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London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915. Pp. xv+ 274. 1

The International Journal of Ethics,26 (Jan 1916) 284-89

This brilliant book, all the more remarkable for the circumstances under which it appears, 2 would be a noteworthy philosophical event at anytime. Mr. Balfour begins by saying that he does not pretend to construct or outline a metaphysical system. While in substance a protest against the aesthetics, the ethics, and the epistemology of “Naturalism” (by which the author means the natural selection of primitive Darwinism), the book neither discusses nor mentions by name any system of metaphysics. What Mr. Balfour wishes to refute is not the philosophy of any philosopher past or contemporary, but the popular philosophy which is frequently based upon the biological discoveries of the nineteenth century. The argument is briefly as follows.

We find ourselves compelled to believe in some things as beautiful, in some actions and feelings as good, and in some judgments as true. In aesthetics and ethics, it is admitted, no particular valuation need be universally accepted; nevertheless all men are agreed that something is beautiful and something good, though as to what is beautiful or good there is room for dispute. In knowledge, however, certain truths are accepted “in practice” by all men, together with certain assumptions which, independently of experience and often in the face of experience, science is compelled to make. The progress of science has often been guided by beliefs of the greatest heuristic value, for which nevertheless there was no justification in the state of scientific knowledge at the time. Thus, in practice, we cannot help believing in the existence of an external world, and in the regularity of nature; and every step in the progress of science rests upon assumptions as yet unverified and perhaps incapable of verification. If anything is beautiful, if anything is good, if anything is true, we cannot account for its beauty, its goodness, or its truth by its origin. And by its origin Mr. Balfour means the description which psychology, anthropology, biology or physics may give of its history. And if science is unable to explain the existence of value and of truth, we must find for them an origin “congruous with their character.” This origin theism alone (or the belief in a conscious purpose or design) can provide. For “Value is lost . . . if design be absent” (44).

It is evident that whatever Mr. Balfour’s modesty may protest, his argument suggests an aesthetics, an ethics, and a theory of knowledge. He attempts, it is true, to limit the scope of his inquiry by starting “from premises which are practically accepted by both parties to the controversy” (25). But in general it may be questioned whether in any philosophical dispute such premises can be found. Nor does Mr. Balfour himself adhere very strictly to this procedure. In his discussion of art, for example, he admits that he is “not appealing to all men, but . . . to those only who, when they explicitly face the problem, become deeply conscious of the incongruity between our feelings of beauty and a materialistic account of their origin” [70]. Upon this incongruity he bases his argument from aesthetics. If the incongruity be not only not obvious to many of those who explicitly face the problem, but obvious chiefly to those who have not faced the problem, is there in this part of the discussion any accepted premise left?

I fail to find any such premise, or any such incongruity, in art. We may agree with Mr. Balfour that our enjoyment of beauty is not independent of our world outlook (expressed or implicit), but we need not admit that aesthetic rapture is dependent upon any particular theory about the world. That the materialist and the theist will enjoy art in very different ways is quite probable; that they interpret this experience differently is certain. That the experience and its interpretation are not completely distinguishable may be admitted. In a sense, indeed, art is dependent upon world...

Published By:   Johns Hopkins University Press