SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE
If these two unlucky words get much more hold on the language, we shall soon have philosophers refusing to call their dinner “dinner”, but speaking of it always as their “objective appetite”. – Ruskin
A major source of subjectivist assumptions about artistic appreciation is a fundamental misconception about the nature of knowledge and reasoning. This is the distorted coin of which scientism and subjectivism are the opposite sides. A more adequate conception reveals the misapprehension inherent in the argument from disagreement, in that the possibility of differences of opinion and interpretation lends no support to subjectivism in the sense in which it is opposed to rationality and knowledge, whether in the arts or the sciences. Artistic appreciation, like understanding in any sphere, allows for the indefinite but not unlimited possibility of interpretation, and of an extension of the concepts which give sense to interpretation and judgement. In short, knowledge of any kind rests on concepts and human judgement. That assessment in the arts is necessarily a matter of judgement concedes nothing to subjectivism, since such a judgement derives its sense from the shared arts, language, attitudes and activities of a culture. The assessment may itself be assessed, of course, but that is not to say that judgements can never be completely sound. What often underlies the feeling that judgements can never be quite reliable is a craving for an incoherent ideal of knowledge as something absolutely fixed and certain; beyond the possibility of change and revision. – David Best, Feeling and Reason in the Arts, p33
Common Objectivist Assumptions
Truth is a matter of fitting words to the world.
A theory of meaning for natural language is based on a theory of truth, independent of the way people understand and use language.
Meaning is objective and disembodied, independent of human understanding.
Sentences are abstract objects with inherent structures.
The meaning of a sentence can be obtained from the meaning of its parts and the structure of the sentence.
Communication is a matter of a speaker’s transmitting a message with a fixed meaning to a hearer.
How a person understands a sentence, and what it means to him, is a function of the objective meaning of the sentence and what the person believes about the world and about the context in which the sentence is uttered. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p196
The old myths share a common perspective: man as separate from his environment. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p229
The Objectivist Theory of Communication: A Version of the CONDUIT Metaphor
Within objectivist linguistics and philosophy, meanings and linguistic expressions are independently existing objects. Such a view gives rise to a theory of communication that fits the CONDUIT metaphor very closely:
Meanings are objects.
Linguistic expressions are objects.
Linguistic expressions have meanings (in them).
In communication, a speaker sends a fixed meaning to a hearer via the linguistic expression associated with that meaning.
…On this account it is possible to objectively say what you mean, and communication failures are matters of subjective errors: since the meanings are objectively right there in the words, either you didn’t use the right words to say what you meant, or you were misunderstood. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p206
…Such an objectivist reply boils down to a reaffirmation of their fundamental concern with “absolute truth” and “objective meaning”, entirely independent of anything having to do with human functioning or understanding. Against this, we have been maintaining that there is no reason to believe that there is any absolute truth or objective meaning. Instead, we maintain that it is possible to give an account of truth and meaning only relative to the way people function in the world and understand it. We are simply in a different philosophical universe from such objectivists. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p217
Some Subjectivist Positions : “cafe phenomenology”
Meaning is private
Experience is purely holistic
Meanings have no natural structure
Context is unstructured
Meaning cannot be naturally or adequately represented.
These subjectivist positions all hinge on one basic assumption, namely, that experience has no natural structure and that, therefore, there can be no natural external constraints upon meaning and truth. Our reply follows directly from our account of how our conceptual system is grounded. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By
What Experientialism Preserves of the Concerns That Motivate Subjectivism
What legitimately motivates subjectivism is the awareness that meaning is always meaning to a person. What’s meaningful to me is a matter of what has significance for me. And what is significant for me will not depend on my rational knowledge alone but on my past experiences, values, feelings and intuitive insights. Meaning is not cut and dried; it is a matter of imagination and a matter of constructing coherence. The objectivist emphasis on achieving a universally valid point of view misses what is important, insightful, and coherent for the individual. …
Where experientialism diverges from subjectivism is in its rejection of the Romantic idea that imaginative understanding is completely unconstrained. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p228
REASON and REASONING
One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. – Mencken
Shall we then say that the feeling of rationality is constituted merely by the absence of any feeling of irrationality? I think there are very good grounds for upholding such a view. – W James, The Sentiment of Rationality
LOGIC, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
RATIONAL, adj. Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
REASON, v.i. To weight probabilities in the scales of desire. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
REASON, n. Propensitate of prejudice. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
REASONABLE, adj. Accessible to the infection of our own opinions. Hospitable to persuasion, dissuasion and evasion. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
…reason and emotion go hand in hand, with reason possible only if emotion is present. – Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error
Only the unreasonable expect others to be logical. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher
We hear it maintained by people of more gravity than understanding, that genius and taste are strictly reducible to rules, and that there is a rule for everything. …In art, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason; that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind, which impression is true and well-founded, though you may not be able to analyse or account for it in the several particulars. …If certain effects did not regularly arise out of certain causes in mind as well as matter, there could be rule given for them: nature does not follow the rule, but suggests it. Reason is the interpreter and critic of nature and genius, not their lawgiver and judge. He must be a poor creature indeed whose practical convictions do not in almost all cases outrun his deliberate understanding, or who does not feel and know much more than he can give a reason for. – Hence the distinction between eloquence and wisdom, between ingenuity and common sense. – Hazlitt
Though the chain of arguments which conduct to it were ever so logical, there must arise a strong suspicion, if not an absolute assurance, that it has carried us quite beyond the reach of our faculties, when it leads to conclusions so extraordinary, and so remote from common life and experience. We are got into fairy land long ere we have reached the last steps of our theory; and there we have no reason to trust our common methods of argument, or to think that our usual analogies or probabilities have any authority. Our line is too short to fathom such immense abysses – Hume
It is an observation which I think Isocrates makes in one of his orations against the sophists, that it is far more easy to maintain a wrong cause, and to support paradoxical opinions to the satisfaction of a common auditory, than to establish a doubtful truth by solid and conclusive arguments. When men find that something can be said in favour of what, on the very proposal, they have thought utterly indefensible, they grow doubtful of their own reason; they are thrown into a sort of pleasing surprise; they run along with the speaker, charmed and captivated to find such a plentiful harvest of reasoning where all seemed barren and unpromising, This is the fairyland of philosophy. – Burke, Vindication of Natural Society (I.4)
Casuistry has got a bad name in the world, mainly, I suppose, because of the dubious uses to which it was put during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by some of its Jesuit practitioners. But it really is a very useful art, and its influence upon the thinking of mankind has probably been much more beneficial than deleterious. Some of the most valuable liberties of the modern age were attained by the use of adept casuistry. It was impossible to argue for them openly, but they could be supported effectively by the tricks invented by theological casuists. The legal fictions that broke down the old rigidity of English law had the same origin. It is a pity that American law is not developing more of them. – Mencken, HL Mencken’s Notebooks
PROOF, PROBABILITY, EVIDENCE
PROOF, n. Evidence having a shade more of plausibility than of unlikelihood. The testimony of two credible witnesses as opposed to that of only one. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
You have discovered these traits together ten times, but have you also counted the times you have not found them together? – Lichtenberg
There are no rationalists. We all believe fairy-tales, and live in them. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.20
We do not dispute what is magical or irrational when it flatters our self-esteem. – Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 574.
