The Modern Well-Tempered Mind
‘Is life worth living?’ ‘It depends on the liver.’ Thus did William James with a pun assign to the interpretative humanities their legitimate place in the attempt to trace the cosmic economy, and placed us all in his debt. For in so doing he rendered it unnecessary that anyone should be compelled to wallow in the miasmas of despair to which certain scientifically beset moderns and Spenglerians seem determined to consign us. We may hear the voice of modern science speaking to us, ‘each in his own tongue.’ James would tell us that the disposition which we bring to the reading of the facts is of as great practical importance as the facts themselves. Science gives us no aid in reading the facts; that is matter for philosophy and religion, whose work includes the interpretation of the data furnished by science.
It is possible for us to look out upon Nature and to see no more than that which is immediately given to us: a series of disconnected phenomena, a chaos with a blind thirst for life, utterly devoid of any pattern or process which man can understand, devoid also of anything like rationality. One may see a Nature everywhere at war with what man wants, continually throwing up obstacles to oppose his desires and his emotions, and conclude that Nature is out of joint, a poor affair indeed. One may see the human being, with his reason and his higher sensibilities, as one of Nature’s freaks, analogous to nothing else which she has produced, and out of place in a universe which itself exhibits no such qualities as these. Although man would fain project a humanity and a teleology upon Nature and thus make her intelligible, would fain make her yield some support for his emotions, his morality, and his spiritual life, in reality there are no correspondences of this kind in Nature herself. In such a universe, to which he is completely alien, he finds life reasonable and bearable only in virtue of his myths, his illusions, his religion, and his philosophy, all born of desire, which interrelate the crazy fragments and give a semblance of rationality and purpose to the whole. By these man has heretofore sustained himself, but now modern science, in explaining, has explained away his myths one by one, and has left him more than ever alone in a world utterly indifferent to his values — the most miserable of all earth’s creatures, because he alone has been enabled to ask the question ‘Why?’ Under such conditions we face, therefore, the vision of a dehumanized world, or else we must make a readjustment more stupendous than any that has ever before been attempted.
This reading of certain facts presented to us by modern science may impress some rather as a modern distemper than as ‘The Modern Temper,’ the title of Mr. Joseph Wood Krutch’s stimulating and arresting article which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly of February 1927, and of which the above is an abstract. Yet the problems treated in this essay and the issues raised therein are real ones to all who have given sufficient interest to the matter to be aware of the difficulties involved in man’s adjustment of his spirit to the new environment amid which science proclaims him to be living, and to all who feel concerned at the prospect of a robotage, either natural or mechanical, which has been prophesied for him.
The first part of the present paper has to do with several specific features of Mr. Krutch’s philosophy, the second part with certain issues which it has brought to the fore.
Is Mr. Krutch’s interpretation of facts, or one cast in the same minor mode, the only type which at the present we can honestly and reasonably hold? Given an ethics which does not rest back upon individual satiety, an eye which can discern positive achievements and significant victories as well as difficulties and defeats, and a full recognition of the truth for which the evolutionary hypothesis stands, might not a different story be told? For any philosophy which blandly ignores the large body of well-authenticated evidence supporting the evolutionary hypothesis, together with the upward trend, however gradual, spasmodic, or irregular it may be, revealed by it, will be deficient just in proportion as it does so.
1. There are those, for example, of an equal robust icity with T. S. Eliot, who would interpret happiness in terms of struggle and effort, in capacity for appreciation, rather than in terms of ‘a life in which no lack can be perceived.’ The successful attainment of the latter ideal might well result in the production of a race of intellectual, moral, and spiritual morons, or else prove to be a life of unutterable boredom. Hegel could point to the glory and the desirability of strife. He saw the healthy man as one who asks not so much for happiness as for an opportunity to exercise his capacities, for which power and freedom he is willing to pay the penalty of pain. The life and words of that sturdy invalid Robert Louis Stevenson, too, stand as illustrative here: ‘For to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.’ And we recall similar words from Mr. Shaw, in Man and Superman, when he defines the true joy of life as ‘the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.’ The shade of Carlyle, seemingly here invoked, would also nod approval. The struggle, therefore, which seems to be inherent in Nature may be shown to have a direct relation to man’s highest needs, in the development not only of his physical, but also of his moral and spiritual powers, which have been responsible for the creation of his highest and most characteristic products, and have sustained him in his pursuit of still higher ends.
2. Nor must we deplore the evolution of these moral and spiritual qualities as the great misery-makers for man, and out of place in this universe. Let him who will envy the amoral contentedness of the animals. They have paid their price for it and they have their reward. ‘All the thoughts of the turtle are turtle.’ Healthy-minded human beings, however, prefer to pay the higher price to retain their distinctive human qualities: free will (which we act as though we have), the conscious moral sense, the evaluational and the æsthetic consciousness, powers of retrospection, of appreciation, of interpretation, of aspiration, of conceptual thought, and the like. While the possession of these does breed a certain dissatisfaction with earth, does make necessary a troublesome, continual adjustment to the universe, and exposes man to dangers peculiar only to himself, yet they make available — or seem to — a range of conscious moral choices, a fullness and a richness of life, capacities for development — in short, conscious compensations, also appreciable by him alone, which are well worth all the struggle spent to maintain them.
