The Metaphysical Problem,
With Special Reference to its Bearing Upon Ethics

By A. E. Taylor

It is, I conceive, becoming for a society like ours, on the occasion of its first constitution, to take a somewhat wider and more discursive survey of the general field of thought within which it proposes to labor than we should naturally expect in its subsequent discussions. Such a survey, even though it should add little or nothing to our positive knowledge of any one department of our subject, will yet have its serious use if it affords any sort of common basis of agreement as to the first principles from which we may, in the future, proceed to the more special and detailed study of particular questions. I would, therefore, invite your attention, this evening, to the following question: What is the general character of the problem which Metaphysical Philosophy has to solve, and how is that problem related to the special subject-matter of Moral Philosophy? We shall perhaps be most directly provided with an answer to this question by a consideration of the difference between the teaching of Ancient and of Modern Metaphysics as to the scope and method of philosophical inquiry.

“What is the general character of the problem which Metaphysical Philosophy has to solve, and how is that problem related to the special subject-matter of Moral Philosophy?”

It is, of course, little better than a truism to say that the characteristic which, in the eyes of a modern student, is most prominent in all Greek Metaphysics is its “realism” or “objectivity.” Aristotle’s definition of “First Philosophy” as the “Science of Being qua Being” is hardly less applicable to all other systems of Greek constructive thought than to his own. In the ancient as in the modern world there were both sceptics and dogmatists, but dogmatist and sceptic were in substantial accord as to the nature of the task imposed upon philosophical thinking. The philosopher was expected, if a dogmatist, to present a positive account of the contents of the Universe of Real Existence, or, if a sceptic, to be ready with his proofs that such an account cannot |353| be rendered. In a word, the tacit assumption of Greek thought from first to last was that the immediate object of philosophical investigation is “that which is,” and that Philosophy rests — to use an ugly but convenient word — on Ontology. The sceptics of the ancient world, of course, denied that such a thing as Ontology is possible, but for that very reason they went on to deny the possibility of any genuine knowledge, and to obliterate every distinction between a true and a false assertion. That knowledge, if there is such a thing as knowledge, must be knowledge of “what is” the sceptics no more than the dogmatists dreamed of disputing.

Hence, the constant aim of Greek metaphysicians was to find in the world of objectively real existences some distinguishing mark by which “the things which are” may be known from those that only “become.” To have begun the work of philosophy from the other end by starting with the fact that something is experienced, and then working back from what is felt to what is, would have been opposed to the methodological traditions which governed Greek philosophy from its rise in Miletus to its ultimate evanescence in the mystical schools of Alexandria and Athens. Now, it is characteristic of modern Philosophy that it is precisely at this “other end” of the stick that it begins its examination of the metaphysical problem. Instead of starting with the assumption that we all have a recognisable and well-defined concept of “Being,” and then going on to ask what object or objects in our experience answer to this notion of true “Being,” modern Philosophy starts with the simpler and more concrete notion of something as felt or consciously experienced, and if it discusses the meaning of “Being” at all, it is with a view to defining Being in terms of felt or experienced fact.1 Thus, if ancient Philosophy may be called radically objective, modern Philosophy must be spoken of as fundamentally subjective. The one starts with a theory about Reality and works down to a theory of knowledge; the other |354| starts with an examination of experience and seeks to find, within experience itself, a criterion for distinguishing Reality from mere Appearance. And, hence, if the most “ideal” of ancient philosophers is at heart a realist, the most realistic of modern systems may fairly be called “idealistic” by comparison with the ancients.2

This subjective trend of modern Philosophy already reveals itself in the clearest colors in the work of its great originator, Descartes. It is characteristic of Descartes’ position as the first thoroughly modern thinker that he seeks the point of departure for his whole metaphysical theory within and not outside consciousness. Instead of beginning with a question as to the marks by which “Being” may be distinguished from “Becoming,” Descartes starts his inquiry with a question as to the marks by which certainty may be known from guess-work. The central reality of his system of philosophy is not the ὄντως ὃν {ontos on = ‘being’ or ‘that which is’} of Plato and Aristotle, but the “clear and distinct idea,” which cannot be distrusted without distrusting the evidence of our own existence. Modern Philosophy thus from its outset has treated experience itself, and not some more or less external and independent reality, as the ultimate fact from which all philosophic reasoning must set out.

The experiential character thus stamped upon modern Philosophy in its cradle was, I need hardly say, equally prominent in the treatment of philosophical questions by our great English writers from Locke to Hume. Whatever we may think of the results of Locke and Hume, there can be no mistaking the nature of the problem they set before themselves, which was to base a constructive philosophy upon an impartial analysis of the contents of experience. How much they accomplished in this direction, and how surely British philosophy in the pre-Kantian era was, even in its errors, marching toward the goal of an experiential Metaphysics, will be best understood by a reader who, having first studied in the school of a scientific |355| Psychology, will give a sympathetic hearing to Hume’s analysis of causation and personal identity, without regard to those strange misconceptions of Hume’s argument and meaning which the almost universal acceptance of a modified Kantianism rendered current among our metaphysical writers of ten or twenty years ago.

The philosophical departure initiated by Kant and ended by Hegel must, I conceive, with all its attractions, be regarded by the impartial critic as a splendid attempt to divert philosophical speculation from its true problem and proper method. Kant may, in fact, be not inaptly regarded as a philosophical Moses who has led out three generations of metaphysicians into a desert whence his successors have headed, not for a land of promise, but rather for a gorgeous city of mirage and illusion, as dazzling and as unsubstantial as the “cloud-cuckoo-town” of the Attic comedian. In Kant’s own hands, perhaps partly because of his Scottish heredity, Philosophy was by no means altogether wrested from her proper subject-matter and appropriate method. In insisting, against the inadequate Associationist assumptions of Hume, that the contents of human experience exhibit an organic structure for which mere Association is powerless to account, Kant was indeed carrying on the work of analyzing experience beyond the point at which Hume had left it, by exposing the baseless character of certain assumptions which had been allowed to vitiate Hume’s own analytical inquiries.

But, unfortunately for Philosophy, Kant was not content with the recognition of organic structure as a fundamental characteristic of knowledge. By assigning the formal structure of experience to a source independent of its material data, and by attempting to discover the complete system of its structural forms otherwise than by the analysis of experience itself, Kant inevitably prepared the way for the theory of younger and hotter heads than his own, that human reflection is capable of assigning, in anticipation and in independence of the analysis of concrete types of experience, a complete system of the forms or categories in which experience is compelled by some logical necessity to appear.

