McTAGGART'S METHOD AND ITS RELATIONS TO OTHER METHODS
I shall begin this book with an account of McTaggart's method of philosophising, as illustrated in the Nature of Existence, and its relations to certain other methods which have been used by eminent philosophers. In particular we shall have to consider carefully the connexion or lack of connexion between it and Hegel's dialectical method, since McTaggart was a distinguished exponent and an ardent admirer of the Hegelian dialectic.
1. The Method and Aim of McTaggart's Enquiry.
McTaggart's enquiry in the Nature of Existence falls into two parts, and these demand different methods and claim different degrees of certainty
(A) The first part of his task is to discover what, characteristics belong
There are two small criticisms to be made at this point. McTaggart's two kinds of characteristic are not mutually exclusive. He would say, for example, that both the universe as a whole and every part of it have the characteristic of being a compound particular existent.
For example, on McTaggart's view the universe has a set of parts each of which is a self; and yet not every part of the universe is a self. For a twinge of toothache in one of these selves is, on McTaggart's view, a particular existent and a part of the universe, in precisely the same sense in which the self is; and a twinge of toothache is certainly not a self. We therefore ought to divide characteristics of the kind which McTaggart is going to consider into the following four classes:
(1.l) those which belong to the universe as a collective whole and to every part of it;
It must be remarked that, corresponding to any characteristic of the fourth kind, there will always be one which applies to the universe as a collective whole. For it will be an important characteristic of the universe as a whole to be analysable without remainder or overlap into a set of parts every one of which has a certain characteristic phi. For example, one of the most important collective properties which McTaggart claims to prove of the universe is the property of being completely analysable into a set of parts every one of which is a self.
(B) The second part of McTaggart's task is to see what consequences of practical or theoretical interest can be drawn from the conclusions of the first part with regard to various items of the existent whieh are empirically presented to us. This falls into three divisions.
McTaggart says that the method to be adopted in the first part of his task is almost wholly a priori, though two empirical premises will be used. He does not explicitly define "a priori knowledge", but it is clear from the context that he means by it knowledge of necessary connexions or disconnexions between universals. This is gained either by direct inspection or by deductive inference from premises which can be seen to be necessary by inspection. The two empirical premises are based upon acquaintance with particulars, to which McTaggart gives the name of "perception". It is by this means that we know that something exists, which is an essential premise in his system. And it is by this means that we know that what exists is differentiated into parts and is not just a single point-instant. (We shall see later that McTaggart holds it to be self-evident that every particular, as such, must have parts which are themselves particulars. If this be granted, the second empirical premise becomes superfluous.)
McTaggart points out that an empirical premise may be just as certain as an intuitively a priori premise. I think he means, what is not the same thing, that it may be just as much an instance of genuine knowledge and not mere belief or opinion. If I am feeling toothache at a certain moment, this fact is contingent. But I know it by inspection at that moment just as well as I know the necessary and self-evident fact that shape involves size. There is, however, one important difference between our a priori knowledge of necessary facts and our empirical knowledge of contingent facts. There is no reason to doubt that two or more minds can be acquainted with one and the same pair of universals, and can intuit or demonstrate the same necessary connexion or disconnexion between them. Necessary facts are, in principle, public. But it is very doubtful whether, in this life at any rate, two human minds are ever acquainted with one and the same particular. This, however, does not affect the general coerciveness of arguments based on such empirical premises as McTaggart uses. My introspection assures me that something exists, and Smith's introspection assures him that something exists, and it does not matter for the purpose of McTaggart's argument that the something which I know to exist is private to me whilst the something which Smith knows to exist is private to him.
So far all is clear. But it is a curious fact that, in his chapter on Method (Bk. I, Chap. III), McTaggart does not mention something which is most characteristic of his method and does not fall under any heading that he has introduced. The situation up to Bk. III, Chap. XXIII, is as follows. We have accepted various a priori premises and the two absolutely certain empirical premises mentioned above, and we have made straightforward deductive inferences from them. Let us denote the premises which have been used up to this point by pqr. In Bk. III, Chap. XXII, a further premise s is introduced, viz. that every particular consists of parts which are themselves particulars. This is alleged to be self-evident. It is then argued that, unless a certain further proposition t be granted, which is admittedly not self-evident, there will be a contradiction. This means that the conjunction of premises pqrs~t entails a contradiction, and is therefore impossible. But every member of this conjunction except ~t is absolutely certain. Therefore ~t must be rejected and t must be accepted, in spite of the fact that t is not self-evident and cannot be deduced directly from the premises pqrs. The new proposition t is asserted on these grounds in Bk. IV, Chap. XXIV, § 195, and it becomes the basis of many of the most characteristic results, positive and negative, of McTaggart's philosophy. Of course it is not a new premise, since McTaggart claims to prove it by an argument of the kind mentioned above. But it is peculiar in so far as it can be proved only by the indirect method of showing that the combination of the earlier premises with the denial of it would entail a contradiction. There is another point to be noticed about this proposition. It merely lays down a certain very general condition which every particular must obey. The next step which McTaggart takes is to try to show that this general condition could be fulfilled in one and only one very special way, which he states in § 197 and elaborates throughout the rest of Bk. IV. This specification of the general condition he calls the Principle of Determining Correspondence, and it is from this that many of his most characteristic doctrines follow.
