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CHILDHOOD OF EXPERIMENTAL PHILOSOPHY.
The philosophy of the present day wears a pre-eminently prospective
character. Its dealings are more with the future than with the past. Its title is onward, its character progressive, its aspirations are for to-morrow rather than for to-day. A very little acquaintance with the temper of the philosophic mind of our time teaches us this; and such is in truth the natural consequence of events. Men are not satisfied with their present attainments, and the eye of the scientific is ever on the stretchgazing into the clouded futurity. Every fresh disclosure of the beforehidden wonders of the natural world is an incentive to fresh investigation. Science is ever adding to the height of her watch-tower, and as she stands upon a higher point of observation, is ever revealing some new and hitherto unknown object for inquiry. It might be thought that the development of natural knowledge--for such is the object of science - would leave continually less and less for discovery. The marvel is, that it is precisely the reverse.
Because we know, we come to know more; and the more we come to know, the more remains to be known. Our philosophers are not men who stop to comment upon what is past, or who are satisfied with what is present. They are men who stretch towards things before them, and whose sympathies are all in one direction, and that of advance. Do we ask why? Then the reply must be, because philosophy has ceased to be a system of abstractions and speculations; because it is inductive and experimental. These very terms imply progress. No man can be an experimenter and not advance, provided that his experiments are based upon sound principles, and have a right object in view. And experiment leads to induction, and induction anew to experiment, and both to progress. While such is the character of the scientific mind, it is little to be expected that it will patiently sit down to the study of things gone by. There was a time when philosophy consisted in little else than a blind system of adoration for antiquity. After the first great achievements,' to quote the just and elegant language of Professor Whewell, of the founders of sound speculation, in the different departments of human knowledge, had attracted the interest and admiration which those who became acquainted with them could not but give to them, there appeared a disposition among men to lean on the authority of some of these teachers; to study the opinions of others as the only mode of forming their own; to read nature through books; to attend to what had been already thought and said, rather than to what No. 76.
really is and happens. This tendency of men's minds gave a peculiar bias and direction to the intellectual activity of many centuries; and the kind of labour with which speculative men were occupied in consequence of this bias took the place of that examination of realities which must be their employment in order that real knowledge may make any decided progress.' Yet while it may no longer form a part of our duty as men of science to deal with the fabulous lore and imperfect views of truth which obscure the past history of philosophy, the attempt to do so will not prove unprofitable. We must not adore, but we should not contemn antiquity. There may not be anything that is new in the past, but there is much that is both interesting and instructive. To some gleanings from the history of philosophy which appear to bear this character, the subject in hand invites our attention. In the history of an eminent individual, biographers delight to trace indications of his future talents and excellences during childhood. His boyish feats, his aspirations, his early masteries of difficulty, have all a peculiar interest, as evidence of the germs of qualities which in afterlife became so highly developed. If such the interest attaching to the early history of one philosopher, that which appertains to the history of philosophy itself is surely greater. We have undertaken, then, to speak of philosophy when, like music,
• The heavenly maid was young;' to narrate some anecdotes of her childish freaks, some of her frolics, and some of those early traces of excellency and accuracy which we now behold displayed in such admirable proportions in the full-grown science. Let the reader pay attention to our account of the childhood of philosophy, if he would learn how the child was 'father to the man.' The time preceding the birth, if we may term it, of experimental and inductive philosophy deserves, however, a passing notice at our hands.
