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

I. Philosophers

§ 5. Sir William Hamilton

Brown’s work on causation certainly showed him to be possessed of an intellect of penetrating philosophical quality; and it may be noted that, in his preface to the second edition of it, he already laid down two principles which distinguished his subsequent writing. One was that the “philosophy of mind” is to be considered as a science of analysis; the other was the implicit rejection of the doctrine of mental faculties as it had figured in previous academic philosophies. Functions such as memory or comparison, he says, are merely names for the resemblances among classes of mental facts. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1820), published after his death, these principles were applied to the details of perception and cognition. He made the important distinction between the muscular sense and touch proper, resolved knowledge of extension into a succession of muscular sensations, and knowledge of the external world into a number of constituent sensations, but held, nevertheless, to the real existence of the physical object on the ground that it was implied in the intuitive belief in causality. In these doctrines, and in his analysis of “relative suggestion,” he made contributions to psychology which were largely original, although he was considerably indebted to De Tracy and other predecessors. The eloquence of his style, as well as the subtlety of his analyses, made his lectures famous during his lifetime and, in their printed form, for many years after his death. They were written hastily, each lecture to meet the demand of the following day, and they are too ornate in style for scientific purposes. The shortness of the author’s life, and his own unfortunate preference for his poetical works over his philosophical, prevented a thorough revision of what he had written or a consistent and adequate development of his views.

Hamilton’s reputation has not withstood the test of time; but, in his own day and for a number of years afterwards, his was one of the two names which stood for the revival of philosophical thought in Great Britain. His pre-eminence was not altogether undisputed, however. Even from his younger contemporaries who did most for Scottish metaphysics, different opinions regarding his merit may be gathered. Ferrier regarded him, morally and intellectually, as “amongst the greatest of the great”: whereas Hutchison Stirling found in him “a certain vein of disingenuousness that, cruelly unjust to individuals, has probably caused the retardation of general British philosophy by, perhaps, a generation.” The truth lies somewhere between these extreme views, and it is important to arrive at a correct estimate of Hamilton’s work in order to understand the course of British philosophy.

Sir William Hamilton was born in 1788, in the old college of Glasgow, where his father was a professor. He was educated there and at Oxford, was called to the Scottish bar and, in 1836, appointed to the chair of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh. In 1844 he had a stroke of paralysis, and, although he was able to continue the work of his professorship until his death in 1856, he never recovered his physical strength. His published work began with a number of articles in The Edinburgh Review, republished in 1852 as Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Education and University Reform. The most important of these were three articles on “the Philosophy of the Unconditioned,” “the Philosophy of Perception” and “Logic,” which appeared between 1829 and 1833. He afterwards devoted himself to the preparation of an edition of Reid’s Works, which he illustrated with elaborate appended “Notes,” chiefly historical in character. This work was published in 1846; but the “Notes” were never completed and are of the nature of material rather than of literature. After his death, his Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic were published in four volumes (1858–60).

Hamilton’s positive contributions to philosophy are connected with the topics of the three articles already named. Indeed, except as regards logic, these articles contain almost all that is essential and original in his work. But other points have to be taken into account in estimating his influence upon philosophical thought.

Since the time of Descartes, continental thought had had little effect upon English philosophy. Leibniz and even Spinoza were hardly more than names. Helvétius had influenced Bentham, and De Tracy Thomas Brown; but Helvétius and De Tracy themselves worked on lines laid down in England—the lines of Locke. The doctrines of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, together with the ideas of the deistical movement, had entered into the European tradition; but the reaction which they produced, and which began with Kant, was for long ignored in England. One or two enthusiasts tried to make Kant known, but their efforts were without result; an article on Kant by Thomas Brown in the second number of The Edinburgh Review (1803) only showed the poverty of the land. Coleridge, indeed, was a much more important medium; he brought into English literature ideas which had been derived from Kant and his successors, and he was recognised by John Stuart Mill as representing a type of thought, antagonistic to the dominant Benthamism, which had to be reckoned with. But the teaching of Coleridge was prophetic rather than scientific, and the philosophical student had to be approached in his own language and by a master who had the command of traditional learning as well as fresh doctrines to teach. It was here that Hamilton’s cosmopolitan learning broke in upon British philosophy and lifted it out of the narrow grooves into which both the Scottish academic teachers and the English Benthamites had fallen. Hamilton’s learning struck most of his contemporaries as almost superhuman; it was certainly vast, and, as certainly, without precedent at the time. It made possible a new orientation in philosophy. The special problems to which discussion had become restricted were seen as part of a larger field of enquiry which extended over the whole of western thought from ancient Greece to modern Germany. Hamilton, however, had the defects of his qualities. He never obtained easy mastery of his own learning; he would summon a “cloud of witnesses” when a single good argument would have been more to the purpose; and his selection of “authorities” was often ill-judged: they were numbered instead of weighed; and he would spend time over third-rate schoolmen or equally third-rate modern Germans which would have been better spent if devoted to a sympathetic understanding of Kant and Hegel. Nevertheless, Hamilton’s work in this respect is important. He overcame the provincialism of English thought and he brought it into connection with the greatest of the new German philosophers. It may have been an imperfect Kant that he revealed; Fichte, Schelling and Hegel were brought forward as objects of criticisms only. But the traditional circle of English thought was broken, and new ideas were brought within it.

