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Philosophy and Fantasy

On being asked to collect in one volume essays originally published in this and other journals, I thought that I could see, as I re-read them, some of the motives that had led me to philosophy as working also for a particular approach to a literature.

Perhaps the connection is general, or not unusual. There are a set of needs, sometimes amounting to obsessions, which only philosophical argument can satisfy. Some of these obsessions are found, as incitements to the imagination, in writers who are superficially quite unlike each other, and who never themselves entered into philosophical argument. Many of the high abstractions of philosophy, theories of reality and illusion and theories of the self, have their more concrete equivalents, an apt expression or even a kind of translation, in a personal style of fiction, or of rhetoric, or of poetry. When one works back to the philosophical ideas that are suggested by idiosyncrasies of form and method in fiction, the translation sometimes helps to explain the hold that a novelist or poet has had upon one when other explanations fell short. There is a middle ground of inner conflict and uncertainty, which may be expressed and also resolved in argument, and which may also be expressed and resolved indirectly in some imaginative experiment with language.

Approaching the middle ground from the other side, one may see some of the abstract arguments, which are the substance of philosophy, as permanently interesting, partly because they reveal the imaginative needs of a temperament of a recurring type, or because they are an indirect form of self-exploration and of a typical rebelliousness; and this view may be justifiable, in spite of the rigor and generality which the philosopher could properly claim for his arguments and which alone can earn assent. Then one is impelled to turn to those writers who have not disguised their will to order the world in accordance with their imaginative needs: to novelists, poets, and moralists.

It is characteristic of modern philosophy that it is founded upon a distrust of philosophy. Some philosophers have seen philosophy as imperfectly satisfying intellectual needs which logic and mathematics will finally meet more adequately. Others have suspected that in philosophy, and particularly in moral philosophy and in the philosophy of psychology, strict argument is interesting only if it is also a working out of an imaginative vision. Some of those who belong to the second group, as I do, may have turned to philosophy in the first place, partly because of an early obsession with the power of the inherited vocabulary to set limits on their experience, and to veil and muffle their perceptions and their feelings. Perhaps they had felt themselves to be trapped within the normal resources of description, and had looked to the fiction and poetry of others for an escape from literalness. They will become philosophers or critics, if it is also for them a necessity that the liberation should come from the outside, and should have the impersonal authority either of argument or of scholarship.

So we become, for a time, Don Quixotes, enthralled by literary legends, accepting a picture of our own ambitions from favorite authors, because they had seemed the enemies of a deadening normality in the description of states of mind. Then the only way of establishing our own point of view is to travel from one original point of view to another. The solution is to analyze the power of the many different legends to which one still responds; critical comparisons become a necessity, if one is to be free to start again.

AMONG THOSE who have expected most from the study of philosophy and from literature, there must be many who, like the present writer, have thought of the common sense of ordinary speech as, among other things, a mechanism of defense, as an instrument for disguising one’s perceptions, and for simplifying thoughts and for taming the natural movements of self-assertion within the mind. In fact we know of this restlessness from countless testimonies, from La Vie de Henry Brulard to Les Mots. Common sense and ordinary language are not the least of the confinements in which one is brought up, swaddled, in the too-long dependence upon ancestors, which is said to be both the disease and the distinction of the species. Customary categories and classifications were made long ago by others, and are part of a family inheritance. Although they can never be forgotten, they may still be resented, as any inheritance naturally may be, for being accidental and unchosen, for being contingent upon the date and circumstances of one’s birth. For some temperaments this contingency of birth is very hard to accept at precisely the point where it sets limits on the true authorship of one’s own thoughts. Therefore at a certain stage one is impelled to leave the linguistic home, and to look for the strange clothing that will fit a deviant and unsocialized consciousness. This is the stage at which one is overwhelmed by the aggressive eccentricity of some literary or philosophical imaginations which have constructed contrasting worlds: for example, by a metaphysician, such as Spinoza, or by the anti-metaphysicians, the logical positivists, who denied significance to many of the commonplace thoughts which one had been taught to echo: or by such novelists as Stendhal and Proust, who were inspired by the same desire for a recapture of selfishness, and for revenge upon the long prepared good sense of society. Only categories and classifications that seem willfully disruptive and unsettling will seem to open the way to authenticity. The impulse is to peel customary words off experience, in the hope of confronting it again, without regard to the truths that are fittingly contained in socially approved forms of words. For social approval seems evidence of some convenient repression of disorderly thoughts and of the discarded experiences that they reflect.

