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Sounding Off

Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior

by Morse Peckham
The Seabury Press, 290 pp., $17.95

Hope and History, An Exploration

by Morton Smith
Harper & Row: World Perspectives, Volume 54, 230 pp., $12.95

We are beset with books that look serious and important. They come from respectable publishers. Some of them are by new writers, some by men of established reputation; and of these many are useful and well written and a few are stunning in their accomplishment. Some may be left to drop out of sight, to end on the remainder tables of the bookshops. Of those that are neither useful nor accomplished a few are symptomatic, in that they tell us something about the state of the learned world out of which they come.

The books by Professor Nisbet, Peckham, and Smith are all of them curious in their different ways. They are, respectively, a scissors-and-paste job, and a dull one, on the history of a great idea: an exposition of what is claimed to be a revolutionary theory of language, a theory with vast social implications; and a set of pronouncements, savage and bilious, on how the world is going.

I begin with Professor Smith. One who has lived a long time and seen a lot happen is entitled to sound off about what is going on in the world, though not all times and places are right for doing this. It may be done in a bar or in a faculty common room, with cronies; some do it talking to themselves as they grimace in a mirror. A great man much given to witty complaints (Doctor Johnson, say) may have his remarks copied down and posterity will be glad about this. But consider some of the remarks written down by Professor Smith and published in a book belonging to a series all the members of which are designed to leave us better and wiser. (We are told that “It is the thesis of World Perspectives that man is in the process of developing a new consciousness which…can eventually lift the human race above and beyond the fear, ignorance, and isolation which beset it today.”)

American medical missions must bear a great part of the blame for the population explosion….

Biblical laws, like those of most primitive peoples, were made for small groups living in small communities with strong group discipline; they were to regulate the members’ behavior towards each other, not towards outsiders. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” meant “Thou shalt love thy fellow Israelite as thyself.”

The rising rate of production…has created enormous demands for labor and pulled whole tides of men…from one country into another—Turks and Greeks, Yugoslavs and Italians into Germany…; Mexicans into the southern United States, southern negroes [sic] into the north, and so on [italics added].

If a healthy competent man has nothing better to do than tend the sick and incompetent, what are health and competence for?

It is…not surprising that sadists (including vandals) have become more common in western society, but they have particularly increased in recent years as we have taken more care to assure the survival of those for whom it would have been better not to have survived.

…two forms of hope for universal dominion, religious and political, remained closely connected till the end of World War II. “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun never sets on the British Empire.” He was all but metrically equivalent with [sic] Queen Victoria.

The project [i.e., government approval of homosexuality with a view to bringing about a decline in the birth rate] could count on vigorous support from artists and intellectuals; the main interest of the avant-garde is the derrière.

I have noted many other examples of Smith’s wit and wisdom, enough to fit out a calendar with mottoes, but these are a representative selection. Recklessness and a short way with hard problems, such things are common enough in unconsidered talk; and the remarks have a touch of vulgarity—the last two examples bring this out most plainly—that is all his own. As to the view that the Biblical command to love one’s neighbor has nothing to do with those outside the ethnic group, I find it hard to think Smith is ignorant of Leviticus 19:34 or of the parallel passage in Deuteronomy. That he thinks of the Black migration from the south to the north of the United States as an example of those going from one country to another tells us much about his standpoint. It is perhaps a simplified version of Maurras’s doctrine of the métèques and of the derived doctrine expressed (and later repented of) by Eliot in After Strange Gods.

Most human beings have always hoped for something. Smith is thus able to rummage through history and pick out a great many hopes that have given certain times their peculiar tone. Many hopes, we are told, are defeated and this is sad; many are poorly grounded and this shows how ignorant and foolish men are. Hope is not mere longing, it is tied to possibility, not always true possibility, for we may in confusion hope for what is naturally impossible, but possibility as we think it to be. The great hopes for the secular or religious salvation of the race are thought by Smith to be ill-grounded, for he judges the state of things hoped for naturally impossible. Hope is a happy expectation that something good will come about in the future; if we expect something bad to happen we cannot, unless we are untypically malicious, be said to hope for it.