From Kant’s “Critiques” the transition was an easy one to the “Logic” of Hegel, with its audacious |356| claim to construe a priori the “nature of God,” or in other words, to prescribe to experience a series of successive forms into which it must fall, no matter what its contents.3 It should scarcely be necessary at the present time to repudiate for philosophy any such pretensions to the possession of knowledge acquired by some directer and diviner way than that of painstaking analysis of the concrete contents of our experience. The categories of the Hegelian Logic, moreover, have long ago been discredited to a degree which makes it at least remarkable that they should be supposed in any quarter still to have a character to lose. It has been shown that, except by means of a constant covert reference to those concrete experiences which the logic professedly disregards as trifles unworthy of the attention of a philosopher, the logical evolution of category from category cannot be carried out and, in every department of specialized knowledge to which the method has been applied, the supposed necessary procession of stages and concepts has already become patently inadequate to the present state of our information.

It will be time to reconsider the claims of the Hegelian Logic when some competent historian confesses himself content with the account of Greek philosophical development, some competent sociologist with the account of the evolution of religion, or some competent physicist with the account of physical processes yielded by the infallible method. The Hegelian philosophy seems for these reasons, in many respects, more akin to ancient than to modern philosophical procedure. With all its imposing regularity of form and wealth of pointed aphorism and apt illustration, it is the creation of a mind of what one may call the scholastic type; a mind furnished, indeed, with vast stores of information and endowed with singular penetration, but at the same time far too profoundly dominated by the passion for systematization |357| to be trusted as an unprejudiced analyzer of experience.

The Hegelian Logic may, perhaps, be said to be the fullest expression in modern, as Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” was in ancient literature, of the conviction that the world as it really is is a system with an organic structure of its own. What we, from the special stand-point of modern thought, find wanting in both Aristotle and Hegel is the further conviction that every element in the structure of that system is itself ultimately matter of experience. It is not the quality of being a coherent system merely, but the quality of being a system which in all its parts contains experience and nothing but experience that a philosophy which starts from consciousness and experience needs to take as its ultimate standard of truth and of reality.

We are thus led, in pursuance of the trend of thought first initiated by Descartes’ substitution of consciousness for “being” as the central point of philosophic discussion, to conceive of Metaphysics or First Philosophy as consisting in the attempt to discover the nature of Reality, as distinguished from Illusion, by the analysis of experience in its full concrete character. The chief thought which will serve as our guide in the treatment of metaphysical questions from this point of view is that the structural forms revealed by the analysis of human knowledge, at any level of development, must themselves be regarded as having grown out of previous experience, and as being conditioned by the material character of the experiences on which they are founded.

“Our guide in the treatment of metaphysical questions … is that the structural forms revealed by the analysis of human knowledge, at any level of development, must themselves be regarded as having grown out of previous experience, and as being conditioned by the material character of the experiences on which they are founded. ”

We may, perhaps, illustrate this conception of the relation of form to content in our knowledge by the very similar relation between the structural peculiarities of a physiological organism and its material environment. The reactions of any organic type against stimulus may be said to be ultimately conditioned by two sets of circumstances, the congenital peculiarities of the organism itself and the special character of the relevant elements in its surroundings. The modification of either set of conditions at once leads to a corresponding modification of the resultant reactions. A cat will not behave in the presence of stimuli in exactly the same manner as a dog, nor a neglected and half-wild dog in the same manner as a domesticated and well-nourished one. Here |358| we have an exact physiological analogue of the relation between form and matter in a piece of human knowledge.

The physiological organization corresponds precisely to the organized structure or frame-work of apperceptive categories into which a novel piece of information has to be fitted, the various stimuli from the external environment to the fresh pieces of perceptual experience which this frame-work assimilates. And, as in all cases of “apperception,” the act of assimilation affects both the interrelated elements. Just as the new piece of perceptual experience acquires added significance by being brought under some familiar category, so the category itself (e.g., that of “cause") derives a modification of meaning from being made to embrace the fresh case or set of cases.

The mistake committed by Associationist disciples of Locke in supposing that the actual shape which our knowledge takes can be accounted for by the perceptual factor only would be precisely matched or caricatured if one could come across a physiological theory ascribing all differences in reaction upon stimulus exclusively to the difference between the surroundings of one animal and those of another. Similarly, the Kantian assumption of a typical human mind fitted out, in anticipation of experience, so as to think by the aid of twelve given categories and no more affords a precise parallel to the pre-Darwinian notion of an original creation of a definite number of fully characterized animal species.

But now mark a further point. Though, in accounting for the varying behavior of an organism when confronted with various stimuli, we have to reckon with two distinct interacting factors, those two factors are not ultimately independent of one another as to origin. For, on the one hand, the congenital peculiarities of the organism in question are held to be immediately due to variations of germ-plasm, which are themselves, in part at least, known to be conditioned by features of the environment, e.g., the nutritive condition of the parent organism at the time of fertilization, and, on the other hand, the character of the environment itself is frequently conditioned by the fact that it has in the past served as environment to this special class of organism. Thus, insects fertilize by preference flowers of certain colors; this leads |359| to intensification of those particular colors, and this presumably in turn to still more energetic preference of these flowers for fertilization. Sheep turned out to graze upon the waterless plains of Australia are said to modify the character of the soil in the direction of more permanent retention of moisture, and this in turn is likely to affect the behavior and the fortunes of future flocks of sheep inhabiting the same pastures.

And when you come to deal with any department of human life, it is still more manifest that the environment into which each of us is born is immeasurably different, even as regards its purely physical aspects, from what it would have been had not England or America served for countless generations as the environment of human lives. The patent break-down of the attempts to determine a priori, from the mere notion of organic structure, what the specific structural forms of correct thinking and true knowledge ought to be, as well as the character of all our positive experience of the differences between various grades of intelligence, irresistibly suggests that this relation between germinal variation and environment has its analogue in the relation between form and matter in the organized whole of human knowledge and experience.4 We are clearly bidden to assume, at least as a working hypothesis that the structural forms or categories (to keep to the traditional name), according to which the human mind, at various levels of intelligence, groups its experiences, are themselves conditioned by the character of previous experience.

