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The Meaning of Idealism

FROM the present point of view, the first value of the inner life is experience as individually interpreted. Instead of running hither and yon in search of wisdom and power, one should learn that the centre of wisdom and power is within. Instead of rushing from deed to deed, one is to reflect, philosophise about life while it passes. And instead of merely thinking about life, one should enter into the spirit of it, realise the power and beauty of the present moment.

Since the realisational aspect of our inquiry is of paramount value, one should take time to reflect sufficiently upon the considerations which are at present engaging us to become accustomed to the idealistic method of thinking. The value of discussions such as the preceding chapters briefly suggest is that one is enabled reflectively to make the transition from the world of appearances to the realm of reality, to think one’s self into a position whence one may look forth upon the universe as veritably a whole. Then one thus idealistically enters into the fulness of the present, experience will be seen in an entirely different light. The old sense of mystery will be gone, and with it the old pessimism, the sense of antagonism and duality. For one will possess a principle of unity in one’s own life, and a unitary principle by which to interpret experience. The significance of the principle will not be seen at first. It is necessary to repeat the process of reflective transition many times before one is really at home in the world which the idealistic analysis reveals. But the essential is the point at which the mind arrives, the way life looks when one is able to pause on the idealistic summit and look about.

There are a number of misconceptions that arise whenever the idealistic theory of the universe is proposed. These misconceptions we have already noted in part. But it is necessary to indicate them more specifically, since very much depends upon the inferences that are drawn from idealistic premises. To declare that the universe is known only through mind has been supposed, for example, to mean that there is no matter. Hence a direct appeal to matter in some of its most tangibly real forms has been deemed a sufficient refutation of the entire theory. Elsewhere I have pointed out the absurdity of this notion so far as the idealism of Bishop Berkeley is concerned,* and I have also shown that many systems of idealism that are said to be purely speculative have a thoroughly practical value. But it is important to consider other aspects of the subject since it is only by extreme persistence that one is able to avoid all misconception.

*See “Man and the Divine Order,” chap. xiii

To declare that the world is made known by its presence to the mind is of course very different from the assertion that the world is existent only in the mind. What is present in the mind is an exceedingly elusive flux of ever-changing states. One cannot even know one’s self except by analytically and synthetically passing beyond the merely given stream of consciousness. If the world of nature is at last fairly well known by means of ideas it is not until these ideas have been evolved into a system. The mere sense of acquaintance with the world counts for very little. Everybody is in process of wresting from the world its meaning by the aid of ideas. To grasp the truth of idealism is in the first place simply to attain a knowledge of facts. A man scarcely begins to know what a fact is until he learns that he is an idealist. It is not argument that makes a man an idealist. We are all idealists now. To awaken to the fact is by no means to lose anything. The world of nature is not proved one whit less real by the discovery that for man it has no existence apart from conscious experience. The qualities that have been discerned in matter, as distinguished from mind, are as distinct as before. There is as good reason for the continuance of scientific investigation according to the experimental and laboratory methods. There is even more reason for the pursuit of universal truth, regarded as of value in itself, apart from individual caprice, whim, prejudice, personal preference, and the like. Not one single point is lost for the world of reality. Man is granted no license. He is no less subject to law. Life still lies before him. The essential difference is that a fundamental error has been corrected. The illusions which once beset experience have been so far swept away, the dualism so far overcome, that it is now possible to regard the universe as grounded in invisible reality, in Spirit, the clue to which is found, not in the senses, but in the domain of thought, of insight. Therefore, when the transition has been made, and one is able to look upon the world from the idealistic point of view, one is ready at last to face life in earnest. For a man is obviously at great disadvantage if he regards himself as a mere being of flesh and blood.

If man asks, What of it? when you have shown him how to think himself free from sense-life, point out to him that everything depends on it, that he is now in a position for the first time to understand what reality is. Formerly the question, What is real? would have seemed absurd; for apparently all that one needed to do was to open one’s eyes to see things as they were. Now. it is clear that only by taking thought may one ever learn what is real. The discovery once made, it is surprising what a wealth of considerations immediately confirm it.