The significance of Nature’s human experiment is to be gauged by her production of the few representative and typical ones who by dint of the striving which she seems to have made conditional to attainment, and in which robust souls have found life’s greatest satisfactions and meaning, have revealed and advanced new and unsuspected intellectual, moral, and spiritual possibilities in human nature while at the same time keeping their feet upon the earth — her highest and most successful exemplar being the Carpenter of Nazareth.
There are thus those again who translate the document of human evolution far differently, who, accepting the fundamental scientific principle of efficient causes, see that it is impossible to regard man as a ‘fantastic thing that has developed sensibilities and established values beyond the nature which gave him birth.’ Such a view contradicts the very science to which Mr. Krutch gives so much weight, and throws us back upon a creation ex nihilo, upon a chaotic universe indeed. Rather must we say here because of the nature which gave him birth. The discerning observer, who includes in human experience not only the facts given by the scientific method, but also those ‘ transcendental cravings’ which have formulated our mythologies, illusions, philosophies, and religions, sees in such cravings, as possessed by man alone, not that which makes him of all Nature its sole maladaptation, but that which is the ultimate product to date of an evolutionary process out of which, to say the least, cause and effect cannot be dropped. If this be true, then are such cravings rooted in Nature, and have a home here. We cannot put them down as chance excrescences. They will ‘belong’ until they become impotent, either to sustain or to promote higher forms of life. But Mr. Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy is even to-day a ‘best seller.’
And that harrowing discontent which we call ‘divine,’ source of the creative joy of the artist, and of the sciences themselves, is it not that which is distinctive of man, and prophetic of what he may become? If the net result of the long, laborious process of evolution thus far has been the production of human personality with its sense of values, there are not lacking those who, if a pronouncement had to be made as to the greater degree of reality attaching either to the world of external Nature or to man’s transcendental cravings, would speak in favor of the latter. Mr. Krutch too recognizes their survival value, and in so doing pays tribute to the reality which informs and underlies the fantastic and grotesque garb and symbolism in which they are often clothed.
But, as a matter of fact, we are not called upon to make such a pronouncement or such a separation. Biology and psychology have been busy recently pointing out to us the unity of experience, of which the ‘natural’ and the ‘spiritual’ realms are distinguishable but inseparable aspects. It is a commonplace of modern thinking that the world is ‘all of a piece.’ Investigation revealing the electronic structure of matter is rendering the older dualism between matter and spirit more difficult than ever to maintain, and supports the idea of a universe in a very literal sense of the term — supports too, paradoxically, the idea of a universe in which the conflict and the friction making for the perfect adjustment of part to whole are essential to Being itself, and not an antagonism to be deplored.
Impossible, therefore, is the dualism between man and Nature, so devastating a cudgel in the hands of the human defeatist. Strictly, if values exist for man, they exist also for Nature. What are Nature’s ‘purposes,’ her ‘values,’ her ‘will,’ save those which our own consciousness comprehends in her and evaluates as such? But some of man’s experimental projections after a permanent set of values are bound to meet with the same end as many other of Nature’s trials after values and processes that will be possessed of a high survival potency, after those best fitted to sustain life and to promote higher forms of life. Man’s values themselves represent an evolution, and that adjustment of relationship between human and extrahuman Nature which the dualist interprets as an indifference to man’s values will doubtless remain a constant factor while his purposes ever remould themselves into such as are better adapted to further the total process. But the monistic view of Nature allowed to us by science forbids us to regard man, even with all his ‘conflict’ with her, as a thing set over against her.
3. Again, we may ask what the stubborn persistence of the ethical and spiritual aspects of experience, with their causal germs in Nature herself, tells us concerning the character of the world in which we live. If facts have any meaning whatsoever, it can scarcely be maintained that a universe in which man’s supersensual longings have persisted up through the crude stages of superstition, animism, and myth to the refined, complicated philosophical systems and ethical monotheisms of today despite obstacle and persecution, a universe in which such pains and struggles have been expended in the production of human values, is one which is utterly indifferent to these yearnings and values. Here have been found elements out of which such values were capable of being wrought. Indifferent the universe may appear as to man’s use of its materials, but it has contained possibilities which have enabled him to evolve more than a ‘finished animality,’ possibilities also integral to Being. The very effort required in the creation of his ethical and spiritual values has led accordingly to their greater appreciation and to their conservation. There is ample ground for the conservatism of religion. And science is steadily placing in our hands powers and instruments whose intelligent use makes it possible for us still further to conserve human values in the face of the more violent aspects of Nature.
