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Storm Signals in American Philosophy

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

Philosophy, broadly conceived, is at once both the least effective and the most significant aspect of a culture. It is least effective in that it is influenced by many more things than it itself influences; it is most significant in that it provides the richest clue to the pattern of meanings and evaluations that constitute the web of culture. Certainly philosophy creates no revolutions, not even in thought. Indeed, it would not be unjust to traditional philosophy to regard it more as the systematic rationalization of the habits and impulses of a people than as a set of techniques for the redirection of habit and impulse. Even where a philosophy appears, to a wisdom wise after the event, as a precursory sign of some future change in the fabric of social life, it owes its subsequent career to some just-initiated activity, or to some fresh experience, which must first catch hold of a large segment of the workaday world before the philosophy which accompanies it takes on the form of an intellectual contagion. Whether, with Hegel, we regard philosophy as the spirit of the times as it is grasped in thought, or with Marx and Pareto as the economic and power interests of the times reflected in myths or ideologies, both idealists and materialists recognize that philosophy has its roots in something which in the first instance is not philosophical at all: in situations which are continuous with the predicaments, needs, and hopes of everyday life. Even those who assert that philosophy is not so much an index to the significance of a culture as a vital agent in the transformation of attitudes and beliefs, tacitly acknowledge the manifold and relevant continuities between ideas and events, between philosophical activity and the cultural pattern.

For present purposes, I do not propose to test these rather vague generalizations with reference to the current American philosophical scene. What I wish to do is to call attention to some recent tendencies in American philosophical thought that have definite social bearings of a fateful sort; tendencies which, so it appears to me, have been overlooked by philosophers preoccupied with technical problems, even though their ultimate issue may very well affect the life of the philosophical enterprise itself.

Up to a short decade ago the prestige of science and scientific method in philosophical circles of almost all schools of American thought was unparalleled by anything observable elsewhere in the world. True, this homage to science was more by way of being an intellectual tribute to the impressive effects of science upon life than a mood of appreciation induced by a detailed study of its method and results. But the sustained interest in the achievements of science, the absorption in special problems of special fields, with the consequent decline in speculative construction, and the philosophical open-mindedness of the leaders of science, who with the development of relativity and quantum physics seemed to be “inviting philosophers in” by their own startling and sometimes naive philosophic reflections—all this led to a fructification of philosophic activity. Emphasis in philosophical training shifted from the history of philosophy, and from that mixture of dubious psychology and uncritical metaphysics which went by the name of the theory of knowledge, to the methods and philosophy of science, mathematics, and logic, and to a scientific approach to the psychological and social disciplines.

This shift in interest was welcomed on all sides. It seemed to make for clarity. It led to a grappling with problems which were not artifically manufactured by philosophers to keep themselves in a living but which were discovered by scientists dealing with a concrete material. And above all it was safe! For all of this interest in science and scientific method was manifested within the presuppositions of the existing social order and the accepted ethical and political conventions of that order. The apparent stability of the social order made it natural and easy to take these presuppositions for granted. Among its luxury products, in a sense, was the luxury of unapprehensive inquiry into all sorts of things; for even when conclusions were bold and shocking they could have little effect upon the many shock-absorbers supplied by an apparent economy of abundance. In fact, for many minds the material effect of applied science, which promised before long to give complete mastery over things, was precisely what constituted the most powerful stabilizing influence upon those ordered sets of routines that define the social relations between men. Why, then, should anyone have looked askance upon the resurgence of interest in a method which had so amply justified itself by its successes, except some elderly gentlemen who were still curiously agonized about their souls and their probable habitat in the hereafter?

Today, the calm, the optimistic assurance, the open house to the scientific temper in all fields—these are not so much in evidence. For the history of the last eight years in this country has been a history of the progressive disintegration of accepted and hitherto largely unexamined social presuppositions. In previous years one had spoken freely of the scientific approach to social, political, and ethical matters; but the inertias of habit and practice — reinforced by an economy that, despite hitches, was after all a going concern—made such discussions innocuous and academic. Changes in intellectual fashions consisted of finding different ways of saying the same thing. Whatever social changes had taken place were the unintended by-products of the applications of science and not the outcome of analysis of the methods of science. At the present, however, no unprejudiced observer can doubt that the character of our behavior patterns, thinking or unthinking, is markedly different from what it was a short decade ago. American culture is in a state of agitated indetermination in which the critical incidence of a scientific analysis of ethical and social values may have very tangible consequences. Social forces and interests have been liberated which may give effect to the results of such an analysis and attempt to implement conclusions by action and experiment. To those who accept the traditional pattern of American social and economic life, concern with science and scientific method, especially as it dwells critically upon the basic assumptions of the right, the reasonable, and the natural in human affairs, seems fraught with danger. The very possibility that attitudes, concepts, and principles in the social sciences might undergo anything like the transformation of the underlying ideas of the physical sciences during the last generation is frightening to those whose social philosophy is based upon dogma, faith, vested interest, or authority, and whose minds are open on all questions except those which are the most momentous for future thought and action.

