Maths, Science, Philosophy



Geometry is not true, it is convenient. – Poincaré

It is by logic that we prove, but by intuition that we discover… – Poincaré

…mathematics is a field in which one’s blunders tend to show very clearly and can be corrected or erased with a stroke of the pencil. It is a field which has often been compared with chess, but differs from the latter in that it is only one’s best moments that count and not one’s worst. – Norbert Wiener


The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. – Poincaré

[Science is] a mobile unsteady structure…with all the bits always moving about, fitting together in different ways, adding new bits to themselves with flourishes of adornment as though consulting a mirror, giving the whole arrangement something like the unpredictability and unreliability of living flesh. …The endeavor is not, as is sometimes thought, a way of building a solid, indestructible body of immutable truth, fact laid precisely upon fact. …Science is not like this at all. – Lewis Thomas, Harvard Magazine, vol. 83 (1980), p19-20

A permanent disadvantage of the study of folk-lore and kindred subjects is that the man of science can hardly be in the nature of things very frequently a man of the world. He is a student of nature; he is scarcely ever a student of human nature. And even where this difficulty is overcome, and he is in some sense a student of human nature, this is only a very faint beginning of the painful progress towards being human. For the study of primitive race and religion stands apart in one important respect from all, or nearly all, the ordinary scientific studies. A man can understand astronomy only by being an astronomer; he can understand entomology only by being an entomologist (or, perhaps, an insect); but he can understand a great deal of anthropology merely by being a man. He is himself the animal which he studies. Hence arises the fact which strikes the eye everywhere in the records of ethnology and folk-lore – the fact that the same frigid and detached spirit which leads to success in the study of astronomy or botany leads to disaster in the study of mythology or human origins. It is necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to a microbe; it is not necessary to cease to be a man in order to do justice to men. That same suppression of sympathies, that same waving away of intuitions or guess-work which make a man preternaturally clever in dealing with the stomach of a spider, will make him preternaturally stupid in dealing with the heart of man. He is making himself inhuman in order to understand humanity. …in this matter their defect arises…from ignorance of this world. For the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be best learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by travelling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart. When a man has discovered why men in Bond Street wear black hats he will at the same moment have discovered why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers. The mystery in the heart of some savage war-dance should not be studied in books of scientific travel; it should be studied at a subscription ball. If a man desires to find out the origins of religions, let him not go to the Sandwich Islands; let him go to church. If a man wishes to know the origin of human society, to know what society, philosophically speaking, really is, let him not go into the British Museum; let him go into society.
+++++This total misunderstanding of the real nature of ceremonial gives rise to the most awkward and dehumanized versions of the conduct of men in rude lands or ages. The man of science, not realizing that ceremonial is essentially a thing which is done without a reason, has to find a reason for every sort of ceremonial, and, as might be supposed, the reason is generally a very absurd one – absurd because it originates not in the simple mind of the barbarian, but in the sophisticated mind of the professor. The teamed man will say, for instance, “The natives of Mumbojumbo Land believe that the dead man can eat and will require food upon his journey to the other world. This is attested by the fact that they place food in the grave, and that any family not complying with this rite is the object of the anger of the priests and the tribe.” To any one acquainted with humanity this way of talking is topsy-turvy. It is like saying, “The English in the twentieth century believed that a dead man could smell. This is attested by the fact that they always covered his grave with lilies, violets, or other flowers. Some priestly and tribal terrors were evidently attached to the neglect of this action, as we have records of several old ladies who were very much disturbed in mind because their wreaths had not arrived in time for the funeral.” It may be of course that savages put food with a dead man because they think that a dead man can eat, or weapons with a dead man because they think that a dead man can fight. But personally I do not believe that they think anything of the kind. I believe they put food or weapons on the dead for the same reason that we put flowers, because it is an exceedingly natural and obvious thing to do. We do not understand, it is true, the emotion which makes us think it obvious and natural; but that is because, like all the important emotions of human existence it is essentially irrational. We do not understand the savage for the same reason that the savage does not understand himself. And the savage does not understand himself for the same reason that we do not understand ourselves either.
+++++The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and for ever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality. Even what we call our material desires are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man’s wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man’s desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folk-lore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy. You can no more be certain in economic history that a man’s desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint’s desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.11 Science and the Savages.

In nature we find, not words, but only the initial letters of words, and if we attempt to read them we find that the new so-called words are again merely the initial letters of words. – Lichtenberg

In all that I do and do not do, nothing pains me more than the fact that I am obliged to view the world just as the ordinary man does, even though as a scientist I know he views it erroneously. – Lichtenberg

[Natural selection] has been the sole doctrine in modern biology, because it fits the scientific assumption that mechanisms, automatic and purposeless, account for change – any change… In 1750 Buffon was almost the only evolutionist, but by 1800 many “natural philosophers” believed firmly in evolution, among them Lamarck, Goethe, and Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, who wrote on the subject an important work in three volumes. [Zoonomia, 1796] To complicate the story, Charles Darwin was not a true Darwinist. By the sixth and last edition of the Origin of Species (1876) he had come to believe that natural selection was aided by direct environmental effects and by the use and disuse of organs, which implies the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The former was Buffon’s contribution and the latter was Lamarck’s a generation later. – Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, p209

RADIUM, n. A mineral that gives off heat and stimulates the organ that a scientist is a fool with. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary


Do not say hypothesis, and even less theory: say way of thinking. – Lichtenberg

Nothing is more inimical to the progress of science than the belief that we know what we do not yet know. This is an error to which the inventors of fanciful hypotheses are commonly subject. – Lichtenberg

The time of big theories was the time of big results. In the era of sentiment and fine words, at the end of the eighteenth century, men were really robust and effective. The sentimentalists conquered Napoleon. The cynics could not catch De Wet. A hundred years ago our affairs for good or evil were wielded triumphantly by rhetoricians. Now our affairs are hopelessly muddled by strong, silent men. And just as this repudiation of big words and big visions has brought forth a race of small men in politics, so it has brought forth a race of small men in the arts. Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesar and the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pure and too patriotic to be moral; but the upshot of it all is that a mediocrity is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Our new artistic philosophers call for the same moral license, for a freedom to wreck heaven and earth with their energy; but the upshot of it all is that a mediocrity is Poet Laureate. I do not say that there are no stronger men than these; but will any one say that there are any men stronger than those men of old who were dominated by their philosophy and steeped in their religion? Whether bondage be better than freedom may be discussed. But that their bondage came to more than our freedom it will be difficult for any one to deny.
+++++… Neither in the world of politics nor that of literature, then, has the rejection of general theories proved a success. It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality. Nothing has lost so many opportunities as the opportunism of Lord Rosebery. He is, indeed, a standing symbol of this epoch – the man who is theoretically a practical man, and practically more unpractical than any theorist. Nothing in this universe is so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom. A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politician is like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beaten at billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf. There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.
+++++And having discovered that opportunism does fail, I have been induced to look at it more largely, and in consequence to see that it must fail. I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness, and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy. But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religious liberty without attempting to settle what is religion or what is liberty. If the old priests forced a statement on mankind, at least they previously took some trouble to make it lucid. It has been left for the modern mobs of Anglicans and Nonconformists to persecute for a doctrine without even stating it. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.1

Richter once said to me: physicians should say, not “I cured him”, but “He did not die at my hands”. In the same way one could also say in physics: I have assigned to it causes whose absurdity no one has yet been able to demonstrate – instead of saying: I have explained. – Lichtenberg

Newton distinguishes (a) certain movements of heavenly bodies; (b) the vis gravitatis which causes these movements; (c) the reason why gravity works as it does (ratio harum gravitationis proprietatum). He claims both (a) and (b) as facts; but disclaims all opinion about (c) because, as he says, ‘I have hitherto not been able to deduce it from the phenomena, and I do not make hypotheses’ (Scholium Generale; Principia ad fin.). This, he is careful to explain, is a strict rule in hac philosophia, i.e. in physics. But he has drawn the line between fact and hypothesis in the wrong place. He thinks that (b) is logically implied in (a) (‘deduced from the phenomena’). It is not. It is an hypothesis devised to explain the phenomena. The disclaimer of hypotheses is, of course, positivism. Newton, like all positivists, mistakes his own hypotheses for statements of fact. – Collingwood, Essay on Metaphysics, p272


It is strange that only extraordinary men make those discoveries that afterwards seem so easy and simple; it presupposes that to perceive the simplest but true condition of things requires a very profound degree of knowledge. – Lichtenberg

A good method of discovery is to imagine certain members of a system removed and then see how what is left would behave: for example, where would we be if iron were absent from the world: this is an old example. – Lichtenberg


Philosophy cannot be read, it must be de-read – that is, one must re-think each phrase, and this assumes that you break it into the words which form its ingredients; you then take each one of them, and instead of resting content with surveying its agreeable surface, you must throw yourself headlong into it, submerge yourself in it, go down into the depths of its meaning, look well to its anatomy and its boundaries in order to emerge again into the free air as master of its secret heart. When one does this with all the words of a sentence, they stay united not side by side, but subterraneously, joined by the very roots of their ideas; only then do they truly become a philosophic phrase. For horizontal reading, the kind that slips along, for simple mental skating down the page, one must substitute vertical reading, immersion in the small abyss which is each word, a fruitful dive without a diving bell. – Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?, p76

It is only the philosopher who includes as an essential ingredient of his cognitive attitude the possibility that his object may turn out to be unknowable. And this means that philosophy is the sole science which takes the problem as it is presented, without any previous taming; unlike the circus hand who drugs his lions before entering their cage, philosophy hunts the wild beast in the jungle where it lives. – Ortega y Gasset, What is Philosophy?, p79

Every philosopher says he is pursuing the truth, but this is seldom the case. As a philosopher has observed, one reason why philosophers often fail to reach the truth is that often they do not desire to reach it. Those who are genuinely concerned in discovering what happens to be true are rather the men of science, the naturalists, the historians; and ordinarily they discover it, according to their lights. The truths they find are never complete, and are not always important; but they are integral parts of the truth, facts and circumstances that help to fill in the picture, and that no later interpretation can invalidate or afford to contradict. But professional philosophers are usually only apologists : that is, they are absorbed in defending some vested illusion or some eloquent idea. Like lawyers or detectives, they study the case for which they are retained, to see how much evidence or semblance of evidence they can gather for the defence, and how much prejudice they can raise against the witnesses for the prosecution; for they know they are defending prisoners suspected by the world, and perhaps by their own good sense, of falsification. They do not covet truth, but victory and the dispelling of their own doubts. What they defend is some system, that is, some view about the totality of things, of which men are actually ignorant. No system would have ever been framed if people had been simply interested in knowing what is true, whatever it may be. What produces systems is the interest in maintaining against all comers that some favourite or inherited idea of ours is sufficient and right. A system may contain an account of many things which, in detail, are true enough; but as a system, covering infinite possibilities that neither our experience nor our logic can prejudge, it must be a work of imagination and a piece of human soliloquy. It may be expressive of human experience, it may be poetical; but how should any one who really coveted truth suppose that it was true? – Santayana, Winds of Doctrine, p197-200 (?)

