I want to look here at the progress of the mind in an extended historical setting. I shall take as my inspiration a former warden of Wadham College, Oxford, Warden Wilkins, who was elected warden in 1648 and died in 1672, a founder of the Royal Society, which started in embryo in Wadham and then continued in London.1 Wilkins foresaw and helped to plan the new science in Britain and in Europe, and he wanted to bring the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to the attention of Englishmen. He typically helped and encouraged Christopher Wren at Wadham. His writings were not intended for the learned only, but for a wider public of practical men. He wanted to use the state for the assistance of the intellect, and to organize learning. Could men find a means to fly to the moon? he asked. Could they navigate under water? These were technical possibilities which he guessed were being opened up by the new science of his time.

He was to be proved right in his belief that mankind, or the advanced section of it in Western Europe, was at that time launched on a vast expansion of the uses of the intellect and of the imagination; three hundred years of accelerating understanding of nature as a rational system had begun. Wilkins laid out in his writings an architect’s drawing of the future fabric of human reason. This fabric proved to be what we now call modern science and advanced technology. In this last decade we have heard much more authoritative questioning of the future of technology, and even of the future of natural science, than ever before in the last three hundred years. So perhaps we should pause and take stock, as Wilkins did in the middle of the seventeeth century, though modestly, because he was a genius of foresight.

I shall therefore be discussing the future of knowledge rather than knowledge of the future. At a new turning point, we should put to ourselves some new, or largely new, questions. Given the resources of knowledge now available, and given the spread of this knowledge in different minds across the world, how much of the future development of thought can we reasonably forecast or guess? And what could we do now to encourage the development of the mind?

I am not a scientist of any kind; I am a philosopher. Philosophy in the West began as the study of the nature of knowledge and of its forms, and it continues to be that study up to the present day. Not only do new forms of science and scholarship modify the nature of knowledge, but the sheer amount of systematic knowledge does this also. We may not know, in the sense that we may not realize, how much we now know. The pace of accumulation is so fast, and the acceleration is so great. And if we do not know what we know, then our first-order knowledge is apt to be unused, almost as if it did not exist. And who is “we” here? Knowledge that is diffused among different minds cannot be put together, in a single act of mind, to generate further thought; it can be, and I believe it often now is, sterilized by this separation.

I need here to make my first philosophical point. In the course of their evolution as a species human beings have developed a fairly capacious brain attached to sense organs which are adapted to their not too rapidly changing needs. Embodied in the brain is one extraordinary power: the mind’s power to review and to correct its own activities. While we think, we can at the same time think about the merits of our own thinking. As I utter a sentence now, I can reflect on the adequacy of my own words, and, almost simultaneously, correct them. This power of reflection is, as far as we know, peculiar to human beings, and it is a point of take-off in nature, a biological break, certainly conferring an immediate advantage on the species, and perhaps also, in the long run, exacting a cost. I shall mention the cost later.

The advantage is the perpetual restlessness of the mind, reviewing its own stocks of knowledge, and in the course of this, putting the stocks of knowledge in a new order, which opens up new inquiries. This is the power of invention and discovery, also the power of imagination: powers which we cannot explain, but which we can see to be closely linked to this unique capacity to think about our own thinking.

Within one mind an advance in knowledge generates more thought, more knowledge. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that moment of true foresight and true optimism, the philosophers saw the need of putting modern knowledge together in an encyclopaedia small enough to be the stored contents of a single enlightened mind; and on that basis they hoped for an advance in the social sciences, and in social planning, which would parallel the very rapid development in physics and in engineering after Newton. A few strong spirits in Europe, the enlightened minds, would draw together; and in communion with each other, they would carry forward the burden of knowledge, still just bearable and not too heavy for them.


Their hopes have been disappointed in at least two respects. First, after two centuries we have still not come anywhere near to any exact understanding of human behavior and of social change. There are no useful laws of nature in the social sciences, except possibly in economics. Secondly, we still cannot design a new town, or even a housing development, in any happy confident way, as a center of pleasure in living and as a fully human environment; or if there is an exceptional success, it seems to be more the result of luck or of genius than of scientific calculation.

