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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 6 - Ferrier's System of Philosophy, His Philosophical Works


'IF one were asked,' says Professor Fraser, 'for the English writings which are fitted in the most attractive way to absorb a reader of competent intelligence and imagination in the final or metaphysical question concerning the Being in which we and the world of sensible things participate, Berkeley's Dialogues, Hume's Inquiry into Human Understanding, and some of the lately published Philosophical Remains of Professor Ferrier are probably those which would best deserve to be mentioned.'

It has been given to few philosophers of modern days to write on philosophic questions in a manner at once so lucid and so convincing as that of Ferrier. Nor can it in his case be said that matter is sacrificed to form, for the writer does not hesitate to 'nail his colours to the mast,' as he himself expresses it, and to tackle questions the most vital in their character in a straightforward and uncompromising fashion. His earliest published writings, as we have seen, took the form of a series of seven articles, which appeared, roughly speaking, in alternate months, between February of 1838 and March of 1839. These articles, entitled An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness, represented the results of their author's work during the years which had elapsed since he first began to be really interested in philosophy, and to feel that the way of looking at it adopted almost universally in Scotland was not satisfying to himself, or in any way defensible.

The whole point in Ferrier's view turns upon the way in which we look at 'Mind.' 'The human mind, to speak it profanely,' says Ferrier, 'is like the goose that laid the golden eggs. The metaphysician resembles the analytic poulterer who slew it to get at them in a lump, and found nothing for his pains. . . . Look at thought, and feeling, and passion, as they glow in the pages of Shakespeare—golden eggs indeed! Look at the same as they stagnate on the dissecting-table of Dr. Brown, and marvel at the change. Behold how shapeless and extinct they have become !' Locke began by saying there are no original ideas, simply impressions from without; Hume then says cause and effect are incapable of explanation, and the notion which we form of them is a nonentity, seeing that we have a series of impressions alone to work from; Reid says there is a mind and there is an object, and calls in common-sense to interpret between the two. But the mistake all through is very evident: man looks at Nature in a certain way, interprets her by certain categories, and then he turns his eye upon himself, endeavouring thereby to judge of what he finds within by methods of a similar kind. And the human mind cannot be so 'objectised'; it is something more than the sum of its 'feelings,' 'passions,' and 'states of mind.' Dr. Reid had done a service by exploding the old doctrine of 'ideas'; he brought mind into contact with immediate things, but much more is left for us to do; the same office has to be performed for 'mind'—that is, mind when we regard it as something which connects us with the universe, or something which can be looked at and examined, as we might look at or examine a thing outside ourselves, and not as that which is necessary to any such examination. 'Is it not enough for a man that he is himself? There can be no dispute about that. I am; what more would I have? What more would I be? Why would I be mind? I am myself, therefore let it perish.'

What, then, makes a man what he is? It is the fact of consciousness, the fact which marks him off from all other things with a deep line of separation. It is this and this alone, Ferrier says, this 'human phenomenon,' and not its objects, passions, or emotions, which leads us into pastures fresh and far separated from the dreary round which the old metaphysicians followed. The same discovery, of course, is always being made, though to Ferrier it was new; we are always straying into devious ways, ways that lead us into grey regions of abstraction, and we always want to be called back to the concrete and the real, to the freshness and the brightness of life as it is and lives.

Ferrier from this time onwards, from his youth until his death, kept one definite aim in view: the object of his life was to insist with all his might that our interests must be concentrated on man as he is as man, and not on a mere sum-total of passions and sensations by which the human being is affected. The consciousness of a state of mind is very different from that state of mind itself, and the two must be kept absolutely distinct. 'Let mind have the things which are mind's, and man the things which are man's.' We should, Ferrier says, fling 'mind' and its lumber overboard, busy ourselves with the man and his facts. Man's passions and sensations may be referred to 'mind' indeed, but he cannot lay his hands upon the fact of consciousness. That fact cannot be conceived of as vested in the object called the 'human mind,' an object being something really or ideally different from ourselves. In speaking of 'my mind,' mind may he what it chooses, but the consciousness is in the ego; and mind is really destitute of consciousness, otherwise the ego would necessarily be present in it. The dilemma is as follows: 'Unless the philosophers of mind attribute consciousness to mind, they leave out of view the most important phenomena of man; and if they attribute consciousness to mind, they annihilate the object of their research, in so far as the whole extent of this fact is concerned.'

