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What is speculative philosophy

what is speculative philosophy


§ 1. I understand that it is the wish of the Editor of this collection of essays that each contributor should describe his own system of philosophy. Were I to interpret this demand literally I could not contribute anything at all, for two excellent reasons. In the first place, I have nothing worth calling a system of philosophy of my own, and there is no other philosopher of whom I should be willing to reckon myself a faithful follower. If this be a defect I see no likelihood of its ever being cured. Secondly, if I had a system of my own, I should doubt the propriety of "pushing" my crude philosophical wares in competition with the excellent products of older firms with well-earned reputations. The best I can do is to state in outline my own quite unoriginal views about the subject-matter of philosophy, and about the kind and degree of certainty which we may hope to reach in different branches of philosophical inquiry.

§ 2. A man's philosophy cannot be altogether separated from his history; for Mr. Bradley's saying, that "metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct," is as near the truth as any epigram can well be without sacrificing that brevity which is the soul of wit. On this ground, and on this alone, a few autobiographical details are necessary, and may escape the charge of impertinence. I shall therefore begin by mentioning some of the books which and the men who have specially influenced me, and by enumerating those hereditary and acquired tendencies which are likely to have biassed my philosophical views. I have always been about equally interested in philosophy and in the more abstract sciences; and, as a matter of history, I approached philosophy from the side of natural science. I do not mean by this that I was first a pure scientist and then took up with philosophy. The latter subject interested me intensely even in my schooldays. Before I went up to Trinity I had read Mill's Logic. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. and Schopenhauer's Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. I went to Cambridge as a convinced subjective idealist, who would have liked to believe that Schopenhauer had proved his case, but who felt in his bones that this was not so. It is true, however, that I studied natural science seriously long before I began to make an equally serious study of philosophy. The two subjects simply interchanged their relative importance for me as time went on.

When I first entered Trinity the college was full of philosophical discussion. Dr. Moore and Mr. Russell had both gone down; but the tradition of the former was still very strong, whilst the latter's Principles of Mathematics. published some four years earlier, was the basis for endless discussions among intelligent undergraduates. Probably this book, which I had read hastily in the School Library, but now studied carefully for the first time, has influenced me more than any one other. I learned from it not to welcome contradictions as proofs that such and such features in the apparent world are unreal. I learned to suspect that, when philosophers discovered contradictions in apparently fundamental categories, it was just possible that it might be the philosopher who was at fault and not the category. And it seemed to me that the contrast between the ways in which philosophers had dealt with the difficulties of infinity and continuity, and the way in which mathematicians like Cantor and Weierstrass had done so was most illuminating. Another writing which influenced me profoundly was Dr. Moore's Refutation of Idealism . This knocked the bottom out of my youthful subjective idealism, and taught me to avoid a trap into which numberless better men than I have fallen. Of course I do not think that this article does "refute idealism," even of the Berkeleian kind; but it does refute the commonest and most plausible argument for it, and forms of this argument do appear in the writings of philosophers who would be much hurt to be called "subjective idealists."

At a later stage of my career Mr. Russell came back to Trinity, and I derived an immense stimulus from his lectures and from conversation with him. As we all know, Mr. Russell produces a different system of philosophy every few years, and Dr. Moore never produces one at all. "Si Russell savait, si Moore pouvait" seems the only adequate comment on the situation; but I owe more than I can tell to the speculative boldness of the one and the meticulous accuracy of the other. In the meanwhile I devoured eagerly all Dr. McTaggart's books, and enjoyed the privilege of his lectures and his personal influence. I learned from him to look with suspicion on that "grateful and comforting" mixture of idealistic metaphysics with edifying social and ethical theory which used to emanate from the West of Scotland. His teaching and Mr. Bradley's writing strengthened in me a natural dislike for every kind of Schwärmerei and enthusiasm in philosophy. He little knows how nearly he made me an Hegelian, or perhaps I had better say a "McTaggartian." From this fate my native scepticism (to which I shall refer later) about all big systems based on abstract reasoning saved me at a time when I could not see precisely what was wrong in detail with the argument.

To Mr. W. E. Johnson I owe my interest in the problems of probability and induction, which have been somewhat neglected by mathematical logicians of the Frege-Russell school. The last important external influence which moulded my philosophical views began to act when I left Cambridge and went to St. Andrews. Here I was constantly in the closest touch with Professors Stout and Taylor. It was a great advantage to me to discuss philosophical problems almost daily with men who were obviously the intellectual equals of my Cambridge teachers, and who yet belonged to very different philosophical schools from them and from each other. From Professor Stout I learned, among much else, to see the importance of psychology, a subject which I had formerly regarded with some contempt. It were difficult to mention any subject on which I did not glean something from Professor Taylor's immense store of accurate and ever-ready knowledge; so I will content myself with saying that he led me to read St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Anselm, and to recognize the wonderful philosophic abilities of the mediaeval theologians.