Ever since Pythagoras (or so we are told) invented the word philosophy, in order to express the notion of the philosopher not as one who possesses wisdom but as one who aspires to it, students of philosophy have recognized that the essence of their business lies not in holding this view or that, but in aiming at some view not yet achieved: in the labour and adventure of thinking, not in the results of it. What a genuine philosopher (as distinct from a teacher of philosophy for purposes of examination) tries to express when he writes is the experience he enjoys in the course of this adventure, where theories and systems are only incidents in the journey. – Collingwood, Principles of Art

What am I? What shall I do? What can I believe and hope for? Everything in philosophy can be reduced to this. – Lichtenberg

Whichever way you look at it, philosophy is always analytical chemistry. The peasant employs all the propositions of the most abstract philosophy, only he employs them enveloped, concealed, compounded, latent, as the chemist and physicist says; the philosopher gives us the propositions pure. – Lichtenberg

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself. – Mencken

A man with no philosophy in him is the most inauspicious and unprofitable of all possible social mates. – W James, Philosophy and its Critics

Ultimately there are but two philosophies. One of them accepts life and experience in all its uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and half-knowledge and turns that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities – to imagination and art. This is the philosophy of Shakespeare and Keats. – Dewey, Art as Experience, p34

It is good to be a philosopher, but unprofitable to be considered one… – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Opinions, 68

…that abuse of philosophy, which grew general about the time of Epictetus, in converting it into an occupation or profession; as if the purpose had been, not to resist and extinguish perturbations, but to fly and avoid the causes of them, and to shape a particular kind and course of life to that end; introducing such an health of mind, as was that health of body of which Aristotle speaketh of Herodicus, who did nothing all his life long but intend his health. – Bacon, Advancement of Learning, p169

To generalize is to be an idiot. – Blake

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

PYRRHONISM, n. An ancient philosophy, named for its inventor. It consisted of an absolute disbelief in everything but Pyrrhonism. Its modern professors have added that. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoi. The leader of the school is Tolstoi. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

POSITIVISM, n. A philosophy that denies our knowledge of the Real and affirms our ignorance of the Apparent. Its longest exponent is Comte, its broadest Mill and its thickest Spencer. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

But what can be meant by saying that philosophy must justify its own starting-point? Plainly it cannot mean that, before the work of substantive philosophy can begin, there must be a preliminary philosophy charged with the task of justifying its principles. That would be to support the world on an elephant, and the elephant on a tortoise: a procedure which, as Kant came to see, is not adequately explained by calling the elephant Metaphysics and the tortoise a Critical or Transcendental Propaedeutic. If the first principles of philosophy are to be justified, they must be justified by that philosophy itself.
+++++This can be done only if the arguments of philosophy, instead of having an irreversible direction from principles to conclusions, have a reversible one, the principles establishing the conclusions and the conclusions reciprocally establishing the principles. But an argument of this kind, in which A rests on B and B rests reciprocally on A, is a vicious circle. Are we to conclude that philosophy is in the dilemma of either renouncing this characteristic function and conforming to the irreversible pattern of exact science, or else losing all cogency in a circular argument?
+++++10. The solution of the dilemma lies in a feature of philosophical thought to which I have already referred more than once: the Socratic principle that philosophical reasoning leads to no conclusions which we did not in some sense know already. Every school of philosophical thought has accepted this principle, recognizing that philosophy does not, like exact or empirical science, bring us to know things of which we were simply ignorant, but brings us to know in a different way things which we already knew in some way… – Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, p160-1

…Dewey was baffled. He asked [Jane] Addams whether there weren’t antagonisms between certain institutions – for example, capital and labor, or the church and democracy – which it made sense to take seriously. She said there never were: “The antagonism of institutions was always unreal; it was simply due to the injection of the personal attitude and reaction; and then instead of adding to the recognition of meaning, it delayed and distorted it.” It was, Dewey confessed to Alice, “the most magnificent exhibition of intellectual and moral faith I ever saw. She converted me internally, but not really, I fear… [W]hen you think that Miss Addams does not think this as a philosophy, but believes it in all her senses and muscles – Great God.”
+++++By morning he had changed his mind. Addams, he decided, was right. “I can see that I have always been interpreting [he wrote “Hegelian,” but crossed it out] dialectic wrong end up,” he wrote to Alice, “- the unity as the reconciliation of opposites, instead of the opposites as the unity in its growth, and thus translated the physical tension into a moral thing.” He saw, in other words, that the resistance the world puts up to our actions and desires is not the same as a genuine opposition of interests. “I don’t know as I give the reality of this at all,” he concluded, “- it seems so natural and commonplace now, but I never had anything take hold of me so.” – Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

The great difficulty in philosophy is to come to every question with a mind fresh and unshackled by former theories, though strengthened by exercise and information; as in the practice of art, the great thing is to retain our admiration of the beautiful in nature together with the power to imitate it, and not from a want of this original feeling, to be enslaved by formal rules, or dazzled by the mere difficulties of execution. – Hazlitt, On Novelty and Familiarity

Philosophy strives for knowledge of the whole. The whole is the totality of the parts. The whole eludes us, but we know parts: we possess partial knowledge of parts. The knowledge which we possess is characterized by a fundamental dualism which has never been overcome. At one pole we find knowledge of homogeneity: above all in arithmetic, but also in the other branches of mathematics, and derivatively in all productive arts or crafts. At the opposite pole we find knowledge of heterogeneity, and in particular of heterogeneous ends; the highest form of this kind of knowledge is the art of the statesman and of the educator. The latter kind of knowledge is superior to the former for this reason. As knowledge of the ends of human life, it is knowledge of what makes human life complete or whole; it is therefore knowledge of a whole. Knowledge of the ends of man implies knowledge of the human soul; and the human soul is the only part of the whole which is open to the whole and therefore more akin to the whole than anything else is. But this knowledge – the political art in the highest sense – is not knowledge of the whole. It seems that knowledge of the whole would have to combine somehow political knowledge in the highest sense with knowledge of homogeneity. And this combination is not at our disposal. Men are therefore constantly tempted to force the issue by imposing unity on the phenomena, by absolutizing either knowledge of homogeneity or knowledge of ends. Men are constantly attracted and deluded by two opposite charms: the charm of competence which is engendered by mathematics and everything akin to mathematics, and the charm of humble awe, which is engendered by meditation on the human soul and its experiences. Philosophy is characterized by the gentle, if firm, refusal to succumb to either charm. It is the highest form of the mating of courage and moderation. In spite of its highness or nobility, it could appear as Sisyphean or ugly, when one contrasts its achievement with its goal. Yet it is necessarily accompanied, sustained and elevated by eros. It is graced by nature’s grace. – Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?

No-one has yet succeeded in inventing a philosophy at once credible and self-consistent. Locke aimed at credibility, and achieved it at the expense of consistency. Most of the great philosophers have done the opposite. A philosophy which is not self-consistent cannot be wholly true, but a philosophy which is self-consistent can very well be wholly false. The most fruitful philosophies have contained glaring inconsistencies, but for that very reason have been partially true. There is no reason to suppose that a self-consistent system contains more truth than one which, like Locke’s, is obviously more or less wrong. – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p592

Not only Locke’s valid opinions, but even his errors, were useful in practice. – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p585

A characteristic of Locke, which descended from him to the whole Liberal movement, is lack of dogmatism. – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, p586

If philosophy is to benefit humankind, it must raise and support us as frail and fallen beings, rather than strip us of our nature or abandon us in our corruption. – Vico, New Science, I.2

[The Sophists] did as if one that professed the art of shoe-making should not teach how to make up a shoe, but only exhibit in a readiness a number of shoes of all fashions and sizes. – Aristotle

The great claim made for the absolute is that by supposing it we make the world appear more rational. Any hypothesis that does that will always be accepted as more probably true than an hypothesis that makes the world appear irrational. Men are once for all so made that they prefer a rational world to believe in and to live in. But rationality has at least four dimensions, intellectual, aesthetical, moral, and practical; and to find a world rational to the maximal degree “in all these respects simultaneously” is no easy matter. Intellectually, the world of mechanical materialism is the most rational, for we subject its events to mathematical calculation. But the mechanical world is ugly, as arithmetic is ugly, and it is non-moral. Morally, the theistic world is rational enough, but full of intellectual frustrations. The practical world of affairs, in its turn, so supremely rational to the politician, the military man, or the man of conquering business-faculty that he never would vote to change the type of it, is irrational to moral and artistic temperaments; so that whatever demand for rationality we find satisfied by a philosophic hypothesis, we are liable to find some other demand for rationality unsatisfied by the same hypothesis. The rationality we gain in one coin we thus pay for in another; and the problem accordingly seems at first sight to resolve itself into that of getting a conception which will yield the largest “balance” of rationality rather than one which will yield perfect rationality of every description. – W James, A Pluralistic Universe, ch. on Hegel

