CHAPTER 5

Steps taken by philosophy through the works
of the philosophers we have studied

211. I am not asking whether Locke and the philosophers who followed him, the object of our study so far, contributed to progress in philosophy.

This is a futile question because, in the great design of Providence, even mistakes further the progress of the human spirit. Errors offer an opportunity of clarifying important truths; they stimulate the love of truth in mankind which, though disturbed over long periods by error, finally recognises truth as the most precious and most beneficial boon of all. Consequently, even if the philosophers whom I have discussed fell into serious error, they would still have been helpful to mankind which, precisely because of philosophers' irresolution and flawed doctrines, feels the need for the inestimable value of sound, true philosophy.

It will be helpful therefore, at the end of this Section, to review the ground I have covered in expounding modern philosophical thought. Let us examine the state of philosophy when Locke was writing. This was my starting point. I also need to examine the changes undergone by the main doctrines under discussion at the hands of this new School.

212. To do this, let me recommend a brief, elementary work by one of Locke's contemporaries. This contains a simple exposition of the main ideas of the philosophy of the period, and will enable us to grasp the changes suffered by these ideas since then. The booklet is the Traité de la Connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même by Bossuet(134) written for the Dauphin of France who would not have had much leisure to penetrate the deep mysteries of metaphysics, but who needed as simple an explanation as possible of the substance of metaphysical teaching.

Let us see what was known at the time of this booklet, and compare the main truths held then with the opinions, noted throughout this Section, of the new school of the philosophers, dependent for its origin and impetus on Locke.

213. First we saw that from Locke's time to the present a considerable number of philosophers have tried everything to merge sense and intellect by making the two faculties one (cf. 70-85). Today, the writings of these authors are so widespread, so widely read and so cluttered with gross sophisms that it is extremely difficult to explain the distinction between these faculties to persons entangled and confused by what they have read.

Locke's contemporaries were fully aware of the distinction between sense and intellect, which they accepted without hesitation. Bossuet, in the work mentioned above, spelled it out at length in defining the intellect as 'the faculty for knowing truth and error.' This is totally alien to sense.(135)

214. Condillac confused feeling and judgment even more than Locke (cf. 81-89). At Bossuet's time, these two operations of the spirit were perfectly distinct; in addition, thinkers had come to see the importance of judgment in knowledge. As Bossuet says:

 

The senses merely provide us with their own sensations and leave the understanding to judge the dispositions which they find in objects.
The true perfection of the understanding lies in good judgment.
Judgment is an internal pronouncement about truth and error; good judgment means pronouncing on truth and error rightly and knowingly.(136)

215. Reid and Stewart occasionally confused imagination and intellect (cf. 117-135). Although these faculties were so distinct before their time that such confusion was impossible, Bossuet writes:

 

Confusion between imagination and intellect is greatly to be feared. To avoid it, the characteristics proper to each faculty should be noted.
There is, for example, a great difference between imagining and understanding a triangle. Imagining a triangle means picturing a triangle, of a determinate size, with specific angles and sides. To understand 'triangle' means knowing its nature and understanding in general that it is a three-sided figure, but without any particular size or proportion. Understanding 'triangle' means that its ideas are relevant to all equilateral, isosceles or other triangles of any size. But the image of a triangle is restricted to a certain type of triangle, and to a set size.
The essential distinction, however, between imagining and understanding is expressed in the definition: understanding is knowing and discerning what is true and what is false. Imagination, which takes its lead from the senses, cannot do this.(137)

216. Some of the philosophers who reduced intelligence to sense and imagination reasoned in this way: 'That which cannot be felt by our senses or cannot be imagined, cannot be thought or understood.'(138) In this way, they branded as unknowable to the human spirit all knowledge referring to spiritual beings.
The teaching current at Bossuet's time, on the other hand, was this:

 

Another difference between imagining and understanding is that understanding embraces a much wider span than imagining. Thus, although only bodily, sensible things can be imagined, bodily and spiritual things can be understood as well as sensible and non-sensible things such as God and the soul.
Those wishing to imagine God and the soul commit a serious mistake because they want to imagine what is unimaginable, that is, what is devoid of body or shape. In other words, without anything sensible.(139)

The substance and nature of external things cannot be felt because they do not fall under the senses or the imagination. Consequently, philosophers who reduced the intellect to sense stated that we had no ideas of such things (cf. 48-64). In fact, it was well-known prior to them that we possessed the ideas of such things but not their images or sensations. This resulted from the distinction made between feeling and imagining, on the one hand, and understanding on the other. According to Bossuet, the distinctive feature of the intellect consists 'in knowing the nature of things.'(140)

217. We saw earlier how d'Alembert realised that Locke's philosophy had omitted two important inquiries: 1. how we think something external to us; 2. how we unite in a single subject the various sensible qualities which we perceive (cf. 65-67). Indicating the lacunae in Locke's philosophy represented a step forward and, in going back to the earliest period [of philosophy], d'Alembert deserves great credit for identifying these questions.

