Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Philosophy of the Unconditioned
By Sir William Hamilton (1788–1856)
From Discussions

IN our opinion, the mind can conceive, and consequently can know, only the limited, and the conditionally limited. The unconditionally unlimited, or the Infinite, the unconditionally limited, or the Absolute, cannot positively be construed to the mind; they can be conceived, only by a thinking away from, or abstraction of, those very conditions under which thought itself is realised; consequently, the notion of the Unconditioned is only negative—negative of the conceivable itself. For example: On the one hand we can positively conceive neither an absolute whole, that is, a whole so great, that we cannot conceive it as a relative part of a still greater whole; nor an absolute part, that is, 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 realise, or construe to the mind (as here Understanding and Imagination coincide) an infinite whole, for this could only be done by the infinite synthesis in thought of finite wholes, which would itself require an infinite time for its accomplishment; nor, for the same reason, can we follow out in thought an infinite divisibility of parts. The result is the same, whether we apply the process to limitation in space, in time, or in degree. The unconditional negation, and the unconditional affirmation of limitation; in other words, the Infinite and the Absolute, properly so called, are thus equally inconceivable to us.
  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 condition. To think is to condition; and conditional limitation is the fundamental law of the possibility of thought. For, as the greyhound cannot outstrip his shadow, nor, by a more appropriate simile, the eagle outsoar the atmosphere in which he floats, and by which alone he is supported; so the mind cannot transcend that sphere of limitation, within and through which exclusively the possibility of thought is realised. Thought is only of the conditioned; because, as we have said, to think is simply to condition. The Absolute is conceived merely by a negation of conceivability; and all that we know, is only known as
        … won from the void and formless Infinite.
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 cannot transcend consciousness; consciousness is only possible under the antithesis of a subject and object of thought, known only in correlation, and mutually limiting each other; while, independently of this, all that we know either of subject or object, either of mind or matter, is only a knowledge in each of the particular, of the plural, of the different, of the modified, of the phenomenal. We admit that the consequence of this doctrine is—that philosophy, if viewed as more than a science of the Conditioned, is impossible. Departing from the particular, we admit that we can never, in our highest generalisations, rise above the Finite; that our knowledge, whether of mind or matter, can be nothing more than a knowledge of the relative manifestations of an existence, which in itself it is our highest wisdom to recognise as beyond the reach of philosophy. This is what, in the language of St. Austin, Cognoscendo ignoratur et ignorando cognoscitur.
  The Conditioned is the mean between two extremes,—two inconditionates, exclusive of each other, neither of which can be conceived as possible, but of which, on the principles of contradiction and excluded middle, one must be admitted as necessary. On this opinion, therefore, our faculties are shown to be weak, but not deceitful. The mind is not represented as conceiving two propositions subversive of each other, as equally possible; but only as unable to understand as possible, either of two extremes; one of which, however, on the ground of their mutual repugnance, it is compelled to recognise as true. We are thus taught the salutary lesson, that the capacity of thought is not to be constituted into the measure of existence; and are warned from recognising the domain of our knowledge as necessarily coextensive with the horizon of our faith. And by a wonderful revelation, we are thus, in the very consciousness of our inability to conceive aught above the relative and finite, inspired with a belief in the existence of something unconditioned beyond the sphere of all comprehensible reality.  3

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