My conclusion, so far, then, is this, that altho the hypothesis of the absolute, in yielding a certain kind of religious peace, performs a most important rationalizing function, it nevertheless, from the intellectual point of view, remains decidedly irrational. The “ideally” perfect whole is certainly that whole of which the “parts also are perfect” – if we can depend on logic for anything, we can depend on it for that definition. The absolute is defined as the ideally perfect whole, yet most of its parts, if not all, are admittedly imperfect. Evidently the conception lacks internal consistency, and yields us a problem rather than a solution. It creates a speculative puzzle, the so-called mystery of evil and of error, from which a pluralistic metaphysic is entirely free. In any pluralistic metaphysic, the problems that evil presents are practical, not speculative. Not why evil should exist at all, but how we can lessen the actual amount of it, is the sole question we need there consider. ‘God,’ in the religious life of ordinary men, is the name not of the whole of things, heaven forbid, but only of the ideal tendency in things, believed in as a superhuman person who calls us to co-operate in his purposes, and who furthers ours if they are worthy. He works in an external environment, has limits, and has enemies. When John Mill said that the notion of God’s omnipotence must be given up, if God is to be kept as a religious object, he was surely accurately right; yet so prevalent is the lazy monism that idly haunts the region of God’s name, that so simple and truthful a saying was generally treated as a paradox: God, it was said, “could” not be finite. I believe that the only God worthy of the name “must” be finite, and I shall return to this point in a later lecture. If the absolute exist in addition – and the hypothesis must, in spite of its irrational features, still be left open – then the absolute is only the wider cosmic whole of which our God is but the most ideal portion, and which in the more usual human sense is hardly to be termed a religious hypothesis at all. ‘Cosmic emotion’ is the better name for the reaction it may awaken. – W James, A Pluralistic Universe, ch. on Hegel

The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. – W James, A Pluralistic Universe, ch. on Hegel

It is only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems. – Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


That which is to guide men must be true but also universally understandable. Even if it is presented to them in images which they elucidate differently at each different stage on the road to knowledge. – Lichtenberg

It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters – except everything.
+++++Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subject of cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that, whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist. Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-table we may easily hear a man say, “Life is not worth living.” We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day; nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effect on the man or on the world. And yet if that utterance were really believed, the world would stand on its head. Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life; firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons would be used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well; the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins. Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimist will strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convinced that theories do not matter.
+++++This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom. When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed. …
+++++But there are some people, nevertheless – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them. In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous. The age of the Inquisition has not at least the disgrace of having produced a society which made an idol of the very same man for preaching the very same things which it made him a convict for practising.
+++++Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory, that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out, more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it used to occupy. General ideals used to dominate literature. They have been driven out by the cry of “art for art’s sake.” General ideals used to dominate politics. They have been driven out by the cry of “efficiency,” which may roughly be translated as “politics for politics’ sake.” Persistently for the last twenty years the ideals of order or liberty have dwindled in our books; the ambitions of wit and eloquence have dwindled in our parliaments. Literature has purposely become less political; politics have purposely become less literary. General theories of the relation of things have thus been extruded from both; and we are in a position to ask, “What have we gained or lost by this extrusion? Is literature better, is politics better, for having discarded the moralist and the philosopher?”
+++++When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency. So it is that when a man’s body is a wreck he begins, for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organisms talk not about their processes, but about their aims. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.1

On Sandals and Simplicity
The great misfortune of the modern English is not at all that they are more boastful than other people (they are not); it is that they are boastful about those particular things which nobody can boast of without losing them. A Frenchman can be proud of being bold and logical, and still remain bold and logical. A German can be proud of being reflective and orderly, and still remain reflective and orderly. But an Englishman cannot be proud of being simple and direct, and still remain simple and direct. In the matter of these strange virtues, to know them is to kill them. A man may be conscious of being heroic or conscious of being divine, but he cannot (in spite of all the Anglo-Saxon poets) be conscious of being unconscious.
+++++Now, I do not think that it can be honestly denied that some portion of this impossibility attaches to a class very different in their own opinion, at least, to the school of Anglo-Saxonism. I mean that school of the simple life, commonly associated with Tolstoy. If a perpetual talk about one’s own robustness leads to being less robust, it is even more true that a perpetual talking about one’s own simplicity leads to being less simple. One great complaint, I think, must stand against the modern upholders of the simple life – the simple life in all its varied forms, from vegetarianism to the honourable consistency of the Doukhobors. This complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things. They would make us simple in the things that do not matter – that is, in diet, in costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter – in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection. It does not so very much matter whether a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys. There may be a reasonable doubt as to what system preserves this; there can surely be no doubt that a system of simplicity destroys it. There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle. The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached – “plain living and high thinking.” These people do not stand in need of, will not be improved by, plain living and high thinking. They stand in need of the contrary. They would be improved by high living and plain thinking. A little high living (I say, having a full sense of responsibility, a little high living) would teach them the force and meaning of the human festivities, of the banquet that has gone on from the beginning of the world. It would teach them the historic fact that the artificial is, if anything, older than the natural. It would teach them that the loving-cup is as old as any hunger. It would teach them that ritualism is older than any religion. And a little plain thinking would teach them how harsh and fanciful are the mass of their own ethics, how very civilized and very complicated must be the brain of the Tolstoyan who really believes it to be evil to love one’s country and wicked to strike a blow.
+++++A man approaches, wearing sandals and simple raiment, a raw tomato held firmly in his right hand, and says, “The affections of family and country alike are hindrances to the fuller development of human love;” but the plain thinker will only answer him, with a wonder not untinged with admiration, “What a great deal of trouble you must have taken in order to feel like that.” High living will reject the tomato. Plain thinking will equally decisively reject the idea of the invariable sinfulness of war. High living will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to despise a pleasure as purely material. And plain thinking will convince us that nothing is more materialistic than to reserve our horror chiefly for material wounds.
+++++The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it can be brought back by no turnips or cellular clothing; but only by tears and terror and the fires that are not quenched. If that remain, it matters very little if a few Early Victorian armchairs remain along with it. Let us put a complex entree into a simple old gentleman; let us not put a simple entree into a complex old gentleman. So long as human society will leave my spiritual inside alone, I will allow it, with a comparative submission, to work its wild will with my physical interior. I will submit to cigars. I will meekly embrace a bottle of Burgundy. I will humble myself to a hansom cab. If only by this means I may preserve to myself the virginity of the spirit, which enjoys with astonishment and fear. I do not say that these are the only methods of preserving it. I incline to the belief that there are others. But I will have nothing to do with simplicity which lacks the fear, the astonishment, and the joy alike. I will have nothing to do with the devilish vision of a child who is too simple to like toys.
+++++The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them. The evil is that the childish poetry of clockwork does not remain. The wrong is not that engines are too much admired, but that they are not admired enough. The sin is not that engines are mechanical, but that men are mechanical.
+++++In this matter, then, as in all the other matters treated in this book, our main conclusion is that it is a fundamental point of view, a philosophy or religion which is needed, and not any change in habit or social routine. The things we need most for immediate practical purposes are all abstractions. We need a right view of the human lot, a right view of the human society; and if we were living eagerly and angrily in the enthusiasm of those things, we should, ipso facto, be living simply in the genuine and spiritual sense. Desire and danger make every one simple. And to those who talk to us with interfering eloquence about Jaeger and the pores of the skin, and about Plasmon and the coats of the stomach, at them shall only be hurled the words that are hurled at fops and gluttons, “Take no thought what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed. For after all these things do the Gentiles seek. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” Those amazing words are not only extraordinarily good, practical politics; they are also superlatively good hygiene. The one supreme way of making all those processes go right, the processes of health, and strength, and grace, and beauty, the one and only way of making certain of their accuracy, is to think about something else. If a man is bent on climbing into the seventh heaven, he may be quite easy about the pores of his skin. If he harnesses his waggon to a star, the process will have a most satisfactory effect upon the coats of his stomach. For the thing called “taking thought,” the thing for which the best modern word is “rationalizing,” is in its nature, inapplicable to all plain and urgent things. Men take thought and ponder rationalistically, touching remote things – things that only theoretically matter, such as the transit of Venus. But only at their peril can men rationalize about so practical a matter as health. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.10


To Thales the primary question was not what do we know, but how do we know it. – Aristotle

Scepticism…is in reality a covert dogmatism; it contains positive theories of the nature, method, and limitations of philosophical thought, but disclaims their possession and conceals them from criticism. Hence it is both inconsistent, or false to its own professed principles, and – intentionally or unintentionally – dishonest, because applying to others a form of criticism which in its own case it will not admit.
+++++… Both these sceptical theories, [critical and analytic] therefore, break down under examination, and both for the same reason. Each disclaims a constructive philosophy; each claims to possess, not a body of doctrine, but only a method: not a method of reaching positive philosophical conclusions, but a method of doing something else – in the one case, of demolishing false philosophies, in the other, of deciding what exactly we mean when we make a statement. They both fail to recognize that methods imply principles, and systematic methods, systematic principles; and that their professed scepticism is merely a veiled claim to exempt these principles from criticism or even from explicit statement, while assuming their truth and sufficiency. While this state of things continues, it cannot be allowed that the critical or analytic philosopher, however much we may value him as a commentator or critic of the philosophy of others, has even begun the task of formulating a philosophical position or programme of his own. – Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, p140-1, 147

To say that theory must be checked by appeal to experience, therefore, seems like saying that the more rational must prove its rationality by conforming to the less rational, which seems like appealing from Philip sober to Philip drunk. But what is asked of the higher is not simply that it should agree with the lower, but rather that it should explain it: perpetuate its substance in a new form, related to the old somewhat as a fact plus the reasons for it is related to the bare fact. Consequently, when we ask whether a moral theory tallies with moral experience we are asking whether the theory makes intelligible the moral experience which we actually possess.
21. At every stage in the scale, there is a datum or body of experience, the stage that has actually been reached; and there is a problem, the task of explaining this experience by constructing a theory of it, which is nothing but the same experience raised by intenser thought to a higher level of rationality. The accomplishment of this task is only the continuation of a process already begun; it was only by thinking that we reached the point at which we stand, for the experience upon which we philosophize is already a rational experience; so our reason for going on is that we already stand committed to the task. But the new and intenser thinking must be thinking of a new kind; new principles are appearing in it, and these give a criterion by which the principles involved in the last step are superseded. Thus the stage last reached, regarded as a theory, is now a theory criticized and refuted; what stands firm is not its truth as theory, but the fact that it has actually been reached, the fact that we have experienced it; and in criticizing and demolishing it as a theory we are confirming and explaining it as an experience.
22. This, then, is the general nature of philosophical inference. The critical view of it was so far right, that it consists always and essentially in refutation; whatever positive doctrine has been propounded, the next step for philosophy is to demolish it, to destroy it as a theory, and leave it standing only as an experience. But this view only apprehends the negative side of the process; it misses the positive side, the necessity of explaining that experience by reference to the new principles implied in the critical process itself.
+++++The analytic view was so far right, that every movement of philosophical thought begins with a datum which is already knowledge, and goes on to explain what this knowledge means. It is only wrong because it forgets that, in explaining our knowledge, we come to know it in a different way; the datum does not remain a fixed point, it undergoes development in undergoing analysis, and therefore vanishes in its original form, to reappear in a new.
+++++It is right to describe philosophical thought as deductive, because at every phase in its development it is, ideally at least, a complete system based on principles and connected throughout its texture by strict logical bonds; but this system is more than a deductive system, because the principles are open to criticism and must be defended by their success in explaining our experience.
+++++For this reason, because philosophy is always an attempt to discern the principles which run through experience and make it a rational whole, it is right to call it inductive; but it differs from an inductive science because the experience on which its theories are based is itself an experience of rational living, theorizing, philosophizing. Consequently, because the data from which it begins and which it has to explain are homogeneous with its conclusions, the theories by which it seeks to explain them, the activity of philosophizing is a datum to philosophy, and among its tasks is the task of accounting for itself; and this, which is true even at a quite low level of philosophical development, is more and more so as it becomes more and more philosophical; so that the maturity of a philosophy may be judged by the clearness with which it apprehends the principle laid down at the beginning of this essay, that the theory of philosophy is an essential part of philosophy. – Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, p172-5