Indeed, upon the ‘other-regarding’ behavior, especially the mother’s protection of the young, which is present in certain species of the animal realm, and upon the survival of types possessing these qualities rather than of such as the heavily armored creatures, John Fiske has succeeded in making out rather a strong case for an ethical trend inherent in Nature herself. To be sure, it is only the human evaluational consciousness ‘projecting a humanity upon Nature’ — a procedure against which Mr. Krutch rightly warns us — which allows us to talk of anything like ethics or morals in connection with animals. Yet, if by so doing it is possible to observe in the animal kingdom persistent elements in which we can see factors of value for the evolutionary process, elements to which we have attached human values and which are unconsciously cherished by the animal kingdom, then the presence there of such traces argues corresponding characters and qualities inherent in Nature, and may constitute important pointings and leadings, instructive analogies which should be of worth in effecting man’s ever-needed adjustment to Nature and in his conscious direction of human evolution.
Furthermore, the faith which the scientist daily shows in the constancy and dependability of Nature’s processes, upon which the discovery of scientific laws and certain types of fact depend, presupposes in the universe what we can call by no better name than ‘moral trustworthiness.’ Nor can we lightly dismiss as mere subjective phantasmagoria all the body of evidence given in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience and in the experience of the mystics of all ages, who, like the scientists, have expected and have found an answering dependability in Nature on condition of the proper adjustment. The same may be said of the higher reaches of religious experience as found in those other vast collections of ‘Varieties’ — the sacred books of the world.
Instead of relegating such elements to the scrap heap as anachronisms, we shall probably find in them the very powers needed to evolve that which will progressively yield our hearts’ desires, if we are robust, and may find in them a support for that human dignity which has such a strong survival value. Perhaps the ancients spoke better than they knew when they placed man at the centre of the universe. An inquiry into the significance and the place of this large, vital, and unique area of human experience cannot be omitted in making up any estimate of Nature or of Reality.
4. Lastly, science makes it clear to us that she conceives a rationality, an orderliness at the very heart of the universe. The theorems and principles of science have been invented by the human reason, working upon data supplied by Nature herself. If the scientist believed that Nature had no rationale of her own which was accessible to his reason, he would soon despair of wresting from her any of her secrets. The fundamental working assumption of the scientist, it is the only basis upon which he is able ‘with increasing completeness to map out the pattern of Nature.’ If her processes be not understandable in human terms, be unrelated to human thought, then scientific revelations as representative of Reality are worthless. And if rationality be an attribute of man alone, then the scientific method, based on reason, is forever disqualified from giving to us a true view of Nature, and the world which reason and systematic investigation disclose is a monstrous scientific myth.
Thus, a modern temper, proceeding with the same material as that used by Mr. Krutch, can also justifiably reach more optimistic conclusions. The laws of Nature require even the minor prelude and fugue to close with t he tierce de Picardie. One may see in the struggle so prominent in Nature man’s greatest need, the condition of his happiness and of his highest attainment. It can be shown that his troublesome transcendental cravings, the climax of the evolutionary process, are part and parcel of a unified experience which produced them, are vital elements of experience, and constitute our hope for the future. A universe which makes possible the achievement of human values and provides for their conservation, and in which it is possible to see an inherent ethical trend, can scarcely be utterly indifferent to its products. In the fact of the stubborn persistence of this sense of human values may be found one indication of the character of the universe. Science assumes as the condition of the validity of its findings the rationality of Nature.
If it be the case that two equally permissible and reasonable interpretations of phenomena are possible, it is reasonable and in accordance with Nature to choose the one which promises most for the further unfolding of the highest potentialities which the evolutionary process to date has made known to us. That an optimistic reading of scientific facts is permissible and reasonable, and not mere sentimentality or wishfulfillment, is evident from the views of such scientists as Professors Thomson, Pupin, Whitehead, Sir Oliver Lodge, and others.
But, if we fail to feel the force of any conclusion reached by the human reason which at the same time pronounces the evolution of the distinctively human traits a colossal cosmic blunder, or of a prophecy that man, as man, must in time expect to be expatriated from the universe, we cannot escape the urgency of several important issues which Mr. Krutch’s philosophy has raised.
In the first place, his article makes clear the extent of our submission to a new dogmatism of science, quite as bigoted as that of the most sterile ecclesiastical system, and the responsibility for which must not be laid altogether at the door of the scientists. We are lost and discontented creatures without some authority to which to yield our allegiance. Our vaunted ‘open mind’ may mean anything from the purely transmissive mind of the illuminatus bewildered at the march of ideas through his consciousness, but holding no loyalties of his own, to the one which has merely exchanged an older authority for a newer one, a spiritual conviction for a scientific theory, or a religious ideal for a literary idol. We have learned to discard the Bible as an authority on every subject under the sun, and to limit the field of its application to religion. We have not yet learned a similar lesson with respect to science. A particular science may earn for itself the right to speak with authority in whatever particular field it chooses to map out for its investigations. There are areas in which certain scientific methods, perfected after many years of experimentation, have proven themselves to be especially successful. We henceforth assume for all science a general adequacy, and its authority ‘spills over’ from one field into another, irrespective of differences in the material dealt with, and of the types of technique required in different cases.
