You are here

Chapter IV: Methodological Doubt

§ 1

The central theme, then, of these lectures being the values of our familiar beliefs, I have next to ask from what quarter this subject can most conveniently be approached. After due reflection it seems to me that I can hardly do better than take advantage of some observations on philosophical method by Mr. Bertrand Russell, who, about the time that I was last lecturing in the University of Glasgow, was similarly occupied in the University of Harvard. The result of his labours is contained in the important volume entitled “Our Knowledge of the External World,” in which the collected addresses were made available to the general reader. But unfortunately, the year 1914, and the years which followed it, gave scant opportunity for philosophic study, and I had no opportunity of reading the book on its first appearance. This I greatly regret; for though it would not, I suppose, be easy to find two people who differed more widely in their conclusions, there are certain resemblances in our theories of philosophic method which seem sufficiently close to render discussion profitable. Mr. Russell may perhaps take a different view; and in any case it may be proper to observe that there are portions of his work, and those perhaps of the greatest general interest, with which I am only indirectly concerned—I mean his attack on Idealism and his advocacy of the New Logic. For Idealism he entertains the profoundest contempt, for the New Logic he entertains the most ardent admiration; and the two sentiments are most intimately connected, since it is to the defects of the old logic that the errors of idealism are in his judgment chiefly to be attributed.

I hold no brief for Idealism, and have no inclination to defend the old logic. It may be as tiresome, as pedantic, as trivial, as erroneous, as its severest critics believe; while the new logic may have all the merits in which the old is so lamentably deficient. On this subject at least Mr. Russell has no doubts. He speaks as an enthusiast. No reformer has ever drawn a blacker picture of the abuses he wished to destroy, or has painted in more glowing colours the millennium he proposed to establish. If the old logic has, in his view, rendered “most philosophers incapable of giving any account of the world of science and of daily life,” the new logic, on the other hand, “enlarges our abstract imagination and provides an infinite number of possible hypotheses to be applied to the analysis of any complex fact.” If “the old logic puts thought in fetters” the “new logic gives it wings.” It will do for philosophy what Bacon hoped to do for all the sciences of Nature; what Galileo actually did for mechanics. And in anticipation of this intellectual millennium it already “clears away incredible accumulations of metaphysical lumber.”

This is high praise; and I trust it is merited. But it is not in this connection that I feel myself in closest agreement with Mr. Russell—it is rather in connection with certain other aspects of his general plan of attack on the great problems of philosophy.

§ 2

In the first place, he is a convinced advocate of the practice which he well describes as “methodological doubt,”1 especially if it be “genuine and prolonged.” Whether he employs the method to the best advantage is another question. But for the method itself I have nothing but praise. I advocated it, and to the best of my ability practised it, more than forty years ago. I advocate it, and to the best of my ability practise it, still. I believe it to be sound.

Moreover, Mr. Russell, if I rightly understand him, means by it exactly, or almost exactly, what I mean by it; and his “methodological doubts” begin where, in my opinion, they ought to begin—with the common beliefs which all men share. These beliefs are, or should be, the primary concern of philosophy; they constitute the obvious material on which philosophic criticism should first be tried. Themes higher and more remote may wait their turn. They are not likely to be forgotten. Mr. Russell, therefore, does well to enquire whether other people exist; whether testimony be a valid source of information; whether, and in what sense, we should accept the law of causation; whether there is an independent material world; whether, if there be, it is of the kind required by science; how error is possible; how the contradictions involved in motion are to be solved; and other similar problems of which the solutions seem obvious till we attempt to find them.

This is criticism as it ought to be. To this ordeal all our leading beliefs should be submitted before they obtain right of entry into any philosophic creed.2 Till it be passed they are (as he happily observes) “blind habits” rather than “intellectual convictions.”3 And though in an access of (what seems to me) unreasoning faith he entertains hopes that the majority of them will be ultimately saved, he is pretty sure that an important minority will perish by the way.

