The Present Meaning of Idealism


Albee, Ernest. “The Present Meaning of Idealism.” The Philosophical Review 18, no. 3 (1909): 299. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177875


WHEN we make any serious attempt to interpret the philosophical thought of the past, there is one precaution that we are bound to take if we would attain valid or even significant results. It is not enough to take account of the differences between philosophers or philosophical schools; for, in order to understand even these differences, we must first understand, if possible, what were the underlying assumptions common, or practically common, to all parties concerned. It hardly need be urged that what is thus necessary in order to understand the philosophy of the past is not less important, though more often overlooked, when we attempt to take an objective attitude toward the opposing philosophical schools of the present day.


What, then, may we all fairly take for granted in discussing the present situation in philosophy, no matter how divergent our final conclusions may seem, or may in fact be? In the first place, it seems fair to assume that, for the technical student of philosophy, materialism proper is a thing of the past. And it is important to notice why we are able to say this with a degree of confidence that might seem to the layman little better than dogmatism. When one assumes that materialism, in the strict sense, is a thing of the past, one is not, of course, assuming anything whatsoever as to the relative importance of the so-called 'internal' and the so-called 'external' factors in experience. That is a perennial problem, which, in very different forms, is likely to occupy philosophy to the end, and dogmatism on that point would be as futile as it would evidently be absurd. Nor need one base one's definitive rejection of materialism upon the over important consideration that it has never been able to offer even a plausible solution of what may be called the ethical problems of philosophy. Arguments of this kind, though they have great cumulative force, are rather dangerous to press in detail; for it is unquestionably true that our ethical and even our religious conceptions are undergoing a gradual adjustment to the view of the world-order which, largely, at least, on other grounds, we find ourselves obliged to adopt. The true reason why dogmatic materialism may thus be summarily ruled out of court is, that it is the classical example of the most dangerous of all tendencies in philosophy, viz., the tendency to explain the relatively known in terms of the unknown, experience itself in terms of something else. The metaphysical conceptions of matter, force, and energy (i.e., these taken in the ontological sense) have very largely dropped out of modern scientific theory, for the simple reason that they do not even help to explain experience, with which alone the scientist is concerned. It is therefore plainly absurd for philosophy to take as an ultimate principle of explanation what science has found, to its cost, does not explain at all.


In the second place, it seems fair to assume that subjective idealism must be rejected as a philosophical theory. As opposed to the materialistic assumption that the reality of external objects must be explained in terms of an unknown and unknowable substratum, viz., material substance, subjective idealism was, of course, triumphantly in the right, when it contended that objective reality must be interpreted in knowable, instead of unknowable, terms. This was simply the protest of all true philosophy that experience must be explained from within and not from without if it is to be explained at all. But while subjective idealism was bound to be successful in its destructive criticism of material substance, this was due rather to the fatal weakness of that unmeaning conception than to its own inherent strength. Its very formula, 'to be is to be perceived,' though highly useful for polemical purposes, especially when directed against the weakest of all adversaries, became disagreeably ambiguous when Berkeley turn from polemics to philosophical construction. Berkeley, the subjective idealist, like Descartes the dualist, began with the conscious experience of the individual, considered as such, and the initial difficulty that each encountered was essentially the same as that of the other. We may smile at Descartes' s naive appeal to 'the necessary truthfulness of God' as a reason for believing in the external, objective order of things ; but is not Berkeley in at least as bad a case, when he summarily explains the objective order by assuming that God himself is the cause of all our particular perceptions and the ground of their uniformity of occurrence? Mill's suggestion, in comparatively recent times, that matter may be regarded as a 'permanent possibility of sensation ‘is rather a dexterous evasion of the fundamental difficulty of subjective idealism than anything that could be seriously accepted as a solution.


In ruling out these extreme theories, dogmatic materialism on the one hand, and subjective idealism, on the other, as no longer relevant in serious philosophical discussion, we are merely simplifying the issues involved, and by no means assuming anything that need prejudice the claims either of realism or of idealism. Modern realism would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by identifying itself with materialism, while idealism must dissociate itself from the implications of subjective idealism, if it would retain its influence in contemporary philosophical thought.