Hamilton came forward as a reconciler of Scottish and German thought—of Reid with Kant. It was only an imperfect synthesis that he worked out, but the enterprise was notable. His logical work, indeed, stands to some extent apart. He followed Kant in his strictly formal treatment, and he devoted a large amount of time, and no little ingenuity, to the elaboration of a modification of the formal doctrine of the traditional logic. This modified doctrine made a great stir for many years, and was even hailed as the greatest logical discovery since the time of Aristotle. It is known as “the Quantification of the Predicate.” Hamilton’s own expositions of it are incomplete and are contained in appendixes to his Discussions and to his Lectures. The clearest accounts of his views have to be sought in An Essay on the New Analytic of Logical Forms (1850), by his pupil, Thomas Spencer Baynes, and in An Outline of the Laws of Thought (the first edition of which was published in 1842), by William Thomson, afterwards archbishop of York. But the gist of the matter can be put very shortly. According to the traditional view, in a judgment or proposition, an assertion is made about something; that is to say, the subject is said to posses or not to posses the quality signified by the predicate. When made not about an individual thing, but about a group or class, then the assertion may be meant to apply to every member of the class or only to some of them; it is, therefore, necessary to indicate this, or to express the quantity of the subject. The predicate is not similarly quantified. But a quality is always potentially a class—the class of things which possess that quality. The most elementary of logical operations implies that it can be treated as such and assigned a quantity as the subject of a new proposition. Hamilton’s “new analytic” depends upon the contention that the quantity thus implied should be always explicitly stated, and consists in following out the changes in formal procedure which seem to him to result from this being done. But Hamilton was not thorough enough in the elaboration of his theory. He did not see that it implied a change from the “predication view” to the “class view” of the proposition and that this would lead to a very different classification of propositions from his, and, in general, to a much more radical revision of logical forms than he contemplated. Two contemporary mathematicians—Augustus de Morgan and George Boole—went further than he did; and the latter’s treatise entitled The Laws of Thought (1854) laid the foundations of the modern logical calculus.

Hamilton’s article on “the Philosophy of Perception” is both a defence of Reid and, at the same time, a relentless attack upon Thomas Brown. It is also an attempt to formulate and justify the doctrine of “natural realism” or “natural dualism” in a form less ambiguous than that in which it had been stated by Reid. “In the simplest act of perception,” says Hamilton, “I am conscious of myself as the perceiving subject and of an external reality as the object perceived.” As regards the latter factor what we have is said to be “an immediate knowledge of the external reality.” This clear view almost disappears, however, in the process of discussion and elaboration which it underwent in Hamilton’s later thought. In the course of his psychological analysis, he distinguished sharply and properly between the subjective and the objective factors in the act of cognising external reality; the former he called sensation proper and the latter perception proper; and he even formulated a “law” of their inverse ratio. He elaborated, also, the old distinction of primary and secondary qualities of matter, to which, more suo, he added an intermediate class of secundo-primary qualities. As a result of these distinctions the doctrine of “immediate knowledge of the external reality” is transformed. The object of perception proper, it is said, is either a primary quality or a certain phase of a secundo-primary. But we do not perceive the primary qualities of things external to our organism. These are not immediately known but only inferred; the primary qualities which we do perceive “are perceived as in our organism. That is to say, when we perceive a table, we do not perceive the shape or size of the table; knowledge of these is got by inference; the shape and size which we perceive are in our own bodies. The existence of an extra-organic world is apprehended through consciousness of resistance to our muscular energy, which Hamilton calls a “quasi-primary phasis of the secundo-primary” qualities. From this view it follows that no immediate knowledge of external reality is given by sight; and yet it would be hard to show that the “testimony of consciousness,” to which Hamilton constantly and confidently appeals, makes any such distinction between things seen and things touched.

