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Lecture II: Retrospect: Philosophical


In first lecture I was attempting to call to mind the worlds of philosophy and theology as I knew them in Oxford in the years before 1914. I described how each in its own sphere was characterized by what I called empiricism: the exposition of doctrines or systems of thought was being submitted to the test of accurate observation of the facts in human experience which they professed to interpret. I then went on to show how in the world of theology the outbreak of war produced a demand for the revival of doctrinal teaching and briefly considered ways in which theologians have sought to meet this demand.

I must now say something about what has been going on contemporaneously in the world of philosophy. I cannot here speak with the same inside knowledge that I have of the world of theology. For some years now, for reasons which will become apparent, I have felt in philosophical circles that I am an outsider. Any value in what I have to say can only come from my occupying the stance of the proverbial onlooker who is said to see most of the game. This particular onlooker must be allowed to preface his account of the play with some general remarks about the nature of the game, and to begin at the beginning by asking what is philosophy. In university curricula the term includes metaphysics and morals, epistemology and logic, political theory and the philosophy of religion. Is it simply by convention that the same word has come to be used for a group of heterogeneous studies, or have they some intrinsic connection which is the reason for its use?

Let us look through the word to the activities that we use it to describe. Our thinking is born of the desire to know the nature of the world we live in, and often starts from the consideration of some particular things or events which provoke our curiosity. Whether or no there be any truth in the story of Isaac Newton and the falling apple, an excellent illustration of what I mean is provided by Sigismund Freud in the second of his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis.1 His starting-point for the voyage of discovery which leads to the formulation of his thesis is observation of the mistakes that people make in speaking, writing and reading: slips of the tongue, slips of the pen and misreadings. What needs to be explained is not merely the fact in general that we make such mistakes, it is the fact that particular people make the mistakes they do. Why on this occasion did this man unintentionally say the particular thing that he said?

Freud will not allow that any event can be dismissed as inexplicable because sheer accident. ‘Does he mean to maintain that there are occurrences so small that they fail to come within the causal sequence of things, that they might as well be other than they are? Anyone thus breaking away from the determination of natural phenomena, at any single point, has thrown over the whole scientific outlook on the world’. Later on we shall have to consider whether Freud is right in thus denying the occurrence of genuinely contingent events: the point to notice at the moment is that scientific inquiry is born of the desire to see how the immediate objects of attention are related to all the other things that exist and go on in the world.

There is a story of a boy who was out for a walk with his father in the country and asked: ‘Father, what is a phenomenon?’ ‘You see that cow’, said his father, ‘that's not a phenomenon. You see that tree; that's not a phenomenon. But if you saw that cow climbing that tree, that would be a phenomenon’. This quasi-ostensive definition explains the popular, and not the philosophical, use of the word, but the anecdote serves to illustrate my point. Our thinking starts when we are intrigued by something which catches our attention: the falling of an apple, a slip of the tongue, an unfamiliar word. We want to know more precisely just what it is in itself, and we find that we cannot accept a thing as being what it looks like until we see how it fits in with the rest of our experience. If we seemed to remember having seen a cow climbing a tree, we should say: ‘That must have been a dream cow up a dream tree’. In the passage just quoted Freud speaks of this as a requirement that everything that happens must fall within ‘the causal sequence of things’. At the present stage of our inquiry we cannot be so specific, or attempt to prejudge the question whether the required explanation is to be in terms of causality, sufficient reason, or any other principle. What we need is a colloquialism whose value to us is its philosophic vagueness. For this purpose I propose to use the phrase ‘make sense’. We want to see how the various objects of our experience fit in with one another so as to make sense.

Once upon a time I was trying to do a cross-word puzzle in Boston, Massachusetts. Finding myself baffled in a measure exceeding the limits of my normal stupidity, I discovered on further inspection that by some printer's error the diagram of one puzzle had been combined with the clues of another. I wasted no more time on it: there was no point in trying to solve a puzzle when the parts did not belong to each other. If the world were like that it would not make sense, and it would be a foolish waste of our time to ‘scorn delights and live laborious days’ in scientific or philosophical inquiry.

Were it not better done, as others use,

To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,

Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?

