Beginnings in Germany.

From: Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880)
Author: Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1880 New York



  TO make intelligible the Transcendental Philosophy of the last generation in New England it is not necessary, to go far back into the history of thought. Ancient idealism, whether Eastern or Western, may be left undisturbed. Platonism and neo-Platonism may be excused from further tortures on the witness stand. The speculations of the mystics, Romanist or Protestant, need not be re-examined. The idealism of Gale, More, Pordage, of Cudworth and the later Berkeley, in England, do not immediately concern us. We need not even submit John Locke to fresh cross-examination, or describe the effect of his writings on the thinkers who came after him.

  The Transcendental Philosophy, so-called, had a distinct origin in Immanuel Kant, whose “Critique of Pure Reason” was published in 1781, and opened a new epoch in metaphysical thought. By this it is not meant that Kant started a new movement of the human mind, proposed original problems, or projected issues never contemplated before. The questions he discussed had been discussed from the earliest times, and with an acumen that had searched out the nicest points of definition. In the controversy between the Nominalists, who maintained that the terms used to describe abstract and universal ideas were mere names, designating no real objects and corresponding to no actually existing things, and the Realists, who contended that such terms were not figments of language, but described realities, solid though incorporeal, actual existences, not to be confounded with visible and transient things, but the essential types of such,—the scholastics of either school discussed after their manner, with astonishing fulness and subtlety, the matters which later metaphysicians introduced. The modem Germans revived in substance the doctrines held by the Realists. But the scholastic method, which was borrowed from the Greeks, lost its authority when the power of Aristotle’s name declined, and the scholastic discussions, turning, as they signally did, on theological questions, ceased to be interesting when the spell of theology was broken.

  Between the schools of Sensationalism and Idealism, since John Locke, the same matters were in debate. The Scotch as well as the English metaphysicians dealt with them according to their genius and ability. The different writers, as they succeeded one another, took up the points that were presented in their day, exercised on them such ingenuity as they possessed, and in good faith made their several contributions to the general fund of thought, but neglected to sink their shafts deep enough below the surface to strike new springs of water.

  Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding was an event that made an epoch in philosophy, because its author, not satisfied to take up questions where his predecessors had left them, undertook an independent examination of the Human Mind, in order to ascertain what were the conditions of its knowledge. The ability with which this attempt was made, the entire sincerity of it, the patient watch of the mental operations, the sagacity that followed the trail of lurking thoughts, surprised them in their retreats, and extracted from them the secret of their combinations, fairly earned for him the title of “Father of Modern Psychology.” The intellectual history of the race shows very few such examples of single-minded fidelity combined with rugged vigor and unaffected simplicity. With what honest directness he announced his purpose! His book grew out of a warm discussion among friends, the fruitlessness whereof convinced him that both sides had taken a wrong course; that before men set themselves upon inquiries into the deep matters of philosophy “it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” To do this was his purpose.

  “First,” he said, “I shall inquire into the original of those ideas, notions, or whatever else you please to call them, which a man observes and is conscious to himself he has in his mind; and the ways whereby the understanding comes to be furnished with them.

  “Secondly, I shall endeavor to show what knowledge the understanding hath by those ideas, and the certainty, evidence and extent of it.

  “Thirdly, I shall make some inquiry into the nature and grounds of faith or opinion; whereby I mean that assent which we give to any proposition as true, of whose truth we have yet no certain knowledge; and we shall have occasion to examine the reasons and degrees of assent.”

  Locke did his work well: how well is attested by the excitement it caused in the intellectual world, the impulse it gave to speculation in England and on the continent of Europe, the controversies over the author’s opinions, the struggle of opposing schools to secure for their doctrines his authority, the appreciation on one side, the depreciation on the other, the disposition of one period to exalt him as the greatest discoverer in the philosophic realm, and the disposition of another period to challenge his title to the name of philosopher. The “Essay” is a small book, written in a homely, business-like style, without affectation of depth or pretence of learning, but it is charged with original mental force. Exhaustive it was not; exhaustive it could not have been. The England of the seventeenth century was not favorable to original researches in that field. The “Essay” was planned in 1670, completed after considerable interruptions in 1687, and published in 1690. To one acquainted with the phases through which England was passing at that period, these dates will tell of untoward influences that might account for graver deficiencies than characterize Locke’s work. The scholastic philosophy, from which Locke broke contemptuously away at Oxford, seems to have left no mark on his mind; but the contemptuous revulsion, and the naked self-reliance in which the sagacious but not generously cultivated man found refuge, probably roughened his speculative sensibility, and made it impossible for him to handle with perfect nicety the more delicate facts of his science. It can hardly be claimed that Locke was endowed by nature with philosophical genius of the highest order. While at Oxford he abandoned philosophy, in disgust, for medicine, and distinguished himself there by judgment and penetration. Subsequently his attention was turned to politics, another pursuit even less congenial with introspective genius. These may not be the reasons for the “incompleteness” which so glowing a eulogist as Mr. George H. Lewes admits in the “Essay;” but at all events, whatever the reasons may have been, the incompleteness was felt; the debate over the author’s meaning was an open proclamation of it; at the close of a century it was apparent to at least one mind that Locke’s attempt must be repeated, and his work done over again more carefully.

