Saturday, 20 June 2015

A Broken Fairy Tale

A writer of genius borrows the mind of a social scientist. We watch with incredulity as a rich heiress buys her knickers at Primark.

It is the greatest of renunciations: the particularities of art willingly sacrificed to the generalisations of a “science” that elevates common-place banalities to the profoundest wisdom; the obvious validated (or disguised) by incontrovertible facts and numerous statistics.  Shifting our field of vision to bring this one into clearer focus we think of a photo-magazine with the name Parerga and Paralipomena.1

We are lucky. He persists in writing well. Tolstoy refusing to take a house in Nograjski, a Moscow suburb where it is only the locals who can read the road signs.  We visit, ask for directions; ask for the newsagents; and are directed to the Forum of Dialectical Consumption.  More questions. You want clarification? We are told the history of news and the media more generally; we gather it is little more than sweets; you have a name for it, yes? Gobstoppers. We protest that they have misunderstood; after all, we do not speak the language well… But no, they assure us, we’ll find what we’re looking for; they are in those big old-fashioned glass jars. They leave us, and we walk on; curious to find these shops that look like gigantic vacuum flasks; row upon row, shelf upon shelf. There is a suspicion of a joke; but they looked so serious; and we felt ashamed when trying out that little irony. Strange creatures social scientists. Will we ever understand them?

The dead man lay, as dead men always do lie, in a peculiarly heavy, dead way, his stiffened limbs sunk in the padding of the coffin, with the head bent back forever on the pillow…

This reference to universal phenomena is a leitmotif that runs throughout the novella; the author, preoccupied with general truths, removing the hero’s individuality and turning him into a type; a representative of what he calls the New Men; a generation of professionals who were taking over the country’s institutions at the time this book was written.2 The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an excellent sociological text, which contains moments of particular life – the mourner struggling with a pouffe as he talks to the widow, is especially resonant -; but such specificities, let us call them the eccentricities of contingent life, are not the purpose of this story; it exists to criticise one kind of existence: that of the successful careerist.  

Our scientist describes the symptoms: a too clear separation between home and work; an indifference to anyone outside one’s own circle; a calm professionalism that only considers facts relevant to the job; in Ilyich’s case these are the facts of the law. This is not a place for sentimentality. But: even hedgehogs have their soft underside. These characters cannot be aloof from their colleagues; success requires a good reputation inside the bureaucracies and the professional associations, and this depends upon maintaining friendly relations with one’s social equals; parties, public events and collective rituals all dominate these officials’ lives. To succeed one must be like everyone else in the same class.3 We must all meld into the collegiate crowd. Tolstoy exposes this conformism with a terrible irony.

In reality it was just what is commonly seen in the houses of people who are not exactly wealthy but who want to look like wealthy people, and so succeed only in looking like all the others of their kind: there were damasks, ebony, plants, rugs and bronzes, everything sombre and highly polished – all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class.  And in his case it was all so alike that it made no impression at all; but to him it all seemed to be something special.  When he met his family at the railway-station and brought them to the newly decorated apartments, all lighted up in readiness, and a footman in white tie opened the door into the hall which was arranged with flowers, and then they walked into the drawing room and the study, uttering cries of delight, he was very happy, conducting them everywhere and drinking in their praises eagerly, beaming with pleasure.  At tea that evening when Praskovya Fiodorovna among other things asked about his fall he laughed and showed them how he had gone flying and how he had frightened the upholsterer. 

‘It’s a good thing I’m a bit of an athlete.  Another man might have killed himself, whereas I got nothing worse than a knock here.  It hurts if you touch it, but it’s wearing off already – it’s merely a bruise.’

It is not. The bruise signposts a terminal illness. Intoxicated with his own success Ivan takes a silly risk that will be the cause of his slow death. His apartment is killing him!  Our hero dying because…he gets too excited about…being like everybody else! This judgement is awful. His personality so perfectly blended into the decorations that it vanishes. 

Ivan Ilyich is a type not a human being. He exists merely to furnish a room; little more than a highly polished bronze that both confirms and symbolises a social position. Ivan died before this novella began. His individuality - his lifeblood - emptied out by his conformism. Here is a social scientist with a vicious streak.  Better, surely, if Tolstoy had made his hero a bad man; at least he would have had a will and some views of his own. Ivan will not be granted such favours. He is a nobody. A mere product of society. A cipher only. This is worse than being a crook or libertine. To slavishly copy others is a mortal sin. Of course he must be punished. Although… Must the author do it with such glee?

Our hero is a public success; his social life both active and rewarding. His domestic life is not so marvellous. His marriage suffers because his professional indifference leaks into the home; feeling flows out; and the relationship between himself and his family has become joyless and fraught. The atmosphere of his work invading the whole of his personality to pollute even the most intimate of private spaces; which to protect themselves must react against him. 

It is not easy to lock work up inside the office. The human character resists such convenient compartmentalisation;4 always it will strive for some new cohesion, that will crystallise around its most dominant characteristic; Ivan’s career the branch around which his crystals cluster; the home merely the residue of what is left of him. There are tensions, of course (that excitement at his own taste shows us how much he rejoices in his own sense of his own unique individuality), but success easily resolves them in favour of his public role.

But now he is unwell, and life is beginning to look very different…

In the depths of his heart he knew he was dying but, so far from growing used to the idea, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The example of a syllogism which he had learned in Kiezewetter’s Logic: ’Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.’ had seemed to him all his life to be true as applied to Caius but certainly not as regards himself.  That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius, nor man in the abstract: he had always been a creature quite, quite different from all others.  He had been little Vanya with a mamma and a papa, and Mita and Volodya, with playthings and the coachman and nurse; and afterwards with Katya and with all the joys and griefs and ecstasies of childhood boyhood and youth.  What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of?  Was it Caius who had kissed his mother’s hand like that, and had Caius heard the silken rustle of her skirts?  Was it Caius who had rioted like that over the cakes and pastry at the Law School?  Had Caius been in love like that?  Could Caius preside at sessions as he did?

The right answer to these questions is both yes and no. Ivan’s inability to find this solution is the source of his tragic satire. Everywhere and always he is everyman. The belief in his own uniqueness, and these feelings of immortality, are all signs of his typicality; Ivan lacking the intellectual penetration to think beyond the syllogism and to notice its obvious lacuna - what Caius himself feels; such feelings similar to his and everyone else’s. Ivan hasn't grasped that a syllogism is simply a logical argument that abstracts a general law out of the entangled and mess-filled complexity of existence; we watch a crane pull a car out of a reed swamped bog. Such an oversight is symptomatic of his class and social position. Although an educated man Ivan Ilyich does not understand the nature of knowledge; which has a real and yet distinct relationship to lived life. Knowledge both elucidates nature and is separate from it - they cannot be reduced to the same thing; although over time the gap between them may become so small as to be imperceptible - as in various branches of science, to give one example.5 

We cannot experience death, only dying. Death, therefore, can only ever be an idea for us. But like so much else in the world of thought this is too abstract for Ivan to comprehend. Tolstoy’s hero is no philosopher. It is precisely because his death is an idea that Ivan cannot feel in it himself; his being qualitatively different from facts, numbers, theories and universal laws. Death must, therefore, always remain distinct and distant.6 Because of his intellectual incapacity Ivan cannot be Caius; he cannot reduce himself to a general statement; cannot expunge his experiential self from his thoughts. His feelings are his own, and Caius will never have them.7 If he were a philosopher he would live in a universe of ideas; separating his own feelings from the idea of himself he would view himself as a representative of some wider truth; he would be a symbol not a unique human animal; a Caius as well as Dimitri Markowitz, Professor of Metaphysics at Moscow University. If he were an artist? Ah yes. An artist. If he were Tolstoy he would inject feeling and thought into an abstract concept to create a living organism. But… Ivan is no good at philosophy. He is no artist. Yet knowing that he is dying he begins to apply the syllogism to himself. Is he becoming wise?  No. It is a symptom of his illness; his personality no longer strong enough to prevent the transformation of his own person into an idea.8 What a strange metamorphosis! His own body, and thus his own feelings, are being colonised by his mind; a sign not of a healthy intellect but of a sick person. His mind is killing off his individuality. His mind… Yes. It is committing murder.

Until his terminal illness we suspect that Ivan not only believed in the reality of “man in the abstract”; but that he applied this idea to everyone apart from himself and his nearest relations and friends.9 Individuals were turned into human units that perforce became abstract facts, to be managed according to the rules of the law. It is thus that he could be just.  However, by making him impervious to the individual, by filtering out many of the quirks of a person’s character, much of Ivan’s humanity was lost; feeling and eccentricity threats to rational decision-making that depends on fixed categories and tightly drawn comparisons. In such a world Average Man is more important than Sergei, Osip and Fyodor. In the court room, and in the public realm more generally, the idea is always prior to the individual; who must exist within the limits it sets.10

A man like Ivan is educated to believe that knowledge is truth;11 when in fact it is only a constructed artifice, whose worth is decided by the society.12 Such an education alienates him from his fellow men, whose existence lies in their lived particularities.13 In the 19th century increasing numbers of people were educated to be like this; their destiny: to populate the growing bureaucracies, in both the state and private businesses. Such men could not function as officials if they didn't believe in the reality of the public realm, where laws are accepted as real and people are treated not as individuals but as a limited bundle of causes and effects, that can be effectively analysed and predicted by the experts. In the public realm man is reduced to a rational machine that can be manipulated to increase the public beneficence; equated, and often not erroneously, with the private good of Sergei, Osip and Alexander Alekhine.14

Let’s go deeper. In such a society knowledge must be regarded as natural; no difference must exist between an idea and the world it is supposed to comprehend and validate. Sergei and Alexander are equal before the law; and only the evidence will decide - the judges, the prosecutors, and the good citizens of the country all accept that this is true and self-evident. Without such belief the courts have no legitimacy. Societies function only when their members bind themselves to its morality, absorb its customs, and believe in the stories that it tells. A society is myth that its subjects think is true. But, and we forget this when we look back at extinct civilisations, their faith makes it true.15 A fiction becomes a fact. In society the general idea is reality; thus a corrupt trial does not undermine the idea of equality before the law, but instead focuses attention upon those individuals who use their wealth (or their weakness) to abuse it. Always the individual is a deviation from an ideal type. It is education’s task to inculcate this lesson into every citizen. Knowledge is nature. And the higher the marks we get at school the more likely we are to believe it.

Our hero is caught between two worlds. He understands neither. It is a predicament he shares with his class, which lack the innocence of the uneducated or the sophistication of the philosopher or artist.16

Poor Ivan! His creator is not interested in exploring his predicament; instead he wants to caricature and destroy this man whose qualities he abhors.17  Ivan is “man in the abstract”, a refrain that is repeated throughout the novella. His character has been reduced to a piece of knowledge, to an idea; it is nothing more than a type, a perfect specimen to exemplify some sociological law. Oh, Ivan. You have no personality. Long ago you sacrificed it to society. Your death occurred years before this story began. Yes. You were killed off in some classroom. And yet…though merely an abstraction how you enjoyed yourself!

When Ivan bangs his leg he is resurrected as a human being; who must suffer the agonies of living in an environment where reality consists predominantly of signs and abstract representations;18 a place where strong emotions and idiosyncratic thoughts are too demanding and dangerous for the temperate superficialities of civilised life. Too late! Too late! Ivan helped create this world that today alienates him. We imagine a bankrupt shopkeeper standing in the street looking through the window at the assistants selling the goods he used to own… Ivan is paying the price of his previous conformity. He was nothing. He is nothing. Society created him. Now he can give it only tears and entreaties. Of course it will reject him. It does.  

He should have trodden a different path. If from the beginning Ivan had recognised the shared characteristics of the human race; was curious to sift through the general patterns and unique particularities of the people he knew, worked with, and read about; if… If he had been more sceptical about his education; more trusting of his own instincts. But from the start he has got the balance wrong; at least this is what we believe as we read this story; a tribute to its art. He needed a different perspective. It would have been better to have lived on the edge of things.19

To fully develop our individuality we must live in a tight and clearly demarcated community that is yet porous enough to allow wider social influences to penetrate it.20 If lucky we will inhabit this community’s fringes and rarely visit its core.21 Such a life will limit the universal conformism of the human species and weaken the intolerant rigidity of a closed social system (think of a traditional village or a religious cult).22 The receptive individual, exposed to different values and seeing different perspectives, will grow a unique and rich personality; one that will consist not only of a mixture of these various cultures but of the spaces that exist between them; such spaces requiring unique thought to fill them up.23 It is this thought that is our own creation. Such characters will tend to cultivate their eccentricities, and have a fuller life as a result; though they are also likely to suffer loneliness and misfortune; cut off from the simple joys of social acceptance.24 The vast majority of people lack this extreme individuality and therefore lack the will to overcome the social conventions.25 Most simply copy what is around them.26 Passive receptors. Animals of habit. Slaves of received opinion.

Pseudo-egoism.  – Whatever they may think and say about their ‘egoism’, the great majority nonetheless do nothing for their ego their whole life long: what they do is done for the phantom of their ego which has formed itself in the heads of those around them and has been communicated to them; - as a consequence they all of them dwell in a fog of impersonal, semi-personal opinions, and arbitrary, as it were poetical evaluations, the one for ever in the head of someone else, and the head of this someone else again in the heads of others: a strange world of phantasms – which at the same time knows how to put on so sober an appearance!  This fog of habits and opinions lives and grows almost independently of the people it envelops; it is in this fog that there lies the tremendous effect of general judgments about ‘man’ – all these people, unknown to themselves, believe in the bloodless abstraction ‘man’, that is to say, in a fiction; and every alteration effected to this abstraction by the judgments of individual powerful figures (such as princes and philosophers) produces an extraordinary and grossly disproportionate effect on the great majority – all because no individual among this majority is capable of setting up a real ego, accessible to him and fathomed by him, in opposition to the general pale of fiction and thereby annihilating it.  (Friedrich Nietzsche: Daybreak; Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality)

There is an innocuous accident. A man suffers a terminal illness that drives him to despair and even madness. During his long decline everyone, apart from his young son, treats him with indifference. This is terrible. It is unjust. It is so demeaning. Then, as he meditates on his condition, the man has a revelation: everyone - his wife, the doctor, the specialists - are treating him in the same way that he treated the claimants in court. He exists only for the professionals to advertise their expertise - how the doctors rejoice in their diagnoses!  This man has ceased to be a human being. He is a patient. An object. He is little more than a corpse.

It is a cruel paradox.  The very moment Ivan experiences his own individuality society rejects it - he is now a “case” or a “difficult character”; an occasion for the exercise of craft, or an obstacle to the smooth flow of convivial living.  Even worse: the more individual he becomes the more he thinks of himself as “man in the abstract”. What a torment!

This man is discovering the tensions in life that his success had so easily covered up. But Ivan is no philosopher. Rather than face the truth he refuses to accept it. He is like a child crying after a dry breast. Too weak to invent “a real ego” that will “annihilate” the “pale fictions” which have constituted his life, he allows the illness to slowly eat away at his personality until there is nothing left except the pain of his own insignificance.  

Ivan Ilyich believed himself to be a truly original person. He was unaware that he was society’s creation, which celebrated itself by honouring him. Yes, this is so sorrowfully true. It is precisely because he is a non-entity that he was a social success.27 

Good health makes us oblivious to the sad truths of life. 

Ivan is dying. It is only now that he sees a problem. But he can find no solution; and he is too weak to start a new life. Indeed, the physical realisation of individuality is forced onto him from the outside - that bump to his leg. Tolstoy is so acute.  Even when aware of his own unique being Ivan is at the mercy of external forces. Always he reacts to events; he doesn't create them. To have been a real hero Ivan needed, when in rude health, to have self-consciously separated himself from his environment; and matched himself against it. His character is too small for that. He is a nobody, whose only signs of independent life are the marks on his dying body.

The richest portrait of a public man is that of Innstetten in Effi Briest.  He is a hero; a truly commendable person. Such qualities, however, are admirable only for as long as there is no conflict between his private life and his official status. When a conflict does occur he is unable to do the right and humane thing; conditioned by his public culture to act the heroic figure he lacks the delicacy of individual judgement, which should have a yielding quality to concrete experiences.28 Innstetten is a truly tragic character; his instincts not acute enough to soften the hard ideals which by dominating his mind make him a good and just official. His weaknesses are highlighted when he is contrasted to that more perfect hero: the schoolteacher in Ryan’s Daughter. Here is someone who is able to transcend not only his own animal emotions but the rigid mentality often associated with the public realm. His high culture separates him from the narrowness of the village community; while his love of his wife gives wisdom to his judgement; it makes it subtle; attuning it to the individual moment, where it responds to the sudden shifts of emphasis and atmosphere. The result? When the crisis happens he behaves with humanity. We must both think and feel a difficult decision. Charles Shaughnessy is a high-minded man. He is sensitive too.  It is the combination of these qualities that makes him wise and humane. Thus he can accept the priest’s parting words - “my gift to you is that doubt” - with equanimity.  By the time he gets to Dublin he might even change his mind. For doubt equals uncertainty, which in the susceptible personality encourages a willingness to respond to the ever-renewed present; today never exactly the same as yesterday; although we do need some fixed values - for not all life is flux; a river must have its banks. Innstetten, because he is overly conditioned by his society, with its overly formalised and too rigid rules, is prevented from acting with such nuance, such eccentricity.  Ivan Ilyich is merely a conformist. He would never fight a duel to save his honour - he is too frightened of the public’s opinion.

