She is a substance, and a reall thing,
Which hath it selfe an actuall working might;
Which neither from the Senses’ power doth spring,
Nor from the bodie’s humors, tempred right.
For when she sorts things present with things past,
And thereby things to come doth oft foresee;
When she doth doubt at first, and chuse at last,
These acts her owne, without her body bee.
When in th’ effects she doth the causes know,
And seeing the stream, thinks wher the spring doth rise;
And seeing the branch, conceives the root below;
These things she views without the bodie’s eyes.
When she, without a Pegasus, doth flie
Swifter then lightning’s fire from East to West,
About the Center and above the skie,
She travels then, although the body rest.
When all her works she formeth first within,
Proportions them, and sees their perfect end,
Ere she in act does anie part begin;
What instruments doth then the body lend?
When without hands she doth thus castles build,
Sees without eyes, and without feet doth runne;
When she digests the world, yet is not fil’d:
By her owne power these miracles are done.
When she defines, argues, divides, compounds,
Considers vertue, vice, and generall things,
And marrying divers principles and grounds,
Out of their match a true conclusion brings.
These actions in her closet all alone,
(Retir’d within herselfe) she doth fulfill;
Use of her bodie’s organs she hath none,
When she doth use the powers of Wit and Will.
For though our eyes can nought but colours see,
Yet colours give them not their powre of sight;
So, though these fruits of Sense her objects bee,
Yet she discernes them by her proper light.
Then is the Soule a nature, which containes
The powre of Sense, within a greater power
Which doth imploy and use the Senses’ paines,
But sits and rules within her private bower.
If she were but the bodie’s accident,
And her sole being did in it subsist;
As white in snow, she might her selfe absent,
And in the bodie’s substance not be mist.
But it on her, not shee on it depends;
For shee the body doth sustaine and cherish;
Such secret powers of life to it she lends,
That when they faile, then doth the body perish.
Since then the Soule works by her selfe alone,
Springs not from Sense, nor humors, well agreeing;
Her nature is peculiar, and her owne;
She is a substance, and a perfect being.
Sir J. Davies
The capacity of the vessel in which he proposes to embark should be the mariner’s first consideration. Is it equal to the proposed voyage, of power likely to ensure success? One cannot hope to round Cape Horn in a skiff. Modern man requires as a basis for his life and activities some account of himself and his place in the scheme of things. He has intelligence, can it supply his needs? Our philosopher, Locke, with the sound sense characteristic of him, declared a survey of our own understanding, its origin, nature and extent, a necessary preliminary to any philosophical enquiry. That is to say, the human mind should first of all examine and estimate its own capacities. ‘There is nothing either good or bad,’ we read in Shakespere, ‘but thinking makes it so.’ It would appear to be the truth. There is nothing either good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, save as thinking declares it to be. If then thought occupies so high a seat, wields a magisterial authority from which there is no appeal, must we not assume it equal to all undertakings, competent to determine all cases and terminate all disputes?
Certainly man’s understanding is a noble faculty, of quality and fabric more divine that any other of nature’s works. Mind is admittedly her greatest triumph, and much eloquence has been expended in the praise of this ‘candle of the Lord’. ‘All our dignity consists in thought’, said Pascal. ‘On earth there is nothing great but man, in man there is nothing great but mind,’ wrote Sir William Hamilton. Epictetus went even further, so far as to describe reason as ‘a fragment of God’ (ἀπόσπασμα τοῦ θεοῦ). The higher the estimate our own age makes of man’s mental powers the better, for it has entrusted everything without exception to their charge. It points out that truths obtained by revelation cannot be subjected to examination, and have no cogency, therefore, for any save the illuminated.
Yet when one looks back into the historical past, or even around in the present, one wonders whether such praise is not overdone, a trifle excessive, whether in fact men can be said to think at all. We talk of reason, our rationalistic societies lay great store by it, but when did reason ever control human affairs, or does it now control them? As if arguments had ever prevailed when the emotions were deeply stirred, as if logic had been the guiding light of mankind. Revolutions which begin in the name of reason commonly end in wholesale slaughter. Men become weary of argument with the obtuse people who oppose them, and take to a quicker method of persuasion, throat-cutting. ‘A whiff of grape-shot’ is still the most cogent logic. William O’Brien, the Irish patriot, habitually divided his own countrymen into two classes—‘loyal comrades’ and ‘loathsome ruffians’. These statements are as clear, definite and intelligible as you could wish. This is no doubt thinking of a kind. How shall we class it? Mr. de Valera remarked not long ago in the Dail (1934), ‘Our attitude is that this money is not due. We are prepared to talk about it, we are prepared to send it to arbitration if necessary, but we are not going to pay it.’ He knew his mind, but was he thinking?
