(Sample Material) UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit "Western Philosophy (Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century)"

Sample Material of UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit

Topic: Western Philosophy (Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century)

THE intellectual life of the nineteenth century was more complex than that of any previous age. This was due to several causes. First: the area concerned was larger than ever before; America and Russia made important contributions, and Europe became more aware than formerly of Indian philosophies, both ancient and modern. Second: science, which had been a chief source of novelty since the seventeenth century, made new conquests, especially in geology, biology, and organic chemistry. Third: machine production profoundly altered the social structure, and gave men a new conception of their powers in relation to the physical environment. Fourth: a profound revolt, both philosophical and political, against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics, gave rise to attacks upon many beliefs and institutions that had hitherto been regarded as unassailable. This revolt had two very different forms, one romantic, the other rationalistic. (I am using these words in a liberal sense.) The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to Mussolini and Hitler; the rationalistic revolt begins with the French philosophers of the Revolution, passes on, somewhat softened, to the philosophical radicals in England, then acquires a deeper form in Marx and issues in Soviet Russia.
The intellectual predominance of Germany is a new factor, beginning with Kant. Leibniz, though a German, wrote almost always in Latin or French, and was very little influenced by Germany in his philosophy. German idealism after Kant, as well as later German philosophy, was, on the contrary, profoundly influenced by German history; much of what seems strange in German philosophical speculation reflects the state of mind of a vigorous nation deprived, by historical accidents, of its natural share of power. Germany had owed its international position to the Holy Roman Empire, but the Emperor had gradually lost control of his nominal subjects. The last powerful Emperor was Charles V, and he owed his power to his possessions in Spain and the Low Countries. The Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War destroyed what had been left of German unity, leaving a number of petty principalities which were at the mercy of France. In the eighteenth century only one German state, Prussia, had successfully resisted the French; that is why Frederick was called the Great. But Prussia itself had failed to stand against Napoleon, being utterly defeated in the battle of Jena. The resurrection of Prussia under Bismarck appeared as a revival of the heroic past of Alaric, Charlemagne, and Barbarossa. (To Germans, Charlemagne is a German, not a Frenchman.) Bismarck showed his sense of history when he said, “We will not go to Canossa.”

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Prussia, however, though politically predominant, was culturally less advanced than much of Western Germany; this explains why many eminent Germans, including Goethe, did not regret Napoleon’s success at Jena. Germany, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, presented an extraordinary cultural and economic diversity. In East Prussia serfdom still survived; the rural aristocracy were largely immersed in bucolic ignorance, and the labourers were completely without even the rudiments of education. Western Germany, on the other hand, had been in part subject to Rome in antiquity; it had been under French influence since the seventeenth century; it had been occupied by French revolutionary armies, and had acquired institutions as liberal as those of France. Some of the princes were intelligent, patrons of the arts and sciences, imitating Renaissance princes in their courts; the most notable example was Weimar, where the Grand Duke was Goethe’s patron. The princes were, naturally, for the most part opposed to German unity, since it would destroy their independence. They were therefore anti-patriotic, and so were many of the eminent men who depended on them, to whom Napoleon appeared the missionary of a higher culture than that of Germany.

Gradually, during the nineteenth century, the culture of Protestant Germany became increasingly Prussian. Frederick the Great, as a free-thinker and an admirer of French philosophy, had struggled to make Berlin a cultural centre; the Berlin Academy had as its perpetual President an eminent Frenchman, Maupertuis, who, however, unfortunately became the victim of Voltaire’s deadly ridicule. Frederick’s endeavours, like those of the other enlightened despots of the time, did not include economic or political reform; all that was really achieved was a claque of hired intellectuals. After his death, it was again in Western Germany that most of the men of culture were to be found.

