“Beginning with the indisputable thing”

This is the essential idea, that all good argument consists in beginning with the indisputable thing and then disputing everything else in the light of it.  It is of great working value in many modern discussions, if its general principle is understood.  First of all, of course, one must leave out the element of the supernatural or the element of the insane.  The element of the supernatural in practical affairs has always been regarded (even by those who most strongly believed in it) as exceptional.  If a miracle is not exceptional, it is not even miraculous.  Nobody was ever taught by any sane creed to count upon or expect anything but the natural.  To put the point briefly, we are commanded to put our faith in miracles, but not to put our trust in them.  The other alternative of mania or some mental breakdown must also be allowed for.  If we have been seriously assured that there are no snakes in Iceland and in spite of that we see snakes in Iceland, it is always reasonable to ask ourselves if our past life has pointed towards “D.T.”  But supposing that those two abnormalities, the mystery that is above humanity and the madness that is below it, are fairly and honestly out of the question, then the right line of argument certainly is that seeing is believing and that the things we have experienced are true in quite another and more pungent sense than the things into which we can merely be argued.  If I am sitting opposite my aunt in Croydon, a telegram may come from her in Highgate, a newspaper may announce that she is taking part in a Highgate Pageant, an expert may prove that it was impossible for her to have reached Croydon in the time, a statistician may say that he has counted all the aunts in Highgate, and there is not one missing; but all these facts are facts of a secondary degree of evidence.  They have the expert, but I have the aunt.  Unless my aunt is a devil, or I am a lunatic, I have possession of the primary fact in the discussion.

I have already said that this very plain principle of thought is useful in connection with many current problems.  Take, for example, the problem of the Unemployed.  It is very common to meet a prosperous gentleman who will point to a seedy and half-starved loafer in the street, and say: “This unemployment business is all bosh: I offered that man work the other day, and he wouldn’t take it.”  Now, this may possibly be true; but it is always used in order to disprove the idea that the man is miserable.  But to disprove that is simply to disprove the one thing that is proved.  You have only to look at the man to say that, for some reason, by somebody’s fault, or nobody’s fault, he has not eaten enough to be a man, or even to be an animal.  That he refused work is a curious circumstance, to be reconciled, if possible, with the palpable fact that he wants money.  He may have refused it because he is half-witted, or because fatigue has killed all power of choice, or because wrong has moved him to an irrational anger, or because he is a saint, or because he is a maniac, or because he is terrorised by a secret society, or because he has a peculiar religion which forbids him to work on Wednesday.  But whatever the explanation is, it is not that he is jolly and full of meat and drink; because you can see that he isn’t.  His impotence may have this cause or that cause, or the other; but his impotence is no defence of the existing system of wealth and poverty.  To use the modern cant, it does not destroy the problem of the unemployed; it only adds to the problem of the unemployable.  But our main point here is this: that people ought to begin by the thing that they can see.  It may take you twenty years to find whether a man is honest.  But it does not take you two seconds to find out that he is thin.  The ordinary rich man’s argument is that because the tramp is dishonest, he must somehow be secretly fat.  That is the great fallacy.  Believe me (I speak as an expert), it is impossible to be fat in secret.

The Illustrated London News, 7 November 1908.

Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 7:36 am  Leave a Comment  

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