Thought of a kind goes on all about us in the world, yet who believes, for example, that where there is universal suffrage there is universal intelligence, that where there is education there is good sense, that where there is representative government there is necessarily also justice? How great was James Mill’s confidence in this lumen naturale, this unfailing lamp. ‘Every man possessed of reason’, he wrote, ‘is accustomed to weigh evidence, and to be guided and determined by its predominance. When various conclusions are, with their evidence, presented with equal care and skill, though some few may be misguided, there is a moral certainty that the greatest number will judge aright.’ He brings good news, but can we trust our eyesight when we read such deliverances? In what far distant planet had this philosopher spent his life? Some few, he thinks, may occasionally be misguided. I hasten to agree with him. I will even go further, and say that there have been some eminent thinkers who have troubled the waters of thought only to muddy them. Reason is an inexpugnable prejudice of the mind. Yes, but was Mahomet, let us say, rational, or Luther or Robespierre? They were leaders of human thought. Is Mustapha Kemal or Herr Hitler rational, or the present regime in Russia? Opinions seem to differ. What bubbles we blow and call it thought! Human thinking, high and low, is worm-eaten with prejudices and fallacies.
Excursions into human history give us less encouragement than Mill. They show too convincingly for our comfort that even among civilised races, and the educated among those races, the power to weigh evidence, to judge of probabilities, to estimate character, to distinguish between sense and fustian, to discern quality in a picture, a poem, a statue, to discriminate between plausible and demonstrative statements, the relevant and irrelevant in discourse, to perceive the drift of an argument, to appreciate the difference between soap-box oratory and that of Demosthenes or Burke—that these powers are not very widely distributed. Speaking out of his wide public experience, Charles James Fox declared that the same reason dished out in ten different forms was as effective in debate as ten different reasons. ‘The inconsistency of acting on two opposite principles’,—Sir James Frazer is the authority I quote—‘however it may vex the soul of the philosopher, rarely troubles the common man; indeed he is seldom even aware of it.’ And he cites the following from a correspondent of The Times, who had lived long in the East and knew it well: ‘The Oriental mind is free from the trammels of logic. It is a literal fact that the Oriental mind can accept and believe two opposite things at the same time. We find fully qualified and even learned Indian doctors practising Greek medicine, as well as English medicine, and enforcing sanitary restrictions to which their own houses and families are entirely strangers. We find astronomers who can predict eclipses, and yet who believe that eclipses are caused by a dragon swallowing the sun. We find holy men who are credited with miraculous powers, and with close communion with the Deity, who live in drunkenness and immorality, and who are capable of elaborate frauds on others. To the Oriental mind a thing must be incredible to command a ready belief.’
One sometimes thinks the less the majority of people reason for themselves the better. ‘What would become of the world’, asks Burke, ‘if the practice of all moral duties and the foundations of society rested upon having their reasons made clear to every individual?’ Yes, indeed, what would become of it? ‘When the people undertake to reason,’ as Voltaire said, ‘all is lost.’ Reason is to be our guide, say the rationalists. Have they ever told us ‘whose reason’? Let them devote their days and nights to that interesting question. Possibly they take Goethe’s view, that it does not reside in the common herd, but must always remain the possession of a few talented individuals. Let us go in search, then, of a subject upon which the high-stepping minds, the least clouded and most elevated, have spoken with unhesitating and harmonious voice. Pleasure, said Epictetus, is the chief good. It is the chiefest of evils, said Antisthenes. Men, declared Rousseau, are naturally good; they are naturally bad, said Machiavelli. It is on the same evidence that these distinguished people contradict each other. Virtue, proclaimed the Stoics, is sufficient for happiness. Without external goods it is not sufficient, said Aristotle. Virtue once achieved cannot be lost, say some; it can be lost, say others. Pity is a virtue, some thinkers have proclaimed: others that it is not a virtue. The world, many noble souls have taught, is a divine creation. It arose accidentally, declare other philosophers. The debate continues. Your kind, benevolent hearts propose to build upon earth a great temple of peace and concord. Show me where to lay the first stone, and I will build you one.
