Philosophy against Misosophy



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From The Swarthmore College Bulletin, January 1982, pp. 15-18.  Blanshard, Hon. ’47, was Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore from 1925 to 1944.  Published in his 90th year.


On the Difficulties of Being Reasonable

Brand Blanshard

In the sixty years since I began teaching philosophy, three questions have cropped up incessantly.  The first is: Why study philosophy at all?  The second is: What is the end we ought to pursue in education?  The third is: Among the virtues that make a good citizen, a good person, a good life, which is the most important?  And it grows clearer to me that the answers to all these questions, different as they are, are the same. 

Why study philosophy?  To reach truth, of course.  But when you consider for how many centuries philosophers have been pursuing the truth, and how widely they still differ, what are your chances of capturing that truth?  Not high, one must agree. Is the study therefore wasted?  Not at all.  For if you pursue the truth seriously, and fail to get it, as you may, you come out with a mind invaluably honed and whetted, and that in itself is prize enough. 

What is the end of education?  Not knowledge, or skill, or financial security, good as these are, but something far rarer, the habitually reasonable mind.  What is the most valuable of the virtues?  It is that in us which makes us most likely to be right in thought and act, and that seems to be the use of one’s reason.  Indeed, I am inclined to think that to be right is always to be reasonable and to be reasonable is to be right.  So all three answers are the same.  What we seem to need above all is the rational temper, the habitual attempt, at least, to be reasonable.  So my text is a beatitude that Matthew somehow missed:  Blessed are the reasonable.

The first thing that has to be said about this text is that we are in revolt against it.  Reasonableness as the end of an education or a life?  How dull!  Reasonableness is the grayest of all virtues.  What we like is dash, not drabness.  Perhaps because of our frontier history, our heroes are people who live dangerously; we like the bold, the defiant people who raise our pulse-rates—the Daniel Boones, the Andrew Jacksons, the John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart types; we have been called the Latin branch of the Anglo-Saxon race.  Reasonableness would put a brake on all this, and we don’t like brakes, or even 55-mile-an-hour speed limits. 

Looking back at the sixties and seventies, would you say that quiet and thoughtful rationality was more conspicuous by its presence or by its absence?  Think of the violence issuing in a stream from that box in the corner of our living room.  Think of the paperbacks on display in our drugstores and airports. Think of the eerie silence of our inner cities at night, when people are afraid to walk their own streets.  Think of what we put up with in the name of music, painting, and poetry.  Think of how hard it is for any of us to see straight about race, or the rights of women, or abortion.  These problems will never be solved by the appeal to force, or to nationalism, or to prejudice, however ancient; the only relevant appeal is the appeal to reason, the determined attempt on both sides to see and act reasonably.

But now what does one mean by reasonableness?  Not intelligence. That would help, no doubt, but I recall the outburst of President Gideonse of Brooklyn College that “some of the biggest swine in history have been great intellects.”  Nor is it breadth of knowledge, for it is possible to be monumentally learned and yet to lack common sense.  No, the reasonableness of which I speak is a settled disposition to guide one’s belief and conduct by the evidence.  It is a bent of the will to order one’s thought by the relevant facts, to order one’s practice in the light of the values involved, to make reflective judgment the compass of one’s belief and decision.

Such reasonableness, unlike intelligence, is an acquired, not an innate, characteristic.   In this respect it is like knowledge.  But the knowledge attained as an undergraduate has mostly vanished by the time one gets one’s diploma attesting how great it is.  If you are like me, facts do not stay with you, while habits, for good or evil, do.  And reasonableness, as I have defined it, may become a habit.  It is a habit that, once acquired, can be kept permanently and applied in any field.  Indeed, if you manage in this fostering place [Swarthmore] to acquire it, you will have achieved the highest benefit that education can confer.

There are many things that education can do for a person. It can render him an expert technician in electrical engineering or bone surgery; it can make him a leading authority in the chronological stratification of vowel contraction in Greek.  I do not deprecate such knowledge.  But a super-mole or a super-magpie does not necessarily possess an educated mind.  What we expect of such a mind is a distinctive temper, a readiness to look before leaping, indeed to look at all sides of an issue and attach due weight to each, to see things not through rose-tinted or black-tinted or distorting or magnifying lenses, but as they are.  In short, what we want from education is the reasonable mind.

If seeing things as they are seems an easy business, let it be added that no one has yet achieved it, and probably no one ever will.  Freud, it is said, contributed more to psychology than any other man since Aristotle, and what he contributed was chiefly an insight into the ways in which thought veers and shifts under the control of hidden desires.  “Many of us,” says F. L. Lucas, “having read our Freud, have grown more skeptical than ever, seeing reason no longer as a searchlight, but usually as a gust-swept candle guttering amid the winds and night of the unconscious.”  Nor is it the thought of ignorant people alone that gutters in the winds of prejudice.  I once heard that wise man Dean Woodbridge of Columbia say that he had almost given up hope for the League of Nations because of his experience at Columbia faculty meetings.

