« PreviousContinue »
England, the school of Locke and Hartley had begun to push their principles into the extreme tenets of materialism. In France, the same doctrines were advocated with a brilliancy of style and a vigour of genius rarely excelled; the whole flow of the intellectual spirit of the age, seemed setting in towards the seen and temporal.' With this philosophy Brown was intimately acquainted. The graceful polish of the French style charmed his ear; the transparent clearness of the thoughts excited his admiration; the acuteness of the analyses perfectly coincided with his own peculiar genius; and, alas! the irreligious nature of the results created no revulsion in his mind. The counteracting influence of the German philosophy had as yet made little impression upon any of the English writers; for although the admiring biographer of Brown asserts that he studied the German language for scientific purposes, and cites his review of the philosophy of Kant as an evidence of his being able to make it as clear as its nature admits,' we should rather feel disposed to adduce both the review and the remark upon it, as an indication that neither Brown nor his biographer knew very much about the matter.
To sum up, therefore, in brief, the modifying circumstances which reacted upon the naturally analytic mind of our philosopher, we see that, while the influence of the Scottish metaphysics, of which he was a professed disciple, led him to secure certain fundamental laws of belief, as a barrier against the sweeping scepticism of Hume; yet, that he was led by his early associations, by his professional studies, by the tendency of the age, and by his own original love for simplification, into a metaphysical system, which we shall shew to be separated by a very narrow limit from sheer empiricism.
It is hardly necessary to remark, that every system of philosophy, and every attempt even at making a complete analysis of the human mind, must be very much modified by the view which is taken of one or two fundamental ideas or principles. Of these fundamental ideas, there is none, which has a greater share in the determination of our philosophical opinions, than that of causality. Around this one notion, or, as it might philosophically be termed, this one category, there seem to gather almost infinite germs of thought; and, according as it is viewed in the commencement of our speculation, will be the whole subsequent character of our philosophy. Upon this idea it mainly depends, whether nature is to be a succession of bare physical phenomena, or the developement of a living power; whether man is to be the creature of his circumstances, or the agent in his own self-unfolding; whether there be in our system of thinking a Creator, holding all things in his paternal embrace,
or whether the idea of a God be, in the language of Comte, a delusion incident to the infantile state of the human mind.
Brown's early speculations upon this abstruse but important question are well known. Incited by the torrent of bigotry which struggled to reject the claims of Mr. Leslie to the chair of mathematics in Edinburgh, on the ground of his defence of Hume's theory of Causation, he undertook to shew that this theory was in great measure correct, and where incorrect was perfectly harmless. The author did not perceive that the very theory, which he attempted to divest of all injurious imputations, was at that very moment poisoning the springs of philosophical truth deep in the centre of his own mind. True, he did not contend with Hume, that our whole notion of cause and effect is a mere induction from outward experience; but still he confined the law of our belief in the succession of phenomena to the simple confidence we feel in the invariable precedence and consequence of those natural events, which have been once seen in conjunction; firmly denying all human possibility of perceiving the existence either of power or of adaptation in the question. In other words, he rejected the principle of 'sufficient reason.'
This theory of causation, we have no doubt, grew up into a firm conviction in the mind of our philosopher, from the habit he early formed of physical investigation. To the man who looks primarily without, the idea of power is never invested with a veritable reality, neither can it ever attain its true place in any system of philosophy which, starting from the objective world, works inwards to the mysteries of the human mind. Such was precisely the course which Brown followed in the construction. of his philosophic character, and such the process by which he attempted to analyse the idea of causation. He gazed first upon the phenomena of nature, and saw nought but an invariable succession of certain events. The closer he analysed these events the firmer grew his conviction, that no link of connexion was to be discovered between them. Here, said he, is the gunpowder brought into contact with the spark, and there the explosion. What human being could foresee the adaptation of the antecedent to produce the consequent,-what eye detect -the hidden power which operated from the one upon the other? Starting with such analyses as these, Brown reasoned inwards to the mind; and, having found the reality of power undistinguishable in the phenomena of nature, by the keenest perception we can exercise upon them, he set down the idea of power as a pure abstraction, under the veil of which we hide our ignorance of all which lies beyond the bare appearance of things.
How different would have been his conclusion had he begun with the soul, and reasoned outwards to the world of nature
We turn the eye inwards, and what is the first thing of which we are conscious? Manifestly of self, or, in other words, the will, the power of spontaneous effort and action. We raise our arm to remove an obstacle, and the change desired takes place. What do we now find to be involved in the phenomena? Do we say here is the movement of my arm, there the effect upon the object, and rest satisfied that the whole process is fully described? Far from it. We are conscious that we put forth power. The effort of the will is a thing just as real to our inner consciousness, as is the movement of the arm and its effect upon the object to our outward perception. Nay, we feel that this power was necessary to the result; that the arm and the obstacle would have lain in perpetual proximity without any change taking place, were not such an effort of power put forth by the mind. Here then is the true type of a cause, here the verification of the reality of power. Fraught with the instruction of this self-consciousness, we approach the wonders of nature, we gaze upon a perpetual succession of movements and changes that are ever taking place around us; and what conviction do they now suggest? Clearly this; that it is as little possible for the mere skeleton of nature which we see by the eye to start forth into activity without some unseen power or force to animate it, as it is for the arm we call our own to act without the energy of the will. The term law of nature in which the empiric so highly rejoices is, in truth, the abstraction by which he hides his ignorance; the term power of nature is that by which we express the natural and unsophisticated belief of humanity in the omnipresence of a Divine Spirit. This one idea of power contains, in fact, the elements of an undying faith in the soul and in God.
