Four and Twenty Minds/Chapter 7

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Four and Twenty Minds by Giovanni Papini
Chapter VII.



In the sleepy world of modern philosophy F. C. S. Schiller stands for an idea which is very simple, and has for that very reason been long forgotten: the idea that theories should lead to practical results. Philosophy should be one of the moving forces of the world. Even speculative thought should be an instrument of change. Pure reason, rigid and static rationalism, and prudent objectivism are but myths or absurdities. There is no such thing as pure reason: reason is always impure, at least if one regards sentiment, purpose, and will, as elements of impurity. The immobile rationalism that claims to have pinned down truth in its theodicies, as a boy pins down a butterfly, is but the twaddle of degenerate Leibnitzians. The passive objectivism that waits resignedly to receive impressions, contemplates the slow formation of truth, and scorns those who go out to seek for truth, to pursue it, to impose it, to create it, to subject and master things instead of merely measuring or counting them—such passive objectivism is the hypocritical method of a generation of weaklings. Truth must be provoked, I might almost say invented; and when it has been invented it must be made real and concrete through the dominion which the spirit must incessantly exercise over material things.

Such, in somewhat sharper emphasis, are the ideas which recur throughout the keen and imaginative writings of the Oxford philosopher. In Axioms as Postulates, which he published, together with essays by some of his friends, in the volume called Personal Idealism (1902), there appears an irreverent analysis of those truths which are traditionally called necessary, and an intimate history of axioms. Axioms, he shows, are but hypotheses which have proved so useful, and have succeeded so well in displacing all rival hypotheses, that today they seem indispensable: they are merely empiric propositions or teleological conventions which have proved victorious in the struggle for acceptance as truth.

In other words, the origin of those concepts which we tend to regard as the eternal armor of reason is purely practical and utilitarian. That which has proved most serviceable has asserted itself and has survived. Everything else has been thrown into the enormous waste-basket of the insignificant and the erroneous. Knowledge must serve life. Life, then, may suppress such knowledge as harms or does not help it.

In his essay on Useless Knowledge,[1] the second of those gathered under the title Humanism, he reduces to three types the conceptions which the greatest philosophers have held of the relations between practical reason and pure reason. For Plato, practical reason is a special form derived from theoretical reason. For Aristotle, theoretical reason and practical reason are independent, but theoretical reason is superior to practical reason. For Kant, theoretical reason and practical reason are independent, but practical reason is superior to theoretical reason. Schiller goes further still, and on the basis of the theories of pragmatism (Pierce, James) he affirms outright that theoretical reason is a special case and a derivative form of practical reason. Knowledge is merely a form of action.

In fact, pure intelligence, that is, passive intelligence, does not exist for Schiller. We know only what we seek to know, what we have some interest in knowing. Knowledge is shot through with affections, emotions, purposes. One of the most imperious needs of the human mind is the need of harmony. We desire that the data of knowledge should agree with each other and with outer objects, and that the data of our own knowledge should be in agreement with those of the human group in which we live.

When an idea which offers interest and utility, and does not clash with our convictions, comes before us, we desire it to he true; that is, we suppose that it is true, and we act as if it were true, considering it as true provisionally, and awaiting the consequences. If those consequences are favorable, and if the idea does not prove to be in opposition with the ideas we already possess and with those of other men, we admit it into the society of our established truths, and retain it until some change of interests or some alteration of conditions ousts it in favor of some other fresher and more useful truth. Schiller, then, defines truth as “that manipulation of data which turns out upon trial to be useful, primarily for any human end, but ultimately for that perfect harmony of our whole life which forms our final aspiration.”

That which is true is useful. There may be ideas which are at the same time false and useful, but there is no such thing as an idea which is at the same time useless and true. Every hypothesis which is without utility is either false or insignificant. To adopt the Platonic terminology, the True is a form of the Good, and “every act of human knowledge is potentially a moral act.”

Thus it is evident that Schiller does not consider truth as a thing fixed and dead, but as a thing changeable, plastic, dynamic. Truths are born and die, decay and are renewed continually. As times and individuals and purposes change, that which has been true becomes insignificant, that which has seemed absurd comes to be true. Movement and evolution enter the calm architectonic world of knowledge. Schiller naturally regards the doctrines of evolution with approval, since they have made familiar the idea of the plasticity of organic beings, and have thus prepared the way for the idea of the plasticity of speculative organisms.

For Schiller, and for Schiller distinctively, motion, change, and activity are everything. Things exist in so far as they are active. Existence means action. Substance is activity. Schiller renews Aristotle’s vision of ένέργεια, and shares the vision of his contemporary, Ostwald, the present champion of energism. Spirit as well as substance, then, must be preëminently active, must choose and reconstruct. The world as we know it is not the original world: it is the result of long centuries of choices, modifications, eliminations, deformations, and creations wrought by men according to their habits and their desires. The world is not “a datum imposed upon us ready-made, but the fruit of a long evolution, of a strenuous struggle”—the struggle of consciousness with consciousness, of spirit with things, of man with the world.

Such is the philosophy which comes to us from Oxford under the fair name of Humanism, dear to our Latin memories. Italian humanism was the resurrection of a distant and unfamiliar world; Anglo-Saxon humanism is the announcement of a new world, still unfamiliar, but no longer distant: a world in which the soul is master. And this explains Schiller’s interest in psychic problems and his membership in the Society of Psychical Research, which has made him a member of its council.[2] It explains also why he is one of the most prominent exponents of pragmatism as embodied in James’ doctrine of the Will to Believe, which is simply one of the means of rendering true the beliefs that most concern us.

Schiller’s philosophy is by no means new. Beyond his direct sources—the most important of whom is certainly William James, the full extent of whose influence on contemporary thought cannot yet be fully estimated—one may rightly enough go back to the famous aphorism of Protagoras (“Man is the measure of all things”) which so scandalized the ingenuous soul of Plato. Saint-Martin, the philosophe inconnu, set this phrase at the head of one of his works: “Il ne faut pas expliquer l’homme avec les choses mais expliquer les choses avec l’homme.” Schiller might have chosen a still more daring motto: “Il ne faut pas soumettre l’homme aux choses, mais il faut que les choses soient soumises à l’homme.” The phrase of Saint-Martin may seem like a return to primitive animism, and the phrase that might be Schiller’s may seem like a return to barbarian magic; but they may both be in reality the mottoes of a new spiritual age, an age to be marked by events no less important than the discovery of America or the invention of the steam engine.

If this is to come about, we must discard the metaphysical lore that has long since given all it had to give, and we must bring forth from our own spirits not only imaginative systems wherein curiosity may wander at will, but that art of creation which is already foretokened and is already in preparation.


  1. Humanism: Philosophical Essays, London, 1903, pp. 18-43.
  2. See his article on Human Sentiment as to a Future Life, in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, XVIII (October, 1904), 416-50.