There are certain false assumptions, gratuitously made, which underlie the new dogmatism of science, and which deserve to be cleared away, in the interest both of science and of philosophy and religion.
1. In the first place, it is high time we stop talking of the ‘certitudes of science.’ The term is at best a hazy and a misleading one and conveys the impression that science is infallible. It ignores the fact that some sciences have perfected themselves more than others, and its use strengthens a tendency already formed to make of science a fetish, a thing to conjure with and to swear by. Here we have a new variety of myth taking form under our very eyes.
It is a strange human inconsistency which is willing to grant to science the privilege of making mistakes and later of correcting them, of discarding false views for newer and truer ones, without a shade of discredit to the authority of science, but which stigmatizes with the labels ‘superstition,’‘mythology,’‘illusion,’ ‘delusion,’ — what powers either to ‘make’ or to ‘break’ we have conferred upon labels! — the corresponding earlier interpretations of Reality made by the human spirit, and adduces as evidence conclusive of the general unreliability of religion its occasional sloughing off of formulations which experience has proven to be untrue in favor of newer and truer views. The fair name of science emerges unsullied from the wreckage of mistaken hypotheses by which, nevertheless, it has been enabled to rise, while the mistaken hypotheses of religion have placed it, at least for some, in a position from which it may never again hope to show its head without discredit — it must continue to bear the brands ‘superstition,’ ‘mythology,’ ‘illusion,’ ‘ delusion.’
2. A second unwarranted assumption is that scientific methods and categories are interchangeable. So successful have certain sciences been in dealing with three-dimensional matter and with the forces of external Nature that it has been assumed that the same methods which obtain in the physical sciences will also prove to be equally efficacious when applied in the realm of human experience. If in his treatment of life, for example, the biologist or the psychologist can discover nothing but measurable physicochemical results, that is only because with physicochemical methods it is difficult to see what other results he could obtain, and ‘constitutes no proof that there is nothing in life that is not physicochemical.’ Similarly, methods which have proven successful in dealing with animal behavior can be expected to appertain only to animal behavior in men, and the results thus obtained constitute no proof that there is nothing in human experience that is not animal behavior. If human behavior is adequately to be described, we must at least have methods and categories of kind. Surely the present diversity of opinion between animist, introspect ionist,vitalist, Freudian, behaviorist, and Gestaltist gives little basis here for either scientific dogmatism or cert itude.
3. A third gratuitous assumption has been hinted at in the above. It consists in the belief that science — here psychology — is perfectly capable of rendering a true, exhaustive account of human experience. It goes back to the spilling-over process just mentioned. When, after analyzing a situation, psychology synthesizes the elements obtained and tells us the result, the reconstruction is usually lacking in precisely those qualities which make it a human experience: the significance of the original total reality grasped in one act; the essential meaning of the original experience; the place of the experience in the totality of things; the evaluational, the appreciative, the purposive elements — these are not matters for scientific method as we know it to-day. If the time ever comes when psychology will talk anthropomorphically of man, taking cognizance of the conative human powers with which of all things we are most familiar, then it may also talk more adequately of him.
A psychology of religion, in so far as it employs a technique and uses methods borrowed from the physical sciences, can hope to deal only partially with life in its religious aspects. Any claim on the part of science to show how man’s transcendental cravings were born, in the endeavor by so doing to prove them a delusion, proceeds upon the assumption that science is in possession of a method thoroughly adequate to deal with the experiences of the human spirit not only in its earthly but in its cosmic bearings. Nor does the ‘ uncovering ’ of the lowly origin of a human institution discount its present attainment, else science too falls under the same condemnation. Unfortunately for the human defeatist, when the investigations of such scholars as Durkheim and Frazer reveal certain elements having to do with the beginnings of religious beliefs, obviously such revelations concern only beginnings. Even if we assume that we have reliable data and a method adequate to give us an authentic account of institutional origins, the value of a human institution is not to be measured in terms of its origin. Its significance and its reality lie in the whole trend of the evolutionary process by means of which it became what it has become, in its social achievement, in the eminence to which it has attained, and in its future possibilities. In dealing with present realities, we hold a thing to be what it is, including its inherent potentialities, and not what it came from.
4. We are rapidly becoming enlightened as to the falsity of the supposition that the specialist in any particular science is ipso facto also well qualified to speak with equal authority on religion and philosophy. Our ideas on transfer of training, on specialization of field, and the sad results of such trust are leading us to abandon this assumption. We have learned to distinguish between the scientist talking as scientist and the scientist talking as philosopher or religionist. Doubtless there are some men qualified to act in the double capacity, but they are rare.
