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In the positive stage the mind, convinced of the futility of all enquiry into causes and essences, applies itself to the observation and classification of laws which regulate effects: that is to say, the invariable relations of succession and similitude which all things bear to each other. The highest condition of this stage would be, to be able to represent all phenomena as the various particulars of one general view.
These three stages do not always occur in strictly chronological order. Some sciences arrive more rapidly than others at the positive stage. Astronomy, for example, is now in so positive a condition, that we need nothing but the laws of dynamics and gravitation to explain all celestial phenomena: and we know that our explanation is correct, so far as we can know anything, because we can calculate and predict the fact as it actually falls out, we can, for example, calculate the season of a comet's return, and fix accurately at the year's beginning when the sun will rise upon each day throughout its course. But meteorology is not yet in the positive stage, and so people are still found to pray for rain or fair weather : whereas, once the laws of meteorology settled, men would not pray for rain any more than they would pray that the sun might rise at midnight. If rain is to come, it will come ; and no supernatural power, so far as we have reason to think, will intermeddle in the matter. And the same man may have attained to the positive stage in one science, while he has only reached the metaphysical in another, and is groping in the theological in a third. Mr. Lewes says:— -
The same man who in physics may be said to have arrived at the positive stage, and who recognises no other object of enquiry than the laws of phenomena, will be found still a slave to the metaphysical stage in biology, and endeavouring to detect the cause of life, and so little emancipated from the supernatural stage in sociology, that if you talk to him of the possibility of a science of history, or a social science, he will laugh at you as a * theorizer.”
Such, then, is the Positive philosophy; if indeed, we may so term a system which denies the possibility of any philosophy at all. It watches, it observes, it notes down, it does not pretend to explain. But it does more than merely pretermit explanation. If it did no more than that, it would simply be the philosophy of induction and generalisation, under another name. But it denies the possibility of explanation. It holds it folly to attempt explanation. It believes what it sees ; but it goes further, and believes nothing which it does not see. It is nothing new to tell us that in metaphysical as in material science we must proceed by the method of induction, by observing phenomena, noting them, and classifying them. The essential characteristic of Positivism is rather in what it forbids than in what it commands. It says to us, observe, note, classify, and stop THERE. Do not reason or infer from what you see. And it is on the stop there that Positivism lays the emphasis. It is because this is well understood, that Positivism is regarded with suspicion. It is because this is so, that Positivism is dangerous. Either the stop there is not the differentia of Positivism—and then it is a system of sulky submission to the old logic of induction and the Scotch school of common sense: or the stop there is the differentia of Positivism—and then
let a man clearly understand, before he receives it, how much it bids him stop short of. For it is only too plain, that Positivism bids us stop short of all theology, of all religion, perhaps of all morality. Positivism is Atheism. Not that it expressly says, “There is no God:’ but that it shakes its head when a Deity is mentioned, and says, “I know nothing at all about that.” It says, “I see phenomena succeeding other phenomena; but I do not ask, and I do not know, why. That is beyond my sphere : and it is beyond my sphere, because it is beyond the sphere to which the human mind is limited. You say that law can do nothing; that it simply is the mode in which a real agent must be working. I have nothing to say about that ; and I advise you to have nothing to do with it either. Keep to what you can see. What cannot be seen, may be, or may not be. I do not pretend to know which alternative is right, but my inclination is towards the latter.” Such is the real teaching of the Positivism of the present day. Not that we for a moment suggest that Mr. Lewes is prepared to go that length. We know too well how men wedded to any principle whatever, will shake themselves free of consequences from that principle which all but themselves discern to be inevitable. We infer nothing as to Mr. Lewes's ulterior belief, from the doctrine which he holds in philosophy. For anything we can certainly learn from his speculative metaphysics, he may be the sternest of moralists and the most enthusiastic of religionists. All we say is, that as it appears to us, Positivism either means nothing, or it means Atheism. It is either assenting with a growl of dissatisfaction to the philosophy of common sense—and although many Positivists express themselves in guarded terms which virtually mean this, we do not believe that the leaders of the school would have ushered in as a grand discovery what really amounts to nothing, or the negative side of Positivism is its true and characteristic one; and then it necessarily results in that development to which we know most Positivists have avowedly pushed it—of total scepticism in religion; of Atheism, or non-Theism, if the word be preferred ; and of what is called by its adherents Secularism, or an entire and exclusive devotion to the interests of a present life. The principle on which Mr. Holyoake and the members of his school proceed, in professedly confining their thoughts and endeavours to the visible world, is not by any means that they assuredly believe that there is no world beyond the grave. The Secularist and Positivist admits that there may be another world: all he says is, “I have no proof that there is another world; I am quite sure that there is a present world: and I shall hold by that of which I am sure.” That is accurate and legitimate Positivism. For Positivism simply means to keep to what you certainly know ; and as for all things else, to pass them by and let them alone. The Secularist does not say for certain that there is no God and no immortality. He says there may be, for what he knows. Perhaps there is a God. Perhaps the soul is immortal. But he has no direct
principle, he pretermits all consideration of that of which he is not absolutely sure. And now the question arises—Is it really necessary, as Mr. Lewes maintains, to have recourse to Positivism? Is there no way of escaping the alternative, so plausible in its first statement, so dismal in its results : Is the obstacle which meets us at the very threshold of philosophy so impassable that we must sit down before it in despair, and renounce all hope of ever knowing anything beyond Let us now carefully look at the obstacle, and see whether it must indeed finally stop us. Perhaps the flank of the opposing force may be turned by German subtlety. Perhaps the Gordian knot may be severed by Scotch common sense. We are anxious, in what follows, to appeal to readers not sophisticated in metaphysics; and we shall do our best to make the state of the question plain. The great stumbling-block, then, which, Mr. Lewes maintains, makes metaphysical certitude impossible, is the subjectivity of our knowledge: that is, the fact, admitted on all hands, that all our knowledge of things external to ourselves is derived solely from the moods of our own mind. Hence it is maintained that it follows, first, that we have no sufficient proof that there exists anything external to ourselves at all; and secondly, even granting that there are things external to ourselves, we have no sufficient proof that they are what they Seem to us. Now the three great questions of metaphysics are— 1. Has human knowledge any absolute certainty 2 2. What is the nature of God?