The conception of a type of difference which is at once a difference in degree and a difference in kind releases philosophical thought from a series of errors which fall into two groups.
+++++Because it is recognized that there are differences of degree in the subject-matter of philosophy, it is sometimes assumed that these resemble the differences of degree found in a non-philosophical concept like the physicist’s heat: that is, that they are differences of degree pure and simple, and therefore susceptible of measurement and calculation. From this fallacy arise all the attempts to treat philosophical matters like pleasures, goods, and so forth mathematically; attempts so uniformly unsuccessful that no one, perhaps, would be tempted to make them but for the fear of falling into the opposite error. This is the fallacy of assuming that, because the species of a philosophical genus differ in kind, they exhibit no differences of degree; from which it would follow that all pleasures were equally pleasant, all good things or good acts equally good, all beautiful things equally beautiful, and so forth. These may be called the fallacy of calculation and the fallacy of indifference respectively; they represent the two horns of a dilemma based on the false disjunction that a difference of degree cannot also be a difference of kind (false disjunction of degree and kind).
+++++Here, as often happens with dilemmas, the victim may impale himself on both horns successively. First, by the fallacy of indifference, he may argue that pushpin is as good as poetry; then, redressing the balance by adopting the fallacy of calculation, he may try to represent those differences of degree which at first he ignored by a calculus in which one of these indifferent units is added to another. – Collingwood, Essay on Philosophical Method, p80-1

…the point of edifying philosophy is to keep the conversation going rather than to find objective truth. Such truth…is the normal result of normal discourse. Edifying philosophy is not only abnormal but reactive, having sense only as a protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatization of some privileged set of descriptions. The danger which edifying discourse tried to avert is that some given vocabulary, some way in which people might come to think of themselves, will deceive them into thinking that from now on all discourse could be, or should be, normal discourse. The resulting freezing-over of culture would be, in the eyes of edifying philosophers, the dehumanization of human beings. – Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature


Metaphysics, according to F. H. Bradley, “is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” It is curious to find this pungent dictum at the beginning of a long book of earnest and even unctuous metaphysics, which, through much arduous argumentation, leads up to the final conclusion: “Outside of spirit there is not, and there cannot be, any reality, and, the more that anything is spiritual, so much the more is it veritably real.” A rare moment of self-knowledge must have inspired the initial aphorism, which was made bearable to its author by its semi-humorous form; but throughout the rest of his labors he allowed himself to be claimed by “the instinct to find bad reasons.” When he was serious he was sophistical, and a typical philosopher; when he jested, he had insight and uttered unphilosophical truth.
+++++Philosophy has been defined as “an unusually obstinate attempt to think clearly”; I should define it rather as “an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously.” The philosopher’s temperament is rare, because it has to combine two somewhat conflicting characteristics: on the one hand, a strong desire to believe some general proposition about the universe or human life; on the other hand, an inability to believe contentedly except on what appear to be intellectual grounds. The more profound the philosopher, the more intricate and subtle must his fallacies be in order to produce in him the desired state of intellectual acquiescence. That is why philosophy is obscure.
+++++To the completely unintellectual, general doctrines are unimportant; to the man of science, they are hypotheses to be tested by experiment; while to the philosopher they are mental habits which must be justified somehow if he is to find life endurable. The typical philosopher finds certain beliefs emotionally indespensable, but intellectually difficult; he therefore goes through long chains of reasoning, in the course of which, sooner or later, a momentary lack of vigilance allows a fallacy to pass undetected. After the one false step, his mental agility quickly takes him far into the quagmire of falsehood. – Bertrand Russell, Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives

Unconsciously we seek out the principles and dogmas that are in keeping with our temperament, so that in the end it looks as if the principles and dogmas had created our character, given it stability and certainty, while precisely the opposite has occurred. – Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 608.

The part played by argument in making a man an idealist is little more, in most cases, than the part played by argument in making a man a Hindu, a Christian, or a Moslem. In idealism, as in religion, the heart has laid down the conclusion…in advance, and it is this conclusion alone which matters. If the head can find arguments for it afterwards, that is well: if not, well again. To suppose that arguments for idealism were ever of the essence with Berkeley, or Kant, or Hegel, or Green, is to suppose that counterarguments against idealism, if these had been pressed upon them, might have quite overcome their wish for a congenial universe, and changed their minds. Only someone colossally ignorant of the psychology of modern philosophy could believe that. – David Stove, Idealism


Even the greatest philosophers, such as Aristotle, have not always much imagination to conceive forms of happiness or folly other than those which their age or their temperament reveals to them; their insight runs only to discovering the principle of happiness, that it is spontaneous life of any sort harmonized with circumstances. The sympathies and imagination of Dickens, vivid in their sphere, were no less limited in range; and of course it was not his business to find philosophic formulas; nevertheless I call his the perfection of morals for two reasons : that he put the distinction between good and evil in the right place, and that he felt this distinction intensely. A moralist might have excellent judgement, he might see what sort of life is spontaneous in a given being and how far it may be harmonized with circumstances, yet his heart might remain cold, he might not suffer nor rejoice with the suffering or joy he foresaw. Humanitarians like Bentham and Mill, who talked about the greatest happiness of the greatest number, might conceivably be moral prigs in their own persons, and they might have been chilled to the bone in their theoretic love of mankind, if they had had the wit to imagine in what, as a matter of fact, the majority would place their happiness. Even if their theory had been correct (which I think it was in intention, though not in statement) they would then not have been perfect moralists, because their maxims would not have expressed their hearts. In expressing their hearts, they ought to have embraced one of those forms of “idealism” by which men fortify themselves in their bitter passions or in their helpless commitments; for they do not wish mankind to be happy in its own way, but in theirs. Dickens was not one of those moralists who summon every man to do himself the greatest violence so that he may not offend them, nor defeat their ideals. Love of the good of others is something that shines in every page of Dickens with a truly celestial splendour. How entirely limpid is his sympathy with life – a sympathy uncontaminated by dogma or pedantry or snobbery or bias of any kind! How generous is this keen, light spirit, how pure this open heart! And yet, in spite of this extreme sensibility, not the least wobbling; no deviation from a just severity of judgement, from an uncompromising distinction between white and black. And this happens as it ought to happen; sympathy is not checked by a flatly contrary prejudice or commandment, by some categorical imperative irrelevant to human nature; the check, like the cheer, comes by tracing the course of spontaneous impulse amid circumstances that inexorably lead it to success or to failure. There is a bed to this stream, freely as the water may flow; when it comes to this precipice it must leap, when it runs over these pebbles it must sing, and when it spreads into that marsh it must become livid and malarial. The very sympathy with human impulse quickens in Dickens the sense of danger; his very joy in joy makes him stern to what kills it. – Santayana, Dickens, Soliloquies in England, p70-2

The philosopher, bent on the construction of a system, is inclined to simplify the facts unduly … and to twist them into a form in which they can all be deduced from one or two general principles. The moralist, on the other hand, being primarily concerned with conduct, tends to become absorbed in means, to value the actions men ought to perform more than the ends which such actions serve… Hence most of what they value in this world would have to be omitted by many moralists from any imagined heaven, because there such things as self-denial and effort and courage and pity could find no place… Kant has the bad eminence of combining both errors in the highest possible degree, since he holds that there is nothing good except the virtuous will – a view which simplifies the good as much as any philosopher could wish, and mistakes means for ends as completely as any moralist could enjoin. – Russell, The Elements of Ethics

Can we approve of a division of labour in which the theorists keep their hands clean of real-world applications, and the ones who advise the decision makers, those who do “applied ethics,” are like a consumer reports service, pointing out the variety of available theories and what costs and benefits each has for the serious user of it? – Annette Baier, Doing without Moral Theory?, in Postures of Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals, p235-6, 1985

[…the] attempt to take as a starting point a widely agreed and inclusive notion of the aim of moral philosophy is pretty much doomed. No one knows what the subject is; most widely agreed accounts of it depend on suppositions that are not obvious and that reflect particular evaluations and views of the world, of human nature, and of what it is to speak, think, write, or read about the world. The more inclusive an account is, the more likely that it will include what many philosophers would not dream of counting as part of their subject. – Cora Diamond, Having a Rough Story about what Moral Philosophy Is, New Literary History, 15.1 p167-8

