George Santayana.

Egotism in German philosophy online

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Transcriber's note:

Page numbers enclosed in square brackets (example: [Pg 5])
have been included to facilitate the use of the index.




Late Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University

London and Toronto
J. M. Dent & Sons Limited
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

[Pg 5]

This book is one of the many that the present war has brought forth,
but it is the fruit of a long gestation. During more than twenty years,
while I taught philosophy at Harvard College, I had continual occasion
to read and discuss German metaphysics. From the beginning it wore in
my eyes a rather questionable shape. Under its obscure and fluctuating
tenets I felt something sinister at work, something at once hollow and
aggressive. It seemed a forced method of speculation, producing more
confusion than it found, and calculated chiefly to enable practical
materialists to call themselves idealists and rationalists to remain
theologians. At the same time the fear that its secret might be eluding
me, seeing that by blood and tradition I was perhaps handicapped in the
matter, spurred me to great and prolonged efforts to understand what
confronted me so bewilderingly. I wished to be as clear and just about
it as I could - more clear and just, indeed, than it ever was about

For the rest, German philosophy was never my chief interest, and I
write frankly as an outsider, with no professorial pretensions; merely
using my common [Pg 6] reason in the presence of claims put forth by
others to a logical authority and a spiritual supremacy which they are
far from possessing.

A reader indoctrinated in the German schools is, therefore, free not
to read further. My object is neither to repeat his familiar arguments
in their usual form, nor to refute them; my object is to describe them
intelligibly and to judge them from the point of view of the layman,
and in his interests. For those who wish to study German philosophy,
the original authors are at hand: all I would give here is the aroma of
German philosophy that has reached my nostrils. If the reader has smelt
something of the kind, so much the better: we shall then understand
each other. The function of history or of criticism is not passively
to reproduce its subject-matter. One real world, with one stout corpus
of German philosophy, is enough. Reflection and description are things
superadded, things which ought to be more winged and more selective
than what they play upon. They are echoes of reality in the sphere
of art, sketches which may achieve all the truth appropriate to them
without belying their creative limitations: for their essence is to be
intellectual symbols, at once indicative and original.

Egotism - subjectivity in thought and wilfulness in
morals - which is the soul of German philosophy, [Pg 7] is
by no means a gratuitous thing. It is a genuine expression of the
pathetic situation in which any animal finds itself upon earth, and
any intelligence in the universe. It is an inevitable and initial
circumstance in life. But like every material accident, it is a thing
to abstract from and to discount as far as possible. The perversity of
the Germans, the childishness and sophistry of their position, lies
only in glorifying what is an inevitable impediment, and in marking
time on an earthly station from which the spirit of man - at least
in spirit - is called to fly.

This glorified and dogged egotism, which a thousand personal and
technical evidences had long revealed to me in German philosophy,
might now, I should think, be evident to the whole world. Not that
the German philosophers are responsible for the war, or for that
recrudescence of corporate fanaticism which prepared it from afar. They
merely shared and justified prophetically that spirit of uncompromising
self-assertion and metaphysical conceit which the German nation is now
reducing to action. It is a terrible thing to have a false religion,
all the more terrible the deeper its sources are in the human soul.
Like many a false religion before it, this which now inspires the
Germans has made a double assault upon mankind, one with the secular
arm, and another by solemn asseverations and sophistries. This
assault, [Pg 8] though its incidental methods may be dubious, has been
bold and honest enough in principle. It has been like those which
all conquerors and all founders of militant religions have made at
intervals against liberty or reason. And the issue will doubtless be
the same. Liberty may be maimed, but not killed; reason may be bent,
but not broken. The dark aggression is to be repelled, if possible, by
force of arms; but failing that, it will be nullified in time by the
indomitable moral resistance which maturer races, richer in wisdom, can
exert successfully against the rude will of the conqueror.

[Pg 9]





What I propose in these pages to call German philosophy is not
identical with philosophy in Germany. The religion of the Germans is
foreign to them; and the philosophy associated with religion before
the Reformation, and in Catholic circles since, is a system native to
the late Roman Empire. Their irreligion is foreign too; the sceptical
and the scientific schools that have been conspicuous in other
countries have taken root in Germany as well. Thus, if we counted the
Catholics and the old-fashioned Protestants on the one hand, and the
materialists (who call themselves monists) on the other, we should very
likely discover that the majority of intelligent Germans held views
which German philosophy proper must entirely despise, and that this
philosophy seemed as strange to them as to other people.

