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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 3 - Philosophy before Ferrier's Day


IN attempting to give some idea of philosophy as it was in Scotland in the earlier portion of the present century, we shall have to go back two hundred years or thereabout, in order to find a satisfactory basis from which to start. For philosophy, as no one realised more than Ferrier, is no arbitrary succession of systems following one upon another as their propounders might decree; it is a development in the truest and highest significance of that word. It means the gradual working out of the questions which reason sets to be answered; and though it seems as if we had sometimes to turn our faces backwards, and to revert to systems of bygone days, we always find, when we look more closely, that in our onward course we have merely dropped some thread in our web, the recovery of which is requisite in order that it may be duly taken up and woven with the rest.

At the time of which we write the so-called 'Scottish School' of Reid, Stewart, and Beattie reigned supreme in orthodox Scotland; it had undisputed power in the Universities, and besides this obtained a very reputable place in the estimation of Europe, and more especially of France. As it was this school more especially that Ferrier spent much of his time in combating, it is its history and place that we wish shortly to describe. To do so, however, it is needful to go back to its real founder, Locke, in order that its point of view may fairly be set forth.

In applying his mind to the views of Locke, the ordinary man finds himself arriving at very commonplace and well-accustomed conceptions. Locke, indeed, may reasonably be said to represent the ideas of common, everyday life. The ordinary man does not question the reality of things, he accepts it without asking any questions, and bases his theories—scientific or otherwise —upon this implied reality. Locke worked out the theory which had been propounded by Lord Bacon, that knowledge is obtained by the observation of facts which are implicitly accepted as realities and what, it was asked, could be more self-evident and sane? It is easy to conceive a number of perceiving minds upon the one hand, ready to take up perceptions of an outside material substance upon the other. The mind may be considered as a piece of white paper—a tabula rasa, as it was called—on which external things may make what impression they will, and knowledge is apparently explained at once. But though Locke certainly succeeded in making these terms the common coin of ordinary life, difficulties crop up when we come to examine them more closely. After all, it is evident, the only knowledge our mind can have is a knowledge of its own ideas - ideas which are, of course, caused by something which is outside, or at least, as Locke would say, by its quality. Now, from this it would appear that these 'ideas' after all come between the mind and the 'thing,' whatever it is, that causes them—that is to say, we can perhaps maintain that we only know our 'ideas,' and not things as in themselves. Locke passes into elaborate distinctions between primary qualities of things, of which he holds exact representations are given, and secondary qualities, which are not in the same position ; but the whole difficulty we meet with is summed up in the question whether we really know substance, or whether it is that we can only hope to know ideas, and 'suppose' some substratum of reality outside. Then another difficulty is that we can hardly really know our selves. How can we know that the self exists; and if, like Malebranche, we speak of God revealing substance to us, how do we know about God? We cannot form any 'general' impressions, have any 'general' knowledge; only a sort of conglomeration of unrelated or detached bits of knowledge can possibly come home to us. The fact is, that modern philosophy starts with two separate and self-existent substances; that it does not see how they can be combined, and that the 'white - paper' theory is so abstract that Nye can never arrive at self-consciousness by its means.

Berkeley followed out the logical consequences of Locke, though perhaps he hardly knew where these would carry him. He acknowledged that we know nothing but ideas—nothing outside of our mind. But he adds the conception of self, and by analogy the conception of God, who acts as a principle of causation. Whether there is necessary connection in his sensations or not, he does not say. Hume followed with criticism, scathing and merciless. He states that all we know of is the experience we have; and by experience he signifies perceptions. Ideas to him are nothing more than perceptions, and whether they are ideas simply of the mind, or ideas of some object, is to him the same. If we begin to imagine such conceptions as those of universality or necessity, of God or the self, beyond a complex of successive ideas, we are going farther than experience permits. We cannot connect our perceptions with an object, nor can we get beyond what experience allows. Custom merely brings about certain conclusions which are often enough misleading. It connects effect and cause, really different events: it brings about ideas of morality very often deceptive. We have our custom of regarding things, another has his—who can say which is correct? All we can do is, what seems a hopeless task enough—we can try to show how these unrelated particulars seem by repetition to produce an illusionary connection in our minds.

Both mind and matter appear, then, to be wanting, and experience alone is suggested as the means of solving the difficulty in which we are placed—a point in the argument which left an opportunity open to Kant to suggest a new development, to ask whether things being found inadequate in producing knowledge, Nye might not ask if knowledge could not be more successful with things. But it is the Scottish lines of attempted solution that we wish to follow out, and not the German. Perhaps they are not so very different.

