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The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 20: The Importance of the Study of Western Thought

The inadequacy of the philosophic equipment of Western thinkers in comparison with the Vedanta system does not, however, mean that there is nothing good in them. Kant, Hegel and Whitehead are some of the greatest thinkers the world has produced and their monumental contributions to the fund of knowledge are indeed marvellous. They present different facets of the wisdom of the world and the part they play in chastening the human mind in its endeavour to know Truth is not only important but indispensable from the point of view of a student of clear thinking and logical approach to facts. These thinkers played a significant role in stimulating human understanding in the direction of its ultimate limitations and the realisation of its highest possibilities in its search for Reality. They tell us where we stand as embodied individuals and voice forth human dignity as also what is implied in its final reaches.

Kant's researches may be regarded as the foundation of modern critical philosophy and the turning point in the Western attitude to the nature of Truth. It was Kant who pointed out that we need not be overconfident of our faculties of knowledge and there are serious defects in their ways of working. He showed that we cannot see Reality with our eyes, for the senses are involved in the limitations of the space-time constitution. There is no such thing as sensing Reality as we see the things of the world. This is impossible, for our bodily structure is in space and time, which have the character of restricting the operations of anything existing or moving within their sphere. We cannot also think Reality, for the mind works in terms of the categories of quantity, quality, relation and modality, which have many controlling devices that restrain the mind from going beyond their limits. The moment the mind begins to think, it finds itself hemmed in by these categories from all directions and what the mind thinks is thus, what the categories are. Like the frog in the well of the fable, the mind moves within the framework of the categories and thinks that Reality is confined to their structure. Mathematics and physics cannot give us Truth, because of the reason that they work on the hypothesis of the reality of space, time and the categories of thought. The conclusions of these sciences may be correct as far as the world of these structural limitations is concerned, and we may well follow their lead in our abidance with the laws of the environment in which we all live, for we can never discover that we are wrong as long as we are circumscribed by space, time and the categories which will not allow us to know what is outside them. Kant also bars us from having any insight into Reality with the aid of the reason in us, for the reason, he says, is again limited to the categories and cannot help forming a false conception of Reality in terms of the categories. There is, thus, no metaphysics of Reality in the sense of any right knowledge of it, for we are always within a phenomenal world, and our faculties of knowledge are also involved in it. Mathematics, physics and metaphysics are all good as laws of phenomena, but unhelpful in our knowledge of Reality.

Then, what can we know, in the end? Kant's answer is: Phenomena. We cannot know Reality, because we have no means which are outside phenomena. We are in phenomena and it is futile to imagine that with our intellectual equipment we can have even a glimpse of it. Kant's greatness comes out when he accepts that we would have known Reality if we had been endowed with what he calls an ‘intellectual intuition', which, in his system, is knowledge independent of the categories of space, time and thought, but he does not feel that any human being can hope to possess such a faculty, for everyone is within phenomena.

This incisive analysis of Kant is wonderfully equipped to meet the self-complacent attitude which overestimates human powers and makes man live in a world of vanity and ignorance. Further, Kant's great work, Critique of Pure Reason, is a masterpiece of acute thinking, logical deduction and honesty of approach in the human world, and it forms a necessary field of training for anyone interested in subtle thinking and comprehensiveness of argument. Kant does not deny the existence of God, though he holds that we cannot know him through our senses, mind and reason, for he postulates the existence of God on the basis of the moral urge for perfection surging within us. The affirmation of God, freedom and immortality is a subsequent phase of his thought, on different grounds. His study of the nature of human duty in society and the development of his thought on aesthetic beauty are important enough to engage the attention of any serious student of philosophy.

Another stupendous thinker is Hegel. His breadth of vision is supernormal, his passion for completeness breathtaking and the depth of his thought delighting to the soul. The spirit with which he starts narrating the story of the dialectical process of the Reason takes us above earthly vexations. As a true philosopher of great insight, Hegel attempts to bring the universe within a single fold of perfection as a wholeness which cannot brook any interference from outside. The Absolute has no outside, for everything is inside it. Every category in the universe has an opposite, every thesis is counterposed by an antithesis, for all things in it are parts seeking to find themselves in the whole. The thesis and the antithesis get blended in a synthesis which is a higher phase of reality in which the lower contradiction is overcome and transcended. The Absolute is implicit in every stage of this development, even in the lowest, as its vital essence and meaning. It is immanent in the thesis, antithesis and synthesis, equally, though it is revealed in a greater degree in the synthesis. This synthesis has, again, an antithesis in front of it, for it also falls short of the Absolute, and it forms the thesis in the face of this second antithesis. There is, again, a second synthesis in which the lower opposition is reconciled and a higher degree of reality revealed. But this second synthesis, too, has an antithesis, and the contradiction has to be solved in a still higher synthesis. This process, called by Hegel, the dialectical movement of the Reason, continues until the highest synthesis of all things, the Absolute, is reached, as the Supreme Idea.

