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Merz’s History of thought

John Theodore Merz, History of thought in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh & London: Blackwood, v. 1–2, 1896; 2nd ed. of v. 1–2, 1907; v. 3–4, 1912, 1914; repr. New York: Dover, 1965.)
Volumes 1 and 2 deal with the natural sciences, 3 and 4 with philosophy. Merz restricts himself to authors in France, Great Britain, and Germany. Though he tends to favor the Germans, Merz’s work is a good place to start if you want to survey the intellectual landscape as it appeared to a well-informed intellectual historian at the end of the century.
Merz, an electrical engineer by trade, knows his science and mathematics, at least till near the end of the century. In physics, the concept of energy (at that time just half a century old), the laws of thermodynamics, and Maxwell‘s theory have completed the classical edifice. Atomism has still not carried the day: the phenomenalism of MachErnst Mach (1838-1916), author of Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung (1883), Die Analyse der Empfindungen (1886), and Erkenntnis und Irrtum (1905). ernstmach and others was, in the 1890s, a tenable position. Merz’s coverage of biology (the name was coined at the very end of the eighteenth century, and becomes current by way of Cuvier) is very good. The transformation wrought by Darwin is fully in evidence. Defining the essence of the living remains an issue, but “mechanistic” explanations are gradually winning out over various versions of vitalism. In psychology, German authors predominate; at the end of the century, Brentano and James appear briefly, but Freud is absent.
The philosophical volumes are organized around the topics of Beauty, Reality, and the Good; to those traditional topics (if we allow ‘Reality’ to stand in for the more traditional ‘Truth’) Merz adds chapters on Society and the “Unity of Thought”. Kant and the problems of the Kantian system are the guiding thread. The last decades of the nineteenth century, in his view, have brought a return to the systematic treatment of philosophical found in Hegel and Schelling, and then left aside in favor of the piecemeal pursuit of problems. Hermann Lotze and Herbert Spencer figure largely; their stock has gone down since (it is clear that Spencer’s was already sinking). Nietzsche, Husserl, and Dilthey are noticed, but Russell appears only in a discussion of geometry, and Frege not at all—British philosophy is dominated at the end of the century by T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, James Ward, and other Idealists. Pragmatism shows up as one of the alternatives, in Merz’s view unsatisfactory, to the decline of systems. Merz’s treatment of æsthetics, which restricts itself to systematic philosophical treatments, is evidence of their remoteness from the arts themselves: no Baudelaire, no Symbolism, no Impressionism or Post-Impressionism, Wagner is cited only in relation to Schopenhauer.
But for the prominence of Lotze and Spencer, and the inevitable culling-out of “minor” figures, Merz’s nineteenth century is populated by much the same cast of characters as you would find in more recent intellectual histories. The history of philosophy, on the other hand, which tends to ignore the actual influence of authors in favor of a more Platonicized, or Whiggish, history in which coverage is allotted according to the degree to which they answered our questions (or, more narrowly yet, the degree to which they answered them correctly), would likely omit the Naturphilosophen, Comte, Lotze, and Spencer altogether. This is a disservice. Not only will the reader of Merz’s history—and a fortiori of the authors he reviews—learn about other ways of addressing the perennial questions; he or she will also learn a salutary lesson about the transience of reputations.

LinkMay 31, 2004 in Books · History of Philosophy · History of Science