Six Major Prophets/Chapter 4

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search



A British Pragmatist

The world knows nothing of its greatest men, because by the time it knows something about them they have ceased to be the greatest.


A dozen years ago I happened upon the word “pragmatism”, as it was printed, rather inappropriately,[1] upon the slip cover of Santayana’s “Life of Reason.” Being a queer looking word and unknown to me, I started to find out what it meant and that led me on a long chase. The farther I went the more interested I became, for I soon discovered that I had been a pragmatist all my life without knowing it. I was as delighted as M. Jourdain when he was told that he had been unconsciously talking prose all his life. I felt as relieved as Huxley when he invented “agnostic” as a tag for himself.

I had come by my pragmatism honestly enough, for I had got my training as a journalist through the study of chemistry, and in science the pragmatic mode of thinking is universal and unquestioned. So when I went to writing about other things,—politics, law, ethics, history, religion, and the like,—I naturally used my brains in the same way as in science, that is, I persisted in the valuation of all acts by their consequences instead of their causes and in the validation of all truths by practicality instead of precedent. But when I found how this way of thinking shocked, annoyed, or amused people I began to fear that I should have to drop it as I had other evidences of my buried past, such as the habit of using words like “catalysis” and “parachlorbenzamidine” in casual conversation.

But when I heard of the pragmatists I knew that I was no longer alone in the world. There were others, it seemed, even men of standing in philosophical circles, whose minds ran in this way and who were not ashamed to own it. I got their names and started to find them wherever they might be. I ran down Dewey in the Adirondacks and Bergson in the Alps. Poincaré I unearthed in a Paris flat, James I heard in a Columbia lecture room; Ostwald I found in a Saxon village; Schiller I caught in an Oxford quad. I was thinking of going to China to see Wang Yang-ming, but fortunately before I had bought my steamer ticket or learned Chinese I discovered that he had been dead for three centuries.[2]

Some who have read or tried to read what I said about Bergson and Poincaré[3] have complained that I used too many big words, and one man wrote me to say that if I would define pragmatism in words of one syllable perhaps he might understand what I was talking about. I could not guarantee that, of course, but I had no hesitation about complying with his request. Confucius wrote his immortal works in words of one syllable, and I would not be beaten by a Chinaman. Even Herbert Spencer once condescended to translate his famous definition of evolution into Anglo-Saxon. Since I am obliged to use the word “pragmatism” more than once in this book I may forestall criticism by putting here my

Monosyllabic Definition of Pragmatism

The one way to find out if a thing is true is to try it and see how it works. If it works well for a long time and for all folks, it must have some truth in it. If it works wrong it is false, at least in part. If there is no way to test it, then it has no sense. It means naught to us when we cannot tell what odds it makes if we hold to it or not. A creed is just a guide to life. We must live to learn. If a man would know what is right he must try to do what is right. Then he can find out. Prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. The will to have faith in a thing oft makes the faith come true. So it can be said in a way that we make truth for our own use. What we think must be of use to us in some way, else why should we think it? The truth is what is good for us, what helps us, what gives us joy and strength, what shows us how to act, what ties up fact to fact, so the chain will hold, what makes us see all things clear and straight, and what keeps us from stray paths that turn out wrong in the end. Thought is a tool, a means to an end. Man has to act, and so he must think. In this way he asks the world what it means to him. The need for thought first comes when man asks “Why?” or “Which?” so that he may know what to do to gain his end. The mind as it thinks makes such facts as it can to best serve its use. Out of the facts so come by is made a law, and this law in turn serves as a rule to guide one’s acts.

But the reader should be warned that no two pragmatists can be got to agree upon any definition of pragmatism, and that the opponents of pragmatism differ still more widely in their conception of it. Schiller says that the most serious drawback in the name is that “it condemns every exponent of pragmatism to consume at least half an hour of his limited time in explaining the word.” Schiller himself employs the term “humanism” instead which being less novel is less disturbing to the conventional mind but on the other hand has the serious disadvantage of having been applied to a very different thing, namely, the spirit of the Renaissance. Since C. S. Peirce who invented the term “pragmatism” and William James who popularized it are both dead, the word finds few defenders, although the mode of reasoning it tried to stand for is obviously permeating all fields of thought. Like many other things pragmatism seems likely to conquer the world incognito.[4]

A man in the act of dismounting from a bicycle is temporarily incapacitated from the effective use of either mode of locomotion, and it was at this psychological moment that I caught Doctor Schiller at the gate of Corpus Christi College. Otherwise I might have missed him, for he is as alert and agile physically as he is mentally. He usually spends his summers mountain climbing in the Alps, though I suppose he has suspended this pastime during the last three years while the Tyrolean Alps are being used for other purposes than tourism.

Mr. Schiller wears the pointed beard that was the distinguishing mark of the radical of the nineties. He has a Shakespearean-shaped forehead, but wears un-Shakespearean glasses. He is as interesting to converse with as he is to read, which is more than you can say of many authors. He talks best while in motion, a real peripatetic philosopher. I wondered why he did not take his students out of the old gloomy lecture room and walk with them as he did with me, up and down the lawn between the trees and the ivy-clad walls of the college garden. Curious turf it was, close-cut and springy; I never felt anything like it under my feet except an asphalt pavement on a hot summer day.

But I suppose it would be against the Oxford customs to adopt the Greek method in teaching Greek philosophy. At any rate when I went to Mr. Schiller’s lecture on logic I found it as conventional in form as it was revolutionary in spirit. One would have thought that printing had never been invented, nor even the mimeograph. The lecture was delivered slowly, and necessarily without feeling, clause by clause, with frequent repetitions, so every word could be taken down. It was really a brilliant lecture as I discovered afterwards when I read over my notes, but at the time it sounded as dull as proof-reading, for the lecturer dictated even the punctuation marks, as he went along: “colon”, “Italics”, “inverted commas”, etc. The English leave out the punctuation marks in legal documents where they are needed and put them into lectures where they do not belong.