But perhaps it may be said, all this may be true, but how different if you embark upon a study of science. There you leave dubiety behind you. There you have something exact and positive, and ascertained beyond doubt. May I ask, ‘Do you mean last century’s science or this century’s?’ It is best to forget what science said yesterday if you are to believe what she says today. Science sheds its last year’s conclusions as a snake its skin, or a crab its shell. Certainly if you confine your interest to practical matters, you may accumulate much useful, indeed invaluable information, as was done by the human race before the word science was invented. Study nature and you discover that air contains oxygen, that the magnetic needle points to the North. And if you enquire further you can add indefinitely to your store of such information, construct marvellous machinery, assuage many of your pains, work ten thousand wonders by your insight into nature’s habits. But in respect of what we most wish to know, how far has science gone? To the question, ‘What is philosophy?’ Plotinus answers τὸ τιμιώτατον, ‘what matters most.’ There you have it. Has science anything to say on what matters most? Any information on the beginning or end of things? None. Has it anything convincing to tell us on the relations of the mind to the body? Nothing. About the destiny of the human race? About ethics or conduct? About systems of government? About international relations? Not a word. Anything solid and satisfactory about the human will, about love and hate, about justice and liberty? The oracle is surprisingly silent. Are these matters beneath her notice?
The appeal is always to reason, and to this court we must take all our questions and differences of opinion. And yet as Mons. Jaloux has said, ‘It is in the name of Reason that St. Thomas and the disciples of the Summa accept the truth of the Church’s teaching, and it is in the name of Reason that many refuse to believe in God. I think that the most reasonable thing is to avoid having too much confidence in Reason. Sometimes it seems to me the most capricious and elastic of all the forms of the imagination.’1
If the beginning and end of things, if speculations about God are too high for our intelligence, let us come nearer home. Can reason tell us anything about space, time, motion, energy, these familiar acquaintances, or the equally familiar remembering, feeling, thinking, with which we are on the easiest and the best of terms in everyday life? Can it tell us in any particular, any single particular, how we are what we are? I have not found it so. Does it know anything whatsoever? Has it discovered whether ours is the only inhabited star, whether there are other beings, like or unlike ourselves, in the universe? It appears to be very poorly endowed, this celebrated reason. Is it conceivable, can we credit it, that this majestic faculty may be at the mercy of so commonplace, so plebeian an assistant as information?
To ask reason to perform miracles for us is, perhaps, a little unfair. Let us set it simpler tasks. Let reason instruct us how to go about the writing of Hamlet, or teach us to paint like Velasquez, or carve the frieze of the Parthenon, or compose the Jupiter symphony. Its powers or its principles of knowledge do not extend even so far as these arts. I am not sure that I would intrust reason with the arrangement of a bowl of flowers. In respect of such things ‘the sane man is nowhere at all compared with the madman’. Who says so? Plato, than whom no more resolute and uncompromising advocate of reason ever trod the earth.
Possibly you are among those who distinguish between what men say and what things say, between knowledge and reasoning upon knowledge. Knowledge, you hold, comes to us through observation and speaks for itself. If you mean that an ounce of experience is worth a hundred tons of speculation, I agree with you. The sun shines and I am warmed. Water quenches thirst, and when thirsty I drink it—or something more palatable. The sharper the knife the better it cuts. If you assert that you cannot add to the strength of perception by arguments, you are right. I excuse anyone from proving to me the existence of rivers and mountains, men and cities. I have seen them. No further evidence on their behalf will deepen my conviction that they exist. It is already fixed and profound. Nor will any arguments induce me to doubt their existence. I perceive, I see and believe. But what is this seeing, this perception of which we hear so much? How far does it carry you below the surface, and into the true nature of things? You suppose that knowledge arises from the simple process of opening your eyes and keeping them open, that it filters in without any further activity on your part. It is given you, and there it is; its acquisition a passive process, exclusively an affair of sensation. Arguments, you think, may be met by opposing arguments, but there is a region where argument is silenced and ceases, the region of pure perception.
And how far then does perception take you? If anyone asks, ‘How have you reached your conclusions about nature?—how has science arrived at her results?’ you must not say ‘by perception’. Dismiss such thoughts. We do not perceive the air around us, nor the growth of trees and animals, nor the relations existing between things. We cannot see the actual link between cause and effect anywhere, nor the vibrations which give light and heat, nor the electrons of which we are told matter consists, nor the genes out of which our bodies develop. Our perceptions give us none of this information. An innumerable series of judgments and concepts is involved in the conclusions you have reached. We belong to a world which requires elaborate interpretation.