…the truth is not to be found by guessing at it, as religious prophets and men of genius have done, and then damning every one who does not agree. – Santayana, Classic Liberty, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies
All truth is a shadow, except final truth. But every truth is substance in its own place. – Izaac Pennington
…Truth is such a fly-away, such a sly-boots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light. – Emerson
The truth is too great for any one actual mind, even though that mind be dubbed ‘the Absolute’, to know the whole of it. The facts and worths of life need many cognizers to take them in. There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. – W James, Talks to Teachers, 4
Truth is not one thing, but has many aspects and many shades of difference; it is neither all black, nor all white, see something wrong on its own side, something right in others; makes concessions to an adversary, allowances for human frailty, and is nearer akin to charity than the dealers in controversy or the declaimers against it are apt to imagine. – Hazlitt, The Plain Speaker, On the Spirit of Controversy
I would fain lay down the truth without polemics or recrimination. But unfortunately we never fully grasp the import of any true statement until we have a clear notion of what the opposite untrue statement would be. The error is needed to set off the truth, much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture. – W James, Great Men and their Environment
Man can aspire to virtue; he cannot reasonably aim at finding truth. – Chamfort
…truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor. – Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p159
All men know the truth, but what of that? It is rare to find one who knows how to speak it. A man tries to speak it and his voice is like the hiss of a snake, or rude and chiding. The truth is not spoken but injured. The same thing happens in power to do the right. His rectitude is ridiculous. His organs do not play him true. – Emerson, Natural History of Intellect
Truth alone is great. – Emerson, The Scholar
…it is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we knowers of today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by the thousand-year-old faith, that Christian faith which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth; that truth is divine. – Nietzsche, The Joyous Science
It is a bad thing that truth has nowadays to have its cause pleaded by fiction, novels and fables. – Lichtenberg
A man that should call everything by its right Name, would hardly pass the Streets without being knocked down as a common Enemy. – Halifax
It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing someone’s beard. – Lichtenberg
Most of the wounds inflicted by truth can be healed only by more truth. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher
…there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil. – Whitehead, Dialogues of A.N. Whitehead
When an event occurs only a part of the truth is sent abroad, the rest is kept back. – Masai proverb
For the habitual truth-teller and truth-seeker, indeed, the world has very little liking. He is always unpopular, and not infrequently his unpopularity is so excessive that it endangers his life. – Mencken, The Art Eternal
Mankind at large always resembles frivolous children: they are impatient of thought, and wish to be amused. Truth is too simple for us…we paint over the bareness of ethics with the quaint grotesques of theology. – Emerson, Character, 1866
If it were true what in the end would be gained? Nothing but another truth. Is this such a mighty advantage? We have enough old truths still to digest, and even these we would be quite unable to endure if we did not sometimes flavour them with lies. – Lichtenberg
…unfortunately we never fully grasp the import of any true statement until we have a clear notion of what the opposite untrue statement would be. – W James, Great Men and Their Environment
Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men – men who always received it as second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubber-stamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth – that error and truth are simply opposites. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of today does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the Fourth Century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic. – Mencken, The Critical Process, 1921
…the truth is something too harsh and devastating for the majority of men to bear… The truth-seeker forgets [the inferiority complex], and so comes to grief. He forgets that the ordinary man, at bottom, is always afraid of himself, as of some horrible monster. He refuses to sanction the lie whereby the ordinary man maintains his self-respect… Thus he is unpopular, and deserves to be. …it makes only for strife and discontent. It invades the immemorial pruderies of the human race, It breeds scandals and heart-burnings. It is essentially anti-social, and hence, by modern theories of criminology, diseased. The truth-seeker thus becomes a pathological case. The average man is happily free from any such malaise. He avoids the truth as diligently as he avoids arson, regicide, or piracy on the high seas, and for the same reason: because he believes that it is dangerous, that no good can come of it, that it doesn’t pay. The very thought of it is abhorrent to him. This average man, I believe, must be accepted as the normal man, the natural man, the healthy and useful man. He presents a character that is general in the race, and favourable to its security and contentment. The truth never caresses; it stings – and life is surely too short for sane men to be stinging themselves unnecessarily. One would regard it as idiotic even in a flea.
Thus the truth about the truth emerges, and with it the truth about lying. Lying is not only excusable; it is not only innocent, and instinctive; it is, above all, necessary and unavoidable. Without the amelioration that it offers life would become a mere syllogism and hence too metallic to be borne. The man who lies simply submits himself sensibly to the grand sweep and ripple of the cosmic process. The man who seeks and tells the truth is a rebel against the inner nature of all of us. – Mencken, The Art Eternal
The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. – The Bible
Any truth must be in a humanly conceptualized and understandable form it if it to be a truth for us. If it’s not a truth for us, how can we make sense of its being a truth at all? – Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p106
A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be. – Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p106
Nietzsche said that ‘we simply lack any organ for knowledge, for “truth”: we “know” (or believe or imagine) just as much as may be useful in the interests of the human herd.’ If you cite this sort of passage from Nietzsche (or similar ones in William James or John Dewey) in order to argue that what we call ‘the search for objective truth’ is not a matter of getting your beliefs to correspond better and better to the way things really are, but of attaining intersubjective agreement, or of attempting to cope better with the world round about us, you are likely to find yourself described as a danger to the health of society: philosophers sympathetic to this line of thought now find themselves called Postmodernists, and are viewed with the same hostility as Spinozists were three hundred years ago. If you agree with Dewey that the search for truth is just a particular species of the search for happiness, you will be accused of asserting something so counter-intuitive that only a lack of intellectual responsibility can account for your behaviour. – Rorty, To The Sunlit Uplands, London Review of Books, 31/10/2002
…those who grow passionate on one or the other side of arcane and seemingly pointless disputes are struggling with the question of what self-image it would be best for human beings to have. So it is with the dispute about truth that has been going on among the philosophy professors ever since the days of Nietzsche and James. That dispute boils down to the question of whether, in our pursuit of truth, we must answer only to our fellow human beings, or also to something non-human, such as the Way Things Really Are In Themselves.
Nietzsche thought the latter notion was a surrogate for God, and that we would be stronger, freer, better human beings if we could bring ourselves to dispense with all such surrogates: to stop wanting to have ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ on our side. Only then, he thought, will humankind ‘be delivered from revenge’. He hoped that his books would help ‘to erect a new image and ideal of the free spirit’. – Rorty, To The Sunlit Uplands, London Review of Books, 31/10/2002
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. – Mark Twain
It’s really a person’s mistakes that make him endearing. – Goethe
What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error. – Raymond Aron, Opium of the Intellectuals
The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted. – Lichtenberg
That men so often make false judgements is certainly not to be attributed solely to a lack of insight and ideas, but principally to the fact that they do not place every element of the proposition under the microscope and reflect on it. – Lichtenberg
One philosopher, discussing the theory of perception and distinguishing veridical perception from illusion, will rule out of consideration all instances in which a perception seems tainted with the character of illusion, and will endeavour to study instances of purely and simply veridical perception. Another, studying the generic concept of goods and its specific form, that of things good in themselves, will propose as a method the question whether this or that thing would be good if nothing else existed, as if things good in themselves formed a separate class of goods, which would remain when everything possessed of a merely relative goodness had been thrown aside.
All such inquiries are vitiated by a fallacy, which may be called the fallacy of precarious margins. It consists in assuming that the overlap which has already affected a certain area of the class in question can be trusted not to spread, and that beyond its limit there lies a marginal region in which the instances exhibit only one of the specific forms, uncontaminated by the presence of the other. This margin is necessarily precarious, because once the overlap is admitted in principle there is no ground for assuming that it will stop at any particular point; and the only sound canon of method is so to conduct the inquiry that its results would stand firm however far the overlap extended.
12. But it is possible to avoid this fallacy at the cost of falling into another. Once it is recognized that the overlap is in principle unlimited, and that sound method requires him to proceed as if the two specific classes coincided throughout their extension, a philosopher who has begun by thinking that every concept must have a group of instances to itself may conclude that, since there is only one group of instances, there is only one concept: he therefore declares his two specific concepts identical. Thus, it is observed that a man who does his duty often thereby increases the happiness of people in general; it is reasonably conjectured that this is so, not often merely, but always; and it is concluded that since a dutiful action always increases the general happiness, there is no distinction between the concept of duty and the concept of promoting happiness. Errors of this type are so common that a catalogue of them might fill a book. The false principle at work in them is that, where there is no difference in the extension of two concepts, there is no distinction between the concepts themselves. This I propose to call the fallacy of identified coincidents.
13. These two fallacies are alternative applications of a single principle which, however true in exact and empirical science, is false in philosophy: the principle that when a generic concept is divided into its species there is a corresponding division of its instances into mutually exclusive classes. I call this the fallacy of false disjunction, because it consists in the disjunctive proposition that any instance of a generic concept must fall either in one or in another of its specific classes; and this is false because, since they overlap, it may fall in both. Applied positively, this yields the fallacy of precarious margins: namely that, since there admittedly is a distinction between two concepts, there must be a difference between their instances. Applied negatively, it yields the fallacy of identified coincidents: namely that, since the instances can admittedly not be separated, there is no distinguishing the concepts.
