George Henry Lewes (April 18, 1817–November 28, 1878) was an English philosopher and literary critic. He is more notable now as the extramarital partner of the novelist Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name of George Eliot, with whom he lived from 1854 until his death.
He was born in London, a grandson of Charles Lee Lewes, the actor. He was educated in London, Jersey, Brittany, and finally at Dr Charles Burney's school in Greenwich. Having abandoned successively a commercial and a medical career, he seriously thought of becoming an actor, and between 1841 and 1850 appeared several times on the stage. Finally he devoted himself to literature, science and philosophy. As early as 1836 he belonged to a club formed for the study of philosophy, and had sketched out a physiological treatment of the philosophy of the Scottish school. Two years later he went to Germany, probably with the intention of studying philosophy.
He married a daughter of Swynfen Stevens Jervis, and during the next ten years supported himself by contributing to the quarterly and other reviews. These articles discuss a wide range of subjects, and, though often imperfect, reveal acute critical judgment, enlightened by philosophic study. The most valuable are those on drama, afterwards republished under the title Actors and Acting (1875). With this may be taken the volume on The Spanish Drama (1846). The combination of wide scholarship, philosophic culture and practical acquaintance with the theatre gives these essays a high place among the best efforts in English dramatic criticism.
In 1845–1846 Lewes published The Biographical History of Philosophy, an attempt to depict the life of philosophers as an ever-renewed fruitless labour to attain the unattainable. In 1847–1848 he made two attempts in the field of fiction — Ranthrope, and Rose Blanche and Violet — which, though displaying considerable skill both in plot, construction and in characterization, have taken no permanent place in literature. The same is to be said of an ingenious attempt to rehabilitate Robespierre (1849). In 1850 he collaborated with Thornton Leigh Hunt in the foundation of the Leader, of which he was the literary editor. In 1853 he republished under the title of Comte's Philosophy of the Sciences a series of papers which had appeared in that journal. In 1851 he became acquainted with George Eliot, and in 1854 left his wife to live with her.
The culmination of Lewes's work in prose literature is the Life of Goethe (1855), probably the best known of his writings. Lewes's versatility, and his combination of scientific with literary tastes, eminently fitted him to appreciate the wide-ranging activity of the German poet. The work became well-known in Germany itself, despite the boldness of its criticism and the unpopularity of some of its views (e.g. on the relation of the second to the first part of Faust). From about 1853 Lewes's writings show that he was occupying himself with scientific and more particularly biological work.
He always showed a distinctly scientific bent in his writings, and his closer devotion to science was the logical follow-on from his early impulses. Considering that he had not had the usual course of technical training, these studies are a remarkable testimony to the penetration of his intellect. The most important of these essays are collected in the volumes Seaside Studies (1858), Physiology of Common Life (1859), Studies in Animal Life (1862), and Aristotle, a Chapter from the History of Science (1864). They are much more than popular expositions of accepted scientific truths. They contain able criticisms of authorized ideas, and embody the results of individual research and individual reflection. He made several suggestions, some of which have since been accepted by physiologists. Of these the most valuable is that now known as the doctrine of the functional indifference of the nerves — that what are known as the specific energies of the optic, auditory and other nerves are simply differences in their mode of action due to the differences of the peripheral structures or sense-organs with which they are connected. This idea was subsequently arrived at independently by Wundt (Physiologische Psychologie, 2nd ed., p. 321). In 1865, on the starting of the Fortnightly Review, Lewes became its editor, but he retained the post for less than two years, when he was succeeded by John Morley.
This marks the transition from more strictly scientific to philosophic work. Lewes had been interested in philosophy from early youth; one of his earliest essays was an appreciative account of Regal's Aesthetics. Coming under the influence of positivism as unfolded both in Auguste Comte's works and in John Stuart Mill's System of Logic, he abandoned all faith in the possibility of metaphysic, and recorded this abandonment in the above-mentioned History of Philosophy.
Yet he did not at any time give an unqualified adhesion to Comte's teachings, and with wider reading and reflection his mind moved away further from the positivist standpoint. In the preface to the third edition of his History of Philosophy he avowed a change in this direction, and this movement is still more plainly discernible in subsequent editions of the work. The final outcome of this intellectual progress is given to us in The Problems of Life and Mind, which may be regarded as the crowning work of his life. His sudden death cut short the work, yet it is complete enough to allow a judgment on the author's matured conceptions on biological, psychological and metaphysical problems. Of his three sons only one, Charles Lewes survived him; he became a London county councillor.