Our thinking starts with the desire to know more about things in the world which excite our interest. For the most part we assume that they do fit in with one another in a pattern that makes sense: we assume that anything which will not so fit in cannot really be what at first sight it looks like. So long as we are simply concerned to find out what things are, and how they behave and fit in with one another in the history of this world in space and time, we are engaged on a scientific inquiry. If our desire is simply to know, we shall be pure scientists and the satisfaction we seek will be aesthetic. The successful result of an experiment which confirms a hypothesis, or the discovery of a formula which expresses the relation between various observed occurrences, will give us a satisfaction analogous to that which a man of aesthetic sensibility finds in the contemplation of a work of art. It is alleged in Oxford that at an annual dinner of mathematicians in Cambridge the toast is ‘To the higher mathematics, and may they never be of any use to anyone’. We may, however, in our search for knowledge, be moved by the desire to extend human control over the course of events: our interest in pure science may be the contribution it can make to applied science. The contrast between the two is dramatically portrayed in Sinclair Lewis' novel Martin Arrowsmith, where the doctor employed by a research laboratory finds himself unable to carry out his instructions to inoculate only fifty per cent. of the inhabitants of a plague-stricken island in order that the others may be used as controls in testing the efficacy of the newly-discovered vaccine.

So long as the world produces sights and sounds which satisfy his need of aesthetic creation and enjoyment the artist can pass through life without ever bothering his head about whether there be any pattern which makes sense of the whole. In so far as the pure scientist finds his satisfaction in similar contemplation, both he and the practical man of affairs can take for granted the assumption of the existence of such a pattern. Freud's appeal to ‘the causal sequence of things’ takes for granted the universal sway of a convention which has been found to work well within a certain sphere of scientific inquiry.

It is not only in scientific inquiry and aesthetic activity and contemplation that we take for granted conventions that have been found to work. The same thing is true of our moral life. Moral conventions differ widely in different ages, climes and civilizations, but within any one of them parents and teachers bring up their children and pupils to take for granted the accepted scale of values, to have the appropriate feelings of admiration or shame. Where different conventions meet and clash a modus vivendi has to be found—a problem familiar, for example, to missionaries and civil administrators in connection with the marriage customs of African tribes. In practice such problems are usually dealt with without raising the question whether the different customs can be fitted into some unifying pattern of moral values.

But sometimes it does occur to some minds to raise questions concerning these conventions and assumptions, and when a man is so intrigued by these questions that he cannot but pursue where they lead, a philosopher is born. It makes no difference whether he starts from questioning conventions and assumptions in the field of ethics, politics, religion, science or art, he will soon find himself face to face with the fundamental dilemma: do the things that exist and happen in the field of the natural sciences, do the things that we say and do in the worlds of ethics, politics, religion, and art, belong to a universe that makes sense, or are they clues in a puzzle which has no diagram with a pattern into which they fit?

I have called this fundamental question a dilemma because I do not see any way of proving demonstratively the truth of either possible answer, and whichever we adopt we embark upon a sea of troubles. If we abandon further inquiry on the ground that it is a fruitless waste of time in a patternless universe, we shall not escape the nagging of our intellectual conscience: we may either lose the respect of our fellows by trying to stifle it with Amaryllis and Neaera, or invite psychological distress by denying ourselves such solace without sufficient reason. If we decide to go forward, our questioning of departmental conventions and assumptions has led us to make one fundamental assumption, the assumption that the universe makes sense; the convention within which we work will be an act of faith that this is so.

Faced by this dilemma, the only way to avoid both horns of it is to maintain an attitude of suspended judgment. The philosopher would be the man who is inquiring whether the so-called universe has any unifying pattern, and if so, what. But so long as he knows what he is doing, knows that he is making an act of faith, a man does not cease to be genuinely philosophical if he takes for granted an affirmative answer to the former of these questions, and in that faith directs his attention to the second. He can plead at least this much in justification: that all human thinking, even those first strivings of curiosity which lead on to the development of the sciences, imply this faith, and that the progress which has resulted gives ground for holding that the confidence was not misplaced. I, at any rate, now affirm this faith, and shall take it for granted in what follows in this course of lectures. Philosophy, assuming that everything that exists and happens exists and happens in a universe that makes sense, is the attempt to understand how this can be so.

I do not as yet wish to affirm anything fuller or more specific. I want simply to introduce the philosopher as a man who is intrigued by the thought that all human thinking implies that the objects of thought fit into some sort of a pattern that makes sense. I would remind you that I deliberately use the phrase ‘make sense’ as a philosophically vague colloquialism which implies nothing as to what the nature of the supposed pattern may be.

