Pigs is Pigs - Christopher Derrick


from Escape From Scepticism
by Christopher Derrick

What kind of image will most aptly suggest the distinctive happiness which I observe in these rather unusual students? An image (I think) of liberation; and I have titled this book accor- dingly. Most colleges and universities today provide excellent education of the servile kind; but along with this, most of them provide also an indoctrination in scepticism, and this is something which paralyzes and imprisons the mind. But these particular young people have been set free.

Other images could of course be used to suggest their condition: images of food after long starvation, for example. But what haunts my mind at this moment is an image of dry land and firm ground underfoot, after a long struggle in stormy waters. The ship sank, let us say, and not all the passengers were good swimmers: they splashed and flapped around in disorienta- tion and despair, flung in this direction and that by random wave-patterns, and some went under. But for the lucky ones, there came a moment of near-miracle. The storm continued, but they were out of it: God or good fortune had unexpectedly thrown them up onto a friendly shore. Nourishment and rescue would now be available; but for the moment they concentrated on that sheer delight of having solid earth to walk on and being able to get their bearings.

Their delight was not unmixed, even now: they were still very much concerned about those who were still lost and desperate in the cruel sea. With a strong sense of urgency, therefore, they tried to work out some way of using their own rnore fortunate position for purposes of rescue. They might or might not succeed. But they at least were safe; and they knew that while rescuers sometimes have to take risks, you don't help a drowning_man if you jump back into the water and drown 'alongside him: He needs something more concrete and particular and practical than mere human solidarity and a sharing in the existential anguish of death. He needs to be pulled out: he needs to find firm ground underfoot.

Now there are many circles in which any such image of the educational process-or of intellectual activity in general-would arouse strong hostility and objection: as I have already suggested more than once, fundamental scepticism has (in our time) become something like an established orthodoxy. This rejection of my Robinson-Crusoe image would be partly philosophical. It would be agreed that people who are actually drowning have got to be rescued if possible. But it would be denied firmly and even furiously that there is any corresponding duty-or even any cor- responding possibility-in connection with the life of the mind and the knowledge of reality. Here (it would be said) there is no dry land, no objectively firm ground underfoot, capable of being recognized as such: those who believe that there is are deluding themselves.

I shall return to this curious notion later. In the meantime, I would like to point out that the rejection of my image would not be simply philosophical. Having frequently been engaged in this particular battle, I can assure you that it would also include psy- chological and ad hominem elements, even moral elements. The implied 'dogmatism' would not only be rejected as being erroneous: it would also be rejected as a social evil, a kind of tyranny indicating bad and possible pathological motivations in those who advocate it. Yes, there is much storm and stress in human life. But if you try to drag others onto that imaginary dry land of yours, this can only be because of your secret desire to dominate, your disregard for opinions other than your own! It is, in fact, only timid and emotionally insecure people, sad cases of arrested development, who even desire that supposed security of firm ground underfoot. Anyone of full maturity should be able to accept the storm with courage, the relativity and ultimate uncertainty of all things.

So it would be said: so I have often heard it said, and I cannot be the judge of how justly it is said about myself.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that the motivations- game can be played in both directions. If we are going to get psychological at all, we can reasonably get psychological about the motivations of those who so passionately want the dogma of fundamental scepticism to be true, as well as the motivations of their opponents.

I do not not want to make any sweeping accusation, certainly not of individuals. But it is too easily forgotten that writers and academics and the intelligentsia in general have a direct personal 'interest' in scepticism. This will not govern the thinking of honest men, but it will constitute what religious people call a 'temptation' for many: some will resist the temptation manfully, some weakly, and some (perhaps) not at all. We live in a per- missive society, after all: the idea of resisting iemptation is out of fashion.

The nature of this particular temptation needs to be considered. Ideally at least, the intellectual, in the university and elsewhere, is a professional seeker of the truth: he is also a man skilled in the use of the mind. He is paid to deploy that skill, and he enjoys doing so.

But a fondness for intellectual enquiry is not at all the same thing as a hunger for the truth. The two may appear similar; but so far as the enquirer's motivations' are concerned, they are in direct conflict. in so far as truth is actually attained in any matter, the enquiry is, to that extent, over. So, to that extent, is the particular and most rewarding kind of excitement which the enquiry provided.

Consider fox-hunting. Watching the riders and the hounds as they go streaming across the English shires on a winter afternoon, you might suppose that they actually wanted the fox. Perhaps the hounds do, but the riders certainly don't: what they want is the thrill of the chase, and when the fox is finally caught and demolished, the fun' is over for the time being.

That's all very well on the hunting-field, but it creates a fatal kind of schizophrenia on campus. How often we have all met the learned man who is professionally committed to hunting for the truth, but intensely hostile to any suggestion that it might actually be captured, once and for all! It's very understandable: in so far as truth actually gets attained, the seeker of it finds himself out of a job. The fox is dead, the enjoyable hunt is over.