German philosophy was more connected with Prussia than were German literature and art. Kant was a subject of Frederick the Great; Fichte and Hegel were professors at Berlin. Kant was little influenced by Prussia; indeed he got into trouble with the Prussian Government for his liberal theology. But both Fichte and Hegel were philosophic mouthpieces of Prussia, and did much to prepare the way for the later identification of German patriotism with admiration for Prussia. Their work in this respect was carried on by the great German historians, particularly by Mommsen and Treitschke. Bismarck finally persuaded the German nation to accept unification under Prussia, and thus gave the victory to the less internationally minded elements in German culture.

Throughout the whole period after the death of Hegel, most academic philosophy remained traditional, and therefore not very important. British empiricist philosophy was dominant in England until near the end of the century, and in France until a somewhat earlier time; then, gradually, Kant and Hegel conquered the universities of France and England, so far as their teachers of technical philosophy were concerned. The general educated public, however, was very little affected by this movement, which had few adherents among men of science. The writers who carried on the academic tradition—John Stuart Mill on the empiricist side, Lotze, Sigwart, Bradley, and Bosanquet on the side of German idealism—were none of them quite in the front rank among philosophers, that is to say, they were not the equals of the men whose systems they, on the whole, adopted. Academic philosophy has often before been out of touch with the most vigorous thought of the age, for instance, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was still mainly scholastic. Whenever this happens, the historian of philosophy is less concerned with the professors than with the unprofessional heretics.

Most of the philosophers of the French Revolution combined science with beliefs associated withRousseau. Helvetius and Condorcet may be regarded as typical in their combination of rationalism and enthusiasm. Helvetius ( 1715-1771) had the honour of having his book De Esprit ( 1758) condemned by the Sorbonne and burnt by the hangman. Bentham read him in 1769 and immediately determined to devote his life to the principles of legislation, saying: “What Bacon was to the physical world, Helvetius was to the moral. The moral world has therefore had its Bacon, but its Newton is stillto come.” James Mill took Helvetius as his guide in the education of his son John Stuart.

Following Locke’s doctrine that the mind is a tabula rasa, Helvetius considered the differences between individuals entirely due to differences of education: in every individual, his talents and his virtues are the effect of his instruction. Genius, he maintains, is often due to chance: if Shakespeare had not been caught poaching, he would have been a wool merchant. His interest in legislation comes from the doctrine that the principal instructors of adolescence are the forms of government and the consequent manners and customs. Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education.

In ethics, Helvetius was a utilitarian; he considered pleasure to be the good. In religion, he was a deist, and vehemently anti-clerical. In theory of knowledge, he adopted a simplified version of Locke: “Enlightened by Locke, we know that it is to the sense-organs we owe our ideas, and consequently our mind.” Physical sensibility, he says, is the sole cause of our actions, our thoughts, our passions, and our sociability. He strongly disagrees with Rousseau as to the value of knowledge, which he rates very highly.

His doctrine is optimistic, since only a perfect education is needed to make men perfect. There is a suggestion that it would be easy to find a perfect education if the priests were got out of the way. Condorcet ( 1743-1794) has opinions similar to those of Helvetius, but more influenced by Rousseau. The rights of man, he says, are all deduced from this one truth, that he is a sensitive being, capable of making reasonings and acquiring moral ideas, from which it follows that men can no longer be divided into rulers and subjects, liars and dupes. “These principles, for which the generous Sydney gave his life and to which Locke attached the authority of his name, were afterwards developed more precisely by Rousseau.” Locke, he says, first showed the limits of human knowledge. His “method soon became that of all philosophers, and it is by applying it to morals, politics, and economics, that they have succeeded in pursuing in these sciences a road almost as sure as that of the natural sciences.”

Condorcet much admires the American Revolution. “Simple common sense taught the inhabitants of the British Colonies that Englishmen born on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean had precisely the same rights as those born on the meridian of Greenwich.” The United States Constitution, he says, is based on natural rights, and the American Revolution made the rights of man known to all Europe, from the Neva to the Guadalquivir. The principles of the French Revolution, however, are “purer, more precise, deeper than those that guided the Americans.” These words were written while he was in hiding from Robespierre; shortly afterwards, he was caught and imprisoned. He died in prison, but the manner of his death is uncertain.