In fact, before we can safely urge the claims of modern idealisms opposed to those of realism, we must inspect very carefully certain time-honored formulas which did yeoman's service in eighteenth century and even nineteenth century polemics, but which are singularly irrelevant in any serious present discussion of fundamental issues. These may be described as Kantian formulas which have outlived their usefulness, and their persistence in the literature of modern idealism is probably due to historical causes rather than to strictly logical considerations. It will be remembered that the last important philosophical work published by Hegel in his lifetime was the Philosophy of Right (1821), and that this was published only forty years later than the first edition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). This extremely rapid development and culmination of idealism in Germany Drenthe last two decades of the eighteenth century and the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century could only lead to the very thoroughgoing reaction against Hegelianism which actually resulted. Later came the 'back to Kant' movement in Germany, properly enough called 'Neo-Kantianism,' and the very different Neo-Hegelian movement in Great Britain, sometimes perversely called by the same name. But, different as these two philosophical movements were, the one inclining toward a self-critical positivism, the other frankly working toward Absolute Idealism, the leaders of both parties professed to go ‘back to Kant' and to develop the essential principles of his system. The result in both cases, while more important for philosophy, other whole, than we of the present day are always ready to admit, was unfortunate in one respect; for the inevitable tendency waste stereotype certain formulas and fundamental conceptions of the Kantian philosophy, which were far from expressing adequately the true logic of the idealistic position.


It would be unprofitable to raise the vexed question as to what the real problem of the Critique of Pure Reason in Kant’s own mind was. He tells us repeatedly that his problem is, and remains, ' How are synthetic judgments a priori possible? ‘While many of his commentators, of course, hold that his real problem is the larger one, ‘How is experience possible?' If time permitted, it would not be difficult to show that the two problems are inextricably involved with one another in the first Critique, and so that the question as to which was the real problem for Kant is less important than it has been regarded. This, however, would not greatly help matters, as both formulations represent what may fairly be called the superannuated form of the general problem of idealism. In Kant's own formula, the emphasis upon synthetic judgments a priori, as a class by themselves, granting that there are a priori judgments at all, has ceased to have significance; for practically all recent logicians agree that all real judgments (i. e., all that are not merely tautological) are synthetic, though necessarily involving analysis as well. If, then, we take the formula in its simplified form, it becomes merely, 'How are judgments a priori possible?' and this, of course, at once reveals the essentially rationalistic side of Kant's problem. If, on the other hand, we assume that the larger problem, 'How is experience possible?’ was the fundamental one for Kant, we have by no means absolved him of rationalistic intent; for this statement of the problemists the attempt to explain the organization of experience by reference to something more ultimate than itself. It will perhaps be objected that this is an unsympathetic interpretation of Kant’s procedure, since it may be argued that after all he is only concerned to bring to light the logical implications of experience; but this can hardly be admitted as a valid objection, since Kandis never tired of asserting that the understanding lays down the laws of experience, wherever objectivity is to be found.


This raises the whole question of the a priori. What does it really mean in Kant's philosophy, or in any idealistic system directly based upon Kant? Orthodox Kantians constantly remind us that the master is contending for a logical and not a temporal a priori. This may be freely admitted, so far, at any rate, as Kant's intentions are concerned; and here he stands exactly with the older rationalists, however different his method may be in other respects. But in at least one other very important respect also Kant's conception of the a priori is like that of the older rationalists; for him, as for them, a principle, in order to be a priori, must be absolutely free from all contamination of experience, though at the same time it may contribute to any extent to the form and organization of experience. Otherwise expressed, an a priori principle may be detected by analysis of experience in general, never by dealing with experience in the concrete. Now it may be seriously doubted if progressive idealists of the present day really believe in the existence of such principles any more than do the realists themselves. The only reason why we seem able to analyze experience in general is because we have dealt with it long and patiently in its more special manifestations. The attitude of philosophy in this respect is not essentially different from that of science; the philosopher, like the scientist, looking, not for principles ‘independent of all experience,' but rather for principles that will express adequately, from the given point of view and for the given purpose, the various forms of interdependence within experience.