The students, in short black gowns, were seated uncomfortably on benches carved with the names of many generations, and were writing awkwardly on long boards. These were furnished with inkwells and quill pens, although the students sensibly used fountain pens. I suppose it is somebody’s perquisite to supply such things as quills and snuff to the college even if nobody uses them. An American college president told me that he thought there was more graft at Oxford than anywhere else in the world.

If Mr. Schiller had remained in America he would now be lecturing to one or two hundred at a time, largely teachers who had come from all parts of the country expressly to hear his ideas and who would in turn transmit them to their students. But in that room there were only these fifteen boys, many of whom doubtless had no special interest in logic or in Schiller’s views of logic and who took his lectures simply because they were required for examination, after which they could be forgotten. I could not help contrasting this scene with the big lecture room at Jena, modern yet satisfying to the esthetic and historic taste, where Eucken’s fiery eloquence held men and women gathered from five continents, or with the Collège de France, where Bergson had attracted an even larger and equally cosmopolitan audience. A man in Schiller’s position must gain his disciples chiefly through his books, and for a man of Schiller’s attractive personality this is a great disadvantage. Print can never take the place of “the spoken word”, but to have its effect the spoken word must be widely heard.

The American visitor to Oxford meets a double mystery: how it is that Oxford accomplishes so much with a poor and antiquated plant and how it is that American universities do not accomplish more with their modern and convenient plants. One hates to conclude that plumbing and ventilation are incompatible with high thinking. But if Spencer is right in defining life as the power of adaptation to environment, the Oxford dons are most alive of any human beings. They have shown the adaptability of hermit crabs in fitting themselves into their awkward environment. They somehow manage to make themselves comfortable in buildings that a New York tenement house inspector—who is never regarded as unduly particular—would order torn down. They work contentedly under conditions that would cause a strike in any well-regulated union.

Oxford is the favorite resort of American tourists because it is the most satisfactory of all the sights of Great Britain. The Tower of London and Stratford-on-Avon do not compare with it. They are as disappointing as an extinct volcano. But Oxford is an antiquity in action. Our common feeling in regard to it was best expressed by a lady tourist who was being personally conducted through one of the college quadrangles when a student stuck his head out of a dormer window. “Oh, my! Are these ruins inhabited?” was her delighted exclamation.

That is a characteristic trait of the English, the economical utilization of antiquated buildings and institutions. The House of Lords actually does something, even though what it does is wrong. Westminster Abbey is not a mere mausoleum, like the Paris Panthéon. It is a church where one may worship and hear sermons of decidedly modernistic tone. The French, when they made up their minds that they did not need a King any longer, cut his head off, which was a waste. The English keep their King and make use of him for spectacular and advertising purposes. Oxford is Cluny and Sorbonne in one, a curious combination of old and new, useful and superfluous, progress and reaction, that puzzles and fascinates every American visitor.

Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller, M.A., D.Sc., Fellow and Senior Tutor of Corpus Christi College, Oxford—to give for once his full name and titles—was born in 1864. While at Rugby he showed decided symptoms of intelligence, so he was picked as a probable winner in the scholastic race and put in training for the classical scholarships. The British turn all things into sport, even war and education, and since public opinion does not allow headmasters to keep racehorses they indulge their sporting instincts by backing their boys for the Blue Ribbon, the Balliol Scholarships. These boys are then given daily doses of classical verse competition; I infer for the same reason that jockeys are fed on gin.

It is curious to see how widely educators differ as to the fundamental principles of their business. The British system is built upon competitions, prizes, and examinations. The American state universities in the days of their pristine purity—I mean by that of course, when I was a student—regarded competition as vicious, prizes as demoralizing, and examinations as an evil to be eliminated if possible. But it ill becomes a pragmatist to condemn a system that works so well as the British, whatever theoretical objections may occur.

Much as Schiller detested making verses in a dead language, he did it so well that he got a Major Exhibition. This gave him three hundred and fifty dollars for five years as well as four hundred and fifty dollars in Exhibitions from Rugby. But it also meant that he had sold himself to run in harness for another four years at Balliol and was obliged to master a philosophy which he already felt to be a fraud. T. H. Green had died just before Schiller came up and had been sainted for the greater glory of Balliol, and it seemed to the tutors good pedagogy to set their pupils to begin the study of philosophy with Green’s “Prolegomena to Ethics.” Most of the boys confronted with this abstruse introduction came to the conclusion that it was wonderful, but that they had no head for metaphysics because they could not see any sense in it. Schiller very curiously came to the opposite conclusion from the same premise.

Orthodox Oxford was at that time under the sway of the great philosophic Trinity of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, which was supposed somehow to be concordant with or at least allied to the theological Trinity, and therefore fit food for the souls of innocent young men. The third person of the philosophic Trinity was kept much in the dark, because the tutors generally were not fond of reading German. They knew still less of science and apparently did not suspect that Darwin and his evolution might prove to have some bearing upon philosophy.

Schiller took his First Classes at Oxford, although he was given to asking awkward questions and was known to be reading “out of bounds.” One of his examiners complained that he used such queer terms in his papers, “solipsism” and “epistemology” for instance.

The years 1893-1897 Schiller spent as instructor at Cornell University, and at the end of that period an amusing incident occurred, though what it was and how it came about I don’t know; possibly because I never thought it best to inquire of any of the few who were in the room at the time. The bare fact is interesting enough, that a young man who had written one of the most brilliant volumes of the times on metaphysics, “Riddles of the Sphinx”, and who carried in his pocket a call to teach philosophy at a leading college of Oxford, was flunked in Cornell on his oral examination for Ph.D. in philosophy! Anybody who is curious can pick up half a dozen inconsistent versions of this famous episode on almost any campus. One is, that being fortified by the crinkle of the above mentioned letter over his heart and knowing that an American degree would have no value in England, Schiller did not take the examination seriously and neglected the necessary cramming. Another version of the story is that he turned tables upon his examiners by bringing into action for the first time the pragmatic arguments so much to their discomfiture and bewilderment that he was penalized for these foul blows. But probably the details, if one knew them, would prove to be quite commonplace compared with either of these versions or the more picturesque legends that are in circulation, so it is better to remain in ignorance and file it in the envelope with such cases as John Henry Newman, who got only a Third Class; F. H. Bradley, who got a Second; Gustave Doré, who failed in drawing; Darwin who was called a stupid student, Grant who was graduated in the lower half of his class, Mendel who was never allowed to graduate at Vienna, and the like, good material all for some one who wants to investigate the psychology of students—and examiners.

