Can Change the World Again.
A Critical History of Philosophy.
By Asa Mahan
THE following fact, which occurred more than twenty years since, was the prime occasion of the preparation and publication of the following Treatise. A distinguished German scholar who was then the president of the leading Lutheran College in the United States, after having read a work of mine entitled 'The Science of Intellectual Philosophy,' a work in which I gave a specific statement of the character of the different systems of Philosophy which in the present and past ages have been commended to world-thoughtthis scholar, after having read that work, remarked to a friend of mine 'that President Mahan ought to write a History of Philosophy.' The reason assigned for that judgment was this: 'He understands the diverse systems which the history of Philosophy presents to our regard.' As I revolved the subject in thought, the plan of the following Treatise opened at once, with perfect distinctness, upon my minda plan which, as I clearly perceived, remedied fully the essential defects which characterize all Histories of Philosophy which have hitherto been written. The defect referred to is thisin such histories there is no clear and distinct classification of the diverse systems presented. In reading, consequently, the mind becomes confused, rather than instructed, as the diverse, and contradictory, and undefined solutions of world-problems become subjects of thought and reflection. The plan suggested, on the other hand, enables the author to define and classify beforehand all such systems which ever have appeared, or ever can appear, and to do this with such perfect distinctness and definiteness that, when any such system is presented, the reader will at once perceive to what class it belongs, what are its essential characteristics, what are its constituent elements, upon what basis it rests, what are its real merits or defects, and, consequently, what place it should occupy in his regard.
When the plan had assumed a full and mature form in my own mind, and before I put pen to paper upon the subject, I presented it verbally to a large number of the best thinkers and judges on such subjects that I met with. From every one of these I received an earnest exhortation to make it my first business to fill out the plan presented, and to publish it for the benefit of the world. After such a presentation to Bishop Simpson, for example, who had had a large experience as a professor of mental and moral science, he thus expressed himself to me: President Mahan, my earnest advice to you is to prepare that work as soon as practicable, and to publish it, not only for the benefit of science, but as a fundamental vindication of the central truth of Christianity, the doctrine of a personal God. Your plan, as I clearly perceive, not only lays bare the banks of sand on which all false and godless systems are based, but reveals, with perfect distinctness, the Theistic system as resting upon the rock of truth itself. This plan also perfectly remedies the fundamental defects manifest in all the Histories of Philosophy which I have ever met with. I do not put the above in quotations, because I can give, not the words, but only the thoughts, the thoughts of encouragement, expressed by the venerable Bishop.
Thus encouraged and admonished, the work was commenced. When I had finished the Introduction, knowing very well that it was a complete treatise in itselfthat if it was a marked success, such would be that of the whole work; and that if it was a failure, the whole Treatise would be an abortionI submitted the manuscript containing said Introduction to quite a sufficient number of the best thinkers and judges I could select, earnestly requesting them to carefully read, and then give in writing their candid judgment of the real merits of the work. From every one of these I received the same expressions of approbation and encouragement which I had previously received from a verbal presentation of the plan of the work.
Among these written testimonials, and as fair examples of all the others, I present but the three following. The first, and that which, on account of its completeness, as well as for the known reputation of the author, deserves very special attention, is from the Right Reverend the Dean of Canterbury, D.D. The second is from the late Bishop E. O. Haven and two of his leading associate professors in the North-Western University, of which the Bishop was then Chancellor. The third and last is from the late Rev. Leonard Bacon, D.D., a name not only known in Europe, but held in universal honour in the United States.
DEANRY, CANTERBURY, 23rd February, 1880.
My DEAR SIR,
I have read with great interest the Introduction, which you sent me, to your 'Critical History of Philosophy.' I like it exceedingly. Usually a history of Philosophy gives at best a fair statement of what others have held, and after reading of system after system, the mind is left in a state of utter confusion, not knowing what to believe, and wondering how, upon every conceivable subject, thinkers have held the very reverse of one another. You propose to take your readers through all these philosophies with the lamp of real science in your hand. As you show, only four systems of Philosophy are really possible, Materialism, Idealism, Scepticism, and Realism. Of these you demonstrate, that while the three former are based upon assumptions 'begged' by their upholders, the latter rests upon data and facts intuitive and connatural. The charm of the former consists often in the logical exactness with which the system is deduced from the assumed principles, and while following admiringly the chain of deductions growing in orderly sequence out of one another, we forget that the assumption rests solely upon an act of the will with no external validity. Your criteria are all facts or deductions which follow necessarily from these facts.
