Realism and Metaphysic

Bosanquet, Bernard. “Realism and Metaphysic.” The Philosophical Review 26, no. 1 (1917): 4.

I HAVE been asked to say a word which may recall the philosophical situation prior to the year 1892 in which the PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW came into existence. And I shall be glad, in doing so, to contribute so far as I can to rectify what seems to me a fundamental error in the appreciation of philosophical movements during the last hundred years, an error which some at least among the recent advocates of realism have made their own. I shall, indeed, be in the main expanding a brief observation which I have previously made with reference to the New Realism.

But first, one word of introduction. It is admittedly essential to philosophy that we should enter upon it without prejudices and follow the argument where it may lead us. Now there is one fundamental opinion which the habits of common sense and the practice of daily life impose inevitably upon us. And in this opinion I am convinced that we should be ready. I do not say more than 'ready' to discard as a prejudice, if we find that it interferes with pushing problems to the end in philosophy. I mean the opinion that parts of our beliefs and theories, or certain elements which we assume in our reading of our world, can be left alone, so to speak, to stand by themselves, while we proceed to establish the rest, and then to build the parts of our plan together one by one. The specialism of practice and commonsense necessitates this procedure. But in approaching the task of framing a general view of things, of thinking our experiences as far as possible all together, the conditions are obviously different; and if our everyday beliefs prove to demand a supplementation which takes us quite outside our everyday habit of mind, there is no general presumption against such a result. The nature of our enterprise, as contrasted with that of living the specialized life of every day, may quite well necessitate such a modification of our habitual attitude. We must not say beforehand that it does. But we must not say beforehand that it does not.

I add, from my personal experience, that I believe the presumption to be the other way. With the strongest predilection for rationalistic simplicity, and after the most resolute efforts to follow out a realistic empiricism, I have never in the long run found it possible to construe the world without an element which might be called mystical. And as in philosophy the end must always qualify the beginning, I now hold it a positive disadvantage in a philosophical doctrine to interpret ultimately even the most ordinary routine of common sense without demanding quite unusual attitude and effort from our minds. If you tell me that for common life and practice, I am to be content with my everyday routine of action and perception, I fully agree it is an obvious necessity. But if you tell me that I am to accept this type of experience full of all demands 'there is no deception and what more do you want?' I have always found that one cannot be satisfied. One's own separateness, for instance, from others and from the physical world, becomes untenable at the first symptom of moral difficulty; and the moment reflection begins it is clear that we are 'moving about in worlds not realized.' The relation of our dreamlife to our waking life, for example, is full of puzzles that may carry us almost any distance from our normal point of view. How far in detail the revelation may take us, is the substantive problem of philosophy itself. But that an easy construction, building up a universe out of an aggregate of prima facie data, has a heavy presumption against it, I am personally sure.

What I say in general, however, is merely that it has no presumption for it. There is no presumption that the whole of things will be as easily construed as everyday practice and perception appear to be. Take for example the idea of a God much like one of ourselves, only stronger and better. It is prima facie natural, but under any serious strain becomes plainly unworkable. If we are driven to think of reality in a way which seems hard and strange, and if we must bring this way of thinking to correct the assumptions of our current moods, there is no reason at all to be surprised; but, as I have added from my own experience, the reverse.

The point of the above digression with respect to the subject of the present paper is this; that while I strongly sympathize with Realism as an initial attitude, it seems to me not likely to furnish a complete philosophical doctrine. It seems more probable that the aggregate world of first appearances, which vindicates definite place and pretensions for itself, will appear to rest ultimately on a far deeper mode of consideration, to apply which in the moments of ordinary experience would involve a serious effort and self-transformation. On the other hand, I should therefore expect the balance of truth as between theories of this type to rest with that which accepts the first appearances in their completeness and does not claim to have attained reality at some halfway house of its own contriving; that is, in this case, with naive realism, rather than with that which claims to be critical or scientific.

The issue which I wish to raise in this paper is fundamental for the appreciation of the philosophical movement of the nineteenth century; and for that of the twentieth century also, so far as it has developed. It is a broad issue, and I will put it broadly.

To the best of my judgment the main succession of philosophical phases from 1800 to the present day may be briefly stated thus. Against the epistemological tendency in Kant the post-Kantian 'idealism' raised the banner of metaphysic, of the direct investigation of the real, condemning as irrational ab initio the doubt and the inquiry whether knowledge is possible. This constructive speculation for myself. I reject the term idealism was followed by a generation in the country of its birth by a cold fit of skepticism expressing itself in a recurrence to Kant's epistemological or critical mood, and consequently to the theory of cognition. This movement essentially rested on that doubt as to the possibility of knowledge, which the direct speculative impulse had repudiated.