  The man who came to this conclusion and was moved to act on it was IMMANUEL KANT, born at Königsberg, in Prussia, April 22d, 1724; died there February 12th, 1804. His was a life rigorously devoted to philosophy. He inherited from his parents a love of truth, a respect for moral worth, and an intellectual integrity which his precursor in England did not more than match. He was a master in the sciences, a proficient in languages, a man cultivated in literature, a severe student, of the German type, whose long, calm, peaceful years were spent in meditation, lecturing and writing. He was distinguished as a mathematician before he was heard of as a philosopher, having predicted the existence of the planet Uranus before Herschel discovered it. He was forty-five years old when these trained powers were brought to bear on the study of the human mind: he was sixty-seven when the meditation was ended. His book, the “Critique of Pure Reason,” was the result of twelve years of such thinking as his genius and training made him capable of. In what spirit and with what hope he went about his task, appears in the Introduction and the Prefaces to the editions of 1781 and 1787. In these he frankly opens his mind in regard to the condition of philosophical speculation. That condition he describes as one of saddest indifference. The throne of Metaphysics was vacant, and its former occupant was a wanderer, cast off by the meanest of his subjects. Locke had started a flight of hypotheses, which had frittered his force away and made his effort barren of definite result. Theories had been suggested and abandoned; the straw had been thrashed till only dust remained; and unless a new method could be hit on, the days of mental philosophy might be considered as numbered. The physical sciences would take advantage of the time, enter the deserted house, secure possession, and set up their idols in the ancient shrine.

  These sciences, it was admitted, command and deserve unqualified respect. To discover the secret of their success Kant passed in review their different systems, examined them in respect to their principles and conditions of progress, with a purpose to know what, if any, essential difference there might be between them and the metaphysics which had from of old claimed to be, and had the name of being, a science. Logic, mathematics, physics, are sciences: by virtue of what inherent peculiarity do they claim superior right to that high appellation? Intellectual philosophy has always been given over to conflicting parties. Its history is a history of controversies, and of controversies that resulted in no triumph for either side, established no doctrine, and reclaimed no portion of truth. Material philosophy has made steady advances from the beginning; its disputes have ended in demonstrations, its contests have resulted in the establishment of legitimate authority: if its progress has been slow it has been continuous; it has never receded; and its variations from a straight course are insignificant when surveyed from a position that commands its whole career.

  Since Aristotle, logic has, without serious impediment or check, matured its rules and methods. Holding the same cardinal positions as in Aristotle’s time, it has simply made them stronger, the rules being but interpretations of rational principles, the methods following precisely the indications of the human mind, which from the nature of the case remain always the same.

  The mathematics, again, have had their periods of uncertainty and conjecture. But since the discovery of the essential properties of the triangle, the career has been uninterrupted. The persistent study of constant properties, which were not natural data, but mental conceptions formed by the elimination of variable quantities, led to results which had not to be abandoned.

  It was the same with physics. The physics of the ancients were heaps of conjecture. The predecessors of Galileo abandoned conjecture, put themselves face to face with Nature, observed and classified phenomena, but possessed no method by which their labors could be made productive of cumulative results. But after Galileo had experimented with balls of a given weight on an inclined plane, and Torricelli had pushed upward a weight equal to a known column of water, and Stahl had reduced metals to lime and transformed lime back again into metal, by the addition and subtraction of certain parts, the naturalists carried a torch that illumined their path. They perceived that reason lays her own plans, takes the initiative with her own principles, and must compel nature to answer her questions, instead of obsequiously following its leading-string. It was discovered that scattered observations, made in obedience to no fixed plan, and associated with no necessary law, could not be brought into systematic form. The discovery of such a law is a necessity of reason. Reason presents herself before nature, holding in one hand the principles which alone have power to bring into order and harmony the phenomena of nature; in the other hand grasping the results of experiment conducted according to those principles. Reason demands knowledge of nature, not as a docile pupil who receives implicitly the master’s word, but as a judge who constrains witnesses to reply to questions put to them by the court. To this attitude are due the happy achievements in physics; reason. Seeking not fancying-in nature, by conformity with her own rules, what nature ought to teach, and what of herself she could not learn. Thus physics became established upon the solid basis of a science, after centuries of error and groping.

