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A Biography of Brand Blanshard

 

"I have tried to show finally—and this was the hardest task of all—that reasonableness, so often painted in dull, unattractive gray, is the most desirable of all human virtues. Though it involves discipline and restraint, which are always unpopular, its restraints are tickets of admission to a wider world of happiness, understanding, and effectiveness. It is indeed the great need of mankind."

—Brand Blanshard
    Four Reasonable Men

 

On the Importance and Reputation of Blanshard

 

Brand Blanshard was an American philosopher, and the foremost proponent of rationalism in the 20th century. By any informed estimate, he was one of the most important philosophers of that century, and may have been the most important of all. However, he was severely and acutely critical of Logical Positivism, Logical Atomism, "linguistic" philosophy, and Existentialism alike. This placed him at odds with much in the mainstream of philosophy in both the English-speaking world and in Europe. Though his critiques were invariably fair and genuinely respectful, acknowledging their justice would have entailed implicitly acknowledging that the reputations of numerous other philosophers were in greater or lesser degree unmerited. This painful consequence seems to have been more than the profession could bear. While this is, perhaps, understandable, the resulting neglect of Blanshard's thought is probably the single most disgraceful scandal in all of modern philosophy.

The significance of Blanshard's oeuvre derives from a number of sources, and perhaps explains why he was often described as "a philosopher's philosopher". Among these virtues was his technical excellence and logical rigor. In The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, a number of eminent peers critiqued his thought from a wide variety of perspectives. Yet extraordinarily few criticisms found their mark. He is unmatched for consistency: even lesser works, such as the short essays found in The Uses of a Liberal Education, are models of clarity, while the longer works are written, if anything, to an ever higher standard of lucidity and thoroughness.

Blanshard comments, in Reason and Analysis, "A. E. Taylor somewhere remarks that philosophers of the first rank have always been distinguished by something beyond acuteness of analysis and rigour of logic, namely a 'massive common sense'." If Taylor was right, then Blanshard was truly a philosopher of the first rank, for he was indeed possessed of a singularly uncommon common sense.

More than any of this, however, Blanshard consistently chose to write acutely about the most important of topics. Reason and Analysis is an essay in metaphilosophy, or the philosophy of philosophy, and achieves the remarkable goal of more clearly and accurately characterizing the nature and aims of philosophy itself than virtually anyone else ever has. In theory of knowledge, his account of the coherence theory of truth remains the highwater mark for that position. His call for a religion within the bounds of reason alone far surpasses the equivalent statement offered by Kant. In ethics, his Reason and Goodness, which demolishes moral relativism, is arguably of far greater importance than, say, anything by Rawls or Kripke. And Four Reasonable Men is nothing short of a blueprint for the survival of the species.

What was the gist of his philosophy? A short statement can't do his thought justice, but he can at least be "classified" as to the kind of philosopher he was - and wasn't.

He has usually been pigeon-holed as an "absolute idealist". Following World War II, this was a term of opprobrium, in part because Hegel, an idealist, but also a German, was greatly detested in the English-speaking world. Bertrand Russell once remarked, with a remarkable lack of justice, that Hegel's thought could only ever lead to dictatorships. (Most British idealists have, however, been distinctly anti-authoritarian.) Perhaps equally, the Logical Positivists held the discipline of metaphysics in the utmost disdain - except when they themselves surreptitiously engaged in it. Though Blanshard was indeed very much influenced by the British idealists in a number of ways, he explicitly disavowed the label in a reply to Charles Hartshorne in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard. There he commented wryly: "I must apparently be content to be a gypsy philosopher, an absolutist and a rationalist but unaccceptable in any idealist camp."

However, Blanshard was, once again, very much a rationalist. Rationalist philosophers believe in the importance and effectiveness of reason; that is, in the ability of reason to get hold of the nature of things. They incline to the belief that truth is not relative, that there really are such things as good and evil, that there is good art and bad art; and all of this not as a matter of subjective or arbitrary opinion, but in light of objective standards of truth, morality, and even artistic quality. Blanshard was also a firm believer of the importance of reason and reasonableness in the conduct of life. In this he provides the polar opposite to the conniving opportunism of, say, a Machiavelli—or a Kissinger. In general, then, to the extent that moral relativism and political opportunism are the characteristic diseases of our era, one can find in Blanshard's work what is perhaps the most definitive antidote; and yet an individual farther from an intolerant, narrow-minded moralism would be hard to imagine.