Hegel suggests, here, how everything in the universe is incomplete and insufficient, and yet is a phase of Reality. Everything is to be included, and nothing rejected, for all things are phases of the Absolute, in various stages of development in the process of Self-realisation in its experience. This is an immortal credit to the genius of Hegel, for, when carefully pursued, this suggestion can lead to the practice of universal love and sacrifice paving the way to perpetual peace among the nations. However, his deep understanding was not taken seriously by humanity, and today he is not even studied properly in many universities.

The dialectical process implies also the principle of ‘internal relations'. Every stage and phase is connected with every other stage and phase in a way that everything is related to everything else in the universe, either implicitly in the lower categories or explicitly in the higher ones. The Absolute is implied in everyone of its lower degrees and explicit fully in itself as the ultimate reality. We have already noticed the purport of these internal relations in some detail. This doctrine of Hegel is another master-stroke in the contribution of the human mind to world-solidarity. It tends to the bringing about of a togetherness of all creation and the abolishing of animosity, hatred and war among human beings. But here, again, Hegel's point has been missed by all people, and he has always remained too much for man's grasping power and appreciation.

The Absolute of Hegel is the grand culmination of every process in the universe,—whether physical, psychological or spiritual. The dialectical process is not confined merely to the mind or the thinking faculty, though it reaches its perfection in the Absolute Idea. Hegel is careful to see that Reality does not end with mere Idea. The Idea which is the highest synthesis of all lower opposition is also a thesis in relation to Nature or the universe of facts. Nature in its lowest form of presentation constitutes the astronomical universe, the stellar and planetary systems, the gross place in which we live. The world of physics and chemistry is subtler and should be regarded as nearer to reality than the astronomical world. But life does not manifest itself even here and it begins its first revelation of itself in the biological world. While the laws of mathematics apply to the world of astronomy and of physics, the law of internal sympathy, of cohesion and mutual union reigns in the realm of chemistry. But in the stage of the biological life of beings, something more is made manifest, viz. the incipient stage of the revelation of Reason, which at this stage is called life. The higher stage is that of mind and here we find ourselves in the realm of psychology. Hegel takes us, now, from Nature to Spirit.

The Absolute Idea as the thesis and Nature as the antithesis are synthesised in the Absolute Spirit as the final synthesis. The Spirit manifests itself in the subjective, objective and absolute phases. The subjective spirit is the field of mental processes envisaged in psychology. Hegel presents an illuminating discourse on the structure and working of the human mind and discloses how it gradually unfolds itself in the process of development into higher phases of reality, and how there is meaning in every act of thought and significance in every situation in mental life. The study of the human mind is not complete unless it is able to reconcile the contradiction that is seen between thought and practical life in the world. With this in view, Hegel expounds the nature of the objective spirit which manifests itself as the principles of ethics, social contract, politics, government and law. All these principles are ultimately regulated by the law of the Absolute which requires that its immanent presence in every stage of life is recognised in the light of the highest perfection of an all-comprehensive internal relation of the structure of the universe. Human conduct, political legislation and the art of government are all to be consistent with the truth that the Absolute is all things and everything in the universe is a partial revelation of it. If this profound teaching of Hegel had been implemented in the lives of the nations, the world would have, perhaps, realised its dream of finding a heaven on this very plane of apparent discord and strife.

The subjective and objective spirits are reconciled and transcended in the Absolute Spirit. Hegel points here to a deep secret that our psychological and social lives are aspects of a higher reality and cannot be rightly interpreted or understood except in the context of a universal truth which embraces them in a sublimation of isolated parts and a transfiguration of individual values. The Absolute realises itself as the Supreme Spirit and it can be visualised partially in art, religion and philosophic contemplation. Though Hegel is not familiar with the spiritual meditations of Yoga or Vedanta, and has not understood any of their implications, his thoughts almost touch this point of elevated reasoning. Beauty is the visualisation of the Absolute through the senses, in its partial manifestations; and art is the way of seeing this perfection through the medium of sensory instruments. Religion envisages the Absolute as an ‘other', a God to be adored and worshipped. But in philosophy which is the highest meditation of the human mind, the Absolute is realised in its truth, as it is, and here the need for the perception of beauty through sense and for the practice of religion as a worship of an external God is no more felt, for the Absolute is integral experience.