14. The first rule of philosophical method, then, will be to beware of false disjunctions and to assume that the specific classes of a philosophical concept are always liable to overlap, so that two or more specifically differing concepts may be exemplified in the same instances. – Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method, p47-50
No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content with his destiny. …Lying is the product of the unconscious yearning to realize such visions… We all play parts when we face our fellow-men, as even poets have noticed. No man could bring himself to reveal his true character, &, above all, his true limitations as a citizen and a Christian, his true meannesses, his true imbecilities, to his friends, or even to his wife. Honest autobiography is therefore a contradiction in terms… The man who is most respected by his wife is the one who makes this projection most vivid – that is, the one who is the most daring and ingratiating liar. – Mencken, The Art Eternal
The men the American people, for example, admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Galileo could no more be elected President of the United States than he could be elected Pope of Rome. Both high posts are reserved for men favoured by God with an extraordinary talent for swathing the bitter facts of life in bandages of soft illusion. – Mencken, The Art Eternal
There is only one way of knowing. It consists in finding a place for new phenomena within our system of experience. – Sir Henry Jones, A Faith that Enquires, p79
What is known is always in terms of what is presupposed. – Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p98
The first questions still remain to be asked after all the progress of Science. What an abyss is my ignorance. – Emerson, journals, 1831
Does knowing mean nothing to you, unless somebody else knows that you know it? – Persius
A weak Man had rather be thought to know, than know, and that maketh him so impatient to be told of a Mistake. – Halifax
Do not be eager to know everything lest you become ignorant of everything. – Democritus
…the most radical doubt is the father of knowledge. – Max Weber, Value-judgements in Social Science
…to know much is not to be wise. – Euripides, The Bacchae
All knowledge that is divorced from justice must be called cunning. – Socrates
Every scientific truth goes through three states: first, people say it conflicts with the Bible; next, they say it has been discovered before; lastly, they say they always believed it. – Louis Agassiz
Science writes of the world as if with the cold finger of a starfish; it is all true; but what is it when compared to the reality of which it discourses? where hearts beat high in April, and death strikes, and hills totter in the earthquake, and there is a glamour over all the objects of sight, and a thrill in all noises for the ear, and Romance herself has made her dwelling among men? – Stevenson, Pan’s Pipes
But the greatest error of all the rest is the mistaking or misplacing of the last or furthest end of knowledge. For men have entered into a desire of learning and knowledge, sometimes upon a natural curiosity and inquisitive appetite; sometimes to entertain their minds with variety and delight; sometimes for ornament and reputation; and sometimes to enable them to victory of wit and contradiction; and most times for lucre and profession; and seldom sincerely to give a true account of their gift of reason, to the benefit and use of men: as if there were sought in knowledge a couch whereupon to rest a searching and restless spirit; or a terrace for a wandering and variable mind to walk up and down with a fair prospect; or a tower of state for a proud mind to raise itself upon; or a fort or commanding ground for strife and contention; or a shop for profit or sale; and not a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. But this is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge, if contemplation and action may be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been… – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, First Book, V. 11.
To abandon the search for absolute and immutable reality and value may seem like a sacrifice. But this renunciation is the condition of entering upon a vocation of greater vitality. – Dewey, The Quest for Certainty
The real delusion is to think that people can live flourishingly without the mutual understanding, and therefore the safety, that comes from knowledge. – AC Grayling
There are, indeed, but two alternative courses. We must either find the appropriate objects and organs of knowledge in the mutual interaction of changing things; or else, to escape the infection of change, we must seek them in some transcendent and supernal region. The human mind, deliberately as it were, exhausted the logic of the changeless, the final, and the transcendent, before it essayed adventure on the pathless wastes of generation and transformation. We dispose all too easily of the efforts of the schoolmen to interpret nature and mind in terms of real essences, hidden forms, and occult faculties, forgetful of the seriousness and dignity of the ideas that lay behind. We dispose of them by laughing at the famous gentleman who accounted for the fact that opium put people to sleep on the ground that it had a dormitive faculty. But the doctrine, held in our own day, that knowledge of the plant that yields the poppy consists in referring the peculiarities of an individual to a type, to a universal form, a doctrine so firmly established that any other method of knowing was conceived to be unphilosophical and unscientific, is a survival of precisely the same logic. – Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy
Men of genius get their knowledge of the world nobody knows how; Shakespeare, for instance, cannot have had personal experience of more than a fraction of what he wrote about. In fact genius is the power of getting knowledge with the least possible experience, and one of the greatest differences between men is the amount of experience they need of a thing in order to understand it. – Nettleship, Lectures on Plato’s Republic, p128-9.
In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them. – John von Neumann
The more you know, the less you understand. – Russian proverb (?)
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. – ancient Chinese proverb
Intelligence is not the deepest part of our being, but quite the contrary. It is like a sensitive skin, provided with tentacles, covering the rest of our innermost bulk, which in itself is, senus stricto, unintelligent and irrational. …There it is, spread like a film over our innermost being, standing between things and the self – its role is not to be the self, but to reflect it, to mirror it. – Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?, p116
[The Principle of Least Action:] …in all the changes that take place in the universe, the sum of the products of each body multiplied by the distance it moves and by the speed with which it moves is the least possible. – Maupertuis (1698-1759)
…it is not only our duty to make the right known, but to make it prevalent. – Burke
There is nothing so easy but that it becomes difficult when you do it reluctantly. – Terence
Prosperous humanitarians tell me, in my club smoking-room, that they are a prey to prodigious heroic feelings, and that it costs them more nobility of soul to do nothing in particular, than would carry on all the wars, by sea or land, of bellicose humanity. It may very well be so, and yet not touch the point in question. For what I desire is to see some of this nobility brought face to face with me in an inspiriting achievement. – Stevenson, The English Admirals
When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty. – Shaw
CONSULT, v.i. To seek another’s disapproval of a course already decided on. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
OBSTINATE, adj. Inaccessible to the truth as it is manifest in the splendor and stress of our advocacy.
The popular type and exponent of obstinacy is the mule, a most intelligent animal. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
RESOLUTE, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
RASH, adj. Insensible to the value of our advice. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
He who would preserve the supremacy of natural feelings in social life knows not what he asks. Ever at war with himself, hesitating between his wishes and his duties, he will be neither a man or a citizen. He will be of no use to himself nor to others. He will be a man of our day, a Frenchman, an Englishman, one of the great middle class.
To be something, to be himself, and always at one with himself, a man must act as he speaks, must know what course he ought to take, and must follow that course with vigour and persistence. When I meet this miracle it will be time enough to decide whether he is a man or a citizen, or how he contrives to be both. – Rousseau, Emile, p8
I should like to put all my practices back on their first thoughts, and do nothing for which I had not the whole world for my reason. – Emerson
Kings often believe that what their generals and admirals do is done out of patriotism and zeal for their own honour. But the whole motivation of great deeds is more often a girl who reads the newspapers. – Lichtenberg
The Pragmatism of William James … was of great use to me in my political career. James taught me that an action should be judged rather by its results than by its doctrinary basis. I learnt of James that faith in action, that ardent will to live and fight, to which Fascism owes a great part of its success. … For me the essential was to act. – Mussolini, London Sunday Times interview, April 11, 1926
The greatest events may be often traced back to slender causes. Petty competition, or casual friendship, the prudence of a slave, or the garrulity of a woman, have hastened or retarded the revolutions of empire. – Johnson, The Rambler, 141
ACCIDENT, n. An inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
EFFECT, n. The second of two phenomena which always occur together in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other – which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in the pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of a dog. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
Man is a cause-seeking creature; within the system of spirits he could be called the cause-seeker. Perhaps other spirits conceive of things as being related to one another in ways we would find incomprehensible. – Lichtenberg
…a principle follows which I shall call ‘the relativity of causes’. Suppose that the conditions of an event y include three things, α, β, γ; and suppose that there are three persons A, B, C, of whom A is able to produce or prevent α and only α; B is able to produce or prevent β and only β; and C is able to produce or prevent γ and only γ. Then if each of them asks ‘What was the cause of y?’ each will have to give a different answer. For A, α is the cause; for B, β; and for C, γ. The principle may be stated by saying that for any given person the cause in sense II of a given thing is that one of its conditions which he is able to produce or prevent.