Philosophy, as Reid found it, was in a bad way enough, as far as the orthodox mind of Scotland was concerned. All justification for belief in God, in immortality, in all that was held sacred in a century of much orthodoxy if little zeal, was gone. Such things might be believed in by those who found any comfort in so believing, but to the educated man who had seriously reflected on them, they were anachronisms. The very desperateness of the case, however, seemed to promise a remedy. Alen could not rest in a state of permanent scepticism, in a world utterly incapable of being rationally explained. Even the propounder of the theories allowed this to be true and as for others, they felt that they were rational beings, and this signified that there was system in the world.

A champion arose when things were at their worst in Thomas Reid, the founder, or at least the chiefest ornament, of the so-called Scottish School of Philosophy. He it was who set himself to add the principle of the coherence of the Universe, and the consequent possibility of establishing Faith once more in the world. Reid, to begin with, instead of looking at Hume's results as serious, regarded them as necessarily absurd. He started a new theory of his own, the theory of Immediate Perception, which signified that we are able immediately to apprehend—not ideas only, but the Truth. And how, we may ask, can this be done?

It had been pointed out first of all that sensations as understood by Locke—that is, the relations so called by Locke—might be separated from sensation in itself; in fact, that these first pertained to mind. Hence we have a dualistic system given us to start with, and the question is how the two sides are to be connected? What does this theory of Immediate Perception, which Reid puts forward as the solution, mean? Is it just a mechanical union of two antitheses, or is it something more?

As to this last, perhaps the real answer would be that it both is, and is not. That is, the philosophy of Reid would seem still dualistic in its nature; it certainly implies the mechanical contact of two confronting substances whose independence is vigorously maintained, in opposition to the idealistic system which it superseded; but in reference to Reid we must recollect that his theory of Immediate Perception was also something more. As regards sensation, for example, he says that we do not begin with unrelated sensations, but with judgment—that is, we refer our sensations to a permanent subject, 'I.' Sensations 'suggest' the nature of a mind and the belief in its existence. And this signifies that we have the power of making inferences —how we do not exactly know, but we believe it to be, not by any special reasoning process, but by the 'common - sense' innately born within us. Commonsense is responsible for a good deal more—for the conceptions of existence and of cause, for instance; for Reid acknowledges that sensations alone must fail to account for ideas such as those of extension, space, and motion. This standpoint seems indeed as if it did not differ widely from the Kantian, but at the same time Reid appears to think that it is not an essential that feelings should be perceptively referred to an external object; the first part of the process of perception is carried on without our consciousness—the mental sensation merely follows—and sensation simply supposes a sentient being and a certain manner in which that being is affected, which leaves us much where we were, as far as the subjectivity of our ideas is concerned. He does not hold that all sensation is a percept involving extension and much else—involving, indeed, existence.

Following upon Reid, Dugald Stewart obtained a very considerable reputation, and he was living and writing at the time Ferrier was a young man. His main idea would, however, seem to have been to guard his utterances carefully, and enter upon no keen discussions or contentions: when a bold assertion is made, it is always under shelter of some good authority. But his rounded phrases gained him considerable admiration, as such writing often does. lie carried— perhaps inadvertently- Reid's views farther than he would probably have held as justifiable. lie says we are not, properly speaking, conscious of self or the existence of self, but merely of a sensation or some other quality, which, by a subsequent suggestion of the understanding, leads to a belief in that which exercises the quality. This is the doctrine of Reid put very crudely, and in a manner calculated to bring us back to unrelated sensation in earnest. Stewart adopted a new expression for Reid's 'common-sense,' i.e. the 'fundamental laws of belief,' which might be less ambiguous, but never took popular hold as did the first.

There were many others belonging to this school besides Reid and Stewart, whom it would be impossible to speak of here. The Scottish Philosophy had its work to do, and no doubt understood that work—the first essential in a criticism: it endeavoured to vindicate perception as against sensational idealism, and it only partially succeeded in its task. But we must be careful not to forget that it opened up the way for a more comprehensive and satisfactory point of view. It was with Kant that the distinction arose between sensation and the forms necessary to its perception, the form of space and time, and so on. As to this part of the theory of knowledge, Reid and his school were not clear; they only made an effort to express the fact that something was required to verify our knowledge, but they were far from satisfactorily attaining to their goal. The very name of 'common-sense' was misleading—making people imagine, as it did, that there was nothing in philosophy after all that the man in the street could not know by applying the smallest modicum of reflection to the subject. Philosophy thus came to be considered as superfluous, and it was thought that the sooner we got rid of it and were content to observe the mandates of our hearts, the better for all concerned.