Interestingly enough, with the increasing potential importance of scientific method for every aspect of culture there has been manifested on the philosophical front a kind of growing impatience with scientific empiricism and empirical philosophies, particularly with respect to their impact upon questions of value. The genteel tradition in American thought did not find it difficult to reconcile itself to the effects of the growth of scientific knowledge upon religious orthodoxy. It gracefully retired from the unequal battle in which the issues were matters of fact to the invincible heights of values, norms, and standards. Here, however, it is making its last stand. Judging by recent performances it is not so much at bay, as Santayana thought, as in a state of profound irritation at the challenge of scientific method to what it regards as beyond the scope of science. Sometimes it conceals its anti-scientific bias by claiming to be opposed not to scientific analysis of values as such but to some one manifestly inadequate way of analysing them. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that the intensity of its present reaction in some philosophical circles is in part due to the failure of the more militant scientific empiricists to develop some theory of value-judgments which does not reduce statements in ethics, aesthetics, or social philosophy either to nonsense syllables, or personal explosions, or unmediated biological impulses—to mention only the three most popular types of reduction.

In fact, could the whole story be told, it would show that those who made a fetish of the program of science during the first quarter of the century are not free from responsibility for the attitude of cold suspicion which has developed on the part of many intelligent laymen towards the very method of science. Science, viewed as a set of practising techniques, was hailed as the guarantor of an unfailing cumulative progress, conceived in terms of a rising standard of living. Since social and ethical values were taken for granted, there was no check upon the naive confidence that science was sufficient to solve all problems. For all problems were technical and time would supply the solutions. Time showed that it could supply the solutions and that they were not enough. With the depression, a new group of problems gradually shifted into the focus of popular consciousness and stayed there. The scientists discovered that there were social problems. The whole enterprise of science itself—its use, direction, and control—became a problem. It was the kind of problem before which those who regarded science as a collection of techniques and results were helpless. The inanities of some of the high priests of science who called for a moratorium on invention helped to shock intelligent people out of their fetishistic attitude. It was natural that in discounting the exaggerated claims of science they should depreciate its method and rationale. It was to be expected that many would look for other methods of acquiring, testing, and grounding belief, particularly in social matters. Neither from popular behaviorism nor popular psychoanalysis, which in different ways made questions of value meaningless, could intellectual sustenance be derived. A mood of distrust towards science made many people receptive to philosophies which claim to be able to solve the important problems that the science of yesterday ignored.


These philosophies use the failure of vulgar scientism to develop an empirical theory of value as a basis for an attack upon the adequacy of any empirical approach to values. Denying that values have their roots in human interests, psychological and social, current non-empirical theories of value ground their judgments about ideals and standards upon notions of an entirely different order. In the technical jargon of philosophers they are sometimes called “trans-empirical realities” or “ontological facts” or “eternal essences.” These are usually directly known by some intuition — and confirmed in doubtful cases by a process, variously named authentication or validation, that in the last analysis is nothing more than an elaborate way of passing off private prejudices as public truths. This insistence that ultimate values and standards are sui generis, that they represent a realm which cannot be explored by the usual modes of scientific inquiry, lacks, on the face of it, psychological and historical plausibility. To defend itself the position must use a metaphysics whose basic truths require a special technique, sometimes even a special organ of knowledge, to be apprehended. The animus directed against those who would prune philosophy of this type of metaphysics flows in the main from a desire to preserve some fixed centers of reference and preference in the process of experience upon which to hang traditional values of use and enjoyment, so as to remove them forever from the challenge of new, emerging interests. In the past, rationalistic metaphysics, with its capitalized trinity of Reason, Idea, and Form, provided a stable anchorage for preferences which, because they were not openly recognized as such, could not be easily checked or controlled. But the development of modern logic has made it difficult to hold on to these categories, and we are witnessing the resurgence in some quarters of an irrationalistic metaphysics which is a more convenient starting point for deductions that in any case must be non sequiturs. Already one can hear the harried accents of Kierkegaard’s and Heidegger’s metaphysics introduced as premises for the good life and the good society.

