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Chapter 7

Introduction to a translation of the chapter upon instinct in Von Hartmann's "Philosophy of the Unconscious."


I am afraid my readers will find the chapter on instinct from Von Hartmann's "Philosophy of the Unconscious," which will now follow, as distasteful to read as I did to translate, and would gladly have spared it them if I could. At present, the works of Mr. Sully, who has treated of the "Philosophy of the Unconscious" both in the Westminster Review (vol. xlix. N.S.) and in his work "Pessimism," are the best source to which English readers can have recourse for information concerning Von Hartmann. Giving him all credit for the pains he has taken with an ungrateful, if not impossible subject, I think that a sufficient sample of Von Hartmann's own words will be a useful adjunct to Mr. Sully's work, and may perhaps save some readers trouble by resolving them to look no farther into the "Philosophy of the Unconscious." Over and above this, I have been so often told that the views concerning unconscious action contained in the foregoing lecture and in "Life and Habit" are only the very fallacy of Von Hartmann over again, that I should like to give the public an opportunity of seeing whether this is so or no, by placing the two contending theories of unconscious action side by side. I hope that it will thus be seen that neither Professor Hering nor I have fallen into the fallacy of Von Hartmann, but that rather Von Hartmann has fallen into his fallacy through failure to grasp the principle which Professor Hering has insisted upon, and to connect heredity with memory.

Professor Hering's philosophy of the unconscious is of extreme simplicity. He rests upon a fact of daily and hourly experience, namely, that practice makes things easy that were once difficult, and often results in their being done without any consciousness of effort. But if the repetition of an act tends ultimately, under certain circumstances, to its being done unconsciously, so also is the fact of an intricate and difficult action being done unconsciously an argument that it must have been done repeatedly already. As I said in "Life and Habit," it is more easy to suppose that occasions on which such an action has been performed have not been wanting, even though we do not see when and where they were, than that the facility which we observe should have been attained without practice and memory (p. 56).

There can be nothing better established or more easy, whether to understand or verify, than the unconsciousness with which habitual actions come to be performed. If, however, it is once conceded that it is the manner of habitual action generally, then all a priori objection to Professor Hering's philosophy of the unconscious is at an end. The question becomes one of fact in individual cases, and of degree.

How far, then, does the principle of the convertibility, as it were, of practice and unconsciousness extend? Can any line be drawn beyond which it shall cease to operate? If not, may it not have operated and be operating to a vast and hitherto unsuspected extent? This is all, and certainly it is sufficiently simple. I sometimes think it has found its greatest stumbling-block in its total want of mystery, as though we must be like those conjurers whose stock in trade is a small deal table and a kitchen-chair with bare legs, and who, with their parade of "no deception" and "examine everything for yourselves," deceive worse than others who make use of all manner of elaborate paraphernalia. It is true we require no paraphernalia, and we produce unexpected results, but we are not conjuring.

To turn now to Von Hartmann. When I read Mr. Sully's article in the Westminster Review, I did not know whether the sense of mystification which it produced in me was wholly due to Von Hartmann or no; but on making acquaintance with Von Hartmann himself, I found that Mr. Sully has erred, if at all, in making him more intelligible than he actually is. Von Hartmann has not got a meaning. Give him Professor Hering's key and he might get one, but it would be at the expense of seeing what approach he had made to a system fallen to pieces. Granted that in his details and subordinate passages he often both has and conveys a meaning, there is, nevertheless, no coherence between these details, and the nearest approach to a broad conception covering the work which the reader can carry away with him is at once so incomprehensible and repulsive, that it is difficult to write about it without saying more perhaps than those who have not seen the original will accept as likely to be true. The idea to which I refer is that of an unconscious clairvoyance, which, from the language continually used concerning it, must be of the nature of a person, and which is supposed to take possession of living beings so fully as to be the very essence of their nature, the promoter of their embryonic development, and the instigator of their instinctive actions. This approaches closely to the personal God of Mosaic and Christian theology, with the exception that the word "clairvoyance" [89] is substituted for God, and that the God is supposed to be unconscious.

Mr. Sully says:-

"When we grasp it [the philosophy of Von Hartmann] as a whole, it amounts to nothing more than this, that all or nearly all the phenomena of the material and spiritual world rest upon and result from a mysterious, unconscious being, though to call it being is really to add on an idea not immediately contained within the all- sufficient principle. But what difference is there between this and saying that the phenomena of the world at large come we know not whence? . . . The unconscious, therefore, tends to be simple phrase and nothing more . . . No doubt there are a number of mental processes . . . of which we are unconscious . . . but to infer from this that they are due to an unconscious power, and to proceed to demonstrate them in the presence of the unconscious through all nature, is to make an unwarrantable saltus in reasoning. What, in fact, is this 'unconscious' but a high-sounding name to veil our ignorance? Is the unconscious any better explanation of phenomena we do not understand than the 'devil-devil' by which Australian tribes explain the Leyden jar and its phenomena? Does it increase our knowledge to know that we do not know the origin of language or the cause of instinct? . . . Alike in organic creation and the evolution of history 'performances and actions'--the words are those of Strauss--are ascribed to an unconscious, which can only belong to a conscious being. [90a]

. . . . .

"The difficulties of the system advance as we proceed. [90b] Subtract this questionable factor--the unconscious from Hartmann's 'Biology and Psychology,' and the chapters remain pleasant and instructive reading. But with the third part of his work--the Metaphysic of the Unconscious--our feet are clogged at every step. We are encircled by the merest play of words, the most unsatisfactory demonstrations, and most inconsistent inferences. The theory of final causes has been hitherto employed to show the wisdom of the world; with our Pessimist philosopher it shows nothing but its irrationality and misery. Consciousness has been generally supposed to be the condition of all happiness and interest in life; here it simply awakens us to misery, and the lower an animal lies in the scale of conscious life, the better and the pleasanter its lot.

. . . . .

"Thus, then, the universe, as an emanation of the unconscious, has been constructed. [90c] Throughout it has been marked by design, by purpose, by finality; throughout a wonderful adaptation of means to ends, a wonderful adjustment and relativity in different portions has been noticed--and all this for what conclusion? Not, as in the hands of the natural theologians of the eighteenth century, to show that the world is the result of design, of an intelligent, beneficent Creator, but the manifestation of a Being whose only predicates are negatives, whose very essence is to be unconscious. It is not only like ancient Athens, to an unknown, but to an unknowing God, that modern Pessimism rears its altar. Yet surely the fact that the motive principle of existence moves in a mysterious way outside our consciousness no way requires that the All-one Being should be himself unconscious.

I believe the foregoing to convey as correct an idea of Von Hartmann's system as it is possible to convey, and will leave it to the reader to say how much in common there is between this and the lecture given in the preceding chapter, beyond the fact that both touch upon unconscious actions. The extract which will form my next chapter is only about a thirtieth part of the entire "Philosophy of the Unconscious," but it will, I believe, suffice to substantiate the justice of what Mr. Sully has said in the passages above quoted.

As regards the accuracy of the translation, I have submitted all passages about which I was in the least doubtful to the same gentleman who revised my translation of Professor Hering's lecture; I have also given the German wherever I thought the reader might be glad to see it.


Footnotes:

[89] I am obliged to Mr. Sully for this excellent translation of "Hellsehen."

[90a] Westminster Review, New Series, vol. xlix. p. 143.

[90b] Ibid., p. 145.

[90c] Ibid., p. 151.


Samuel Butler

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