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CHARLES S. PEIRCE SELECTED WRITINGS
(VALUES IN A UNIVERSE OF CHANGE)
By CHARLES S. PEIRCE, PHILIP P. WIENER
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1958 Philip P. Wiener
All rights reserved.
The Place of Our Age in the History of Civilization
[The progress of civilization depends on the freedom achieved through scientific thought as well as through political and religious emancipation from tyranny and superstition. Such is the large thesis of Peirce's Oration in his first public appearance as a philosopher, at the age of twenty-four, a year after receiving the degree of M.A. summa cum laude in Chemistry. Our scientific age of reason was ushered in by the great discoveries in mathematics and physical sciences of the seventeenth century. The steam engine and other inventions that have so materially benefited mankind were made possible by the ever-restless spirit of free inquiry. The continuity of modern science with the intellectual progress made by the transmission of ancient Greek and medieval thought to our age, so rhetorically expressed here by the young Peirce, was the leitmotif of his philosophy of science and civilization in all his later writings on the subject. Earlier in the nineteenth century Hegel had sought to establish historical continuity within a rigid absolutistic idealism. Peirce prefers the more experimental approach to history by pointing to the "methodical skepticism" of science and the growth of individual freedom from political and religious absolutism based on power and superstition. Granting that the "materialistic tendency of our age" is one-sided and shortsighted in forgetting the impermanence of material things and the deeper spiritual values of liberty, Peirce also suggests that idealism can receive support from the mastery of material things through the progress of physical sciences. Only the union of the material uses of science with the spiritual goals of a religious humanitarianism can approximate the "majestic symphony" played by the sciences in their rendition of the cosmos. "Materialism without idealism is blind, idealism without materialism is void."]
(Extracts from an Oration Delivered at the Reunion of the Cambridge High School Association Thursday Evening, November 12, 1863)
Ladies and Gentlemen of the High School Association: In attempting to address you, I feel keenly the disadvantage of never having made any matter of general interest a special study. I am, therefore, forced to select a topic on which I have scarcely a right to an original opinion—certainly not to urge my opinion as entitled to much credit. I beg you, then, to regard whatever I say on "The Place of Our Age in the History of Civilization" as such a suggestion as might be put forth in conversation, and nothing more.
By our age I mean the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. There are those who, dazzled by the steam engine and the telegraph, regard the nineteenth century as something sui generis. But this, I think, is doing injustice to ourselves.
Bring Bacon or Newton here, and display to him the wonders our century has to show, and he will tell you, "All this is remarkable and deeply interesting, but it is not surprising. I knew," he will say, "that all this or something very like it must come at this time, for it is nothing more than the certain consequence of the principles laid down by me and my contemporaries for your guidance." Either of them will say this. But now let us turn from the Century to the Age (reckoning from the settlement of Jamestown). Let us bring the sublimest intellect that ever shone before, and what would Dante say? Let him trace the rise of constitutional government, see a down-trodden people steadily bend a haughty dynasty to obedience, give it laws and bring it to trial and execution, and finally reduce it to a convenient cipher; let him see the most enthralled people under the sun blow their rulers into a thousand pieces and establish such a terror that "all the kings of the earth, and the great men and the rich men and the chief captains and the mighty men and every bondman and every freeman hide themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains"; let him see the human mind try its religion in a blazing fire, expose the falsity of its history, the impossibility of its miracles, the humanity of its revelations, until the very "heavens depart as a scroll when it is rolled together"; and then let him see the restless boundary of man's power extending over the outward world, see him dashing through time, conversing through immense distances, doing violence to the lightning, and living in such a fire of activity as less salamandrine generations could not have endured; and he who viewed Hell without dismay would fall to the earth quailing before the terrific might of intellect which God has scattered broadcast over this whole age.
This century's doings taken apart are mere jugglery-clever feats—but this age is that in which "the sun becomes black as sack-cloth of hair, and the moon becomes as blood, and the stars of heaven fall unto the earth even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind."
I equally disagree with those who think we are living in the age of the Reformation. I do so on the ground that there was nothing rationalistic in the tendency of that age. In our time, if we wish to found a new government, religion, or art, we begin at first principles, consider the philosophy of our object and follow it out. But the Reformation, as its name implies, was an attempt to suppress abuses in existing institutions without doing away with the institutions themselves. In religion, they reformed the church, but still they had a church. In our times, new denominations cast aside the church, at least. In politics, they resisted the growing power of royalty, but only in favor of the ancient system. Even their great inventions, gun-powder, printing, and the compass were not the results of original research but were heard of in old books. The discovery of America, itself, was suggested by a study of the ancient geographers. The passion for antiquity was intense, inconceivable to us, except by remembering that the age which had preceded them, that of the Crusades, was far more magnificent than theirs, and that the Greeks were both in mind and manners most evidently their superiors.