Now if the history of philosophy establishes anything, it is that there are serious dangers in every attempt to ground an ethics upon an ontology, or theory of being, no matter what the character of that ontology may be. First, there is the danger to philosophical clarity. Qualities of events and situations are cut out of the experiential contexts in which they are found and in which they acquire directive meaning and are hypostatized into antecedently existing entities. Functions are converted into Substances. And before long, these Substances become undefined symbols, carriers of whatever meaning those pledged to them see fit to impose in the interest of their own parochial needs. Nor is intellectual clarity aided by the inevitable attempt of such a system to derive what ought to be from what is; and since in the light of any philosophy many things are which clearly ought not to be, the familiar distinction between what really is and what only appears to be arises to befuddle the little genuine knowledge we do have. The second danger of an ontological ethics is to intellectual liberty and personal freedom. Values which originally have a basis in experience tend to operate, when hypostatized, as a set of restrictions upon other, and new, values. By claiming a supra-temporal and trans-empirical status for the goods and values whose contexts in experience are not drawn into the light of criticism, the advocates of such an ethics narrow the range of permissible goods and experiences and make invidious rather than intelligent distinctions between the things men find desirable. The third danger in this position is to social freedom and to the possibility of social development through the free experimental play of competing purposes. For at the heart of every social philosophy is a set of values or principles or methods. Where these are taken to be fixed because they are dependent upon a set of supra-natural entities possessing true Being, it becomes necessary, in view of human limitations and the exigencies of experience, to interpret them. Not everyone is qualified to interpret them, because some people, particularly empiricists, are metaphysically blind. Some authority must be invoked; and almost invariably the authority is the authority of the ruling tradition—a church, a caste, an elite, or a group of pontificating philosophers. In this way metaphysical theories of value prepare for authoritarianism in social affairs, even when the individual proponents of these theories find authoritarianism personally uncongenial. The history of philosophy shows that there are more uses of a philosophy than those who have fathered it are often aware of. A fourth danger of this view ought perhaps not be called a danger but merely a necessary consequence. Despite the contention of the more sophisticated spokesmen of this tradition that the trouble with empirical philosophies is that they are not empirical enough, ontological ethics eschews scientific analysis of the causes and consequences of values as irrelevant to their nature, and thereby cuts itself off from the consideration of means and instruments which in the eyes of critical naturalists are necessary parts of, and checks upon, all rationally conceived ends.


What I have been saying thus far is that there are premonitory signs that the genteel tradition in American culture, challenged by complex changes which threaten to undermine its social security, may develop from being a set of ornamental attitudes into an obscurantist cloak for authoritarian techniques.

There is even more impressive supporting evidence that certain tendencies in present day American culture are providing an atmosphere in which authoritarianism appears as a credible philosophy and way of life. I refer to the recent growth of secular neo-Thomism and its definite crystallization into a philosophical movement and a philosophy of education. This school is sufficiently conscious of its strength to cast off even the ribbons and frills of the conventional liberal phraseology with which the genteel tradition always tucked itself out. It claims all fields of knowledge as its province and openly declares that scientific knowledge is dependent upon metaphysical truths which “are more certain and fundamental than the knowledge achieved by the researches of science.” These metaphysical truths are of two generic kinds—universal axiomatic truths of reason and incontrovertible truths about sensible objects. Any science, it is held, whose conclusions are not entailed by these first truths can give us only probable, inadequate pseudo-knowledge or opinion. The whole of what is known as experimental science is dismissed as mere opinion, an elaborate illustration, so to speak, of the fallacy of affirming the consequent. General physics and psychology are purely philosophical, that is, a priori sciences whose truths may be supplemented by the findings of experiment but which are logically independent of them.

If we regard only the technical philosophical doctrines of this school, there is little here which is new or, more important, which can stand up under analysis. It cannot state its metaphysical first truths without exposing them as either tautologies or arbitrary definitions. It begs all the questions involved in the problems of meaning, verification, and immediate knowledge. It fails to account for the historical debacles of scientific constructions based on the notions that axioms are self-evident truths. It overlooks the role of hypotheses and postulates in the development of knowledge. It makes a mystery of the fruitfulness of scientific methods that, admittedly fallible and therefore never willing to make claims to certainty, have nevertheless put into the hands of man tremendous powers of mastery and accurate control. The formal arguments of neo-Thomism can impress only those scientists whose philosophy of science reflects not a critical analysis of their own procedures, but what they learned in bygone days of crude nineteenth-century empiricism.

