Thursday, September 10, 2009

WWWTW I.1 on Logic and Homelessness

Hurray! Today, September 10, we actually set forth on our way - we begin our journey into Chesterton's soon-to-be-centennial text What's Wrong With the World. As we may expect, this very serious study of very difficult problems begins with some of Chesterton's famed "verbal fireworks" - what the casual reader will think is nothing more than sheer silliness of words.

Or is it?

Ah. One of the most difficult tasks we have in this modern "high-tech" world is to try to set forth the underpinnings of truth. So many people have adopted a very pointless and stupid view of things, a view which often appears to be unarguable, because they claim it is "SCIENTIFIC" or "LOGICAL". They use the word quite freely, even though they have no idea what "logical" really means - but once it is attached to something, no matter how stupid or false, they feel they have made their case adamant against all attacks.

Fortunately, Chesterton has the perfect tool to pry off that illness which has attached itself to so many little minds in our time. It is the tool called HUMOR. He uses it again and again, trying to awaken our reason.

Yes, I even try it myself - I have taken the analogy of a "hike" to represent our journey into this text, since it permits a variety of analogies. But let us go back to this term "logical".

Now, you can go and listen to the "Logical Song" by Supertramp which I happen to like - their phrase about deep questions late at night reminds me of Subsidiarity, but I cannot go into that now. Or you can watch the original "Star Trek" episodes or read the many additional stories of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the gang, some of which are quite good - but (as hard as it will be for you to accept) you will find very little logic there. Alas, neither rock-and-roll nor sci-fi can help if we want to understand this easy and ancient idea. (No, I am NOT going to lecture about logic in computers, that's going too far afield!) By now you should know that I will always use GKC to help understand GKC - and so, at the risk of delaying today's expedition, let us see what Chesterton says about logic. "Indeed Captain!" You may be quite surprised...
Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. ... The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic. Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic - for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.
[GKC Daily News Feb 25, 1905 quoted in Maycock, The Man Who Was Orthodox]
Yes. And sometimes GKC uses tricks to get us to pay attention to these assumptions. Let us hear a little more, and then we shall proceed to our hike.
A great deal is said in these days about the value or valuelessness of logic. In the main, indeed, logic is not a productive tool so much as a weapon of defence. A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians. Logic is a machine of the mind, and if it is used honestly it ought to bring out an honest conclusion. When people say that you can prove anything by logic, they are not using words in a fair sense. What they mean is that you can prove anything by bad logic. Deep in the mystic ingratitude of the soul of man there is an extraordinary tendency to use the name for an organ, when what is meant is the abuse or decay of that organ. Thus we speak of a man suffering from "nerves," which is about as sensible as talking about a man suffering from ten fingers. We speak of "liver" and "digestion" when we mean the failure of liver and the absence of digestion. And in the same manner we speak of the dangers of logic, when what we really mean is the danger of fallacy. But the real point about the limitation of logic and the partial overthrow of logic by writers like Carlyle is deeper and somewhat different. The fault of the great mass of logicians is not that they bring out a false result, or, in other words, are not logicians at all. Their fault is that by an inevitable psychological habit they tend to forget that there are two parts of a logical process, the first the choosing of an assumption, and the second the arguing upon it, and humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption. It is astonishing how constantly one may hear from rational and even rationalistic persons such a phrase as " He did not prove the very thing with which he started," or, "the whole of his case rested upon a pure assumption," two peculiarities which may be found by the curious in the works of Euclid. It is astonishing, again, how constantly one bears rationalists arguing upon some deep topic, apparently without troubling about the deep assumptions involved, having lost their sense, as it were, of the real colour and character of a man's assumption.
[GKC "Thomas Carlyle" in Varied Types 112-5; see Nehemiah (2 Esdras) 4:17]

Very well. Now, having taken all this very preliminary training, we can now proceed up the first simple slope, the first chapter of Part One - or is it something far steeper? Let us see!

PART ONE The Homelessness of Man.
Chapter 1 The Medical Mistake.

A book of modern social inquiry has a shape that is somewhat sharply defined. It begins as a rule with an analysis, with statistics, tables of population, decrease of crime among Congregationalists, growth of hysteria among policemen, and similar ascertained facts; it ends with a chapter that is generally called "The Remedy." It is almost wholly due to this careful, solid, and scientific method that "The Remedy" is never found. For this scheme of medical question and answer is a blunder; the first great blunder of sociology. It is always called stating the disease before we find the cure. But it is the whole definition and dignity of man that in social matters we must actually find the cure before we find the disease.

The fallacy is one of the fifty fallacies that come from the modern madness for biological or bodily metaphors. It is convenient to speak of the Social Organism, just as it is convenient to speak of the British Lion. But Britain is no more an organism than Britain is a lion. The moment we begin to give a nation the unity and simplicity of an animal, we begin to think wildly. Because every man is a biped, fifty men are not a centipede. This has produced, for instance, the gaping absurdity of perpetually talking about "young nations" and "dying nations," as if a nation had a fixed and physical span of life. Thus people will say that Spain has entered a final senility; they might as well say that Spain is losing all her teeth. Or people will say that Canada should soon produce a literature; which is like saying that Canada must soon grow a mustache. Nations consist of people; the first generation may be decrepit, or the ten thousandth may be vigorous. Similar applications of the fallacy are made by those who see in the increasing size of national possessions, a simple increase in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. These people, indeed, even fall short in subtlety of the parallel of a human body. They do not even ask whether an empire is growing taller in its youth, or only growing fatter in its old age. But of all the instances of error arising from this physical fancy, the worst is that we have before us: the habit of exhaustively describing a social sickness, and then propounding a social drug.

