem, before their syntheses are found.
172. It is possible, also, to see some reasons why such a solution, if possible at all, should not be possible yet, and why it would be delayed till the last abstraction should be removed as the dialectic process rebuilds concrete realities. Our aim is to reconcile the fact that the Absolute Idea exists eternally in its full perfection, with the fact that it manifests itself as something incomplete and imperfect. Now the Absolute Idea only becomes known to us through a process and consequently as something incomplete and imperfect. We have to grasp its moments successively, and to be led on from the lower to the higher. And, in like manner, all our knowledge of its manifestations must come to us in the form of a process, since it must come gradually. We cannot expect to see how all process should only be an element in a timeless reality, so long as we can only think of the timeless reality by means of a process. But, sub specie aeternitatis, it might be that the difficulty would vanish.
I am not, of course, trying to argue that there is such a reconciliation of these two extremes, or that there is the slightest positive evidence that a reconciliation can exist. As we have seen above, the eternal realisation of the Absolute Idea, and the existence of change and evil, are, for us as we are, absolutely incompatible, nor can we even imagine a way in which they should cease to be so. If we could imagine such a way we should have solved the problem, for, as it would be the only chance of rescuing our knowledge from hopeless confusion, we should be justified in taking it.
All I wish to suggest is that it is conceivable that there should be such a synthesis, although we cannot at present conceive what it could be like, and that, although there is no positive evidence for it, there is no evidence against it. And as either the incompatibility of the two propositions, or the evidence for one of them, must be a mistake, we may have at any rate a hope that some solution may lie in this direction.
173. If indeed we were absolutely certain that neither the arguments for the eternal perfection of the Absolute Idea, nor the arguments for the existence of process and change, were erroneous, we should be able to go beyond this negative position, and assert positively the existence of the synthesis, although we should be as unable as before to comprehend of what nature it could be. We could then avail ourselves of Mr Bradley’s maxim, “what may be and must be, certainly is.” That the synthesis must exist would, on the hypothesis we are considering, be beyond doubt. For if both the lines of argument which lead respectively to the eternal reality of the Absolute Idea, and to the existence of change, could be known, not merely to be at present unrefuted, but to be true, then they must somehow be compatible. That all truth is harmonious is the postulate of reasoning, the denial of which would abolish all tests of truth and falsehood, and so make all judgment unmeaning. And since the two propositions are, as we have seen throughout this chapter, incompatible as they stand in their immediacy, the only way in which they can possibly be made compatible is by a synthesis which transcends them and so unites them.
Can we then say of such a synthesis that it may be? Of course it is only possible to do so negatively. A positive assertion that there was no reason whatever why a thing should not exist could only be obtained by a complete knowledge of it, and, if we had a complete knowledge of it, it would not be necessary to resort to indirect proof to discover whether it existed or not. But we have, it would seem, a right to say that no reason appears why it should not exist. If the Hegelian dialectic is true (and, except on this hypothesis, our difficulty would not have arisen), we know that predicates which seem to be contrary can be united and harmonised by a synthesis. And the fact that such a synthesis is not conceivable by us need not make us consider it impossible. Till such a synthesis is found, it must always appear inconceivable, and that it has not yet been found implies nothing more than that the world, considered as a process, has not yet worked out its full meaning.
174. But we must admit that the actual result is rather damaging to the prospects of Hegelianism. We may, as I have tried to show, be sure, that, if Hegel’s dialectic is true, then such a synthesis must be possible, because it is the only way of harmonising all the facts. At the same time, the fact that the dialectic cannot be true, unless some synthesis which we do not know, and whose nature we cannot even conceive, relieves it from an obstacle which would otherwise be fatal, certainly lessens the chance that it is true, even if no error in it has yet been discovered. For our only right to accept such an extreme hypothesis lies in the impossibility of finding any other way out of the dilemma. And the more violent the consequences to which an argument leads us, the greater is the antecedent probability that some flaw has been left undetected.
Not only does such a theory lose the strength which comes from the successful solution of all problems presented to it, but it is compelled to rely, with regard to this particular proposition, on a possibility which we cannot at present fully grasp, even in imagination, and the realisation of which would perhaps involve the transcending of all discursive thought. Under these circumstances it is clear that our confidence in Hegel’s system must be considerably less than that which was possessed by its author, who had not realised the tentative and incomplete condition to which this difficulty inevitably reduced his position.
