In Job's Balances



C'est un enchantement incomprehensible et un assoupissement surnaturel.
It is some incomprehensible enchantment and a supernatural slumber.

      - PASCAL, Pensées, III, 194.

Tote de chrę eôrakevai pisteuein, hotan hę psychę eksaiphnęs phôs labę.
But then we must believe that we have seen, when light suddenly dawns on the soul.

      - PLOTINUS, Enneads, V, iii, 17.


     It is universally believed that science is free inquiry. But is this really the case? I am reminded in this connection of an old legend, universally known, but no less universally forgotten. An intelligent Thracian woman once saw Thales fall into a well while his eyes were searching heaven for its secrets; and she laughed heartily at the old fellow who could not see what was lying at his feet, yet imagined that he could discern things in heaven. All common-sense people think just as that woman thought. They are all convinced that the ordo et connexio rerum in heaven is the same as on earth. Even philosophers, who, we may presume, have always, with sufficient reason, lent an attentive ear to the judgments of intelligent people, have ever been desirous of discovering a law of the continuity of phenomena in the universe. Thales himself, concerning whom tradition has preserved the anecdote referred to, was the first to whom the idea occurred of the unity of the world structure. And we should be justified in assuming that when he fell into the well and heard the girl's merry laughter, he realized, with consternation, that the girl was right, and that even a man perplexed with the secrets of heaven must look before his feet: indeed, that this is, perhaps, the very first place where he should look.

     Thales was the father of ancient philosophy. His consternation, and the firm beliefs to which this gave rise, were transmitted to his pupils and to their pupils again. The law of heredity exercises as despotic and unlimited a sway in philosophy as in all other fields of organic existence. Let any one who doubts this cast a glance at any text-book. Since Hegel no one has dared imagine that the philosopher is able to think and inquire "freely". The philosopher grows out of the past, like a plant out of the earth. And while Thales was shocked by the laughter and insulting words of the Thracian woman, all those who followed him were amply shocked and "enriched" by his experience. They knew very well that before we go searching in the heavens we must look carefully at what lies directly before our feet.

     Translated into scholarly language, this means that philosophy intends, at all costs, to be science. Philosophy, like science, aims at basing its knowledge on an enduring foundation, on a granite rock. Kant was thus fully justified in posing his famous questions in the Critique of Pure Reason, and in drawing up "prolegomena" to any future metaphysics. If Thales fell into a well even on earth, his wanderings through the clouds boded no good, as the Thracian woman justly deduced. We must first learn to walk surely on earth, and then success will be ensured to us in heaven also. And conversely, he who cannot find his way aright in our world will make no discoveries in heaven either...

     It seems to follow from this that Hegel was absolutely wrong in his famous objections to the Kantian theory of knowledge. He compared Kant, it will be remembered, to a swimmer who wants to know how to swim before plunging into the waves. This would be correct if neither Kant nor even any one before him had ever tried to investigate the world in the fullest sense of that word, including heaven as well as earth; if all inquirers had confined themselves to the question of how the investigation should be carried out. In reality the whole case was quite different: men had known how to swim many centuries before Kant; they swam often and well (Kant laid quite especial emphasis on this point in his epoch-making book), and Kant did not pose his questions until he had himself taken several plunges into the flood.

     Hegel's objection, if taken literally, thus proves to be a silly sophism hastily improvised. But there is no reason to suppose that Hegel was so naďve as really to suppose it possible to brush aside the questions posed by Kant with so frivolous a consideration. It seems highly probable that Hegel's thought was much deeper and more serious, even though he clothed it in the shape of a jest. Kant's questions were, at bottom, of the sort which can be posed but cannot possibly be answered, either as Kant answered them, or in any other way. Who knows? Perhaps Kant himself felt this also, and for that reason only revealed half of the questions, and that by far the less important and difficult half, while concealing the more difficult and important part, even as Hegel did in his jesting objection. Kant, who had undertaken to create a theory of knowledge, to give philosophy a scientific basis, could not start from the thesis that we possess sciences - mathematics, natural science, etc. Sciences do certainly exist, but this is not enough. The task is to justify their existence. Many things exist which cannot and ought not to be justified. There are thieves' dens, gambling-houses, brothels - but the mere fact of their existence speaks neither in their favour nor against them. Neither does the existence of the sciences, nor even the respect invariably paid to them, at all shield them from possible reproaches. Today the sciences are universally recognized as beneficial. But supposing a worse final fate than that of Thales when he contemplated the heavens through his "telescope" awaits him who entrusts himself to these sciences and relies upon them? Would a philosopher who seeks to avoid a catastrophe be obliged, instead of seeking relations with science, to break them off absolutely?

