Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Free Inquiry, Winter 1985-86, 22-25.  Blanshard delivered this address at Boston University’s 111th Commencement in 1984, in his 92nd year.  Free Inquiry is the journal of the Council for Secular Humanism.  A “Laureate of the Academy of Humanism,” Blanshard signed the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II.


The Habit of Reason

Brand Blanshard

Just thirty years ago, when I was a young whippersnapper in my sixties, I was taking part in a graduation exercise very different from this in size.  A great man of business, Thomas Watson, Sr., head of IBM, was being given an honorary degree, and for a brief time I was thrown into his company.  What was an academic, straight from an ivory tower, sound-proofed with ivy, to say to a captain of industry?  How break the enveloping ice? 

Suddenly an idea occurred to me that wreathed Mr. Watson’s face with smiles.  I told him that affixed to my study wall at Yale was the slogan of his company, the single word “Think!” That injunction was surely as appropriate to a philosopher’s study as in a businessman’s office.  When I came to consider what counsel to give you graduates, as you go out into a noisy, infinitely complex world, I could conceive of nothing more to the point than what Mr. Watson and I had agree was equally essential to philosophy and to business, that injunction, “Think!”

In a sense, to be sure, it is silly advice.  We are all thinking incessantly, whether we know it or not, just as surely as Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain had always been talking prose.  John Donne said that no man is an island. The strange fact is that each of us is an island, communicating only by thought with every other.  Strictly speaking, I have never seen you, or you me.  I have heard your mouth making noises and have seen your hands making gestures.  But these are not you.  I say this in spite of a distinguished colleague at Harvard who is trying to develop a psychology without consciousness and sometimes sounds as if he had succeeded.  If you're happy or angry, that is a state of consciousness, though I can never sees or hear it. But I can and do know it by an act of instant and effortless inference from what you say or do.  That is why John Stuart Mill could say that the drawing of inferences is the main business of life.

But of course it is not that kind of thinking that I am commending to you today; you are masters of it already.  Nor is it the kind of thinking Freud asked patients to do on the couch in his office.  This is called “free association,” because, like the famous Irishman who mounted his horse and rode off furiously in all directions at once, it never arrives anywhere.  You think first of a brown bear, then of the St. Louis Browns, then of Father Brown the detective, then of Sherlock Holmes, then of Dick Tracy, then of Tracy Austin.  That is not thinking. I once read of a farmer who went to the local court asking for a divorce.  “What charge,” said the judge, “do you bring against your spouse?” “She talks all the time,” said the plaintiff, “and I can’t get a word in edgewise.” “Well,” said the puzzled judge, “what does she talk about?” “I don’t know,” answered the plaintiff; “she ain’t never said.”  That is not thinking.

Then what is thinking?  It is this: a directed effort to reach the truth by solving some particular problem that stands in the way.  In its most common form it has four steps.

The first step is to make the problem specific.  The philosopher G. E. Moore used to say that, if you had made the problem clear and precise, you had already half solved it.  For example, you may be carrying about with you a cloud of worries; you don’t know quite why, or what to do about it.  The first thing to do is to delve about in the muddy depths of your mind till you bring to light the nub of the worry.  Suddenly it dawns on you.  Why of course; you are heavily in debt; it is hanging around your neck like an albatross.  You need a new car; you want to marry Susan; but you can’t while carrying the weight.

The second step is to form theories freely of how to rid yourself of that burden. Your problem is now financial, which makes it tough but definite.  You can repudiate the whole thing and take off for Canada; you can ask for a deferment; you can confer with Susan, who is one of those astonishingly reasonable modern girls and has a job of her own. You bless her and turn to the third step.

That step is to develop in foresight the consequences of your proposals. The consequence of your first proposal is that you will have Uncle Sam on your trail; of your second, deferment, that your debt will have compounded and that in ten years you will be a deadbeat. Your third proposal is probably Susan’s.  She may say, “Keep the old flivver; set aside part of your income and mine; and in exactly four and a half years, the albatross will fall off.”

