Riddles of Philosophy
III. The World as Illusion
Besides the current of world conception that, through the idea of evolution, wants to bring the conception of the phenomena of nature and that of the spirit into complete unity, there is another that expresses their opposition in the strongest possible form. This current also springs from natural science. Its followers ask, “What is our basis as we construct a world conception by means of thinking? We hear, see and touch the physical world through our senses. We then think about the facts that our senses supply concerning that world. We form our thoughts accordingly concerning the world at the testimony of the senses. But are the statements of our senses really to be trusted?”
Let us consult actual observations. The eye conveys to us the phenomena of light. We say an object sends us red light when the eye has the sensation of red. But the eye conveys sensations of light to us also in other cases. When it is pushed or pressed, or when an electric current flows through our head, the eye also has sensations of light. It is, therefore, possible that in cases in which we have the sensation of a light-sending body, something could go on in that object that has no semblance to our sensation of light. The eye, nevertheless, would transmit light to us.
The physiologist, Johannes Mueller (1801–58), drew the conclusion from these facts that what man has as his actual sensation does not depend on the external processes but on his organization. Our nerves transmit sensations to us. As we do not have the sensation of the knife that cuts us but a state of our nerves that appears to us as pain, so we also do not have a sensation of the external world when something appears to us as light. What we then really have is a state of our optic nerve. Whatever may happen outside, the optic nerve translates this external event into the sensation of light. “The sensation is not a process that transmits a quality or a state of an external object to our consciousness but one that transmits a quality, a state of our nerves caused by an external event, to our consciousness. This Johannes Mueller called “the law of specific sense energies.” If that is correct, then our observations contain nothing of the external world but only the sum of our own inner conditions. What we perceive has nothing to do with the external world; it is a product of our own organization. We really perceive only what is in us.
Natural scientists of great renown regarded this thought as an irrefutable basis of their world conception. Hermann Helmholtz (1821–94) considered it as the Kantian thought — that all our knowledge had reference only to processes within ourselves, not to things in themselves — translated into the language of natural science (compare Vol. I of this book). Helmholtz was of the opinion that the world of our sensations supplies us merely with the signs of the physical processes in the world outside.
I have been convinced that it is necessary to formulate the relation between the sensation and its object by declaring the sensation to be merely the sign of the effect of the object. The nature of the sign demands only that the same sign be always given to the same object. Beyond this requirement there is no more similarity necessary between the sensation and its object than between the spoken word and the object that we denote with it. We cannot even call our sense impression pictures, for a picture depicts the same by the same. In a statue we represent one bodily form through another bodily form; in a drawing we express the perspective view of an object by the same perspective in the picture; in a painting we depict color through color.
Our sensations, therefore, must differ more from the events they represent than pictures differ from the objects they depict. In our sensual world picture we have nothing objective but a completely subjective element, which we ourselves produce under the stimulation of the effects of an external world that never penetrates into us. This mode of conception is supported from another side by the physicist's view of the phenomena of sensation. A sound that we hear draws our attention to a body in the external world, the parts of which are in a certain state of motion. A stretched string vibrates and we hear a tone. The string transmits the vibrations to the air. They spread and reach our ear; a tone sensation is transmitted to us. The physicist investigates the laws according to which the physical particles outside move while we hear these tones. He finds that the subjective tone sensation is based on the objective motion of the physical particles. Similar relations are observed by the physicist with respect to the sensations of light. Light is also based on motion, only this motion is not transmitted by the vibrating particles of the air, but by the vibrations of the ether, the thinnest matter that fills the whole space of the universe. By every light-emitting body, the ether is put into the state of undulatory vibrations that spread and meet the retina of our eye and excite the optic nerve, which then produces the sensation of light within us. What in our world picture appears as light and color is motion outside in space. Schleiden expresses this view in the following words:
The light outside ourselves in nature is motion of the ether. A motion can be slow and fast; it can have this or that direction, but there is obviously no sense in speaking of light or dark, of green or red motion. In short, outside ourselves, outside the beings who have the sensation, there is no such thing as bright and dark, nor are there any colors.
The physicist expels colors and light from the external world because he finds only motion in it. The physiologist feels that he is forced to withdraw them into the soul because he is of the opinion that the nerve indicates only its own state of irritation no matter what might have excited it. The view that is given with these presuppositions is sharply delineated by Hippolyte Taine (1828–93) in his book, Reason. The external perception is, according to his opinion, nothing but hallucination. A person who, under the influence of hallucination, perceives a death skull three steps in front of him, has exactly the same perception as someone who receives the light rays sent out by a real skull. It is the same inner phantom that exists within us no matter whether we are confronted with a real skull or whether we have a hallucination. The only difference between the one perception and the other is that in one case the hand stretched out toward the object will grasp empty air, whereas in the other case it will meet some solid resistance. The sense of touch then supports the sense of sight. But does this support really represent an irrefutable testimony? What is correct for one sense is also valid for the other. The sensations of touch can also turn out to be hallucinations.
The anatomist Henle expresses the same view in his Anthropological Lectures (1876) in the following way:
Everything through which we believe to be informed about an external world consists merely of forms of our consciousness for which the external world supplies merely the exciting cause, the stimulus, in the language of the physiologists. The external world has no colors, tones and tastes. What it really contains we learn only indirectly or not at all. How the external world affects a sense, we merely conclude from its behavior toward the other senses. We can, for instance, in the case of a tone, see the vibrations of the tuning fork with our eyes and feel it with our fingers. The nature of certain stimuli, which reveal themselves only to the one sense, as, for instance, the stimuli of the sense of smell, is still inaccessible to us. The number of the properties of matter depends on the number and on the keenness of the senses. Whoever lacks a sense loses a group of properties without a chance of regaining them. A person who would have an extra sense would have an organ to grasp qualities of which we have no other inkling than the blind man has of color.
If one glances over the physiological literature from the second half of the nineteenth century, one sees that this view of the subjective nature of the world picture of our perceptions has gained increasing acceptance. Time and again one comes across variations of the thought that is expressed by J. Rosenthal in his General Physiology of Muscles and Nerves (1877). “The sensations that we receive through external impressions are not dependent on the nature of these impressions but on the nature of our nerve cells. We have no sensation of what exerts its effect on our body but only of the processes in our brain.”
To what extent our subjective world picture can be said to give us an indication of the objective external world, is expressed by Helmholtz in his Physiological Optics:
To ask the question if cinnabar is really red as we see it or if this is only a sense deception is meaningless. A red-blind person will see cinnabar as black or in a dark yellow-gray shade; this is also a correct reaction for the special nature of his eye. He must only know that his eye happens to be different from that of other people. In itself one sensation is neither more nor less correct or incorrect than the other, even if the people who see the red have the great majority on their side. The red color of cinnabar exists only insofar as the majority of men have eyes that are of a similar nature. One can say with exactly the same right that it is a quality of cinnabar to be black for red-blind people. It is a different question, however, if we maintain that the wave length of light that is reflected by cinnabar has a certain length. This statement, which we can make without reference to the special nature of our eye, is only concerned with the relations of the substance and the various systems of ether waves.