Blanshard's personality has probably also contributed something to his neglect. He was essentially modest and disinclined to any form of self-promotion; and the oracular pronouncements of a Wittgenstein, subject to any number of alternative interpretations, and about which countless academic papers may therefore be written, is nowhere to be found in Blanshard.

 

The Life of Blanshard

Blanshard's autobiography may be found in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp (the best one-volume introduction to Blanshard currently available). The Yale archives of his work also provide a concise biography, and a very brief biographical sketch may also be found in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. The following short biography draws upon all of these sources.  Other biographical material may be found in the autobiography of his brother, Paul Blanshard, Personal and Controversial: an Autobiography.  (The Yale archive includes a great deal of correspondence, a number of photographs, and other material of a biographical nature).

Blanshard was born in miniscule Fredericksburg, Ohio, on August 27, 1892, one half of a pair of fraternal twins. His father was Francis Blanshard, a Congregationalist minister, and his mother was Emily Coulter. Both were Canadians who later became American citizens. In 1893 Blanshard's mother died in a fire in Toronto, and his father, frail of health and oppressed by his wife's death, died in 1904. Consequently, Blanshard was raised by his reclusive, puritanical paternal grandmother, Orminda, initially in Grand Rapids, then in Edinburg, Ohio (south of Akron). Orminda supported herself and the twins on $450 a year, a sum she received from a Methodist church in Canada.

Blanshard was educated in a two-story, wooden schoolhouse in Edinburg, but the little family soon moved to Bay View, Michigan on the shore of Lake Michigan, just north of Petoskey. This was a rural area, and Blanshard enjoyed fishing and playing in the woods there. He also worked as a caddy at the local golf course, as a dishwasher, and as a ticket taker. In the latter job Blanshard was able to hear some notable speakers, listen to musical performances, and view some theater, all of which awakened intellectual interests. In his mid-teens Blanshard also worked as a junior reporter for a paper in Petoskey, and took up debate in school there.

In search of better schools, Orminda moved the family to Detroit. There Blanshard studied in much better facilities, became interested in the sciences and in languages, and further developed his interest in debate, at which he excelled. He also enjoyed baseball.

Upon graduation from high school he attended the University of Michigan, majoring in Greek. Though Blanshard didn't enjoy his major much, he did take a course in philosophy, motivated by a need to settle in his own mind various religious issues, and he further developed his interests in baseball and debate. Having by then fallen in love with philosophy, in his junior year he made application for a Rhodes scholarship, and was accepted.

Blanshard was entranced with Oxford and flourished there. He came to know T. S. Eliot and the philosopher Bradley, who was to influence him profoundly (but who did not convert him to idealism). His student stipend was enough to allow him to travel to Germany, but his timing was rather bad, as Germany was about to launch itself into war. He managed to get out, but found that Oxford wasn't the same, with everyone enlisted in the war effort. For his part, Blanshard volunteered in the British Army YMCA and ended up in Bombay, where his duty was to keep up troop morale. From India he went on to Amara. Here he was exposed to some of the horrors of war, which made a deep impression on him. In 1916 he returned to Bombay, which afforded him an opportunity to deeply engage another culture and to understand something of its effects on human life.

He was unable to return home by the usual western route because of a submarine blockade, and so traveled east to Singapore, China and Japan, and from there to the west coast, finally arriving back in Bay View in 1917. An insurance policy of his father's allowed him to go to Columbia for a year to study with John Dewey.

In personal manner Dewey suffered something in comparison with Bradley, and Blanshard wasn't much influenced by his ideas either. The little-known W. P. Montague provided a better personal and professional example, infused as he was with "common sense, intellectual clearness, and a large and quiet sanity." (This isn't a bad characterization of Blanshard's own intellectual tenor.) At the end of his year at Columbia he was awarded a Master's degree. He was subsequently drafted into the Army and, hurried a bit by the press of circumstances, he married a fellow student at Columbia, Frances Bradshaw.

