Browning as a Philosophical and Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter IX. A Criticism of Browning’s View of the Failure of Knowledge.

    “Der Mensch, da er Geist ist, darf und soll sich selbst
    des höchsten würdig achten, von der Grösse und Macht
    seines Geistes kann er nicht gross genug denken; und mit
    diesem Glauben wird nichts so spröde und hart seyn, das
    sich ihm nicht eröffnete. Das zuerst verborgene und
    verschlossene Wesen des Universums hat keine Kraft, die
    dem Muthe des Erkennens Widerstand leisten könnte: es muss
    sich vor ihm aufthun, und seinen Reichthum und seine
    Tiefen ihm vor Augen legen und zum Genusse geben."[A]

[Footnote A: Hegel’s Inaugural Address at Heidelberg.]

Before entering upon a criticism of Browning’s theory, as represented in the last chapter, it may be well to give a brief summary of it.

The most interesting feature of Browning’s proof of his optimistic faith is his appeal from the intelligence to the moral consciousness. To show theoretically that evil is merely phenomenal is, in his view, both impossible and undesirable. It is impossible, because the human intellect is incapable of knowing anything as it really is, or of pronouncing upon the ultimate nature of any phenomenon. It is undesirable, because a theoretical proof of the evanescence of evil would itself give rise to the greatest of all evils. The best thing in the world is moral character. Man exists in order to grow better, and the world exists in order to help him. But moral growth is possible only through conflict against evil, or what seems to be evil; hence, to disprove the existence of evil would be to take away the possibility of learning goodness, to stultify all human effort, and to deprive the world of its meaning.

But, if an optimistic doctrine cannot be reached by way of speculative thought, if the intellect of man cannot see the good in things evil, his moral consciousness guarantees that all is for the best, and that “the good is all in all.” For, in distinguishing between good and evil, the moral consciousness sets up an ideal over against the actual. It conceives of a scheme of goodness which is not realized in the world, and it condemns the world as it is. Man, as moral being, is so constituted that he cannot but regard the evil in the world as something to be annulled. If he had only the power, there would be no pain, no sorrow, no weakness, no failure, no death. Is man, then, better than the Power which made the world and let woe gain entrance into it? No! answers the poet; for man himself is part of that world and the product of that Power. The Power that made the world also made the moral consciousness which condemns the world; if it is the source of the evil in the world, it is also the source of that love in man, which, by self-expenditure, seeks to remedy it. If the external world is merely an expression of a remorseless Power, whence comes the love which is the principle of the moral life in man? The same Power brings the antidote as well as the bane. And, further, the bane exists for the sake of the antidote, the wrong for the sake of the remedy. The evil in the world is means to a higher good, and the only means possible; for it calls into activity the divine element in man, and thereby contributes to its realization in his character. It gives the necessary opportunity for the exercise of love.

Hence, evil cannot be regarded as ultimately real. It is real only as a stage in growth, as means to an end; and the means necessarily perishes, or is absorbed in, the attainment of the end. It has no significance except by reference to that end. From this point of view, evil is the resistance which makes progress possible, the negative which gives meaning to the positive, the darkness that makes day beautiful. This must not, however, be taken to mean that evil is nothing. It is resistance; it is negative; it does oppose the good; although its opposition is finally overcome. If it did not, if evil were unreal, there would be no possibility of calling forth the moral potency of man, and the moral life would be a figment. But these two conditions of the moral life–on the one hand, that the evil of the world must be capable of being overcome and is there for the purpose of being overcome, and that it is unreal except as a means to the good; and, on the other hand, that evil must be actually opposed to the good, if the good is to have any meaning,–cannot, Browning thinks, be reconciled with each other. It is manifest that the intellect of man cannot, at the same time, regard evil as both real and unreal. It must assert the one and deny the other; or else we must regard its testimony as altogether untrustworthy. But the first alternative is destructive of the moral consciousness. Moral life is alike impossible whether we deny or assert the real existence of evil. The latter alternative stultifies knowledge, and leaves all the deeper concerns of life–the existence of good and evil, the reality of the distinction between them, the existence of God, the moral governance of the world, the destiny of man–in a state of absolute uncertainty. We must reject the testimony either of the heart or of the head.

Browning, as we have seen, unhesitatingly adopts the latter alternative. He remains loyal to the deliverances of his moral consciousness and accepts as equally valid, beliefs which the intellect finds to be self-contradictory: holding that knowledge on such matters is impossible. And he rejects this knowledge, not only because our thoughts are self-contradictory in themselves, but because the failure of a speculative solution of these problems is necessary to morality. Clear, convincing, demonstrative knowledge would destroy morality; and the fact that the power to attain such knowledge has been withheld from us is to be regarded rather as an indication of the beneficence of God, who has not held even ignorance to be too great a price for man to pay for goodness.

Knowledge is not the fit atmosphere for morality. It is faith and not reason, hope and trust but not certainty, that lend vigour to the good life. We may believe, and rejoice in the belief, that the absolute good is fulfilling itself in all things, and that even the miseries of life are really its refracted rays–the light that gains in splendour by being broken. But we must not, and, indeed, cannot ascend from faith to knowledge. The heart may trust, and must trust, if it faithfully listens to its own natural voice; but reason must not demonstrate. Ignorance on the side of intellect, faith on the side of the emotions; distrust of knowledge, absolute confidence in love; such is the condition of man’s highest welfare: it is only thus that the purpose of his life, and of the world which is his instrument, can be achieved.