Smith would have been wise to stay with this commonsensical account of “hope” and “to hope” and their derivatives, and with ruminations, however platitudinous, on the fortunes of the idea. However, he now and then inserts an account of hope and hoping as something that runs through the world of inanimate nature and that is connected in the case of men with states and activities of the central nervous system. He does not explain why this is important.

The argument seems to go like this. There are common patterns running through the whole of nature. A fire (this is his own example) behaves like an animal. “It seizes, devours, digests, and excretes…it moves about as if pasturing.” It explodes in orgasm and begets other fires. We thus find in physical processes the analogy of purpose; and Smith seems to suggest that here we have a clue to the understanding of what looks like purposive behavior in the brutes and even in vegetables. The site of purpose in human beings is said to be “the subconscious mind.” (I suspect “unconscious” is intended, but Smith is not consistent in his use of such terminology; he gives the Ego, for example, the functions of the Superego.)

At the same time, having, as it were, left aside consciousness on the ground that it is an insoluble problem, he looks for “a physiological definition” of hope, on the ground, so far as I can see, that “research in neurosurgery and in the effects of drugs on ‘the mind’ have all but demonstrated that ‘the mind’ is a set of functions of the nervous system.” From this we proceed swiftly, by way of what Smith takes to be Skinner’s truism, that “we do not kick because we are angry; we both are angry and kick because of some physiological change,” to the conclusion that “our conscious hopes are epiphenomena of such physiological changes; ‘unconscious hopes’ may therefore refer to structures in the nervous system, and the system’s consequent tendencies.”

Even if this argument made sense, it isn’t clear what it is doing, or what its usefulness is, in a general account of hope in human history. Commonly Smith assumes that our ordinary discourse is good enough to talk about his subject; what is gained by such occasional excursions into talk about the nervous system isn’t clear. If he wants to stress an account of thinking that is reductive in the Skinnerian sense, then what he does is self-destructive, for it is a presupposition of his book that his argument has force through its making sense in the public language. If he is angry about the conduct of American medical missions or whatever, then his anger arises out of his understanding of what makes him angry, whatever the physiological changes associated with his anger.

Smith’s view of the direction of Western society is pretty fairly summed up in the following passage.

…in America and Europe professional criminals, protected by organized pity, increase daily. So do professional welfare recipients, our new leisure class. So do the insane. Pity makes discipline difficult, protects lazy workers and students, and, for their sakes, penalizes good ones who are denied the opportunities and consequences of rising in their employment or mastering their studies because the lazy will not. Wherever one turns in this culture one finds rot protected by pity.

It is true, at the end of the book we are reminded that there are deep hopes “for life, for power, for knowledge.”

Living, knowing, and acting are the forms in which and by which man becomes. Not “becomes this” or “becomes that,” but simply, constantly becomes; is not a fixed, bored being, but a living, acting man, an ever-changing consciousness, an understanding steadily extending its reach.

This is no doubt intended to cheer us up; or perhaps it is Smith’s contribution to the “new consciousness” adumbrated by World Perspectives.

Explanation and Power begins with a set of large questions. What is language? What is meaning? What is explanation? These questions have been thought about with great intensity for a long time now, by philosophers of logic such as Frege and Russell and Wittgentein, by such theorists of criticism as Ogden and Richards—The Meaning of Meaning is historically important as a sharpener of debate, even if its main thesis is wrong—and by those working in the new discipline of linguistics. It would appear that Professor Peckham has set himself a difficult task. But he doesn’t seem to feel committed by his choice of topics to carry out the task of establishing what the state of the question is. Frege and Russell, Ogden and Richards, are absent from his pages. Chomsky is once referred to; Peckham remarks that Chomsky’s notion of the deep structure of language is “merely” an example of what he (Peckham) calls “normative regress.” The one reference to Wittgenstein is wild: “Some philosophers, led by Wittgenstein, have proposed that an unequivocal meaning can be discovered from the use of a word.” There is not a single passage in Wittgenstein or in any of those who stand in his tradition that would justify such a view. What Wittgenstein did, and this may be the source of Peckham’s misunderstanding, was to give the advice: Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use!—this, as a means of solving certain philosophical puzzles, such as those which arise out of identifying the meaning of a word (in an uttered sentence) with its ostensible reference.

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