[ Critique of Positivism ]

MS 146: Winter 1867--1868

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1. Statement of the doctrine by which Positivism is distinguished from all other Philosophies.

2. That this doctrine has a favorable influence upon scientific investigation, and that the Positivists have been clever savans.

3. That this doctrine is fatal to religion, and that the religious side of positivism is its weakness.

4. That it is possible and usual for scientific men to occupy another position equally advantageous in reference to scientific research and not so destructive of religious faith.

5. Of Positivism as held by unphilosophic and unscientific persons, not owing to severe thought but to the influence of the ""spirit of the age.''

6. That the fundamental position of positivism is false.

7. The true doctrine and its consequences.

7 1/2. Of some doctrines allied to positivism.

8. In what sense positivism has deeply influenced the age and in what sense it has not.

9. Conclusion.

The first disciples of the positive philosophy (I do not speak now of its doctors) were men interested in carrying the research of what ordinary people call causes into realms which had hitherto been trodden only by the foot of the metaphysician or the classifier. Without allowing all its rules for this kind of investigation, we may admit that it has been of real service to those men and through them to the world. Its scientific side is its strength. But now that it has become the fashion, it has been taken up by persons who have neither the stern masculinity proper for positive philosophers nor any business with physical science. By these persons it is regarded in its practical

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and especially its religious aspect. This is decidedly its weak side. This was perhaps felt by the man who to put it to the test pushed it to its legitimate religious consequences in paradoxes respecting the grand ^etre, &c. These modern disciples, however, shrink from these doctrines which offend the Anglosaxon sense and prefer to discard all religious belief altogether. And, then, not being particularly philosophic in temperament they seek to reconcile themselves to the sceptical state by persuading themselves that theism could offer no rational consolation to its believers, even if it could be rationally accepted. Herein they show the secret influence upon them of the capital principle of theism namely that whatever is is best. Only by a covert faith in this could they commit the absurdity of maintaining that God, Freedom, and Immortality would be evils.

Now the pleasantness or unpleasantness of consequences is no argument for or against a speculative opinion. But a man fights the battle of life better under the stimulus of hope; and we ought not to complain, therefore, that men lean toward the hopeful belief. At any rate it is a fact that they do so; and therefore if scepticism can show that the prospects it offers are more cheering than those of theism it is likely to sweep away the latter altogether except from the minds of a few sad thinkers who unfortunately shall be convinced that they are immortal beings under the government of a loving God. But that this never will happen and that scepticism is not so comfortable or inspiriting a state as theistic belief will be shown beyond further controversy in the present paper.

In the first place, then, we are to give no weight to the testimony of an individual sceptic that he finds his scepticism delightful. For apart from the question of veracity (which in such a case is serious for everyone but himself) he may be self-deceived, or may understand by theism a particular determination of it, gloomy on account of what it adds to the fundamental doctrine, or may be of an abnormal constitution in his sentimental part. Nor shall we be convinced by an instance or two of a heroic sceptic, since heroism in these few cases can well be attributed to natural force of character, since for every such instance ten can be adduced of sneaking sceptics, and since on the other hand reli gion can show a history of whole communities becoming heroic in a way that can only be accounted for by supposing that it can make a hero of almost anybody. The argument might be urged the other way with perfect justness and with a force perfectly convincing to the clear-minded. But since a caviller

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might easily raise a cloud of dust in reference to such a matter, it will be more adviseable to pass it over.

We prefer to begin with this undoubted fact: All men and all animals love life. This is not a passion produced by theism or any other superstition, but is of all impulses one of the most original, strongest, and ineradicable. If some man says he does not love life, other evidence rather bears down his testimony, and if he really does not he is only an unhappy exception, a miserable a bortion, which is not to set aside the result of all experience.

