A word should here be said about the misconception of Mr. Spencer’s position with reference to the fundamental postulate of religions,—a misconception which used to be more current than it is now. He cannot fairly be described as a materialist. He is no more a materialist than he is a theist. He is, in the strictest sense of the word, an agnostic. He was the most conspicuous example of the thing before Huxley invented the word. The misconception was shared by no less a man than the late Benjamin Jowett, the well-known master of Balliol College, Oxford, who, in one of his published “Letters,” says: “I sometimes think that we platonists and idealists are not half so industrious as those repulsive people who only ‘believe what they can hold in their hand,’ Bain, H. Spencer, etc., who are the very Tuppers of philosophy.” It is hard to see how the law of evolution and other generalizations of an abstract kind with which Mr. Spencer’s name is associated can be held in anybody’s hands. Letting that pass, however, Mr. Spencer has himself suggested that, since the system of synthetic philosophy begins with a division entitled the “Unknowable,” having for its purpose to show that all material phenomena are manifestations of a Power which transcends our knowledge,—that “force as we know it can be regarded only as a Conditioned effect of the Unconditioned Cause”—there has been thereby afforded sufficiently decided proof of belief in something which cannot be held in the hands. It is, indeed, absurd to apply the epithet “materialist” to a man who has written in “The Principles of Psychology”: “Hence, though of the two it seems easier to translate so-called matter into so-called spirit than to translate so-called spirit into so-called matter (which latter is, indeed, wholly impossible), yet no translation can carry us beyond our symbols.”
Any exposition of the “Synthetic Philosophy” must, of course, begin with the volume entitled “First Principles.” In the first part of this preliminary work the author carries a step further the doctrine of the Unknowable put into shape by Hamilton and Mansel. He points out the various directions in which science leads to the same conclusion, and shows that in their united belief in an Absolute that transcends not only human knowledge but human conception lies the only possible reconciliation of science and religion. In the second part of the same book Mr. Spencer undertakes to formulate the laws of the Knowable. That is to say, he essays to state the ultimate principles discernible throughout all manifestations of the Absolute,—those highest generalizations now being disclosed by science, such, for example, as “the Conservation of Force,” which are severally true, not of one class of phenomena, but of all classes of phenomena, and which are thus the keys to all classes of phenomena.