Now it seems to me that something closely though not exactly, similar to what I have just been describing happens in many systems of deductive metaphysics. Leibniz and Spinoza, for example, starting from premises which to many people would seem self-evident, deduce the conclusion that there cannot be a plurality of interacting substances. But they have also to admit the empirical premise that there seems to be a plurality of substances and that they seem to interact. Leibniz at this stage accepts a plurality of substances, and introduces the doctrine of Pre-established Harmony to account for the appearance of interaction. Spinoza at this stage rejects a plurality of substances, and introduces the doctrines of Modes, of Conatus, and of Parallelism to account for the appearances. And the most characteristic doctrines of each philosopher follow from the proposition which he has introduced in order to reconcile the deductions from his a priori premises with the appearance of a plurality of interacting substances. Of course the analogy with McTaggart's procedure is not complete. He introduces the Principle of Determining Correspondence in order to reconcile the deductions from his other a priori premises with the a priori premise that every particular is endlessly divisible, and not to reconcile the deductions from his premises with certain appearances. Still, the analogy is close enough to be worth mentioning.
McTaggart claims that the results reached in the first part of his enquiry are absolutely demonstrated. There can be no question of probability here. If the premises be certain and the reasoning valid, the conclusions must be true. He claims the same certainty for many of the negative results reached in the first division of the second part of his enquire. If everything that exists has been shown to have certain eha.racteristics, then no existent which appears to have a eharacteristie that would be incompatible with any of these can really have that characteristic. In the second and third divisions of the second part of his enquiry nothing more then a high degree of probability is claimed. Here we are only making conjectures, and our conjectures will be limited by the range of our experience and our powers of imagination. At most we may be able to say that such and such a theory of reality fits the empirical facts and fulfils the necessary conditions, and that we cannot imagine any other theory of reality which will do this. We must admit that there may be plenty of other theories which we cannot imagine for lack of the necessary experience, and that one or other of these may be the true one.
On this I have at present only the following comments to make:
(i) McTaggart might reasonably have felt some doubt about his results even in the first part and in the first division of the second part of his enquiry. So much depends on the Principle of Determining Correspondence. Now the certainty of this depends on the conviction that it is the one and only way in which a certain general condition could possibly be fulfilled. And the certainty that this general condition must be fulfilled depends on the conviction that the conjoint denial of it and assertion of the premises of the system would entail a contradiction. Now is it reasonable to be sure that this general condition can be fulfilled in one and only one way? The principle itself is not intrinsically plausible, and it leads to many very paradoxical coonclusions. Might it not be more reasonable, in view of these facts, to suspect either that some of the premises which seem to be self-evidently necessary are in fact false, or that there is some undetected flaw in the reasoning, or that there is some other way of fulfilling those conditions which must be fulfilled if the contradiction which would otherwise be involved in endless divisibility is to be avoided? False propositions often have seemed self-evident, apparently cogent reasoning often has been found to be faulty, and it is notoriously difficult to be sure that any proposed solution of a problem is unique. Hence there is real ground for hesitating to accept McTaggart's highly paradoxical conclusions even if we can see nothing wrong with his premises or his arguments.
(ii) It must be remarked that one important negative conclusion, viz., the denial of the reality of temporal qualities and relations, is reached independently of the results of the first part of the enquiry. The reality of time is rejected in Chap. XXXIII, not because temporal characteristics would conflict with any characteristic which has been shown to belong to everything that exists, but because they are alleged to be internally inconsistent.
Under this head I propose to say something about the relations of McTaggart's method to that of Kant and to that of Hegel.
McTaggart's method is not in the slightest degree epistemological or transcendental. He does not set out, as both Locke and Kant did, to determine the powers and capacities of the human mind, and thus to assign on epistemological grrounds the limits to its profitable employmnent on ontological questions. Nor does he start, as Kant did in his transcendental arguments from the premise that such and such a fact is known by human beings, and attempt to discover the conditions under which such knowledge is possible and to infer from them other ontological and epistemological propositions. His method is that of the old-fashioned "dogmatic metaphysics", which Kant claimed to have overthrown. He does not attempt to defend this procedure, and at this time of day it would seem as if some defense of it were needed.