It is apparent that for such a conception all phenomena of the world are divided into two completely separated parts, into a world of motions that is independent of the special nature of our faculty of perception, and a world of subjective states that are there only within the perceiving subjects. This view has been expressed sharply and pointedly by the physiologist, Du Bois-Reymond (1818–96), in his lecture, On the Limits of Natural Science, which he gave at the forty-fifth assembly of German naturalists and physicians on August 14, 1872 in Leipzig. Natural science is the reduction of processes we perceive in the world to motions of the smallest physical particles of a “dissolution of natural processes into mechanics of atoms,” for it is a “psychological fact of experience that, wherever such a dissolution is successful” our need for explanation is for the time being satisfied. Moreover, it is a known fact that our nervous system and our brain are of a material nature. The processes that take place within them can also be only processes of motion. When sound or light waves are transmitted to my sense organs and from there to my brain, they can here also be nothing but motions. I can only say that in my brain a certain process of motion goes on, and I have simultaneously the sensation “red.” For if it is meaningless to say of cinnabar that it is red, it is not less meaningless to say of a motion of the brain particles that it is bright or dark, green or red. “Mute and dark in itself, that is to say, without qualities,” such is the world according to the view that has been obtained through the natural scientific conception, which
...knows instead of sound and light only vibrations of a property-free fundamental matter that now can be weighed and then again is imponderable. . . . The Mosaic word, “And there was light,” is physiologically incorrect. Light came into being only when the first red eye spot of the infusoria differentiated for the first time between light and darkness. Without the substance of the optic and auditory sense this world, glowing in colors and resounding around us, would be dark and silent. (Limits of Natural Science.)
Through the processes in the substance of our optic and auditory senses a resounding and colorful world is, according to this view, magically called into existence. The dark and silent world is physical; the sounding and colorful one is psychic. Whereby does the latter arise out of the former; how does motion change into sensation? This is where we meet, according to Du Bois-Reymond, one of the “limits of natural science.” In our brain and in the external world there are only motions; in our soul, sensations appear. We shall never be able to understand how the one can arise out of the other.
At first sight it appears is if, through the knowledge of material processes in the brain, certain processes and latent abilities can become understandable. I am thinking of our memory, the stream of the association of our thought pictures, the effect of exercise, specific talents and so forth. But a little concentration at this point tells us that this view is an error. We would only learn something concerning the inner conditions of our mental life that are approximately of the same nature as our sense impressions, but we should learn nothing that would explain how the mental life comes into existence through these conditions. What possible connections can there be between certain motions of certain atoms in my brain, on the one hand, and, on the other, such undeniable and undefinable facts expressed by the words: I feel pain; I am delighted; I taste something sweet, smell the scent of roses, hear the sound of an organ, see red, and also the certainty that immediately follows from all this, Therefore I am. It is altogether incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of perfect indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., what their position is and how they move, how this has been and how it will be.
There is no bridge for our knowledge that leads from motion to sensation. This is the credo of Du Bois-Reymond. From motion in the material world we cannot come into the psychical world of sensations. We know that sensation arises from matter in motion, but we do not know how this is possible. Also, in the world of motion we cannot go beyond motion. For our subjective perceptions we can point at certain forms of motions because we can infer the course of these motions from the process of our perceptions, but we have no conception of what it is that is moving outside in space. We say that matter moves. We follow its motions as we watch the reactions of our sensations, but as we do not observe the object in motion but only a subjective sign of it, we can never know what matter is. Du Bois-Reymond is of the opinion that we might be able to solve the riddle of sensation if the riddle of matter were disclosed. If we knew what matter is, we should probably also know how it produces sensations, but both riddles are inaccessible to our knowledge. Du Bois-Reymond meant to check those who wanted to go beyond this limit with the words, “Just let them try the only alternative that is left, namely, supra-naturalism, but be sure that science ends where supra-naturalism begins.”
The results of modern natural science are two sharply marked opposites. One of them is the current of monism. It gives the impression of penetrating directly from natural science to the most significant problems of world conception. The other declares itself incapable of proceeding any further with the means of natural science than to the insight that to a certain subjective state there is a certain corresponding process of motion. The representatives of the two currents vehemently oppose each other. Du Bois-Reymond rejected Haeckel's History of Creation as fiction (compare Du Bois-Reymond's speech, Darwin versus Galiani). The ancestral trees that Haeckel constructs on the basis of comparative anatomy, ontogeny and paleontology appear to Du Bois-Reymond to be of “approximately the same value as are the ancestral trees of the Homeric heroes in the eyes of historical criticism.” Haeckel, on the other hand, considers the view of Du Bois-Reymond to be an unscientific dilettantism that must naturally give support to the reactionary world conceptions. The jubilation of the spiritualists over Du Bois-Reymond's “Limitation Speech” was so much the more resonant and justified, as Du Bois-Reymond had, up to that time, been considered an important representative of the principle of scientific materialism.
What captivates many people in the idea of dividing the world dualistically into external processes of motion and inner, subjective processes of sensation and perception is the possibility of an application of mathematics to the external processes. If one assumes material particles (atoms) with energies to exist, one can calculate in which way such atoms have to move under the influence of these energies. What is so attractive in astronomy with its methods of strict calculations is carried into the smallest elements. The astronomer determines the motion of the celestial bodies by calculating the laws of the mechanics of the heavens. In the discovery of the planet Neptune we experienced a triumph of the mechanism of the heavens. One can also reduce the motions that take place in the external world when we hear a tone and see a color to laws that govern the motions of the celestial bodies. Possibly one will be able in the future to calculate the motion that goes on in our brain while we form the judgment, two times two is four. The moment when everything that can be expressed in mathematical formulas has been calculated will be the one in which the world has been explained mathematically. Laplace has given a captivating description of the ideal of such an explanation of the world in his Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilités (1814):
A mind that would know for a given moment all forces that activate nature as well as the mutual position of the entities of which nature consists would, if its power of comprehension were otherwise sufficient, comprehend in the same formula the motions of the largest celestial body and of the lightest atom. Nothing would be uncertain for such a mind, and the future as well as the past would be within the scope of its perfect and immediate knowledge. Man's power of reasoning offers, with the perfection that it has given to astronomy, a feeble imitation of such a mind.
Du Bois-Reymond says in connection with these words:
As the astronomer predicts the day on which a comet reemerges from the depth of world space after years in the firmament of heaven, so would this mind read in its calculation the day when the Greek cross will shine from the mosque of the Hagia Sophia and when England will burn its last coal.
There can be no doubt that even the most perfect mathematical knowledge of a process of motion would not enlighten me with regard to the question of why this motion appears to me as a red color. When one ball hits another, we can explain the direction of the second ball but we cannot in this way determine how a certain motion produces the red color. All we can say is that when a certain motion is given, a certain color is also given. While we can explain, apparently, as opposed to merely describe, what can be determined through calculation, we cannot go beyond a mere description in anything that defies calculation.
A significant confession was made by Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (1824–87) when, in 1874, he defined the task of mechanics: “It is to describe the motions occurring in nature in the most complete and simple way.” Mechanics applies mathematics. Kirchhoff confesses that with the help of mathematics no more can be obtained than a complete and simple description of the processes in nature.
To those personalities who demand of an explanation something essentially more than just a description according to certain points of view, the confession of Kirchhoff could serve as a confirmation of their belief that there are “limits to our knowledge of nature.” Referring to Kirchhoff, Du Bois-Reymond praises the wise reserve of the master, who characterizes the task of mechanics as that of describing the motions of the bodies, and places this in contrast to Ernst Haeckel, who “speaks of atom souls.”
An important attempt to base his world conception on the idea that all our perceptions are merely the result of our own organization has been made by Friedrich Albert Lange (1828–73) with his History of Materialism (1864). He had the boldness and consistency of thought that does not allow itself to be blocked by any obstacle but follows its fundamental conception to its last conclusion. Lange's strength lay in a forceful character that was expressed in many directions. His was a personality able to take up many things, and he had sufficient ability to carry them out.