It is a truism to declare that our senses deceive us, or rather that we draw false inferences in regard to our sensations. Life intelligibly begins for us when we learn to reason correctly in regard to our sensations. In addition, there are all the illusions of feeling to overcome, the deflective power of the beliefs in which we are reared, the influence of prejudice, emotion, fear, and all the varied mental states which we have considered in the preceding chapter. It is plain that we have actually projected our mental life into nature, whereas we seemed to be victims of the world. If things possessed us, it was after all the thought of things, it was our theory concerning their place and reality. The materialist is in a sense as much of an idealist as any one else, the chief difference being that his consciousness is less enlightened. Things are pursued as of worth in themselves merely because we fail to see their true nature. Materialism is accepted as a philosophy only by those who are ignorant of the nature of the sense perceptions on which their theories are reared. Generally speaking, man is so far a prisoner of ideas that it requires much wrestling with the facts of experience to make this discovery. From infancy to old age, man is making his life in accordance with ideas—in so far as he has any power over it. To become a conscious idealist does not mean the acquisition of new and entirely different power. No man could ask for more or greater power than he is using or misusing moment by moment, and day by day. It is not a question of changing from power to power. By making the transition above described one does not in reality lift the mind over the barrier from the world of things to the world of ideas. There is no such barrier. One is already present where all ideas and all powers are. It is primarily a question of consciousness, of substituting good philosophy for bad theory.

An important cause of our trouble, then, is our beliefs. We have accepted ready-made convictions instead of reasoning for ourselves. Hence we have put ourselves at the mercy of creeds and dogmas. We have not seen life as it is; we have regarded it with the eyes of opinion. We have not pursued what was real; we have gone in quest of illusions, simply because others had gone in pursuit of them. We have not lived for ourselves; we have worried through the wearisome days, in bondage to beliefs which we thoughtlessly accepted. Thus we have unwittingly created out own happiness and misery. Nobody has really enslaved us, no one could put unconquerable bonds on the soul. But we have permitted ourselves to be the victims of ideas without even asking if life might be otherwise.

The resource is perfectly plain. It would be foolish to spend a moment in regret. For it is precisely by way of such experience that we advance to mastery. Life precedes thought. Only by first having experience do we possess aught to think about. And now, lo, and behold! we have been acquiring through all these years of bondage precisely the machinery needed to make ourselves true conquerors. We need not go forth in pursuit of power. All power is resident here. We need not even ask, Where is God? We have lived and thought with the Father all the way along. From first to last we have been sons of God, living in heaven, using angelic power. But we have not known it—that was all. Now we know it. Now we see through the glass clearly. Never could God be found without, if He were not first discovered within. No truth could be true unless its winner proved it. Not all the angels in heaven could put a man in possession of the knowledge and power which is thus gained. In the very nature of the case, truth must be wrestled for. Only by living and possessing life for one’s self is it ever life. And the life’s the thing. The moment that is just now passing is the real moment, and this moment is real to the one who apprehends it. Your moment cannot be my moment. Mine can never be yours. Life is eternally an individual possession. How clear is the way, how true that each must do and know and triumph for himself!

Yet, as surely as the idealistic discovery leaves the world of nature as real as it found it, so surely does man continue to be a social being. Only through mutual aid do we make any progress in the effort to understand the world. Service is as much a law in the rational world as in the realm of society at large. Although there is a discovery which each man must make, and a changed attitude that is individually imperative, nevertheless only through the aid of others is man able to make the advance. Idealism leaves him precisely what he was before—until he voluntarily profits by his great discovery. And if idealism reveals any fact at all it is that we are related each to each with far greater intimacy than we had ever, as realists or materialists, suspected.