At first sight it seems very plausible to say that we ought to consider carefully the powers and limitations of the human mind before embarking on ontological speculations for which we are perhaps quite unfitted. This contention is often supported by the analogy of the scientist testing his instruments before using them, and is reinforced by the very scanty amount of agreement which has been reached in ontology although it has been pursued for some thousands of years by some of the ablest minds of the human race. It is also argued on evolutionary grounds that our minds, which have developed in the practical struggle for existence, are unlikely to be fitted for speculations on the nature and structure of reality as a whole; since knowledge of this would have no positive survival value, whilst concentration upon it would at most periods have been definitely detrimental to one's chances of living long and bringing up a large and healthy family.
There are two different questions in all this, which must be separately discussed.
(i) Is the likelihood of reaching ontological results which are both important and trustworthy great enough to make it worth a man's while to pursue speculative metaphysics at the present day? Here the one strong argument in favour of a negative answer is the eminence of those who have spent their lives in such studies, and the scanty results that they have won. This is a legitimate ground for doubting whether the conclusions of any contemporary writer in this field, however distinguished he may be and however convincing his arguments may seem, are really well-founded. The evolutionary argument seems to me to be of very little weight. By parity of reasoning ore might expect the human intellect to be weakest in pure mathematics, where it is in fact strongest, and to be strongest in social and political theory and practice, where it is in fact weakest.
(ii) The second question is this. Is it possible or desirable to determine the limits of our intellectual powers before embarking on ontological speculations? The analogy of the scientist testing his instruments before using them is quite misleading. When you test a material instrument you do so by means of some other material instrument which you take as your standard. When you examine your mind to see whether it will do certain things your mind is at once the instrument to be tested, the scientist who applies the test, and the standard in comparison with which the test is made. Now this would not greatly matter if the mind were investigating itself from a purely psychological point of view, i.e., were trying to determine as accurately as possible what it is doing when it professes to be thinking or willing or feeling emotions. But, if it is enquiring whether it is competent to arrive at truth about certain subjects, it will have to consider, not merely the classification and analysis and causation of the processes which it is actually performing, but also whether these processes are so adapted to the facts about these subjects as to be likely to lead to knowledge or rationally grounded belief. Now how can one possibly make any intelligent judgment on this matter unless one presupposes a great deal of knowledge about the nature and structure of the rest of the world and about the mind's position in it? And these are precisely the ontological questions about which metaphysicians are forbidden to express any opinion until epistemologists have completed their task. The plain fact is that epistemologists necessarily assume ontological propositions, and, since they do not realise that they are doing so, they often assume uncritically ontological propositions which have only to be stated in order to appear highly doubtful.
Lastly, it cannot be said that there is any greater agreement among experts in epistemology than there is among experts in ontology. When epistemology was young, as it was in the days of Locke and Kant, there was some excuse for supposing that the mind might be competent to discover its own limitations fairly quickly and that metaphysicians might rightly be asked to suspend their operations until this had been done. Epistemology, like Christianity, nearer having been tried, could claim never to have failed. But experience has now shown that these hopes were vain, and the epistemological veto on ontology cannot reasonably be maintained. The upshot of the matter is that McTaggart was right not to be frightened off the field of ontology by the awful warnings on the epistemological notice boards. But this does not alter the fact that the omens are highly unfavourable for the success of any system of constructive metaphysics, such as McTaggart's, since even the best shots have hitherto bagged nothing in this field but chimeras.
The above answers to the extreme claims of epistemology night have been learnt by McTaggart from Hegel, who discusses the whole subject very ably in the Encyclopedia. But McTaggart seems to have been singularly little influenced by another, and closely connected, side of Hegel's teaching. Hegel, whilst rejecting the priority of epistemology to ontology and insisting against Kant that the categories are objective types of structure and not forms imposed by the human mind, is not content to go back to the naive position of the old pre-critical metaphysics. He insists that the categories of common sense and natural science need to be rigorously criticised, and that, when they are subjected to criticism, they exhibit their imperfections by developing contradictions. This may or may not be true; but it is strange how completely McTaggart ignored the very possibility of it. He takes over in happy innocence the categories of common sense and natural science, and confidently builds on them as if Hcgel had never lived or he had never read Hegel. This consideration brings us to
All McTaggart's works which precede the Nature of Existence, with the single exception of Some Dogmas of Religion, are concerned with Hegel. His first book, Studies in Hegelian Dialectic, was an interpretation and defense of the general principles of Hegel's dialectical method. His Studies in Hegelian Cosmology contains special applications of this method. His Commentary to Hegel's Logic is a detailed and critical exposition, category by category, of the chain of dialectical reasoning by which Hegel professed to show the necessity of passing step by step from the category of Pure Being to that of the Absolute Idea. In the last paragraph of that book he asserts that the next task of philosophy should be to make a fresh investigation of the nature of reality by a dialectical method substantially, though not exactly, the same as Hegel's. He expresses the conviction that the results, like the methods, should be much akin, though he admits that this cannot be known until the experiment has been tried.