Almost all the philosophers who have survived and are still read were to some degree subversive and unsettling, loosening the hold of accepted categories and habits of classification, and suggesting a scheme of description of their own design. This radical resistance to the usual certainties, and particularly to the usual pictures of the mind, is the beginning of philosophy, even if many philosophers have finally made peace with common sense, only on their own terms.

There is a familiar portrait of the mature philosopher as having passed through three stages: first, the innocent stage of acquiescence in the ordinary distinctions between reasonableness and unreasonableness; the second phase is one of aggressive skepticism, in which most accepted claims to knowledge and to clear categorizations seem quite unfounded: this may be represented as an adolescent phase of thought. Thirdly, there is a return, in maturity, to a disillusioned acceptance of the original commonplace categories, with the recognition that, with all their limitations, they are as they must be, and that it is only an adolescent dream that they might be made perfectly clear and transparent. Both Hume and Wittgenstein present this picture of a proper philosophical progress toward enlightenment; and it has convinced many, perhaps most, of my philosophical contemporaries. It represents mature philosophy as a kind of extended irony at the expense of intellectual enthusiasm, and at the expense of ambitious reconstructions of reality, which are neither strictly scientific nor in harmony with customary speech.

Certainly this story does represent many people’s experience in philosophy, and particularly the experience of those who originally turned to philosophy because they were interested above all things in clarity of thought. For them the main service of philosophy is to ensure that they have, in ordinary language, clean instruments of thought, and that they need never commit themselves, either in speech or in writing, to more than they intend. They want to be protected against the risk of talking, and of thinking, insignificantly and with a doubtful purpose, and to be in full and self-conscious control of their words. They are always aware of the precariousness of sanity, and of the danger of uncontrolled speculation as a disease of the mind, often leading to monstrous growths of illusion. Perhaps they remember, as Hume and Wittgenstein could, abysses of doubt, morbid moments in their own thinking, against which a therapy is needed. A continual analysis of the structure of literal common-sense beliefs is for them a defense against those moments of dizziness, in which none of the normal connections of thought seemed secure. They will generally wish to reinforce the clear line that already divides the works of an irresponsible and literary imagination from the work of an analytical philosophy, and to keep them even more definitely apart in separate compartments. Unintended, or not fully intended, meanings and ambiguities of sense can be the strength of imaginative writing, and they are to have no place in philosophy.

MY OWN EARLY, and present, concern with philosophy had a different, and, from one point of view, an opposite origin. I have looked in philosophy, as also in fiction and in poetry, not for a greater clarity in familiar ways of thought, but rather for a particular kind of confusion. The confusion is that which comes from trying conflicting possibilities of description, and from postponing a decision between them. It is the kind of confusion that occurs when one listens to different voices speaking different languages at the same time, and when one will not stop one’s ears against all the voices other than the most familiar ones.

These very different demands made upon philosophy and upon imaginative literature must have an explanation in individual psychology. I do not claim that those who look in philosophy, as I do, for an escape from security and for a certain kind of confusion are right, and that those who value clarity and protection against illusion before all things are wrong. There are two psychological types, with different histories and emotional needs, who may perhaps complement each other.

Most of the essays and reviews I have written for this and similar journals are attempts to indicate the points of divergence, or the controlling distortions, that mark an individual style, and that at the same time suggest a theory, or the sketch of a theory, of the natural movements of the mind and of their proper expression; and my assumption has been that the points of divergence are to be found in some history of inner conflict indirectly expressed. That is why several of the essays are concerned with letters and with biographical evidences.

