Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Brand Blanshard et al., Changing Patterns of American Civilization, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949, 82-124.  This essay forms Chapter IV.  Blanshard appended this footnote to its title: “The course of the thought here follows roughly that of my chapter (76), ‘Speculative Thinkers,’ in Literary History of the United States, edited by R. E. Spiller, W. Thorp, T. H. Johnson, and H. S. Canby (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948).”  For me this essay is notable for containing one of Blanshard's rare comments on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.



The Heritage of Idealism

Brand Blanshard

Twentieth-century philosophy in America begins with idealism.  At the turn of the century it was in the ascendant everywhere.  Royce and Palmer at Harvard, Bowne at Boston, Ladd and Bakewell at Yale, Butler at Columbia, Ormond and Hibben at Princeton, Fullerton at Pennsylvania, Garman at Amherst, Everett at Brown, Creighton and Thilly at Cornell, Wenley and Lloyd at Michigan, Bascom at Wisconsin, Howison at California—they all spoke the same high language though with somewhat varying accents.

These idealists were a remarkable breed of men.  They had never heard, to be sure, of protons or electrons; only too probably they had never heard of Freud or Pavlov or Frege.  Since they had come into philosophy not from science, but from the humanities, their equipment on the scientific side was sometimes deplorable. Nor was their logic a very subtle instrument, by the standards of today.  A passage at arms between one of these men and a present-day Cambridge analyst would be a little like the contest between Richard and Saladin in Scott’s novel, in which there was a broadsword heavy as a cleaver on one side and on the other a scimitar so sharp that it would cut a down cushion in two.

But whatever their technical deficiencies, these idealists were wise men, wiser than many of their successors.  Wisdom is of course a large word. What I mean is that they were more than learned men—though apart from science their learning was considerable—and more than clever reasoners—though they knew how to state a case.  They were wise as Nestor and Goethe and Emerson were wise, weighty in counsel because they had thought much about the ends of living and looked upon the interests and aims of men from an altitude that gave perspective.  Since they thought that mind was at the heart of things, they set themselves to explore what they took as their best clue, their own mind in its central areas, in religion, in reason, in moral choice, and in art.  They were perceptive, humane, and versatile.  I must confess to an initial prejudice in favor of the philosopher who, if he had not been a philosopher, would still have counted in the world in other ways, and these men would have counted for much.  Wenley would have made a rare literary critic; Palmer was in fact both a classical scholar and a fine interpreter of literature; Royce was a man of magisterial learning; Hibben was a distinguished university head; Garman and Howison were unique as personalities.  Philosophy for these idealists was not an avocation or a specialty but a way of life and the breath of life; it was a passionate pursuit of reasonableness in action and feeling as well as in thought.  Indeed it was for them what it was for their contemporary Bradley, “a principal way of experiencing the Deity.”  McTaggart used to poke fun at such philosophers as persons who regarded a beefsteak merely as a means of gaining strength to appreciate Dante.  And we must admit that when we read them today we find more of the prophet and the pontiff in them than suits our latter-day taste.  They seem always to be writing in Prince Albert coats.

I have suggested that they stood for moral as well as philosophical idealism.  But it is with their philosophy that we are concerned, and we must try at once to see what that philosophy was.  For what we want to do is to learn what has happened in American thought in the last fifty years, and the fact is that all its main developments have come as reactions against the great system that held the field at the turn of the century.  We must know what that system was if we are to catch the point or the reason of the passionate protests against it.  Very well, what is idealism?

The idealism of the turn of the century was a fusion of two streams of thought.  One of these, subjective idealism, took its rise in the ingenious mind of Bishop Berkeley and flowed down through Hume and Mill.  The other, objective idealism, is as old as Plato and comes down through the Germany of Hegel, and the England of Green and Bradley, to Josiah Royce in Harvard Yard.  The first of these idealisms stands for the thesis, “All that is real is experience.”  The second stands for the thesis, “All that is real is rational.”  To see what American absolute idealism meant, we must see the meaning of both these theses.

There are few excitements in philosophy to compare with reading for the first time the argument for subjective idealism and feeling how powerful it is.  Take any common thing, say an apple, and let it stand for nature as a whole.  The argument of the idealist is an act of intellectual prestidigitation by which he undertakes to make the apple vanish as a physical thing and reappear as a bit of consciousness.  The first step is to get you to admit that the apple, as you know it, is a set of sensed qualities.  If you were to remove from the apple its redness and roundness, sweetness and hardness, coldness and smoothness, would there be any apple left?  No.  The perceived apple then is composed of these qualities?  Yes.  Where do these qualities reside?  The idealist answers, “In consciousness,” and he offers two main arguments.

First, the causal argument.  Assume, as everyone does, that there is a physical apple out there.  Clearly enough its existence is only a hypothesis; we never see or feel it.   What we do see and feel is these sense data, but they apparently arise at the end of a long causal chain.  Light rays strike our retinas and start nervous pulses there; these, when they reach our brains, give rise in some mysterious way to sensations of red and green.  But these sensations come at the end of the chain, not at the beginning; responsible physicists would not hold that the red and green we see are out there in the source from which the light rays come; they are effects that arise in us. They have their independent causes, but to say this is already to admit the case, for then it becomes perfectly clear that you cannot identify the inner or conscious effect, the sensation of red for example, with the outward cause, which is separated from this effect by at least several feet in space and perhaps half a second in time.  If this is true of the color, it is true equally of the other qualities.  But if true of these, it is true of the apple as you know it, for you have admitted that it consists of these.  And in that case what you have done is to shift this apple into consciousness.  Indeed you have done a great deal more.  You have done what Archimedes wanted to do; you have put a lever under experienced nature as a whole and heaved it across the boundary into mind. Rocks and rivers, clouds and mountains, the whole “choir of heaven and furniture of earth” as Berkeley called them, are seen to be “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  They arise and flourish and die within the realm of conscious experience.