What then, was the work which Ferrier placed before himself when he commenced to write upon and teach philosophy? He was thoroughly and entirely dissatisfied with the old point of view, the point of view of the 'common - sense' school of metaphysicians, to begin with. Sometimes it seems as though we could not judge a system altogether from the best exponent of it, although theoretically we are always bound to turn to him. In a national philosophy, at least, we want something that will wear, that will bear to be put in ordinary language, something which can be understood of the people, which can be assimilated with the popular religion and politics—in fact, which can really be lived as well as thought; and it is only after many years of use that we can really tell whether these conditions have been fulfilled. For this reason we are in some measure justified in taking the popular estimate of a system, and in considering its practical results as well as the value of its theory. Now, the commonly accepted view of the eighteenth- century philosophers in Scotland is that there is nothing very wonderful about the subject—like the Bourgeois Genlilhomme of Moliere, we are shown that we have been philosophising all our lives, only we never knew it. 'Common-sense '- an attribute with which we all believe we are in some small measure endowed—explains everything if we simply exercise it, and that is open to us all: there has been much talk, it would seem, about nothing; secrets hidden to wise men are revealed to babes, and we have but to keep our minds open in order to receive them.

We are all acquainted with this talk in speculative regions of knowledge, but we most of us also know how disastrous it is to any true advancement in such directions. What happens now is just what happened in the eighteenth century. Men relapse into a self-satisfied indolence of mind: in religion they are content with believing in a sort of general divine Beneficence which will somehow make matters straight, however crooked they may seem to be; and in philosophy they are guided by their instincts, which teach them that what they wish to believe is true.

Now, all this is what Ferrier and the modern movement, largely influenced by German modes of thought, wish to protest against with all their might. The scepticism of Hume and Gibbon was logical, if utterly impossible as a working creed and necessarily ending in absurdity; but this irrational kind of optimism was altogether repugnant to those who demanded a reasonable explanation of themselves and of their place in nature. The question had become summed up in one of superlative importance, namely, the distinction that existed between the natural and supernatural sides of our existence. The materialistic school had practically done away with the latter in its entirety, had said that nature is capable of being explained by mechanical means, and that these must necessarily suffice for us. But the orthodox section adopted other lines ; it accepted all the ordinarily received ideas of God, immortality, and the like, but it maintained the existence of an Absolute which can only be inferred, but not presented to the mind, and, strangest of all, declared that the 'last and highest consecration of all true religion must be an altar "To the unknown and unknowable God." 'I This so-called 'pious' philosophy declares that 'To think that God is, as we can think Him to be, is blasphemy,' and 'A God understood would be no God at all.' The German philosophy saw that if once we are to renounce our reason, or trust to it only within a certain sphere, all hope for us is lost, as far as withstanding the attack of outside enemies is concerned. We are liable to sceptical attacks from every side, and all we can maintain against them is a personal conviction which is not proof. How, then, was the difficulty met?

Kant, as we have said, made an important development upon the position of Hume. Flume had arrived at the point of declaring the particular mind and matter equally incompetent to afford an ultimate explanation of things, and he suggested experience in their place. This is the first note of the new philosophy: experience, not a process of the interaction of two separate things, mind on the one hand, matter on the other, but something comprehending both. This, however, was scarcely realised either by Hume or Kant, though the latter came very near the formulation of it. Kant saw, at least, that things could not produce knowledge, and he therefore changed his front and suggested starting with the knowledge that was before regarded as result—a change in point of view that caused a revolution in thought similar to that caused in our ideas of the natural world by the introduction of the system of Copernicus. Still, while following out his Copernican theory, Kant did not go far enough. His methods were still somewhat psychological in nature. He still regarded thought as something which can be separated from the thinker; he still maintained the existence of things in themselves independent and outside of thought. He gives us a 'theory' of knowledge, when what we want to reach is knowledge itself, and not a subjective conception of it.

Here it is that the Absolute Idealism comes in—the Idealism most associated with the name of Hegel. Hegel takes experience, knowledge, or thought, in another and much more comprehensive fashion than did his predecessors. Knowledge, in fact, is all-comprehending; it embraces both sides in itself, and explains them as 'moments,' i.e. complementary factors in the one Reality. To make this clearer: we have been all along taking knowledge as a dualistic process, as having two sides involved in it, a subject and an object. Now, Hegel says our mistake is this: we cannot make a separation of such a kind except by a process of abstraction: the one really implies the other, and could not possibly exist without it. We may in our ordinary pursuits do so, without doubt; we may concentrate our attention on one side or the other, as the case may be; we may look at the world as if it could be explained by mechanical means, as, indeed, to a certain point it can. But, Hegel says, these explanations are not sufficient; they can easily be shown to be untrue, when driven far enough: the world is something larger; it has the ideal side as well as the real, and, as we are placed, they are both necessarily there, and must both be recognised, if Nye are to attain to true conceptions.

