Philosophy Depends Upon History
It is equally certain that philosophy is impossible without history ; for any theory must be a theory of facts, and if there were no facts there would be no occasion for theory. But in asserting the necessity of history to philosophy we must guard against certain misunderstandings.
In the first place, the above statement may be interpreted to mean that philosophy develops or evolves along fixed lines, has a definite history of its own in the sense of a movement in which each phase emerges necessarily from the preceding phase, and therefore philosophy (i.e. the state of philosophical thought now) depends absolutely upon history (i.e. its own previous history).
As against such a view it must be pointed out that philosophy is a human activity, not a mechanical process ; and is therefore free and not in any sense necessitated either by its own past or anything else.
Doubtless every philosopher owes much to his predecessors ; thought is a corporate activity, like every other. But the dependence of Hegel upon Kant, say, is of quite a different kind from the dependence indicated by the above theory. Hegel’s work is based upon Kant, in the sense that many of Kant’s truths are Hegel’s truths too ; but Kant also makes errors which Hegel corrects. The error is not the basis of the truth but the opposite of it. It may, and indeed in a sense must, lead to it ; because an error cannot be refuted till it has been stated. But the statement of the error is not the cause of its refutation.
The word “ cause ” is simply inapplicable ; for we are dealing with the free activity of the mind, not with a mechanical process. And therefore this theory uses the word dependence in a misleading sense.
Secondly, philosophy may be said to depend on history in the sense that history, the gradual and cumulative experience of facts, is necessary before we can frame philosophical theories on a broad enough basis.
The wider a man’s experience, the more likely his generalisations are to be true. The same applies to the human race in general ; we have been accumulating facts little by little for centuries now, and consequently we are a great deal better equipped for philosophising than were, for instance, the Greeks.
This theory expresses a point of view which is always widely held ; it is an attitude towards the world whose technical name is empiricism, and of which the dominant note is the abstract insistence on mere number or size. It reckons wisdom by the quantity of different things a man knows, and certainty by the number of different times a statement comes true; it holds that a man broadens his views by travelling, and stunts them by living at home; it measures everything in two dimensions, and forgets the existence of a third.
As a matter of fact— one is almost ashamed of having to utter such truisms—he who accumulates information alone is very likely to accumulate not merely sorrow but indigestion of the mind ; if he cannot understand himself, he is not necessarily the wiser for trying to understand others ; if he cannot learn truth at home, he will certainly not learn it abroad. It is true that more facts of some kinds are known to the learned world now than in the time of Socrates ; but it does not follow that we are all wiser than Socrates. The notion of establishing theories on a broad basis is, in short, an error ; itself based upon a broad, but extremely superficial, theory of logic.
What matters in the foundations of a theory is not their breadth but their depth ; the thorough understanding of a single fact, not the feverish accumulation of a thousand.
History must be regarded not as a mechanical process, nor yet as a gradual accumulation of truths, but simply as objec- tivity; as the real fact of which we are conscious. History is that which actually exists ; fact, as something independent of my own or your knowledge of it. In this sense there would be no philosophy without it; for no form of consciousness can exist without an object.
We are not expelling from history the notion of movement ; for if we are asked, what is the nature of this reality of which we are conscious ? we shall reply that it is itself activity, growth, development; but not development in any automatic or mechanical sense.