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Chapter 9

Is Philosophy possible as a science, and what are its conditions?--Giordano Bruno--Literary Aristocracy, or the existence of a tacit compact among the learned as a privileged order--The Author's obligations to the Mystics--to Immanuel Kant--The difference between the letter and the spirit of Kant's writings, and a vindication of prudence in the teaching of Philosophy--Fichte's attempt to complete the Critical system--Its partial success and ultimate failure--Obligations to Schelling; and among English writers to Saumarez.

After I had successively studied in the schools of Locke, Berkeley, Leibnitz, and Hartley, and could find in none of them an abiding place for my reason, I began to ask myself; is a system of philosophy; as different from mere history and historic classification, possible? If possible, what are its necessary conditions? I was for a while disposed to answer the first question in the negative, and to admit that the sole practicable employment for the human mind was to observe, to collect, and to classify. But I soon felt, that human nature itself fought up against this wilful resignation of intellect; and as soon did I find, that the scheme, taken with all its consequences and cleared of all inconsistencies, was not less impracticable than contranatural. Assume in its full extent the position, nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu, assume it without Leibnitz's qualifying praeter ipsum intellectum, and in the same sense, in which the position was understood by Hartley and Condillac: and then what Hume had demonstratively deduced from this concession concerning cause and effect, will apply with equal and crushing force to all the other eleven categorical forms [27], and the logical functions corresponding to them. How can we make bricks without straw;--or build without cement? We learn all things indeed by occasion of experience; but the very facts so learned force us inward on the antecedents, that must be presupposed in order to render experience itself possible. The first book of Locke's Essay, (if the supposed error, which it labours to subvert, be not a mere thing of straw, an absurdity which, no man ever did, or indeed ever could, believe,) is formed on a sophisma heterozaetaeseos, and involves the old mistake of Cum hoc: ergo, propter hoc.

The term, Philosophy, defines itself as an affectionate seeking after the truth; but Truth is the correlative of Being. This again is no way conceivable, but by assuming as a postulate, that both are ab initio, identical and coinherent; that intelligence and being are reciprocally each other's substrate. I presumed that this was a possible conception, (i.e. that it involved no logical inconsonance,) from the length of time during which the scholastic definition of the Supreme Being, as actus purissimus sine ulla potentialitate, was received in the schools of Theology, both by the Pontifician and the Reformed divines. The early study of Plato and Plotinus, with the commentaries and the THEOLOGIA PLATONICA of the illustrious Florentine; of Proclus, and Gemistius Pletho; and at a later period of the De Immenso et Innumerabili and the "De la causa, principio et uno," of the philosopher of Nola, who could boast of a Sir Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville among his patrons, and whom the idolaters of Rome burnt as an atheist in the year 1600; had all contributed to prepare my mind for the reception and welcoming of the Cogito quia Sum, et Sum quia Cogito; a philosophy of seeming hardihood, but certainly the most ancient, and therefore presumptively the most natural.

Why need I be afraid? Say rather how dare I be ashamed of the Teutonic theosophist, Jacob Behmen? Many, indeed, and gross were his delusions; and such as furnish frequent and ample occasion for the triumph of the learned over the poor ignorant shoemaker, who had dared think for himself. But while we remember that these delusions were such, as might be anticipated from his utter want of all intellectual discipline, and from his ignorance of rational psychology, let it not be forgotten that the latter defect he had in common with the most learned theologians of his age. Neither with books, nor with book- learned men was he conversant. A meek and shy quietest, his intellectual powers were never stimulated into feverous energy by crowds of proselytes, or by the ambition of proselyting. Jacob Behmen was an enthusiast, in the strictest sense, as not merely distinguished, but as contra-distinguished, from a fanatic. While I in part translate the following observations from a contemporary writer of the Continent, let me be permitted to premise, that I might have transcribed the substance from memoranda of my own, which were written many years before his pamphlet was given to the world; and that I prefer another's words to my own, partly as a tribute due to priority of publication; but still more from the pleasure of sympathy in a case where coincidence only was possible.