§ 3. I will end this account of my philosophical development by enumerating those innate and acquired tendencies which seem likely to have warped my views.

(i) I should say that I am much more susceptible to high achievements in science than in art. I am somewhat obtuse to the influence of scenery, painting, music, and the highest kinds of pure literature. I admit in the abstract that Shelley was as great a genius as Newton or Leibniz and a greater poet than Pope. But I can understand and enjoy in detail what is great in Newton's scientific work and in Pope's verbal felicity, whilst I have to take the greatness of Shelley or Keats largely on trust. I could quite easily be taken in by an inferior performer on their lyre, but I think I could see through second-rate science or inferior epigrammatic poetry.

(ii) Closely connected with this is the fact that I am almost wholly devoid of religious or mystical experience. This is combined with a great interest in such experiences and a belief that they are probably of extreme importance in any theoretical interpretation of the world.

(iii) I also intensely dislike and profoundly distrust all strong group emotions. (I think that this may be an excessive reaction against an unacknowledged tendency to feel them rather strongly.) This connects with the last-mentioned defect in the following way. There seem to be two fundamentally different types of religious person, of whom the Quaker and the High Churchman are limiting cases. I do not share the emotions and experiences of either, though I admire and respect many men of both types. But I find the Quaker type far the more intelligible of the two. To me a corporate institution is always at best a necessary evil, like the string of a kite, which cannot be dispensed with, but which ought to be as thin and light as possible. Hence the attitude which the High Churchman takes towards his Church, and which many Hegelians take towards the State, is one which I simply cannot understand at all. They seem not so much to be describing something with which I am not acquainted as to be misdescribing something with which I am all too well acquainted. As many of them are obviously at least as intelligent as I, the whole business perplexes me very much indeed.

(iv) I am fundamentally sceptical, and I feel no confidence in any elaborately reasoned system of metaphysics. Even when I cannot put my finger on any definite flaw in it, there is a still small voice within me which whispers "Bosh!" A great deal of so-called sccpticism is simply a particular kind of dogmatism which leads men to reject all alleged facts which do

not come within the sphere of recognized science. Mine is certainly not of that type. I have always been interested in the phenomena dealt with by Psychical Research, and the attitude of orthodox scientists towards them has always seemed to me ridiculous. This view has been strengthened by subsequent intercourse with the skeletons which inductive logic conceals in its cupboards. Thus my scepticism makes me far less ready to reject the abnormal than are most educated men of our time. A man must know a great deal more about the secrets of nature than I do to reject any alleged fact without investigation, however wild it may seem.

(v) I tend naturally to take a somewhat gloomy view of the world and its inhabitants; and I have a particular horror of all attempts to argue from what ought to be, or what we should like to be, to what is or will be. Perhaps this sometimes leads me into the opposite mistake of regarding certain types of theory as improbable simply because they seem cheerful.

(vi) Lastly, I have an extreme dislike for vague, and oracular writing; and I have very little patience with authors who express themselves in this style. I believe that what can be said at all can be said simply and clearly in any civilized language or in a suitable system of symbols, and that verbal obscurity is almost always a sign of mental confusion. I agree with Dr. Johnson's remark about Jacob Boehme: "If Jacob saw the unutterable, Jacob should not have attempted to utter it." I think that this may prejudice me against some writers who really are struggling to express profound ideas in imperfect language.

It is obvious that some of the characteristics which I have mentioned are grave defects in a philosopher, and that all have their dangers. There are evidently certain very important aspects of human experience which I can only know imperfectly through the descriptions of others, and never through my own personal acquaintance. The necessity of forewarning the reader against probable causes of error in my views must be my excuse for the apparent egoism of the preceding pages. I do not imagine that my philosophical biography is of any intrinsic interest or importance but it has a relative importance for anyone who troubles to read my philosophical writings.


§ 4. It seems to me that under the name of "Philosophy" two very different subjects are included. They are pursued by different methods, and can expect to reach quite different degrees of certainty. I am wont to call them Critical and Speculative Philosophy. I do not assert that either can be wholly separated from the other. The second quite certainly presupposes the first, and it is probable that in the first we tacitly assume some things that belong to the second. But they certainly can be separated to a considerable extent, and it will be best to begin by explaining and illustrating what I mean by each in turn.