Why is it so hard to be reasonable?  “Things are what they are, and will be what they will be; why then,” asked Bishop Butler, “should we seek to deceive ourselves?”  That is a fascinating and important question, but the general answer to it does not seem difficult.  That answer is that we are all divided personalities, like the two girls of whom one said to the other, “I feel rather schizophrenic today; I hope you don’t mind.”  “Oh no,” said the other; “that makes four of us.”  We are lovers of truth, but also lovers of much else; and it is hard to keep the competing loves from interfering with each other.

On the one hand, we all want to know.  A. E. Housman said that the love of truth is the faintest of human passions, but it remains a passion nevertheless, and not even the most bewildered freshman or blasé senior is without it.  Every one of us would like to understand better the world we live in.  How many people, if offered as a gift a full understanding of Einstein or the best cure for inflation, would turn it down?  We might not be willing to walk a mile for it, as we would with such abandon for a Camel, but we might well say, with Dr. Johnson, that there is no thing we would not rather know than not know.  This interest in truth may flicker feebly in a strumming hippie or rise to the passion of a life as in Spinoza, but it is present to a degree in everyone.

On the other hand, along with this interest in truth each of us has (or perhaps we should say is) a set of other interests and impulses—impulses to love, to fight, to seek company, to imitate, to run from danger, to eat, to drink, to be merry, and many more.  These impulses tend to organize around a certain idea, such as the excellence of one’s self or one’s group, and to respond positively to whatever supports it and negatively to whatever threatens it.  These clusters of impulses are called sentiments.  Take the sentiment of self-love.  Each of us, if normal, wishes to go on living, to succeed, to have influence, to be thought well of, by ourselves and by others.  Whatever furthers this self-love we tend to like—people who approve of or admire us, games or work that we are good at, doctors who have pulled us through, teachers who have encouraged us, places where we have been happy and made good.  On the other hand, whatever blocks this self-love we tend to dislike—persons who criticize us, or make us feel stupid or gauche, studies in which we are incompetent, rivals who sneer at us, neighbors who say that we treat our car, or lawn, or dog shabbily.  We all seem to recognize some part of Archie Bunker in ourselves.

And just as the thought of our self is a node around which the forces of feeling gather, so also is the thought of the group to which we belong.  We are all members of such groups: first our family, then perhaps our church, our party, our country, and our race.  We identify ourselves with them; their success is our success; anyone who is against them is against us.  There are, to be sure, people who rise above this, even as regards blood ties.  It is told of Lord North that while standing once in the back of a theater and exchanging impressions with a stranger, he was asked: “Who is that plain-looking woman yonder?” “That, sir,” he replied, “is my wife,” “Oh no,” said his companion hastily, “I mean the woman next to her.”  “That, sir, is my daughter.  And let me tell you, sire, we are considered to be three of the ugliest people in London.”  But that is a level of unresentment that for most of us would be up in the clouds.

We can now see a little more clearly perhaps why it is so hard to be reasonable.  On any given subject there is just one true view.  That view may be hidden away beneath mounds of ambiguous and conflicting evidence which only a committed seeker after truth would have the determination to sift and clear away.  Yet our whole nonrational self may press upon us a simpler view of its own that unifies our nature behind it, that satisfies our sentiments regarding ourselves and our group, that cuts off the restlessness of doubt and the strain of reflective effort, that gives us the serene inner peace of being right, that has in fact only one thing against it: that it may be, and probably is, wrong.

What our intelligence wants is, of course, the truth.  What the rest of our nature asks from our intelligence is not what is true but what will satisfy.  By that we mean what will appease our impulsive and emotional nature, our longing to be liked, our desire to see our future secure, our character respected, our faith vindicated, our party shown to be the party of sober sense, or nation triumphant.  When one considers how hidden and barricaded the truth commonly is, how definite it is, allowing no alternative, how feeble is our passion for it, and how overwhelming the tendencies in us to look for it through distorting prisms, the wonder is not that most of us are irrational but that some of us are as rational as we are.

Are we hopelessly caught in this net of desires?  Some people say we are, at least so soon as we leave the ground of palpable fact.  Freud thought all religious belief sprang from the desire for security.  Marx thought the defense of capitalism commonly offered were rationalizations of class interest.  Even William James suggested that what philosophers were doing was engineering the universe along the lines of their temperamental needs, coming out as rationalists if they were tender-minded, empiricists if they were tough-minded.  Have you ever noticed newspaper pictures of golfers making their final putts on the green, and how they twist themselves into fantastic shapes as a means of helping the ball into the cup?  James thought that philosophers were putters on the green of life, trying by a little English to make the nature of things answer to their wishes.

