William Temple on Plato’s Vision of the Ideas

To us the Ideal Theory is myth, as it was to Plato in the later period.  Prof. Burnet wrote recently of the myths–“They have their roots in something older than philosophy, and possessing a vitality which is denied to philosophical systems.”  And just before he had pointed out that Aristotle, who begins with accepted facts and ends in myth, has always been a pillar of orthodoxy, while “most heresies come from Plato” because he insists on scientific treatment of ultimate questions.  This is no doubt true; but this distinction is rooted in another.  Here, as in all departments of human activity, the ultimate fact is temperament.  Aristotle was bound to produce a philosophy which would be a basis for orthodoxy, for, colossal as was his intellect–perhaps the greatest in history, –he was by temperament a churchwarden; and Plato was bound to be the philosophic father of many heretics because he was by temperament a Titan.  There is an inspiration in the spectacle of the old philosopher tearing in shreds his proudly built philosophy and beginning it all afresh.  But among his actual works what I have called “the old Ideal Theory,” which he himself rightly discarded, is worth more to mankind than the method of division elaborated in the Sophist and the Politicus…[This] may be of great scientific value, but [it imparts] no impulse.  The Ideal Theory, as held by Plato in his middle period, may be myth; but it is the outcome and expression of something more valuable than any specific doctrine, however true–of intellectual courage that refuses to allow any sphere to be set beyond the reach of knowledge, of mystic vision in which all that is mean and sordid disappears, and the temperamental fire without which no great achievement is possible in action or art.  —Mind 1908 (Vol 17 No 68)

William Temple on the Frege Channel

Because Psychology studies mental processes, it is very liable to behave as if Logic…were one of its subdivisions.  But in fact Psychology, like every other science, must presuppose the autonomy of Logic; otherwise the writings of psychologists could be no more than their own autobiographies–not nearly so interesting or important as the autobiographies of statesmen, soldiers or artists.  The interest which a psychologist claims for his theory is not that he happens to hold it, but that it is a true account of your experience and mine as well as of his own.  But in this case he must have something to say in support of his theory over and above its psychological history.  For every theory ever held has a psychological history.

William Temple on Descartes’ Faux Pas

Personally I find it not at all impossible to entertain the fancy that all our experience, that of self included, is part of the dream of a Demiurge, that all of it

shall dissolve/And like this insubstantial pageant faded,/Leave not a rack behind./We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep

—not our sleep, but that of the Demiurge.  I cannot refute that hypothesis, and I find it possible to contemplate it without intellectual turmoil.  I am equally unable, no doubt, to refute the notion that my primary assurance is of myself, and that my awareness of the world about me is secondary and derivative.  But I cannot contemplate that hypothesis without intellectual perturbation of the profoundest kind—a perturbation with is the deposit of all the acrobatic feats by which philosophers from Descartes to Kant have worked out the implications of that hypothesis and tried to avoid becoming entangled by it in manifest nonsense.

Fashionable Thinking (William Temple)

Men seem to differ very profoundly in the fashion of their thinking.  If two men are presented with a novel suggestion and both exclaim “I must think about that”, one will begin by putting together what he knows with reference to the subject, and his former opinions based upon that knowledge, his general theories concerning that department of inquiry, and so forth; piece by piece he will work out his conclusion with regard to the suggestion made to him.  The other will find that his mind goes blank; he will stare into the fire or walk about the room or otherwise keep conscious attention diverted from the problem.  Then abruptly he will find that he has a question to ask, or a counter-suggestion to make, after which the mental blank returns.  At last he is aware, once more abruptly, what is his judgment on the suggestion, and subsequently, though sometimes very rapidly, he also becomes aware of the reasons which support or necessitate it.

My own mind is of the latter sort.  All my decisive thinking goes on behind the scenes; I seldom know when it takes place—much of it certainly on walks or during sleep—and I never know the processes which it has followed.  Often when teaching I have found myself expressing rooted convictions which until that moment I had no notion that I held.  Yet they are genuinely rooted convictions—the response of my whole being, to certain theoretical or practical propositions.

This characteristic must needs affect the philosophical method of him who suffers (or gains) from it.  In discussions with others I frequently find myself eager to know to which of the two types described—are they the Aristotelian and Platonic, the Pauline and Johannine, respectively?—my interlocutor belongs.  So, following the Golden Rule, I expose myself to the contempt of whoso may think my own type contemptible.