The chief benefit that Schiller got out of his American sojourn was an acquaintance with William James. It was a case of love at first sight and of lifelong devotion. Schiller dedicated his “Humanism” “To my dear friend, the humanest of philosophers, William James, without whose example and unfailing encouragement this book would never have been written.”

In 1897 Schiller was called back to England to become tutor in Corpus Christi College. The president of that college, the late Thomas Fowler, belonged rather to the pre-Hegelian Oxford generation of the Mill-British-empiricism school of thought. He liked things to be made intelligible, and he was so much struck by the lucidity of Schiller’s “Riddles of the Sphinx” that he called him from Cornell to Oxford.

Here then he has for twenty years lived the quiet, sheltered, contemplative life of the Oxford don, varied only by such daring adventures as his hunt for the hidden fallacies of formal logic, his single combats with Mr. Bradley, and his ascent of the bleak heights of speculative philosophy, where the Absolute is supposed to dwell in solitude. Our American universities are putting up some very fair imitations of Oxford architecture now. Some have transplanted ivy and it is growing. Some have transplanted tutors and they are growing. But one Oxford custom has not yet been introduced into our universities, the custom of giving the professors time to think. In Oxford all the men have time to think and some of them do. In America if a man shows a tendency to become absorbed in thought he is made a dean or put on the committee of accredited high schools, which cures him.

In the British “Who’s Who” Mr. Schiller’s recreations are ordinarily put down as “mountaineering, golf, etc.” But in one edition of that handy volume of contemporary autobiography it is stated that his chief recreation is “editing Mind!” Thus was revealed the secret of the mysterious appearance at Christmas, 1901, of a periodical which in looks resembled one of the regular numbers of that staid blue-covered review of philosophy, Mind, but with most startling contents. The frontispiece is a “Portrait of Its Immanence, the Absolute.” This is followed by an article on “The Place of Humour in the Absolute, by F. H. Badley”; “The Critique of Pure Rot, by I. Cant”; “A Commentary on the Snark”; “More Riddles from Worse Sphinxes”, and the like. The advertisements were likewise unusual—“A Dictionary of Oxford Mythology, in six volumes, containing a complete account of the stories told in the Common Rooms and the men to whom they have from time to time been attached”; “A fine consignment of assorted Weltanschauungen just received from Germany”; phonograms of all the lectures, jokes extra, with colored cinematographs of the most famous professors in action, for armchair study, etc. The history of philosophy in fifty-one limericks, covering all systems from Thales to Nietzsche, would be useful on examination time by students of “Philosophy Four.”

We hedonists, said Aristippus,
Discomforts detest when they grip us,
So wealth we adore,
The moment live for
And take what the rich ’Arries tip us.

The infinite self-absorbed Brahma
Was dreaming the World-Panorama:
He groaned and he snored,
Till at length he grew bored,
And woke up, and broke up the Drama.

“To multiply beings”, said Occam,
“Is needless, ‘tis better to dock ‘em.”
So he seized on his razor,
This pestilent phraser,
And ran out to bloodily block ‘em.

A pessimist, great Schopenhauer,
Found living exceedingly sour,
At Hegel he cursed,
His grievances nursed,
And poured forth his wrath by the hour.

As will be seen from the above, Mind! reads much like the Junior Annual of an American college, but at Oxford the students are deficient in journalistic enterprise, so the duty of keeping things cheerful devolves upon their betters. According to its cover Mind! was “edited by a Troglodyte” but as there was only one philosopher in England who would have the cheek to do it and who could parody the style and expose the weak points of the regular contributors to Mind, the troglodyte was soon tracked to his cave. The author of a similar jeu d’esprit, “The Joysome History of Education”, which surreptitiously circulates about Columbia University, has so far as I know never been disclosed to the public.

But Schiller has not been able to confine his humor to that uniquity, Mind! He allows it to creep into his contributions to Mind-without-the-exclamation-point and other serious journals. He is a keen debater and does not follow the ordinary rules of fencing, but frequently disconcerts his antagonists by parrying their thrusts with a pun or a personality. He is, so far as I know, the first philosopher to find room for jokes in his formal philosophy, as the following passage shows:

When we map out the whole region of Truth-claim or Formal Truth, we find that it contains (1) lies, (2) errors, (3) methodological fictions, (4) methodological assumptions, (5) postulates, (6) validated truths, (7) axioms, and (8) jokes.

Most philosophers in fact would not only ignore his eighth category, but would neglect his first and second, accepting any statement that claimed to be true and devoting themselves to the study of its logical implications. But the pragmatist is more interested in finding out how and in what way an assertion comes to be called true and how it makes good its claim after it has been asserted. As Schiller puts it:[5]

What then is common to all sorts of Truth and Error, and renders them species of a common genus? Nothing but their psychological side; “truth” is the proper term for what satisfies, “error” for what thwarts, a human purpose in cognitive activity.
The difference between Truth and Error, therefore, is ultimately one in value. The “true” way of conceiving an object or judging a situation is simply the way most valuable for our purpose; the “false” way is one which is, at least relatively, worthless. “Truth” is a eulogistic, “error” a dyslogistic, way of valuing a cognitive situation.
Truth and Error therefore are continuous, as history shows. Either may develop out of the other, and both are rooted in the same problems of knowing, which are ultimately problems of living. The “truths” of one generation become the “errors” of the next, when it has achieved more valuable and efficient modes of interpreting and manipulating the apparent “facts”, which the new “truths” are continuously transforming. And conversely, what is now scouted as “error” may hereafter become the fruitful parent of a long progeny of “truths.”
It follows also that (as every examiner who marks a paper knows) Truth and Error admit of quantitative differences. Both can vary in importance, and can attain (or fail of) their purpose to a greater or a less degree. But neither is absolute. An answer to a question is in general called true, if it is true enough for the purpose in hand. But this does not preclude a greater exactitude if (for a different purpose) it should be required. It is a true answer to the question—“when do you leave?” to reply “to-morrow”; but if necessary I can specify the train I go by. Thus the demand for absolute exactness is both humanly unnecessary and scientifically unmeaning. Indeed a degree of accuracy higher than the situation demands would be irrational. No one wants to know the height of a mountain in millimeters, and if he did, he could not ascertain it, because his methods would not measure fine enough. Scientific truths are infinitely perfectible, but never absolute.[6]
Now if philosophers are wise, they will accept this sort of truth, and admit that any truth is “absolute” enough so soon as it is equal to the demands made upon it, while none must ever be so absolute as to become incorrigible and incapable of further growth.