One important enterprise was his renewal of Kant's conception that, with the support of modern natural science, we perceive things not as they require it, but as our organization demands it. Lange did not really produce any new conceptions, but he did throw light into given thought worlds that is rare in its brightness. Our organization, our brain, in connection with our senses, produces the world of sensation. I see “blue,” or I feel “hardness,” because I am organized in this particular way. I combine the sensations into objects. By combining the sensations of “white” and “soft,” etc., I produce, for instance, the conception of wax. When I follow my sensation with my thoughts, I do not move in the external world. My intellect produces connections within the world of my sensations according to the laws of my reason. When I saw that the qualities I perceive in a body presuppose a matter with laws of motion, I also do not go outside of myself. I find that I am forced through my organization to add the thoughts of processes of motion to my sensations.
The same mechanism that produces our sensations also produces our conception of matter. Matter, equally, is only a product of my organization, just as color and tone. Even when we speak of things in themselves, we must be clearly aware of the fact that we cannot go beyond our own realm. We are so organized that we cannot possibly go beyond ourselves. Even what lies beyond our realm can be represented to ourselves only through our conception. We become aware of a limit to our world. We argue that there must be something beyond the limit that causes sensations in us. But we can only go as far as to that limit, even the limit we set ourselves because we can go no further. “A fish can swim in water in the pond, not in the earth, but it can hit its head against the bottom and the walls.” In the same way we live within the realm of our conceptions and sensations, but not in the external things. We hit against a limit, however, where we cannot go any further, where we must say no more than that beyond this is the unknown. All conceptions we produce concerning this unknown are unjustified because we cannot do anything but relate the conceptions we have obtained within ourselves to the unknown. If we wanted to do this, we should be no wiser than a fish that would say, “Here I cannot go any further. Therefore, I want to go into some other kind of water in which I will try to swim in some other way.” But the fact is that the fish can swim only in water and nowhere else.
This is supplemented by another thought that belongs with the first line of reasoning. Lange, as the spirit of an inexorable desire for consistency, linked them together. In what situation am I when I contemplate myself? Am I not as much bound to the laws of my own organization as I am when I consider something else? My eye observes an object. Without an eye there is no color. I believe that there is an object in front of me, but on closer inspection I find that it is my eye, that is to say, I, myself, that produces the object. Now I turn my observation to my eye itself. Can I do this in any other way except by means of my organs? Is not the conception that I obtain of myself also just my idea? The world of the senses is the product of our organization. Our visible organs are like all other parts of the phenomenal world, only pictures of an unknown object. Our real organization remains, therefore, as unknown to us as the objects of the external world. What we have before us is merely the product of both. Affected by an unknown world through an unknown ego, we produce a world of conceptions that is all we have at our disposal.
Lange asks himself the question: Where does a consistent materialism lead? Let all our mental conclusions and sense perceptions be produced by the activity of our brain, which is bound to material conditions, and our sense organs, which are also material. We are then confronted with the necessity of investigating our organism in order to see how it functions, but we can do this only by means of our organs. No color without an eye, but also no eye without an eye.
The consistently materialistic view is immediately reversed into a consistently idealistic one. There is no break to be assumed in our nature. We must not attribute some functions of our being to a physical nature and others to a spiritual one, but we are justified to assume physical conditions for everything, including the mechanism of our thinking, and we should not rest until we have found them. But we are as much justified if we consider as mere pictures of the really existing world, not only the external world as it appears to us, but also the organs with which we apprehend this world. The eye with which we believe we see is itself only a product of our imagination. When we find that our visual pictures are produced by the structure and function of the eye, we must never forget that the eye with all its contrivances — the optic nerve as well as the brain and the structures we may still discover in it as causes of our thinking — are only ideas that, to be sure, form a world that is consistent and interconnected in itself, but merely a world that points beyond itself. . The senses supply us, as Helmholtz says, with the effects of the things, not with faithful pictures, and certainly not with the things themselves. Among these effects are also the senses themselves as well as the brain and the molecular movements assumed in it. (History of Materialism, 1887.)
Lange, therefore, assumes a world beyond our world that may consist of the things in themselves or that may not even have anything to do with this “thing in itself,” since even this concept, which we form at the limit of our own realm, belongs merely to the world of our ideas.
Lange's world conception, then, leads to the opinion that we have only a world of ideas. This world, however, forces us to acknowledge something beyond its own sphere. It also is completely incapable of disclosing anything about this something. This is the world conception of absolute ignorance, of agnosticism.
It is Lange's conviction that all scientific endeavor that does not limit itself to the evidence of the senses and the logical intellect that combines these elements of evidence must remain fruitless. That the senses and the intellect together, however, do not supply us with anything but a result of our own organization, he accepts as evidently following from his analysis of the origin of knowledge. The world is for him fundamentally a product of the fiction of our senses and of our intellects. Because of this opinion, he never asks the question of truth with regard to the ideas. A truth that could enlighten us about the essence of the world is not recognized by Lange. He believes he has obtained an open road for the ideas and ideals that are formed by the human mind and that he has accomplished this through the very fact that he no longer feels the need of attributing any truth to the knowledge of the senses and the intellect. Without hesitation he considered everything that went beyond sensual observation and rational combination to be mere fiction. No matter what the idealistic philosophers had thought concerning the nature of facts, for him it belonged to the realm of poetic fiction.
Through this turn that Lange gave to materialism there arose necessarily the question: Why should not the higher imaginative creations be valid if even the senses are creative? What is the difference between these two kinds of creation? A philosopher who thinks like this must have a reason for admitting certain conceptions that is quite different from the reason that influences a thinker who acknowledges a conception because he thinks it is true. For Lange, this reason is given by the fact that a conception has value for life. For him, the question is not whether or not a conception is true, but whether it is valuable for man. One thing, however, must be clearly recognized: That I see a rose as red, that I connect the effect with the cause, is something I have in common with all creatures endowed with the power of perception and thinking. My senses and my reason cannot produce any additional values, but if I go beyond the imaginative product of senses and reason, then I am no longer bound to the organization of the whole human species. Schiller, Hegel and every Tom, Dick and Harry sees a flower in the same way. What Schiller weaves in poetic imagination around the flower, what Hegel thinks about it, is not imagined by Tom, Dick and Harry in the same way. But just as Tom, Dick and Harry are mistaken when they think that the flower is an entity existing externally, so Schiller and Hegel would be in error if they took their ideas for anything more than poetic fiction that satisfied their spiritual needs. What is poetically created through the senses and the intellect belongs to the whole human race, and no one in this respect can be different from anybody else. What goes beyond the creation of the senses and of reason is the concern of the individual. Nevertheless, this imaginative creation of the individual is also granted a value by Lange for the whole human race, provided that the individual creator “who produces it is normal, richly gifted and typical in his mode of thinking, and is, through his force of spirit, qualified to be a leader.”
In this way, Lange believes that he can secure for the ideal world its value by declaring that also the so-called real world is a product of poetic creation. Wherever he may look, Lange sees only fiction, beginning with the lowest stage of sense perception where “the individual still appears subject to the general characteristics of the human species, and culminating with the creative power in poetry.”
