Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830) Part One

IV. Second Attitude of Thought to Objectivity

§ 37

Under these circumstances a double want began to be felt. Partly it was the need of a concrete subject-matter, as a counterpoise to the abstract theories of the understanding, which is unable to advance unaided from its generalities to specialisation and determination. Partly, too, it was the demand for something fixed and secure, so as to exclude the possibility of proving anything and everything in the sphere, and according to the method of the finite formulae of thought. Such was the genesis of Empirical philosophy, which abandons the search for truth in thought itself, and goes to fetch it from Experience, the outward and the inward present.

The rise of Empiricism is due to the need thus stated of concrete contents, and a firm footing — needs which the abstract metaphysic of the understanding failed to satisfy. Now by concreteness of contents it is meant that we must know the objects of consciousness as intrinsically determinate and as the unity of distinct characteristics. But, as we have already seen, this is by no means the case with the metaphysic of understanding, if it conform to its principle. With the mere understanding, thinking is limited to the form of an abstract universal, and can never advance to the particularisation of this universal. Thus we find the metaphysicians engaged in an attempt to elicit by the instrumentality of thought what was the essence or fundamental attribute of the Soul. The Soul, they said, is simple. The simplicity thus ascribed to the Soul meant a mere and utter simplicity, from which difference is excluded: difference, or in other words composition, being made the fundamental attribute of body, or of matter in general. Clearly, in simplicity of this narrow type we have a very shallow category, quite incapable of embracing the wealth of the soul or of the mind. When it thus appeared that abstract metaphysical thinking was inadequate, it was felt that resource must be had to empirical psychology. The same happened in the case of Rational Physics. The current phrases there were, for instance, that space is infinite, that Nature makes no leap, etc. Evidently this phraseology was wholly unsatisfactory in presence of the plenitude and life of nature.

§ 38

To some extent this source from which Empiricism draws is common to it with metaphysic. It is in our materialised conceptions, i.e. in facts which emanate, in the first instance, from experience, that metaphysic also finds the guarantee for the correctness of its definitions (including both its initial assumptions and its more detailed body of doctrine). But, on the other hand, it must be noted that the single sensation is not the same thing as experience, and that the Empirical School elevates the facts included under sensation, feeling, and perception into the form of general ideas propositions, or laws. This, however, it does with the reservation that these general principles (such as force) are to have no further import or validity of their own beyond that taken from the sense impression, and that no connection shall be deemed legitimate except what can be shown to exist in phenomena. And on the subjective side Empirical cognition has its stable footing in the fact that in a sensation consciousness is directly present and certain of itself.

In Empiricism lies the great principle that whatever is true must be in the actual world and present to sensation. This principle contradicts that ‘ought to be’ on the strength of which ‘reflection’ is vain enough to treat the actual present with scorn and to point to a scene beyond a scene which is assumed to have place and being only in the understanding of those who talk of it. No less than Empiricism, philosophy (§ 7) recognises only what is, and has nothing to do with what merely ought to be and what is thus confessed not to exist. On the subjective side, too, it is right to notice the valuable principle of freedom involved in Empiricism. For the main lesson of Empiricism is that man must see for himself and feel that he is present in every fact of knowledge which he has to accept.

When it is carried out to its legitimate consequences, Empiricism being in its facts limited to the finite sphere denies the supersensible in general, or at least any knowledge of it which would define its nature; it leaves thought no powers except abstraction and formal universality and identity. But there is a fundamental delusion in all scientific empiricism. It employs the metaphysical categories of matter, force, those of one, many, generality, infinity, etc.; following the clue given by these categories it proceeds to draw conclusions, and in so doing presupposes and applies the syllogistic form. And all the while it is unaware that it contains metaphysics in wielding which, it makes use of those categories and their combinations in a style utterly thoughtless and uncritical.

From Empiricism came the cry: ‘Stop roaming in empty abstractions keep your eyes open, lay hold on man and nature as they are here before you, enjoy the present moment.’ Nobody can deny that there is a good deal of truth in these words. The everyday world, what is here and now was a good exchange for the futile other-world — for the mirages and the chimeras of the abstract understanding. And thus was acquired an infinite principle — that solid footing so much missed in the old metaphysic. Finite principles are the most that the understanding can pick out — and these being essentially unstable and tottering, the structure they supported must collapse with a crash. Always the instinct of reason was to find an infinite principle. As yet, the time had not come for finding it in thought. Hence, this instinct seized upon the present, the Here, the This — where doubtless there is implicit infinite form, but not in the genuine existence of that form. The external world is the truth, it if could but know it: for the truth is actual and must exist. The infinite principle, the self-centred truth, therefore, is in the world for reason to discover: though it exists in an individual and sensible shape, and not in its truth.

Besides, this school makes sense-perception the form in which fact is to be apprehended; and in this consists the defect of Empiricism. Sense perception as such is always individual, always transient: not indeed that the process of knowledge stops short at sensation: on the contrary, it proceeds to find out the universal and permanent element in the individual apprehended by sense. This is the process leading from simple perception to experience.