Your work, I venture humbly to think, will have a twofold value. First, it will show how, under an endless apparent variety, there lie a limited number of principles at the root, appearing again and again, in changing forms, but really the same. And secondly, it will examine each system of thought by criteria of which you have proved the soundness of truth. And so a student, who has read your 'History of Philosophy' with fair attention, will, when he lays it down, find that all these varying systems have arranged themselves in his mind under their proper heads, and that he has seen hence their weakness and their strength. Instead of burdening his memory, it will guide his judgment.
Believe me, my dear sir,
Very truly yours,
N. PAYNE SMITH.
Rev. Asa Mahan, D. D.
NORTH-WESTERN UNIVERSITY, EVANSTON, ILLINOIS,
25th April, 1872.
We have listened to some passages from a manuscript, 'Critical History of Philosophy,' by Rev. Dr. Asa Mahan, together with a general description of his plan and method in the work. The plan strikes us as admirable, and the purpose to present the history of Philosophy critically, rather than chronologically, is good. Judging from what we have heard, the object of the book is, not to mention and describe critically all prominent writings on Philosophy, but positively to establish its fundamental principles, and to show the relations of all leading systems to these principles. A good work, well wrought out on this plan, must be of very great value. We think the book will meet an acknowledged want.
E. O. HAVEN.
J. S. JEWELL.
NEWHAVEN, 20th June, 1872.
I regret that I have not had time for a thorough study of your manuscript, placed in my hands by Dr. White. But I have examined a portion of it with careful attention; and though such inquiries have been to me of late less fascinating than they once were, my own studies having led me in other directions, I have found my interest in your great theme renewed and freshened by the study of that portion.
I trust you will complete the work and publish it. For my own part, I profess no philosophy but common-sense; and I like your philosophy because it seems to be about the same thingcommon-sense analyzing and defining itself. In these days, when popular literature is so widely infected with the scepticism of scientific Materialism, on the one hand, and fantastic Idealism, on the other, you have undertaken the task of teaching thinkers how to think, and of affirming and maintaining, in the face of all Pyrrhonism, the validity of those primary intuitions which are essential to all thought. 'Fit audience' may you find, and not 'few.' You do not address yourself directly to the million, but if you can rectify the thinking of those who guide the millionauthors, teachers, preachers you will do a great work for your own and the coming generations. Fully aware that my judgment is not worth much, I will nevertheless venture to express the opinion that the work you have now in hand is better than anything you have yet done, and that your History of Philosophy will be a substantial contribution to the progress of Philosophy.
Rev. A. Mahan D.D.
Thus encouraged, I entered with a will upon the details of the Treatise itself. At every step, as I progressed, I became more and more deeply impressed with the importance of the work in which I was engaged; and when I had carefully reviewed the work after my task was completed, I became fully assured that what I had written did, what had never been done before, meet fully a central want of the present age. What is now imperiously needed is a clear and distinct understanding of the real nature and character of the imposing systems of Idealism, Materialism, and Scepticism, which are being commended to public regard. While these systems are not thus understood, the great names by which they are represented impart to them an overshadowing influence with the public. When distinctly unmasked, and revealed to the world as they are in themselves, one impression will be permanently left upon the public mindnamely, that not a few of the greatest thinkers the world has known have expended their great powers in developing and systematizing the greatest conceivable errors and absurdities, and that the utterance of an ancient wise man is true, that the mass of 'philosophers are a race mad with logic, and feeding the mind on chimeras.' Whether such utterances are true or not, the intelligent reader of the following Treatise will not fail to know Idealism in all its forms, Materialism, and Scepticism, as they are, and that in distinct contrast with the only remaining system, Realism, which embodies and scientifically verifies the doctrine of Theism, the only true hypothesis of Ultimate Causation.
To the following statement we would invite special attention. In reading the following Treatise, the reader will not fail to notice that, in our expositions of the same systems as developed in different ages, thoughts before expressed are often repeated. The reason for such repetition was this: the Author was desirous that the reader, instead of being necessitated to refer back to what had before been written, should in every case have truth and error directly and distinctly before his mind, and thus be able to form a more distinct and ready judgment of their respective claims. With the above statements and explanations, the Treatise is commended to the impartial judgment of the public.
13 Ueberweg, pp. 216, 217.
FOREWORD BY THE PRESENT EDITOR.
A Critical History of Philosophy. By Asa Mahan in 1883. Preface.