Before d'Alembert and Locke, however, Descartes had addressed, for good or evil, two issues ignored by Locke. This means that the issues were known. Bossuet, brought up in Cartesian thought, was aware of them and expounded the second inquiry as follows:

 

Although sensations differ from one another, there is in the spirit a faculty which unites them. Experience shows that only one sensible object is produced from experiences which we receive together, even when different senses are affected, but especially when the impression comes from the same source. When I see a certain coloured type of fire, and feel the heat it produces, and hear the rushing of the air, I do not merely see the colour, feel the heat, hear the sound, but I feel all these different sensations as emanating from a single fire.
This faculty of the soul, which unites sensations, is either a mere after-effect of the sensations which form a natural unity when they come together, or it is a constituent part of the imagination. I maintain that this faculty - whatever it may be - is called common sense to the extent that it forms a single object of everything experienced at one particular time through our senses. The phrase, 'common sense', is connected with the workings of the spirit, although its real meaning is the one I have just indicated.(141)

218. Stewart did not realise that the conception of relationships between things, like that of their similarity, were merely universal ideas which cannot pertain to the senses - these do not extend beyond bodily, individual sensations - but belong to the understanding (cf. 180-188). On the other hand, in Bossuet's time, it was already well understood that knowledge of the relationships and order of things could be only intellectual operations. Bossuet says:

 

There are intellectual acts which follow so closely upon sensations that we confuse one with the other, unless we pay great attention to ourselves.
The judgment which we naturally form about propositions and their resultant order is of this type.
To know the propositions and their order is the work of reason, which compares one thing with another or discerns their relationships.(142)

219. What, then, is positive in the views of the post-Lockean philosophers examined in this Section? Is there any genuine addition to the store of philosophical knowledge already held at Locke's time?
I cannot think of anything worth considering as progress (if we are to confine ourselves solely to the subject at hand) except the doubts raised by Reid about the views of those thinkers who accepted simple apprehension as the first operation of the spirit. Bossuet also had no difficulty in accepting it. He says, for example about the propositions: God is eternal, man is not eternal:

 

Understanding the terms means understanding that God means First Cause, that man means rational animal, that eternal means that which has neither beginning nor end; this is what we call conception, simple apprehension; it is the first operation of the spirit.
It may be that it never appears entirely on its own, and this is perhaps why some people say it is not the first operation.(143) But they do not realise that understanding terms is an operation which naturally precedes any attempt to link them; otherwise, no one would know what to link.(144)

220. At Locke's time, therefore, cognitions were available which were insufficiently esteemed by the new School, and consequently neglected. When new teaching carried the day, such cognitions were increasingly lost and erased from human memory. At the moment, the task of rediscovering them, and persuading others about them, requires considerable effort, although what seems new is in fact very old.
How are we to explain the growth of modern philosophy and the neglect of truths which were then known?

The principal cause is negligence on the part of the Cartesians, who held such truths but did not pay enough attention to the spread of the new philosophy and initially derided it. Descartes' followers alone were in a position to assess Locke's philosophy but, proclaiming their own teaching in a narrow, systematic way, they paid no heed to the spread of Locke's thought. This led to its steady dissemination. It did in fact present many enticements to self-love by its superficial approach, and to passions by its appeal to the senses. It exerted a powerful effect upon high society which at that time was beginning to dabble in philosophy, and had great influence on the young who were taking over from an older generation which had lost influence, just as ancient teachings were also losing influence.