5. A futile phrase is that quasitriumphant one of a spiritually iconoclastic science: ‘Let the facts speak for themselves!’ Would that they could, and did! Would that the data presented to us by the animal and the physical realms spoke so unequivocally of Reality as to make our conflicting scientific theories and our epistemological squabbles needless! But, since they are mute, only we articulate ones can lend them tongues — our own tongues, which they use in a representative way, and speak many diverse things. Yet it will ever remain the inalienable privilege of all, not only of the scientist, thus to make fact vocal, nach Belieben. Is disposition or fact superior here? And what is ‘fact’? Greater unanimity of interpretation is to be hoped for only to the degree that scientist, metaphysician, and religionist will agree to work together, considering facts and experiences in their totality.
6. By far the most serious false assumption underlying the new dogmatism of science is our willingness to regard scientific methods and categories as the only valid and legitimate ones both for the discovery of truth and for its explanation and description. The reason for this is not far to seek. The statements of the natural sciences are clear-cut, definite, and capable of verification by experience; scientific results are for the most part tangible, concrete, measurable, in the limited field which each science marks out for its province. Not only has the modern scientific complex led us to demand proof as a condition of the acceptance of any Reality, but it has deluded us into believing that the only proof worthy of the name, adequate and true, is proof set up in scientific formulæ. The interpretative humanities on the other hand, and especially religion, must often utter their voices, if they would be articulate at all, in a medium not always adapted to that which they would express — namely, in language. Hence the use of simile, metaphor, analogy, symbol, allegory, statements and terms often vague and indistinct, meet for aspects of experience for which articulateness and exact presentation are indifferent matters. But it is becoming increasingly necessary to ask in virtue of what fiat it is that the procedure and the conceptions of modern science have attained to such sanctity that they must be regarded as the exclusive legitimate agencies for the discovery and the explanation of truth. And must we say that only that which lends itself to scientific description and explanation is the real and the true, and limit experience therefore only to the commensurable? The formulæ of science are symbols, between which and the things they represent the scientist has faith to believe exists an exact correspondence. But scientific methods and categories are neither eternal, divinely inspired, infallible, nor immutable; they are modern, man-made, and subject to error and change to such an extent that a scientific text of a decade past may even now be outmoded. Indeed, investigation might well disclose a greater unanimity and constancy of method, image, concept, and category among the mystics of all ages and races than among the methods and categories of science.
In their entirety these are based upon an unproved postulate, the uniformity of natural processes — a postulate unproved because, strictly speaking, there are no absolutely identical repetitions. Even the scientist’s ‘most useful conceptions, like atom, energy, gravitation, are hypothetical and acceptable only as they serve to systematize thought and permit deductions verifiable in experience.’ It is not for him who trusts in the validity of scientific findings to reproach the mystical philosophers, as does Mr. Kruteh, with the accusation that they have made Nature over in their own image, and thus have found oneness with her. For if we deny to ‘the rotting earth’ any rationality or order whatsoever, and hold rationality to be an attribute of man alone, — both of which Mr. Krutch seems inclined to do, — then must we hold the scientist to be par excellence the one who with his own scientific categories gives us at best but his reflection of Nature, and we can base no arguments under these conditions upon the ‘certitudes of science.’ It is only upon the assumption, in faith, by the scientist that there is a rational basis in Nature which will validate his own rational methods and categories that he can hope to arrive at anything more than the mere projection of his own rationality upon Nature. Moreover he assumes, also in faith, that the human reason is a dependable and a trustworthy tool to use in the search for truth. But more of this later.
Thus the mystic and the scientist both ultimately rest their cases upon faith. Both use tools for their ‘invest gations’ which are given by Nature, and in the same faith — the one, the transcendental cravings; the other, the reason. Both use fallible human methods and categories — those of the mystic are of long standing and are possessed of a certain constancy and universality of character, and find language an imperfect medium of expression; those of the scientist are relatively modern and are subject to constant change in the light of experience. Both find ‘answers’ of kind given to their questionings by Nature, hence an assurance which makes for the persistence of both types. But they differ widely as to the definiteness with which they articulate. Science affords one way of getting at certain varieties of truth; the easy assumption that it is the only way ignores wide and important areas of human experience.
7. Appendant to the above, yet perhaps separate from it, might be mentioned the serene confidence which science and much of the modern world place in the reliability of the reason. Typical of this attitude is a statement from a recent author (1926): ‘If reason cannot discover the truth for us, then most assuredly nothing else will.’ This confidence is in many respects justified, yet the fact that reason, acting upon one set of data, may yield many different theories is apt to make us question its cocksureness and its impartiality as the instrument of scientific research. The reason which, in the performance of its scientific tasks, is free from the bias of ‘hobbydom,’ leanings, emotion, and will is indeed a rare phenomenon.
We cannot fail to recognize the marvels wrought by modern science in many fields, how deeply it has enmeshed itself in our modern civilization, the great obligation under which it has placed us; but neither can we be blind to its limitations: to the questionable blessing of more leisure which we are too stupid to use in constructive ways, or which we are compelled to employ in caring for its inventions; to setting up as human excellences the purely machine virtues, such as speed, quantity, and standardization; to absorption in things material, with the danger of a physical softening and a spiritual hardening. One generalization we may safely hazard without fear of contradiction. It is the generalization of particularity: a thing is good for what it is good for. Disregard of this principle is likely to lead us into trouble at any time, and is responsible for most of the false assumptions underlying the new dogmatism of science.