No final estimate of the value of this theory of morals and religion can be made, without examining its philosophical presuppositions. Nor is such an examination in any way unfair; for it is obvious that Browning explicitly offers us a philosophical doctrine. He appeals to argument and not to artistic intuition; he offers a definite theory to which he claims attention, not on account of any poetic beauty that may lie within it, but on the ground that it is a true exposition of the moral nature of man. Kant’s Metaphysic of Ethics is not more metaphysical in intention than the poet’s later utterances on the problems of morality. In La Saisiaz, in Ferishtah’s Fancies, in the Parleyings, and, though less explicitly, in Asolando, Fifine at the Fair, and Red Cotton Nightcap Country, Browning definitely states, and endeavours to demonstrate a theory of knowledge, a theory of the relation of knowledge to morality, and a theory of the nature of evil; and he discusses the arguments for the immortality of the soul. In these poems his artistic instinct avails him, not as in his earlier ones, for the discovery of truth by way of intuition, but for the adornment of doctrines already derived from a metaphysical repository. His art is no longer free, no longer its own end, but coerced into an alien service. It has become illustrative and argumentative, and in being made to subserve speculative purposes, it has ceased to be creative. Browning has appealed to philosophy, and philosophy must try his cause.

Such, then, is Browning’s theory; and I need make no further apology for discussing at some length the validity of the division which it involves between the intellectual and the moral life of man. Is it possible to combine the weakness of man’s intelligence with the strength of his moral and religious life, and to find in the former the condition of the latter? Does human knowledge fail, as the poet considers it to fail? Is the intelligence of man absolutely incapable of arriving at knowledge of things as they are? If it does, if man cannot know the truth, can he attain goodness? These are the questions that must now be answered.

It is one of the characteristics of recent thought that it distrusts its own activity: the ancient philosophical “Scepticism” has been revived and strengthened. Side by side with the sense of the triumphant progress of natural science, there is a conviction, shared even by scientific investigators themselves, as well as by religious teachers and by many students of philosophy, that our knowledge has only limited and relative value, and that it always stops short of the true nature of things. The reason of this general conviction lies in the fact that thought has become aware of its own activity; men realize more clearly than they did in former times that the apparent constitution of things depends directly on the character of the intelligence which apprehends them.

This relativity of things to thought has, not unnaturally, suggested the idea that the objects of our knowledge are different from objects as they are. “That the real nature of things is very different from what we make of them, that thought and thing are divorced, that there is a fundamental antithesis between them,” is, as Hegel said, “the hinge on which modern philosophy turns.” Educated opinion in our day has lost its naive trust in itself. “The natural belief of man, it is true, ever gives the lie” to the doctrine that we do not know things. “In common life,” adds Hegel, “we reflect without particularly noting that this is the process of arriving at the truth, and we think without hesitation and in the firm belief that thought coincides with things."[A] But, as soon as attention is directed to the process of thinking, and to the way in which the process affects our consciousness of the object, it is at once concluded that thought will never reach reality, that things are not given to us as they are, but distorted by the medium of sense and our intelligence, through which they pass. The doctrine of the relativity of knowledge is thus very generally regarded as equivalent to the doctrine that there is no true knowledge whatsoever. We know only phenomena, or appearances; and it is these, and not veritable facts, that we systematize into sciences. “We can arrange the appearances–the shadows of our cave–and that, for the practical purposes of the cave, is all that we require."[B] Not even “earth’s least atom” can ever be known to us as it really is; it is for us, at the best,

[Footnote A: Wallace’s Translation of Hegel’s Logic, p. 36.]

[Footnote B: Caird’s Comte.]

  “An atom with some certain properties
  Known about, thought of as occasion needs."[C]

[Footnote C: A Bean-Stripe.]

In this general distrust of knowledge, however, there are, as might be expected, many different degrees. Its origin in modern times was, no doubt, the doctrine of Kant. “This divorce of thing and thought,” says Hegel, “is mainly the work of the critical philosophy and runs counter to the conviction of all previous ages.” And the completeness of the divorce corresponds, with tolerable accuracy, to the degree in which the critical philosophy has been understood; for Kant’s writings, like those of all great thinkers, are capable of many interpretations, varying in depth with the intelligence of the interpreters.

The most common and general form of this view of the limitation of the human intelligence is that which places the objects of religious faith beyond the reach of human knowledge. We find traces of it in much of the popular theology of our day. The great facts of religion are often spoken of as lying in an extra-natural sphere, beyond experience, into which men cannot enter by the native right of reason. It is asserted that the finite cannot know the infinite, that the nature of God is unknowable–except by means of a supernatural interference, which gives to men a new power of spiritual discernment, and “reveals” to them things which are “above reason," although not contrary to it. The theologian often shields certain of his doctrines from criticism, on the ground, as he contends, that there are facts which we must believe, but which it would be presumptuous for us to pretend to understand or to demonstrate. They are the proper objects of “faith.”

But this view of the weakness of the intelligence when applied to supersensuous facts, is held along with an undisturbed conviction of the validity of our knowledge of ordinary objects. It is believed, in a word, that there are two kinds of realities,–natural and supernatural; and that the former is knowable and the latter not.

