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   Chapter 4 A NEW SCHOLASTICISM

Winds Of Doctrine By George Santayana Characters: 10986

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


In its chase after idols this age has not wholly forgotten the gods, and reason and faith in reason are not left without advocates. Some years ago, at Trinity College, Cambridge, Mr. G.E. Moore began to produce a very deep impression amongst the younger spirits by his powerful and luminous dialectic. Like Socrates, he used all the sharp arts of a disputant in the interests of common sense and of an almost archaic dogmatism. Those who heard him felt how superior his position was, both in rigour and in force, to the prevailing inversions and idealisms. The abuse of psychology, rampant for two hundred years, seemed at last to be detected and challenged; and the impressionistic rhetoric that philosophy was saturated with began to be squeezed out by clear questions, and by a disconcerting demand for literal sincerity. German idealism, when we study it as a product of its own age and country, is a most engaging phenomenon; it is full of afflatus, sweep, and deep searchings of heart; but it is essentially romantic and egotistical, and all in it that is not soliloquy is mere system-making and sophistry. Therefore when it is taught by unromantic people ex cathedra, in stentorian tones, and represented as the rational foundation of science and religion, with neither of which it has any honest sympathy, it becomes positively odious-one of the worst imposture and blights to which a youthful imagination could be subjected. It is chiefly against the incubus of this celestial monster that Mr. Moore dared to lift up his eyes; and many a less courageous or less clear-sighted person was thankful to him for it. But a man with such a mission requires a certain narrowness and concentration of mind; he has to be intolerant and to pound a good deal on the same notes. We need not wonder if Mr. Moore has written rather meagerly, and with a certain vehemence and want of imagination.

All this, however, was more than made up by the powerful ally who soon came to his aid. Mr. Bertrand Russell began by adopting Mr. Moore's metaphysics, but he has given as much as he has received. Apart from his well-known mathematical attainments, he possesses by inheritance the political and historical mind, and an intrepid determination to pierce convention and look to ultimate things. He has written abundantly and, where the subject permits, with a singular lucidity, candour, and charm. Especially his Philosophical Essays and his little book on The Problems of Philosophy can be read with pleasure by any intelligent person, and give a tolerably rounded picture of the tenets of the school. Yet it must be remembered that Mr. Russell, like Mr. Moore, is still young and his thoughts have not assumed their ultimate form. Moreover, he lives in an atmosphere of academic disputation which makes one technical point after another acquire a preponderating influence in his thoughts. His book on The Problems of Philosophy is admirable in style, temper, and insight, but it hardly deserves its title; it treats principally, in a somewhat personal and partial way, of the relation of knowledge to its objects, and it might rather have been called "The problems which Moore and I have been agitating lately." Indeed, his philosophy is so little settled as yet that every new article and every fresh conversation revokes some of his former opinions, and places the crux of philosophical controversy at a new point. We are soon made aware that exact thinking and true thinking are not synonymous, but that one exact thought, in the same mind, may be the exact opposite of the next. This inconstancy, which after all does not go very deep, is a sign of sincerity and pure love of truth; it marks the freshness, the vivacity, the self-forgetfulness, the logical ardour belonging to this delightful reformer. It may seem a paradox, but at bottom it is not, that the vitalists should be oppressed, womanish, and mystical, and only the intellectualists keen, argumentative, fearless, and full of life. I mention this casualness and inconstancy in Mr. Russell's utterances not to deride them, but to show the reader how impossible it is, at this juncture, to give a comprehensive account of his philosophy, much less a final judgment upon it.

The principles most fundamental and dominant in his thought are perhaps the following: That the objects the mind deals with, whether material or ideal, are what and where the mind says they are, and independent of it; that some general principles and ideas have to be assumed to be valid not merely for thought but for things; that relations may subsist, arise, and disappear between things without at all affecting these things internally; and that the nature of everything is just what it is, and not to be confused either with its origin or with any opinion about it. These principles, joined with an obvious predilection for Plato and Leibnitz among philosophers, lead to the following doctrines, among others: that the mind or soul is an entity separate from its thoughts and pre-existent; that a material world exists in space and time; that its substantial elements may be infinite in number, having position and quality, but no extension, so that each mind or soul might well be one of them; that both the existent and the ideal worlds may be infinite, while the ideal world contains an infinity of things not realised in the actual world; and that this ideal world is knowable by a separate mental consideration, a consideration which is, however, em

pirical in spirit, since the ideal world of ethics, logic, and mathematics has a special and surprising constitution, which we do not make but must attentively discover.

