1902 Encyclopedia > George Henry Lewes

George Henry Lewes
English writer
(1817-78)




GEORGE HENRY LEWES, (1817-1878), a prolific and versatile writer, born in London in 1817, was a grand-son of Charles Lee Lewes, a comedian who had a con-siderable reputation in his day. He was educated in London, Jersey, and Brittany, and began active life by attempting business and afterwards medicine. Later he appears to have had serious thoughts of making the stage his profession. He finally fixed his choice on a literary career. His early writings belong mainly to the lighter departments of letters. He contributed a large number of critical studies to the leading quarterly and other reviews. These discuss a wide variety of subject, and, though often characterized by hasty impulse and imperfect study, betray a singularly acute critical judgment, which has been enlightened by philosophic study. Of these critical writ-ings the most valuable are those on the drama, which were afterwards republished under the title Actors and Acting (1875). With this may be taken the volume on The Spanish Drama (1846). The combination of wide scholar-ship, philosophic culture, and practical acquaintance with the theatre gives these essays a high place among the best efforts in English dramatic criticism. In 1845-1846 he published The Biographical History of Philosophy, an attempt to depict the life of philosophers as an ever-renewed fruitless labour to attain the unattainable. In 1847-1848 he made two attempts in the field of fiction— llanthrope, and Rose, Blanche, and Violet—which, though displaying considerable skill both in plot, construction, and in characterization, have taken no permanent place in literature. The same is to be said of an ingenious attempt to rehabilitate Robespierre (1849). The elimination of the author's work in prose literature is the Life of Goethe (1855), probably the best known of his writings. Lewes's many-sidedness of mind, and his combination of scientific with literary tastes, eminently fitted him to appreciate the large nature and the wide-ranging activity of the German poet. The high position this work has taken in Germany itself, notwithstanding the boldness of its criticism and the unpopularity of some of its views (e.g., on the relation of the second to the first part of Faust), is a sufficient testimony to its general excellence. From about 1853 Lewes's writings show that he was occupying himself with scientific and more particularly biological work. He may be said to have always manifested a distinctly scientific bent in his writings, and his closer devotion to science was but thp following out of early impulses. Considering the author's want of the usual course of technical training, these studies are a remarkable testimony to the penetration of his intel-lect. The most important of these essays are collected in the volumes Seaside Studies (1858), Physiology of Com-mon Life (1859), Studies in Animal Life (1862), and Aristotle, a Chapter from the History of Science (1864). They are much more than popular expositions of accepted scientific truths. They contain able criticisms of authorized ideas, and embody the results of individual research and individual reflexion. He struck out a number of impressive suggestions, some of which have since been accepted by physiologists at home and abroad. Of these the most valuable is that now known as the doctrine of the functional indifference of the nerves—that what are known as the specific energies of the optic, auditory, and other nerves are simply differences in their mode of action due to the differences of the peripheral structures or i'ense-organs with which they are connected. This idea has since been independently arrived at by Wundt (Physiologische Psychologic, 2d ed., p 321). In 1865, on the starting of the Fortnightly Review, Lewes became its editor, but he retained the post for less than two years. This date marks the transition from more strictly scientific to philosophic work. He had from early youth cherished a strong liking for philosophic studies; one of his earliest essays was an appreciative account of Hegel's Aesthetics. Coming under the influence of positivism as unfolded both in Comte's own works and in J. S. Mill's System of Logic, he abandoned all faith in the possibility of metaphysic, and recorded this abandon-ment in the above-mentioned History of Philosophy. Yet he did not at any time give an unqualified adhesion to Comte's teaching, and with wider reading and reflexion ! his mind moved away further from the positivist's stand-point. In the preface to the third edition of his History I of Philosophy he avowed a change in this direction, and this movement is still more plainly discernible in subse-quent editions of the work. The final outcome of this intellectual progress is given to us in The Problems of Life \ and Mind, which may be regarded as the crowning work I of his life. His sudden death in 1878 cut short the work, I yet it is complete enough to allow us to judge of the author's matured conceptions on biological, psychological, and metaphysical problems.
The first two volumes on The Foundations of a Creed lay down what he regarded as the true principles of philosophizing. He here seeks to effect a rapprochement between metaphysic and science. He is still so far a positivist as to pronounce all inquiry into the ultimate nature of things fruitless. What matter, form, spirit are in themselves is a futile question that belongs to the sterile region of " metempirics." But philosophical questions maybe so stated as to be susceptible of a precise solution by scientific method. Thus, since the relation of subject to object falls within our experience, it
; is a proper matter for philosophic investigation. It may be ques-tioned whether Lewes is right in thus identifying the methods of science and philosophy. Philosophy is not a mere extension of scientific knowledge ; it is an investigation of the nature and
i validity of the knowing process itself. In any ease Lewes cannot be said to have done much to aid in the settlement of properly philosophical questioiis. His whole treatment of the question of the relation of subject to object is vitiated by a confusion between
; the scientific truth that mind and body coexist in the living organ-ism and the philosophic truth that all knowledge of objects implies a knowing subject. In other words, to use Mr Shadworth Hodg-son's phrase, he mixes up the question of the genesis of mental forms with the question of their nature (see Philosophy of Reflex-ion, vol. ii. pp. 40-58). Thus he reaches the "monistic" doctrine that, mind and matter are two aspects of the same existence bv attending simply to the parallelism between psychical and physical processes given as a fact (or a probable fact) of our experience, and by leaving out of account their relation as subject and object in the
j cognitive act. His identification of the two as phases of one cx-
l istence is open to criticism, not only from the point of viaw of