When McTaggart began to write the book which eventually became the Nature of Existence this was the task which he set before him. The title of the earliest drafts is Dialectic of Existence, and in 1910 or 1911 he was giving lectures in which he claimed to prove by dialectical arguments some of the results which now appear in the Nature of Existence. I do not know when precisely he dropped the plan of constructing a new dialectic, but his reasons for doing so are made clear in Chap. III of the Nature of Existence. In the first place, the validity or the possible fruitfulness of the dialectical method would be questioned in limine by many philosophers. McTaggart continued to hold that the method, as interpreted by him, could be defended against these fundamental preliminary objections. But, if the same results could be proved by ordinary processes of deductive reasoning from absolutely certain premises, there would plainly be a tactical advantage in proving them in this way rather than by the compromising help of the dialectical method. The jury would be more likely to be convinced by a barrister who had enjoyed a spotless reputation and moved in the highest circles since the time of Euclid than by one who had only begun to practise in the early nineteenth century in Germany, and had, however undeservedly, been under an almost continuous cloud ever since his call to the bar.
There was, however, a second and a stronger reason. McTaggart, as the footnote on p. 48 shows, had come to a conclusion which was fatal to the practical applicability, though not to the validity, of the dialectical method, even as interpreted by himself. He there remarks that, although the chief characteristics of reality might have been interconnected dialectically, yet, so far as he can see, they are not in fact so connected. This was conclusive for him.
All that remained was for him to point out certain likenesses and differences between his own method and Hegel's method as interpreted by him. This he does in Chap. III, § 47-51 inclusive The following are the two points of likeness.
The points of unlikeness between McTaggart's method and Hegel's are the four which follow.
(i) In the dialectic the categories fall into triads of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. There is nothing like this in McTaggart's method. It must be remarked, however, in this connexion, that McTaggart himself had come to the conclusion, from his detailed study of Hegel, that in every triad after the first there is a direct transition from antithesis alone to synthesis. The transition is not, as has commonly been supposed, from thesis with antithesis to synthesis (Commentary, p. 12, § 12). If this interpretation be right, the triadic form is much less fundamental in Hegel's system than most people, including Hegel himself, had thought; and the difference between the two methods is smaller than it seems at first sight.
(ii) Hegel generally said, and ought presumably always to have held, that every category below the Absolute Idea is partly true and partly false of reality. Thesis and antithesis are said to be "transmuted" and "modified" in their synthesis, and, unless they were, they could not be reconciled. But every predicate which McTaggart ascribes to the existent at any stage of his argument is completely true of the existent and remains wholly unmodified at the end of the process.
It is impossible to say what importance should be attached to this difference unless we know what interpretation to put upon the plainly metaphorical terms of this statement of Hegel's doctrine. What is meant by saying that a certain category is "partly true" and "partly false" of reality? What can be meant by saying that categories, which Hegel certainly regarded as objective structural factors in reality, are "transformed" or "modified"? How could a category possibly undergo this or any other change?
The only interpretation which does not make complete nonsense of the doctrine which McTaggart here ascribes to Hegel seems to me to be the following. Let c1 be a thesis, c2 its antithesis, and c12 their synthesis. Then the judgment that R is c1 is false, because it entails that R is c2 whilst c1 and c2 are incompatible. Similarly the judgment that R is c2 is false, because it entails that R is c1 whilst c2 and c1 are incompatible. But there is a category c12, which resembles c1 in a certain respect X1 and resembles c2 in a certain other respect X2 and is not internally inconsistent. If the judgment that R is c12 were true, you might say, if you cared to use a rather dangerous ellipsis, that c1 and c2 are "partly true" and "partly false" of R, and that c12 "contains c1 and c2 in a modified and transmuted form". Strictly speaking, c1 and c2 would be simply false of R, and c12 would not contain either c1 or c2 in any form whatever. But c12 which is true of R and does not contain c1 or c2, would resemble c1 in a certain respect X1 and resemble c2 in a certain other respect X2. Of course, unless c12 were the Absolute Idea, the judgment that R is c12 would not be true. It would be found to entail and be entailed by a judgment of the form "R is c3", where c3 is a certain other category which is inconsistent with c12. There would then be a certain category c123, which resembles c12 in a certain respect X12 and resembles c3 in a certain other respect X3. This would be the synthesis of c12 and c3. To say that it "contained c1 in a modified form" would be a highly elliptical way of stating that it resembles in a certain respect X12, a category (viz., c12) which itself resembles in a certain respect X1 the category c1. Pursuing the same metaphor we could say that every category contains in a modified form all those that come before it; that the Absolute Idea contains all the rest and is contained in no other; and that the lower a category is in the series the more thoroughly it is transformed and modified in the Absolute Idea.