Had philosophy no existence during the middle ages ? for to this dark interval in history our thoughts are to be directed. It existed but in a commentatorial, not an experimental form. There is a distinction now drawn between a learned man and a philosopher : the latter is an experimentalist, the former a man of books. But at the time of which we speak, learned men, in our present sense of the term, were the only philosophers, and philosophy was consequently learning rather than experiment-doctrine rather than fact. Lord Bacon, in the following pithy sentence, gives us an admirable account of the state of knowledge and of its character during this period : 'It is barren in effects, fruitful in questions, slow and languid in its improvement-exhibiting in its generality the counterfeit of perfection, but ill-fitted up in its details—popular in its choice, but suspected by its very promoters, and therefore bolstered up and countenanced with artifices. A large number of books existed, but an attentive examination of them will shew that they were entirely fabricated out of other books. Everywhere are innumerable repetitions of the same statements, adopted without hesitation, and without a moment's inquiry into their truth. So that, as the great founder of experimental philosophy has well observed, although at first sight 'they appear numerous, they are found upon examination to be but scanty.' Bacon set a right estimate upon them in speaking thus severely; for a book that is a copy of another is but the same book after all. Philosophy and the intellectual sciences were compared to statues—they were adored and celebrated, but were not made to advance. In truth, the necessity for advance had not appeared to have entered into the conceptions of men. It is little less than extraordinary to remark upon the blind idolatry with which received opinions were regarded. That man was a bold one who dared to question what Aristotle had said or Plato taught, and little less than a maniac he who would attempt to overturn the fables of those time-honoured founders of philosophy by an appeal to living nature or demonstrable fact. Philosophy, such as it was, had no selfreliance, but leaned entirely upon authorities whose day had long gone by. The range of discovery was consequently extremely limited, and consisted only of a few minor improvements in things already known. As in former ages (says Bacon), when men at sea had only to steer by their observation of the stars, they were indeed enabled to coast the shores of the continent or some small and inland seas; but before they could traverse the ocean and discover the regions of a new world it was necessary that the use of the compass—a more sure and certain guide on their voyage—should be first known; even so the present discoveries in the arts and sciences are such as might be found out by meditation, observation, and discussion, as being more open to the senses, and lying immediately beneath our common notions ; but before we are allowed to enter the more remote and hidden parts of nature, it is necessary that a better and more perfect use and application of the human mind and understanding should be introduced. The natural effect of such a method of pursuing philosophical studies may be readily anticipated. Men's minds became poor, servile, imitative, and large thoughts and searching inquiries became exchanged for a narrowspirited adherence to ancient opinions and ideas. In physical science this was most conspicuously evident; for this is a science dependent upon experiment and induction—upon observation rather than memory. Experimenters, remarks an able writer, were replaced by commentators ; criticism took the place of induction; and instead of great discoverers, we had learned men.
An admirable illustration of the temper then characterising the philosophic mind is given in the following sentences which form the conclusion of a lecture-one of a course upon Euclid, delivered at Oxford : Gentlemen hearers, I have performed my promise, I have redeemed my pledge, I have explained according to my ability the definitions, postulates, axioms, and first eight propositions of the Elements of Euclid. Here, sinking under the weight of years, I lay down my art and instruments. As if all that could be known were attained, and that the occupation of the student were rather the laborious investigation of the discoveries of the ancients than the search after new objects of study and revelations of truth. Aristotle was natural history, Plato philosophy, Euclid mathematics.
Such was the philosophy of the middle ages—a system of comments, compilations, imitations, abstracts, and epitomes. But this was not all. This philosophy was dogmatic and mystical. This was the result proper to a system such as we have described it to be. None can lend themselves to be servants to other men's opinions in matters of science, and to regard such opinions as infallible, without receiving the ultimate impress of mysticism and dogmatism upon their own minds. The servility, remarks
Professor Whewell, which had yielded itself to the yoke insisted upon forcing it on the necks of others; the subtlety which found all truth in certain accredited (philosophical) writings, resolved that no one should find there, or in any other region, any other truths. Speculative men became tyrants without ceasing to be slaves ; to their character of commentators they added that of dogmatists. To their dogmatism we may add-mysticism. When men receive their views of truth not directly from the external world, but exclusively through other men, what result more certain than an indistinctness of mental vision?. And such an indistinctness of ideas is closely allied to mysticism. The mystic element had long tinged the speculations of philosophy, and now lent its colour to every department of science. External things were not viewed, as happily they are now viewed, as simple, intelligible, natural things, influenced, under the divine guidance and control, by certain causes and producing certain results. All was wrapped in mystery. The creatures of an imaginary mythology were not confined to the fields and woods, to the air and water; they were presumed to have to do with the operations of the study and laboratory. The chemist looked at his results through this mystical atmosphere, and lost himself in a maze of unreal speculations. Physical science became magic, and the simple interpretation of nature was exchanged for a method of regarding things full of mystical vagaries. It was a time of darkness without, and men peopled the gloom with innumerable spiritual beings who were thought to be more or less connected with the everyday operations of the external world. It was the ghost-time of philosophy, and nature was wrapped in a portentous but impenetrable haze.. - This notice of philosophy antecedent to the time of which we are to speak could not be omitted. It has a close and intimate connection with the childhood of experimental science. The commentatorial, dogmatic, and mystical philosophy of the middle ages can scarcely be said to have been the parent of the philosophy which took its place, and the blessings and light of which we are now privileged to enjoy. It was contrary to the course of things to suppose that experimental philosophy could have sprung full-grown into the world, and that her predecessor should have departed, leaving no trace behind. The system was about to undergo a great and vital change, but the men were the same. Old notions are not soon changed for new ones, and no revolution, however complete, can entirely efface' the long-enduring traces of a former time. Therefore, though it may not be allowed that the half-blind and superstitious philosophy, of the middle ages was the parent of the clear-sighted and intellectual philosophy which has succeeded it, because we find, as we shall find, traces of the features of the former in the childish traits of the latter, yet its evident connection with it is sufficiently well marked and interesting to deserve our consideration.
