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

I. Philosophers

§ 33. Prolegomena to Ethics

In the years following the “introductions” to Hume, Green published some occasional articles on philosophical topics. He, also, exerted a great influence by his academic lectures—the more important of which are printed in his collected Works (three volumes, 1885–8). His greatest book, Prolegomena to Ethics, appeared in 1883, the year after his death. This book does not profess to be a system either of metaphysics or of ethics; but it supplies the groundwork for such a system. It is a vindication of the spiritual nature of the world and of man. Neither nature nor man can be constructed out of the sensations or feelings which formed the data of the empirical philosophers. Our knowledge “presupposes” that there is a connected world to be known. The relations involved, and inexplicable on empirical methods, can be understood only as implying the action of mind. “The action of one self-conditioning and self-determining mind” is, therefore, a postulate of all knowledge, and our knowledge is a “reproduction” of this activity in or as the mind of man. In the same way, our moral activity is a reproduction in us of the one eternal mind. Under all the limitations of organic life and of the time-process generally, the mind of man carries with it the characteristic, inexplicable on the theory of naturalism, of “being an object to itself.” This position is not to be established by deductive or inductive methods; in this sense it cannot be proved. But it is a point of view from which—and from which alone—we can understand both the world and ourselves and see how it is that “we are and do what we consciously are and do.” In the later books of his Prolegomena this doctrine is applied to the interpretation of the history of the moral life and of moral ideas; and this portion of his work shows his powers as a writer at their best. In other writings the same conception is applied to social and religious questions. It is conspicuous in his Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, where he maintains that will, not force, is the basis of the state, and gives a fresh reading to the doctrine of the “general will.”

In his metaphysics, Green does not follow the method of Hegel’s dialectic; and in his reading of history there is no trace of the Hegelian theory that development in time follows the same stages as logical development. The gradual steps by which the realisation of reason or of self is brought about in the time-process are not investigated. Only, it is assumed that the process is purposive, that history is the “reproduction” of the eternal mind. How it comes about that error and moral evil affect the process is not explained, and the metaphor of “reproduction,” as well as the whole relation of the time-process to eternal reality, is left somewhat vague.