Public health and public education, state insurance and the state’s relief of poverty: Condorcet, the leading futurologist of the Enlightenment, foresaw these vast and real advances in the common good which we should never forget and never decry. We may even echo Wilkins’s words a century earlier. He wrote then “There is now a greater equality amongst mankind and the flourishing of arts and sciences has so stirred up the sparks of men’s natural nobility, and made them of such active and industrious spirits, as to free themselves in a greater measure from that slavery, which those former and wilder nations were subjected unto.” This is still true about past and present; but we do not have Wilkins’s accompanying optimism for the future of our society, taking it as a whole. Why?

One reason is a mistake in the theory of knowledge which I have already mentioned: of its nature knowledge advances by the division of labor, by ever-increasing specialization. Every inquiry subdivides into new disciplines requiring separate investigation. It is also true that new knowledge depends on ideas from different disciplines being connected within a single mind. This contradictory requirement, not to be avoided, is a principal wound in modern culture, and it has been a topic for political theorists, poets, and philosophers ever since the Enlightenment. The most beautiful and most productive research, both in historical scholarship and in the physical sciences, is often the most minute and exact and the most remote from immediate common interests. The great inventors, the men of far-reaching imagination, often exercise their genius in depth of analysis in what seems to laymen a very narrow space. Beauty is often in detail, in science as in the arts.

We cannot plan invention, or educate men to be men of synthetic imagination, in the sense in which we can make plans for developing critical intellects, and educate men to think clearly and to recognize nonsense when they see it. In so far as we could plan the work of the imagination, we should not think of it as the imagination; we should have no further use for the concept. It is a power which we do not expect to understand, and, we may even say, we do not want to understand it.

In our liberal society we have always believed that research in universities and in research establishments and in industry should be free and largely undirected, that talent and genius, whether in the arts or sciences, are both unpredictable and uncontrollable, and that therefore there is no point in trying to direct intellectual labor; so it is thought that sound morals and prudent policy coincide. Intellectual work should be free like the wind, to blow where it will.

In the accelerating technological and scientific research since the Industrial Revolution, and in the great developments of scholarship in the reformed universities, scientists and scholars in Great Britain, at least, have been largely free to fix their own priorities; except in wartime few priorities in needed knowledge have been forced upon them. But it is no longer possible to pursue every attractive channel of inquiry simultaneously. The available minds are too few, and the accumulating knowledge too great; and the time to provide for the survival of the nation and of the species is too short. Could we learn how to calculate the probabilities of making discoveries in different inquiries? If so, would there necessarily be harm in postponing those researches in which substantial success was for a time very unlikely, and in diverting money and luring more men into those other inquiries where large discoveries seemed likely in a near future? Should we investigate the possibility of an empirical theory of knowledge, itself founded on planned research?


What I call an empirical theory of knowledge was in earlier centuries called the art of discovery. Bacon and Warden Wilkins and Leibniz and others of their time attempted to found such an art of discovery; but they based their suggestions on very general philosophical grounds, and not on a scientific, empirical basis. Could there be something like a Supreme Academy to oversee inquiry? Remember the constant acceleration in specialized knowledge stored in single minds and in learned journals; remember the assumption that we have some very urgent problems of survival, which require a coordination of knowledge for their intelligent solution.

Still, most people will be shocked by the mere mention of such questions, as if allowing one’s mind to stray along these paths was already an outrage to liberal principles, and was the beginning of totalitarianism. But I am speaking only of the acquisition of knowledge by scientific and scholarly research, and of its subsequent availability; I am not speaking of the uses of knowledge in education. Since the foundation of the Royal Society at Wadham College—after the Restoration—in a mere three hundred years we have seen not only the development of modern science and mathematics, but also of historical studies in the full modern sense. As far as we can judge, in retrospect, the free market in the pursuit of knowledge has served us well thus far.

The phrase “free market” here conceals the immensely complex factors which over the years have led to one science or scholarly interest being pressed ahead rather than another. One factor, difficult to assess, has always been the intellectual attraction, the intrinsic interest, of a particular inquiry which draws to it the most talented and imaginative men of the time. Atomic physics in the period from Einstein to Fermi; rather later, genetics; also the history of painting; molecular biology; social anthropology: all these inquiries, taken just as examples, have recently had glorious periods, their moments of high intellectual excitement, sometimes for short periods, but in some prolonged up to the present day.

