First Principles


"The unconditionally unlimited, or the Infinite, the unconditionallylimited, or the Absolute, cannot positively be construed to the mind; theycan be conceived, only by a thinking away from, or abstraction of, thosevery conditions under which thought itself is realized; consequently, thenotion of the Unconditioned is only negative, -- negative of the conceivableitself. For example, on the one hand we can positively conceive, neitheran absolute whole, that is, a whole so great, that we cannot also conceiveit as a relative part of a still greater whole; nor an absolute part, thatis, a part so small, that we cannot also conceive it as a relative whole,divisible into smaller parts. On the other hand, we cannot positively represent,or realize, or construe to the mind (as here understanding and imaginationcoincide), an infinite whole, for this could only be done by the infinitesynthesis in thought of finite wholes, which would itself require an infinitetime for its accomplishment; nor, for the same reason, can we follow outin thought an infinite divisibility of parts. The result is the same, whetherwe apply the process to limitation in space, in time, or in degree. * * *"As the conditionally limited (which we may briefly call the conditioned)is thus the only possible object of knowledge and of positive thought --thought necessarily supposes conditions. To think is to condition; and conditionallimitation is the fundamental law of the possibility of thought. For, asthe greyhound cannot outstrip his shadow, nor (by a more appropriate simile)the eagle outsoar the atmosphere in which he floats, and by which alone hemay be supported; so the mind cannot transcend that sphere of limitation,within and through which exclusively the possibility of thought is realized.

* * * How, indeed, it could ever be doubted that thought is only of the conditioned,may well be deemed a matter of the profoundest admiration. Thought cannottranscend consciousness; consciousness is only possible under the antithesisof a subject and object of thought, known only in correlation, and mutuallylimiting each other; while, independently of this, all that we know eitherof subject or object, either of mind or matter, is only a knowledge in eachof the particular, of the plural, of the different, of the modified, of thephaenomenal. We admit that the consequence of this doctrine is, -- that philosophy,if viewed as more than a science of the conditioned, is impossible. Departingfrom the particular, we admit, that we can never, in our highest generalizations,rise above the finite; that our knowledge, whether of mind or matter, canbe nothing more than a knowledge of the relative manifestations of an existence,which in itself it is our highest wisdom to recognize aS beyond the reachof philosophy. * * *

"We are thus taught the salutary lesson, that the capacity of thoughtis not to be constituted into the measure of existence; and are warned fromrecognizing the domain of our knowledge as necessarily co-extensive withthe horizon of our faith. And by a wonderful revelation, we are thus, inthe very consciousness of our inability to conceive aught above the relativeand finite, inspired with a belief in the existence of something unconditionedbeyond the sphere of all comprehensible reality."Clear and conclusive as this statement of the case appears when carefullystudied, it is expressed in so abstract a manner as to be not very intelligibleto the general reader. A more popular presentation of it. with illustrativeapplications, as given by Mr. Mansel in his Limits of Religious Thought,will make it more fully understood. The following extracts, which I takethe liberty of making from his pages, will suffice.

"The very conception of consciousness in whatever mode it may bemanifested, necessarily implies distinction between one object and another.

To be conscious, we must be conscious of something; and that something canonly be known, as that which it is, by being distinguished from that whichit is not. But distinction is necessarily imitation; for, if one object isto be distinguished from another, it must possess some form of existencewhich the other has not, or it must not possess some form which the otherhas. * * * If all thought is limitation; -- if whatever we conceive is, bythe very act of conception, regarded as finite, -- the infinite, from a humanpoint of view, is merely a name for the absence of those conditions underwhich thought is possible. To speak of a Conception of the Infinite is, therefore,at once to affirm those conditions and to deny them. The contradiction, whichwe discover in such a conception, is only that which we have ourselves placedthere, by tacitly assuming the conceivability of the inconceivable. The conditionof consciousness is distinction; and condition of distinction is limitation.