The second issue raised by Mr. Krutch’s article has to do with the first alternative proposed in its closing sentence. Living in a world rapidly being transformed by modern scientific conceptions, a world in which ‘only the intellect can rejoice,’ and apparently indifferent to spiritual values, does the human spirit find itself facing extinction? Has Nature ‘betrayed the heart that loved her’?
The fact that this question has been asked is significant of a protest against the idea. It is decidedly uncomplimentary to human nature and distasteful to the evaluational consciousness. If the prestige of the reason, a prestige enhanced by its use in the sciences, has so gained the ascendency at the present time that it threatens to foreclose on the human spirit, it is but natural that the latter should demand some credentials as to its all-inclusive pretensions. And signs are not lacking that the spirit of protest against the usurpation of all of life by the critical intelligence is abroad, as we think of the Jugendbewegung, the various vitalistic philosophies, and the ‘Crisis theology’ of Karl Barth. Are we to regard such indications of unrest as harbingers of the dawn of a new Sturm und Drang? A youth which in our institutions of learning has been coming into contact with doctrines of scientific determinism seems determined to make such doctrines the basis of claims for more freedom. A strange and significant paradox!
There is no doubt that the prestige of the reason has penetrated deeply into modern life. We give ourselves up to the delusion that we are rational beings— a delusion which a detailed analysis of our thoughts, motives, and acts for even twenty-four hours will dispel. Rather do we show ourselves unbalanced in pretending to a complete rationality. And we impoverish ourselves by refusing to yield our loyalties to religion, to a philosophy of life, because forsooth it may contain elements of a type not open to verification by approved scientific methods. We may even admit — with due respect for the psychologist — that ‘out of the heart are the issues of life,’ that the activities of the human spirit are really the more vital and the more distinctive of man; yet because the critical intelligence fails to support the presuppositions upon which it proceeds ‘to found empires, conquer wildernesses, and create works of art,’ we prophesy a possible extinction of the irrational human spirit!
But surely we are not shut up to one choice alone in the matter of a guide to life. No cosmic decree has forced us to accept the reason as the sole and infallible arbiter of our destinies. Certainly the critical intelligence has not. shown itself friendly to the higher aspirations which have sustained man in his struggle for life, and which have received such strong pragmatic support — both Mr. Krutch and Mr. Unamuno find themselves in emphatic agreement here. In the face of this scientifically supported prestige of the reason, is it possible that we are exhibiting a ‘failure of nerve’? This depends upon the view we take as to the place of the human spirit in this universe. If we deem it to be an excrescence of Nature, or unstable froth left in an eddy by the ongoing stream of evolution, then perhaps we have ground for Weltschmerz. But if we regard man in his entirely, — and how else can we regard him? — as being rooted in Nature, with his distinctive restless spiritual discontent as the highest product of evolution that we know, giving significance to the whole process, and destined, on condition of his continuous struggle, to still higher developments, then we may have another outlook for the human spirit. And as for any moral or spiritual correspondences in Nature that would give cosmic support to human values, we may only propound this question in lieu of the inapplicability of ‘scientific demonstration ’ in the matter. With what reason can we say that a world which has shown itself so morally trustworthy as not to fail the modern scientist in his faith in its dependability and responsiveness should suddenly and capriciously proclaim that it has heretofore merely been toying with the transcendental cravings of man in his age-long quest for Reality?
The third issue raised by Mr. Krutch is the second alternative proposed in the last sentence of his article. Granting that the human spirit does not face extinction, then there impends for it a ‘readjustment more stupendous than any made before.’ With this most of us will agree. It is to be expected that Nature’s huge experiment on the conscious human plane should be beset, as were doubtless her experiments aforetime on other planes of existence, with tremendous difficulties peculiar to it.
Spengier would tell us, indeed, that no readjustment is possible; that it is futile to try to deflect the course of the fate-impelled cycles of human culture; that each culture contains within itself, when it has actualized the full sum of its possibilities in the way of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, and sciences, the instruments of its own ruin. In our present civilization, men have lost their touch with the soil, and the springs of inspiration in art, religion, and philosophy are already dried up. Especially is the critical, analytical intelligence deadly to the creative impulse. Science, with its more exact knowledge, has robbed us of the garb of poetry and romance attaching to our older conceptions and has left us Nature in the bare flesh and bone. With much of Spengler’s philosophy we may find ourselves in sympathy. What concerns us now is the question as to the hopelessness of the attempt at readjustment.