Hegel's information on the religion of India is distorted and defective, and his definition of philosophy as the last phase of the Spirit requires amendation. But, nevertheless, he was a great thinker, and makes suggestive remarks which can themselves act as correctives to his own system.

The philosophy of Whitehead combines aspects of the metaphysics of Hegel with the discoveries of the scientific ‘Theory of Relativity'. He is the most difficult of Western philosophers, both in expression and thought, for the ways of his argument are a novelty of his own. Like Hegel, he expounds the interpenetration of all things, and teaches the relativity of the universe as the totality of mutually determining configurations of force. For Whitehead, there are no things, localised bodies or objects which are really cut off from one another. Every object of the world is a collocation of forces, a vortex of energy, a point of concentrated motion, which enters into other such centres of energy to cause an ‘ingressive evolution' of themselves perpetually. His criticism of the belief in ‘simple location' takes us to the larger circumstance of the universe and makes us citizens of creation as a whole. The barriers or personality, society and nationality are crossed in the ocean of becoming which life is in reality. We begin to inherit the wealth of the cosmos as ‘actual occasions' which bear relations to the farthest regions of existence. Here Whitehead shakes hands with Hegel and establishes on earth a kingdom of universal abundance and prosperity. What lies between things is not empty space but a living process which is everywhere the same. We can touch the things of the antipodes without moving a bit physically, for we are there already as the waters of the ocean are everywhere in it. Whitehead's concept of causation, his understanding of the notion of inference, and his new interpretation of the relation between mind and matter are a high watermark in the history of philosophy. His critical estimate of the views of modern science marks him out not only as a great scientist but also as a great philosopher. We have here to refer back to our appreciation of his analysis presented earlier.

Whitehead, by his theory of ‘actual occasions' or ‘drops of experience' takes us beyond ourselves to the boundaries of the vast universe. We are made to outgrow ourselves in experience and reach up to others living in the other parts of the process of becoming. His concept of ‘eternal objects', a quaint phrase invented by him, is a memory of the Ideas of Plato and sounds like the Vedanta doctrine of subtle bodies (Linga-sarira) which inform the physical patterns as visible bodies. His pregnant expressions, like ‘relevance' and ‘prehension' convey a meaning suggestive of deep philosophic insight. Whitehead, without stating it openly, hints at the existence of the Absolute by his view that matter and life are fundamentally one, and life is experience.

While Kant, Hegel and Whitehead may be regarded as the most mature thinkers of the West, the other leaders of thought cannot be set aside as entirely irrelevant. Schopenhauer highlights that seamy side of life which the aristocratic philosophy of Hegel ignores as pointless. The fact of suffering and sorrow has nowhere found such powerful expression and pleading as in Schopenhauer. While the system of Hegel reached the well-to-do in life, the voice of Schopenhauer was eagerly heard by the poorer people. If Hegel is the exponent of an all-round perfection, Schopenhauer is the advocate of all-round suffering and pain. Schopenhauer touched a vital issue in human life and became famous as the philosopher of pity. His monumental work, ‘World as Will and Idea' is no less appealing than either the Critique of Kant or the Logic of Hegel. They present different aspects of truth, which require patient hearing. The transiency of life, the universality of suffering and the need for getting rid of it are important teachings of idealist thinkers and spiritual mystics both in the East and the West.

Nietzsche's craving for power is not merely a megalomania but a light thrown on one aspect of human life. It is not necessary that everyone should be a philosopher, but it is necessary that every event of life should find an explanation in a satisfactory philosophy of life. The desire for food, sex and power expresses a basic instinct. Philosophy has not only to appreciate its true position but explain it with reference to the goal of life. The ego of man searches for power and seeks to dominate over others. This is a phase in the development of our individualities. Our worth would lie in detecting its proper context and transmuting it in a more inclusive understanding. The pragmatism of James, again, is true to facts of empirical life and is a science of psychology. Life in the world demands a recognition of its values and does not want them always to be transcended. We have to call a spade a spade. James appeals to the practical sense of the human mind and would not tolerate any violation of its principles. Every prophet had to confine himself to the needs of his times, since speaking too much would not fulfil these needs. We have to take every teacher in the context of his place, time and circumstance and then study him with dispassion. To wrest him of these factors and judge him from the standpoint of our present-day developments would be doing injustice to him and disfiguring truth at a particular level. James came as a remedy for overstatements and armchair philosophies which did not take empirical life into consideration. He emphasised utility of values and encouraged practical enterprise as against mere theorising which does not help one in life.