§ 3

So far, so good. But in the deliberate employment of “methodological doubt” there are two dangers which must never be forgotten. It may be used perversely, and it may be used inconsequently. In the first case, it will degenerate into mere “barren scepticism”; in the second, it may lose its critical edge, and thereby be deprived of all its philosophical efficiency. Mr. Russell seems most afraid of Scylla. I confess that to me Charybdis appears the greater peril.

The “barren sceptic” of ordinary discourse no doubt exists—the gentleman who surveys the world and finds therein nothing worth doing,

nothing worth admiring, nothing worth loving, and nothing worth knowing. Scepticism of this type is but the pretentious expression of bored satiety, and is not of the slightest importance to anyone but the subject of it, and perhaps also to his immediate relations.

The “barren sceptic,” to whom Mr. Russell “makes his bow”4 with an air of slightly embarrassed politeness, is a gentleman of quite a different species. He appears, probably not for the first time, in the pages of Herbert Spencer's “Proof of Realism”; and he appears in order that he may there publicly suffer the utmost penalty of the law. But why Mr. Russell should bring him on the stage, or why his scepticism should be intrinsically more barren than Mr. Russell's own, I do not clearly understand. Is it because the “barren” sceptic questions the totality of knowledge, while the sceptic approved by Mr. Russell doubts only the elements of which that totality is composed? “Philosophic scrutiny,” he tells us, “though sceptical as regards every detail, is not sceptical as regards the whole.” But why not? Can it really be contended that we may be sceptical, as Mr. Russell himself is sceptical, about the reality of an independent material world, about the existence of other people, about the law of causation, about the relation born by each man's “private” spaces to Space in general, and each man's “private” times to Time in general, and yet not be sceptical about the “whole of common knowledge”? Surely what would be left of the whole after all its more important parts had been subjected to this process of destructive distillation would be so trifling that it might be swallowed by the most fastidious of sceptics without ill consequence to his intellectual digestion.

§ 4

In any case, I venture to think that Mr. Russell would have been well advised to explain with somewhat greater precision the limitations, as he conceives them, of the sceptical method we both recommend. Judging merely by his practice, which I fancy is all we have to go by, there is here an important difference between us. I see no virtue in “methodological doubt” if we refuse to press it to its speculative limits. Though we need not, indeed cannot, accept these limits in the conduct of life, at least we should know whereabouts they lie. But how can we know this if we mitigate the method whenever it threatens our favourite beliefs? Of this weakness Mr. Russell appears to me to be frequently guilty. I can find no trace of consistency in his practice. Sometimes he is particular almost to excess in the matter of proof. Euclid's easy credulity, his slipshod demonstrations, his rash assumptions, too long hidden from the uninitiated by the incompetence of mathematical experts, fill him with displeasure. He is severe to the verge of harshness in his judgment on those whom he describes as “mystic idealists.” “Belief in the unreality of the world of sense,” with which he credits them, “arises with irresistible force in certain moods,” which have (as he imagines) “some simple physiological basis, but are none the less powerfully persuasive.”5 When the “emotional intensity of such a mood subsides there begins the search for logical reasons,” and since the belief already exists, any reasons that present themselves are hospitably entertained. “The logic which thus arises is not (he thinks) quite disinterested or candid.”6

Euclid's deplorable shortcomings are no affair of mine; nor for the matter of that is “mystical idealism.” But does not this passage, whether it be considered in itself, or be compared with other passages in which he deals with science and common sense, throw a very singular light on Mr. Russell's use of his own chosen method?

It is evident that, in his view, a “simple physiological basis” provides no very creditable origin for the moods which give birth to belief. But have his own beliefs any pedigree more distinguished? Is there a single one of them which does not count among its sources some (more or less) “simple physiological basis”? We are here, of course, again brought back to the problem so often referred to in these lectures—the problem due to the distinction which has to be drawn between the causes of belief and its reasons. Mr. Russell is alive, it seems, to the importance of the distinction when it affects metaphysics; but I do not notice any reference to it when he is dealing with physics; though physics, for reasons which will subsequently appear, is perhaps in the more perilous position of the two.

§ 5

This, however, is not the point on which, for the moment, I desire to insist. I am now concerned with the unequal treatment which Mr. Russell metes out to various classes of belief;—for this touches the very essence of sceptical methodology.

