home catalog studies

The Athenaeum: a journal of literature, science, the fine arts, music, and the dramae no. 4219 (Sept. 5, 1908), p. 262-264.

Review of:

Die Lehre von den Geistigen und vom Volke. By Constantin Brunner. 2 parts. (Berlin, Karl Schnabel.)

We confess that we opened this formidable book with some misgiving. It is only the first volume (in two parts) of a treatise which is to extend to three, yet it already fills 1,140 pages! It is, moreover, the exposition of a whole system of philosophy, and this, in the twentieth century, is somewhat foreign to the temper of the age. No one affirms it more decidedly than our author, who contrasts thinkers, a rare product, with the public, whom he regards as incapable of understanding anything properly. This judgment he passes not only upon the vulgar herd, but also upon such philosophers as have attempted, or condescended to, any compromise with ordinary beliefs. Such philosophers are merely the coryphoei of the clowns. On no one else does he pour out the vials of his wrath and scorn so often as on Kant, whom he constantly turns aside to ridicule, for striving to make his peace with the faith and morals of the public, neglecting to shake himself loose from scholasticism, or failing to see that his compromises involve contradictions. Many of these criticisms appear to us well founded, though expressed in such language as to be almost untranslatable. Here is a specimen:—

I will not annoy the reader by enumerating the other eleven words; indeed, I avoid, if possible, quoting Kant's nomenclature. Kant, the barbarous schoolman, is a shocking word-master, and has terrific terms, ghosts of words, which make even the most courageous thinker, who is accustomed to a great deal, feel very shaky. Kant speaks a dreadful cant. Indeed, I have forgotten the other eleven [Categories, other than Causality]. Everyone has forgotten them, nobody ever knew them; Kant himself did not know his cant, but forgot the eleven over and over again, and had to turn back to see what they were called on certain occasions, which were, of course, wholly unsuitable.

Such a style is very refreshing in a metaphysical book, but it does not sound like sober criticism. Yet the substance of the author's attacks on Kant is serious. Thus he falls foul of Kant's "things per se," as contrasted with phenomena. To speak in the plural of such things, as Kant always does, shows a hopeless confusion of thought. Are they absolute or not? If they are, we have the absurdity of a number of absolutes, apparently created by another Absolute. This is a wholly ludicrous treatment of the Absolute, which must stand alone and all complete. If "things per se" are not absolute, but created by the Absolute as an intermediate between Himself and our phenomena, we come upon more absurdities; for either they must violate the great Law of Causality in Time, to produce any effect, or they must remain mere idle fictions, of no use to man, God, or any conceivable being. And yet Kant, when charged by his critics with preaching idealism, stoutly denied the charge, and even furbished up weapons against idealists, such as Berkeley. What will the Kantians say to all this?

On Haeckel, the famous author of the 'Schöpfungsgeschichte,' he is, if possible, even more severe. Haeckel can neither think nor write. Did anyone ever think he could, except the vulgar, who are, of course, ex hypothesi, no judges? and we are shown specimens of writing which are very bad, even for a German. Descartes is flouted, because he temporizes with the vulgar and essays to keep on terms with the popular creed. Who then survives as a real philosopher? Hume gets some credit, and so do Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, though in the present volume the author says only a little about them. But there stand out in the history of the world, first the early Greek thinkers, who discovered many of the secrets of nature because they did not try to learn from experiments, but boldly thought out the possibilities of the world's composition. Secondly Spinoza, the only logical and complete thinker of modern times, whose portrait adorns the first page of this book, and whose tenets are here expounded with marvellous ability. This is the key-note to the book, and gives it an interest to philosophical readers which a pretended new system could never command. For most critics have some knowledge of Spinoza (though it be only the knowledge of the vulgar), and accordingly we attack the huge work before us with a general idea of the lines on which the author proceeds.