The fourth and final step in thinking is to compare the consequences of your proposals to see which is best in the light of your scheme as a whole.  When these are clearly set out, you may find the decision surprisingly easy.  Other things equal, you will probably cast your lot with number three.  The old flivver will still be with you, but so will Susan and your peace of mind.

That is an absurdly simplified pattern of thinking, but it will apply to most of our problems.  Life is a succession of big and little crises, and one main aim of education is to supply us with the strategies necessary for dealing with them.  Furthermore, dealing with them thoughtfully may become a habit.  Indeed, my thesis today is that if you have acquired that habit of reasonableness, you will have acquired the best thing that an education can bestow.

Yet how rare that habit of reasonableness is!  We Americans are an impatient, impulsive, excitable, and excitement-loving people; we have been described as the Latin branch of the Anglo-Saxon race.  In a corner of our living room is a perpetual source of excitement that can be had for nothing, the TV set, and many of us, especially in our teens or our eighties, have become its addicts, preferring passivity to any planned activity.  An increasing number of our youth are courting a less meaningful excitement through drugs.  An hour, a day, a life ordered by reflective choice strikes them as gray and dull.  Genius has become associated in many minds with rakish excess; and it is a curious fact that most American Nobel laureates in literature have been alcoholics.  The British critic Lowes Dickinson remarked that modern literature is one vast hospital.  For most of us a novel filled with reasonable people would be insupportably flat; and I feel sure that when Time magazine comes out, many readers turn first to the section called “People,” for it is so rich in variegated lunacy.  But reasonableness is a much rarer achievement than willfulness and ought to be more interesting.

Rare as it is, I have met men occasionally who have actually embodied it. One of them was a friend and teacher of mine. I spent a far-off summer in Philadelphia with a group of Columbia graduate students who were trying to find why a community of immigrants was forming a social cyst, largely cut off from the population around them. Our senior member was John Dewey, a great name now in the history of education.  His philosophy I could not accept, but he remains in my memory as the most persistently thoughtful person I have known. Almost anything could set him off on a train of thought. He would see an item in the morning paper on something the State Department had done about Poland: that night we would hear him pecking away at his old typewriter, and next morning he would read for us at breakfast an article for the New Republic, pointing out how shortsighted the department had been. He could think in any circumstances. A biographer writes:

By taking an apartment at the corner of Broadway and 56th Street, a fourth-floor apartment fronting on both streets, he managed to surround himself with enough noise so that he could get some thinking done. . . . There were five children rioting about the house during the best years of this philosopher’s life. They did not disturb his meditations in the least. As a logician, Dewey [was] at his best with one child climbing up his pants leg and another fishing in his inkwell. [Max Eastman, Heroes I Have Known]

He was so present-minded about what was before his mind that he was absent-minded about what was before his eyes. I have seen him, deep in thought, emerge from his office into the middle of the old philosophy reading-room at Columbia, suddenly realize where he was, and pad sheepishly back into his office. Indeed, he stopped thinking only when his heart stopped beating at ninety-three. His reflection had produced a pile of books and articles twelve feet high.

Of course he was a rare exception. Why is it that, with all the advantages and with the appeal to reason open to most of us, so few people succeed in guiding their way by thought? The true answer is that each of us is a divided self. A person is a bundle of impulses or drives, of which the drive to know is important but feeble, and the others, especially when acting together, are far more powerful. Why more powerful? The answer is biological.

In 1973 the biologist Paul MacLean pointed out that we have three brains, which are really three levels of one brain. The oldest and most central is what he called the “reptillian” brain, whose functions include the control of mating, feeding, and fighting. Superimposed on this central core is the paleomammalian brain, which is the anatomical base for emotions, such as fear, rage, pleasure, and grief. Atop this is the cerebral cortex, which came with the primates and made possible intelligence, foresight and logic.