  Wherefore now, asks Kant, are metaphysics so far behind logic, mathematics, and physics? Wherefore these heaps of conjecture, these vain attempts at solution? Wherefore these futile lives of great men, these abortive flights of genius? The study of the mind is not an arbitrary pursuit, suggested by vanity and conducted by caprice, to be taken up idly and relinquished at a moment’s notice. The human mind cannot acquiesce in a judgment that condemns it to barrenness and indifference in respect to such questions as God, the Soul, the World, the Life to Come; it is perpetually revising and reversing the decrees pronounced against itself. It must accept the conditions of its being.

  From a review of the progress of the sciences it appeared to Kant that their advance was owing to the elimination of the variable elements, and the steady contemplation of the elements that are invariable and constant, the most essential of which is the contribution made by the human mind. The laws that are the basis of logic, of the mathematics, and of the higher physics, and that give certitude to these sciences, are simply the laws of the human mind itself. Strictly speaking, then, it is in the constitution of the human mind, irrespective of outward objects and the application of principles to them, that we must seek the principle of certitude. Thus far in the history of philosophy the human mind had not been fairly considered. Thinkers had concerned themselves with the objects of knowledge, not with the mind that knows. They had collected facts; they had constructed systems; they had traced connections; they had drawn conclusions. Few had defined the relations of knowledge to the human mind. Yet to do that seemed the only way to arrive at certainty, and raise metaphysics to the established rank of physics, mathematics, and logic.

  Struck with this idea, Kant undertook ta transfer contemplation from the objects that engaged the mind to the mind itself, and thus start philosophy on a new career. He meditated a fresh departure, and proposed to effect in metaphysics a revolution parallel with that which Copernicus effected in astronomy. As Copernicus, finding it impossible to explain the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition of their turning round the globe as a centre, bethought him to posit the sun as a centre, round which the earth with other heavenly bodies turned—so Kant, perceiving the confusion that resulted from making man a satellite of the external world, resolved to try the effect of placing him in the position of central sway. Whether this pretension was justifiable or not, is not a subject of inquiry here. They may be right who sneer at it as a fallacy; they may be right who ridicule it as a conceit. We are historians, not critics. That Kant’s position was as has been described, admits of no question. That he built great expectations on his method is certain. He anticipated from it the overthrow of hypotheses which, having no legitimate title to authority, erected themselves to the dignity of dogmas, and assumed supreme rank in the realm of speculation. That it would be the destruction of famous demonstrations, and would reduce renowned arguments to naught, might be foreseen; but in the place of pretended demonstrations, he was confident that solid ones would be established, and arguments that were merely specious would give room to arguments that were profound. Schools might be broken up, but the interests of the human race would be secured. At first it might appear as if cardinal beliefs of mankind must be menaced with extinction as the ancient supports one after another fell; but as soon as the new foundations were disclosed it was anticipated that faith would revive, and the great convictions would stand more securely than ever. Whatever of truth the older systems had contained would receive fresh and trustworthy authentication; the false would be expelled; and a method laid down by which new discoveries in the intellectual sphere might be confidently predicted.

  In this spirit the author of the transcendental philosophy began, continued, and finished his work.

  The word “transcendental” was not new in philosophy. The Schoolmen had used it to describe whatever could not be comprehended in or classified under the so-called categories of Aristotle, who was the recognized prince of the intellectual world. These categories were ten in number: Quantity, Quality, Relation, Action, Passion, The Where, The When, Position in Space, Possession, Substance. Four things were regarded by the Schoolmen as transcending these mental forms-namely, Being, Truth, Unity, Goodness. It is hardly necessary to say that the Transcendentalism of modern times owed very little to these distinctions, if it owed anything to them. Its origin was not from thence; its method was so dissimilar as to seem sharply opposed.

  The word “transcendental” has become domesticated in science. Transcendental anatomy inquires into the idea, the original conception or model on which the organic frame of animals is built, the unity of plan discernible throughout multitudinous genera and orders. Transcendental curves are curves that cannot be defined by algebraic equations. Transcendental equations express relations between transcendental qualities. Transcendental physiology treats of the laws of development and function, which apply, not to particular kinds or classes of organisms, but to all organisms. In the terminology of Kant the term “transcendent” was employed to designate qualities that lie outside of all “experience,” that cannot be brought within the recognized formularies of thought, cannot be reached either by observation or reflection, or explained as the consequences of any discoverable antecedents. The term “transcendental” designated the fundamental conceptions, the universal and necessary judgments, which transcend the sphere of experience, and at the same time impose the conditions that make experience tributary to knowledge. The transcendental philosophy is the philosophy that is built on these necessary and universal principles, these primary laws of mind, which are the ground of absolute truth. The supremacy given to these and the authority given to the truths that result from them entitle the philosophy to its name. “I term all cognition transcendental which concerns itself not so much with objects, as with our mode of cognition of objects so far as this may be possible à priori. A system of such conceptions would be called Transcendental Philosophy.”

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