Society is impersonal. If we live in it for too long, commit ourselves too much to its ideas and customs, we acquire its impersonality until of ourselves there is very little. Worse: we may find that we have nothing left but our own pathologies.29

We can go further. And we must! We must! Ivan Ilyich is a sick man. As such he is a symbol of the true individual; that person who lives completely outside the conventions of a society; and is thus excluded from it. Individuality, we are beginning to see, is not something to which a healthy person should aspire.30 The enterprise is too difficult; and we can easily get the balance wrong - striving to maintain our independence the temptation is to reject too much of the society’s customs and culture; we become alone, morbid, unfulfilled.31

Tolstoy describes a tension that has been heightened and made extreme in the modern period; Russia, for example, compressing vast social changes, that in the West has taken centuries to evolve, into only a few decades. His mistake is to think that there is a simple solution - the moral of his satire pointing to a rejection of the social life.32 

So many social truths are relative to their situation.  An urbane indifference, a prerequisite for worldly success, is a powerful mental instrument when we are healthy; then we don’t need other people, whose peculiarities can be safely ignored; that is, in those rare occasions when they manifest themselves in a socially successful circle.  When well we accept the indifference of others as part of the natural order; indeed, we do not see it as indifference but the height of friendliness; to encounter a person too engagé disconcerts us - clearly, they prefer the storm of their own obsessions to the temperate climate of the group. Too much interest in one particular thing is anti-social. It is too personal. Too unnecessarily complicated. Too time-consuming. Too odd.33

When our body wears out the indifference of others becomes an overwhelming burden. The egotism that functioned so efficiently when we were healthy now demands that the rules of the game be changed. Of course Ivan thinks that his previous views were wrong. Of course he believes that he should have paid more attention to an individual’s needs; at least when these individuals were in extremis. But…if he had acted in this way he would have ceased to be a successful citizen; instead: he would have felt the pain of the second-rate; forever hanging on the middle steps of the social ladder; their legs aching, their hands sweaty, their palms itchy; never to feel the comfort of reaching the top; always this fear of falling… Unwell even when well. Of course he cannot see this simple truth. He has no imagination and his mind is mediocre. His new ideas are fantasies; worse than the fictions that they replace. It is knowledge detached from life. This is Ivan’s tragedy. When looked at through the eyes of an artist. But let’s take a different view: sitting on a white sofa in a penthouse flat, somewhere in South Kensington, we watch the reactions of a beautiful woman when told the story of Baudelaire. What! Her hand strikes a sun-tanned thigh. A poor rentier!  She picks off an invisible thread from her dress and drops it into an ashtray. He begged for money…Surely, Paulo, this cannot be true… He was, what! Arrested! For indecency! Throwing her head back she runs her hands through her long brown hair; cleansing herself in her own beauty.  I mention some poems. Poems! She laughs with charm and vivacity. What a stupid man. To be jailed for a few silly words. She runs across the room and places her hands on mine. Her smile lights up my eyes; dazzles my thoughts… Of course I laugh; of course I agree.34 

Ivan is a good man. A respectable society respects him. It is not a bad standard. The artist disagrees: humans must be carafes full to the brim of homemade wine, that strong-bodied and sweet gives pleasure to especially those with taste. Artists are strange people. We must be wary of them.35 For certain must we ignore their prejudices. Once upon a time Ivan was right. Indifference protects everyone. No business can succeed if its owner always smells of alcohol. Too much interest in another person can generate feelings of dependence and longing; they are the tentacles of an octopus that will drag us deep down under the sea.

Now Ivan wants to be a saint. Once again his morality enters from the outside. Imagine a different man dying; someone with a self-awareness that welcomes his family’s indifference; a sign that the healthy should not be freighted with the worries of the terminally ill. Imagine if we were a cousin of Ivan’s… Wouldn’t we want to retain our vitality? Indeed, we’d have no choice. Ignore this selfish man!

Ivan has got his ideas the wrong way round. He should have been more engagé when well and more indifferent when ill. Always he is too self-interested. It is a strange paradox: to develop a unique mind we must submerge it in the world outside us - in cities, in fields, where a young woman dances with a cello, in books, and in Meredith Monk’s Gotham Lullaby. We must lose our minds to gain them. I am another, Rimbaud said. How true. Our uniqueness resides in casting off our ego; only then are we free to grow an independent being. Imagine owning a house where the attic is let out to a sympathetic stranger… The  woman stops suddenly; the poppies on her white skirt swaying around her legs, like ribbons round a maypole. She looks across the field. I shout out again. And we walk to meet each other. We kiss. We dance a little. She rains daises over my head; I tickle her nose with a dandelion. Afterwards we sit on the grass and I invent a house with an attic large enough for a chamber orchestra.  She speaks of the music she will compose for it; I of the lyrics I will write for her; she laughs, a laugh I describe using a line out of Verlaine… To be truly individual is to be more interested in the world than in our own ego; which is a limited and rather sad affair. Put this psychology into the field of morality and it is possible to produce a saint. But saints are dangerous creatures; best left unwrapped in a locked box.36  

Situations change both objects and values. Our conduct in each particular situation determines not only our character but the validity of our ideas; which must be tested against experience; which is always changing, usually at a rate that is infinitesimal and slow. But…this is an intellectual speaking. To really understand life we must step out of this paragraph and walk around Oxford High Street; listening to the tourists asking for directions; the locals gossiping amongst themselves. And as we look and listen we begin to understand… Most of the time to simply conform to our local environment is enough to make us both moral and satisfied. It is only in times of crisis that our character and way of life is truly tested; only then will we know if we are weak or strong; an Ivan or an Innstetten, or that Irish schoolteacher in the wilderness of rural Ireland.37

Ivan has made what is a common mistake. He believes there is an absolute standard that applies to all times and places.  There is not. Values will change depending upon which side of the doctor’s desk we sit.38

The whole procedure followed the lines he expected it would; everything was as it always is.  There was the usual period in the waiting-room, and the important manner assumed by the doctor – he was familiar with that air of professional dignity: he adopted it himself in court – and the sounding and listening and questions that called for answers that were foregone conclusions and obviously unnecessary, and the weighty look which implied, You must leave it all to us, and we’ll arrange matters – we know all about it and can see to it in exactly the same way as we would for any other man.  The entire procedure was just the same as in the Law Courts.  The airs that he put on in court for the benefit of the prisoner at the bar, the doctor now put on for him.

The doctor said that this and that symptom indicated this and that wrong with the patient’s inside, but if this diagnosis were not confirmed by analysis of so-and-so, then we must assume such-and-such.  If then we assume such-and-such, then…  and so on.  To Ivan Ilyich only one question was important: was the case serious or not?  But the doctor ignored this misplaced inquiry.  From the doctor’s point of view it was a side issue not under consideration: the real business was the assessing of probabilities to decide between a floating kidney, chronic catarrh or appendicitis.  It was not a question of Ivan Ilyich’s life or death but one between a floating kidney or appendicitis.  And this question the doctor, in Ivan Ilyich’s presence, settled most brilliantly in favour of the appendix, with the reservation that analysis of the urine might provide a new clue and then the case would have to be reconsidered.  All this was to an iota precisely what Ivan Ilyich himself had done in equally brilliant fashion a thousand times over in dealing with persons on trial.  The doctor summed up just as brilliantly, looking over his spectacles triumphantly, gaily even, at the accused.  From the doctor’s summing-up Ivan Ilyich concluded that things looked bad, but that for the doctor, and most likely for everybody else, it was a matter of indifference, though for him it was bad.  And this conclusion struck him painfully, arousing in him a great feeling of pity for himself, and of bitterness towards the doctor who could be unconcerned about a matter of such importance.

A marvellous passage. In a few paragraphs it describes the wonders of the public realm; its ability to discover and solve problems, to bring out the genius in man, to make him transcend himself. These doctors are artists.  But…! The canvases on which they produce their masterpieces are human beings. Even if cured Ivan will experience moments when he is reduced to a passive object. Unless acclimatised to one’s own insignificance such a devaluation will be almost impossible to accept; a sense of shame inevitably attached to our engagement with professionals, whose expertise emphasises their superiority over us. We put ourselves at the mercy of strangers; our destiny decided by lawyers, professors, and doctors, whose self-belief only confirms our helplessness. For Ivan there is no compensation: no great work is to be written on his canvas; at most a few preliminary sketches to be rubbed out by some future practitioner. Worse: he too is an artist.

He is a patient; who recognises that he is a non-entity at the same time that he experiences his own individuality. The true individual knows that he is not worth much.39 Ivan is not a wise man. He is not used to being free; and so suffers the soul-pain of someone who loses their illusions; this pain magnified by his sense of self-worth. It is the tragedy of the professional middle classes.  Elevated in status they are also aware of the interior workings of their profession; a combination that can easily produce anguish if they find their selves on the operating table. Ivan follows the familiar pattern. If only he was stronger, more completely the public man, he would keep up his professional persona and delight in the diagnosis; be fascinated by the details that might just save his life. Ivan does not have such detachment. He is no hero. Unlike Innstetten, that ideal public servant, Ivan cannot, in a moment of crisis, sacrifice his private personality to an abstract professional code. He is too weak to transcend himself.

Middle class life is for the healthy person and for the cool temperament. Such a person must accept with equanimity the disappointments of a loveless marriage and the boring routines of a prosperous career; which includes socialising with those one hardly knows. Success. It depends upon adapting to the social environment, and sacrificing one’s personality to its culture, which is made up of a small number of behaviours and ideas that all can easily copy.  Everything is surface. Everything is reduced to a relation: the connections between people more important than the people themselves.40  In such a life the particularities of the individual character are dangerous and must be controlled at all costs. Ivan is ill. He is needy. He only cares for himself. It is clear that he is a problem. Everyone should ignore him. Only then can society be saved.

This is a job for the social scientist. Tolstoy takes up the challenge. His style will equal the content; which of course creates its own risks – types are less interesting than characters, and general statements lack the piquancy of small details, at least in a work of literature.  But then the pouffe breaks into the conversation… 

When they reached her drawing-room, which was upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dismal-looking lamp, they sat down at the table – she on a sofa and Piotr Ivanovich on a low pouffe with broken springs which yielded spasmodically under his weight.  Praskovya Fiodorovna had been on the point of warning him to take another seat but felt that such a remark would have been out of keeping with her situation, and thought better of it… the widow caught the lace of her black fichu on the carved edge of the table.  Piotr Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the pouffe, released from this weight, bobbed up and bumped him.  The widow began detaching the lace herself, and Piotr Ivanovich sat down again, suppressing the mutinous springs of the pouffe under him.  But the widow could not quite free herself and Piotr Ivanovich rose again, and again the pouffe rebelled and popped up with a positive snap.  When this was all over she took out a clean cambric handkerchief and began to weep.  But the episode with the lace and the struggle with the pouffe had put Piotr Ivanovich off, and he sat looking sullen.

This is more than a master’s description of an uncomfortable incident. It is a parable about good form fighting it out with obstinate reality. In society good form must win; even if it makes us sad, and frustrates our desires.  Better a bunch of pathetic people than an unstable social life full of vigorous individualists. We must conform! Right conduct trumps truth. Better to lose one’s dignity than be thought an eccentric.  Always we must look at ourselves through the eyes of others. And if we commit a faux pas? It is likely, as here, that others will copy our misfortune. Collective absurdity preferred to an individual’s honour.

Society is indifferent to us.  We please it only when we worship it; mostly through ritual rather than outright acclamation. We are rich, famous, are given the OBE. Is it we who are celebrated? The answer: only slightly. A man shows off, and sustains a freak wound. He is paying the price for hubris. It is society’s revenge; our hero reminded that he is only an employee who can be dismissed with a few month’s notice.

Tolstoy’s analysis is so true because so cold. By the end Ivan’s closest relatives are just waiting for him to die.  Their torment is the pain that he causes them.  Their greatest desire: relief from his egoism.

This story seems to contain an implicit question: how can we live a spontaneous, free and happy life?  Because the question is not asked there is no answer; alluding perhaps to the mystery at the centre of all existence.  Tolstoy may have donned the suit of the social scientist, but unlike them he knows that life, being so varied and complex, so intractable, cannot be reduced to a few simple generalisations. Even the most clinical of rooms will have a pouffe.

(Review of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, from The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories)


1.  There are great books of sociology: The Fall of Public Man; Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait; The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power to name just three. They are also works of literature; their ideas like symbols; their theories a kind of myth. These books are great because they have the correct balance between the metaphysically general and the concretely particular. It this balance that enables us to grasp the truths of the world.

2.  Contrast George Eliot’s conception of fiction:

…[I] have gone through again and again the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit. I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely aesthetic - if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram - it becomes the most offensive of all teaching. (Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings)

Tolstoy here prefers the “diagram” to the “picture”.

3.  The tendency of success to erase the originality of a truly independent person is wonderfully caught in Tolstoy’s portrait of Prince Andrei in War and Peace.  When in St Petersburg the prince has no time for profound thought; he can only react to the people-crowded environment that encompasses him.  Inevitably his thoughts, so alive when alone on his country estate, lose their vitality.

4.  A wild thought runs out in front of the car… 

Over the last three centuries there has been a conflict between two rival mentalities: the rapidly expanding public realm encroaching onto a traditional society that has sought to protect the private virtues; the resultant tension played out most bitterly within the middle classes, who seemed to have achieved an equilibrium during the 1920s, when an extreme division of labour was imposed between the sexes; the husband off to work, the wife expected to be happy at home.*1

The public realm over-reached itself in the 1960s.  There was a reaction, with the institutions forced to be more responsive to the citizens. One consequence has been the blurring of the distinction between public and private life; with offices increasingly recognising the emotional and social needs of its employees. The work environment was softened. 

In recent years a change has taken place: the culture of the office - the dominant social force in our society - is seeping into our domestic lives, and is set to conquer them. Private life is destined to be colonised by the public realm.  The ideas of the 1960s merely an interlude; or perhaps a Trojan Horse…*2

*1  See Ross Mckibbon’s Classes and Culture; England 1918-1951.  During this period he writes of the rise of an aggressive “masculine sociability”, which added to the separation of the sexes.
*2  Cultural and ideological change isn't simple and unilinear.  The invading and dominant ideology will often be influenced and changed by the worldview that it is destroying; Christianity, for example, was transformed by the pagan religions it replaced.  Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 a virtuoso analysis of such an evolution.

5.  There is a good discussion about this in Sokal's and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures. Art achieves a similar success in closing the gap between idea and lived existence.  A.S. Byatt, when writing about George Eliot, describes it perfectly:

[She] saw her work as making incarnate certain ideas that she apprehended in the flesh; i.e., sensuously, materially, through feeling. (Introduction to Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings. Emphasis in original.)

Byatt’s introduction is useful in showing how Eliot sought to incorporate the science of her day without reducing her art to it - life is too complex and various to be entirely captured by the scientific mentality.

I run into the kitchen, unscrew two bottles of vodka and drink them straight off…I extemporise to the fridge: science chains the particular to the general; art frees the general from the particular.  I totter, smirk, shout out in triumph; and collapse onto the floor, where I hug the cat - a dusty old door stop.  

I wake up. My head is heavy. I smell a vile stink around me. I get up, slowly; oh so slowly. I Shower.  Eat a large breakfast.  I remember some phrase…

6.  Isaiah Berlin, in this conversation with Johann Gottfried Herder, describes the intellectual senses that Ivan Ilyich may lack.

Expressionism:… claims that all the works of men are above all voices speaking, are not objects detached from their makers, are part of a living process of communication between persons and not independently existing entities, beautiful or ugly, interesting or boring, upon which external observers may direct the cool and dispassionate gaze with which scientists - or anyone not given to pantheism or mysticism - look on objects in nature. This is connected with the further notions that every form of human self-expression is in some sense artistic, and that self-expression is part of the essence of human beings as such; which in turn entail such distinctions as those between integral and divided, or committed and uncommitted (that is, unfulfilled), lives and thence lead to the concept of various hindrances, human and non-human, to the self-realisation which is the richest and most harmonious form of self-expression that all creatures, whether or not they are aware of it, live for. (Vico and Herder; Two Studies in the History of Ideas

7.  We can imagine Caius having feelings similar to ourselves; but this is a form of knowledge not the felt experience; the actual feeling unique to the individual in the moment that it occurs.

Art goes beyond imagination.  It creates an emotion within its audience.