It requires, however, no great degree of intellectual acumen to discover that this denial of the validity of our knowledge of these matters involves its denial in all its applications. The ordinary knowledge of natural objects, which we begin by regarding as valid, or, rather, whose validity is taken for granted without being questioned, depends upon our ideas of these supersensible objects. In other words, those fundamental difficulties which pious opinion discovers in the region of theology, and which, as is thought, fling the human intellect back upon itself into a consciousness of frailty and finitude, are found to lurk beneath our ordinary knowledge. Whenever, for instance, we endeavour to know any object, we find that we are led back along the line of its conditions to that which unconditionally determines it. For we cannot find the reason for a particular object in a particular object. We are driven back endlessly from one to another along the chain of causes; and we can neither discover the first link nor do without it. The first link must be a cause of itself, and experience yields none such. Such a cause would be the unconditioned, and the unconditioned we cannot know. The final result of thinking is thus to lead us to an unknown; and, in consequence, all our seeming knowledge is seen to have no intelligible basis, and, therefore, to be merely hypothetical. If we cannot know God, we cannot know anything.

This view is held by the Positivists, and the most popular English exponent of it is, perhaps, Mr. Herbert Spencer. Its characteristic is its repudition of both theology and metaphysics as pseudo-sciences, and its high esteem for science. That esteem is not disturbed by the confession that “noumenal causes,"–that is, the actual reality of things,–are unknown; for we can still lay claim to valid knowledge of the laws of phenomena. Having acknowledged that natural things as known are merely phenomena, positivism treats them in all respects as if they were realities; and it rejoices in the triumphant progress of the natural sciences as if it were a veritable growth of knowledge. It does not take to heart the phenomenal nature of known objects. But, having paid its formal compliments to the doctrine of the relativity of all knowledge, it neglects it altogether.

Those who understand Kant better carry his scepticism further, and they complete the divorce between man’s knowledge and reality. The process of knowing, they hold, instead of leading us towards facts, as it was so long supposed to do, takes us away from them: i.e., if either “towards” or “away from” can have any meaning when applied to two realms which are absolutely severed from one another. Knowledge is always concerned with the relations between things; with their likeness, or unlikeness, their laws, or connections; but these are universals, and things are individuals. Science knows the laws of things, but not the things; it reveals how one object affects another, how it is connected with it; but what are the things themselves, which are connected, it does not know. The laws are mere forms of thought, “bloodless categories,” and not facts. They may somehow be regarded as explaining facts, but they must not be identified with the facts. Knowledge is the sphere of man’s thoughts, and is made up of ideas; real things are in another sphere, which man’s thoughts cannot reach. We must distinguish more clearly than has hitherto been done, between logic as the science of knowledge, and metaphysics as a science which pretends to reveal the real nature of things. In a word, we can know thoughts or universals, but not things or particular existences. “When existence is in question it is the individual, not the universal, that is real; and the real individual is not a composite of species and accidents, but is individual to the inmost fibre of its being.” Each object keeps its own real being to itself. Its inmost secret, its reality, is something that cannot appear in knowledge. We can only know its manifestations; but these manifestations are not its reality, nor connected with it. These belong to the sphere of knowledge, they are parts in a system of abstract thoughts; they do not exist in that system, or no-system, of individual realities, each of which, in its veritable being, is itself only, and connected with nought beside.

Now, this view of the absolute impossibility of knowing any reality, on account of the fundamental difference between things and our thoughts about things, contains a better promise of a true view both of reality and of knowledge, than any of the previously mentioned half-hearted theories. It forces us explicitly either to regard every effort to know as futile, or else to regard it as futile on this theory of it. In other words, we must either give up knowledge or else give up the account of knowledge advanced by these philosophers. Hitherto, however, every philosophy that has set itself against the possibility of the knowledge of reality has had to give way. It has failed to shake the faith of mankind in its own intellectual endowment, or to arrest, even for a moment, the attempt by thinking to know things as they are. The view held by Berkeley, that knowledge is merely subjective, because the essence of things consists in their being perceived by the individual, and that they are nothing but his ideas, was refuted by Kant, when he showed that the very illusion of seeming knowledge was impossible on that theory. And this later view, which represents knowledge as merely subjective, on the ground that it is the product of the activity of the thought of mankind, working according to universal laws, is capable of being refuted in the same manner. The only difference between the Berkeleian and this modern speculative theory is that, on the former view, each individual constructed his own subjective entities or illusions; while, on the latter, all men, by reason of the universality of the laws of thought governing their minds, create the same illusion, the same subjective scheme of ideas. Instead of each having his own private unreality, as the product of his perceiving activity, they have all the same, or at least a similar, phantom-world of ideas, as the result of their thinking. But, in both cases alike, the reality of the world without is out of reach, and knowledge is a purely subjective apprehension of a world within. Thoughts are quite different from things, and no effort of human reason can reveal any community between them.

Now, there are certain difficulties which, so far as I know, those who hold this view have scarcely attempted to meet. The first of these lies in the obvious fact, that all men at all times consider that this very process of thinking, which the theory condemns as futile, is the only way we have of finding out what the reality of things is. Why do we reflect and think, except in order to pass beyond the illusions of sensuous appearances to the knowledge of things as they are? Nay, why do these philosophers themselves reflect, when reflection, instead of leading to truth, which is knowledge of reality, leads only to ideas, which, being universal, cannot represent the realities that are said to be “individual.”