A human factor, an element of personal desire, enters into all our thinking; otherwise why should we bother to think? Even our most abstract and general theorems have a hidden Hinterland of subconscious motives, limitations, and conditions.

The abstract statement that “two and two make four” is always incomplete. We need to know to what “twos” and “fours” the dictum is applied. It would not be true of lions and lambs, nor of drops of water, nor of pleasures and pains.[7]

This suppressed context of thought is of course largely personal, and with it is suppressed the human interest of philosophy. Hence the endeavor to drag it to light was very properly called Humanism. Schiller conceives every thought as some one’s experiment for which he is responsible.

“Every thought”, he says, “is an act and even the most ‘theoretical’ assertions are made to gratify an interest.” He finds in the present war a most unpleasant confirmation of his theory that thought is subordinate to action and never free from human volitional influence:[8]

If only philosophers could be got to face the facts of actual life, could any of them fail to observe the enormous object-lesson in the truth of pragmatism which the world has been exhibiting in the present crisis? Everywhere the “truths” believed in are relative to the nationality and sympathies of their believers. It is, indeed, lamentable that such an orgy of the will to believe should have been needed to illustrate the pragmatic nature of truth, but who will dispute that for months say 999 persons out of 1000 have been believing what they please, and consciously or unconsciously making it “true” with a fervor rarely bestowed even by the most ardent philosophers on the most self-evident truths? No improbability, no absurdity, no atrocity has been too great to win credence, and the uniformity of human nature has been signally attested by the way in which the same stories (mutatis mutandis) have been credited on both sides.

Since the controversy over pragmatism hinges on this theory of truth, I will quote in condensed form what Schiller says in his discussion with Miss Stebbing:[9]

It is an inevitable corollary of the belief in absolute truth that absolute truth cannot find lodgment in human mind, nor be attained by way of human science. We were led, therefore, to examine how in fact belief in the accepted “truths” grew up. We found that every thought was essentially a personal experiment that might succeed or fail, and that whether it did or not depended on its consequences. But it seemed clear that “true” was the term appropriated by language to the success, as false was to failure, of such experiments. Of course both “success” and “truth” are relative terms. Absolute “success” is found as little as absolute “truth” and for the same reason. All “truths” remain (preferred) truth-claims and retain an infinite appetite for assimilating further confirmation.
But there does come a point, alike in the individual’s experience and in social opinion at any time, at which it seems that certain truth-claims have received confirmation enough to make them pragmatically certain. These form the reigning truths. But they never form a closed oligarchy or an immutable system. Merit can force its way into their ranks, and inefficiency entails degradation. Thus, though their position is (psychologically) unchallenged, it is never (logically) unchallenged. So it can not be said that because they work they are absolutely true. They are called true because they work, and there is no sense in calling anything true for any other reason; but the progress of knowledge may nevertheless supersede them at the next step.

Since Schiller indignantly repudiates the formula often ascribed to pragmatism that “All that works is true”, and since Mr. Bradley has come to say[10] “I agree that any idea which in any way ‘works’ has in some degree truth”, it would seem that these old antagonists are really not so far apart in their opinions as their words would indicate.

For classical authority for his Humanism Schiller goes back to the famous dictum of Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things.” In Plato’s “Dialogues”, Protagoras is represented as having been argued quite out of court by Socrates, but Schiller appeals to posterity against this decision, and he has written several supplemental dialogues of his own to prove that Protagoras was really in the right.[11]

Schiller’s most serious work so far is his destructive criticism of the Aristotelian logic. Since my own study of logic came to an abrupt end as soon as I had secured a passing mark on Jevons, I shall not attempt to express an opinion upon the value of Schiller’s “Formal Logic”, but will instead quote from the review of the volume by Professor Dewey of Columbia.[12]

In substance, the volume (a large octavo of about four hundred pages) is an unrelenting, dogged pursuit of the traditional logic, chapter by chapter, section by section. Not a single doctrine, nor, I think, a single distinction of the official textbooks escapes Schiller’s demolishing hand. . . . A vital and wholesome sense of the realities of actual thinking pervades the whole book; it supplies the background against which the criticisms of formal doctrine are projected. Mr. Schiller brings out, in case after case, with a cumulative effect which is fairly deadly, that at the crucial point each formal distinction is saved from complete meaninglessness only by an unacknowledged and surreptitious appeal to some matter of context, need, aim, and use. Why not, then, frankly recognize the indispensableness of such volitional and emotional factors, and instead of pretending to a logic that excludes them, build up a logic that corresponds to human intellectual endeavor and achievement. It is difficult to see how even the most hardened devotee of a purely theoretical intellectualism can lay down the book without such questions haunting him. . . .
While traditional logic has much to say about truth, the truth it talks about is mere formal consistency, since it declines to consider the material application of its premises. Relevance—a fundamental conception of concrete thought—is excluded because it goes with selection, with selection of the part that is useful, while formal logic professes an all-inclusive ideal. Selection, moreover, is a voluntary and hence arbitrary act, and so is shut out from a doctrine that acknowledges only what is purely theoretical. Finally, formal logic, with its creed of absolute certitude, abhors the very mention of adventure and risk, the life blood of actual human thinking, which is aroused by doubts and questions, and proceeds by guesses, hypotheses, and experiments, to a decision which is always somewhat arbitrary and subject to the risk of later revision.

