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BRITISH IDEALISM IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY MARCUS LONG SPECULATIVE philosophy had gone out of fashion in England at the end of the eighteenth century. The intellectuals, as in France, bad turned from speculation about the nature of reality to the more rewarding investigations of natural science. They assumed that search for ultimate causes is contrary to the scientific spirit and likely to restore an interest in the occult. In this situation the universities had nothing to offer. J. S. Mill and Mark Pattison agree that the wine-bibbers and charlatans had taken over the centres of learning. Pattison points out, in his memoirs, that Oxford was a closed clerical corporation where the ability to drink was more important than the ability to think for election as a fellow. It is interesting to note that)vfetz, in his detailed list of the philosophers in England during the nineteenth century, does not mention any university teachers until the middle of the century. This is all the more surprising since philosophy was, at that very time, enJoying one of its most triumphant periods in Germany through the romantics, culminating in Hegel. But the English were shut off from this influence by the continental wars, their hardy self-sufficiency, and their lack of knowledge of the German language. They only knew about the movement through some bad translations of part of the writings of Kant and what they could glean from reviews. Hence the picture they received was very much distorted and they were glad that their isolation spared them from such crude rationalism and scepticism. This does not mean that the problems with which philosophy is concerned were wholly neglected. There was much speculation about moral and religious issues. The implications of the Newtonian science bad been worked out for the whole sphere of human activities and it had been shown that materialism could provide, both in thought and in practice, a doctrine encouraging tolerance, humanitarianism, and a genuine interest in social reform. It must have been disconcerting to find that atheists, whose testimony could not be accepted in the law courts, were more forward in applyirig the principles of the Golden Rule than many who prided themselves on their orthodoxy. Bentham had shown how unnecessary it is to appeal to ultimate principles or spiritual powers or mysterious natural laws to point the way for legislative and personal morality. What is needed can be found in a psychological examination of human nature and behaviour, for what ought to be done rests upon the interests and motives of the people concerned and on nothing more ultimate. While this was not significant philosophy it could claim to be in the grand tradition of English empiJ:icism and in the spirit of Hume. And that was merit enough. For, as Stirling points out as late as 1865, "Hume is our Politics, Hume is our trade, Huine is our Philosophy, Hume is our religion-it wants little but that H~e were even our. taste.m lJ, H. Stirling, The Secret of Hegel (Edinburgh, 1898), lxii. 113 114 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY Hume had shown that knowledge is confined to the data of immediate experience. The world, for each of us, is a conjunction of atomic ideas joined together by principles of association based on custom or habit. Questions about materialism and spiritualism are really out of order since they demand a knowledge which, in the nature of the case, is not available. Questions about God and ultimate spiritual facts, while they may have some practical significance, cannot receive any assured answer.>. Hence philosophy, if there is any philosophy, is a defence of scepticism and a reminder that thought has limits beyond which any claim to knowledge is likely to be nothing but intellectual fraud. It is true that the work of Hume, by denying the objective validity of such principles as causality, raised doubts about the conclusions of the natural scientists also. But the scientist has the happy faculty of closing his eyes to the impossibility of his task while he proceeds to perform it. Mter Hume, the philosophic criticism will be seen in its proper perspective, will find its place in the scientific system...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 113-123
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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