But by this time the speculative movement, in its affirmative and constructive character, was finding a second and more congenial home in the English-speaking world, with the spirit of which its direct audacity, its decisive rejection of representative ideas in favor of directly apprehended unities such for example as the living social unity proved itself immediately akin.

Thus, while the epistemological attitude was predominant in German thought, as a distinct 'critical' reaction against the primary and affirmative influence of Kant, that same influence was asserting itself elsewhere in the fresher and more originative medium of minds inspired by the English habit of handling the actual world of self-government and self-expression. What had been in its German atmosphere set down with some justification as romance, became in the English-speaking arena of vital politics, industry, poetry, and religion, a literal transcript of experience. The new world awoke to its significance, and here, as often before, did much "to redress the balance of the old."

Even in Germany, however, there were signs towards the close of the century that the epistemological reaction had spent itself. Along with various forms of realism the return to metaphysic was being advocated, the conjunction suggesting, what I have maintained and wish here to maintain, that the direction of realism and of constructive metaphysic is in the main identical. And after nearly a hundred years the expression was heard once more that "theory of cognition" is self-contradictory.

Thus, the successive phases of nineteenth century philosophy, to the best of my judgment, may be roughly summarized, as, in Germany, Metaphysic, Epistemology, and Metaphysic again, the latter supplemented in its recurrence by realism; in the English-speaking countries, Empiricism, Metaphysic, and again an outburst of Realism, supplying, in my opinion, a desirable ‘left’ to the metaphysical movement itself.

"Empiricism, Metaphysic, Metaphysic with a realist left “this expresses my conception of the sequence in English-speaking philosophy. To this opinion I gather that that of the Realist brotherhood in the New World at least is diametrically opposed. It would replace the second term in the sequence ascribed to English thought by some such expression as 'critical epistemology ‘or 'theory of cognition,' and conceives the rehabilitation of positive inquiry, free from epistemological scruples, to be reserved for itself the new realism as an attitude in no way akin to that of the previous 'idealistic' metaphysic, nor in alliance with it. Assuming that it recognizes, as I suppose it must, Mill’s Empiricism as marking the phase previous to Green and his kindred, its sequence would run, not "Empiricism, Metaphysic, Metaphysic with a realistic left"; but "Empiricism, Critical or Psychological Epistemology, Realism in reaction against the latter"; and correspondingly for Germany, not “Metaphysic, Theory of Knowledge or Epistemology, and a reviving Metaphysic with a realistic left"; but "Epistemology, or critical theory of Cognition from Kant onwards, followed not till near the close of the century by beginnings of realism in which alone the rehabilitation of true Metaphysic is to be looked for."

As I understand the question, the change in spirit which came about with the development of post-Kantian speculative philosophy was this. All difficulties about the general possibility, the possibility in principle of apprehending reality in knowledge and perception were flung aside as antiquated lumber. What was undertaken was the direct adventure of knowing; of shaping a view of the universe which would include and express reality in its completeness. The test and criterion was not any speculative assumption of any kind whatsoever. It was the direct work of the function of knowledge in exhibiting what could and what could not maintain itself when all the facts were confronted and set in the order, they themselves demanded.

The method of the inquiry was an ideal experiment. Would this or that hold, or how far would it hold, when you came to think it together with all relevant elements in their order? Not ' How did you get it?' 'Where did it spring from?', but 'Does it hold water?' 'Does it enable us to think about all the facts together?' was what speculation now began to ask about any thesis suggested to it. It is constantly accused of a priori philosophizing. But in fact, for such a method the characteristic meanings of a prior and its opposite are destroyed. These are a priori in proportion as the whole before you makes them inevitable, and in no other sense.