Knowledge of the human heart in particular is a phrase which covers very different states of mind. It may mean that power by which the novelist or dramatist identifies himself with his characters; sees through their eyes and feels with their senses; it is the product of a rich nature, a vivid imagination, and great powers of sympathy, and draws a comparatively small part of its resources from external experience. The novelist knows how his characters would feel under given conditions, because he feels it himself; he sees from within, not from without; and is almost undergoing an actual experience instead of condensing his observations on life. This is the power in which Shakespeare is supreme; which Richardson proved himself, in his most powerful passages, to possess in no small degree; and which in Balzac seems to have generated fits of absolute hallucination. (Leslie Stephen, Hours in a Library; Volume II)

Ivan Ilyich is no artist. He is condemned to live inside the prison that is himself.  Lacking profound sympathy, and living on the surface of life, his only choice is to oscillate between two polarities - the solipsistic and the sentimental; both reflections of his own limited personality. Tolstoy condemns our hero because he cannot be like himself; an artist of the highest rank.  This is somewhat unfair, to say the least.

8.  In a wonderful piece on Henry Fielding Leslie Stephen writes,

The Rochefoucauld or Mandeville who passes off his smart sayings upon the public as serious knows better than anybody that a man must be a fool to take them literally. The wisdom which he affects is very easily learnt, and is more often the product of the premature sagacity dear to youth than of a ripened judgment. Good-hearted men, at least, like Johnson and Burke, shake off cynicism whilst others are acquiring it. (Hours in a Library; Volume II)

Ivan Ilyich is returning to the “premature sagacity” of his youth rather than acquiring “a ripened judgment”.

…the chief triumph of art and philosophy: it insensibly refines the temper, and it points out to us those dispositions which we should endeavour to attain, by a constant bent of mind, and by repeated habit.  Beyond this I cannot acknowledge it to have great influence…. (David Hume, Selected Essays).

For the psychological results of such a “bent of mind” see Boswell’s description of Hume’s dying days in his Journals. Ivan Ilyich, having never taken up the career of a philosopher, has not acquired these habits of mind; therefore, he cannot adopt a phlegmatic attitude towards his own death. Only debilitating weakness can reconcile him to it.

9.  We listen to the narrator in Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net

I say my universe, not ours, because I sometimes feel that Finn has very little inner life.  I mean no disrespect to him in saying this; some have and some haven’t. I connect this too with his truthfulness. Subtle people, like myself, can see too much ever to give a straight answer. Aspects have always been my trouble. And I connect it with his aptness to make objective statements when these are the last things that one wants, like a bright light on one’s headache. It may be, though, that Finn misses his inner life, and that that is why he follows me about, as I have a complex one and highly differentiated. Anyhow, I count Finn as an inhabitant of my universe, and cannot conceive that he has one containing me; and this arrangement seems restful for both of us.

Jake Donaghue is more intelligent and subtle than Ivan Ilyich - poor poor Ivan!  Nevertheless, at bottom, he too cannot feel that Finn is the same as himself; his last sentence an echo of our hero’s reflections on Caius.

Jake, because he is such a different character, offers us a clue to the real meaning of this novella - deep down Ivan Ilyich is Leo Tolstoy.  This terminally ill man represents the artist cut-off from an ordinary humanity that cannot share his sensibility. Tolstoy feeling his isolation acutely when he no longer seeks meaning in art alone.

10. An excellent analysis of the strange unreality that is ideas are the dialogues of Hugo Belfounder in Under the Net.  This character is a great questioner of generalisations; which he correctly sees as separate from the felt experiences of lived life. His interlocutor, the narrator Jake, in contrast, is the typical modern educated man - he knows lots of different things, but knows them only at an abstract level that he takes for granted as both real and true. He is not aware that…

…when we nicely reflect upon them, we shall find that general ideas are fictions and contrivances of the mind…

An old friend has arrived! It is John Locke, who after saying a quick hello, goes on to tell us that these “general ideas…carry difficulty with them”. This may be true for a thinker but for the majority of people in modern life this is not so; general ideas of the kind we associate with knowledge have become a form of sense data that our minds passively absorb and rarely reflect upon.*1 Theories become facts; the class struggle the same ontological status as a tree or Great Britain - all are believed to be real things.*2

Belfounder is aware of the fragility of this type of thinking. His questioning of it questions the very basis of modern thought - which not only accepts that knowledge is separate from existence, but that it is superior to it, as a form of understanding and cognition. Most of us are not aware of the insights of John Locke, David Hume and the rest. Jake Donoghue is one such.  An intelligent man, an intellectual, an artist of sorts; he has never interrogated his ideas; he has merely acquired them. He thinks that knowledge and the world are one. Of course the world must then reflect the general ideas he has about it - the class struggle, the market; a peasant, a bureaucrat, democracy, freedom; the list is infinite. Fortunately he is an ineffectual intellectual; whose ideas turn out to be wrong; leading to foolish escapades and illusory love chases. When he tries to change the world he only mucks up his own life. Belfounder, in contrast, is a powerful character. He has the ability to lead people and change things. His ideas are fruitful because based on a real understanding on the nature of existence. The true philosopher and the entrepreneur are one. Then there are other characters, such as Lefty, the socialist prophet, who have the charisma to make people believe in pure fictions. If such characters come to power they write their own novels - they shape the world to conform to their ideas about it. Luther and Lenin are two examples; though the differences between them are instructive - the former believed in faith, founded on knowledge of the Bible; the latter believed in the works of Karl Marx; thought to contain the absolute truths about modern life. For Lenin knowledge itself had become divine.

But it is not only religious fanatics*3 who have substituted the fictions of knowledge for the actualities of real existence. For most intellectuals knowledge, defined as abstract general ideas connected internally by logical argument and grounded, ultimately, in facts, is reality.  We can only understand the world through the knowledge we have already learned…*4 A strange consequence emerges: a vicious circle where we can only acquire knowledge through knowledge itself.*5 Thus even for the most  acute of thinkers - see for example Isaiah Berlin’s penetrating commentary on Locke - knowledge has replaced experience as the means of acquiring insight about the world. Thus in an extraordinary passage on Hume Berlin reduces problems of perception to those of epistemology; seemingly unaware that the very puzzle that Hume is seeking to elucidate - but, crucially, not solve - is the gap between the empirical substance of existence and the metaphysical nature of reason. Berlin’s solution?  The puzzle is a false one; a theoretical mistake that confuses a factual question with a logical one. A problem about the nature of knowledge is thus reduced to merely a categorisation within knowledge itself. Knowledge is a given. It explains existence, tout court!  Hume was well aware of this danger.

The operation of the mind, which forms the belief of any matter of fact, seems hitherto to have been one of the great mysteries of philosophy: though no one has as much as suspected that there was any difficulty in explaining it. For my part, I must own that I find a considerable difficulty in the case; and that even when I think I understand the subject perfectly, I am at a loss for terms to express my meaning. (My emphasis.)

Reason, because of its power to split up any cluster of ideas and reconstitute them into completely new forms, can question everything that we experience; and so we discover a strange reality radically at variance with common sense. Ideas, because they can be detached from the impressions that cause them, allow us to uncover the illusory nature of our experiences; although these ideas too might be fancies… 

This sceptical doubt, both with respect to reason and the senses, is a malady, which can never be radically cured, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chase it away, and sometimes may seem entirely free from it. It is impossible, upon any system, to defend either our understanding or senses; and we but expose them farther when we endeavour to justify them in that manner. As sceptical doubt arises naturally from a profound and intense reflection on those subjects, it always increases the farther we carry out reflections, whether in opposition or conformity to it. Carelessness and inattention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader’s opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and internal world….

Reason and our experience about the world are at odds; and in neither case can we be sure that they are true. Hume recognises the conundrum and resolves it with “carelessness and inattention.” 

Berlin doesn't think there is a problem at all. He accepts Hume’s definition of knowledge - it is a fiction - and applies it to that puzzling connection between the world and our reasoning faculty. Thus he defines knowledge as having two types - empirical and logical (or philosophical) -; the latter then explaining the puzzle; Hume and Locke and the rest have made a logical mistake, by conflating them together. The actual experiences of the world, from whence, according to Hume, only new ideas can arise, are brusquely escorted from the building. The fact that we know that they are different types of question is sufficient to understand the issue. A piece of knowledge - the difference between the logical and the empirical - thus replaces the workings of perception and the mind. Yet it is precisely the link between these two that Hume is concerned. How do we recognise in a single cat the species animal?  What is the process?  Klee nicely describes it.

May I use a simile, the simile of the tree? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction is nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work.

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion. And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules. He transmits.

His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel. (Paul Klee on Modern Art. Emphasis mine.)

The crown is “no mirrored reflection” of the root.  Most of the time we are not aware of this; art and light entertainment too easily accepted as normal and natural. But Klee raises the central problem - certain types of art appear to exist completely independent of the root, and yet, we know that they not only connect with it, but illuminate it with a profundity that other art forms, especially those that try to mimic the mirror, do not. Indeed, to ordinary people, Klee’s art is as eccentric and stupid as Hume’s ideas…*6 How can we know such art is real?  How can we know that knowledge is not a fantasy, when it suggests we live in fictions? Another marvellous passage…

an object may exist, and yet be nowhere: and I assert that this is not only possible, but that the greatest part of beings do and must exist after this manner. An object may be said to be nowhere, when its parts are not so situated with respect to each other as to form any figure or quantity; nor the whole with respect to other bodies so as to answer to our notions of contiguity or distance. Now this is evidently the case with all our perceptions and objects except those of the sight and feeling. A moral reflection cannot be placed on the right of the left hand of a passion, nor can a smell or sound be either a circular or a square figure. These objects and perceptions, so far from requiring any particular place, are absolutely incompatible with it, and even the imagination cannot attribute it to them.

This leads to wilder, uncharted shores… What exactly is Berlin’s “logical questions” made of? What is the substance of an idea?*7  

The upshot of Hume’s insight is that we live in a world of phantoms that we feel are true; and because we experience these phantoms as reality we accept them as real; indeed we have no choice. Knowledge and experience inform us about the world, and yet their stories are in conflict; we are like a judge that must decide between two contradictory witnesses who are both telling the truth. Faced with the fantasies of reason and the trompe l’oeil of ordinary life, Hume chooses the latter; though he recognises that he hasn’t found a solution but only discovered a problem; his new science of the mind a failure.*8

Berlin, in contrast, thinks, this problem can be explained by philosophy. Using Klee’s simile: he uses the crown to explain away the trunk; in doing so he, in effect, says that the crown exists without its intermediary, and is thus cut off from its root.  Philosophy, in this guise, is pure metaphysics with no connection at all with physical existence. Berlin, it turns out, is an idealist.*9

But we have forgotten our guest, who is motioning at us wildly. He wants to speak.

As to the fourth sort of our knowledge, viz., of the real actual existence of things, we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence…; of the existence of anything, else, we have no other but a sensitive knowledge, which extends not beyond the objects present to our senses.

Happy and confident, now that he knows that we are listening, he develops his ideas.

These two, viz., intuition and demonstration, are the degrees of our knowledge; whatever comes short of one of these, with what assurance soever embraced, is but faith or opinion, but not knowledge, at least in all general truths. There is, indeed, another perception of the mind employed about the particular existence of finite beings without us; which, going beyond bare probability, and yet not reaching perfectly to either of the foregoing degrees of certainty, passes under the name of “knowledge.” There can be nothing more certain than that the idea we receive from an external object is in our minds: this is intuitive knowledge. But whether there be any thing more than barely that idea in our minds, whether we can thence certainly infer the existence of any thing without us which corresponds to that idea, is that whereof some men think there may be a question made; because men may have such idea in their minds when no such thing exists, no such object affects their senses. But yet here, I think, we are provided with an evidence that puts us past doubting: for I ask any one whether he be not invincibly conscious to himself for a different perception when he looks on the sun by day and thinks on it by night; when he actually tastes wormwood, or smells a rose, or only thinks on that savour or odour? We as plainly find the difference there is between an idea received in our minds by our own memory, and actually coming into our minds  by our senses, as we do between say two distinct ideas. If any one say, “A dream may do the same thing, and all these ideas may be produced in us without any external objects,” he may please to dream that I make him answer (1) That it is no great matter whether I remove his scruple or no: where all is but dream, reasoning and arguments are of no use, truth and knowledge nothing. (2) That I believe he will allow a very manifest difference between dreaming of being in the fire, and being actually in it. But yet if he be resolved to appear so sceptical as to maintain that what I call “being actually in the fire” is nothing but a dream, and we cannot thereby certainly know that any such thing as fire actually exists without us, I answer that we certainly, finding that pleasure or pain follows upon the application of certain objects to us, whose existence we perceive, or dream that we perceive, by our senses, this certainty is as great as our happiness or misery, beyond which we have no concernment to know or to be. So that, I think, we may add to the two former sorts of knowledge this also, of the existence of particular external objects by that perception and consciousness we have of the actual entrance of ideas from them, and allow these three degrees of knowledge, viz., intuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive: in each of which there are different degrees and ways of evidence and certainty.

For Locke our actual experience - which he divides into two: internal (intuitive) and external (sensitive) - is a form of knowledge.

As for our own existence we perceive it so plainly and so certainly that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof. For nothing can be more evident to me than my own existence? If I doubt of all other things, that very doubt makes me perceive my own existence, and will not suffer me to doubt of that. For, if I know I feel pain, it is evident I have as certain precept of my own existence as of the existence of the pain I feel: or if I know I doubt, I have as certain perception of the existence of the thing doubting, as of that thought which I call “doubt.” Experience, then, convinces us that we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence, and an internal infallible perception that we are. In every act of sensation, reasoning or thinking, we are conscious to ourselves of our own being; and, in this matter, come not short of the highest degree of knowledge. (My emphasis)

Perceptions. Experience. Being.  These are the ultimate proofs.  Even Cartesian doubt must come after the consciousness of our own existence. But: experience is also a form of knowledge. Locke’s argument, ultimately, is circular… Knowledge relies on experience: experience itself is knowledge. Thus Berlin’s slightly confusing reference to Locke’s deductive method - because knowledge can only be created and verified by us it shares the self-enclosed characteristics of deductive reasoning. To accept Locke’s theory is, so Berlin argues, to believe that empirical knowledge is impossible.

But Locke has found a way to escape this trap: experience contains within itself actual existence and knowledge. There are different types of knowledge with “different degrees and ways of evidence and certainty.” Experience is knowledge of a different order from that of science or logic. This kind of knowledge rests not on proofs but on a feeling; which is more than pure sensation; it is informed by innate judgement and education. Reason too is made up of experience and knowledge; though here the mixture is very different; with a much greater reliance on the rational faculty itself; this increases the certainly of its judgements but reduces their content - a syllogism will be certain precisely because it tells us nothing. Though even here, in the most self-enclosed kind of reasoning, it is only the sensory qualities of the mind that can verify if its ideas are true. But: we cannot prove this. As with the real essences of substances we lack the cognitive tools to penetrate into the inner workings of the mind. The consequences are sad: a minuscule body of truly verifiable knowledge. It is night in the middle of the country. We stand under a lamplight and look across the fields; uncertain as to what is in the distance: other lights or reflections of the moon? We look up at the light. We think. And are puzzled. After a while we give up our contemplations; content to look again at the scene it illuminates; amazed by how much we see within its narrow compass. A man walks along the path. We hail him. Very quickly we ask him a question. He tells us that this light is a spirit sent down from the heavens. We ask him how he knows. Well. All things are created by God; the Bible and our reason tells us this is so… Locke, aware of his ignorance and of how much religion has led thinkers astray, is concerned as much with the limits of reason as to its nature. Berlin, the benefactor of science’s vast growth, and soaked through in the modern concept of knowledge (believed to be general truths connected by logical links to established facts), hasn’t grasped this at all. Gee’sus sumtink guv’ner. A prosperous citizen walking by muses on the man’s linguistic impoverishment.

Our supposed intuitive knowledge of the existence of our own minds (Locke takes over unchanged the famous Cogito argument) belongs to the history of Cartesian fallacies. Apart from this last, Locke is left with an assembly of propositions, which, depending as they do on “the agreement and disagreement of our ideas” are not about the real world, and which we should today be inclined to call “analytic.” To the confinement of human knowledge within this melancholy compass Locke has been brought by a combination of various doctrines, unplausible in themselves and impossible to combine: insistence on a mathematico-deductive standard of certainty in knowledge; a representative theory of knowledge which excluded the real world from the very start; a mechanical model of the mind; and finally, a non-empiricist belief in the existence of a capacity of intuitive knowledge which, in certain fortunate cases, affords short cuts across territory more slowly and painfully traversed by observation, experiment, memory, inductive reasoning, and which could, if only the world were different, do  away with these inefficient methods altogether.

Russell was sharper than Berlin: at base all knowledge relies on an intuition; experiment, observation and reasoning can only test, validate and extend that original intuitive insight (Mysticism and Logic). 