But it would be a mistake to assume that we are merely witnessing the revival of a set of archaic technical philosophical doctrines. We are here confronted with a program for the reorganization of the whole of our social life. This program is expressed so far only in general principles and attitudes, but behind it lurk specific formulas for action. This becomes clear when we examine the positions that this school takes in ethics, social philosophy, and politics—positions that it does not shrink from enunciating, although for the time being it is a little diffident in drawing some of their implications. Ethics and politics are rational sciences. As rational sciences they are based upon metaphysical insight or knowledge which is direct, immediate, and certain. Consequently, there can be “only one right set of principles, one right order of all goods and values.” This “one right order” is not something to be established: it is something already absolutely known. Therefore, different and conflicting conceptions of this order are necessarily absolute errors. Errors of this kind must lead to the corruption of minds and the weakening of the foundations of public order. Now we do not permit the deliberate circulation of disease germs which kill men’s bodies—and this in fields in which we have only probable knowledge or opinion. How, then, can we permit the circulation of errors that destroy men’s souls—a field in which we are fortified by absolute knowledge? Differences must be heresies. Heresies in politics and ethics must be harmful. And only a nearsighted sentimentalism hesitates to take firm measures with what may lead to public calamity. To the best of my knowledge—or rather opinion—the only thing left uncertain in this view is whether heresy is to be combated by the stake or the headsman’s axe.

When to the proposition that there is only “one right set of principles, one right order of all goods” we add the following propositions: to wit, that the knowledge underlying ethics and politics includes knowledge about God; that such knowledge includes knowledge that man has a rational soul and a supernatural end; and that “an institutionalized and sacramental religion is indispensable to the fullest well-being of man here and hereafter”—we have as unblushing an authoritarianism as has appeared in the presumably scientific age. And what an authoritarianism — for according to a public declaration of one of its chief spokesmen, it arrays the world into two camps and envisages a coming struggle for power in this country between the true authoritarian camp and the other camp. The following groups are lumped together in the other camp: “liberals, humanists, capitalists, fascists [with a small “f”], communists [with a small “c”] and even the Protestant Christians.” This classification has its humorous sides and indicates an interesting lapse from the scholastic method of making proper distinctions. But no one familiar with the ideological features of modern totalitarianism can be amused for long or fail to recognize its true face behind the verbal mask.

The most disturbing thing about the position just described is not its arguments or even its conclusions, but the danger that its basic assumptions are likely to be given institutional force and effect. It is a reliable generalization, supported by a study of how new ideas and attitudes become accepted and habitual, that educational institutions are among their most effective incubating grounds. Authoritarianism looks to the schools in order to regiment thought; anti-authoritarianism in order to liberate it. But in either case both must look to the school as a field of utmost strategic importance. The school does not determine social forces but in many indirect ways it helps to redetermine them. At the very least, the educational corollaries of a philosophy serve to illumine its dark corners and show more clearly how it actually understands the life of mind. The educational corollaries of the movement we have been discussing have been set forth, without theological trimmings, by the president of one of the largest universities in the country. The self-evident principles of rational psychology and the one right order of goods and values are the dual premises for a plea for one right education everywhere and always essentially the same.

The following citation is an illustration of the tone, logic, and general bearing of this theory of educational salvation:

Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same.

It seems to me that any comment on this would be anticlimac-tic. If it has to be made, it is sufficient to point out that every sentence is multiply ambiguous; that every middle term is really undistributed; and that once the disguised definitions are separated from the vague generalizations, the argument loses even the semblance of plausibility.