Thus, the speculative movement entirely dismissed and ignored that primary doubt, so often ascribed to Idealism, as to the direct apprehension and real existence of external nature. Matter, the externality of things to things, was to Hegel, for example, a necessary way of being in which one great characteristic of the universe found its indispensable expression. Nothing is more obvious than that he took it at its face value and considered it with reference to its function in the general order of the world. How it could exist in the absence of sense-perception was a problem which did not trouble him. Critics, themselves touched by psychological idealism, may argue that it ought to have done so; but they will never begin to understand the movement which he led unless and until they see that this is not one of its preoccupations. It considers the outer world, the world of nature, as it does every factor of experience, at its fullest, that is to say, as it is when most completely apprehended. It is altogether free from the assumption on which some forms of realism are founded, that to advance toward the real you must look to what persists under the minimum of conditions. No doubt if challenged on the point of unperceived existence he would have had his answer, probably on the line that interruption of existence or relapse into a minimum of conditions, such as constantly befalls the human consciousness, is no impediment to a thing’s reality. What matters is rather to take the thing at its maximum, at the richest point of its development in experience. Suppose that this involves a complex of conditions, such as a spectator in the shape of a percipient organism. Why not? You will get within the universe nothing unconditioned, and if you want to appreciate what things are at their maximum, you must give them their full context. And this is what we find the speculative philosophers doing, with the result that the thing as a whole with all its qualities, primary, secondary, or tertiary (e. g. aesthetic), is for them the real thing the thing with all that belongs to it, all that has an equal claim to be regarded as part of it. What science tells us of the physical thing is, I take it, a further set of determinations, belonging to the same thing which we perceive in sense-perception, explaining its sensuous properties and so to speak embodying itself in them as a law in facts.

Illusion presents no difficulty. It is simply a real, apprehended together with an untenable interpretation. And every apprehended real without any exception has attached to it some such element of illusion. Its difference from reality is a matter of degree. It is obvious that you misinterpret at some point everything you perceive. Realism makes no whit of difference to the necessity of this admission but recognizes it and debits it to imperfect apprehension.

What has been said of the chief post-Kantians does not apply to the panpsychists. But they have never belonged to the center of that movement to which, in order to avoid the ambiguous term Idealism, I am at present applying the name of speculative philosophy. They have desired to nibble away the fact of externality, and in the intention, whether right or wrong, they have been opposed to the main current of speculative philosophy.

The speculative philosopher, then, proceeds to know the world as he finds it; he has no prejudices, no a priori principles ab initio or 'reasonings' 'from above,'2 such as a misapprehension of logical method ascribes to him. But in the consideration of what he finds, degrees of stability, self-maintenance, value, force themselves upon him, and these of course must be given their weight. And reality, in the deeper sense, the capacity to afford ultimate satisfaction, must be assigned in accordance with the teachings of organized experience. Not before, but after, he has considered, for example, the spatial object as most truly experienced, and has gone forward to its position and relations among the influences and features of the universe, it may become necessary to recognize that its value and self-assertion among real powers do not lie mainly in its immediate external being, but in some other character or relation attaching to it. This is an old story, the story of a speck of color or the vibration of a string. "The paper and ink cut the throats of men, and the sound of a breath may shake the world."1 Speculative philosophy, as we saw, is unlikely to leave anything standing, independent and unshaken in its prima facie nature. It is perhaps a dangerous expression to say that in philosophy we watch the transformation of the original things. That mode of speech abandons the position of vantage ab initio to first appearances, often quite untenable, and raises unnecessarily the problem of external relations. It is truer in fact to say, as all education and every kind of training tell us, that things cannot at first be apprehended as they are; and that the element of illusion is minimized only when experience is maximized. What we watch in philosophy is not transformation, but the emergence of fact and truth.

It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that speculative philosophy throws a doubt on the reality (not on the existence) of the external world. A thing may hold and make good up to a certain point, and yet not ultimately. That is the lesson of experience and the teaching of speculative philosophy.

I hesitated whether to support the above account by citations, for example, from Hegel, Green, Caird, and Wallace. But it really seemed unnecessary to fill the REVIEW with such familiar matter as the opening pages of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind (Introduction), or Green's discussion of Herbert Spencer, or Caird's paper on "Idealism and Theory of Knowledge," or Wallace’s Essays, introductory to Hegel's Philosophy of Mind.

It is really quite certain as a fact that speculative philosophers of the type to which these belong have always accepted external nature as an existent feature and characteristic of the universe, I do not say self-existent because that would on their views be unmeaning. They have always sharply repudiated the conception that the mind is a sort of vessel of ideas in the sense of phantoms of things, a transition from which to knowledge we have to justify by Epistemology. Professor Wallace, as I have pointed out before, states the meaning of calling any object an idea precisely as Professor Alexander states it. It is through and by externality, according to these thinkers, that the mind is able to learn and to act.