The result of these considerations, however, is perhaps on the whole more positive than negative. They can scarcely urge us to more careful scrutiny of all the details of the dialectic than would be required in any case by the complexity of the subjects with which it deals. And, on the other hand, they do supply us, as it seems to me, with a ground for believing that neither time nor imperfection forms an insuperable objection to the dialectic. If the dialectic is not valid in itself, we shall any way have no right to believe it. And if it is valid in itself, we shall not only be entitled, but we shall be bound, to believe that one more synthesis remains, as yet unknown to us, which shall overcome the last and most persistent of the contradictions inherent in appearance.
175. NOTE. – After this chapter, in a slightly different form, had appeared in Mind, it was criticised by Mr F. C. S. Schiller, in an article entitled ‘The Metaphysics of the Time Process.’ (Mind, N.S. Vol. IV. No. 14.) I have endeavoured to consider his acute and courteous objections to my view with that care which they merit, but I have not succeeded in finding in them any reason for changing the position indicated in the preceding sections. I have already discussed one of Mr Schiller’s objections, <Note: Chap. III. Section 96.> and there are some others on which I will now venture to make a few remarks.
Mr Schiller complains that I overlook “the curious inconsistency of denying the metaphysical value of Time, and yet expecting from the Future the discovery of the ultimate synthesis on which one’s whole metaphysics depends.” <Note: op. cit. p. 37.> It was not, of course, from the advance of time as such, but from the more complete manifestation through time of the timeless reality that I ventured to expect a solution. But it is, no doubt, true that I did express a hope of the discovery of a synthesis which has not yet been discovered, so that its discovery must be an event in time. I fail, however, to see the inconsistency. Time is certainly, on the theory which I have put forward, only an appearance and an illusion. But then, on the same theory, the inconsistency which requires a synthesis is also an illusion. And so is the necessity of discovering a synthesis for two aspects of reality which are really eternally moments in a harmonious whole.
Sub specie aeternitatis, the temporal process is not, as such, real, and can produce nothing new. But then, sub specie aeternitatis, if there is an ultimate synthesis, it does not require to be produced, for it exists eternally. Nor does the contradiction require to be removed, for, if there is a synthesis, the contradiction never, sub specie aeternitatis, existed at all. Sub specie temporis, on the other hand, the contradiction has to be removed, and the synthesis discovered. But, sub specie temporis, the time process exists, and can produce something new.
The inconsistency of which Mr Schiller accuses me comes only from combining the assertions that a change is required, and that no change is possible, as if they were made from the same stand-point. But, on the theory in question, the first is only true when we look at things from the stand- point of time, and the second when we look at them from the stand-point of the timeless idea. That the possible solution is incomprehensible, I have fully admitted. But I cannot see that it is inconsistent.
176. Mr Schiller further says, if I understand him rightly, that it is obviously impossible that Hegel could have accounted for time, since he started with an abstraction which did not include it. Without altogether adopting Mr Schiller’s explanations of the motives of idealist philosophers we may agree with him when he says that their conceptions “were necessarily abstract, and among the things they abstracted from was the time-aspect of Reality.” <Note: op. cit. p. 38.> He then continues, “Once abstracted from, the reference to Time could not, of course, be recovered.” And, a little later on, “You must pay the price for a formula that will enable you to make assertions that hold good far beyond the limits of your experience. And part of the price is that you will in the end be unable to give a rational explanation of those very characteristics, which had been dismissed at the outset as irrelevant to a rational explanation.”
I have admitted that Hegel has failed, not indeed to give a deduction of time, but to give one which would be consistent with the rest of his system. But this is a result which, as it seems to me, can only be arrived at by examining in detail the deduction he does give, and cannot be settled beforehand by the consideration that the abstraction he starts from excludes time. Such an objection would destroy the whole dialectic. For Hegel starts with pure Being, precisely because it is the most complete abstraction possible, with the minimum of meaning that any term can have. And if nothing which was abstracted from could ever be restored, the dialectic process, which consists of nothing else than the performance of this operation, would be completely invalid.
I have endeavoured to show in the earlier chapters that there is nothing unjustified in such an advance from abstract to concrete. Of course, if we make an abstraction, as we do in geometry, with the express intention of adhering to it uncritically throughout our treatment of the subject, and ignoring any inaccuracy as irrelevant for our present purposes, – then, no doubt, our final conclusions must have the same abstractness as our original premises. But this is very unlike the position of the dialectic. Here we begin with the most complete abstraction we can find, for the express purpose of seeing how far we can, by criticism of it, be forced to consider it inadequate, and so to substitute for it more concrete notions which remedy its incompleteness. Right or wrong, this can scarcely be disposed of as obviously impossible.