The second argument for subjective idealism is as follows: Assume that qualities as we know them do really belong to physical things, and you end by contradicting yourself.  The classic illustration is Locke’s.  You believe, do you, that the qualities given in sense really belong to the physical thing?  Good; then, for example, the hots and colds you feel belong to the physical thing.  But consider what follows.  One of your hands has been resting on a hot-water bottle and the other on a block of ice; you plunge them both into a basin of water; the water feels cold to one hand and hot to the other.  On your assumption, the water is both hot and cold, and that does not make sense.  The idealist says that the most plausible way out is to admit that the hot and cold are not in the physical thing at all, but in our experience, for while it is incredible that the water is in any straightforward sense both hot and cold, there is no trouble at all in saying that at one time we can sense both hot and cold.  And what is true of hots and colds is true of shapes and sizes.  To say that all the shapes we see as we walk round a table, all the sizes that we see as our friend walks away from us down the street, belong out there in the thing is impossible in the ordinary sense of “belonging”; to hold that they are all appearances in our consciousness is a perfectly plausible belief.  That is what the idealist did say.  What did he take these arguments to show?  Not, if he was self-critical, that there was nothing in nature but consciousness; they clearly do not prove that there is nothing “out there” at all to cause these appearances in our minds.  Jeans and Eddington thought that the protons and electrons were mental also.  Whether they were right or not it is immensely difficult to say.  But as for the rocks and rivers, the hills and clouds, the frame of nature generally as we directly know it, the case of subjective idealism seems to me to have a higher plausibility than any alternative realism that has yet been offered.

Now what is absolute idealism? It is a philosophy, as we have said, whose principle is that the real is the rational.  How does it reach that belief?  It does so through two steps, one of self-inspection and one of faith.  Josiah Royce looked into his mind as he was philosophizing and asked himself what he was trying to do.  The answer seemed clear enough; he was trying to understand the world.  But what do you mean by understanding?  You mean explaining to yourself.  Yes, but when is a thing explained?  It is explained, Royce answered, when you see not only that it is, but why it is, when you see that, given the conditions, it had to be what it is.  When is the Pythagorean theorem explained?  It is explained when you see that, given the postulates of Euclid, it follows with such necessity that if it were denied, the postulates and indeed the whole system would have to go with it.  This, said Royce, is what you do when you try to understand anything; you place it in a system, and when you see that within that system it has to be what it is, you are satisfied.  Now that, he said, is what philosophy tries to do for our whole world of common experience; it tries to find the system to which things belong and within which they are necessary and therefore intelligible.  I have a philosopher-friend with a small daughter.  She fell into discussion one day with a neighbor’s boy about the relative merits of their fathers.  “What does your father do?” said the boy, with a hoity-toity air.  She had never thought about this, but after a moment’s reflection she came up with, “His business is words.”  “What words?” said the boy scornfully.  “He says Why?” was her reply.  That is philosophy in three letters. Philosophy, as James said, is a peculiarly stubborn effort to think clearly; it is an insistent raising of the question why; and nothing short of a single intelligible system will set that question finally at rest. To see that is the first step in absolute idealism.

The second step is an act of faith.  Suppose that by superhuman exertion and ability you did arrive at a system in which everything was apparently included and seen to be necessary; your intellectual ideal would be realized.  But what surety have you that when you have reached what satisfies your own mind, you have also reached what is outwardly true?  Is it not possible, as Kant believed, that we are all little metaphysical spiders, spinning webs which are much alike but bear no resemblance to the outward nature of things?  Here is where faith comes in.  The idealist does not, if he knows his business, try to juggle from his own hat a proof that the world is rational. What he says is more modest and more plausible.  He says that philosophy is the attempt to understand the world—that is, to render it intelligible—that, unless the world really is so, the attempt must be defeated, and that it would he silly to accept defeat before it comes.  The rationality of the world is not for him a proved conclusion but rather a postulate on which his enterprise proceeds and on whose truth its success depends.

This, then, is idealism.  It holds that the world of colors, shapes, and sounds that each of us lives in is really the world of his own mind.  But our minds are islands, “finite centers” as Bradley called them, in a larger world, and since the idealist believes this larger world to be rational through and through, he is inclined to think it too is mental or spiritual.  For him the prime business of life is to escape his fragmentariness, to bring his own little spirit into closer approximation to the world spirit both in extent and in inward order.  Like Marcus Aurelius, St. Paul, and Spinoza, his rationalism has usually run out into mysticism; and he has conceived the best hope for himself as lying in self-surrender to the reason that animates the nature of things.  Only through becoming the servant of that reason could he become in the best sense free.

Such was the philosophy that had captured academic America in 1900.  The fact of this capture was itself significant.  Foreign critics had long been charging that the American soul had shriveled into an impulse after the dollar, adding that where there is no vision, the people perish.  It should perhaps have seemed odder than it did that a product of these money-grabbers and indeed their favorite prophet should have been the idealist Emerson, and that when they turned to philosophy professionally, they became idealists with such uniformity. The fact is that along with our preoccupation with practice, which ill-disposed critics persist in miscalling materialism, there has always gone in the American mind a strain of moral idealism and religious seriousness to which such thought is congenial.  Probably idealism triumphed in the schools largely because it set this religious chord of our nature in strong vibration.  Americans, like Englishmen of a generation before, were worried about what Darwinism would do to their faith, and here was a philosophy which told them with authority that Darwin was not the last word, that scientifically he might be right, but philosophically and therefore fundamentally there was nothing in what he said to shake the walls of their spiritual city.  There are neo-Freudians who like to think that when they have discovered this consolatory element in idealism they have refuted the philosophy by explaining it away.  They have chosen their ground strategically.  They would get short shrift from a thinker of Royce’s stature if they tried to meet him on his own ground.  To attack someone else’s philosophy by imputing motives never refutes it, though it not seldom raises suspicions about one’s own.

Still, it is true that the appeal of idealism was largely to religious wistfulness, that in the last fifty years this wistfulness has been fast fading from the American mind, and that to the hardier temper of the later decades idealism is uncongenial.  To the natural man the belief that the world is spirit has always seemed incredible, and in a country like our own, where action presses hard upon contemplation, the strange thing is that so uncompromising a system of speculative thought should have achieved the hold it did.

The inevitable revolt soon came.  When it did, it was not a local rebellion so much as a general rising in which guerrillas sprang up behind every bush.  Soon idealism was engaged in confused battle everywhere, and as the guerrillas coalesced, there appeared the schools that hold the field in America today.  To some critics the head and front of idealist offending was the notion that the world was spirit; their rebellion became the new naturalism.  Some found their special aversion in the idea of an Absolute and of a fixed framework for the world; these were the pragmatists, whose revolt is now being absorbed into logical positivism.  With others the point of attack was subjectivism, and here the revolt developed into two new schools of realism.  All these attacks were carried on simultaneously, but in order to make a complicated tale as straight as may be, we shall take the three main revolts in order.  First, naturalism.

