Decline and Fall of the Absolute – 1954


The Age of Analysis, which has been edited by the eminent teacher and author, Morton White, covers the thoughts, writings, times and personalities of twentieth century philosophers.

Professor White illuminates modern philosophy by clear and brilliant commentaries on the writings of leading philosophers in the fields of logic, philosophical and linguistic analysis, existentialism and phenomenology and deals with the concepts of time, instinct and organism. Here are well-chosen selections from G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell deans of contemporary British philosophy; Benedetto Croce, foremost Italian philosopher of this century; Sartre, existentialist; William James, John Dewey and Charles Peirce, leaders in the American movement of pragmatism, and from the works of George Santayana, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others whose philosophies are of importance in 20th century thinking.

MORTON WHITE, Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the department at Harvard, has taught at Columbia University and at the University of Pennsylvania. He held a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been a visiting member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The author of numerous articles and reviews, he has written two books. The Origin of Dewey’s Instrumentalism. and Social Thought in America, and edited a third. Academic Freedom, Logic and Religion.

This is what the N. Y. Times said about Volume I In The Mentor Philosophers —”An interesting experiment in a new field from which the can Jul reader may gain not only information, but enlightenment as well”

The editor of a volume on twentieth-century philosophy must make more than the usual explanations of the anthologist. The recency of the period makes for uncharted terrain, for embarrassing riches, and for strong partisan feeling about the figures to be selected. The historian of earlier centuries need only retouch the portraits bequeathed to him by tradition, but the historian of contemporary philosophy must paint under the watchful eyes of living subjects or their admirers. The choice of the subjects in this volume will provoke little dispute, for even their philosophical opponents will acknowledge their influence. But the influence of a philosopher must be distinguished from the philosophical value of what he says—from his originality and his insight—and I have tried to think of originality, Insight, and influence in making my selections and my comments.

Because of the present importance of the pragmatic, the logical, the analytic, and the linguistic strains in contemporary philosophy, the writings of Charles Peirce, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein will appear in greater quantity than is usual in volumes offered to the general reader, who is too frequently treated as a kind of sponge, able to soak up only a more fluid philosophical prose. Most popular anthologies of the twentieth century concentrate on Santayana because of his style, or on James because of his charm, or on Whitehead because of an unusual combination of intellectual grandeur and generosity; and for a closely related reason. Russell the moralist or journalist is more honored by editors than Russell the great logical analyst. It is with this in mind that I have tried to present a more catholic selection than usual, confident that there is an audience willing to hear what the other half of philosophy says. And so. along with Bergson’s poetry of time and instinct, existentialist speculations, and phenomenological reflections, the reader will find passages in the workmanlike literature of logical analysis, the philosophy of science, and linguistic philosophy. The more sprawling figures of the twentieth century will continue to live in these pages, only in smaller apartments.

Because the volume is edited for the general reader among

others. I have designed it, in part, to show that philosophy in the twentieth century has not been wholly remote from the concerns of the ordinary man or from the problems of culture in the widest sense. For this reason I have chosen some of the readings with an eye to the institution, discipline, concept, or aspect of the universe which holds peculiar interest for the philosopher from whose writing they have been selected. Therefore I have selected passages from Whitehead that bring out his special interest in the concept of life, from Croce one that illustrates his concern with history, from Charles Peirce a piece that shows his pragmatic interest in natural science, one from Bertrand Russell that reveals the extent to which logic plays a role in his philosophy, from G. E. Moore a statement on the relation between philosophy and common sense, and so on. And since these focal interests emerge as parts of the development of philosophy as a discipline and as elements in the culture of the twentieth century, I have tried to describe some of the intellectual currents and philosophical movements that are significantly related to the ideas expressed in the selections themselves. Taken as a whole, therefore, this volume is not the story of Western philosophy in the twentieth century so much as a selective survey of some of its leading doctrines as expounded by its leading philosophers. Hegel once observed that the owl of Minerva awakens only after the shades of night have fallen, and so with twentieth-century philosophy at high noon we may not expect wise hooting or bedtime tales about its ultimate significance.

