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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. Two Objections. There seems to have been only
two dissident voices in this ideal climate, namely, those
of Dr. Johnson and Voltaire. Samuel Johnson (in 1757)
applied Zeno's argument to the Chain of Being.

The Scale of Existence from Infinity to Nothing cannot
possibly have Being. The highest Being not infinite must
be... at an infinite Distance below Infinity... and in
this Distance, between finite and infinite, there will be
Room for ever for an infinite series of indefinable Existence.
Between the lowest positive existence and Nothing,... is
another chasm infinitely deep; where there is room again
for endless Orders of subordinate Nature.... Nor is this
all. In the Scale... there are infinite Vacuities. At whatever
Distance we suppose the next Order of Being to be above
Man, there is room for an intermediate Order of Beings
between them; and if for one Order, then for infinite Orders;
since every Thing that admits of more or less, and conse-
quently all the Parts of that which admits them, may be
infinitely divided...

(A Review of a Free Inquiry into the
Nature and Origin of Evil

Johnson's argument, as we see, strikes directly at the
foundation of the Chain of Being—the principle of
plenitude. Still, with a moment's reflection, we see that
it is not really pertinent: the Chain of Being is, so to
speak, the cosmological translation of Zeno's paradox,
and its fullness is predicated precisely upon the “fault”
Johnson finds with it, namely, that infinite divisibility
which affords the insertion between one order and
another of “endless orders.”

Voltaire, on the other hand, questions on the basis
of empirical observation whether it can be held that
there is a gradation of created beings (Dictionnaire
[1764], s.v. “Chaîne des êtres créés”). It
is gratifying to the imagination, he says, to contemplate
that imperceptible passage from the inanimate to the
organic, from plants to zoophytes, to animals, to angels,
all in ascending grades of perfection up to God Him-
self. This hierarchy pleases the bons gens, who believe
they recognize in it the Pope, followed by the cardi-
nals, archbishops, and bishops, followed in turn by the
curates, vicars, and simple priests, deacons and sub-
deacons, lastly by friars and capuchins. But there is
an essential difference between the cosmological and
ecclesiastical hierarchies: whereas in the latter the
humblest member can be Pope, in the former not even
the most perfect of creatures can become God. And
with this apparently jesting observation Voltaire
catches an essential feature of the Chain of Being—its
immobility: if the principle of plenitude requires that
every grade be filled by an order of creatures, this
hierarchy must necessarily be static, for we cannot
admit a passing onto higher orders which would leave
holes in the universal fabric. And in any case between


even the most perfect of creatures and God an infinite
hiatus must remain (il y a l'infini entre Dieu et lui).

But Voltaire's objection regards, above all, the prin-
ciple of continuity, which is nowhere evidenced in
nature: let the proof of that be that there are extinct
species in both the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
It is probable that even among men there are extinct
species; and between apes and men there is clearly
a gap. As for spiritual substances, Christians believe
in them because faith teaches that these substances
exist; but what reason had Plato for believing so? And
finally how can there be in empty space a chain that
binds all? Here Voltaire catches another difficulty in
the idea of a continuum, namely, one owing something
to the philosophy of Newton, who had affirmed the
existence of a vacuum—something rejected by Leibniz
in favor of the plenitude hypothesis.

Of the two criticisms presented above, Johnson's in
its logical strictness misses the mark because he chal-
lenges the principle of plenitude precisely on the basis
of the idea that makes it possible, namely the infinite
divisibility of matter. Voltaire's is the more interesting
because it reflects the debates current in the biological
sciences of his day, and especially the discussions of
the notion of species, which, as we shall see, were to
be decisive in the development and eventual dissolu-
tion of the Chain of Being.

2. Kant's Criticism and the Chain of Being. In the
Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels
(1755), Kant takes up the Leibnizian argument of the
coincidence in God of the possible and the actual:
creation is surely commensurate with the power of an
infinite being, and it would be nonsense to say that
God allows only a minimal part of his creative poten-
tial to pass into actuality. It is more reasonable to
suppose that divine creativity does not unfold all at
once but gradually, that creation has indeed a begin-
ning but no end. In the formation of worlds, the first
elements of chaos already bear the signs of that com-
pleteness that is of the very nature of their origin, since
their nature can only be a consequence of the eternal
idea of the divine intelligence. Matter itself has within
it the tendency to organize itself, through natural
evolution, in always more perfect forms.

Here, as we see, Kant gives us what Lovejoy ([1936],
Ch. IX) later called a “temporalized” version of the
Chain of Being, in which creation takes the form of
a natural development starting from the divine idea;
and it comes about step by step, filling up space with
worlds in the process of eternity. It is an evolutional
ebb and flow in which worlds are formed and dissolved;
but the production of ever new worlds guarantees the
fullness and infinite variety of the whole. If in its
temporal variations a system exhausts all the variety
of which it is constitutionally capable, it becomes a
useless member of the Chain of Being, and so performs
its last act in the vicissitudes of cosmic change, paying
its tribute to mortality.

