An extract that is the second part of a book review. The first part exposes the thesis of the author, Mr Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, in his book De la Métaphysique, sa nature et ses droits dans ses rapports avec la religion et avec la science, pour servir d’introduction à la Métaphysique d’Aristote. The second part is a critical essay on this book by Lagneau, published in French in Jules Lagneau, Célèbres Leçons et Fragments, pp.23-38, and translated here.
These are the conclusions of M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire. As we see, his book extols the merits of Aristotle, philosophy and Cartesianism and shares all their characteristics. It is bad form to dispute with a panegyric: this sort of work has its own aim, its conditions and criteria. And in fact a meticulous analysis using the very expressions of the author does make some criticism pretty vain. However we ought to draw attention to some points and we shall attempt to give our opinion.
First of all, if we forgot the kind of book its author wants it to be, would it not astonish us that all the reservations he formulates throughout it on the Philosophy of Aristotle do not lead him to sum up his impressions in less exclusively admiring a form? There is here, at least in appearance, a contradiction of which Mr Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire’s explanation would have been interesting to hear. If it is true that Aristotle misunderstood the true sense of the Platonism he so vividly treated, if his own theory of the substance is more logical, more grammatical even than metaphysical, and if the same can be said of his theory of the four causations, if the only thing laudable in his great work are his theories on the principle of contradiction, of universal finality and of the intelligible agent, would it not be possible to draw from there some clarifications as to his system and his philosophical personality? Aristotle was above all a great logician and a great scientist. As for the philosopher, perhaps we would characterize him well saying that, when he worked out his metaphysics he was still doing logic and science in his own way, an extended logic and science. He never drew a clear line between these two fields, better, these two aspects of human knowledge, science and philosophy, so clearly separated by his master. It would seem that the difference between the two systems lies entirely therein. If one does not see this, one understands neither the reason nor the scope of Aristotle’s criticism of a philosophy that begat his own and so similar in appearance. But let us begin this discussion.
Are ideas outside things, as Aristotle holds it in his interprÉtation of Platonism, or inside things, as M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire asserts? Maybe neither the one nor the other, and for Plato the question of transcendence did not arise. What he truly thought, we daresay, was not that the ideas exist outside the mind, inside the things or outside them, but within the very mind itself; this in his eyes did not make them any less the true reality of these things, their reality for the mind which through these ideas explains the things to itself by relating them to its own nature, the moral nature. Unlike the psychologists and idealists that came before him, or Aristotle and the metaphysicians that came after him, Plato is not a theoretician of the objective, but of the subjective: he is not working out a Physics, that is an elementary study of the things considered in themselves, in the independent and material existence thinking supposes to be theirs; nor is he working out a metaphysics, that is a full explanation of this things based on their equally objective principles; what he is doing is a dialectic, that is a rational and moral psychology, an analytical study of things in the mind, of the knowledge he has of them, of his explanation of them, in conformity to his own nature. What things are or rather what they seem to be, in their outward making, is the physicist’s business; Plato does not bother with it. He looks down on this science in which the mind does learn not what is of interest to itself, how beings, or rather ideas, relate to it, to its principle, the Good, that is their explanation, their true reality, their value. Because things have two kinds of existence, one sensible, that is obscure, opaque, impenetrable, that thinking cannot grasp, the other intelligible, that does not consist in what things are, but in what they are worth, that is in what they are to the mind; it is only in the mind that they have this existence, which can be neither numbered nor weighed, but which, above number, supposes its own measure, subjective, love, the feeling of perfection.
