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PHILOSOPHY

A. THE SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHY

B. THE NECESSITY OF SCEPTICISM

C. THE POSITIVE OUTCOME

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A. THE SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHY

LIKE science and history philosophy is a highly skilled theoretical activity. It is more difficult to describe briefly than either of the other two.

The philosopher has two distinct aims which cannot really be pursued apart from one another. His more ambitious aim, which in the present state of knowledge he cannot hope to fulfil, is to see the pattern of the whole of things, to see how everything is related to everything else, and is influenced by other things. He wants to 'see together', or to comprehend as one universe, not only all physical events, such as the birth of stars and the happenings within an atom, and all mental events, such as mankind's slow awakening into clear awareness, and the mental growth and decay of individuals, but also much that is not events at all, like the truths of mathematics and logic, and truth itself, and goodness and beauty. He seeks to understand the bearing of each of these great kinds of fact on the others. Unfortunately this cannot really be done at all thoroughly until we have gained much more 'piecemeal' knowledge than exists at present.

But though man's mind in its present state cannot possibly do more than scratch the surface of this greatest of all theoretical problems, the desire to see things whole is the guiding motive of philosophy, and the enterprise of trying to see things whole is a pursuit which can have a very broadening and deepening effect on the mind.

The other task which philosophers undertake is not quite so difficult. They single out the most important ideas on which all our thinking in each sphere of knowledge depends, and they try to make these ideas as clear and sound as possible, as true as possible to the facts that they describe. For instance, when they find biologists and psychologists talking about 'instinct' in animals and men, they set about inquiring exactly what is meant by the word. Is an instinct part of the structure of a mysterious thing called a mind? Or is it a purely bodily structure, say in the brain? Or is it not a thing at all, but just a description of behaviour, not a hidden cause of the behaviour? When philosophers find physicists talking about 'physical mechanism', they seek to discover precisely what these two words mean, and in what ways 'mechanical' happenings differ from other possible kinds of happenings such as purposeful activity.

It might be thought that the scientists themselves ought to be best fitted to work out the exact meaning of the ideas on which their various sciences are founded. And as a matter of fact some of them are very earnestly engaged on this work. But strictly, when they do this they are being philosophers. They are not, so to speak, merely playing the game of their own science according to the established rules; they are criticizing the rules themselves, and trying to make better ones. And in this work they may be helped by the pure philosophers, part of whose task it is to see each department of knowledge in the light cast by others.

Another very important aim of philosophers is to form clear ideas of the nature of thinking itself. What does thinking really set out to do, and how far can it possibly succeed? Is it to be trusted? Does it ever give us real knowledge about anything more than our own experiencing? What precisely is the difference between true and false thinking? What is truth itself? When we say that an idea is true, do we mean merely that it fits in satisfactorily with all our other ideas, that it is not inconsistent with the pattern formed by the rest of our thought? Or do we mean that the fact which it asserts really is a character of the world? And if this is what we mean, have we any solid reason to believe that any idea ever is true in this sense? Or do we mean, when we say that an idea is true, that the idea is a useful idea, that if you think with it your thinking will lead to success in some practical way, but if you think without it, you will come to grief, sooner or later?

Another great problem which philosophers have to face is the problem of the essential meanings of 'good' and 'bad'. When a man says seriously that something is 'good', does he mean just that it pleases him, or that it is pleasing to all normal human beings; or does he mean that it in itself has a special character, namely 'good'. Or, again, does he mean that it is the kind of thing which would please the ideally developed mind, the fully human mind, or the mind of an all-wise and all-loving God? Or again, when we look into the matter as closely as possible, and call something good, do we mean that it is a case of, or an instrument for, the fulfilling of the capacity of some living being, whether of a lowly or of an exalted order of vitality? If so, 'better' would seem to mean either 'more fulfilling' or 'fulfilling to a more alive, more vital capacity'.

And when we say that a man 'ought' to act so as to increase the good in the world and decrease the bad, what do we really mean? Do we, for instance, mean merely that if the man really wants the greatest possible happiness, or if he wants to fulfil his own nature completely, or if he wants the best to happen, he must take into account not merely his own needs as a particular individual, but also the needs of other individuals; since he himself is at bottom a social individual, who cannot himself be really happy or really fulfilled so long as others are unhappy or unfulfilled? Do we mean this, or do we mean simply that, whether a man wants to or not, he absolutely ought to increase the good?