The second is, that the knowledge of “the laws” of things gives to us practical command over them; although, according to this view, laws are not things, nor any part of the reality of things, nor even true representations of things. Our authority over things seems to grow pari passu with our knowledge. The natural sciences seem to prove by their practical efficiency, that they are not building up a world of apparitions, like the real world; but gradually getting inside nature, learning more and more to wield her powers, and to make them the instruments of the purposes of man, and the means of his welfare. To common-sense,–which frequently “divines” truths that it cannot prove, and, like ballast in a ship, has often given steadiness to human progress although it is only a dead weight,–the assertion that man knows nothing is as incredible as that he knows all things. If it is replied, that the “things” which we seem to dominate by the means of knowledge are themselves only phenomena, the question arises, what then are the real things to which they are opposed? What right has any philosophy to say that there is any reality which no one can in any sense know? The knowledge that such reality is, is surely a relation between that reality and consciousness, and, if so, the assertion of an unknowable reality is self-contradictory. For the conception of it is the conception of something that is, and at the same time is not, out of relation to consciousness.

To say what kind of thing reality is, is a still more remarkable feat, if reality is unknowable. Reality, being beyond knowledge, why is it called particular or individual, rather than universal? How is it known that the true being of things is different from ideas? Surely both of the terms must be regarded as known to some extent, if they are called like or unlike, contrasted or compared, opposed or identified.

But, lastly, this theory has to account for the fact that it constitutes what is not only unreal, but impossible, into the criterion of what is actual. If knowledge of reality is altogether different from human knowledge, how does it come to be its criterion? That knowledge is inadequate or imperfect can be known, only by contrasting it with its own proper ideal, whatever that may be. A criticism by reference to a foreign or irrelevant criterion, or the condemnation of a theory as imperfect because it does not realize an impossible end, is unreasonable. All true criticism of an object implies a reference to a more perfect state of itself.

We must, then, regard the knowledge of objects as they are, which is opposed to human knowledge, as, only a completer and fuller form of that knowledge; or else we must cease to contrast it with our human knowledge, as valid with invalid, true with phenomenal. Either knowledge of reality is complete knowledge, or else it is a chimera. And, in either case, the sharp distinction between the real and the phenomenal vanishes; and what remains, is not a reality outside of consciousness, or different from ideas, but a reality related to consciousness, or, in other words, a knowable reality. “The distinction of objects into phenomena and noumena, i.e., into things that for us exist, and things that for us do not exist, is an Irish bull in philosophy,” said Heine. To speak of reality as unknowable, or to speak of anything as unknowable, is to utter a direct self-contradiction; it is to negate in the predicate what is asserted in the subject. It is a still more strange perversion to erect this knowable emptiness into a criterion of knowledge, and to call the latter phenomenal by reference to it.

These difficulties are so fundamental and so obvious, that the theory of the phenomenal nature of human knowledge, which, being interpreted, means that we know nothing, could scarcely maintain its hold, were it not confused with another fact of human experience, that is apparently inconsistent with the doctrine that man can know the truth. Side by side with the faith of ordinary consciousness, that in order to know anything we must think, or, in other words, that knowledge shows us what things really are, there is a conviction, strengthened by constant experience, that we never know things fully. Every investigation into the nature of an object soon brings us to an enigma, a something more we do not know. Failing to know this something more, we generally consider that we have fallen short of reaching the reality of the object. We recognize, as it has been expressed, that we have been brought to a stand, and we therefore conclude that we are also brought to the end. We arrive at what we do not know, and we pronounce that unknown to be unknowable; that is, we regard it as something different in nature from what we do know. So far as I can see, the attitude of ordinary thought in regard to this matter might be fairly represented by saying, that it always begins by considering objects as capable of being known in their reality, or as they are, and that experience always proves the attempt to know them as they are to be a failure. The effort is continued although failure is the result, and even although that failure be exaggerated and universalized into that despair of knowledge which we have described. We are thus confronted with what seems to be a contradiction; a trust and distrust in knowledge. It can only be solved by doing full justice to both of the conflicting elements; and then, if possible, by showing that they are elements, and not the complete, concrete fact, except when held together.

From one point of view, it is undeniable that in every object of perception, we come upon problems that we cannot solve. Science at its best, and even when dealing with the simplest of things, is forced to stop short of its final secret. Even when it has discovered its law, there is still apparently something over and above which science cannot grasp, and which seems to give to the object its reality. All the natural sciences concentrated on a bit of iron ore fail to exhaust the truth in it: there is always a “beyond” in it, something still more fundamental which is not yet understood. And that something beyond, that inner essence, that point in which the laws meet and which the sciences fail to lift into knowledge, is regarded as just the reality of the thing. Thus the reality is supposed, at the close of every investigation, to lie outside of knowledge; and conversely, all that we do know, seeing that it lacks this last element, seems to be only apparent knowledge, or knowledge of phenomena.