The value of Hamilton’s “philosophy of the conditioned,” as he called it, is not easy to estimate, chiefly owing to the difficulty of stating the exact sense in which he held his favourite doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge. His most striking production is the first article he published—that on “the Philosophy of the Unconditioned.” It is a review not directly of Schelling or Hegel, but of the eclectic system of his French contemporary, Victor Cousin. The unconditioned, in his use of the term, is a genus of which the infinite (or unconditionally unlimited) and the absolute (or unconditionally limited) are the species; and his contention is that it is not an object of thought at all, but “merely a common name for what transcends the laws of thought.” His argument follows lines similar to those used by Kant in exhibiting the antinomies of rational cosmology, though it is applied to the conclusions of post-Kantian speculation. According to him, there cannot be any knowledge of that which is without conditions, whether it is called infinite or absolute; knowledge lies between two contradictory inconceivables, one of which must be true though neither can be conceived; all true philosophy is a philosophy of the conditioned. “To think,” he says, “is to condition.” This statement, however, involves two positions which he does not take care to keep distinct. It implies that we cannot know the infinite or whole, which in its nature must be without any conditions; and it may also be taken as implying that our knowledge of the finite parts is not a knowledge of them as they truly exist, but only as they are modified by our way of knowing. This latter position, though very definitely stated by Hamilton, is not clearly carried out. He follows Kant by laying chief stress on space and time as the forms under which we know objects; but he departs from Kant in holding that these forms are also modes of things are actually existing. It would therefore appear that the fact of their being (as Hamilton calls them) à priori “forms of thought” does not interfere with the objective truth of our spatio-temporal knowledge; it is a knowledge, under the forms of space and time, of things which really exist in space and time. Hamilton’s doctrine of immediate perception necessitates some such view. He saw, moreover, that some kind of reconciliation was required; but a parenthetical paragraph in his article on “the Philosophy of Perception” exhausts what he has to say on this important problem. “To obviate misapprehension,” he asserts that all that we know is “those phases of being which stand in analogy to our faculties of knowledge.” This vague phrase may mean little more than that we cannot know what we are incapable of knowing. Because the nature of a thing is “in analogy to our faculties” may be the reason why we are able to know it; it cannot show that we do not know it as it is or in its actual nature. But Hamilton’s mind seemed to work in two distinct compartments belonging respectively to the philosophy of perception and to the philosophy of the conditioned. The two lines of thought seldom met, and when they did meet the result was sometimes curious. Rerumque ignarus, imagine gaudet is the taunt he flings at Brown and the representationists; but when he poses as the philosopher of the conditioned, he takes the same tag as his own motto—rerumque ignarus, imagine gaudet.

As regards our supposed knowledge of the absolute or of the infinite, that, he holds, is merely a negative conception. On this topic he can hardly be said to have set forth anything substantially new, though his arguments were novel and striking to the English reader of the day. Nor, even here, on this fundamental point, can his view be said to be free from ambiguity. His doctrine seems to lead logically to a form of positivism; he will not even allow that the moral consciousness or “practical reason” has the significance assigned to it by Kant; but yet he asserts emphatically that what cannot be known can be and ought to be believed. What then is belief? By classifying it as a form or “faculty” of cognition, Hamilton strikes at the root of his doctrine that thought excludes the notion of the absolute or infinite. When on the war-path against the unconditioned, the “imbecility” of human knowledge is asserted to the fullest extent; when religious belief is in question, the “unknown God” is represented as somehow the object of consciousness; and sometimes it would even appear as if his view were simply that knowledge of the highest object which consciousness can apprehend, cannot, like our knowledge of particular things, imply a reference to some higher concept.