Enquire of the philosophers, and they will tell you that this matter of perception is still more, indeed desperately complicated. They may even assure you that there is no such thing as pure perception, that it has no story of its own to tell, that it is a part, and a part only, of that active and energetic faculty we call thought, and that it involves memory and anticipation, forethought and afterthought. You place a rose before a mirror. The mirror reflects the rose, but has no knowledge of it, is not even aware of it. Well, the eye has no more knowledge, no more awareness, no more consciousness of the rose than has the mirror. In a word, to separate the seen from the seer is allowed to be finally and utterly impossible. We are, as Niels Bohr expressed it, ‘both spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.’ For we must not think of thought as passive, as arising out of perceptions, as steam rises from heated water, but as an activity, a doing, a going out towards, as grasping and manipulating the data of sense. It is this activity, or energy which is at once the characteristic of mind and its chief mystery. The senses, then, do not give us knowledge. An active, inner principle, wholly independent of the senses is essential to the process of obtaining it.
If you have not looked into this delicate affair of the relations between the mind and the external world, let me refer you to Professor Broad of Cambridge. There are exactly seventeen doctrines of these relations. You would not expect me to dispose of these seventeen doctrines with a wave of the hand. It will be wiser with the time at our disposal to look them resolutely in the face, and pass by on the other side. We may agree, it is on all hands agreed, that without knowledge, without information we are at a standstill. Without them reason is powerless, a pincer with one claw only. The strongest-winged bird cannot fly in a vacuum. The mill of reason must have grist. And in the attempt to understand nature and ourselves mere thinking supplies no grist. This grist we call experience. That heavy substances fall to the ground more rapidly than light substances was believed by Aristotle. Logic told him so. How very natural and sensible a belief. But he was wrong. Galileo discovered the truth by experiments from the leaning tower of Pisa. A certain King of Siam declared the Dutch ambassador mad when he asserted that in his own country during winter the water became so hard that men could walk upon it. The King was not prepared to believe so monstrous a falsehood. He, too, was mistaken. Without experience logic wanders in the void.
Whatever else it may be, thought is at least an adjustment to its surroundings. A living organism cannot support itself by feeding upon itself, nor can thought exclusively feed upon itself. The mind, in Bacon’s words; ‘works upon stuff’. And in the end it turns out that science is nothing more than glorified common sense. It takes things as you and I take them, at their face values. It builds, as you and I build, upon the stuff of experience. And its method, the method of trial and error, is the time-honoured method by which mankind has always threaded its way through a puzzling world. Nature has curious devices, eccentric habits, and they have to be discovered. You cannot sit down in a dark room and reason out the habits of an electron. Nature must tell you its habits. Science is like a man who knows nothing of the machinery of a motor car save the effect of moving this or that lever. It is a study of surfaces, and can predict, as he can, the probable sequence of events from the observation of previous sequences. For the rest, to be exact, it knows precisely nothing. Science walks past with its head in the air if you ask it for its theory of knowledge. If you know of any work in which the scientific theory of knowledge is set forth, I should be extremely glad to hear of it. Science assumes, exactly as the soldier, the sailor or the busman assumes, the great unknowables beneath the surface of observed phenomena, space and time, motion and life and thought. And thus, though most men are unaware of the fact, it has nothing to say, or should have nothing to say, when the great fundamental issues, which involve all these, and much more, are in debate.
Look a little further into this very singular activity, this process of thinking. Hume, one of the clearest minds that ever pondered the mysteries, regarded belief, conviction, as a kind of firm, solid ‘feeling’. Feeling is a very unwelcome visitor in rationalistic circles. ‘The kernel of the scientific outlook’, wrote Lord Russell, ‘is the refusal to regard our desires, tastes and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world.’ This is the superb gesture with which we are familiar. Mention your feelings to those men of iron, our scientific friends, and you will be met with a cold stare and the acid enquiry, ‘My dear sir, what have your feelings to do with the matter?’
Let us have, then, the true account of the activity we call ‘thought’ which makes it by contrast so trustworthy. It appears to have a local habitation. It resides, we are given to understand, or arises somewhere in the skull, and consists of or emerges from a complicated series of neural changes, set in motion by various forms of stimulus from the outside world. It is finally and wholly reducible to the movements of material particles, and may be described, without any irreverence, as a kind of buzzing, which accompanies the movements, or a kind of noiseless activity to which the machinery gives rise; or, if you like, a sort of ghostly light which hovers over that internal motion. If thinking be the result of a physical process, it must be itself a physical process, and cannot give itself airs, or swagger it on some upper angelic plane.
How then can we suppose our thinking an infallible organ for the discovery of truth? In proportion as you lower the status of mind, the greater, one must conclude, should be your hesitation in accepting its deliverances. Come to any decision in the matter you please. Science has most certainly done nothing to strengthen the foundations of thought, the foundations upon which its stately fabric has been erected. It has, for example, demonstrated, if it has demonstrated anything, that we are the transient inhabitants of a microscopic speck of astral dust, in body and in mind evanescent electro-magnetic phenomena in a universe of formidable proportions, that we are the kinsfolk of the ape and the lizard, descendants of the lowliest organisms, and so has diminished our place and necessarily also the place of mind, in the scale of things almost to a vanishing point. How then can we regard our thoughts as of any validity or consequence whatever? Why should I waste my time listening to your arguments, if you yourself declare them tainted at the source?