Nevertheless, this introductory description of philosophy has at least four important implications for our present purposes.

1. We can see how the various branches of study which in a university are grouped together and labelled ‘philosophy’ spring from a common root. Their internal differentiæ are of two kinds. One is related to different fields of human thought and action. Thus we can speak of the philosophy of morals, of politics, of religion. We ask what are the grounds of the conventions and assumptions which are taken for granted in each field, how they are related to one another, and whether the investigation of them can throw any light on the nature of the pattern in which everything must be seen to fit together so as to make sense. According to this differentia philosophy is asking the same kind of questions about different fields of study. Then, within all the fields, it sub-divides itself into different kinds of inquiry. In its aim to discover the universal pattern it is metaphysical; in its scrutiny of ethical or aesthetic value-judgments it is axiological; in its critical reflection on our ways of perceiving, thinking, and speaking it takes the form of epistemology and logic. The underlying purpose of the philosopher is to seek for the answer to the question of metaphysics, and in every field of human thought and action he must ask whatever questions are relevant to that purpose, questions concerning their assumptions and conventions which other men ignore.

2. I want to stress the point that essentially philosophy is an asking of questions, the quest for an explanation of what exists and happens. It can find no ultimate satisfaction until it finds such an understanding of the pattern of the whole as will provide a criterion whereby to judge of the reality and the value of everything that appears to exist or occur. Moved by this underlying aim, the history of philosophy is marked by the rise of different philosophical systems, and proceeds by the method of trial and error. A philosophical system is born when in his quest for the desired understanding a thinker conceives the idea that some element within our experience may give us the key to the nature of the whole. In Platonism, for example, it is ‘the idea of the good’; in positivism what Freud calls ‘the causal sequence of things’; in Marxism, the development of history in accordance with the interplay of economic forces. Then comes the attempt to see whether by the use of the proposed key we can account for all the objects of our experience without having to ignore, distort or explain away any of them. That is what I mean by the method of trial and error: the advocates of a system try to make it cover all the ground, and in so doing expose it to criticism which brings to light their errors.

Sooner or later I shall have to declare where I stand with regard to the truth or falsehood of different systems. But the time for that is not yet come. My sole aim at the moment is to make clear the distinction between philosophy itself in its fundamental nature, and the philosophical systems to which it gives birth. This distinction is obscured by the fact that we commonly use the word ‘philosophy’ to mean some particular system. We speak, for example, of the Platonic, the positivist and the Marxist philosophy as though they were particular instances of a universal, each exhibiting its essential characteristic in its own way. This conceals the distinction that later on we shall see to be of cardinal importance: the distinction between philosophy itself as the quest for understanding, the asking of questions, and particular philosophies as experimenting with hypothetical answers. It would be better to call them children of a common parent than instances of a universal.

3. Springing, as it does, from the desire to know the true nature of things, and why they behave as they do, the philosophic quest is a quest for objectivity. The philosopher wants to be assured that things really are what he thinks them to be, that neither in his perceiving them nor in his thinking about them has he misconceived their nature or their behaviour. He may start by being interested in falling apples or slips of the tongue, and not in himself as perceiving or thinking about them. But sooner or later his thought will turn in upon himself: he will begin to wonder whether he is deceived by his senses or has his ideas coloured by his passions and prejudices. When such questions arise in his mind, he realizes that, although they are secondary questions and a distraction from the pursuit of his primary quest, they are germane to it, and are genuinely philosophical questions which cannot impatiently be brushed aside. This is why philosophy includes epistemology and logic, and has a special interest in psychological research in so far as it has a bearing on those studies.

4. So far I have been trying to describe what I may call the archetypal philosopher. It is a long time since the questions he asks first began to be asked. The history of philosophy is not only the history of successive attempts to discover the pattern in which all things fit together in a whole that makes sense; it includes the history of attempts to deal with such relevant questions as those in epistemology and logic. Sometimes these secondary questions are of such importance and complexity and engage so much attention that their study feels like an end in itself: one tends to forget that they are subsidiary to the philosopher's primary quest. In the years before 1914, for example, when I was being introduced to the study of philosophy, this was the case with the study of the theory of knowledge as we traced its course from Descartes through Locke, Berkeley and Hume to Kant.