Since Ferrier's time this point has been worked out very fully, and by none more successfully than by an English philosopher, Professor T. H. Green of Oxford, in his Introduction to the works of Hume. But when Ferrier wrote, his ideas were new; in England at least he was breaking up ground hitherto untouched, and therefore the debt of gratitude we owe him is not small, especially when we consider the forces against which he warred. 'Common-sense,' the solution offered for all philosophic difficulties, is really the problem of philosophy, and to speak of the 'philosophy of common-sense' is simply to confuse the problem with its solution. Common-sense, or rather what is given by its means, has simply to be construed into intelligible forms : in itself it makes no attempt to solve the difficulties that present themselves, and it is folly to suggest its doing so. When a man speaks of my sensations or my states of mind, he means something of which he—as consciousness—is independent, and which can he made an object to him. Were it not so, of course he could not possibly arrive at freedom, but would merely be the helpless child of destiny; and, as Ferrier points out, were consciousness and sensation one, consciousness would not have the power, undoubtedly possessed by it, of 'recovering the balance' that it loses on experiencing pain or passion; the return of consciousness, as he puts it, 'lowers the temperature' of the sensation or the passion, and the man regains the personality that for the time had almost vanished. A man, he tells us, can hardly even be said to be the 'victim' of his mind, and irresponsible—i.e., man stands aloof from the modifications which may visit him, therefore we should study him as he is, and not merely these 'states of mind' common to him and to animals alike. And consciousness must be active, exercising itself upon those states, and thereby realising human freedom.

Philosophy, then, is the gospel of freedom as contrasted with the bondage of the physical kingdom. But we are in subjection at the first, and all our lifetime a constant fight is being carried on. Philosophy paints its grey in grey, another great philosopher has told us, only when the freshness and life of youth has gone: the reconciliation is in the ideal, not the actual world. And so with Ferrier: 'The flowers of thy happiness,' says he, 'are withered. They could not last; they gilded but for a day the opening portals of life. But in their place I will give thee freedom's flowers. To act according to thy inclination may be enjoyment; but know that to act against it is liberty, and thou only actest thus because thou art really free.' Great and weighty words, which might be pondered by many more than those to whom they were originally addressed.

Having established his fundamental principles, Ferrier goes on to trace the birth of self-consciousness in the child—the knowledge of itself as 'I,' which means the knowledge of good and evil—the moral birth. Perception, again, is a synthesis of sensation and consciousness— the realisation of self in conjunction with the sensation experienced: it is, of course, peculiar to man. Things can only take effect on 'me' when there is a 'me' to take effect upon, and not at birth, or before I come to consciousness. Consciousness is the very essence and origin of the ego; without consciousness no man would be 'I.' It is our refusal to be acted on by outside impressions that constitutes our personality and perception of them; our communication with the universe is the communication of non-communication. And the ego is not something which comes into the world ready-made; it is a living activity which is never passive, for were it passive, it would be annihilated; in submitting to the action of causality its life would be gone. Our destiny is to free ourselves from the bonds of nature, from that 'blessed state of primeval innocence,' the blessedness, after all, of bondage. A man cannot be until he acts, for his Being arises out of his actions: consciousness being an act, our proper existence is the consequence of that act. His natural condition for others, and before he comes to existence, Ferrier says, is given, while his existence for himself is made by his thinking himself. It is only in the latter case that he can attain to Liberty, instead of remaining bound by the bonds imposed upon him by Necessity. The three great moments of humanity are: first, the natural or given man in enslaved Being; second, the conscious man in action working into freedom against passion; third, the 'I': man as free, that is, real personal Being.

Philosophy has thus a great future before her. Instead of being a mere dead theory as heretofore, she becomes renovated into a new life when she gets her proper place; she is separated from her supposed connection with the physical world, and is recognised as consciousness. When this is so, she loses her merely theoretic aspect, and is identified with the living practical interests of mankind. The dead symbols become living realities, the dead twigs are clothed with verdure. Know thyself, and in knowing thyself thou shalt see that this self is not thy true self; but, in the very act of knowing this, thou shalt at once displace this false self, and establish thy true self in its room.' And Ferrier goes on to trace the bearings of his theories in the moral and intellectual world. lie finds in morality something more than a refined self-love; he finds the dawning will endeavouring to assert itself, to break free from the trammels imposed upon it by nature. Freedom, the great end of man, is contravened by the passive conditions of his nature; these are therefore wrong, and every act of resistance tends to the accomplishment of the one important end, 'which is to procure his liberty.

This essay, or series of essays, gives the keynote to Ferrier's thought and writings, therefore it seemed worth while to consider its argument in detail. The completeness of the break with the old philosophy is manifest. The 'scientific' methods applied to every region of knowledge were then in universal use, and no little courage was required to challenge their pretensions as they were challenged by Ferrier. But in courage, as we know, Ferrier was never lacking. His mind once made up, he had no fear in making his opinions known. He considered that the Scottish Philosophy had become something very like materialism in the hands of Brown and others, and he believed that the whole point of view must be changed if a really spiritual philosophy was to take its place. There may be traces of the impetuosity of youth in this attack: much working out was undoubtedly required before it could be said that a system had been established. But all the same this essay is a brilliant piece of philosophic writing—instinct with life and enthusiasm—one which must have made its readers feel that the dry bones of a dead system had wakened into life, and that what they had imagined an abstract and dismal science had become instinct with living, practical interest—something to be 'lived' as well as studied.

The Institutes of Metaphysics—the work by which Ferrier's name will descend to posterity—is a development of the Philosophy of Consciousness; but it is more carefully reasoned out and systematised—the result of many years of thoughtful labour. For several years before the work was published (in 1854) the propositions which are contained in it were developed in the course of Ferrier's regular lectures. The Institutes, or Theory of Knowing and Being, commences with a definition of philosophy as a 'body of reasoned truth,' and states that though there were plenty of dissertations on the subject in existence, there was no philosophy itself—no scheme of demonstrated truth; and this, and not simply a 'contribution' to philosophy was what was now required, and what the writer proposed to give. The divisions into which he separates Philosophy are: first, the Epistemology, or theory of knowledge; secondly, the Agnoiology, or theory of ignorance; and thirdly, the Ontology, or theory of being. The fundamental question is, 'What is the one feature which is identical, invariable, and essential in all the varieties of our knowledge?'

The first condition of knowledge is that we should know ourselves, and reason gives certainty to this proposition which is not capable of demonstration, owing to its being itself the starting-point; the counter-proposition, asserting the separate subject and object of knowledge, and the mutual presence of the two without intelligence's being necessarily cognisant of itself, represents general opinion, and the ordinary view of popular psychology. Knowledge, then, Ferrier goes on, always has the self as an essential part of it; it is knowledge-in-union-withwhatever-it-apprehends. The objective part of the object of knowledge, though distinguishable, is not really separable from the subjective or ego; both constitute the unit of knowledge—an utterance thoroughly Hegelian in its character, however Ferrier may disclaim a connection with Hegel's system. In space they may be separated, but not in cognition, and this idealism does not for one moment deny the existence of 'external' things, but only says they can have no meaning if out of relation to those which are 'internal'; as Hegel might have put it, they could be known as separable by means of 'abstraction' only. From this point we are led on to the next statement, and a most important statement it is, that matter per se is of necessity absolutely unknowable; or to what Ferrier calls the Theory of Ignorance. Whether or not this theory can make good the title to originality which its author claims for it, there is no doubt that its statement in clear language, such as no one can fail to understand, marks an important era in English speculation. There are, Ferrier says, two sorts of so-called ignorance: one of these is incidental to some minds, but not to all —an ignorance of defect, he puts it—just as we might be said to be ignorant of a language we had never learned. But the other ignorance (not, properly speaking, ignorance at all) is incident to all intelligence by its very nature, and is no defect or imperfection. The law of ignorance hence is that 'we can be ignorant only of what can be known,' or 'the knowable is alone the ignorable.' The bearing of this important point is seen at once when we turn back to the theory of knowing. Knowledge is something of which the subject cannot shake himself free 'I' must always, in whatever I apprehend, apprehend 'me.' We don't apprehend 'things,' that is, but what is apprehended is 'me-apprehendingthings.' Things - plus - me is the only knowable, and consequently the only 'ignorable.'

This brings us a great way towards the Absolute Idealism associated mainly with the name of Hegel—towards the Knowledge or 'Experience' (a word which Ferrier afterwards himself makes use of) which shall cease to be a 'theory,' being recognised as comprehending within itself all Reality—as recognising no distinction between object and subject, excepting when they are regarded as two poles both equally essential, and separated only when looked at in abstraction. If Ferrier's 'theory of knowledge' did not proceed so far, he at least made the discovery that the subjective idealism of Kant was as unsatisfactory as the relativity of Hamilton, and as certainly tending to agnosticism. Kant's 'thing-in-itself' is not that of which we are ignorant, or a hidden reality which can be known by faith. It is that which cannot possibly be known—and, in other words, a contradiction or nonsense. Now, Ferrier says, we arrive at the true Idealism—the triumph of philosophy. If it is said to reduce all things to the phenomena of consciousness, it does the same to every nothing. What falls out of consciousness becomes incogitable; it lapses, not into nothing, but into what is contradictory. The material universe per Se, and all its qualities Per se, are not only absolutely unknowable, but absolutely unthinkable. We do indeed know substance, but only as object plus subject—as matter inecuni or in cognition as thought together with the self.

It may be true that we cannot claim for Ferrier complete originality in his thinking; work on very similar lines was being carried on elsewhere. It is not difficult to trace throughout his writings the mode of his development. The earlier works are evidently influenced by Fichte and his school, since the personal ego and individual freedom figure as the principal conceptions in our knowledge; and even while the Scottish school of psychologists is being combated, the influence of Hamilton is very manifest. But as time goes on, Ferrier's ideas become more concrete; the theory of consciousness becomes more absolute in its conception; the human or individual element is less conspicuous as the universal clement is more, which signifies that gradually he approaches closer to the standpoint of the later German thinkers by a careful study of their works, though for the most part it is Reid and Hamilton his criticisms have in view, and not the corresponding work of Kant.

Still, we should say that Ferrier's attitude represented another phase in the same struggle against abstraction and towards unity in knowledge, rather than being a simple outcome of the German influence in Scotland. This last assumption he at least repudiated with energy, and boldly claimed to have developed and completed his system for himself. He claimed to have worked on national lines; to have started from the philosophy of his country as it was currently accepted, and to have little difficulty in proving from itself its absolute inadequacy. He felt that in his doctrine of the reality of knowledge he had found the means of solving problems hitherto dark and obscure, and he used his instruments bravely, and on the whole successfully.

The faith-philosophy which professed to know reality through the senses, when these senses were a part of the external universe, or signified taking for granted the matter in dispute, was utterly repugnant to Ferrier. The Unknowable of Sir William Hamilton was inconceivable to him, and he ever kept this theory and its errors in his mind, while developing a system of his own. It is better that a philosophic system should grow up thus, instead of coming to us from without in language hard to understand because of foreign idioms and unwonted modes of expression. To be of use, a philosophy should speak the language of the people: until it becomes identified with ordinary ways of thinking, its influence is never really great; and the Idealism of Germany has in this country always suffered from being intelligible only to the few. Therefore we hold all credit due to Ferrier for consistently refusing to adopt the phraseology of a foreign country, and setting himself, heart and soul, to find expression for his thoughts in the language of his birth.

Ferrier introduces his Lectures on Greek Philosophy, the last subject on which he undertook to write, in a manner which reminds us of Hegel's remarkable Introduction to his History of Philosophy; he begins, like Hegel, by pointing out that the study of philosophy is just the study of our own reason in its development, but that what is worked out in our minds hurriedly and within contracted limits, is in philosophy evolved at leisure, and seen in its just proportions: the historian of philosophy has not merely to record the existence of dead systems of thought that are past and gone, but the living products of his own, full of present, vital interest, and there is nothing arbitrary or capricious in such a history: all is reasoned thought as it manifests and reveals itself.

Philosophy, Ferrier defines, by calling it the pursuit of Truth—not relative Truth, but absolute, what necessarily exists for all minds alike and man's faculties (contrary to what is generally supposed) are competent to attain to it, provided only that they have something in common with all other minds, i.e., are partakers in a universal intelligence. He works this out in his Introduction in an extremely interesting way, showing, as he does, how in all intelligence there must be a universal, a unity; that the very essence of religion, for example, rests on the unity which constitutes the bond between God and man, and that when this is denied, religion is made impossible. What then, we may ask, is the Truth that has to be pursued?

It is that which is the real, the object of philosophy— the real which exists for all intelligence. The historian of philosophy must show that philosophy in its history corresponds with this definition, if the definition be a true one. The lectures begin with Thales and the followers of the Ionic school, and Ferrier points out how, in spite of the material elements which are taken as a basis, their systems are philosophic, in so far as they aim at the establishment of a universal in all things, and carry with them the belief that this universal is the ultimately real; and this gives them an interest which from their sensuous forms we could hardly have expected to find. But it was Heraclitus' doctrine of Becoming that was most congenial to Ferrier, as it was to his great predecessor Hegel. Being and Not-Being, the unity of contraries as essential sides of 'Truth, in such conceptions as these Ferrier believes we come nearer to the truth of the universe than in the current views of philosophy, in which the unity of contrary determinations in one subject is regarded as impossible. Apart, either side is incomprehensible, and hence Mr. Mansel and Sir William Hamilton argue the impotence of human reason; but if, as Ferrier believes, they are shown to be but moments or essential factors in conception, the antagonism will be proved unreal—it will be an antagonism proper to the very life and essence of reason.

Possibly in his account of the early Greek philosophers Ferrier may have done what many historians of philosophy have done before him, he may have read into the systems which he has been describing much more than he was entitled so to read. He may, when he is talking of the Eleatics of Heraclitus, and even of Socrates and Plato, have had before his mind the special battle which he had chosen to fight—the battle against sensationalism in Scotland, against materialism in the form in which he found it—rather than fairly to set before his readers an exact and accurate account of the teaching of the particular philosopher of whom he writes. But has it ever been otherwise in any history of thought that was ever written, excepting perhaps in some dryasdust compendium which none excepting those weighed down with dread of examination questions, care to peruse? Thought reads itself from itself, and if it sometimes reads the present into the past, and thinks to see it there, is there matter for surprise, or is it so very far wrong? If it tells us something of the secrets it itself conceals, it is surely telling us after all much of those that are gone.

For Plato, Ferrier naturally had a very great affinity; he deals with him at length, and evidently had made a special and careful study of his writings. But the same method is applied by him to Plato as was before applied to the other Greek philosophers. 'It is not so much by reading Plato as by studying our own minds that we can find out what ideas are, and perceive the significance of the theory which expounds them. It is only by verifying in our own consciousness the discoveries of antecedent philosophers that we can hope rightly to understand their doctrines or appreciate the value and importance of their speculations.' And so Ferrier proceeds to prove the necessity for the existence of 'ideas '—of universals —as the absolute truth and groundwork of whatever is. No intelligence can be intelligent excepting by their light, and they are the necessary laws or principles on which all Being and Knowing are dependent. 'All philosophy,' he says of Plato, 'speculative and practical, has been foreshadowed by his prophetic intelligence; often dimly, but always so attractively as to whet the curiosity and stimulate the ardour of those who have chosen him as a guide.' And it was as such that Ferrier marked him out and chose him as his own. With Aristotle he had probably less in common, and his treatment both of him and of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Neo-Platonists, with which the history ends, is less sympathetic in its tone and understanding in its style. But these lectures as a whole, though never put together for printing as a book, must always be of interest to the student of philosophy.