Much of the criticism of “Formal Logic” contained in this large volume is too technical for any save professionals to follow, but at my request Mr. Schiller was kind enough to write an article for The Independent putting the main points of it in a form “understanded of the common people.” From this I quote the passage in which he shows that the syllogism cannot lead unerringly to new truth:

The peculiar aim of logic hitherto has been to discover a form of “valid inference.” By this was meant a form of words so fool-proof that it could not be misapplied, and that the use of it would absolutely guarantee the soundness of the conclusion if only the reasoning had been fortunate enough to start from true premises. In the syllogism it was supposed that such a form had been found. From all swans are white and this bird is a swan it was to follow inevitably that this bird is white, and the course of nature would eternally conform to the prophetic demonstrations of logic.
Yet logicians also had soon to note that even formally there was something wrong about this syllogistic form. It seemed to “prove” what was either nothing new or nothing known. To justify the “major premise” “all swans are white”, must not its assertor have already seen this swan and know that it is white? Or, if he did not know this, is he not risking an assertion about some “swans” on the strength of what he knows about others? And what right had he thus to argue from the known to the unknown? Can an “inference” be “valid” if it involves a risk?
When therefore black swans arrive from Australia to upset his dogmatizing, what is he to do? Will he say his major premise was a definition, and no bird, however swan-like, shall be called a “swan” if it cannot pass his color-test? If so, his reasoning is still caught in the old dilemma, that he either “proves” nothing new or begs the question in another way. For he then had no right to assert his “minor premise”, this bird is a swan, if he knew not it was white. Or will he, desperately, say “in both of these interpretations the syllogistic form is fatuous; but kindly understand it as asserting a law of nature which is immutable, and applied to the particular case in the minor premise.” But, if so, how does he know that his “law” applies to the “case”? that the “case” is such as he takes it to be? that he has picked out the right “law” to deal with the case and formulated it correctly? If it is quite certain that the “law” applies to the “case”, his conclusion proves nothing new; if it is not, he runs the risk that the case of which he is trying to predict the behavior may be so exceptional as to break or modify his law. And if he runs that risk, is he not renouncing his ideal of reaching fool-proof certainty?
There seems to be no way, therefore, of saving “valid inference”, of so interpreting the syllogism that it is both formally valid and humanly instructive. If it is to be instructive, it can only enlighten human ignorance, and then its premises cannot be certainly true.[13]

Some critics, having in mind how little attention is paid to formal logic in American schools, have expressed the opinion that Schiller was wasting his powder on dead game. But however little it may be used in reasoning, formal logic is still the object of formal reverence everywhere, and in Oxford it is strongly entrenched and heavily subsidized as Schiller says in the passage:

That the same doctrine, in perfect verbal continuity, should have been taught and examined on for over two thousand years would be the most stupendous fact in education, were it not surpassed by the still more surprising fact that during all this time no one has arisen to call it nonsense through and through, and that every would-be improvement has been countered by the retort that it was “not in Aristotle.”. . . The great mass of logicians have always been true to their salt. For Aristotle is still very heavily endowed.
In the University of Oxford alone three philosophy professors, twenty-eight literæ humaniores tutors, and about 460 classical scholars and exhibitioners are paid, at an annual cost of over £50,000, to believe that the theory of thought has stood still, or stumbled into error when it tried to move, ever since the composition of the “Organon”, and that all modern science may be read into and out of the obscurities of the “Posterior Analytics.” The Secret Doctrine in which this is taught has never been divulged in print, but examiners know that there are passages in the ordinary Oxford Logic Lecture which must have been copied down by two hundred generations of students ever since the twelfth century.

Like James and Bergson and unlike Dewey, Schiller has interested himself in psychical research as a possible way of proving personal immortality.[14] He does not seem from his published work to have yet obtained any satisfactory experimental evidence of a future life, but he regards immortality as an ethical postulate, necessary to the conceptions of a moral universe, for if we reject it “we should be plunged in that unfathomable abyss where Scepticism fraternizes with Pessimism and they hug their miseries in chaos undisguised.”

But in his earliest work “Riddles of the Sphinx” he expressed the opinion that nowadays few people took a real interest in the question of immortality and that it had little influence upon conduct. This unconventional opinion was confirmed many years later when the Society for Psychical Research conducted a questionnaire on the subject and found that of the many thousand persons interrogated a large proportion did not regard a future life as of practical importance to them.[15]

Within the last few years Schiller has entered a new field, the eugenics movement, where his keen wit and power of analysis are doing good service. In his review of Nietzsche’s work[16] he recognizes that Nietzsche is not without reason when he asserts that the moral qualities he dislikes, such as pity and sympathy, may lead to decadence, for, as Schiller elsewhere shows, social reform, unless it is eugenically directed, may lead to the growth of the evils it aims to alleviate. In a very remarkable article published shortly before the outbreak of the war,[17] he foretold the collapse of European civilization and suggested that the Japanese or Chinese, through the greater importance they attach to the family, might be found more worthy of preëminence.

If the ancestor-worship of the animist can be developed into the descendant-worship of the eugenist, I can see no reason why one should not prognosticate for both of them a rosier future and a more assured continuance than for our European societies, if these latter yield to the pressure of those, whether called individualists, socialists, or militarists, who tempt them to destruction.

The danger to European culture lies, he says, in that “our Hellenistic political philosophy exhibits all the marks of senile dementia and progressive paranoia.”