In Royce’s classes at Harvard was a dark and reserved young man with a Spanish accent, who listened to the master with respect but with skeptical detachment.  His name was George Santayana.  Born in Spain of Spanish parents and coming to this country at nine without knowing a word of English, he seems to have felt himself from the first an alien, and with an ultra-Castilian pride to have delighted in remaining a pilgrim and stranger.  For forty years he lived in this country, observing American ways with his shrewd, appraising eyes, reading voraciously in the Harvard library, lecturing reluctantly to youth, who hardly knew what to make of him, absorbing the language with such discrimination as to become one of the great masters of English prose.  “It is as an American writer that I must be counted,” he says.  But he did not like America.  He disliked its democracy, its puritanism, its Protestantism, its restless activity, its extroversion, its loudness, its apparently permanent adolescence.  When in 1912 a small legacy enabled him to give up his professorship, he took ship for Europe and never set foot on American shores again.

It is natural that, disliking puritanism as he did, he should distrust the philosophies in which it found expression.  Idealism he could not abide.  It made mind or spirit the center of things, and if there is one conviction that runs from first to last in Santayana’s writings, it is that spirit is only the by-product of matter.  The idealist makes matter an appearance within mind.  The plain man thinks that matter and mind are both real and act on each other—that mind acts on body whenever he wills, and body on mind whenever he steps on a tack.  For Santayana neither suggestion will do.  He not only denies that mind is all; he denies that it has any substantial existence or the slightest influence on matter; matter is the only substance there is. He does not, to be sure, deny that consciousness exists, but he holds that it is a sort of phosphorescence on the surface of the brain that glows and fades with the changing arrangements of the protons and electrons; it is, as he puts it, “a lyric cry in the midst of business,” “a wanton music” babbled by the flow of energy in the brain.  Most of us think that when we will to lift a hand or to give an opinion, our purpose has some influence in making our body do what it does.  Santayana says no; the purpose makes no difference; it is merely the conscious glow attending the real cause, which is the physical process in the brain.  Most of us think that at times we make a free choice.  Santayana says no; we never do.  Most of us think that when we follow a chain of reasoning, the fact that the premises are in our mind has something to do with the appearance of what follows.  Santayana says no; it never does; the sequence of our thoughts is governed wholly by the movements of matter in our heads.

In his youth evolution was the great new idea, and he found in it timely support for his materialism.  The roots that man has in nature are very long roots that run down through the animal mind; indeed we are all animals whose science and poetry, religion and art, disguise it as we may, are the flowering of animal impulse.  Whatever flower of the spirit does not spring from such impulse springs from an insane root. The Greeks saw that.  The early Christians, the Stoics, the Transcendentalists, the Puritans did not; they lost sight of the true end of man, which is not to save a nonexistent soul, but to make the most of the little capital of years and energy that a niggardly nature has allowed.  These people were fanatics, a fanatic being a man who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.  Sanity lies in recognizing that “everything ideal has a natural basis and everything natural an ideal development.”  This is the text, taken from Aristotle, which Santayana embroidered and celebrated through the five volumes of The Life of Reason, and which he insists, as against some critics, is the main theme of his four later volumes on The Realm of Essence.  What we have in these massive works is an enchantingly intoned philosophy of disenchantment, in which the great speculative systems of the past are waved aside with an incredulous smile, and all the religious beliefs of mankind are dealt with in the spirit of that gently withering remark of John Morley’s: “We do not refute Christianity, we explain it.”

The materialism of Santayana, however disillusioned, is the philosophy of a sensitive, mellow, and deeply brooding mind.  But a year after he set sail for Europe there appeared in the Philosophical Review the first manifesto of another kind of materialism.  It was entitled “Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist” and bore the name of John B. Watson.  Not long afterward came a book with the same title in which the preface contained this statement surely an odd one for a work on psychology: “the reader will find no discussion of consciousness and no reference to such terms as sensation, perception, will, image, and the like. . . . I have found that I can get along without them.”  Why so curious a self-denying ordinance?  It was not mere perversity.  Watson was a scientist, and he wanted his science of mind to be truly scientific.  If it is to be truly scientific, he said, it must be able to lay down laws that are precise and publicly verifiable.  Was the psychology of the time able to do that?  No, he answered; you could search the fat volumes of James and Wundt, Ward and Titchener, without finding a single law of the kind required.  And why the failure?  It was because they used the wrong method, the method of introspection.  No observation you can make about your own will or emotions can ever be exact, in the sense of measurable, nor can it be objective in the sense that it can be checked by anyone else.  If psychology is to become a science, then, it must turn its back on introspection. Where is it to turn instead?

Watson believed that he had found the answer in his own graduate study at Chicago on the behavior of rats.  Here he had found that generalizations of high accuracy and predictive power could be derived from observing bodily reactions to carefully determined stimuli.  Thorndike had been moving toward similar conclusions as a result of a study, made in William James’s cellar at Cambridge, of how cats and dogs escaped from cages; and there was further encouragement in rumors that came from Pavlov’s laboratory in St. Petersburg.  Why should not the methods that had been so successful with animals be applied with like success to man?   Watson did not at first claim that his behaviorism was anything more than a method, but it soon became clear that if a method appropriate only to bodily behavior was really adequate to the study of mind, then mind was only bodily behavior.  Watson bravely drew the inference.  “If behaviorism is ever to stand for anything (even a distinct method),” he wrote, “it must make a clean break with the whole concept of consciousness.”  This “has never been seen, touched, smelled, tasted, or moved.  It is a plain assumption, just as unprovable as the old concept of the soul.”  Here the pendulum had swung from idealism all the way to the opposite extreme; the consciousness that had started by being all-embracing, was now denied any place at all.  For a time the new doctrine had great vogue, seeping into graduate schools throughout the country and leading Count Keyserling to the gibe that it was the fitting psychology for a people without inner life.  But since about 1930 the tide has been receding.  It is not merely that the achievements of the new method turned out to be less illuminating than those of the older introspection in the hands of men who could use it, like William and Henry James; it is also that we have come to see that behaviorism, as Professor Broad has observed, is a “silly philosophy.”  It is in truth merely “old-fashioned materialism that has crossed the Atlantic under an alias”; he would no doubt take it as an example of his rule that all good fallacies go to America when they die.  To hold, as Santayana does, that a toothache or a moral choice is conditioned by the movements of matter in the brain at least makes sense; but to say that the toothache or the choice is those physical movements and nothing besides is to say what any clear-headed person can see to be absurd.  Unfortunately the absurd, as a philosopher of note has remarked, may have this in common with truth, that it cannot be refuted.  If anyone maintains that he means by a toothache nothing but the motions of matter in his head and sticks to this, he is beyond the reach of mere logic.  Still, nonsense that is irrefutable is none the less truly nonsense. 

