"The Late Professor Wallace" by Bernard Bosanquet

Prof. Wallace was a striking figure and an individual force in the English philosophical revival. His position in the movement was unique, and his influence therefore invaluable. A philosopher with his whole heart and mind, an original thinker, trained to accurate scholarship and possessed of immense learning, he has not associated his name with any independent treatise on a philosophical subject. It is possible that, had his life continued to its natural term, we might have been made the richer by some direct creation of his mind, free from "the interposition of historical form and material, which cuts off a great majority of the world from any direct access to truth." Many reasons for his attitude might be suggested. He felt the influence, we may perhaps conjecture, and partly shared the critical reserve, of his predecessor, T. H. Green, and of the later Master of Balliol, to whom his most considerable work was dedicated. They worked, the former largely, the latter almost wholly, through criticism and commentary, and he followed their example, though in far other fields. His temperament, too, urged him in this direction. He loved great individualities; he was happiest and most expansive when challenging the sympathy of an audience for some great man, decried or misunderstood. Epicurus and Schopenhauer in his delightful writings, Epicurus, Rousseau, Wordsworth, even Nietsche, in his still more delightful popular lectures, were presented so that the reader or hearer was abashed at the meanness and triviality of his former conceptions of them. The lecture on Epicurus was reported verbatim and survives; the others, so far as I know, are a lost music.

His profession contributed to determine the character of his published work. He became in 1882 Whyte’s Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford, and the duties of his Chair, added to the labour of a College tutorship, were sufficient to make systematic original production all but impossible; impossible, that is, for any one whose professorial lectures were, like his, the immediate deliverance of a full heart and mind, spoken, as a rule, without a single note.

His main achievement, then, as matters actually stand, and without drawing into account the MSS, which may remain, was the translation and interpretation of Hegel’s Logic and Philosophy of Mind, and it may be that even if possessed of full leisure, he would still have chosen this task. No one else could have done it as he has done it; and its accomplishment was essential to making the roots and reasons of modern idealism a secure possession of the English mind. His interest in Hegel was for his whole life what his interest in Rousseau or Epicurus was for his mere passing moods. It was a supreme example of his great passion; to understand, to enter into a leading intelligence, and to make its most withdrawn and difficult ideas in their bearing on human life, the common property of at least the student world. Readers frequently complain that they can get nothing definite out of the Prolegomena to Hegel’s Logic. The same difficulty is hardly present in the same measure when we turn to the chapters which introduce the Philosophy of Mind; but the complaint means at bottom that the author demands of his readers something of the same effort which he makes himself. He has not indeed any trace of the obscurity and heaviness of style which the professional philosopher so seldom escapes. But he approaches his subject by going all round it and surveying it; he tells you, apparently, of the environment in which a problem arose, of the moral or political need which gave it birth, of its antecedents, of the familiar intellectual processes and beliefs which it concerns, of the fallacious which illustrate it. And no doubt all this may seem circuitous, perhaps irrelevant. But those who care, and perservere, and let their minds play upon the subject, will find that the details have a life in them, and that, as has been said of one of his public lectures, after hearing about all sorts of seemingly unconnected things, you become at last aware that you see a thought which has all the time been growing up before you. And the positive knowledge which displays itself throughout these volumes was almost a new feature in the Idealist movement, and surely a necessary one. Study of Kant, indeed, has not been wanting; but, not to speak of Hegel himself, how little English writers know of Schelling, Fichte, and Herbart; how little they grasp in its entirety the movement which for good or evil they have to deal with. We are only now approaching a real knowledge and judgment of the great idealist period; and that we are likely to possess anything of the kind must be set down mainly to the work done by Wallace.

Of his definite views those which concern Psychology are perhaps at this moment of greatest interest. Psychology, he seems to say, may be carried on as a natural science, or as a branch of philosophy. From the relation, which its problem implies, to man as such, the normal or typical man, it follows that ultimately a philosophical bearing cannot be denied to it. And even if we take it as a natural science, he still is of opinion, as I read him, that experimental psychology is largely at the mercy of criticism in respect to the absence of clear method and purpose in its experimentation. In this view he associates himself with Münsterberg, but probably attaches a significance to it which goes beyond Münsterberg’s meaning.

And I have mentioned this matter, partly because it indicates the ultimate interest in Prof. Wallace’s life. As Herbart says of Psychology, so Wallace could say of all Philosophy, that Man at his best is the real object matter. That was what he cared about; and he went through the toil of logic and philosophical history because he believed, as he has indicated more than once, that these laborious pilgrimages are necessary stages in the ascent of man to lay hold upon his true self and his true religion.

B. Bosanquet