The first two volumes on The Foundations of a Creed lay down what Lewes regarded as the true principles of philosophizing--he tried to effect a rapprochement between metaphysic and science. He is still so far a positivist as to pronounce all inquiry into the ultimate nature of things fruitless. What matter, form, spirit are in themselves is a futile question that belongs to the sterile region of "metempirics." But philosophical questions may be so stated as to be susceptible of a precise solution by scientific method. Thus, since the relation of subject to object falls within our experience, it is a proper matter for philosophic investigation. It may be questioned whether Lewes is right in thus identifying the methods of science and philosophy. Philosophy is not a mere extension of scientific knowledge; it is an investigation of the nature and validity of the knowing process itself. In any case Lewes cannot be said to have done much to aid in the settlement of properly philosophical questions.
His whole treatment of the question of the relation of subject to object is vitiated by a confusion between the scientific truth that mind and body coexist in the living organism and the philosophic truth that all knowledge of objects implies a knowing subject. In other words, to use Shadworth Hodgson's phrase, he mixes up the question of the genesis of mental forms with the question of their nature (see Philosophy of Reflexion, ii. 40-58). Thus he reaches the "monistic" doctrine that mind and matter are two aspects of the same existence by attending simply to the parallelism between psychical and physical processes given as a fact (or a probable fact) of our experience, and by leaving out of account their relation as subject and object in the cognitive act.
His identification of the two as phases of one existence is open to criticism, not only from the point of view of philosophy, but from that of science. In his treatment of such ideas as "sensibility," "sentience" and the like, he does not always show whether he is speaking of physical or of psychical phenomena. Among the other properly philosophic questions discussed in these two volumes the nature of the casual relation is perhaps the one which is handled with most freshness and suggestiveness.
The third volume, The Physical Basis of Mind, further develops the writer's views on organic activities as a whole, lie insists strongly on the radical distinction between organic and inorganic processes, and on the impossibility of ever explaining the former by purely mechanical principles. With respect to the nervous system, he holds that all its parts have one and the same elementary property, namely, sensibility. Thus sensibility belongs as much to the lower centres of the spinal cord as to the brain, contributing in this more elementary form elements to the "subconscious" region of mental life. The higher functions of the nervous system, which make up our conscious mental life, are merely more complex modifications of this fundamental property of nerve substance.
Closely related to this doctrine is the view that the nervous organism acts as a whole, that particular mental operations cannot be referred to definitely circumscribed regions of the brain, and that the hypothesis of nervous activity passing in the centre by an isolated pathway from one nerve-cell to another is altogether illusory. By insisting on the complete coincidence between the regions of nerve-action and sentience, and by holding that these are but different aspects of one thing, he is able to attack the doctrine of animal and human automatism, which affirms that feeling or consciousness is merely an incidental concomitant of nerve-action and in no way essential to the chain of physical events. Lewes's views in psychology, partly opened up in the earlier volumes of the Problems, are more fully worked out in the last two volumes (3rd series). He discusses the method of psychology with much insight.
He claims against Comte and his followers a place for introspection in psychological research. In addition to this subjective method there must be an objective, which consists partly in a reference to nervous conditions and partly in the employment of sociological and historical data. Biological knowledge, or a consideration of the organic conditions, would only help us to explain mental functions, as feeling and thinking; it would not assist us to understand differences of mental faculty as manifested in different races and stages of human development. The organic conditions of these differences will probably for ever escape detection. Hence they can be explained only as the products of the social environment.
This idea of dealing with mental phenomena in their relation to social and historical conditions is probably Lewes's most important contribution to psychology. Among other points which he emphasizes is the complexity of mental phenomena. Every mental state is regarded as compounded of three factors in different proportions--namely, a process of sensible affection, of logical grouping and of motor impulse. But Lewes's work in psychology consists less in any definite discoveries than in the inculcation of a sound and just method. His biological training prepared him to view mind as a complex unity, in which the various functions interact one on the other, and of which the highest processes are identical with and evolved out of the lower. Thus the operations of thought, "or the logic of signs," are merely a more complicated form of the elementary operations of sensation and instinct or "the logic of feeling."
The whole of the last volume of the Problems may be said to be an illustration of this position. It is a valuable repository of psychological facts, many of them drawn from the more obscure regions of mental life and from abnormal experience, and is throughout suggestive and stimulating. To suggest and to stimulate the mind, rather than to supply it with any complete system of knowledge, may be said to be Lewes's service in philosophy. The exceptional rapidity and versatility of his intelligence seems to account at once for the freshness in his way of envisaging the subject-matter of philosophy and psychology, and for the want of satisfactory elaboration and of systematic co-ordination.
- New Quarterly (London, October, 1879)
- J. W. Cross, George Eliot's Life as Related in her Letters and Journals (three volumes, New York, 1885)
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Works by George Henry Lewes at Project Gutenberg