From this point of view any such structural form, on its |360| first emergence, would be something qualitatively new, and therefore incapable of being analyzed into a mere combination, in accordance with the laws of Association, of pre-existing materials. At the same time, though unanalyzable into such a combination, it would owe both its existence and its quality to pre-existing elements of form and of material data. Whether the appearance of such a qualitatively new structural form or category be supposed to take place within the experience of a single individual, or to be brought about in the course of generations by the influence of natural selection in preserving advantageous and eliminating disadvantageous germinal variations is a further question which has no bearing upon our present argument.5

The point of immediate moment is for us to see that if such a view, which I believe to have been held in an undeveloped form by no less a philosopher than Aristotle,6 be correct, two very important inferences can be drawn as to the true nature of the problem and method of Metaphysics, The first is that sober Metaphysics can have nothing to do in future with any such attempt, as that made by Kant in his table of categories, to draw up once and for all a complete system of such structural forms possessing universal validity and applicability to all grades of thought and experience. Even within the limits of our own human experience, structural forms will themselves be relative to the special material of which experience, at any level of intelligence and in any department of inquiry, is composed, and hence the “categories” of one race and age may be widely different from those of another. To the Greek mind, for instance, it appeared self-evident that in every case of interaction between two objects |361| one must be “active” and the other “passive"; to minds like our own, brought up under the influence, to a greater or less degree, of modern mechanical conceptions of the conservation and transference of energy, the distinction appears useless or even meaningless.7

“Metaphysics is … the only science which approaches the range of human experience in its entirety without any preconception as to what it is going to find.… Every other science begins its investigations … with assumptions … which seriously affect the value of subsequently obtained results.”

It is by the analysis of the concrete experiences in question, and by such analysis only, not by any a priori activity of pure thought, nor by any appeal to the classifications of logical text-books, that the structural forms, or apperceptive systems, or “categories” requisite for the organization of any body of human experience must be detected. In the absence of the experience no amount of ingenious speculation will enable the category to be discovered beforehand. As already suggested in a footnote to a previous page, modern physiological and anatomical science has already provided us with a category — that of “organism” — undetected so recently as a century ago, even by the genius of a Kant. It is true, no doubt, that the notion of “organic unity” already appears in Schelling and Hegel; but its appearance there confirms our view of the matter; for it is intimately connected with the interest in biological discoveries which is so characteristic of both those philosophers as contrasted with Kant. And it would be at least presumptuous to deny that future scientific research — physical, biological, and sociological — may lead to the formulation of new categories lying as far beyond the scope of our present philosophizing as those mechanical and biological concepts which have become familiar to ourselves lay beyond the purview of Aristotle.

So far, then, as this, Mr. Shadworth Hodgson seems to be conceiving of the fundamental problem of Metaphysics with perfect accuracy when he lays it down that the task of metaphysical philosophy is the analysis of experience without assumptions. Indeed, we should be justified in going further, and maintaining that genuine Metaphysics is not only an experiential science, but the only science which in the fullest sense is entitled to that name. For it is the |362| only science which approaches the range of human experience in its entirety without any preconception as to what it is going to find; unless, indeed, the assumption made by every science as a provisional hypothesis, that our search after knowledge will probably meet with some result, be regarded as such a pre-conception. Every other science begins its investigations into experience with assumptions either as to its scope or its quality which seriously affect the value of subsequently obtained results.

Physical science of all kinds, for instance, apparently begins with the assumption that the material of which experience is composed is something possessing at least the characteristics of spatial form, extension, and movement. Whatever does not possess, or cannot be seen by us to possess, these characteristics, is, ex hypothesi, excluded from such a survey of the field of experience as is taken by strictly physical science, either permanently or until it has been discovered to possess these properties. Hence it follows that physical science, aided by the most painstaking observations and the most delicate methods of exact measurement, can never succeed in describing more than a fragment even of those experiences upon which its conclusions are based. Thus, you may work through a book on chemistry or electricity almost without discovering that there are such things as human thoughts or desires or emotions. And yet, if the full and complete description of the experiences involved in the performance of a chemical experiment could ever be obtained, we should find side by side with the facts and relations symbolized by the conventional signs of the chemist other facts, such as the hopes and fears, the anticipations and apprehensions of the experimenter, which require for their description an entirely new terminology of a non-physical kind, and positively refuse to submit themselves to any process of direct physical measurement.

In other words, chemistry and the other physical sciences deal only with one aspect of the experiences which they analyze and describe, to the total exclusion of another equally real and no less important aspect. For the purposes of a physical science which knows its own business, this limitation is, of course, no defect, but a very real gain; it is only by ignoring the psychical aspects of |363| our experiences that it becomes possible to concentrate the attention upon the full and complete description of their physical qualities. But when, as sometimes happens, the assumptions necessary to physical science are put forward as finally and certainly true statements about the contents of the universe as a whole, it becomes at once important to remember that there has been all along another side to every concrete experience, a side of which the physicist has purposely taken no account in the formation of his theories, and that the physical theories are therefore necessarily applicable only to a part of experienced reality, a part, moreover, whose relation to the whole happens to be unintelligible to us.8

The consequence of this limitation of purview is that when physical science is confronted, sooner or later, with the existence of psychic states possessing none of the characteristics regarded by it as proper to its subject-matter, it has either to confess the inadequacy of its results as an account of the ultimate character of experienced reality or to lose itself in fantastic attempts to identify the qualities of psychic states with those of extended and moving objects, thus giving rise to the jumble of confusions which make up our popular materialistic philosophy. We may thus see that no science but one which approaches experience without any preconceived limitation of its scope or theory as to its quality can succeed in presenting us with an account of its main characteristics which we can accept as fully and finally true. Every other science must at best offer us statements which might be finally true if there were nothing in the world but its own special subject-matter, but are actually vitiated to an unknown extent by the fact that they hold good only of a limited portion of the whole field of experience, related in an |364| as yet undiscovered way to other parts of which the science in question takes no account.

In fact, we might say, even if “materialism” should be true, it is for the metaphysician and not for the physicist as such to prove its truth. It is thus to Metaphysics, conceived as the analysis of human experiences without assumptions, and to Metaphysics only, that we can look for any information as to the structure and general character of the world of experienced reality as a whole.