Then there was another great difference between them and us: their attempts at emancipating the human mind either from mistake or insufficiency were always failures; their republics were swept away, the power of royalty was more firmly established than ever, their noblest arts perished, and the churches which they had set up gave no more room for freedom of thought than mother Rome herself. There was a stifled cry for liberty—a blind groping for the light, backward instead of onward.
The Reformation was a struggle for humanity to regain its rightful master; in our day the aim is absolute liberty.... But who will say that these are primary tendencies of the age? They are rather reactions against the extravagancies of the times. From the moment when the ball of human progress received its first impetus from the mighty hands of Descartes, of Bacon, and of Galileo, we hear, as the very sound of the stroke, the decisive protest against any authority, however venerable, against any arbiter of truth except our own reason. Descartes is the father of modern metaphysics, and you know it was he who introduced the term "philosophic doubt"; he, first, declaring that a man should begin every investigation entirely without doubt; and he followed a completely independent train of thought, as though, before him, nobody had ever thought anything correctly. Bacon, also, respects no philosophers except certain Greeks [e.g., Democritus] whose works are lost; Aristotle he scouts at, and maintains that there has been no science before his time and that nothing has ever been discovered except by accident.
The human mind having been emancipated by these great skeptics, works of great originality were speedily produced, so that the same century saw the productions of Hobbes, Cudworth, Malebranche, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton. The effect of these works was stupendous. Every question that the human mind had to ask seemed at once answered, and that too by works of such greatness of thought and power of logic that the attention of every reasoning mind was engrossed by them. Their vastness, indeed, was overwhelming; so complete were they, so true, so profound, that at first they seemed to check originality. In the first half of the eighteenth century scarcely anything new seems to have been produced [in philosophy].
At last, however, the ball of progress was struck again. And by whom? By another, more powerful doubter, the immortal Hume. In his day, the philosophical world was divided between the doctrines of Leibniz and Locke, the former of whom maintained the existence of innate ideas while the latter rejected them. Hume, accepting the latter doctrine, which was prevalent in England, asked, "How do we know that every change has a cause?" He demonstrated by invincible logic that upon Locke's system it was impossible to prove this, and that it ought not to be admitted as a principle at all. Of course, the doctrine of a first cause and the very idea of miracles vanish with the notion of causality.
Immanuel Kant was reposing in a firm belief in the metaphysics of Leibniz, as theologized by Wolff, when he first read the book of Hume. How many scholastics, nay how many theologians of our own day, would have done otherwise than say, "Behold the fruit of our opponent's system of philosophy!" This mean, degraded spirit, which is eager to answer an opponent and still remain the slave of error, was far from being Kant's. He set about asking his own philosophy the question that Hume had asked of Locke's. "We say that this and the other are innate ideas," he said, "but how do we know that our innate ideas are true?"
The book [Kant's Critique of Pure Reason] in which he embodied the discussion of this question is, perhaps, the greatest work of the human intellect. All later philosophies are to be classified according to the ideas contained in it, for it is all the direct result of this production. And in these later philosophies, whether we consider their profundity or their number, our age ranges far above all others put together. This wonderful fecundity of thought, I say, is the direct result of Kant's Kritik; and it is to be explained by the fact that Kant presented a more insoluble doubt than all the rest, and one which has not been answered to this day, for while he showed that our innate ideas of space, time, quantity, reality, cause, possibility, and so on are true, he found himself utterly unable to do this respecting the ideas of Immortality, Freedom, and God. Accordingly, all metaphysicians since his time have been endeavoring to remove this difficulty, but not altogether with success.
Hegel's system seemed, at first, satisfactory, but its further development resulted in Strauss' Life of Jesus, against which the human soul, the datum upon which he proceeded, itself cried out; the sense of mankind, which he had elevated into a God, itself repudiated the claim. We thus see, however, that all the progress we have made in philosophy, that is, all that has been made since the Greeks, is the result of that methodical skepticism which is the first element of human freedom.
I need not repeat the political history of the last 250 years to prove the predominance of the spirit of liberty in that sphere. You will find an ever-increasing irreverence toward rulers, from the days of Hampden to ours, when some of the more advanced spirits look forward to the time when there shall be no government. If then, all the glory of our age has sprung from a spirit of Skepticism and Irreverence, it is easy to say where its faults are to be found.