In this way the process of knowing seems always to stop short at the critical moment, when the truth is just about to be reached. And those who dwell on this aspect alone are apt to conclude that man’s intellect is touched with a kind of impotence, which makes it useless when it gets near the reality. It is like a weapon that snaps at the hilt just when the battle is hottest. For we seem to be able to know everything but the reality, and yet apart from the real essence all knowledge seems to be merely apparent. Physical science penetrates through the outer appearances of things to their laws, analyzes them into forms of energy, calculates their action and predicts their effects with certainty. Its practical power over the forces of nature is so great that it seems to have got inside her secrets. And yet science will itself acknowledge that in every simplest object there is an unknown. Its triumphant course of explaining seems to be always arrested at the threshold of reality. It has no theory, scarcely an hypothesis, of the actual nature of things, or of what that is in each object, which constitutes it a real existence. Natural science, with a scarcely concealed sneer, hands over to the metaphysician all questions as to the real being of things; and itself makes the more modest pretension of showing how things behave, not what they are; what effects follow the original noumenal causes, but not the veritable nature of these causes. Nor can the metaphysician, in his turn, do more than suggest a hypothesis as to the nature of the ultimate reality in things. He cannot detect or demonstrate it in any particular fact. In a word, every minutest object in the world baffles the combined powers of all forms of human thought, and holds back its essence or true being from them. And as long as this true being, or reality is not known, the knowledge which we seem to have cannot be held as ultimately true, but is demonstrably a makeshift.

Having made this confession, there seems to be no alternative but to postulate an utter discrepancy between human thought and real existence, or between human knowledge and truth, which is the correspondence of thing and thought. For, at no point is knowledge found to be in touch with real being; it is everywhere demonstrably conditioned and relative, and inadequate to express the true reality of its objects. What remains, then, except to regard human knowledge as completely untrustworthy, as merely of phenomena? If we cannot know any reality, does not knowledge completely fail?

Now, in dealing with the moral life of man, we saw that the method of hard alternatives is invalid. The moral life, being progressive, was shown to be the meeting–point of the ideal and the actual; and the ideal of perfect goodness was regarded as manifesting itself in actions which, nevertheless, were never adequate to express it. The good when achieved was ever condemned as unworthy, and the ideal when attained ever pressed for more adequate expression in a better character. The ideal was present as potency, as realizing itself, but it was never completely realized. The absolute good was never reached in the best action, and never completely missed in the worst.

The same conflict of real and unreal was shown to be essential to every natural life. As long as anything grows it neither completely attains, nor completely falls away from its ideal. The growing acorn is not an oak tree, and yet it is not a mere acorn. The child is not the man; and yet the man is in the child, and only needs to be evolved by interaction with circumstances. The process of growth is one wherein the ideal is always present, as a reconstructive power gradually changing its whole vehicle, or organism, into a more perfect expression of itself. The ideal is reached in the end, just because it is present in the beginning; and there is no end as long as growth continues.

Now, it is evident that knowledge, whether it be that of the individual man or of the human race, is a thing that grows. The process by means of which natural science makes progress, or by which the consciousness of the child expands and deepens into the consciousness of the man, is best made intelligible from the point of view of evolution. It is like an organic process, in which each new acquirement finds its place in an old order, each new fact is brought under the permanent principles of experience, and absorbed into an intellectual life, which itself, in turn, grows richer and fuller with every new acquisition. No knowledge worthy of the name is an aggregation of facts. Wisdom comes by growth.

Hence, the assertion that knowledge never attains reality, does not imply that it always misses it. In morals we do not say that a man is entirely evil, although he never, even in his best actions, attains the true good. And if the process of knowing is one that presses onward towards an ideal, that ideal is never completely missed even in the poorest knowledge. If it grows, the method of fixed alternatives must be inapplicable to it. The ideal, whatever it may be, must be considered as active in the present, guiding the whole movement, and gradually manifesting itself in each of the passing forms, which are used up as the raw material of new acquirement; and yet no passing form completely expresses the ideal.

Nor is it difficult to say what that ideal of knowledge is, although we cannot define it in any adequate manner. We know that the end of morality is the summum bonum, although we cannot, as long as we are progressive, define its whole content, or find it fully realized in any action. Every failure brings new truth, every higher grade of moral character reveals some new height of goodness to be scaled; the moral ideal acquires definiteness and content as humanity moves upwards. And yet the ideal is not entirely unknown even at the first; even to the most ignorant, it presents itself as a criterion which enables him to distinguish between right and wrong, evil and goodness, and which guides his practical life. The same truth holds with regard to knowledge. Its growth receives its impulse from, and is directed and determined by, what is conceived as the real world of facts. This truth, namely, that the ideal knowledge is knowledge of reality, the most subjective philosopher cannot but acknowledge. It is implied in his condemnation of knowledge as merely phenomenal, that there is possible a knowledge of real being. That thought and reality can be brought together, or rather, that they are always together, is presupposed in all knowledge and in all experience. The effort to know is the effort to explain the relation of thought and reality, not to create it. The ideal of perfect knowledge is present from the first; it generates the effort, directs it, distinguishes between truth and error. And that which man ever aims at, whether in the ordinary activities of daily thought, or through the patient labour of scientific investigation, or in the reflective self-torture of philosophic thought, is to know the world as it is. No failure damps the ardour of this endeavour. Relativists, phenomenalists, agnostics, sceptics, Kantians or Neo-Kantians–all the crowd of thinkers who cry down the human intellect, and draw a charmed circle around reality so as to make it unapproachable to the mind of man–ply this useless labour. They are seeking to penetrate beneath the shows of sense and the outer husk of phenomena to the truth, which is the meeting-point of knowledge and reality; they are endeavouring to translate into an intellectual possession the powers that play within and around them; or, in other words, to make these powers express themselves in their thoughts, and supply the content of their spiritual life. The irony, latent in their endeavour, gives them no pause; they are in some way content to pursue what they call phantoms, and to try to satisfy their thirst with the waters of a mirage. This comes from the presence of the ideal within them, that is, of the implicit unity of reality and thought, which seeks for explicit and complete manifestation in knowledge. The reality is present in them as thinking activity, working towards complete revelation of itself by means of knowledge. And its presence is real, although the process is never complete.

In knowledge, as in morals, it is necessary to remember both of the truths implied in the pursuit of an ideal–that a growing thing not only always fails to attain, but also always succeeds. The distinction between truth and error in knowledge is present at every stage in the effort to attain truth, as the distinction between right and wrong is present in every phase of the moral life. It is the source of the intellectual effort. But that distinction cannot be drawn except by reference to a criterion of truth, which condemns our actual knowledge; as it is the absolute good, which condemns the present character. The ideal may be indefinite, and its content confused and poor; but it is always sufficient for its purpose, always better than the actual achievement. And, in this sense, reality, the truth, the veritable being of things, is always reached by the poorest knowledge. As there is no starved and distorted sapling which is not the embodiment of the principle of natural life, so the meanest character is the product of an ideal of goodness, and the most confused opinion of ignorant mankind is an expression of the reality of things. Without it there would not be even the semblance of knowledge, not even error and untruth.

Those who, like Browning, make a division between man’s thought and real things, and regard the sphere of knowledge as touching at no point the sphere of actual existence, are attributing to the bare human intellect much more power than it has. They regard mind as creating its phenomenal knowledge, or the apparent world. For, having separated mind from reality, it is evident that they cannot avail themselves of any doctrine of sensations or impressions as a medium between them, or postulate any other form of connection or means of communication. Connection of any kind must, in the end, imply some community of nature, and must put the unity of thought and being–here denied–beneath their difference. Hence, the world of phenomena which we know, and which as known, does not seem to consist of realities, must be the product of the unaided human mind. The intellect, isolated from all real being, has manufactured the apparent universe, in all its endless wealth. It is a creative intellect, although it can only create illusions. It evolves all its products from itself.

But thought, set to revolve upon its own axis in an empty region, can produce nothing, not even illusions. And, indeed, those who deny that it is possible for thought and reality to meet in a unity, have, notwithstanding, to bring over “something” to the aid of thought. There must be some effluence from the world of reality, some manifestations of the thing (though they are not the reality of the thing, nor any part of the reality, nor connected with the reality!) to assist the mind and supply it with data. The “phenomenal world” is a hybrid, generated by thought and “something"–which yet is not reality; for the real world is a world of things in themselves, altogether beyond thought. By bringing in these data, it is virtually admitted that the human mind reaches down into itself in vain for a world, even for a phenomenal one.

Thought apart from things is quite empty, just as things apart from thought are blind. Such thought and such reality are mere abstractions, hypostasized by false metaphysics; they are elements of truth rent asunder, and destroyed in the rending. The dependence of the intelligence of man upon reality is direct and complete. The foolishest dream, that ever played out its panorama beneath a night-cap, came through the gates of the senses from the actual world. Man is limited to his material in all that he knows, just as he is ruled by the laws of thought. He cannot go one step beyond it. To transcend “experience” is impossible. We have no wings to sustain us in an empty region, and no need of any. It is as impossible for man to create new ideas, as it is for him to create new atoms. Our thought is essentially connected with reality. There is no mauvais pas from thought to things. We do not need to leap out of ourselves in order to get into the world. We are in it from the first, both as physical and moral agents, and as thinking beings. Our thoughts are expressions of the real nature of things, so far as they go. They may be and are imperfect; they may be and are confused and inadequate, and express only the superficial aspects and not “the inmost fibres"; still, they are what they are, in virtue of “the reality,” which finds itself interpreted in them. Severed from that reality, they would be nothing.

Thus, the distinction between thought and reality is a distinction within a deeper unity. And that unity must not be regarded as something additional to both, or as a third something. It is their unity. It is both reality and thought: it is existing thought, or reality knowing itself and existing through its knowledge of self; it is self-consciousness. The distinguished elements have no existence or meaning except in their unity. Like the actual and ideal, they have significance and being, only in their reference to each other.

There is one more difficulty connected with this matter which I must touch upon, although the discussion may already be regarded as prolix. It is acknowledged by every one that the knowledge of the individual, and his apparent world of realities, grow pari passu. Beyond his sphere of knowledge there is no reality for him, not even apparent reality. But, on the other hand, the real world of existing things exists all the same whether he knows it or not. It did not begin to be with any knowledge he may have of it, it does not cease to be with his extinction, and it is not in any way affected by his valid, or invalid, reconstruction of it in thought. The world which depends on his thought is his world, and not the world of really existing things. And this is true alike of every individual. The world is independent of all human minds. It existed before them, and will, very possibly, exist after them. Can we not, therefore, conclude that the real world is independent of thought, and that it exists without relation to it?

