Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Herbart's Philosophy of Religion

This post discusses Herbart's religious philosophy. We use Marcel Mauxion's La Métaphysique de Herbart (1894). The above picture shows the old university of Königsberg with the Cathedral in the background of the Dominsel (Cathedral island).


Chapter 6
Herbart’s Religious Philosophy


God and purpose

The discussion in our last post of final causes and freedom leads us to Herbart’s religious philosophy. This is a kind of “metaphysical atomism impregnated with idealism”, (144) unfavorable to the religious spirit. It seems at times that God is an unnecessary hypothesis to Herbart, for his simple beings do not require a cause. Herbart also accepts Kant’s critique of the ontological proof of God’s existence, in contrast to Hegel.

Yet Herbart’s spirit was still religious. He says: “All men need the gods”, citing Homer (“the father of poets”) Odyssey, book 3. Phenomena are disposed purposefully and this leads him to endorse the argument from design. Teleological ideas in theology, he thinks, are not natural to humanity, but appear only with Socrates and his school. It was once believed that God was jealous. Plato contradicted this in the Timaeus. Herbart rejects Kant’s idea that final causes would be everywhere if teleology were a necessary idea of reason, whereas in fact only some things appear purposive. He explains the relation of teleology and divinity:
“Purposiveness not only needs a purpose, but must proceed from a purpose already thought, willed and realized by a mind endowed with effectiveness.” (148) 
This plainly evokes the idea of purpose. Herbart never devoted a work exclusively to this subject. The above argument he considered only probable. There is a Kantian spirit to his remarks on the limitations of human knowledge.

On the moral attributes of divinity, Herbart diverges from Kant in his general theory of morality. He considers judgements of approval and disapproval to be fundamental, not duty as such. The good (to kalos) has morality and beauty for species. These are original judgements. He endorses an idea of inner freedom as the harmony of will and judgement. There are basic ideas of perfection, benevolence and justice. In this, Herbart is thinking principally of Plato (as do Kant, Schopenhauer in his aesthetics, Schelling and Hegel). Thus there is a science of the ideal alongside that of the real. 

Mauxion cites a passage from his late writings in “the obscure and allegorical language so held in esteem by Schelling’s school” (151-52). The wilful obscurity of the passage contrasts strongly with Herbart’s usual style. There is a hegelian element to the talk of contradiction in it:
"Speculation seeks the Highest. This object to which it aspires, the First, the Beautiful, the Beloved, indicating it as though by pointing, it calls with a single name: the Holy. Obedient to the sign made to it, wholly by this sign and escaping the tyranny of feeling that boldly requires and imposes, speculation recognizes little by little in the place of a foreshadowed unity, the trinity: pure form, for the three members of this Trinity live equally beyond Being.

In the distance floats the First and the Beautiful, the infinite but unfixed basis of a mystical triangle such that, if this basis disappear and reduce itself to a point, the Beloved, tip of the triangle, would lower itself and come to mix itself with them.

The First allows itself to be discovered in Time. It leads to Being and by [way of] Being to Time, and thus to the eternal contradiction that, a pure Nothing, provides a key which is nothing for  the enigmas of the world.

The Beautiful does not know Time. Neither does it know Being. Without resistance, but without knowing it, it follows the common master of both. Softly, as it is, it allows itself to be heard in hard oracles. They echo deafly, prophetic voices, distant in time, and in the depths of the heart.

Do not speak of the Beloved; do not seek it in the Beautiful; do not seek it in the First; do not seek it at all.

Above all and in the heart of Being, there is the True. By it shines the constellation of the triple star in time and in the souls of men." (from On Philosophical Studies, 128-29)
There is a principle of moral order implied even in the idea of the First, similar to Leibniz’s City of God and perhaps Kant’s Kingdom of Ends; whilst the Beautiful in Herbart contains the Good.

[My view of this is that this passage from Herbart is a not so uncommon attempt to mix Christian and Platonic Trinitarian thought on the basis of his own metaphysical ideas, with the Christian background indicated by the references to the “sign” and to the “prophetic voices”.]

We have the First, Beautiful and Beloved (c.f. Father, Son and Holy Spirit) which Herbart tries to keep together in the idea of the Holy, whilst allowing them autonomy.

Herbart reflects on divine omniscience and omnipotence. In some ways, he sets bounds to the latter. His God at times resembles the demiurge of Plato. There is also a return from metaphysical audacity to a religion of the heart. However, he still sees God as a metaphysical idea, rather than a practical postulate, as in Kant. Herbart states:
"It remains however, that these various considerations of a moral or even speculative character, whatever may be their value, cannot be considered as a rigorous demonstration: God remains definitively an object of belief, not of science." (158) 

Immortality of the Soul

Herbart does not express formally the idea of God as a legislator or judge, though the related ideas of God as just and benevolent, father of men and prince of the realm of spirits are present in his writings. For Herbart, there is a moral ideal, but no law independent of it, and both God and man serve this ideal. His theory of freedom is consistent with metaphysical necessity. 

He speaks only rarely and with reserve about immortality. His metaphysical doctrine implies the eternity of the simple beings, but personal immortality is from this only probable. It may be that thoughts from this life persist after bodily death without the brain, settling down eventually into an eternal life. Perhaps restless, agitated souls have a more painful experience prior to this. We are dealing again here only with the probable. Herbart discusses immortality in religious passages in his writings, but excludes it from his purely scientific work.