In various directions some positions have been secured, their grounds examined so that they are no longer uncriticized assumptions; some blind alleys have been explored and signposted ‘No Road’. To be a competent philosopher it is not enough to have been bitten by the bacillus philosophicus and be plagued by the itch to know the answer to the philosophic questions; one must know enough about what has already been done to be able to profit by the discoveries and mistakes of our predecessors in the field.

As a result of all this the study of philosophy is exposed to two dangers, the production of view-tasters and of parlour-gamesters. Philosophy only comes into being and has a history because of the existence of men for whom its pursuit is a matter of life and death, for whom its questions are of such importance that they can have no peace of mind until they feel that they are at least on the way to an answer. One thinks of the Platonic Socrates searching in an age of general scepticism for a rock on which to stand and finding it in his conviction of the security of certain moral principles. One thinks of Descartes doubting the existence of everything except his own thinking self, of Kant awoken by Hume out of his dogmatic slumber. To be a competent philosopher to-day one must know what these and many others thought and taught, and much that has been said and written about them; one must know the relevant literature and be at home in the vocabulary and technical terms that have become conventional in it; and one must have that mental acumen which enables a man intelligently to grasp the significance of points in philosophical arguments. With these qualifications a man may obtain high examination honours in philosophy, and may even become a teacher of the subject. But if this is all there is to him, he will never become more than either a dilettante view-taster, or at the best an extremely skilful parlour-gamester. To pass beyond this, the necessary knowledge and skill must be at the service of one for whom the subsidiary questions are of importance through their relation to the central quest, one who is possessed by so passionate a concern for truth that he can never find satisfaction in knowing who said what, or in the exercise of dialectical skill, unless these are contributing to his growth in understanding the why and wherefore of the world he lives in and of his own existence.


I must now try to define rather more closely the goal of the central quest. Can we, at the present stage of our thinking, have any idea of what kind of a pattern would satisfy us as making sense of everything that exists and occurs?

Who are we, that we should expect our demand for satisfaction to be honoured by the universe? Should we not rather take Carlyle's advice and be content simply to accept it? The answer is paradoxical. We are the mouthpiece of the archetypal philosopher, and the archetypal philosopher is possessed by two apparently contradictory passions. On the one hand it is his sole aim simply to accept the universe: it is to this end that he engages in such studies as epistemology and logic, turning aside to make sure that none of his thoughts are the children of his wishes or the dupes of his senses. On the other hand, he finds that he cannot begin thinking at all, he cannot even begin to examine his own perceptions and thoughts, without making his act of faith in the fundamental assumption that the things he is trying to think about fit in together so as to make sense. In so far as this is a demand upon the universe, it is a demand that he must make if he is to think at all, a demand which he must make if he is to be able intelligently to accept the universe. The paradox is that only what will satisfy the demand can be accepted as objectively real, as being what it is in itself, uncoloured and undistorted by any demand that he may have made upon it.

I touch here the rock bottom which is the foundation of all that I shall attempt to build in the lectures that follow. It is the fundamental act of faith to which I have already confessed: the assumption that everything that exists and happens exists and happens in a universe that makes sense. It is not only the foundation on which I shall build my own construction, it is also the basis for what I shall have to say in criticism of others, both in philosophy and theology. I shall not, therefore, be wasting our time if, before going further, I pause to say three things about it.

1. First let me repeat my conviction that this paradox is implicit in all serious human thinking. There is always a quest for objectivity which can only be satisfied by the object fulfilling the demands of the thinker's canons of thought. Two children of a friend of mine were overheard discussing what kept their arms and legs fastened to their bodies. Was it glue or screws? ‘If it was glue’, said one thoughtfully, ‘they would come off in the bath. It must be screws’.

The quest for objectivity is illustrated alike by the questions of children, by scientists who repeat experiments with a view to eliminating the possibility of error, and by theologians who seek to find in the Bible or the Church an authority whose acceptance will silence all further questioning. Even the lover cannot help asking

Nay, but you, who do not love her,

Is she not pure gold, my mistress?

