1902 Encyclopedia > Philosophy > Philosophy and Science

(Part 2)

Philosophy and Science

In distinguishing philosophy from the sciences, it may not be amiss at the outset to guard against the possible misunderstanding that philosophy is concerned with a subject-matter different from, and in some obscure way transcending, the subject-matter of the science. Now that psychology, or the observational and experimental study of mind, may be said to have been definitively included among the positive sciences, there is not even the apparent ground which once existed for such an idea. Philosophy, even under its most discredited name of metaphysics, has no other subject-matter than the nature of the real world, as that world lies around us in everyday life, and lies open to observers on every side. But if this is so, it may be asked what function can remain for philosophy when every portion of the field is already lotted out and enclosed by specialists? Philosophy claims to be science of the whole; but, if we get the knowledge of the parts from the different sciences, what is there left for philosophy to tell us? To this it is sufficient to answer generally that the synthesis of the parts is something more than the detailed knowledge of the parts in separation which is gained by the man of science. It is with the ultimate synthesis that philosophy concerns itself ; it has to show that the subject-matter which we are all dealing with in detail really is a whole, consisting of articulated members. Evidently, therefore, the relation existing between philosophy and the sciences will be, to some extent, one of reciprocal influence. The sciences may be said to furnish philosophy with its matter, but philosophical criticism reacts upon the matter thus furnished, and transforms it. Such transformation is inevitable, for the parts only exist and can only be fully, i. e., truly, known in their relation to the whole. A pure specialist, if such a being were possible, would be merely an instrument whose results had to be co-ordinated and used by others. Now, though a pure specialist may be an abstraction of the mind, the tendency of specialists in any department naturally is to lose sight of the whole in attention to the particular categories or modes of nature’s working which happen to be exemplified, and fruitfully applied, in their own sphere of investigation; and in proportion as this is the case it becomes necessary for their theories to be co-ordinated with the results of other inquirers, and set, as it were, in the light of the whole. The task of co-ordination, in the broadcast sense, is undertaken by philosophy; for the philosopher is essentially what Plato, in a happy moment, styled him, synoptikos [Gk], the man who insists on seeing things together. The aim of philosophy (whether attainable or not) is to exhibit the universe as a rational system in the harmony of all its parts; and accordingly the philosopher refuses to consider the parts out of their relation to the whole whose parts they are. Philosophy corrects in this way the abstractions which are inevitably made by the scientific specialist, and may claim, therefore, to be the only concrete science, that is to say, the only science which takes account of all the elements in the problem, and the only science whose results can claim to be true in more than a provisional sense.

For it is evident from what has been said that the way in which we commonly speak of "facts" is calculated to convey a false impression. The world is not a collection of individual facts existing side by side and capable of being known separately. A fact is nothing except in its relations to other facts; and as these relations are multiplied in the progress of knowledge the nature of the so called fact is indefinitely modified. Moreover, every statement of fact involves certain general notions and theories, so that the "facts of the separate science cannot be stated except in terms of the conceptions or hypotheses which are assumed by the particular science. Thus mathematics assumes space as an existent infinite, without investigating in what sense the existence or the infinity of this "Unding, as Kant called it, can be asserted. In the same way, physics may be said to assume the notion of material atoms and forces. These and similar assumptions are ultimate presuppositions or working hypotheses for the sciences themselves. But it is the office of philosophy, or theory of knowledge, to submit such conceptions to a critical analysis, with a view to discover how far they can be thought out, or how far, when this is done, they refute themselves, and call for a different form of statement, if they are to be taken as a statement of the ultimate nature of real. (FOOTNOTE 1) The first statement may frequently turn out to have been merely provisionally or relatively true ; it is then superseded by, or rather inevitably merges itself in, a less abstract account. In this the same "facts" appear differently, because no longer separated from other aspects that belong to the full reality of the known world. There is no such thing, we have said, as an individual fact ; and the nature of any fact is not full known unless we know it in all its relations to the system of the universe, or, in Spinoza’s phrase, "sub specie aeternitatis." In strictness, there is but one res completa or concrete fact, and it is the business of philosophy, as science of the whole, to expound the chief relations that constitute its complex nature.

The last abstraction which it becomes the duty of philosophy to remove is the abstraction from the knowing subject which is made by all the sciences, including, as we shall see, the science of psychology. The sciences, one and all, deal with world of objects, but the ultimate fact as we know it is the existence of an object for a subject. Subject-object, knowledge, or, more, widely, self -- consciousness with its implicates -- this unity in duality is the ultimate aspect which reality presents. It has generally been considered, therefore, as constituting in a special sense the problem of philosophy. Philosophy may be said to be the explication of what is involved in this relation, or, in modern phraseology, a theory of its possibility. Any would-be theory of the universe which makes its central fact impossible stands self-condemned. On the other hand, a sufficient analysis here may be expected to yield us a statement of the reality of things in its last terms, and thus to shed a light backwards upon the true nature of our subordinate conceptions.


(1) The revisional office which philosophy here assumes constitutes her the critic of the sciences. It is in this connexion that the meaning of the definition of philosophy as "the science of principles" can best be seen. This is perhaps the most usual definition, and, though vague, one of the least misleading.

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