There is yet another great philosophical problem connected with 'good' and 'bad'. Granted that we know the meaning of the terms, what things or states or acts have as a matter of fact the character 'good', and what have the character 'bad', and in what degrees? And further, what is the greatest good of all, the ideal which we should all be seeking? What is the best kind of life that a man can lead? What is the supreme end that he should try to realize in his individual life? And again, what is the best possible kind of human world, the ideal world which we should all be striving to make?

Then there is the problem of beauty. What do we really mean when we say that a picture or a piece of music is beautiful? Do we simply mean that it pleases us; or that it pleases those whom we consider best able to judge; or that it has a unique character, which, even if no one admired it, it would still have; or that it is so arranged that, as a whole, it satisfies certain very special and subtle needs of human beings?

Such are the problems which philosophers have to face. They all turn out to be extremely difficult; and though some of them have been discussed for thousands of years, none of them has been finally solved. This lack of definite results has made some people think that philosophy is a waste of time. But they are wrong, for two reasons. First, it is not really true that philosophers merely 'go round in circles and never get nearer the truth'. It would be more accurate to say that, though indeed they do often seem to go round and round from one kind of theory to another, and finally arrive back where they were, yet as a matter of fact they move in a sort of spiral, and may actually be coming nearer and nearer to the central truths. The point is that, so long as past philosophy is remembered, many of the mistakes that were made in the past and then exposed, will be avoided in the future. That, at any rate, is a real advance.

In our day the philosophers are much less influential than the scientists. This is partly because they cannot produce startling discoveries that make good 'copy' for the newspapers, and partly because, in a commercial age such as ours, philosophy seems to most people a waste of time, since it cannot increase the material wealth of man. But philosophers are not really without influence. In every age the exploring philosophers of that age, working more or less apart from their fellow men, do much to shape the common culture of the next age. They are channels through which the changing circumstances of the race take effect upon abstract thought, to produce ideas and ideals which will dominate men's minds for good or ill in the coming age. One has only to think of Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, William James, and in our own day Bergson, Croce, Bertrand Russell, Whitehead, to realize that philosophers take effect on culture. The least of these has moulded the minds of thousands who may not even have heard of their names.

We cannot all give our main attention to philosophy. But also, just as we must all be to some extent artists, scientists and historians, we must all be to some extent philosophers. Every intelligent and serious-minded person inevitably must try to see things whole, so far as he can. He must also try to make all his most important ideas as clear as possible. He cannot help trying to decide for himself what is really good, and what is the best kind of life, and so on. He must do so, partly because, if he does not he will live in a random, undirected way, or a crudely misdirected way, with no clear aim, or none that can stand criticism. But also he must inevitably philosophize because at man's most alive level of being it is as much his nature to philosophize as it is the nature of a wolf to hunt. Philosophy, in spite of its seeming failure, is one of the supremely satisfying and distinctively human mental activities.

The importance of philosophy is not only private. Its use is not merely that it gives exercise to the capacities of the awakened mind. It has also a social importance. Plato may have been mistaken in making the philosophers the supreme rulers of his ideal society, but only philosophy can say clearly what the aim of government should be. And philosophy alone can discover, little by little, as the ages advance, the true aim of the human species, of the whole enterprise of human life on this planet. Even to-day something extremely important can be said on that subject. But the slowly dawning idea has still to be thought out so exactly and stated so compellingly that it will be fit to win the allegiance of every intelligent human being.

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B. THE NECESSITY OF SCEPTICISM

I shall now describe the general upshot of philosophy, as I see it, in our strange, uncomfortable, transitional age. No doubt many philosophers would disagree with one point or other of my statement; but none, I think, would entirely reject the whole spirit of it. This would be done only by persons who have no real capacity for philosophy, who cannot even sincerely try to take all aspects of our experience into account.