The function of the senses and of the combining intellect, which produce what is reality for us, can be called a lower function if one compares them with the soaring flight of the spirit in the creative arts. But, in general and in their totality, these functions cannot be classified as a principally different activity of the mind. As little as our reality is a reality according to our heart's desire, it is nevertheless the firm foundation of our whole spiritual existence. The individual grows out of the soil of the species, and the general and necessary process of knowledge forms the only secure foundation for the individual's rise to an esthetic conception of the world. (History of Materialism.)
What Lange considers to be the error of the idealistic world conception is not that it goes beyond the world of the senses and the intellect with its ideas, but that it believes it possesses in these ideas more than the individual thinker's poetic fantasy. One should build up for oneself an ideal world, but one should be aware that this ideal world is no more than poetic imagination. If this idealism maintains it is more than that, materialism will rise time and again with the claim: I have the truth; idealism is poetry. Be that so, says Lange: Idealism is poetry, but materialism is also poetry. In idealism the individual is the creator, in materialism, the species. If they both are aware of their natures, everything is in its right place: the science of the senses and the intellect that provide proofs for the whole species, as well as the poetry of ideas with all its conceptions that are produced by the individual and still retain their value for the race.
One thing is certain: Man is in need of an ideal world created by himself as a supplement of reality, and the highest and noblest functions of his spirit are actively combined in such creations. But is this free activity of the spirit to be allowed repeatedly to assume the deceptive form of a proof-establishing science? If so, materialism will emerge again and again to destroy the bolder speculations and try to satisfy reason's demand for unity with a minimum of elevation above the real and actually provable. (History of Materialism.)
In Lange's thinking, complete idealism is combined with a complete surrender of truth itself. The world for him is poetry, but a poetry that he does not value any less than he would if he could acknowledge it as reality.
Thus, two currents of a distinctly natural scientific character can be distinguished as abruptly opposing each other in the development of modern world conception: The monistic current in which Haeckel's mode of conception moved, and the dualistic one, the most forceful and consistent defender of which was Friedrich Albert Lange. Monism considers the world that man can observe to be a true reality and has no doubt that a thinking process that depends on observation can also obtain knowledge of essential significance concerning this reality. Monism does not imagine that it is possible to exhaust the fundamental nature of the world with a few boldly thought out formulas. It proceeds as it follows the facts, and forms new ideas in regard to the connections of these facts. It is convinced, however, that these ideas do supply a knowledge of a true reality. The dualistic conception of Lange divides the world into a known and an unknown part. It treats the first part in the same fashion as monism, following the lead of observation and reflective thought, but it believes that nothing at all can be known concerning the true essential core of the world through this observation and through this thought. Monism believes in the truth of the real and sees the human world of ideas best supported if it is based on the world of observations. In the ideas and ideals that the monist derives from natural existence, he sees something that is fully satisfactory to his feeling and to his moral need. He finds in nature the highest existence, which he does not only want to penetrate with his thinking for the purpose of knowledge, but to which he surrenders with all his knowledge and with all his love.
In Lange's dualism nature is considered to be unfit to satisfy the spirit's highest needs. Lange must assume a special world of higher poetry for this spirit that leads beyond the results of observation and its corresponding thought. For monism, true knowledge represents a supreme spiritual value, which, because of its truth, grants man also the purest moral and religious pathos. To dualism, knowledge cannot present such a satisfaction. Dualism must measure the value of life by other things, not by the truth it might yield. The ideas are not valuable because they participate in the truth. They are of value because they serve life in its highest forms. Life is not valued by means of the ideas, but the ideas are appreciated because of their fruitfulness for life. It is not for true knowledge that man strives but for valuable thoughts.
In recognizing the mode of thinking of natural science Friedrich Albert Lange agrees with monism insofar as he denies the uses of all other sources for the knowledge of reality, but he also denies this mode of thinking any possibility to penetrate into the essential of things. In order to make sure that he himself moves on solid ground he curtails the wings of human imagination. What Lange is doing in such an incisive fashion corresponds to an inclination of thought that is deeply ingrained in the development of modern world conception. This is shown with perfect clarity also in another sphere of thinking of the nineteenth century. This thinking developed, through various stages, viewpoints from which Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) started as he laid the foundations for a dualism in England. Spencer's dualism appeared at approximately the same time as Lange's in Germany, which strove for natural scientific knowledge of the world on the one hand and, on the other, confessed to agnosticism so far as the essence of things is concerned. When Darwin published his work, The Origin of Species, he could praise the natural scientific mode of thought of Spencer:
Mr. Herbert Spencer, in an Essay (1852), has contrasted the theories of the Creation and the Development of organic beings with remarkable skill and force. He argues from the analogy of domestic production, from the changes which the embryos of many species undergo, from the difficulty of distinguishing species and varieties, and from the principle of general gradation that species have been modified; and he attributes the modification to the change of circumstances. The author (1855) has also treated Psychology on the principle of the necessary requirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. (The Origin of Species, Historical Sketch.)
Also, other thinkers who followed the method of natural science felt attracted to Spencer because he tried to explain all reality from the inorganic to the psychological in the manner expressed in Darwin's words above. But Spencer also sides with the agnostics, so that Lange is justified when he says, “Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy is closely related to ours, believes in a materialism of the phenomenal world, the relative justification of which, within the realm of natural science, finds its limit in a thought of an unknowable absolute.”
It is quite likely that Spencer arrived at his viewpoint from assumptions similar to those of Lange. He had been preceded in England by thinkers who were guided by a twofold interest. They wanted to determine what it is that man really possesses with his knowledge, but they also were resolved not to shatter by doubt or reason the essential substance of the world. They were all more or less dominated by the sentiment that Kant described when he said, “I had to suspend knowledge in order to make room for belief.” (Compare the first volume of this book.)
The beginning of the development of the world conception of the nineteenth century in England is marked by the figure of Thomas Reid (1710–96). The fundamental conviction of this man can be expressed in Goethe's words as he describes his own activity as a scientist as non-speculative: “In the last analysis it seems to me that my method consists merely m the practical and self-rectifying operations of common sense that dares to practice its function in a higher sphere.” (Compare Goethe's Werke, Vol. 38, p. 595 in Kürschner's Deutsche National Literatur.) This common sense does not doubt in any way that it is confronted with real essential things and processes as it contemplates the world. Reid believes that a world conception is viable only if it upholds this basic view of a healthy common sense. Even if one admitted the possibility that our observation could be deceptive and that the true nature of things could be different from the picture that is supplied to us by our senses and our intellect, it would not be necessary to pay any attention to such a possibility. We find our way through life only if we believe in our observation; nothing beyond that is our concern.
In taking this point of view Reid is convinced that he can arrive at really satisfactory truths. He makes no attempt to obtain a conception of things through complicated thought operations but wants to reach his aim by going back to the basic principles that the soul instinctively assumes. Instinctively, unconsciously, the soul possesses what is correct, before the attempt is made to illumine the mind's own nature with the torch of consciousness. It knows instinctively what to think in regard to the qualities and processes of the physical world, and it is endowed instinctively with the direction of moral behavior, of a judgment concerning good and evil. Through his reference to the truths innate in “common sense,” Reid directs the attention of thought toward an observation of the soul. This tendency toward a psychological observation becomes a lasting and characteristic trait in the development of the English world conception.
Outstanding personalities within this development are William Hamilton (1788–1856), Henry Mansel (1820–71), William Whewell (1794–1866), John Herschel (1792 – 1871), James Mill (1773–1836), John Stuart Mill (1806 – 73), Alexander Bain (1818–1903) and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). They all place psychology in the center of their world conception.