The naturalism of the present day has for the most part discarded behaviorism and taken its cue from Santayana rather than from Watson. To be sure, Santayana was not accepted as a prophet in his own New England; his philosophy was not congenial either to the earlier Puritan Boston or to the Catholic Boston of today.  It has taken a firmer root in New York, where it has deeply influenced the thought of a group of Columbia philosophers, particularly Woodbridge, Montague, Edman, and Randall.  The latest manifesto of the naturalists appeared in 1944, under the title Naturalism and the Human Spirit, a book by fifteen American philosophers, most of whom had been at Columbia as students or teachers.  This Columbian naturalism agrees with behaviorism in holding that there are not two different kinds of stuff, matter and mind; there is really only one, matter.  On the other hand, matter has a far larger and more sophisticated repertory of parts than old-fashioned mechanists supposed.  Hydrogen and oxygen singly behave like gases; put them together and they make a liquid; their behavior is the function of their new partnership.  Go on increasing the complexity of such unions and, without any change of nature, you get behavior that is intelligent and purposive.  And then lo! we have mind.  Mind is not another kind of stuff than matter.  It is the same stuff precisely, but acting in more complicated ways. Whatever nature’s robe, it is a seamless one.

What are we to say of these American naturalists?  Every fair-minded reader must, I think, read them with sympathy.  They never speak from Mount Sinai, as some of the idealists did; they are remarkably free from the self-delusions of wishful thinking; they are trying to be austerely honest with themselves and the evidence.  Life has taken for them a sober coloring from eyes that have kept watch over the stark facts of man’s mortality.  They are modest, candid, and humane.  Nevertheless, their philosophy has not gained general acceptance, and I doubt if it ever will.  For the truth is that the new naturalism is false to fact and in the end false to itself.

It is false to fact in that it tries to bridge the deepest chasm in nature with words.  It says that the life of mind—thinking, choosing, feeling—is a more complicated bodily behaving, differing from that of H20 in the same sort of way as that differs from the behavior of H or O.  And this is untrue.  In the very simplest sensation or feeling you have something utterly different from the motions of particles, and since it is different in kind, you cannot reach it—you cannot even come nearer to it—by complicating the pattern of these motions.  When they criticize behaviorism, the new naturalists seem to see this clearly.  When they turn to criticize the dualists, who hold to a radical difference between consciousness and behavior, they take it all back and insist that if you regard consciousness as a function of body and not as different in kind, a great light dawns and you see how two can be one.  Their vision is a little like that of St. Theresa who once, in a mystic opening, saw how the three persons of the Trinity could be one.  Unfortunately, when she saw it she had arrived at such an altitude that she could not explain it when she came down.  The lips of our newer naturalists seem to have been sealed in the same sad way.

But falsity to fact is not the worst flaw of naturalism, for it is also false to reason.  It makes all rational thought, including its own, a miracle.  When we set ourselves to pursue a course of reasoning, for example in geometry, we try to follow a line of logical implication from proposition to proposition, and we succeed just so far as we can surrender ourselves to it, let it tell its own story, allow our thought to be placed under constraint by the logic of the case.  We can see that to allow the course of our thought or our acceptance of a conclusion to be determined by nonrational pulls would be fatal to the whole enterprise of reason; it would make the reaching of any valid conclusion a matter of luck.  Now this is exactly what naturalism does.  “The controlling force in reasoning,” writes Santayana, “is not reason, but instinct and circumstance”; “the continuity is physical, not logical.”  But here surely disillusionment has come full circle and shown that it is itself an illusion.  If, when Santayana argues for the truth of naturalism, it is not reason but something nonrational, what he calls “the dark engine of the body,” that governs his thought and determines his conclusion, why should we accept that conclusion?  To urge the conclusion upon us as one that is irrationally arrived at, and to accompany this with the comment that no argument for it will be able to move us in the least, is a strange way to recommend any theory.  Yet it is all that is left to Santayana.  The Life of Reason is a resplendent drama in five acts in which the hero, reason, is retired to the wings at the beginning and we realize, little by little, that it is all a marvelous puppet show in which none of the characters has ever been moved by a feeling or an idea.  Santayana sincerely accepts this as an account of how his own magnificent work has been achieved, just as Poe seems to have believed that poetic impulse had nothing to do with the creation of “The Raven.”  But in accepting it he has exchanged a supernaturalist mythology which at least satisfied the imagination for a naturalist mythology which satisfies neither imagination nor thought.  If this is naturalism, we may leave it to take care of itself.

But naturalism has not been the only, or indeed the most interesting, revolt against idealism.  To another and contemporary rebellion belongs the credit of having produced the only important original philosophy that has appeared on American soil.  This is pragmatism.  What turned the pragmatists against idealism was partly its absolutism, the notion that the world was a “block-universe” —a finished, timeless system, a marble temple shining on a hill—and partly its intellectualism, its view that thinking was an activity with ends of its own, which could be carried on in complete independence of action.  In a sense the two objections are the same.  The idealist said that to philosophize was to try to construe experience into a system all-inclusive and intelligible, and if you ever reached that system, it would be the absolute.  The pragmatist replied that the absolutism of the idealist arose from his intellectualism, that he first built up an ideal of what would satisfy his intellect, and then projected this ideal upon the face of the world.  Only one thing is necessary, then, to bring down the idealist’s house about his ears, namely, to show that he has made a mistake about the goal of thought.  The attempt to show this has been the main endeavor of John Dewey.  Dewey had the hardihood to deny that thought was aiming at intelligible system at all.   The truth is, he said, that thought is merely another instrument like walking or talking whose value is its utility in adjusting men to nature and to each other.  This is why he called his theory instrumentalism.

At the name of John Dewey we must pause for a salute.  He is the most considerable figure in the history of academic American philosophy.  There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the leader of the naturalistic and the leader of the pragmatic revolt.  Santayana was an alien, a patrician, a poet, a hermit, a detached and amused contemplator of men and their queer ways.  Dewey had his roots deep in American ground; he is a plebeian in his thinking, writing, and sympathies; he believes that philosophy should issue in practice, and his own has issued in the courageous defense of all sorts of causes from socialism at home to the forlorn cause of Trotsky in Mexico.  What makes his immense influence the more remarkable is that it has been won without any of the outward address that commonly belongs to the man of large following.  His style fumbles and shuffes; there is little play of humor, no sparkle, no command of the arts or graces.  He is the Vermont farmer, intellectually outsize, speaking in homely fashion from a deeply thoughtful and honest mind. Part of his vast influence is due to the sheer length of time through which he has sustained his indefatigable fertility; he came into the world while Washington Irving was still writing at Sunnyside and James Buchanan was in the White House.  But more important than the volume of Dewey’s work is that the man was matched with the time.  The retreat of idealism was leaving an “ideological” vacuum; pragmatism poured into it with a philosophy of practice that suited the American mood, impatient as it is of contemplation and logical finesse, and exigent of results.