It is not clear…that “philosophy” constitutes a definable or recognizable approach to moral questions. Perhaps philosophers are in precisely the same position as anyone else when they examine concrete moral problems, having nothing special to contribute except academic freedom and the mandate to consider ethical issues.
+++++Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I will define “moral philosophy” as…”an effort to develop general normative principles or procedures that can be defended with arguments and then used to settle at least some concrete cases.” …
+++++When philosophers deny that general principles can ever settle important concrete cases, they disparage moral philosophy as I have defined it. Similarly, when they express doubt that conclusive arguments ever support moral principles, they express skepticism about their discipline. This kind of skepticism has a distinguished history. Aristotle, Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and many other philosophers of the past denied that they could resolve concrete cases with clear and demonstrable principles: they even made philosophical arguments in favor of this skeptical conclusion. Still, we can call people “philosophical” to the extent that they generalize, rely on principles or procedures, and use abstract arguments to defend their moral views. Even Aristotle and Hume behaved this way to a certain extent. A person who never does so is not a moral philosopher, even if he or she holds a chair in the subject.
+++++I believe that we can settle moral dilemmas without doing any of the things that I have characterized as “moral philosophy”. There is an alternative approach, which is more an art than a science, learned by experience rather than by the apprehension of principles or techniques. It is…a matter of describing particulars in a judgemental way. …
+++++By describing acts, characters, political alternatives, and even whole social situations in thick, value-laden ways, people support their beliefs and thus try to convince their fellow citizens. Some descriptions are better than others because they make better sense of the whole array of relevant details; some are superior because they reflect greater experience and discernment. A partial or unobservant description can be revealed as such in public debate. Therefore, our judgements can be verified when one detailed description is measured against its competitors. The appropriate judge of a description is anyone who may be affected by it, and consensus is a sufficient test of moral truth. When (as is often the case) we cannot obtain perfect consensus, we must decide whether to let individuals choose freely, to apply majority rule, or to maintain the status quo. In other words, we need political rules. The appropriate rules vary from institution to institution, but at their best they enjoy unanimous support within their own domains.
+++++The art of thick description does not invoke general theories or deductive reasoning: it does apply rules to cases or offer abstract reasons for concrete judgements. Instead, it makes use of narratives and rich, evocative descriptions of reality. These techniques are the specialty of novelists, historians, visual artists, filmmakers, literary critics, and preachers – in a word, humanists. – Peter Levine, Living Without Philosophy, p4-5


All philosophy, one way or another, is political philosophy. – Alasdair Macintyre


That philosophers should be professors is an accident, and almost an anomaly. Free reflection about everything is a habit to be imitated, but not a subject to expound; and an original system, if the philosopher has one, is something dark, perilous, untested, and not ripe to be taught, nor is there much danger that any one will learn it. The genuine philosopher – as Royce liked to say, quoting the Upanishads – wanders alone like the rhinoceros. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.2

These essays, then, are an attempt to sketch an attitude towards statecraft. I have tried to suggest an approach, to illustrate it concretely, to prepare a point of view. In selecting for the title “A Preface to Politics,” I have wished to stamp upon the whole book my own sense that it is a beginning and not a conclusion. I have wished to emphasize that there is nothing in this book which can be drafted into a legislative proposal and presented to the legislature the day after to-morrow. It was not written with the notion that these pages would contain an adequate exposition of modern political method. Much less was it written to further a concrete program. There are, I hope, no assumptions put forward as dogmas.
+++++It is a preliminary sketch for a theory of politics, a preface to thinking. Like all speculation about human affairs, it is the result of a grapple with problems as they appear in the experience of one man. For though a personal vision may at times assume an eloquent and universal language, it is well never to forget that all philosophies are the language of particular men. – W Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, Intro., 1913

If philosophers must earn their living and not beg (which some of them have thought more consonant with their vocation), it would be safer for them to polish lenses like Spinoza, or to sit in a black skull-cap and white beard at the door of some unfrequented museum, selling the catalogues and taking in the umbrellas; these innocent ways of earning their bread-card in the future republic would not prejudice their meditations and would keep their eyes fixed, without undue affection, on a characteristic bit of that real world which it is their business to understand. Or if being mild and bookish, it is thought they ought to be teachers, they might teach something else than philosophy; or if philosophy is the only thing they are competent to teach, it might at least not be their own, but some classic system with which, and against which, mankind is already inoculated – preferably the civilised ethics and charming myths of Plato and Aristotle, which everybody will be the better for knowing and few the worse for believing. At best, the true philosopher can fulfil his mission very imperfectly, which is to pilot himself, or at most a few voluntary companions who may find themselves in the same boat. It is not easy for him to shout, or address a crowd; he must be silent for long seasons; for he is watching stars that move slowly and in courses that it is possible though difficult to foresee; and he is crushing all things in his heart as in a winepress, until his life and their secret flow out together. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.2

Amongst tragic masks may be counted all systems of philosophy and religion. So long as they are still plastic in the mind of their creator, they seem to him to wear the very lineaments of nature. He cannot distinguish the comic cast of his own thought; yet inevitably it shows the hue and features of his race; it has its curious idiom and constitutional grammar, its quite personal rhetoric, its ridiculous ignorances and incapacities, and when his work is finished and its expression set, and other people behold it, it becomes under his name one of the stock masks or dramatis personae of the moral world. In it every wrinkle of his soul is eternalized, its old dead passion persisted in, its open mouth, always with the same rictus, bawling one deaf thought for ever. Even to himself, if he could have seen his mind at a distance, it would have appeared limited and foreign, as to an old man the verses of his youth, or like one’s own figure seen unexpectedly in a mirror and mistaken at first for another person. His own system, as much as those of others, would have seemed to him a mask for the truth, partial, over-emphatic, exaggerating one feature and distorting another, and above all severed from the context of nature, as a picture in a frame, where much may be shown with a wonderfully distilled beauty, yet without its substance, and without its changeful setting in the moving world. Yet this fate is in part a favour. A system, like a tell-tale glass, may reveal by a trick of reflection many a fact going on behind one’s back. By it the eye of the mind travels where experience cannot penetrate; it turns into a spectacle what was never open to sight, and it disentangles things seen from the personal accidents of vision. The mask is greater than the man. In isolating what was important and pertinent in his thoughts, it rescues his spirit from the contamination of all alien dyes, and bequeaths it to posterity such as it would have wished to be. – Santayana, Soliloquies in England, 38. p160

The tendency to gather and to breed philosophers in universities does not belong to ages of free and humane reflection : it is scholastic and proper to the Middle Ages and to Germany. And the reason is not far to seek. When there is a philosophical orthodoxy, and speculation is expected to be a reasoned defence of some funded inspiration, it becomes itself corporate and traditional, and requires centres of teaching, endowment, and propaganda. Fundamental questions have been settled by the church, the government, or the Zeitgeist, and the function of the professor, himself bred in that school, is to transmit its lore to the next generation, with such original touches of insight or eloquence as he may command. To maintain and elucidate such a tradition, all the schools and universities of Christendom were originally founded; and if philosophy seemed sometimes to occupy but a small place in them – as for instance in the old-fashioned American college – it was only because the entire discipline and instruction of the place were permeated with a particular system of faith and morals, which it was almost superfluous to teach in the abstract. In those universities where philosophical controversy is rife, its traditional and scholastic character is no less obvious; it lives less on meditation than on debate, and turns on proofs, objections, paradoxes, or expedients for seeming to re-establish everything that had come to seem clearly false, by some ingenious change of front or some twist of dialectic. Its subject-matter is not so much what is known of the world, as what often very ignorant philosophers have said in answer to one another; or else, when the age is out of patience with scholasticism, orthodoxy may take refuge in intuition, and for fear of the letter without the spirit, may excuse itself from considering at all what is logical or probable, in order to embrace whatever seems most welcome and comforting. The sweet homilies of the professors then become clerical, genteel, and feminine. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.2

What does a philosopher demand of himself first and last? To overcome his time in himself, to become “timeless”. With what must he therefore engage in the hardest combat? With whatever marks him as the child of his time. – Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, preface

Intellectual mediocrity and sloth make more philosophers than reason or reflexion. – Vauvenargues


The truth, which is a standard for the naturalist, for the poet is only a stimulus; and in many an idealist the poet debauches the naturalist, and the naturalist paralyses the poet. The earth might well upbraid Plato for trying to build his seven-walled cloud-castle on her back, and to circumscribe her in his magic circles. Why should she be forbidden to exhibit any other essences than those authorized by this metaphysical Solon? Why should his impoverished Olympian theology be imposed upon her, and all her pretty dryads and silly fauns, all her harpies and chimeras, be frowned upon and turned into black devils? – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p232

I think that Plato in his youth must have seen his Ideas with this mystical directness, and must have felt the irritation common to mystics at being called back out of that poetic ecstasy into the society of material things. Those essences were like the gods, clear and immortal, however fugitive our vision of them might be; whereas things were in their inmost substance intricate and obscure and treacherously changeable; you could never really know what any of them was, nor what it might become. The Ideas were our true friends, our natural companions, and all our safe knowledge was of them; things were only vehicles by which Ideas were conveyed to us, as the copies of a book are vehicles for its sense.
+++++Nevertheless, the happy intuition of pure essences of all sorts, as life vouchsafes it to the free poet or to the logician, could not satisfy the heart of Plato. He felt the burden, the incessant sweet torment, of the flesh; and when age – as I think we may detect in the changed tone of his thoughts – relieved him of this obsession, which had been also his first inspiration, it only reinforced an obsession of a different kind, the indignation of an aristocrat and the sorrow of a patriot at the doom which hung visibly over his country. The fact that love intervened from the beginning in Plato’s vision of the Ideas explains why his Ideas were not the essences actually manifested in experience, as it comes to the cold eye or the mathematical brain. When love looks, the image is idealized; it does not show the obvious, but the dreamt-of and the desired. Platonism is not pure intuition, but intuition charged with enthusiasm. Then, to reinforce this mystification of the Ideas by love, there was the passionate political impulse to contrast the form things actually wore with that which they ought to have worn. This double moral bias, of love and of hate, with its dismissal of almost all given essences as not the right essences, produced the curious hierarchy of Platonic Ideas; themes belonging to the realm of essence by their ontological texture or mode of being, yet clinging, like a faithful shadow or simplified echo, to the morphology of earthly things. The poet in Plato had been entrapped by the moralist, and the logician enslaved by the legislator. He turned away from the disinterested vision of the Ideas in their endless variety; he lost, he almost blushed to have possessed, the genial faculty of his anonymous ancestors, the creators of mythology, who could see gods in all things. He cultivated instead the art of a nearer progenitor of his, Solon, and attempted to make laws for Athens, for mankind, and even for the universe. He did it admirably; the Timaeus, his book on nature, is a beautiful myth, and his book on the Laws is a monument of wisdom. But Plato had grown forgetful of the Ideas, and of the life of intuition; his gaze had become sad, troubled, and hopeless; he was preoccupied with making existence safe. But how should existence be safe? How should those tiny nut-shells – his walled city and his walled cosmos – keep afloat for ever in this rolling sea of vagueness and infinity?
+++++When breeding or conscience suppresses a man’s genius, his genius often takes its revenge and reasserts itself, by some indirection, in the very system that crushed it. This happened to paganism when, being stamped out by Christianity, it turned Christianity into something half pagan. It happened also to Plato when, the world having distracted him from his Ideas, he made a supernatural world out of them, to govern and correct this nether world, in which he was forced to live. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p230-1