That very honest and sagacious person, Darwin, caught sight of one aspect of this difficulty. ‘But then’, he wrote, ‘the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of a man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value, or at all trustworthy? Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind?’ It is an awkward question, so awkward as to be generally avoided. I have never seen it discussed in the scientific journals. Who of us is prepared to take seriously the reflections of a dromedary or a baboon on the nature and constitution of the world? Why, then, take our own seriously? At what date, or during what century of human evolution, did our meditations become respectable and trustworthy? Was it yesterday or the day before? Monarchs with dubious titles to their crowns dislike enquiries into their claims. We need not ask, therefore, why the particular pattern of atoms called the brain has formed so high an opinion of itself, so admires itself and trusts itself. We may note merely that some philosophers, having done their best to cut off the branch upon which they are sitting, continue with superb confidence to sit upon it.
Suppose we put this question to our scientific friends—If the structure of the universe be reasonable or rational, how did this rationality enter into the world of particles in motion? If not reasonable or rational, how can you penetrate its structure, or account for its performances, by reason? Or again, if the world we know arose from a series of accidents, reason, you will allow, is itself an accident. Science proceeds on the assumption that the world is intelligible. If it be unintelligible or senseless, science falls into a heap of ruins. How charmingly simple to employ one form of motion in the skull to explain other forms of motion outside the skull, or one accident to explain other accidents.
Our troubles are not yet ended. Our philosophers seem unable to agree upon a cardinal point—What is, or what is not, to be regarded as rational? In what does rationality consist? What precisely is the satisfaction it affords? Let us suppose the whole system of things were discovered to be through and through intelligible, as a machine is intelligible, but at the same time satanically cruel, a devilish design: should we sleep in peace, and call it reasonable? ‘I could not rest’, said Mr. Bradley, the author of Appearance and Reality, ‘in a truth if I were compelled to regard it as hateful.’ This appears to be an admission of the utmost importance. Yet the metallic voice of science assures us that our desires are irrelevant, and we must therefore suppose that it would accept tranquilly a diabolical universe. Yet for some of us a diabolical world would remain an unintelligible world, wholly irrational.
Consider now another peculiarity, a malady, it should perhaps be called, of the human mind, from which it is a chronic sufferer. Every man fancies that what he now thinks he will continue to think. There is an air of finality about our present opinions. They seem secure and inevitable. And this in face of the most obvious and overwhelming evidence. For it will be universally admitted that knowledge is progressive, that we know to-day what was unknown yesterday. We are well aware, also, that this knowledge could not have been foreseen, or so much as guessed at in earlier times, like the discoveries of Clerk Maxwell and Faraday in electro-magnetics, or of Pasteur in the region of micro-organisms. We are aware that these discoveries have within a single generation profoundly affected our conceptions and outlook upon nature, and that nothing could be less probable than that they are the last or final discoveries. How slow, then, should we be to build upon them any positive creed. That similar revolutions of thought will never again take place, no man of sense will believe. Nevertheless, how hard it is to convince ourselves that we are not the sons of the morning, that the clue to the labyrinth may not after all be in our hands.
Men, we must bear in mind, have not always argued as they now argue. They have in some ages taken things for granted, as clear and obvious, that are now dismissed as nonsense, and attached importance to ideas or conceptions to which to-day no consideration is given. The mind has its seasonal prejudices. Of these inborn prejudices of the mind, difficult to dislodge, many examples might be given. For long it was thought self-evident that the heavenly bodies must move in circles, simply because the circle was looked upon as the perfect curve. Kepler proved that the planets moved round the sun in ellipses, an idea men of science found at first most painful, extremely disagreeable and difficult to entertain. Or take the idea of action at a distance, which Newton found so repugnant, indeed quite intolerable. In this repugnance we have the purest prejudice, unadulterated dogma, of which not a particle of proof has ever been given, a dogma to which no one in his senses would commit himself today. No one nowadays talks about the ‘self-evident’; the ‘self-evident’ is under the gravest suspicion. We take it with a handful of salt. Knowing all this, knowing that opinion is always on the move, we cling none the less tenaciously to our present notions. And society is so sure of itself that it is deeply engaged in the effort to instruct the rising generation in the only true and proper way of seeing things—its own.