There is an unquantifiable, mysterious element of changing intellectual fashion, which is far from being frivolous, since it determines the prestige of different styles of intellectual achievement. The kind of discovery that is considered deep, fundamental, subtle, and that is accounted as evidence of great originality or genius, will change with the changing philosophies of the time; but not in a regular and predictable way, which is why the word “fashion” can properly be used. It is unlikely that there is a reliable correlation between the intellectual attractiveness and the prestige of an inquiry on the one hand and on the other hand the probability of useful discovery.

It is even less likely that there is a correlation, at any particular time, between the prestige and intellectual attractiveness of an inquiry and the urgency of the need for it, from the standpoint of human survival or of national betterment. So in these three hundred years, in the great age of open inquiry in Europe, when physical scientists and historians of all kinds were guided by philosophy and by flair, no one can tell, for example, why the Darwinian theory of natural selection had to wait for Darwin, and when or why critical, historical studies of the New Testament first became a possibility. Not only is the interdependence between the disciplines not yet understood; but, probably more important, the sudden ebullitions of talent and originality leading to “break-throughs,” say, in the history of the ancient world, or in philology and in linguistics, or in logic, or in astrophysics, are not to be computed, or even to be explained in retrospect.

In so far as the breakthroughs can sometimes be partially explained, it is rarely as direct answers to problems that arise outside the subject itself. Usually the sudden excitement, the unexpected shift along a fault line in the crust of ideas, which leads to an earthquake and to a new landscape of thought, is explicable precisely because tremors had been felt within the subject and entirely among experts. There had been an irritating lack of fit in the current theories.

But still something can be said. Philosophers’ theories of knowledge have, from Plato onward, amounted to arguments for an order of priority among different kinds of knowledge precisely in respect of their being deep, or fundamental, or basic. Mathematics is certainly recognized as fundamental and basic in human knowledge, and any Supreme Academy will surely still see mathematics as the language of the intellect, and the diffusion of mathematical talent, and of the products of mathematical genius, as necessary to the survival of the species and of the country. Mathematics is permanently the meeting point of utility and of abstract pleasure.

In the last half century we have lived through the greatest of all ages of advance in logic, which is a branch of mathematics; while the advance continues, it still leaves the nature of mathematical knowledge itself as a deep and mysterious problem, and a principal source of philosophy, as it has always been. We are apt to think, brought up in the British empiricist tradition, that it is easy to see how knowledge arrives from the external world through the use of the senses. But how can knowledge of mathematics and logic arrive through the mere operation of thought, as if the mind was bringing to the surface knowledge which, in a sense, it already possesses?

Perhaps the moral is that we ought not to think that it is easy to see how systematic knowledge is acquired. We are only just beginning to investigate how knowledge of the other language of the intellect, natural language itself, is acquired. There is a wild hypothesis with distinguished supporters which says that the main structural features common to natural languages are built into the mind, waiting to be elicited from us in childhood; that learning the grammar of a particular language, by hearing it spoken, is a bringing to the surface of a knowledge innate in us. It is as if we are reminded in childhood of the forms of sentences, forms which we already anticipated.

Once again John Wilkins in the seventeenth century wrote a treatise on the still unproven hypothesis of a universal grammar. The hypothesis is today associated with the rapidly developing science of structural linguistics, and with the belief that we shall find a deep grammar behind the grammar of the grammar books. Just as much of the philosophy of mathematics has become a part of mathematics, so much of the philosophy of language has ceased to be philosophy, and become the independent science of linguistics, demanding careful, detailed research.

So with a more developed mathematical logic and a more developed linguistics we should have the beginnings of a new self-understanding, which will have an extensive feedback effect. Scholarly and scientific inquiry is turning inward toward the mechanisms of the knower’s mind, and therefore to the nature of knowledge itself, as a possible object of direct inquiry, no longer of mere speculation. If we knew something precise about the mechanisms of language-learning in the brains of infants and of young children, we should be on the way to better language-teaching, to reinforcing natural tendencies rather than cutting across them, as in our ignorance we probably do now.