The philosophers presented here are not drawn up historically in a rigid line of march, or as a series of ideological dominoes who push each other into action or out of dogmatic slumbers, or as roughnecks who turn each other inside out or upside down. Nevertheless, there are certain clearly observable historical trends and movements which are worth setting down in historical order, like the early decline of Hegelian idealism, which is treated in the opening chapters, and the latterly active existentialism, pragmatism, and logical positivism, which are presented and discussed toward the end of the volume. Because they are the views of groups oi philosophers, movements like these may sometimes receive more extensive discussion than the views of a single philosopher, but 1 think this is understandable. Some single philosophers may receive more extensive discussion than others because they require more elucidation or because I think they are more important or more interesting. This is unavoidable. It should go without saying that the relative lengths of the excerpts are not intended as measures of their authors’ importance.

One word in explanation of the purpose and title of the volume. I have tried to present a fair but selective survey of twentieth-century philosophy in the West In conformity with the pattern observed by other volumes in this series, this one has been entitled “The Age of Analysis,” but that should not lead the reader to expect a volume which is limited to philosophers of the so-called analytic school, like Carnap, Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein. It is intended to record succinctly, and in full recognition of the dangers in any title, the fact that the twentieth century has witnessed a great preoccupation with analysis as opposed to the large, synthetic, system-building of some other periods in the history of philosophy. I have found it useful to label the century by seizing one of its more powerful tendencies and not by trying to capture its essence.

My greatest debt, of course, is to those distinguished thinkers of the twentieth century who have made this book possible, and to their cooperative publishers. My own writing, selections, and arrangements have been immeasurably improved by the counsel and the delightfully unsparing criticism of my wife, Lucia Perry White. She has toiled over and helped me eliminate many unreadable comments, and has overseen the volume with the eye of a literate, unprofessional reader of philosophy. She has tried the selections for size and meaning, and I can thank her for any success 1 may have in communicating to the general reader. I also wish to thank my friend Isaiah Berlin of Oxford for reading the manuscript and for making many useful suggestions. 1 can only regret that the Atlantic Ocean prevented me from making greater use of his learning and his genius for seeing important things in the development of philosophical ideas.

For an over-all view of the subject, the reader may wish to study my comments consecutively before turning to the selections, while the student who is using this volume as a text may prefer to read it straight through.


Cambridge, Massachusetts
August 12, 1954

The Decline and Fall of the Absolute

IT IS A REMARKABLE TRIBUTE TO AN ENORMOUSLY muddled but brilliant German professor of the nineteenth century that almost every important philosophical movement of the twentieth century begins with an attack on his views. I have in mind Hegel, whose philosophy is more fully presented in another volume of this series, but without whom we cannot begin a discussion of the twentieth century. Not only did he influence the originators of Marxism, existentialism, and instrumentalism—now three of the most popular philosophies in the world—but at one time or another, he dominated the founders of the more technical movements, logical positivism, realism, and analytic philosophy. The point is that Karl Marx, Kierkegaard the existentialist, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore were at one time or another close students of Hegel’s thought and some of their most distinctive doctrines reveal the imprint or the scars of previous contact or struggle with that strange genius. Therefore, it will be necessary to say something about Hegel’s views, if only to make clear the historical background of some of the readings in this volume.

Hegel held that the universe reveals the workings, the development, the realization, the unfolding of a World Spirit or Absolute Idea (sometimes called the Absolute for short). On his view the universe is not unlike an animate being that has a soul, desires, aims, intentions, and goals. The universe is spiritual; it has direction; and the explanation of ordinary facts, human actions, historical changes, and institutions may be grasped once we recognize how they are imbedded in this cosmic organism, how they are directed by the cunning of the Absolute, how they play their part in the Universe’s progressive realization of the World Spirit.