In a way therefore one may hold Plato to be a dualist, a partisan of transcendence; these expressions however are not accurate. When speaking of transcendence, of dualism, one implicitly admits that the two worlds one supposes have at least this in common that they both belong to a superior kind that enables us to number them, that of Being, taken to mean the same for both worlds. In the case of Plato this is not the case. The two realms that he supposes or rather that he distinguishes have nothing in common; it is because language is insufficient, or rather by the effect of an inner deception, a sort of natural lie, a weakness maybe, that one attributes equally both to the one and to the other what one refers to by the name of existence. The intelligible world is not some sort of reproduction or model, properly speaking, of the sensible world, but this world as seen by the mind, through itself, that is lit with the light of morals, acquiring a superior meaning and reality through its relation to Good, conceived, wanted and posited as the sole Being worthy of the name, independent, grounded in itself, Spinoza would say, in the realistic language of Aristotle, as the only substance. In other words, we could say today, this world is only the set, or better, the succession, the hierarchy of moral statements, of the judgements that the mind formulates about the sensible world and through which it makes it participate to its own existence, after all the only one that it understands. This existence is not, unlike the other, arrested and constant, but, at least in appearance, moving, unfathomable, endlessly following the motion of the mind that seeks it in things, and does not find it there because it is in itself. But, as this ideal escapes it and that it experiences the impossibility to attain it outside, its awareness of it becomes more vivid, and the reflection of this awareness falls upon the things. Henceforth their images, in a new light, are transformed, receive a new value, a beauty, and this beauty becomes for the mind more than their raison d’être, their true being. To the extent that they are beautiful, they exist, they partake in perfection: the aesthetic and moral feeling makes us perceive this reality of a new kind, that of ideas endlessly surpassing and escaping one another, ever more subtle, driving thinking beyond objective forms, towards subjective perfection, without matter. Yet this reality is nothing outside the mind, outside the always provisory acts positing it. In one word, ideas have for Plato a strictly subjective existence, being what the mind puts of itself into the objects. These two worlds are then in the end only one; but this one world takes on two existences according to the standpoint of the mind looking at it. The mind can envisage it from two points of view, that of mechanism and that of finality, that of being and that of Good. The first point of view is that of science, the second that of Philosophy. However far science would advance to its ultimate limits, reach the elements of things, it would only witness a blind fact, it would explain nothing; philosophy alone, studying not the thing, but the mind that sustains it, and thereby what of itself it puts therein, makes it intelligible, reaches an explanation. In the mind, the thing acquires a meaning: it becomes the idea, ideas.
Hence it would seem that it is wrongly that Aristotle, giving the abstract, dialectical language of his master a concrete and metaphysical sense, blames him for isolating ideas in a transcendent world that is an unnecessary double of the first. M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire is right to attribute an altogether symbolic meaning to the passages one might invoke in support of this accusation. Far from deceiving himself, Plato almost always warns us that we must not take his fictions literally, in fact that is to see in his dialectic, not a metaphysic, but a subjective theory of knowledge, a moral psychology. His ideas, eternal as to their ultimate content, the Good that posits them, are not in their essence, unlike Aristotle’s genres, objective, permanent essences, but the series of symbols the mind traverses, or rather of the sheet it peels off, in its quest for the moral absolute.
Of the master and the disciple therefore, the true realist is the latter. For him, from the sensible realm, caught in eternal motion, from the first matter to the immovable agent, to the perfect intelligence, alone worthy to be its own object, all that exists makes up a unique system, real in the common meaning, and homogeneous, of objective forms, spread out on a single level, that engender one another and bring to the last elements of this vast body the reality springing from the highest form, pure thought, pure being, free of void, concrete perfection. Not only then in his eyes are there not two worlds, but there is on the only world a single perspective, the intellectual point of view of the objective being, of substance. The region of principles and cause is the mere continuation of the sensible forms, and metaphysics is not anything other than an extension of physics, a superior physics, destined like the others to make us comprehend the realities. Aristotle, accusing his master of doubling the sensible world, does not do that; he does better: he extends it beyond its limits and the field of experience all the way to the first cause, one step away from