The first effect of the study of philosophy to-day is to make a man sceptical. He sets out with all sorts of confident and comfortable beliefs, and one by one they are found to have no reasonable justification. The process of stripping oneself of confident beliefs is curiously like the process of learning to do with fewer clothes. We may have been brought up to wear a thick and extensive covering of woven stuffs for warmth and decency. By the time we are grown up, we are so used to this burden that if we shed a garment we are miserable, and may even fall ill. Yet it may be that we are really over-clad, that all the while we were hampered by the failure of our bodies to rid themselves of excessive warmth. If only we could safely make the change to less clothes, perhaps we should be much better in the long run, much healthier, hardier, more vigorous, less frightened for our health, more able to enjoy life. As with clothes, so with beliefs. They are warm, comfortable, protective garments for the mind, but for spiritual health we should wear as few as possible, and they should be of the flimsiest texture. When they become threadbare they should be discarded. New ones can be chosen if necessary. We are mostly brought up to wear too heavy a clothing of beliefs; and when philosophy makes us discard many of them, we suffer keenly. We are chilled through and through. We feel indecently naked. We are pained by the indignation of our well-clad friends. But if we persevere, and if we effect the change wisely, we discover after a while that we are living more keenly, that our minds are less hampered and more active, that we can be completely honest with ourselves without fear, that in shedding false beliefs and the unfulfillable desires which support them or depend on them, we learn to realize more clearly what is truly desirable.

Anyone who studies philosophy very soon finds out that he cannot form any clear idea as to what he himself is. Is he anything more than the stream of his own passing thoughts, desires, sensations, and so on? Or is he just a body which performs these mental actions? Or is he after all something enduring and mental which deserves to be called a soul? The only answer is that all these views are incredible for one reason or another. He does seem to be something more than a stream of consciousness and more than a purely and strictly physical body; but what he is, no man can say. The evidence that he is an eternal soul, like the evidence that he is not an eternal soul, has scarcely any weight. But the loss of eternity may not distress him, for the more he studies philosophy, the less may he desire to be an eternal soul. Personal immortality, in any sense worthy of the name, may come to seem to him unimportant, and perhaps even obnoxious.

We all prize human personality very highly. We are all, on occasion, revolted by the thought that a loved person may one day cease to exist. But philosophy, by making us constantly strive to see things in their universal setting, may persuade us to feel that the true office or function of a person in the whole of things is essentially a passing function, like the function of a melody in music. We may come to feel, in our most awakened moments, that the only kind of immortality desirable for our beloveds, and for ourselves, is, not to continue for ever, but to be 'for all eternity' a completed theme, or melody, having its due place in the music of the cosmos. It may, indeed, be that after death we pass into some other world, or other cosmos, or 'order of being', and that there we carry forward the adventure of personal development and social creation. There may be as many such 'orders of being' as there are grains of sand, and the least of us may have a part to play in every one of them. More likely is it that, though there is, indeed, such a multiplicity of 'orders of being', we have no part at all in them. However this may be, the desire that we, little somnolent and blundering spirits, should have a vast and glorious future seems, after all, a trivial desire.

Little as the philosopher knows about himself, he knows no more about the world around him. So far as it is revealed to him, it appears as a mass of contradictions. Whatever it really is, it cannot possibly be simply what it seems. Eager to find the truth, he loses himself in a maze of theories about the status of sensed characters and of physical objects. If he was inclined to think that the most real thing about him was his body, he has now to discover that no one can tell him what a body is. Some say that the whole physical universe, including the stars and a man's own body, is a figment of his mind. Others say that a body is 'a system of possible sense data' in six dimensions. Others are content to think of it as a dance of electrons; but what electrons are, they cannot say. The upshot is that the thing he thought of as a body is as unreal as the thing he thought of as a mind; and that if body and mind were real substances, there could not be any intercourse between them. Perhaps it would be safer to say that body and mind are both real enough in some sense, but no one knows what sense. And the queer relation between them suggests that they are not two things but one, or two aspects of one thing.

When our philosopher inquires into the nature of God, he discovers that though no one can disprove the existence of a personal God, neither can anyone give any clear reason for believing in him, or even form more than a wildly self-contradictory idea of the meaning of the words 'personal God'. As for the more detailed dogmas of the Christian religion, though of course the philosopher can see a kind of remote metaphorical truth in some of them, his philosophical study makes it utterly incredible that they should be true in the sense claimed for them. Indeed, if he has taken philosophy seriously to heart, he probably comes to feel that they are not merely incredible, but in many cases puerile and unlovely. Yet he may well feel also that in the Christian religion, and in the Buddhist religion too, there is something more important than any dogma; and that if Christians could only shed their stuffy clothing of beliefs the true spirit of their master might revive in them, and a Christianity not of doctrine but of pure worship and of conduct might yet playa great part in the modern world.