     How to answer such a question? Whither turn with it? Whom shall we ask? Is there indeed any being, any court of appeal, to which one could turn with such a question? And if there is, what are the signs by which we shall know that we have applied in the right quarter?

     Kant, as I said before, did not pose these questions. He was convinced" that there is someone to whom one can turn, that there is, either inside or outside us, an infallible court which has resolved or will resolve, infallibly and finally, all the doubts which lurk hidden in Hegel's objection. In other words, we can swim indeed and shall not sink, only we must be clear what movements we are executing to keep ourselves on the surface.

     Whence did Kant draw his convictions? He is silent on this point, as though there was nothing to ask about it. But there is something to be asked here, and if Kant gives no answer, we must try, by hook or crook, to find an answer elsewhere.

     In Beaumarchais' Wedding of Figaro Susanna and Figaro have a difference regarding the future form which their household is to take. At Figaro's first objection, Susanna instantly breaks off the conversation and declares with that clarity which we are always seeking, but are far from always finding, even among the best philosophers, that she has no intention whatever of arguing with him and proving to him that she is "in the right". For, she says, to begin to argue with him would be to admit the possibility that she could be wrong. This is what we have been looking for: the true, final, conclusive "being in the right" which admits no further doubts or questions. Figaro was forced to yield. He had to admit that he must cry halt before the determination of this self-willed but irresistibly charming woman. He had to "cry halt before necessity" - anankę stęnai, to use Aristotle's phrase. And now it suddenly appears that the supreme instance, which ends, finally and once and for all, all argument and contradiction, is the whim of a creature of chance, a mortal daughter of the earth, yet dear and beloved. Thus it was that Beaumarchais, a clever and thoughtful man, constructed his theory of knowledge. Are we justified in availing ourselves of his acumen even where we have to do, not with the frivolous hero of a French comedy, but with the famous leaders of philosophic thought? Are we justified in assuming that Kant, Hegel, and Aristotle himself had each his Susanna, whom they would not name by her true name, but before whom they retreated as unresistingly and as gladly as Figaro before his beloved?

     I know that such a comparison will arouse furious protests. Hegel, Kant, Aristotle on the one side and a Figaro on the other! But quite apart from the fact that "furious protest" has no claim whatever to rank as objection, I am able this time to appeal to a tradition, and a classical one at that - that tradition mentioned previously. Plato himself did not shrink from telling us of Thales's encounter with the Thracian woman, or, to put it better, from telling us how a young, uncultivated (and apparently, in this case also, a charming) girl publicly held up to ridicule the Father of Philosophy. There can be no doubt about the matter: Thales in his old age was held up to scorn by a young Thracian girl who, standing on firm earth, broke into merry laughter while he, fumbling in the well, cried out impotently. It is also undeniable, as I said before, that her criticism taught the philosophers an important lesson: the phrase anankę stęnai is no product of Aristotle's soul, but of the soul of Thales in his well. It was Thales in his consternation who, at the loud laughter of the pretty peasant girl, took the firm resolve henceforward no longer to walk at random where God led him, but before he advanced to look carefully before him where he was going.

     That is the basis of what is commonly called the theory of knowledge. The last thing Kant was trying to do was to justify science and pure reason. He knew just as well as Hegel that the question of the justification of scientific knowledge is one which must not be raised. He only wanted to discredit self-willed and capricious metaphysics: to show that metaphysics is laying its foundations, not on lasting granite, like science, but on shifting sand. Hegel's reply is to be understood in the sense that if we wish to retain the conviction of the absolute virtue of our methodological dexterity in our search for truth, we had best leave aside altogether the question of the origin of that conviction. The fact that we possess it is important, but how we attained it is a secondary consideration. And more: no conviction is lasting except that concerning which no one can remember or guess whence and since when he has possessed it. For once we begin to remember and investigate, what guarantee have we that our curiosity will lead us to the desired result? But suppose we reached the opposite result? Suppose our wish to lay a foundation for the conviction undermined it instead? We have our science, and science has given us a great deal; we should rest content with what we have. So let us remain content with what we have and lull to sleep the restless inquirer within us. A philosopher should not forget Thales's dangerous experience and Aristotle's principle of anankę stęnai which is derived from it.

Orphus system

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