Again, we are left as we were as active beings. Described in simplest terms, man is a reactive individual in the presence of an environment. It is impossible to feel sensation and remain still. Life pulsates, changes, accomplishes. Moved upon by life, man must be up and doing. Idealism shows him how he has been acting all along. Every belief tends to express itself in conduct. To accept an idea is to be inclined to live by it. Hence if we would alter our conduct we must change our beliefs. It is false theories that lead to our trouble. We have reacted upon impulse without question. We have accepted the judgment of others without asking if it was righteous. Then we have vainly tried to free ourselves from the results by working upon the effect. But the only remedy for error is truth.

Finally, the idealistic discovery leaves man as wilful or selfish as it found him. Sometimes idealism has been understood to be the rearing of a man’s own mental world from within,* hence the new precept has been: Build any world you like. Now one may indeed construct any mental world one chooses. One of the greatest services of idealism is the revelation it makes in regard to the mental worlds which people project into nature. There is nothing in the fact itself that prevents a man from continuing in this course. The questions, What is ideal? What ought I to do? are quite different from the mere matter of fact. Hence the great issue is this: What sort of world ought I to build from within? What is real? What is worthwhile?

*For example, see lecture on “The Romantic School,” in “The Spirit of Modern Philosophy,” by Prof. J. Royce, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1892.

No conclusion could be more false than the supposition that the world is what I make it by my thought, therefore I can make it what I will. To assert, to affirm the self, to make “claims” and demands, as if the universe could be shaped by one’s will, is to create illusion upon illusion, to be in a worse plight than the materialist. It is precisely because of these self-assertions that reality has been hidden from us. The true conclusion, the moral of the idealistic tale, is entirely different. If you would know what the world really is, you must obey Christ’s injunction and rise above your mere self. For the true world is the realm of the universal. The particular interferes with the universal until it is thoroughly understood and constant allowance is made. The Christian precept is at one with the precept of Greek philosophy and of modern science. Only by allowing for the personal equation may one make headway. The universal is indeed made known through the particular. But, the particular must first be seen in right relations. It is the point of view of the whole that explains the part. Only by looking around and beyond the particular fact may we truly apprehend it.

Hence the importance of a sound theory of first principles is clear. The same principle that guides us in the pursuit of truth is the starting-point in the world of conduct. The individual must make a certain discovery and adopt a certain attitude. But this is only the beginning. The fruits will show whether he has really found the universal.

It is safe to say that more false conclusions have been drawn from the discovery that life is fundamentally an affair of consciousness than from almost any other metaphysical statement. The illusions are far more subtle in the inner world. The errors of mysticism, pantheism, and idealism are far greater than the errors of materialism. The very discovery which should set man free is made the vehicle of fresh bondage, new dogmatism, and greater selfishness. In truth, there is ten times the reason why one should avoid the deceptions of the inner sense, the pronouncements of unscrutinised intuition. It requires no great insight to avoid the illusions of our physical senses; the test comes when we try to discriminate between emotion, preference, caprice, impulse, and unscrutinised intuition, on the one hand; and the “higher” promptings on the other. Here, indeed, the empirical method is the only one—the individual experiment tested. by reason. The discoveries of Idealistic philosophy do not afford the slightest excuse either for indolence, or for selfishness. Life is as much a problem as before. There is the same need of experience. But there is less excuse for our sin. Say what we will about inheritance and environment, we now see that our own attitude is the most important factor.

Experience is an evolution in the presence of ideas. It means much or little to us according to the degree of insight into the part played by ideas. But the part played by ideas is in a sense secondary to the resulting conduct. Hence, to arrive at the great discovery is to see the need of fresh examination of the nature of the will and the resulting conduct. It by no means follows that a man may become free by simply sitting down to think. The demand for action is hard upon him. And the important point is that the way to truth now proves to be up the hill of righteousness. Thus the results of philosophical idealism are so different from what has been supposed that the inquirer may indeed rub his eyes in wonderment. A thousand false theories are refuted in a moment by the great discovery. It hardly seems necessary to single them out. Suffice it that one has arrived and all is changed. Arrived, did we say? Yes, at a point where we may at last begin to live—but life is ahead.

