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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Volume II of Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, published 22 years after Volume I, finds him in a more aggressive mood than when he left off. This appears especially in his extended defense of nominalism, or rather in his extended and sometimes nasty attack on anyone (including his teacher, Reid) who doesn’t accept nominalism. I hope to address that in a future post. Here I begin, instead, with an offhand criticism he aims at Kant.

In context, Stewart is discussing the topic (recently raised by Martin Lenz) of philosophical clarity, or, as he puts it, perspicuity:

I have certainly endeavoured, to the utmost of my abilities, to render every sentence which I have written, not only intelligible but perspicuous; and, where I have failed in the attempt, the obscurity will, I hope, be imputed, not to an affectation of mystery, but to some error of judgment. I can, without much vanity, say, that, with less expence of thought, I could have rivalled the obscurity of Kant; and that the invention of a new technical language, such as that which he has introduced, would have been an easier task, than the communication of clear and precise notions (if I have been so fortunate as to succeed in this communication), without departing from the established modes of expression.

To the following observations of D’Alembert (with some trifling verbal exceptions) I give my most cordial assent; and, mortifying as they may appear to the pretensions of bolder theorists, I should be happy to see them generally recognized as canons of philosophical criticism: “Truth in metaphysics resembles truth in matters of taste. In both cases, the seeds of it exist in every mind; though few think of attending to this latent treasure, till it be pointed out to them by more curious inquirers. It should seem that everything we learn from a good metaphysical book is only a sort of reminiscence of what the mind previously knew. The obscurity, of which we are apt to complain in this science, may be always justly ascribed to the author; because the information which he professes to communicate requires no technical language appropriated to itself. Accordingly, we may apply to good metaphysical authors what has been said of those who excel in the art of writing, that, in reading them, everybody is apt to imagine that he himself could have written in the same manner.

“But, in this sort of speculation, if all are qualified to understand, all are not fitted to teach. The merit of accommodating easily to the apprehension of others, notions which are at once simple and just, appears, from its extreme rarity, to be much greater than is commonly imagined. Sound metaphysical principles are truths which every one is ready to seize, but which few men have the talent of unfolding; so difficult is it in this, as well as in other instances, to appropriate to one’s self what seems to be the common inheritance of the human race.” (Elements, vol. 2, pp. 23–4; the long quote from D’Alembert is from his Élémens de philosophie, here.)

So the charge against Kant is, first of all, that he is an obscure, and therefore a bad, metaphysician — where, for Stewart, “metaphysics” is another word for what he usually calls “philosophy of the human mind” (roughly speaking: the subject Cousin and James and Brentano will call “psychology”).[1]D’Alembert also means roughly this, at least insofar as “metaphysics” is the name of a real science. Just before the passage Stewart quotes (again, here), he says: “The generation of our ideas belongs to metaphysics; it is one of its principal objects, and perhaps it should be limited to it; almost all the other questions it proposes are insoluble or frivolous; they are the food of rash minds [esprits] or false minds; and we must not be surprised if so many subtle questions, always agitated and never resolved, have made that empty and contentious science commonly called metaphysics despised by good minds.” Kant is bad, it is charged, in the only way a “metaphysician” (in that sense) can be bad, namely, not in failing to know sound metaphysical principles (since we all already know them, thus need only be reminded of them), but in failing to unfold them so as to make them perspicuous, whether to others, or, presumably, even to himself. And then, second of all, it is charged that this badness is a result of laziness: it is easy to express sound metaphysical principles obscurely, but far more difficult to express them clearly. And then, thirdly, it is charged that Kant’s (supposedly) profuse introduction of new technical terminology is both a cause of his obscurity and a sign of his laziness.

This criticism of Kant is probably not based on any firsthand acquaintance with his works. Stewart is evidently very comfortable in French, Latin, and Greek, and he cites widely from all kinds of literature (not only philosophy) in all of those languages, but never, that I can recall, cites anything written in German, nor indeed any German author, in any language, after Leibniz. This passage, moreover, is the only mention of Kant in the first two volume of the Elements.[2]If Google is to be trusted, there is exactly one further mention in volume III. In fact, Stewart probably has his knowledge of Kant at third hand, via his student, Thomas Brown, who in turn has his information from Charles de Villers. In any case, Brown makes the same point about Kant’s new terminology and the “perplexity” that results:

In this short view of the principles of Transcendentalism, we have endeavoured, as much as possible, to avoid the perplexity of new terms. Of these its author has been profusely liberal; and to them he is probably indebted for a large share of that favour which his system has received. In minuteness of nomenclature, there is an appearance of nice distinction, which prepossesses us with respect for the acuteness of the inventor’s powers. (“Villers, Philosophie de Kant,” Edinburgh Review 1 (1802–3):253–280, p. 263)

So can the charge simply be dismissed, as based on insufficient evidence?