The categories of thought, then, are far from being preexistent in the mind or ready-made, but rather are always in the making; and their evolution, whether in practical life, in science, or in philosophy, is always determined by teleological considerations. Kant was, of course, right in contending that experience must have a certain organization; but he was clearly wrong in holding that this organization must have been brought about, as from the outside, by definite, permanent, controlling intellectual factories., the categories of the understanding. Even apart from the abstract rationalism of such a procedure, this is too much like attempting to show how an organic body gets itself organized; we have to accept the fact of organization, when dealing with experiences a whole, as we do when dealing with the biological organism, and in the one case as much as in the other we must confine ourselves to an analysis of the underlying conditions. The idealist is fond of saying, 'No object without a subject'; but for the consistent modern epistemologist, whether idealist or not, the reverse formula holds equally true, ‘No subject without a world of objects.' It is to the great credit of Kant that he recognized this latter principle as the necessary complement of the former one, though in his actual treatment the emphasis is altogether too much upon the former.



Since, then, the subjective and the objective side of experience are mutually complementary in the strictest sense, it will not do to speak of anything, even the 'raw material' or 'blur' of sensation, as 'merely given.' If it came in this absolutely alien fashion, how could it be received? And if nothing can be ‘merely given' as 'raw material,' the 'form' of experience came as little as supplied by the mind. The mind is not an entity, endowed with creative power, but rather is one side of experience itself, regarded as an organic whole. No, 'matter' and 'form ‘are meaningless abstractions in this connection; what is 'given ‘is nothing less than experience itself, which is only to say that we must start by presupposing experience, and satisfy ourselves with carefully analyzing its organic structure and logical implications. In short, as we saw before, there can be no independent, but only interdependent, principles in the realm of our experience and knowledge.


It is true that principles may emerge in the development of special science or discipline which are independent of experience in the sense that they do not result from any mere process of induction, as we ordinarily understand induction. The very conception of the science or discipline in question may seem to demand that we make these rational assumptions; but, nonetheless, they are discovered, not by analyzing experience in the abstract, but by dealing with it long and carefully in the concrete. In one sense independent of experience, they are as truly the very essence of experience as interpretation of the world-order from a given point of view.


But if this be true of particular so-called a priori principles, what shall be said of those tremendous contributions of the mind to experience, according to Kant and traditional idealism, viz, space and time themselves? It is barely conceivable that there might be a highly developed finite experience, very different from our own, in which the spatial aspect of things would either be essentially different or even lacking altogether; but is it conceivable, even by the wildest flight of the philosophical imagination, that the temporal aspect of things, or its equivalent, could also be. lacking? Time, at any rate, time as we know it or its equivalent, would seem to belong to a finite experience as such. But it must always be remembered, we are not primarily concerned with what conceivably might be, but with what is; and the plain fact is, that if our concrete experience is one thing more than another, it is space-time experience. And we say 'spacetime experience ‘advisedly; for we have to do not with space relations plus time-relations, but with the two as inextricably involving each other, so far, at least, as our experience of the external world is concerned.


Now, if we rule out things-in-themselves as meaningless, then by hypothesis they are unknowable, and recognize that subject and object have no meaning apart from their functional relation to each other, that the subject presupposes the object as much as the object the subject, what right have we to assume that space and time belong to appearance, or phenomenal manifestation, as opposed to reality? According to our premises, space and time are forms, not merely of our intuition, but of experience itself; and what have we to deal with except experience, taken in its most comprehensive sense?


