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British Philosophy

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British philosophy
False steps

©1996-2017 T. P. Davis


[The issue uppermost in the minds of Hume and Mill was] what internal relevance there was between cause and effect, to be the reason for their sequence. . . . People, in a word, desiderate a dialectical or moral unity in natural sequences, and it was the absence of this desideration that Hume and Mill pointed out.

Letters 3:197 (To Curt John Ducasse, Rome, April 19, 1924) [#759 1924]


Here my chief conversation is with Bertrand Russell. He has a theory of nature, or rather of the knowledge of nature, which is rather Mill-ish and almost Humean; it is artificial and accurate, and is related to reality like a literal translation in Bohnís library to the original Homer or Aeschylus. But in logic I find him very clear and enlightening, and I hope to profit by his indications in my book. We are very far apart, however, farther than I had supposed, in outlook. He wants certainty, and the narrowest deepest possible foundations for thought; I want judicious opinions and a just balance in the imagination.

Letters 2:156 (To Horace Meyer Kallen , Cambridge, November 10, 1913) [#760 1913]


Russell says there are some things that it is a fallacy even to mention! They can be only predicates. I understand numbers are among them. Poor infallible arithmetic thus turns out to be guilty of original sin and to have committed a fallacy before it begins to speak. Perhaps the Pope is alone infallible after all. Russell is more English, atomistic, and nominalistic than I had supposed.

Letters 2:157 to 2:158 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Cambridge, November 18, 1913) [#761 1913]


You say at the very end that Russell should speak of "things as they appear" and not of "sense-data". It may interest you to know that by "sense-data" he means just that, i.e. what I call objects of animal perception. He does not mean sensible qualities, but existences of that quality. He denies altogether . . . essences of my sort; they are "things which it is a fallacy even to mention", since predicates can be predicates only, never subjects. And they are all absolutely simple. Such "essences" as numbers do not exist (even in the realm of essence) but are mere qualities of things in couples, etc. . . . I feel more vividly than before that all of you—realists, panpsychists and idealists, and even Bertie the apostle of logistic—are interested only in physics; you are all blooming existence-hunters, and like the pre-Socratics, exclusively concerned with the material principle. It remains for me only, the sole "materialist", to be something more as well.

Letters 2:161 (To Charles Augustus Strong , Cambridge, November 28, 1913) [#762 1913]

Empiricism of Russell

Russell has relapsed into English Empiricism: the only point (besides the independent existence of the subject) he seems to adhere to against them is the connection of sense-data with a mind; for I understand that the new construction out of sense-data is not a subjective construction in Hume's or Mill's-fashion out of actual perceptions, but a mechanical or logical construction out of objective entities such as those given in sense and defined exhaustively by their given qualities. This is a hopeless air-castle . . . .

Letters 2:167 (To Charles Augustus Strong , Seville, January 21, 1914) [#763 1914]

Englishmen and philosophy

I don't think Englishmen are inclined to think, unless there is something wrong with them; the good and happy ones don't think at all; they merely feel the pleasant eloquence and practical import of language. They can be great poets and sailors (not generals!) but they are lost in philosophy; and only the small cranky minds among them take to philosophy hard.

Letters 5:88 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, February 24, 1934) [#764 1934]

Human nature ignored in Moore

I have been reading Moore's Principia Ethica . . . . I should more heartily agree with his logic if it were backed by some sense of the conditions in which it operates, some knowledge of human nature. His points become cogent only when the speaker forgets himself and makes his assertions irresponsibly forthright and categorical. .... How little wisdom these metaphysicians have, and how punctiform and scholastic their vision of things is apt to become when they live in colleges or dwell in an atmosphere of technical controversy.

Letters 1:275 (To Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson , Florence, November 22, 1904) [#765 1904]


[Taking "idea" often to mean "essence"] clears up Locke's confusions, so to speak, upwards; but there remain the confusions downwards, towards biology. Locke was a psychologist, as much as a critic of knowledge: used psychology as an instrument in criticism; and he felt he knew perfectly the origin of ideas, namely, that they arose by contact of the human body with material things. This was the original meaning of "experience". Had Locke stuck to this presupposition of common sense, he would have restored tradition downwards as well as upwards, and retained an "orthodox" system entirely different from that developed by his followers almost exclusively out of his errors and ambiguities.

Letters 5:95 to 5:96 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, March 25, 1934) [#773 1934]


[My theory of essence] dethrones the family idol of British home-philosophy. An essence is an "idea," but an idea lifted out of its immersion in existing objects and in existing feelings; so that when considered in itself and recognised as a pure essence its very clarity seems to strip both objects and feelings of their familiar lights: reality becomes mysterious and appearance becomes unreal: an intolerable thought to pictorial realists and pictorial idealists.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 500 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#774 1940]


This is more artificial than anything in the Scholastics. I never felt so clearly what a fatal error the British school made in setting up "ideas" or "percepts" or whatever they call them, for constituents of the cosmos. They are appearances: and from the beginning animal faith, which [Bertrand Russell] calls animal inference . . . takes for a sign, a call, an aspect, even if at first faith (or intellect) has nothing but the casual appearance to describe it by. But it is a dynamic thing, a force on the same plan as our total action.