It is a speculation, but not an absurd one, to imagine that modern linguistics and mathematical logic, taken together, are to be compared with optics in the seventeenth century: theoretical studies of great intrinsic interest, which may have as a byproduct a multiplying effect on the advance of knowledge, as the microscope and other optical inventions did then. I would expect the Supreme Academy to give high priority to these new structural studies of the principal instruments of the mind, language and logic, including in logic also all those studies grouped around the complex notion of probability.

Any Supreme Academy could not neglect the fact that our three hundred years of strictly scientific advance started from a philosophical vision. We have forgotten now, and find it difficult to recapture, the strangeness of this vision, its improbability, when it first presented itself to a few Europeans—the vision of a unified physical theory which would apply impartially across all qualitative differences in the universe. Success led a few materialist philosophers, even in the seventeenth century, to suggest that all observable movements of observable things, including human beings, and all observable changes in them, ought to be explained in terms of a unified scheme of physical explanation

Materialist philosophies have come alive again today, and they include materialist conceptions of personality. Can I consistently think of myself, including my own thought, as ultimately to be explained in the terms of physics and chemistry? Are the problems of mental health ultimately to be solved by chemical methods, and was Freud right to guess, as he did, that madness will be interpreted for scientific purposes as ultimately physical malfunctioning? Attempts to answer these questions come under the general heading of self-knowledge, alongside such immaterial studies as structural linguistics and anthropology. Our physics has to return to study the principal instrument used in the construction of physics: the human brain.

Here is the feedback which, together with the other forms of self-knowledge, will tell us what the chances are of learning how to increase the capacity both of the individual and of the collective mind: for example, the range of memory, or the span of concentrated attention, in the individual mind, and, in the collective mind, the art of discovery, the art of asking unexpectedly answerable, productive questions. More valuable still, it may ultimately yield some insight into the more or less fixed limits of men’s understanding. One may reasonably expect to learn, from observation of the physical instrument of learning and of thought, what men cannot be expected to learn and where their thought is unlikely to penetrate.

But you will protest: speaking from the standpoint of the Academy, do I wholly neglect the social sciences, which are a prime interest, if not the prime interest, of industry and of government? And what has the Academy to say of historical studies? Are they still, in its plans, to have the dominant place in the pursuit of knowledge which they earned and occupied in the last century?

First, the social sciences. I am still rather skeptical about them. They have raised great expectations over the last half-century; and the main problems for both industry and government in late capitalism ought to find solutions in the social sciences: how to plan an adequate urban environment, how to make work on assembly lines and in factories tolerable, or how to devise efficient alternatives to them. In the great days of the Enlightenment—around the middle of the last three hundred years—futurologists, such as Condorcet, correctly predicted the welfare state and the relief of poverty by the state. But they were wrong in expecting a path to planned peacefulness and general happiness to be opened up by the social sciences.

I believe that this disappointment was to be expected. There are good philosophical reasons for it in the nature of psychological explanation. If you want to understand states of mind and their causes—states of mind such as happiness, bad temper, and boredom—you cannot expect to make them the subject of an exact, experimental science, unless you find their physical equivalents. Other methods must be found, other kinds of understanding looked for, because a man’s states of mind necessarily change as his beliefs and theories about them change; they are not independent objects for study, as his physical states are. This is the cost of reflection, that governing power of the mind.

Beliefs, desires, and patterns of behavior are the material which social scientists investigate. But explanations of behavior by reference to the subject’s beliefs and desires are not open to experimental testing and cannot be assimilated to causal explanations in the applied physical sciences; and for several converging reasons. First, beliefs and desires have to be identified and specified by their content, by the propositions believed and the eventualities desired, and this content in turn has to be specified in the vocabulary, and using the concepts, which are the agent’s own. There will be no universal, cross-cultural correlations between types of behavior, identified under descriptions natural to one agent, and the beliefs and desires of other agents who act under different descriptions, classifying things differently.

Secondly, the trio of beliefs, desires, and actions, which are linked in ordinary, prescientific thought about persons, are a very closely related trio; we determine the correct account of any one of the three by reference to what we know of the other two. We cannot regard them as three independently identifiable elements, as would be necessary in any deterministic explanation, and in explanations by natural law.