The second point of which I spoke just now is one which will, as I think, take us a step farther in the direction of a true conception of philosophic method than Dr. Hodgson has seen fit to advance. Hitherto we have regarded it as the business of Philosophy to analyze the contents of different types of human experience, and so to discover their structural forms. Such a task, however, if undertaken without any further ideal to guide it, would at best yield no more than a “Phenomenology” of the Human Mind, i.e., a comprehensive picture of the formal characteristics of different types of experience arranged in whatever order we might regard as corresponding to the actual history of the growth of experience-forms. To convert such a Phenomenology into a genuine Metaphysic we require some standard, based not upon a priori assumptions, but upon the concrete character of human experience itself, by which to determine what type of experience corresponds most nearly to our concept of an experience unvitiated by arbitrary assumptions and limitations.

We need, in fact, some modern “criterion” answering in a general way to Descartes’ “clear and distinct idea” as an internal test of finally satisfactory truth. Now, a study of the way in which our apprehension of facts varies with the growth of our intelligence will readily indicate what this standard ought to be. If you take any judgment in which we attempt to register some fact or limited series of facts of experience, you will see at once that while part of it is a description of what is directly given in the present experience, another part of it is made up of various assumptions which are not directly warranted by the experience under description, but inferred with or without warrant from other experiences not actually present. Thus, even in so rudimentary a judgment |365| as “I feel cold” or “something is moving,” it is easy to see that we have, over and above the expression of a present experience, elements of theory based upon what lies outside the experience professedly described.

In the first of these judgments, for instance, the “I” is clearly meant to stand for something not given, or at all events not given in its entirety, in the experience called “feeling cold.” Its very significance lies in the fact that it denotes an attempted synthesis of that experience with others which are not, in their original form, now present. Again, if we compare the expression given to what would commonly be called “identical” experiences (i.e., experiences in which the extra-organic conditions and those organic conditions which are independent of the state of the highest cerebral organs are identical) by experiencers of different degrees of intelligence or training, we shall readily be led to see that the additional elements imported into our accounts of an experience may themselves either be accurate expressions of a wider whole of experience, within which the special fact to be described forms a constituent element, or they may involve assumptions which are not known to be veritable or are even known to be incapable of verification by any experience of human beings.

Thus we get two distinct classes of judgment, in each of which what is asserted takes us beyond the narrow limits of a momentary experience and attempts to establish a connection between the present and other actual or possible experiences. In the one class, the superadded elements in the judgment stand at the best for experiences which we feel confident we should have under certain definitely ascertained conditions physical and psychical, and at the worst for experiences which, if we cannot confidently assert that they would be actual under precisely formulated conditions, are yet analogous with other experiences so known, and contain nothing in conflict with the general character of experiences received under the conditions contemplated in our judgment, so far as those conditions are realizable by human beings. In the other case, the additional elements are of such a kind that when you come to formulate them you perceive that your statement involves elements inconsistent either with the formal conditions of |366| human experience in general, or with the special conditions under which the experiences in question are supposed to be given.

As simple examples of each of these types of assertion, I suggest the following: I. (a) “If I cross Farmer B.’s field and he sees me, he will take out a summons against me for trespass:” (b) “If we could reach the moon, we should find it devoid of atmospheric air;” II. (a) “I intuitively perceive that the dictates of my conscience are the laws of my Creator;” (b) “I saw a spirit last night.” For the sake of brevity, I will venture upon a piece of somewhat unsightly terminology, and will call the two classes of judgments the cases of the presence of “experiential” and of “symbolic” co-elements respectively in the expression of an experience, where by “symbolic co-elements,” I mean such as are manifestly at variance either with the general conditions of human experience or with the special conditions of the kind of experience under consideration, and are therefore clearly a departtire from accuracy in our account of our experience. Now it at once becomes manifest that the whole object of scientific investigation is, as far as possible, to banish from our accounts of the way in which one moment of experience is connected with another all merely “symbolic” co-elements.

The very reason why much of my thinking strikes me as unsatisfactory and in need of correction by fresh investigation and fresh knowledge, is that I find it full of “symbolic co-elements,” that is, of theories about the inter-connection of experiences which involve contradictions of the kind just mentioned. Truth, for each one of us, means just such a set of theories about the interconnection of experiences with one another as involves no contradiction of other facts of his experience. It is, no doubt, a fact that we commonly regard a theory as wrong if it is in contradiction with experiences of other competent and trustworthy witnesses, even though it seems in harmony with all our own observations; but that is because the competency and trustworthiness of our authorities is a fact of our own experience and to deny it would thus introduce contradiction into our own inner life. Of what lies, assuming that anything lies, absolutely outside my own experiences and affects my accounts of them neither for harmony |367| nor for contradiction, I may fairly say, “If it be not true for me, what care I how true it be?”

And in the same way, the human race, as a race, has no interest in the academic question whether there may not be whole series of experiences (like the unknown attributes of God in Spinoza’s system) from which the human organism is forever debarred. A full, self-consistent description of specifically human experience would be the whole truth for human beings, and it would be idle to ask after the possibility of a Beyond absolutely unrepresented in the perceptions of the human organism. That the world of human action and knowledge is in its entirety a function of a special psycho-physical organism is a truth we cannot for a moment afford to ignore, whatever may be our ultimate views on the problems of “Realism” and “Idealism.” It is, moreover, as I shall point out in a later passage, a truth of considerable import for Ethics.

The guiding principle of scientific thinking, then, as expressed in the familiar Law of Parsimony (entia non sunt multiplicanda prseter necessitatem; things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way, especially with reference to alternative evolutionary pathways), is that, so far as possible, every link established by scientific hypothesis between perceived facts should be itself in its turn of such a kind as to be matter of direct human experience under definitely assignable conditions. The full realization by any scientific doctrine of this demand is what is required to make the doctrine itself in its entirety actual matter of fact or experience. Where the full realization of the demand is, for any reason, out of the question, but the hypothesis at any rate contains nothing which can be proved inconsistent with the conditions under which the supposed experience would have to be received, so far as they are known to us, we call it a possible or a probable hypothesis; where, on the other hand, we feel sure that our accounts of natural processes contain “symbolic co-elements,” terms which could under no conditions be known to us, or not under the conditions assumed in our theory, the contents of direct experience, our theory is itself purely “symbolic"; that is, it is a representation in terms known to be inadequate and to some extent positively misleading of processes which the present state of our knowledge will not permit us to construe in their true character.