For example, a car skids while cornering at a certain point, strikes the kerb, and turns turtle. From the car-driver’s point of view the cause of the accident was cornering too fast, and the lesson is that one must drive more carefully. From the county surveyor’s point of view the cause was a defect in the surface or camber of the road, and the lesson is that greater care must be taken to make roads skid-proof. From the motor-manufacturer’s point of view the cause was defective design in the car, and the lesson is that one must place the centre of gravity lower. …
In medicine the principle of the relativity of causes means that, since any significant statement about the cause of a disease is a statement about the way in which that disease can be treated, two persons who can treat the same disease in two different ways will make different statements as to its cause. …
A corollary of the relativity principle is that for a person who is not able to produce or prevent any of its conditions a given event has no cause in sense II at all, and any statement he makes as to its cause in this sense of the word will be a nonsense statement. Thus the managing director of a large insurance company once told me that his wide experience of motor accidents had convinced him that the cause of all accidents was people driving too fast. This was a nonsense statement; but one could expect nothing better from a man whose practical concern with these affairs was limited to paying for them. In sense II of the word ’cause’ only a person who is concerned with producing or preventing a certain kind of event can form an opinion about its cause. For a mere spectator there are no causes. – Collingwood, Essay on Metaphysics, p304-7
PURPOSE, ENDS and MEANS
OUTCOME, n. A particular type of disappointment. By the kind of intelligence that sees in an exception a proof of the rule the wisdom of an act is judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light that the doer had when he performed it. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
Let him beware of proposing to himself any end… I say to you plainly, there is no end so sacred or so large that if pursued for itself will not become carrion and an offence to the nostril. – Emerson
A man makes love without thinking of the chances of success, his own disabilities, or the character of his mistress; that is, without connecting means with ends, and consulting only his own will and passion. The author sets about writing history, with the full intention of rendering all documents, dates, and facts secondary to his own opinion and will. In business it is not altogether the same; for interest acts obviously as a counterpoise to caprice and will, and is the moving principle; nor is it so in war, for then the spirit of contradiction does everything, and an Englishman will go to the devil rather than give up to any odds. Courage is pure will without regard to consequences, and this the English have in perfection. Again, poetry is our element, for the essence of poetry is will and passion. The French poetry is detail and verbiage. I have thus shown why the English fail, as a people, in the Fine Arts, namely, because with them the end absorbs the means. – Hazlitt, On Means and Ends
There are two kinds of means. One kind is external to that which is accomplished; the other kind is taken up into the consequences produces and remains immanent in them. There are ends which are merely welcome cessations and there are ends that are fulfillments of what went before. The toil of a laborer is too often only an antecedent to the wage he receives, as consumption of gasoline is merely a means to transportation.
…Even bricks and mortar become a part of the house they are employed to build; they are not mere means to its erection. Colors are the paintings; tones are the music. A picture painted with water colours has a quality different from that painted with oil. …
The difference between external and intrinsic operations runs through all the affairs of life. One student studies to pass an examination, to get promotion. To another, the means, the activity of learning, is completely one with what results from it. The consequence, instruction, illumination, is one with the process. Sometimes we journey to get somewhere else because we have business at the latter point and would gladly, were it possible, cut out the travelling. At other times we journey for the delight of moving about and seeing what we see. Means and ends coalesce. If we run over in mind a number of such cases we quickly see that all the cases in which means and ends are external to one another are non-esthetic. This externality may even be regarded as a definition of the non-esthetic.
Being “good” for the sake of avoiding penalty, whether it be going to jail or to hell, makes conduct unlovely. It is as anesthetic as going to the dentist’s chair so as to avoid a lasting injury. – Dewey, Art as Experience, p197-8
Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting object for study. – Whitehead, The Function of Reason
FREE WILL and DETERMINISM
Could our belief that we are acting freely when we are in fact machines not be a form of our understanding? – Lichtenberg
That a false hypothesis is sometimes to be preferred to the correct one can be seen in the case of the doctrine of the freedom of man. Man is certainly not free, but not to be misled by this idea requires a very profound study of philosophy…Freedom is thus really the most convenient and comfortable way of picturing the matter to oneself &, since it has appearance so much on its side, will for all time remain the most usual one. – Lichtenberg
Haeckel and his Determinists, in my youth, bullied us all about the urgent necessity of choosing a philosophy which would prove the impossibility of choosing anything. – Chesterton, Hamlet and the Psycho-analyst
Determinism, like the Queen of England, reigns – but does not govern. – Michael Berry
Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime. – Jacob Bronowski
Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. – Emerson
The fly that does not want to be swatted is safest it if sits on the fly-swat. – Lichtenberg
Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. – Emerson
To understand the World, and to like it, are two things not easily to be reconciled. – Halifax
To be too much troubled is a worse way of over-valuing the World than the being too much pleased. – Halifax
In this Age, when it is said of a Man, He knows how to live, it may be imply’d he is not very honest.
¬An honest Man must lose so many Occasions of Getting, that the World will hardly allow him the Character of an Able one. – Halifax
There can hardly be a severer thing said to a Man in this Age, than that he is like the rest of the World. – Halifax
Every society uses ridicule as a means of social control. Look at societies from a standpoint of what they ridicule, and you can understand their winning-models and why they have developed the way they have. – Laurence Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, p219
I have not the slightest feel of humility towards the public, or to anything in existence – but the eternal Being, the Principle of Beauty, and the Memory of Great Men. – Keats
…the clear perception of a single soul that somewhat universally allowed in society is wrong and rotten, is a prophecy as certain that sooner or later that thing will fall, as if all creatures arose and cried out, It shall end. – Emerson, Human Culture, 1st lecture
The power which is at once spring and regulator in all efforts of reform is the conviction that there in an infinite worthiness in man, which will appear at the call of worth, and that all particular reforms are the removing of some impediment. – Emerson
I would willingly compound for all the mischiefs that are done me voluntarily, if I could escape those which are done me without any motive at all, or even with the best intentions. – Hazlitt, On Depth and Superficiality
…he is certainly not a good citizen who does not wish to promote, by every means in his power, the welfare of the whole society of his fellow citizens. – Adam Smith, Moral Sentiments, p231
The crowd phenomena of peace times are more durable and more important.
Moreover, they are grounded upon precisely the same psychological fact [as war is]. The first of these facts is that an individual, when he joins a crowd, whether of life-long Democrats, Methodists or professors, sacrifices his private judgment in order to partake of the power and security that membership gives him. The second is that the crowd confines its aims to one or two simple objects, and that it holds itself together by cherishing the delusion that they are all-important and pressing for attainment. The third is that its primary motive is almost always fear…this fear, of course, is seldom plainly stated; it is almost always concealed beneath a profession of altruism. But the profession need not deceive us. A crowd is quite incapable of altruism. The most it is capable of is to help A, to whom it is indifferent, in order to hurt B, whom it fears and hates. – Mencken, Smart Set, The Anatomy of Ochlocracy, Feb 1921, p139-40
Of all the sentimental errors that reign and rage in this incomparable Republic, the worst is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform. Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: “The fellow condemns without offering anything better. Why tear down without building up?” So snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue. The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain. It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not “constructive” – i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope, and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of intelligence.
In this protest and demand, of course, there is nothing but the babbling of men who mistake their feelings for thoughts. The truth is that criticism, if it were confined to the proposing of alternative schemes, would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole object of the critical process is to demonstrate it. The poet, if the victim is a poet, is simply one as bare of gifts as a herring is of fur: no conceivable suggestion will ever make him write actual poetry. And the plan of reform, in politics, sociology or what not, is simply beyond the pale of reason; no change in it or improvement of it will ever make it achieve the impossible. Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of governmental reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won’t and don’t work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment. That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble. To tackle them with a proof of that insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile.
