Havelock Ellis (essay date 1920)
SOURCE: "The World as Fiction," in The Nation, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, 1920, pp. 134-36.
[In the following essay, Ellis reviews The Philosophy of "As If."]
It is noted of the young men of to-day—the after-war generation as they already regard themselves—that they suffer from disillusion. The world has not turned out as they had expected it would turn out, or, the weaker ones might say, as they had been taught to expect it to turn out. They feel home-sick wanderers in the Universe, new Werthers or new Obermanns, as the case may be, searching the horizon for the apparition of some new Romanticism to solace their sick souls.
The world is, as it has ever been, infinitely rich. We hang on to it by a thread here and there, among innumerable threads, and the thread snaps, and we cry out that it is a rotten world. But the thread was of our own choosing; it was our business to test it and to prove it. If we were deceived we were only deceived in ourselves. The world remains infinitely rich.
It is possible that some to-day may turn with interest to a book—it happens to be a German book—which they never turned to before or probably never heard of although its significance was recognized even when it appeared three years before the war. It was written many years earlier than that. Dr. Hans Vaihinger the author of The Philosophy of the As If (Die Philosophic des Als Ob) had been known as one of the profoundest students of Kant. It was in Kant that he discerned the core of his own philosophy concerning the practical significance of fiction in human life. It is by no means the idea that has traditionally been found in Kant—for Kant was himself not clear about it and his insight was further darkened by his reactionary tendencies—but it is that which under various disguises has inspired some of the most influential philosophers of recent times, and it was Vaihinger first of all who, secretly and unknown, elaborated it. He was not only the first but the most thorough-going exponent of this vision of the world. Nietzsche, the Pragmatists, Bergson, Croce, Bertrand Russell, have all expounded some aspect of a conception which finds its unadulterated essence in a book they had never seen until their own systems had been formulated.
Vaihinger certainly had his first stimulus from Kant, in whose philosophy (he is perhaps the chief living exponent of it) he found that the "as if" view of belief and conduct played an extraordinarily large though overlooked part, and was even his special and personal way of regarding things; he was not as much a metaphysician, Vaihinger argues, as a metaphorician. But Vaihinger soon found almost the same attitude more or less expressed or implicit in various other thinkers, notably in F. A. Lange, of the famous "History of Materialism," whose view of the value of poetic conceptions for science and for life made him the immediate precursor of Vaihinger.
It was in 1876-7 that Vaihinger wrote his book, a marvellous achievement for so youthful a thinker, for it would appear that he was then only about twenty-five years of age. A final revision it never underwent, and there remain various peculiarities about the form into which it is cast. A serious failure in eyesight seems to have been the main reason for delaying the publication of a work which the author felt to be too revolutionary to put forth in an imperfect form. He preferred to leave it for posthumous publication.
But the world was not standing still, and during the next thirty years many things happened. Vaihinger found the new sect of Pragmatists coming into fashion, with ideas resembling his own, though in a cruder shape, which seemed to render philosophy the meretrix theologorum. Many distinguished thinkers were working towards an attitude more or less like his own, especially Nietzsche, whom (like many others even to-day) he had long regarded with prejudice and avoided, but now discovered to be "a great liberator," with congenial veins of thought. Vaihinger realized that his conception was being independently put forward from various sides, often in forms that to him seemed imperfect or vicious. It was no longer advisable to hold back his book. In 1911, therefore, Die Philosophic des Als Ob appeared. Therewith the author's life-work was done; he still lives, in blindness and retirement, at Halle, and is still able to preside over the meetings of the Kant Society.
The problem which Vaihinger set out to solve was this: How comes it about that with consciously false ideas we yet reach conclusions that are in harmony with Nature and appeal to us as Truth? That we do so is obvious, especially in the "exact" branches of science. In mathematics it is notorious that we start from absurdities to reach a realm of law, and our whole conception of the nature of the world is based on a foundation which we believe to have no existence. For even the most sober scientific investigator in science, the most thorough-going positivist, cannot dispense with fiction; he must at least make use of categories, and they are already fictions, analogical fictions, or labels, which give us the same pleasure as children receive when they are told the "name" of a thing. Fiction is indeed an indispensable supplement to logic, or even a part of it of equal rank; whether we are working inductively or deductively, both ways hang closely together with fiction, and axioms, though they seek to be primary verities, are more akin to fiction. If we had realized the nature of axioms, the doctrine of Einstein, which sweeps away axioms so familiar to us that they seem obvious truths, and substitutes others which seem absurd because they are unfamiliar, might not have been so bewildering.
Physics, especially mathematical physics, Vaihinger explains in detail, has been based, and fruitfully based, on fictions. The infinite, infinitely little or infinitely great, while helpful in lightening our mental operations, is a fiction. The Greeks disliked and avoided it, and "the gradual formation of this conception is one of the most charming and instructive themes in the history of science"—indeed one of the most noteworthy spectacles in the history of the human spirit; we see the working of a logical impulse first feeling in the dark, gradually constructing ideas fitted to yield precious service, yet full of hopeless contradictions, without any relation to the real world. That absolute space is a fiction is no new idea. Hobbes had declared it was only a phantasma; Leibnitz, who agreed, added that it was merely "the idolum of a few modern Englishmen," and called time extension, and movement choses ideales. Berkeley, in attacking the defective conceptions of the mathematicians, failed to see that it was by means of, and not in spite of, these logically defective conceptions that they attained logically valuable results. All the marks of fiction are set on the mathematician's pure space; it is impossible and unthinkable; yet it has been proved useful and fruitful.
The tautological fiction of "Force"—an empty reduplication of the fact of a succession of relationships—is one that we constantly fall back on with immense satisfaction and with the feeling of having achieved something; it has been a highly convenient fiction which has aided representation and experience. It is one of the most famous, and also, it must be added, one of the most fatal of fantasies. For when we talk of, for instance, a "life-force" and its elan, or whatever other dainty term we like to apply to it, we are not only summarily mingling together many separate phenomena,...
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