Does our way of looking at things, of seeing and thinking them, carry with it any guarantee of arriving at truth? In Professor Bergson’s view the human intellect is an instrument created by nature for action, to see things in such a way as to work upon them, and no doubt admirably adapted to serve our practical needs. Its application, however, beyond this field leads, he thinks, to a distortion of the object under examination. The comprehension of life, of its living flow is beyond conceptual thought, which, in the very effort to comprehend, arrests, divides and falsifies it. Life can be understood only by living. To understand any living thing you must, so to say, creep within, and feel the beating of its heart. Every creature knows at least enough about the world to support its own existence there. The intellect seems to stand in its own light, reducing all it contemplates to the shadowiness of its self-chosen concepts, and by its own confession we can know nothing more than these, its peculiar creation. Life lies too deep to be penetrated by them. It is an island fortress. You cannot march into it on your two feet of logic and mathematics. The Euclidean understanding, William James also believed, makes human experience not more but less intelligible. We are very easily misled. It is not the lofty sails but the unseen wind that moves the ship. A deceptive clearness accompanies the operations of the intelligence. The reason is not, as the rationalists so firmly believe, the most fundamental thing about us. The most fundamental thing is that we are living beings, and purposeful beings, and very complicated beings, of whom reason is an attribute, an instrument, but most obviously not the whole of us. Logic does not help you to appreciate York Minster, or Botticelli’s Primavera, and mathematics give no useful hints for lovers. You can no more fit the activities and passions of men exclusively into intellectual categories than you can find room for the Atlantic Ocean in a gallon jar. ‘I have fought sixty battles’, said Napoleon, ‘and I have learned nothing that I did not know at the beginning.’
This ‘scepticism of the instrument’—and I desire to emphasise it—goes deeper still. It extends to language. Language must be acknowledged as the greatest of human achievements. To what a world it gives us entrance! What a thing is a dictionary! What a creature man, who makes and employs such a book! What reflections, theories, inventions are here represented! These myriads of words, all with meanings, references, distinctions. What a world of art, poetry, science, religion, philosophy, imagination and fancy here opens to our gaze. ‘It is obvious,’ remarks Hobbes, ‘that truth and falsehood dwell only with those living creatures who have the use of speech.’ And everyone knows that our thoughts are inextricably entangled in language. But there is a treacherous chasm between language and the reality of which it speaks. ‘Words are the daughters of earth, but things are the sons of heaven.’ Words are clearly not the things themselves. They are the counters we employ in the exchange of impressions and ideas, and no single one of them has precisely the same value, or connotation or boundaries in your mind and in mine. Their values approximate but are never identical.
Sobald man spricht beginnt man schon zu irren.
It is, besides, more than doubtful whether shades of thought which can be rendered, let us say in French, can be employed in Chinese. It may be that in the end no race fully understands another. ‘We must get behind words’, Berkeley counsels us, ‘and consider the things themselves.’ But how much more easily said than done. All our thinking is in terms of words, the universal medium of communication between ourselves and our neighbours. And this medium, speech, has been developed in the closest association with the world disclosed to us through our senses of touch, sight and hearing, more especially sight—the extended world with all its various sounds and appearances. To employ language beyond the bounds of sense is thus hazardous in the extreme. When we read for example, in scientific works, of attractions and repulsions, of electric and magnetic fields, we are immersed in a sea of metaphors. Nature gave us eyes and ears, but no senses for magnetic and electric currents, which lie as far beyond their range as the affections of the amoeba or the anxieties of the cuttle-fish.
If I were asked what has been the most powerful force in the making of history, you would probably adjudge me of unbalanced mind were I to answer, as I should have to answer, metaphor, figurative expression. It is by imagination that men have lived; imagination rules all our lives. The human mind is not, as philosophers would have you think, a debating hall, but a picture gallery. Around it hang our similes, our concepts. The tyranny of the concept, as, for example, that modern one, which pictures the universe as a machine, or that literary one, which thought of the critic as a magistrate administering the laws of the world of letters, the laws of the classical canon, laws like those of the Medes and Persians, fixed and unchangeable—a concept which governed European literature for centuries—this tyranny of the concept is one from which the human mind never escapes. It hugs its self-imposed chains. Metaphor is the essence of religion and poetry. Take the similes, the figurative speech out of the world’s poetry, and you reduce it to commonplace. Remove the metaphors from the Bible, and its living spirit vanishes, its power over the heart melts utterly away. The prophets, the poets, the leaders of men are all of them masters of imagery, and by imagery they capture the human soul. Nor does science escape from this entanglement. If language consists, as it does, of fossilised images, no wonder science finds it a treacherous medium. ‘Our confidence in language’, writes Lord Russell, ‘is due to the fact that it consists of events in the physical world, and therefore shares the structure of that world, and can therefore express that structure. But if there be a world which is not physical, and not in space-time, it may have a structure which we can never hope to express or to know.’