Whoever is acquainted with the history of philosophy, during the last two or three centuries, cannot but admit that there appears to have existed a sort of secret and tacit compact among the learned, not to pass beyond a certain limit in speculative science. The privilege of free thought, so highly extolled, has at no time been held valid in actual practice, except within this limit; and not a single stride beyond it has ever been ventured without bringing obloquy on the transgressor. The few men of genius among the learned class, who actually did overstep this boundary, anxiously avoided the appearance of having so done. Therefore the true depth of science, and the penetration to the inmost centre, from which all the lines of knowledge diverge to their ever distant circumference, was abandoned to the illiterate and the simple, whom unstilled yearning, and an original ebulliency of spirit, had urged to the investigation of the indwelling and living ground of all things. These, then, because their names had never been enrolled in the guilds of the learned, were persecuted by the registered livery-men as interlopers on their rights and privileges. All without distinction were branded as fanatics and phantasts; not only those, whose wild and exorbitant imaginations had actually engendered only extravagant and grotesque phantasms, and whose productions were, for the most part, poor copies and gross caricatures of genuine inspiration; but the truly inspired likewise, the originals themselves. And this for no other reason, but because they were the unlearned, men of humble and obscure occupations. When, and from whom among the literati by profession, have we ever heard the divine doxology repeated, I thank thee, O Father! Lord of Heaven and Earth! because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes [28]. No; the haughty priests of learning not only banished from the schools and marts of science all who had dared draw living waters from the fountain, but drove them out of the very Temple, which mean time the buyers, and sellers, and money-changers were suffered to make a den of thieves.

And yet it would not be easy to discover any substantial ground for this contemptuous pride in those literati, who have most distinguished themselves by their scorn of Behmen, Thaulerus, George Fox, and others; unless it be, that they could write orthographically, make smooth periods, and had the fashions of authorship almost literally at their fingers' ends, while the latter, in simplicity of soul, made their words immediate echoes of their feelings. Hence the frequency of those phrases among them, which have been mistaken for pretences to immediate inspiration; as for instance, "It was delivered unto me; "-- "I strove not to speak;"-"I said, I will be silent;"--"But the word was in my heart as a burning fire;"--"and I could not forbear." Hence too the unwillingness to give offence; hence the foresight, and the dread of the clamours, which would be raised against them, so frequently avowed in the writings of these men, and expressed, as was natural, in the words of the only book, with which they were familiar [29]. "Woe is me that I am become a man of strife, and a man of contention,--I love peace: the souls of men are dear unto me: yet because I seek for light every one of them doth curse me!" O! it requires deeper feeling, and a stronger imagination, than belong to most of those, to whom reasoning and fluent expression have been as a trade learnt in boyhood, to conceive with what might, with what inward strivings and commotion, the perception of a new and vital truth takes possession of an uneducated man of genius. His meditations are almost inevitably employed on the eternal, or the everlasting; for "the world is not his friend, nor the world's law." Need we then be surprised, that, under an excitement at once so strong and so unusual, the man's body should sympathize with the struggles of his mind; or that he should at times be so far deluded, as to mistake the tumultuous sensations of his nerves, and the co-existing spectres of his fancy, as parts or symbols of the truths which were opening on him? It has indeed been plausibly observed, that in order to derive any advantage, or to collect any intelligible meaning, from the writings of these ignorant Mystics, the reader must bring with him a spirit and judgment superior to that of the writers themselves:

And what he brings, what needs he elsewhere seek?

--a sophism, which I fully agree with Warburton, is unworthy of Milton; how much more so of the awful Person, in whose mouth he has placed it? One assertion I will venture to make, as suggested by my own experience, that there exist folios on the human understanding, and the nature of man, which would have a far juster claim to their high rank and celebrity, if in the whole huge volume there could be found as much fulness of heart and intellect, as burst forth in many a simple page of George Fox, Jacob Behmen, and even of Behmen's commentator, the pious and fervid William Law.

