NL XVIII: “Theoretical Reason”

Index to this series

Reason is primarily practical: it explains why we do what we do. Secondarily, reason explains why others do what they do (18. 1): this makes reason theoretical, though not entirely so, since questions about others arise from, and are answered by, our relations with those others (18. 11). The experimental method involves such relations: we do something to the world, to see how it will respond (18. 12).

18. 13. Is there nowhere such a thing as ‘purely theoretical thinking’? There is; but it is not real thinking, and it does not lead to real knowing. It is the thing called academic thinking or make-believe thinking, to which reference has already been made. Real thinking is always to some extent experimental in its method; it always starts from practice and returns to practice; for it is based on ‘interest’ in the thing thought about; that is, on a practical concern with it.

Collingwood usually seems to make his references precise; but not here. His reference now is to Chapter II, “The Relation Between Body and Mind,” where universities are ridiculed for engaging in “the make-believe inquiry into the make-believe problem of ‘the relation between body and mind’&.” The real inquiry is into “the relation between the sciences of body, or natural sciences, and the sciences of mind” (2. 49).

Academic thinking has its value, as does make-believe for children and the young of all species; it helps prepare us for the dangers of real life (2. 52), in a world “inhabited by Sphinxes” (2. 54). However, we are now inquiring into the relation between the natural sciences and the mental sciences. We tend to think about nature the way we think about ourselves:

18.2. The questions about a thing wherein the thinker has an interest will be different kinds of questions according to differences in this interest. A man will have a different theoretical attitude towards things other than himself according as his practical attitude towards them is different; and his practical attitude towards them will be different according to differences in his attitude towards his own actions.

In Chapter XIV, concerning reason in general, our tendency to anthropomorphize the world was used as a reason to assert that reason is primarily practical. However, anthropomorphism in science is actually impractical, as Collingwood says implicitly:

14. 61. We cannot help thinking anthropomorphically; but we are provided with a remedy: our own laughter at the ridiculous figure we cut, incorrigibly anthropomorphic thinkers inhabiting a world where anthropomorphic thinking is a misfit.

It would seem to me that natural science has advanced since ancient times, precisely by avoiding anthropomorphism. But by Collingwood’s account, what natural science has done is to change its form of anthropomorphism, from a utilitarian or teleological (18. 33) account of nature, as given by the ancient Greeks (18. 31), to the current regularian account, influenced by Roman law and Jewish religion (18. 42). We can now expect nature to behave according to laws, such as Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, or the gas laws, only because we have been trained to think that “the business of man was not to achieve ends but to obey laws” (18. 42).

As I recalled when taking up choice, in Chapter I, “Body and Mind,” Collingwood warned of the danger of scientific persecution: persecution of scientists for doing science. This can occur when non-scientists discover that the science they learned in school is no longer being done:

1. 59. A given science, in its progress down to the year y1, has reached certain conclusions which we will call c1. Later, in the year y2, it has demolished these and arrived at the conclusion c2. At the time y2 religious or political authorities who learned the doctrine c1 at school and have never learned anything else (or perhaps never even in their youth learned what scientists were then teaching, but only something which had been taught long ago) learn to their horror that scientists are now teaching the doctrine c2.

1. 6. Their loyalty to the long-dead scientists who taught them to believe in c1 boils over, and they call upon all the powers of Church and State to suppress this new doctrine c2, whose only fault is that while it was growing up they were asleep. Their persecution succeeds, as John Stuart Mill long ago remarked that persecution generally does; and who is the gainer? The scientists who taught c1? But they are dead. The gainer is their obsolete doctrine.

Though I have worked at universities for 27 years, this has been only in mathematics departments. I am not qualified to say definitively that science is still what was, to Collingwood, “modern science”: “a structure of thought whose armature is the idea of a ‘Law of Nature’ ” (18. 44). However, I don’t suppose science has changed so as to reduce the accuracy of Collingwood’s description—however accurate it is:

18. 45. Like Greco-Medieval science, [modern science] is not wholly rational; its explanations always make considerable demands on irrationality or caprice, which it calls ‘brute fact’, a conception whose position in modern science is due to the imperfectly rational character of its regularian explanations; but is rational in the sense that it is logically derived from a regularian or legalistic view of human life; whatever defects it may have as a view of the natural world are inevitable, incorrigible under terms of its foundation charter, arising from and corresponding to similar defects in the regularian conception of human activity, the form of practical reason from which it is derived.