But the difficulty goes even deeper, and we do not need to leave the material world to observe the havoc wrought in scientific thinking by the use of concepts borrowed from one science to explain matters in another, as when in biology the attempt is made to account for the purposeful movements of living creatures exclusively by the action and reaction of material particles, governed solely by the laws of dynamics.
To say that we are not to think anthropomorphically, as men think, will not help us, since it is no more than to say we are not to think at all. How else can I think than as I am constituted to think? How animals think, angels or archangels, I can form no conjecture. Our question is, Has the world any sense, meaning or purpose from our point of view, and not from the point of view of some other or imaginary being? By thinking, such is our embarrassing situation, we have not only to account, or attempt to account, for the world and ourselves, but to account also for our confidence in this queer process and to justify it. Thinking must cross-examine thinking as well as the witnesses on its behalf called into the court. Mind summons itself to the bar, and is at once pursuer, defendant and Chief Justice.
Who then will keep watch upon this watcher, or stand sponsor for his fidelity? In this predicament some ingenious people have postulated a universal mind, ‘consciousness in general’, a kind of Lord Chancellor, with whom an appeal may be lodged. Here the difficulty is, where are you to find him? The only thinking with which we have any acquaintance is individual thinking, and of the various contributions from the various heads we make a common pool. In the multitude of these counsellors, unfortunately not all of one mind, is our only wisdom. Why are they not all of one mind? That question may be partly answered by asking another. When we say we are trying to explain something, what do we mean? Do we mean any more than that a certain state of affairs, a certain conclusion would be more agreeable to us than some other? What happens in our heads or hearts when we say, ‘Yes, that is so’? What sets this final seal upon a process of thought? In daily life if a statement does not contradict itself, but tends to confirm a previous experience we incline to accept it. If we see, that is, we believe. If we do not see, we require evidence, and better evidence the less the statement accords with earlier experience; more, let us say, for ghosts than for a motor accident. But certain results seem to give satisfaction to some minds, and quite different results satisfaction to others. Certain types of explanation satisfy one age, appear to be truth itself, which to another seem irrelevant and even meaningless. Every historian is familiar with what are called ‘climates of opinion’. Our minds may thus resemble the sea shell, which when placed to the ear sounds as if it echoed the murmuring of the waves, and yet the murmur is nothing but the murmur of our own blood, and reason may thus introduce us to
A world unreal as the shell-heard sea.
It was Hegel’s view that the secret of the universe was penetrable by thought. Other philosophers have been very definitely of the contrary opinion, that human thought was radically inadequate, utterly incompetent to deal with the mystery of existence. To let loose our paltry fancies into the vast ocean of being with any expectation of success is, they insist, mere megalomania. Nature’s secrets might conceivably be accessible to other and angelic minds, but not to ours. The key of our understandings will not fit this intricate lock. To nature’s hieroglyphics we do not possess the clue. They remind us that even Socrates, the apostle of reason, had his ‘daimon’, which knew more than his intellect could tell him. They remind us, too, that Plato resorted to myth or poetry when its soundings failed him. By other thinkers it is said that the book of nature is unreadable for quite a different reason, not because it is in a foreign tongue, but because it consists of senseless scribblings, accidental and unmeaning scrawls. A document is clearly beyond interpretation in which the words contain no sense. The failure to find a meaning in life is readily understood, if there be none to find—to-day’s fashionable solution of the great enigma. In that case
Thinking is but an idle waste of thought,
And nought is everything and everything is nought.
If the universe be unintelligible, manifestly we but waste our time. ‘A lingering scruple’, wrote Mr. F. H. Bradley, ‘still forbids me to believe that reality can be purely rational.’ If that be our conclusion, if the universe contains a surd, an irrational kernel, its secret must remain for ever impenetrable, impervious to thought. Reason bites only on reason, there is no comprehending the incomprehensible. We have reached the great barrier reefs beyond which no ship has sailed, or can ever sail. Thought dethrones thought, and reason abdicates.