For these (and other) reasons there is no accessible scheme of description and explanation of human conduct which both preserves the original subject matter of the social sciences and which also satisfies the criteria for causal explanation accepted in the biological and physical sciences.2

Of the social sciences the Academy will encourage economics; when it has confined itself to carefully abstracted aspects of human behavior, economics has avoided the uncertainties and vagueness of psychological explanation. Secondly, social anthropologists have invented their own scholarly discipline by preserving a rational distance between the habits of thought of the observer and the habits of thought observed, and by not trying to answer pressing social questions directly. The best anthropologists have been, and still are, careful in moderating their claims to be scientific in explaining, as opposed merely to describing, social forms.

As for historical studies, and particularly the history of art and of architecture, as well as social history and the history of early civilizations: these are sources of intense pleasure and the source also of the sense of our own identity, both as a people and as individuals. Every time a street or building that incorporates a considerable history is destroyed in some improvement or modernization, some future happiness is destroyed with it. The effect is subtle and indirect, but strong: the whole difference between walking down a street with visible history in the buildings and in the shapes that form it, and a barely functional street, yesterday’s pavements, without an imagination of the future, without a new visual idea in detail or as a whole.

Boredom is increasingly the disease of advanced industrial civilization: a sense of triviality, a sense that one is a replaceable part in a mechanism, in no way distinct and indispensable. In a mainly secular society, which ours is, the consciousness of a long history adds a necessary dimension to work and to remaining sane outside work. I mean both local history, the history that is preserved in buildings and in the contours of roads and fields and streets, and also larger national history; and, lastly, the history that is based on archaeology and that conveys the weight of the distant past, with its wild improbabilities and its immense varieties of styles of life. One cannot expect men to remain sane unless they can see their work, and their brief life outside work, against a background of a vastly greater continuity and also of variety, against a backcloth on which they can expect to cast some shadow in their own generation. They must see themselves as belonging to, and forming, a specific period and a period style, against, for example, the background of Victorian England, and of the long sweep of history behind that. They have to see their inventions in buildings against the Victorian and Palladian inventions of the past.

The essence of work, or of mere work, is, and always has been, repetition. But over most of known history the repetitions have been given significance by recurring celebrations of seasons and of work done, in feasts, ceremonies, enactments of myth and history, dramatic and musical performances, public manifestations of all kinds. If the repetitions of work are not given any kind of seasonal rhythm or pattern, because the beliefs, principally religious, associated with such rhythms have largely disappeared, then they remain mere repetitions, leaving a blank, an empty aging, an undifferentiated stretch of days and months, as in a prison before death.

Under these conditions a lifetime cannot naturally be envisaged as having any significant form; it becomes undecorated and bleak like one of those corridors of concrete and cement in a shopping center and in some new universities: practical but desolate. Boredom, along with the unrelieved, programmed repetitions of ordinary living and ordinary work, is as great a danger to productive industry and to reasonable government as is backwardness in scientific research and technology. Even on a utilitarian calculation some pride in monuments of the present age must be created, to be set against the monuments of the past. This is the natural way forward for any society, early or late, if it is not to be a depressed society, living on a low imaginative diet, and gloomy in consequence, expecting to be forgotten, voiceless in history.

You will have guessed that, at the end of the three hundred years, my idea of the further development of the mind is not altogether the same as Wilkins’s; the creative arts have a much larger part in it. We need a great central effort, a coordinated push, corresponding to the push given to natural science by the Royal Society in the 1660s: a change of attitude is needed, both in the taxpayers and in the government, toward supporting the arts as a source of glory, and as a necessity of continuing, remembered life. By the arts, here, I mean literature, painting, sculpture, music, film, and theater, as well as the architecture I have already mentioned. The need for imaginative expression of emotions in careful and elaborate forms is as deeply planted in human nature as is the sexual instinct, with which it is linked.

Adult reason, employed in administration and in technology, and in the design of work, must be counterbalanced by opportunity for free imagination, for fiction, deceit, illusion, showmanship, irresponsibility. The successes of reason, foreseen by Descartes and Leibniz and Wilkins in their futurologies, have turned out to be the solid successes of the physical sciences and of modern mathematics; so much so that one can say that rationality just is scientific method and mathematical rigor, to be applied wherever problems admit of rational solution. But it is time to keep a balance. Men come to recognize themselves and their wishes and emotions in the mirror of the arts, and they can best come to terms with what they see in the mirror of poetry, fiction, or painting.