Blanshard served in France during the war, and as it came to an end became a faculty member in a makeshift school for soldiers. When this wound down, he made his way back to England to resume his studies at Oxford, and he was finally able to have a honeymoon. Blanshard studied with Horace W. B. Joseph, who was to prove an even more decisive influence than Montague, and who provided the stimulus to many of Blanshard's mature views.

Graduating from Oxford, Blanshard felt the need for an American doctorate to better secure employment. He was admitted to Harvard, where he studied for a year, supported by a Sears scholarship and by his wife. The philosopher C. I. Lewis was appointed to oversee his thesis. On graduation he secured a post at his old alma mater, the University of Michigan, but his first year there was harrowing, and he was so overworked he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown.

He was later charged with producing a summary of current thought in psychology for use by social workers, and became interested in the contrast between reason as utilized by philosophers and reason as accounted for by psychologists (in an interesting parallel to Edmund Husserl's interests in mathematics and psychology). The fruit of this investigation was the fascinating and immensely valuable two volume study The Nature of Thought.

A colleague of Blanshard's at Michigan was Edgar Carritt, who became a fast friend; but it was his temperament and character, rather than his substantive thought, that proved influential. (Blanshard: "there was an athletic, no-nonsense vigor and stoicism about his character that was a tonic to weaker brethren.")

Receiving in 1925 an invitation to teach at Swarthmore, Blanshard jumped ship, and was satisfied enough to spend 20 happy years there.

Blanshard became president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1941, and in 1943 was appointed to the Board of Officers of that association. The self-assigned task of the Board was to report on the function of philosophy in liberal education and in the development of a free and reflective life in the community. This was a task much enjoyed by Blanshard, and it yielded the book "Philosophy in American Education."

In 1944 Blanshard was invited to take a position at Yale, where he taught theory of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics.

Blanshard was invited to deliver the Gifford lectures in Scotland in 1952, and he spent ten months there doing so. He devoted the first ten lectures to "Reason and its Critics" and the second series to "Reason and Goodness." A subsequent invitation to deliver the Carus lectures afforded him the opportunity to develop the core of a trilogy of books, perhaps his most important, which he describes as "supplements" to The Nature of Thought. These are: Reason and Analysis, Reason and Goodness, and Reason and Belief. He describes these in this way: "Reason and Analysis defends my conception of reason in the light of contemporary analytic theories; Reason and Goodness applies the conception to ethics and politics; Reason and Belief applies it to the chief forms of Christian theology." Together they provide a singularly robust defense of the place of reason in philosophy and in life, and are remarkable for their sustained penetration and lucidity.

During the remainder of his tenure at Yale, Blanshard lectured at over 140 universities by invitation. He retired in 1961. His wife died in 1966, and he remarried in 1969.

Blanshard, probably the sanest voice in all of philosophy, and the ablest exponent of reason and reasonableness the world has ever had, died November 18, 1987.

 

Blanshard's Politics

Blanshard devoted his formidable analytical skills to establishing a sturdy intellectual foundation for civilized life. While a political theory might easily be built upon this foundation, he himself did not do so. This can hardly be because he was politically indifferent. It is abundantly clear that he was not. Rather, it seems more probable that he thought it necessary to deal with first things first, and so he did.

Most of what he had to say concerning politics can be found in a short chapter in Reason and Goodness and in a short rejoinder in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard. There he says: "my political theory, such as it is, grows directly out of my ethics." And we then find three propositions:

(1) All problems involving a choice between values are moral problems. (2) All political problems involve a choice between values. (3) All political problems are moral problems.

This leads directly to the question: what was his theory of ethics?

Once again, a short statement can't do his thought justice; but we can at least "classify" his position. Blanshard was a proponent of an ethics of self-actualization, of the sort that we find in Aristotle. What follows politically from such an ethic? This is a large and interesting question, one most capably taken up, perhaps, by Thomas Hurka, another intellectual descendant of Aristotle. (For the intensely interesting details, we refer the reader to Section III of Hurka's Perfectionism.) What can be said here, very broadly, is this: an ethics of self-actualization isn't notably compatible with contemporary conservatism. Blanshard was a liberal. (So is Hurka.) To state one key reason succinctly: a life fully lived doesn't require immense wealth, but such a life is utterly incompatible with poverty, lack of leisure time, and, still more, financial insecurity.