William James called pragmatism “a new name for old ways of thinking.”  Something a little like it had been suggested as long ago as Protagoras, and among Americans it had been proposed in different forms by C. S. Peirce and by James himself.  But Peirce was a logician who winced and shrank as he listened to James’s exposition of their supposedly common creed.  And no wonder.  William James, superb psychologist and great man that he was, was not a metaphysician and gave some very strange exhibitions when he tried to be.  In 1896 he wrote a famous essay, “The Will to Believe,” in which he laid down a doctrine welcomed by beleaguered theologians as a new and powerful defensive weapon.  If you have to make up your mind on a religious issue, say that of immortality, and find that you do not know enough to settle it yourself and that even the doctors disagree, then you are entitled, said James, to adopt as true whatever belief has the most desirable consequences.  This seemed innocent enough, since it included the proviso that we were to fall back on such consequences only when the logical evidence failed us. Nevertheless, Bertrand Russell has branded the doctrine as immoral, as encouraging us to believe on evidence which we know to be irrelevant, and with this I can only agree.  But James, instead of seeing that he had gone too far and beating a retreat, went stubbornly on, and was soon maintaining that belief generally was justified by the consequences of accepting it.  If the belief in an Absolute worked for you, then even that was true.  The truth of a belief not only was tested by, but consisted in, its consequences; the belief literally became true or false as these consequences unrolled.

The philosophic world discussed this well-meant doctrine with an ill-concealed twinkle in its eye.  “So you really think, do you, that if an old lady has lived happily all her years in the conviction that immortality is true, that tends to make it true?  Did the belief that the earth is round become true for the first time when a believer circumnavigated the globe?  If you believe that the 8:10 train is an 8:30 train, and, arriving twenty minutes late, find the train delayed and catch it anyhow, does the happy ending prove that you were right all along?”  These were obvious difficulties, and James had a miserable time in meeting them; the fact was that he did not and could not meet them; he had never thought his pragmatism through.  If he had, he would have seen that it is only under highly special circumstances that the results of a belief have anything to do with its truth.

Now the great advance made by Dewey is to see this and provide for it.  He provides for it by reinterpreting the aim of thinking.  If he could show that the aim of thought was precisely to secure certain consequences and not, as had always been supposed, to lay bare the nature and structure of things, if thinking could be construed as a device for enabling us to control things to our advantage, then success in gaining this advantage would give the very meaning of truth.  If it could be shown that the belief in God, so far as it had a meaning at all, was a “plan of action” devised to carry us through to certain ends in the way of personal and social harmony, then these results were, after all, relevant in a way they never were in the groping philosophy of James.

Dewey set himself to this reinterpretation of the nature of thought. His starting point was the theory of evolution.  Born in the year of the Origin of Species, and author of a book on The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, he has himself been described as the influence of Darwin on philosophy.  He pointed out that, in the history of the race, thought must have come into being as a tool of survival.  For primitive man, as someone has even argued of ourselves, life is a conjugation of the verb “to eat” in the active and the passive; and when he had to catch some game or starve, necessity proved the mother of invention and gave birth to a bow and arrow.  Thought here is plainly a means to ends which are to be realized through action.  If we only took the blinkers from our eyes, we should see that it is so still, and that the use of it by traditional philosophy is a means of theoretical indulgence, and—Dewey commonly adds in an acidulated footnote—self-indulgence on the part of a quite dispensable leisure class.

This bold reconceiving of the nature and end of thought seems to me the most original note in American philosophy.  Has Dewey made out his case?  Most philosophers think not.  Instrumentalism has taken root nowhere outside America, unless Karl Marx, whose view of the true function of thought is surprisingly like Dewey’s, is read as a pragmatist.  We have seen that James was an acute psychologist who had to rely on Dewey to rescue him when he turned to metaphysics.  One can only add, unhappily, that the rope his good friend threw him turned out to be made of psychological tow.  Dewey’s view of thought as an instrument of behavior or plan of action seems to most sober critics pretty wild.  To say that a judgment about the length of Cleopatra’s nose, or the thousandth decimal of pi, or a clash of colors in Picasso, or the Trinity, is an instrument directed to some future end and a means of initiating action toward that end has so low a plausibility as to have left most students cool, even in a country where action and results are certainly not undervalued.  Outside America few philosophers of standing have taken the trouble to refute it.

Pragmatism is dying.  But its soul is undergoing a fissiparous transmigration into a numerous and diverse progeny.  The parental features keep cropping out in law, history, education, and scientific method. 

In law they appear at the top in the features of one of the best-known justices of the Supreme Court, who was a lifelong friend of James, Oliver Wendell Holmes.  In the days of the New Deal, there was tension within that august court itself between those who sought to protect property rights against government incursions, and those who held that if these “rights” were at odds with the general advantage, they should go.  Holmes was the leader of this last group and an avowed pragmatist in the law.  “The true grounds of decision,” he wrote, “are considerations of policy and of social advantage, and it is vain to suppose that solutions can be attained merely by logic. . . .”  “There is nothing I deprecate more than the use of the fourteenth amendment. . . to prevent the making of social experiments. . . .”  To call this position pragmatism, however, is likely to mislead; it is more properly described as legal utilitarianism. Pragmatism holds that truth depends on consequences; utilitarianism holds that right depends on consequences; that the views have an affinity is suggested by James’s dedication of his Pragmatism to John Stuart Mill. All pragmatists are utilitarians of one stripe or another.  But of course one can accept the consequences view in ethics without accepting it also in logic; that has in fact been the position of nine utilitarians out of ten, including Mill himself.