In the melodramatic fashion so common in what is called philosophy we may delight ourselves with such flashes of lightning as this : esse est percipi. The truth of this paradox lies in the fact that through perception alone can we get at being – a modest and familiar notion which makes, as Plato’s Theaetetus shows, not a bad point of departure for a serious theory of knowledge. The sophistical intent of it, however, is to deny our right to make a distinction which in fact we do make and which the speaker himself is making as he utters the phrase; for he would not be so proud of himself if he thought he was thundering a tautology. If a thing were never perceived, or inferred from perception, we should indeed never know that it existed; but after we become aware that we have perceived or inferred it, it may remain conducive to comprehension and practical competence to continue to regard it as existing independently of our perception; and our ability to make this supposition is registered in the difference between the two words to be and to be perceived – words which are by no means synonymous but designate two very different relations of things to thought. Such idealism at one fell swoop, through a collapse of assertive intellect with a withdrawal of reason into self-consciousness, has the puzzling character of any clever pun, that suspends the fancy between two incompatible but irresistible meanings. The art of such sophistry is to choose for an axiom some ambiguous phrase which taken in one sense is a truism and taken in another is an absurdity; and then, by showing the truth of that truism, to give out that the absurdity has also been proved. It is a truism to say that I am the only seat or locus of my ideas, and that whatever I know is known by me; it is an absurdity to say that I am the only object of my thought and perception.
+++++To confuse the instrument with its function and the operation with its meaning has been a persistent foible in modern philosophy. – Santayana, Life of Reason, I p112-4

It is not a question of correctness in opinion or conduct, since for the idealist there can be no external standard of truth, existence, or excellence on which such correctness could depend. Ideas are so much real experience and have no further subject-matter. Thought is simply more or less rich, elaborate, or vehement, like a musical composition, and more or less consistent with itself. It is all a question of depth and fulness of experience, obtained by hacking one’s way through this visionary and bewitched existence, the secret purpose of which is to serve the self in its development. In this philosophy imagination that is sustained is called knowledge, illusion that is coherent is called truth, and will that is systematic is called virtue. – Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy, p30-1

The Reformation did not reform this belief in the cosmic supremacy of man, or the humanity of God; on the contrary, it took it (like so much else) in terrible German earnest, not suffering it any longer to be accepted somewhat lightly as a classical figure of speech or a mystery resting on revelation. The human race, the chosen people, the Christian elect were like tabernacle within tabernacle for the spirit; but in the holy of holies was the spirit itself, one’s own spirit and experience, which was the centre of everything. Protestant philosophy, exploring the domain of science and history with confidence, and sure of finding the spirit walking there, was too conscientious to misrepresent what it found. As the terrible facts could not be altered they had to be undermined. By turning psychology into metaphysics this could be accomplished, and we could reach the remarkable conclusion that the human spirit was not so much the purpose of the universe as its seat, and the only universe there was.
+++++This conclusion, which sums up idealism on its critical or scientific side, would not of itself give much comfort to religious minds, that usually crave massive support rather than sublime independence; it leads to the heroic egotism of Fichte or Nietzsche rather than to any green pastures beside any still waters. But the critical element in idealism can be used to destroy belief in the natural world; and by so doing it can open the way to another sort of idealism, not at all critical, which might be called the higher superstition. This views the world as an oracle or charade, concealing a dramatic unity, or formula, or maxim, which all experience exists to illustrate. The habit of regarding existence as a riddle, with a surprising solution which we think we have found, should be the source of rather mixed emotions; the facts remain as they were, and rival solutions may at any time suggest themselves; and the one we have hit on may not, after all, be particularly comforting. The Christian may find himself turned by it into a heathen, the humanist into a pantheist, and the hope with which we instinctively faced life may be chastened into mere conformity. Nevertheless, however chilling and inhuman our higher superstition may prove, it will make us feel that we are masters of a mystical secret, that we have a faith to defend, and that, like all philosophers, we have taken a ticket in a lottery in which if we hit on the truth, even if it seems a blank, we shall have drawn the first prize.
+++++Orthodoxy in New England, even so transformed and attenuated, did not of course hold the field alone. There are materialists by instinct in every age and country; there are always private gentlemen whom the clergy and the professors cannot deceive. Here and there a medical or scientific man, or a man of letters, will draw from his special pursuits some hint of the nature of things at large; or a political radical will nurse undying wrath against all opinions not tartly hostile to church and state. But these clever people are not organised, they are not always given to writing, nor speculative enough to make a system out of their convictions. The enthusiasts and the pedagogues naturally flock to the other camp. The very competence which scientific people and connoisseurs have in their special fields disinclines them to generalise, or renders their generalisations one-sided; so that their speculations are extraordinarily weak and stammering. Both by what they represent and by what they ignore they are isolated and deprived of influence, since only those who are at home in a subject can feel the force of analogies drawn from that field, whereas any one can be swayed by sentimental and moral appeals, by rhetoric and unction. Furthermore, in America, the materialistic school is without that support from popular passions which it draws in many European countries from its association with anticlericalism or with revolutionary politics; and it also lacks the maturity, self-confidence, and refinement proper in older societies to the great body of Epicurean and disenchanted opinion, where for centuries wits, critics, minor philosophers, and men of the world have chuckled together over their Horace, their Voltaire, and their Gibbon. The horror which the theologians have of infidelity passes therefore into the average American mind unmitigated by the suspicion that anything pleasant could lie in that quarter, much less the open way to nature and truth and a secure happiness. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.1 The Moral Background

The British philosopher dips into idealism in order to reform belief, to get rid of dangerous shams or uncongenial dogmas, not for the sake of pure intuition or instant assurance. He wishes to remove impediments to action; he hates great remote objects as he hates popery and policy; imposing things are impositions. Better get rid, if possible, of substance and cause and necessity and abstractions and self and consciousness. The purpose is to reduce everything to plain experience of fact, and to rest neither in pure intuition nor in external existences. For instance, he has two arguments against the existence of matter which he finds equally satisfactory : one that matter cannot exist because he can form no idea of it, and the other that matter cannot exist because it is merely an idea which he forms. He descends to the immediate only for the sake of the ulterior, for the immediate in some other place. If he found himself reduced to essences actually given now, he would be terribly unhappy, and I am sure would renounce philosophy as a bad business, as he did in the person of Hume, his most profound representative. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p235

…European speculation, like the Athalie of Racine, has twice in its dreams beheld the same Ideas; but like that uneasy heroine it has been troubled by the sight, and has stretched out its arms to grasp the painted shadow. The first time, instead of Ideas, it found a celestial hierarchy of dominations and powers, a bevy of magic influences, angels, and demons. The second time, instead of Ideas, it found an irrevocable flux of existing feelings, without cause, purpose, connection, or knowledge. Perhaps if on a third occasion the Ideas visited a less burdened and preoccupied soul, that could look on them without apprehension, they might be welcomed for their fair aspect and for the messages they convey from things, without being, in their own persons, either deified or materialized. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p235


Experience, as practical people understand it, is not every sort of consciousness or memory, but only such as is addressed to the facts of nature and controlled by the influence of those facts; material contact or derivation is essential to it. Experience is both physical and mental, the intellectual fruit of a material intercourse. It presupposes animal bodies in contact with things, and it presupposes intelligent minds in those bodies, keeping count of the shocks received, understanding their causes, and expecting their recurrence as it will actually take place. To these naturalistic convictions all those ought to have clung who valued experience as a witness rather than as a sensation; without animals in a natural environment experience, as contrasted with fancy or intuition, can neither be nor be conceived. It means so much of knowledge and readiness as is fetched from contact with events by a teachable and intelligent creature; it is a fund of wisdom gathered by living in familiar intercourse with things.
+++++But such assumptions are an offence to the expert empiricist. … – Santayana, Empiricism, Soliloquies in England, p197-8

The disadvantage of radical empiricism is that it shuts out experience. – Santayana, Empiricism, Soliloquies in England, p201

The honest Englishman does not care much for Ideas, because in his labour he is occupied with things and in his leisure with play, or with rest in a haze of emotional indolence : but finding himself, for the most part, deep in the mess of business, he is heartily desirous of knowing the facts; and when, in his scrupulous inquiry into the facts, he finds at bottom only Ideas, and is constrained to become a philosopher against his will, he contrives, out of those very Ideas, to elicit some knowledge of fact. Ideas are not intrinsically facts, but suppositions; they are descriptions offering themselves officiously as testimonials for facts whose character remains problematical, since, if there were no such facts, the Ideas would still be the same; yet, says the melancholy Jaques to himself, “Is it not a fact that I have made this dubious supposition? Am I not entertaining this Idea? This sad but undeniable experience of mine, not the fact which I sought nor the Idea which I found, is the actual fact, and the undeniable existence.” Thus the occurrence of any experience, or the existence of any illusion, assumes the names both of fact and of idea in his vocabulary, and the existence of ideas becomes the corner-stone of his philosophy. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p233