Thus, to take an example, most |368| persons would, I presume, regard the corpuscular theory of matter as so probable as to approximate to the character of a proved truth, on the ground that it fairly represents a state of things analogous to what we actually perceive and conceivably itself capable of being directly perceived had we sufficiently powerful aids to the senses. The hypothesis of the existence of the light-transmitting ether, on the other hand, seems at best, a “possible” hypothesis, for it must surely be very doubtful whether any conditions can be conceived under which the existence of such a medium could be revealed to direct perception.9

Now, it is ultimately only in Metaphysics that we can expect to meet with an account of experience free from all such symbolic or unreal co-elements. For so long as any proposition only enables us to connect the content of the present moment of experience with a limited number of other experiences of some special quality, without regard to the relations of that experience to other kinds of experience of which the special science with which we are dealing takes no account, there is always the probability that many features of our theory would be found to contradict the conditions imposed upon experience of the special kind in question by its connection in one system with other kinds of experience. In other words, except in a science which explicitly takes the whole frame-work of experience without selection or limitation as its object, we can never be sure that we have excluded symbolic features from any theory. We thus see what the standard and what the problem of metaphysical science for the future ought to be, if the science is to be based upon purely experiential foundations.

The problem before us is to frame a general concept of the universe considered as a system of experienced contents, of which every term is in turn itself similarly composed of contents of experience and of nothing else, or, to borrow the apposite phrase of Avenarius, to describe the contents of the universe in terms of “pure” experience. And |369| the method of Metaphysics is dictated by the nature of the problem. From the foregoing description of “pure” experience, it is clear that the one and only test of purity, — that is, of the absence of symbolic co-elements, — in an expression of experience is that it should be capable of being connected with other experiences by links, every one of which is known as containing nothing but what is or would be matter of experience under definite conditions. In other words, the test of the truth or “agreement with reality” of a philosophic system can only be sought in a thorough-going systematic unity between elements, every one of which is under known conditions a content of experience.

The full completion of the task thus imposed upon Metaphysics would clearly involve complete insight into the quality of every kind of experienced content and the nature of its relations to all others, or would, in fact, only be possible to omniscience, — that is, to a consciousness to which all the experiences which make up the mental lives of all sentient being should be present at once in their entirety. But even for creatures like ourselves, who are compelled to view the universe from our own limited standpoint, and to remain without even the means of conjecturing what types of sentient life may exist over and above the few with which we are familiar, it is, at least, possible to attempt by analysis of experience — so far as it is known to us — to construct a general outline sketch of the features of a system corresponding to the ideal of “pure” experience. If such an outline be capable of construction, there must no doubt remain the further uncertainty whether there might exist contents of experience, inaccessible to ourselves, the knowledge of which would modify our conception of the general structure of the world of experience. But the doubt would, as I have already said, from the nature of the case, be merely academic; an account of the most general characteristics of specifically human experience in which no aspect of that experience was disregarded and every aspect represented by terms themselves resoluble into experiences would, at any rate from the human standpoint, be an ultimate appreciation of the universe. And hence we may, I think, finally allot to Metaphysics the task of discovering |370| by analysis the formal characteristics of a world-wide pure experience.

I AM, perhaps, approaching that side of my subject which will most keenly interest some members of our society when I go on to ask how such a notion of the metaphysical problem as I have roughly tried to indicate will affect our attitude towards the special questions of ethical philosophy. That our views as to the scope and method of Ethics cannot be left altogether untouched by our attitude on these ultimate problems will scarcely be disputed, and the main points of contact will, I think, be found to be two. In the first place, it should at once be clear, that if our theory of the nature of Metaphysics is correct, the so-called “Metaphysic of Ethics” must be placed at the end of ethical inquiry as its completion, and not at the beginning as its basis. For the “Metaphysic” of Ethics, upon our theory, can mean nothing but the analysis of ethical experiences and the testing of the special structural forms of ethical theory by the standard of “pure” experience. In other words, we must have an unprejudiced account of the ethical facts and theories which play so large a part in human life before we proceed to determine the ultimate validity of ethical conceptions from the standpoint of metaphysical criticisms.

Every system of Ethics which begins with metaphysical theorizing about the ultimate nature of duty or of the self must be “suspect” as probably containing assumptions of a “symbolic” kind which may vitiate all its subsequent conclusions. In Ethics, as in other departments of knowledge, the function of Metaphysics will be to criticize and evaluate the results with which unbiased examination of concrete experience presents us, not to determine for us beforehand what we are to find in experience. There remains, in fact, upon our view of the case, no difference in principle between the relation of Ethics to Metaphysics and that of the physical sciences. In both cases the problem that lies first of all to hand is the examination of a certain mass of experiences possessed of common qualities and the detection of principle, uniformity, or structure within the mass. It is only when such an experience-mass has been considered in itself and reduced to something like systematic |371| form that we can trust ourselves to raise the question whether the various systems thus obtained can be brought together into a single system of pure experiential type. To invert this order of proceeding is to violate the first principle of modern philosophizing, that experience is to be analyzed without preconceptions.

We must no more let ulterior metaphysical theories dictate to us as to what we may expect to find in the field of ethical inquiry than we should allow them to prejudge the result of a physical experiment. It is after the ethical experience has disclosed its own characteristic structure to unbiassed examination of the concrete facts of moral psychology that Metaphysics should step in to test, by the standard of a world-wide “pure” experience, the construction so obtained. We may, however, carry the inference from one general concept of philosophical method a step further. For the same standard of “pure experience” which, when applied universally, supplies us with our test of metaphysical truth, may be, within the restrictions imposed by the nature of the special subject-matter, applied directly to the facts of the ethical experience themselves. It will, if our concept of the scope of philosophy be adopted, become our duty as students of Ethics to aim at creating a science which shall give a comprehensive account of all the facts connected with the ethical life of individuals and of societies in terms purged of all elements that can be detected to be “symbolic.”

Such an account would, of course, from the metaphysical point of view, be no more than provisional, for it may well be the case that assumptions which, so long as you remain within the limits imposed by the selection of moral life as the object for study, appear to contain nothing but what is translatable into terms of experience, will be found by the metaphysician, when he comes to ask after the relations between the ethical facts and other parts of experience, more or less vitiated by “symbolic” accretions. But for Ethics itself, such a picture of the various levels of the moral life would have supreme value as the last word which the ethical conscience, uninformed by metaphysical criticism, has to utter about life and the world. Work of this kind could be carried out on either of two converging but independent lines.

