The Ugly Infinite and the Good for Nothing Absolute


Bakewell, Charles M. “The Ugly Infinite and the Good-For-Nothing Absolute.” The Philosophical Review 16, no. 2 (1907): 136. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177468


EVER since philosophy emerged from the hypozoic age and began to free itself from the bondage of picture-thinking, it has been pursued by an antinomy which haunts it still, the antinomy of the Infinite and the Absolute.


It seems to the early Greek philosopher, as it seems to everyone when he first starts on his quest after truth, that what he is seeking is the changeless reality that lies behind, and occasions, the changing things of experience, the ultimate unity that ties together the obvious variety which experience presents. That grand old man Parmenides firmly grips this conception, and boldly draws the inevitable inferences, laying down the law alone who speaks with authority, as an absolutist should:


"Listen, and I will instruct thee, and thou, when thou nearest, shall ponder

What are the sole two paths of research that are open to thinking.

One path is: That Being doth be, and Non-Being is not:

This is the way of Conviction, for Truth follows hard in her footsteps.

This' other path is: That Being is not, and Non-Being must be;

This one, I tell thee in truth, is an all-incredible pathway.”


But when Parmenides goes on to tell us what Being is, he simply piles up the negative characteristics, the only kind left when the world of change is excluded, which merely declare what Being is not: It is birthless and deathless, whole and unbegotten neither more of it here nor less of it yonder, the one true reality which things are merely our names for.


No doubt the rabble, blind worshippers at the shrine of commonsense, displayed their ingenuity in jibes and jeers hurled at the head of the philosopher off in his cold realm of abstraction; but he in turn shows a fine scorn for " the deaf and dumb and blind and stupid unreasoning cattle, herds that are wont to think Being and Non-Being one and the same thing, and that all things move in a circle," that is, for those who fancy they can get along without any fixed reality and truth, can think from hand to mouth, and still count themselves reasonable.


It is, however, cold comfort to nurse an abstraction; and making an abstraction into reality does not explain the world of experience but would rather explain it away. If this be knowledge, it is useless. And over the water, in the opposite border of Greece, another philosopher had been following that " all-incredible pathway," and it may well enough have been the whom Parmenides had in mind when he paid his respects to his opponents in the words I have quoted, which were possibly written to even the score with Heraclitus, who had spoken with scorn of Parmenides’s teacher when he said: "Much learning doth not make wise, else would it have taught Xenophanes." To Heraclitus, “the eyes and ears are bad witnesses," but only "to him who has not an understanding heart." Rightly used, they reveal the truth that in the actual world all is ever changing, nothing ever stays put, opposites unite, and strife is the life of all things. Heraclitus has reached the wisdom of Uriel, when, in Emerson’s poem, he declares:


"Line in nature is not found.

In vain produced, all rays will turn.

Evil will bless, and ice will burn."


And the poet goes on to tell how this shocking heresy produced consternation "in the holy festival." The stern old war gods of absolutism shook their heads, and the seraphs, sheltered under the wing of absolutist tradition, and peacefully lounging on their myrtle beds, frowned. This rash doctrine boded ill to all.


"The balance-beam of Fate was bent;

The bounds of good and ill were rent;

Strong Hades could not keep his own

And all slid to confusion.''


But, nonetheless, "truth-speaking things" are gradually justifying Uriel-Heraclitus, and the old gods of absolutism are quaking in their spheres though they do not know just why. Thus, at the dawn of philosophical reflection, this troublesome antinomy of the Absolute and the Infinite appears. It is not too much to say that most of the discussions of fundamental problems in philosophy center in it, and that the chief effort of philosophers from that day to this has been to find a way of solving it; and that when with respect to any problem one attempts, as is customary, to dichotomize philosophers, the principle of division will be found to be based on the relative importance assigned tone or the other of the sides of this antinomy. When philosophical discussions wax polemical, as once in a while they will, then one's opponent is supposed simply to have embraced onside of the antinomy, while blindly ignoring, or shamefully belittling, the reasons which make for the other side. This granted, the logical difficulties of his position are easily made evident, and adjectives of abuse, now as of old, not infrequently enliven the discussion. In earlier times the partisans of the Absolute triumphed, and the Infinite, to which their opponents were supposed to be committed, was dubbed 'ugly,' about as strong a term of reproach as the Greek could find; for the ugly was the bad and the false made manifest. In recent times, and partly due to the conquests made by the theory of evolution in all fields of knowledge, the partisans of the Infinite are coming to be more and more conspicuously in evidence, and they are returning the compliment. Their opponents' view leads to an Absolute which is 'good-for-nothing’ as abusive an epithet one can find in our own strenuous and practical age. And as for the 'ugly infinite,' why, they add, we are romanticists nowadays, and may retort with Lowell concerning your classical ideal:


“The Grecian gluts me with his perfectness,

The one thing finished in the world."