So many people deviate when they discover the power of thought that we must be sure to see what follows, and avoid putting too much emphasis upon it. Only by constant repetition of a few great truths, regarded in many lights, may we hope to avoid the pitfalls of false inference. It is one thing to arrive at a conclusion and another to act upon it. Our beliefs do indeed tend to become “rules for action,” but there is no necessary connection between theory and practice. Many a thought is ephemeral. Scarcely one idea in a thousand is made significant by the actions that are shaped by it. We could slay ourselves a hundred times a day, if thought sufficed. Fortunate is it that the majority of our thoughts have so little power. Strictly speaking, thought in itself has almost no power; it is what we do in the presence of it that is of consequence.

It hardly seems necessary to dwell on the difference between theory and conduct, so clear is it that mere thought is by itself entirely ineffective. Everyone knows people who hold theories that have no connection with their practice. From one point of view that is the chief fault to be found with people. Speculatively inclined people invent doctrines which they would never dream of applying. Others have a set of beliefs to live by and another to preach about. It is not strange, then, that some have said, A man’s real belief is revealed by what he does, not by what his lips confess. Were men compelled to put all their beliefs to the empirical test there would be an unprecedented revolution in human thinking. Moreover, a great many a priori doctrines would be entirely upset. There is profound truth in the saying that “seeing’s believing.” To see is often to be utterly amazed and to confess that one’s prejudices were entirely unfounded. Nothing brings more surprises than real experience.

There is clearly a difference, then, between ideas about experience, and ideas that withstand the test of experience. There is great difference between thinking about a course of action and actually making the effort to carry it into execution. Again, there is a difference between mere thought, desire, will, and the ideas that we are actually able to carry out in this great universe of law and order. Finally, there is an important distinction to be drawn between our theories about the world, and the activities of consciousness which make the world known to us—despite all theories and volitions.

All through the idealistic ages too much stress has been put upon thought. Hence idealism has led to fine-spun theory rather than to conduct. Hence the misunderstandings that have arisen when idealism has been mentioned. But ordinary idealism is only a starting-point. It clears away a certain misconception in regard to substance and power. The way once clear, the question arises, What is power, and to what end? What am I, the thinker, in essence? To affirm that “I think, therefore I am,” is to say very little. To declare that the world is understood through thought is not to explain the world. The world is also misunderstood through thought. Whether or not the thought be true is a question which thought cannot answer without the aid of experience.

Let us put the statement “all is mind” to the test by asking if this proposition is exhaustive. Is the term “mind” comprehensive enough to include all that modern science tells us about matter? What is matter, as nearly as we can distinguish it from mind? In simple terms, it is describable as tangible, hard or soft, liquid or gaseous. It possesses certain exact chemical qualities such that two parts of hydrogen, for example, unite with one of oxygen to produce water. By placing the water in a certain atmospheric condition it may be frozen; by applying heat, the congealed water may be turned into a fluid again. This fluid may again be reduced to hydrogen and oxygen, by means of an electric current, and both of these gases may be ignited. In all these various forms, solid, liquid, gaseous, combustible, the same particles persist in differing relations.

What meaning have any of these terms if applied to mind? Mind is describable as intelligence, awareness of sensation, volition. You cannot saw or chop an idea, nor can you weigh an aspiration. Mind does not occupy space; in a word, its characteristics are in many respects decidedly different from the qualities of matter. You may, for example, stand before a burning building, wishing that you could stop the work of destruction. You have a vivid consciousness of what is taking place before you, but the mental state is very different from the chemical change popularly known as “fire.” To stop the fire, you must apply certain liquids in large quantities. If you do not discriminate, you may increase the work of destruction; for example, by throwing a keg of powder on the flames.