…for any one who thinks naturalistically (as the British empiricists did in the beginning, like every unsophisticated mortal), psychology is the description of a very superficial and incidental complication in the animal kingdom : it treats of the curious sensibility and volatile thoughts awakened in the mind by the growth and fortunes of the body. In noting these thoughts and feelings, we can observe how far they constitute true knowledge of the world in which they arise, how far they ignore it, and how far they play with it, by virtue of the poetry and the syntax of discourse which they add out of their own exuberance; for fancy is a very fertile treacherous thing, as every one finds when he dreams. But dreams run over into waking life, and sometimes seem to permeate and to underlie it; and it was just this suspicion that he might be dreaming awake, that discourse and tradition might be making a fool of him, that prompted the hard-headed Briton, even before the Reformation, to appeal from conventional beliefs to “experience.” He was anxious to clear away those sophistries and impostures of which he was particularly apprehensive, in view of the somewhat foreign character of his culture and religion. Experience, he thought, would bear unimpeachable witness to the nature of things; for by experience he understood knowledge produced by direct contact with the object. Taken in this sense, experience is a method of discovery, an exercise of intelligence; it is the same observation of things, strict, cumulative, and analytic, which produces the natural sciences. It rests on naturalistic assumptions (since we know when and where we find our data) and could not fail to end in materialism. What prevented British empiricism from coming to this obvious conclusion was a peculiarity of the national temperament. The Englishman is not only distrustful of too much reasoning and too much theory (and science and materialism involve a good deal of both), but he is also fond of musing and of withdrawing into his inner man. Accordingly his empiricism took an introspective form; like Hamlet he stopped at the how; he began to think about thinking. His first care was now to arrest experience as he underwent it; though its presence could not be denied, it came in such a questionable shape that it could not be taken at its word. This mere presence of experience, this ghostly apparition to the inner man, was all that empirical philosophy could now profess to discover. Far from being an exercise of intelligence, it retracted all understanding, all interpretation, all instinctive faith; far from furnishing a sure record of the truths of nature, it furnished a set of pathological facts, the passive subject-matter of psychology. These now seemed the only facts admissible, and psychology, for the philosophers, became the only science. Experience could discover nothing, but all discoveries had to be retracted, so that they should revert to the fact of experience and terminate there. Evidently when the naturalistic background and meaning of experience have dropped out in this way, empiricism is a form of idealism, since whatever objects we can come upon will all be a priori and a fortiori and sensu eminentiori ideal in the mind. The irony of logic actually made English empiricism, understood in this psychological way, the starting-point for transcendentalism and for German philosophy.
+++++Between these two senses of the word experience, meaning sometimes contact with things and at other times absolute feeling, the empirical school in England and America has been helplessly torn, without ever showing the courage or the self-knowledge to choose between them. I think we may say that on the whole their view has been this : that feelings or ideas were absolute atoms of existence, without any ground or source, so that the elements of their universe were all mental; but they conceived these psychical elements to be deployed in a physical time and even (since there were many simultaneous series of them) in some sort of space. These philosophers were accordingly idealists about substance but naturalists about the order and relations of existences; and experience on their lips meant feeling when they were thinking of particulars, but when they were thinking broadly, in matters of history or science, experience meant the universal nebula or cataract which these feelings composed – itself no object of experience, but one believed in and very imperfectly presented in imagination. These men believed in nature, and were materialists at heart and to all practical purposes; but they were shy intellectually, and seemed to think they ran less risk of error in holding a thing covertly than in openly professing it. If any one, like Herbert Spencer, kept psychology in its place and in that respect remained a pure naturalist, he often forfeited this advantage by enveloping the positive information he derived from the sciences in a whirlwind of generalisations. The higher superstition, the notion that nature dances to the tune of some comprehensive formula or some magic rhyme, thus reappeared among those who claimed to speak for natural science. In their romantic sympathy with nature they attributed to her an excessive sympathy with themselves; they overlooked her infinite complications and continual irony, and candidly believed they could measure her with their thumb-rules. Why should philosophers drag a toy-net of words, fit to catch butterflies, through the sea of being, and expect to land all the fish in it? Why not take note simply of what the particular sciences can as yet tell us of the world? Certainly, when put together, they already yield a very wonderful, very true, and very sufficient picture of it. Are we impatient of knowing everything? …Nature is like a beautiful woman that may be as delightfully and as truly known at a certain distance as upon a closer view; as to knowing her through and through, that is nonsense in both cases, and might not reward our pains. The love of all-inclusiveness is as dangerous in philosophy as in art. …Without suggesting for a moment that the proper study of mankind is man only – for it may be landscape or mathematics – we may safely say that their proper study is what lies within their range and is interesting to them. For this reason the moralists who consider principally human life and paint nature only as a background to their figures are apt to be better philosophers than the speculative naturalists. In human life we are at home, and our views on it, if one-sided, are for that very reason expressive of our character and fortunes. An unfortunate peculiarity of naturalistic philosophers is that usually they have but cursory and wretched notions of the inner life of the mind; they are dead to patriotism and to religion, they hate poetry and fancy and passion and even philosophy itself; and therefore (especially if their science too, as often happens, is borrowed and vague) we need not wonder if the academic and cultivated world despises them, and harks back to the mythology of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, who at least were conversant with the spirit of man.
+++++Philosophers are very severe towards other philosophers because they expect too much. Even under the most favourable circumstances no mortal can be asked to seize the truth in its wholeness or at its centre. As the senses open to us only partial perspectives, taken from one point of view, and report the facts in symbols which, far from being adequate to the full nature of what surrounds us, resemble the coloured signals of danger or of free way which a railway engine-driver peers at in the night, so our speculation, which is a sort of panoramic sense, approaches things peripherally and expresses them humanly. But how doubly dyed in this subjectivity must our thought be when an orthodoxy dominant for ages has twisted the universe into the service of moral interests, and when even the heretics are entangled in a scepticism so partial and arbitrary that it substitutes psychology, the most derivative and dubious of sciences, for the direct intelligent reading of experience! But this strain of subjectivity is not in all respects an evil; it is a warm purple dye. When a way of thinking is deeply rooted in the soil, and embodies the instincts or even the characteristic errors of a people, it has a value quite independent of its truth; it constitutes a phase of human life and can powerfully affect the intellectual drama in which it figures. It is a value of this sort that attaches to modern philosophy in general, and very particularly to the American thinkers I am about to discuss. There would be a sort of irrelevance and unfairness in measuring them by the standards of pure science or even of a classic sagacity, and reproaching them for not having reached perfect consistency or fundamental clearness. Men of intense feeling – and others will hardly count – are not mirrors but lights. If pure truth happened to be what they passionately desired, they would seek it single-mindedly, and in matters within their competence they would probably find it; but the desire for pure truth, like any other, must wait to be satisfied until its organ is ripe and the conditions are favourable. The nineteenth century was not a time and America was not a place where such an achievement could be expected. There the wisest felt themselves to be, as they were, questioners and apostles rather than serene philosophers. We should not pay them the doubtful compliment of attributing to them merits alien to their tradition and scope, as if the nobleness they actually possessed – their conscience, vigour, timeliness, and influence – were not enough. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US, Ch.1 The Moral Background


The idealist walks on tiptoe, the materialist on his heels. – Malcolm de Chazal

Berkeley and Hume were little more than boys when they fell in love with Ideas; perhaps, if we knew their personal history, we should find that they were little children when they first did so, and that pure Essence was the Beatrice that had secretly inspired all their lives. But though they were youths of genius, there was a touch in them of the prig; the immediate, dear as it is to fresh and honest hearts, was too unconventional for them legally to wed and to take home, as it were, to their worldly relations. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p235

Fichte called Locke the worst of philosophers, but it was ungrateful of him, seeing that his own philosophy was founded on one of Locke’s errors. It was Locke who first thought of looking into his own breast to find there the genuine properties of gold and of an apple; and it is clear that nothing but lack of consecutiveness and courage kept him from finding the whole universe in the same generous receptacle. This method of looking for reality in one’s own breast, when practised with due consecutiveness and courage by the Germans, became the transcendental method; but it must be admitted that the German breast was no longer that anatomical region which Locke had intended to probe, but a purely metaphysical point of departure, a migratory ego that could be here, there, and everywhere at once, being present at any point from which thought or volition might be taken to radiate. It was no longer so easy to entrap as the soul of Locke, which he asserted travelled with him in his coach from London to Oxford. But the practice of looking for all things within one’s own breast, in the subtler sense of searching for them in one’s memory and experience, begat in time the whole romantic and subjective school of philosophy. – Santayana, Egotism in German Philosophy, p32-3

How comes it that the word Idea, so redolent of Platonism, has been the fulcrum on which British philosophy has turned in its effort to dislodge Platonism from its foundations, and to lay bare the positive facts? The vicissitudes of words are instructive; they show us what each age understood or forgot in the wisdom of its predecessors, and what new things it discovered to which it gave the old names. The beauty which Plato and the English saw in Ideas was the same beauty; they both found in Ideas the immediate, indubitable object of knowledge. And nevertheless, hugging the same certitude, they became sure of entirely different things. – Santayana, Ideas, Soliloquies in England, p228-9

Here was an odd transformation. The self-educated merchants and indignant reformers who, thumping their desks dogmatically, had appealed so roundly to the evidence of their senses, little expected that their philosophy was directed to turning them in the end into inarticulate sensualists, rapt in omphalic contemplation of their states of mind. Some academic idealists, disliking this result, which cast a slur on the pre-eminence of spirituality and learning, and yet not being willing or able to give up the method by which that result had been reached, sought to push the inquiry further, and to come out of the wood on quite the other side. My sensations, they said, since I can now survey the whole series they form, must all exist together in my present apprehension; and as I cannot know them except in this single and present glance, they never can have existed out of it; so that I am not really a series of sensations, but only the idea that I am a series of sensations; in other words, I have become a single sensation instead of many. To make this clearer the same philosophers added that this single sensation or thought, which is what I really am, is also God. Experience now turned out not to be anything that goes on or happens or is endured; it is the theme of an immutable divine contemplation and divine satisfaction. I am God in so far as I think and approve; but the chequered experience which I supposed myself to be undergoing is merely imputed to myself by God and me in our thinking.
+++++This second conclusion, like the first, has its value for some temperaments. It brings suddenly before us, as if it were an accomplished fact, the innate ideal of the intellect : to see the changing aspects of all things from above, in their true eternal relations. But this ideal, too, is utterly disparate from that practical experience and prevision which John Bull prizes so highly and thinks he possesses; indeed, the sublimity of this view lies precisely in its tendency to freeze and submerge all experience, transmuting hard facts and anxious events into painted ships upon a painted ocean, and for our stumbling and unfinished progress substituting a bound volume of travels.
+++++What false step could bring British philosophy, in its gropings, to conclusions so un-English that even those who feel compelled to propose them do so shamefacedly, with many euphemisms and convenient confusions, or even fail altogether to understand the tremendous paradoxes they are repeating? It was a false step at which Hobbes halted, which Locke took unsuspectingly, and which sent Berkeley and Hume head over heels : the assumption that facts are known immediately. In reality none of the facts which the sturdy Briton feels that he knows – and they are the true facts of nature and of moral life – would be known to him if he were without tentative intelligence and instinctive animal faith; indeed, without these the senses would have no virtue and would inform us of nothing; and cows would not see grass nor horses hay, but only green or yellow patches, like rapt empirical philosophers. When Hobbes said that no discourse whatsoever can end in absolute knowledge of fact, he uttered a great truth, but he implied a great error, since he implied that sense – meaning the senseless sensations of idiots – could give such knowledge; whereas the absolute datum in sense is just as ideal, and just as little a fact, as the deliverance of the most theoretical discourse; and absolute knowledge – if we call such apprehension knowledge – can seize only some aesthetic or logical term, without any given date, place, or connection in experience. Empiricism in the end must substitute these ideal essences, on the ground that they are the only data, for the facts of nature – facts which animal reactions and the beliefs expressing them are requisite to discover, and which science defines by the cumulative use of reason. In making this substitution empiricism passes against its will into sensualism or idealism. Then John Bull and his philosophers part company : he sticks manfully to his confused conventional opinions, which after all give him a very tolerable knowledge of the facts; while they go digging for an absolute knowledge of fact, which is impossible, in an intuitive cloudland where there are only aesthetic essences. Hence the bankruptcy of their enterprise. Immediate data are the counters of experience, but they are the money of empiricism. – Santayana, John Bull and his Philosophers, Soliloquies in England, p192-4