He was a believer in the equality of women. He was also the inventor of Malthus’s theory of population, which, however, had not for him the gloomy consequences that it had for Malthus, because he coupled it with the necessity of birth control. Malthus’s father was a disciple of Condorcet, and it was in this way that Malthus came to know of the theory.

Condorcet is even more enthusiastic and optimistic than Helvétius. He believes that, through the spread of the principles of the French Revolution, all the major social ills will soon disappear. Perhaps he was fortunate in not living beyond 1794.

The doctrines of the French revolutionary philosophers, made less enthusiastic and much more precise, were brought to England by the philosophical radicals, of whom Bentham was the recognized chief. Bentham was, at first, almost exclusively interested in law; gradually, as he grew older, his interests widened and his opinions became more subversive. After 1808, he was a republican, a believer in the equality of women, an enemy of imperialism, and an uncompromising democrat. Some of these opinions he owed to James Mill. Both believed in the omnipotence of education. Bentham’s adoption of the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” was no doubt due to democratic feeling, but it involved opposition to the doctrine of the rights of man, which he bluntly characterized as “nonsense.”

The philosophical radicals differed from men like Helvétius and Condorcet in many ways. Temperamentally, they were patient and fond of working out their theories in practical detail. They attached great importance to economics, which they believed themselves to have developed as a science. Tendencies to enthusiasm, which existed in Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but not in Malthus or James Mill, were severely held in check by this “science,” and particularly by Malthus’s gloomy version of the theory of population, according to which most wage-earners must always, except just after a pestilence, earn the smallest amount that will keep them and their families alive. Another great difference between the Benthamites and their French predecessors was that in industrial England there was violent conflict between employers and wage-earners, which gave rise to tradeunionism and socialism. In this conflict the Benthamites, broadly speaking, sided with the employers against the working class. Their last representative, John Stuart Mill, however, gradually ceased to give adherence to his father’s stern tenets, and became, as he grew older, less and less hostile to socialism, and less and less convinced of the eternal truth of classical economics. According to his autobiography, this softening process was begun by the reading of the romantic poets.

The Benthamites, though at first revolutionary in a rather mild way, gradually ceased to be so, partly through success in converting the British government to some of their views, partly through opposition to the growing strength of socialism and trade-unionism. Men who were in revolt against tradition, as already mentioned, were of two kinds, rationalistic and romantic, though in men like Condorcet both elements were combined. The Benthamites were almost wholly rationalistic, and so were the Socialists who rebelled against them as well as against the existing economic order. This movement does not acquire a complete philosophy until we come to Marx, who will be considered in a later chapter.

The romantic form of revolt is very different from the rationalist form, though both are derived from the French Revolution and the philosophers who immediately preceded it. The romantic form is to be seen in Byron in an unphilosophical dress, but in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche it has learnt the language of philosophy. It tends to emphasize the will at the expense of the intellect, to be impatient of chains of reasoning, and to glorify violence of certain kinds. In practical politics it is important as an ally of nationalism. In tendency, if not always in fact, it is definitely hostile to what is commonly called reason, and tends to be anti-scientific. Some of its most extreme forms are to be found among Russian anarchists, but in Russia it was the rationalist form of revolt that finally prevailed. It was Germany, always more susceptible to romanticism than any other country, that provided a governmental outlet for the anti-rational philosophy of naked will.

So far, the philosophies that we have been considering have had an inspiration which was traditional, literary, or political. But there were two other sources of philosophical opinion, namely science and machine production. The second of these began its theoretical influence with Marx, and has grown gradually more important ever since. The first has been important since the seventeenth century, but took new forms during the nineteenth century.