On the other hand, however, one strand of liberalism has, since the earliest days of the Progressive Era, embraced relativism. Liberals of that persuasion will find nothing to comfort them in Blanshard. Indeed, the idea that "everything is relative" in ethics has, under Blanshard's critique (particularly in Reason and Goodness), lost all plausibility and intellectual respectability.

 

Major Works

Blanshard' lifetime output goes well beyond the major works listed below, and includes an important unpublished work on psychology. As was noted above, his papers reside at Yale, which has proven rather unfortunate. Remarkably, despite being the most eminent of the Yale philosophers, no classes in his thought are taught there. Except for Reason and Analysis, his work is often out of print; yet his writing is so highly valued that it is difficult to find even used versions of his work, and the few available tend to be somewhat expensive.

Those looking for a place to start would perhaps be best advised to read his own introduction to himself. His autobiography, in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard, is, from page 123 forward, a wonderful discussion of the development of his ideas.

While he himself felt that The Nature of Thought was his masterwork, Reason and Goodness, setting forth his critique of subjectivism in ethics, along with an account of his robust alternative, may nevertheless be his single most important contribution. In fact, of all works reviewed at this site, this is the book we would most highly commend.

 

The Nature of Thought. 2 volumes. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1939; New York: Macmillan Co., 1940; distributor, New York: Humanities Press. Perhaps the single most important work on philosophy of mind ever written, it provides the indispensable account of the nature of thought. The theory of meaning offered here transcends anything found in Wittgenstein, and entirely supercedes his views.

On Philosophical Style. Manchester University Press, 1954; reprinted by Indiana University Press, Bloomington and London, 1967. A succinct analysis of what contributes most to excellence and clarity in philosophical exposition.

Reason and Goodness. London: George Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan Co., 1961; distributor, New York: Humanities Press. An evaluation of ethical thought in the West, including a devastating critique of moral relativism, followed by an immensely insightful account of the nature of goodness, foundational to all thinking about values.

Reason and Analysis. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co.; London: George Allen & Unwin, 1962. Open Court paperback, 1973. A discussion of the nature of rationalism, followed by a incisive and never-refuted critique of logical positivism and 'linguistic' philosophy. Opens the door to a broader conception of philosophy, making way for metaphysics and for a much richer view of logic than the peculiar one that has come down to us from Frege and Russell.

The Uses of a Liberal Education. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1973. A collection of 23 of Blanshard's shorter essays, centering on "education", and therefore on the question of what it is that a fully-developed humanity would look like. These essays are models of clarity combined with penetrating insight. Indispensable reading for any teacher.

Reason and Belief. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974; New Haven: Yale Univeristy Press, 1975. Blanshard here follows Kant's demand that genuine religion be grounded entirely within the bounds of reason. His critique of Christianity in both Catholic and Protestant forms is the most comprehensive ever undertaken. He goes on to sketch the foundations of an attractive secular ethics.

The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard. La Salle, Ilinois: Open Court Publishing Co., 1980. A compendium of critical and complimentary essays covering every facet of Blanshard's thought, followed up with Blanshard's own comments. Especially valuable as an update on Blanshard's mature views on a number of topics, including the coherence theory of truth. Includes Blanshard's autobiography.

Four Reasonable Men. Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press paperback, 1984. Provides biographical sketches of four of Blanshard's most-admired rationalists, is extraordinarily readable and enjoyable (as implausible as that claim may seem), and also offers an excellent introduction to Blanshard's thought. In essence, provides an ideal of human character, founded in reason.

 


Related Blanshard Content

A Blanshard photo gallery may be viewed here.

An online resource with numerous original Blanshard essays may be found here.

.mp3 formatted recordings of Blanshard discussing philosophy with philosopher Scott Palmer may be heard here, here, and here.

The best available in-depth interview with Blanshard can be heard at this link.

He relates an anecdote concerning John Dewey here.

Finally, our quick reference, pocket biography can be found at this link.