Now we do talk first about the disease in cases of bodily breakdown; and that for an excellent reason. Because, though there may be doubt about the way in which the body broke down, there is no doubt at all about the shape in which it should be built up again. No doctor proposes to produce a new kind of man, with a new arrangement of eyes or limbs. The hospital, by necessity, may send a man home with one leg less: but it will not (in a creative rapture) send him home with one leg extra. Medical science is content with the normal human body, and only seeks to restore it.

But social science is by no means always content with the normal human soul; it has all sorts of fancy souls for sale. Man as a social idealist will say "I am tired of being a Puritan; I want to be a Pagan," or "Beyond this dark probation of Individualism I see the shining paradise of Collectivism." Now in bodily ills there is none of this difference about the ultimate ideal. The patient may or may not want quinine; but he certainly wants health. No one says "I am tired of this headache; I want some toothache," or "The only thing for this Russian influenza is a few German measles," or "Through this dark probation of catarrh I see the shining paradise of rheumatism." But exactly the whole difficulty in our public problems is that some men are aiming at cures which other men would regard as worse maladies; are offering ultimate conditions as states of health which others would uncompromisingly call states of disease. Mr. Belloc once said that he would no more part with the idea of property than with his teeth; yet to Mr. Bernard Shaw property is not a tooth, but a toothache. Lord Milner has sincerely attempted to introduce German efficiency; and many of us would as soon welcome German measles. Dr. Saleeby would honestly like to have Eugenics; but I would rather have rheumatics.

This is the arresting and dominant fact about modern social discussion; that the quarrel is not merely about the difficulties, but about the aim. We agree about the evil; it is about the good that we should tear each other's eyes out. We all admit that a lazy aristocracy is a bad thing. We should not by any means all admit that an active aristocracy would be a good thing. We all feel angry with an irreligious priesthood; but some of us would go mad with disgust at a really religious one. Everyone is indignant if our army is weak, including the people who would be even more indignant if it were strong.- The social case is exactly the opposite of the medical case. We do not disagree, like doctors, about the precise nature of the illness, while agreeing about the nature of health. On the contrary, we all agree that England is unhealthy, but half of us would not look at her in what the other half would call blooming health. Public abuses are so prominent and pestilent that they sweep all generous people into a sort of fictitious unanimity. We forget that, while we agree about the abuses of things, we should differ very much about the uses of them. Mr. Cadbury and I would agree about the bad public-house. It would be precisely in front of the good public-house that our painful personal fracas would occur.

I maintain, therefore, that the common sociological method is quite useless: that of first dissecting abject poverty or cataloguing prostitution. We all dislike abject poverty; but it might be another business if we began to discuss independent and dignified poverty. We all disapprove of prostitution; but we do not all approve of purity. The only way to discuss the social evil is to get at once to the social ideal. We can all see the national madness; but what is national sanity? I have called this book "What Is Wrong with the World?" and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right. [GKC WWWTW CW4:39-41
Yes, that's all of it - we're back home on the same day! As you see, these chapters are nice and short, and very convenient for us. But all that joking around, you grumble - why doesn't he just say something? Well, you laugh because you are thinking - you can put things together and see the analogies - which is what he wants! He wants you to pay attention, because once you are awake and laughing, perhaps you will think a little about what he is saying, and realize that some others are saying things which don't make any sense at all.

Now. I have just one little note to mention here, which I shall give only in a reference form, rather than provoke a lot of unnecessary quarrelling, since its proper treatment belongs to another forum. That is, this view of "organism" goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers, and is discussed at great length in the first chapter of Jaki's The Relevance of Physics. It is not pleasant, but it needs to be faced. Interested students of such topics should proceed to their local Duhem Society - or wait until I get a chance to post more about it on the blogg. But I make no promises. Please note that all this is an aside, and a reference for completeness; GKC has already said all you really need with his line about how 50 men do not make one centipede. Hee hee.

One more note - which I almost forgot. Perhaps someone will think I ought to have saved it for the END of this part, but I think we shall need it now. You will recall that I made some mention last week to the Fall as a wayof stating "What's Wrong With the World". You will find that Chesterton has already coupled the idea in another way, in one of his most touching poems:
"The House Of Christmas"

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
[GKC CW10:139-140]


  1. Greetings, dear Dr. Thursday!

    I follow your chestertonian blog, cause I love GKC -my nick is a humble tribute to his colossal works and life.

    Thanks for this texts: the poem "The House of Christmas" is a masterpiece.

    Sometimes I reed your blog and I like their contents.

    Once again, thank you, American Chesterton Society.


    Cheers, dear Dr. Thursday!

  2. Maolsheachlann, Ireland9/10/2009 2:47 PM

    The first time I read that passage from What's Wrong with the World-- "the medical mistake"-- I was really taken aback. I had been getting more and more interested in conservatism-- before I read Chesterton's definition of conservatism as a reluctance to correct the mistakes of liberalism!- and nearly all the conservative books I read drummed in the point, over and over again, that it was a liberal and totalitarian mistake to think society had any "ideal". That was social engineering and liberal hubris. Writers like Popper and Burke and Scruton assured me that social goods couldn't be analysed or planned or dissected. But, when I encountered Chesterton's argument-- as so often-- I instantly saw he was right. Chesterton cured me of crude conservatism!

    And aren't we all at home in Christmas? Surely it's the most healthy part of our modern society...

    Respect on mentioning Star Trek and Supertramp in a post about Chesterton!


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