But here too a different reading of all the facts is possible, including again the scientific evidence for a progressive evolution — with or without the specific Darwinian optimism for which Spengler has no place. For if in the arts, philosophy, and religion we seem to have reached ‘the winter of our discontent,’ yet science has given to us a world so changed from any which we have ever known, so charged with potentialities never before even dreamed of in all the previous history of the race, as practically to be a new one. It possesses new elements which will not readily permit of its being used to illustrate a so-called law of rhythmical development immanent in all cultures. In its scientifically creative aspects, ours is an age standing on the tiptoe of expectancy (witness even the suggestion of a scientific holiday), illustrative rather of a Wiederbelebung than of a Vollendung. True, this new world itself creates its own problems of readjustment, but it may also open up new creative possibilities for art, religion, and philosophy of types as yet unsuspected.
Nor, unless Spengler’s presupposition, ‘All is given,’ finds support in our growing experience, need we be committed to his cyclical philosophy of history, which makes impossible any talk of readjustment. Analogies in history there undoubtedly are, and at least one important specification of the Spenglerian scheme is fulfilled if we conceive of these as occurring on an irregularly ascending spiral of conscious, human evolution whose curves for certain distances may trace similar arcs, but on different levels. It is always the new, unexplored area in the curve which at the same time begets despair and hope. And, as ever, it is toward the possibilities which the new element — science, in this case — may hold out for the human spirit that we need to turn. Yet, the present growing protest against an arid, deadly intellectualism seems to suggest that the decisive factors in promoting readjustment will not be the intellect or science, whatever part they may play, but faith — a perfectly respectable thing — and morale, for which Nature herself furnishes a basis. As in the past, the discovery of values that will yield support to the human spirit will be for those whose trust in the good faith of Nature has never faltered, for those who have prepared themselves to see values where others do not. New adjustments in religion and philosophy will be required, but truth is capable of withstanding many fierce indoctrinations along the way that leads to a formulation of Reality which will enable us to live truly.
A critical time it is for the human spirit, when the pursuit of an intellectualized science, of mechanical invention, the quest for commercial prestige, for power and wealth, seem to constitute for large numbers of people ‘a life in which no lack can be perceived,’ ‘a finished animality,’ and a type from which, if it is persistent enough, ‘Nature may select the coming race.’ We cannot blink away the difficulties involved in effecting a readjustment at the present time, nor neglect to give some attention to the conditions under which we may hope for the most successful realignment.
As for the difficulties, modern science, although so young, has the advantage of a running start upon those agencies which have as their task the readjustment of man to his environment — namely, philosophy and religion. The phenomenally rapid development of the sciences has taken these, so to speak, unawares. The new world which they have given to us, together with the World War, has left us confused in an era of transition. We have been charmed with the rapid pace set by science and with the conciseness of her utterance, and have expected from philosophy and religion an equal facility in assimilating the new material which she has given us, and an equal clarity of speech. Such expectations reveal an ignorance of the nature of the interpretative humanities. The speed with which science has caused us to move in our modern life has unconsciously come to be taken as an index of worth, as has her mass production.
But philosophy and religion move with deliberate tread. Where value judgments are concerned, there can be no talk of speed; and for religion, at least, verbal utterance is not always the most happy or the most adequate. In addition, we are loath to allow for mistaken hypotheses in the interpretative humanities as we do in the sciences. Yet, when scientific theories on any one subject are changing so rapidly and are not always unanimous, philosophy and religion have nothing left to do but to await a more general agreement among scientists. And lastly, this readiness with which Nature yields her secrets to the scientific method, the satisfaction attending discovery, and the immediate use to which invention can put the results obtained, have caused many to turn with impatience from the more laborious and apparently unrewarding task of seeking ‘meanings.’ To avoid doing this, they immerse themselves in ‘ more science,’ where the returns are quicker and more tangible. Such are some of the difficulties which present themselves, and they suggest certain conditions whose fulfillment seems to underlie the most successful readjustment.
The first of the conditions has to do with the presuppositions and the attitude of mind with which we face the problem. Obviously, if we hope for a readjustment, the thing to do is to believe that it is possible and worth the attempt. Our sense of values has indeed received a jolt, and we are seeking new foundations for it. One ounce of pessimism exhibited under more hopeful conditions has in the present critical transition era the weight of a pound. We might almost speak of the spiritual obligation to be optimistic in times like the present. ‘If at the last, all the universe and all our striving should be revealed as having been blundering nonsense, write me down as one who was unwilling to admit it.’ Such an attitude need not be mere empty braggadocio, and will certainly hasten readjustment.