We have described the period preceding the birth of experimental philosophy as a time of darkness; but it was not the darkness of the evening: it was that darkness which precedes the dawn. The early part of the seventeenth century may be taken as the period in question. We should do grievous wrong, however, to a far-seeing and thoroughly philosophical mind, were we to omit to mention that, even in the darkness of the night now about to be dissipated, no ray of light had existed. As early as 1214 Roger Bacon first pointed out the path into which the investigator after natural knowledge ought to direct his steps. There are two methods of knowing, he says——that by argument, and that by experiment. Of these argument is dogmatic, but does not assure the mind or remove its doubts, so that it may rest in full assurance of the truth, unless it is confirmed by experience. And he proceeds by an illustration to shew the impossibility of mere talk to convince and settle the mind as to physical truth. But the efforts of this philosopher, for such in reality he was, were barren of fruit. Others existed after Bacon into whose minds gleams of truth darted; yet down to the time in question, in spite of all the efforts of those thus illuminated,
· We are able only to survey
Dawnings of beams and proinises of day.' About the middle of the previous century—the sixteenth-evidences of a struggling after the development of scientific knowledge were afforded by the establishment of various academies, among the earliest of which was one instituted by Porta. This academy held its meetings at Porta's own house at Naples, and its title sufficiently manifests the spirit of its members. Its name was Academia Secretorum Naturæ; its object the interpretation of the so-called secrets of the natural world. The date of the establishment of this association for the advancement of science was 1560. In the following year Porta, benefiting perhaps by the communications of his visitors, published a work entitled De Miraculis rerum Naturalium.' None were admitted to the meetings of this Academy di Secreti who were not celebrated for some attainment, or discoverers of some secrets. What was the nature of these meetings—what the subjects for their discussionmay sometimes be gathered from Porta's own works. Unquestionably they were full of the marvellous. Whether it was the title of the academy, or rumours of the extraordinary experiments exhibited by Porta to his assembled guests that attracted the notice of the Romish powers, we are unable to state. It was soon, however, made evident to Porta and his fellow-philosophers that such studies would not be allowed, and the Academy di Secreti was formally abolished by the pope. In Sicily also, academies for the advancement of learning were beginning to be formed at the same time, under the whimsical titles of The Drunken, The Rekindled, The Grieved, The Sympathetic, The Intrepid, and others. In a short time a number of other places caught the infection, and in many cities and towns several academies were quickly formed. Tiraboschi has given a list of no fewer than 171 academies instituted about this time for the cultivation of literature and science, independent of the universities. The titles of some of these societies,' writes Mr Weld,* are extremely curious, and in many instances ludicrous. Thus we have: The Inflammable, The Pensive, The Intrepid, The Humorists, The Unripe, The Drowsy, The Rough, The Dispirited, The Solitary, The Fiery, The Lyncean (of which Galileo was a member), and the Della Crusca-literally, of the bran or chaff, in allusion to its great object, which was to sift the flour of language from the bran. This celebrated academy, founded at Florence in 1582 for the purpose of purifying the national tongue, and which published the first edition of its well-known
* History of the Royal Society.