Russell, like Locke, realises that knowledge is founded on experiences that are both “infallible” and ignorant: experience is real and certain, but the knowledge contained in these experiences is variable, uncertain and often wrong. Nevertheless, in the last analysis, our experiences must come before our knowledge about them. Knowledge is a problem. Like Hume, Locke takes the world as a given, and tries to explain it with the only intellectual tools that he has: the senses and his own rational faculty. Such analysis produces gaps, puzzles, and contradictions; which Hume, in particular, embraces; openly acknowledging his failure to comprehend the nature of the mind and existence. Hume doesn’t investigate such terms as intuition and imagination because he cannot do so without resorting to metaphysics; whose history is one of intellectual fancy and failure.  Better to admit one’s ignorance than go beyond the evidence, which will prove almost certainly erroneous; reason the great inventor of falsehoods. Intuition isn't a mental construct for these thinkers - to eat an apple is not a fallacy (Berlin’s argument shows that it is he who is the sceptic). It is merely what we experience. The fact of our own existence comes before everything; even the doubting mind - Locke’s phraseology should have warned Berlin that he puts experience before rationality; perception before the reasoning process. Hume, of course, made this clear, by separating out “impression” from “ideas”; and by elucidating the divide that exists between them. Experience is form of knowledge but it is also the only reality that counts. It cannot be reduced to an argument or an idea. Indeed, the truth of an idea rests merely on the manner in which we think of it. Like Locke, but more clearly and perceptively, Hume thought that in the last analysis knowledge rested on a particular kind of sensibility; on one sort of belief.

I conclude, by an induction which seems to me very evident, that an opinion or belief is nothing but an idea, that is different from a fiction, not in the nature, or the order of its parts, but in the manner of its being conceived. But when I would explain this manner, I scarce find any word that fully answers the case, but am obliged to have recourse to every one’s feeling, in order to give him a perfect notion of this operation of the mind. An idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy presents to us. And this different feeling I endeavour to explain by calling it a superior force, or vivacity, or solidity, or firmness, or steadiness. This variety of terms, which may seem so unphilosophical, is intended only to express that act of the mind which renders realities more present to us than fictions, causes them to weigh more in the thought, and gives them a superior influence on the passions and imagination… I confess that it is impossible to explain perfectly this feeling or manner of conception.  We may make use of words that express something near it. But its true and proper name is belief, which is a term that every one sufficiently understands in common life. And in philosophy, we can go no farther than assert that it is something felt by the mind, which distinguishes the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination. It gives them more force and influence; makes appear of greater importance; infixes them in the mind; and renders them the governing principles of all our actions.

But this belief is less certain than Hume imagined. Indeed, the very examples he gives are not so obvious; many people believing ghosts and ghouls to be real; while Madame Bovary has more substance for me than the Head of the Inland Revenue. One has to be educated to distinguish “the ideas of the judgment from the fictions of the imagination”. Ultimately, such judgement rests on a culture, on a tradition, for it is only a culture, a tradition, that can create the sensibility that will properly feel the truths Hume describes.*10  A person ignorant of modern art will invariably dismiss the paintings of Paul Klee - because they will have no feel for them.

Knowledge relies on two qualitatively different mental processes. One: our experience. Two: the rational imagination. Knowledge has no foundation because at base it relies on non-knowledge, which only our feelings can verify, by intuiting if they are true. Unfortunately even these feelings, as Russell correctly argued, might be wrong - because they rely on experiences that give rise to ideas that are erroneous.  Locke’s terminology - “ideas” for ideas and mental sensations; “knowledge” for both intuitive perception and scientific/mathematical reasoning - confuses these issues; thus his quest for a certainty that is not possible; as the certainties of experience and reason are essentially of different types. Hume is clearer: knowledge is a fiction that rests on a feeling; but that feeling is made more sure through the accumulated evidence of custom; in the sciences, the customs of experiment, observation and thought. More sure but not certain. True knowledge of the world, because it relies on data outside our rational faculty, can never be absolute. All that we can ever attain are degrees of certainty. Go beyond this and we resort to fruitless metaphysics. Knowledge, ultimately, is founded on ignorance and error. Reason, when taken to its extreme, leads only to skepticism; a conspiratorial fiction that while doubting all external phenomena nevertheless believes there is something beyond them (feelings produced by everyday existence cannot be completely eradicated).*11 Hume recognised the danger and returned to ordinary life. Locke did not, and sought for cognitive security in a tiny cell in a well-protected fortress.

Berlin argues that the search for certainty is a pseudo-problem. Certainty cannot be proved empirically; and so remains a philosophical question only. Unlike Hume Berlin has found his answer, and has removed all doubt. Knowledge, in this case philosophical knowledge, is the magic formula that solves all problems. The growth of knowledge, and specifically the extraordinary advances of science, have given Berlin too much cognitive comfort; he believes our minds can answer all things. Certainty? Ah, that is merely a question of logical relation! An experiential puzzle - how can reason and our experiences coalesce when they consist of such different qualities? - is transformed solely into a question about epistemology; Hume and Locke, it is implied, are the amateur generalists who have been replaced by the professionals; the specialists in empirical investigation and philosophic analysis. There are two different kinds of truth, and they exist in separate university departments.

Locke and Hume lived in a different world.*12  Aware of their ignorance they were wary of reason’s power and overbearing confidence. Thus when they tested their reason against their experience they discovered puzzles and contradictions that they could not solve. Thus Hume’s famous problem of induction.  This is how Berlin describes it.

Probability rests on the unbolsterable principle of induction, and cannot itself be used to bolster it up. This is the basis of the notorious “skepticism” of Hume and later philosophers. This attitude has either been accepted with pessimistic resignation or else attacked as craven or fallacious. Yet it is difficult to see good reason for either attitude: for the skepticism in question is skeptical only of the possibility of turning induction into a species of precisely what it is not - deduction; and this is not a rational ambition. Hume himself is largely to blame: in common with his contemporaries, he regarded deduction as the only authentic form of true reasoning; and therefore attributed our inferences from cause to effect to the “imagination”, the source of irrational processes. If we are to be wholly rational we must have a “justification” of induction. But what could “justify” it? The search for a guarantee is a demand for a world in which events or objects are linked by “objective” necessary connections; if Hume has shown anything he has shown that this notion is not intelligible, and rests on a confusion of logical machinery with the facts of experience, a wish that the symbols of logic or mathematics or grammar should possess objective counterparts. This craving for a metaphysical system is one of the most obsessive of all the fantasies which have dominated human minds.

Hume distrusts reason. Berlin’s virtuoso performance seems to miss this entirely; it is why he attributes to Hume ideas of which he believed almost the exact opposite; Hume showing us how reason destroys our certainties and makes illusory our common sense perceptions of the world. Reason is our most powerful tool for discovering knowledge; but it is a faulty and dangerous instrument; all too liable, in the enthusiasms of religion or philosophy, to create phantoms we believe true and absolute. How can we be sure of them, he asks.  His answer: we cannot. Ultimately, existence is unknowable. In the final analysis all that reason can do is make us doubt everything. Working on Locke’s assumptions that our only knowledge of the external world comes through the senses, he discovered that Locke was wrong - such knowledge could never attain absolute certainty; the problem of induction demonstrating this truth. However, there is another kind of knowledge - deduction - that can be true and certain; although it can say nothing meaningful outside of itself. There is a gap between our reason and perceptions that cannot be filled. Berlin removes this gap with a sleight of hand. 

Berlin is an academic specialist who seeks to separate the theories of science from the ideas of philosophy. In doing so he overlooks a far more important divide: between our search for knowledge and the experiences of our everyday selves. Janet Jakobson is a friend. She is Welsh, though born in Cambodia, and writes press releases for Philosophers Anonymous. Although these facts cannot be fused into the person Janet Jakobson - when we’re in bed together they cease to exist - the natural disposition of our commonplace mind is to do just that; for we need to experience an integrated and felt whole. Nevertheless, exercising our judgement, which contains reason but cannot be reduced to it, together with the help of familiarity and habit, we can both distinguish and identify all these separate but related characteristics. We achieve a balance between the general truths we know about Janet, and the individual characteristics of her own personality; a balance that is unique to ourselves.*13 The problems start when we know Janet only as a piece of knowledge. Our ideas are completely detached from her experiential self. Worse: our tendency is to reduce the person to the idea, which we believe constitutes their whole being. This is the danger of the rational faculty, with its ability to separate our ideas from reality and reconstitute them into all kinds of imaginary combinations. How do we know if these combinations are true? Or more importantly: how do we judge their degrees of truth? Is Janet a typical Welsh-Cambodian; is she more Welsh than Cambodian; is she the reverse; or is she not typical at all; closer to Tallulah Bankhead; identical, except for the obvious physical attributes, to A.J Ayer? After all, she too, once believed in the Verification Principle. Only our judgement can decide. However, this judgement can be based on nothing more than an informed feeling. But if we know nothing about Janet Jakobson except the knowledge we have learnt…she is a fantasy, whose meaning rests entirely upon what we feel about ideas which themselves have no grounding in our experience.*14  Here is the nightmare of reason: it has the power to create illusions which we feel are true. Hume wakes us up…

Of the Inference from the Impression to the Idea…  It is easy to observe that, in tracing this relation, the inference we draw from cause to effect is not derived merely from a survey of these particular objects, and from such a penetration into their essences as may discover the dependence of the one upon the other. There is no object which implies the existence of any other, if we consider these objects in themselves, and never look beyond the ideas which we form of them. Such an inference would amount to knowledge, and would imply the absolute contradiction and impossibility of conceding anything different. But as all distinct ideas are separable, it is evident there can be no impossibility of that kind. When we pass from a present impression to the idea of any object, we might possibly have separated the idea from the impression, and have substituted any other idea in its room.*15

It is therefore by experience only that we can infer the existence of one object from that of another.

…Berlin wants us to send us to sleep again. These are questions, he says, only about the theory of knowledge. Berlin, by staying wholly within the realms of reason, elides the issue; and dismisses Hume’s idea as misplaced skepticism about a non-problem (the influence of the later Wittgenstein and the Oxford linguistic school is apparent; and becomes more so when he discusses the lesser thinkers of the eighteenth century). But Hume is no skeptic in the ordinary sense. He believes in existence. He accepts our everyday experiences. However, in one sense, in the extraordinary sense, Hume is a skeptic - he doubts reason. In the last analysis existence must trump our reasoning faculty. The certainties of nature must come before the uncertainties of reason. Berlin, by putting our rational faculty before our experiential self writes, and writes brilliantly, about epistemological problems only. 

In so doing he identifies the central mistake of Locke - the belief of certainty in knowledge; which, however, he mistakenly attributes to metaphysical fantasises. The cause is more likely to be an experiential one - because we experience ourselves and our immediate environment as secure we will transfer these feelings into the realm of ideas and knowledge more generally; and this is what Locke does in fact do. Berlin is right that this is an archaic mode of thinking, carried over from the medieval schools and earlier. A reminder that Locke belongs as much to the old world as to the new. He walks under an archway; one foot in the past; the other on the threshold of the future. As he goes he dislodges one of the pillars - it is a statue of Descartes, who had sought to prove, and believed he had proved, that reason could underwrite itself: through the act of thinking. Locke’s great insight was that our minds, because largely ignorant of the substantial world, could not gain knowledge about it without the use of our senses. Reason was not sufficient. Bang! The Frenchman’s body hits the floor, and his head shatters. A few years later Hume comes along and removes the second pillar, a life-likeness of the great Locke himself; and the old theories of knowledge fall down and are destroyed - our reason being flawed and our senses illusory (though no less real for that); we cannot know anything for certain. Locke is less lucky than Descartes - not even his body is left; only fragments that the onlookers must reassemble into patterns of their own choosing.

But in identifying the mistake Berlin overlooks another problem: Locke does not clearly define certainty. Our experience is real, and is experientially absolute. Some knowledge too can be certain; indeed, even more so than experience when that is treated as knowledge. However, these notions are of two qualitatively different kinds. Locke recognises the dilemma but can’t find a way out, because, at base, he identifies both as the same. Hume was more acute. He recognised their differences, but believed they were unreconcilable. Berlin agrees with Hume that they are different, but he does reconcile them; by defining them as different types of knowledge; an existential problem has thus been turned into an epistemological solution; the insecurities of empirical investigation able to co-exist with the security of deductive reasoning; the scientist and the philosopher sitting comfortably side by side in their armchairs; their differences merely a topic of polite conversation; a smile, a nod, a smoke of the pipe; before they return to their own meditations: the precise amount of coal to fuel a fire for 16 hours; how can the word flame encompass all flames when it means more than the red and yellow shapes produced by physical materials; think of Lawrence’s flame of being; think of my old flame, Janet Jakobson… Berlin, in his desire for a solution, has missed Hume’s key discovery: that the certainties of knowledge will contradict the certainties of experience. A man enters the room and demands proof that Klee was a great artist. He’s just been to an exhibition, and wasted an hour and fifteen quid to look at rooms full of rubbish; it’s a con trick, stupid charlatanism…  

Existence is. Knowledge is an invention.*16 Both have their own truths; which also illuminate and validate each other; but to differing degrees, depending upon context. But…when they are in conflict how do we decide between them? Hume’s solution was to choose life. Many thinkers, and Berlin is one of them, choose their own reason. In a Cambridge common room this isn’t a problem. In a country of religious strife, in Puritan England or Bolshevik Russia,*17 it becomes a matter of living and dying, when general truths of what is purported to be knowledge or revelation are preferred to the little truths of individual experience. Locke, all too aware of these consequences, sought to reduce the limits of knowledge; and in so doing he made the territory very small indeed.*18 One effect would be to inoculate ourselves against religious enthusiasm, now recognised as only opinion and belief; and therefore uncertain and open to doubt. In effect Locke made truth problematic; he put lots of obstacles in the way of us getting at it. But in doing so he risked a danger: that truth and knowledge would become synonymous, and that knowledge would be privileged over experience. Already, in this extraordinary passage, we see the baleful consequences of his too exacting standards.

Judgement may reach further, but that is not Knowledge. - We are not therefore to wonder if certainty be to be found in very few general propositions made concerning substances: our knowledge of their qualities and properties goes very seldom further than our senses reach and inform us. Possibly inquisitive and observing men may, by strength of judgment, penetrate further; and on probabilities taken from wary observation, and hints well laid together, often guess right at what experience has not yet discovered to them. But this is but guessing still; it amounts only to opinion, and has not that certainty which is requisite to knowledge. For all general knowledge lies only in our own thoughts, and consists barely in the contemplation of our own abstract ideas. Wherever we perceive any agreement or disagreement amongst them, there we have general knowledge; and by putting the names of those ideas together accordingly in propositions, can with certainty pronounce general truths.  But because the abstract ideas of substances… have a discoverable connexion or inconsistency with but a very few other ideas, the certainty of universal propositions concerning substances is very narrow and scanty…

Judgement, because it is not certain, cannot, even though it “may reach further”, be knowledge. And yet even knowledge depends, as Locke’s own references to intuition indicate, on our judgement - though one informed by study. 

Judgement is greater than opinion and less than absolute certainty; and is in fact the only reliable knowledge that an individual can have; though, of course, it is notoriously uneven between individuals; and seems to have little relationship to intelligence.*19 An informed judgement about the things we know intimately is the best form of knowledge that we possess.*20 The kind of knowledge that Locke wants can only exist in a tradition - such as science - where a history of observation, experiment and thought can make truths independent of every individual. These are the highest truths of all; although most of us have to accept them on faith. Oh dear… Belief returns, and once again replaces thought. But now it is not God who is the source of this religious feeling but knowledge itself. Yes. Today knowledge is our deity. We passively accept facts and pre-existing theories as real and true; and prefer them, as Berlin prefers them, to our own intuitions and judgements. 

But we go too far and too fast… For even knowledge of the highest quality is limited and open to re-evaluation; the informed judgement and our educated intuition the means by which new knowledge is created ex nihilo.

Locke recognised the problem; it is why he defines existence as a form of knowledge. But the damage is done. Like a chain with loose links Locke’s discriminations are lost over time. By the time Berlin writes his The Age of Enlightenment few are left.

[Writing about Locke’s “Real Existence”]… it falls wholly outside Locke’s scheme of knowledge. He seems to be saying that we can show that some entity “A” exists, by showing that idea of A and the idea of existence “agree.” This is one of the profoundest of all logical fallacies, of crucial importance for philosophy as a form of human thought. Its classical exposure was performed by Kant and again by Russell, who proved that it rests on treatment of such words as “exists,” “is real,” “is in time and space,” and the like, as if they were predicates on a par with “is red” or is “jealous.”  That this is a fallacy is shown by the fact that otherwise we could cause entities to exist by the arbitrary fiat of our thoughts, by so arranging our ideas, that since the entire process remained mental, we could make any one of them - say the idea of a unicorn…- “agree” with our “idea” of existence; for ideas at least are in our power…

But we obviously cannot prove that some entity exists by showing that the idea of that entity and the idea of existence “agree,” but rather by some procedure appropriate to the type of entity in question (e.g., observation or argument based on observation in the case of material objects). Locke, having defined knowledge as the agreement or disagreement of ideas, has thereby debarred himself from allowing that we know any existential statements, i.e., those asserting existence outside the realm of our free thoughts and free imagination…

Sensitive knowledge is, within Locke’s terms of reference, simply not knowledge. In the first place he himself admits that it does not reach perfectly to either of the foregoing degrees of certainty; yet he claims that it goes beyond bare probability. It oscillates, as it were, on the border between knowledge and opinion. But for Locke this borderline is a line (of no thickness) and not an area. “What I know, that I am certain of; and what I am certain of, that I know.” The distinction between knowledge (certainty) and opinion (probability) is an absolute distinction of kind and a distinction of degree. There is no halfway house. Moreover, this kind of knowledge does not conform to his earlier definition; there is here no question of the “agreement” or “disagreement” of ideas. Locke informs us that “this certainty is as great as our happiness or misery beyond which we have no concern to be,” and while this may entitle him to be considered as one of the great exponents of English common sense it will not do in one who claims to inaugurate a new way of thinking. Locke is supposedly concerned with crucial questions of what we can or cannot know, and not with pragmatic questions about what we need to think that we know in order to be happy.