Pragmatism has had its influence on historical as well as legal thinking.  One of the pioneers of what is called “The New History” was a friend and follower of Dewey’s, James Harvey Robinson, whose Columbia course on the history of the intellectual class in Europe was widely taken as a model.  Robinson, like Dewey, developed a profound distrust of all speculative thinking, and in his little book on The Mind in the Making of 1921 developed the same theory that Dewey did a year earlier in his Reconstruction of Philosophy, namely, that the religious and metaphysical theories of the past are the product of causes rather than reasons, that as a rule they are “rationalizations” which are hardly to be taken with intellectual seriousness, and that they can be explained by the nonrational pushes and pulls of the time.  This view seemed to accord with the results of the new sociology and anthropology.  Such prolific workers in these fields as Boas and Malinowski, Lowie, Goldenweiser, and Margaret Mead, were impressing upon the public mind that there was hardly a belief, however irrational, or a practice, however absurd, that had not somewhere been solemnly approved.  The natural inference was that both speculative and moral beliefs were relative to time and place.  It became part of the standard mental apparatus of university students to be thus “sophisticated”; the claim for any moral law that it was universally or objectively right seemed provincial; there was a large tolerance about the new relativism that spoke to the generous instincts of youth.  But when tolerance goes over into indifference it is not a virtue, and this view did notable disservice to youth in the days between the wars.  When international gangsterism raises its head, conviction is an even greater need than tolerance.  In such cases a little philosophy is a dangerous thing, and I am convinced that the trouble with ethical relativism is, as a rule, its naïveté.  It forgets that differing customs may be differing means to the same end; that the ends men prize—their scale of values—are pretty much the same everywhere; and that there is no good reason to believe that the basic judgments of that scale—that happiness is better than misery, for example, or knowledge than ignorance—less than universally and objectively true.

I think, then, that the pragmatic account of philosophy, and its confederate, the sociological account of ethics, may be ruled out by what has been called “the law of excluded muddle.”  But what are we to say of that other influence of pragmatism which goes so much further than either of those we have mentioned, its influence on education?   Dewey’s is today the great name in the philosophy of education.  Now education is chiefly the training of intelligence, and since Dewey has swung his immense influence to a new view of what intelligence is for, his impact on American education has been formidable.  Conceive intelligence as an instrument of practical adjustment and you must reconceive education to suit.  Culture in Arnold’s sense will cease to be an end.  Such cultural subjects of the older curriculum as pure mathematics must obviously be demoted.  Philosophy as the pursuit of truth for its own sake will be abandoned; such philosophy, as opposed to the newer pragmatic discipline, bakes no bread.

What is to be included instead?  It is hard to secure a definite answer.  Professor Kilpatrick says: What one needs to know in order to do what one needs to do.  Since, in the pragmatist view, “to learn is to acquire a way of behaving,” education should equip us with the most useful ways of behaving.  And since men’s walks in life have more directions than the spokes of a wheel, the curriculum will become hospitable to an immense variety of technical and vocational subjects, and the line between these and the cultural subjects will be obliterated; in some liberal arts colleges where the influence of this theory is strongest, one can apparently “major” in photography or the dance.  Again the theory calls for change not only in subject-matter but in method.  Since thinking is essentially doing, the way to learn anything is to do it.  It is through the application of this view in “progressive education” that pragmatism has had its widest schoolroom influence.  In a thousand progressive schools, children began to learn their arithmetic by playing store, biology by raising plants and keeping pets, literature by “creative writing” and the staging of plays.  The way to sustain such activity is to make it interesting, and the way to make it interesting is to make it an obvious means to an end to which the child is devoted; he will then provide his own discipline.  The ideal, one expositor says, is neither “the hard pedagogy of doing what you don’t like, nor the soft pedagogy of doing what you like, but the new pedagogy of liking what you do.

Is it to be wondered at that this pragmatic theory of education swept through American schools like a prairie fire?  The little red schoolhouse, however romanticized, was about as far behind modern needs as the old oaken bucket; to countless eager youngsters it proved a strait jacket which gave them a fixed repugnance to the whole business of education; its subjects and its methods cried out for revision.  This Dewey and his followers have given it, to the great relief of the pupils and, I suspect, to their advantage.  Indeed just as the pragmatic theory of intelligence does approximately hold for the youth of the race, so the pragmatic theory of education holds for the youth of the individual.  Healthy children are sturdy pragmatists, and it is no doubt well to treat them accordingly.  But the pragmatic program, effective enough in the lower schools, has proved unconvincing when applied to higher education.  Its implication that there is something a little abnormal about the interest of the mature scholar who would understand nature, human nature, and society just for the light it gives him, its suggestion that there is something snobbish about the desire for a rich and sensitive mind for its own priceless sake and apart from any dubious appeals to utility, seem to some of us like a defense of arrested development.  However that may be, higher education is turning against the pragmatic theory.  It is abandoning the elective system; it is insisting that liberal education should have some common content in standards and principles; and in the infinite, enticing complexity of the modern world, it is refusing to accept the view that the scholar’s or scientist’s intelligence is merely a tool for improving his lot.  It is that, to be sure, but it is also very much more.

To infer from all this that pragmatism is dead would be a mistake.  Just as it was beginning to show signs of debility, it received a blood transfusion from an unlikely donor across the sea.  In the years between the wars a little coterie of mathematicians and physicists—Wittgenstein, Schlick, Carnap, Neurath, Frank—used to gather in Vienna and discuss over their steins the new world that was dawning in physics and the sense in which we could know it.  Of course, no one has ever seen electrons or waves of radiation, and presumably no one ever will.  What then are we talking about when we discuss them?  These men found themselves moving toward a common view that they described as logical positivism or empiricism.

That view is roughly this: All knowledge is of two kinds.  On the one hand is a priori knowledge, such knowledge as we have in those two great disciplines which philosophers have so often taken as their models, logic and mathematics, now seen to be one continuous science.  It used to be supposed that they gave us our clearest and most certain knowledge of the framework of the world, but unfortunately they give us no knowledge of the world at all.  An a priori statement merely says that we propose to use one symbol with the same meaning, in whole or part, as some other symbol.  In “2 + 2 = 4,” “4” is just another way of saying what we mean by “2 + 2.”  So of all logic and mathematics, and so of all philosophy so far as it consists of a priori knowledge.  On the other hand there is empirical knowledge, knowledge of matters of fact.  What does this refer to?  Here the positivists came forward with their most original suggestion.  They said that whenever we speak of a matter of fact, what we mean is the sensory observations that would verify it as true.  When the physicist says that atoms are constituted thus and so, what he really means is not some unimaginable X; he means that under specified conditions he will observe certain pointer-readings; these are what verify his statement.  When the man lost in the woods concludes that the path before him leads to an exit, he means that if he follows the path he will see the exit.  At first glance, like James’s theory, this seems innocent enough.  In fact, it means the wholesale abandonment of speculative philosophy as meaningless and a return to something like pragmatism under a new type of leadership, that of scientists and mathematical logicians.  In their hostility toward metaphysics the two movements have joined hands.  Dewey rejects absolutes and first causes and rational necessities and God because thought about these things does not run out into differences in practice.  The logical positivists reject them because thought about them refers to nothing in sense.  As philosophies, or anti-philosophies, the two movements come out in the same place, the renunciation of philosophy as traditionally conceived.  For the pragmatists this sudden succor was an uncovenanted blessing sweeping in from an alien world.