Even apart from the brevity of the essays, and my own shortcomings. I could not pretend that any of the pieces amount to responsible literary criticism, which must surely be a balanced inquiry into the permanent substance of specific works. Rather they are short explorations from a rather eccentric starting point, since the governing interest is first philosophical, and then psychological. I have looked for the origin of a peculiar use of a literary form, which can be interpreted as expressing philosophical ideas, and I have expected to find the origin of the ideas in the history of a temperament. My hypothesis has been that the sources, usually unconscious, of a personal style are often also the sources of a philosophical prejudice, of a willful re-drawing of the distinction between appearances and reality, with the implied claim that one is thereby brought closer to a just description of experience. This hypothesis, which connects an individual style, a philosophical prejudice, and a psychological need, is far from being original. It can be found in Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, and it is both a theme and a principle of construction in his novel. It can be found in other writers who cross and recross the line that is supposed to divide the kind of literary imagination, which is turned toward self-exploration and moral discovery, from philosophical ideas, which are necessarily abstract and general: in such dissimilar sources as Pater’s Plato and Platonism, with its extraordinary penetration into the psychology of philosophy, in Büchner’s Wozzeck and Danton’s Death, in Ibsen, in parts of Freud, and of course the list could easily be extended.

AMONG THE PHILOSOPHERS, James, Russell, and Wittgenstein are dramatic writers, makers of epigrams, and each was aware of the emotional needs which their own philosophies, and philosophy itself, must satisfy. They did not conceal either the temperamental or the imaginative sources of their own philosophical interests. James and Wittgenstein were nervous, hypochondriacal writers, confessional and egoistic, and their literary ambitions were not confined within the limits of philosophy, in the strict academic sense.

On the other side of the usual line, George Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster, each developed a complex and general thesis about their art and about the necessity of fiction; and their principles of construction had a point of contact with metaphysical theories. They were at ease with abstractions, with theories of the self and of reality and illusion, and they tried to achieve in their writing a conversion, an awakening of self-awareness, which would shift attention from what they took to be the trivialities of experience to its original substance. They still command attention, partly because in their novels they disturb and re-arrange our usual picture of naturalness and artificiality in human behavior.

The opposition between nature and artificiality, or convention, runs all through my essays, on these and other writers, as one unifying theme: every person or theory considered here is concerned with some vision of the bedrock of human nature below its trivial and variable accretions. It is altogether obvious that political thought has always turned around this distinction, no less in Sartre than in Burke, and it is implicit in any serious theory of fiction. It is a distinction that seems to be indispensable, and yet it cannot be made precise. At least it is part of men’s nature to have opinions about what their true nature is; but these opinions are in recurring conflict with each other. For example, those who accept Hume’s and Burke’s distinctions between that which is natural and that which is artificial in men will count the observance of precedent and tradition as natural, and will count any philosophical questioning of them as artificial. Those, like Sade, who define man’s nature in terms of his physical constitution will count moral traditions and social custom as artificial, and will mark the erotic and aggressive drives as constituting men’s true nature. For a materialist the questioning of moral traditions is the beginning of a return to nature.

For these reasons the demand that men should find their way to a natural form of life is by itself an indeterminate demand. We can only imagine, and we do not know, what it would be like to find the way. No scientific inquiry will settle the dispute, because, from a scientific point of view, every human interest and every feature of human behavior are equally natural phenomena to be explained. Human nature is not a scientific term, because it refers to what might exist, under ideal conditions which are not independently specified. Therefore the distinction seems irreducibly vague, a necessary prop of the moral imagination, and each conscious or unconscious moralist lends it a characteristic content. Henry James found a density of social relations, and an aesthetic sense of the past and of manners, the necessary expression and setting for the normal and natural life of men, without which they wither and are deprived of natural human feelings; as they were, according to James, in provincial America. For him naturalness was not innocence, but a fullness of experience; for him elaborated manners, which are a corruption of impulse and a dramatic contrivance, save us from a dull and inhuman unconsciousness. His brother, William James, looked for a naturalness of an altogether different, almost an opposing, kind.

The force of the imagination in a personal style can make these various, and often contradictory, pictures of the natural condition of men plausible to us, provided only that they correspond to some sense of loss and of constraint which the reader still has. He may need this continuing variety and conflict, because they protect, and also represent, the confusion that is necessary to him, as being his natural state.