Without saying that Ferrier wholly assimilated the modern German view,—for of course he did not,—he was clearly largely influenced by it, more largely perhaps than he was even himself aware. It particularly met the present difficulties with which he was confronted. The negative attitude was felt to be impossible, and the other, the Belief which then, as now, was so strongly advocated, the Belief which meant a more or less blind acceptance of a spiritual power beyond our own, the Belief in the God we cannot know and glory in not being able so to know, he felt to be an equal impossibility. Ferrier, and many others, asked the question, Are these alternatives exhaustive? Can we not have a rational explanation of the world and of ourselves? can we not, that is, attain to freedom? The new point of view seemed in some measure to meet the difficulty, and therefore it was looked to with hope and anticipation even although its bearing was not at first entirely comprehended. Ferrier was one of those who perceived the momentous consequences which such a change of front would cause, and he set himself to work it out as best he could. In an interesting paper which he writes on 'The Philosophy of Common-Sense,' with special reference to Sir William Hamilton's edition of the works of Dr. Reid, we see in what way his opinions had developed.

The point which Ferrier made the real crux of the whole question of philosophy was the distinction which exists between the ordinary psychological doctrine of perception and the metaphysical. The former drew a distinction between the perceiving mind and matter, and based its reasonings on the assumed modification of our minds brought about by matter regarded as self-existent, i.e. existent in itself and without regard to any perceiving mind. Now, Ferrier points out that this system of 'representationalism,' of representative ideas, necessarily leads to scepticism; for who can tell us more, than that we have certain ideas—that is, how can it be known that the real matter supposed to cause them has any part at all in the process? Scepticism, as Nye saw before, has the way opened up for it, and it doubts the existence of matter, seeing that it has been given no reasonable grounds for belief in it, while Idealism boldly denies its instrumentality and existence. What then, he asks, of 1)r. Reid and his School of Common-Sense? Reid cannot say that matter is known in consciousness, but what he does say is that something innately born within us forces us to believe in its existence. But then, as Ferrier pertinently points out, scepticism and idealism do not merely doubt and deny the existence of a self-existent matter as an object of consciousness, but also because it is no object of belief. And what has Reid to show for his beliefs? Nothing but his word. We must all, Ferrier says, be sceptics or idealists; we are all forced on to deny that matter in any form exists, for it is only self-existent matter that we recognise as psychologists. Stewart tries to reinstate it by an appeal to 'direct observation,' an appeal which, Ferrier truly says, is manifestly absurd; reasoning is useless, and we must, it would appear, allow any efforts we might make towards rectifying our position to be recognised as futile.

But now, Ferrier says, the metaphysical solution of the problem comes in. We are in an im4tasse, it would appear; the analysis of the given fact is found impossible. But the failure of psychology opens up the way to metaphysic. 'The turning-round of thought from psychology to metaphysic is the true interpretation of the Platonic conversion of the soul from ignorance to knowledge, from mere opinion to certainty and satisfaction; in other words, from a discipline in which the thinking is only apparent, to a discipline in which the thinking is real.' The difference is as great between "the science of the human mind" and metaphysic, as it is between the Ptolemaic and the Copernican astronomy, and it is very much of the same kind.' It is not that metaphysic proposes to do more than psychology; it aims at nothing but what it can fully overtake, and does not propose to carry a man farther than his tether extends, or the surroundings in which he finds himself. Metaphysic in the hands of all true astronomers of thought, from Plato to Hegel, if it accomplishes more, attempts less.

Metaphysic, Ferrier says, demands the whole given fact, and that fact is summed up in this: 'We apprehend the perception of an object,' and nothing short of this suffices—that is, not the perception of matter, but our apprehension of that perception, or what we before called knowledge, ultimate knowledge in its widest sense. And this given fact is unlike the mere perception of matter, for it is capable of analysis and is not simply subjective and egoistic. Psychology recognises perception on the one hand (subjective), and matter on the other (objective), but metaphysic says the distinction ought to be drawn between 'our apprehension' and 'the perceptionof-matter,' the latter being one fact and indivisible, and on no account to be taken as two separate facts or thoughts. The whole point is, that by no possible means can the perception-of-matter be divided into two facts or existences, as was done by psychology. And Ferrier goes on to point out that this is not a subjective idealism, it is not a condition of the human soul alone, but it 'dwells apart, a mighty and independent system, a city fitted up and upheld by the living God.' And in authenticating this last belief Ferrier calls in internal convictions, 'common-sense,' to assist the evidence of speculative reason, where, had he followed more upon the lines of the great German Idealists, he might have done without it.

Now, Ferrier continues, we are safe against the cavils of scepticism; the metaphysical theory of perception steers clear of all the perplexities of representationalism; for it gives us in perception one only object, the perception of matter; the objectivity of this datum keeps us clear from subjective idealism.

From the perception of matter, a fact in which man merely participates, Ferrier infers a Divine mind, of which perceptions are the property: they are states of the everlasting intellect. The exercise of the senses is the condition upon which we are permitted to apprehend or participate in the objective perception of material things. This, shortly, is the position from which he starts.


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