Unluckily, it is difficult for the American mind to grasp the concept of insolubility. Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion. The number of persons so afflicted is far greater than the records of the Patent Office show, for beyond the circle of frankly insane enterprise there lie circles of more and more plausible enterprise, and finally we come to a circle which embraces the great majority of human beings. These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world, the believers in men, ideas and things. It is the settled habit of such folk to give ear to whatever is comforting; it is their settled faith that whatever is desirable will come to pass. A caressing confidence – but one, unfortunately, that is not borne out by human experience. The fact is that some of the things that men and women have desired most ardently for thousands of years are not nearer realization today than they were in the time of Rameses, and that there is not the slightest reason for believing that they will lose their coyness on any near tomorrow. Plans for hurrying them on have been tried since the beginning; plans for forcing them overnight are in copious and antagonistic operation today; and yet they continue to hold off and elude us, and the chances are that they will keep on holding off and eluding us until the angels get tired of the show, and the whole earth is set off like a gigantic bomb, or drowned, like a sick cat, between two buckets.
Turn, for example, to the sex problem. There is no half-baked ecclesiastic, bawling in his galvanized-iron temple on a suburban lot, who doesn’t know precisely how it ought to be dealt with. There is no fantoddish old suffragette, sworn to get her revenge on man, who hasn’t a sovereign remedy for it. There is not a shyster of a district attorney, ambitious for higher office, who doesn’t offer to dispose of it in a few weeks, given only enough help from the city editors. And yet, by the same token, there is not a man who has honestly studied it and pondered it, bringing sound information to the business, and understanding of its inner difficulties and a clean and analytical mind, who doesn’t believe and hasn’t stated publicly that it is intrinsically and eternally insoluble. For example, Havelock Ellis. His remedy is simply a denial of all remedies. He admits that the disease is bad, but he shows that the medicine is infinitely worse, and so he proposes going back to the plain disease, and advocates bearing it with philosophy, as we bear colds in the head, marriage, the noises of the city, bad cooking and the certainty of death. Man is inherently vile – but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness. No prostitute was ever so costly to a community as a prowling and obscene vice crusader, or as the dubious legislator or prosecuting officer who jumps at such swine pipe. – Mencken, The Cult of Hope, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920, p211-8
We then walked to the Pantheon. …I said there was not half a guinea’s worth of pleasure in seeing this place. Johnson. ‘But, Sir, there is half a guinea’s worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it.’ Boswell. ‘I doubt, Sir, whether there are many happy people here.’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Sir, there are many happy people here. There are many people here who are watching hundreds, and who think hundreds are watching them.’
Happening to meet Sir Adam Fergusson, I presented him to Dr. Johnson. Sir Adam expressed some apprehension that the Pantheon would encourage luxury. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) I am a great friend to publick amusements; for they keep people from vice. You now (addressing himself to me,) would have been with a wench, had you not been here. – O! I forgot you were married.’
Sir Adam suggested, that luxury corrupts a people, and destroys the spirit of liberty. Johnson. ‘Sir, that is all visionary. I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man. What Frenchman is prevented from passing life as he pleases?’ Sir Adam. ‘But, Sir, in the British constitution it is surely of importance to keep up a spirit in the people, so as to preserve a balance against the crown.’ Johnson. ‘Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the crown? The crown has not power enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government…’ – Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson
The ultimate question between every two human beings is, ‘Can I kill thee, or canst thou kill me?’ – Carlyle
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about; and that is not being talked about. – Wilde
It is the same thing when a man is once there, whether he has been called or whether he has come of his own free will. – Masai proverb
Fraud is the homage force pays to reason. – Charles P Curtis, A Commonplace Book
If, in the course of long years, the great masses of the plain people gradually lose their old faiths, it is only to fill the gaps with new faiths that restate the old ones in new terms. Nothing, in fact, could be more commonplace than the observation that the crazes which periodically ravage the proletariat are, in the main, no more than distorted echoes of delusions cherished centuries ago. The fundamental religious ideas of the lower orders of Christendom have not changed materially in 2,000 years, and they were old when they were first borrowed from the heathen of Asia Minor and Northern Africa. The Iowa Methodist of today, imagining him able to understand them at all, would be able to accept the tenets of Augustine without changing more than a few accents and punctuation marks. Every Sunday his raucous ecclesiastics batter his ears with diluted and debased filches from “De Civitate Dei,” and almost every article of his practical ethics may be found clearly stated in the eminent bishop’s Ninety-third Epistle. And so in politics. The Bolsheviki of today not only poll-parrot the balderdash of the French demagogues of 1789; they also mouth what was gospel to every bete blonde in the Teutonic forests of the Fifth Century.
Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds; its aspect is never precisely the same at two successive instants. But error flows down the channel of history like some great stream of lava or infinitely lethargic glacier. It is the one relatively fixed thing in a world of chaos. It is, perhaps, the one thing that gives human society the stability needed to save it from the wreck that ever menaces. Without their dreams men would have fallen upon and devoured one another long ago – and yet every dream is an illusion, and every illusion a falsehood. – Mencken, Smart Set, Oct., 1919, p84-5
The prestige acquired by the orator in the minds of the crowd is almost unlimited. What the masses appreciate above all are oratorical gifts as such, beauty and strength of voice, suppleness of mind, badinage; whilst the content of the speech is of quite secondary importance. A spouter who, as if bitten by a tarantula, rushes hither and thither to speak to the people, is apt to be regarded as a zealous and active comrade, whereas one who, speaking little but working much, does valuable service for the party, is regarded with disdain…
The quality, however, which most of all impresses the crowd is the prestige of celebrity. As we learn from modem psychology, a notable factor in the suggestive influence exercised by a man is found in the elevation to which he has climbed on the path leading to the Parnassus of celebrity. …It suffices for the celebrated man to raise a finger to make for himself a political position. It is a point of honour with the masses to put the conduct of their affairs in the hands of a celebrity. …The man who appears before them crowned with laurels is considered a priori to be a demi-god. If he consents to place himself at their head it matters little where he has gained his laurels, for he can count upon their applause and enthusiasm. In the popular view, to bear a name which is already familiar in certain respects constitutes the best title to leadership. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p71-4
Poets, aesthetes, or men of science…refuse to submit to the general discipline of the party, and attack the external forms of democracy. But this weakens their position, for the mass cherishes such forms, even when it is ruled by an oligarchy. Consequently their adversaries, though no more truly democratic, since they are much cleverer in preserving the appearance of democracy, gain credit with the crowd. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p75
It is often quicker and more profitable to adapt oneself to others than to make others fit in with oneself. – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Society and Conversation, 48
“The difference between you and myself,” said a friend to me, “is that you have said to all the masqueraders: ‘I know you,’ whilst I have left them the hope that they are deceiving me. That is why the world favours me more than you. It is a masked ball, the interest of which you have spoiled for others and the musement
for yourself.” – Chamfort
…for me, things must take my scale, not I theirs. – Emerson, Literary Ethics
The state of conversation and business in this town, having been long perplexed with pretenders in both kinds, in order to open men’s eyes against such abuses, it appeared no unprofitable undertaking to publish a Paper which should observe upon the manners of the pleasurable, as well as the busy, part of mankind. …the general purpose of this Paper is to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour. – Steele, Tatler, 1st ed.
