“Explanations from the disputed”

I read the other day in some philosophical magazine or other that some Professor whose name I forget (why not say Posh?) was the most conscientious and thorough investigator of ethical origins; and that Posh had come to the conclusion that the old doctrine of a definite thing called the conscience could not be maintained.  If I were to say that I had swum to an island where I learnt that there was no such thing as swimming, you would think it a rather odd remark.  If I told you that I had read a book which conclusively proved to me that I could not read, your lips might murmur faintly the word “paradox”.  If I were to say that I had seen a diagram which distinctly proved me to be blind, it is barely possible that you would not believe me.  Yet I wonder how many mild but intelligent modern mortals would have read or have read that phrase in the philosophical magazine, and not seen anything absurd in the idea of a man conscientiously discovering that he has no conscience.

This is the most irritating of all the modern illogicalities.  I mean the habit of beginning with something of which we are doubtful and expounding (or even denying) in the light of it that of which we are certain.  Superficially and to start with, it is obvious that the world around us may be almost anything; it may be anarchy or Providence or inevitable progress, or mere natural routine; there is something to be said for its being Hell.  The thing of which we are certain is ourselves, and the existence or non-existence in us of such things as a moral sense or the art of swimming.  That is the first situation; the origin of all religion and all irreligion.  But these extraordinary Professors ask me to begin with evolution and all sorts of things that may never even have occurred; and in the light of them discuss whether my own experiences have occurred.  They light up the certain with explanations from the disputed.  Now I am not passionately anxious to be explained; and I resolutely refuse to be explained away.  Drive me away, if I sufficiently submissive.  Carry me away, if I am sufficiently portable.  But do not imagine that you can explain me away and that I shall accept the explanation in a gentlemanly spirit;  do not suppose that you can either browbeat or persuade me out of the mystic and primordial certainty that I am that I am.  The point is very obvious; and yet the missing of it is responsible for a forest of mistakes that are growing round us on every side and in every question.  Generalizations absorb and employ details, but they cannot abolish them.  General knowledge may prove that your experience is general, or it may prove that it is not general; but it cannot prove that it is not genuine.  And yet in almost every one of the practical points in dispute in our society, people are being worried and poisoned and misled by this quite infantile fallacy.

The Illustrated London News, 20 February 1909.

Published in: on April 29, 2009 at 8:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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