On |372| the one hand, it would be the duty of the student of morals rigidly to test by the standard of “pure” experience all the metaphysical or semi-metaphysical assumptions which are often dignified with the name of “ethical postulates.” Such concepts, for instance, as Free-Will, Obligation, and Desert would have to be taken out of the obscurity in which they have commonly been left by those who have made the freest use of them and restated, as far as they will bear restatement, in terms such as to reduce them to recognizable psychological facts.10 Until this criticism has been performed for the leading notions of Ethics, it is impossible to say how much or how little their value as contributory to a true account of the phenomena of the moral life may be, and it is difficult to make either assertion or denial of their validity. In the second place, an Ethic of experience would have before it a constructive task of proportions too vast to permit of execution by a single mind, yet capable of being in some degree discharged by the humblest of sincere students of the various ethical experiences. I mean the task of obtaining a description in terms which stand for definite psychological fact.

We want to know, for instance, precisely how moral obligations are regarded by different classes or professions in the community and by communities of very varying antecedents and degrees of civilization. For instance, how does the moral life of a doctor compare with that of a lawyer or a clergyman? does “duty” present itself to each of the three under the same general aspect? or are there discoverable differences of point of view? What view does each class take of particular duties, such as those of truth-speaking, financial honesty, and so forth? How do the ethical judgments of dwellers in the town differ from those of dwellers in the country? E.g., on what grounds would a jury composed of either class find a recommendation to mercy? Or, to take instances of questions which can be answered without the far-reaching statistical inquiries that those already mentioned would require, do I find that my own ethical experiences |373| are accurately described by the language ordinarily employed in the text-books? For instance, how does the verdict of my “conscience” upon a wrong act resemble, and how does it differ from, my discomfort on realizing that I have made a social blunder? Do I find the pains of an awakened and guilty conscience as mere emotions so unpleasurable as to outweigh all the enjoyment derived from transgression? What do I personally detect in myself on the occasion when, as the phrase is, I “feel bound” to perform an unpleasant act?

Such sample questions as these will suffice to show how vast a field of inquiry is open to the student who seriously desires that ethical theory should be expressed in language which accurately expresses psychological fact, and they will surely show, also, that the field is one in which a society like ours may do admirable work if each of us will only honestly cultivate his own little corner. The goal of such an undertaking, if it could be completed, would, of course, be the construction of an all-inclusive Phenomenology of Ethics in which every typical stage and variety of the moral life of men should be assigned to its proper place in the development of ethical experiences from their first rudimentary beginnings in the inarticulate feeling of “This is not so, but I wish it were,” to their final transfiguration into a world-wide practical religion of mutual good-will and forgiveness. Nor would the concept of the ideal of pure experience be without its value as regulative of actual moral practice.

The practical analogue of a scientific theory in which the whole of experience, and nothing but experience, should be mirrored would be a healthy social life in which each and every member of the community, while performing just those functions which he is best fitted to contribute to the life of the whole community, should, in virtue of the inherited organization and traditions of society, by the same course reach the fullest individual satisfaction of which his nature is capable. What “symbolic” co-elements are to our knowledge the existence of large classes whose energies are exhausted in drudging for the almost exclusive benefit of others is to our social and political institutions — an ultimate contradiction between their pretensions and their accomplishments, between systematic form and material |374| content. And if the process of the purification of science is furthered by the expulsion from scientific thought and expression of the unmeaning products of perverted metaphysical reflection, the purification of morals calls first and foremost for the expulsion from our theory and practice of all that is based upon similarly false metaphysical concepts of the relation of soul to body and of the individual to the social organization. What we have to get rid of here is, on the one hand, the theory and practice of asceticism which rests upon exploded assumptions as to the separability of “soul” from body, and unproved and unprovable assumptions as to the relation of man and the world to “another world"; and, on the other hand the various theories and moral codes which arise from misconceiving the relation between the individual and his social environment, whether the mistake take the form of treating society as a mere external means to the individual’s gratification, or that of regarding it as a sort of fetich to which he is “bound” to immolate himself, irrespective of anything it may have done or attempted to do for him.

To construct a theory of Moral Values based from first to last upon the conception of the ideal society as a healthy organism with the individual for a healthy functioning cell in that organism, — this is, I take it, the final goal of an “Ethics within the limits of Pure Experience.” The concrete character of such an ethical ideal may, perhaps, be made somewhat clearer as follows: The ultimate ideal of a purely experiential Ethics we have asserted to be the construction of a society in which the combined cooperation of all the individuals for the public welfare would constitute the whole state a healthy organism. In doing so, the cooperation of individuals would aim at ultimately making society independent for its continued existence of anything external to itself. Such independence clearly involves three distinct factors:

(1) A healthy and independent society must be presumed to have grappled with the problems of hygiene and economics with sufficient success to have reduced want and disease to a minimum. In other words, it must be presumed independent of all ordinary changes in climate, variations in the quantity of particular food-stuffs, and similar |375| features of its material environment. Within certain wide limits, there seems no reason why such independence should be regarded as anything chimerical. At least, I can see no inherent impossibility in the suggestion that, if proper attention were directed to the subject, most types of malignant disease might be eradicated and nearly all changes in our material environment anticipated and provided against by human ingenuity. Only — be it remarked in passing — if we are ever to grapple successfully with the problem of disease and beggary, we may probably have to adopt measures for the elimination of the physically unsound and the morally shiftless from the ranks of perpetuators of their kind which would considerably disturb the unprincipled sentimentalists who, in our own day, talk the most loudly about their ethical ideals and intuitions.

(2) The second factor in vigorous social health would be independence of all competing social organizations. Social health is impossible so long as the members of the community have to live under the constant fear of a violent dissolution of national existence at the hand of foreign rivals. The present state of Europe, for instance, may fairly be called one of unremitting nervous tension. No one can be certain that the most insignificant of incidents in some remote corner of China or the Transvaal may not set the European nations flying at each other’s throats, and, in such a state of permanent unrest, it is clear that civilization must be cursed with a feverish over-activity in certain directions and a consequent loss of energy in others which is quite inconsistent with steady, unremitting cooperation towards a reasoned ideal of social well-being. The very slang of our newspapers, which speak of every political incident as a “crisis,” is enough to remind us that the world of today is a world of sick and invalid societies.