Institutions, like individuals, must parade and display their glamour if they are to keep their glory alive. – Murray Edelman, Politics as Symbolic Action
LISTENING and SPEAKING
Every man hears only what he understands. – Goethe, Maxims, 383
A real listener hears you even when you keep quiet. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher
BORE, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
Great resources of mind and heart are needed to enjoy sincerity when it wounds, or to practise it without giving offence : few men have depth enough to hear or to tell the truth. – Vauvenargues
If you want to gain the reputation of a sensible man, you should be of the opinion of the person with whom for the time being you are conversing. – Swift
One should never listen. To listen is a sign of indifference to one’s hearers. – Wilde, Maxims for the Use of the Overeducated
The world has never yet done, and will never be able to do, without some apple of discord – some bone of contention – any more than courts of law can do without pleadings, or doctors with the sick. When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest. – Hazlitt, The Plain Speaker, On the Spirit of Controversy
The deeper a disagreement, the harder for both sides to agree what it is really about. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher
To dispute badly is better than not to dispute at all. Even the chatter of a pot-house politician makes people wiser – if not about politics, then about other things… – Lichtenberg
JUSTICE and INJUSTICE
Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich. The word “kleptomania” is a vulgar example of what I mean. It is on a par with that strange theory, always advanced when a wealthy or prominent person is in the dock, that exposure is more of a punishment for the rich than for the poor. Of course, the very reverse is the truth. Exposure is more of a punishment for the poor than for the rich. The richer a man is the easier it is for him to be a tramp. The richer a man is the easier it is for him to be popular and generally respected in the Cannibal Islands. But the poorer a man is the more likely it is that he will have to use his past life whenever he wants to get a bed for the night. Honour is a luxury for aristocrats, but it is a necessity for hall-porters. This is a secondary matter, but it is an example of the general proposition I offer – the proposition that an enormous amount of modern ingenuity is expended on finding defences for the indefensible conduct of the powerful. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.13, Celts and Celtophiles
As far as keeping distance is a sign of Respect, Mankind hath a great deal for Justice. – Halifax
We are not always as unjust to our enemies as we are to our relations. – Vauvenargues
Mercy is of greater value than justice. – Vauvenargues
Nothing is more severe than justice. – Vauvenargues
Strangely enough, this theory of sub-conscious repulsion in the dramatic character is itself an example of sub-conscious repulsion in the modern critic. It is the critic who has a sort of subliminal prejudice which makes him avoid something, that seems very simple to others. The thing which he secretly and obscurely avoids, from the start, is the very simple fact of the morality in which Shakespeare did believe, as distinct from all the crude psychology in which he almost certainly did not believe. Shakespeare certainly did believe in the struggle between duty and inclination. The critic instinctively avoids the admission that Hamlet’s was a s¬truggle between duty and inclination; and tries to substitute a struggle between consciousness and sub-consciousness. He gives Hamlet a complex to avoid giving him a conscience. But he is actually forced to talk as if it was a man’s natural inclination to kill an uncle, because he does not want to admit that it might be his duty to kill him. He is really driven to talking as if some dark and secretive monomania alone prevented us all from killing our uncles. He is driven to this because he will not even take seriously the simple and, if you will, primitive morality upon which the tragedy is built. For that morality involves three moral propositions, from which the whole of the morbid modern subconsciousness does really recoil as from an ugly jar of pain. These principles are: first, that it may be our main business to do the right thing, even when we detest doing it; second, that the right thing may involve punishing some person, especially some powerful person; third, that the just process of punishment may take the form of fighting and killing. The modern critic is prejudiced against the first principle and calls it asceticism; he is prejudiced against the second principle and calls it vindictiveness; he is prejudiced against the third and generally calls it militaris¬m. That it actually might be the duty of a young man to risk his own life, much against his own inclination, by drawing a sword and killing a tyrant, that is an idea instinctively avoided by this particular mood of modern times. That is why tyrants have such a good time in modern times. And in order to avoid this plain and obvious meaning, of war as a duty and peace as a temptation, the critic has to turn the whole play upside down, and seek its meaning in modern notions so remote as to be in this connexion meaningless. He has to make William Shakespeare of Stratford one of the pupils of Professor Freud. He has to make him a champion of psycho-analysis, which is like making him a champion of vaccination. He has to fit Hamlet’s soul somehow into the classifications of Freud and Jung; which is just as if he had to fit Hamlet’s father into the classifications of Sir Oliver Lodge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He has to interpret the whole thing by a new morality that Shakespeare had never heard of, because he has an intense internal dislike of the old morality that Shakespeare could not help hearing of. And that morality, which some of us believe to be based on a much more realistic psychology, is that punishment as punishment is a perfectly healthy process, not merely because it is reform, but also because it is expiation. What the modern world means by proposing to substitute pity for punishment is really very simple. It is that the modern world dare not punish those who are punishable, but only those who are pitiable. It would never touch anyone so important as King Claudius – or Kaiser William.
Now this truth is highly topical just now. The point about Hamlet was that he wavered, very excusably, in something that had to be done; and this is the point quite apart from whether we ourselves would have done it. That was pointed out long ago by Browning in “The Statue and the Bust.” He argued that even if the motive for acting was bad, the motive for not acting was worse. And an action or inaction is judged by its real motive, not by whether somebody else might have done the same thing from a better motive. Whether or no the tyrannicide of Hamlet was a duty, it was accepted as a duty and it was shirked as a duty. And that is precisely true of a tyrannicide like that for which everybody clamoured at the conclusion of the Great War. It may have been right or wrong to punish the
Kaiser; it was certainly no more right to punish the German generals and admirals for their atrocities. But even if it was wrong, it was not abandoned because it was wrong. It was abandoned because it was troublesome. It was abandoned for all those motives – weakness and mutability of mood which we associate with the name of Hamlet. It might be glory or ignominy to shed the blood of imperial enemies, but it is certainly ignominy to shout for what you dare not shed; “to fall a-cursing like a common drab, a scullion.” Granted that we had no better motives than we had then or have now, it would certainly have been more dignified if we had fatted all the region-kites with this slave’s offal. The motive is the only moral test. A saint might provide us with a higher motive for forgiving the War-Lords who butchered Fryatt and Edith Cavell. But we have not forgiven the War-Lords. We have simply forgotten the War. We have not pardoned like Christ; we have only procrastinated like Hamlet. Our highest motive has been laziness; our commonest motive has been money. In this respect indeed I must apologize to the charming and chivalrous Prince of Denmark for comparing him, even on a single point, with the princes of finance and the professional politicians of our time. At least Hamlet did not spare Claudius solely because he hoped to get money out of him for the salaries of the Players, or meant to do a deal with him about wine supplied to Elsinore or debts contracted at Wittenburg. Still less was Hamlet acting entirely in the interests of Shylock, an inhabitant of the distant city of Venice. Doubtless Hamlet was sent to England in order that he might develop further these higher motives for peace and pardon. “‘Twill not be noticed in him there; there the men are as mad as he.”
It is therefore very natural that men should be trying to dissolve the moral problem of Hamlet into the unmoral elements of consciousness and unconsciousness. The sort of duty that Hamlet shirked is exactly the sort of duty that we are all shirking; that of dethroning justice and vindicating truth. Many are now in a mood to deny that it is a duty because it is a danger. This applies, of course, not only. to international but internal and especially industrial matters. Capitalism was allowed to grow into a towering tyranny in England because the English were always putting off their popular revolution, just as the Prince of Denmark put off his palace revolution. They lectured the French about their love of bloody revolutions, exactly as they are now lecturing the French about their love of bloody wars. But the patience which suffered England to be turned into a plutocracy was not the patience of the saints; it was that patience which paralyzed the noble prince of the tragedy; accidia and the great refusal. In any case, the vital point is that by refusing to punish the powerful we soon lost the very idea of punishment; and turned our police into a mere persecution of the poor. – Chesterton, Hamlet and the Psycho-analyst
Public opinion is a jurisdiction which the honest man must never fully recognize, and which he must never ignore. – Chamfort
The world will commonly end by making men that which it thinks them. – Sir Henry Taylor
Is it not strange that we should always regard the public that praises us as a competent judge, while as soon as it finds fault with us we declare it incapable of passing judgement on things of the spirit? – Lichtenberg
Public opinion exists only when there are no ideas. – Wilde, Maxims for the Use of the Overeducated
What we call public opinion is usually public sentiment. – Disraeli
…as for the People, what of them and their authority? …Their authority is a thing blind, deaf, hideous, grotesque, tragic, amusing, serious, and obscene. It is impossible for the artist to live with the People. – Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism
Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art. Whatever is popular is wrong. – Wilde, Lecture to Art Students
Man, however, is a gregarious animal, and much more so in his mind than in his body. He may like to go alone for a walk, but hates to stand alone in his opinions. And he is so imitative that what he thinks he most wishes to do is whatever he sees other people doing. – Santayana, Liberalism and Culture, Soliloquies in England, p174
Seeing is believing, it is said : lying is believing I say. We do not even see with our own eyes, but must “wink and shut our apprehension up,” that we may be able to agree to the report of others, as a piece of good manners and a point of established etiquette. – Hazlitt, On Party Spirit
We say that someone occupies an official position, whereas it is the official position that occupies him. – Lichtenberg
IMPOSTOR n. A rival aspirant to public honors. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
PUBLIC vs PRIVATE
On the perpetual conflict between the dictate of this universal mind and the works and interests of the individual, the moral discipline of life is built. The one craves a private benefit, which the other requires him to renounce out of respect to the absolute good. Every hour puts the individual in a position where his wishes aim at something which the sentiment of duty forbids him to seek. He that speaks the truth executes no private function of an individual will, but the world utters a sound by his lips. He who doth a just action seeth therein nothing of his own, but an inconceivable nobleness attaches to it, because it is a dictate of the general mind. We have no idea of a power so simple and so entire as this. It is the basis of thought, it is the basis of being. Compare all that we call ourselves, all our private and personal venture in the world, with this deep of moral nature in which we lie, and our private good becomes an impertinance, and we take our part with hasty shame against ourselves. – Emerson, Character, 1866
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
We have come to think of art and work as incompatible, or at least independent categories and have for the first time in history created an industry without art. – Ananda Coomaraswamy
…men condemned to a monotonous exertion work – and always…must work – only at a tranquil rate, not producing by any means a maximum result in a given time. But if you allow them to vary their designs, and thus interest their heads and hearts in what they are doing, you will find them become eager, first, to get their ideas expressed, and then to finish the expression of them; and the moral energy thus brought to bear on the matter quickens, and therefore cheapens, the production in a most important degree. …the simple observance of this plain rule of political economy will effect a noble revolution in your architecture, such as you cannot at present so much as conceive. – Ruskin, A Joy For Ever, p38-9
Many types of bodily wage labor used to be socially stigmatized. In the Middle Ages it was widely thought base to take money for the use of one’s scholarly services. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations,” tells us there are “some very agreeable and beautiful talents” that are admirable so long as no pay is taken for them, “but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of publick prostitution.” For this reason, he continues, opera singers, actors and dancers must be paid an “exorbitant” wage, to compensate them for the stigma involved in using their talents “as the means of subsistence.” His discussion is revealing for what it shows us about stigma. Today few professions are more honored than that of opera singer; and yet only 200 years ago, that public use of one’s body for pay was taken to be a kind of prostitution.