Perhaps the most disheartening of all the findings of our philosopher would be that the very activity of thinking is unreliable. Not only is each particular department of knowledge riddled with its own special contradictions, and hemmed in on every side by the vast unknowable, but also reasoning itself is shot through and through with falsity. Logical principles turn out to be much less trustworthy than they seemed, or rather they are extremely liable to be misused, and thus to betray the thinker. Almost the whole of human knowledge is at bottom not strictly knowledge but more or less shrewd guesswork. Almost every truth is true not absolutely and of necessity but probably, and with an unknown degree of doubtfulness and falsity. Not only so, but any particular thought, experienced by a particular thinker, may, it seems, be vitiated by some obscure prejudice or other which inclines him irrationally to one set of arguments rather than another, and is completely hidden from his attention. Even this is not all. Unwitting desires and hungers, thwarted and pent up since childhood, and still puerile in character, may be the really effective motives behind his most sacred loyalties and admirations.

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C. THE POSITIVE OUTCOME

It may well seem that philosophy is an utterly barren and hopeless pursuit, and that we should be wiser to exercise our intelligence on cross-word puzzles.

Yet at the very least it is better to know that one does not know than to believe falsely that one does. That is at least one bit of positive knowledge. Philosophy, moreover, should make a man tolerant and receptive toward those who disagree with him, and ready to consider their arguments. On the other hand, it should make him critical of all confident beliefs, whether in himself or others. It should make him both eager to have insight into every kind of belief, and also relentlessly critical of all beliefs.

I do not think that if a man is earnest with philosophy it should paralyse him. The outcome of philosophy even in this bewildered age is not only bewilderment. Some facts remain unshaken even after the fiercest philosophical scrutiny. And some of them are all-important facts.

To begin at the beginning, there really is something! And that something may be thought of as 'the world' and 'I', though it is not always clear where the line should be drawn between the two, and conceivably the distinction is not final.

In various ways 'I' 'know' the 'world'. A tiny fraction of it I know by direct observation or acquaintance through my senses. Of the data of pure sensation there can be no doubt. But most of my knowledge of the world is reached indirectly, and is certainly shot through and through by error. Yet my reasoning is not in principle doomed to failure. It starts with the solid data of sense, and if it works cautiously, and does not mistake probability for certainty, it may discover vast fields of extremely probable knowledge.

The world, then, contains at least in some manner or other the multitudinous and diverse and fascinating events which are revealed to me in sensation. Whether these sensed events are characters of the world beyond my body, or characters of my body itself, may be disputed. But if they are characters of my body, my body must include the whole known universe. In this case it can scarcely be called 'my body', which is known as a very minute thing within the universe. If sensed characters are characters of my mind, then my mind must include the universe. This theory cannot be disproved. But it is incredible and unnecessary. At the very least the characters given in sensation are distinct from my activity of sensing them. And in all probability they are all of a piece with a vast field of objective existences which lie beyond my reach. Philosophy cannot deprive me of the richness of my perceived world, nor of the exhilarating experience of being in touch with at least the fringes of a vast and intricate reality.

Almost certainly the world also contains a very great deal more than is revealed to my senses, or could be revealed to my senses. But how the characters that are revealed are related to the immensity that is not revealed is very doubtful. Anyhow, the world does contain 'somethings', or patterns of events, which are known by me very imperfectly as trees, chairs, storms, human bodies and minds, nations, past eras of mankind, stars, galaxies, and so on. These things are not mere figments of my mind. However imperfectly I grasp them, what I grasp really is at bottom a tissue of actual factors in the world.

In the multitude of things that make up the world as I know it I can detect likenesses and differences. Things can be similar in respect of certain characters and different in respect of others. There really is something identical in all stones, in respect of which they differ from all cats, days, noises, and even from all lumps of mud or metal. But just what that identity really is, I may never clearly apprehend. It must be admitted that this theory of the objectivity of 'universal characters' is denied by many philosophers whom, on other accounts, I greatly respect. According to some the mind itself simply 'projects' characters on a characterless world. But to me it seems incredible that there should be nothing identical in all stones, and no objective difference between all stones and all cats.