As to the way in which this constant alarm for the permanence of the social fabric might conceivably disappear, it is manifest that it is twofold; social stability might be ensured by the ultimate victory of some one race-type (for instance, the Anglo-Saxon), over all its competitors, in fact, by the creation of a new world-empire like that of Rome, or, again, by the reduction of the competing race-types to one or two of fairly-balanced strength |376| and markedly divergent intellectual and emotional character (for instance, the Anglo-Saxon and the Slavonic). The very antagonism of two such well-defined types would of itself tend to intensify the rivalry between them, and to postpone the final conflict till each felt itself thoroughly full-grown. When a man has one enemy only, and that a formidable one, he is not so apt to be hurried into premature action as when he has a hundred, each of whom singly he knows to be no match for himself. It might, indeed, be argued that a strong and thoroughly antipathetic rival of this kind is a necessity to any society that is not to decay for sheer want of public spirit and over-contentment with its existing achievements. Without enemies no progress, may conceivably be the law of human development. But as the further discussion of this suggestion would tend to involve us in the polemics of current politics, we shall do well to pass on.

(3) The third requisite of full social health I take to be internal harmony between class and class within the social order itself. And such harmony, once more, is likely to be attained in proportion to the richness and complexity of the life which the social order with its institutions aims at maintaining. The wider the bounds of the state, and the more complex the functions which are contemplated in its institutions, the higher the probability that there will be room within it for every variety of individual type to find its own fullest development in life according to the social order. On the practical side, then, a philosophy based in all its parts upon concrete experiences, and having for its aim the construction of a system consistent not only with the general laws of thinking, but with the concrete facts of experience, would establish as its ideal the ultimate constitution of a state in which the combined cooperation of individual intelligences for the public welfare should, so far as is possible, render society in its organic structure independent of everything external to itself. A society thus organized and thus protected against internal collapse would be the nearest approximation we can conceive to our ideal of a perfectly functioning and, therefore, immortal individual of high complexity, and if once called into being should be indissoluble except by the occurrence of some |377| catastrophe too vast to be averted or too strange to be foreseen by any exercise of human intelligence. It is in the notion of such a perfect social organization, rather than in conformity to a body of abstract moral principles or in the empty form of self-realization, that experiential philosophy would find its criterion of conduct.

The final command of experiential Ethics, in cases where doubt as to duty arises, would be, Act, according to thy lights, for the creation of the Free State. I may, perhaps, just point out the enormous revolution which the adoption of such an ethical standard would work in the mechanism and methods of Development. We may, I suppose, fairly say that Nature’s general rule, in the infra-human world, is to shape organisms into harmony with their environment. The environment, in a fairly stable form, is there all along, and those individuals who for any reason are ill adapted to it die out and leave no progeny. With the dawn of intelligence however, natural evolution has presented us with a force capable of reversing the process and altering environment to make it square with organic peculiarities and ideals.11 The fashioning of tools is one of the simplest, as the transition from a nomad to an agricultural life, is perhaps the most important, of the signs of this new order of development in the early history of mankind. Yet up till now the full significance of this advance upon “Nature’s” methods has been obscured by the fact that there has been only the most occasional and sporadic collective cooperation towards the realization of human ideals.

Even our moral codes, as has been well argued by Professor Alexander, have grown up to a large extent under the pressure of our environment, and thus represent adjustment of organism to environment rather than adjustment of environment to organism. Not to speak of the fact that, imperfect as our moral codes are, our actual practice is even further from being |378| based upon the principle of harmonizing environment with organism, and is mostly dictated by the changing accidents of our external surroundings. The ideal of experiential Ethics, as described in the foregoing pages, means the full recognition by humanity of the power which it possesses of determining its own environment, of marking out the line which Evolution shall follow, of becoming with clear consciousness master of its own destiny. Not without reason, then, we might call the hour when men make up their minds to have done with all “symbolic” conceptions of duty and responsibility and free-will and the self, and to base ethical practice on the ideal of the healthy self-maintaining society, the hour of the Intellectual Majority of Man.

When men set themselves to realize the Free State, the earth will, at last, have acquired a meaning and the history of development on the surface of our planet that “moral purpose” which Natural Theology has so lamentably failed to discover in it. I might, indeed, even go further, and say that the creation of the Free State of the future would be an event not only in the history of man, but in the history of the world. For if, whatever be our views on the problem of Realism, we must, at least, admit that the “choir and furniture of heavenism” and a vision of our own brain, it is, I fear, also only too manifest that earth and heaven, as seen by the average civilized man of today, are but aegri somnia, dreams of the sick. Who can say what new glories and unknown splendors heaven and earth would acquire when looked on by the eyes of the physically and mentally healthy?

Something of these possibilities may, no doubt, be understood by anyone who knows the sense of mental convalescence and the increased love of earth and all its realities that accompany recovery from the debilitating influences of a narrowly puritanical early education. And, on a larger scale, in the new note that came, for instance, into Goethe’s poetry with his Italian journey, one may see for one’s self what the recovery of mental health means for the interpreter of Earth. The charm of convalescence in every line of the “Roman Elegies” is strong enough to make even an Englishman and a student of Virgil forget the barbarous jolting of the German hexameter. And from the convalescent’s deepened |379| love of earth and life we may guess faintly at the glories they would wear for the sound and strong.

Thus, we may say, the ultimate problem of philosophy is twofold. It is for speculative philosophy to formulate an adequate description of human experience; it is for practical philosophy to see to it that that experience is that of a healthy and not a diseased and neurotic organism. It remains, of course, when all is said, for Metaphysics to examine this concept of a Free State with a view to discover whether there may not lurk in it some subtle contradiction; for Ethics, however, even the actual feasibility of creating such a state is a matter of secondary importance. It is, indeed, of the first importance that the Free State should not be known to be an impossibility; but that is all. Even if we can say no more of the Free State than that we do not know it to be impossible, it can still take the place of Kant’s more questionable and less fully human assumptions as a regulative ideal for conduct. And even if, as metaphysicians, we could prove the impossibility of creating any reasonable approximation to our ideal, we should, perhaps, be well advised to keep our knowledge to ourselves.