MacNeille Dixon, in his Gifford lectures on The Human Situation, has put the case boldly: “There never yet was a philosopher, whatever they may have said, no, nor man of science, whose conclusions ran counter to the dearest wishes of his heart, who summed up against them, or condemned his hopes to death.  How honestly Darwin confessed the lurking presence of the desire to prove his theory true! ‘I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over. . . . The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when I gaze at it, makes me sick.’”

Here I think we must demur.  The mention of Darwin was an unfortunate one for Professor Dixon’s case, for that great man is one of the finest examples on record of the honest and objective mind.  He did, to be sure, want to find his theory true, but his statement of it, when at last he gave it to the world, carried conviction precisely because he was so fully aware of its difficulties; he had kept a journal of them over the years, and had answered them decisively before most of his critics had thought of them.  “I have steadily endeavored,” he wrote, “to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis however much beloved as soon as the facts are shown to be opposed to it.”  Furthermore, it is perfectly possible to sum up against one’s desires.  Darwin’s friend Huxley admitted that the thought of death as extinction was hateful to him, but he accepted it because he believed the evidence required it.  On the other hand, Professor C. D. Broad, one of the most distinguished minds of this century, concluded, on the evidence of psychical research, that he probably would survive death, though in such a form that he accepted his own survival with depression.

No doubt none of us is free from unreasonable hopes and fears.  But unless our thought can to some extent work loose from them, what is the point of philosophizing, even about this?  Freud did not think that his theory of the id was itself a mere distortion by that id, or Marx that his theory of class determination was itself a by–product of his class, James that his empiricism was merely congenial to his temperament rather than true.  And if thought is the puppet of feeling, what is the point of education?  Educated malice and misanthropy are more dangerous than the blundering kind; think of Satan, Iago, and Stalin.  Surely the whole venture of education assumes that thought can be free from slavery to feeling and desire, and can achieve some mastery over them.

If this impersonal reasonableness is hard in thought, it is even harder in practical life, because it calls for a magnanimity beyond the range of most of us.  But even so, it has been achieved in high degree.  There is a story of how some tale-bearer came to Lincoln one day with a report of Secretary Stanton’s having said angrily, about a recent action of the President, that he had acted like a fool.  The tale-bearer no doubt expected an explosion.  Instead Lincoln remarked thoughtfully that if Mr. Stanton had said that, he was probably right, since he generally was.  Most men, when they hear criticism of what they have said or done, consume more energy in resenting the malice that they think inspired it than in considering whether it is true.  So it is surprising to learn that there are people who feel little or nothing of such resentment.  It was said of Mirabeau that he found it difficult to forgive the insults and meanness done to him, for the reason that he had forgotten all about hem. It was my privilege many years ago to hear two British statesmen who stood temperamentally at opposite poles—Mr. Lloyd George, a mercurial, emotional, eloquent Celt, known as “the Welsh wizard,” and Mr. Asquith, a man so incapable of being carried away from his proud moorings in judicial reasonableness, so genuinely impersonal and unvindictive, that he was called “the last of the Romans.”  Lloyd George appealed to my youth.  With the passage of the years, Asquith has replaced him in my gallery of admirations.

I was saying something like this to a historian colleague when he protested that I was not seeing things in perspective.  We academics may admire quiet detachment, but it is not the reasonable people, he said, who have been the powers and movers in history.  Asquith after all was turned out in favor of Lloyd George when a man was needed who would win the war.  As Whitehead circumspectly puts it, “a certain element of excess seems to be a necessary element in all greatness,” or as Leo Durocher would put it in Anglo-Saxon, “nice guys finish last.”  The people who have turned the current of events have more often been flaming, dogmatic, one-eyed zealots and geniuses than reasonable men—Genghis Khan, Mohammed, Martin Luther and John Knox, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung.  How far would Hitler have gone if had been a reasonable man?

The answer is, first, that he might never have been heard of, and second, that it might have been better for the world if none of these zealots had been heard of.  Secondly, the mere fat of changing history, without regard to whether the change is for good or bad, is no ground for hero-worship.  You may question my including Luther in a list of zealots.  He was something of a hero to me until I read him.  Then I began to think there was substance in Goethe’s judgment, as echoed by the historian Froude, that Luther “threw back the intelligence of mankind for centuries by calling in the passions of the mob to decide questions which ought to have been left to thinkers.”  If a leader does decide things by passion, he may be either a blessing or a curse.  Thirdly, the notion that reasonable men must turn out to be Hamlets when given then reins of power is untrue.  Marcus Aurelius and Masaryk were good governors in spite of being philosophers.  Turgot and Jefferson left the impress of their wisdom on their countries.  Fourthly, men of reflection have often gained men of action as their adjutants.  It has been pointed out that the intellectual yeast of the four great revolutions of modern times came out of philosophers’ studies.  Behind the American Revolution lay John Locke; behind the French, Rousseau and Voltaire; behind the Russian and Chinese the thought of a poverty-stricken exile, spinning his webs with intelligence and hatred in the British Museum.  The partial failure of the last two revolutions springs largely from the fact that, in the philosophies they embodied, reason was so liberally mixed with and neutralized by hatred.