It is sometimes suggested now, snobbishly and destructively, as I believe, that an active enjoyment of one or more of the arts is necessarily an interest only of an elite minority. This view seems to me a product of the very disease which it seeks to prolong. On the contrary the need is universal, and the influence of high culture in the arts spreads across the whole society, infecting styles in houses and in speech and in behavior and in demands made upon the environment and for its preservation. In a sense we all know this to be true, even if it is not admitted in popular journalism. We know that a good, or a great, poet or painter or novelist or architect or musician contributes more to the future of the nation, and to its identity and its confidence, than any other kind of person.

That is why very few of us, unless we are historians, can remember who was home secretary or foreign secretary in 1850, but all of us can remember some poets or painters or novelists who were at work then. It will be just the same for 1977 in a hundred years’ time: the painters and poets and novelists and composers of our day, and perhaps a few architects, will be remembered, long after the now more famous and powerful names are forgotten. It is a matter of comparative glory; and works of imaginative genius or talent have always had the greater glory, the most lasting and proper fame. They are the immaterial capital which produces the accumulated income on which we live. My fear is that we shall run down this inherited capital rather than replace it. Perhaps we are replacing capital in the theater and in painting and in sculpture, and perhaps in music also; but elsewhere we are dissipating our inheritance, allowing small towns, great collections, beautiful streets in London, to be broken up and scattered, and we are putting nothing as good for our descendants to inherit in their place; and all this partly for lack of public money, which reflects lack of care, mere indifference.

Britain’s greatness, and its influence on the future of the race, now rest over-whelmingly on one original possession: the English language. It is now probable that English will become the language of the international exchange of ideas and of the sharing of knowledge, as Latin was for several centuries and as French nearly was in the eighteenth century. The writing and speaking of English, and the language itself, are sustained by those who extend the resources of the language, and who refine upon its range and powers of expression, permanently, by their inventions. These are the poets, dramatists, and novelists of our time. We live and think in the language which their predecessors have gradually, over centuries, formed for us, and to which they are adding now.

Do not be deceived by the old innuendo that state support for the arts cannot do what court patronage and private patronage used to do, and what was done in support of Christopher Wren in his time. There is no need for the heavy hand of the state to fall with numbing effect, and to restrict the entire freedom of poets and dramatists and painters to experiment as they choose. We have in Britain the techniques for distributing the taxpayers’ money through filters that keep the government at a distance. We do this for universities, and we can do it for the arts too. Forty years ago, in 1936, Maynard Keynes, the great prophet of our age, wrote: “The position today of artists of all sorts is disastrous…. The artist needs economic security and enough income, and then to be left to himself, at the same time the servant of the public and his own master…. We can help him best, perhaps, by promoting an atmosphere of open-handedness, of liberality, of candor, of toleration, of experiment, of optimism, which expects to find some things good. It is our sitting tight-buttoned in the present, with no hope or belief in the future, which weighs him down.”3

Government and industry are properly thought of as means to some end or ends beyond themselves, to improved forms of life. In the first excitement of systematic historical studies in the last century, social ideas were built on alleged trends of historical development. But the history used was pathetically selective and provincial, being the history of a small section of humanity only, and the trends therefore very uncertain on any larger view. I have in mind the nineteenth-century positivists, and also the Marxists, who saw the future as a set drama, leading through catastrophe to a final enlightenment. In the liberal democracies today the prevailing belief, both philosophical and popular, is that each man must choose his own ends of action.

But the principle of liberty can be made a positive principle, and then it becomes a direction and a target. I have spoken of self-knowledge and self-understanding as a central preoccupation coming after the three hundred years of scientific advance and historical scholarship; they are the condition of the development of the species, and probably now the condition of its survival. We have to plough back accumulated knowledge into the strengthening of intelligence in all its forms, into an assisted evolution of the species. This requires a cultivation and an expansion of the imagination as well as of reason, a positive ideal of individuality and of aesthetic variety and of aesthetic conscience, which will relieve the weight of work and of rationality, the benefits of which but not the burden were correctly foreseen by Warden Wilkins. Let us not sit “tight-buttoned in the present,” but rather care for those who will imagine and will make something that will last into the remembering future, in the creative arts no less than in the sciences.

This Issue

March 31, 1977