identifying their natures. He does not explain the real by the ideal, the being through which everything, while supposing it, domineers it and pertains by right to itself alone, but by more being, which properly amounts to increasing the difficulty by the addition of a gratuitous hypothesis that explains nothing, having itself to be explained. Therefore Aristotle merits to the highest degree the reproach he addresses to his master, that of doubling the difficulty without resolving it. Instead of superposing upon the real world (we have already explained this superposition) a world of ideas, he stretches it into a world of allegedly solid substances, like what they explain. Of the two men, who realises abstractions, the theoretician of ideas, or the one of substance; the author of the dialectic or the father of metaphysical logic; the philosopher for whom true being, the reason of all things in the eyes of the mind, is the ideal being, qualitative, that quantity neither realises nor expresses, that one may therefore call nothingness from the point of view of the sensible, or he to whom the universal cause is full reality, the term of objective evolution, achievement par excellence, the supreme entelechy? However hard Aristotle calls this cause the thought of thought, he still fails to enter the genuinely subjective, that is moral, order, where Plato is installed and stays from the start; because his dialectic of the world can be defined as a theory not of the world and its existence, but of the soul and its life, whose very thinking, at least to the extent to which it relates to objective being, is just clothing or symbol. Aristotle never raised to this superior point of view: his conception and his theory of Being never went beyond that of concrete being that were, he himself states, the original trait of his philosophy. This was philosophising as a scientist, in love with reality and experience, as an artist too, rather than, strictly speaking, as a platonic philosopher, that is as a mind emancipated from appearances and their form, resolved to seek their reason in a different order. It was presenting a metaphysical theory of positive science, that is to consider the object of this science, the concrete, at least as regards its highest degree, as the true, absolute being; in other words it was turning philosophy into a metaphysics.
Hence is it justly that Aristotle is thought of as both the founder of empiricism and as the father of metaphysics, the one that dogmatises in the manner of a science and, when confronted with notions that it ought precisely to try to criticise, believes itself able to reach existences or prove them. At first it is surprising that a single philosopher can be invoked both as the ancestor of experimental science and as that of dogmatic metaphysics: this fact becomes self-explanatory after what has been said.
The individualistic realism of Aristotle was pregnant with scholastics; its entities and its logical concretions, and with it Cartesian theology, which is like its reduced form and scientific formula, further condensed and posited as a principle in a definition by Spinoza. But what is this Being-Sum, this immovable and infinite substance? Is it not, under its first name, this I don’t know what of permanent, motion, force or matter, that science since Descartes even, states a priori as constituting the ground of its object? Hence we see that dogmatic metaphysics, daughter of Aristotle, is, despite its moral and theological pretensions, nothing other than a metaphysics of the experience, a concrete symbolism of its necessary postulates, more or less synthetic according to times and minds. In other words it is a transcendental logic ignorant of itself.
Different altogether is philosophy for some minds who, following Plato, seek to go beyond nature, not by continuing it into another, but by crossing it, to find in a new order, freely posited, the moral reason of sensible appearances, things and thoughts, that is their true explanation. For these minds that have grown out of themselves, philosophy does not double science: it is a genuine metaphysics, a movement beyond, an effort, not to seize realities that would explain, albeit as analogies, those of nature, but to understand from a higher point of view the law itself, that is the necessity by virtue of which the mind spontaneously posits the one and the other. This moral dialectic must not be mixed up with a philosophy which, following the example of Kant, first rejects metaphysics as such, and then collects its essential dogmas and ultimate conclusions no longer as knowledge but as articles of moral faith. It is clear that this philosophy, although it starts out as a criticism, is only partly emancipated from that which it condemns since it follows, in fact, in a roundabout way, the same chimera as did the old metaphysics, the transcendental reality, and continues to admit implicitly, as a starting point, to be held true afterwards, Aristotle’s principle that the real, full, objective being can alone explain things in the making. If we adopt the point of view discussed above, we will see in this idea of the objective being (substance, thing in itself) the history of which, from Aristotle to Spinoza, is the very one of metaphysics, just a pure idea, one of these unstable forms generated by the mind according to certain laws the sense, the moral reason, of which remain to be discovered.