“But this is a very absurd case,” the advocate of the “ all-is-mind” theory exclaims. “ Of course powder will cause an explosion. But what a person puts into the body produces an effect in accordance with his thought about it, or at least the subconscious thought of the race about it.” No, I reply, the case is not extreme. If “all is mind,” as the advocate of therapeutic suggestion uses the term, powder is as mental as food. If, however, powder possesses qualities of its own, we may with equal truth declare that substances put into the body contain powers which act independently of human thought. The fact that bread pills, for example, when given to a hypnotised subject with the suggestion that they are a powerful drug, produce the effects of a drug, is another affair. That the mind influences the body is unquestionable, but that neither proves that matter is without inherent qualities, nor that matter is mind; it simply proves the greater power of mind. Even if man could put out fire by “holding a thought,” that would be no evidence that fire is mental. To prove that one thing is more powerful than another is not to prove that they are identical. That the world of matter is known to man only through mind does not then imply that this world is merely an “apocalypse” within the human mind. Obviously, matter did not come into existence with the first human being; the data of natural science are too exact to permit such a belief. Evidently this earth existed many millions of years prior to the appearance of man. Its qualities are therefore pre-human. In other words, they exist independently of the mind of man.

“But they exist in the mind of God,” our opponent declares. In what way? As thoughts in our minds exist for us? That would hardly account for the persistent substantiality of the earth, the spatial grandeurs of the starry heavens, the vivid reality of the great cosmic fire, the benefits of whose heat we daily enjoy. Evidently God’s universe is more real than the mental hypothesis implies. Moreover, if we assume that mind and matter are identical in the mind of God, we surrender all the distinctions which we have found essential to a correct understanding of either mind or matter. Both mind and matter may be grounded in the activities of Spirit, but that is very different from the statement, “all is mind”; for if we regard matter as a mode of manifestation of Spirit, we find the basis of it in the larger spiritual life of the universe, the basis both of nature and of human consciousness. Its law is then divine, spiritual, not mental; I must understand and adjust myself to its law; I ought to study the great world of nature as the embodiment of God; a very different attitude from that suggested by the statement, “all is mind.”

If it were true that “all is mind,” there would be no limitations to thought, mind would be at liberty to make its own laws, which is what the advocates of this doctrine really counsel. To think that one possessed five dollars would be the same as to possess them, to think one’s self ill would be equivalent to being ill, and to affirm health would be at once to have it. An endless number of fallacies follow, the moment this proposition is accepted. On the other hand, if we conclude that we are conscious beings living in a psycho-physical world, we ask, What are the laws and the lessons of our twofold existence? If our life is both mental and physical, it is obvious that both matter and mind are limited, organic. The mind affects the body, and the body affects the mind. We are dependent upon matter not only for all immediate acquaintance with the physical universe, but we are compelled to use it as our vehicle of expression—except in cases of telepathy, and even that may be due to wave-motion in the ether. On the other hand, the great glory of existence here is that we may transcend the physical while still living in it, in dependence upon it. The wise man neither forgets that he is living a life of mind, with laws of its own; nor that he is living a fleshly life, with laws which are no less stringent. He strives to live above physical sensation, so far as matter is burdensome; and to conquer the temptations of the flesh by the power of mind. But he does not try to use thought when he ought to use food or sunlight. Thus he recognises the beauty of all things in their place, and regards both matter and mind as revelations of the love and wisdom of God.

Another important point in regard to the significance of idealism is its application to the theory of knowledge. The subject is much too technical to engage us here to any extent, but a brief reference is necessary in order to guard against agnostic conclusions. For centuries the discovery that all our knowledge comes by way of perception and ideas has led certain philosophers to conclude that therefore human knowledge is hopelessly limited. It is but one step farther to the conclusion that man knows only his own feelings and thoughts. Hence the famous and oft-quoted saying of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.” That is, each man knows his own perceptions simply, he is limited to the appearances of things when, and as, those appearances arise. Man cannot then know what is true and right. He is shut into the world of his own relativities.