I am not suggesting, be it observed, that we need be equally interested in all branches of knowledge. I am not concerned to weigh the comparative importance of physics and metaphysics. Above all, I am not trying to establish one set of beliefs by throwing doubt upon another. I think, and have always thought, that as we guide our lives by the help of a rough working creed concerning the world of men and things, it is with a critical study of this that philosophy should begin. I agree therefore with Mr. Russell in the view that we may accept the “mass of common knowledge as affording data for our philosophical analysis”7; and for myself I should be prepared to say “ought” instead of saying “may.” I also agree that “we do not, as practical men, entertain for a moment the hypothesis that the whole edifice (of common knowledge) may be built on insecure foundations,”8 provided that emphasis be laid on the word “practical,” and provided that beliefs may be treated as “practically” secure while they are still admitted to be speculatively doubtful. Such, of course, is my conviction. We all live by faith; our inevitable beliefs far outrun any reasons which we have as yet been able to find for them. Until this state of things can be remedied by philosophy (and Mr. Russell's estimate of the potentialities of the New Logic may give us hope), we must be content to adopt a provisional point of view. But the fact that so much of our practical life at present rests on unreasoned foundations is one of which every system, be it provisional or be it final, is bound to take account.

I am not, indeed, quite sure that Mr. Russell would agree. His language seems to me ambiguous, his attitude to be wavering; and I attribute both the ambiguity and the indecision to his hesitating use of his own method. He talks, for example, of “scientific facts the best established and the most worthy of belief.”9 He tells us that “whatever there is reason to believe in physics can probably be interpreted in terms of sense.” He holds that the “data” (of common knowledge) “somehow command our assent, and in some interpretations are pretty certainly true:” Surely his cross-examination becomes strangely gentle when he happens to like the witness!

Of course, if he only means that when we are discoursing on the level of ordinary practice we must assume the truth of ordinary beliefs we need not quarrel with him. But what value have ordinary beliefs on the level of “methodological doubt”? On that level we are bound to ask how these scientific facts have been established, and why they are “worthy of belief”? We must be told on what grounds it is asserted that “the truths of physics can be interpreted in terms of sense”; and why we should suppose “that the ‘data’ of common knowledge,” which “somehow command our assent, are pretty certainly true”? What is the distinction between this naïve faith and the blind reliance “upon interesting intuitions” which, in the case of the “mystical idealists,” Mr. Russell so severely condemns? Regarded from the strictly rational point of view there seems little to choose between them; and if it be true, as Mr. Russell asserts, that the latter has produced a logic which is “not quite disinterested or candid,” what sort of logic has been produced by the former?

Not one which at first sight seems more satisfactory. For it is not the “mystical idealist” alone who reaches his beliefs through his intuitions.10 This, according to Mr. Russell, is the common lot. It is true that the intuitions of the mystical idealist are described as “interesting,” and his reliance upon them is said to be “blind”; while no such epithets are applied to the intuitions of ordinary folk. But, after all, to be interesting is no great crime, and all intuition must surely be “blind,” if by blind is meant, as in this connection I suppose it is, independent of discursive reason.

So far, then, as this part of Mr. Russell's teaching is concerned, it would seem that our beliefs are originally drawn from our intuitions; that our intuitions are sometimes good and sometimes bad; but that no suggestions are forthcoming as to how the bad are to be distinguished from the good. This can hardly be satisfactory to any logician; yet so little does it discourage Mr. Russell that he definitely declares (1) that the knowledge thus acquired must, in the main,” be accepted if philosophy is to be possible at all”; (2) that “the canons” (so far as I am aware, as yet uncatalogued and unexplained) “by which it has been reached must be assumed”; and (3) that its “errors must be discoverable and corrigible by the very methods” which have brought it into existence.