A philosophy that would understand its object in this way would not be a metaphysic in the ordinary meaning, but a critique or rather an ideal genesis of pure reason, objective, undertaken by practical reason, subjective and the only one to be truly a priori. It would be a moral ideology, a dialectic in the sense of Plato. In ancient metaphysics pure reason suffers and is ignorant of itself; in the philosophy of Kant it knows itself, but its knowledge is empirical and, since it cannot explain itself, it must be suffered; the philosophy we speak of here tries to explain reason and to go beyond it, showing that neither its objective products nor its subjective forms have any reality as such, since we can explain the process that gives rise to them. Intellectual realism, in its spontaneous form, metaphysics, and in its reflected form, the critique, is thus only the starting point or to say it better the field of study, the subject matter of moral idealism, that in all its concretions sees two things, idols to smash, symbols to clarify.
The development that these ideas would want in order to acquire a value cannot be dealt with here. It is enough that we have pointed out the different points of view that separate Aristotle and Plato. This altogether subjective point of view establishes within their doctrines, even in the parts where they appear to superficially coincide, an intimate contrast which well explains the harsh and immoderate aspects of the disciple’s criticism. A positive extroverted mind, formed in the school of logic and observation of the sensible, accustomed to look everywhere for perceived or proven facts. In the first philosophy Aristotle could only see a system of objective science, a concrete theory of its principles: he created metaphysics. While a science of principles Aristotle’s philosophy is still a science, at least in its intention; that of Plato wants to be better. While reflecting the world without descending into it, it is inside the mind that it studies it, in the acts that transfigure it while making it participate in this higher life in which right and duty become true Being, in which Good becomes light, love becomes reason and practice becomes supreme theory. Plato’s philosopher is not a scientist, he is a teacher, and the dialectic and what depends on it, are what will certainly be the science of the future, a method of morals.
We therefore side with M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire when he accuses Aristotle to have misunderstood Platonism, although he does not keep his promise to quote the decisive texts that would lend support to his ideas. This we do not hold against him since we do not believe in decisive texts, in truth that go without saying, all too welcome in a century that likes a science accessible to workers. M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire recognises that Plato’s language is equivocal: is this not admitting that in his case quotations and lazy arguments do not suffice, that one has to be prepared to interpret, to descend into these depths in which we find, hidden and barely conscious, the principles of his doctrines? True, this is a hard and perilous thing; but all philosophy is an adventure.
The philosophy of the future will be of a new sort. Everything seems to indicate that, letting go of dogmatic statements that serve its own purpose on the problems metaphysics settled and that have shown themselves to be insoluble, it will increasingly lock itself into history and criticism and become, while awaiting the always possible resumption of instinct and of nature, a rational physiology of spontaneity in its double form, religious and metaphysical, in the series of its own works and incarnations. Such a philosophy would be a history and a critique of human thinking, a metaphysics one may say, not of things, but of the mind: it would be the mind growing out of itself, emancipating from its false, opaque, inconsistent nature, one loaded empirically and inherited from the inferior life it stems from, judging it and surpassing it.
If this is to be the philosophy of tomorrow, if this task may already tempt critical and independent minds, armed with the modern, less curious of authorities and arguments in favour of their natural beliefs than of the spectacle of the human min, then M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire is not one of these curious or audacious individuals. Having rÊtreated to the faraway tops of Peripateticism, at peace with his conscience, his thinking and with common sense, he has not heard the bells of the new philosophy which demands reason to show its titles, in order to examine them, and summons all philosophy to its law court. If he once heard it, he no longer does so out of a long time of indifference, and firmly believes that silence has been re-established. He would be very astonished were we to tell him that never during his lifetime did Kant’s thinking exert the sovereign influence over minds that it has been exerting for the last ten years, that in Germany most contemporary doctrines invoke it as their natural premise, and that in France the legacy of academic philosophy is in the hands of a young generation formed with Kantian discipline, which it is not ready to relinquish.
Whatever will become of this hope, Kantism will have marked human thinking with a seal that nothing will erase. “One can,” it used to be written, “live for a long time without saying certain things. Once they have been said, it is not possible to go back to one’s former standpoint.” Kant’s philosophy is one of these things. He has forgotten it who advises us to go back to the Cartesian splendour, also called clarity.
