The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 21. George Henry Lewes

Among these writers the first place may be given to George Henry Lewes, although, in his earlier works, he was influenced by Comte, not by Darwin. Lewes was a man of marvellous literary versatility as essayist, novelist, biographer and expositor of popular science. This versatility also marks his work in philosophy. At first Comte’s influence was supreme. His philosophical publications began with The Biographical History of Philosophy (1845–6), a slight and inaccurate attempt to cover a vast field, and apparently designed to show that the field was not worth the tillage; later editions of this work, however, not only greatly increased its extent and removed many blemishes but showed the author’s ability to appreciate other points of view than that from which he had started. After an interval, he produced books entitled Comte’s Philosophy of the Sciences (1853) and Aristotle: a chapter from the history of science (1864). But, for a long time, Lewes had been at work on investigations of a more constructive and original kind, partly philosophical and partly scientific, the results of which were not fully published at the time of his death in 1878. These results were contained in Problems of Life and Mind, the first two volumes of which, entitled The Foundations of a Creed, appeared in 1874–5, and the fifth and final volume in 1879. In this work the author has advanced far from his early Comtism, and it shows, in many respects, a much more adequate comprehension of philosophical problems than can be found in Spencer, whose knowledge of the history of thought was limited and sketchy, and whose criticisms of other philosophers were nearly always external—in the worst sense of the word. But Lewes had fitted himself for writing, not only by original researches in physiology and related branches of science, but, also, by a considerable and sympathetic study of modern philosophy. He is thus able to appeal to other readers than those who have limited their intellectual enquiries to a predetermined range. He rejected as “metempirical” what lay beyond possible experience; but he would not, like Spencer, affect to derive comfort from the unknowable. There was room for metaphysics, he thought, as the science of the highest generalities, or the codification of the most abstract laws of cause, and he sought to transform it by reducing it to the method of science. In working out this aim, he relied on and illustrated the distinction between immediate experience or “feeling” and the symbols or conceptual constructions used for its codification. He also criticised the current mechanical interpretation of organic processes, holding that sensibility was inherent in nervous substance. And he was one of the first to emphasise the importance of the social factor in the development of mind and to exhibit its working. He defended the conception of the “general mind,” not as expressing a separate entity, but as a symbol; and, for him, the individual mind, also, was a symbol. The problems with which he dealt were partly general—enquiries into knowledge, truth and certitude—partly psychophysical and psychological. His Problems shows the prolonged and eager reflection of an active mind. In it the multifarious writings of many years were reduced and expanded. But it may be doubted whether the reduction was carried far enough. There is a good deal of repetition, but hardly a central argument; the separate discussions are often important and suggestive; but the fundamental position regarding subject and object does not seem to be adequately defended or even made perfectly clear. Lewes had more philosophical insight than Spencer, but he had not the latter’s architectonic genius.