What Galileo and Newton were to the seventeenth century, Darwin was to the nineteenth. Darwin’s theory had two parts. On the one hand, there was the doctrine of evolution, which maintained that the different forms of life had developed gradually from a common ancestry. This doctrine, which is now generally accepted, was not new. It had been maintained by Lamarck and by Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, not to mention Anaximander. Darwin supplied an immense mass of evidence for the doctrine, and in the second part of his theory believed himself to have discovered the cause of evolution. He thus gave to the doctrine a popularity and a scientific force which it had not previously possessed, but he by no means originated it.

The second part of Darwin’s theory was the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. All animals and plants multiply faster than nature can provide for them; therefore in each generation many perish before the age for reproducing themselves. What determines which will survive? To some extent, no doubt, sheer luck, but there is another cause of more importance. Animals and plants are, as a rule, not exactly like their parents, but differ slightly by excess or defect in every measurable characteristic. In a given environment, members of the same species compete for survival, and those best adapted to the environment have the best chance. Therefore among chance variations those that are favourable will preponderate among adults in each generation. Thus from age to age deer run more swiftly, cats stalk their prey more silently, and giraffes’ necks become longer. Given enough time, this mechanism, so Darwin contended, could account for the whole long development from the protozoa to homo sapiens.

This part of Darwin’s theory has been much disputed, and is regarded by most biologists as subject to many important qualifications. That, however, is not what most concerns the historian of nineteenth-century ideas. From the historical point of view, what is interesting is Darwin’s extension to the whole of life of the economics that characterized the philosophical radicals. The motive force of evolution, according to him, is a kind of biological economics in a world of free competition. It was Malthus’s doctrine of population, extended to the world of animals and plants, that suggested to Darwin the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest as the source of evolution.

Darwin himself was a liberal, but his theories had consequences in some degree inimical to traditional liberalism. The doctrine that all men are born equal, and that the differences between adults are due wholly to education, was incompatible with his emphasis on congenital differences between members of the same species. If, as Lamarck held, and as Darwin himself was willing to concede up to a point, acquired characteristics were inherited, this opposition to such views asthose of Helvétius could have been somewhat softened; but it has appeared that only congenital characteristics are inherited, apart from certain not very important exceptions. Thus the congenital differences between men acquire fundamental importance.

There is a further consequence of the theory of evolution, which is independent of the particular mechanism suggested by Darwin. If men and animals have a common ancestry, and if men developed by such slow stages that there were creatures which we should not know whether to classify as human or not, the question arises: at what stage in evolution did men, or their semi-human ancestors, begin to be all equal? Would Pithecanthropus erectus, if he had been properly educated, have done work as good as Newton’s? Would the Piltdown Man have written Shakespeare’s poetry if there had been anybody to convict him of poaching? A resolute egalitarian who answers these questions in the affirmative will find himself forced to regard apes as the equals of human beings. And why stop with apes?

I do not see how he is to resist an argument in favour of Votes for Oysters. An adherent of evolution may maintain that not only the doctrine of the equality of all men, but also that of the rights of man, must be condemned as unbiological, since it makes too emphatic a distinction between men and other animals.

There is, however, another aspect of liberalism which was greatly strengthened by the doctrine of evolution, namely the belief in progress. So long as the state of the world allowed optimism, evolution was welcomed by liberals, both on this ground and because it gave new arguments against orthodox theology. Marx himself, though his. doctrines are in some respects pre-Darwinian, wished to dedicate his book to Darwin.

The prestige of biology caused men whose thinking was influenced by science to apply biological rather than mechanistic categories to the world. Everything was supposed to be evolving, and it was easy to imagine an immanent goal. In spite of Darwin, many men considered that evolution justified a belief in cosmic purpose. The conception of organism came to be thought the key to both scientific and philosophical explanations of natural laws, and the atomic thinking of the eighteenth century came to be regarded as out of date. This point of view has at last influenced even theoretical physics. In politics it leads naturally to emphasis upon the community as opposed to the individual. This is in harmony with the growing power of the State; also with nationalism, which can appeal to the Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest applied, not to individuals, but to nations. But here we are passing into the region of extra-scientific views suggested to a large public by scientific doctrines imperfectly understood.