I shall not attempt to dispute about taste in ultimates. If one likes a 'wide open' universe, that is his affair. If, however, this view is presented as true, it comes within the field of discussion. Now the difficulty with this empiricism is that it involves the infinite regress, and thereby takes away the meaning of truth. It only seems not to do this because one keeps arresting the process continually to suit the needs of the passing moment. But, in fact, one no sooner gets his anchor down on what appears to be solid ground than one finds it dragging once more. The view, in short, leaves us with a subjectless, objectless, substanceless, godless philosophy. I am, in this paper, not concerned to substantiate these charges, but rather to consider the counterblast that comes from the camp of empiricism. That charge is practically as follows: In attempting to extricate himself from his ontological bankruptcy, the idealist has simply spent his last remaining resources in purchasing a goldbrick called the Absolute.


This may, indeed, give him for the time being a feeling of relief, as he dreams of the untold wealth of meaning that might be his; and the illusion will last, until he tries to cash it in and make it work in the matter-of-fact world of experience. Then its true nature appears. It is utterly useless.

All who are not radical empiricists or immediatists, all who believe in a reality which cannot be dissolved in the river of experience, are declared to be absolutists. I pass by the realists, who, from this point of view, must be ranked with the absolutists, and confine my attention to the idealists. And I ask: Is it true that their conception of the real-ideal as in some sense fixed and eternal is a useless conception?


There are, of course, many forms of idealism, but with respect to no one of them can the charge be made out that its conception of reality is useless. Idealists fall into two broadly distinguishable groups, according as their reality is conceived statically or dynamically. The former group may, with a certain surface show of plausibility, be charged with introducing the conception of an absolute which is useless in the interpretation of experience. And yet philosophers of all schools owe a lasting debt of gratitude to the stubborn and uncompromising old Eleatic logician whom the impulse for self-consistency drove to this view. Our early pictorial symbolic terms, our rough and ready-made notions, are sharpened into precise instruments of thought only through the fearless efforts of philosophers to recognize their tacit meanings, and hold them up in clear relief, one by one, and test them by giving them plenty of rope. Nine-tenths of our difficulties in philosophy come, not, as is usually supposed, from hugging hypostatised abstractions, but rather from employing vague terms of many meanings, and unconsciously shifting the meanings in the course of a discussion. Again, bare and barren as is this conception of the Absolute in its first appearance, it is just this notion of reality that reappears in every form of mysticism. It has given us some of our best devotional literature and has been the inspiration of some of the most beloved saints and seers. But one may reply, the first service has been accomplished, the second is perhaps questionably a service. And, anyway, the usefulness of a conception is to be tested by asking whether it is of service in making the world of experience more intelligible, and here it fails. But even this much cannot be made good. Or rather, we should say, it stands or falls with the possibility of showing the usefulness of the conception in the more developed form of dynamic idealism. If this conception of the permanent is of use, then even that earlier form, though its advocates may have failed to work it out, failed to reconcile it with the changing world inexperience, still, so far as it went, helped to make the world intelligible.


As applied to the later forms of dynamic idealism, the charge is wholly without force. It rests upon the assumption that because the idealist believes in a world of eternal truth where values are assessed with finality, believes in a world of meaning which changes not with our shifting beliefs, he must therefore, in order to make any real use of this conception, himself have had the completed vision, have reached finality.


It would indeed be a glorious thing, as Socrates in effect remarks in the Phaedo, if we could tell how things are by simply showing how it is best for them to be. That would be, however, the wisdom of a god and not of man. "But," he adds, “I had a second string to my bow"; and so have we. Put briefly it is this: We have, of course, to begin with experience, and to it we must ever return; and, in trying to understand it, we do not escape from our human limitations, and the notions that we use are confused and imperfect and open to revision. Nonetheless, by persistent effort to think clearly, and to think consistently, that is, to think complete thoughts, we are able to work away from our initial position by definite and sure steps. There is not simply change, but progress; and progress is progress and not simply change, because a less complete view can once for all be set aside in favor of a more complete view. It is thus in this indirect way that one reaches again the concept of a fixed by starting from experience. What experience brings to light becomes intelligible if we can only suppose that all partial truths have their positions, fixed in a scale of worth and meaning which were gradually finding out, but which we certainly do not make as suits our passing mood or present state or present felt need. And this conception, once reached, is one upon which we lean at every step in our efforts to make experience intelligible, and it is this that gives us our faith that the game is worth-while.