philosophy, but from that of science. In his treatment of such
ideas as " sensibility," "sentience," and the like, he does not always
show whether he is speaking of physical or of psychical phenomena.
Among the other properly philosophic questions discussed in these
two volumes the nature of the causal relation is perhaps the one
which is handled with most freshness and suggestiveness. The
third volume, The Physical Basis of Mind, further develops the
writer's views on organic activities as a whole. He insists strongly
on the radical distinction between organic and inorganic processes,
and on the impossibility of ever explaining the former by purely
mechanical principles. With respect to the nervous system, he
holds that all its parts have one and the same elementary property,
namely, sensibility. Thus sensibility belongs as much to the
lower centres of the spinal cord as to the brain, contributing in this
more elementary form elements to the "subconscious" region of
mental life. The higher functions of the nervous system, which
make up our conscious mental life, are merely more complex
modifications of this fundamental property of nerve substance.
Closely related to this doctrine is the view that the nervous organ-
ism acts as a whole, that particular mental operations cannot be
referred to definitely circumscribed regions of the brain, and that
the hypothesis of nervous activity passing in the centre by an iso-
lated pathway from one nerve-cell to another is altogether illusory.
By insisting on the complete coincidence between the regions of
nerve-action and sentience, and by holding that these are but differ-
ent aspects of one thing, he is able to attack the doctrine of ani-
mal and human automatism, which affirms that feeling or con-
sciousness is merely an incidental concomitant of nerve-action, and
in no way essential to the chain of physical events. Lewes's views
in psychology, partly opened up in the earlier volumes of the
Problems, are more fully worked out in the last two volumes (3d
series). He discusses the method of psychology with much insight.
He claims against Comte and his followers a place for introspection
in psychological research. In addition to this subjective method
there must be an objective, which consists partly in a reference to
nervous conditions, and partly in the employment of sociological
and historical data. Biological knowledge, or a consideration of
the organic conditions, would only help us to explain mental
functions, as feeling and thinking; it would not assist us to under-
stand differences of mental facility as manifested in different races
and stages of human development. The organic conditions of these
differences will probably for ever escape detection. Hence they can
be explained only as the products of the social environment. This
idea of dealing with mental phenomena in their relation to social
and historical conditions is probably Lewes's most important con-
tribution to psychology. Among other points which he emphasizes
is the complexity of mental phenomena. Every mental state is
regarded as compounded of three factors in different proportions—
namely, a process of sensible affection, of logical grouping, and of
motor impulse. But Lewes's work in psychology consists less in
any definite discoveries than in the inculcation of a sound and just
method. His biological training prepared him to view mind as a
complex unity, in which the various functions interact one on the
other, and of which the highest processes are identical with and
evolved out of the lower. Thus the operations of thought, or " the
logic of signs," are merely a more complicated form of the elemen-
tary operations of sensation and instinct, or "the logic of feeling."
The whole of the last volume of the Problems may be said to be an
illustration of this position. It is a valuable repository of psycho-
logical facts, many of them drawn from the more obscure regions of
mental life and from abnormal experience, and is throughout sug-
gestive and stimulating. To suggest, and to stimulate the mind,
rather than to supply it with any complete system of knowledge,
may be said to be Lewes's service in philosophy. The exceptional
rapidity and versatility of his intelligence seems to account at once
for the freshness in his way of envisaging the subject-matter of
philosophy and psychology, and for the want of satisfactory elabo-
ration and of systematic co-ordination. (J. S.)








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