The clear ideas, these ideas that nature imposes, that common sense ratifies, and that the mind recognises for its own, because they are its own contribution, its first production of its exploitation of thinking life, are not philosophy itself, but its starting point, or if one wants, its raw materials. Of course one cannot say that philosophy ceases where clarity begins (because some clarity begins with philosophy); at least one can assert that where clarity lasts and has not been interrupted, there philosophy has not yet begun.
It is in this sense that Aristotle said with depth, in the first book of the Metaphysics, that astonishment is the beginning of philosophy. The famous passage of Phaedo in which Socrates tells of his first studies and of the first revelation he had of philosophy gives us something akin to an anticipated form of this same idea. Before this revelation all seemed clear and natural. “How come that man grows? I thought that it was obvious to everybody that it is because he is eating and drinking…That what was just a small volume would grow and increase, and that in this manner a man from having been small becomes very tall… I similarly believed that I knew why a man was taller than another man, because he had a whole head more, and a horse bigger than another horse; and on matters still clearer I thought that ten was more than eight because one had added two, and that two yards were more than one yard because they surpassed them by a half… Now by Jupiter I am so far from understanding any of these things that I don’t even think I know, when one has been added to one, if it is the one that has been added to another that has become two or if it is the one that is added and the one it is added to that together become two, because of this addition of the one to the other…Worse, I don’t even think I know why one is one, not, at least by natural light (outside philosophy), how the slightest thing is born, perishes or exists.” The day when Socrates sees his natural clarity, the one of obviousness and common sense, thus give way to thinking then he enters philosophy.
Because philosophy is nothing other than the mind’s effort to account for obviousness, than to clarify little by little, by descending into it, but with an artificial and always flickering light, these infinite understreams of thought that prudent nature at first conceals from us, yet where natural, permanent light takes its source, the one that lights consciousness and yet of which she never asks, save in brief instants, from where it comes. Putting it audaciously, to philosophise is to explain, in the common sense of these words, the clear with the obscure, clarum per obscurius.
We should not be astonished that many minds are little tempted by toil of this sort and even consider it rather frivolous. Comfortable inside the good old light of the obvious, they are content with it; it is their way of being philosophers. The obscure clarity of philosophy would not add anything to the light in which nature has carefully wrapped the ideas and things they need to know, or better, perceive. They stop at these things, in full light, courting the peril of neither astonishment nor curiosity: they are neither confused nor lost. Writers, moralists, orators, men of wit, honest people, careful observers, collectors of facts which they arrange into systems for the agreement of the eye, there is enough for them outside this demanding thing, philosophy properly speaking, which resigns into obscurity in order to be philosophy.
It is obscure: that does not mean that it does not light the mind; on the contrary it has its own clarity, well above that of the obvious, a brutal clarity explaining nothing, that hits and subdues. Yet conquering this other clarity requires effort and some courage: one must part with oneself, with nature and the prejudice it imposes; one has to go out of the cave. The prisoners of the cave are the prisoners of obviousness. As long as they confine to it, it is not easier to make them believe in a better light than to give, by way of reasoning, the idea of an aesthetic sentiment to a mind that a long culture has not trained it to feel. Beautiful things are perceived by our senses before giving us the impression of beauty: we first see them, hear them. What one does not see, that is the object of philosophy, because consciousness does not reach the surface of thinking. Philosophy, reflection must conclude from this surface to the depth it hides, conjecture the principle beneath the fact, in the mass the imperceptible element. It must think it, bring it to a standstill, connect it with a logical, necessary link to what it wants to explain, defend this explanation, that is this hypothesis, using others, and cease this retrograde motion only before the last hypothesis which, presupposing nothing, sustained in itself, absolute in one word, would sustain everything else including original clarity. The strongest minds need time to develop in themselves the faculty to see and create inside the invisible, and as long as they have not done this they are philosophers in the same way as you are a geometrician at the stage when you are not yet able to see a solid in a two-dimensional figure, or a natural scientist unaccustomed to the microscope.