Belief in absolute truth does not imply the belief that one has found the absolute truth, or even that one ever will. The idealist too is a modest man, and does not "affect omniscience," as Professor James puts it. He is satisfied if he can only keep moving on the road that leads in that direction. If now the question is asked, But when does one ever use this conception of the absolute truth, if in every concrete situation one is always forced to work with the imperfect tools that experience furnishes? The answer is, that it is used in precisely the same way that the similar conception of the fixed is used in the region of physical fact. The concept of the conservation of energy enables us to think the physical world as the same in and through all its changes. Here too one may say, no one ever found this energy that is conserved. In any concrete situation, one always finds specific cases of energies, nor could one ever tell what energy in the singular, and with a capital E, would be like.


One finds, in short, with regard to the physical world the same difficulty that one meets with in the wider region of philosophy; and again it may be said to be the antinomy of the Infinite and the Absolute, of the flowing and the fixed. The fixed easily becomes an hypostatised abstraction, but nonetheless the conception of the fixed is one upon which one leans at every turn in one's effort to explain physical facts. And there is here too an interesting development which, as far as it goes, is closely parallel to the development of the similar concept in philosophy. This conception at first appears as that of an indestructible matter made up of hard atoms. Into such a fixed world it proves to be difficult, if not impossible, to introduce motion. This corresponds to the Eleatic Absolute. Then one attempts to conceive of the real physical world dynamically, and the concepts of force and energy supersede that of matter. But even these concepts prove to be not wholly free from the old taint, and so one now attempts to state the doctrine of the conservation of energy as meaning no more than this: that nature is uniform and dependable to such an extent that one can reproduce a given situation at will, and find always the same quantitative values, before and after, that existed in the original case. This is closely parallel to the development in idealism, as one passes from the earlier static type, first to the Platonic and Aristotelian types, and, later, to the modern types in which the Absolute is hardly recognizable any longer, and appears as a world of meaning, not separate from the several facts of experience but implied in them one and all, the fixed order of worth in which all values are assessed. This order no one knows in its completeness; its existence we all presuppose.


Throughout the history of idealism runs the thought of the All-knower, the 'Man in the heavens,' the God standing within the shadow 'keeping watch over his own.' And the world which abides is simply this our changing world of experience as such a knower would know it. At first knowing is conceived as immediacy, as appropriation, as absorption in the object, after the analogy of sense experience, and then the Absolute is the mystic ‘Absolute, and it is hard, if not impossible, to get motion or change into this world. And the progress of idealism has been marked by an ever-increasing respect for the world of experience, for the Infinite. The real must be the real of just this world of fact, and it must make that world intelligible. One takes one's key from what goes on in every science. There the fact of immediate experience is always merely the point of departure. It is not by staring at the fact, by immediately experiencing it, that one understands it, but by getting away from it in its immediacy, and reading its meaning in the light of all other facts that fall within the same field, and by reading the meaning of all other facts in the light of it. When one has got the particular fact in its setting and context, one has for the first time discovered its meaning and its reality. Similarly, in philosophy the aim is ever to get the particular experience in its total context, and to attain unto vision in the light of the whole. The idealist is one who believes that there is such a total context, and that this total context exists in and gives meaning to every facet of experience, as every fact exists in it and contributes to its meaning.


But, after all, does not the old taint reappear here? Does not this system of truth, once for all realized, destroy the significance of change? If it does, it certainly calls for revision. I believe that it does so long as one is over-influenced by the incomplete analogy of the natural sciences. The remedy is then to be sought in conceiving the fixed not merely as dynamic, but also in the light of the categories of personality. The Idea must be carried up into the Ideal, as this is implied in personal association. Then change can become truly significant, for every person has his own unique share in the creation of the ideal; it exists not without his sanction. It is some such revision of the basic concept of the Absolute that furnishes the central problem in modern idealism. And, this being the case, is it not true that humanist and personal idealist are 'twin brothers under the skin’? But whatever may prove to be the next steps in the development of idealism, in no one of its meanings has the conception of the Absolute been useless.


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