Thus, the position of speculative philosophy as I understand it, covers the position of realism in so far as that is not eclectic. The enemy, for it, is not the fuller realism sometimes called naive, which we find for instance in Avenarius and Schuppe, along with the recommencements of metaphysic in German thought. There is however perhaps a realism which is the enemy, and this is the theoretical or critical realism which is obsessed by the question how an external world can exist when unperceived and offers a system of physical things as its true but inaccessible reality. It is not the alleged structure of the physical thing to which philosophy can raise any objection. That is a matter for science exclusively. It is being offered as the reality of the sensible object. And this thesis is philosophy and not science.

Therefore, the following is, so far as I can see, the relation of speculative philosophy, as known in the English-speaking world before 1892, to the realistic movement which was beginning about that time in Germany and elsewhere. With the intention of naive realism, the realism which accepts as a factor of our world prima facie on equal terms with every other, external nature in the fulness of its qualities and its beauty it is in the main at one. It welcomes this movement as appreciative, so far as it goes, of something which certainly fills an important part to our thinking quite indispensable in the structure of the universe; something through which, it has been said, man’s own mind is evermore communicated to him. In a very wide sense, though not in the sense of the technical controversy, the mind and its sense-organs may even be regarded as 'instrumental ‘in the apprehension of the outer world. That is to say, the full experience is naturally considered along with the conditions essential to it and accepted as thus offered; and there is no sense in seeking for some further reality behind it by abstracting those conditions. Speculative philosophy, as I see the matter, should be glad to join hands with a movement which banishes the initial doubt whether knowledge is knowledge, and takes what presents itself as it comes. Ultimate questions of reality, as I have said, arise afterwards. Space and time with their contents will do something for us; but will not do everything, nor answer all questions. In this sense, they are open to criticism; but after they have been received as elements of knowledge, and not before. It is one thing to say, 'These factors of reality differ in value, stability, and solidity.' It is another thing to raise a preliminary doubt whether in our apprehensions of some among them we are attaining reality at all. There is a realism therefore and to be plain, I will take as an example that which has been formulated by Professor Alexander which seems to me well adapted to form the extreme left of a speculative metaphysical movement. It is essential to such a realism, as I see the question, to treat all thought, including perception, as ipso facto an apprehension of reality; to take primary and secondary qualities as in the same relation to mind, and to keep clear of materialism; to recognize universals as real, and to keep clear of nominalism. If, further, it promises a liberation from the tyranny of the substantial soul, and a freer construction of the external object and concept of what is meant by its 'presence,' it certainly seems to me that there is a high degree of kinship between such a mode of thinking and speculative philosophy.

It thus becomes a minor matter, though still a test question of philosophical insight, whether the very nature of spatial objects admits at all of the idea of a final or absolute apprehension of them, or whether it is not a relatively a priori necessity that the apprehension of them can only be given in a series ad infinitum of gradations and variations determined by points ofview.1 It seems to me that this consequence follows if a finite percipient mind is in principle inseparable from a sentient organism. If a finite percipient mind could, per impossible, exist unattached to a sentient body, would it not, in perceiving, become the mind of the object perceived?

But it is in the end, as I said, a minor matter what becomes of the object when or if unperceived by any finite mind. It is enough to be sure that when we apprehend it, we apprehend it as it is under its appropriate conditions, and as an element within a systematic world. This assurance comes to us when we demand, as we have a right to demand, a positive ground for the epistemological doubt, and find that none is forthcoming. And the recognition of this fundamental fact is, I take it, the common basis of realism and of speculative philosophy. Not 'Can we know the real?' but 'What is in detail the real which we know? ‘Seems to be the question to which both attempt an answer; an answer which depends on the actual achievement of knowledge, and not on an antecedent theory of it.

I have thus every hope that the realistic movement will blend with the element in speculative philosophy which I have been attempting to emphasize; and will in that way finally destroy the equivocation which still attaches to the name of Idealism. Further vistas open before it in such problems as Mr. Bradley has raised in his essay "What is the real Julius Caesar? “Problems, it might be said, of the real presence to thought and apprehension. In view of such problems, I do not believe that an individualistic doctrine of substances will ultimately satisfy it. It will return, I am convinced, to a more fluid conception of graduated and continuous reality, but no doubt with a renewed emphasis, which is certainly desirable, on the necessity of an external world as the datum and medium of finite thought and action.

This is my reading of the philosophical situation before 1892, in the light of what has happened since.

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