Letters 8:150 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Rome, March 15, 1949) [#776 1949]

Immediacy of knowledge?

It was a false step at which Hobbes halted, which Locke took unsuspectingly, and which sent Berkeley and Hume head over heels: the assumption that facts are known immediately.

Soliloquies at 193 (John Bull and His Philosophers) [#777 1919]


It is one of the anomalies of the English mind that while in moral sentiment it makes this margin [for the waywardness of individuals] very narrow, especially among strict liberals, in political theory it leaves it immense; for in the doctrine of liberalism, which is an English product, only the province of the police (that is, safety of person and property) stands subject to control and imposes a duty to collaborate; while in everything intellectual or ideal each man should bravely paddle his own canoe.

But nature does not allow this sort of division of labour, because in the actual order of things what is ideal and intellectual is but the free life and expression of what is material. If you organise the state and industry (say, on the immutable basis of universal competition, free trade, and the right of inheritance) with compulsory state education, monogamy, severe laws against libel and slander, and a science in which all men share, accepting one another's discoveries, then it would be perfectly idle for you to leave thought and love and religion free; a bird in the cage is free in the same way to flap its wings.

It is a material social bondage that enslaves the mind, which cannot be otherwise enslaved; and freedom of mind depends on freedom to rearrange material conditions so that, living under them, the mind may flourish effectually.

The political order that a radical liberalism would establish is therefore a Domination and not a rational order. . . . Liberal society is therefore compelled to form all manner of voluntary private societies to replenish the human vacuity of its political life; but these private societies, being without power or material roots, remain ghostly and artificial. Private busybodies cannot fill the void in the heart of the political animal, hungry for friendship, for action, for distinction, for perilous adventures, and for rare accomplishments to be achieved in common.

Dominations at 352-353 (Moral Unanimity Impossible) [#778 1951]


Specific potentialities existing at specific places and times are precisely what substance means. I should adopt that for a definition of matter. This is what Mill ought to have said, putting potentiality, a physical term, in the place of "possibility," an irrelevant logical one; since everything is always possible, but only specific eventual things are grounded in matter; and Mill also ought not to have spoken of "sensation" as the realisation of that definite and local potency, because sensation almost always is absent in the evolution of matter, that in which the potentiality is developed being all the ensuing events.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 586 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#779 1940]

Political-revolutionary current

Not so superior as Descartes [is Heidegger], I grant: there you have a first rate man. Locke, and all the English, aren't better than third rate: but they had a political-revolutionary current to carry them and make them important.

Letters 5:137 (To Daniel MacGhie Cory, Venice, October 3, 1934) [#780 1934]

Protestant theology attenuated

[A]nd there is also, coming from Germany and England, a transcendental idealism or dialectical eschatology, which are simply Protestant theology attenuated. The rightness of private judgment has become absolute inwardness and universal mentality; and the cries of the Hebrew prophets have become a moralistic philosophy of history, always flattering to the nationality or politics of the historian.

Schilpp's Phil. of G.S. at 507 (Apologia Pro Mente Sua) [#781 1940]

Sensualistic idealism

But alleged things, supposed existences directly intuited, may not exist in fact, as the mouse didn't in the case of the "psychical" lady. These dreamt-of-things (and perception is, I say, just dreaming in itself) may not actually be those on which the bodily reaction ensues, they may be illusions. To show that some of them are not we need inference, argument, and above all art, mechanical practice. This faith in our intuition of nature, this chastened faith in perception, is science and common-sense; it is a rational form of thought and belief. It is not mere perception, or the animal sense (perhaps an illusion) that each particular essence intuited is a real thing. You must distinguish the sense of an existing object from the existence of an object such as is perceived. Otherwise your realism is senusalistic idealism under another name—as Bertie Russells system is. He hardly differs, in the end, from John Stuart Mill.

Letters 2:161 to 2:162 (To Charles Augustus Strong, Cambridge, November 28, 1913) [#783 1913]

Subjective modern philosophy

The English and German philosophy that we have become accustomed to is not normal. They are both, though differently, subjective, and therefore on a by-path in nature, the English being only literary psychology or autobiography and the German moralistic mythology.

Letters 8:395 (To Richard Colton Lyon, Rome, November 11, 1951) [#784 1951]

Subjective modern philosophy

[Berkeley and Hume] never seemed to me to belong, as the English think, to the main line of philosophy, but to a loop-line called subjectivism, and limited, in appeal, to the Protestant and romantic movements.

Letters 8:425 (To Richard Colton Lyon, Rome, March 9, 1952) [#785 1952]


Hume, like Berkeley, was extremely young, scarce five-and-twenty, when he wrote his most incisive work; he was not ready to propose in theory that test of ideas by their utility which in practice he and the whole English school have instinctively adopted. An ulterior test of validity would not have seemed to him satisfactory, for though inclined to rebellion and positivism he was still the pupil of that mythical philosophy which attributed the value of things to their origin rather than to their uses, because it had first, in its parabolic way, erected the highest good into a First Cause.

Common Sense at 92-93 (On Some Critics of This Discovery) [#786 1905]

Number of quotations (including supressed): 22