Essay On The Origin Of Thought English Renaissance Literature Essay
'In pretending, therefore, to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a complete system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security.' Kant, for all his habitual caution, claimed no less when he said that his new science would put an end to all the debates of the philosophical schools, and make it possible to solve all the problems of metaphysics at once and for ever.It need not imply any underestimate of what these men actually achieved if we admit that these hopes were in the main unfulfilled, and that the science of human nature, from Locke ( 208) to the present day, has failed to solve the problem of understanding what understanding is, and thus giving the human mind knowledge of itself.It was not through any lack of sympathy with its objects that so judicious a critic as John Grote found himself obliged to treat the 'philosophy of the human mind' as a blind alley out of which it was the duty of thought to escape. Some might say that it was because the undertaking was in principle a mistake: mind cannot know itself. Others, notably the representatives of psychology, would say that the science of these thinkers was not sufficiently scientific : psychology was still in its infancy.But if we ask these same men to produce here and now the practical results for which those early students hoped, they excuse themselves by saying that psychology is still in its infancy.Without some knowledge of himself, his knowledge of other things is imperfect: for to know something without knowing that one knows it is only a half-knowing, and to know that one knows is to know oneself.Self-knowledge is desirable and important to man, not only for its own sake, but as a condition' without which no other knowledge can be critically justified and securely based.It is an old proposal, put forward especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the principles and methods of natural science had been lately perfected and were being triumphantly applied to the investigation of the physical world.When Locke undertook his inquiry into that faculty of understanding which 'sets Man above the rest of sensible Beings, and gives him all the Advantage and Dominion which he has over them', the novelty of his project lay not in his desire for a knowledge of the human mind, but in his attempt to gain it by methods analogous to those of natural science : the collection of observed facts and their arrangement in classificatory schemes.
In studying the world of nature, we begin by getting acquainted with the particular things and particular events that exist and go on there ; then we proceed to understand them, by seeing how they fall into general types and how these general types are interrelated.It is true that the same Cartesian spirit which did so much for physics was already laying the foundations of critical method in history before the seventeenth century was out; but the modern conception of history as a study at once critical and constructive, whose field is the human past in its entirety, and whose method is the reconstruction of that past from documents written and unwritten, critically analysed and interpreted, was not established until the nineteenth, and is even yet not fully worked out in all its implications.Thus history occupies in the world of to-day a position analogous to that occupied by physics in the time of Locke : it is recognized as a special and autonomous form of thought, lately established, whose possibilities have not yet been completely explored: And just as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were materialists, who argued from the success of physics in its own sphere that all reality was physical, so among ourselves the success of history has led some people to suggest that its methods are applicable to all the problems of knowledge, in other words, that all reality is historical. I think that those who assert it are making a mistake of the same kind which the materialists made in the seventeenth century.As applied to the problems of moral and political life, for example, its results would certainly be no less spectacular than were the results of seventeenth-century physics when applied to the mechanical arts in the eighteenth century. Locke thought that by its means he could ' prevail with the busy Mind of Man, to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its Comprehension ; to stop, when it is at the utmost of its Tether ; and to sit down in a quiet Ignorance of those Things, which, upon Examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our Capacities'.At the same time, he was convinced that the powers of our understanding are sufficient for our needs 'in this state', and can give us all the knowledge we require for 'the comfortable provision for this life, and the way that leads to a better'.Let us begin by observing, as carefully as possible, the ways in which our own minds and those of others behave under given circumstances ; then, having become acquainted with these facts of the mental world, let us try to establish the laws which govern them.Here is a proposal for a 'science of human nature' whose principles and methods are conceived on the analogy of those used in the natural sciences.But this is open sophistry: first you say what the mind's nature is, and then you say that because it has this nature no one can know that it has it.Actually, the argument is a counsel of despair, based on recognizing that a certain attempted method of studying the mind has broken down, and on failure to envisage the possibility of any other.since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties.'Tis impossible to tell what changes and improvements we might make in these sciences were we thoroughly acquainted with the extent and force of human understanding.' And in sciences directly concerned with human nature, like morals and politics, his hopes of a beneficent revolution are proportionately higher.