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LIFE OF DR. BEATTIE.
An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL. D.
late Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic in the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen : including many of his original Letters. By Sir W. FORBES, of Pitsligo, Baronet, one of the Executors of Dr. Beattie. 2 vols. 4to. pp. 840. Edinburgh and London: 1806.*
DR. BEATTIE's great work, and that which was undoubtedly the first foundation of his celebrity, is the “ Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth;” on which such unmeasured praises are bestowed, both by his present biographer, and by all the author's male and female correspondents, that it is with difficulty we can believe that they are speaking of the performance which we have just been wearying ourselves with looking over. That the author's intentions were good, and his convictions sincere, we entertain not the least doubt; but that the merits of his book have been prodigiously overrated, we think, is equally undeniable. It contains absolutely nothing, in the nature of argument, that had not been previously stated by Dr. Reid in his “ Inquiry into the Human Mind;” and, in our opinion, in a much clearer and more unexceptionable form. As to the merits of that philosophy, we have already taken occasion, in more places than one, to submit our opinion to the judgment of our readers; and, after having settled our accounts with Mr. Stewart and Dr. Reid, we really do not think it worth while to enter the lists again with Dr. Beattie. Whatever may be the excellence of the common-sense school of philosophy, he certainly has no claim to the honours of a founder. He invented none of it; and it
* The greater part of this article also is withheld from the present reprint, for the reasons formerly stated; and only those parts given which bear upon points of metaphysics.
BEATTIE NO GREAT PHILOSOPHER.
is very doubtful with us, whether he ever rightly understood the principles upon which it depends. It is unquestionable, at least, that he has exposed it to considerable disadvantage, and embarrassed its more enlightened supporters, by the misplaced confidence with which he has urged some propositions, and the fallacious and fantastic illustrations by which he has aimed at recommending many others.
His confidence and his inaccuracy, however, might have been easily forgiven. Everyone has not the capacity of writing philosophically: But every one may at least be temperate and candid ; and Dr. Beattie's book is still more remarkable for being abusive and acrimonious, than for its defects in argument or originality. There are no subjects, however, in the wide field of human speculation, upon which such vehemence appears more groundless and unaccountable, than the greater part of those which have served Dr. Beattie for topics of declamation or invective.
His first great battle is about the real existence of external objects. The sceptics say, that perception is merely an act or affection of the mind, and consequently might exist without any external cause. It is a sensation or affection of the mind, to be sure, which consists in the apprehension and belief of such external existences: But being in itself a phenomenon purely mental, it is a mere supposition or conjecture to hold that there are any such existences, by whose operation it is produced. It is impossible, therefore, to bring any evidence for the existence of material objects; and the belief which is admitted to be inseparable from the act of perception, can never be received as such evidence. The whole question is about the grounds of this belief, and not about its existence; and the phenomena of dreaming and madness prove experimentally, that perception, as characterised by belief, may exist where there is no external object. Dr. Beattie answers, after Dr. Reid, that the mere existence of this instinctive and indestructible belief in the reality of external objects, is a complete and sufficient proof of their reality; that nature meant
638 SUMMARY OF DISPUTE AS TO EXTERNAL EXISTENCES.
us to be satisfied with it; and that we cannot call it in question, without running into the greatest absurdity.
This is the whole dispute; and a pretty correct sum. mary of the argument upon both sides of the question. But is there any thing here that could justify the calling of names, or the violation of decorum among the disputants? The question is, of all other questions that can be suggested, the most purely and entirely speculative, and obviously disconnected from any practical or moral consequences. After what Berkeley has written on the subject, it must be a gross and wilful fallacy to pretend that the conduct of men can be in the smallest degree affected by the opinions they entertain about the existence or nonexistence of matter. The system which maintains the latter, leaves all our sensations and perceptions unimpaired and entire; and as it is by these, and by these only, that our conduct can ever be guided, it is evident that it can never be altered by the adoption of that system. The whole dispute is about the cause or origin of our perceptions; which the one party ascribes to the action of external bodies, and the other to the inward development of some mental energy. It is a question of pure curiosity; it never can be decided; and as its decision is perfectly indifferent and immaterial to any practical purpose, so it might have been expected that the discussion should be conducted without virulence or abuse.