Each and all will only accept answers which are consistent with their categories of thought. This is seen most clearly in the children and the scientists, for whom their categories may be derived from experience of the tragic fate of cherished toys in hot bath water, or of the ‘causal sequence of things’. In the case of the theologians and the lovers it does not he so openly on the surface, but it is there nevertheless. They may glory in holding to their beliefs in spite of the available evidence, but the lover's question and the theologian's faith augur a secret hope that in that world where the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed and we shall know even as we are known, we shall find that the evidence now available has been not only inadequate but misleading, and that when all is known those who disagree with them may have to revise their categories to meet the situation.

The suggestion that in the course of interaction between categories and evidence the one may be subject to revision as much as the other will be found, before long, to be of great importance, but must not detain us now. Nor am I raising the Kantian question whether the demand that objects of thought shall conform to canons of thought must invalidate any claim to be able to discover the nature of things as they are in themselves. All I am saying at the moment is that all thinking is fundamentally the paradoxical quest for an objectivity which we can allow to be such.

2. Secondly, I want to affirm my conviction that in so far as a man exemplifies the archetypal pure scientist or philosopher, his demand for an objectivity which shall satisfy his canons of thought is not to be dismissed as either selfishness or pride. The error here is one to which in these days theologians are more prone than philosophers. Bishop Butler, it is true, had to wrestle with the corresponding contention in moral philosophy,2 and from time to time it recurs in the works of sophists who make play with the apparent contradiction involved in such a phrase as a disinterested interest in truth. But its main advocates are certain theologians whose idea of revelation is such as to leave man no right to decide between what he can and what he cannot honestly accept as true. The antithesis they draw between the humility which accepts the revelation, and the pride which dares to criticize it, or the selfishness which demands the satisfaction of its desires, rests upon a profound misunderstanding of the psychology not only of scientists and philosophers, but also of artists and of would-be decent citizens. Here I must anticipate what I shall have to argue more fully in a later lecture, and say that on both sides of his paradoxical activity, in the demand for the satisfaction of his canons as well as in his passion for objectivity, the honest thinker is not seeking to impose upon the universe his own personal will, to satisfy his pride, or to indulge his desires. Often, indeed, if his convictions are out of harmony with the spirit of the age, pride would be better served by dishonesty and desire by abandoning his studies for Amaryllis and Neaera. In his own consciousness he knows that fidelity to his convictions is not self-assertion but submission to a demand made upon him by a something other than himself. Philosophy is the examination of assumptions habitually taken for granted by men in their various activities. One of my chief tasks in this course of lectures will be to inquire into the implications of this consciousness of submission: my concern at the moment is that we should recognize it as being what it is, and not confuse it with something else.

3. This quest for objectivity implies faith in the existence of an objective reality which is patient of discovery by different inquirers. From the point of view of the inquirer its objectivity means that neither its existence nor its nature depends upon his having this or that idea of it. His aim is to discover what it is in itself so that he may revise his ideas and make them conform to the discovery. To this end, if the subject admits of it, he may test his ideas by laboratory experiments, and if he discusses his problems with other inquirers it is on the ground that by comparing his ideas with those of others each may be enabled to discount what is purely subjective to himself.3

When Freud set himself to find out why particular men make particular slips of the tongue, he took it for granted that the explanation to be discovered was one which would be recognized, understood and accepted as satisfactory by all intelligent fellow-seekers. Whether or no he was right in thinking that he had found it within the limits of the ‘causal sequence of things’ in which there is no place for chance is beside the present point: what matters is that when he gave his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis he certainly believed himself to be doing something more than merely narrating a diary of his own personal reactions to the behaviour of his patients. Whatever may be the truth in existentialism, if in any field of inquiry it is carried to the length of denying the possibility of different inquirers usefully discussing a common object with a view to agreeing about its nature, it renders any further discussion within that field a waste of time.

Taken together, the three points amount to this. If we hold it to be worth while to try to think at all (and our presence here suggests that we do), even if our thinking only goes so far as to ask such questions as how our arms are attached to our bodies, or why people make mistakes, in so doing we assume that we and the objects of our thought belong to a world in which we and they fit together in a pattern such that we can accept it as satisfying the demands of an understanding which we share with other inquirers.

This assumption, or act of faith, is, as I have said, my starting point. Now I want to use it not merely as a starting point but as a jumping-off ground for a leap which will carry me over territory much of which will need to be secured in detail later on. I want to assert the conviction that there can be no end to the philosopher's quest until he has discovered the pattern to be one which approves itself to him as good, and that only this discovery can finally justify as worth while that asking of elementary questions which constitutes the first step in our thinking.