Hence philosophy demands not so much an initiation, because to initiate is to reveal a secret, and there is no secret that would make you a philosopher, but a slow and regular preparation, a complete education of the mind. All men have eyes and ears, and the pretension to judge for themselves the impressions thence received; this does not, at birth, make them painters, musicians or critics of art. A few, rather gifted ones, may become this if they study. Neither does one become an astronomer from improvisation, even though one may without much effort gain some quite precise notions about the movement of asters. Common sense, the light of intelligence, a nice gift, developed even by solid but general education, will these suffice to make a philosopher? Certainly so if philosophy consists in replying by a more or less evolved yes or no to questions of the kind that admit of that sort of answer. But if it is something else, if it is to look for the reason of these answers and questions that nature suggests, break down through analysis these allegedly simple facts, dissect the organ of the mind and reveal to consciousness a whole world of subtle elements that escape it, annihilated or transfigured from the combinations of inner life, how would such a science, such physiology and chemistry of thinking, be accessible prior to studying to the merely curious, be they men of common sense and good intellect? Is there any science into which the benevolent reader enters at street-level? Philosophy, one may say, is not a science; yet the reason barring it from being one, the impossibility in which it is to use objective intuition and measurements, making it necessary for it to use intuition and subjective measurements, that is leaving it all to abstract concept and to reflective judgement, imposes by this very fact to the philosopher the condition of an intense, abnormal development of these faculties. However philosophy alone, in the strict sense of the term, the independent, at once critical and architectonic, exercise of thinking, does develop them. This means that it is here we should think of the old saying: Fil fabricando faber.
Consequently a philosophy worthy of the name must remain inaccessible to the exoteric reader who skims through it like he would a literary work, in pursuit of the dénouement, of the conclusion, without himself philosophising, without reworking for himself the work of the author: it is necessary that both know this from the start and resolve to do it. Philosophy is essentially esoteric: it will be even more so as it gains better awareness of itself and stops co-working with what is not itself, religion, poetry, eloquence and common sense.
Poetry and eloquence want to address the heart, stir it and master it; they succeed in this by conferring to the imagination a considerable, yet easy, task, by seducing it with an aesthetic clarity that has its source in the abundance, the vivaciousness and the harmony of images. Philosophy could try for all it is worth: its abstractions do not possess clarity of this sort. It needs subtle images, themselves abstract, that do not arrest the mind instead of facilitating its passage beyond; it is the understanding that it addresses, inviting it not to rest but to give itself free reins. By the object of its pursuit it is no less different from religion and common sense. What do religion and common sense want? Results. As long as these are clear and impose themselves with authority, all is well. In true philosophy, no results, I mean ones that will have been pursued; they are given beforehand: instead of looking for them, they are the starting point, not even to be founded, but interpreted, and to explain from the most deeply subjective perspective the belief that posits them. Philosophy therefore, far from aiming for common clarity or even accepting it, is instead better defined as: an effort of the mind to understand with difficulty the simple things and to free itself from what seems originally obvious.
Yet freeing oneself is not to destroying, nor is explaining the same as justifying; one wrongly pictures philosophy as either founding natural beliefs or throwing them on their heads. The cause of this mistake is in the imperfection of philosophical language that scarcely ever has more than a single word to designate beliefs and the interprÉtations one gives of them. To take an example: it is not true from our point of view that Spinoza denies freedom, the one in which one naturally believes; he rejects one interprÉtation of it and replaces it with his own. Hence, while denying liberty, he still founds a morality, and the very purest of moralities. Hence the strangest philosophies, those most contrary to common sense, may also admit of one, in other words all speculation, even the most daring one, is compatible with, whatever one may have to say about it, with the most irreproachable practice. Even the moral doctrines whose principles are the most outrageous restore, in their application, most of its rights to conscience.
This because philosophy, if it construes the ideal mind in order to explain the real mind, must all the same carry the yoke of the latter. Nature creates the species; it is not within the power of philosophy to create another one to replace it; yet within the limits and scope of the species, it creates the free individual, subjectively liberated through reflection. He appears out of it, he cannot be detached from it; he is embroidered on a given weft, which though covered is still there. Nature sustains philosophy and philosophy does not remove nature. Admittedly philosophy deals freely with nature; it treats it as an appearance, but an indefectible one; and to he who has not come, through philosophical reflection, to give a precise meaning to the idea of appearance through conferring some to the contrary idea, a lasting appearance, is that not a reality?
