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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

§ 13. His Attack on Agnosticism

Just as the work of Chauncey Wright may be summarized in its attack on the pretentiousness and inadequate scientific basis of the Spencerian evolutionary philosophy, so the work of William T. Harris may be summed up as an attack against agnosticism. On its psychologic side Harris’s argument is directed against Spencer’s assumption (directly derived from Sir William Hamilton) that we cannot conceive the infinite. Against this Harris clearly points out that Hamilton and Spencer are confusing the process of conception and the process of imagination. It is true that we cannot form a picture or an image of the infinite, but neither can we form an image of any motion or process as such. This, however, need not prevent us from grasping or conceiving any universal process of which the imagination fixes the dead static result at any moment. On the objective side Harris reaches the same result by the dialectic argument that the finite particular cannot be the ultimate reality. Particular things are given in sense perception, but the scientific understanding shows us that every object depends on other things to make it what it is; everything depends upon an environment. Science in its development must thus emphasize dynamic processes, and its highest point is reached in the discovery of the correlation of all forces. But the moment we begin to reason as to the nature of these processes or activities, we are inevitably led to the idea of self-activity; for since every finite object gets its activity from some other object, the ultimate source of all activity must be that which is not limited by something else, and that is an infinite or self-limited Activity. Thus the stages of sense-perception, understanding, and reason lead to atomism or materialism, pantheism, and theism respectively.

With the simplicity that comes from undiluted sincerity, Harris repeats this argument over and over again, finding in it the clue to fruitful insight in all fields of human interest. It is the weapon with which he refutes all empiricism, which bases truth on the knowledge of particulars. All such philosophy, he says, stops at the stage of understanding and fails to note that a particular fact possesses whatever unity or character it has only in virtue of some universal. Time, space, and causality cannot, therefore, be derived from particular experiences, but are, as Kant maintained, the a priori conditions of all experience.

In social philosophy Harris follows Hegel rather closely with a characteristic New England emphasis on the freedom of the will. Thus the state is “a social unit in which the individual exists not for himself, but for the use of that unit”; but social order is not to be secured by external authority, but by free choice. Like his master, Hegel, Harris intellectualizes religion and art, the function of both being to reveal ultimate or philosophic truth, religion in the form of dogmatic faith, art by sensuous representation which “piques the soul to ascend out of the stage of sense perception into reflection and free thought.”