William Hamilton also recognizes as truth what the soul from the beginning feels inclined to accept as true. With respect to fundamental truths proofs and comprehension ceases. All one can do is observe their emergence at the horizon of our consciousness. In this sense they are incomprehensible. But one of the fundamental manifestations of our consciousness is also that everything in this world depends on something that is unknown to us. We find in this world in which we live only dependent things, but not absolutely independent ones. Such independent things must exist, however. When a dependent thing is found, an independent thing is assumed. With our thinking we do not enter the independent entity. Human knowledge is meant for the dependent and it becomes involved in contradictions if its thoughts, which are well-suited to the dependent, are applied to the independent. Knowledge, therefore, must withdraw as we approach the entrance toward the independent. Religious belief is here in its place. It is only through his admission that he cannot know anything of the essential core of the world that man can be a moral being. He can accept a God who causes a moral order in the world. As soon as it has been understood that all logic has exclusively to do with the dependent, not the independent, no logic can destroy this belief in an infinite God.
Henry Mansel was a pupil and follower of Hamilton, but he expressed Hamilton's view in still more extreme forms. It is not going too far to say that Mansel was an advocate of belief who no longer judged impartially between religion and knowledge, but who defended religious dogma with partiality. He was of the opinion that the revealed truths of religion involve our knowledge necessarily in contradictions. This is not supposed to be the fault of the revealed truths but has its cause in the limitation of the human mind, which can never penetrate into regions from which the statements of revelation arise.
William Whewell believed that he could best obtain a conception concerning the significance, origin and value of human knowledge by investigating the method through which leading men of science arrived at their insights. In his History of the Inductive Sciences (1840), he set out to analyze the psychology of scientific investigation. Thus, by studying outstanding scientific discoveries, he hoped to find out how much of these accomplishments was due to the external world and how much to man himself. Whewell finds that the human mind always supplements its scientific observations. Kepler, for example, had the idea of an ellipse before he found that the planets move in ellipses. Thus, the sciences do not come about through a mere reception from without but through the active participation of the human mind that impresses its laws on the given elements. These sciences do not extend as far as the last entities of things. They are concerned with the particulars of the world. Just as everything, for instance, is assumed to have a cause, such a cause must also be presupposed for the whole world. Since knowledge fails us with respect to that cause, the dogma of religion must step in as a supplement. Herschel, like Whewell, also tried to gain an insight into the genesis of knowledge in the human mind through the observation of many examples. His Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy appeared in 1831.
John Stuart Mill belongs with those thinkers who are deeply imbued with the conviction that one cannot be cautious enough in determining what is certain and uncertain in human knowledge. The fact that he was introduced to the most diversified branches of knowledge in his boyhood, most likely gave his mind its characteristic turn. As a child of three he received instructions in the Greek language, and soon afterwards was taught arithmetic. He was exposed to the other fields of instruction at a correspondingly early age. Of even greater importance was the method of instruction used by his father, James Mill, who was himself an important thinker. Through him vigorous logic became the second nature of John Stuart. From his autobiography we learn: “Anything which could be found out by thinking I was never told until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself.” The things that occupy the thinking of such a person must become his destiny in the proper sense of the word. “I have never been a child, I have never played cricket. It is, after all, better to let nature take its own course,” says John Stuart Mill as one whose destiny had so uniquely been to live almost exclusively in thinking. Because of his development, he had to experience to the fullest the problems concerning the significance of knowledge. How can knowledge, which for him was life, lead also to the source of the phenomena of the world? The direction in which Mill's thought developed in order to obtain clarity concerning these problems was probably determined early by his father. James Mill had proceeded by starting from psychological experience. He had observed the process by which idea is linked to idea in man's mind. Through connecting one concrete idea to another we obtain our knowledge of the world. We must then ask ourselves: What is the relation between the order in which the ideas are linked and the order of the things in the world? Through such a mode of conception our thinking begins to distrust its own power because man can associate ideas in a manner that is entirely different from the connection of the things in the external world. This mistrust is the basis of John Stuart Mill's logic, which appeared in 1843 as his chief work under the title, System of Logic.
In matters of world conception a more pronounced contrast is scarcely thinkable than that between Mill's Logic and Hegel's Science of Logic, which appeared twenty-seven years earlier. In Hegel we find the highest confidence in thinking, the full assurance that we cannot be deceived by what we experience within ourselves. Hegel experiences himself as a part, a member of the world, and what he experiences within himself must also belong to the world. Since he has the most direct knowledge of himself, he believes in the content of this knowledge and judges the rest of the world accordingly. He argues as follows: When I perceive an external thing, it is possible that the thing shows only its surface to me and that its essence remains concealed. This is not possible in my own case. I understand my own being. I can then compare the things outside with my own being. If they reveal some element of my own essence on their surface, I am justified in attributing to them something of my own nature. It is for this reason that Hegel expects confidently to find outside in nature the very spirit and the thought connections that he finds within himself.
Mill, however, experiences himself not as a part of the world but as a spectator. The things outside are an unknown element to him and the thoughts that man forms concerning them are met by Mill with distrust. One observes men and learns from his observations that all men die. One forms the judgment that all men are mortal. The Duke of Wellington is a man; therefore, the Duke of Wellington is mortal. This is the conclusion the observer comes to. What gives him the right to do so? This is the question John Stuart Mill asks. If a single human being would prove to be immortal, the whole judgment would be upset. Are we justified in supposing that, because all men up to this time have died, they will continue to do so in the future? All knowledge is uncertain because we draw conclusions from observations we have made and transfer them to things we cannot know anything about, since we have not observed them directly. What would somebody who thinks like Hegel have to say about such a conception? It is not difficult to imagine the answer. We know from definite concepts that in every circle all diameters are equal. If we find a circle in the real world, we maintain that its diameters, too, are equal. If we observe it a quarter of an hour later and find that its diameters are unequal, we do not decide that under certain circumstances the diameter of a circle can also be unequal. But we say that what was formerly a circle has for some reason been elongated into an ellipse.
If we think like Hegel, this is the attitude we take toward the judgment, all men are mortal. It is not through observation but through an inner thought experience that we form the concept of man. For the concept of man, mortality is as essential as the equality of the diameters is for the concept of the circle. If we find a being in the real world that has all the other characteristics of man, we conclude that this being must also have that of mortality, in the same way that all other properties of the circle allow us to conclude that it has also that of the equality of diameters. If Hegel came across a being that did not die, he could only say, “That is not a man.” He could not say, “A man can also be immortal.” Hegel makes the assumption that the concepts in us are not arbitrarily formed but have their root in the essence of the world, as we ourselves belong to this essence. Once the concept of man has formed within us, it is clear that it has its origin in the essence of things, and we are fully justified in applying it to this essence. Why has this concept of mortal man formed within us? Surely only because it has its ground in the nature of things. A person who believes that man stands entirely outside of the order of things and forms his judgments as an outsider can argue that we have until now seen men die, and therefore we form the spectator concept: mortal men. The thinker who is aware that he himself belongs to the order of things and that it is they that are manifested within his thoughts, forms the judgment that up to this time all men have died; to die, then, is something that belongs to their nature, and if somebody does not die, he is not a man but something else. Hegel's logic has become a logic of things: For Hegel, the manifestation of logic is an effect of the essence of the world; it is not something that the human mind has added from an outside source to this essence. Mill's logic is the logic of a bystander, of a mere spectator who starts out by cutting the thread through which it is connected with the world.