The English psychologists who first disintegrated the idea of substance did not study the question wholly for its own sake or in the spirit of a science that aims at nothing but a historical analysis of mind. They had a more or less malicious purpose behind their psychology. They thought that if they could once show how metaphysical ideas are made they would discredit those ideas and banish them for ever from the world. If they retained confidence in any notion – as Hobbes in body, Locke in matter and in God, Berkeley in spirits, and Kant, the inheritor of this malicious psychology, in the thing-in-itself and in heaven – it was merely by inadvertence or want of courage. The principle of their reasoning, where they chose to apply it, was always this, that ideas whose materials could all be accounted for in consciousness and referred to sense or to the operations of mind were thereby exhausted and deprived of further validity. Only the unaccountable, or rather the uncriticized, could be true. Consequently the advance of psychology meant, in this school, the retreat of reason; for as one notion after another was clarified and reduced to its elements it was ipso facto deprived of its function. It became impossible to be at once quite serious and quite intelligent; for to use reason was to indulge in subjective fiction, while conscientiously to abstain from using it was to sink back upon inarticulate and brutish instinct.
+++++In Hume this sophistication was frankly avowed. Philosophy discredited itself; but a man of parts, who loved intellectual games even better than backgammon, might take a hand with the wits and historians of his day, until the clock struck twelve and the party was over. Even in Kant, though the mood was more cramped and earnest, the mystical sophistication was quite the same. Kant, too, imagined that the bottom had been knocked out of the world. Since space and time could not repel the accusation of being the necessary forms of perception, space and time were not to be much thought of; and when the sad truth was disclosed that causality and the categories were instruments by which the idea of nature had to be constructed, if such an idea was to exist at all, then nature and causality shrivelled up and were dishonoured together; so that, the soul’s occupation being gone, she must needs appeal to some mysterious oracle, some abstract and irrelevant omen within the breast, and muster up all the stern courage of an accepted despair to carry her through this world of mathematical illusion into some green, and infantile paradise beyond. – Santayana, Life of Reason, I p84-6


The romantic poet is a novelist in verse. He is a philosopher of experience as it comes to the individual; the philosopher of life, as action, memory, or soliloquy may put life before each of us in turn. Now the zest of romanticism consists in taking what you know is an independent and ancient world as if it were material for your private emotions. The savage or the animal, who should not be aware of nature or history at all, could not be romantic about them, nor about himself. He would be blandly idiotic, and take everything quite unsuspectingly for what it was in him. The romanticist, then, should be a civilized man, so that his primitiveness and egotism may have something paradoxical and conscious about them; and so that his life may contain a rich experience, and his reflection may play with all varieties of sentiment and thought. At the same time, in his inmost genius, he should be a barbarian, a child, a transcendentalist, so that his life may seem to him absolutely fresh, self-determined, unforeseen, and unforeseeable. It is part of his inspiration to believe that he creates a new heaven and a new earth with each revolution in his moods or in his purposes. He ignores, or seeks to ignore, all the conditions of life, until perhaps by living he personally discovers them. Like Faust, he flouts science, and is minded to make trial of magic, which renders a man’s will master of the universe in which he seems to live. He disowns all authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that the springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, and that the future of his soul is infinite. In the romantic hero the civilized man and the barbarian must be combined; he should be the heir to all civilization, and, nevertheless, he should take life arrogantly and egotistically, as if it were an absolute personal experiment.
+++++The great merit of the romantic attitude in poetry, and of the transcendental method in philosophy, is that they put us back at the beginning of our experience. They disintegrate convention, which is often cumbrous and confused, and restore us to ourselves, to immediate perception and primordial will. That, as it would seem, is the true and inevitable starting-point. Had we not been born, had we not peeped into this world, each out of his personal eggshell, this world might indeed have existed without us, as a thousand undiscoverable worlds may now exist; but for us it would not have existed. This obvious truth would not need to be insisted on but for two reasons : one that conventional knowledge, such as our notions of science and morality afford, is often top-heavy; it asserts and imposes on us much more than our experience warrants, – our experience, which is our only approach to reality. The other reason is the reverse or counterpart of this; for conventional knowledge often ignores and seems to suppress parts of experience no less actual and important for us than those parts on which the conventional knowledge itself is reared. The public world is too narrow for the soul, as well as too mythical and fabulous. Hence the double critical labour and reawakening which romantic reflection is good for, – to cut off the dead branches and feed the starving shoots. This philosophy, as Kant said, is a cathartic : it is purgative and liberating; it is intended to make us start afresh and start right.
+++++It follows that one who has no sympathy with such a philosophy is a comparatively conventional person. He has a second-hand mind. It follows, also, however, that one who has no philosophy but this has no wisdom; he can say nothing that is worth carrying away; everything in him is attitude and nothing is achievement. Words of wisdom diversify this career of folly, as exquisite scenes fill this tortuous and overloaded drama. The mind has become free and sincere, but it has remained bewildered.
+++++The literary merits of romanticism correspond accurately with its philosophical excellences. In the prologue to Faust, Goethe has described them; much scenery, much wisdom, some folly, great wealth of incident and characterization; and behind, the soul of a poet singing with all sincerity and fervour the visions of his life. Here is profundity, inwardness, honesty, waywardness; here are the most touching accents of nature, and the most varied assortment of curious lore and grotesque fancies. This work, says Goethe, is like human life : it has a beginning, it has an end; but it has no totality, it is not one whole. How, indeed, should we draw the sum of an infinite experience that is without conditions to determine it, and without goals in which it terminates? Evidently all a poet of pure experience can do is to represent some snatches of it, more or less prolonged; and the more prolonged the experience represented is the more it will be a collection of snatches, and the less the last part of it will have to do with the beginning. Any character which we may attribute to the whole of what we have surveyed would fail to dominate it, if that whole had been larger, and if we had had memory or foresight enough to include other parts of experience differing altogether in kind from the episodes we happen to have lived through. To be miscellaneous, to be indefinite, to be unfinished, is essential to the romantic life. May we not say that it is essential to all life, in its immediacy; and that only in reference to what is not life – to objects, ideals, and unanimities that cannot be experienced but may only be conceived – can life become rational and truly progressive? Herein we may see the radical and inalienable excellence of romanticism; its sincerity, freedom, richness, and infinity. Herein, too, we may see its limitations, in that it cannot fix or trust any of its ideals, and blindly believes the universe to be as wayward as itself, so that nature and art are always slipping through its fingers. It is obstinately empirical, and will never learn anything from experience. – Santayana, Three Poets, p143-8, 196-9


The particular theory of egotism arises from an exorbitant interest in ourselves, in the medium of thought and action rather than in its objects. It is not necessarily incorrect, because the self is actual and indispensable; but the insistence on it is a little abnormal, because the self, like consciousness, ought to be diaphanous. Egotism in philosophy is, therefore, a pretty sure symptom of excessive pedantry and inordinate self-assertion.
+++++In the lofty theory of egotism life is represented as a sort of game of patience, in which the rules, the cards, the table, and the empty time on our hands, all are mere images created by the fancy, as in a dream. The sense of being occupied, though one really has nothing to do, will then be the secret of the whole affair, and the sole good to be attained by living. Of course this fantastic theory is put forward only on great occasions, when an extreme profundity is in place; but like other esoteric doctrines it expresses very well the spirit in which those people live habitually who would appeal to it in the last resort. Obviously such an egotist should in consistency be a man of principle. He would feel it to be derogatory to his dignity, and contrary to his settled purpose, to cheat at the game he has instituted. That luck should sometimes go against him is preordained by himself; otherwise the game would have no zest, and to be interested, to be pressed, even to be annoyed seems the highest good to him in his great tedium. He will, therefore, be assiduous, patient, and law-abiding; and the idea of ever abandoning his chosen game for anything less forced and less arbitrary will seem to him disloyalty to himself, and a great wickedness.
+++++Indeed, nothing beside his own purpose will have any value in his eyes, or even any existence. He will therefore inevitably act without consideration for others, without courtesy, without understanding. When he chooses to observe anything external – and he is studious – his very attentions will be an insult; for he will assume that his idea of that external thing is the reality of it, and that other people can have only such rights and only such a character as he is willing to assign to them. It follows from his egotistical principles that in judging others he should be officious and rude, learned and mistaken.
+++++What the egotist calls his will and his ideals are, taken together, simply his passions; but the passions of the egotist are turned into a system and go unrebuked. A man who lowers his precepts to the level of his will may the more easily raise his practice to the level of his precepts. He endows his life with a certain coherence, momentum, and integrity, just because he has suppressed all vain aspiration and all useless shame. He does not call himself a sinner; he would be at a loss for a reason to think himself one; for really his standard of virtue expresses nothing but his prevalent will. Is it not intelligible that such a morality should be more efficacious, more unifying, heavier, and more convinced than one which begins by condemning our natural passions and the habitual course of human life?
+++++In fact, egotism in practice is a solemn and arduous business; there is nothing malicious about it and nothing gay. There is rather a stolid surprise that such honest sentiments and so much enterprise should not meet everywhere with applause. If other people are put thereby at a disadvantage, why should they not learn their lesson and adopt in their turn the methods of the superman? If they are touched by the vanity and the charm of existence and neglect the intense pursuit of their absolute will, why do they complain if they are jostled and beaten? Only he deserves life and freedom, said Goethe, who is forced daily to win them afresh. – Santayana, Egotism in Practice, Egotism in German Philosophy, p161

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