Finally, the conception of “pure experience” is not without worth, even as regards its influence on the formation of individual character. As Milton thought that the poet should make his life a poem, so it was a favorite conviction with Plato that the qualities of sincerity, candor, and disinterestedness fostered by the study of dialectic would manifest themselves in the whole practical behavior of the philosopher-king. It would be a rash proceeding on the part of any of us to announce that we were studying for the role of Platonic philosopher; but there is, at least this much applicability in Plato’s principle to even the humblest cases, that a man can hardly set before himself as his intellectual ideal the rigid elimination of the merely “symbolic” from his thinking without learning to carry his distaste for pretentious inanities and ingenious self-sophistications into the rest of his life. Sentimentality and cynicism, those rival wells of moral poison, are likely to be tasted but sparingly by the philosopher whose ideal, for knowledge and for practice, is experience as rich and full as possible and |380| nothing but experience. His own professional faults he will, of course, have; but I doubt if cant, the traditional vice of the moralist, will be foremost among them.[12]

A. E. Taylor
The Owens College, Manchester

1^ I do not forget Hegel’s logic, with its opening discussion of Seyn and Nichtseyn; but I shall presently give my reasons for thinking Hegelianism no true representative of the specifically modern method in Philosophy.

2^ Cf. Baumker, “Das Problem der Materie in der Griechischen Philosophic,” p. 3. “Das Alterthum Rennt jenen Gegensatz (between ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’) noch nicht. Sein Standpunkt ist immer der des Realismus geblieben. Nur missbrauchlich und ungenau redet man von einen erkenntnistheoretischen Idealismus in der antiken Philosophie."

3^ I know that some of the ablest modern exponents have maintained that Hegel’s categories are really derived from and not imposed on experience; as Mr. McTaggart puts it, the dialectic is a “reconstruction,” not a “construction.” As to the fact, I should agree with him, but I AM not sure that it does not invalidate entirely the claims made by Hegel and his disciples for “dialectic” as the necessary method of philosophy.

4^ I may, perhaps, make the precise force of the argument more apparent by one or two concrete examples. Let the reader who inclines to admit the possibility of drawing up a series of categories valid for all intelligences, independently of the matter of their experiences, ask himself the following questions: (1) Can we assert that the categories which are sufficient for the organization of human knowledge would be adequate, or even significant, for beings whose experiences consisted, to use Spinoza’s phraseology, of modes of some Divine attribute other than extension? If you say “Yes,” how do you know it? If you say “No,” are you justified in denying the possibility that such beings may exist? (2) To illustrate with reference to the most famous a priori system of modern philosophy, — which of Kant’s categories is competent to express (a) the relation between the physical and the psychical as conceived by Spinoza and by modern psychology? (b) the modern scientific conception of an organism?

5^ The second alternative would give us something very much like the well-known theory of Mr. Spencer that categories are "a priori to the individual, a posteriori to the race.” But I have carefully avoided making any assumption about the direct inheritance of the structural form themselves. “The transmission of acquired characteristics is not a subject upon which the mere philosopher has a right to dogmatize."

6^ At least, it is thus that I understand the famous discussion of the part played by “induction” in the formation of axioms. ("Posterior Analytics,” ii., 19.) For Aristotle is there considering not the evidence for the validity of axiomatic truths but the psychical history of their growth from sense-experience.

7^ The remark is, I believe, borrowed from Mr. Schiller’s “Riddles of the Sphinx.” It is noticeable that even Kant keeps up a distinction which had become quite superfluous in the definition of “Reciprocity” as “Wechselwirkung zwischen dem Handelden und Leidenden.” [Kr. der R. V., p. 106 of Ed. II.]

8^ Of course, I AM not here attempting in any way to deny what is meant by the “scientific materialists.” When you have granted in the most unreserved way that every mental state, say the pain of a toothache, has some precise physical equivalent, say certain motions or tendencies to motion in the molecules of a particular cerebral area, it still remains true that the experience of the pain is, as an experience, specifically different from any experience of motion. And so in all other cases. Whether the fundamental assumption of the “scientific materialist” is as well founded as is currently believed would be an interesting question, but it would be irrelevant to discuss it here.

9^ It is of course true that every science must in practice make abstraction from the greater part of the concrete complexities of perceptual experience. But the ideal of a completed scientific apprehension of reality is only approached in so far as we are able, at will, to say with accuracy what and how much our abstraction has removed.

10^ I may refer, in passing, to Nietzsche’s work, “Zur Genealogie der Moral,” as an example of the kind of criticism which we have here in view.

11^ Throughout this passage I desire to acknowledge very great indebtedness to the excellent “Outlines of Sociology” of Dr. Lester F. Ward. Of course the contrast here drawn between human and infra-human evolution is not meant to be understood in any hard and fast sense. But it seems, roughly speaking, true that the intelligence of animals serves rather to adapt the individual animal to an unusual environment than to transform the environment itself.

12^ I have purposefully avoided saying anything, in the course of the preceding pages, on the question in dispute between the Idealists and Realists. For my present purpose, it is, I conceive, indifferent whether the contents of our experiences be supposed to have some kind of existence outside the processes in which they are perceived, or not. What is important is that they come to us in the first place as parts of an experience “process-content,” and that it is upon their character as such parts that any “realist” argument for their independent existence must be based. The only form of realism excluded by the foregoing argument is the belief in a “Thing-in-Itself” inaccessible throughout to human knowledge, a belief which is happily obsolescent among us. The conception of science as the full description of experiences in terms of nothing but experience seems quite consistent with any more sober “Realism” thank this. My indebtedness to Avenarius and to Nietzsche will be readily perceived; and if I have hesitated to make formal acknowledgement of it earlier in my paper, it is only for fear that the very acknowledgement might look like an impertinence.

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Alfred Edward Taylor
Eminent British Idealist philosopher
Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, McGill University, Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of St. Andrews and University of Edinburgh.


{Note: Avenarius believed that scientific philosophy must be concerned with purely descriptive definitions of experience, which must be free of both metaphysics and materialism. Insofar as Nietzsche is concerned, we fail to find value in his “literary” hyperbole or atheistic screed.}


Taylor, Alfred E. “The Metaphysical Problem,” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. X. No. 324, 1910. An address read at the Inaugural Meeting of the Owens College Philosophical Society. This work is in the Public Domain.