Mill points out that the thoughts, which in a certain age appear as absolutely certain inner experiences, are nevertheless reversed in a later time. In the Middle Ages it was, for instance, believed that there could not possibly be antipodes and that the stars would have to drop from the sky if they did not cling to fixed spheres. Man will, therefore, only be capable of the right attitude toward his knowledge if he, in spite of his awareness that the logic of the world is expressed in this knowledge, forms in every individual case his judgment through a careful methodical examination of his conceptual connections guided by observation, a judgment that is always in need of correction.
It is the method of observation that John Stuart Mill attempts to determine with cool detachment and calculation. Let us take an example. Suppose a phenomenon had always occurred under certain conditions. In a given case a number of these conditions appear again, but a few of them are now missing. The phenomenon in question does not occur. We are forced to conclude that the conditions that were not provided and the phenomenon that failed to occur stood in a causal relationship. If two substances have always combined to form a chemical compound and this result fails to be obtained in a given case, it is necessary to inquire what condition is lacking that had always been present before. Through a method of this kind we arrive at conceptions concerning connections of facts that can be rightly considered as being grounded in the nature of things. Mill wants to follow the methods of observation in his analysis. Logic, which Kant maintained had not progressed a single step since Aristotle, is a means of orientation within our thinking itself. It shows how to proceed from one correct thought to the next. Mill's logic is a means of orientation within the world of facts. It intends to show how one obtains valid judgments about things from observation. He does not even admit mathematics as an exception. Mathematics must also derive its basic insights from observation. For example, in all observed cases we have seen that two intersecting straight lines diverge and do not intersect again. Therefore we conclude that they will never intersect again, but we do not have a perfect proof for this statement. For John Stuart Mill, the world is thus an alien element. Man observes its phenomena and arranges them according to what they announce to his conceptual life. He perceives regularities in the phenomena and through logical, methodical investigations of these regularities he arrives at the laws of nature. But there is nothing that leads him to the principle of the things themselves. One can well imagine that the world could also be entirely different. Mill is convinced that everybody who is used to abstraction and analysis and who seriously uses his abilities will, after a sufficient exercise of his imagination, have no difficulty with the idea that there could be another stellar system in which nothing could be found of the laws that have application to our own.
Mill is merely consistent in his bystander viewpoint of the world when he extends it to man's own ego. Mental pictures come and go, are combined and separated within his inner life; this is what man observes. He does not observe a being that remains identical with itself as “ego” in the midst of this constant flow of ideas. He has observed that mental pictures emerge within him and he assumes that this will continue to be the case. From this possibility, namely, that a world of perceptions can be grouped around a center, arises the conception of an “ego.” Thus, man is a spectator also with respect to his own “ego.” He has his conceptions tell him what he can know about himself. Mill reflects on the facts of memory and expectation. If everything that I know of myself is to consist of conceptual presentations, then I cannot say: I remember a conception that I have had at an earlier time, or I expect the occurrence of a certain experience, but I must say: A present conception remembers itself or expects its future occurrence. If we speak, so Mill argues, of the mind as of a sequence of perceptions, we must also speak of a sequence of perceptions that is aware of itself as becoming and passing. As a result, we find ourselves in the dilemma of having to say that either the “ego” or the mind is something to be distinguished from the perceptions, or else we must maintain the paradox that a mere sequence of perceptions is capable of an awareness of its past and future. Mill does not overcome this dilemma. It contains for him an insoluble enigma. The fact is that he has torn the bond between himself, the observer, and the world, and he is not capable of restoring the connection. The world for him remains an unknown beyond himself that produces impressions on man. All man knows of this transcendent unknown is that it can produce perceptions in him. Instead of having the possibility of knowing real things outside himself, he can only say in the end that there are opportunities for having perceptions. Whoever speaks of things in themselves uses empty words. We move on the firm ground of facts only as long as we speak of the continuous possibility of the occurrence of sensations, perceptions and conceptions.
John Stuart Mill has an intense aversion to all thoughts that are gained in any way except through the comparison of facts, the observation of the similar, the analogous, and the homogeneous elements in all phenomena. He is of the opinion that the human conduct of life can only be harmed if we surrender to the belief that we could arrive at any truth in any way except through observation. This disinclination of Mill demonstrates his hesitation to relate himself in his striving for knowledge to the things of reality in any other way than by an attitude of passivity. The things are to dictate to man what he has to think about them. If man goes beyond this state of receptivity in order to say something out of his own self about the things, then he lacks every assurance that this product of his own activity has anything to do with the things. What is finally decisive in this philosophy is the fact that the thinker who maintains it is unable to count his own spontaneous thinking as belonging to the world. The very fact that he himself is active in this thinking makes him suspicious and misleads him. He would best of all like to eliminate his own self completely, to be absolutely sure that no erroneous element is mixed into the objective statements of the phenomena. He does not sufficiently appreciate the fact that his thinking is a part of nature as much as the growth of a leaf of grass. It is evident that one must also examine one's own spontaneous thinking if one wants to find out something concerning it.
How is man, to use a statement of Goethe, to become acquainted with his relation to himself and to the external world if he wants to eliminate himself completely in the cognitive process? Great as Mill's merits are for finding methods through which man can learn those things that do not depend on him, a view concerning man's relation to himself and of his relation to the external world cannot be obtained by his methods. All these methods are valid only for the special sciences, not, however, for a comprehensive world conception. No observation can teach what spontaneous thinking is; only thinking can experience this in itself. As this thinking can only obtain information concerning its own nature through its own power, it is also the only source that can shed light on the relation between itself and the external world. Mill's method of investigation excludes the possibility of obtaining a world conception because a world conception can be gained only through thinking that is concentrated in itself and thereby succeeds in obtaining an insight into its own relation to the external world. The fact that John Stuart Mill had an aversion to this kind of self-supporting thinking can be well understood from his character. Gladstone said in a letter (compare Gompertz: John Stuart Mill, Vienna, 1889) that in conversation he used to call Mill the “Saint of Rationalism.” A person who practices thinking in this way imposes rigorous demands on thinking and looks for the greatest possible precautionary measures so that it cannot deceive him. He becomes thereby mistrustful with respect to thinking itself. He believes that he will soon stand on insecure ground if he loses hold of external points of support. Uncertainty with regard to all problems that go beyond strictly observational knowledge is a basic trait in Mill's personality. In reading his books we see everywhere that Mill treats such problems as open questions concerning which he does not risk a sure judgment.
The belief that the true nature of things is unknowable is also maintained by Herbert Spencer. He proceeds by asking: How do I obtain what I call truths concerning the world? I make certain observations concerning things and form judgments about them. I observe that hydrogen and oxygen under certain conditions combine to form water. I form a judgment concerning this observation. This is a truth that extends only over a small circle of things. I then observe under what circumstances other substances combine. I compare the individual observations and thereby arrive at more comprehensive, more general truths concerning the process in which substances in general form chemical compounds. All knowledge consists in this; we proceed from particular truths to more comprehensive ones. We finally arrive at the highest truth, which cannot be subordinated to any other and which we therefore must accept without further explanation. In this process of knowledge we have, however, no means of penetrating to the absolute essence of the world, for thinking can, according to this opinion, do no more than compare the various things with one another and formulate general truths with respect to the homogeneous element in them. But the ultimate nature of the world cannot, because of its uniqueness, be compared to any other thing. This is why thinking fails with regard to the ultimate nature. It cannot reach it.