The feeling of gratitude, which I cherish toward these men, has caused me to digress further than I had foreseen or proposed; but to have passed them over in an historical sketch of my literary life and opinions, would have seemed to me like the denial of a debt, the concealment of a boon. For the writings of these Mystics acted in no slight degree to prevent my mind from being imprisoned within the outline of any single dogmatic system. They contributed to keep alive the heart in the head; gave me an indistinct, yet stirring and working presentiment, that all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which a sap was yet to be propelled from some root to which I had not penetrated, if they were to afford my soul either food or shelter. If they were too often a moving cloud of smoke to me by day, yet they were always a pillar of fire throughout the night, during my wanderings through the wilderness of doubt, and enabled me to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief. That the system is capable of being converted into an irreligious Pantheism, I well know. The Ethics of Spinoza, may, or may not, be an instance. But at no time could I believe, that in itself and essentially it is incompatible with religion, natural or revealed: and now I am most thoroughly persuaded of the contrary. The writings of the illustrious sage of Koenigsberg, the founder of the Critical Philosophy, more than any other work, at once invigorated and disciplined my understanding. The originality, the depth, and the compression of the thoughts; the novelty and subtlety, yet solidity and importance of the distinctions; the adamantine chain of the logic; and I will venture to add--(paradox as it will appear to those who have taken their notion of Immanuel Kant from Reviewers and Frenchmen)--the clearness and evidence, of the Critique of the Pure Reason; and Critique of the Judgment; of the Metaphysical Elements of Natural Philosophy; and of his Religion within the bounds of Pure Reason, took possession of me as with the giant's hand. After fifteen years' familiarity with them, I still read these and all his other productions with undiminished delight and increasing admiration. The few passages that remained obscure to me, after due efforts of thought, (as the chapter on original apperception,) and the apparent contradictions which occur, I soon found were hints and insinuations referring to ideas, which KANT either did not think it prudent to avow, or which he considered as consistently left behind in a pure analysis, not of human nature in toto, but of the speculative intellect alone. Here therefore he was constrained to commence at the point of reflection, or natural consciousness: while in his moral system he was permitted to assume a higher ground (the autonomy of the will) as a postulate deducible from the unconditional command, or (in the technical language of his school) the categorical imperative, of the conscience. He had been in imminent danger of persecution during the reign of the late king of Prussia, that strange compound of lawless debauchery and priest-ridden superstition: and it is probable that he had little inclination, in his old age, to act over again the fortunes, and hair-breadth escapes of Wolf. The expulsion of the first among Kant's disciples, who attempted to complete his system, from the University of Jena, with the confiscation and prohibition of the obnoxious work by the joint efforts of the courts of Saxony and Hanover, supplied experimental proof, that the venerable old man's caution was not groundless. In spite therefore of his own declarations, I could never believe, that it was possible for him to have meant no more by his Noumenon, or Thing in itself, than his mere words express; or that in his own conception he confined the whole plastic power to the forms of the intellect, leaving for the external cause, for the materiale of our sensations, a matter without form, which is doubtless inconceivable. I entertained doubts likewise, whether, in his own mind, he even laid all the stress, which he appears to do, on the moral postulates.

An idea, in the highest sense of that word, cannot be conveyed but by a symbol; and, except in geometry, all symbols of necessity involve an apparent contradiction. Phonaese synetoisin: and for those who could not pierce through this symbolic husk, his writings were not intended. Questions which cannot be fully answered without exposing the respondent to personal danger, are not entitled to a fair answer; and yet to say this openly, would in many cases furnish the very advantage which the adversary is insidiously seeking after. Veracity does not consist in saying, but in the intention of communicating, truth; and the philosopher who cannot utter the whole truth without conveying falsehood, and at the same time, perhaps, exciting the most malignant passions, is constrained to express himself either mythically or equivocally. When Kant therefore was importuned to settle the disputes of his commentators himself, by declaring what he meant, how could he decline the honours of martyrdom with less offence, than by simply replying, "I meant what I said, and at the age of near fourscore, I have something else, and more important to do, than to write a commentary on my own works."

Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre, or Lore of Ultimate Science, was to add the key-stone of the arch: and by commencing with an act, instead of a thing or substance, Fichte assuredly gave the first mortal blow to Spinozism, as taught by Spinoza himself; and supplied the idea of a system truly metaphysical, and of a metaphysique truly systematic: (i.e. having its spring and principle within itself). But this fundamental idea he overbuilt with a heavy mass of mere notions, and psychological acts of arbitrary reflection. Thus his theory degenerated into a crude [30] egoismus, a boastful and hyperstoic hostility to Nature, as lifeless, godless, and altogether unholy: while his religion consisted in the assumption of a mere Ordo ordinans, which we were permitted exoterice to call GOD; and his ethics in an ascetic, and almost monkish, mortification of the natural passions and desires. In Schelling's Natur-Philosophie, and the System des transcendentalen Idealismus, I first found a genial coincidence with much that I had toiled out for myself, and a powerful assistance in what I had yet to do.