Berlin has carelessly misread Locke’s phraseology. He mistakes - and how appropriate is his error! - a metaphorical statement (“our happiness or misery”) for a literal one; it thus allows him to quickly junk this whole line of reasoning, which he subjects to a Puritan attack - John Locke lacks the rigour (that is the dogma) of the analytic philosophy (a 20th century sect).*21 Berlin also takes a too narrow view of Locke’s “idea”; a difficult concept which seems to include both concept and mental sensation. A theory based on existence is transformed into one based purely in the mind; thus Berlin’s extraordinary reversal of Locke’s central argument that dreams and memory are not the same as actual experiences.*22  Locke’s greatest insight was that the mind alone is inadequate to know things. The mind needs to be filled by experiences, and it is only by reflecting upon these that knowledge can be invented. But there is a problem: our perceptions are themselves limited and full of intellectual error. Nevertheless, although experience must be differentiated from knowledge it is the foundation upon which the latter’s citadel rests. Experience contains knowledge. Knowledge relies on experience. The reasoning seems circular. It isn’t, because it is the balance of their qualities that differentiates them, and makes them so very different… Locke has glimpsed the truth, but cannot quite grasp it: he stretches out his hand; he touches, strokes, he strains, he tries to grab it; it falls, clattering to the floor. Many years later a man called David Hume visits the scene. Walking past the tower he sees a strange object.  He picks it up. Looks at it intently. He takes it home to his study. What is it? Where did it come from? After much cogitation he identifies its source as a fifth storey window. But the tower is a ruin; it has been for decades; while the object has suffered damage and decay. He accepts his surmise will never be proven. Thinking about the object’s nature Hume thinks it is a philosophical thought.  A philosophical thought!  That is an absurdity!  True, he knows the mind invents fairy queens, but still, the evidence points to something belonging to the mind of a philosopher; a great one too.  Ah, if only he could determine its exact constitution. Days go past. One day he dies, and for centuries people think about that object and search for that missing link. Strange theories circulate, and are taken to be true; that Locke, angry at his inability to solve these riddles, threw his ideas out of the window….

Existence is not knowledge in the formal sense.  It is, however, in the experiential sense. Locke recognises this and incorporates it into his theories. Berlin, soaked through in three hundred years of philosophy, reduces Locke’s ideas to mere definitions, to which he applies a simple logical criterion. And since these definitions fail the test of consistency they are dismissed as error and confusion. If we take this view to its most extreme conclusion thinking is impossible because it doesn’t follow the rules of logic…  In a brilliant formulation Berlin captures Locke’s quandary.

Starting from premises which seem to be those of ordinary common sense, he arrives at a paradoxical dualism, less tenable than that of Descartes, who did at least suppose that he had a priori means of breaking through the delusive data of our senses to a vision of reality. Locke seems to get the worst of both worlds. All the facts we know we derive through the senses: yet they provide truth only if they “correspond” to an outside reality; we think they often do: but we have no evidence for this and cannot justify our optimism, or even explain it. (The Age of Enlightenment.  All the above quotes from Hume and Locke are from this book.)

Yes! Again: yes! Yes! Yes! To be certain knowledge must exist as coherent body of empirically and theoretically grounded ideas in the mind. These, by their very nature, will be different from the outside world; knowledge a realm of its own; which is small and inexplicable and, in the last analysis, a mystery whose source Locke didn’t think we could penetrate.  Berlin brilliantly elucidates Locke’s discovery but condemns it as absurd. It is not. What Locke has shown is the odd nature of knowledge, which exists outside the easy simplicities of our experiences and our reason. To know things is far more difficult than we think. Since Locke’s time knowledge has become easier, because it exists within a tradition that can offer us a large measure of cognitive security.  However, Locke’s problem remains for the individual person: how can he be certain that what he knows is true? For the creative thinker this will always be an important issue; because they are stepping over the boundary between the known and the unknown, with only their minds and their senses to guide them.

Berlin is trapped inside a theory of knowledge. Thus his above dismissal, which misjudges Locke, who, contrary to his assertion, does believe we have evidence; although it is weak and of very small dimensions; and relies for its validation on mental processes that are themselves not knowledge. My guess is that Berlin himself has learnt Locke’s lesson too well, and agrees with him that knowledge must be abstract and absolute. And because he lives off the fruits of science, and scholarship more generally, Berlin mistakes these general truths for reality itself. Worse: knowledge can only exist inside his mind - it consists only of what he has learnt from others. Locke knew all the areas of Oxford; its streets and fields, its churches and taverns, its university. Isaiah Berlin never left the college grounds. 

A better criticism is that Locke was too pessimistic about knowledge; that he failed to appreciate the hidden resources of scientific inquiry that could both expand its realm and create new instruments to extend the range of our senses. At base scientific knowledge may be uncertain, but to carry out such analysis we must go down a very long way indeed. Locke was working in a drift mine; today we need to visit the lowest layer of the deepest pit to see if there is any coal left.

To sum up. Locke was concerned with how the mind makes knowledge. Berlin thinks this is a nonsensical question. For him the answer is obvious: to ask such a question is to apply an inappropriate form of reasoning.

*1 Berkeley is wonderful here. He criticises Locke just on this point: we don’t construct abstract ideas piecemeal; we don’t add up all the distinctive qualities of animals and then conceive the idea Animal, but perceive them immediately in the object.  When we look at Cleopatra we perceive both her physical qualities and various general ideas: cat; animal, organic being; nature… In one particular thing there are dozens of general propositions.  

Berkeley is writing about the processes of ordinary day-to-day thinking. He is doing a sort of phenomenology. He finds that humans cannot help but perceive the universal in the particular; it is a necessary condition of our thought.  Locke, though, is primarily concerned about a specific kind of thinking -  how do we acquire scientific certainty? Berkeley is writing about how the mind works; Locke is constructing an epistemology; in the process of which he makes distinctions between different kinds of knowledge; only one of which interests Berkeley - ordinary experience. 

Locke’s conclusion, that we have little knowledge, was true at his time.  Since then knowledge has grown immensely; this growth due not to one mind, but to a corporation of minds that have created something that exists outside the limits of a single person; modern science built on a culture not on individual psychology.†1  In ordinary life we all must remain as ignorant as these 18th century sages; our minds make us so.  But: this ignorance is masked, both by our education and by our immediate environment, which, through particularly the media, is saturated by information.  Today we absorb abstractions as a form of sense data; with the result that we treat them as real things. The distinction between those general ideas that are real - cat, animal, nature - because they exist in our immediate conception of them in their particularity, and those general ideas that are inventions, created solely by the mind, is lost. The consequence is that abstractions that should be open to doubt and investigation are believed absolute and certain. We mix up two different types of idea, and knowledge becomes a fact; an instantiation of a faith.†2

†1  See The Adventure of Ideas, by A.N. Whitehead.  For a different view, based on the idea of a consistent method, see Ernest Gellner’s Reason and Culture: A Sociological and Philosophical Study of the Role of Rationality and Rationalism.

†2 Berkeley also mixed them up; though in his case with an intellectual bravura that completely reversed our common sense understanding…

…all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind; that their being is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some Eternal Spirit… (The Age of Enlightenment)

Isaiah Berlin dismisses this notion, as the… 

logical terminus to which a combination of the subjectivist and “egocentric” starting point of Descartes’ theory of knowledge with the empiricism of Locke, must lead. 

He doesn’t notice that Berkeley has discovered a truth about our experiences - all things outside our immediate sensations do not exist for us unless we think about them; and when we do think about them they become creations of our mind. My friend in Florence. I am turn him on and off as a tap its water. I dress him up in a codpiece and I make him recite Guy Debord; thesis 218 in The Society of the Spectacle. I give him the voice of a soprano. I put him in a plaza and populate it with hecklers, who throw words like Asparagus, Latitudinarianism, and Depeche Mode at him. I get carried away. I extend the sketch. I add an orchestra, the men dressed like French intellectuals, the women as Bavarian barmaids; a choir whispers “Hegel”, “Marx” and “Castiglione” in repetitious cycles; each cycle louder than the next until: my friend closes his book. All is silent. My friend strokes his moustache. An ice-cream van arrives; its music a siren call; there is a mad rush… I send the sketch to Partisan Review. Strangers write to me.  They want to meet this Florentine. They show me pictures of themselves in tights and testicular shields.

Philosophy’s task is to think about this puzzle. Locke did, and could not resolve it. Berkeley also gave it much thought and came up with an answer - we all live in the mind of God. Accept the Christian premise and this solution is both logical and inevitable.  Don’t: we are left with Locke’s conundrum about how do we validate a world - the world of substance - that exists completely outside of us. His answer: it is very hard, and we will have little success.

Later David Hume entered the picture. His conclusion was even more stark: everything outside our immediate sensations is open to doubt.  Here was a very fragile place indeed.

Berlin seems unaware of this insecurity.  It is because he is knowledge rich, whereas Locke was knowledge poor. Berlin transplanting the tropical splendours of modern science into a past that was largely desert; and where at best there were small oases of enlightened certainty.

Berlin is too preoccupied with epistemology to notice that Berkeley and Locke are talking past each other. Locke trying to do two things simultaneously: to create a model of the mind and to invent a theory of knowledge. This is why Berlin goes on to write:

Locke had arrived at an impasse with regard to our knowledge of the external world, a combination of two mutually inconsistent and individually untenable theories of perception, the “causal” and the “representative.”  

Locke, I believe, was trying to reconcile a scientific outlook with our actual experiences; a reconciliation which is not possible; thus the confusions that Berlin rightly notes.  Berkeley hones in on the weakness of Locke’s psychology, but has no interest in scientific knowledge, which he effectively says doesn’t exist; not an altogether absurd view; given the paucity of the evidence at that time. 

*2 Contemporary sociologists are fascinated by this problem, but lack the philosophical sophistication to properly think about it (see Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly, and my comments on this book in Critic as Clerk).

*3 For a particularly bad bunch read Richard Cockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83.  Here’s a too quick definition… The religious mind: it worships an idea and makes it absolute.

*4 Berlin notes the problem, in his study of Vico and Herder, and passes quickly over it.

*5 A good example is Thomas Reid, quoted in The Age of Enlightenment.  Reid thinks Hume denies our ordinary experiences.  He does not.  Reason shows they are full of error; but that does not make them any less real.  Hume’s problem is an entirely different one: how to reconcile reason with our perceptions. Reid dismisses the problem completely, and puts his faith in common sense. Berlin does recognise the problem; but he believes that there can be no reconciliation; at best philosophy can clarify the issues only; thus his praise of this aphorism by Lichtenberg.

Philosophy is ever the art of drawing distinctions, look at the matter how you will. The peasant uses all the propositions of the most abstract philosophy, but wrapped up, embedded, tangled, latent, as physicists and chemists say; the philosopher gives us the propositions in their pure state.

But…how do we know that these “propositions in their pure state” are nothing but chimaeras; fancies of the rational imagination? Reason, however, poses no problems for Berlin; for him it is synonymous with the world.

Then there is this puzzle.

My body is that part of the world which can be altered by my thoughts. Even imaginary illnesses can become real. In the rest of the world my hypothesis cannot disturb the order of things.

The second part of this Lichtenberg aphorism isn't true. Indeed, we could define modernity as precisely the ability of a “hypothesis” to “disturb the order of things.” How does something imaginary change something that is substantial? It is a question that Berlin doesn't think to ask; because it all seems so obvious to him; living, as he does, in a world where this is a daily occurrence.

*6 This appears to have been the state of things in the period just before modern science; which came about by redefining the nature of knowledge.  See A.N. Whitehead’s seminal Science and the Modern World.

*7 Wilder: because smell and sound have a physical constitution which is bounded by space and time - walk far enough away from a wistaria bush and we will no longer smell it. Ideas have no conceivable spatial or temporal limits. They are not made of anything at all.

*8 Berlin is right when he says that the mechanical conception of the mind, based on the new science of the 17th century, is thus shown to be false. Although Berlin may be exaggerating Hume’s atomic mechanicalism: Hume was aware that Newton had shown its inadequacy as a physical explanation of the universe.†1 In the same way that Newton had to rely on “magical” forces to explain his mechanics so Hume had to rely on “magical” faculties to explain the operation of the mind - the imagination.


*9 And leads him to make a curious mistake.  Although he notes the epoch-making insight that the mind has no “spatial predicates” Berlin goes on to write:

And, with this discovery, Hume, liberates us from the Cartesian picture, shared to some extent by Locke, of the mind literally situated within the brain, a picture according to which, just as high rays in a mechanical way produce physical changes in the eyes, the optic nerves and finally the brain, so - the last link in the causal chain - the brain in a quasi-mechanical way produce ideas in the mind.

…It had been held by, e.g., certain Cartesians, that matter and motion on the one hand and ideas on the other are so different in kind that it is impossible that either should leap over the gulf to “cause” the other. Hume points out that once we realize that case is nothing but regularity, “constant conjunction,” there can be no a priori reason why anything should not cause anything else. The importance of his principle that there are no impassable “natural” barriers between kinds of things or events, and that no causal connections between any sorts of events can ever be ruled out a priori, remains worthy of notice even in the twentieth century.

Berlin’s error is indicative of his propensity to conflate reason with existence. Hume, when he talks about the lack of a necessary causal connection between things, and shows why “anything should not cause anything else”, is describing the reasoning faculty only.

As all simple ideas may be separated by the imagination, and may be untied again in what form it pleases, nothing would be more unaccountable than the operations of that faculty, were it not guided by some universal principles, which render it, in some measure, uniform with itself in all times and places. Were ideas entirely loose and unconnected, chance alone would join them; and it is impossible the same simple ideas should fall regularly into complex ones (as they commonly do), without some bond of union among them, some associating quality, by which one idea naturally introduces another. This uniting principle among ideas is not to be considered as an inseparable connexion; for that has been already excluded from the imagination: nor yet are we to conclude that without it the mind cannot join two ideas; for nothing is more free than that faculty: but we are only to regard it as a gentle force, which commonly prevails, and is the cause why, among other things, languages so nearly correspond to each other; nature, in a manner, pointing out to every one those simple ideas which are most proper to be united into a complex one. The qualities from which this association arises, and by which the mind is, after this manner, conveyed from one idea to another, are three, viz., Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause and Effect.†1

In the imagination literally everything can be taken apart. Its ideas atomic entities linked together only by association; a weak link that the imaginative faculty can break and reconstitute in any form it chooses. Ideas are plastic. But our experiences are not. Reason tells us that life is full of disconnected moments held together by mental illusions. Yet this contradicts our perception; which feels our lives as integrated wholes. An aporia… There are two separate orders of reality.  In the one everything is open to transformation; in the other only some things are so malleable. To think that everything in the external world can be changed into everything else is to assume that all substances share the same qualities as the imaginative faculty. People have believed this…

…the common assumption of the Romantics that run counter to the philosophia perennis is that the answers to the great questions are not to be discovered so much as to be invented. They are not something found, they are something literally made. In its extreme Idealistic form it is a vision of the entire world. In its more familiar form, it confined itself to the realm of values, ideals, rules of conduct, aesthetic, religious, social, moral, political, not of a natural or supernatural order capable of being investigated, described and explained by the appropriate method - rational examination or some more mysterious procedure - but of something that man creates, as he creates works of art; not by imitating, or even obtaining illumination from pre-existent models or truths, or by applying pre-existent truths or rules, that are objective, universal, eternal, unalterable; but by an act of creation, the introduction into the world of something literally novel - the unique expression of an individual and therefore unique, creative activity, natural or supernatural, human or in part divine, owing nothing to anything outside it (in some versions because nothing can be conceived as being outside it) self-subsistent, self-justified, self-fulfilling. (Isaiah Berlin’s preface to The Mind of the European Romantics, by H.G. Schenk)

Romanticism has taken Hume and turned him inside out. All the qualities of the rational faculty have been projected onto the external world, which is transformed into a completely plastic entity; capable of any recombination and new creation.  Romanticism is the scientific mentality taken to its most extreme.