Some of the stigma attached to opera singers was a general stigma about wage labor. Wealthy elites have always preferred genteel amateurism. But the fact that passion was being expressed publicly with the body – particularly the female body – made singers, dancers and actors nonrespectable in polite society until very recently. Now they are respectable, but women who take money for sexual services are still thought to be doing something that is not only nonrespectable but so bad that it should remain illegal. – Martha Nussbaum
In the various awkward and unfortunate efforts which the French have made at the development of a social system, they have at least stated one true principle, that of fraternity or brotherhood. Do not be alarmed; they got all wrong in their experiments, because they quite forgot that this fact of fraternity implied another fact quite as important – that of paternity, or fatherhood. That is to say, if they were to regard the nation as one family, the condition of unity in that family consisted no less in their having a head, or a father, than in their being faithful and affectionate members, or brothers.
…the real type of a well-organised nation must be presented, not by a farm cultivated by servants who wrought for hire, and might be turned away if they refused to labour, but by a farm in which the master was a father, and in which all the servants were sons; which implied, therefore, in all its regulations, not merely the order of expediency, but the bonds of affection and responsibilities of relationship; and in which all acts and services were not only to be sweetened by brotherly concord, but to be enforced by fatherly authority. – Ruskin, A Joy For Ever, p16-17
If you really “can’t get into” the game in your field, you probably won’t have an intention strong enough to learn to play it well… If your intention is lacking, trying to force yourself is not a good idea. – Lawrence Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, p233
WORK AND PLAY
This stupid experiment of organizing work and failing to organize play has, of course, brought about a fine revenge. The love of pleasure will not be denied, and when it has turned into all sorts of malignant and vicious appetites, then we, the middle-aged, grow quite distracted and resort to all sorts of restrictive measures. – Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets
RICHES AND POVERTY
I have never seen a man as rich as all men ought to be. – Emerson
Riches. Neither will poverty suit every complexion. Socrates and Franklin may well go hungry and in plain clothes, if they like; but there are people who cannot afford this, but whose poverty of nature needs wealth of food and clothes to make them decent. – Emerson, journals, VIII 25
The only thing that can console one for being poor is extravagance. The only thing that can console one for being rich is economy. – Wilde, A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated (1894)
A man does not know when he is well off, it is only when he is poor that he remembers the days of plenty. – Masai proverb
LEARNING and TEACHING
One learns through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect. – Mark Twain
What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing. – Aristotle
Chess can’t be taught. Chess can only be learned. – Botvinnik
Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. – Emerson
One does not get “beyond” anything unless one has been immersed in it. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher
El sabio siempre quiere aprender; el ignorante siempre quiere enseñar. – Spanish proverb
(The wise person always wants to learn; the ignorant person always wants to teach.)
LEARNING, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
LECTURER, n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. – Wilde, Maxims for the Use of the Overeducated
That learning would please me little which brought its teachers no closer to virtue. – Sallust
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot, irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it. – J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
The great never with their own consent become a load on the minds they instruct. The more they draw us to them, the farther from them or more independent of them we are, because they have brought us to the knowledge of somewhat deeper than both them and us. – Emerson, (XII 315)
The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education but the means of education. – Emerson, journals, 1831
Nothing can be taught us, the idea of which is not already in our minds. – Leibniz
What I have learnt I no longer know; what I still know has come to me by intuition. – Chamfort
…the materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. – Marx, Theses on Feuerbach
Whosoever seeks, knows that which he seeks for in a general notion: else how shall he know it when he has found it? – Plato
Today’s writers know very little about anything. But then those who teach cannot be taught. – Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde: On The Skids Again
…everybody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching – that is really what our enthusiasm for education has come to. – Wilde, The Decay of Lying
ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
ACADEMY, n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
What we do not call education is more precious than that which we call so. – Emerson, Spiritual Laws
Teaching is a delightful paternal art, and especially teaching intelligent and warm-hearted youngsters, as most American collegians are; but it is an art like acting, where the performance, often rehearsed, must be adapted to an audience hearing it only once. The speaker must make concessions to their impatience, their taste, their capacity, their prejudices, their ultimate good; he must neither bore nor perplex nor demoralise them. His thoughts must be such as can flow daily, and be set down in notes; they must come when the bell rings and stop appropriately when the bell rings a second time. The best that is in him, as Mephistopheles says in Faust, he dare not tell them; and as the substance of this possession is spiritual, to withhold is often to lose it. For it is not merely a matter of fearing not to be understood, or giving offence; in the presence of a hundred youthful upturned faces a man cannot, without diffidence, speak in his own person, of his own thoughts; he needs support, in order to exert influence with a good conscience; unless he feels that he is the vehicle of a massive tradition, he will become bitter, or flippant, or aggressive; if he is to teach with good grace and modesty and authority, it must not be he that speaks, but science or humanity that is speaking in him. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.2
A Little Learning misleadeth, and a great deal often stupifieth the Understanding.