Questions at once well up in our minds. What definable sense can be attached to so vague and general a term as ‘good’? Good for whom or for what? These questions must wait for the attention they deserve. For the time being I must content myself with saying that by ‘good’ I mean that which we can accept as justifying its own existence without needing to be referred to something else to answer the question why it should be so. We all of us, in our everyday lives, make use of this criterion. In the spheres of aesthetics and ethics, for example, when we are presented with a sublime work of art or with nobility in act or character, we do not ask why they should be: we cease to question, and find our satisfaction in the contemplation of them as being what they are. To a certain extent we find a similar satisfaction, the satisfaction of the pure scientist, whenever we feel that we have freed ourselves from mistakes and illusions and really grasped some objective truth about the nature of things. But so long as what we have discovered is such that it can adequately be described as brute fact, we shall still find ourselves asking why it should be. Our questioning will not be stilled until we can find some further explanation of it which shows how it fits into the pattern of a self-justifying whole.

If we ask who is to be the judge of its goodness, I can at this stage only refer to the figure whom I have called the archetypal philosopher. Who is this archetypal philosopher? He is the ideal philosopher whom in all our philosophizing we are seeking to emulate, and, indeed, ourselves to become. We know by experience something of the interaction of thought and things, of categories and evidence, of which I have spoken; we know how further consideration of evidence can lead to the revision of categories: we have learned, for example, that there are other means of attachment besides screws and glue, we have learned (in Whitehead's language) to correlate occurrences as exemplifying general principles instead of regarding natural phenomena as ‘governed by gods and goddesses, by incalculable angelic and demonic powers’.4 From our experience of the possibility of progress in our imperfect achievements we form an idea of the perfection at which we aim, the complete understanding of all things by a mind which needs to ask no further questions because it finds complete satisfaction in the contemplation of what it knows.

Whether or no there be any such mind, whether or no it is conceivable that any man should receive such knowledge, are questions which for the present I must leave in the air. What I am trying now to establish is that all our thinking—indeed, all our actions—that means all our living—imply and require for their justification faith in the possibility of an affirmative answer to them. Occupied in their immediate concerns, men of affairs, artists and scientists may never be called upon to examine the implications of what they think and say and do. It is the philosopher's task to analyse and seek for the justification of their unexamined assumptions, and when once he is started on the quest there can be no end to it short of the discovery of the self-justifying pattern of the whole.

Now we can see more clearly what is involved in the fact that the history of philosophy has been the history of systems begotten to struggle for survival by the method of trial and error. Each system has to be tried out with a view to determining to what extent, by taking some element in our experience as the key to the interpretation of the universe, we can see the whole as transparently self-justifying in all its details. Since our thinking proceeds by the interaction of thought and things, of categories and evidence, its task at any stage of the process is the reconciliation of the two sides; the exposition of the categories to show how they can assimilate the evidence, the examination of the evidence to insure that it shall not be misdescribed in order to make it fit the categories. All this springs from the double-sided of the longing for objectivity which lies at the heart of the philosophical quest.


If, then, a fading Hegelianism was characteristic of the world of philosophy as I knew it in 1912, this means that we were coming the end of a period in which that system had been on trial, had been given the opportunity of showing how far it could go towards opening our eyes to the understanding of all things. It is probably too soon for us to be able to assess the value of its contribution, though some attempt will have to be made later on this course of lectures. Here and now our concern is with what has been going on since 1914.

We have seen the beginning of one of the recurrent swings of the pendulum which mark the history of philosophy, reversing the direction in which it had begun to swing a century before.5 Stated in terms of what I have just called the double-sided character of the philosopher's quest for objectivity, what has been happening may be described as the shifting of emphasis from the demand that reality shall conform to the categories of our minds to the demand that our minds shall conform to the evidence as it comes to them, whether or no it can be assimilated by the categories as they stand. The underlying principle of the idealism which had been on trial was that the rational is the real: the law of contradiction was the key with which to lay bare the secrets of the universe and throw light upon the mysteries of our existence. The task before exponents of the system had been to show how it could explain the fact that these secrets and mysteries appear as they do in our experience.