It would be a mistake to press this cynical point too far. But all men have their particular temptations, and these are often occupational; and it needs to be recognized that the intellectual, as such, is chronically tempted to what might be called the sin of philosophical contraception. He wants to enjoy the legitimate pleasures ot intellectual enquiry, but he is reluctant to be burdened with that activity's natural end-product, which is the knowledge of reality. He therefore takes steps, perhaps quite subconsciously, to sterilize his enquiry in advance by the adoption of relativist or sceptical philosophies. The lovers' play can thus continue forever, unimpeded by pregnancy and childbirth: the huntsman can thus enjoy the chase forever, knowing that the fox won't ever get caught. But the love-making and the hunt will both be fakes.

How far the intelligentsia yield to this temptation, we don't know and probably shouldn't ask: that they yield to it sometimes and in some degree is a matter of observation. What needs to be borne steadily in mind (in all charity) is the fact that they are subject to the temptation; that where fundamental scepticism is in question, as against some possibility of coming to know reality finally and definitely, they are interested parties, biassed by the fact of their occupation. (There is a political version of the same temptation. It has often been observed that the intelligentsia have a strong tendency to take the 'progressive' or leftist side in any disputed matter-so much so that a 'conservative intellectual seems almost a contradiction in terms. Some would see this tendency in terms of superior minds perceiving the greater merits of the 'progressive' case. But here again, the intelligentsia are interested parties. In so far as some kind of revolutionary change is called for, there will need to be a great deal of re-thinking, which will give them a prominent role and function. But in so far as what we need is greater fidelity to some long- established tradition, they won't have so much to do and they won't be so important. Excessive cynicism here would be uncharitable. But a total absence of cynicism would be unrealistic. Intellectuals as such are no worse than the rest of us. But their personal situation does predispose them to favour certain definable kinds of answer to a wide range of questions; and the possession of a a first-class brain is no guarantee of total integri- ty, total objectivity, total neutrality before the facts.)

Is there really any firm ground on which the mind of man can stand with well-justified confidence? Let us agree that there are many kinds of false or illusory certainty; that some people who suppose themselves to be standing on firm ground are actually drowning; that dogmatic assertiveness can spring from a desire to dominate; that cravings for security and assurance can sometimes be pathological. But the case for scepticism is not thereby established. Comparable ad hominem charges can be made in the opposite sense too: the motivations-game can be played in both directions, and the accusations so made will cancel one another out, leaving us with the objective question, which still needs to be considered on its merits.

What might those be? We can certainly guess and theorize forever. But can we really know reality or any part of it, such as the nature and destiny of man? If not, the idea of liberal education seems to me to become a mere delusion. What does it become in fact, among people who don't seem to believe in anything at all-not even the workings of their own minds, not even the evidence of their own senses?

Last summer, two young American friends came to my home, which is near London, and we discussed all manner of things. Both were pleasant and bright, and both were philosophy majors from liberal arts colleges of repute. The conversation developed on such lines that I eventually plucked up my courage and uttered the Chestertonian dogma 'Pigs is pigs'; and to this, both my young friends responded with a storm of contradiction and even of anger. No, I was quite wrong: the mind cannot know anything outside itself, and it certainly mustn't classify its experiences in any essentialist language of objective pighood.

And so on. But soon it was time for them to go, and they started worrying about the time of their train. I pointed out, mildly, that since there was no real and knowable world within which their train could have any objective 'out there' existence, their anxiety was misplaced. This irritated them a little: philosophy (I was given to understand) was one thing, but the practical business of daily life was another.

"So you don't actually believe that sceptical philosophy of yours, in the sense of governing your lives by it?" No, of course they didn't: when pressed, they admitted that for them and their instructors too, philosophy amounted to little more than a word-game, making no real claim to yield 'truth'.

I scented hope. I knew already that they were unhappy peo- ple, bright enough at the superficial and social level but bitter and alienated within, according to a widely prevalent pattern of bitterness and alienation; and I had long suspected that many troubles of that kind, apparently psychological in nature, are philosophical by ong in. Split your mind into two halves, a dis- cursive half and a practical half, and give them radically incom- patible things to believe: the outcome is going to be interior con- flict or stress. Too many people, finding themselves so troubled, run straight off to the nearest analyst: a good teacher of language and logic might provide them with a mdre health-giving therapy.

In that spirit of clinical benevolence, I therefore begged this young couple to start being sceptical about their own scepticism. Could we discuss this? Could we at least define our terms? But I was too late: already they were off to that momentary appearance in the experienced flux of becoming which (for some reason) they insisted on treating just as though it could be known and used as a real train. And as they left me, I saw the sarn~e expression on both faces: it was an unmistakeable expres- sion of fear. I had rattled them.