For an original and profound philosophy has arisen in Germany, as
distinct in genius and method from [Pg 12] Greek and Catholic
philosophy as this is from the Indian systems. The great characteristic
of German philosophy is that it is deliberately subjective and limits
itself to the articulation of self-consciousness. The whole world
appears there, but at a certain remove; it is viewed and accepted
merely as an idea framed in consciousness, according to principles
fetched from the most personal and subjective parts of the mind, such
as duty, will, or the grammar of thought. The direction in which German
philosophy is profound is the direction of inwardness. Whatever we may
think of its competence in other matters, it probes the self - as
unaided introspection may - with extraordinary intentness and
sincerity. In inventing the transcendental method, the study of
subjective projections and perspectives, it has added a new dimension
to human speculation.

The foreign religion and the foreign irreligion of Germany are both
incompatible with German philosophy. This philosophy cannot accept any
dogmas, for its fundamental conviction is that there are no existing
things except imagined ones: God as much as matter is exhausted by
the thought of him, and entirely resident in this thought. The notion
that knowledge can _discover_ anything, or that anything previously
existing can be revealed, is discarded altogether: for there is nothing
to discover, and even [Pg 13] if there was, the mind could not reach
it; it could only reach the idea it might call up from its own depths.
This idea might be perhaps justified and necessary by virtue of its
subjective roots in the will or in duty, but never justified by its
supposed external object, an object with which nobody could ever
compare it. German philosophy is no more able to believe in God than in
matter, though it must talk continually of both.

At the same time this subjectivism is not irreligious. It is mystical,
faithful, enthusiastic: it has all the qualities that gave early
Protestantism its religious force. It is rebellious to external
authority, conscious of inward light and of absolute duties. It is
full of faith, if by faith we understand not definite beliefs held on
inadequate evidence, but a deep trust in instinct and destiny.

Rather than religious, however, this philosophy is romantic. It accepts
passionately the aims suggested to it by sentiment or impulse. It
despises prudence and flouts the understanding. In _Faust_ and in _Pier
Gynt_ we have a poetic echo of its fundamental inspiration, freed from
theological accommodations or academic cant. It is the adventure of a
wild, sensitive, boyish mind, that now plays the fairy prince and now
the shabby and vicious egoist; a rebel and an enthusiast, yet often
a sensualist to [Pg 14] boot by way of experiment; a man eager for
experience but blind to its lessons, vague about nature, and blundering
about duty, but confident that he can in some way play the magician and
bring the world round to serve his will and spiritual necessities.

Happiness and despair are alike impossible with such a temperament.
Its empiricism is perennial. It cannot lose faith in the vital impulse
it expresses; all its fancy, ingenuity, and daring philosophy are
embroideries which it makes upon a dark experience.

It cannot take outer facts very seriously; they are but symbols of its
own unfathomable impulses. So pensive animals might reason. The just
and humble side of German philosophy - if we can lend it virtues
to which it is deeply indifferent - is that it accepts the total
relativity of the human mind and luxuriates in it, much as we might
expect spiders or porpoises to luxuriate in their special sensibility,
making no vain effort to peep through the bars of their psychological

This sort of agnosticism in a minor key is conspicuous in the _Critique
of Pure Reason_. In a major key it reappears in Nietzsche, when he
proclaims a preference for illusion over truth. More mystically
expressed it pervades the intervening thinkers. The more profound they
are the more content and even delighted they are to consider nothing
but their own [Pg 15] creations. Their theory of knowledge proclaims
that knowledge is impossible. You know only your so-called knowledge,
which itself knows nothing; and you are limited to the autobiography of
your illusions.

The Germans express this limitation of their philosophy by calling
it idealism. In several senses it fully deserves this name. It is
idealistic psychologically in that it regards mental life as groundless
and all-inclusive, and denies that a material world exists, except as
an idea necessarily bred in the mind. It is idealistic, too, in that
it puts behind experience a background of concepts, and not of matter;
a ghostly framework of laws, categories, moral or logical principles
to be the stiffening and skeleton of sensible experience, and to
lend it some substance and meaning. It is idealistic in morals also,
in that it approves of pursuing the direct objects of will, without
looking over one's shoulder or reckoning the consequences. These direct
objects are ideals, whereas happiness, or any satisfaction based on
renunciation and compromise, seems to these spirited philosophers the
aim of a degraded, calculating mind. The word idealism, used in this
sense, should not mislead us; it indicates sympathy with life and its
passions, particularly the learned and political ones; it does not
indicate any distaste for material goods or material agencies. The
German moral imagination is in its first or dogmatic [Pg 16] stage,
not in the second or critical one. It is in love with life rather than
with wisdom.