What I have been trying to do is to locate the potential sources of authoritarian infection in American intellectual life. My account would be incomplete if I did not make mention in passing of another movement which, if the social opportunity presented itself, would reveal the same authoritarian patterns as those previously considered. I am referring to dogmatic doctrinal Marxism, as distinct from critical methodological Marxism, which has proved to be a useful tool in many fields. The existence of dogmatic Marxism as a set of fixed doctrines and a party-church, with a ritual of excommunication and suppression, is proof that many unscientific practices and beliefs can hide behind the slogan of Science, Experience, and Practice; that self-avowed materialists operating with uncritical methods can be every whit as brutal and authoritarian as the most obscurantist of irra-tionalists. In its dogmatic orthodox form, Marxism makes claim to the possession of a dialectic method which can disclose truths about the world not obtainable by ordinary methods of scientific inquiry. It asserts that the direction and end of social development are fixed and are to be achieved inevitably by the immanent forces of nature and history working out their predestined course. As in some forms of absolute idealism, man’s highest hopes are read into, and then out of, the universe with the result that man appears to be the instrument by which Die List der Vernunft, or the objective dialectic in nature and society, achieves its purposes. Where men regard themselves as instruments by which an historical process realizes itself, they fall easy victims to the belief that they themselves have no responsibility — certainly no moral responsibility — for the instruments they employ. Instruments are hallowed by fixed aims. And so we witness today the strange spectacle of men believing that a functional social and political democracy can be achieved by a minority one-party dictatorship, and that a fellowship of free men can emerge in a climate of cultural totalitarianism. That this is actually Marx’s meaning is extremely questionable; that this is the way some people interpret and practise Marxism is unquestionable. The great tragedy of modern socialism is that this is the practising gospel which directs the Russian state from kindergarten to university, from its witchcraft trials to its execution squads. Today the communicants of this church are everywhere muddying the waters of clear thought by claiming to be liberals. The dialectic and the exigencies of power politics justify everything.


The reader may be wondering: why so much ado about peripheral philosophical tendencies which are weak in influence and probably evanescent in character? Salem, Zenith City, or Middletown do not appear to be the likely intellectual capitals of America, much less Rome or Moscow. Quite so. In a stable democratic economy where there are no socially underprivileged classes living on the outer margins of security, movements such as these would have little significance and could be dismissed as the fads by which young men call themselves to the attention of their elders. But I take it that if there is one proposition upon which all minds are united today, it is that we are groping our way through a critical transitional period of American history as well as world history. For some it is the twilight of reason; for others its dawn. No one—not even a Pangloss—could call it a high noon. But no matter what promise or menace we see in it, our era will see a profound transformation in the habits of life and action of multitudes, a shift from the customary to the acutely problematic. We may therefore expect it to be characterized by perplexity, overwrought emotion, and a weakness for easy solutions. Under such conditions — and historical analogies come readily to mind — authoritarian doctrines recommend themselves as plausible ways of re-establishing the securities already lost or imperiled. Such doctrines may gradually take hold even of those who are loudest in their professions of freedom but who have not worked out methods of unprejudiced inquiry to meet the problems pressing for action; just as in politics, democrats who have never reconciled themselves to the risks of the democratic process, in moments of crisis find themselves calling for a dictatorship by “the right sort of people.” In the present state of American culture, it would betoken a wilful blindness to ignore these storm signals on the American philosophical horizon. And not only for philosophers— who more often take Socrates as a theme for edifying discourse than as a model for imitation—but for practitioners of scientific method in any field. Scientists cannot afford to be indifferent to the possibility that authoritarianism may become first a complacently tolerated, then an accepted, and finally a dominant, mode of thought. The vital nerve of the scientific temper in every discipline must sooner or later wither when critical thought in any major domain of social experience is proscribed.

The task before those who regard scientific method as the only reliable instrument of coping with the problems of men is modest yet very difficult. For in a sense the failure of scientific empiricists to develop acceptable methods in the social and psychological sciences indirectly strengthens the appeal of authoritarianism and irrationalism. The empiricists must, for example, work out a scientific approach to values which will not end in the strange conclusion that value judgments are meaningless, and so drive those for whom ethical values and principles are meaningful into the arms of authoritarianism to save their moral sanity. They must work out methods in psychology which will not make the human mind a mystery to itself, and so lead people to turn everywhere for knowledge of themselves except to the science of psychology. They must work out methods in the social sciences whose validity does not depend only on ideal conditions, unrealized and unrealizable, but which have some relevance to the social changes people see taking place before their very eyes. The empiricists need not hesitate even to accept certain conclusions that may have authoritarian origin provided that they prove themselves in scientific inquiry. For a correct insight is often defended on inadequate grounds; and it is only the methods of authoritarianism that must be absolutely rejected.

To state, clarify, and extend the methods of scientific inquiry may not appear very exciting or heroic. But its longtime significance may very well transcend in importance those more immediate and dramatic ways of combating authoritarianism which consist in substituting one dogma for another, setting up a new arbitrary faith against an old, and leaving it to raw passion or the accidents of history to determine which is to prevail. It is true that philosophers cannot do much; but they can do something.


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