- Philosophical Perspectives Impacting Darwin’s Practical and Contemplative Attitudes
I. Search for an Explanation
In the nineteenth century cultural milieu in which Darwin lived and worked, it was generally assumed that art and religion enjoyed a close relationship. While differing in their view of religion in many respects, common to all the major proponents of the Naturphilosophie that had infiltrated the cultural milieu of both German and English nineteenth century scientists1 was their tendency to sublate the earlier, eighteenth century, Idealist conceptual thought of the Absolute by what they labeled “the intuition and feeling for the Infinite.”2 Experienced as an organic, all-comprehensive reality, the totality of Nature was said along quasi-pantheistic lines to be a manifestation of the infinite Absolute, God, or Spirit, in whose Being it is creatively grounded.3 By depicting in one aesthetic way or another Nature’s unity in difference, a “work of art,” they declared, constitutes a finite manifestation of the ultimately ineffable Absolute.4 Religion and art were said to “stand together like kindred beings,” enjoying an “inner affinity.”5
On the basis of such an assumption, some scholars have argued that “the fundamental reason for the decline of Darwin’s [aesthetic] feeling was his loss of religious belief,”6 while others have argued that it was the loss of his aesthetic [End Page 98] taste that caused the diminishment of his religious sensitivity.7 But either of such conclusions would still leave open the question as to what may have caused the demise of either of such sensitivities in the first place. In their attempt to answer the latter question, some scholars have concluded that it was Darwin’s increasingly single-minded, or specialized, concentration on science that had, by his own admission, left him like a “withered leaf for every subject except science.”8 Others have blamed it on the “evidentialist” kind of epistemic justification he, under the influence of David Hume, William Paley, William Clifford and others, apparently thought the pursuit of science required of him.9
There is, however, another, less noticed, aspect of Darwin’s scientific investigation that might, even more than its “specialization” or its heavy reliance on evidentialism, have impacted both his religious and aesthetic sensitivities and their mutual influence. It was, according to the philosopher John Dewey, the unprecedented emphasis of his scientific methodology upon pursuit of practical knowledge.
II. Darwin’s Pursuit of Practical Knowledge
The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Dewey claimed, had introduced a mode of scientific thinking that seriously challenged the classic, Platonic and Aristotelian, conception of knowledge.10 Dewey’s claim in this regard has been faulted for not having taken into adequate account the plurality of ancient Greek and subsequent non-Platonic/Aristotelian, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment theorizing about “species-origins.”11 And Francis Bacon’s early seventeenth-century insistence upon induction as a “new instrument” for the pursuit of scientific knowledge apart from any reliance on the deduction of [End Page 99] fixed Ideas or Forms and final causality12 has often been cited as the climactic, pre-Darwinian, anticipation of such non-Platonic/Aristotelian philosophy of nature.13 Furthermore, as Dewey was made aware during his student days at the University of Vermont,14 the attempt by Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart to combat Humean skepticism by wedding their own commonsense, intuitionist realism to the Baconian emphasis on sense experience15 had become “during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century the chief philosophical support to theological and apologetical enterprises” among American Protestant theologians.16 It should also be noted, however, that Dewey himself praised Bacon as the “great forerunner of the spirit of modern life . . . the real founder of modern thought,”17 and credited his new inductive logic with having challenged the old “organon of Aristotle” by his emphasis on the “power of knowledge over natural forces.”18 Dewey, of course, did not mean thereby that, according to Bacon, human knowledge could actually determine the quasi-fortuitous play of a natural process like natural selectivity. He instead pictured Bacon as the “prophet of a pragmatic conception of knowledge”19 whose “new logic” encouraged humans “to...