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 One going to the Encyclop?dia Britannica for critical information concerning philosophy will encounter the very essence of that spirit which is merely reflected in the other departments of the Encyclop?dia’s culture. In this field the English editors and contributors of the Britannica are dealing with the sources of thought, and as a result British prejudice finds a direct outlet. To be sure, it is difficult for a critic possessing the mental characteristics and the ethical and religious predispositions of his nation, to reveal the entire field of philosophy without bias. He has certain temperamental affinities which will draw him toward his own country’s philosophical systems, and certain antipathies which will turn him against contrary systems of other nations. But in the higher realms of criticism it is possible to find that intellectual detachment which can review impersonally the development of thought, no matter what tangential directions it may take. There have been several adequate histories of philosophy[175] written by British critics, proving that it is not necessary for an Englishman to regard the evolution of thinking only through distorted and prejudiced eyes.
The Encyclop?dia Britannica, however, evidently holds to no such just ideal in its exposition of philosophical research. Only in a very few of the biographies do we find evidences of an attempt to set forth this difficult subject with impartiality. As in its other departments, the Encyclop?dia places undue stress on British thinkers: it accords them space out of all proportion to their relative importance, and includes obscure and inconsequent British moralists while omitting biographies of far more important thinkers of other nations.
This obvious discrepancy in space might be overlooked did the actual material of the biographies indicate the comparative importance of the thinkers dealt with. But when British critics consider the entire history of thought from the postulates of their own writers, and emphasize only those philosophers of foreign nationality who appeal to “English ways of thinking,” then it is impossible to gain any adequate idea of the philosophical teachings of the world as a whole. And this is precisely the method pursued by the Britannica in dealing with the history and development[176] of modern thought. In nearly every instance, and in every important instance, it has been an English didactician who has interpreted for this Encyclop?dia the teachings of the world’s leading philosophers; and there are few biographies which do not reveal British prejudice.
The modern English critical mind, being in the main both insular and middle-class, is dominated by a suburban moral instinct. And even among the few more scholarly critics there is a residue of puritanism which tinctures the syllogisms and dictates the deductions. In bringing their minds to bear on creative works these critics are filled with a sense of moral disquietude. At bottom they are Churchmen. They mistake the tastes and antipathies which have been bred in them by a narrow religious and ethical culture, for pure critical criteria. They regard the great men of other nations through the miasma of their tribal taboos.
This rigid and self-satisfied provincialism of outlook, as applied to philosophers in the Encyclop?dia Britannica, is not, I am inclined to believe, the result of a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the importance of British thinkers and to underrate the importance of non-British thinkers. To the contrary, it is, I believe, the result of an unconscious ethical prejudice coupled with a blind[177] and self-contented patriotism. But whatever the cause, the result is the same. Consequently, any one who wishes an unbiased exposition of philosophical history must go to a source less insular, and less distorted than the Britannica. Only a British moralist, or one encrusted with British morality, will be wholly satisfied with the manner in which philosophy is here treated; and since there are a great many Americans who have not, as yet, succumbed to English bourgeois theology and who do not believe, for instance, that Isaac Newton is of greater philosophic importance than Kant, this Encyclop?dia will be of far more value to an Englishman than to an American.
The first distortion which will impress one who seeks information in the Britannica is to be found in the treatment of English empirical philosophers—that is, of John Locke, Isaac Newton, George Berkeley, Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, Mandeville, Hume, Adam Smith and David Hartley. Locke receives fifteen columns of detailed exposition, with inset headings. “He was,” we are told, “typically English in his reverence for facts” and “a signal example in the Anglo-Saxon world of the love of attainable truth for the sake of truth and goodness.” Then we are given the quotation: “If[178] Locke made few discoveries, Socrates made none.” Furthermore, he was “memorable in the record of human progress.”
Isaac Newton receives no less than nineteen columns filled with specific and unstinted praise; and in the three-and-a-half column biography of George Berkeley we learn that Berkeley’s “new conception marks a distinct stage of progress in human thought”; that “he once for all lifted the problem of metaphysics to a higher level,” and, with Hume, “determined the form into which later metaphysical questions have been thrown.” Shaftesbury, whose main philosophical importance was due to his ethical and moral speculations in refutation of Hobbes’ egoism, is represented by a biography of four and a half columns!
Hume receives over fourteen columns, with inset headings; Adam Smith, nearly nine columns, five and a half of which are devoted to a detailed consideration of his Wealth of Nations. Hutcheson, the ethical moralist who drew the analogy between beauty and virtue—the doctrinaire of the moral sense and the benevolent feelings—is given no less than five columns; while Joseph Butler, the philosophic divine who, we are told, is a “typical instance of the English philosophical mind” and whose two basic premises were the existence of a theological god and the limitation of[179] human knowledge, is given six and a half columns!