Now the reason our impulses to feed and fight, to fear and rage, are so hard to control is that their roots are millions of years old in our racial history; the reason foresight and logic are so feeble in restraining them is that their cortical bases are relatively recent, only a few hundred thousand years old; they are therefore relative newcomers in the management of behavior. They make the life of reason possible, but they can be blown aside, as Mt. St. Helens blows its surface off when the powers below break loose. Or, as some Freudian has put it, our mind is like a guard standing at a cellar door, which is beaten on from time to time by the sinister occupants of the cellar, a mob of idiots full of sound and fury. If he can keep them in control, he and his race are destined to a career of unimaginable attainment; if he cannot, and the madness in the cellar again takes over, your generation could be the last.

There are those who are telling us that it is taking over already and that control by mind is losing ground. Look, they say, at the idiotic arms race. Or to take something a little less obvious, look at our education. A college or university is an institution of higher learning. But many high-school graduates who present themselves at college doors cannot properly read, write, or count. The SAT, or Scholastic Aptitude Test, prepared by a capable and devoted board of scholars, is a test of one’s readiness to begin a higher education. This board found that, beginning in the 1960s, the average score of the applicants went down for nineteen consecutive years. Full success on the test would earn a score of 800. Last year the average score on the mathematical side was 468, on the verbal side, 425. Some large cities were still worse. One such city, for example, scored 332 on the mathematical side and 306 on the verbal. Neither the knowledge that incites thinking nor the interest in thinking was there.

Again, consider the need for reason in religion. Eighteen states have been contemplating legislation to demand equal time in our schools for the teaching of both “creation science” and “scientific evolution.” In a closely reasoned decision of two years ago, Judge William Overton of Arkansas denied that “creation science” was science at all. It was essentially an attempt based, not on science, but on a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, to foist fundamentalism upon the schools.

It does not go quite so far as Archbishop Ussher of Dublin, who, by adding together the ages of the patriarchs, fixed the creation as occurring on October 21, 4004 B.C. at 9 A.M.; but “creation science” insists on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve, and Noah’s flood, and Joshua’s successful plea that the sun should stop while he slaughtered a few hundred more Amorites. Many of us had thought that this brand of authoritarian mythology had been drowned in laughter at Dayton, Tennessee, in 1923. Jerry Falwell and his millions have shown us that we were wrong.

What will stop this lemming-like mass return to medieval ignorance? The only thing I can suggest is to get people to question and think. How do you reconcile the view that the earth is about six thousand years old with the new chemical dating of rocks and meteorites, which shows that it is about 4.5 billion years old? How do you reconcile the view that the race started with Adam and Eve with our cratefuls of skulls intermediate between man and animal, and so deposited in the earth’s strata as to indicate a long, slow ascent? And, if the sun suddenly stopped at Joshua’s bidding—which must have meant, not that the sun stopped, but that the earth stopped revolving—all people must have been precipitated eastward at about a thousand miles an hour and been killed. If that happened, where do we come from?

One cannot pursue this questioning long without perceiving that the proposed authority is to take precedence over the logic of science. We are being asked to accept contradictions of science at countless points. One may fall back on the airy line of Walt Whitman and say: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” So what? he would add. Well, that “what” is that you have stopped thinking. As the philosopher McTaggart said, “No one ever tried to break logic, but that logic broke him.” Try contradicting the law of contradiction and see where you come out. If both sides of a contradiction can be true, then the truth of creationism does not exclude the truth of evolution, and you are not denying it after all. Indeed, you are saying nothing. There is not one rule for thinking in religion and another for science; there is one great honest rule for both: Adjust your belief to the evidence.

I can hear the objections to such teaching. Objection one:

“You’re an elitist and an intellectualist; you are trying to hoist the college graduate on to a pedestal, where he stands out above the run of men.”

To which I answer: Exactly. I not only admit the charge; I would drive it home. What is an education for if not to turn out an elite? Not a set of snobs and cads, of course, but minds intellectually disciplined. Don’t underrate that roll of paper you receive today from the university. Knowledge and power to think are too undervalued in this country. If you are not a better citizen, a better man or woman, a better member of society, because of the years you have spent here, then either you or the university has fallen down on the job.

Objection two: “You are preaching from the wrong text.