If we interpret Hegel's doctrine in this way, we can at least make sense of McTaggart's statements about it, and the difference between Hegel and McTaggart becomes perfectly clear. For McTaggart the concepts which come later in the system quite literally contain those which come earlier; they do not merely bear a more or less remote likeness to the earlier ones. And the later concepts, though morc concrete and adequate, are neither more nor less true of reality than the earlier ones. Every one of them is equally and absolutely true of reality. It seems to me, however, that it would be quite possible and almost equally plausible to put a very different interpretation on Hegel's theory of the relations between the categories. I propose to outline this other view very briefly, so that we may see how McTaggart's method would be related to Hegel's on this interpretation of Hegel's meaning. As before, we start with the judgment that R is c1. We find that this entails that R is also, in some sense or other, qualified by c2. Hence it is impossible for us consistently to assert that R is c1 and to deny that it is in any sense c2. Similarly it is found to be impossible consistently to assert that R is c2 and to deny that it is in any sense c1. But we also find that, if c1 and c2 were predicated in the same sense of R, there would be a contradiction. When these conditions are fulfilled c1 and c2 stand to each other in the relation of thesis and antithesis. Now we find that there is a certain other category c12, such that to assert that R is c12 entails that R is in a certain sense c1 and that R is in a certain other sense c2. These two senses are such that there is no inconsistency in predicating c1 of R in the first sense and predicating c2 of R in the second sense. This category c12 will then be the synthesis of c1 and c2. Now, unless c12 be the Absolute Idea, we shall find on reflexion that R cannot be c12 without being also in some sense c3. We also find that it is impossible that R should be qualified in the same sense by c12 and c3. Thus c3 is an antithesis to c12 as thesis. We then find a category c123, such that to assert that R is c123 entails that it is in a certain sense c12 and that it is in a certain other sense c3. These senses are such that there is no inconsistency in predieating c12 of R in the first sense and predicating c3 of R in the second sense. The category c123 is then the synthesis of c12 and c3. Working upwards in this way we finally come to a category c123 ... n, which has no antithesis and therefore needs no synthesis. This will be the Absolute Idea.
On this interpretation every one of the lower categories is wholly true of reality, and its presence is entailed by the presence of any category that is higher than it. But none of them could be true of reality unless all of them were so. And they can conjointly characterise reality without contradiction only by being so interrelated that they qualify it in specifically different ways. In a sense it might be said that there is, strictly speaking, one and only one genuine and complete category, viz., the Absolute Idea, and that the other so-called "categories" should more properly be called "category-factors" in the one category. Such a view is still profoundly different from McTaggart's, but the difference is not the same as it would be on the former interpretation of Hegel's doctrine.
(iii) The third point of unlikeness between McTaggart's method and Hegel's is the following. In McTaggart's argument new premises are explicitly introduced at certain points as they are needed. These are supposed to be either necessary propositions, which are self-evident on inspection, or indubitably certain empirical propositions. But Hegel claimed to introduce no new premise, whether a priori or empirical, in the course of the dialectic. It is true that McTaggart, in the defense of the validity and fruitfulness of the dialectical method which he makes in Studies in Hegelian Dialectic, assumes that there is implicit knowledge of the formal structure of reality at the back of everyone's mind, and that this forms a kind of suppressed premise to all the transitions in the dialectic. But this is quite unlike the explicit introduction of new premises at definite stages in the argument.
(iv) Hegel held that there is one and only one dialectical chain from Pure Being to the Absolute Idea, and that the place of any category in this chain is completely fixed. In McTaggart's argument also the order is to a great extent irreversible; in many cases you can prove that reality must be characterized by Y if and only if you have already shown that it must be characterized by X. But there are also many places in which the order is a mere matter of convenience.