“The Physical Basis of Life,” together with the other essays that compose Huxley’s METHOD AND RESULTS, reveals a nineteenth-century man of science attempting to go beyond the limits prescribed by authoritarian scientists and churchmen and making an effort to bring the clarity of philosophy to the interpretation and expression of the results of empirical observation. This particular essay is among Huxley’s most famous. Its subject matter is protoplasm, and its claim is that all life has as its physical basis protoplasmic substance.
Such a claim, which to twentieth-century man seems so trivial as not to be worth making, was revolutionary in an age which demanded that all studies of man find him unique, possessed of a life-giving principle by reference to which he could be distinguished from all those animals that were merely animals. Huxley realized that his contention would be novel, even shocking, to many of his contemporaries. It was bad enough to suggest that life is not independent of matter but has a physical basis; it was even worse to insist that there is but one physical basis of life for all living things. To reduce man to the material and to equate him with the beast—that was intolerable even to those who respected science.
In his essay Huxley was careful to state that even though all life has protoplasm as its physical basis, it by no means follows that materialism—the philosophical theory that everything is nothing but matter—is true; in fact, he argued that materialism involved “grave philosophical error.”
Huxley’s objections to a strict materialism are made in the spirit of Hume’s philosophy. Referring to Hume as “the most acute thinker of the eighteenth century,” Huxley argues that we mean by the terms “matter” and “spirit” either something that can be explained by reference to matters of our scientific experience, or else names for unknown, even imaginary, causes. He joins Hume in objecting to the idea that it makes sense to talk about a necessity that is anything more than the observed order of events. “Fact I know; and Law I know,” wrote Huxley, “but what is this Necessity, save an empty shadow of my own mind’s throwing?” Since both materialism and spiritualism (or idealism) depend on unfathomable senses of the terms “matter,” “spirit,” and “necessity,” Huxley concluded that such unscientific philosophies were unsatisfactory.
In opposition to metaphysical philosophies, Huxley proposed what he called the “New Philosophy,” the attempt to limit philosophical thought and inquiry to matters that could be verified experimentally or explained by reference to matters of experience. In doing this he anticipated the most significant direction of twentieth-century philosophy, the logical empiricist movement as amended by pragmatism and linguistic analysis.
Huxley made a plea for limiting the consideration of problems to those matters about which something can be known. Agreeing with Hume in the rejection of theology and metaphysics, he argued that progress in scientific philosophy is possible on the basis of two assumptions: “the first, that the order of Nature is ascertainable by our faculties to an extent which is practically unlimited; the second, that our volition counts for something as a condition of the course of events.” In a footnote Huxley explained that it would be more accurate to say that not volition but “the...
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