I have introduced this statement, as appropriate to the narrative nature of this sketch; yet rather in reference to the work which I have announced in a preceding page, than to my present subject. It would be but a mere act of justice to myself, were I to warn my future readers, than an identity of thought, or even similarity of phrase, will not be at all times a certain proof that the passage has been borrowed from Schelling, or that the conceptions were originally learnt from him. In this instance, as in the dramatic lectures of Schlegel to which I have before alluded, from the same motive of self- defence against the charge of plagiarism, many of the most striking resemblances, indeed all the main and fundamental ideas, were born and matured in my mind before I had ever seen a single page of the German Philosopher; and I might indeed affirm with truth, before the more important works of Schelling had been written, or at least made public. Nor is this coincidence at all to be wondered at. We had studied in the same school; been disciplined by the same preparatory philosophy, namely, the writings of Kant; we had both equal obligations to the polar logic and dynamic philosophy of Giordano Bruno; and Schelling has lately, and, as of recent acquisition, avowed that same affectionate reverence for the labours of Behmen, and other mystics, which I had formed at a much earlier period. The coincidence of Schelling's system with certain general ideas of Behmen, he declares to have been mere coincidence; while my obligations have been more direct. He needs give to Behmen only feelings of sympathy; while I owe him a debt of gratitude. God forbid! that I should be suspected of a wish to enter into a rivalry with Schelling for the honours so unequivocally his right, not only as a great and original genius, but as the founder of the Philosophy of Nature, and as the most successful improver of the Dynamic System [31] which, begun by Bruno, was re- introduced (in a more philosophical form, and freed from all its impurities and visionary accompaniments) by Kant; in whom it was the native and necessary growth of his own system. Kant's followers, however, on whom (for the greater part) their master's cloak had fallen without, or with a very scanty portion of, his spirit, had adopted his dynamic ideas, only as a more refined species of mechanics. With exception of one or two fundamental ideas, which cannot be withheld from Fichte, to Schelling we owe the completion, and the most important victories, of this revolution in philosophy. To me it will be happiness and honour enough, should I succeed in rendering the system itself intelligible to my countrymen, and in the application of it to the most awful of subjects for the most important of purposes. Whether a work is the offspring of a man's own spirit, and the product of original thinking, will be discovered by those who are its sole legitimate judges, by better tests than the mere reference to dates. For readers in general, let whatever shall be found in this or any future work of mine, that resembles, or coincides with, the doctrines of my German predecessor, though contemporary, be wholly attributed to him: provided, that the absence of distinct references to his books, which I could not at all times make with truth as designating citations or thoughts actually derived from him; and which, I trust, would, after this general acknowledgment be superfluous; be not charged on me as an ungenerous concealment or intentional plagiarism. I have not indeed (eheu! res angusta domi!) been hitherto able to procure more than two of his books, viz. the first volume of his collected Tracts, and his System of Transcendental Idealism; to which, however, I must add a small pamphlet against Fichte, the spirit of which was to my feelings painfully incongruous with the principles, and which (with the usual allowance afforded to an antithesis) displayed the love of wisdom rather than the wisdom of love. I regard truth as a divine ventriloquist: I care not from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed, if only the words are audible and intelligible. "Albeit, I must confess to be half in doubt, whether I should bring it forth or no, it being so contrary to the eye of the world, and the world so potent in most men's hearts, that I shall endanger either not to be regarded or not to be understood."

And to conclude the subject of citation, with a cluster of citations, which as taken from books, not in common use, may contribute to the reader's amusement, as a voluntary before a sermon: "Dolet mihi quidem deliciis literarum inescatos subito jam homines adeo esse, praesertim qui Christianos se profitentur, et legere nisi quod ad delectationem facit, sustineant nihil: unde et discipline severiores et philosophia ipsa jam fere prorsus etiam a doctis negliguntur. Quod quidem propositum studiorum, nisi mature corrigitur, tam magnum rebus incommodum dabit, quam dedit barbaries olim. Pertinax res barbaries est, fateor: sed minus potent tamen, quam illa mollities et persuasa prudentia literarum, si ratione caret, sapientiae virtutisque specie mortales misere circumducens. Succedet igitur, ut arbitror, haud ita multo post, pro rusticana seculi nostri ruditate captatrix illa communi-loquentia robur animi virilis omne, omnem virtutem masculam, profligatura nisi cavetur."

A too prophetic remark, which has been in fulfilment from the year 1680, to the present 1815. By persuasa prudentia, Grynaeus means self- complacent common sense as opposed to science and philosophic reason.

Est medius ordo, et velut equestris, ingeniorum quidem sagacium, et commodorum rebus humanis, non tamen in primam magnitudinem patentium. Eorum hominum, ut sic dicam, major annona est. Sedulum esse, nihil temere loqui, assuescere labori, et imagine prudentiae et modistiae tegere angustiores partes captus, dum exercitationem ac usum, quo isti in civilibus rebus pollent, pro natura et magnitudine ingenii plerique accipiunt.

"As therefore physicians are many times forced to leave such methods of curing as themselves know to be the fittest, and being overruled by the patient's impatiency, are fain to try the best they can: in like sort, considering how the case doth stand with this present age, full of tongue and weak of brain, behold we would (if our subject permitted it) yield to the stream thereof. That way we would be contented to prove our thesis, which being the worse in itself, is notwithstanding now by reason of common imbecility the fitter and likelier to be brooked."