There is accordingly one sense of the term idealism - the original
one - in which this philosophy knows nothing of it, the Platonic
and poetic sense in which the ideal is something _better_ than
the fact. The Platonic idealist is the man by nature so wedded to
perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless
ideal which the reality misses and suggests. Hegel, indeed, drew an
outline portrait of things, according to what he thought their ideal
essence; but it was uglier and more dreary than the things themselves.
Platonic idealism requires a gift of impassioned contemplation, an
incandescent fancy that leaps from the things of sense to the goals
of beauty and desire. It spurns the earth and believes in heaven, a
form of religion most odious to the Germans. They think this sort
of idealism not only visionary but somewhat impious; for their own
religion takes the form of piety and affection towards everything
homely, imperfect, unstable, and progressive. They yearn to pursue
the unattainable and encounter the unforeseen. This romantic craving
hangs together with their taste for the picturesque and emphatic
in the plastic arts, and for the up-welling evanescent emotions of
music. Yet their idealism is a religion of the actual. It rejects
nothing [Pg 17] in the daily experience of life, and looks to nothing
essentially different beyond. It looks only for more of the same thing,
believing in perpetual growth, which is an ambiguous notion. Under the
fashionable name of progress what these idealists sincerely cherish is
the vital joy of transition; and usually the joy of this transition
lies much more in shedding their present state than in attaining a
better one. For they suffer and wrestle continually, and by a curious
and deeply animal instinct, they hug and sanctify this endless struggle
all the more when it rends and bewilders them, bravely declaring it to
be absolute, infinite, and divine.

Such in brief is German philosophy, at least, such it might be said
to be if any clear account of it did not necessarily falsify it; but
one of its chief characteristics, without which it would melt away, is
ambiguity. You cannot maintain that the natural world is the product
of the human mind without changing the meaning of the word mind and
of the word human. You cannot deny that there is a substance without
turning into a substance whatever you substitute for it. You cannot
identify yourself with God without at once asserting and denying the
existence of God and of yourself. When you speak of such a thing as
the consciousness of society you must never decide whether you mean
the consciousness [Pg 18] individuals have of society or a fabled
consciousness which society is to have of itself: the first meaning
would spoil your eloquence, and the second would betray your mythology.

What is involved in all these equivocations is not merely a change
of vocabulary, that shifting use of language which time brings with
it. No, the persistence of the old meanings alone gives point to the
assertions that change them and identify them with their opposites.
Everywhere, therefore, in these speculations, you must remain in
suspense as to what precisely you are talking about. A vague, muffled,
dubious thought must carry you along as on a current. Your scepticism
must not derange your common sense; your conduct must not express your
radical opinions; a certain afflatus must bear you nobly onward through
a perpetual incoherence. You must always be thinking not of what you
are thinking of but of yourself or of "something higher" Otherwise you
cannot live this philosophy or understand it from within.

The mere existence of this system, as of any other, proves that a
provocation to frame it is sometimes found in experience or language
or the puzzles of reflection. Not that there need be any solidity in
it on that account. German philosophy is a sort of religion, and like
other religions it may be capable [Pg 19] of assimilating a great
amount of wisdom, while its first foundation is folly. This first folly
itself will not lack plausible grounds; there is provocation enough in
a single visit to a madhouse for the assertion that the mind can know
nothing but the ideas it creates; nevertheless the assertion is false,
and such facile scepticism loses sight of the essence of knowledge. The
most disparate minds, since they do not regard themselves, may easily
regard the same object. Only the maniac stares at his own ideas; he
confuses himself in his perceptions; he projects them into the wrong
places, and takes surrounding objects to be different from what they
are. But perceptions originally have external objects; they express
a bodily reaction, or some inward preparation for such a reaction.
They are reports. The porpoise and the spider are not shut up in their
self-consciousness; however foreign to us may be the language of their
senses, they know the sea and air that we know, and have to meet the
same changes and accidents there which we meet - and they even
have to meet us, sometimes, to their sorrow. Their knowledge does not
end in acquaintance with that sensuous language of theirs, whatever
it may be, but flies with the import of that language and salutes the
forces which confront them in action, and which also confront us. In
focussing these forces through the lenses and veils [Pg 20] of sense
knowledge arises; and to arrest our attention on those veils and
lenses and say they are all we know, belies the facts of the case and
is hardly honest. If we could really do that, we should be retracting
the first act of intelligence and becoming artificial idiots. Yet this
sophistication is the first principle of German philosophy (borrowed,
indeed, from non-Germans), and is the thesis supposed to be proved in
Kant's _Critique of Pure Reason_.



The German people, according to Fichte and Hegel, are called by the
plan of Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the

A little consideration of this belief will perhaps lead us more surely
to the heart of German philosophy than would the usual laborious
approach to it through what is called the theory of knowledge. This
theory of knowledge is a tangle of equivocations; but even if it were
correct it would be something technical, and the technical side of
a great philosophy, interesting as it may be in itself, hardly ever
determines its essential views. These essential views are derived
rather from instincts or traditions which the technique of the system
is designed to defend; or, at least, they decide how that technique
shall be applied and interpreted.

