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Appendix

SCEPTICISM OF THE INSTRUMENT


A Portion of a Paper read to the Oxford Philosophical Society,
November 8, 1903, and reprinted, with some Revision, from the
Version given in Mind, vol. xiii. (N.S.), No. 51.

(See also Chapter I., Section 6, and Chapter X., Sections 1 and 2.)

It seems to me that I may most propitiously attempt to interest you
this evening by describing very briefly the particular metaphysical
and philosophical system in which I do my thinking, and more
particularly by setting out for your consideration one or two points
in which I seem to myself to differ most widely from current
accepted philosophy.

You must be prepared for things that will strike you as crude, for a
certain difference of accent and dialect that you may not like, and
you must be prepared too to hear what may strike you as the clumsy
statement of my ignorant rediscovery of things already beautifully
thought out and said. But in the end you may incline to forgive me
some of this first offence.... It is quite unavoidable that, in
setting out these intellectual foundations of mine, I should lapse
for a moment or so towards autobiography.

A convergence of circumstances led to my having my knowledge of
concrete things quite extensively developed before I came to
philosophical examination at all. I have heard someone say that a
savage or an animal is mentally a purely objective being, and in
that respect I was like a savage or an animal until I was well over
twenty. I was extremely unaware of the subjective or introverted
element in my being. I was a Positivist without knowing it. My early
education was a feeble one; it was one in which my private
observation, inquiry and experiment were far more important factors
than any instruction, or rather perhaps the instruction I received
was less even than what I learnt for myself, and it terminated at
thirteen. I had come into pretty intimate contact with the harder
realities of life, with hunger in various forms, and many base and
disagreeable necessities, before I was fifteen. About that age,
following the indication of certain theological and speculative
curiosities, I began to learn something of what I will call
deliberately and justly, Elementary Science--stuff I got out of
Cassell's Popular Educator and cheap text-books--and then, through
accidents and ambitions that do not matter in the least to us now, I
came to three years of illuminating and good scientific work. The
central fact of those three years was Huxley's course in Comparative
Anatomy at the school in Exhibition Road. About that as a nucleus I
arranged a spacious digest of facts. At the end of that time I had
acquired what I still think to be a fairly clear, and complete and
ordered view of the ostensibly real universe. Let me try to give you
the chief things I had. I had man definitely placed in the great
scheme of space and time. I knew him incurably for what he was,
finite and not final, a being of compromises and adaptations. I had
traced his lungs, for example, from a swimming bladder, step by
step, with scalpel and probe, through a dozen types or more, I had
seen the ancestral caecum shrink to that disease nest, the appendix
of to-day, I had watched the gill slit patched slowly to the
purposes of the ear and the reptile jaw suspension utilised to eke
out the needs of a sense organ taken from its native and natural
water. I had worked out the development of those extraordinarily
unsatisfactory and untrustworthy instruments, man's teeth, from the
skin scutes of the shark to their present function as a basis for
gold stoppings, and followed the slow unfolding of the complex and
painful process of gestation through which man comes into the world.
I had followed all these things and many kindred things by
dissection and in embryology--I had checked the whole theory of
development again in a year's course of palaeontology, and I had
taken the dimensions of the whole process, by the scale of the
stars, in a course of astronomical physics. And all that amount of
objective elucidation came before I had reached the beginnings of
any philosophical or metaphysical inquiry, any inquiry as to why I
believed, how I believed, what I believed, or what the fundamental
stuff of things was.

Now following hard upon this interlude with knowledge, came a time
when I had to give myself to teaching, and it became advisable to
acquire one of those Teaching Diplomas that are so widely and so
foolishly despised, and that enterprise set me to a superficial, but
suggestive study of educational method, of educational theory, of
logic, of psychology, and so at last, when the little affair with
the diploma was settled, to philosophy. Now to come to logic over
the bracing uplands of comparative anatomy is to come to logic with
a lot of very natural preconceptions blown clean out of one's mind.
It is, I submit, a way of taking logic in the flank. When you have
realised to the marrow, that all the physical organs of man and all
his physical structure are what they are through a series of
adaptations and approximations, and that they are kept up to a level
of practical efficiency only by the elimination of death, and that
this is true also of his brain and of his instincts and of many of
his mental predispositions, you are not going to take his thinking
apparatus unquestioningly as being in any way mysteriously different
and better. And I had read only a little logic before I became aware
of implications that I could not agree with, and assumptions that
seemed to me to be altogether at variance with the general scheme of
objective fact established in my mind.

I came to an examination of logical processes and of language with
the expectation that they would share the profoundly provisional
character, the character of irregular limitation and adaptation that
pervades the whole physical and animal being of man. And I found the
thing I had expected. And as a consequence I found a sort of
intellectual hardihood about the assumptions of logic, that at first
confused me and then roused all the latent scepticism in my
mind.

My first quarrel with the accepted logic I developed long ago in a
little paper that was printed in the Fortnightly Review in July
1891. It was called the "Rediscovery of the Unique," and re-reading
it I perceive not only how bad and even annoying it was in manner--a
thing I have long known--but also how remarkably bad it was in
expression. I have good reason for doubting whether my powers of
expression in these uses have very perceptibly improved, but at any
rate I am doing my best now with that previous failure before
me.

That unfortunate paper, among other oversights I can no longer
regard as trivial, disregarded quite completely the fact that a
whole literature upon the antagonism of the one and the many, of the
specific ideal and the individual reality, was already in existence.
It defined no relations to other thought or thinkers. I understand
now, what I did not understand then, why it was totally ignored. But
the idea underlying that paper I cling to to-day. I consider it an
idea that will ultimately be regarded as one of primary importance
to human thought, and I will try and present the substance of that
early paper again now very briefly, as the best opening of my
general case. My opening scepticism is essentially a doubt of the
objective reality of classification. I have no hesitation in saying
that is the first and primary proposition of my philosophy.

I have it in my mind that classification is a necessary condition of
the working of the mental implement, but that it is a departure from
the objective truth of things, that classification is very
serviceable for the practical purposes of life but a very doubtful
preliminary to those fine penetrations the philosophical purpose, in
its more arrogant moods, demands. All the peculiarities of my way of
thinking derive from that.

A mind nourished upon anatomical study is of course permeated with
the suggestion of the vagueness and instability of biological
species. A biological species is quite obviously a great number of
unique individuals which is separable from other biological species
only by the fact that an enormous number of other linking
individuals are inaccessible in time--are in other words dead and
gone--and each new individual in that species does, in the
distinction of its own individuality, break away in however
infinitesimal degree from the previous average properties of the
species. There is no property of any species, even the properties
that constitute the specific definition, that is not a matter of
more or less. If, for example, a species be distinguished by a
single large red spot on the back, you will find if you go over a
great number of specimens that red spot shrinking here to nothing,
expanding there to a more general redness, weakening to pink,
deepening to russet and brown, shading into crimson, and so on, and
so on. And this is true not only of biological species. It is true
of the mineral specimens constituting a mineral species, and I
remember as a constant refrain in the lectures of Prof. Judd upon
rock classification, the words "they pass into one another by
insensible gradations." That is true, I hold, of all things.

You will think perhaps of atoms of the elements as instances of
identically similar things, but these are things not of experience
but of theory, and there is not a phenomenon in chemistry that is
not equally well explained on the supposition that it is merely the
immense quantities of atoms necessarily taken in any experiment that
mask by the operation of the law of averages the fact that each atom
also has its unique quality, its special individual difference. This
idea of uniqueness in all individuals is not only true of the
classifications of material science; it is true, and still more
evidently true, of the species of common thought, it is true of
common terms. Take the word chair. When one says chair, one thinks
vaguely of an average chair. But collect individual instances, think
of armchairs and reading chairs, and dining-room chairs and kitchen
chairs, chairs that pass into benches, chairs that cross the
boundary and become settees, dentists' chairs, thrones, opera
stalls, seats of all sorts, those miraculous fungoid growths that
cumber the floor of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition, and you will
perceive what a lax bundle in fact is this simple straightforward
term. In co-operation with an intelligent joiner I would undertake
to defeat any definition of chair or chairishness that you gave me.
Chairs just as much as individual organisms, just as much as mineral
and rock specimens, are unique things--if you know them well enough
you will find an individual difference even in a set of machine-made
chairs--and it is only because we do not possess minds of unlimited
capacity, because our brain has only a limited number of
pigeon-holes for our correspondence with an unlimited universe of
objective uniques, that we have to delude ourselves into the belief
that there is a chairishness in this species common to and
distinctive of all chairs.

Let me repeat; this is of the very smallest importance in all the
practical affairs of life, or indeed in relation to anything but
philosophy and wide generalisations. But in philosophy it matters
profoundly. If I order two new-laid eggs for breakfast, up come two
unhatched but still unique avian individuals, and the chances are
they serve my rude physiological purpose. I can afford to ignore the
hens' eggs of the past that were not quite so nearly this sort of
thing, and the hens' eggs of the future that will accumulate
modification age by age; I can venture to ignore the rare chance of
an abnormality in chemical composition and of any startling
aberration in my physiological reaction; I can, with a confidence
that is practically perfect, say with unqualified simplicity "two
eggs," but not if my concern is not my morning's breakfast but the
utmost possible truth.

Now let me go on to point out whither this idea of uniqueness tends.
I submit to you that syllogism is based on classification, that
all hard logical reasoning tends to imply and is apt to imply a
confidence in the objective reality of classification. Consequently
in denying that I deny the absolute validity of logic. Classification
and number, which in truth ignore the fine differences of objective
realities, have in the past of human thought been imposed upon
things. Let me for clearness' sake take a liberty here--commit, as
you may perhaps think, an unpardonable insolence. Hindoo thought
and Greek thought alike impress me as being overmuch obsessed by
an objective treatment of certain necessary preliminary conditions
of human thought--number and definition and class and abstract
form. But these things, number, definition, class and abstract
form, I hold, are merely unavoidable conditions of mental
activity--regrettable conditions rather than essential facts. The
forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a
little in taking hold of it.

It was about this difficulty that the mind of Plato played a little
inconclusively all his life. For the most part he tended to regard
the _idea_ as the something behind reality, whereas it seems to me
that the idea is the more proximate and less perfect thing, the
thing by which the mind, by ignoring individual differences,
attempts to comprehend an otherwise unmanageable number of unique
realities.

Let me give you a rough figure of what I am trying to convey in this
first attack upon the philosophical validity of general terms. You
have seen the results of those various methods of black and white
reproduction that involve the use of a rectangular net. You know the
sort of process picture I mean--it used to be employed very
frequently in reproducing photographs. At a little distance you
really seem to have a faithful reproduction of the original picture,
but when you peer closely you find not the unique form and masses of
the original, but a multitude of little rectangles, uniform in shape
and size. The more earnestly you go into the thing, the closer you
look, the more the picture is lost in reticulations. I submit the
world of reasoned inquiry has a very similar relation to the world I
call objectively real. For the rough purposes of every day the
net-work picture will do, but the finer your purpose the less it
will serve, and for an ideally fine purpose, for absolute and
general knowledge that will be as true for a man at a distance with
a telescope as for a man with a microscope it will not serve at
all.

It is true you can make your net of logical interpretation finer and
finer, you can fine your classification more and more--up to a
certain limit. But essentially you are working in limits, and as you
come closer, as you look at finer and subtler things, as you leave
the practical purpose for which the method exists, the element of
error increases. Every species is vague, every term goes cloudy at
its edges, and so in my way of thinking, relentless logic is only
another phrase for a stupidity,--for a sort of intellectual
pigheadedness. If you push a philosophical or metaphysical inquiry
through a series of valid syllogisms--never committing any generally
recognised fallacy--you nevertheless leave a certain rubbing and
marginal loss of objective truth and you get deflections that are
difficult to trace, at each phase in the process. Every species
waggles about in its definition, every tool is a little loose in its
handle, every scale has its individual error. So long as you are
reasoning for practical purposes about the finite things of
experience, you can every now and then check your process, and
correct your adjustments. But not when you make what are called
philosophical and theological inquiries, when you turn your
implement towards the final absolute truth of things. Doing that is
like firing at an inaccessible, unmarkable and indestructible target
at an unknown distance, with a defective rifle and variable
cartridges. Even if by chance you hit, you cannot know that you hit,
and so it will matter nothing at all.

This assertion of the necessary untrustworthiness of all reasoning
processes arising out of the fallacy of classification in what is
quite conceivably a universe of uniques, forms only one introductory
aspect of my general scepticism of the Instrument of Thought.

I have now to tell you of another aspect of this scepticism of the
instrument which concerns negative terms.

Classes in logic are not only represented by circles with a hard
firm outline, whereas they have no such definite limits, but also
there is a constant disposition to think of negative terms as if
they represented positive classes. With words just as with numbers
and abstract forms there are definite phases of human development.
There is, you know, with regard to number, the phase when man can
barely count at all, or counts in perfect good faith and sanity upon
his fingers. Then there is the phase when he is struggling with the
development of number, when he begins to elaborate all sorts of
ideas about numbers, until at last he develops complex superstitions
about perfect numbers and imperfect numbers, about threes and sevens
and the like. The same is the case with abstracted forms, and even
to-day we are scarcely more than heads out of the vast subtle muddle
of thinking about spheres and ideally perfect forms and so on, that
was the price of this little necessary step to clear thinking. You
know better than I do how large a part numerical and geometrical
magic, numerical and geometrical philosophy has played in the
history of the mind. And the whole apparatus of language and mental
communication is beset with like dangers. The language of the savage
is, I suppose, purely positive; the thing has a name, the name has a
thing. This indeed is the tradition of language, and to-day even,
we, when we hear a name, are predisposed--and sometimes it is a very
vicious disposition--to imagine forthwith something answering to the
name. We are disposed, as an incurable mental vice, to accumulate
intension in terms. If I say to you Wodget or Crump, you find
yourself passing over the fact that these are nothings, these are,
so to speak, mere blankety blanks, and trying to think what sort of
thing a Wodget or a Crump may be. And where this disposition has
come in, in its most alluring guise, is in the case of negative
terms. Our instrument of knowledge persists in handling even such
openly negative terms as the Absolute, the Infinite, as though they
were real existences, and when the negative element is ever so
little disguised, as it is in such a word as Omniscience, then the
illusion of positive reality may be complete.

Please remember that I am trying to tell you my philosophy, and not
arguing about yours. Let me try and express how in my mind this
matter of negative terms has shaped itself. I think of something
which I may perhaps best describe as being off the stage or out of
court, or as the Void without Implications, or as Nothingness or as
Outer Darkness. This is a sort of hypothetical Beyond to the visible
world of human thought, and thither I think all negative terms reach
at last, and merge and become nothing. Whatever positive class you
make, whatever boundary you draw, straight away from that boundary
begins the corresponding negative class and passes into the
illimitable horizon of nothingness. You talk of pink things, you
ignore, if you are a trained logician, the more elusive shades of
pink, and draw your line. Beyond is the not pink, known and
knowable, and still in the not pink region one comes to the Outer
Darkness. Not blue, not happy, not iron, all the not classes meet in
that Outer Darkness. That same Outer Darkness and nothingness is
infinite space, and infinite time, and any being of infinite
qualities, and all that region I rule out of court in my philosophy
altogether. I will neither affirm nor deny if I can help it about
any not things. I will not deal with not things at all, except by
accident and inadvertence. If I use the word 'infinite' I use it as
one often uses 'countless,' "the countless hosts of the enemy"--or
'immeasurable'--"immeasurable cliffs"--that is to say as the limit
of measurement rather than as the limit of imaginary measurability,
as a convenient equivalent to as many times this cloth yard as you
can, and as many again and so on and so on. Now a great number of
apparently positive terms are, or have become, practically negative
terms and are under the same ban with me. A considerable number of
terms that have played a great part in the world of thought, seem to
me to be invalidated by this same defect, to have no content or an
undefined content or an unjustifiable content. For example, that
word Omniscient, as implying infinite knowledge, impresses me as
being a word with a delusive air of being solid and full, when it is
really hollow with no content whatever. I am persuaded that knowing
is the relation of a conscious being to something not itself, that
the thing known is defined as a system of parts and aspects and
relationships, that knowledge is comprehension, and so that only
finite things can know or be known. When you talk of a being of
infinite extension and infinite duration, omniscient and omnipotent
and Perfect, you seem to me to be talking in negatives of nothing
whatever. When you speak of the Absolute you speak to me of nothing.
If however you talk of a great yet finite and thinkable being, a
being not myself, extending beyond my imagination in time and space,
knowing all that I can think of as known and capable of doing all
that I can think of as done, you come into the sphere of my mental
operations, and into the scheme of my philosophy....

These then are my first two charges against our Instrument of
Knowledge, firstly, that it can work only by disregarding
individuality and treating uniques as identically similar objects in
this respect or that, so as to group them under one term, and that
once it has done so it tends automatically to intensify the
significance of that term, and secondly, that it can only deal
freely with negative terms by treating them as though they were
positive. But I have a further objection to the Instrument of Human
Thought, that is not correlated to these former objections and that
is also rather more difficult to convey.

Essentially this idea is to present a sort of stratification in
human ideas. I have it very much in mind that various terms in our
reasoning lie, as it were, at different levels and in different
planes, and that we accomplish a large amount of error and confusion
by reasoning terms together that do not lie or nearly lie in the
same plane.

Let me endeavour to make myself a little less obscure by a most
flagrant instance from physical things. Suppose some one began to
talk seriously of a man seeing an atom through a microscope, or
better perhaps of cutting one in half with a knife. There are a
number of non-analytical people who would be quite prepared to
believe that an atom could be visible to the eye or cut in this
manner. But any one at all conversant with physical conceptions
would almost as soon think of killing the square root of 2 with a
rook rifle as of cutting an atom in half with a knife. Our
conception of an atom is reached through a process of hypothesis and
analysis, and in the world of atoms there are no knives and no
men to cut. If you have thought with a strong consistent mental
movement, then when you have thought of your atom under the knife
blade, your knife blade has itself become a cloud of swinging
grouped atoms, and your microscope lens a little universe of
oscillatory and vibratory molecules. If you think of the universe,
thinking at the level of atoms, there is neither knife to cut, scale
to weigh nor eye to see. The universe at that plane to which the
mind of the molecular physicist descends has none of the shapes or
forms of our common life whatever. This hand with which I write is
in the universe of molecular physics a cloud of warring atoms and
molecules, combining and recombining, colliding, rotating, flying
hither and thither in the universal atmosphere of ether.

You see, I hope, what I mean, when I say that the universe of
molecular physics is at a different level from the universe of
common experience;--what we call stable and solid is in that world a
freely moving system of interlacing centres of force, what we call
colour and sound is there no more than this length of vibration or
that. We have reached to a conception of that universe of molecular
physics by a great enterprise of organised analysis, and our
universe of daily experiences stands in relation to that elemental
world as if it were a synthesis of those elemental things.

I would suggest to you that this is only a very extreme instance of
the general state of affairs, that there may be finer and subtler
differences of level between one term and another, and that terms
may very well be thought of as lying obliquely and as being twisted
through different levels.

It will perhaps give a clearer idea of what I am seeking to convey
if I suggest a concrete image for the whole world of a man's thought
and knowledge. Imagine a large clear jelly, in which at all angles
and in all states of simplicity or contortion his ideas are
imbedded. They are all valid and possible ideas as they lie, none in
reality incompatible with any. If you imagine the direction of up or
down in this clear jelly being as it were the direction in which one
moves by analysis or by synthesis, if you go down for example from
matter to atoms and centres of force and up to men and states and
countries--if you will imagine the ideas lying in that manner--you
will get the beginning of my intention. But our Instrument, our
process of thinking, like a drawing before the discovery of
perspective, appears to have difficulties with the third dimension,
appears capable only of dealing with or reasoning about ideas by
projecting them upon the same plane. It will be obvious that a great
multitude of things may very well exist together in a solid jelly,
which would be overlapping and incompatible and mutually
destructive, when projected together upon one plane. Through the
bias in our Instrument to do this, through reasoning between terms
not in the same plane, an enormous amount of confusion, perplexity
and mental deadlocking occurs.