In such modes of conception we always sense, as an undertone, the thinking that developed from the basis of the physiology of the senses (compare above to the first part of this Chapter). In many philosophers this thought has inserted itself so deeply into their intellectual life that they consider it the most certain thought possible. They argue as follows: One can know things only by becoming aware of them. They then change this thought, more or less unconsciously, into: One can know only of those things that enter our consciousness, but it remains unknown how the things were before they entered our consciousness. It is for this reason that sense perceptions are considered as if they were in our consciousness, for one is of the opinion that they must first enter our consciousness and must become part of it in the form of conceptions if we are to be aware of them.
Also, Spencer clings to the view that the possibility of the process of knowledge depends on us as human beings. We therefore must assume an unknowable element beyond that which can be transmitted to us by our senses and our thinking. We have a clear consciousness of everything that is present in our mind. But an indefinite consciousness is associated with this clear awareness that claims that everything we can observe and think has as its basis something we can no longer observe and think. We know that we are dealing with mere appearances and not with full realities existing independently by themselves. But this is just because we know definitely that our world is only appearance, that we also know that an unimaginable real world is its basis. Through such turns of thought Spencer believes it possible to arrange a complete reconciliation between religion and knowledge. There is something that religion can grasp in belief, in a belief that cannot be shaken by an impotent knowledge.
The field, however, that Spencer considers to be accessible to knowledge must, for him, entirely take on the form of natural scientific conceptions. When Spencer himself ventures to explain, he does so in the sense of natural science.
Spencer uses the method of natural science in thinking of the process of knowledge. Every organ of a living being has come into existence through the fact that this being has adapted itself to the conditions under which it lives. It belongs to the human conditions of life that man finds his way through the world with the aid of thinking. His organ of knowledge develops through the adaptation of his conceptual life to the conditions of his external life. By making statements concerning things and processes, man adjusts himself to the surrounding world. All truths have come into being through this process of adaptation, and what is acquired in this way can be transmitted through inheritance to the descendants. Those who think that man, through his nature, possesses once and for all a certain disposition toward general truths are wrong. What appears to be such a disposition did not exist at an earlier stage in the ancestors of man, but has been acquired by adaptation and transmitted to the descendants. When some philosophers speak of truths that man does not have to derive from his own individual experience but that are given a priori in his organization, they are right in a certain respect. While it is obvious that such truths are acquired, it must be stressed that they are not acquired by man as an individual but as a species. The individual has inherited the finished product of an ability that has been acquired at an earlier age.
Goethe once said that he had taken part in many conversations on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and that he had noticed how on those occasions the old basic problem had been renewed, “How much does our inner self contribute to our spiritual existence, how much the external world?” And Goethe goes on to say, “I had never separated the two; when I was philosophizing in my own way on things, I did so with an unconscious naïveté and was really convinced that I saw with my eyes my opinion before me.”
Spencer looks at this “old basic problem” from the point of view of natural science. He believed he could show that the developed human being also contributed to his spiritual existence through his own self. This self, is also made up of the inherited traits that had been acquired by our ancestors in their struggle with the external world. If we today believe we see with our eyes our opinions before us, we must remember that they were not always our opinions but that they were once observations that were really made by our eyes in the external world. Spencer's way of thinking, then, is, like that of John Stuart Mill, one that proceeds from psychology. But Mill does not go further than the psychology of the individual. Spencer goes from the individual back to his ancestors. The psychology of the individual is in the same position as the ontogenesis of zoology. Certain phenomena of the history of the individual are explainable only if they are referred back to phenomena of the history of the species. In the same way, the facts of the individual's consciousness cannot be understood if taken alone. We must go back to the species. We must, indeed, go back beyond the human species to acquisitions of knowledge that were accomplished by the animal ancestors of man. Spencer uses his great acumen to support this evolutionary history of the process of cognition. He shows in which way the mental activities have gradually developed from low stages at the beginning, through ever more accurate adaptations of the human mind to the external world and through inheritance of these adaptation. Every insight that the individual human being obtains through pure thought and without experience about things has been obtained by humanity or its ancestors through observation or experience. Leibniz thought he could explain the correspondence of man's inner life with the external world by assuming a harmony between them that was pre-established by the creator. Spencer explains this correspondence in the manner of natural science. The harmony is not pre-established, but gradually developed. We here find the continuation of natural scientific thinking to the highest aspects of human existence. Linnaeus had declared that every living organic form existed because the creator had made it as it is. Darwin maintained that it is as it is because it had gradually developed through adaptation and inheritance. Leibniz declared that thinking is an agreement with the external world because the creator had established this agreement. Spencer maintained that this agreement is there because it has gradually developed through adaptations and inheritance of the thought world.
Spencer was motivated in his thought by the need for a naturalistic explanation of spiritual phenomena. He found the general direction for such an explanation in Lyell's geology (compare in Part 2 Chapter I). In this geology, to be sure, the idea is still rejected that organic forms have gradually developed one from another. It nevertheless receives a powerful support through the fact that the inorganic (geological) formations of the earth's surface are explained through such a gradual development and through violent catastrophes. Spencer, who had a natural scientific education and who had for a time also been active as a civil engineer, recognized at once the full extent of the idea of evolution, and he applied it in spite of Lyell's opposition to it. He even applied this idea to spiritual processes. As early as 1850, in his book, Social Statistics, he described social evolution in analogy with organic evolution. He also acquainted himself with the studies of Harvey and Wolff in embryonic development (compare Part I, Chapter IX of this book), and he plunged into the works of Karl Ernst von Baer (compare above in Part II Chapter II), which showed him that evolution proceeded from the development of a homogeneous uniform state to one of variety, diversity and abundance. In the early stages of embryological development the organisms are very similar; later they become different from one another (compare above in Part II Chapter II). Through Darwin this evolutionary thought was completely confirmed. From a few original organic forms the whole wealth of the highly diversified world of formations has developed.
From the idea of evolution, Spencer wanted to proceed to the most general truths, which, in his opinion, constituted the aim of all human striving for knowledge. He believed that one could discover manifestations of this evolutionary thought in the simplest phenomena. When, from dispersed particles of water, a cloud is formed in the sky, when a sand pile is formed from scattered grains of sand, Spencer saw the beginnings of an evolutionary process. Dispersed matter is contracted and concentrated to a whole. It is just this process that is presented to us in the Kant-Laplace hypothesis of world evolution. Dispersed parts of a chaotic world nebula have contracted. The organism originates in just this way. Dispersed elements are concentrated in tissues. The psychologist can observe that man contracts dispersed observations into general truths. Within this concentrated whole, articulation and differentiation take place. The original homogeneous mass is differentiated into the individual heavenly bodies of the solar system; the organism differentiates itself into the various organs.
Concentration alternates with dissolution. When a process of evolution has reached a certain climax, an equilibrium takes place. Man, for instance, develops until he has evolved a maximum of harmonization of his inner abilities with external nature. Such a state of equilibrium, however, cannot last; external forces will effect it destructively. The evolutionary process must be followed by a process of dissolution; what had been concentrated is dispersed again; the cosmic again becomes chaotic. The process of evolution can begin anew. Thus, Spencer sees the process of the world as a rhythmic play of motion. It is certainly not an uninteresting observation for the comparative history of the evolution of world conception that Spencer, from the observation of the genesis of world phenomena, reaches here a conclusion that is similar to one Goethe expressed in connection with his ideas concerning the genesis of life. Goethe describes the growth of a plant in the following way:
May the plant sprout, blossom or bear fruit, it is always by the same organs that the prescription of nature is fulfilled in various functions and under frequently changing forms. The same organ, which at the stem expands as a leaf and takes on a most differentiated shape, now contracts again in the calyx, spreads out in the petal, epitomizes in the organs of reproduction and finally once more swells as fruit.