On the other hand, Mandeville receives only a column and two-thirds. To begin with, he was of French parentage, and his philosophy (according to the Britannica) “has always been stigmatized as false, cynical and degrading.” He did not believe in the higher Presbyterian virtues, and read hypocrisy into the vaunted goodness of the English. Although in a history of modern philosophy he is deserving of nearly equal space with Butler, in the Britannica he is given only a little over one-fifth of the space! Even David Hartley, the English physician who supplemented Hume’s theory of knowledge, is given nearly as much consideration as the “degrading” Mandeville. And Joseph Priestley, who merely popularized these theories, is given no less than two columns.
Let us turn now to what has been called the “philosophy of the enlightenment” in France and Germany, and we shall see the exquisite workings of British moral prejudice in all its purity. Voltaire, we learn, “was one of the most astonishing, if not exactly one of the more admirable, figures of letters.” He had “cleverness,” but not “genius”; and his great fault was an “inveterate superficiality.” Again: “Not the most elaborate[180] work of Voltaire is of much value for matter.” (The biography, a derogatory and condescending one, is written by the eminent moralist, George Saintsbury.)
Condillac, who is given far less space than either Berkeley or Shaftesbury, only half of the space given Hutcheson, and only a little over one-third of the space given Joseph Butler, is set down as important for “having established systematically in France the principles of Locke.” But his “genius was not of the highest order”; and in his analysis of the mind “he missed out the active and spiritual side of human experience.” James Mill did not like him, and his method of imaginative reconstruction “was by no means suited to English ways of thinking.” This latter shortcoming no doubt accounts for the meagre and uncomplimentary treatment Condillac receives in the great British reference work which is devoted so earnestly to “English ways of thinking.”
Helvétius, whose theory of equality is closely related to Condillac’s doctrine of psychic passivity, is given even shorter shrift, receiving only a column and a third; and it is noted that “there is no doubt that his thinking was unsystematic.” Diderot, however, fares much better, receiving five columns of biography. But then, more and more “did Diderot turn for the hope of the race[181] to virtue; in other words, to such a regulation of conduct and motive as shall make us tender, pitiful, simple, contented,”—an attitude eminently fitted to “English ways of thinking”! And Diderot’s one great literary passion, we learn, was Richardson, the English novelist.
La Mettrie, the atheist, who held no brief for the pious virtues or for the theological soul so beloved by the British, receives just half a column of biography in which the facts of his doctrine are set down more in sorrow than in anger. Von Holbach, the German-Parisian prophet of earthly happiness, who denied the existence of a deity and believed that the soul became extinct at physical death, receives only a little more space than La Mettrie—less than a column. But then, the uprightness of Von Holbach’s character “won the friendship of many to whom his philosophy was repugnant.”
Montesquieu, however, is given five columns with liberal praise—both space and eulogy being beyond his deserts. Perhaps an explanation of such generosity lies in this sentence which we quote from his biography: “It is not only that he is an Anglo-maniac, but that he is rather English than French in style and thought.”
Rousseau, on the other hand, possessed no such exalted qualities; and the biography of this great[182] Frenchman is shorter than Adam Smith’s and only a little longer than that of the English divine, Joseph Butler! The Britannica informs us that Rousseau’s moral character was weak and that he did not stand very high as a man. Furthermore, he was not a philosopher; the essence of his religion was sentimentalism; and during the last ten or fifteen years of his life he was not sane. If you wish to see how unjust and biased is this moral denunciation of Rousseau, turn to any unprejudiced history of philosophy, and compare the serious and lengthy consideration given him, with the consideration given the English moral thinkers who prove such great favorites with the Britannica’s editors.
The German “philosophers of the enlightenment” are given even less consideration. Christian Wolff, whose philosophy admittedly held almost undisputed sway in Germany till eclipsed by Kantianism, receives only a column-and-a-half biography, only half the space given to Samuel Clarke, the English theological writer, and equal space with John Norris, the English philosophical divine, and with Arthur Collier, the English High Church theologian. Even Anthony Collins, the English deist, receives nearly as long a biography. Moses Mendelssohn draws only two and a half columns; Crusius, only half a column; Lambert,[183] only a little over three-fourths of a column; Reimarus, only a column and a third, in which he is considered from the standpoint of the English deists; and Edelmann and Tetens have no biographies whatever!
Kant, as I have noted, receives less biographical space than Isaac Newton, and only about a fifth more space than does either John Locke or Hume. It is unnecessary to indicate here the prejudice shown by these comparisons. Every one is cognizant of Kant’s tremendous importance in the history of thought, and knows what relative consideration should be given him in a work like the Britannica. Hamann, “the wise man of the North,” who was the foremost of Kant’s opponents, receives only a column-and-a-quarter biography, in which he is denounced. His writings, to one not acquainted with the man, must be “entirely unintelligible and, from their peculiar, pietistic tone and scriptural jargon, probably offensive.” And he expressed himself in “uncouth, barbarous fashion.” Herder, however, another and lesser opponent of Kantianism, receives four and a half columns. Jacobi receives three; Reinhold, half a column; Maimon, two-thirds of a column; and Schiller, four and a half columns. Compare these allotments of space with: Thomas Hill Green, the English neo-Kantian, two and[184] two-thirds columns; Richard Price, a column and three-fourths; Martineau, the English philosophic divine, five columns; Ralph Cudworth, two columns; and Jos............
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