Philosophy against Misosophy



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Chapter 15 of Charles Hartshorne, Creativity in American Philosophy, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1984, 192195.  He developed this critique at greater length in “Understanding as Seeing to Be Necessary,” his contribution to the Library of Living Philosophers’ volume (XV, 1980) devoted to Blanshard’s thought, to which critique Blanshard replied.


Blanshard's Necessitarianism

Charles Hartshorne


Among the writers who have learned most from the “Idealists” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Brand Blanshard (b. 1892[d. 1987.—A.F.]) is outstanding in the range of his concerns, the readability and elegance of his writing, and, with some qualifications, the penetration of his thought.  His strength is more in his criticisms of view sharply contrasting with his own than in the basic philosophic doctrines he espouses.  Indeed, in these he has had few disciples.  He is not (and is well aware of this) an idealist in any very significant sense.  True, he holds that nothing is independent of mind, but only in the trivial sense that, according to his doctrine of universally internal relations, nothing is independent of anything.  Otherwise, matter is not explained by mind any more than mind is by matter.  Hegel’s dictum, “in the opposition between subject and object the subject overlaps,” is not accepted by Blanshard.  He is not a psychicalist in any clear sense.

What to this critic is most impressive in Blanshard is his wisdom, not so much in metaphysics or technical philosophy as in judging beliefs that apply metaphysical ideas to more concrete matters or to human institutions.  Examples of such beliefs are the Christian doctrine of Christ the GodMan, or the infallibility of the Pope or of Scripture.  On the classical topic of Faith and Reason (title of one of his books [the actual title is Reason and Belief, Yale University Press, 1975.—A.F.]) he is, within certain limitations, a valuable spokesman for an austere rationalism.  Although I am more sympathetic to traditional Christianity in some of its aspects than Blanshard is, I find much of his critique cogent and admirable.  “Fundamentalism,” whether Catholic or Protestant, has in him a formidable judge.

The basic premises of rationalism, as advocated by this heir (but not representative) of idealism, are three: (1) The will to understand, with its postulate that reality is in principle understandable, is to be affirmed uncompromisingly.  The rational intelligibility of the real is an absolute presupposition of thought.  The second premise is negative: (2) How far we shall succeed in understanding reality or in realizing any of our human aspirations is a relative matter, subject to no philosophical guarantees.  Intelligibility is the only unqualifiedly universal trait of what is that Blanshard’s rationalism can assure us of.  (3) To be intelligible or understandable is definable in terms of the formula: “To understand is to see to be necessary.”  Reality is a perfect system in the sense that every item in it implicates every other.  It is not perfect, so far as we know, in any additional way, for instance in the amount of happiness, as compared to misery, it involves.

Blanshard is well aware that this austere and, as he says, “tragic” metaphysics is not that set forth by his idealistic predecessors.  They all, in some way or another, offered their readers more comfort than the mere search for theoretical necessities can provide.  One must admire the courageous persistence with which Blanshard has sought to keep to his presuppositions.  (Thus his intellectual life constitutes a prolonged experiment.)  Belief in intelligibility is sacrosanct because to think is in principle to accept that belief.  So at least I understand Blanshard to hold.

Of the three premises I have no quarrel with (1), and I can go partway with (2).  But (3) seems to me a gross blunder, a doctrine devoid of genuine evidence, an irrational theory of rationality.  Formal logic stands or falls with the contrast between relations of necessity (as in “P strictly implies—or entails—Q”) and nonnecessary relations, as in “P and Q are independent” or in “though P implies Q, yet Q does not imply P, the necessity holds asymmetrically.”  One can, of course, reply that this is only what appears on the very abstract level dealt with I formal logic.  But the very contrast between abstract and concrete supports the proposition that to understand is in some cases to see to be contingent.  Animality is more abstract than humanity; from the latter the former is deducible, but not vice versa.  If we cannot understand this to be so, what can we understand?  There were once animals but not human animals; there were once human animals but not you or I.  It is a doctrine of most logicians that from the less specific, definite, or concrete the more concrete cannot follow.  Concreteness is definiteness (however little we know this definiteness).  The less cannot contain the more.

 Blanshard, to maintain his program, must dismiss all this as somehow confusion or error.  His understanding of understanding should, he holds, prevail.  I have heard him say that sound “logic” is to be found only in writers who died some decades ago, not in anything that is practiced under that label.

In another way I refute the third premise by urging the Peircean, Bergsonian, Whitehead-ian view of becoming as essentially a perpetual enrichment of reality by contingent increments of definiteness or concreteness.  From the less, a particular more emerges.  Not all rabbits were previously in some magician’s hat.  I agree with John Findlay that there is nothing irrational or unintelligible in this.  The rationality of necessity is, as seems obvious from formal logic, only one kind of rationality; and to understand this kind of rationality we must (principle of contrast) see it in relation to that other kind which is the quite intelligible relation between the concrete and the abstract, the former not being contained in the latter or in any strict sense implied by it.

The notion that understanding is seeing to be necessary was the classical principle of “sufficient reason” and of “sufficient” causal or logical conditions.  Necessary conditions are those without which something is impossible.  But “sufficient condition” meant that with which the something is necessary.  Thus “necessary and sufficient” names a symmetrical relation, necessity in both directions—for instance, past to future and future to past.  It is neatly analogous to the logic in which any proposition is equivalent to any other.  No formal system actually used by current logicians embodies such a logic.  It would be useless.  It collapses the distinction between possibility and necessity.  I conclude that the Blanshard doctrine is modal nonsense.

Of course, if reality is a system perfect in Blanshard’s sense, it can give no support to any traditional religious belief in a cosmic intelligence or eminently beneficent will.  Blanshard, like many another, brushes aside the idea of freedom in the creative sense of enriching the definiteness of reality.  Only for ignorance is anything indefinite or unsettled, open to “decision,” in the sense sharply defined by Whitehead (and defended by Bergson, Peirce, James, and others), whether the deciding is by human, subhuman, or superhuman agents.  Blanshard never really enters the religious ground.  He ignores or slights the philosophers who do deal with religious matters at their center, which is in the idea of freedom in the sense of creativity.

As onesided extremists tend to do, Blanshard likes to deal with extremists of a variety opposite to his own.  Thus he attacks those who regard reality as consisting of mutually independent items none of which is either a necessary or a sufficient reason for any other.  Against Hume, Russell, and many another extreme pluralist, Blanshard makes a case.  But it is a case against one extreme, not necessarily for the opposite extreme.  And one searches in vain for a clear recognition that “both necessary and sufficient” and “neither necessary nor sufficient” are contraries, not contradictories.  Both may be, and indeed are, false if taken as universal.

The totality of necessary conditions is indeed sufficient of the possibility, but not the actuality, of the conditioned.  Freedom is selfactualizing, granted the enabling conditions.

We can thank Blanshard for his splendid style and his courageous experiment; but the experiment supports a negative conclusion: To understand is not always or necessarily to see to be necessary.  Very often indeed it is to see to be contingent.  The principle of contrast is truer than Blanshard’s axiom.  Asymmetrical, not symmetrical, necessity is king.

Apart from the limitations mentioned, Blanshard is a classic philosophical writer, dignified, wise, urbane, and learned.  He is admirably candid and never hides behind obscurities.  It is a great achievement to be so definitely mistaken as he is when he is mistaken.  And in much that he says he is, for all I know, not mistaken at all.


Posted November 16, 2005

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