Bergson, like Schopenhauer and James, is not only an adept in expression and a master of the literary art, but an able thinker of all times. His theory of biological evolution explains the facts of growth in the living organisms and makes out that all life is such evolution. It is difficult to present in a short compass his insight into this side of the truth of the universe, a fact which presses itself forward into our presence every moment of our lives. His great contribution to the world of thought is the forceful emphasis that he laid on the need for intuition and the impossibility to grasp reality through the intellect. The defects of the rational process and the comprehensiveness of intuition do not find a greater protagonist in the West than Bergson. When philosophers through centuries relied on the powers of reason in knowing truth, Bergson turned the tables round and stressed the place of intuition as the only way to the knowledge of truth. The reasoning process tries to connect disjointed elements of thought and reality, while intuition takes reality as a whole. He feels that even instinct is nearer to fact than intellect, for instinct is free from the vanities and artificialities of the intellect. Bergson would, perhaps, say that instinct illumined fully becomes intuition. While the intellect argues out reality, instinct feels it, though imperfectly. Though the faculty of intuition is not adequately defined or understood by Bergson, he took a definite step in that direction, which proved to be a monumental phase in Western thought.

Bergson's analysis of morality and religion is of great value. He regards religion as a defensive reaction of nature against the selfishness of the intellect. The egoism and diffidence of the intellect are counteracted in religion. The fear of death entertained by the intellect is removed by religion which holds out the fact of immortality and future life. When the intellect feels powerless and depressed, religion enthuses it with the concept of the all-powerful God. The instinct of self-preservation gets ennobled and channelised rightly by the belief in the existence and work of God, as thereby life is redeemed from its characteristic selfishness. The higher religion is that of the saint who identifies himself with Reality. The saint loves all humanity as this love is included in the love of Reality. Morality is of two kinds: self-directed and outwardly directed. While the morality of the common man is a result of social restraint and compulsions of various kinds from outside, the morality of the saint is inwardly directed by the consciousness of Reality. This latter is a spontaneous expression of conformity to the essential fact of life.

Condensation of thought is likely to take away much of the value of the original. The importance of the work, Space, Time and Deity, in which Alexander expresses his arguments cannot be fully brought out in a review. Though there is much in him which may not appeal to the religious mind, there is also, side by side, much that can only be the thought of a master-mind. The scientific value of his study of space-time is great. If Bergson is the philosopher of biology, Whitehead and Alexander are the philosophers of physics. The value of Alexander's contributions is not nullified by the defects of his system from the point of view of religion and spirituality. Like Schopenhauer and James, Bergson and Whitehead, Alexander presents a picture of reality, which is not false, though not complete. His points of view are deep with suggestiveness.

Green is a pioneer in the development of Hegelian thought in the direction of a sublime completeness. His dissection of the knowledge-process paved the way to the fulfilment of the system in Bradley. the study of the relations of the finite and the infinite elaborately worked out by Caird and Bosanquet is rich both in depth and vastness. While in Green is evident a fine religious spirit coupled with philosophical enquiry, Bradley's thesis is sharp with metaphysical acumen. Bradley comes nearest to the Vedanta, and Western idealism finds its best expression in him. A student of the Vedanta in its higher form is bound to be benefited by a study of these stalwarts of the West, who will supply him with the equipment of subtlety of reasoning, an irresistible logic of argumentation, and a confidence in one's methods, which is so indispensable to any genuine seeker of Truth.

Though the Western philosophers do not add to the wisdom of the Vedanta, they help in fortifying it with a powerful weapon against onslaughts from ill-informed sources. The logic of the West would be a good companion to the knowledge of the East. We need not be too eager to cherish either a fanatical adherence to what is ours or a contempt for what is alien. Knowledge is not the property of any community, and it has no national barriers. It succeeds when it is honest enough to accept what is of worth and substance, wherever it be found. India has gained much in the art of political administration and social uplift by its contact with Western culture, which, again, is inclined to gather some superb treasure of universal interest in the ancient culture of India. The East and the West are seeking a common purpose, and it is not true that the ‘twain shall never meet'. The sense of spiritual values has to rise in all humanity.