This passion has for its object firstly and primarily ourselves, in a less strong degree our friends, then our blood, then our country, then our race, and finally it is still a deep and lively emotion even in its reference to intellect in general. It may be objected that the love of the life of our family, for example, is not the same passion as the love of our own life. But all I say is, that we have a desire for the continued life of all these objects, and that these desires have this in common that they are all love of life in some form, all are lively emotions, all seem to spring from our original nature and all are in the great body of mankind incapable of being rooted out without shattering the heart almost entirely.

We may wonder why men should care for what is to happen after they are (according to their belief) annihilated; it may be that such a wish implies a lurking of the contrary belief, but it is a fact any man even the merest atheist does not limit his love of life to this side of the grave. He provides for the wellbeing of the world when he is to be no more. Nay, Hume was anxious for his own good reputation among succeeding generations. The love of life is more than a love of sensuous life: it is also a love of rational life. For it continues up to the point where our sensations become intolerable agony. Hence, our love of life is not confined within the walls of our own body; but since our reason lives wherever it is active, primarily in our own brains but also secondarily in the brains of those who take up our thoughts and sentiments, it is a part of the love of life, to love our influence upon and fame with succeeding generations. We, also, feel within us in addition to elements peculiar to ourselves, elements also which are common to ourselves and others, among which are personality and intellect. Personality has two senses, 1st being personal and 2nd the special idiosyncracy of a particular person. It is in the first sense that the sympathy we exhibit shows that we feel that it is the same, in others as in ourselves. Hence the love of the life of others

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is still a passion which centres in ourselves because we love them as having something in common with ourselves, that is, because a part of them is identical with a part of ourselves. Th is would be quite false if these elements were material but as they are general and purely formal objects, there is nothing in nominalism to refute such a sentiment. The more true culture we have, the more we approach that ideal of a man of which we all cherish a more or less vague idea; the more we love our rational life relatively to our sensuous life, and of all the elements of a rational life the more we value those which are fundamental and necessary results of the developement of reason in general relatively to those which are merely the mannerism and idiosyncracy peculiar to ourselves; and consequently the further we advance to what we ought to be, the stronger is our love of reason in general relatively to that of our race, that of our race relatively to that of our country, that o f our country relatively to that of our blood, and that of our blood relatively to that of our own persons. These passions then which I have summed up in one word as the love of life, are really intimately bound together and connected in our nature. These passions go by many different names in common language and some are not named at all, but it will readily be perceived that there is not a single impulse or sentiment of any consequence, which is not among the number, which is not in some sense a love of life. Now let us see what the two doctrines positivism and theism promise to this passion which is the sum of all longings.

Now some positivistswhom I should certainly adduce as instances of sneaking scepticsendeavor to conceal the bearing of the ir doctrine upon religion. They seek to represent that it merely denies the possibility of arriving at scientific certainty with regard to such matters and not the possibility of reaching highly probable conclusions. But this is a miserable falsification. The doctrine that it implies, that knowing a thing to be probable is not knowledge, is not only unsound in itself, it is so also on positivist principles, and is distinctly recognized as being so by the positivists themselves. Positivists to be consequent should hold that all religious belief is superstition, and that all superstitions which do not come into conflict with any scientifically known fact are on one level of credibility, and should assume the same attitude of mind towards the doctrine that the soul is immortal as to that of Bernardus Carnotensis that universals are beings who marry and have children, ""quia albedo significat virginem incorruptam, albet eandem introeuntem thalamum aut

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cubantem in toro, album vero eandem sed corruptam'';except that one view may be more entertaining than the other. It is true that one of the most eminent American metaphysicians is of opinion that religion might be based on positive philosophy as Comte defines it. But though Comte's definition labors under the ambiguity so common in French, all the world understands the term in a sense of which it is an essential part that no theory shall be admitted except in so far as it asserts or denies something with respect to a possible observation. In respect to the continuance of life in this world, positivism is even less favorable. That there always should be intellect in the universe, that there should not come a time when it all dies out forever, not only presents no preponderance of probability but is even perhaps opposed by the fact that all the conditions of the world of which we have any knowledge are mutable.