Even in their ethics the pragmatists got support from the positivists, indeed rather more than they cared for.  To the pragmatist, the statement that A is better than B is an expression not of rational insight but of psychological preference, and hence he could read without a qualm the views of sociologists like Sumner and Westermarck, who held it meaningless to call anything objectively better or worse than anything else.  The positivists put this relativism in new and precise terms.  Suppose you say “That act is right”; what, they asked, are you saying?  Your statement is not a priori, for it is not a statement of what you mean by “that act,” nor is it empirical, for rightness cannot be sensed.  Therefore, say the positivists, it is not a statement at all; it is merely an expression of feeling like “Great guns!” or “Oh boy!”; their theory is known in some quarters as “the hurrah theory” of ethics.  It follows that there is no such thing as objective right or wrong, and no kind of conduct that, strictly speaking, is more reasonable than any other.  This view has had some odd results.  Most of its exponents were anti-Nazis who before long became refugees.  They disapproved of Hitler emphatically, and courageously said so.  When their students pointed out to them that on their theory they had no rational or objective basis for this whatever, and that cruelty would become right, in the only sense in which anything is right, if Hitler’s views gained general assent, some of them were much embarrassed.  And well they might be.  They have no adequate answer here.  Their moral philosophy leaves their moral convictions in the air, with no visible means of support.  Confronted with such ethical solipsism on the part of their new allies, the pragmatists, social crusaders all, have hardly known whether to acclaim them or to look the other way.

It will be evident from the space I have given it that pragmatism seems to me the central movement of American thought in the past half century.  Its influence has been enormous, and in some fields, particularly those of politics and of elementary education, that influence seems to me to have been salutary.  On the whole, however, I should incline to place pragmatism among the misadventures of ideas.  Its central teaching about the nature of thought is too freakish to convince.  At a time when Americans needed a firm directing scale of values, its vagueness about ends and its uninhibited experimentalism encouraged the idea that one study or activity was about as good as the next.  It depreciated culture, of which we all need more, in favor of activity, of which most of us need less.  It has tended to water down logic into the psychology of thinking, ethics into the study of behavior, religion into the psychology of an illusion or at best “the enthusiasm of humanity.”  Its attempt to discredit what for twenty centuries philosophers have approved as the business of reason has increased the difficulty of any common understanding among American philosophers, and between them and the outside world, while its prevailing laxity in both logic and language has depressed the level of our reflective writing.

To round out the story, I must give some brief account of the third revolt against idealism, that of the realists.  You will remember what a plausible case the idealists made out that the apple as we know it, and for that matter rocks, rivers, and mountains too, were all really bits of consciousness.  Sooner or later that violent paradox was bound to be repudiated.  In America the repudiation was made with gusto in 1912 when a group of six influential philosophers published a joint manifesto entitled The New Realism.  They insisted that the idealist argument was merely a piece of legerdemain, and that if you looked attentively you could see what was happening plainly enough.  The idealist argued that the red of the apple was a sensation, and that since sensations were clearly mental, so was the color.  But he failed to note that a sensation has two sides.  On the one hand it is an act of awareness.  Now this act—my sensing of red—is mental, as the idealist says.  But then on the other hand there is the object sensed, in this case the red.  And regarding this object there is not even a presumption that it is mental.  What the idealist has done is to lump the act and the object together as we do in common speech, and say that because one component is mental, the whole is mental. He is offering us scandalous confusion as metaphysical profundity.

If you can thus distinguish the mental act from the nonmental red, you can do it, the realists added, with everything else.  So they proceeded to unpack the entire contents of consciousness and push them out into nature again.  Shapes and sizes they evicted with confidence.  Colors, odors, and tastes took a little more courage, but they had it, and gave to these also a united and delighted heave-ho.  The most extreme of them went further still, and insisted that nature was dotted in appropriate spots with toothaches, bent spoons, and pink rats.  Then the movement began to disintegrate.  The more cautious members complained that the trouble with realism, as with totalitarianism, was that it never knew when to stop.  Start with the distinction, which seems so forthright, between the act of sensing and what you sense, place all the “whats” in the physical world, and where do you end?  You end in something dangerously like absurdity, for what you are then saying is not only that the color you see is out there; you are saying that all the queer shapes you see when you walk round a chair and all the sizes you see when you walk away from it, all the rats and bats that alcoholics see on lost week ends, all the Jills and Jacks and beanstalks of our imagination, have a permanent being of their own apart from our awareness of them.  Most philosophers think this wild, and I agree; but it does offer an alternative to idealism that is not logically impossible, and American realists might well have worked it out.  In fact they were afraid of it.  Only one of them would go all the way, Edwin Holt, who, having announced the discovery of round squares out in nature, gave it all up and turned to psychology.  As for the rest of the gallant six, Perry, Montague, and Spaulding each developed a more qualified view of his own; Marvin withdrew from the life of reason to become a dean; and Walter Pitkin, an epistemologist of promise, found that new life could begin at forty.

What destroyed American new realism was its inability to deal with error and illusion. Meanwhile British realism, in the irrepressible person of Bertrand Russell, has shown what might have been done. He has had the courage to define a physical thing as the class of its appearances, and to say that it consists of all the sense-data that anyone could sense if he regarded “it” from any angle or at any distance; all these appearances exist, whether anyone perceives them or not.  He would agree with Holt that the rats and bats of the alcoholic do not depend on being perceived, and to the objection that not all of us can see them he would reply that they exist only from certain points and instants, and unless we can occupy a point-instant of vantage, we shall surely miss them.  This view, like every other theory of perception, has enormous difficulties.  But Russell is a very clear head who knows that subjectivism is not avoidable unless you go to great lengths, who admits that realism is a bold hypothesis, and who holds that in this perilous problem of perception it is logic, not common sense, that must have the final vote.

In 1920 American realism returned to the attack under new leadership and from a fresh quarter; it presented a second joint manifesto with the title Essays in Critical Realism.  Among the seven names on the title page were those of Santayana, who was now turning his attention to the theory of knowledge, and of Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, who is considered by some to be the acutest critical mind that America has produced.  These seven were convinced that between idealism, which imported the object into consciousness, and the realism of their predecessors, which left it in outer nature while holding that we perceived it directly, there was a middle course more plausible than either extreme.  There is a physical object; of that they were as certain as their predecessors.  But what we perceive is not literally part of it; it is absurd to say that the shapes we see as we walk around a table are all out there in the thing; indeed the stuff of our percepts is identical with the stuff of our dreams; perception, says Santayana, is a sort of dreaming awake.  But if this is true, how do we know that our percepts ever correspond to what exists out there?  We never do, Santayana answers.  We cannot even prove that there is a table out there; it is conceivable that the whole of external nature is an illusion.  But possible though this is, it would be silly to take it seriously.  The experience of millenniums has forced on us an “animal faith,” and if we go on the assumption it offers us, we find that later experience confirms it.  That assumption is that there exists out there apart from us an order in space and time, with tables and trees and mountains of fixed shape and regular behavior.  Some of our percepts correspond to these things; some do not; we come by trial and error to learn which can be relied on.  Our animal faith could not have carried us through unless it were largely true.  Truth is the correspondence of our percepts or ideas with the nature of things; error is unwitting divergence.