The problem of the Chain of Being is taken up in
very different terms in the Critique of Pure Reason
(1781), and precisely in the Appendix to the Transcen-
dental Dialectic. Here Kant examines the principles
of plenitude and continuity still operative in the sci-
ences of the time, in order to reduce them to “ideas
of the Reason” (transcendental ideas), which as such
have no “constitutive” use but a purely “regulative”
one, that is to say, they are capable of directing the
Understanding to a certain aim, conferring upon its
concepts the greatest unity and extension. Even lying
quite outside the limits of possible experience, the ideas
of the Reason constitute the systematic unity of knowl-
edge. By virtue of this “transcendental presupposition”
we may assume a homogeneity in the apparent infinite
diversity of nature, a unity of its fundamental proper-
ties. This is the scholastic principle of Ockham, “enti-
ties are not to be multiplied more than are necessary”
(entia praeter necessitatem non esse multiplicanda); and
it is the foundation of logical classification. Beside this
principle, which Kant calls the “principle of homo-
geneity,” and which allows the reduction of the various
species to subsumption in a few genera, also at work
in the reason is the “principle of specification,” which
requires a multiplicity and difference among things in
spite of their grouping in a same genus. Each genus
requires diverse species, and each species diverse sub-
species; and

as none even of these subspecies is without a sphere...
reason in all its extension requires that no species should
in itself be considered as the lowest, since the species being
always a concept containing only that which is common
to different things,... it must always subsume other con-
cepts or subspecies. This principle of specification might
be formulated thus: entium varietates non temere esse minu-

(“the variety of things is not to be minimized”).

What Kant calls the law of specification is precisely
the principle of plenitude. Inasmuch as it is an ideal
of the reason it cannot be inferred from experience,
since empirical specification goes no farther than ob-
servable multiplicity; but it is a regulative principle
of experience, since it invites reason to seek the “dis-
tinctive and to presuppose it ever anew, although not
immediately manifest to the senses.” From the two
foregoing principles—homogeneity and plenitude—
there also arises the principle of the continuity of
forms, which provides a continuous transition from
species to species by means of a gradual building up
of differences. Since


... there is no void in the entire sphere of all possible
concepts, and as nothing can be discovered outside this
sphere, there arises the principle non datur vacuum for-
that is to say, there are no different original and
first genera, isolated and separated from each other, as it
were by an intervening void, but all the different genera
are divisions of only one supreme and general genus. From
that principle springs its immediate consequence, datur
continuum formarum,
that is, all the differences of species
border upon one another and admit of no transition from
one to another per saltum.... This logical law of the
continuum of species (continuum specierum) presupposes a
law of continuity in nature (lex continui in natura), which
however remains only thinkable, not knowable: This conti-
nuity of forms is a mere idea, for which it is not possible
to find a corresponding object in experience, not only be-
cause the species in nature are actually divided, and must
form, each by itself, a discrete quantity (quantum dis-
),... but also because we can make no determinate
empirical use of this law, since it does not offer the least
criterion to tell us how and how far we ought to seek for
different grades of affinity; the law of continuity tells us
only in general that we ought to seek for them....

In short, there is no empirical use of the principle of
continuity; it has only a regulative use: as simply an
idea, it serves only to alert us in general that a series
should be sought in nature.

The same can be said, Kant goes on, of the “famous
law” of the Scale of Creatures, consequence of the two
principles in question. The notion of a Chain of Being
is not objectively verifiable by observing nature: “the
steps of this scale, so far as we are able to know them
by experience, are much too far apart, and the (puta-
tively) small differences in nature itself are ordinarily
crevices so vast, that such observations cannot be relied
upon.... ” Even the idea of a Chain of Being, then,
is a regulative principle only, a “method” according
to which we seek order in nature—but a method that
“goes too far for experience or observation to match.”

Thus the Chain of Being is reduced, in Kant, to one
of those ideals for which there is no empirical appli-
cation, and which indeed, in their empirical use, can
produce only imaginary knowledge and hence eternal
contrasts and contradictions. And with that an essential
aspect of the Chain of Being is wanting: its function,
namely, as a scheme of nature that observation is
supposed to fill in gradually by reconstructing it em-
pirically. Such a reconstruction, for Kant, is not possi-
ble: it would indeed constitute an example of the
dialectic of appearance. In these same decades, and
no doubt independently of the Kantian criticism, the
biological sciences produced a profound transformation
in the idea of a Chain of Being; and at the end of
this process the conclusion emerges that it is impossible
to reconstruct in a scientific way the hierarchical
structure of the universe. In this way that fixed struc-
ture loses all objective validity and is no longer one
of the constitutive principles of scientific research.