Another fact which survives all philosophical criticism is this. The events of the world really do hang together in definite patterns and causal sequences. Up to a point at least, things can be depended upon to act regularly. My pen goes on being a pen; it does not change into a snake. And in some sense 'I' can 'control' it. Within limits I can take effect upon the course of events in the world. Or, to be philosophically more accurate, within limits, certain muscular events in my body do take a course such that certain ends which I desire in the external world are attained.

Turning to myself, I may at least feel sure that I am a real factor in the universe. Heaven knows what I am, but I am not nothing. Whatever I am, I am to some extent aware of a world and of my relations with it. I know it and strive with it. I have direct acquaintance not only with the characters of the world revealed by my senses, but also with my own experiencing. Not only do I sense, think, believe, desire, fear, and so on, but also I am aware of doing so. I have many simple and many subtle capacities for action, and I delight in exercising them. When they are thwarted I am distressed. I delight, too, in many features of the world which fit my capacities, and I loathe many that violate them.

I cannot be absolutely sure that there are any selves besides my own self, but it is extremely probable that there are. The world around me almost certainly contains many human persons, and also less-conscious animals. Some of the human persons I myself encounter, but most are not even names to me. I cannot know other selves with the directness that I know colours and noises. I cannot know their mental life with the directness with which I know my own. Nevertheless, I can be much more sure of the existence of the selves which I call my neighbours than of prehistoric beasts or of atoms or of galaxies. And the selves that I know intimately are on the whole the most vivid things in the world to me. They are very diverse, and it is very hard to learn their true characters. Some of those whom I know I also like or admire. Some on the whole I dislike. A few I love. More accurately every person whom I encounter I both like and dislike, for different attributes in him or her, and in relation to different needs of my own. But in many cases, either liking or disliking preponderates. Even those whom I love I also hate to some extent. They are sure to have some attributes which conflict with my ideal or with my personal needs. But in some cases love overwhelmingly preponderates.

Even though I am often selfish and unkind to those whom I love, I do recognize that they are intrinsically good, that they have a beauty and excellence of their own, which moves me deeply, and rightly claims my service. This is one of the most important facts for philosophy. Of almost equal philosophical importance is the fact that even towards those whom I do not love I feel the same kind of obligation in varying degrees. Toward myself also, as a person having vital capacities, I feel obligation to make the best of myself. I recognize unmistakably that the fulfilling of the vital capacity of persons in the most awakened way is absolutely and intrinsically good. Sceptical philosophy, by clearing away many false values, makes this value stand out most emphatically.

Another thing stands out clearly when philosophy has done its destructive work. In the light of history and the light of evolution man appears to have had a long and varied career. He is definitely more mentally awakened than his brute ancestors; and though biologically he is probably no more developed to-day than he was in any earlier historical age, his circumstances have on the whole enabled him to make fuller use of his capacities than was formerly possible. In the light of present world- conditions, however, it is terribly clear that mankind is in a very confused and precarious state; and that the great majority of human beings, far from sharing in such advancement as has been made, are but little more fortunate than abject serfs. But there is a real, though slender, hope that within a century all servitude and penury may be abolished. Finally, in the light of psychology and philosophy itself, the present human nature or human mentality appears as a half-formed thing, emerging from brute mentality, but as yet a merely brutish approximation to true human nature. There is little reason to suppose that the human species will automatically develop into a higher biological type. But by deliberate control of social conditions man might even now turn himself into an incomparably finer being. And some day he may even succeed in purging and improving his innate constitution.

The philosopher can see fairly clearly the bare outlines of the true human nature which should be the goal of world-policy, though neither he nor anyone else in our day can attain it. When he contemplates it, and when he realizes that, with social reconstruction of the world and with sound education, even creatures like ourselves could be made far more human, far more awakened, and happy, he cannot but earnestly desire that this work should be begun. He recognizes also an imperious command that he and his fellows should devote their lives to this supreme undertaking. But being only a philosopher and not a man of action he will probably be unable to do anything but talk about it.

I believe there is one other very important fact about life which survives the most rigorous criticism of philosophy, though it comes out in a form extremely different from that with which it went in. Some people would call this fact 'religious experience'. I am now going to have the audacity to talk about this very difficult matter.

Chapter 11

Chapter 9

Waking World Contents