A philosophic article, entitled Berkeley and Idealism, and published in June of 1842, was designed to meet the attack of Mr. Samuel Bailey, who had written a Review of Berkeley's Theory of Vision, criticising the soundness of his views. Mr. Bailey replied, and Ferrier a year later published an article on that reply. Ferrier rightly appreciates the very important place which ought to be allowed to Berkeley as a factor in the development of philosophic truth—a place which has only been properly understood in later years. He saw the part he had played in bringing the real significance of Absolute Idealism into view, and deprecated the representation of his system made by David Hume, or the popular idea that Berkeley denied all reality to matter. What he did deny was the reality which is supposed to lie beyond experience, and his criticism in this regard was invaluable as a basis for a future system. In his own words, he did not wish to change things into ideas, but ideas into things: matter could not exist independently of mind. But yet Ferrier is perfectly aware that Berkeley did not entirely grasp the absolute standpoint that the thing is the appearance, and the appearance is the thing. Regarded merely as a literary production, this article is entitled to rank with the classics of philosophic writings both as regards the beauty of its style and its logical development. Ferrier does not often touch directly on questions of religion or theology, but there is an interesting passage in this essay which shows his views regarding the question of immortality. He is talking of the impossibility of our ever conceiving to ourselves the idea of our annihilation. Such an idea could not be rationally articulated. We atear, indeed, to be able to realise it, but we only think we think it: real thought of death in this sense would involve our being already dead; but in thought we are and must be immortal. 'We have nothing to wait for; eternity is even now within us, and time, with all its vexing troubles, is no more.'

It was something absolute and enduring for which Ferrier was ever on the search. Those of his Introductory Lectures which are preserved bear out this statement, if nothing else were left to do so. Philosophy, thought, is more than systems: 'As long as man thinks, the light must burn.' Could he but teach the young men who gathered round him day by day to think, he cared little as to what so-called 'system' they adopted. He put his arguments clearly before them, but they were free to criticise as they would. And perhaps it was because they realised that the Truth was more to him than personal fame that their affection for him was so great. He always kept before him, too, that in teaching any science the mental discipline which it involves must not be overlooked. The practical rule of disciplining the mind should run side by side with the theoretical instruction, which might soon be forgotten; the great effort of a teacher should be in the best and highest sense to educate his students. That is, he has not only to instil their minds with multifarious learning, but to make their thinking systematic.

And philosophy must, he tells us, be made interesting if it is to be of any use: we must arrive at a 'philosophic consciousness,' and distinguish philosophy from mere opinion. It is mind which is the permanent and immutable in all change and mutation; even the Greeks found the idea of permanence in mind while they regarded change as the principle of matter.

Thus, when the end of the day had come, when the lamp grew dim, and the books he loved so much must be for the last time shut, Ferrier's teaching was not so very different from what it was nearly thirty years before. The only real change was that the impetuosity of youth had gone; the man and his system had both become matured: the one more tolerant, more careful in expression, more considerate of the feelings of his opponents; the other more systematic, more coordinated, firmer in its grasp. There was much to do if the system were to be shown to hold its place in every department of life, as an absolute system must: much that has not even yet been accomplished. But for those who came in contact with him, the man was more even than his creed--to them this frail form which seemed to be wasting away before their eyes, yet never losing the keen interest in work to be accomplished, must have taught a lesson more than systems of philosophy dream of. For they could not fail to learn that the eternal can be found in history—even in history of long centuries ago, as in every other sphere of knowledge-and that the search for it supports the seeker in his daily life, takes all its bitterness from what is hardest, from pain, suffering, and even death.


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