Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Schlegel on the Imperfection of Human Reason

And yet it is true, though in a very different sense from that intended by these philosophers of reason, that man's knowledge is in reality limited. No absolute limit, indeed, is set to it. Yet because it is a mixed knowledge, composed of outward tradition and inward experience, and is founded on the perceptions of the external and internal senses, therefore is it made up of individual instances, extremely slow in its growth, and in no respect perfect and complete, and scarcely ever free from faults and deficiencies. Consequently, when considered in its totality, and as pretending to be a whole, it is invariably imperfect. But this character of imperfection belongs, in fact, to all real science, as derived from the experience of the senses. Seldom, indeed, is the first impression free from the admixture of error; numberless repeated observations, comparisons, essays, experiments, and corrections, which must often be carried on through many centuries, not to say many tens of centuries, are necessary before a pure and stable result can be attained to. In this way all truly human knowledge is imperfect, and "in part;" and although, on the contrary, the false conceited wisdom may parade itself from the very first as fully ripe and complete, yet in a very brief space indeed will its imperfection and rottenness appear.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 73. The 'false conceited wisdom' he has particularly in view is what he often (as here) also calls the positions of German 'philosophers of reason' who argue for absolute limits to human reason -- one of his points is that in doing so what they are really doing is treating their own systems, which set the limits, as absolute knowledge.

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