We have seen, so far, that the reasonable temper id difficult, but that it is not impossible, and that it is much needed in high places.  May I now go on to say that it is needed everywhere today.  “The irrational,” says F. L. Lucas, “now in politics, now in poetry, ha been the sinister opium of our tormented and demented century.”  Resistance to this epidemic virus of the mind is perhaps particularly needed among Americans.  Our constitution gives us a wide latitude of freedom, and the Supreme Court has confirmed it in a notable series of decisions, such as the one refusing to gag even pornography.

Such freedom is precious, but it is bought at a price.  It gives the stage and screen, fiction and journalism and advertising, carte blanche to be vacuously sensational if they want to be.  And they commonly do want to be.  They tend to settle to the level of the greatest dollar return, and that is the Dead Sea level of what will excite without exciting reflection.  We might, of course, try official censorship.  Russia has adopted that, even insisting that artists and scientists toe an ideological line, and turning violators into unpersons.  But that kind of protection we do not want. We are taking the high and difficult course—the only course consistent with our tradition of freedom—of leaving censorship to the reasonableness of the individual mind.

Such freedom will be used differently by the classic and the romantic.  The romantic thinks of the control of impulse as an infringement of his freedom; the classic thinks of it as an individual means to freedom.  “In all things,” said Dostoyevsky, “I go to the uttermost extreme; my life long, I have never been acquainted with moderation.”  “Those who restrain desire,” said William Blake, “do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”  There speaks the pure romantic. The classic would point out that both Blake and Dostoyevsky were probably mad—though the romantic might reply that he would be quite happy to be mad if he could be Blake or Dostoyevsky.

In the talk about the reasonable temper as imposing a yoke or a straitjacket upon the life of feeling, there is much misunderstanding.  Reason does tell the angry or jealous or fearful man that if he lets all holds go and gives feeling its head he will pay the price, but control is not repression, it is prudence; it is the purchase of a larger good by a smaller present sacrifice.  Burke said: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free.”  Plato reminded us that life is like a chariot race in which the driver, reason, is in charge of two spirited horses, our appetites and our emotions.  It is only if, through an expert use of bits and reins, the driver can make these run together that he will ever manage to stay the course and avoid an Indianapolis speedway pile-up.  Neither horse can win freedom by running ahead, or hanging back, or tripping up the other, for that might involve the whole enterprise in ruin, and other drivers too.  Slavery, Plato insisted, lay not in the dominance of reason over impulse, which was really freedom, but in impulse over reason which was anarchy.

I hope it begins to appear why I place so high a value on the gray virtue of reasonableness.  It is not an intellectual virtue only; it is a spirit and temper that irradiates practice, permeates feeling and filters down into one’s taste and talk.  Because it is so impalpable, it may be thought that reasonableness is rather like personal charm, something pleasant to find in anyone, but elusive, inimitable, hardly to be pursued or even talked about, a blessing if one has it, unattainable if not.  Why not leave it at that?

Because we cannot afford to.  The best things in life are impalpable things, and if the reasonable temper is, as I have suggested, the finest product of education, it ought to be recognized and consciously pursued.  To be sure, there are no courses in it or examinations on it; and many of us would flunk miserably if there were.  Formal education helps us toward it, but it is not by itself enough.

What more is necessary?  The most important thing, probably, is genuine admiration for it.  If a quality of character comes to seem so important that one identifies one’s self-respect with having it, one will get it.  The Stoics felt that way about bearing pain; Christians have felt that way about kindliness to others; soldiers have traditionally felt that way about their honor; French aristocrats of the old regime felt that way about chivalry.  Is it an impractical dream to think that the respect men have felt of hardihood, for kindliness, for honor, they might come to feel for the reasonable mind?

My hope is that in our academic communities, at least, this respect for the reasonable temper may come to prevail.  Breadth of knowledge is good; research is good; increasing specialism is inevitable.  But these are obvious and relatively easy goods. “The great aim of education,” said Adam Smith bluntly, “is to direct vanity to proper objects,” and if there is anything a man can be vain of without danger, it is the reasonable spirit, since it is a vanity that corrects itself.

The reasonable temper!  It is the check against the old Adam in ourselves; it is the ultimate resource of the community against bigotry and injustice.  Those who have it are not likely to be the most conspicuous members of their community, or the most dramatic, or picturesque, or exciting—only the most likely to be right.

Posted September 10, 2006

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