Hume was more cautious. Cognitive freedom existed only in the mind. There is no assurance that reality is the same as our rational faculty; although experience had shown that the world can be broken up in the same way as our ideas; thus suggesting that reason could be true; that it is capable of real knowledge.  But: we cannot be sure. Reason, instead of discovering and validating reality, may only be creating it. Its power not arising because of its truth but its efficacy in making real fictions out of physical substances. A motor car - an idea clothed in metal, plastic and rubber - is as much a work of imagination as John Martin’s crazy paintings.

†1 Hume’s association of ideas corresponds to Berlin’s logical (or formal) relations.

*10 Although formulated in a slightly different way this is the import of Gellner’s excellent Reason and Culture.

*11 Kafka’s In The Burrow is a wonderful metaphor for the unhinged quality of reason (in Metamorphosis and Other Stories). Although we must be careful of turning this and all Kafka’s stories into simple allegories. That is too easy. They are large scale symbols that capture the feel of a particular mental condition - Metamorphosis: the outsider; The Great Wall of China: the citizen; Investigations of a Dog: the philosopher; In the Penal Colony: a contemporary when faced with the death of a previous culture, which now feels unimaginable in its cruelty and lack of humanity.

One senses in all these stories the feelings of a man alienated from the community to which he belongs - of a Jew estranged from the Jews.

*12 The mistake of Locke and Hume was to seek to ground knowledge in the individual human being. This, we have since discovered, is not possible.  All forms of knowledge, but especially the sciences, are grounded in a community - of scholars, physicists, artists, writers…. Science has been supremely successful because it captures the insights of genius within institutions which through their persistence over time accumulates both knowledge and verification. Scientific certainty exists in scientific history; which an individual must accept largely on faith. Science is a bureaucracy; this is the secret of its success (A.N. Whitehead, The Adventure of Ideas).

Today knowledge is nature. It exists as something real. We accept it as a given. Locke’s little field has grown into a huge plantation. But Hume’s question remains. Berlin, however, because he accepts the conventional view, is lost amongst the maize; which he takes for a wild meadow…

*13 Hume says almost exactly the same thing in one of his essays.  Always we must remember that Hume is thinking about the single human being; and that since his time knowledge has been detached from the individual person, and now has its own independent existence; in a body of thought verified by a community. Nevertheless, when a thinker investigates this body of knowledge for himself the same problem arises - he must judge his ideas against it, and if he finds the established wisdom wrong he can rely only on his own judgement. Once again a gap opens… If lucky either he is proved incompetent or it is recognised that he has cultivated a new field of knowledge. A good example is philosophy: ten years after Berlin wrote about “Cartesian fallacies” Noam Chomsky reintroduced them in classic work to explicate the workings of language.†1 In many areas of knowledge, such as the humanities, such a clearcut outcome is impossible; the thinker and orthodoxy remain on the field of battle, and it is uncertain if it is even possible for one side to win a decisive victory. In such cases the individual should rely on their own judgement; the task of education and culture to inform it.


*14 Fortunately most people are indifferent to knowledge; for them it is merely facts and opinions that have little purchase on their thought or behaviour.  This is not the case with religious fanatics (we call them intellectuals); they have intense feelings about their ideas; which take on the quality of absolute truths. Religious enthusiasm is reason intoxicated with passion; where a belief in the idea replaces - what is believed to be - the contingent existence of everything else. The idea becomes more real than the real.

Hume was aware of the dangers, because he intuited the true nature of reason, which is far more irrational that we commonly believe. At base it is no more than a feeling. Thinking and belief, he argues, are very similar; it is only the temper of the mind that separates them; a temperate sensibility necessary for true philosophic thought; which must coolly weigh the competing claims of reason and experience. The passions in Hume are like the force of a slowly flowing river; strong enough to move it, but not too strong to disturb its transparency…

To understand properly the true nature of the famous Humean enslavement to passion, you must conjure up a different picture altogether. Imagine yourself floating in a boat on an artificial lake in a landscaped park, say one designed by Capability Brown. The currents of the lake are the passions, and you are indeed their slave, for the boat has neither oars nor rudder. If reason be the captain, it is a totally powerless one. The vessel will follow the currents, for there simply are no other forces that can impel or impede it.

Will they propel the boat to its destruction, in some maelstrom or cataract? Not at all. These currents are mild, the shores of the lake are rounded and slope gently. The currents may take you to a picnic on an island with a grotto or, alternatively, to a musical performance of Handel on one of the shores… With such passions, who would not gladly be their slave?

All that Hume meant by the celebrated ‘enslavement to the passions’ was the desires which impel our conduct could only be engendered by feelings. ‘Reason’ (perception of fact or logical relation) could never on its own produce a preference for one thing over another. It could only note incompatibilities, or select optional means. In that sense, but in that sense only, the boat was oar-less and rudderless; and in that sense only, reason was powerless (Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement)

Compare this scene with the one depicted in John Martin’s The Bard. The difference is in intensity and wildness only. Romanticism arises out of Humean empiricism, but lacks the aristocratic and cultured reserve that he argued was essential for civilised thought. Schenk, in his book on the Romantic Movement, notes the aristocratic lineage of many of its members but fails to comprehend its import - it is not so much the fall of Christianity that gave rise to Romanticism, his central thesis, but a combination of the central insights of the Enlightenment (especially Hume’s and Rousseau’s); the reaction against particularly its French variant, with its reduction to a too powerful and too mechanical reason; and the collapse of France’s Ancient Regime, followed by the European War that ramped up the passions and wrecked all balance and civility. The feelings run wild; and so do rhapsody and spirituality,†1 leading to the resurrection of Christianity, but one quite different from the 18th century deism that ruled the intellectual elite - Catholicism tended to be the religion of choice for the Romantics.†2  Now… But…this paragraph is running out of breath. It stumbles over Schelling, unsure if noun or adjective, and falls into the surname of Madame de Staël; where struggling to replace the umlaut it is covered with a hail of syllables. It is Victor Hugo! He is running…! Stop. Romanticism didn't so much react as grow out of The Enlightenment. Whew! We sit on a bench and let our thoughts fade into blankness

†1 These appear to be umbilically connected:

Women have not to prove that they can be emotional, and rhapsodic, and spiritualistic; every one believes that already… (George Eliot, Selected Essays, Poems and Other Writings).

†2 One of the many failings in Schenk’s book is that he writes about Christianity as if it is always the same thing. This is not so. It changes all the time. Indeed, the Romantics could return to Christianity because they helped to transform it. 

*15 This is how Gellner describes the upshot of Hume’s thought.

The world, as seen through a correct theory of knowledge, is intolerably thin, cold, and cardboard-like. It is so intolerably cold and thin that it is psychologically impossible to be consistent and to believe in it in daily life, even if one endorses the theory of knowledge which engenders it. David Hume confessed as much in a famous passage.

Gellner thinks that this theory of knowledge is “correct”; that it accurately describes reality. This is not so clear. Our experience of a thick, warm and three-dimensional existence is real too. Hume has discovered a problem: how to fit our perceptions and our reason together so that they do not contradict each other. Gellner sees the problem†1 but interprets it psychologically: we know our knowledge is true, and we have to deal with the psychic consequences of it; one result psychoanalysis, which offers cognitive comfort by providing a plausible counter-theory to Hume’s “intolerable” one.

One way of seeing the ideological achievement of Sigmund Freud is to understand that he has constructed a solid, non-conjectural, support-providing world, something that had disappeared from our life; that he invented a technique for supplying this commodity made-to-measure for individual consumers; and that he had erected it using exclusively modern, intellectually acceptable bricks. (Emphasis in original.)

The problem of how to marry Mr Reason and Mrs Perception is one that belongs to a particular class of marriage brokers - those who take ideas seriously.  Students. Intellectuals. Thinkers. The mentally ill. For such characters the inconsistencies between our knowledge of the world and our experiences of it is an intensively alive issue.†2 Living in an age when knowledge wasn’t so important Hume resolved it by returning to life and conviviality. But even then he was unusual. Most intellectuals prefer to ground their ideas within the ideas themselves. An impossibility, as Hume showed. Gellner writes: 

…we now live in a world which is a bundle of conjectures.

These uncertainties pose a problem for those who need to legitimate their ideas; either for themselves, because it is a psychological problem, or, and this is particularly the case with intellectuals, for an outside audience. Intellectuals wishing to persuade people, the majority of whom, because they are not thinkers, expect concepts be as secure as their perceptions, must present their ideas as true and certain. Freud was a clinician. Marx a political activist. Dawkins a populariser.  All three must convince the laity that their ideas are as real as the gnome at the bottom of the garden. They can only do this if there are no doubts about what they say.  Gellner thinks he is writing about modern life, when in fact he is writing only about one facet of it - about that middle ground between the certain knowledge of a craft and the experiential activity of everyday life; a place full of poorly substantiated but nevertheless pervasive and powerful ideas.  Most of us are far less modern than he thinks.

Note that this is a new predicament. Traditional societies are not empiricist. The general framework of reality, as far as they are concerned, is fixed and absolute, it dovetails with and underwrites their values and hierarchy, and vice versa. Not for them the separation of fact and value, which is such a pervasive theme in modern philosophy, and an inevitable consequence of the sovereignty of evidence and the conjecturalization of the world. On the contrary, for them truth and goodness are two mutually supporting pillars of a single edifice. They are not insensitive to facts: but facts come in only through a certain limited number of licensed apertures. They do not constitute the edifice as a whole. The edifice is independent of them and not at their mercy.

In the modern age, and this is its great transformation, knowledge does “constitute the edifice as a whole’; and for most people, and certainly for most intellectuals, this “edifice” is “fixed and absolute”: the class struggle does exist; we all have the Oedipus Complex; we are servants of our genes. For the ordinary person these are facts told to her by experts.  For the experts they are revelations revealed through a seer; Freud extremely important because he described the whole process; from initial shamanic insight into its routinisation as method and cult and religious institution.

An intellectual is a curious beast; lacking the detachment of the true philosopher, he treats ideas as other people sex and food - they are real things which he feels as much as thinks about. The modern world is dominated by such characters; who are more important than original thinkers - they provide the common ideas that do, indeed, become real things. Marx invented the class struggle; his disciples promulgated the idea, and by the late 19th century it actually existed. Dawkins said that we are merely carriers of information. Today we live in a world - the internet - that consists primarily of data.

Knowledge has changed. Not only has it extended nature, which now includes the products of the human mind, but itself has become part of our natural environment. Knowledge is an empirical fact that is perceived far more than it is thought about. For Hume knowledge was a problem. We take it for granted.†3 We have, in a sense, returned to the mentality of the traditional society; but with this significant difference - they lived in world that was relatively static. Our predicament is different. Our world is liable to change very quickly; because man changes it. This can produce unease amongst the general population; as jobs disappear and the culture modifies. But when one ideology decays and is replaced by another the majority are not greatly affected; the psychological disturbances little more than the ripples on Hume’s lake. For the intellectual it is a catastrophe. Each transformation creates a psychological crisis as they adjust not only their ideas but also their feelings to the new ideological landscape. Few are as detached as Hume, Russell, Gellner or Noam Chomsky.

†1 Contrast with Berlin who doesn't accept there is a problem at all - Hume has committed an epistemological error.

†2 Joseph Conrad brilliantly captures this tension in the breakdown of the husband in his astonishing story, The Return (in Tales of Unrest).

†3 Gellner takes it for granted. He assumes that knowledge is greater than our experience, which can be explained by it.  But can our theory of knowledge really be “correct” if it contradicts our perceptions? Given that these perceptions are not illusory, and Hume never doubted their reality, they must contain something that is absent from our theories of knowledge. Experience cannot be reduced to our ideas about it.

*16 Sainte-Beuve: Nothing quicker to go down than civilisation in crises like this one; in three weeks the achievement of several centuries is lost. Civilisation, indeed life, is something learned and invented, let it be well understood: “Or who ennobled life by arts discovered.” Men after years of peace too easily forget this truth; they come to believe that culture is innate, that it is the same thing as nature. Savagery is always there, two steps away, and the moment one slows down, it starts up again. (Translated by George Eliot, Selected Essays…)

*17 Once at the stool, and having endured the hour of the sermon under the gaze of the assembled parish, the penitent must make a speech of repentance, and it should be sincere: the congregation was the judge as to whether the tears were real, and there would be more penances to come if the general opinion was that the offender was scorning the system. If the verdict was positive, then the repentant sinner was customarily welcomed back to proper fellowship with a symbolic gesture: a handshake or a kiss. The congregation’s participation was not mere voyeurism: sin of whatever variety hurt the whole community, damaging its relationship with God, so it was only right that the whole community should judge and express its forgiveness. This was an ultimate expression of what the Reformation meant: no longer was the act of absolution in the control of a clergyman, but was in the gift of all God’s people. Even the clergy were subject to it. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700.)

Imagine the offence. Jack kissed his neighbour’s wife. Now listen to the repentance: I will not think about Mary’s pretty face; I will not desire her breasts; I will not conceive of her naked… 

MacCulloch compares the repentance stool to the modern media and its naming and shaming of ordinary citizens. In so doing he underplays the psychological pain, and ignores what is actually occurring - physical realities are being made to submit to an idea, which is embodied in the whole community. 

*18 I am reading this into Locke.  His views on tolerance are interesting and nuanced.  Here are two examples:

That in speculations and religious worship every man hath a perfect, uncontrollable liberty which he may freely use, without, or contrary to the magistrate’s command, without any guilt or sin at all: provided always that it be all done sincerely and out of conscience to God, according to the best of his knowledge and persuasion. But if there be any ambition, pride, revenge, faction, or any such alloy that ties itself with [that] which he calls conscience, so much there is of guilt, and so much he shall answer for at the day of judgement….

This I am sure: they are less dangerous as being more scattered and not formed into that order. And the minds are so various in matters of religion, and so nice and scrupulous in things of an eternal concernment, that where men are indifferently tolerated and persecution and force does not drive them together, they are apt to divide and subdivide into so many little bodies, and always with the greatest enmity to those they last parted from or stand nearest to, that they are a guard one upon another, and the public can have no apprehensions of them as long as they have their equal share of common justice and protection. (An Essay Concerning Toleration, in Political Writings, edited by David Wootton.)

Locke sounds very modern, very Durkheimian, in this second passage - the activities of a group are more important than its ideas, which are harmless if left to themselves.

*19 For an amazing example see The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Petra prides herself on her high intelligence; it defines her identity. Yet it is clear that she has poor judgement. She understands many things but she cannot grasp their true essence. Ideas are separated from life; indeed, for her, they become more important than life, and she lives inside a fantasy. Fantasies, however, are fragile things…

Petra is an example of what happens when an intellectual mixes up ideas with day-to-day experiences. Because the values are misplaced - the ideas are given too much importance - the balance between them is wrong, and life, here in the guise of the stupid but beautiful Karin, takes its revenge. The fantasies shatter, and nothing is left but fragments of pain.

And yet: Petra is at her most beautiful when she collapses… 

*20 I had reason to observe on this occasion how, even in a person of limited intelligence, an exclusive but profound knowledge of a subject is a greater aid to correct judgement than any learning derived form scientific principles when it is not combined with the particular study of the subject under consideration. The only serious objection to be made against my system was made by Rameau. He saw its weak side the moment I explained it to him. ‘Your notation’, he said, ‘is excellent in so far as it determines the value of notes simply and clearly, accurately represents the intervals and always shows the original phrase and its doubling together, all things that common notation does not do. But it is bad in so far as it demands a mental process which cannot always keep up with the rapidity of the execution. The position of our notes’, he continued, ‘springs to the eye without the assistance of the mind…  His objection seemed irrefutable, and I instantly admitted it; although it is simple and striking it is one that only great experience of the art could have lighted on. It is not surprising that it did not occur to any of the Academicians. But it is strange that all the great scholars who know so many things are still not aware that nobody is capable of judging anything outside his own field. (The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

*21 This is not to deny Berlin’s useful distinction between different types of knowledge that require different procedures to handle them. Analytic philosophy part of a wider intellectual movement which seeks to differentiate those aspects of the mind that deal with meaning - the aesthetic sense - from those concerned with explanation - the scientific sense.†1

†1 See Roger Scruton’s Modern Culture, and his lecture, Scientism and the Humanities.

*22 The problem is that Berlin doesn’t feel these as problems. For an account by someone who does, see the remarkable Confessions of a Philosopher: A Journey Through Western Philosophy, by Bryan Magee.

11.  The mindset is brilliantly captured by Georges Sorel. 

It is only recently that the rules of the art of writing have imposed themselves in a really imperative way; contemporary authors appear to have accepted them readily, because they wished to please a hurried and often very inattentive public, and one which is desirous above all of avoiding any personal investigation. These rules were first applied by the people who manufacture scholastic books. Since the aim of education has been to make the pupils absorb an enormous amount of information, it has been necessary to put into their hands manuals suitable to this extra rapid instruction; everything has had to be presented in a form so clear, so logically arranged, and so calculated to dispel doubt, that in the end the beginner comes to believe that science is much simpler than our fathers supposed. In this way the mind is very richly furnished in a very little time, but it is not furnished with implements which facilitate individual effort. These methods have been imitated by political publicists and by the people who attempt to popularise knowledge. Seeing these rules of the art of writing so widely adopted, people who reflect little have ended by believing that they were based on the nature of things themselves. (Reflections on Violence)

12 The major insight of John Locke, in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Interestingly, this book contains a long section denigrating the syllogism as a tool of argument.  