Kant, admittedly, does think that philosophy often requires the introduction of special terminology, since

with all the wealth of our languages, the thinker [der denkende Kopf ] nevertheless often finds himself at a loss for an expression that is exactly apt to his concept, and in the absence of which he is able to make himself rightly understood neither to others nor even to himself. (A312/B368)

But, as is well known, Kant advises against wholesale neologism (“coining new words”) in such situations, calling it a “desperate measure,” and “a pretension to legislation in language that rarely succeeds” (KrV A312/B368–9). Rather, he suggests, our only recourse in such a situation is to look around in “a dead and learned language” to see “whether this concept, along with its commensurate expression, is not to be found there” (A312/B369). In fact, Kant considers the other strategy so unlikely to succeed that he expects, in case we let the Latin or Greek term in question become vague through indiscriminate use, that the concept to which it is apt may be permanently lost:

Because of this, if for a certain concept only one single word is to be found which, in an already established significance, is exactly apt to this concept, whose distinction from other related concepts is of great importance, then it is advisable not to deal profligately with it, or use it synonymously instead of others merely for variety, but rather carefully to preserve for it its proper significance; for it otherwise easily happens that, when the expression no longer particularly occupies our attention, but is lost under a heap of others of very divergent significance, the thought also goes lost, which it alone could have preserved. (A312–13/B369)

So note that each side accuses the other of abandoning the “established modes of expression,” and predicts that the result will be unclarity in communication and in thought.

But wait — if a neologism is so unlikely to succeed, how, then, did these words ever come to exist in any language? To make any sense of this, we need to remember that Kant has only recently made a transition from writing in a dead and learned language himself. This passage reflects on the peculiar difficulty of writing philosophy in “our languages.” In such living, non-learned languages, linguistic legislation is unlikely to succeed. Which concepts will find apt expression in such languages is out of our control. Since we can’t or won’t return writing in dead and learned languages ourselves (why, is not explained), we need to be very careful with the heritage of precise terms from our predecessors, who had the benefit of doing so. For Stewart and Brown, who are living centuries after the corresponding transition from Latin to English in Britain, and who, moreover, tend to regard Scholastic texts as a mass of insignificant jargon, the whole situation is probably difficult to imagine. So, while it must be conceded that some of the difficulty in Kant results from this struggle with the unsuitability of German for expressing the concepts of Scholastic Latin (and that his Latin works are, consequently, less difficult than his German ones), neither Stewart nor Brown can well appreciate what is easy for him and what difficult.

However important this difference between German and English may be, however (and I think it is quite important), it cannot be exactly the core of the issue, because some version of it appears, in the next generation, between different schools of Anglophone philosophy — and, in fact, between different schools of Kantian (or post-Kantian) Anglophone philosophy. On the one hand, Coleridge, who did not know French, and in fact was deeply anti-Gallic,[3]In the Biographia Literaria, he approvingly quotes the remark of a Prussian artist he knew: “A Frenchman, Sir! is the only animal in the human shape, that by no possibility can lift itself up to religion or poetry” ([Cambridge: 1920], p. 126). did know German, and became a follower of Kant and, especially, a follower of (and extensive plagiarizer from) Schelling. On the other hand, William Hamilton and his close friend, James Frederick Ferrier, though in some sense the successors of Reid, Stewart, and Brown, both also learned German and were also followers, or at least appreciative readers, both of Kant and of the post-Kantian German Idealists. Nevertheless, the Scottish charge of German incomprehensibility was not lifted. Proposition I of Section I, Epistemology, of Ferrier’s Institutes of Metaphysic, reads as follows:


Along with whatever any intelligence knows, it must, as the ground or condition of its knowledge, have some cognisance of itself. (p. 79)

Commenting on this, Ferrier first pays Kant the backhanded compliment that, although he had “glimpses of the this truth,” manifested namely in his discussion of the analytic and synthetic unity of consciousness, his treatment is confused to the point where “this is one of the few places in his works from which no meaning can be extracted” (Sect. I, Prop. I, Observations and Explanations no. 19, p. 94). He goes on to say that “Fichte got hold of [this truth], and lost it — got hold of, and lost it again, through a series of eight or ten different publications”; that Schelling, in his youth, promised to build something magnificent on its basis, “but the world has been waiting for the fulfilment of these promises … during a period of more than fifty years”; and that, as for Hegel, “A much less intellectual effort would be required to find out the truth for oneself than to understand his exposition of it.” He then concludes:

Hegel’s faults, however, and those of his predecessors subsequent to Kant, lie, certainly, not in the matter, but only in the manner of their compositions. Admirable in the substance and spirit and direction of their speculations, they are painfully deficient in the accomplishment of intelligible speech, and inhumanly negligent of all the arts by which alone the processes and results of philosophical research can be recommended to the attention of mankind. (Ibid., pp. 95–6)

And he lays a similar charge of German, or worse-than-German, incomprehensibility against Coleridge:

It must be remembered, that we are at present speaking of Coleridge only in reference to his connexion with the transcendental philosophy. He lays a good deal of stress on his possession of “the main and fundamental ideas” of that system. We ourselves, in our day, have had some small dealings with “main and fundamental ideas,” and we know this much about them, that it is very easy for any man, or for every man, to have them. There is no difficulty in that. The difficulty lies in bringing them intelligibly, effectively, and articulately out. . . .  Indeed, it is the ability to do this which constitutes philosophical genius. The mere fact of the ideas being in you is nothing — how are they to be got out of you in the right shape, is the question. It is the delivery and not the conception that is the poser. (“The Plagiarisms of S. T. Coleridge,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 47 (1840):287–99, p. 291)

This echoes (and perhaps even alludes to) the passage from D’Alembert that Stewart quotes against Kant: metaphysics (although the meaning of “metaphysics” is now changing) ought to be easy to understand, because everyone (at least, every “man”) already knows its truths; but the “poser,” the difficult thing — the thing that lazy Coleridge, the plagiarist, has barely attempted — is to express it in this correct, easily understood way.

Here again, though, however, the charge of abuse of language, of unintelligibility, goes in both directions. Among the objects for which Aids to Reflection was written, Coleridge lists first of all:

To direct the Reader’s attention to the value of the Science of Words, their use and abuse, and the incalculable advantages attached, to the habit of using them appropriately, and with a distinct knowledge of their primary, derivative, and metaphorical senses. And in furtherance of this Object I have neglected no occasion of enforcing the maxim, that to expose a sophism and to detect the equivocal or double meaning of a word is, in the great majority of cases, one and the same thing. (Preface, [Burlington: 1829[4]This first American edition, with James Marsh’s “Preliminary Essay,” became the foundation of Vermont Transcendentalism, and greatly impressed the Boston Transcendentalists, as well. Note that (as should be obvious from the date) the text Marsh published was of the original (1825) British edition, not the heavily revised edition of 1831.], p. lviii)

Later on he gives the source of this equivocation, and hence of the consequent sophistry, as “carelessness”:

We should accustom ourselves to think and reason, in precise and steadfast terms; even when custom, or the deficiency, or the corruption of the language will not permit the same strictness in speaking. The mathematician finds this so necessary to the truths which he is seeking, that his science begins with, and is founded on, the definition of his terms. The botanist, the chemist, the anatomist, &c., feel and submit to this necessity at all costs, even at the risk of exposing their several pursuits to the ridicule of the many, by technical terms, hard to be remembered, and alike quarrelsome to the ear and the tongue. In the business of moral and religious reflection, in the acquisition of clear and distinct conceptions of our duties, and of the relations in which we stand to God, our neighbour and ourselves, no such difficulties occur. At the utmost we have only to rescue words, already existing and familiar, from the false or vague meanings imposed on them by carelessness, or by the clipping and debasing misusage of the market. (Prudential Aphorism VI[5]In the 1831 edition, there are only four Prudential Aphorisms. This text was retained, however, as part of a long Comment on Aphorism I., p. 20)

The two sides remain Scottish–French and German, and the mutual terms of criticism (or of abuse) remain the same. On the one hand, Ferrier charges Coleridge with a lazy failure to take on the difficult task of intelligibility (i.e., with the vice now usually called, by philosophers, “self-indulgence”). On the other hand, Coleridge charges his opponents with acquiescence in a careless use of traditional words, one that allows them to drift away from their precise meanings and hence erases the conceptual distinctions needed for clear thought and reasoning on the most important subjects. And this continuity is striking, because the sound of the antagonists on each side, and their way with words, has changed greatly. Hamilton and Ferrier positively bristle with technical terms, many of them neologisms — Ferrier, for example, appears to have more or less invented the term “epistemology.”[6]See Wikipedia and (behind a paywall) the OED. Coleridge, meanwhile, even in his prose works, sounds not very much like Kant or (except when plagiarizing) like Schelling, and, although he doesn’t hesitate to lapse in Latin or Greek at the slightest excuse, still the words that most interest him are not technical terms of Scholasticism, but rather good old English words like “reason,” “spirit,” “happiness,” and “freedom” — words whose precise, uncorrupted use is supposed to be found in older Anglican theologians like Hooker and Leighton.