Considering that the methods which have brought it into existence seem largely to consist of inconclusive reasonings based on uncertain intuitions, these statements sound passing strange; and they sound stranger still when we remember that the logician who makes them is an uncompromising advocate of “methodological doubt,” that he desires to submit all our “naïve beliefs” to the “sceptical test”11 before “admitting them into philosophy,” and that “until they pass this ordeal” they are to be counted as “blind habits” rather than “intellectual convictions.”12 I find it difficult, with the best will in the world, to combine these apparently divergent views into one harmonious whole. For a philosopher whose list of the things “we must do our best to doubt” includes the “senses, reason, morals, everything,” the number of things he succeeds in believing seems surprisingly large; and though the “desire to discover evidence for agreeable results” has, in his view, “been the chief obstacle to honest philosophising,” it does not seem to be an obstacle which, in his own case, he has taken the least trouble to surmount.

§ 6

I hasten to add that, speaking for myself, I do not regard the desire to find good reasons for a foregone conclusion as necessarily either a blunder or a crime; and if it be, Mr. Russell has certainly sinned in the very best of philosophic company. It is, I think, perfectly clear, as a matter of historic fact, that the great system builders have always been moved by the desire to find honourable accommodation in their philosophic constructions for the opinions which, by temperament or training, they were already inclined to adopt. I say nothing here of the schoolmen whose works are sometimes treated by critics as negligible on the very insufficient ground that their conclusions were fore-ordained by authority. But consider the case of philosophers who are certainly free from this reproach. Is it not obvious that Schopenhauer's metaphysic was due to his pessimism, and not his pessimism to his metaphysic? Does any man imagine that if Hegel had not been resolved to identify thought and reality he would have been convinced by his own dialectic? If Mill had not been already of opinion that science, as he knew it, was satisfactorily based on experience, as he understood it, would he have developed his theory of induction with the facile complacency that marks and mars his logic?

But consider a yet more famous example to which, in another connection, I have already referred. The first occasion of Kant's critical labours was notoriously the scepticism of Hume. It was to defeat this that he devised the ponderous and complicated machinery of the first Critique. What he sought for, and what he believed himself to have discovered, was some sure ground for that knowledge of “phenomena” without which science would be impossible. He thought, truly enough, that this ground as surveyed by previous philosophers was mined by the Scottish sceptic; and, in the most elaborate fashion, he proceeded to countermine. Quite right—but then what becomes of the “honest philosophising” which shuns the temptation of “desired conclusions”? Are the conclusions of science not among them?

The same question may, in my opinion, be asked about other parts of the Kantian system. I do not wish to argue the point—for in the year 1922 it is a matter of secondary importance to determine exactly what Kant thought in the year 1782. But I would ask those who are inclined to dispute my view whether the whole scheme of the Critical Philosophy is not obviously devised by its author to meet the special needs of the age in which he lived? I spoke just now of the desire entertained by the great system makers to find “honourable accommodation” for the opinions which they favoured. The opinions favoured by Kant were eighteenth century physics, eighteenth century deism, and eighteenth century ethics. For each of these he added a wing to his philosophic palace; and, though the resulting edifice is imposing, there is surely some incongruity in the styles employed, and little that is permanent in the result achieved. So at least it seems to me.

One more illustration I may take from a philosopher of a very different type. If ever there was a system unwarped by the wish to find support for “agreeable results,” it is surely the Ethics of Spinoza. The austere intellectualism of his scheme, the remorseless march of his argument, crushing without apology or regret the hopes and beliefs of ordinary men, all seem to indicate a desire on the part of its author to produce a philosophy uncontaminated by emotions, and unswayed by theological preferences.

Yet such a judgment would (I suppose) simply a very erroneous estimate of this “God-intoxicated” man. Though his pantheism has greatly moved both metaphysicians and poets, it is, I suspect, rather by its imaginative than by its intellectual appeal. His demonstrations carry no conviction, with all his reasoning he rarely satisfies the reason, and, strangest paradox of all, it is by a quasi-religious fervour that, apart from personal character, he chiefly compels our regard. For myself, I can admire, but I cannot sympathise. Substance, which for him is God, and God, which for him is Nature, possessing no personality and permitting no freedom, is a fitting subject for study, but surely not for love. And when Spinoza lavishes upon this metaphysical entity every epithet of religious devotion, it is to me as when a child showers endearment upon the doll which she has tenderly adorned, yet leaves it, as she found it, a loveless and lifeless machine.