Science continues to be regularian, as far as I know. I don’t know what demands it makes on “irrationality and caprice,” unless Collingwood is alluding to the probabilistic nature of the laws of quantum mechanics.

In considering duty, I suggested that the determinacy required of it by Collingwood is not necessarily ascribed to it in ordinary use. It makes sense that my duty is mine alone, in the sense that I cannot blame anybody else for not doing it. But then Collingwood says,

17.53. Secondly, any duty is a duty to do ‘this’ act and only ‘this’, not ‘an act of this kind’. The relation between x and y is a one-one relation.

When one talks about duties, one is going to speak in general terms: “My duties include answering students’ questions,” or “We all have a duty to be kind to one another.” One may say that these duties are not quite rules, since there is no mechanical way to tell whether they have been followed. University administrations may try to turn our duty towards students into a mechanical rule, by having students fill out evaluation forms.

Using Newton’s laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation, as modified by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, one can apparently compute the position of a planet at a given time, as accurately as desired. Rough calculations need only Newton’s laws, applied only to the sun and the planet; greater accuracy requires consideration of the other planets, along with relativity. Absolute accuracy would require consideration of everything else in the universe.

We might think similarly that we ought to behave according to certain laws with respect to everybody else in the world. Collingwood’s sense, which I share, is that this is not the best way to think about it. What we ought to do, in the end, is not simply to follow laws, but to do our duty. This is tautological (17. 16), but it serves as a reminder that formal laws may be unjust, and one’s duty may be to disobey them.

Collingwood introduces his symbolism for duty by saying,

17. 4. The formula for an act of duty is y (D) x, read: ‘I choose to do x because it is my duty.’ As before, there are two decisions, a y-decision and an x-decision, the former the ground of the latter.

I say Collingwood introduces his symbolism thus; but he never uses it again. One may likewise introduce a rule, to explain what one is doing at the moment (16. 37), but without ever using the rule again. Duty is also supposed to explain what one is doing; but duty is supposed to explain precisely what one is doing. The rule made for the nonce explains one’s activity in general terms, even if no other such activity is contemplated.

When Collingwood expands the formula y (D) x in words, he leaves out y. I do not know whether this is an oversight. Etymologically, one has a duty because one has incurred a debt. Thus it would seem that x is the discharging of a debt, the incurring of which is y. But in Chapter XVII, as far as I can tell, Collingwood uses the letters x and y in this context in only two other places: ¶17. 53, quoted above, and ¶17. 41, where he says, “In this special case of the general formula yx, I will not waste time over general features. The reader can without difficulty work them out for himself.”

An instance of the formula y (D) x might be, “Because I robbed a bank, I have to serve time in prison.” This would not be a complete account of what the speaker is doing. The complete account is supposed to be, “I am doing my duty.” This is not exactly an explanation though; it is a challenge. Am I in fact doing my duty to everybody in the world (including myself)?

This question is superficially like asking for the gravitational effects on Mars by its moons, the Earth, the Earth’s moon, the Sun, and every other object in the universe. But Collingwood has said that our way of thinking about nature comes from our way of thinking about ourselves, and not the other way around. Is this an observation or a rule?

In considering desire, I looked ahead to where we are now, in Chapter XVIII:

18. 5. The idea of obligation or duty, as we have seen, had its practical origin in the time, let us say, of Hammurabi; ground to a finer edge, it was the work of the Roman jurists. To an impatient eye, obsessed by the slower tempo of events nearer in time to ourselves, its history since then may seem to consist mainly in confusion with the ideas of utility and right. But a process of disentanglement has been at work. To follow this process is to follow the rise of history.

What he means is not simply that to study the disentanglement of duty from utility and right is to do history. As the disentanglement proceeded historically, so history itself, as a field of study, rose to the level of a science, because our way of thinking about nature and the world comes from our way of thinking about ourselves. Just as one needs a conception of Jewish law and Roman law, or at least something like these, in order to do modern science, so one needs a conception of duty in order to do history proper.

