"You may, indeed — and I trust you will — show yourselves as ingenious in organising men as you have been in dominating Nature." Lowes Dickinson: Letters from John Chinaman.
MR Lowes Dickinson put these words in the mouth of "John Chinaman" criticising the institutions of the western world. Scientific investigators, often in the teeth of ignorance, suspicion, prejudice and even persecution, have by their labours and researches during the last three centuries immeasurably increased our knowledge of the resources and powers of nature. Moreover, this knowledge has been ingeniously and practically applied to the service of mankind to such a wide extent that no man, easterner or westerner, can fail to be impressed when confronted with such a record of solid and steadily accumulative achievement. There is no need to labour the point: we have become so accustomed to the rapidity of material progress that we have ceased to wonder at it.
"But the knowledge of man, of the springs of his conduct, of his relations to his fellow-men, singly or in groups, and the felicitous regulation of human intercourse in the interests of harmony, fairness and peace of mind have made no such advance."— J. H. Robinson, The Mind in the Making
Workers in the field of natural science have overcome the opposition of ignorance, suspicion and prejudice; but these forces still block the way to progress in the social sciences. In our international relations, in politics—the science of government—in economics—the science dealing with the production and distribution of the endless variety of ' goods ' made possible by our progress in natural science—in education, in religion, in all these departments of life where we have to deal with our fellow human beings, and not with machines, the progress made has not been worth the name—it has been a mere muddling through.
For evidence that in international affairs ignorance, suspicion, and prejudice are still active we need look no further than in the recent [Autumn 1946] proceedings of the Peace Conference at Paris. We may disapprove of the 'open diplomacy' methods adopted there; but at any rate they succeeded in revealing the desperate need, even among late allies, for wider knowledge, more mutual sympathy and understanding, and a clearer and less prejudiced appreciation of other nations' points of view.
The annihilation of space and time, the enormously increased productivity of nature and the harnessing of atomic energy—to name but three of the results of recent achievement in the domain of natural science— have brought with them problems which still await solution. At home, it is true that plans have been made to achieve 'social security' and to reorganise education; but we have still to discover how best to effect an equitable distribution of the products of industry and agriculture, how to provide for the increased leisure which mechanical efficiency and shorter hours of work make possible, how to treat the insane and the criminal and how to bring up the homeless child. In the international field, the problems of 'security,''disarmament,' the 'freedom' of the seas, and untrammelled trade and commerce are still unresolved. But the end of the second Great War and the first years of an uneasy peace, have thrust others to the foreground— the control of atomic energy, the feeding of vast numbers of starving people, the finding of homes for so many thousands of 'displaced persons,' and the resettlement of a disrupted, disillusioned and disorganised Germany. The solution of all these problems will require a good deal of ingenuity and clear thinking, if the mistakes made in the years 1919-1939 are to be avoided and if the foundations of a just and durable peace are to be laid.
Our material progress has outstripped our mental progress. It is not that we have made no attempt to deal with the problems that beset us; but we have not so to speak, overhauled our mental equipment before doing so. It is no doubt a painful process, but we have lacked the energy and courage to face it. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that we have shrunk from the task, seeing that the obstacles to be overcome are far more numerous and formidable than those successfully faced and surmounted by scientists in their pursuit of truth; human affairs are far more intricate and perplexing than atoms or molecules; and it is far more difficult for people to change or abandon a habit of mind or a firm conviction or a cherished belief than to scrap, say, antiquated weapons or outworn designs of ships or vehicles. Not that the latter process is an easy one. The means of attack in warfare have always been in advance of the means of defence. The invention of gunpowder made armour and castles useless. The interceptor aeroplane must possess a higher speed than the bomber. Gas masks lag behind new developments in poison gases. And now the atomic bomb threatens to revolutionise the whole conduct and apparatus of warfare. Those who put their faith in armaments seem to forget that there is always a continual race against obsolescence and a continual waste of material that has to be scrapped. The old design of a horse carriage remained long after a new motive power had been discovered; and in the course of mechanical invention in other directions innovators have found it difficult to break away from tradition and convention and have had to contend with vested interests, prejudice, and shortsightedness. How much more difficult it is to get rid of this 'inertia of stupidity,' as it has been aptly termed, and ignorant, shortsighted and interested opposition, when innovation in ideas and modes of thought is suggested!