The reader will perceive, perhaps, that if the function of philosophy is really, as the saying goes, to give us assurance of God, freedom, and immortality, Mr. Russell's philosophy is a dire failure. In fact, its author sometimes gives vent to a rather emphatic pessimism about this world; he has a keen sense for the manifold absurdities of existence. But the sense for absurdities is not without its delights, and Mr. Russell's satirical wit is more constant and better grounded than his despair. I should be inclined to say of his philosophy what he himself has said of that of Leibnitz, that it is at its best in those subjects which are most remote from human life. It needs to be very largely supplemented and much ripened and humanised before it can be called satisfactory or wise; but time may bring these fulfilments, and meantime I cannot help thinking it auspicious in the highest degree that, in a time of such impressionistic haste and plebeian looseness of thought, scholastic rigour should suddenly raise its head again, aspiring to seriousness, solidity, and perfection of doctrine: and this not in the interests of religious orthodoxy, but precisely in the most emancipated and unflinchingly radical quarter. It is refreshing and reassuring, after the confused, melodramatic ways of philosophising to which the idealists and the pragmatists have accustomed us, to breathe again the crisp air of scholastic common sense. It is good for us to be held down, as the Platonic Socrates would have held us, to saying what we really believe, and sticking to what we say. We seem to regain our intellectual birthright when we are allowed to declare our genuine intent, even in philosophy, instead of begging some kind psychologist to investigate our "meaning" for us, or even waiting for the flux of events to endow us with what "meaning" it will. It is also instructive to have the ethical attitude purified of all that is not ethical and turned explicitly into what, in its moral capacity, it essentially is: a groundless pronouncement upon the better and the worse.

Here a certain one-sidedness begins to make itself felt in Mr. Russell's views. The ethical attitude doubtless has no ethical ground, but that fact does not prevent it from having a natural ground; and the observer of the animate creation need not have much difficulty in seeing what that natural ground is. Mr. Russell, however, refuses to look also in that direction. He insists, rightly enough, that good is predicated categorically by the conscience; he will not remember that all life is not moral bias merely, and that, in the very act of recognising excellence and pursuing it, we may glance back over our shoulder and perceive how our moral bias is conditioned, and what basis it has in the physical order of things. This backward look, when the hand is on the plough, may indeed confuse our ethical self-expression, both in theory and in practice; and I am the last to deny the need of insisting, in ethics, on ethical judgments in all their purity and dogmatic sincerity. Such insistence, if we had heard more of it in our youth, might have saved many of us from chronic entanglements; and there is nothing, next to Plato, which ought to be more recommended to the young philosopher than the teachings of Messrs. Russell and Moore, if he wishes to be a moralist and a logician, and not merely to seem one. Yet this salutary doctrine, though correct, is inadequate. It is a monocular philosophy, seeing outlines clear, but missing the solid bulk and perspective of things. We need binocular vision to quicken the whole mind and yield a full image of reality. Ethics should be controlled by a physics that perceives the material ground and the relative status of whatever is moral. Otherwise ethics itself tends to grow narrow, strident, and fanatical; as may be observed in asceticism and puritanism, or, for the matter of that, in Mr. Moore's uncivilised leaning towards the doctrine of retributive punishment, or in Mr. Russell's intolerance of selfishness and patriotism, and in his refusal to entertain any pious reverence for the nature of things. The quality of wisdom, like that of mercy, is not strained. To choose, to love and hate, to have a moral life, is inevitable and legitimate in the part; but it is the function of the part as part, and we must keep it in its place if we wish to view the whole in its true proportions. Even to express justly the aim of our own life we need to retain a constant sympathy with what is animal and fundamental in it, else we shall give a false place, and too loud an emphasis, to our definitions of the ideal. However, it would be much worse not to reach the ideal at all, or to confuse it for want of courage and sincerity in uttering our true mind; and it is in uttering our true mind that Mr. Russell can help us, even if our true mind should not always coincide with his.

In the following pages I do not attempt to cover all Mr. Russell's doctrine (the deeper mathematical purls of it being beyond my comprehension), and the reader will find some speculations of my own interspersed in what I report of his. I merely traverse after him three subjects that seem of imaginative interest, to indicate the inspiration and the imprudence, as I think them, of this young philosophy.

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