Space and time, then, are forms of the only reality we know, the only reality of which we can distinctly conceive. It is true that, in the interest of a particular science or discipline, we may abstract, now from one and again from the other. For example, in geometrical demonstration we generally abstract from time, except in ideally constructing our figures, just as in arithmetic and algebra we abstract from space; but, in practical applications of these highly abstract sciences, we never forget that itis a space-time world that we are dealing with. Or, to take the cases of psychology and logic, it is evident that, for the purposes of psychology, the time-order is to the last degree important, while we largely abstract from it in many logical investigations; but the psychologist is far from claiming that concrete experiences merely a sequence, that it involves no relations except ‘before' and 'after,' while the logician or epistemologist puts himself in a wholly false position when, like T. H. Green, he speaks of a 'timeless act of thought' Of course every act of thought being a process, involves time; but it may very well be that the time sequence, for our particular purpose, is not the essential thing.


But how is it when we explicitly deal, or attempt to deal, with ultimate reality? Can we, in truth, view things, as Spinoza expressed it, sub specie coeternities? As already implied, this familiar metaphysical question involves the antithesis of 'appearance' and 'reality,' which, in its extreme form, we deny when we take our stand on experience as the ultimate. But the question itself is by no means free from ambiguity. What do we really mean when we speak of 'transcending' the space-time point view? That we not only can, but frequently do, abstract, now from space and again from time, in our scientific procedure is evident enough, as we have seen; but probably no one would use this as an argument for the unreality of space and time. Certainly, we do not profess to abolish what we abstract from in our scientific investigations. Why, then, should we make any such claiming philosophy? Here also we remain finite beings, and the principles that we employ are bound to remain instrumental or regulative and not constitutive. In fact, a 'constitutive ‘principle would be a contradiction in terms, for that would mean a concrete abstraction. In philosophy as in science we must be ready to shift the point of view when necessary, though always with a full knowledge that we are doing so. The very phrase 'permanent system of relations,' as applicable to the assumptions of science as to those of philosophy, seems in one sense to deny, as in another sense it seems to affirm, the reality of time; while the conception of immanent rationality, or, if you please, Divine purpose, involves the same difficulty. But this difficulty will certainly trouble us less and less in proportion as we become accustomed to regard experience itself, including its ideal development, as the reality, and at the same time recognize that the conflict is only between our own relative and instrumental points of view.


To an ultra-conservative idealist, the present argument might seem like a series of damaging concessions to realism. Even if this were true, I should offer no apology, for we are here as seekers after truth and not as partisan supporters of any tradition whatsoever. But what has been conceded that is essential to idealism as a philosophical method? Does the idealist to whom idealism is not merely a type of philosophical theory but matter of almost religious faith, wish to retain things-in-themselves, in order that they may play the sinister dual role of an unknowable substratum of the objective order and a logical ground for a theory of subjectivism and illusionism as regards actual concrete experience? This, be it observed, would Meana theory of subjectivism and illusionism as regards any finite eternal experience as much as in the case of this present, and doubtless perplexing, temporal one. Certainly, idealism proper has no such interests, if we may speak of interests at all in technical philosophical discussion. And if we really do abandon things-in-themselves and keep to concrete experience, though always regarding it from the point of view of its inner meaning and possible development, we must be prepared for the conclusions that logically result from our revised premises.


In this paper I have attempted to indicate very briefly what seems to me to be the drift of recent idealism in its less dogmatic form. If this analysis be correct, idealism may be said to have lived through its subjective phase, and, to a large extent, through its partisan phase. And just as many idealists, at any rate, are willing to call themselves both empiricists and rationalists, though in a modified sense of those terms, it hardly seems too much to hope that the partisan opposition between idealism and realism may be done away with in the not too distant future, and this on the basis of our increasing recognition of experience itself as the real. No amount of emphasis upon the objective world-order can be excessive, so long as one preserves the teleological standpoint, that of inner meaning or significance, which is the standpoint of philosophy itself. If that, however, be given up, realism is bound to lapse into materialism, not only to its own ruin, but to the great and permanent loss of philosophy.

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