Nor does it seem quite correct to say that Hegel’s philosophy was “constructed to give an account of the world irrespective of Time and Change,” <Note: op. cit. p. 38.> if, as appears to be the case, “constructed to give” implies a purpose. Hegel’s purpose was not to give any particular account of the universe, but to give one which should be self-consistent, and he declared time and change to be only appearances, because he found it impossible to give a consistent account of the universe if he treated time and change as ultimate realities. He may have been wrong, but his decision was the result of argument, and not a preconceived purpose.
177. Mr Schiller suggests that the whole device of using abstract laws and generalisations at all in knowledge is one which is justified by its success, and which may be discarded, in whole or in part, for another, if another should promise better. “Why should we want to calculate the facts by such universal formulas? The answer to this question brings us to the roots of the matter. We make the fundamental assumption of science, that there are universal and eternal laws, i.e. that the individuality of things together with their spatial and temporal context may be neglected, not because we are convinced of its theoretic validity, but because we are constrained by its practical convenience. We want to be able to make predictions about the future behaviour of things for the purpose of shaping our own conduct accordingly. Hence attempts to forecast the future have been the source of half the superstitions of mankind. But no method of divination ever invented could compete in ingenuity and gorgeous simplicity with the assumption of universal laws which hold good without reference to time; and so in the long run it alone could meet the want or practical necessity in question.
“In other words that assumption is a methodological device and ultimately reposes on the practical necessity of discovering formulas for calculating events in the rough, without awaiting or observing their occurrence. To assert this methodological character of eternal truths is not, of course, to deny their validity, – for it is evident that unless the nature of the world had lent itself to a very considerable extent to such interpretation, the assumption of ‘eternal’ laws would have served our purposes as little as those of astrology, chiromancy, necromancy, and catoptromancy. What however must be asserted is that this assumption is not an ultimate term in the explanation of the world.
“That does not, of course, matter to Science, which is not concerned with such ultimate explanation, and for which the assumption is at all events ultimate enough. But it does matter to philosophy that the ultimate theoretic assumption should have a methodological character.” <Note: op. cit. p. 42.>
178. But, I reply, our habit of abstracting and generalising (and all universal laws are nothing more than this) is not a tool that we can take up or lay down at pleasure, as a carpenter takes up or lays down a particular chisel, which he finds suited or unsuited to the work immediately before him. It is rather the essential condition of all thought – perhaps it would be better to say an essential moment in all thought. All thought consists in processes which may be described as abstractions and generalisations. It is true, of course, that we could have no thought unless the complex and the particular were given to us. But it is no less true that everything which thought does with what is given to it involves abstraction and generalisation.
If we had merely unrelated particulars before us we should not be conscious. And even if we were conscious, unrelated particulars could certainly give us no knowledge. We can have no knowledge without, at the lowest, comparison. And to compare – to perceive a similar element in things otherwise dissimilar, or the reverse – is to abstract and to generalise. Again to find any relation whatever between two particulars is to abstract and to generalise. If we say, for example, that a blow causes a bruise, this is to separate and abstract one quality from the large number which are connoted by the word blow, and it is also to generalise, since it is to assert that a blow stands in the same relation to a bruise, as, let us say, friction to heat.
Without abstraction and generalisation, then, we can have no knowledge, and so they are not a methodological device but a necessity of our thought. It is, indeed, not certain beforehand that the laws which are the result of generalisation and abstraction will be, as Mr Schiller says, “eternal,” that is, will disregard time. But if the result of the criticism of reality does lead us to laws which do not accept time as an ultimate reality, and if these laws do, as I have admitted they do, plunge us into considerable difficulties, still we cannot, as Mr Schiller seems to wish, reject the process of generalisation and abstraction if, or in as far as, it does not turn out well. For it is our only mode of thought, and the very act of thought which rejected it would embody it, and be dependent on it.
There remain other points of high interest in Mr Schiller’s paper – his conception of metaphysics as ultimately ethical, and his view of what may be hoped for from time, regarded as real and not as merely appearance. But he is here constructive and no longer critical, and it would be beyond the purpose of this note to attempt to follow him.