Modern progress, having been detached from its ancient mother by the Dark Ages, that fearful parturition, has since now lived a self-sustaining life. Its growth, its outline, its strength are all its own; influenced to some degree by its parent, but only through an exterior medium. The only cord which ever bound them, and which belonged to either, is Christianity ...?
Modern times, modern breadth of thought, and modern freedom from ecclesiastical superstition followed the Crusades, in place of the mediæval narrowness and fondness for ignorance which had preceded them. The great idea which emerged was that the church is a great and good thing, but that it should not be allowed to override all the other means and appliances of civilization.
We have now come down to the age of the Reformation, the character of which I need not sketch. It seems to me apparent that all this civilization is the work of Christianity....
Christianity is not a doctrine, or a possible law; it is an actual law—a kingdom. And a kingdom over what? "All things shall be put under his feet." What then does it not include? Do you assert that liberty is of any value? "His service is perfect freedom." We are accustomed to say that these phrases are hyperbolical. But that is an unwarrantable assumption—a mere subterfuge to reconcile the statement with the fact. The Jews were given to understand, by every token that language or the miraculous course of history could convey, that they were to be taken care of and saved as a nation. I say that no human being however spiritually minded could have read those Jewish prophecies and have got any other idea from them than that the Messiah these promised them was a Prince, seated upon the throne of his fathers, conducting the affairs of the nation, and leading them on to national glory as much as to individual immortality. When the promise was extended to the Gentiles, it meant the same thing for them. If, therefore, we are Christians, it seems to me we must believe that Christ is now directing the course of history and presiding over the destinies of kings, and that there is no branch of the public weal which does not come within the bounds of his realm. And civilization is nothing but Christianity on the grand scale.
... Now let us see if Christianity, the plot of history, does not follow determinate laws in its development, so that from a consideration of them we can gather where we are and whither we are tending.
Religion ought not to be regarded either as a subjective or an objective phenomenon. That is to say, it is neither something within us nor yet altogether without us—but bears a third relation to us, namely, that of existing in our communion with another being. Nevertheless, religion may be revealed in either of three ways—by an inward self-development, or by seeing it about us, or by a personal communication from the Most High. An example of revealed religion in the first way is natural religion. A man looks upon nature, sees its sublimity and beauty, and his spirit gradually rises to the idea of a God. He does not see the Divinity, nor does nature prove to him the existence of that Being, but it does excite his mind and his imagination until the idea becomes rooted in his heart. In the same way, the continual change and movement in nature suggest the idea of omnipresence. And finally, by the events in his own life, he becomes persuaded of the relation of that Being with his own soul. Such a religion, where all is hinted at, nought revealed, is natural religion. Of much the same character is the religion of the Jews. Though they had miracles, so it appeared did the Egyptians and Canaanites, so that these miracles did not prove their religion. Nowhere did they actually see, for that is not possible except to an already developed spiritual insight, the intimate union of man with God. Their wonderful history led them to believe it, and their prophets told them of it; but all this only amounted to suggestion. And by these suggestions it was impressed.
... In order to understand the history of Christianity or civilization, we must seek to know the successive conditions of the development of religion in man....
The most striking tendency of our age is our materialistic tendency. We see it in the development of the material arts and the material sciences; in the desire to see all our theories, philosophical or moral, exemplified in the material world, and the tendency to value the system only for the practice. This tendency often seems to be opposed to another great movement of our age, the idealistic movement. The idealist regards abstractions as having a real existence. Hence, he places as much value on them as on things. Moreover, by his wide and deep study of the human mind he has proved that the knowledge of things can only be attained by the knowledge of ideas. This truth is very distasteful to the materialist. His object being the ideas contained in things, there is nothing that he would more carefully eradicate than any admixture of ideas from our own minds; so that it seems to him like overturning natural science altogether to tell him that all truth is attained by such an admixture. He thinks at least that nothing more than common sense should be admitted from the mind. This amounts to admitting the loose ideas of the untrained intellect into his science, but to refuse admission to such as have been exercised, strengthened, and developed. He retorts that the conjunction of speculation with science has constantly led to error. Be it so; but then it is only by means of idealism that truth is possible in science. Human learning must fail somewhere. Materialism fails on the side of incompleteness. Idealism always presents a systematic totality, but it must always have some vagueness and thus lead to error. Materialism is destitute of a philosophy. Thus it is necessarily one-sided. It misunderstands its relations to idealism; it misunderstands the nature of its own logic.
Excerpted from CHARLES S. PEIRCE SELECTED WRITINGS by CHARLES S. PEIRCE, PHILIP P. WIENER. Copyright © 1958 Philip P. Wiener. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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