The next grand dispute is about the evidence of Memory. The sceptics will have it, that we are sure of nothing but our present sensations; and that, though these are sometimes characterised by an impression and belief that other sensations did formerly exist, we can have no evidence of the justice of this belief, nor any certainty that this illusive conception of former sensation, which we call memory, may not be an original affection of our minds. The orthodox philosophers, on the other hand, maintain, that the instinctive reliance we have on memory is complete and satisfactory proof of its accuracy; and it is absurd to ask for the grounds of this belief; and that we cannot call it in question
CONTROVERSY IDLE ENOUGH.
without manifest inconsistency. The same observations which were made on the argument for the existence of matter, apply also to this controversy. It is purely speculative, and without application to any practical conclusion. The sceptics do not deny that they remember like other people, and, consequently, that they have an indestructible belief in past events or existences. All the question is about the origin, or the justice of this belief; - whether it arise from such events having actually happened before, or from some original affection of the mind, which is attended with that impression.
The argument, as commonly stated by the sceptics, leads only to a negative or sceptical conclusion. It amounts only to this, that the present sensation, which we call memory, affords no conclusive evidence of past existence; and that for any thing that can be proved to the contrary, nothing of what we remember may have existed. We think this undeniably true; and so we believe did Dr. Beattie. He thought it also very useless; and there, too, we agree with him: But he thought it very wicked, and very despicably silly; and there we cannot agree with him at all. It is a very pretty and ingenious puzzle, — affords a very useful mortification to human reason, — and leads us to that state of philosophical wonder and perplexity in which we feel our own helplessness, and in which we ought to feel the impropriety of all dogmatism or arrogance in reasoning upon such subjects. This is the only use and the only meaning of such sceptical speculations. It is altogether unfair, and indeed absurd, to suppose that their authors could ever mean positively to maintain that we should try to get the better of any reliance on our memories, or that they themselves really doubted more than other people as to the past reality of the things they remembered. The very arguments they use, indeed, to show that the evidence of memory may be fallacious, prove, completely, that, in point of fact, they relied as implicitly as their antagonists on the accuracy of that faculty. If they were not sure that they recollected the premises of
CONTROVERSY QUITE HARMLESS.
their own reasonings, it is evidently impossible that they should ever have come to any conclusion. If they did not believe that they had seen the books they answered, it is impossible they should have set about answering them.
The truth is, however, that all men have a practical and irresistible belief both in the existence of matter, and in the accuracy of memory; and that no sceptical writer ever meant or expected to destroy this practical belief in other persons.
All that they aimed at was to show their own ingenuity, and the narrow limits of the human understanding ; — to point out a curious distinction between the evidence of immediate consciousness, and that of perception of memory,— and to show that there was a kind of logical or argumentative possibility, that the objects of the latter faculties might have no existence. There never was any danger of their persuading men to distrust their senses or their memory; nor can they be rationally suspected of such an intention. On the contrary, they necessarily took for granted the instinctive and indestructible belief for which they found it so difficult to account. Their whole reasonings consist of an attempt to explain that admitted fact, and to ascertain the grounds upon which that belief depends. In the end, they agree with their adversaries that those grounds cannot be ascertained: and the only difference between them is, that the adversary maintains that they need no explanation; while the sceptic insists that the want of it still leaves a possibility that the belief may be fallacious; and at any rate establishes a distinction, in degree, between the primary evidence of consciousness, which it is impossible to distrust without a contradiction, and the secondary evidence of perception and memory, which may be clearly conceived to be erroneous.
To this extent, we are clearly of opinion that the sceptics are right; and though the value of the discovery certainly is as small as possible, we are just as well satisfied that its consequences are perfectly harmless. Their reasonings are about as ingenuous and as innocent as some of those which have been employed to establish