The evidence goes to show that throughout the most valuable part of the nation, not only in the upper classes but also in the middle classes and in the best parts of the working classes, the birth-rate per marriage has in a generation sunk from four and a half to two, and is now only half the size required to keep up the numbers in those classes. In other words, society is now so ordered that in every generation it sheds one-half of the classes it itself values most highly, and supplies their places with the offspring of the feeble-minded and casuallabourer classes, whose families still average more than seven. What seriously aggravates the evil is the whole trend of social legislation. Social reform costs money, and the money is raised by taxation, which bears very hardly on the middle classes, who cannot curtail luxuries like the rich, and will not lower their standard of comfort. They meet the extra expense, therefore, by further postponing the age of marriage, and further reducing their output of children. One of the chief effects, therefore, of our present methods of improving social conditions is to deteriorate the race. And this in a twofold manner: they eliminate the middle class, and they promote the survival of the unfit and defective.
It is perfectly possible, therefore, to tax the middle classes out of existence. Indeed, it has been done. History exhibits a great object-lesson in the decline of the Roman empire. This appears to have been mainly due to an unscientific system of taxation which crushed the middle class and left no breeding ground for ability and ambition between the millionaire nobles, who had nothing to rise to, and the pauperised masses, who had no chance of rising. Consequently, the empire had to take from without its borders the men it needed to conduct its military and civil administration. The barbarians alone could furnish the men to run the empire, and consequently the barbarians inevitably came to overrun the empire.

The Great War which he could not foresee has immeasurably accelerated the degenerative process which he foretold. The death roll of university students and graduates, representing, however inadequate the examination system, a selected class of young men of superior intellectual ability, is probably higher than in any other class. When I visited Oxford a few years before the war the students were already drilling for the impending conflict and practically all who were eligible enlisted at the first call. Raising an army by appeals to patriotism as was done in England means sending to the front to bear the brunt of battle longest those who are most energetic, self-sacrificing, and intelligent, while the slackers, the incompetent, the weaklings, the selfish, and the dull were left to the last or not taken at all.

Besides this the burden of taxation resting upon the middle classes that Schiller thought unbearable in 1914 has been multiplied and will act as a deterrent to large families more strongly than ever in the future. A Royal Commission has been appointed to consider methods for checking the alarming decline in the birth-rate.

One anti-eugenic agency which Schiller fails to mention but which strikes an outsider as very serious is Labanism. It was formerly the custom to require all Oxford fellows to remain celibate. Later they were allowed to marry after serving seven years, whence the name. Recently this prohibition has been removed, but the antiquated social organization of the colleges acts as a practical deterrent of marriage. So by this elaborate and expensive system of examination, competitions, and promotions—which unfortunately is not so inefficient as its occasional mistakes might lead us to think—the university prevents those whom it deems to have the brightest minds from transmitting their mental endowments to posterity. The devil could not have devised a more ingenious scheme for the promotion of mediocrity. Since Oxford has been in existence for about eight hundred years it must have had a considerable influence on the reduction of British genius.

As Schiller points out, any measures to be eugenically effective must apply to the young. The rewards bestowed upon ability are not only frequently misapplied but they are invariably too long delayed. The youthful genius is too often forced to give up having a family or compelled to support it on faith, hope and charity. To this defect in our civilization Schiller has given the apt name of “social hysteresis.”[18]

In all the professions (except, perhaps, that of the actress) the young are underpaid, and established reputations are overpaid. It would be eugenically preferable to do the opposite. Yet the existing practice is largely due to unintentional stupidity, and failure to discover ability soon enough. Now to the individual this system brings compensation, if he lives long enough, because he continues to be rewarded for work he has done long ago, and even is no longer capable of doing, and is eventually raised to the status of a “grand old man” whom ancient institutions delight to honour, by dint of sheer longevity. But eugenically this social hysteresis, this delay in recompensing merit, has a fatal effect. It renders the capable, ambitious and rising members of the professional classes unduly sterile, owing to compulsory celibacy, postponement of marriage, overwork, etc. Thus a large proportion of the ability which rises to the top of the social ladder lasts only for one generation, and does not permanently benefit the race.

From this passage it will be seen that Schiller does not fall into the common fallacy of unconsciously assuming that the upper classes of our present social system necessarily consist of superior individuals. But he does lay stress upon something often overlooked, that this assumption is more justified as society becomes more democratic:

Precisely in proportion as a society improves the opportunities of the able to rise, it must accelerate the elimination of fitness in the racial stock. So long as a relatively rigid social order rendered it almost impossible for ability to rise from the ranks, reservoirs of ability could accumulate unseen in the lower social strata, and burst forth in times of need, as in the French Revolution: but the more successfully a carriére ouverte aux talents is instituted, the more surely are these strata kept drained, and incapacitated from retrieving the waste of ability in the upper layers of society. Now it is doubtless true that the primary need of society is to find persons capable of conducting its affairs ably, and that a social order which does not allow ability to rise is therefore bad: but nations cannot with impunity so order themselves as to eliminate the very qualities they most admire and desire, and must husband their resources in men as in the other sources of their wealth and welfare.[19]

That is to say, it did not matter much if in former times the nobility did tend to die out in a few generations, for in hereditable ability they were not much above the average. But in the more just regime that we are trying to introduce, especially in America, when the opportunities for higher education and advancement are extended to the gifted of all classes, it will be disastrous if the professional and well-to-do classes fail to contribute their share to the future population, for it means a continuous reversal of the method of the survival of the fittest by which evolution has been accomplished. This is not a law that man can repeal however he may disregard it. So it happens that civilized societies tend to die at the top and the human race makes little or no progress in native ability. As Schiller says:

The inventor of the wheel or even of a new mode of chipping flints may well have been as great a genius as the human race has produced, and it accords well with this that the early paleolithic races seem to have possessed a cranial capacity, not less, but greater than our own. For in the dim red dawn of man the fool-killing apparatus of nature was terribly effective, and society could do little to mitigate its horrors and to protect its inefficient members.