Hence philosophy, without tearing natural belief away from the mind, puzzles its confidence in it and gives it a feeling of obscurity. In addition it obliges it to create its own object, that is first of all its own language, a new language, personal in the same way as what it is to provide. Hence the huge effort demanded by philosophical invention, an effort similar to the one a mathematician must make in order to move back the limits of science; bigger perhaps because the philosopher does not have at his disposal a well-defined system of signs. He lacks the form, numbers and concrete measurements to create; yet create he must.
This explains the difficulty on experiences when trying to enter into the philosophical thinking of someone else, I mean into a genuinely personal thinking. The more original a philosopher, the more profound and systematic, that is the further he moves away from the banal, clear and almost always contradictory conceptions of common sense, the more effort it costs to those following him to be the same in the same way. They have to take over his language, recover through patient guesswork his point of view on each idea, slowly correct each of his discoveries the one with other as they move along, until the moment when all becomes clear, seen from a certain centre where they had positioned themselves in order to embrace his thinking. This delicate centre, how is one to reach it, how will one recognise it, when instead of descending into a work in order to master it, one is content with sliding on its surface, having decided at the start that one will find in it one’s own opinions or that one will criticise the details, that is from outside, the thinking of the author? Mostly this is how one reads the philosophers. Is it surprising that one does not give preference to those who have gone furthest into things and into their own mind? One finds them obscure: their light is not to be found at the surface, in the words and in the images. One will find it if one takes the trouble to look for it where it is. One will find a light fuller and more intimate because, instead of lighting up things, it penetrates them and makes them so to speak more transparent. This is the clarity of the Critique, the deep clarity in three dimensions. Being no threat to the other it is worth conquering. “If the path I have shown to lead to this goal, says Spinoza at the end of the Ethics, seems difficult to reach, nevertheless it is not unfeasible. How could one not think that it is hard a path to follow when this is so rarely done? But all truly beautiful things are as difficult as they are rare.” For a single true botanist who dissects the tissues from plants and, in the energetic words of Bacon, hunts nature down to its most inaccessible regions, how many amateurs don’t we find who are content with looking at them, find them pretty, collect them occasionally to put them in a certain order, never tempted to undertake, consider even, less simple a task! There are also two botanics.
Whatever the preferences of M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire for another philosophy, we could not allow him to believe that Kantism, this modern incarnation of obscure philosophy, would today be completely forgotten.
Does he not also underestimate the importance of the two thousand years that separate Aristotle from Descartes? During this period the history of philosophy counts many illustrious a name, and however important the era inaugurated by Descartes, it would be worth marking the transition. Doubtlessly, despite the difference as to the times, environments and minds, his philosophy and that of Aristotle have some things in common. Both are the works of men primarily concerned with the interests of science, anxious to establish its edifice by giving the mind awareness of itself, as well as a method and faith in its faculties. Nonetheless an abysm divides these philosophies: Christianity. To what revolution did the Christian idea, or better said the Christian sentiment, subject the metaphysical idea of Antiquity? How did Scholastics come out of this revolution, and from Descartes scholasticism? It would be interesting to look into it.
As to its content, the philosophy of Descartes belongs to the Middle Ages, of which thinking it is a condensation: it is modern, almost critical through its form, through the effort it makes to establish itself scientifically on a solid, permanent basis, that is, one inside the mind instead of pegging itself onto external hypotheses. The subjectivism of Berkeley, the phenomenism of Hume, of Kant, are budding in the Cogito Ergo Sum. The bridge that Descartes tries to build between the mind and the world will first be found impracticable, then unnecessary.