“Instead of ‘Think’ it should be ‘the ice man cometh.’ You want us to be intellectualists, full of prunes and prisms, with ice water in our veins instead of red blood, and to repress the feeling, impulsive, desiring beings you have just admitted that we are.”

Answer: Not so. There is a deep divide between the intellectualist and the intellectual. The intellectualist does not run to head like an onion; he is only half a man; let him play his abstract games if he will. The intellectual, as Plato said, is a charioteer whose business it is to drive the powerful horses of feeling and impulse; and only as he applies the bit and rein judiciously will they ever carry him to his goal. Thought is no enemy of feeling; indeed it may itself be driven by a passion for truth, as it was in Einstein, for example, and in his favorite philosopher, Spinoza. What the true intellectual despises is not feeling, but feeling out of control. That excellent English critic F. L. Lucas says, “Imagine the greatest man you can think of, in a bad temper; does he still, at the moment, seem great? No.  Not even were he Alexander. Real greatness implies balance and restraint.”

Objection three, the Hamlet objection: “You are saying, ‘Look and think before you leap.’ But the man who does that will probably not leap at all. . . . ‘The native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.’”

Answer: That may in rare cases be true. Taking thought may end in being a mugwump, defined as being a bird who just sits on the fence, with his mug on one side and his wump on the other. But if we are all, as in fact we are, little volcanoes, with impulses ready to erupt, and with thought a feeble restraint, then the more authority we can give to thought the better. I have not heard of an American jailed for being too thoughtful; but our jails are full of people who are there because they surrendered to impulse before they took thought.

I have been speaking of thought on practical problems, but we must remember that the great masters of thought had access to two worlds at once, the world of eternal truths and the world of common sense. The founder of that line was Socrates, who first showed to the race what condor flights of speculation the human intellect could rise to, and yet, homely as an old shoe, was a stonemason himself, at home with soldiers and sailors, farmers and carpenters.

The modern Socrates was, I think, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was three men: one, the man with an old sweater and baggy trousers who stood on a Princeton street corner eating an ice cream cone or helped a little schoolgirl who had heard that he was good at figures; two, the physicist who pursued to the end of that revolutionary trail of thought that ended in the tiny formula E = MC2, energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light; and three, the postwar Einstein, who dedicated himself to saving the world that he saw his formula might destroy. His argument was simple and, I think, unanswerable. Nuclear knowledge is spreading in a world of international anarchy. In the past such anarchy has always produced war. It will again, and this time it will destroy civilization unless the bomb can be contained. It can be contained only in one of two ways, by its agreed-upon destruction by all nations that own it, or by its agreed-upon consigning into the hands of a world government. Einstein did not know whether reason would outrun death; he did feel sure, according to report, that if there were a fourth world war, it would be fought by savages with bows and arrows.

Men like Socrates and Einstein are what William James called “quarto and folio editions of mankind.” You and I are paperbacks. Still, paperbacks vary in quality. When William Howard Taft was once addressing a graduating class, he said:  “Some of you, I notice, are graduating cum laude, others magna cum laude, a few summa cum laude. I graduated mirabile dictu.” All of us could say, like Taft, that we graduated “wonderful to say”; it is not our doing that we were born in a land where a university education was open to us. But with this degree in hand, new worlds are possible, and whether they will be realized depends on you. Each one of us is unique, and life is one long experiment in self-discovery.

Be your unique self. Leonard Bernstein has said: “The great danger threatening us . . . is the takeover of mediocrity,” and Bertrand Russell has added, “Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.” Democracy and distinction are subtly at war with each other. The pressure of the media and the shrinking of the world are casting our minds into molds. The route to escape is through thought. By taking thought, we can choose our own media, select our own music, create our mental environment; we can surround ourselves with the best that has been thought and said in the world. I don’t mean the best sellers, which may be here today and gone tomorrow, but the classics, defined as “works that are contemporary with every age.”

That is why my last word to you is: Whenever you choose a vocation or a spouse, a party or a candidate, a cause to contribute to or a creed to live by—Think!

Posted February 3, 2007

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