18. 52. The consciousness of duty means thinking of myself as an individual or unique agent, in an individual or unique situation, doing the individual or unique action which I have to do because it is the only one I can. To think historically is to explore a world consisting of things other than myself, each of them an individual or unique agent, in an individual or unique situation, doing an individual or unique action which he has to do because, charactered and circumstanced as he is, he can do no other.

Modern natural science continues, because we retain the notion of right (18. 6), by the Law of Primitive Survivals. It is not clear why the natural world should not be approached anew, with the notion of duty. Possibly it is being approached this way now, through the idea of animal rights, or even the Gaia hypothesis. In his first book, Religion and Philosophy, Collingwood seemed prepared to take such a step, when he drew the conclusions that “all events are volitions” and “the mechanically controlled ‘order of nature’ is non-existent.” I quoted him when considering Chapter XVI, “Right.” He concludes Religion and Philosophy with what might seem a warning about science, at least as it has been done:

If materialism only means the mood in which we have tired of the infinity and intimacy of the real, and lapse wearily into a ghost-land of our own, peopled by abstractions which we can command if we cannot enjoy them, the only hope is in some sudden inrush of life, something to startle us into consciousness once more and to scatter the ghosts by the blaze of its own light. This is the function of those events which we call, par excellence, Miracles; they force themselves upon our eyes as a standing testimony to the deadness and falsity of our materialistic dogmas, and compel us to face reality as it is, free, infinite, self-creative in unpredicted ways. But the very meaning and purpose of miracle is lost if we regard it as unique and exclusive; if we set up for our superstitious worship, side by side with the true God, an idol of man’s making, adored under the name of Nature.

The disdain for abstraction suggests that Collingwood could not enjoy mathematics. He does not reject study of the natural world; in fact his first book seems more enthusiastic about natural science than New Leviathan, in the conclusion of Chapter XVIII:

18. 9. What is new about the situation of Nature relatively to our twentieth-century consciousness is not that it is an abstraction, an object of scientific study as abstractions have to be and not of immediate awareness, but that it is an abstraction one order higher than it was. It is not the primary object of scientific study; that description for us applies only to the world of human affairs.

18. 91. The object of scientific study, for a man who has taken his part in the progress of human thought down to the present time, is history. The world of Nature, first the law-abiding Nature of modern science and secondly the end-seeking Nature of Greco-Medieval science, is as real as you will; but it is not history, it is the background of history.

18. 92. It is in the world of history, not in the world of Nature, that man finds the central problems he has to solve. For twentieth-century thought the problems of history are the central problems: those of Nature, however interesting they may be, are only peripheral.

Our central problems may not lie in an end-seeking or a law-abiding Nature; but what about a dutiful Nature, even a Nature that we have a duty towards?

On the first page of An Autobiography, Collingwood recalls,

It was [my father’s] doing that I began Latin at four and Greek at six; but my own that I began, about the same time, to read everything I could find about the natural sciences, especially geology, astronomy, and physics; to recognize rocks, to know the stars, and to understand the working of pumps and locks and other mechanical appliances up and down the house.

Collingwood wrote Religion and Philosophy during the First World War. In An Autobiography he says of this,

The War was an unprecedented triumph for natural science…This triumph paved the way to other triumphs: improvements in transport, in sanitation, in surgery, medicine, and psychiatry, in commerce and industry, and, above all, in preparations for the next war.

But in one way the War was an unprecedented disgrace to the human intellect…nobody has ever supposed that any except at most the tiniest fraction of the combatants wanted it. It happened because a situation got out of hand. As it went on, the situation got more and more out of hand. When the peace treaty was signed, it was more out of hand than ever…

I knew that for sheer ineptitude the Versailles treaty surpassed previous treaties as much as for sheer technical excellence the equipment of twentieth-century armies surpassed those of previous armies. It seemed almost as if man’s power to control ‘Nature’ had been increasing pari passu with a decrease in his power to control human affairs.

In this context, understanding history of greater practical importance than understanding string theory or any other attempt at a so-called theory of everything. However, it would help us a lot if more of us felt a duty to Nature as well as to one another: a duty to treat neither humans nor trees and minerals merely as sources of profit.

This is the end of Part I, “Man,” of New Leviathan. It is also nearly the end of my winter holiday.

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