"The truth shall make you free"? I have heard that long- term prisoners are sometimes terrified of release, and therefore commit some further crime before long so as to get safely back inside.

I cannot proye that fundamental scepticism is untrue. Nobody can prove anything except on some basis of agreed premises; and any premises that are capable of being put into words are also capable of being verbally questioned. Any argu- ment whatsoever can thus be made into an infinite regress-a happy outcome indeed, if your chief desire is that it should go on for ever.

In many kinds of discussion, however, there comes a point at which the question of sanity takes precedence over the ques- tion ot demonstrable truth. I have just suggested that psychological problems may have philosophical roots: the converse can also be true. Imagine some man who swears that there's a world-wide conspiracy against him, and interprets all public events in terms of this. You can't possibly prove him wrong; and you have to admit that in the strictest logical sense, it is possible-that is, it involves no contradiction-that there should indeed be such a conspiracy. You point out, feebly, that you can see no evidence of any such thing: but he is ready with his reply. "Do you think these people work openly? Would you expect their agents to reveal themselves? They're a long sight cleverer than that, I can assure you!"

You'll never win the argument, you'll never prove him wrong. But you know perfectly well that you're in the presence of a paranoid.

There are certain pathological states-some of them perma- nent, some of them induced temporarily by drugs or fever or ex- haustion-in which the mind loses its grip on reality and slips into the void, so that all physical objects and even the perceiving self dissolve into a terrifying nightmare of unreality and menace. Were I in such a state, down by the lakeside under this Califor- nian sun, I might indeed perceive the ducks as monsters or apes or devils, or as everything, or as nothing at all; and if I so described them, you wouldn't be able to prove me wrong. But you would recognize that I was in a pathological state of some kind.

In our time, there's a widespread and possibly morbid in- terest in such matters. In my work as a literary critic, I am con- stantly coming across novels and other books-certain types of science-fiction, in particular-which indicate that the writer has, and expects his reader to have, a powerfully schizoid imagination. Many people nowadays seem to find madness more interesting than sanity, and I take this to be a bad sign of the times. It has an interesting precedent. Chaucer lived in the high civilization of the Middle Ages, and as far as I can remember, there isn't a single madman in the whole body of his voluminous works-though there are any number of villains. But when we get to that period of stress and breakdown which is optimistically called the Renaissance, all literature suddenly begins to be full of lunatics.

No, I cannot prove that ducks are ducks, or that pigs are pigs, or that there are both resemblances and differences between ducks and pigs, capable of being put into truthful words. No such proof is either necessary or possible. Such questions are not philosophical at all: they concern the presence or absence of the broad basic sanity which makes philosophy (or any other coherent activity) possible. I have suggested that certain psychological problems could be eased by intervention and help of the philosophical kind: I want to suggest now that fundamental scepticism, where it is fully believed, is a pathological condition and calls for intervention and help of the psychiatric kind.

That emphasized qualification is important: without it, I might lay myself open to a great many libel-actions, for suggesting that a great many distinguished academics are insane. I don't suppose that they are; or at least, not more frequently than other people. My charge against them is a different one, though it might still be actionable if I were rash enough to give names. The trouble isn't that they're insane: it's that they're pretending. For lecture-room purposes, they affect a kind of uncertainty which they forget completely when they're in the outside world of trains and ducks. If they retained it there, if they conducted normal life on a basis of real epistemological doubt, they would be recognized at once as psychiatric cases.

Both 'being' and 'knowing' are mysteries, capable of infinite analysis. But both are also manifest realities of the simplest kind. Why then do so many brilliant men, not schizophrenic or otherwise off their heads, talk otherwise? I can think of three reasons.

In the first place-and here I am very much in sympathy with them-the epistemological pseudo-problem is a word-game of the most fascinating and paradoxical kind. I adore all such games, and indulge in them shamelessly: for example, I can prove to you by algebra that I equals 2. I can also prove that nothing whatsoever exists, with particular cogency when I'm helped along by a couple of martinis. Give me two more, and I'll probably be able to work out a conclusive proof that a duck is really a pig. Thus we can enjoy ourselves, in a nice irresponsible way. The danger comes when we play such games in the presence of young people who are likely to take them seriously; and it won t always be averted by our frank statement that they are games. My two young friends had been so warned, quite ex- plicity, but this didn't prevent their philosophical education from leaving them mentally hog-tied.

Secondly, and more seriously, I must repeat the psychological and ad hominem accusation at which I hinted earlier. The concept of actually known reality is a burdensome one, even an alarming one, and not only for those people who make their living by chasing a fox that must never be finally caught. Doubt, when carefully rationalised and nourished and sustained, is a splendid defence-mechanism against it.