Of earlier Gifford lecturers whom I have mentioned, Bernard Bosanquet was one of these exponents, and a very gallant attempt he made. The influence of the school was still strong in the thought of William Temple.6 Samuel Alexander and John Laird, more clearly heralds of days to come, were at that time unknown to me. As I look back on the study of philosophy in Oxford in the years before 1914, the three names which stand out most clearly in my memory as having had a formative influence on my mind are those of my own tutor, H. H. Williams (afterwards Principal of St. Edmund Hall, and Bishop of Carlisle), H. A. Prichard, and John Cook Wilson.

I can never adequately express what I owe to H. H. Williams, nor can I say anything of what he taught me beyond that he taught me to think. He was a tutor for whom teaching did not mean the imparting of information or indoctrination in the views of any school of thought. His aim was to teach his pupils to think for themselves, as week by week in the reading of their essays any loose thinking or shoddy construction was relentlessly laid bare. It was not to tutor but to books and lectures that one turned for the material to think about.

I must have been among the last of those who sat at Cook Wilson's feet, caught the inspiration that came from the flashing eyes and snapping fingers which accompanied his most incisive thrusts, or shrivelled inwardly as some callow suggestion of one's own was exposed in all its naked foolishness. In his Idealistic Logic7 Sir C. R. Morris treats Cook Wilson's criticism of idealism as a reaction to the views of a bygone age. In my recollection of him he stands out as a precursor of what was to follow.

Take, for example, his criticism of the traditional formal logic, his analysis of its notion of the proposition as the unit of thought which led him to prefer the use of the term statement to either proposition or judgment. The essence of it was that no form of words can be taken as expressing thought without reference to the question in the mind of the thinker. In the sentence ‘That building is the Bodleian’, which term is subject and which predicate depends on whether the question asked was ‘Which is the Bodleian?’ or ‘What is that building?’ The subject is that which it in the mind to begin with, that about which one is seeking further information; the predicate is the new information which is acquired. ‘Statement’ was adopted as a non-question-begging term, one which would neither, like proposition, imply that the form of words was by itself an adequate indication of the thought nor, like judgment, imply that the thought was of a particular kind.

In thus calling attention to the importance of considering the relation between words and thoughts Cook Wilson opened the door to the detailed analysis of linguistic usage which has largely occupied the time of philosophers in these last thirty years. Cook Wilson's ground for the choice of the word statement as the logical term for the kind of grammatical sentence which can be made the basis of inference implies the existence of sentences expressing other forms of mental activity which were for his purpose irrelevant. He rejected the term judgment because it involved an unnecessary element of doubt or wonder followed by decision. But if the meaning of words and sentences is to be determined by the purpose for which they are used, we cannot stop short at apprehension, doubt, wonder and decision; we must further distinguish and recognize such uses as valuation and prescription.

Cook Wilson used the term apprehension for the mental act which should include nothing beyond what was necessary for its statement to be the basis of valid inference. Moreover, he used the same word for the inferring itself. Having apprehended the premisses severally, the thinker looks at them together and apprehends the conclusion involved in them. This apprehension was for him the starting-point and goal of all thinking, an immediate grasping of fact or truth which is sui generis, known to all men by experience but indescribable in terms of anything other than itself.

What is meant by calling this the goal of all thinking is clear from what I have been saying about the passion which animates the archetypal philosopher. His quest for objectivity is a quest for the kind of knowledge, of grasping of reality, for which Cook Wilson used the word apprehension. What of its use for the starting point, and for intermediate steps taken in the course of the quest?

Cook Wilson used it indifferently of apprehensions belonging to two distinct fields, those of sense-perception and of mathematics and logic. Now, as I understand it, philosophy in the last thirty or forty years has largely been occupied with the investigation of the problems here involved. On the one hand there has been analysis of the language and thought characteristic of the natural sciences, undertaken with a view to discovering to what extent through our sense experience we may be said to gain genuine knowledge of objective reality. On the other hand there has been analysis of the language and thought used in abstract reasoning, with much interchange of ideas between logicians and mathematicians.