David Hume, in A Treatise on Human Nature, has interesting insights as to the role of distance in moral judgements - that we do not feel for strangers will make a judge more objective, he argues. Whilst this may be exaggerated - strength of mind can be more important than lack of feeling - it describes Ivan Ilyich perfectly; he is the ideal judge, able to separate himself from the rest of suffering humanity.

13.  This is nicely if clumsily captured in Flight into Camden, by David Storey.

14.  The brilliance of Rousseau lies in this insight: what is good for us in society is at the same time bad for us.  Civilisation is a double bind that we cannot escape.

15.  Reality is in a first sense whatever exists or takes place, in the world, in the mind. (Michael Wood on Auerbach).

16 Rousseau was aware of this powerful paradox - to develop our powers and become truly civilised we must give up our natural liberty.  Here is the full quote, whose selective quotation has helped to radically distort its meaning.*

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.

If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: ‘As long as a people is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it way’. But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. Nevertheless, this right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on conventions. (The Social Contract, in The Social Contract and Discourses).

We can extend this idea into the theory of knowledge.  To become knowledgeable an individual must first learn about the world from others. More: we must accept the views of these others; the teachers, intellectuals and thinkers who will tend to confirm the conventional views of our time and place; it is why we can trust them. Only through such submission will we accumulate enough understanding to expand our intellectual horizons beyond the provincialism of these first authorities. To do otherwise; to rely completely on our natural intelligence, is to end up like Don, in Out of the Blue; a parable about the limitations of natural man; the power of whose feral personality, that avoids all the rules of civility, makes him stupid. To remain completely independent is to be a small, narrow and utterly ignorant person. To grow we have to conform.  Such conformity making us subtle and plastic, open to influence. If we are lucky and curious and stubborn this malleability will lead to our intellectual liberation; alternative influences - traditions long forgotten, thinkers comprehensively dismissed - will emerge to make us reflect on our all too common ideas and unconscious assumptions. To think freely first we must be a slave to society’s opinions. Always we must accept the views of others, if we are to think for ourselves.

A philosopher recognises this paradox, and tries to navigate a way through it. In contrast, the “inattentive public”, to quote George Sorel, is not aware that such paradoxes exist.

Rousseau, though he equated natural man with the isolated individual, the source of ultimate freedom (because he is self-contained and must exercise all of his faculties), nevertheless recognised the superiority of civilised life. To reconcile this conflict he conceived of a mythical society that once exhibited the golden mean between the freedom of the individual and the liberties of civilisation. What he is describing is a religious community where the ideas of each person are identical to those of the group; a time of ideological zeal when the most abject disciple is at the same time the freest of individuals (see the discussion on Bernard Williams and Ibn Khaldun in my Strange Dreams).

A good example is Leslie Stephen’s summary of Rousseau’s thought (in Hours in a Library Vol II).  He conflates the literary writing with the political work; and by reducing the latter to the former concludes that The Social Contract is a blueprint for a utopian society; when in fact it is an ideal type; a model to help us analyse the political realm. Indeed, Rousseau counsels against revolution; for the destruction of any social system, unless utterly rotten, is a catastrophe for its citizens. 

Rousseau’s argument is that the good society depends upon a virtuous citizenry. His ideas about virtue are complex and are not clearly defined in The Social Contract; as G.D.H Cole notes in his introduction: we must go to his literary works to understand it; although I doubt if we will find it even there - taken to a logical extreme his idea that we must cultivate the natural virtues would involve a clear split between the attitudes of the private person and their actions as engaged citizens; a divide too great to be reconciled politically. Indeed, I am not sure if Rousseau intended such a separation; for the general will, whilst determining the moral health of the community, itself requires a morality that is independent of the political institutions that act on its behalf. Cole, while noting that the unity of Rousseau’s thought is often broken up by philosophers, who interested in his political work assume that the general will is based on reason - in truth it is based on sentiment -, nevertheless himself makes a similar mistake by equating this will with a political concept: democracy.†1 

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills: but take away from the same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel one another, and the general will remains as the sum of the differences…

… the social compact sets up among the citizens an equality of such a kind, that they all bind themselves to observe the same conditions and should therefore all enjoy the same rights. Thus, from the very nature of the compact, every act of Sovereignty, i.e. every authentic act of the general will, binds or favours all the citizens equally; so that the Sovereign recognises only the body of the nation, and draws no distinctions between those of whom it is made up. What, then, strictly speaking, is an act of Sovereignty? It is legitimate, because common to all; useful, because it can have no other object than the general good, and stable, because guaranteed by the public force and the supreme power. So long as the subjects have to submit only to convention of this sort, they obey no one but their own will…

The general will is a notoriously slippery concept… Picking it up, it slides through our fingers. Off it goes! Scrambling over the floor we bump our head, as we vainly grab at its slithering form sliding under the washing machine. We get a stick, a fork, a pinchers; we stretch and fumble, curse our daughter for leaving the door open. Shut it! we yell. Too late. Swishing past us it glides out through the slowly closing gap. We get up. With difficulty. We run onto the terrace. It is raining. The nearby river is conquering the garden and I cry for my wellingtons. Jane shouts: look, there’s fish fingers in the fridge. Coming out onto the path, she says, apropos the discussion we were having about the local jumble sale,… it is more than the collective actions of a community. The general will exists independently of and is prior to all political institutions, and this includes democracy. To work with health and vigour a democracy requires an agreement that is antecedent to its actual functioning; such a compact based upon an idea that is believed by everyone that is not morally corrupt or insane. To define it more precisely: the general will is an atmosphere that suffuses the citizenry and enables them to uphold the vitality of its founding idea. The general will a spirit that when in rude health creates virtue by fusing the individual person with the collective beliefs.†2

Democracy, as it is defined today, actually undermines the general will, for it puts the particular interests of individual people before the collective spirit of the society.†3 According to Rousseau the general will is infallible only when the people are virtuous; the general spirit of the community uncorrupted by egoism and selfishness. To have such virtue the people must believe in a common idea and share the same faith. If the citizens are believers then they must be pure in spirit - then and only then can the majority truly decide on the conventions that affect the constitution of the state. The general will deals only in universal laws and avoids any particular cases; which are naturally divisive. It is clear: the general will stands outside politics. It sets the moral framework; it binds the individuals together, and it agrees the laws that impose the limits beyond which the political institutions cannot go. 

There is a tension in Rousseau’s ideas that his solution of the general will does not resolve. The liberty of the individual and the virtue of the public realm can never to be completely reconciled; there will always be conflict between them.†4 Each needs the other, and yet at the same time each maintains its own independence; each follows their own rules and has their own modes of behaviour; at least in most societies.†5 The general will can only work perfectly in a society of believers; we think of Calvin’s Geneva and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. The shared faith a compulsive force that reconciles all disagreement to an underlying unity. In a society of independent persons Rousseau’s idea of a harmony between the individual member and the collective whole is mere wishful thinking; thus the leaps of logic that seek to convince us that the general will is always right.  Rousseau lacked a theory of culture, one that Durkheim was later to supply, that could explain how a group of individuals is made into a community, an entity that whilst incorporating all members has its own an independent life and motive force.†6 

Rousseau was thinking during a period of transition between an 18th century intellectual culture that held that societies should reflect the individual personality and the later 19th century belief that individuals must adapt to their social environment.†7 His book reflects such a transition; prescient yet incoherent, it recognises a problem that it tries to solve with intellectual tools fit only for the museum.†8

What is striking about Rousseau and Durkheim and Georges Sorel is their concern with social virtue.†9 Without such virtue, they argue, a society will inevitably decline. Virtue for them is what Asabiyah was for Ibn Khaldun - a shared spirit that binds a tribe or nation together. In a modern society such a spirit is necessarily fragmented, and Durkheim suggested another type of social glue to replace it - the organic division of labour, where different institutions interlock though their mutual needs to create a network of dependencies, which over time produces a cooperative and national ethos. It is a revelatory idea that captures a qualitative change in modern life: in the 19th century societies started to bind together not by virtue or by honour but by habit.†10 Today it is the custom of work that keeps our social environment intact.

Durkheim and Sorel were theorising in another time of transition.  Sorel is fascinating because he is thinking during the period when Socialism shifted from being a Revolutionary creed to a Reformist political programme; no longer an ethical movement that desired capitalism’s overthrow Socialism now sought a social compromise where workers’ benefits - pensions, shorter hours, health care - replaced the struggle for an earthly paradise.

†1 We mustn't forget something so obvious that it is invisible to us: the meaning of democracy has changed over the last two hundred years, until it now means the complete opposite of its original definition, as used in Ancient Greece - rule by the citizens ◇1 To use very old-fashioned language indeed: today, democracy means an elective aristocracy.
  
◇1 John Dunn, Setting The People Free. Dunn doesn't give enough attention to Montesquieu, who appears only once in the book - as a member of the Physiocrats. Montesquieu’s views on a republic can incorporate both a form of aristocracy and a form of democracy; and it is this combination that appears to have influenced the framers of the American constitution. Dunn, whose book begins brilliantly, but which starts to fade when he gets to the 19th century - he accepts too much conventional wisdom and lacks an adequate sociology of politics -, tries to show how this new idea of democracy became legitimised. One suggestion which he doesn't explore is that once the American republic was set up it conflated the idea of a republic with the idea of democracy; until the latter came to replace the former completely as the ideal type of political institution. Being an ideal it lacks all content; the reason why our practice of democracy is very different from the Greeks.

Montesquieu is an enormous influence on The Social Contract. For Montesquieu each society has its particular structure, which depends for its health on the quality of the spirit associated with it. But although intimately related - if the spirit changes the structure will decay - they remain separate entities. Likewise in Rousseau: the general will is aloof from politics. The problem of many later thinkers is that they collapsed them into one; G.D.H. Cole a good example.

✦ My guess is that Dunn ignores Montesquieu because it would complicate his argument that until the later 18th century democracy was universally regarded amongst thinkers as a bad form of government. Montesquieu, so rich and so wise, has far more nuanced views about democracy than this.

†2 There were lots of strong characters in the old Bolshevik Party. Meetings were full of argument and discussion up until the final decision; then, at that crucial moment, it would prostrate itself before the leader’s will (Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks).

†3 Maurice Cranston is closer to the mark when he writes that the general will is “a normative concept”.  However, when he goes on to say…

The will of all is an empirical concept; the only test of the will of all is what, in fact, all will… (Introduction to the Penguin classics edition of The Social Contract)

I believe he goes too far. There is no “test of the will”: the will can only will; as a pump can only pump. However, just as a machine decays, so can the general will lose its force - there are times when the people are deceived…

…the general will is always upright and always tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people always have the same rectitude. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is; the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad.

There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter considers only the common interest while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills…

…although that ambiguous phrase, “only does it seem to will what is bad”, suggests that neither the general will nor the people are capable of being corrupted. Oh dear. My arguments are poor; fit only for the rubbish bin.

Can I save them?

We could say that Rousseau is in error; that he contradicts himself. But this is too easy.  It is the academic’s way out - spotting the surface mistake and ignoring the interesting stuff going on beneath it. Let’s try a little harder…

While the general will always acts rightly - because it can do no other: it pumps out its decisions as a water pump pumps out water - its individual decisions can be wrong and self-defeating. The decision-making process is virtuous.  The outcome is indeterminate and prone to error. The implication: there is a parting of the ways…between the inherent goodness of the general will and the contingent morality of political institutions (which can err through mistakes or lack of virtue). To make sense of this divergence we must add our own gloss - we take up Rousseau’s model and we paint it in our own colours.

Even though he argues that neither can be corrupted Rousseau nevertheless makes a distinction between the general will and the people: the former forever good, the latter liable to be deceived. Here is the clue we need… 

The general will is both a metaphysical idea and a spirit; their fusion creating the good society. Societies, though, are inherently unstable; the good equilibrium a merely transitory affair; spirit and idea destined only to enjoy a brief honeymoon (Rousseau’s own Geneva now a sad widow after those early nuptial joys with John Calvin). When the people are misled the idea and the spirit are starting to separate. The idea is losing its power; the spirit its force; both depending upon the mutual assistance they each give to the other. The separation gradually becomes wider. Decay begins. There is entropy. Anomie. Self interest and public apathy. Even so, the general will continues to will rightly; although it can longer impose itself upon the political institutions, which depend upon their own ideas and exercise their own independent wills. The people too are no longer so animated by the collective ethos; and go their own individual ways; the will of all replacing the general will as the motive force in the society. The state is ceasing to exist as a collective entity. Virtue has gone. It is time for a revolution, which will bring a new spirit and a new idea to create a new will and a new people. Time to read Ibn Khaldun, who gave a sociological explanation for such revolutionary cycles.◇1

◇1 Or Montesquieu. Rousseau’s general will bears close resemblance to Montesquieu’s “principle”.

There is this difference between the nature of the government and its principle: its nature is that which makes it what it is, and its principle, that which makes it act. The one is its particular structure, and the other is the human passions that set it in motion. (The Spirit of the Laws)

Montesquieu then goes on to argue that a particular mode of government - he defines three: a democracy, a monarchy, a despotism - will decay only when its principles are corrupted.  Both thinkers are seeking for some force that holds a society together; Montesquieu embeds it in the people; Rousseau raises it above them, incorporating it into an idea; which because it is an idea must be eternal and incorruptible.  Montesquieu is the rational sceptic; Rousseau the man of feeling, an intellectual, and religious enthusiast.

✦ And a very odd character. His extraordinary Confessions really an attempt to persuade people that he is both a good and intelligent man - he obviously believes that he didn’t make this apparent when in company.

People are opaque to Rousseau. He finds it almost impossible to understand them through the thick filter that is his own personality; other people not much more than animated automatons; onto whom he projects his feelings and ideas. No wonder he wanted a self-regulating republic where individuals co-exist but do not impinge upon other another; his ideas reminiscent of the anarchism of the West Coast computer kids described in Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

These confessions reveal the limits of feeling - it makes you narrow, selfish, boorish and vain. When Rousseau feels he feels only for himself. No wonder he had a mental breakdown on entering society; unable to escape from the reality of other people he went mad.

†4  Alistair McIntyre, who embodies an important modern strand of this kind of thinking, desires a similar wholeness, and he finds it in Ancient Greece.◇1 Bernard Williams argues that such moral unity did not exist in this civilisation - every community will exhibit value tensions.◇2  Williams is very close to the truth. However, he overlooks the exceptions - religious and ideological cults. It is these social formations, with their unity of idea and action, that have the strongest attractions to most intellectuals, who desire societies that are saturated with value; which they both invent and legitimate. Rousseau is the originator of the modern intellectual; someone who seeks meaning not in God but through an integrated community.◇3

◇1 After Virtue.


◇3 Feuerbach made this change explicit. The idea of God is replaced by the idea of Man the species.

But this perfect being, free from the limits of the individual, is nothing else than the species, which reveals the infinitude of its nature in this, that it is realised in infinitely numerous and various individuals. (Translated by George Eliot.) 

Later in the 19th century Man the species was narrowed down to individual races, and God became a nation.

Today God is once again a metaphysical mechanism: The Global Market. We have returned to Feuerbach, but with this significant change - the full complement of human nature has reduced to only a few of its attributes; those that operate in the marketplace.

†5 And this applies to both secular modern states and traditional societies. For a good example of the latter see Argonauts of the Western Pacific, by Bronislaw Malinowski. The Trobrianders operate as a collective unit only for quite specific ritual activities, such as the kula trade. Outside these rituals the communities remain as relatively loose collections of families.


Durkheim’s The Division of Labour in Society contains a wonderful insight: humans will tend to avoid competition because of the psychic pain it generates (to the losers and to the second-rate, which is most of us). The result? The economy ramifies as individuals seek their own little monopolies of activity and profit.

†7 Fred W. Voget, A History of Ethnology.

†8 Montesquieu, in contrast, feels more modern. Is it because he is more archaic; less influenced by the individualistic strain of much 18th century thought?

†9 This goes back to Montesquieu, and through him further back to Plato. For Montesquieu political virtue is essential to a republic; it is the force that operates above the laws that bind the society’s structure together.

†10 Durkheim is a good example of the theoretical problems that arise during periods of rapid transition. Though his general approach is to remove ideas from the field of social activity - it is through ritual not theories that communities are held together- he will not give up ideas completely; thus his obsession with virtue, and the strangely inconsistent arguments in his Suicide; where he uses the content of particular ideas - such as Protestant alienation - to explain an individual’s actions.