Imbued, then, with this fundamental error, Brown approached the closer investigation of the human mind. Having fortified himself by a great show of plausible reasoning, grounded upon the nature and principles of physical research, he set out with the firm impression, that power was a fiction, that the sum of all philosophy is to observe actual phenomena, and that when we have traced the laws of their succession to their highest pitch of generalisation, we have done all of which the human mind is really capable. The effect of this upon his first and fundamental view of the soul of man-the great object of intellectual sciencesoon became evident. Instead of regarding the mind, or as it is sometimes more expressively termed, the me, as holding, in itself, a spontaneous energy, he regarded it as a passive existence, subjected absolutely to certain impressions from without, and certain fixed laws of consciousness within. The phraseology by which the Scottish school had previously expressed our mental
phenomena, was little suitable to this altered point of view which he had adopted. That school had regarded the soul as a mighty energy, exerting its faculties, from the centre of its own being, upon things without; but Brown, instead of adopting the language which speaks of intellectual and active powers, was now induced to describe mind as a spiritual existence, exposed to external influences or fixed laws, and ever passing over into an unceasing succession of states, according as these influences act upon it. It is curious to run through the whole of his lectures, and see how this idea follows him like a spectre, and modifies his opinions upon every point. In his classification, for example, of mental phenomena, he sees only external and internal states; that is, the mind, like an unhappy paralytic, put into different positions by outward impulses, or internal arrangements, and obliged to remain stationless in each, until the next force comes to act upon it. With regard to our knowledge of the external world, he cannot think that the soul is able to go forth by its own activity, and seize the reality of objective existence around us; it must wait till a new set of sensations connected with the action of the muscles (of which sensations he boasts himself the discoverer) teach us the important lesson that there is veritably an objective world as well as a subjective. How the mind reasons, however, from its muscular feelings, which, as feelings, must be purely subjective, after all, to the world without, and how it can infer any thing beyond itself from a sensation within itself, except by the aid of some primitive belief or intuition, he does not tell. Again, attention, which is pretty generally admitted to express the power of the will over our intellectual operations, stands, in the philosophy of Brown, for a modification of sensation: it is the state of mind in which the increased vividness of one sensation produces a corresponding faintness of others coexisting with it.' On the same principle we find the theory of recollection, which describes it as a species of voluntary memory, wholly rejected, and the process reduced to the laws of association. In fine, whether we regard the powers of memory, of judgment, of imagination-all these various forms of our mental activity are shown to arise from those fixed laws of suggestion, to the influence of which the mind of man is subjected as absolutely as is a machine to the 'primum mobile' by which it acts. Such was the result, as we believe, the necessary result of the theory of causation, with which Brown entered upon his philosophical career. Once exclude the idea of power from our enumeration of the elements of successive phenomena, and all we have to do in completing a mental analysis, is simply to set down the generic changes which our minds undergo, and to define the circumstances under which they take place. From such a process the
personal consciousness of effort, must, of course, in order to save the validity of the theory on which the whole proceeds, be entirely rejected.
Perhaps, however, there is nothing more characteristic of the spirit of Brown's writings, as a whole, than the warfare in which he engaged against the perceptionalist philosophy of Dr. Reid. To oppose the levelling principles of Hume's scepticism, had been the great passion of Reid's life. Incited by this desire, he had penetrated to the very core of the evil, and found it to originate mainly in the ideal system. This system, which has been recast and republished since the days of Aristotle, in so many different forms, has retained, in every instance, one essential element, namely, that our knowledge of external objects is conveyed by some kind of inward representation to the mind. Reid combatted this notion by every argument which his industrious and inventive mind could supply. He showed that if we are really dependent upon such an inward representation to give us a knowledge of the objective world, we may despair of that knowledge ever possessing any certainty, to which we can safely trust. The truth of such representation, as he correctly showed, could never be verified; because the verification of it would require us to perceive the objects unrepresented, the possibility of which is denied by the very hypothesis itself. Reid, accordingly, took his stand upon the principle, that we have an immediate and direct perception of things without us, and that we need no inward resemblance whatever to bring them home to our consciousness.
But now our philosopher comes to play his part upon the stage of this great controversy. And what does he do? He begins by asserting, that the ideal system had never been held in modern times at all; that Reid had, in matter of fact, been all the while fighting with straws, and that his claims to the glory of refuting the doctrine were accordingly vain and worthless. Singular phenomenon! Here is one philosopher struggling all his life against a giant evil, which he considers to be undermining the springs of human belief; and there is another who declares, that he was fighting against a spectre of his own imagination; or at least against the ghost of a monster, which had died and been buried long ago, in the dark ages.
The explanation of this phenomenon involves the illustration of Brown's philosophical character, which we designed to bring out. First of all, we cannot but remark the great incompetency which it betrays in his knowledge of the history of metaphysical thinking. When Brown denied the existence of the ideal system in modern times, he had his eye fixed upon the effluxions of Democritus, and the phantasms of Aristotle. In this form, it is