The moment we hear Fichte and Hegel mentioning a providential plan of
the world, we gather that in their view the history of things is not
infinite and endlessly various, but has a closed plot like a drama in
which one nation (the very one to which these [Pg 22] philosophers
belong) has the central place and the chief rĂ´le: and we perceive at
once that theirs is a revealed philosophy. It is the heir of Judaism.
It could never have been formed by free observation of life and
nature, like the philosophy of Greece or of the Renaissance. It is
Protestant theology rationalised. The element of religious faith, in
the Protestant sense of the word faith, is essential to it. About the
witness of tradition, even about the witness of the senses, it may be
as sceptical as it likes. It may reduce nature and God to figments
of the mind; but throughout its criticism of all matters of fact it
will remain deeply persuaded that the questioning and striving spirit
within is indefeasible and divine. It will never reduce all things,
including the mind, to loose and intractable appearances, as might a
free idealism. It will employ its scepticism to turn all things into
ideas, in order to chain them the more tightly to the moral interests
of the thinker. These moral interests, human and pathetic as they may
seem to the outsider, it will exalt immeasurably, pronouncing them to
be groundless and immutable; and it will never tolerate the suspicion
that all things might not minister to them.

From the same tenet of Fichte and Hegel we may also learn that in
the plan of the world, as this revealed philosophy conceives it, the
principal figures [Pg 23] are not individuals, like the Creator, the
Redeemer, and one's own soul, but nations and institutions. It is of
the essence of Protestantism and of German philosophy that religion
should gradually drop its supernatural personages and comforting
private hopes and be absorbed in the duty of living manfully and
conscientiously the conventional life of this world.

Not the whole life of the world, however, since gay religions and many
other gay things are excluded, or admitted only as childish toys.
Positive religion, in fact, disappears, as well as the frivolous sort
of worldliness, and there remains only a consecrated worldliness that
is deliberate and imposed as a duty.

Just as in pantheism God is naturalised into a cosmic force, so in
German philosophy the Biblical piety of the earlier Protestants is
secularised into social and patriotic zeal.

German philosophy has inherited from Protestantism its earnestness and
pious intention; also a tendency to retain, for whatever changed views
it may put forward, the names of former beliefs. God, freedom, and
immortality, for instance, may eventually be transformed into their
opposites, since the oracle of faith is internal; but their names may
be kept, together with a feeling that what will now bear those names
is much more satisfying than what they originally stood for. If it
should seem that [Pg 24] God came nearest to us, and dwelt within us,
in the form of vital energy, if freedom should turn out really to mean
personality, if immortality, in the end, should prove identical with
the endlessness of human progress, and if these new thoughts should
satisfy and encourage us as the evanescent ideas of God, freedom, and
immortality satisfied and encouraged our fathers, why should we not
use these consecrated names for our new conceptions, and thus indicate
the continuity of religion amid the flux of science? This expedient is
not always hypocritical. It was quite candid in men like Spinoza and
Emerson, whose attachment to positive religion had insensibly given,
way to a half-mystical, half-intellectual satisfaction with the natural
world, as their eloquent imagination conceived it. But whether candid
or disingenuous, this habit has the advantage of oiling the wheels of
progress with a sacred unction. In facilitating change it blurs the
consciousness of change, and leads people to associate with their new
opinions sentiments which are logically incompatible with them. The
attachment of many tender-minded people to German philosophy is due to
this circumstance, for German philosophy is not tender.

The beauty and the torment of Protestantism is that it opens the door
so wide to what lies beyond it. This progressive quality it has fully
transmitted [Pg 25] to all the systems of German philosophy. Not that
each of them, like the earlier Protestant sects, does not think itself
true and final; but in spite of itself it suggests some next thing. We
must expect, therefore, that the more conservative elements in each
system should provoke protests in the next generation; and it is hard
to say whether such inconstancy is a weakness, or is simply loyalty
to the principle of progress. Kant was a puritan; he revered the rule
of right as something immutable and holy, perhaps never obeyed in the
world. Fichte was somewhat freer in his Calvinism; the rule of right
was the moving power in all life and nature, though it might have been
betrayed by a doomed and self-seeking generation. Hegel was a very free
and superior Lutheran; he saw that the divine will was necessarily and
continuously realised in this world, though we might not recognise the
fact in our petty moral judgments. Schopenhauer, speaking again for
this human judgment, revolted against that cruel optimism, and was
an indignant atheist; and finally, in Nietzsche, this atheism became
exultant; he thought it the part of a man to abet the movement of
things, however calamitous, in order to appropriate its wild force and

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Online LibraryGeorge SantayanaEgotism in German philosophy → online text (page 1 of 9)