Durkheim is the heir of the English and Scottish Enlightenments.◇1 For the enormous shift they made to our thinking about the social environment, especially their devaluation of ideas as to its form and functioning, we need to read the four essays by David Hume: The EpicureanThe StoicThe Platonist and The Sceptic. The fourth eviscerates the previous three, and argues that not the ideas of philosophers but the feelings, passion, habits and customs of people are the motivating forces of human behaviour.  That said, these 18th century thinkers are still operating in an essentially individualist territory - human psychology not “social facts” are the determinant influences on social actions.

Hume is the removal man of modern philosophy. Once he enters our house it will contain no concepts at all - Hume does not believe that they are the governing force of either private or public life. The life of the mind - first in science, later in the humanities - is taken out of ordinary existence to henceforth live in a separate and specialist realm: to see them at work we must go to a university department to visit a scholar’s study.◇2 Life is thought be a physical activity; ideas effective only if they are in tune with instinctive or conditioned behaviour. This is a world without religion. Indeed, Hume can only argue his case by deprecating religious enthusiasm; now seen as error or tyranny. 

Rousseau wished to retain the connection between religion and society. But living when he did Rousseau places his emphasis not, as in Christianity, on faith but upon sentiment; and here we see the influence of the prevailing intellectual climate; which was moving away from the philosophes' absolute belief in reason to one based on a beneficent nature (Basil Willey, Eighteenth Century Background: Studies in the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period). 

What Rousseau realised, but which Hume tends to overlook, is that ideas must always animate the social realm; where they will be turned into superstitions which galvanise not so much the ignorant as the semi-educated; upon whom a modern society’s legitimacy depends.◇3  A wonderful example is provided by George Eliot’s demolition of a Calvinist Divine - Doctor Cummings.  In her essay we note particularly her reference to “readiness”: knowledge must be easy and quick for his congregation to assimilate. How the intellectual dislikes such lofty and shoddy amateurism! But how necessary for the bourgeoisie!◇4

◇1 No doubt the reason why the English anthropologists found him so attractive; though later there was a tendency to deprecate his influence. For a particularly bad example see Alan Macfarlane’s lecture to a group of Cambridge undergraduates.

◇2 There is an obvious connection here with Hume’s famous fact-value distinction.

◇3 Writing about the general reader this is how George Eliot describes him.

His only bigotry is a bigotry against any clearly-defined opinion; not in the least based on a scientific scepticism, but belonging to a lack of coherent thought - a spongy texture of mind, that gravitates strongly to nothing. The one thing he is staunch for is, the utmost liberty of private haziness.

[He is] incapable of assimilating ideas unless they are administered in a highly diluted form… (Selected Essays…)

◇4 Modern examples are described in Tim Parks’ Adultery and Other Diversions.  Vague aspirations about loving Mankind and the Planet have replaced the earlier Christianity; while information, potentially available to everyone, is increasingly replacing knowledge, which tends to be limited to the few. Parks writes of students who look to understand an author through their biographical details, which they use to validate the latest favourite abstraction. The invisible life of the work, which the critic must himself create, is ceasing to exist.

Words walk into life and I’m walking around the campus of Exeter University. Two lads are talking behind me. I listen to a teacher’s criticism - your thesis lacks structure and depth. Mighty Milly Molly! My ears are alive!  My feet are excited too; picking up speed to catch this student's solution - he will hide the defect by adding lots more information - as it passes me by. I stop in befuddlement. Oh, I’m sorry - a young woman has bumped into me. I apologise with a joke about the obstacle that is thought. I decide to remove this obstacle. I walk to an amphitheatre, where I sit on a stone step and contemplate the latest architectural fashion - a wooden canopy, moulded into a long and uneven ripple, that floats across the simple geometric lines of the original glass and brick building; the main hall. Organic form displacing a rationalist aestheticism. Three women, their dresses chrysanthemums, walk past… Did he not understand what his teacher was saying? The flowers merge into a grass bank. Can he not… A phalanx of beards enters the plaza; one wears a yellow blouse and a voluminous black skirt that cleverly camouflages his corpulence. Does this lad not know… Oh. Oh. It’s Ok.  It’s not… I’m not..  No no. Not at all. I was just, you know how it is; just staring into space; catching a glance when; yes yes, ok ok…  The black skirt swishes around majestically; I drift into a cafe in Cambridge; an extremely large woman is sitting there; her enormous breasts occupy most of the table on which she is reading and writing; while her capacious skirt, under which I imagine a student studying, floods the four legs of her small desk. She is so large.  Yet…her features, highlighted beautifully with black rimmed glasses, are as delicate as fine china. Yes. His work can contain no thought. And he doesn't know this. This lad doesn't know what thinking is. He is a collector. Yes. A collector of data only. A consumer. There you are! Have you finished the… I think again about the cafe. A Study in Yellow and Black. And that book she was reading?  What was it? Would you like an ice cream… Oh yes: A Fairly Honourable Defeat. Vanilla, as usual… Yes. But can a defeat be honourable if we do not know the meaning of honour?  Honour… Ummmm. Does it taste nice?

 When A.S Byatt wrote her study of Iris Murdoch she didn’t contact the author until after it was published; she then sent Murdoch a copy and waited with trepidation for the response. Today, students ask for interviews before they write their theses. They want her opinions, which they translate into facts that are believed to establish the truth of the text.  

This is a mistake that Isaiah Berlin marvellously illuminates with his commentary on the Enlightenment thinkers; their chief error, he argues, was to confuse philosophic with empirical questions; to believe that the former could be reduced to the latter; which they can’t; for the problems they contain have no solution.  Aesthetics is philosophy’s twin. To meditate upon the meaning of a novel is more important than searching for the facts about its conception.

17. Leslie Stephen makes a similar point about Henry Fielding: he too disliked the artificial conventions of society; his main grievance - humbug.

18. This was Guy Debord’s mistake. He thought that it was possible to exist without any mental representations at all. His (confused and misguided) solution? To drift endlessly in a fog of drunken revelry.

Debord is a good example of the misuse of Rousseau; this great French thinker only too aware that the fulfilment of man’s potential depends upon society; destroy it and he will become barbarous and mean. 

For more on Debord see my Strange Dreams and Dangerous Fantasies.

19.  If only he’d found a friend like Hugo Belfounder.

20.  In The Craftsman Richard Sennett says something similar about craftsmanship.  As part of a tradition and a community the individual, through habitual but critical work, both develops their own psyche and extends the craft. To realize oneself we have to be part of a group… I say, my good man, I hear you're talking about freedom.

No, that was a few pieces back; if you look at my footnotes…

I can’t agree with you, sir.  It is…

If you were to look at Critic as Clerk

As I was saying…

The footnotes…

It is though expressing our own potentiality that we obtain fulfilment. It is a creative act.  It has nothing, I’m afraid to say, to do with freedom; which is a concept that can only lead to destruction or tyranny; or at best a passive acquiescence to our biological impulses.  Freedom. It is a path that leads into the wilderness; a perfectly laid tar-macadam road that ends in gravel and dirt.

Thank you.  Sorry, I didn't catch your name.

Johann Gottfried Herder.

Yes, Mr Herder, you are right. Have you, by chance, been reading me?

You! Haha!  Are you, perchance, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu and Président à Mortier of the Parlement of Bordeaux?

Montesquieu?

Here. He wrote it. It is called The Spirit of the Laws.

One must not be astonished to see votes given for silver. One cannot give the people much without taking even more from them; but, in order to take from them, the state must be overthrown. The more the people appear to take advantage of their liberty, the nearer they approach the moment they are to lose it. Petty tyrants are formed having all the vices of a single one. What remains of liberty soon becomes intolerable. A single tyrant rises up, and the people lose everything, even the advantages of their corruption.

21.  Richard Cobb’s wonderful evocation of the Brussels intelligentsia is a good example of how a tight community encourages individuality (People and Places).  

In this essay he makes the interesting point that during the occupation Belgian literature, because it was cut-off from Paris, may have enjoyed a renaissance. 

22.  Wonderfully if sadly captured in Ryan’s Daughter.

23.  A marvellous example is E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s book, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande.

24.  The priest in Ryan’s Daughter is a brilliant example. Intensely part of the local community he is at the same time completely separate from it - he can both unselfconsciously join in their nationalism and condemn them for their cruelty. He is both insider and outsider; the villagers accepting this contradiction because of his unique profession.

The tragedy of Rosie is that she too belongs to the village while also being distant from it in outlook and sensibility. It is why she and the priest are so close; although their values and feelings are very different. The villagers are right to condemn her: for in spirit she has always been a traitor to their beliefs and ways of living (it is surely no accident that she is the daughter of the local publican; himself an ambiguous figure). 

Her husband belongs to another world - to the cosmopolitan life of the mind.  He will always be a stranger in a place like this; attractive only to those who want to escape the narrowness of the old peasantry; young women of imagination and sensitivity adore him.  Rosie doesn't understand his character. She believes that they share the same sensibility; when in fact she has confused fine feelings with passionate love; culture with sexual congress.

These three unfortunates are the most interesting characters in the village; each in their own way doomed to conflict with the complaisant locals; who are content with their earthly ways and traditional conformity. They do not want to escape a physically hard but psychologically comfortable life - thus, though unemployment is high, these villagers do not look for work in Dublin or overseas.

Unfortunates? To be genuinely individual is to be cut off from one’s natural environment, with all the attendant problems that this film elucidates.  David Lean has found an extraordinary image for this predicament - the mentally handicapped Michael.  All the individuals are crippled in some way; the priest by his celibacy; the schoolteacher by his culture; Rosie by her longing; her father by his divided loyalties; while the British officer achieves individuality through his lame leg - it is this weakness that first drives him towards a forbidden love. Only the common villagers, so narrow and prejudiced, yet so full of life and alive with innocent idealism, are complete human beings.  It is a terrible paradox, that unsettles us…. 

Lean heightens this feeling by the beauty of his conception. This is a nasty little story set in paradise. A place which all the heroes must leave. The priest the one exception; he will continue to live here without companionship. We expect him to die a lonely alcoholic.

So beautiful. So monumental. And yet the action is so little; so small scale.  It is all revealed in that miraculous first scene; the huge and magnificent sea cliffs populated by a single microscopic figure, who runs towards their edge… It is Rosie; chasing after her wayward parasol.  The whole film is revealed in these few striking moments. An everyday incident that exists in the interstices of the grand events; events that themselves become metaphors for this country’s history - when Ireland cast out the British, it replaced them by local prejudice and by an unfruitful religion; no longer able to galvanise itself with the revivifying force of its cosmopolitans it was crippled.

25.  We live at a time when these character traits are being enforced across the full range of society; see for example Jenny Turner’s article on British schools - teachers are controlled not only by school governors, but by government inspectors, politicians, CEOs and the press. They have no freedom, and little authority - because power is outside the classroom. Gone is the self-confident profession that could fend off all external pressure; and which despite all its faults (and there were many) created space for the brilliant and eccentric individualist (Alan Macfarlane gives many examples).

26.  Yet it is undeniable that the great bulk of mankind are transmitters rather than originators of spiritual force. Most of us are necessarily condemned to express our thoughts in formulas which we have learnt from others and can but slightly tinge with our feeble personality. Nor, as a rule, are we even consistent disciples of any one school of thought. What we call our opinions are mere bundles of incoherent formulae, arbitrarily stitched together because our reasoning faculties are too dull to make inconsistency painful. Of the vast piles of books which load our libraries, ninety-nine hundredths and more are but printed echoes: and it is the rarest of pleasures to say, Here is a distinct record of impressions at first hand. We commonplace beings are hurried along in the crowd, living from hand to mouth on such slices of material, and spiritual food as happen to drift in our direction, with little more power of taking an independent course, or of forming any general theory, than the polyps which are carried along by an oceanic current. Ask any man what he thinks of the world in which he is placed: whether, for example, it is on the whole a scene of happiness or misery, and he will either answer by some cut-and-dried fragments of what was once wisdom, or he will confine himself to a few incoherent details. He had a good dinner to-day and a bad toothache yesterday, and a family affliction or blessing the day before. But he is as incapable of summing up his impressions as an infant of performing an operation in the differential calculus. (Leslie Stephen, Hours in a Library; Volume II.)

27.  My Good Bourgeois explains why.

28.  In reading Fontane we glimpse the wide gap that exists between freedom and individuality.  The former is essentially a social conception; the latter a personal one that is likely to respond better to those rare crises that test our character.

29.  Reason, once the liberator of mankind, is today the guard at the asylum’s gatehouse.

30.  T.S. Eliot argued that the artist was an ill person; a sign, surely, of their then outsider nature.  One could read Ryan’s Daughter in this way: the artist needs the people but is at the same time excluded from them. The artist a human wreck that yet can give others comfort - through worship or fellow feeling.  The resemblance to Christ is apparent. Art resurrects the soul through the sufferings of its creator.

31.  The assumption is that a significant part of our identity belongs to society.  Even Rousseau accepted this: the human race could not de-evolve and return to the single isolated individual, whom he believed to be the original natural man.

32.  Rousseau, at least in The Social Contract, was more realistic. The individual’s relationship to society is always unstable; as is society itself; this great thinker aware of the plasticity of social institutions whose nature is largely defined by ever changing circumstance. 

33.  Tolstoy captures this wonderfully in his description of Anna Pavlovna’s party in War and Peace (partially quoted in my Russian Climate).

In his essay Of Refinement in the Arts Hume delivers a panegyric on the advantages of intellectual refinement; he argues, correctly, that it civilises the individual.  He then goes on to write:

Nor are these advantages attended with disadvantages that bear any proportion to them. The more men refine their pleasure, the less will they indulge in excesses of any kind; because nothing is more destructive to true pleasure than such excesses. (Selected Essays)

The key word is “proportion”. Hume is so subtle that he knows that nothing is without its ill-effects. Taking the hint we add an addendum to this wise maxim. 

Hume was writing in a period when the salons (wonderfully described in George Eliot’s Madame Sablé, in Selected Essays…) still existed, and knowledge could be safely allied to entertainment; providing it was presented with wit and elegance. In such sophisticated social circles truths could easily be accommodated; as both the people who made knowledge and those who run the society belonged to the same classes. An additional benefit was that knowledge didn’t legitimate authority, which was founded on hereditary and property rights. In such circles, and particularly in the salons, there would be differences of views, but they could never be excessive.

During the 19th century this changed. Knowledge became dangerous to social order; as the truths of science and the truths of politics could no longer be easily squared with existing authority; for how do you reconcile the actuality - a hereditary elite at the head of a mass democracy - with the myth that The People rule? Such a divergence was helpful to the Left and led to the rise of just the kind of religious enthusiasm that Hume criticised. Strangely, this enthusiasm was based on the very things - knowledge and the “liberal arts” - that were supposed to refine and civilise men’s minds.  George Eliot suggests one reason for this transformation: the rise of print. The sociability of the salon was replaced by an individual communing directly with the public; a one-way traffic on an open road where the writer puts his foot flat to the floor.

Knowledge and society were moving apart…

…today they are coming together again; as education is transformed into corporate capitalism. Myths still exist, but now knowledge can once again legitimate them; a good example the comment about competition in Jenny Turner’s article on British schools.* 

* But…does competition really produce the highest quality stuff? Think back to when new products are first invented; think of the video tape and personal computer. Often it was the second best - Windows over Apple - that won out.  A poorer but serviceable product that, crucially, was cheaper to sell, beat a superior one. Corporate capitalism: it thrives on the second rate; which, naturally, it advertises as the best.

I go too far… A more nuanced model: when a completely new kind of product is invented there is huge competition between a mass of small companies; some making excellent equipment; some extremely poor; the rest more or less adequate. Very quickly these companies are winnowed out by market competition; to leave only a relatively small number of large corporations, that through time become giants.  Within these enormous corporations R&D may well improve products to a standard that is even higher than that of those companies which couldn’t compete on quality and so lost out on price. But note: these improvements have very little to do with competition in the market-sense; they result from exactly the kinds of administration that once existed in the social democratic state; but with this difference - there appears to have been more freedom then; because there was more respect for the experts and workers.

34.  See Enid Starkie’s biography of Baudelaire. 

35. However… The idea of the artist is changing. Today art is seen as a good thing; a socially useful activity. Oh dear: the artist is becoming a valued member of society; the same as everybody else…

36.  See my Dangerous Fantasies. See also A.N. Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy.

37. Surely the moral in Fontane’s Effi Briest.

38. Nietzsche, as always, describes this well.

On the knowledge acquired through suffering. – The condition of sick people, who suffer dreadful and protracted torment from their suffering and whose minds nonetheless remain undisturbed is not without value for the acquisition of knowledge – quite apart from the intellectual benefit which accompanies any profound solitude, any unexpected and permitted liberation from duties.  He who suffers intensely looks out at things with a terrible coldness: all those little lying charms with which things are usually surrounded when the eye of the healthy regards them do not exist for him; indeed, he himself lies there before himself stripped of all colour and plumage.  If until then he has been living in some perilous world of fantasy, this supreme sobering-up through pain is the means of extricating him from it: and perhaps the only means.  (Daybreak; Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality)

39.  See David Hume’s essays on suicide and the immortality of the soul.

40.  See my Critic as Clerk for an explanation of this idea.




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