But can we talk of hastening readjustment in view of the disparity in pace between science and the interpretative humanities and the present handicap under which the latter labor? We are overwhelmed by reason of too much 1 knowledge and too many devices. Our present despair and spiritual inertia may be due to an intellectual, moral, and spiritual malassimilation and indigestion. If things remain as they are, the outlook seems serious enough to justify some drastic expedient for restoring our lost equilibrium, and ‘ for making the ends meet in the scale of human life.’ There is point, therefore, to the proposal of a holiday in the field of applied science — except in that of pathology and kindred branches. It is for us now to learn how to master rather than to be mastered by the powers and the tools already placed at our disposal by modern science, to develop the moral and the spiritual intelligence necessary to their salutary and not their destructive employment. So to do might make for more rapid ‘progress’ in the long run, and there need be no fear of ‘lost arts.’ We have developed sufficient speed capacities, sufficient physical comforts and conveniences, to last us for some time to come — and sufficient noise! It behooves us now, in any event, to consider bearings, meanings, interpretations, significances, universal, ‘characters,'/ values, appreciations, and the like, whether in philosophy or in religion, whose work this is, and not that of science. To entrust to science alone the solution of our intellectual and spiritual difficulties or our problems of readjustment is to admit the validity of Mr. Krutch’s despair. In fact it is unjust to science to assume its adequacy for all things — to make of it a modern philosopher’s stone. Mr. H. L. Mencken’s prattle to the effect that philosophy cannot survive facts, and is the pursuit of infantile minds, reveals the need not of less, but of more and better philosophy; reveals also a common misconception of the function of the modern philosopher and prophet, men whose relation to facts is like that of the cartographer to the terrain with which he is so thoroughly familiar that he can chart for others the safest course to follow, the pitfalls to be avoided, and the like — whose function, in a word, is directive.
It seems clear that any interpretation of life which is to claim and to hold the respect of the ‘serious mind searching for some terms upon which it may live’ cannot ignore the new facts concerning the external universe which modern science has been giving to us. Neither can it ignore, as we have attempted to show, the ‘findings’ made by the human spirit. Both are data furnished by human experience and are equally deserving of consideration.
There can be little hope of readjustment unless a world dominated by an exaggerated estimate of the all-sufficiency of science is also willing to listen with respect to the voices of philosophy and religion; is willing to grant them the time and the opportunity to invent new and more representative terms and categories, and also the right to speak in their own tongues. Whatever readjustment is made must be one which will be inclusive of the experience of man in his totality. If we conceive of man in his entirety as being rooted in Nature, then, if we may learn from Spengler, we cannot scorn ‘the base degrees by which he did ascend,’ his contact with the soil, his physical roots, out of which ultimately have sprung the unique blossoms of human culture, which Nature has taken such pains to produce. If his transcendental cravings be also recognized as a very vital part of his life, then they too can ill afford to be passed over in making up the final account. The roots and the blossoms again are not mutually exclusive, but belong together in this universe, as the sturdy earthly roots and the soaring blossoms belong together in the reprise of the Meistersinger Prelude. It is false to suppose, because the data here concerned are different in kind, that they are therefore necessarily in conflict, although a mutual adjustment between the data given by science and those given by the human spirit may indeed be very difficult to effect.
Science, for example, would apparently require of any philosophy or religion entitled to respect the willingness to adopt new categories and conceptions, or at least those characterized by a certain fluidity, so that they might be readily adjusted to an ever-changing and an ever-developing science. It would demand of the interpretative humanities the recognition that a monistic basis is the only one possible in any interpretation of Reality; that whatever support man receives for his human values must come from within the universe and not from without.
However, the ‘will to readjustment’ is the important thing. Scientist, philosopher, and religionist coöperating with one another in mutual sympathy, agreeing upon a division of labor, acknowledging differences of kind in material, method, and category, acknowledging the just, well-founded claims of each in his own field, may slowly and progressively work out a basis for the readjustment of the human spirit to its new environment. Since Nature has come to consciousness only in man, has given to him alone the power to objectify himself and to see relationships, and since of men she has chosen the philosopher to be her pilot (to borrow a conception of Don Juan in Mr. Shaw’s Man and Superman), and, may we add also, the prophet — she may be thought of as having entrusted to these the duty of so reading her as to be able to point the way to better coördination with her constructive tendencies, looking toward a more perfect and effective adjustment of man’s aims to the Whole, whose ways he can at. least partly understand. The high significance and responsibility of the interpretative humanities in promoting a consciously directed human evolution, with the aid of science and in accordance with Nature, considered in the most inclusive sense, are apparent. And to science belongs the indispensable task of furnishing a reliable resultant text for philosophy and religion to decipher.
And the human spirit need not be lily-livered hi claiming its birthright when, over long periods of time and in the experience of many of different ages and races, it has found in Nature, on condition of the right adjustment, a certain dependability and constancy in the ‘answers’ given to its quest — answers comprehensible to those who, like the scientist in the physical realm, have prepared themselves to understand the experiences peculiar to it, and the symbols in which it may articulate. The threatened extinction of the human spirit need not alarm us so long as we have the will and the courage not to see it extinguished. Its future is partly conditioned upon man’s wise use of those encouraging potentialities which Nature has revealed. The universe has displayed to our evalnational consciousness certain moral leanings, and it is at least not unfriendly to our highest values. It has shown itself willing to coöperate in their production and in their preservation. Who knows what further longed-for revelation of Reality awaits a strenuous trust imposed in Nature’s good faith?