This pattern becomes even more striking when we turn to the next generation of the conflict, which unfolded in New England. Brown, evidently, was, in that context, the philosopher to beat. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who happens to be a distant relative[7]To be precise, he and I are first cousins five times removed. My daughter, Elana Laurence Higginson Stone, is named partly in his honor.), describes Brown’s central place in the education of the young Margaret Fuller:

At this time [viz., at the age of fifteen] she lived, as always, a busy life, — rose before five in summer, walked an hour, practiced an hour on the piano, breakfasted at seven, read Sismondi’s “European Literature” in French till eight, then Brown’s “Philosophy”[8]Meaning, presumably, his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind. till half past nine, then went to school for Greek at twelve, then practiced again till dinner. (Margaret Fuller Ossoli [4th edition, Boston: 1885[9]Part of a series called (you can’t make this stuff up!): “American Men of Letters.”], p. 23)

James Marsh, meanwhile, in his “Preliminary Essay” on Coleridge, appoints Brown spokesman for the entire school dominant school (“Locke and the Scottish metaphysicians”), and, after criticizing their views on both the nature–spirit distinction (namely: that they make no “essential” distinction at all) and on the meaning of “free-will” (namely: that they treat it as a species of necessity), concludes:

I feel authorized to take this statement partly from Brown’s philosophy, because that work has been decidedly approved by our highest theological authorities; and indeed it would not be essentially varied, if expressed in the precise terms used by any of the writers most usually quoted in reference to these subjects. (“Preliminary Essay,” in Aids to Reflection, pp. xxx)

His principal complaint against Brown (and, through Brown, against all those he stands for) is the same old complaint, that, by allowing originally precise terms to drift into vague, diluted meanings, they make it impossible to write, read, or think the important distinctions that are needed for morality and religion:

Let us suppose, for example, that a man has studied and adopted the philosophy of Brown, is it possible for him to interpret the 8th chapter of Romans,[10]Beginning: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” without having his views of its meaning influenced by his philosophy? Would he not unavoidably interpret the language and explain the doctrines, which it contains, differently from one, who should have adopted such views of the human mind, as are taught in this work [i.e., in Aids to Reflection]? (pp. xxi–ii)

Then, on the other hand, he finds it necessary to defend Coleridge against objections to his “peculiarities of language,” using terms very similar to Kant’s:

In the very nature of things it is impossible for a writer to express by a single Word any truth, or to mark any distinction, not recognized in the language of his day, unless he adopts a word entirely new, or gives to one already in use a new and more peculiar sense. Now in communicating truths, which the writer deems of great and fundamental importance, shall he thus appropriate a single word old or new, or trust to the vagueness of perpetual circumlocution? Admitting for example, the existence of the important distinction, for which this writer contends, between the understanding and reason, and that this distinction, when recognized at all, is confounded in the common use of language by employing the words indiscriminately, shall he still use these words indiscriminately, and either invent a new word, or mark the distinction by descriptive circumlocutions, or shall he assign a more distinctive and precise meaning to the words already used? It seems to me obviously more in accordance with the laws and genius of language to take the course, which he has adopted. But in this case and in many others, where his language seems peculiar, it.cannot be denied that the words had already been employed in the same sense, and the same distinctions recognized, by the older and many of the most distinguished writers in the language. (p. xlvii–iii)

Thus are the two sides, Scottish vs. German, transplanted to America.[11]The status of France had meanwhile begun to change, thanks to Hamilton’s friend, Victor Cousin. Here, perhaps, is the original seed of our own distinction between Anglophone and Continental philosophy. It would have seemed bizarre in the early 19th century, when the most important philosophical border ran between Germany and France.

Fuller, though in the Scottish camp at age fifteen, was, by the time we know of her as a thinker and a writer, a Transcendentalist. That is (in case her work in translating Goethe and von Arnim didn’t make this clear): she had gone over to the Germans.[12]The word “transcendentalism,” incidentally — a term that occurs sometimes in Fichte, but not, as far as I know, in Kant or the other German Idealists — was introduced into English in Brown’s review of Villers: even Brown, we see, was not above a neologism now and then. See (still behind that paywall) the OED. As Higginson puts it:

And sharing also the drawbacks, she also shared inevitably the prejudices that her companions inspired. These prejudices might be divided into two general heads; it was thought that they were unintelligible and it was said — if this was not indeed the same allegation — that they were German. It is now difficult to recall the peculiar suspicion that was attached to any one in America, forty years ago, who manifested much interest in German thought. Immanuel Kant is now claimed as a corner-stone of religion by evangelical divines,[13]Quomodo ceciderunt fortes. but he was then thought to be more dangerous than any French novelist. (Margaret Fuller Ossoli, pp. 282–3)

But, of course, Fuller and the other Transcendentalists don’t sound very much at all like Kant, or even Coleridge. Brackett describes very well the difficulty of her style:

Even in the later writings, where it is more easy to catch the thought, the inexhaustible flow of metaphor and illustrations keeps one continually on the alert. In this she reminds one of Shakespeare. The figures and illustrations tumble over each other and trip each other up, while in the unquestioning demand which she makes upon the previous information of her readers she is not unlike Carlyle. (Brackett, “Margaret Fuller Ossoli,” The Radical 9 (1872):354–370, p. 360)

There are two parts to this characterization. The first part, in which Brackett compares her to Shakespeare, could also well be said about Emerson. That Shakespeare is very difficult, when regarded as a philosopher, can easily be verified by reading Cavell’s work about him. But his difficulty, like Emerson’s or Thoreau’s, is not of a kind that prevents us from assigning his works to high school students. It is, therefore, not the kind D’Alembert meant to rule out in metaphysics. Indeed, D’Alembert actually compares good metaphysics to good drama:

One can say in a sense of metaphysics that everyone knows it or no one, or to speak more accurately, that everyone is ignorant of that which not everyone can know. There are works of this kind, such as plays; the impression fails [est manquée] when it is not general. (loc. cit.)

Of philosophy that is difficult in this way, one can hardly say, as Kant says of his critical philosophy, that it “can never become popular, but also has no necessity of being so” (Bxxxiv). As Fuller herself writes about Shakespeare — or at least, she has her recurring character, Aglauron,[14]In another dialogue, she describes Aglauron thus: “Aglauron is a person of far greater depth and force than his friend and cousin [Laurie, the other character], but by no means as agreeable. His mind is ardent and powerful, rather than brilliant and ready, — neither does he with ease adapt himself to the course of another. But, when he is once kindled, the blaze of light casts every object on which it falls into a bold relief, and gives every scene a lustre unknown before. He is not, perhaps, strictly original in his thoughts; but the severe truth of his character, and the searching force of his attention, give the charm of originality to what he says. Accordingly, another cannot, by repetition, do it justice. I have never any doubt when I write down or tell what Laurie says, but Aglauron must write for himself.” There is some complex joke here. “Laurie” sounds like it could be a female name, but the character is male. “Aglauron” sounds like a male name, and the character is supposedly male, but the Greek name ῎Αγλαυρος is actually female. Possibly the meaning is that Aglauron “must write for himself” because “he” is actually Fuller (the American Man of Letters!). say this:

Were I, despite the bright points so numerous in their history and the admonitions of my own conscience, inclined to despise my fellow men, I should have found abundant argument against it during this late study of Hamlet. In the streets, saloons, and lecture rooms, we continually hear comments so stupid, insolent, and shallow on great and beautiful works, that we are tempted to think that there is no Public for anything that is good. . . .  Of Shakspeare, so vaunted a name, little wise or worthy has been written, perhaps nothing so adequate as Coleridge’s comparison of him to the Pine-apple; yet on reading Hamlet, his greatest work, we find there is not a pregnant sentence, scarce a word that men have not appreciated, have not used in myriad ways. Had we never read the play, we should find the whole of it from quotation and illustration familiar to us as air. That exquisite phraseology, so heavy with meaning, wrought out with such admirable minuteness, has become a part of literary diction, the stock of the literary bank; and what set criticism can tell like this fact how great was the work, and that men were worthy it should be addressed to them? (“Dialogue,” Papers on Literature and Art, p.163; this passage is quoted by Higginson, pp. 291–2)

And as for the other part of Brackett’s characterization, concerning the demands Fuller makes on “the previous information of her readers”: this also does not apply to Kant, at least, not in the way Brackett presumably intends it. What Fuller assumes about her audience is not a certain more or less Scholastic education, but rather a broad knowledge of European art and literature, and a familiarity with the lives of famous European personages, from Ireland to Russia. Stewart is actually closer to this than Kant.

So here we have a dispute about something — some issue concerning the nature of philosophical clarity, and the correct use of words in philosophy, a dispute which is perceived by the (mostly English speaking) antagonists as somehow entangled with national differences. The dispute is never explained, and would be hard to explain, in a general way, and yet it visibly persists for generations while the philosophical systems on each side, and even the overall styles of philosophical writing, shift beneath it. All of which should sound familiar.

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