The old theological deadlock between predestination and free-will
serves admirably as an example of the sort of deadlock I mean. Take
life at the level of common sensation and common experience and
there is no more indisputable fact than man's freedom of will,
unless it is his complete moral responsibility. But make only the
least penetrating of analyses and you perceive a world of inevitable
consequences, a rigid succession of cause and effect. Insist upon a
flat agreement between the two, and there you are! The Instrument
fails.

It is upon these three objections, and upon an extreme suspicion of
abstract terms which arises materially out of my first and second
objections, that I chiefly rest my case for a profound scepticism of
the remoter possibilities of the Instrument of Thought. It is a
thing no more perfect than the human eye or the human ear, though
like those other instruments it may have undefined possibilities of
evolution towards increased range, and increased power.

So much for my main contention. But before I conclude I may--since I
am here--say a little more in the autobiographical vein, and with
a view to your discussion to show how I reconcile this fundamental
scepticism with the very positive beliefs about world-wide issues I
possess, and the very definite distinction I make between right and
wrong.

I reconcile these things by simply pointing out to you that if there
is any validity in my image of that three dimensional jelly in which
our ideas are suspended, such a reconciliation as you demand in
logic, such a projection of the things as in accordance upon one
plane, is totally unnecessary and impossible.

This insistence upon the element of uniqueness in being, this
subordination of the class to the individual difference, not only
destroys the universal claim of philosophy, but the universal claim
of ethical imperatives, the universal claim of any religious
teaching. If you press me back upon my fundamental position I must
confess I put faith and standards and rules of conduct upon exactly
the same level as I put my belief of what is right in art, and what
I consider right practice in art. I have arrived at a certain sort
of self-knowledge and there are, I find, very distinct imperatives
for me, but I am quite prepared to admit there is no proving them
imperative on any one else. One's political proceedings, one's moral
acts are, I hold, just as much self-expression as one's poetry or
painting or music. But since life has for its primordial elements
assimilation and aggression, I try not only to obey my imperatives,
but to put them persuasively and convincingly into other minds, to
bring about _my_ good and to resist and overcome _my_ evil as though
they were the universal Good and the universal Evil in which
unthinking men believe. And it is obviously in no way contradictory
to this philosophy, for me, if I find others responding
sympathetically to any notes of mine or if I find myself responding
sympathetically to notes sounding about me, to give that common
resemblance between myself and others a name, to refer these others
and myself in common to this thing as if it were externalised and
spanned us all.

Scepticism of the Instrument is for example not incompatible with
religious association and with organisation upon the basis of a
common faith. It is possible to regard God as a Being synthetic in
relation to men and societies, just as the idea of a universe of
atoms and molecules and inorganic relationships is analytical in
relation to human life.

The repudiation of demonstration in any but immediate and verifiable
cases that this Scepticism of the Instrument amounts to, the
abandonment of any universal validity for moral and religious
propositions, brings ethical, social and religious teaching into the
province of poetry, and does something to correct the estrangement
between knowledge and beauty that is a feature of so much mental
existence at this time. All these things are self-expression. Such
an opinion sets a new and greater value on that penetrating and
illuminating quality of mind we call insight, insight which when it
faces towards the contradictions that arise out of the imperfections
of the mental instrument is called humour. In these innate,
unteachable qualities I hold--in humour and the sense of
beauty--lies such hope of intellectual salvation from the original
sin of our intellectual instrument as we may entertain in this
uncertain and fluctuating world of unique appearances....

So frankly I spread my little equipment of fundamental assumptions
before you, heartily glad of the opportunity you have given me of
taking them out, of looking at them with the particularity the
presence of hearers ensures, and of hearing the impression they make
upon you. Of course, such a sketch must have an inevitable crudity
of effect. The time I had for it--I mean the time I was able to give
in preparation--was altogether too limited for any exhaustive finish
of presentation; but I think on the whole I have got the main lines
of this sketch map of my mental basis true. Whether I have made
myself comprehensible is a different question altogether. It is for
you rather than me to say how this sketch map of mine lies with
regard to your own more systematic cartography....

Here followed certain comments upon Personal Idealism, and Mr. F. C.
S. Schiller's Humanism, of no particular value.

H.G. Wells

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