If one thinks of this conception as being transferred to the whole process of the world, one arrives as Spencer's contraction and dispersion of matter.
Spencer and Mill exerted a great influence on the development of world conception in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rigorous emphasis on observation and the one-sided elaboration of the methods of observational knowledge of Mill, along with the application of the conceptions of natural science to the entire scope of human knowledge by Spencer could not fail to meet with the approval of an age that saw in the idealistic world conception of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel nothing but degeneration of human thinking. It was an age that showed appreciation only for the successes of the research work of natural science. The lack of unity among the idealistic thinkers and what seemed to many a perfect fruitfulness of a thinking that was completely concentrated and absorbed in itself, had to produce a deep-seated suspicion against idealism. One may say that a widespread view of the last four decades of the nineteenth century is clearly expressed in words spoken by Rudolf Virchow in his address, The Foundation of the University of Berlin and the Transition from the Age of Philosophy into that of Natural Science (1893): “Since the belief in magic formulas has been forced back into the most backward circles of the people, the formulas of the natural philosopher have met with little approval.” And one of the most significant philosophers of the second half of the century, Eduard von Hartmann, sums up the character of his world conception in the motto he placed at the head of his book, Philosophy of the Unconscious: Speculative Results Obtained by the Inductive Method of Natural Science. He is of the opinion that it is necessary to recognize “the greatness of the progress brought about by Mill, through which all attempts of a deductive method of philosophy have been defeated and made obsolete for all times.” (Compare Eduard von Hartmann, Geschichte der Metaphysik, 2 part, page 479.)
The recognition of certain limits of human knowledge that was shown by many naturalists was also received favorably by many religiously attuned souls. They argued as follows: The natural scientists observe the inorganic and organic facts of nature and they attempt to find general laws by combining the individual phenomena. Through these laws processes can be explained, and it is even possible to predetermine thereby the regular course of future phenomena. A comprehensive world conception should proceed in the same way; it should confine itself to the facts, establish general truths within moderate limits and not maintain any claim to penetrate into the realm of the “unknowable.” Spencer, with his complete separation of the “knowable” and the “unknowable,” met the demand of such religious needs to a high degree. The idealistic mode of thought was, on the other hand, considered by such religiously inclined spirits to be a fantastic aberration. As a matter of principle, the idealistic mode of conception cannot recognize an “unknowable,” because it has to uphold the conviction that through the concentrated penetration into the inner life of man a knowledge can be attained that covers not merely the outer surface of the world but also its real core.
The thought life of some influential naturalists, such as Thomas Henry Huxley, moved entirely in the direction of such religiously inclined spirits. Huxley believed in a complete agnosticism with regard to the essence of the world. He declared that a monism, which is in general agreement with Darwin's results, is applicable only to external nature. Huxley was one of the first to defend the Darwinian conceptions, but he is at the same time one of the most outspoken representatives of those thinkers who believed in the limitation of that mode of conception. A similar view is also held by the physicist Johaan Tyndall (1820–93) who considered the world process to be an energy that is completely inaccessible to the human intellect. According to him, it is precisely the assumption that everything in the world comes into existence through a natural evolution that makes it impossible to accept the thought that matter, which is, after all, the carrier of the whole evolution, should be no more than what our intellect can comprehend of it.
A characteristic phenomenon of his time is the personality of the English statesman, James Balfour (1840–1930). In 1879, in his book, A Defense of Philosophical Doubt, Being an Essay on the Foundations of Belief, he expressed a credo that is doubtless similar to that held by many other thinkers. With respect to everything that man is capable of explaining he stands completely on the ground of the thought of natural science. For him, there is no other knowledge but natural science, but he maintains at the same time that his knowledge of natural science is only rightly understood if it is clear that the needs of man's soul and reason can never be satisfied by it. It is only necessary to understand that, in the last analysis even in natural science, everything depends on faith in the ultimate truths for which no further proof is possible. But no harm is done in that this trend of thoughts leads us only to belief, because this belief is a secure guide for our action in daily life. We believe in the laws of nature and we master them through this belief. We thereby force nature to serve us for our purpose. Religious belief is to produce an agreement between the actions of man and his higher needs that go beyond his everyday life.
The world conceptions that have been discussed under the title, “The World as Illusion,” show that they have as their basis a longing for a satisfactory relationship of the self-conscious ego to the general world picture. It is especially significant that they do not consciously consider this search as their philosophical aim, and therefore do not expressly turn their inquiry toward that purpose. Instinctively as it were, they permit their thinking to be influenced by the direction that is determined by this unconscious search. The form that this search takes is determined by the conceptions of modern natural science. We approach the fundamental character of these conceptions if we fix our attention on the concept of “consciousness.” This concept was introduced to the life of modern philosophy by Descartes. Before him, it was customary to depend more on the concept of the “soul” as such. Little attention was paid to the fact that only a part of the soul's life is spent in connection with conscious phenomena. During sleep the soul does not live consciously. Compared to the conscious life, the nature of the soul must therefore consist of deeper forces, which in the waking state are merely lifted into consciousness. The more one asked the question of the justification and the value of knowledge in the light of clear and distinct ideas, however, the more it was also felt that the soul finds the most certain elements of knowledge when it does not go beyond its own limits and when it does not delve deeper into itself than consciousness extends. The opinion prevailed that everything else may be uncertain, but what my consciousness is, at least, as such is certain. Even the house I pass may not exist without me; that the image of this house is now in my consciousness: this I may maintain. But as soon as we fix our attention on this consciousness, the concept of the ego inevitably grows together with that of the consciousness. Whatever kind of entity the “ego” may be outside the consciousness, the realm of the “ego” can be conceived as extending as far as the consciousness. There is no possibility of denying that the sensual world picture, which the soul experiences consciously, has come into existence through the impression that is made on man by the world. But as soon as one clings to this statement, it becomes difficult to rid oneself of it, for there is a tendency thereby to imply the judgment that the processes of the world are the causes, and that the content of our consciousness is the effect. Because one thinks that only the effect is contained in the consciousness, it is believed that the cause must be in a world outside man as an imperceptible “thing in itself.” The presentation that is given above shows how the results of modern physiological research lead to an affirmation of such an opinion. It is just this opinion through which the “ego” finds itself enclosed with its subjective experiences within its own boundaries. This subtly produced intellectual illusion, once formed, cannot be destroyed as long as the ego does not find any clues within itself of which it knows that they refer to a being outside the subjective consciousness, although they are actually depicted within that consciousness. The ego must, outside the sensual consciousness, feel a contact with entities that guarantee their being by and through themselves. It must find something within that leads it outside itself. been said here concerning thoughts that are brought to life can have this effect. As long as the ego has experienced thought only within itself, it feels itself confined with it within its own boundary. As thought is brought to life it emancipates the ego from a mere subjective existence. A process takes place that is, to be sure, experienced subjectively by the ego, but by its own nature is an objective process. This breaks the “ego” loose from everything that it can feel only as subjective.
So we see that also the conceptions for which the world is illusion move toward a point that is reached when Hegel's world picture is so transformed that its thought comes to life. These conceptions take on the form that is necessary for a world picture that is unconsciously driven by an impulse in that direction. But in them, thinking still lacks the power to work its way through to that aim. Even in their imperfection, however, these conceptions receive their general character from this aim, and the ideas that appear are the external symptoms of active forces that remain concealed.