This was a far more defensible realism than the one that preceded it, and in the finest book of the school, Lovejoy’s The Revolt Against Dualism, it was defended with great subtlety and force.  Unfortunately, as before, there were signs of a coming rift even in its first manifesto.  Granting that the content of sense is not part of the physical thing, what is it exactly, and where in nature does it belong?  On this issue the critical realists broke into opposing schools.  One, led by R. W. Sellars of the University of Michigan, held that our percepts are mental by-products of our brains, which came into being and passed away as the brain-state varied.  The other wing, led by Santayana, developed a modern Platonism which aroused among his naturalist followers some astonishment and dismay.  It held that the shapes and sizes, the colors and sounds we perceive are eternal essences, not dependent on being experienced and neither mental nor physical; when they swim into our ken, they are commonly taken as belonging to objects outside us; and they sometimes do, for they embody themselves in things as well as in experience.  But they belong in a realm of their own; they never began; they will never cease to be; they are as timeless as the multiplication table.  It is not for naturalists only that this theory has perplexities.  Perhaps the gravest of these arises from Santayana’s insistence that the essences are “vestal virgins,” which neither suffer violence by mankind nor bear issue in practice.  To most philosophers it seems clear that they do have issue in practice; that, as embodied in our ideas, they make an immense difference to the course of our thought, and, as embodied in things, to the course of nature.  However that may be, critical realism, like its predecessor, has now succumbed to internal fission and hardly exists any longer as a distinct school.  The theory of knowledge it offered is, nevertheless, the most sophisticated that America has produced, and its exponents have sharpened the edge of our philosophic self-criticism.

The story of our recent philosophy, as I have told it, consists of a series of revolts against speculative idealism.  American thinkers, as the years have gone on, have become more strongly convinced that in view of the new techniques in logic and the esoteric developments of physics, they must watch their step.  The day of the grand style in philosophy seemed to be over; cosmic systems and world spirits must give way to the minute philosophers.  Our thought for half a century has been engaged in battering at the walls of the older speculative philosophy, and as the triumphant bands of attackers have marched round their Jericho, watching the walls crumble to the trumpetings of victory, not a few have evinced a grim satisfaction in the finality of the rubble pile before them.

Then a strange thing began to happen, an almost incredible thing that made them blink their eyes.  The rubble pile began to move.  It began to fashion itself into a new fortress, which threatened to be as formidable, as aspiring, as replete with ontological bastions and metaphysical pinnacles as the idealism they had exorcised. And exasperatingly enough, the moving spirit of the new cosmology was not a literary philosopher like the old idealists; he came into philosophy from precisely those quarters which seemed most to discourage such construction; he was himself one of the founders of the new logic and theoretical physics; I mean Alfred North Whitehead.

It would be idle to attempt in a moment or two the picture of one of the most technical and, I am afraid, most obscure, of modern metaphysical systems.  Suffice it to say that Whitehead is a philosopher in the grand manner who has described himself as close to idealism.  To be sure, he lives in a new world in which substances are abolished and nothing exists but events.  This conclusion comes from Einstein.  Einstein argued that you cannot assign the place of anything without also giving it a time, and then you have an event.  Though the world is made of such things as protons and electrons, these too are really events; so are tables and chairs and mountain ranges, only of rather longer duration.  And the great problem of Whitehead is to discover the pattern or laws in accordance with which events affect one another. 

Here Whitehead has moved back toward idealism in at least two striking ways. For one thing, he is a panpsychist; nothing for him is dead or mechanical; all things are in a sense alive.  Why does a proton attract an electron, or a plant draw some elements and not others from the soil?  Such processes are not accidental or mechanical, nor does Whitehead regard them as wholly blind.  Every event is an activity, an urge, an endeavor after fuller being; plant and proton alike are showing an elective affinity that is in the end akin to sentience and similar—though at a far remove—to man’s selection of food and drink as a means of maintaining life.  When an event, or a group of events, achieves a stable pattern of reactions to neighboring events, we have what we call a thing.  Things are thus settled ways in which events “prehend” or respond to other events.

Here appears the second way in which Whitehead moved back toward idealism.  We saw that, for Royce, to understand anything wholly meant to see its place in the whole.  So it is also for Whitehead.  He calls his system “the philosophy of organism.”  To understand a cell in a cabbage we must see the part it plays in the cabbage; to understand the cabbage we must grasp its interplay with soil and light and atmosphere; and these in turn we shall understand fully only when we have fixed their place in the universe at large.  The philosophy of the minute philosophers who confine themselves to analysis is therefore in the end self-defeating.  You cannot see what things are unless you see them in perspective, and you cannot see them in true perspective until you have widened your vision to take in the whole of things.  What you would then see is perhaps more a matter of faith than of clear knowledge, but Whitehead himself has confessed to “the trust that the ultimate natures of things lie together in a harmony that excludes mere arbitrariness.” 

Thus our story winds back to somewhere near its beginning and proves, like other stories of dubious quality, to have a moral.  You can topple over with no great shove the structures of most metaphysicians, even those of the Platos and Hegels, to say nothing of the Royces.  What you apparently cannot do is to repress the attempt of the speculative reason to make sense out of its world.  You step on it firmly in a Royce only to find after a generation that it is flowering out again in a Whitehead, or in some successor to both.  It insists on cropping up in this way because it is not a fad or a passing impulse, but a permanent force in nature.  Metaphysics may be, as Bradley suggested, the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct, but he added that the finding of those reasons is no less an instinct.  A man who no longer matters tried his hand a few years ago at suppressing this free play of mind; he failed.  Stalin seems to be trying it again; he will fail.  If Housman is right that “the love of truth is the feeblest of human passions,” it remains, nevertheless, a passion, and in some of the best of men a very powerful one.  “I love to pursue my reason to an O Altitudo,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne.  There have always been some men who could say that, and if this brief chapter from the long story of human thought is at all representative, one suspects there always will be.


Posted February 26, 2007

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