One might argue in the same way in regard to the religious consciousness and therefore reject the belief that God is immanently knowable. Many have argued in this way and have concluded that God is simply man’s belief. This would reduce God to a mere ideal, as changeable as human ideals in general. The conclusion would seem to be substantiated by the historical evidence that man’s God has changed as rapidly as his beliefs have changed.

No doubt there is a profound truth in this discovery of human limitation and relativity. Every thoughtful person must face the hard facts sooner or later. The discovery means the rejection of many theological doctrines as anthropomorphic. But there is a far more profound discovery than that. For evidently there are two points of view from which human relativity may be regarded. One may either
conclude that owing to man’s limitations he is forever shut off from knowledge of reality. Or one may conclude that relativity, relationship, is precisely the condition through which such knowledge is obtainable.

In regard to communion with God, for example, it is clear that there are two factors to be considered. There is both the human uplook and receptivity, and the divine spirit. Christian theology of the Augustinian type has been inclined to put the emphasis on the divine “grace”; it is not by man’s own efforts that he is “saved, not because of his own worthiness; but it is the divine “election.” Hence, all that the worshipful soul could do was to contemplate the divine glory. Later thinkers have come to the conclusion that the Father rewards all men according to merit, that human activity plays its part, According to this view, there is both the proceeding forth of the Spirit, and the individual attitude of approach or rejection. Hence the experience is co-operative, relational. Only by taking account of both factors may one be true to the Father-son relationship.

If we pause to consider the nature and scope of human experience, we discover that there is not a single experience that is not relational. Consciousness means precisely consciousness of something by something, it is nextness, awareness through presence. Since we possess experience in no other form, there is no reason to talk about knowledge or reality in any other form. Were we deprived of the relationship we should be excluded from the reality. All experience is co-operative, all knowledge is knowledge of co-operative relations. We may consider now this factor of the relationship, and now that. But there is no reason for the conclusion that we are excluded from knowledge of the one half simply because we know it relationally.

As important, then, as it is to discover that we know the world through consciousness, as many allowances as we must make for the forms and modes of human cognition, the important fact is still the world-order, whose system, law, reality, our wills have in no wise created. When the last word has been said in regard to human thought and the neat, cosy little worlds it can build for itself, the only consideration of much consequence is the nature of things, the real system whose magnitude utterly dwarfs man with his puerile schemes. It is well to ascend a mountain and look forth upon the world, or gaze into the starry heavens and try to conceive of the extent of the solar system. Then, by contrast, one may look back upon the subjective idealist imprisoned in a little world of his own making and be thankful that one has escaped.

Retrospectively, one sees that the relativity of consciousness is simply one among many facts which characterise the nature of things. The nature of things viewed as universally as possible is the great consideration. Nature is not intelligible alone.

Human consciousness is not intelligible by itself. There are no ‘’things-in-them-selves.’’ There are no minds by themselves. We must break away from the notion that a ‘’thing’’ can be handled or known apart from the handling and the knowing of it. We must lift ourselves out of the subjective slough and stand upon the heights of universality, The universe in this larger sense is intelligible only from the point of view of its ultimate Ground. The Divine Order is the real nature of things. In that Order nature is but one of the domains. In that Order all souls are grounded. It is too high to be “seen.” It is too far to be “felt.” It is not in any sense an object of perception, nor even of intuition. The mere understanding can scarce attain to an acquaintance with its unity, for the understanding becomes involved in contradictions, antinomies. But reason, the highest faculty in the human soul, can indeed attain knowledge of the supreme system, for that system is the Universal Order of Reason, and human reason is by no means separated from it.*

*For a more exact and historical account of idealism, see “The Spirit of Modern Philosophy,” and “The World and the Individual,” by Professor Josiah Royce. A. C. Fraser’s “Selections from Berkeley,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, is an admirable introduction to idealistic philosophy.


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