In order to form experiences, Empiricism makes especial use of the form of Analysis. In the impression of sense we have a concrete of many elements, the several attributes of which we are expected to peel off one by one, like the skins of an onion. In thus dismembering the thing, it is understood that we disintegrate and take to pieces these attributes which have coalesced, and add nothing but our own act of disintegration. Yet analysis is the process from the immediacy of sensation to thought: those attributes, which the object analysed contains in union, acquire the form of universality by being separated. Empiricism therefore labours under a delusion, if it supposes that, while analysing the objects, it leaves them as they were: it really transforms the concrete into an abstract. And as a consequence of this change, the living thing is killed: life can exist only in the concrete and one. Not that we can do without this division, if it be our intention to comprehend. Mind itself is an inherent division. The error lies in forgetting that this is only one half of the process, and that the main point is the reunion of what has been parted. And it is where analysis never gets beyond the stage of partition that the words of the poet are true:

Encheiresin Naturae nennt’s die Chemie,
Spottet ihrer selbat, und weiss nicht, wie:
hat die Theile in ihrer Hand,
Fehlt leider nur das geistige Band.

Analysis starts from the concrete; and the possession of this material gives it a considerable advantage over the abstract thinking of the old metaphysics. It establishes the differences in things, and this is very important; but these very differences are nothing after all but abstract attributes, i.e. thoughts. These thoughts, it is assumed, contain the real essence of the objects; and thus once more we see the axiom of bygone metaphysics reappear, that the truth of things lies in thought.

Let us next compare the empirical theory with that of metaphysics in the matter of their respective contents. We find the latter, as already stated, taking for its theme the universal objects of the reason, viz. God, the Soul, and the World: and these themes, accepted from popular conception, it was the problem of philosophy to reduce into the form of thoughts. Another specimen of the same method was the Scholastic philosophy, the theme presupposed by which was formed by the dogmas of the Christian Church; and it aimed at fixing their meaning and giving them a systematic arrangement through thought. The facts on which Empiricism is based are of entirely different kind. They are the sensible facts of nature and the facts of the finite mind. In other words, Empiricism deals with a finite material, and the old metaphysicians had an infinite — though, let us add, they made this infinite content finite by the finite form of the understanding. The same finitude of form reappears in Empiricism — but here the facts are finite also. To this extent, then, both modes of philosophising have the same method; both proceed from data or assumptions, which they accept as ultimate.

Generally speaking, Empiricism finds the truth in the outward world, and even if it allow a supersensible world, it holds knowledge of that world to be impossible, and would restrict us to the province of sense-perception. This doctrine when systematically carried out produces what has been latterly termed Materialism. Materialism of this stamp looks upon matter, qua matter, as the genuine objective world. But with matter we are at once introduced to an abstraction, which as such cannot be perceived, and it may be maintained that there is no matter, because, as it exists, it is always something definite and concrete. Yet the abstraction we term matter is supposed to lie at the basis of the whole world of sense, and expresses the sense-world in its simplest terms as out-and-out individualisation, and hence a congeries of points in mutual exclusion. So long then as this sensible sphere is and continues to be for Empiricism a mere datum, we have a doctrine of bondage: for we become free, when we are confronted by no absolutely alien world, but depend upon a fact which we ourselves are. Consistently with the empirical point of view, besides, reason and unreason can only be subjective: in other words, we must take what is given just as it is, and we have no right to ask whether and to what extent it is rational in its own nature.

§ 39

Touching this principle it has been justly observed that in what we call Experience, as distinct from mere single perception of single facts, there are two elements. The one is the matter, infinite in its multiplicity, and as it stands a mere set of singulars: the other is the form, the characteristics of universality and necessity. Mere experience no doubt offers many, perhaps innumerable, cases of similar perceptions: but, after all, no multitude, however great, can be the same thing as universality. Similarly, mere experience affords perceptions of changes succeeding each other and of objects in juxtaposition; but it presents no necessary connection. If perception, therefore, is to maintain its claim to be the sole basis of what men hold for truth, universality and necessity appear something illegitimate: they become an accident of our minds, a mere custom, the content of which might be otherwise constituted than it is.

It is an important corollary of this theory, that on this empirical mode of treatment legal and ethical principles and laws, as well as the truths of religion, are exhibited as the work of chance, and stripped of their objective character and inner truth.

The scepticism of Hume, to which this conclusion was chiefly due, should be clearly marked off from Greek scepticism. Hume assumes the truth of the empirical element, feeling and sensation, and proceeds to challenge universal principles and laws, because they have no warranty from sense-perception. So far was ancient scepticism from making feeling and sensation the canon of truth, that it turned against the deliverances of sense first of all.

(On modern scepticism as compared with ancient, see Schelling and Hegel’s Critical Journal of Philosophy)

IV: TWO. The Critical Philosophy

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