I am not the only one to relate this history of the downfall of Cartesianism, which affected many of the beneficial things it taught and, even worse, many of its fine aims. We are now beginning to see what occurred. In France itself, they describe the transformation that philosophy underwent and how Locke's thought, once it appeared, was worked into an ancient philosophy of the senses. This movement, although earlier routed by Cartesianism, had retained and still retains in society far too many practitioners. We find in The Globe:

 

In the struggle which ensued between materialism and spiritualism at the time of Descartes and Gassendi, spiritualism was victorious in the sense that Descartes' thought continued to be represented in France by an unbroken sequence of philosophers until the middle of the eighteenth century. Gassendi's, however, was abandoned by metaphysicians although he(145) retained some support in high society and, after Beriner, Molière and Chapelle, can be followed down to Voltaire. In this school of charming, pleasure-loving men, the traditions of practical Epicurism and religious unbelief were better preserved than the metaphysical dogmas of materialism. No notice was taken of the principle of sensation in Ninon de l'Enclos, and Gassendi's philosophy had long been dead in France even among his own disciples when the translation of Locke's book brought about its revival. At that time, in this country, only Cartesians were able to understand An Essay concerning Human Understanding. They, however, were so preoccupied with their own old ideas that they were the only people unwilling to study the book. Those who welcomed the new teaching were unused to metaphysical problems, and misinterpreted its true spirit. In England, Berkeley and Hume, arguing logically, saw it as a spiritualist work; Condillac in France considered it materialist.(146)

The contempt Locke displayed for Descartes was the same as displayed by Descartes towards his predecessors.(147) By a display of arrogance and contempt, philosophers are able to deprive mankind of its precious store of knowledge, drag it back to its infancy and resume operations already undertaken and carried forward. The result is an infinity of wasted time; patience is exhausted, and people become bored with the very philosophy which philosophers represent.

The true spirit of philosophy can never be exclusive and individual. It is a conservative spirit, impartial and comprehensive, which treats the traditions of mankind and of individual scholars with respect. It is not, in short, the vain spirit of the world, but that of Christianity applied to the study and consideration of natural truths.

Notes

(134) Bossuet was born in 1627, Locke in 1632. Both died in 1704.

(135) Chap. 1: 7 [App., no. 12].

(136) Chap. 1: 7. How easy it was to pass from this teaching of Bossuet to show that all ideas are acquired through a judgment unless they are innate. The first operation of the intellect, therefore, has to be a judgment. On the other hand, this judgment has to be preceded by a universal idea which we know naturally. Without a universal, no judgment is forthcoming! This development, which at that time arose spontaneously from current ideas, will perhaps be difficult to achieve now, and I am writing this volume to assist it. Cf. especially 41-45, 117-135.

(137) Chap. 1: 9. The development possible to Bossuet's teaching at this point would have shown how the intellect, the faculty for discerning what is true from what is false, is from that very fact the only faculty for dealing with universals. Sense and imagination, on the contrary, could perceive only sensible individuals and, consequently, individuals without any universal relation between them, etc. (cf. 156-159).

(138) This is substantially the argument used by present-day Nominalists to deny the existence of universals (cf. 177-179).

(139) Chap. 1: 9.

(140) Chap. 1: 7.

(141) Chap. 1: 4. This section is susceptible of extraordinary development and it is right to say that present-day philosophers have made great efforts in this matter which I shall put to good use in the second volume of this work.

(142) Chap. 1: 8.

(143) One can see from this passage that, even before Reid's time, there was some inkling of this problem.

(144) Chap. 1: 13.

(145) The same could have been said of the philosophy of Hobbes who was born before and died after Gassendi, and lived for a long time in France.

(146) 3 January, 1829. - I would not be so bold as to accuse Condillac of materialism. He stops at sensism; Berkeley and Hume do not abandon sensism, but build upon it. Locke's philosophy, however, contains the seeds both of materialism and of idealism. Reflection, a faculty admitted by Locke, which could have rescued his system from out-and-out sensism, is dealt with too summarily. Locke introduces it without understanding its nature, as I showed earlier.

(147) It has to be admitted that Italy was the nation in which the thread of traditional ideas suffered least damage, thanks to great and deep-rooted Christian principles. As a result, we see Locke's innovations come up against worthy opposition in Italy in the person of PAOLO DORIA, while Descartes' ideas were similarly combated by GIOVAMBATTISTA VICO. These two great men would have saved Italy from many mistakes if the nation had fallen not so much for new as for foreign ideas. It was a party, not a philosophy, which prevailed. Unfortunately, the party was anti-social and anti-religious. But the 18th century is now over, and the present century has begun to judge it sternly.


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