While biology has militated against a mechanistic view of the world, modern economic technique has had an opposite effect. Until about the end of the eighteenth century, scientific technique, as opposed to scientific doctrines, had no important effect upon opinion. It was only with the rise of industrialism that technique began to affect men’s thought. And even then, for a long time, the effect was more or less indirect. Men who produce philosophical theories are, as a rule, brought into very little contact with machinery. The romantics noticed and hated the ugliness that industrialism was producing in places hitherto beautiful, and the vulgarity (as they considered it) of those who had made money in “trade.” This led them into an opposition to the middle class which sometimes brought them into something like an alliance with the champions of the proletariat. Engels praised Carlyle, not perceiving that what Carlyle desired was not the emancipation of wage-earners, but their subjection to the kind of masters they had had in the Middle Ages. The Socialists welcomed industrialism, but wished to free industrial workers from subjection to the power of employers. They were influenced by industrialism in the problems that they considered, but not much in the ideas that they employed in the solution of their problems.

The most important effect of machine production on the imaginative picture of the world is an immense increase in the sense of human power. This is only an acceleration of a process which began before the dawn of history, when men diminished their fear of wild animals by the invention of weapons and their fear of starvation by the invention of agriculture. But the acceleration has been so great as to produce a radically new outlook in those who wield the powers that modern technique has created. In old days, mountains and waterfalls were natural phenomena; now, an inconvenient mountain can be abolished and a convenient waterfall can be created. In old days, there were deserts and fertile regions; now, the desert can, if people think it worth while, be made to blossom like the rose, while fertile regions are turned into deserts by insufficiently scientific optimists. In old days, peasants lived as their parents and grandparents had lived, and believed as their parents and grandparents had believed; not all the power of the Church could eradicate pagan ceremonies, which had to be given a Christian dress by being connected with local saints. Now the authorities can decree what the children of peasants shall learn in school, and can transform the mentality of agriculturists in a generation; one gathers that this has been achieved in Russia.

There thus arises, among those who direct affairs or are in touch with those who do so, a new belief in power: first, the power of man in his conflicts with nature, and then the power of rulers as against the human beings whose beliefs and aspirations they seek to control by scientific propaganda, especially education. The result is a diminution of fixity; no change seems impossible. Nature is raw material; so is that part of the human race which does not effectively participate in government. There are certain old conceptions which represent men’s belief in the limits of human power; of these the two chief are God and truth. (I do not mean that these two are logically connected.) Such conceptions tend to melt away; even if not explicitly negated, they lose importance, and are retained only superficially.

This whole outlook is new, and it is impossible to say how mankind will adapt itself to it. It has already produced immense cataclysms, and will no doubt produce others in the future. To frame a philosophy capable of coping with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our time.

Though many still sincerely believe in human equality and theoretical democracy, the imagination of modern people is deeply affected by the pattern of social organization suggested by the organization of industry in the nineteenth century, which is essentially undemocratic. On the one hand there are the captains of industry, and on the other the mass of workers. This disruption of democracy from within is not yet acknowledged by ordinary citizens in democratic countries, but it has been a preoccupation of most philosophers from Hegel onwards, and the sharp opposition which they discovered between the interests of the many and those of the few has found practical expression in Fascism. Of the philosophers, Nietzsche was unashamedly on the side of the few, Marx whole-heartedly on the side of the many.

Perhaps Bentham was the only one of importance who attempted a reconciliation of conflicting interests; he therefore incurred the hostility of both parties.

To formulate any satisfactory modern ethic of human relationships it will be essential to recognize the necessary limitations of men’s power over the non-human environment, and the desirable limitations of their power over each other.

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