Because the idea of change and development was so central to his thought, Hegel was forced to conclude that the traditional, formal, and (as he called it in derogation) static logic of Aristotle was hopelessly inadequate and that it had to be replaced by what he called a dialectical logic more adequate to deal with the fluid workings of the Absolute. Aristotle had said that a thing must either have an attribute or its opposite at a given time but Hegel disagreed, usually by calling attention to intermediate or twilight zones when, he said, a thing appears to possess neither. We need not review this cloudy chapter in the history of logical theory. It is sufficient to say that Hegelians abandoned or professed to abandon traditional logic, and replaced it by their own dialectical formula, which they applied to all aspects of the universe but which received its most active illustration in social history, usually by Marxists. Hegel’s philosophy may well be called dialectical idealism since according to it the World Spirit unfolds itself in a dialectical pattern, a pattern in which one step, usually called thesis, is followed by its opposite, antithesis, and in which this conflict is partially resolved by a synthesis of both contending elements. The outstanding application of the purely dialectical aspect of Hegel’s thought is that of Marx in his philosophy of history, where the capitalist class is viewed as a thesis that gives rise to the working class as antithesis, and where the struggle between them is supposed to result in a synthesis. But the method has been forcibly extended to other fields, notably to physics, biology, and mathematics, where it has frequently resulted in sheer nonsense.

Even apart from its influence on Marxism, we cannot fail to sec the attraction that Hegel’s general view must have had for a century that was reeling under the blows of Hume, the Enlightenment, and Kant. For Hegel did two things of immense historical importance. He provided a defense of religious belief for those who could not accept

atheism or Kant’s peculiar agnosticism, and he encouraged philosophers and historians in the feeling that there are modes of explanation other than those available in Newtonian mechanics. This second aspect of his thinking fitted in with the growth of history as a discipline and with the influence of Darwinian biology in the nineteenth century. Therefore Hegelianism became the gathering place of some who sought a peaceable resolution of the warfare between science and theology and of others committed to the historical. evolutionary emphasis of the time. The Absolute or World Spirit was easily identified with the God of Christianity, and Hegel’s emphasis on historical, contextual explanation became the ally of genetic method. Instead of a bleak, evolutionary positivism of the kind that many Englishmen and Americans found congenial in the work of Herbert Spencer, who was also trying to reconcile science and religion, young men all over the Western world were provided with a rich, highly complex philosophical system that covered every comer of the universe in deep rich velvet, soft to the touch and warming.

At a price, of course. A good part of this price Marx was willing to pay, if he could just turn the system upside down. That is to say, if he could take the dialectic off its idealistic head where he found it, and put it on its materialistic feet. This was the Marxian shift from dialectical idealism to dialectical materialism. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, was no mere revisionist and he shivered at being, as he said, “a paragraph in a system.’’ His response was an emotional outburst that has continued to echo through philosophy and theology.

Marx and Kierkegaard had gone through their Hegelian phases before Hegel was taken up at the end of the nineteenth century in England and America by the teachers of many who have become important professional philosophers of the twentieth century. Therefore, there were two distinct waves of disenchantment with Hegel—an early one on the continent in the middle of the nineteenth century and another at the beginning of the twentieth century in England and America. But the second wave was different from the first, because this time the disenchanted had been

enchanted with another Hegel. The siren had sung in many different keys. Marx and Kierkegaard had begun with Hegel the theological, historical, political, ethical, esthetic thinker—the greater Hegel, I think. But Dewey, Russell, and Moore—the most notable ex-Hegelians of the twentieth century—came in contact with Hegel through the writings of British neo-Hegelians as they were called, who were far more interested in the logical, metaphysical, epistemological aspect of idealism.