And then there is that vague but pervasive feeling that it's somehow modest and democratic to express doubt, but assertive and dictatorial to express certainty. This goes very far. At any moment now, we'll have some mathematician saying that while he doesn't want to be dogmatic, he does feel that from some points of view, it might be meaningful to suggest that I plus I equals 2.

Education is (among other things) a process of growing up: it takes away the child's freeedom of Kgnorance and gives us the adult's better freedom of knowledge. But it can only do this as far as knowledge is in fact available; and it can only be 'liberal' in so far as we do have real knowledge about the nature and destiny of man. Ducks are a good starting-point, but they aren't enough.

From this, there follows a principle which is resoundingly at variance with the dominant thought of our time: to many, it would seem like a mere paradox or even a flat contradiction. It is the principle that liberal education must necessarily be dogmatic. It needs to be based upon the axiom that "the truth shall make you free", and must therefore presuppose some antecedent grasping of fundamental truth. If it tries to base itself upon the converse notion, seeing freedom as a necessary precondition for the seeking of a truth which still remains to be found, it will work peripherally but fail centrally. The empirical sciences will do well enough. But in deeper matters, including the philosophy and use of those sciences, there will be no criterion by thought can be assessed: erudite in particular matters, the students will then be fundamentally at sea. Those struggling survivors of shipwreck, in the image cited earlier, were not free men: they were wholly at the mercy of the winds and the waves and their own terror. It was only those who were swept ashore onto firm ground who could then take stock, and evaluate their position, and make free decisions, and in general enjoy some degree of liberty.

To deny the existence of firm ground is to deny all such possibilities: fundamental scepticism is the enemy of liberal education. Where it prevails, we may still be able to train highly efficient slaves. But we shall have nothing but petty amusement to offer to free men, or to men who hope to be free, or to slaves in their brief hours of leisure. We shall be able to say plenty about means :but nothing about ends. We shall know how to build bndges; but not how to make your decision about whether to cross some bridge or not: we shall know how to keep patients alive, but not how to decide whether life is worth living.

My two young philosophy majors illustrate the point beautifully. They had each received a 'liberal education' as the phrase is currently understood, at the hands of well-qualified men in institutions of high repute. And the end-product in each of them was a fundamental confusion of the mind-a 'philosophy' which resolved itself into mere word-games and could not possibly be taken seriously in daily life.

They were still nice people, though not particularly happy people. But mentally, they seemed to me to be wholly enslaved, wholly at the mercy of such sub-rational influences as the fashion and trend of the time, the influence of the powerful media, and their own glandular and psychological pressures. If some new Hitler were to come along, skilled at the art of manipulation and propaganda, they would be mentally defenceless against him. In many senses-that political sense included-their enormously expensive 'liberal education' had failed totally.

An illiterate peasant might well be a better philosopher, in the sense of being a more effective lover of wisdom. He would know at least that pigs are pigs. Learning from him, let us now grasp the first of the two great dogmatisms proposed in this book, not as the findings of free enquiry, but as the necessary firm ground which makes free enquiry possible.

This is the dogma that pigs is indeed pigs; that fundamental scepticism is untrue; tbat reality is real, exists independently of our perceptions of it, can be known (within limits, but certainly) by ourselves, and can be made the subject of statements or predictions which (again within limits) can be true or false and can be known to be so.

Call this an arbitrary dogma if you will: it might be called common-sense or sanity. It is quite certainly the necessary starting-point for any real and effective freedom of the mind: it by-passes the infinite-regress word-game of epistemological doubt, giving us an initial foothold upon firm ground. Without this, we cannot think at all.

The point was well made by G.K. Chesterton, writing many years ago about St Thomas Aquinas. "Even those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question: whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real. The answer is that St Thomas recognized instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously, that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question; never ask any question; never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask. I suppose it is true in a sense that man can be a fundamental sceptic; but he cannot be anything else: certainly not even a defender of fundamental scepticism."

This might be called a brisk substitution of common-sense for the uncommon nonsense that passes too widely for philosophy: it certainly contains an implied threat to the livelihood of many an academic word-spinner, and might be resented accordingly. But it does set the mind free, enabling it to start work constructively and in the realistic hope of getting somewhere. The possibility of a liberal education begins here: this is the point at which we first struggle ashore from our old helplessness in the chaotic seas of doubt and denial.

It is of course a dogma, in the sense that it has to be ex- perienced and asserted: it cannot possibly be proved. But if liberal education is to be restored, the first thing to go must be the old fallacy that 'dogma' arid 'freedom' are antithetical terms. They are not. As Chesterton says elsewhere, speaking of that same Dominican dogmatist: "It will not be possible to conceal much longer from anybody the fact that St Thomas Aquinas was one of the great liberators of the human intellect."

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