Life upon the globe is a phase, quite accidental, tending as far as we know to no permanent end, of no sort of use, except in producing a pleasant titillation now and then on the nerves of this or that wayfarer on this weary and purposeless journeywhich like a treadmill starts nowhere and goes nowhere, and whose machinery produces nothing at all. There is no good in life but its occasional plea-sures; these are mostly delusive, and as like as not will soon utterly pass away.

Let us now turn to theism. The capital principle of this is, that nature is absolutely conformed to an end; or in other words, that there is reason in the nature of things. Now from what has been said before it follows that so far as we attain true culture so far will the sum of all our impulses come to the love of reason as it necessarily is, and therefore so far as we are as we ought to be so far are we perfectly gratified by what according to the nature of things, takes place; which is another way of saying that whatever is is best. Now this is not only a consolation; it is the very sum, quintessence and acme of all consolation. That happens which so far as our own nature is developed, so far as we truly know our own mind, is what delights us most.

Whatever palliatives to the ills of life can be applied by the sceptic are also at the command of the theist and in addition the only true consolation.

I know very well that a great many theists are nearer pessimists than optimists but they are unsound and inconsistent. To say, however, that whatever is is best is not to deny the existence of evil, but

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only to maintain that if any event is bad in one way it more than counterbalances for it by being good in another and higher way.

Positivists are in the habit of considering positivism and metaphysics as opposed species of philosophy. Now to maintain that the conclusions of metaphysics are as yet very certain would be enthusiastic enough in view of the differences of opinion among metaphysicians. These differences have been growing less and less from one centur y to another, owing to a gradual clearing up of conceptions. But the whole effective result of metaphysical research hitherto may be described in saying that certain indistinct conceptions have been made distinct. Every great branch of science has once been in the state in which metaphysics is now, that is when its fundamental conceptions were vague and consequently its doctrines utterly unsettled; and there is no reason whatever to despair of metaphysics eventually becoming a real science like the rest; but at present that is not the case. Now the positivist may define metaphysics, as he pleases, but if he deals with conceptions which are indistinct in his mind, he is for all purposes of certainty in the same condition as the metaphysician. That is precisely what he does do in maintaining that we can have no knowledge of any reality except single impressions of sense and their sensible relations. The question what is reality has a great pertinency here. Suppose we say it is that which is independently of our belief and which could be properly inferred by the most thorough discussion of the sum of all impressions of sense whatever. If that is what the positivist means by reality (and since he does not tell us we must guess for ourselves), then he ought to be not a sceptic but an atheist, for that which we cannot possibly be in a state to infer, is not then a reality at all. And, indeed, I should be glad to know what the positivist does mean by an existence which cannot possibly be known. Such an existence must be utterly cut off from everything knowa ble, for if it was in any way manifested, if it anyhow effected anything knowable, that would be some slight reason for inferring it to be. I can attach no idea to such a reality and I have not been able to find a positivist or other person who could explain it and this confirms me in the opinion that the above definition really expresses what men mean by reality.

If therefore I am asked as a theist what I have to reply to the arguments of the positivist against religion, I reply in the first place, that positivism is only a particular species of metaphysics open to all the uncertainty of metaphysics, and its conclusions are for that rea-

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son of not enough weight to disturb any practical belief. We awake to reflection and find ourselves theists. Now those beliefs which come before reflect ion to all men alike are generally true, and the reason is that the causes which produce fallaciesdepend for their operation upon a conscious process of reasoning. But apart from the weight of common sense which must be presumed to attach to theism, the fact that it is my belief itself throws the burden of proof upon its opponents. And metaphysical conclusions ought not in the present state of the science to weigh in practical affairs.

But even if I am asked as a metaphysician whether the objections of positivism to religion seem to me to be valid, I still answer not in the least.

For I object to its logical doctrine that no theory is to be admitted except so far as it asserts or denies something with respect to possible impressions of sense or their sensible relations.