A short reference to the moral consciousness may suggest the answer to this difficulty. In morality (as also is the case in knowledge) the moral ideal, or the objective law of goodness, grows in richness and fulness of content with the individual who apprehends it. His moral world is the counterpart of his moral growth as a character. Goodness for him directly depends upon his recognition of it. Animals, presumably, have no moral ideal, because they have not the power to constitute it. In morals, as in knowledge, the mind of man constructs its own world. And yet, in both alike, the world of truth or of goodness exists all the same whether the individual knows it or not. He does not call the moral law into being, but finds it without, and then realizes it in his own life. The moral law does not vanish and reappear with its recognition by mankind. It is not subject to the chances and changes of its life, but a good in itself that is eternal.

Is it therefore independent of all intelligence? Can goodness be anything but the law of a self-conscious being? Is it the quality or motive or ideal of a mere thing? Manifestly not. Its relation to self-consciousness is essential. With the extinction of self-consciousness all moral goodness is extinguished.

The same holds true of reality. The question of the reality or unreality of things cannot arise except in an intelligence. Animals have neither illusions nor truths–unless they are self-conscious. The reality, which man sets over against his own inadequate knowledge, is posited by him; and it has no meaning whatsoever except in this contrast. And to endeavour to conceive a reality which no one knows, is to assert a relative term without its correlative, which is absurd; it is to posit an ideal which is opposed to nothing actual.

In this view, so commonly held in our day, that knowledge is subjective and reality unknowable, we have another example of the falseness and inconsistency of abstract thinking. If this error be committed, there is no fundamental gain in saying with Kant, that things are relative to the thought of all, instead of asserting, with Berkeley or Browning, that they are relative to the thought of each. The final result is the same. Things as known, are reduced into mere creations of thought; things as they are, are regarded as not thoughts, and as partaking in no way of the nature of thought. And yet “reality” is virtually assumed to be given at the beginning of knowledge; for the sensations are supposed to be emanations from it, or roused in consciousness by it. These sensations, it is said, man does not make, but receives, and receives from the concealed reality. They flow from it, and are the manifestations of its activity. Then, in the next moment, reality is regarded as not given in any way, but as something to be discovered by the effort of thought; for we always strive to know things, and not phantoms. Lastly, the knowledge thus acquired being regarded as imperfect, and experience showing to us continually that every object has more in it than we know, the reality is pronounced to be unknowable, and all knowledge is regarded as failure, as acquaintance with mere phantoms. Thus, in thought, as in morality, the ideal is present at the beginning, it is an effort after explicit realization, and its process is never complete.

Now, all these aspects of the ideal of knowledge, that is, of reality, are held by the unsophisticated intelligence of man; and abstract philosophy is not capable of finally getting rid of any one of them. It, too, holds them alternately. Its denial of the possibility of knowing reality is refuted by its own starting-point; for it begins with a given something, regarded as real, and its very effort to know is an attempt to know that reality by thinking. But it forgets these facts, when it is discovered that knowledge at the best is incomplete. It is thus tossed from assertion to denial, and from denial to assertion; from one abstract or one-sided view of reality, to the other.

When these different aspects of truth are grasped together from the point of view of evolution, there seems to be a way of escaping the difficulties to which they give rise. For the ideal must be present at the beginning, and cannot be present in its fulness till the process is complete. What is here required is to lift our theory of man’s knowledge to the level of our theory of his moral life, and to treat it frankly as the process whereby reality manifests itself in the mind of man. In that way, we shall avoid the absurdities of both of the abstract schools of philosophy, to both of which alike the native intelligence of man gives the lie. We shall say neither that man knows nothing, nor that he knows all; we shall regard his knowledge, neither as purely phenomenal and out of all contact with reality, nor as an actual identification with the real being of things in all their complex variety. For, in morality, we do not say either that the individual is absolutely evil, because his actions never realize the supreme ideal of goodness; nor, that he is at the last term of development, and “taking the place of God,” because he lives as “ever in his great Taskmaster’s eye.” Just as every moral action, however good, leaves something still to be desiderated, something that may become a stepping-stone for new movement towards the ideal which it has failed to actualize; so all our knowledge of an object leaves something over that we have not apprehended, which is truer and more real than anything we know, and which in all future effort we strive to master. And, just as the very effort, to be good derives its impulse and direction from the ideal of goodness which is present, and striving for realization; so the effort to know derives its impulse and direction from the reality which is present, and striving for complete realization in the thought of man. We know reality confusedly from the first; and it is because we have attained so much knowledge, that we strive for greater clearness and fulness. It is by planting his foot on the world that man travels. It is by opposing his power to the given reality that his knowledge grows.

When once we recognize that reality is the ideal of knowledge, we are able to acknowledge all the truth that is in the doctrine of the phenomenalists, without falling into their errors and contradictions. We may go as far as the poet in confessing intellectual impotence, and roundly call the knowledge of man “lacquered ignorance.” “Earth’s least atom” does veritably remain an enigma. Man is actually flung back into his circumscribed sphere by every fact; and he will continue to be so flung to the end of time. He will never know reality, nor be able to hold up in his hand the very heart of the simplest thing in the world. For the world is an organic totality, and its simplest thing will not be seen, through and through, till everything is known, till every fact and event is related to every other under principles which are universal: just as goodness cannot be fully achieved in any act, till the agent is in all ways lifted to the level of absolute goodness. Physics cannot reveal the forces which keep a stone in its place on the earth, till it has traced the forces that maintain the starry systems in their course. No fact can be thoroughly known, i.e., known in its reality, till the light of the universe has been focussed upon it: and, on the other hand, to know any subject through and through would be to explain all being. The highest law and the essence of the simple fact, the universal and the particular, can only be known together, in and through one another. “Reality” in “the least atom” will be known, only when knowledge has completed its work, and the universe has become a transparent sphere, penetrated in every direction by the shafts of intelligence.