Unwelcome though it be, however, even this conclusion does not leave us wholly destitute. Philosophers agree that our understandings are equal at least to our near and immediate needs. Somehow the world supports us, as it supports the tree or flower. We are somehow nourished, body and mind. In a measure we are at home in the universe. We are its offspring and its subjects; it is our native land. If the whole has not been revealed to us, enough has been revealed to enable us to live, move and have our being within it. To advance beyond this point Goethe and a host of thinkers have declared impossible. Of the universe, or modes of being within it, other than our own, we can form no more conception—he is reported to have said—‘than the fish in the abyss of the deep (even supposing it endowed with reason) could emancipate itself from the influence of its conceptions, formed in that region of fins and scales, of which it is an inhabitant, or in its nether element create to itself a complete and accurate picture of the human form.’
On this view the mind has been developed as the hand has been developed, in adaptation to the requirements of our environment. Thought is a deposit of human and racial experience in its prolonged contact with the world we inhabit, justified and consecrated by its success and services to mankind. By means of it we can steer our way through the world of the senses: beyond its rim or margin thought has no efficacy, no jurisdiction. ‘Thought’s the slave of life’, said Hotspur, and in so saying lighted upon the innermost truth. If such be our plight we must accept our limitations, and, with the sceptics, ‘suspend our judgments in all matters which do not refer to living and the preservation of life.’
Up to a point, indeed, we need have no misgivings. Our inexpugnable confidence in reason is abundantly justified in daily affairs, and fortified by the glorious successes of science in her own region of enquiry. Yet when all has been said against the human understanding that can be said, it still refuses surrender. Whatever be its disabilities the only grounds you have for your condemnation are those which itself supplies. To subdue reason you must employ reason. Arguments which set aside human reasoning on any grounds are themselves reasonings. Nor is there anything to take its place. It is all we have. More than that, the human mind is no mere excrescence upon nature, but a part of nature, and as a part of nature represents nature, an attribute as much at least as any other part of her innermost being. Yet again, the intellect grows with what it feeds on, expands with the information it gathers, and no limit can be assigned beforehand to its powers. You have no right at all to assume a static reason in an unchanging world.
Innumerable attempts have been made, in the interests of the spiritual life, to find a substitute for reason, to discover another than the intellectual path to the sanctuary, an inner way. Reason may, indeed, itself acknowledge that there are regions beyond its powers of exploration, veils it cannot lift, and that knowledge may reach us by channels other than its own. The heart, as Pascal said, has reasons of its own. Yes, indeed, but every heart has its private and incommunicable secrets. There is no common ground. And here we perceive the intellect’s grand prerogative and advantage. And remember its magnificent hospitality. Reason keeps an open house for all comers. It introduces us to a noble partnership. As men who speak the same language can communicate with each other, so in her domain mind answers to mind. Here we can come to an understanding with each other, exchange opinions, correct each other’s errors, have our eyes opened. ‘Cross-questioning’, we read in Plato, ‘is the greatest and most efficacious of all purifications.’ Even when we have doubts, it is the mind that doubts. All criticism of the mind is done by the mind itself. Hume employed it to discover its own limitations. Kant employed it to find it unadapted to metaphysical and ontological enquiries; Bergson, to expose the pitfalls into which it may slip, the mazes in which it may lose its way. The reason is its own protector. Nor need we doubt that its present powers may expand, that they are prophetic of higher powers to come.
The universe slumbers in the soul, and we awake to it day by day. In proportion as we come to know it we come to know ourselves. Nothing is so much to be feared as any alliance with the μισόλογοι the despisers of reason; nothing so much to be desired as to follow whithersoever the argument leads. There is a line in Chaucer much to my liking, in his description of the King of Trace at the tournament. ‘And like a griffon,’ says the poet—
And like a griffon looked he about.
So does human reason look about him in the lists, like a lion, fearing no antagonist. On this broad and open way of the mind there are no concealments, no pretences, no hidden weapons. Your thoughts and mine cannot win success by lurking in the shadows, or striking at adversaries from behind their backs. They can be challenged, opposed, ridiculed, rejected in open discussion. Denounce the reason, attack it, despise it, you cannot do it to death. It will recover from every wound, and return to the encounter after every defeat. It opens the gates of the past and the future. Immortal reason, invincible, invulnerable, the glory of humanity, which goes from strength to strength, increasing rather than losing its vigour in the very turmoil of the contest itself.
We shall do very well in the company of reason until we try to account for reason itself. Then we are immediately at a loss, and plunged in the depths of the ocean. Meanwhile we must take as our motto the saying of Terence—‘Nothing is so difficult as to be beyond the reach of investigation.’ (Nil tam difficile est quin quaerendo investigari possit.) We are not to assume that what is now unknown is for ever unknowable. Reason till reason fail, till reason itself discover a power superior to its own—we must stand to that.
- 1. Quoted by Havelock Ellis in Views and Reviews, p. 155.