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THE MIND OF EDWARD GIBBON (1)* c. . COCHRANE MYsubject is the mind of Edward Gibbon. I shall not concern myself (except incidentally) with his life and achievement as a member of what Goldsmith called the "commonwealth of polite letters." Nor shall I undertake to assess the value of his work, in the sense in which it has been examined ,and passed magna cum laude by Bury, to rank with that of Thucydides and Tacitus. My object is rather to consider the principles in terms of which Gibbon envisages human nature and human history, and whicJ:. thus determine his attitude to the problems raised by the collapse of ancient civilization. This means that our attention will be directed not so much to his thinking as to the preconceptions (whether implicit or explicit) which govern his thought. And we shall argue that while, of course, his general outlook was that of the so-called Age of .Reason, his specific presumptions were those of what its exponents (oddly enough, from our modern standpoint) called "experimental science"; furthermore that, when Gibbon claims to speak as a philosophic historian, he consciously and deliberately aligns himself with this particular movement of thought, finding in it the clue to an understanding of "that memorable series of revolutions which, in the course of about thirteen centuries, gradually undermined, and at.length destroyed, the solid fabric of human greatness"; "the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind." I By "experimental science" was meant, of course, the method of enquiry which, initiated by Locke with the publication of his Euay on the Human Understanding, was to culminate in the philosophic scepticism of Hume. This method had its origin ·in the work of the great seventeenth-century philosophers, Descartes and Bacon. Descartes had proclaimed the independence and selfsufficiency of the human reason as an instrument for the investigation of truth; Bacon, the doctrine that this instrument should be devoted to the pra" ctical end of wresting her secrets from nature.·This is the first of two articles on the subject, embodying public lectures given by the author at Princeton and in University College, Toronto. (Editors' Note.) 2 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY And the Nouum Organon bore its first fruits with Newton's formulation of the laws of motion. The success of Newtonian physics was accepted as a magnificent vindication of the new method as applied to the study of nature; it remained only to exploit the possibilities of that method in order to achieve an equally valid science of the mind. And it was precisely this task which, in his celebrated essay, Locke undertook. By so doing, he started one of the most powerful intellectual impulses of his own and the following century. Locke was fully alive to the difficulties which lay in his path. "The understanding, like the eye," he declares; "whilst it makes us see an.d perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object." The permanent value of Locke's undertaking remains, of course, a matter of debate. Its historical importance, however, is beyond question. What this was may be gathered from the words of Locke's latest editor: Discarding all systematic theories, he [Locke] has from actual experience and observation, delineated the features, and described the operations of the human mind, with a degree of precision and minuteness not to be found in Plato, Aris. totle or Descartes. After clearing the way, by setting aside the whole doctrine of innate notions an,d principles, both speculative: and practical, the author traces all ideas to two sources, sensation and reflection; treats at large of the human understanding in forming, distinguishing, compoundin,g and associating themi of the manner in which words are applied as representations of ideas; of the difficulties and obstructions which arise from the imperfection of ,these signsj and of the nature, reality, kinds, degrees, casual hindrances and necessary limits, of human knowledge: ... a work of inestimable value, as a history of the: under. standing, JYJt compiled from former books, but written from materials collected by a long and attentive observation of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 1-17
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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