The work is to consist of three parts. That before us contains a great deal of introductory matter on the author's position and his psychology. The next will give us his metaphysic proper, or Geistesphilosophie. The third, which he calls by the strange name of 'Analogon,' is to tell us of the various blunders and fallacies made by the vulgar in attempting to understand the nature of things. But as everywhere he proclaims that "the public is an ass," it seems hardly worth while to devote a whole volume to its absurdities. Of this, however, and of the metaphysic, we cannot yet judge, and even our estimate of the author's psychology can only be provisional. He starts, of course, with a wholesale process of simplification, as we should expect from a "Spinozist." Considering, under what he calls the practical understanding, the ordinary uses of our intelligence in what we call this life, he admits but one Category, that of Cause, which is known to us perpetually and universally in the form of motion. Everything we know is some kind of motion, or the produce of contrary motions, and hence all our thinking is bodily, and without body there is no mind. In all this the author confesses himself boldly a Materialist—with what reservations we cannot fully learn till his second volume appears. The various phases of our knowledge of causation by motion are feeling, which comes first, even before birth, wherein we are the effects of some cause; then volition, wherein we are the causes of some effect; and lastly cognition, wherein we are able to combine both. This inner motion he calls a causality conscious of itself, and by adopting it as the one principle of all human experience, he satisfies what he calls the great longing for unity, which is to Spinoza and to him the moving force of all human thinking. Here is one of his summaries printed in large type: —

Motion in the inner consciousness of thinking makes the essential unity [das einheitliche Wesen] of all the various reciprocally transmutable phenomena of the world, which appear different, and are thinking according to different degrees of consciousness, because the motion varies in pace, and therefore the degree of consciousness in each is different, and which change one into the other, because the slower and faster motions pass into each other. The totality of motion to be regarded as from eternity can neither increase nor diminish, but remains the same unchanged to all eternity, amid the incessant transitions of motions and their degrees of thinking one into the other.

We will make only one comment on this pronouncement. All motion necessarily presupposes something to be moved. What is that something? Dr. Brunner's answer is both clear and interesting. We have no knowledge by our ordinary consciousness of what this something may be, hence we are obliged to supply it by a fiction—he will not allow it the name of a hypothesis—of atoms that are moved. These are metaphysically inconceivable, but must be assumed in order to make motion intelligible. The illustration, however, that mathematicians also start from fictions, viz., perfect lines and figures as the basis of their demonstration, does not seem to us apt, for a perfect triangle, though such a thing may never have existed in nature, is nevertheless conceivable, whereas an indivisible atom in space is not so. We have also failed to find in the book any explanation of the phenomenon of individuality, i.e. why certain groups of this eternal and various motion assert themselves as distinct from the rest, and self-conscious, while the rest seem not to do so.

But doubtless this or any other criticism will condemn us, if we are even worthy of an answer, to appear in the' Analogon,' or third volume of the system, like the Troisieme Partie of the 'Almanach de Gotha,' which contains a list of sham and spurious royal personages. For never was there an author who wrote in more perfect contentment with himself and his work. Of this there are amusing evidences all through the book, which conduce greatly to the reader's recreation during his arduous task. Here is a philosopher who cares not whether many agree with him; in fact, ex hypothesi, the people, who are always mixing up non-reality with reality, will censure and ridicule him. Yet he cares not one straw for all this, having within himself abolished all the vulgar unrealities—God, moral laws, the spirituality of the soul, the separate existence of mind and matter, all the stuff taught by ordinary theologians and metaphysicians; he has attained to the pure and absolute truth, the highest and noblest satisfaction, which nothing can make more perfect or mar. All this he expresses in a picturesque and lively style, singularly agreeable for a German, though not wanting in those cumbrous and involved periods which make German prose so inartistic in comparison with any good French or English writing. This, of course, is not the author's opinion. He thinks, not without reason, that the modern habit of learning several foreign languages is likely to blunt the delicate use of the mother tongue. In this, and in this only, can a philosopher express his thoughts adequately (of course Latin, we infer, must have been the great Spinoza's mother tongue). But let us not be irreverent in the face of the following panegyric by the author on his native tongue : —

I for one, should readily sacrifice all the words from foreign languages for a single better and genuine expression in my beloved, blessed, my delightful, mighty, my wonder-working German, which is worthy to be named beside those great languages of antiquity, and which, a proud, fearless eagle, flies as high as they did, and can soar to the very steps of the throne of Truth.

If we have laid stress on what may seem digressions, we shall not offend the author. He says there are many of them, and sometimes long, but he determined to leave them so. All the time, he says, we are on our way, and in happy metaphor he compares the course of his work with that of our dear Mother Earth, which revolves, indeed, upon its axis, in order that every part may enjoy the blessed light, but all the while does not stay her appointed journey, or deflect from her orbit.

We confess ourselves ready and eager to attack the remaining two volumes of this original and interesting book, even though they should impose upon us the reading of 3,000 pages.