Exposing myself to contempt, I confess I suffer (or gain) from the blank, Johannine type.

Browning’s Influence on Philosophers

A bit of a side-step here.  I want to write about Browning and Kierkegaard, but I thought I would first mention something about Browning I find of interest.  Browning decisively influenced the thinking of a number of philosophers.  Let me mention two–Josiah Royce and William Temple.

Now of course Temple is not known as a philosopher; he is known as Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44).  But Temple was trained as a philosopher and wrote philosophy (some I have previously mentioned on the blog).  Browning’s work was never far from Temple’s mind.  Proof of this is the stamp that Browning’s “A Death in the Desert” had on Temple’s understanding of the Gospel of John, itself the primary object of and impetus for Temple’s reflections throughout his life.

Browning was also, and perhaps more surprisingly, a constant stimulus to Royce.  Royce, so far as I know, mentions Browning far less often than does Temple, but he was perhaps as deeply indebted.  (Royce’s style, unlike Temple’s, makes little room for the direct use of poetry.  It is not that Royce’s style is wholly unliterary–it is not–but rather that it lacks the open texture of Temple’s.)  Certainly, prolonged contact with Royce’s works on Christianity reveals Browning there, supplying much of substance and almost all of the atmosphere.

I make this side-step really just so that I can underscore something about Browning’s poetry that engrosses me–it’s potential to be taken up into prose reflections, to supply something like theses or claims, remaining all the while, and unmistakably, poetry.

Critics sometimes seize this potential of Browning’s poetry and use it like a stick to beat him, presumably thinking that poetry that is so available to philosophy must have somehow or other (form not inseparable from content?) failed as poetry.  But I think that no one can deny that Browning is a poet unless that denial is theory-driven–specifically driven by a theory that has nourished itself on a one-sided diet of examples.

“Objects of Comparison”: St. John the Evangelist’s Method

One marked characteristic of the mind of the Evangelist, or of the Beloved Disciple, is worth mention.  He often records argument in debate, but he does not argue from premises to conclusions as a method of apprehending truth.  Rather he puts together the various constituent parts of truth and contemplates them in their relations to one another.  Thus he seems to say “look at A; now look at B; now at C; now at B C; now at A C; now at D and E; now at A B E;  now at C E”, and so on in any variety of combination that facilitates new insight.  It is the method of artistic, as distinct from scientific, apprehension, and is appropriate to truth which is in no way dependent on, or derived from, other truth, but makes its own appeal to reason, heart and conscience.

William Temple, Readings In St. John’s Gospel, xxi-xxii

Bradley’s Earthy Absolute Idealism

Thus, for the absolutists, the Absolute is not far removed from us; on the contrary, it is everywhere present to us, the all-encompassing totality with which we are constantly in touch in all our intellectual activities and which, as Bosanquet says, persistently drives us from pillar to post.  It is not, as William James mistakenly supposed, “a marble temple shining on a hill”; it is, rather, as James would have it, inextricably involved in the dust and dirt of things.  And, it may be added, the argument to which the absolutists all alike in the end appeal is designed to show precisely this. –G. Watts Cunningham

One of the chief ironies of Bradley’s work is the upside-down way it is typically understood.  Cunningham’s complaint about James certainly captures the irony.  Whatever may be true of the other ‘absolutists’, there is no doubt that Bradley took the Absolute to be dusty and dirty, all up in our face, brawny and inescapable, our goodly fere.  It is no weirdly irradiated glop, alien, distant, and vaguely threatening. Bradley understood himself as panning philosophy’s ballet of bloodless categories, as stomping through the Palace Theater in muddy boots, tracking the Absolute all over the place.  Bradley deplores the reduction of reality to thought, even if it sometimes seems as if he is engaged in just such a reduction.  He is not.  Bradley is the most doggedly anti-reductionist philosopher I can think of, other than Wittgenstein.  (That Wittgenstein is himself often taken to be an idealist, albeit of the linguistic and not the Absolute ilk, is worth considering, but I will simply note that it is, and move on.)  Bradley insistently forces his reader toward the real; he will not relent.  He does not browbeat the reader.  He does not beleaguer.  But he does not stop.  Bradley works to redintegrate thought and feeling, but in a way that puts the accent mark darkly and unmistakably above feeling, feeling dusty and dirty.


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