In ordinary life and in the special sciences we constantly make use of certain very general concepts, such as number, thing, quality, change, cause, etc. Now, although we constantly use them and apply them with fair consistency, it cannot be said that we have any very clear ideas as to their proper analysis or their precise relations. And it is not the business of any of the special sciences to clear up these obscurities. Chemistry, e.g. tells us a great deal about particular substances, such as gold and aqua regia. and their qualities and relations; but we should not go to a chemistry book for a discussion on substance, quality, and relation. Chemistry simply assumes these general concepts as fully understood and concerns itself with particular instances of them.

Now it is certain that our ideas about such general concepts are highly confused, and this shows itself as soon as we try to apply them to cases which are a little out of the ordinary. We think we know what we mean by "place" and "person," for instance; and we do no doubt agree in the main in applying and withholding these terms. But suppose we are asked: "in what place is the mirror image of a pin? And is it in this place in the same sense in which the pin itself is in its place?" Or suppose we are asked: "Was Sally Beauchamp a person?" We find ourselves puzzled by such questions, and this puzzlement is certainly due in part to the fact that we are not clear as to what we mean by "being in a place" or "being a person." Similar difficulties could be raised about all the fundamental concepts which we constantly use. Thus there is both need and room for a science which shall try to analyse and define the concepts which are used in daily life and in the special sciences. There is need for it, because these concepts really are obscure, and because their obscurity really does lead to difficulties. And there is room for it, because, whilst all the special sciences use these concepts, none of them is about these concepts as such. I regard Critical Philosophy as the science which has this for its most fundamental task.

It seems to me that such a science is perfectly possible, and that it actually exists, and has made a good deal of progress. I will illustrate this with some examples. Since the time of Berkeley and Descartes philosophers have devoted much attention to the problem of the "Reality of the External World." I do not pretend that there is any agreed answer to the question among them, but their inquiries have been most valuable in clearing up the meanings of such terms as "matter," " sensible appearance," " sensation," "perception," " independence," etc. Any competent philosopher nowadays, whether he asserts or denies the independent existence of matter, is asserting or denying something far more subtle and far better analysed than anything which Berkeley or Descartes would have understood by the same form of words. Again, we are not agreed on the right analysis of "cause"; but any view we may reach should be far subtler and clearer than that which could have been held before Hume wrote his classical criticism of this category. In making such statements I am, of course, referring to present-day philosophers who are really capable of appreciating and continuing the work of their predecessors. In any age there is plenty of philosophical writing which is far below the level of the best work of past ages. Moreover, there are fashions in philosophy, and even the best men of a certain period may ignore important results reached by the best men of a certain earlier period which happens for the time to be unpopular. Thus the philosophers of the Aufklärung neglected many important distinctions which the Scholastics had clearly recognized, and I think it probable that some of the summi philosophi of our time tend to neglect much fine gold which was mined by Kant and Hegel. Still, with these qualifications, it is pretty obvious that Critical Philosophy, as partly defined above, does make real and fairly steady progress.

§ 6. Now Critical Philosophy has another and closely connected task. We do not merely use unanalysed concepts in daily life and in science. We also assume uncritically a number of very fundamental propositions. In all our arguments we assume the truth of certain principles of reasoning. Again, we always assume that every change has a cause. And in induction we certainly assume something -- it is hard to say what -- about the fundamental "make-up" of the existent world. Now the second task of Critical Philosophy is to take these propositions which we uncritically assume in science and daily life and to subject them to criticism. In order to do this we must first clear up the concepts which the propositions are about. It is impossible to know what weight to attach to the proposition that "every change has a cause" until you have assigned definite meanings to the words "change" and "cause." It is often found that a man's certainty about such propositions is directly proportional to the vagueness of the terms concerned in them. So the second part of Critical Philosophy is dependent on the first. No doubt it is also true that the first is dependent on the second. We clear up the meanings of terms by reflecting on the propositions in which they occur, just as we clear up the meanings of propositions by finding out the right analysis of their terms. I fancy that the two processes go on by alternate steps, very much as the development of thought and of language must have done in pre-historic times.

§ 7. When we have got a clear idea of the meanings of propositions which are commonly assumed, our next business as Critical Philosophers is to expose them to every objection that we can think of ourselves or find in the writings of others. As a result of such reflexion and criticism it seems to me that we can divide propositions roughly according to the following scheme.

[The table below has been added by the editor, A.C.]

Category: Forex

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