Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Review of F. R. Tennant, Philosophy of the Sciences: the Tarner Lectures for 1931-1932. Cambridge: The University Press, 1932.  Pp. ix + 191.  From The Journal of Philosophy, 29:22 (October 27, 1932), 610-614.


Brand Blanshard

It is a surprise to find such a book as this issuing from Cambridge.  One has come to think of Cambridge as the home of a special way of thinking on philosophic matters, a way in which logico-mathematical analysis and attempts at rigorous demonstration are conspicuous, and psychology and the historical method play little part.  Dr. Tennant abjures this way from the beginning.  He makes psychology the fundamental science, contends that even the theory of knowledge must adopt the historical method, regards logistic as on the whole a sterile exercise, and denies that certainty is to be had anywhere.  One would like to know the feelings with which Cambridge listened to its newest Tarner lecturer.

Dr. Tennant’s conclusions will be clearer from a resume of his argument.  The chief task of a philosophy of the sciences, he thinks, is to distinguish the kinds of knowledge the various sciences are pursuing, and to range these kinds in an order that will make plain their relations and comparative worth.  Is there any science that can do this for itself and all the others?  Yes, there is one; and that science is psychology.  For it is psychology that by its analysis discloses the elements we have put together in our supposed knowledge, and by its genetic study shows why we have accepted one arrangement of them as giving knowledge rather than another.  For example, it takes the two kinds of knowledge that pass as surest, the perception of what is given in sense and the perception of the self-evident, and shows that neither of these can be accepted at face value.  For sense-perception, if taken at a level where only sensation enters in, gives nothing that could be true or false; and if taken higher, it is full of interpolations that have been read into it by the mind.  These can be exposed for what they are only by the psychologist.  Nor does the other kind of certainty come out better from his scrutiny.  For the flash of insight in which we grasp a self-evident connection may be, and commonly is, nothing but an association that is highly familiar, or a chain of reasoning with some parts telescoped, or something else that is merely masquerading as certainty, and whose mask the psychologist alone is in a position to tear off.  Psychology is thus the science of the sciences, in the sense that it alone can serve as critic of its own presuppositions and of what other sciences accept as knowledge.

But by “fundamental,” Dr. Tennant points out, we may mean something else.  We may mean by the fundamental science one that provides raw material for the others to work on.  And in this sense it is history that is fundamental.  For all knowledge in the last resort comes from that flux of personal experience which in its wholeness belongs to history alone.  If we take history, then, as the soil of the other sciences, how are we to account for its having produced so various a crop?

There are two ways in which its relation to the other sciences may be described.  First, these may be arranged in order of remoteness from their concrete base.  Thus biology leaves out less of this base than does chemistry, chemistry less than physics, physics less than mathematics, and this again less than logic.  Or, secondly, they may be classified by the sort of explanation they aim at.  Logic, since it leaves out all but the identities and differences of things, seems to have arrived at the purest and clearest form of intelligibility.  In the other sciences this purity is more and more muddied.  Physics, since it deals with a body’s motion, must introduce into its explanations the idea of substance; other sciences, and perhaps physics too, must introduce causality; biology goes farther and requires the idea of final causes.  Thus we have two modes of classifying the sciences; and it will be observed that the order we get from them is the same.  Certainly most scientists would not find in this any coincidence.  They would say that abstractness and intelligibility go together, and that the sort of grasp achieved in logic and mathematics is the best knowledge we can hope for.

This Dr. Tennant denies.  He seems to be moved to this denial by three considerations.  First, he thinks it absurd to say that the real world is indefinitely rich and various and that the aim of science is to know this world, yet the highest kind of knowledge is that which tells us least about it.  Secondly, he is inclined to think that logic and mathematics are not knowledge at all.  They provide a set of rules for what we may call the game of thinking, but there is no guarantee that these hold beyond the game itself.  Thirdly, their purity is largely mythical.  One after another, the Kantian categories have turned out under psychological scrutiny to be only “habits of thinking that have proved useful ad hoc.”  Logic, he believes, either reduces to tautology, “as one eminent logistician affirms to be the case,” or else it must make “the appeal to experience which a pure science forswears.”  If this appeal is admitted, as Dr. Tennant thinks it must be, then the whole of knowledge will be revealed as of one piece.  It will be an attempt, in different provinces, to place upon sense-data a construction that works.  That is all the knowledge we can hope for, since “between science and the world stands human nature.”  The fundamental categories of all kinds of explanation are drawn from the nature and situation of the mind that knows; the idea of substance is suggested by the permanence of our own body; the idea of causation comes from the experience of will; Occam’s razor from our desire for simplicity and ease.  The vision of the world as an embodiment of reason through and through is thus an idle dream, not only because the flux of sensation from which we start can never be distilled away into concepts, but also, because knowledge is a projected shadow of ourselves and a “pragmatically verified interpretation is the nearest approach” to the world outside us.

Dr. Tennant is an eminent theologian, and he devotes his final lecture to the place of theology among the sciences.  He not only gives it a place unhesitatingly; he regards it as the culmination of the whole scientific enterprise.  He is quite ready to admit that in theology we are reading ourselves into the world, but his answer is in effect: What of it?  Does not all science do the same?  The only important difference between theology and the other sciences is that, as the mass of facts to be considered is so much greater, the certainty of its conclusions must be less.  If we remember, however, that at best probability is the guide of life, its enterprise will appear neither illegitimate nor hopeless.

A book so courageously and carefully reasoned, and so willing to fight its battles on ultimate grounds is worthy of deep attention.  Yet while admiring greatly the knowledge and skill with which the argument is handled, I remain unconvinced that its main positions have been made out.  There is no space to discuss these in detail; I shall only indicate some of the points at which the case seems vulnerable.

1. I can not think Dr. Tennant succeeds in his attempt to make genetic psychology the final authority in knowledge.  What justifies our believing something can not lie, in the last resort, in our perception of how we came to believe it.  For if it did, this perception itself could be justified only by another perception in which we saw how we came to perceive that, and so on without end.  Dr. Tennant believes that the genetic method has undercut this dialectic, but I do not think such simple straightforward logic can be argued away.  In attempting to validate its own manner of explaining, the genetic method must itself assume as valid certain principles of explanation; if it does not assume them, it can not get under way; if it does assume them, it is circular.  Of course to say this is not to deny that the method may be immensely helpful as a means of clearing one’s vision.

2. I do not think Dr. Tennant is right, or even quite consistent, in saying that the principles of logic and mathematics are “thought but not knowledge.”  These principles are admittedly got from experience by abstraction; likenesses and differences are admitted to be “thrust upon us with a necessitation similar to that which marks sensation.”  Hence they would seem to supply knowledge of fact if any abstractions do, and it is hard to see why they should be set down as giving only “knowledge about the relations of ideas.”

3. Dr. Tennant nowhere makes clear what he conceives knowledge to be.  He is not a pragmatist; he does not believe that self-evidence reveals the structure of things; he does not accept direct apprehension, and does not believe that knowledge copies.  His notion is conveyed in such phrases as that there is “relevance rather than identity or copying” between thought and its object, that knowledge is a “sympathetic rapport” with things, and that our constructions form “some version or function of the real.”  This is very dark indeed.  It may be replied that if this very darkness is what the theory is insisting on, it can not be retorted upon it as an accusation.  But then one’s difficulty is this, that when the darkness is so deep, the claim to see light is hardly justified.  If knowledge of the outer world is as precarious as Dr. Tennant suggests, how can we know it is even relevant?  How can we know that such a world is there at all?


Posted April 13, 2008

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