The British philosophers F. H. Bradley and J. E. McTaggart were acute thinkers who concentrated on the less humanistic, more technical aspects of the Hegelian system. It was Bradley and McTaggart who gripped the young Russell and the young Moore, and it was the logically minded American idealist Josiah Royce who exercised a similar influence on young Americans. All these neo-idealists exerted their influence in spite of the influence of William James who had cried out early against the block universe of Hegel, and who was poking fun at his system for reasons very like Kierkegaard’s—for personal, psychological, and emotional reasons. Indeed it was precisely because James seemed like a mere literary rebel against idealism and not like a tough, technical opponent that he had little immediate effect on the younger men. It was only after they had seen through the bluff of idealistic logic that the spirit of James was vindicated. James had said “Damn the Absolute!” to his colleague Royce, but that no more convinced the young professional philosophers than Kierkegaard’s passionate outburst against the “system.” What came to worry them was not so much the Hegelian air that stifled Kierkegaard, nor the apotheosis of the Prussian state that Marx hated. They were far more aggravated by the idealistic theory of knowledge, by the view of Hegel that linked him with the Irish idealist. Bishop Berkeley, who had said: “To be is to be perceived,” and upon this they concentrated their attack.
As a result of this division within the anti-Hegelian camp we may say that the process which I shall call “de-Hegelization” took two forms. Some of the twentieth-century admirers of Hegel, like Dewey and Santayana, rejected Hegelianism with a certain amount of sadness. They could not

take the dialectic, the sophistry, or the myth, but they continued to think of philosophy as a grand, monumental enterprise that demanded sensibility, historical learning, and wisdom as well as technical skill, so that even while rejecting the Absolute, they remained, like Croce, sympathetic to Hegel’s view of philosophy as synoptic, as a total view of the universe and man. Indeed, even those who followed Kierkegaard in emphasizing the importance of the existent individual as against the abstract system and the Absolute—existentialists like Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Sartre—continued to do philosophy in a sprawling and turgid manner that reminds one of Hegel even when it is directed against him. It is only when we come to the tradition of Russell and Moore, to Wittgenstein, to logical positivists like Carnap and his followers, to some of the American realists, that we find a complete and total rejection of Hegelian doctrine and Hegelian style. Philosophers in these traditions deny that philosophy must construct a worldview that will encompass and illuminate science, art, morals, religion, and politics. They do so not only because some of them reject metaphysics as meaningless, but also because none of them thinks of philosophy as a super-discipline, as an instrument of cultural criticism, or as a substitute for religion. With the exception of their acknowledged leader, Russell, who is a complicated and large figure in twentieth-century philosophy, most philosophers in the logico-analytic tradition shy away from the issues of public and personal life, from the problems of culture and practice, as though they are of no concern to philosophers.

In illustration of these two forms of de-Hegelization I begin with a selection from the writings of G. E. Moore who, along with Russell, is a dean of contemporary British philosophy, and then follow it with one from Croce, the foremost Italian philosopher of the twentieth century. Though never a full-fledged Hegelian, Croce has been indelibly influenced by Hegel’s method. Moore is the very antithesis. 1 deliberately juxtapose them at the beginning of the volume in order to dramatize one of the great contrasts in twentieth-century philosophy.
In the light of this contrast, one is tempted to say (after


the Greek poet Archilochus and Isaiah Berlin in his brilliant study of Tolstoi. The Hedgehog and The Fox) that the history of philosophy in the twentieth century is a history of Hedgehogs and foxes, a history of philosophers who strive to know one big thing and those who are content to know many little things, or indeed one little thing. With something like this in mind I have divided the volume into three major parts which follow the paradigmatically contrasting selections from Croce and Moore. In the first of these parts (through Chapter VIII) I present the news of philosophers who try to see the world in terms of a central concept which is to organize all their attitudes and beliefs. Here I have in mind Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, who share so much with Croce in this respect, not only in their search for a guiding concept but also in the concepts upon which they fix, concepts as romantic as history and art (Croce), lime and instinct (Bergson), life, process. and organism (Whitehead). I also have in mind the work of Husserl and the existentialists who, though preoccupied with immediate experience and human decision. think of their philosophies as maps of the universe or as total insights into man’s desperate, anxious, forlorn existence.