But this is only half the truth. If knowledge is never complete, it is always completing; if reality is never known, it is ever being known; if the ideal is never actual, it is always being actualized. The complete failure of knowledge is as impossible as its complete success. It is at no time severed from reality; it is never its mere adumbration, nor are its contents mere phenomena. On the contrary, it is reality partially revealed, the ideal incompletely actualized. Our very errors are the working of reality within us, and apart from it they would be impossible. The process towards truth by man is the process of truth in man; the movement of knowledge towards reality is the movement of reality into knowledge. A purely subjective consciousness which knows, such as the poet tried to describe, is a self-contradiction: it would be a consciousness at once related, and not related, to the actual world. But man has no need to relate himself to the world. He is already related, and his task is to understand that relation, or, in other words, to make both its terms intelligible. Man has no need to go out from himself to facts; his relation to facts is prior to his distinction from them. The truth is that he cannot entirely lift himself away from them, nor suspend his thoughts in the void. In his inmost being he is creation’s voice, and in his knowledge he confusedly murmurs its deep thoughts.

Browning was aware of this truth in its application to man’s moral nature. In speaking of the principle of love, he was not tempted to apply fixed alternatives. On the contrary, he detected in the “poorest love that was ever offered” the veritable presence of that which is perfect and complete, though never completely actualized. His interest in the moral development of man, and his penetrative moral insight, acting upon, and guided by the truths of the Christian religion, warned him, on this side, against the absolute separation of the ideal and actual, the divine and human. Human love, however poor in quality and limited in range, was to him God’s love in man. It was a wave breaking in the individual of that First Love, which is ever flowing back through the life of humanity to its primal source. To him all moral endeavour is the process of this Primal Love; and every man, as he consciously identifies himself with it, may use the language of Scripture, and say, “It is not I that live, but Christ lives in me.”

But, on the side of knowledge, he was neither so deeply interested, nor had he so good a guide to lean upon. Ignorant, according to all appearances, of the philosophy which has made the Christian maxim, “Die to live,"–which primarily is only a principle of morality–the basis of its theory of knowledge, he exaggerated the failure of science to reach the whole truth as to any particular object, into a qualitative discrepancy between knowledge and truth. Because knowledge is never complete, it is always mere lacquered ignorance; and man’s apparent intellectual victories are only conquests in a land of unrealities, or mere phenomena. He occupies in regard to knowledge, a position strictly analogous to that of Carlyle, in regard to morality; his intellectual pessimism is the counterpart of the moral pessimism of his predecessor, and it springs from the same error. He forgot that the ideal without is also the power within, which makes for its own manifestation in the mind of man.

He opposed the intellect to the world, as Carlyle opposed the weakness of man to the law of duty; and he neglected the fact that the world was there for him, only because he knew it, just as Carlyle neglected the fact that the duty was without, only because it was recognized within. He strained the difference between the ideal and actual into an absolute distinction; and, as Carlyle condemned man to strive for a goodness which he could never achieve, so Browning condemns him to pursue a truth which he can never attain. In both, the failure is regarded as absolute. “There is no good in us,” has for its counterpart “There is no truth in us.” Both the moralist and the poet dwell on the negative relation of the ideal and actual, and forget that the negative has no meaning, except as the expression of a deeper affirmative. Carlyle had to learn that we know our moral imperfection, only because we are conscious of a better within us; and Browning had to learn that we are aware of our ignorance, only because we have the consciousness of fuller truth with which we contrast our knowledge. Browning, indeed, knew that the consciousness of evil was itself evidence of the presence of good, that perfection means death, and progress is life, on the side of morals; but he has missed the corresponding truth on the side of knowledge. If he acknowledges that the highest revealed itself to man, on the practical side, as love; he does not see that it has also manifested itself to man, on the theoretical side, as reason. The self-communication of the Infinite is incomplete love is a quality of God, intelligence a quality of man; hence, on one side, there is no limit to achievement, but on the other there is impotence. Human nature is absolutely divided against itself; and the division, as we have already seen, is not between flesh and spirit, but between a love which is God’s own and perfect, and an intelligence which is merely man’s and altogether weak and deceptive.

This is what makes Browning think it impossible to re-establish faith in God, except by turning his back on knowledge; but whether it is possible for him to appeal to the moral consciousness, we shall inquire in the next chapter.


Preface  •  Chapter I. Introduction.  •  Chapter II. On the Need of a Philosophy of Life.  •  Chapter III. Browning’s Place in English Poetry.  •  Chapter IV. Browning’s Optimism.  •  Chapter V. Optimism and Ethics: Their Contradiction.  •  Chapter VI. Browning’s Treatment of the Principle of Love.  •  Chapter VII. Browning’s Idealism, and Its Philosophical Justification.  •  Chapter VIII. Browning’s Solution of the Problem of Evil.  •  Chapter IX. A Criticism of Browning’s View of the Failure of Knowledge.  •  Chapter X. The Heart and the Head.–Love and Reason.  •  Chapter XI. Conclusion.

[Buy at Amazon]
Browning As a Philosophical And Religious Teacher
By Henry Jones
At Amazon