This be it observed is a proposition of positivism which has nothing to do with natural science (the strong side of positivism) which anyway only deals with phenomena. Its principal effect is upon religion with reference to which positivism has rather its comical side. It is true positivists value this proposition as shutting out all metaphysical conclusions, but it appears to me it shuts them out for the wrong reason, that is on account of their object matter instead of on account of the unsatisfactory state of the science as yet.

What is the end of a theory or what is a theory considered as an end? The passionate advocate of positivism will be ready with some hasty answer, but passion and haste are not the way to answer such questions. Were it doubted whether a theory can be considered tele ologically, it could be shown that end and theory are almost the same thing; but it is not doubted since positivism expressly defines itself a particular doctrine concerning the end of theory.

I should define the end of a theory as to carry one thread of consciousness through different states of consciousness. But whether this be the end or not, whatever is necessary to accomplishing the end of a theory must be admitted into the theory. Now to admit as a theory is the same as to believe for though in the ordinary use of language we attach more of the notion of a provisional character to admitting as a theory, yet as all belief is provisional this is merely a difference of degree which cannot affect the general logical consideration of the matter. We must therefore believe whatev er is necessary for accomplishing the end of a theory whether that is capable of

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observation or not. The only question is whether anything not capable of direct observation is thus necessary.

Now as theories have this in common they are inferences of the unobserved from the observedfrom the present in experience to the future in experience. Now who does not see that the future is not observable except when the present is not, so that we either reason to conclusions which are absolutely unobservable or from facts which are absolutely unobservable. This is the conclusive objection to positivism. If the reader cannot understand it in its pure philosophical statement, let him ask whether time can be observed, to flow. All science depends upon record of the past, and a record other than that in the memory is plainly something which cannot be verified by direct observation. The positivist may say if he pleases that memory is an immediate knowledge of the past, but all men admit that it may err. If one man's memory may err, so may ten men's. And though if ten men think they remember the same event there is really good ground for believing that they remember rightly, that there is none on the positivist principle that no theory is to be admitted except so far as it concludes something observable, is self-evident. Thus as every theory whatever concludes from the present to the future every theory necessarily concludes more than can possibly be verified by direct observation.

The positivists endeavor to elude this reductio ad absurdum by saying that by possible observation they mean that which can be supposed to be made at any time whatever. But they are aware, I suppose, that they cannot force any arbitrary rule of reasoning they please upon the world. They are upon their trial, and if they say that this is their doctrine they must support it by reasons and must hold nothing which shall lead to that further determination of it which we have supposed them to hold and which has been proved absurd. Now they are continually harping upon this: that if a theory concludes more than possible observations, it cannot be verified by direct observation and therefore is wholly baseless and metaphysical. Verification is the watchword of positivism. But it is easy to see that a proposition is no more verifiable by direct observation for being such as we can suppose (by a recognized falsification) to be observed unless it is also such as really can be observed. Their maxim, therefore, must refer to really possible observations not such as are supposably possible, for the proof they give leads to that or to nothing.

But the positivist has another reply to the objection here made to

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his doctrine. He may say:""It is very true, that upon my principles I have not the least reason to believe that the record of the facts is true to the facts themselves. I do not pretend to have. The only world of which I have any information or in which I have any interest is the world which appears to me. Whether this represents correctly or otherwise any other world I neither know nor care.'' This is all very well, but it is plain t hat the positivist like other men inquires whether his history is right or not. What the significance of his doing so is, it is not necessary to inquire. In any case it follows, that he does somehow discriminate between direct observation and what has not been observed, and indeed if he did not his rule would have no possible application. And as matters of history are not capable of verification by direct observation in any case, some conclusions must be admitted which are not matters of direct observation. Besides, when the positivist assumes the transcendental position, which he is here supposed to do, he must admit that among all the elements present to consciousness, the grounds upon which some are set off as being matters of intuition are as it were conjectural. It is not a question c apable of being decided by direct observation, what is and what is not direct observation.

The logical rule, therefore, which is the whole basis of positivism appears to me to be entirely false.

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