The injustice, and what is more important, the injurious effects of the present distribution of honors and emoluments he exposes in his article on “National Self-Selection”:

Is it not nonsense to say that the Archbishop of Canterbury is paid £15,000 a year and Prof. J. J. Thomson seven or eight hundred, because the persons fitted to perform the latter’s functions are twenty times as common as those suited to the former’s? Is not the real reason plainly that the former is the beneficiary of a long social development which has liberally endowed the Church, while the social appreciation of the value of science is only just beginning, and has not yet raised the makers of new truths to a par with the custodians of time-honoured revelations? Our example, however, draws attention to a very general fact, viz., that the social position of various functions is very largely the product of past valuations which have persisted from mere habit. Hence their present salaries do not really prove that an Archbishop is twenty times as valuable to a nation as a scientific genius, or thrice as precious as a Premier, nor even that men now think so. How many of us, for example, really now believe that mere descent from an illiterate medieval baron attests sufficient merit to entitle a man to a hereditary seat in the House of Lords? If we continued to value fighting qualities as highly as of yore, we should promote our actual fighting men. When we want really to defend the House of Lords, we point to its sagacity in gauging the will of the people and to the economic value of its attractiveness for foreign heiresses.
Hence one of the chief needs of a society which desires to reconstitute itself on eugenical principles is a thorough revision of social status. It must bring the social position of various services into closer agreement with their present value. And it must induce a greater feeling of responsibility about the popular valuations and transvaluations of functions, which are constantly exalting the position of the caterers to individual pleasures above the consolidators of man’s permanent welfare. It is not good for a society that a cricketer or a prizefighter or a dancer should be esteemed and rewarded more highly than the man who discovers a cure for malaria or cancer.[20]

The humanistic view of metaphysics Schiller expresses in the preface to the 1910 edition of his earliest work “Riddles of the Sphinx.”

Practically a system of metaphysics, with whatever pretensions to pure thought and absolute rationality it may start is always in the end one man’s personal vision about the universe, and the “metaphysical craving” often so strong in the young is nothing but the desire to tell the universe what one thinks of it. Of course, the tale may be worth telling if told well.

This describes the “Riddles of the Sphinx” exactly. In it the youthful Schiller tells the universe what he thinks of it and it is told well. But his thoughts have changed in the twenty-five years since this volume was published so that even in its revised form it does not so well express his views as do his later volumes, “Humanism” and “Studies in Humanism”, of which revised editions were brought out in 1912.

The doctrine known as Absolute Idealism was, Schiller explains, imported from Germany, “soon after its demise in its native country”, for the purpose of counteracting the anti-religious developments of science. But the abstract conception of the Absolute is, in his opinion, of no value to religion or anything else. The pragmatic demand for God is, first, as “a human moral principle of help and justice”, and second, as “an aid to the intellectual comprehension of the universe”, but the metaphysical Absolute satisfies neither of these cravings, for it is too impersonal to help anybody and too general to explain anything.

In his chapter on “Absolutism and the Dissociation of Personality”[21] he generously offers his aid to the idealistic monists who have difficulty in conceiving how the One became the Many and why the individualistic minds included in the Universal Mind should be so antagonistic. Schiller suggests that it is an analogous case to the dissociation of that celebrated Boston lady “Miss Beauchamp” into several secondary personalities. But he admits that it is “a little startling at first to think of the Absolute as morbidly dissociated or even as downright mad”, especially since in the case of the Absolute there is no outsider, like Doctor Morton Prince, to put the parts together again.

Many years before he had said[22]

The conception of a Deity absorbed in perfect, unchanging and eternal bliss is a blasphemy upon the Divine energy which might be permitted to the heathen ignorance of Aristotle, but which should be abhorred by all who have learnt the lesson of the Crucifixion. A theology which denies that the imperfection of the world must be reflected in the sorrows of the Deity simply shows itself blind to the deepest and truest meaning of the figure of Him that was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” and deaf to the gospel of Divine sympathy with the world. Thus the world-process is the process of the redemption alike of God, of the world and of our own selves.

The conception of a struggling and self-developing God which Schiller adduced from Christian principles is remarkably like that to which Bergson was led by other lines of reasoning.[23]

The value of the pragmatic method to religion is discussed by Schiller in his article on “Faith, Reason and Religion”,[24] where he shows that even the most rigorous scientific reasoning involves the element of faith, and on the other hand that faith is devoid of value unless it is verified in the only way by which anything can be verified, that is, by works. He says:

Christianity is an essentially human and thoroughly pragmatic religion, hampered throughout its history and at times almost strangled by an alien theology, based upon the intellectualistic speculations of Greek philosophers. Fortunately the Greek metaphysic embodied (mainly) in the “Athanasian” creed is too obscure to have ever been really functional; its chief mischief has always been to give theological support to “philosophic” criticisms, which by identifying God with “the One” have aimed at eliminating the human elements from the Christian religion. As against all such attempts, however, we must hold fast to the principle that the truest religion is that which issues in and fosters the best life.

The pragmatic criterion of truth, that all truths must work, is not a lax one as its opponents assert but the most stringent that can be applied. It means—“You shall back your beliefs with your acts and shall not assert the truth of whatever suits you without any testing at all.” It eliminates as meaningless all theories that make no difference whether they are believed or disbelieved. It demands constant confirmation of all beliefs by their consequences. It insists upon the unity of theory and practice, of faith and works. This point was plainly put by Schiller in his address before the Pan-Anglican Church Congress of 1908:

For any theory to work, it must be believed in, e.g., believed to be true. It is impossible, e.g., to practice prayer merely as a piece of spiritual hygiene, and in order to get the strengthening which is said to result from the practice. The practice need not, of course, start with a firm belief in the reality of its object. But unless it engenders a real belief, it will become inefficacious. Hence, to conceive of Pragmatism as ultimately sanctioning an “act-as-if” attitude of religious make-believe is a misapprehension; it is to confound it with the discredited and ineffectual dualism of Kant’s antithesis of practical and theoretic “reason.” Lastly, it should be noted that any theory which works must evoke some response from the objective nature of things. If there were no “God”, i.e., nothing that could afford any satisfaction to any religious emotion, the whole religious attitude would be futile. If it is not, it must contain essential truth, though it may remain to be determined what is the objective fact corresponding to the postulate.

How to Read Schiller

“Humanism” (1903, new edition 1912) and “Studies in Humanism” (1907, new edition 1912) are both collections of papers presenting various phases of Schiller’s philosophy. Either one may serve as an introduction to the author. “Riddles of the Sphinx” (1891), though also revised (1910), represents an earlier mode of thought. “Formal Logic” (1912) is too technical for any but well prepared students. All Schiller’s works are published by The Macmillan Company.

The reader who loves a fight and does not faint at the sight of inkshed will find what he wants in almost any volume of the Oxford Mind or the Columbia Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods. Where the conflict rages most fiercely there Schiller will be seen in the midst of the combatants, thrusting in all directions at the weak points in their armor. To enumerate all of his controversial and fugitive writings would be impossible here, but the following articles at least must be mentioned:

“Do Men Desire Immortality?” (Fortnightly, vol. 76, p. 430).

“The Desire for a Future Life” (Independent, September 15, 1904).

“Psychical Research” (Fortnightly, vol. 83, p. 60).

Presidential Address (Proceedings Society for Psychical Research, 1914-1915).

Miss Beauchamp (Journal Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, vol. 4, p. 20; and Mind, No. 70, p. 183).

“The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche” (Quarterly Review, 1913).

“Choice” and “Infallibility” (Hibbert Journal, 1909).

“Plato” (Quarterly Review, vol. 204, p. 62).

“Pluralism” (Proceedings of Aristotelian Society, 1908-1909).

“The Rational Conception of Truth” (Proceedings Aristotelian Society, 1906).

“Oxford of the Workingman” (Fortnightly, February, 1913).

“Cosmopolitan Oxford” (Fortnightly, May, 1902).

“War Prophecies” (Journal Society Psychical Research, June, 1916).

“Criticism of Perry’s Realism” (Mind, 1914).

Discussions of pragmatism (Mind, 1913, 1915).

”New Developments of Mr. Bradley’s Philosophy” (Mind, 1915).

“Present Phase of Idealistic Philosophy” (Mind, January and October, 1910).

“Realism, Pragmatism, and William James” (Mind, 1915).

“The Humanism of Protagoras” (Mind, April, 1911).

“Logic versus Life” (Independent, vol. 73, p. 375).

“Aristotle’s Refutation of the Aristotelian Logic” (Mind, vol. 23, pp. I, 395, 558).

“The Working of Truths and Their Criterion” (Mind, vol. 22, No. 88).

“Error” (IV Congresso internazionale di filosofia, Bologna, 1911).

“Relevance” (Mind, vol. 21, No. 82).

“The Working of Truths” (Mind, vol. 21, No. 84).

“National Self-Selection” (Eugenics Review, April, 1910).

“Our Critic Criticized” (Eugenics Review, January, 1914)

Criticism of Schiller and other pragmatists may be found in the controversies referred to, but I may also add the following references:

“Vital Lies” by Vernon Lee (John Lane Company, 1913).

“Pragmatism” (Quarterly Review, April, 1909).

“British Exponents of Pragmatism” by Professor M’Gilvary (Hibbert Journal, April, 1908).

“Der Pragmatismus von James und Schiller,” by Doctor Werner Bloch (1913).


  1. Schiller says that “Professor Santayana, though a pragmatist in epistemology is a materialist in metaphysics.”
  2. The Philosophy of Wang Yang-ming is now accessible in English, through the translation of Doctor Henke (Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, 1916).
  3. “Major Prophets of To-day,” First Series, 1914. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston.
  4. Of course any one who wants to find out at first hand what pragmatism is will not bother with what I say but will turn to William James’s “Pragmatism” or invest fifty cents in the briefer and more comprehensive survey of the movement in D. L. Murray’s primer of “Pragmatism.” A definition of pragmatism that is anything but monosyllabic may be found in the chapter on Dewey. The story is told of a college woman who was asked what Professor James’s lecture on pragmatism was going to be about and replied that she thought it had something to do with the royal succession in Austria. Schiller’s own definition is to be found in his “Studies in Humanism:”
    Pragmatism is the doctrine (1) that truths are logical values; (2) that the “truth” of an assertion depends on its application; (3) that the meaning of a rule lies in its application; (4) that ultimately all meaning depends on purpose; (5) that all mental life is purposive. Pragmatism is (6) a systematic protest against all ignoring of the purposiveness of actual knowing, and it is (7) a conscious application to epistemology (or logic) of a teleological psychology, which implies, ultimately, a voluntaristic metaphysic.
  5. Address on “Error” before the Congresso Internazionale di Filosofia, Bologna, 1911.
  6. I find the following incident reported of a Boston school which would indicate that the philosophy of William James is influencing the younger generation in his home city:
    “Well, Waldo,” said the professor of geometry, “can you prove any of to-day’s theorems?”
    “No, sir, I’m afraid I can’t,” said Waldo hopefully; “but I can render several of them highly probable.”
  7. “Studies in Humanism.”
  8. “Realism, Pragmatism and William James.” Mind, 1915.
  9. Mind, vol. 22, p. 534, 1913.
  10. “Essays on Truth and Reality” by F. H. Bradley. See Schiller’s “New Developments of Mr. Bradley’s Philosophy” in Mind, 1915.
  11. See “Protagoras the Humanist”, and “Gods and Priests” in “Studies in Humanism”, and “Useless Knowledge” and “Plato or Protagoras” in “Humanism.”
  12. The Independent. Schiller’s “Formal Logic” gave rise to much controversy. See for instance Mind, vol. 23, p. I, 398, 558. One critic called it “a sympathetic appreciation of all known logical fallacies.”
  13. “Logic versus Life” in The Independent, vol. 73, p. 375.
  14. The latter part of “Humanism” and of “Riddles of the Sphinx” is devoted to this topic. Schiller succeeded Bergson as President of the Society for Psychical Research in 1914.
  15. See Schiller’s article on this in The Independent of September 15, 1904, or in Fortnightly Review, vol. 76, p. 430.
  16. Quarterly Review, 1913.
  17. “Eugenics and Politics” in The Hibbert Journal, January, 1914.
  18. “Practical Eugenics in Education.”
  19. “Practical Eugenics in Education.”
  20. Eugenics Review, April, 1910.
  21. In “Studies in Humanism.”
  22. “Riddles of the Sphinx,” p. 431.
  23. See “Creative Evolution” and Chapter II of “Major Prophets of To-day”; also Wells and Shaw in this volume.
  24. In “Studies in Humanism” and Hibbert Journal, January, 1906. See also “Science and Religion” in “Riddles of the Sphinx”, new edition.