The whole of Descartes’ metaphysics and his school is destined to create this passage: it is the consequence of dualism, and according to Descartes objective science would not have been founded had the enterprise not succeeded. M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire therefore misunderstands his thinking when he states that in the end the Cogito ergo sum implied for Descartes the affirmation of the external world. Descartes positively denies this many times. He denies that in his axiom the act of thinking could be replaced with any act of body, because this act would pertain to the outside world the existence of which is still problematic; unless, he says, one means the simple thought of this act, thereby conforming to the true form of the axiom: I think (that I am doing this or that), therefore I am.
We shall not discuss the severe judgement M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire believes he must once more inflict on Spinoza. We shall limit ourselves to asking if one can seriously deny that the author of the Ethics has a moral, he to whom all of philosophy was a moral? No doubt he rejects free will; yet the object of his entire philosophy is to substitute to this interprÉtation that he judges to be wrong an innate endowment of the mind, an interprÉtation he believes to be true. We have said it already, to philosophise is to interpret. Does M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire not himself interpret when he sees in Spinoza an unconscious disciple of the Hindu Munis and the Bhuddist Arhats, an apostle of the Nirvâna? Unless one resolutely denies four books of his work and draws one’s own conclusions out of the first, it seems difficult to see a mystic “ready to abdicate human nature” in this Cartesian Jew so attached to the earth, to practical and sensitive life, that in his eyes each perfection of the soul is just the reverse of a perfection of the body, and that one only develops the one through developing the other. M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire is still interpreting, we think, when he labels the Ethics a sad novel; Spinoza had called it a Treatise on Beatitude and, judging by the feeling his work inspires, it would seem that he was not wrong. We can even say that no philosophy is less sad than his, seen as it is and not from the point of view of what our precipitation and our prevention put in its place. One can see anything in some doctrines, too comprehensive to be embraced from outside, too profound for one to reach effortlessly, when descending towards it, the true centre of their perspective. One can see everything in them because their authors have seen all and gone beyond all. That is the mark of the true philosopher: it particularly distinguishes Spinoza; yet however much his work may welcome the most inadequate and contradictory interprÉtations, restrictions apply.
M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire only wants to see Descartes on par with Aristotle. After Spinoza comes Leibniz, then Kant who “was completely and heavily mistaken”. This is a hard sentence. One must not say too many bad things about great men. Voltaire says that this brings ill luck. But M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire believes the XIXth century to be on his side.
After have been said above to justify a certain and altogether modern conception of philosophy, it would perhaps be superfluous to discuss in detail the one exposed by the author in the last pages of his book: the difference is already patent. Whatever M. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire has to say about it something has changed in philosophy. Even in France, since a few years, one is severe with it. One no longer asks philosophy to settle questions, which is easy, but to ask them first, which is less easy, to be the system, a science for the invincible ignorance, the one that is most a science, because it alone detaches the mind, straightens it and gives it some attitude. Of course our time is still full of amateurs, of noisy philosophers from outside, and a public, at least a certain public who, liking noise, listens to them, sometimes makes them a fortune. As long as he has facts or what he calls that, and answers, he is happy and does not worry much to know what it is really about and if the problems have even been laid out. But the public who has only changed altar, from the right-thinking sound-void to the superficial pedantry that pretends to science, is not the judge here, and true judges keep quiet: every day makes them more severe. Not without reason.
The more empirical knowledge increases, the more necessary it becomes for philosophy, in order to stay alive, to grow its roots, to descend deeply into things and ideas. The surface does not belong to it; it must give up following those who purport to be its opponents, walking in their field and carrying their weapons: because their numbers are superior, and with equal weapons, the battle would be short. Instead of scattering, it has to recollect and redefine itself. Good minds who do not fear studying and thinking, who are not carried away by major reasons, who are neither stirred by the clatter of words, nor seduced by facts both poorly perceived and arbitrarily rendered, have always been few: they still are; yet this small number has been sufficient for philosophy to subsist. It has to be content with it today, probably tomorrow, as it was content with it yesterday. It is to them it has to speak, and their language, neither worrying that the crowds will not understand them nor respond to noise with more noise. What they want is that one does not waste their time, ever more precious for everyday, that one only tells them what one has seen clearly, better than others, in one word that one genuinely and deeply philosophises, in order to leave something behind, if possible.