§ 7

My purpose, however, is not to criticise this singular genius, but to show once more how hardly constructive philosophy—be it that of Mr. Bertrand Russell or of anyone else—succeeds in consistently adhering to a purely intellectual role. There is indeed an influential school which, if I rightly understand its teaching, would explicitly deny, not merely that constructive philosophy can perform this feat, but that it ought to make the attempt. They point out that in fact we start, and always must start, with untested assumptions; that, in the slow developments of knowledge, will and purpose play as great a part as reflective reason; that desire is the spur to all speculative adventure; and that thought cannot be divorced from action. From facts like these they argue that a purely intellectualist philosophy must be both narrow and false; that it ignores the verities of human life, and in so doing becomes irrational from too jealous a devotion to pure reason, unreal from too exclusive a pursuit of essential reality.

Now there is much in this train of thought with which I needs must sympathise. Since my constant theme is the non-rational strain in the pedigree of our strongest beliefs, I cannot but look with favour on speculations which bring certain aspects of this truth into so clear a light. Yet while I accept (speaking very broadly) the psychological premises, I cannot accept in full the philosophic conclusion. This pragmatic view leaves me as little satisfied as the opposite doctrine preached, if not always practised, by Mr. Bertrand Russell. Yet there is truth to be found in both views. I agree with the pragmatists in refusing to require philosophers to approach their task in a mood of complete emotional neutrality, prepared to follow all lines of research with an equal zest, and to welcome all conclusions with an equal warmth. I admit that this is not the way things do happen or can happen. Since philosophers are human, there must always be something human even in their methods of pursuing truth; and we should gravely err if we treated the student groping after the Absolute as belonging to a wholly different species from the hunter of big game or the prospector of gold-mines.

Nevertheless, Mr. Russell is surely right in thinking that the desire for particular conclusions, be they theological, scientific, mystical, metaphysical, what you will, has often made philosophers strangely tolerant of very inconclusive reasoning. We need not put it quite as unkindly as he does; we need charge no man's logic with lack of “candour.” Yet we may be permitted to note how slender is the foundation on which many imposing philosophic constructions have been reared, and how amazing is the confidence with which their respective architects have certified to their solidity.

But this does not mean that we are debarred from endeavouring rationally to establish desired conclusions, but only that we should not sophisticate reason in the process. Hopes and fears, preferences, and even prejudices, may be tolerable, and perhaps useful, elements among the complex motives which urge men to undertake the labours of speculative enquiry. I do not myself deny (though there are some who do) that pure curiosity, the wish to know for the mere delight of knowing, may be a most powerful motive, nor that it may exist without the least desire to turn the knowledge to account for any ulterior purposes whatever, personal or social, secular or religious. It may thrive unsupported by self-interest; it may be utterly indifferent both to the “glory of God” and the “relief of man's estate.”13 It may be completely self-sufficing. Yet those are surely not in error who deem it impossible, and if possible very impolitic, to ban all motive for study but the abstract desire for truth “in general.” There are other values to be considered besides rational values. We may, without reproach, incline to certain conclusions before we have reached any clear notion of how they are to be established. I therefore regard Mr. Russell as perfectly within his right when he takes science, and even common sense, under his philosophic patronage. In this matter I share his prepossessions, though I shall strive in what follows to avoid his partiality.

  • 1.

    “External World,” p. 240.

  • 2.

    “External World,” p. 239.

  • 3.

    “External World,” p. 239.

  • 4.

    “External World,” p. 71.

  • 5.

    “External World,” p. 45.

  • 6.

    This is partly quoted, partly summarised.

  • 7.

    “External World,” p. 66.

  • 8.

    “External World,” p. 66.

  • 9.

    “External World,” p. 46.

  • 10.

    “External World,” p. 21.

  • 11.

    “External World,” p. 239.

  • 12.

    “External World,” p. 239.

  • 13.

    Lord Bacon.

From the book: