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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 11. His Conception of True Scientific Method

Wright does not underestimate the value of religious or metaphysical philosophies, though they may be full of vague ideas, crude fancies, and unverified convictions; for they “constitute more of human happiness and human wealth than the narrow material standards of science have been able to measure.” But scientific philosophy must be clearly distinguished from these. The motives of science arise in rational curiosity or wonder, while religious and metaphysical philosophies arise from the desire—not to discover new truths but—to defend our emotional and vital preferences by exhibiting them as entirely free from inconsistency. Logical refutation of every opposing philosophy affords us satisfaction but does not convince our opponents; because the choice of ultimate metaphysical dogmas is a matter of character (or temperament, as James later said) and not of logic.

Wright’s own choice, which he does not pretend to demonstrate, is for the view attributed to Aristotle, that creation is not a progression toward a single end, but rather an endless succession of changes, simple and constant in their elements, though infinite in their combinations, which constitute an order without beginning and without termination. This distinction between elements and their combination enabled him to unite the belief in the universality of physical causation which is the scientist’s protection against the refined superstitions of teleology with the Aristotelian belief in accidents which keeps the scientist from erecting his discoveries into metaphysical dogmas. Scientific research must postulate the universality of the causal relation between elementary facts and cannot make use of any teleology, since there is no scientific test for distinguishing which facts are ends and which are only means. But there is no evidence that any law like that of gravity is absolutely exact or more than approximately true or that it holds beyond the observable stars. The inductive or empirical character of the actual laws of science explains the reality of accidents or phenomena which could not have been predicted from any finite human knowledge of their antecedents. The rise of self-consciousness, the use of the voice as a means of communication, or the properties of new chemical combinations, all illustrate phenomena which are subject to law yet unpredictable. Though life is subject to the law of conservation of energy, nothing characteristic of life can be deduced from such a law.

Wright’s penetrating and well-founded reflections on the nature of scientific method did not attract widespread attention. The vast majority come to philosophy to find or to confirm some simple “scheme of things entire.” And though all scientists are empirical in their own field, most of them demand some absolute finality when they come to philosophy. Wright’s profound modesty and austere self-control in the presence of glittering and tempting generalizations and his willingness to live in a world subject to the uncertainties of “cosmic weather” will never attract more than a few. But the character of his thought, though rare, is nevertheless indicative of a tendency toward the scientific philosophy, the negative side of which was more crudely and more popularly represented by Draper’s History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862) and in many articles in The Popular Science Monthly. But at least two great American philosophers were directly and profoundly influenced by Chauncey Wright, and those were Charles Peirce and William James.