In my first lecture, when speaking of the impact of the political convulsions of this century on the progress of theological thought, I said that while in their effects on philosophy and theology the results were widely different, in each case they were produced by working on that element which in 1912 was common to both.8 That common element was what I then called empiricism, meaning by the word a turning of interest from the exposition of revealed truths or metaphysical systems to the investigation of the actual facts of human experience. When, a few minutes ago, I spoke of Alexander and Laird as heralds of the future, it was because in their attempts at metaphysical construction they started from this empirical end. But in so far as they made such attempts at all they showed that they were not wholly carried away by the rising currents of opinion. For while among theologians a growing scepticism with regard to the capacity of human reason was engendering a demand for its supersession by a divinely guaranteed revelation, the parallel movement in philosophy was a tendency to deny the possibility of metaphysics and confine the scope of reason to the investigation of events in space and time. Thus in his Essay on Metaphysics9 the late R. G. Collingwood (so often my companion at Cook Wilson's Informal Instructions) reduced that study to the empirical study of the presuppositions of different thinkers characteristic of different ages, climes and cultures.

One exception to this denial of the possibility of any metaphysic was the emergence of logical positivism. Logical positivists regarded themselves as among those who denied the possibility, but the name positivism, with its reminiscence of Comte, describes a materialistic metaphysic, the position that in argument about the objective nature of reality the only valid premisses are those guaranteed by the kind of apprehensions made in the natural sciences. It was the aim of exponents of this theory to show by linguistic analysis that statements which had been held to bear witness to the existence of another order of reality had been misunderstood, that ‘philosophical propositions are not factual but verbal’.10 For the most part, however, philosophers engaged in linguistic analysis have not so much been concerned to establish this or any other metaphysic, as to track down and expose errors in thought due to verbal confusion. Naturalism has been taken for granted rather than explicitly affirmed. There was work enough to be done without turning aside to inquire whether all that we experience can be seen to fit together into a pattern which will satisfy our understanding.

Existentialism has been another product of this empirical age; a further illustration of the complexities involved in the relation of words to thoughts. So long as the form of words, the proposition S. is P, could be taken by itself as the starting point, the traditional logic could go happily on its way. But when we realize that a sentence can only be understood by reference to the question it is intended to answer, we are in another world. The same form of words may express different thoughts. We have to be concerned with the thoughts, and the thoughts are the thoughts of different human beings, each of whom looks out on the world from his own standpoint, conditioned by the circumstances of his birth and growth and experience. What ground have we for thinking that some truth which is common to all is more important than the realization and affirmation of that which he is empowered to contribute through his individuality?

I have said enough to show how the run of the play appears to me as I view it from the theologians' seats in the pavilion. It is an illustration of what I was saying a few minutes ago, that the history of philosophy is not only the history of successive attempts to discover the pattern in which all things fit together in a whole that makes sense; it includes the history of attempts to deal with such relevant questions as those in epistemology and logic. Sometimes these secondary questions are of such importance and complexity and engage so much attention that their study feels like an end in itself: one tends to forget that they are ancillary to the philosopher's primary quest.

This is what I believe to have been happening in the period through which we have been living. Logical positivism and existentialism are incidental accompaniments of what is in essence a necessary attention to epistemology and logic, without which certain sources of error and confusions of thought might never be exposed and avoided. In such a period philosophy is in danger of so developing the specialized study of details, with an esoteric growth of technical terms, that it ceases to be of interest to any but its own professional practitioners, encouraging the production of view-tasters among its pupils and parlour-gamesters among its teachers. Nevertheless, it is a necessary stage in the history of philosophy, as necessary as was the antiquarian research stage in that of theology. Without the latter we should not have our present freedom to preach with full conviction the biblical revelation of God's redeeming grace. That passion for an understanding of all existence which is the well-spring of philosophy will not for ever be restrained from asking its fundamental question, and in the future those who shall seek for answers with a genuine desire to avoid pitfalls on their way will often have cause to be grateful to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his disciples.

  • 1.

    London, 1949; pp. 19 ff.

  • 2.

    E.g., in the Preface to the Sermons at the Rolls Chapel.

  • 3.

    On this see my Towards a Christian Philosophy (London, 1942), pp. 28–37.

  • 4.

    Cp. above, Lecture I, p. 8.

  • 5.

    See John Jones: The Egotistical Sublime (London, 1954), pp. 35–46.

  • 6.

    See my Doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 131–4.

  • 7.

    London, 1933.

  • 8.

    Above, p. 7.

  • 9.

    London, 1940.

  • 10.

    M. Macdonald, in Flew: Essays on Logic and Language (Oxford, 1951), p. 80.