It is easy to understand why this way of doing philosophy—and I recognize, of course, that there are vast differences among these philosophers—has attracted the attention of religious thinkers and political movements seeking foundations and scaffolds for their moral philosophies and their programs. Bergson’s philosophy was seized upon by syndicalists; Croce’s became the philosophy of Italian liberalism; Heidegger the existentialist lent his voice to the Nazis, Sartre was a figure in the French underground, and other existentialists have their connections with theology and literature. All of these thinkers commit themselves in ways which bring them into friendly or unfriendly contact with the dogma of organized religions like Catholicism; they compete with marxism for the minds and hearts of intellectuals throughout the world; they appeal to feelings and impulses which are deeper and more strongly felt than those that underlie the more surgical attitudes of logic, of


epistemology, of the philosophy of science. While lecturing in Japan a few years ago 1 was struck by the extent to which young Japanese philosophers were excited by these more cosmic varieties of Western philosophy, how they sought some kind of large, comfortable and protective system which would unify their values and attitudes after they had abandoned traditional religious beliefs or the systems of Kant and Hegel. This is one reason for the hold of Communist ideology’ on intellectuals throughout Europe and Asia, and it also explains the power of existentialism, for both of them are street-comer philosophies, cafe philosophies, philosophies which claim to have and which, unfortunately, often do have an influence on life.

With very few exceptions, like that of Whitehead and Santayana, this large conception of philosophy is concentrated on the continent of Europe which remains the home of philosophy conceived in a Hegeloid, that is a Hegel-like though not a Hegelian, way. In some degree of contrast to this I have devoted the section following the philosophical hedgehogs to a characteristically American movement in philosophy—pragmatism, and have illustrated it by selections from Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, who make their main contributions to different aspects of the doctrine. It is a mediating movement in philosophy, as James said, because it aspires to a total, metaphysical, systematic view of reality without losing sight of scientific and logical detail or of human problems. It is concerned with the methods of science as in Peirce and Dewey, in the psychology and justification of religious belief as in James, and in the significance of science for ethics as in Dewey. Therefore pragmatism stands between the more traditional view of philosophy as world-view and the more recent analytic tendencies which are to be represented in the last part of the volume. Dewey has influenced educational practice in America, his political philosophy has been attacked by the extreme right and by the Communists; James saw deeply into human psychology; a great liberal tradition in history, law, economics, and social science was allied with pragmatism. But we must also remember the important logical contribution of Peirce and his

contributions to semantics and the philosophy of language, for these, bring pragmatism into close contact with the philosophers represented in the last part of the volume.

They are in the tradition of Moore’s attack on Hegel; indeed some of them even outdo Moore by calling Hegel’s doctrine meaningless rather than merely false. Some of them are not only connected with the tradition of British empiricism, particularly with David Hume, but also with an international movement in philosophy that sprang from important logical, mathematical, and scientific developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: logical positivism. Some of its leaders, like Wittgenstein and Carnap haw been uncompromisingly anti-metaphysical and opposed to all manifestations of what one of its devotees calls ’’school philosophy,” but at the present time variants of it dominate English philosophy and it is quite strong in many American universities and colleges. It too has its focal concepts, language, and meaning, but it aims to treat them as objects of intensive logical study and as instruments of analysts rather than as the central notions of an expansive, metaphysical examination of reality or as a guide to life. Hegel would have called it the antithesis of the kind of philosophy represented by himself and by Croce, Bergson, and Whitehead in this volume, and the pragmatists often think of themselves as making up the higher synthesis of both.

This third mode of philosophizing is the victim of an understandable paradox so far as the common man is concerned. For while it is officially dedicated in one of its manifestations to great respect for ordinary language (Moore and Wittgenstein) and in another to preferring the purified language of logic, science, and mathematics (Russell and Carnap), it often frightens readers who understand ordinary language and admire the language of science. The great contemporary devotees of clarity who seem to demand no more than the good sense which Descartes thought so well distributed, find fewer sympathetic readers among the laity than those philosophers who keep the reader in tow by touching his deepest anxieties, hopes, and fears. Partly with this in mind, and partly because 1 think it represents the most lively and important tendency in philosophy


today, I have tried, as I have already said, to give it a fairer chance to be heard and understood than is usual in volumes like the present one. And although I believe, unlike many thinkers in this tradition, that philosophers as philosophers should be concerned with the problems of men, I also believe that careful concern with language and logic is indispensable in philosophy. It is all right to build a monumental philosophy that may move men to tears and action, but of what use is a monument built on sand and mud?