If this fear could be rationally entertained in the controversial age of Hooker, under the then robust discipline of the scholastic logic, pardonably may a writer of the present times anticipate a scanty audience for abstrusest themes, and truths that can neither be communicated nor received without effort of thought, as well as patience of attention.

"Che s'io non erro al calcolar de' punti, Par ch' Asinina Stella a noi predomini, E'l Somaro e'l Castron si sian congiunti. Il tempo d'Apuleio piu non si nomini: Che se allora un sol huom sembrava un Asino, Mille Asini a' miei di rassembran huomini!"


[27] Videlicet; Quantity, Quality, Relation, and Mode, each consisting of three subdivisions. See Kritik der reinen Vernunft. See too the judicious remarks on Locke and Hume.

[28] St. Luke x. 21.

[29] An American Indian with little variety of images, and a still scantier stock of language, is obliged to turn his few words to many purposes, by likenesses so clear and analogies so remote as to give his language the semblance and character of lyric poetry interspersed with grotesques. Something not unlike this was the case of such men as Behmen and Fox with regard to the Bible. It was their sole armoury of expressions, their only organ of thought.

[30] The following burlesque on the Fichtean Egoisnsus may, perhaps, be amusing to the few who have studied the system, and to those who are unacquainted with it, may convey as tolerable a likeness of Fichte's idealism as can be expected from an avowed caricature.

The Categorical Imperative, or the annunciation of the new Teutonic God, EGOENKAIPAN: a dithyrambic ode, by QUERKOPF VON KLUBSTICK, Grammarian, and Subrector in Gymmasic.

Eu! Dei vices gerens, ipse Divus, (Speak English, Friend!) the God Imperativus, Here on this market-cross aloud I cry: I, I, I! I itself I! The form and the substance, the what and the why, The when and the where, and the low and the high, The inside and outside, the earth and the sky, I, you and he, and he, you and I, All souls and all bodies are I itself I! All I itself I! (Fools! a truce with this starting!) All my I! all my I! He's a heretic dog who but adds Betty Martin! Thus cried the God with high imperial tone; In robe of stiffest state, that scoffed at beauty, A pronoun-verb imperative he shone-- Then substantive and plural-singular grown He thus spake on! Behold in I alone (For ethics boast a syntax of their own) Or if in ye, yet as I doth depute ye, In O! I, you, the vocative of duty! I of the world's whole Lexicon the root! Of the whole universe of touch, sound, sight The genitive and ablative to boot: The accusative of wrong, the nominative of right, And in all cases the case absolute! Self-construed, I all other moods decline: Imperative, from nothing we derive us; Yet as a super-postulate of mine, Unconstrued antecedence I assign To X, Y, Z, the God Infinitivus!

[31] It would be an act of high and almost criminal injustice to pass over in silence the name of Mr. Richard Saumarez, a gentleman equally well known as a medical man and as a philanthropist, but who demands notice on the present occasion as the author of "A new System of Physiology" in two volumes octavo, published 1797; and in 1812 of "An Examination of the natural and artificial Systems of Philosophy which now prevail" in one volume octavo, entitled, "The Principles of physiological and physical Science." The latter work is not quite equal to the former in style or arrangement; and there is a greater necessity of distinguishing the principles of the author's philosophy from his conjectures concerning colour, the atmospheric matter, comets, etc. which, whether just or erroneous, are by no means necessary consequences of that philosophy. Yet even in this department of this volume, which I regard as comparatively the inferior work, the reasonings by which Mr. Saumarez invalidates the immanence of an infinite power in any finite substance are the offspring of no common mind; and the experiment on the expansibility of the air is at least plausible and highly ingenious. But the merit, which will secure both to the book and to the writer a high and honourable name with posterity, consists in the masterly force of reasoning, and the copiousness of induction, with which he has assailed, and (in my opinion) subverted the tyranny of the mechanic system in physiology; established not only the existence of final causes, but their necessity and efficiency to every system that merits the name of philosophical; and, substituting life and progressive power for the contradictory inert force, has a right to be known and remembered as the first instaurator of the dynamic philosophy in England. The author's views, as far as concerns himself, are unborrowed and completely his own, as he neither possessed nor do his writings discover, the least acquaintance with the works of Kant, in which the germs of the philosophy exist: and his volumes were published many years before the full development of these germs by Schelling. Mr. Saumarez's detection of the Braunonian system was no light or ordinary service at the time; and I scarcely remember in any work on any subject a confutation so thoroughly satisfactory. It is sufficient at this time to have stated the fact; as in the preface to the work, which I have already announced on the Logos, I have exhibited in detail the merits of this writer, and genuine philosopher, who needed only have taken his foundation somewhat deeper and wider to have superseded a considerable part of my labours.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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