¬Great Reading without applying it is like Corn heaped that is not stirred, it groweth musty. – Halifax
How, in spite of the incurable imbecility of the great masses of men, are we to get a reasonable measure of common sense and decency into the conduct of the world? The Liberal answer (much more clearly stated by H.G. Wells in “The Outline of History” than by Mr. W Lippmann in “Public Opinion”) is, in essence, simply a variant of the old democratic answer: by spreading enlightenment, by democratizing information, by combatting what is adjudged to be false by what is adjudged to be true. But this scheme, however persuasively it may be set forth, invariably goes to wreck upon two or three immovable facts. One is the fact that a safe majority of the men and women in every modern society are congenitally uneducable, save within very narrow limits – that it is no more possible to teach them what every voter theoretically should know than it is to teach a chimpanzee to play the viol da gamba. Another is the fact that the same safe majority, far from having any natural yearning to acquire this undescribed body of truth, has a natural and apparently incurable distrust of it… A third (and it is more important than either of the other two) is that there exists no body of teachers in Christendom capable of teaching the truth, even supposing it to be known…The inevitable tendency of pedagogy…is to preserve and propagate the lies that happen to be currently respectable, which is to say, that happen to be salubrious to the current masters of the mob. – Mencken, Demagoguery as Art and Science, April 1922
It seems to me that the regulative idea that we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists, most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’ … It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… You have to be educated in order to be…a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. – Rorty, Universality and Truth, Rorty and His Critics ed. Brandom, p21-2, 2000
…the humour which hath reigned too much in the schools (which is, to be vainly subtile in a few things which are within their command, and to reject the rest)… – Bacon, Advancement of Learning, p138
Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. – Dewey
If liberalism had been a primitive system, with no positive institutions behind it, it would have left human genius in the most depressed and forlorn condition. The organized part of life would have been a choice among little servitudes, and the free personal part would have been a blank. Fortunately, liberal ages have been secondary ages, inheriting the monuments, the feelings, and the social hierarchy of previous times, when men had ¬lived in compulsory unison, having only one unquestioned religion, one style of art, one political order, one common spring of laughter and tears. Liberalism has come to remove the strain and the trammels of these traditions without as yet uprooting the traditions themselves. Most people retain their preliberal heritage and hardly remember that they are legally free to abandon it and to sample any and every other form of life. Liberalism does not go very deep; it is an adventitious principle, a mere loosening of an older structure. For that reason it brings to all who felt cramped and ill-suited such comfort and relief. It offers them an escape from all sorts of accidental tyrannies. It opens to them that sweet, scholarly, tenderly moral, critically superior attitude of mind which Matthew Arnold called culture.
Primitive, dragooned, unanimous ages cannot possess culture. What they possess is what the Germans call a Kultur, some type or other of manners, laws, implements, arts, religion. When these national possessions are per used and relished by some individual who does not take them for granted and who understands and judges them as if from outside, his acquaintance with them becomes an element in his culture; and if he is at home in many such forms of life and thought, his culture is the more perfect. It should ideally be culled from everywhere. Culture is a triumph of the individual over society. It is his way of profiting intellectually by a world he has not helped to make.
¬ Culture requires liberalism for its foundation, and liberalism requires culture for its crown. It is culture that integrates in imagination the activities which liberalism so dangerously disperses in practice. Out of the public disarray of beliefs and efforts it gathers its private collection of curiosities, much as amateurs stock their museums with fragments of ancient works. It possesses a wealth of vicarious experience and historical insight which comforts it for having nothing of its own to contribute to history. The man of culture abounds in discriminating sentiments; he lives under the distant influence of exalted minds; his familiar thoughts at breakfast are intimate appreciations of poetry and art, and if his culture is really mellow, he sometimes smiles a little at his own culture.
¬ Culture came into the modern world with the renaissance, when personal humours and remote inspiration broke in upon the consecrated mediaeval mind. Piety and learning had their intrinsic charms, but, after all, they had been cultivated for the sake of ulterior duties and benefits, and in order to appropriate and hand down the revealed wisdom which opened the way to heaven. Culture, on the contrary, had no ulterior purpose, no forced unity. It was an aroma inhaled by those who walked in the evening in the garden of life. Far from being a means to religion, it threw religion also into the context of human experience, and touched its mysteries and quarrels with judgement and elegance. It liberated the studious mind from obligatory or national discipline, and as far as possible from all bonds of time, place, utility, and co-operation, kindling sympathies by preference with what was most exotic, and compensating the mind for the ignominious necessity of having to be, in practical matters, local and partisan. Culture was courteous, open, unconscious of self; it was the joy of living every life but one’s own. And its moral side – for everything has its moral side – lay in the just judgements it fostered, the clear sense it awakened of the different qualities and values of things. The scale of values established by the man of culture might sometimes be fanciful or frivolous, but he was always most scrupulous, according to his lights, in distinguishing the better from the worse. This conscientiousness, after all, is the only form of morality that a liberal society can insist upon.
¬ The days of liberalism are numbered. First the horrors of competition discredited it, and now the trial of war, which it foolishly thought it could elude. The vogue of culture, too, has declined. We see that the man whose success is merely personal – the actor, the sophist, the millionaire, the aesthete – is incurably vulgar. The rightness of liberalism is exactly proportional to the diversity of human nature, to its vague hold on its ideals. Where this vagueness and play of variation stop, and they stop not far below the surface, the sphere of public organization should begin. It is in the subsoil of uniformity, of tradition, ¬of dire necessity that human welfare is rooted, together with wisdom and unaffected art, and the flowers of culture that do not draw their sap from that soil are only paper flowers. ¬Santayana, Liberalism and Culture, Soliloquies in England, p175-8
When we want culture more than potatoes, and illumination more than sugar-plums, then the great resources of a world are taxed and drawn out, and the result, or staple production, is, not slaves, nor operatives, but men, – those rare fruits called heroes, saints, poets, philosophers, and redeemers. – Thoreau, Life Without Principle
Culture, in the high sense, does not consist in polishing or varnishing, but in so presenting the attractions of nature that the slumbering attributes of man may burst their iron sleep and rush, full-grown, into day. – Emerson
Culture is the suggestion, from certain best thoughts, that a man has a range of affinities through which he can modulate the violence of any master-tones that have a droning preponderance in his scale, and succor him against himself. – Emerson, Conduct of Life
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. – Whitehead
There are still major material barriers to democracy, but there is also this barrier in our minds, behind which, with an assumption of virtue, we seek to lay our hands on others, &, from our own constructions, determine their course. Against this the idea of culture is necessary, as an idea of the tending of natural growth. To know, even in part, any group of living processes, is to see and wonder at their extraordinary variety and complexity. To know, even in part, the life of man, is to see and wonder at its extraordinary multiplicity, its great fertility of value. We have to live by our own attachments, but we can only live fully, in common, if we grant the attachments of others, and make it our common business to keep the channels of growth clear. – Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, p322
After defending logic, [Martha Nussbaum] briefly describes a cosmopolitan view that she derives from her study of Stoicism. This she insinuates without proof is demanded of someone adequately trained in critical reasoning. She states: “The education of the Kosmou polites [world-citizen] is thus closely connected to Socratic inquiry and the goal of an examined life. For attaining membership in the world community entails a willingness to doubt the goodness of one’s own way and to enter into the give and take of critical argument about ethical and political choices”.
Whatever one thinks of the Stoic goal, or for that matter of Socratic questioning, it should be clear that this is not to be identified with logical thought. Why cannot, say, a religious believer, who accepts his creed as axiomatically true, think in entire accord with the rules of logic? It is not a principle of logic, Professor Nussbaum to the contrary notwithstanding, that “all questions are open questions.”
And surely Professor Nussbaum knows full well that this very issue has occasioned much discussion in contemporary analytic philosophy. Alvin Plantinga and others have famously contended that it is not a requirement of rationality that a “properly basic belief” be supported by argument. Nussbaum no doubt disagrees: but surely she had a duty to inform her readers of the existence of controversy on the point. She omits to do so, instead proceeding rather like this: logic Socrates Stoicism The Good.
Indeed, Nussbaum has a habit of eliding facts inconvenient to her thesis. She never bothers to inform us that the Stoic defense of cosmopolitanism often rested on metaphysical doctrines that, to say the least, are highly controversial. As an example, many Stoics were cosmopolitans because they believed that human beings all contain sparks from the same divine fire. She thinks it unnecessary to mention that her beloved Marcus Aurelius was a worse persecutor of Christians than Nero, nor does she quote Seneca’s “humanitarian” statement that it is natural to recoil in horror at the sight of a poor man. Readers dependent on her will not learn that her account of Socrates as a democrat, though backed by the eminent authority of Gregory Vlastos, is controversial.
… No doubt Sen, a world-famous economist, offers a valuable course; and Nussbaum mentions a few other offerings that sound promising. But how can a few instances, described by someone with a proven record of tendentiousness, counter the fact, known to every informed observer, that multiculturalism is synonymous with leftist slogans and racial strife? (Readers who doubt this should consult Literature Lost…) – a mises.org review
KILT, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen in America and Americans in Scotland. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary
There is one other reason for dressing well than I have ever considered, namely, that dogs respect it, and will not attack you in good clothes. – Emerson, journals, VII 318