One of the ways in which we may hope to solve the political, social and economic problems that confront us is to reform our minds; and to examine these problems in the same critical, disinterested and unprejudiced attitude in which scientific men have carried out their labours and researches and reported the results of them to the world. We want more honest and purposive thinking and the results of it expressed in clearer and unequivocal speech and writing.
In thus first emphasising the need for honest thinking, I have not forgotten that it will all be of no avail if the will and desire for reform are not present. There is no place, we are told, for emotion in honest and clear thinking. True, emotion cannot take the place of thought, but it can stimulate, inspire, and clarify thought, if the emotion be noble. All great reformers, men like Wesley, Howard, Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, were inspired by a noble passion: with love for their fellow-men, hope of establishing the Kingdom of God 'on earth, as it is in Heaven,' and a faith that could remove mountains.' A modern philosopher says:
"Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth."
If that is so, then we lack that 'perfect love' which 'casteth out fear.' The thinking of the national representatives at Peace Conferences and United Nations assemblies will be much less muddled if they are all inspired with unselfishness and a genuine anxiety for universal human welfare and if they are not compelled to contend with prejudices in the peoples they represent — prejudices which they themselves have often taken no small part in arousing or strengthening.
But if, as Vauvenargues said, great thoughts rise from the heart, it is better, said John Morley, that they should emerge from the head. The rousing of the right kind of emotion is not enough; the emotion must stimulate the mind to think clearly and courageously; and the thoughts thus framed must be translated into energetic and purposeful action. There is little doubt that there exists to-day in Britain, as in other democratic countries, a strong hatred of war and an equally strong desire for peace. But hatred of war will never, of itself, secure peace; nor will desire for peace of itself abolish war.
"To make men desire peace requires that we should reach the human heart. To help them to translate that desire into practice requires that we should reach the human intellect."
When we are confronted with perplexing problems in our social and political life, how often do we hear the man in the street exclaim: "What we want is the practical man, the man of action; oh, for a government of 'business' men!" But apart from the fact that often the so-called practical or business man's experience may be in a limited field, and that he is often the last man capable of taking a wide view, he too has to think; to be faced with any problem is to be compelled to think. And it does not matter whether the problem is a practical or a theoretical one, the thinking process is just the same. We need the practical man no less and no more than the theorist; and there is no point in trying to discriminate between them. The distinction that needs to be drawn is between idle dreaming and purposive thinking. Purposive thinking is that which is directed towards the solution of any problem, practical or theoretical. Idle dreaming accomplishes nothing.
It is clear, I hope, that I am not disparaging the practical man; but in this country especially the 'theorist' has usually received much undeserved abuse and derision. I well remember the sneering comments of a well-known popular newspaper at a remark of Lord Haldane's soon after his appointment as Minister of War in 1905. He said that the job would need six weeks' hard thinking! Yet Haldane, according to Haig, was our greatest war minister since Pitt. The 'practical' man, on the other hand, has been held up as a paragon, and his opinions accepted with credulity. I am only attempting to redress the balance. The conclusions of the theorist, if well-founded, deserve to be accepted as willingly as those of the practical man. Too often do we come across people who will assent to all the reasoning of the theorist, and then coolly remark that it may be theoretically true, but is practically false; like the boy who, having gone through and seemingly understood Euclid's proof of the Theorem of Pythagoras, remarked to his teacher, "But it really isn't true, is it, Sir?" If a theory fails in practice, then we should condemn it, not for being a theory, but for being an unsound one.
Lastly, we often hear it said that all our problems can be solved with a little common sense. This is true enough, as long as we do not confuse common notions with common sense; and many of the people who profess to order their lives according to the dictates of common sense, are really conforming merely to currently accepted modes of thought. The mental processes, by which the scientific results referred to earlier in this chapter have been attained, are not rare, uncommon or abstruse processes peculiar to the scientific mind, but differ in degree only, not in kind, from those practised by every one of us in the humblest and meanest affairs of life. What is called scientific method is merely trained and organised common sense. As Thomas Huxley said, the same mode of reasoning was employed by Newton and Laplace in their endeavours to discover and define the causes of the movements of the heavenly bodies as the ordinary man, with his own common sense, would employ to detect a burglar.
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If therefore you agree with my premisses, we may fitly address ourselves to the following tasks: to examine and analyse the process of thinking; to learn a little about the methods in which the human mind works; and to find out how knowledge is acquired and widened, how judgments are formed and how they should be applied, and how mistakes are made—in other words, the mental processes of common sense. In the course of this examination and analysis we shall find ourselves learning a little psychology and a little logic.
But a knowledge of logic will defeat the object we have in view, if it is used merely to find arguments to justify our present judgments, instead of to find out whether our judgments are securely founded on fact, or are only the results of personal preference or prejudices. Prejudice is a far more serious obstacle to overcome than illogicality, because our own personal feelings are involved. Where the topic of controversy is academic, or remote from us, where the issue of it will not affect our pride or our pockets or any other ' tender spots,' we can be trusted to consider the pros and cons detachedly, to weigh them impartially and to test the processes of argument logically. But when consciously or unconsciously we have already made up our minds, i.e., prejudged the matter, then our 'reasoning' is merely a 'rationalising' process, and does not contribute at all to honest enlightenment. Prejudices arise from feelings and emotions, good and bad, noble and base. We have already seen how valuable, in fact bow indispensable, feelings and emotions are which really stimulate and inspire us to discover the truth. In our treatment of prejudice we shall consider what are the harmful, misleading and illegitimate uses of emotion in argument.
The next formidable obstacle to honest thinking is laziness—the reluctance to face "the insupportable fatigue of thought." For thinking is a painful process: it requires effort. How easy it is for us to take the line of least resistance and allow others to do the thinking for us! How much easier it is to fall in with accepted opinion than to question it! Hence is derived the tendency to accept without question whatever one sees in print, or the expressed opinions of so-called 'authorities'; hence the credulity of the masses, their impressionability and susceptibility to suggestion. It is fatally easy to succumb to the cleverly worded advertisement, the sophistries of the quack, the catchphrases of the politician, the 'slogans' and axe-grinding propaganda of the popular Press.
And thus we are brought naturally to the last obstacle —language. The English language is perhaps the richest and the most elastic and adaptable in the world; but even so, it is inadequate to express our thoughts, far more our emotions. How often differences arise merely through the misunderstandings of words and phrases! How easy to be misled by ambiguities! Again, words have their difficulties: besides their currently accepted or 'dictionary' meanings, they often carry with them associations, an atmosphere or 'aura,' difficult to define in exact terms. Words with relative significance, i.e., words which chameleon-like take colour from their surroundings or context, are frequently used absolutely in a vague and misleading sense. Other words carry with them not only a meaning, but also a feeling of approval or disapproval in varying degrees of strength: they have an emotional value and, as such, arouse prejudice. Words, too, can be used to conceal or disguise thought, not to elucidate it. There is, again, a fascination about some words: they weave a magic spell, legitimate in the realm of poetic fancy, but dangerous in the sphere of cold thought. Such is the power of words, that frequently men will accept as an explanation of a difficulty a mere statement of it in other words. And it is a common form of self-deception to imagine that, because we are familiar with, and constantly use, a word or phrase, we are also familiar with what it represents. Familiar acquaintance with a term is perpetually mistaken for accurate knowledge of its implications. As Jeremy Bentham put it,
"When we have words in our ears, we imagine that we have ideas in our minds."
I have said little about the capital difficulty of conveying our thoughts, opinions and judgments in clear and precise and concise speech or writing. But the processes of thinking and speaking are so closely connected as to be almost inseparable. Accuracy of observation and clarity of thought are generally accompanied by clarity and accuracy in language: and muddled writing is nearly always the result of muddled thinking.
|N.B.—The following questions are intended to indicate possible lines on which class discussion might be initiated and developed at this stage.|
|1.||"Clear Thinking is a very rare thing, but even just plain thinking is almost as rare. Most of us most of the time do not think at all. We believe and we feel, but we do not think." (Leonard Woolf.)|
Explain and comment.
|2.||What are the limitations of the scientific method in its application to political and social problems?|
|3.||"As a cure for present ills, Clear Thinking is not enough." What more then is required?|
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