The Nature of Thought
by Brand Blanshard
The Nature of Thought had a somewhat curious, though fortuitous, origin. Blanshard comments: "In 1923, a public-spirited citizen of Detroit, Henry G. Stevens, asked the writer, then on the staff of the University of Michigan, to make a study and compendium for him of those results of recent psychology which would be of most value to social workers. It soon appeared that this had been repeatedly and well done already. What had been much less adequately done was a study of the interactions between intelligence and the other functions of human nature . . . ."
Achieving this sort of account took Blanshard 12 years, and even that aim was quite significantly modified over time. Blanshard says of the objective of the finished project: "What I have attempted in this book is an analysis of thought that will neither be instantly repudiated by the psychologist nor indignantly disowned by the metaphysician. That is a higher aspiration than some may think. Between the account of ideas and inference supplied by the psychologists, eager to construe their study as a natural science, and that of the epistemologist and logician, there has gradually appeared a chasm that is now all but impassable. This chasm, nevertheless, I have set myself to bridge. I have sought to show that for any adequate theory of ideas the thought process, psychology and philosophy must supplement each other."
This is a rather unique perspective, but it was forced upon Blanshard as he came to view thought, and consciousness more generally, as inherently teleological in nature throughout. Having always an end - that of achieving understanding - the movements of thought are only fully explicable in terms of purpose. But, equally, thought takes place in the real world with which science is concerned, and where physical causation is usually understood to be fully explanatory of all phenomena.
It is essential to understand this perspective if The Nature of Thought is to be read with comprehension, as it usually has not been. Rather, most philosophers have taken NoT to be primarily concerned with advancing a "coherence" theory of truth. It does, certainly, do this; and it is also true that this theory is offered in the concluding chapters of the book. Nevertheless, the theory is an outcome driven at every point by Blanshard's teleological account of consciousness, which he sees as being always enaged in the attempt to arrive at a clearer understanding of reality. And it is with offering this account that NoT is chiefly concerned.
In each of us, an understanding of reality is both best and chiefly accomplished when the piecemeal observations of the day gradually come to be appreciated in a broader and broader context. It is this growing context which serves to ever more completely illuminate the connections of the events of the day with, and necessitation by, everything else in the world.
The chief competing account of the nature of truth, that of correspondence, Blanshard came to think better of with the years, and concluded by believing both accounts had their place in a complete account. He never, however, found reason to modify his teleological account of consciousness.
A Defense of Rationalism
Blanshard's deeper motivation in writing The Nature of Thought only becomes clearer in light of his later achievements - and in the very last section of the second volume. There he comments: "It is perhaps not for a speculative writer to speak of the utility of his doctrines, still less to commend them on grounds of their utility. But one may be forgiven a final word on the contemporary pertinence of a theory that has been laboured through so many pages. That theory, as any informed reader will have seen, only restates . . . the doctrine of the autonomy and objectivity of reason, the doctrine that through different minds one intelligible world is in course of construction or reconstruction. . . . Of the value of such an attitude in art and letters, where present standards of criticism are not perhaps conspicuous for either unity or freedom from caprice, we shall not speak. But there is another field where self-will and the repudiation of a common standard of judgement and obligation threaten to extinguish the life of reason altogether. We conclude this book at a time when the recognition of such a standard, set by a common intelligence, and adequate as a court of appeal to the settlement of even national differences, is receding into the distance. The philosopher's way of protesting is perhaps too qualified and muffled to be heard; certainly it is when the drift toward chaos once gains momentum. But the writer would like to think that the insistent and reiterated emphasis, maintained throughout this work, on the membership of minds in one intelligible order may serve, however minutely, to confirm the belief in a common reason, and the hope and faith that in the end it will prevail."
Blanshard was here prescient: the book was offered on the very eve of World War II. And his proposed solution to the chaos it wrought surely remains equally valid in our own troubled times: the joint exercise of a common reason and reasonableness in human affairs.
The Place of NoT in Blanshard's Oeuvre
Blanshard's book remains, by a wide margin, the best account of the nature of thought ever offered. It also sheds much light on a wide variety of issues in the philosophy of mind. Perhaps not least of all, it exhaustively explodes the theory of meaning offered by Ludwig Wittgenstein - who is sometimes regarded as the foremost philosopher of the 20th century. If this assessment of Blanshard's achievement is accurate, it would seem to propel him instead into first place among philosophers of the 20th century.
Blanshard followed up NoT with an astonishing trilogy of books which make use of the theory of reason developed there. These are: Reason and Analysis, which provides a comprehensive critique of Logical Positivism and Analytical philosophy, and over its course offers a competing account of the nature and aims of philosophy itself; Reason and Goodness, an account of ethics which, in its implications, far outstrips anything to be found in, say, Rawls or Kripke; and Reason and Belief, which, in its call for a religion entirely within the bounds of reason far surpasses the offering by Kant on that topic.
Four Reasonable Men is, in many ways, the capstone of all of Blanshard's thought. Written in his 90s, it illuminates the place of all of his previous insights in his views concerning the proper conduct of life, and offers, if anything does, nothing less than a blueprint for the survival of the human race.
Our preference in book reviews is to provide readers with a few characteristic and valuable passages so they can get some sense for themselves of the flavor of the writer's style and concerns unfiltered by the reviewer.
This is a bit difficult with NoT, as the argument, while plainly stated, lucidly clear, and very closely reasoned, is a bit technical for the most part.
Still, here is a representative passage.
Pgs. 126 - 127, Volume Two
"In the course of a protracted struggle with the matter, we discovered that the only tenable relation between thought and its object was that of the partial and complete fulfilment of a purpose. From this it was an obvious inference that the way to understand thought was to read it in the light of its end. With this there appears the third course open to the psychologist. It is to interpret thought frankly and fully in the light of what it is seeking to achieve.
And now we are in sight of the answer to the final proposal above for keeping psychology a factual science. That proposal, it will be recalled, was to admit the working of ends or values but to take account of such working only as a particular fact or event, an occurrence in an individual mind, not as anything so pretentious as the operation in consciousness of truth, goodness and beauty themselves. And the answer to this is that once you have gone so far, you are bound willy-nilly to go farther, even if it takes you into metaphysics. Thought refers to, and aims at realizing, a system beyond itself, an impersonal and logical system. Its relation to that system is one of partial realization, and you can no more see what it is and why it behaves as it does without reference to the system than you can explain the behaviour of a lover without reference to the beloved. Does this mean that psychology, to be adequate to mind, must introduce into its account the necessities of logic, morals and aesthetics, must say that human behaviour is, in part, what it is because truth, goodness and beauty are what they are? We answer with another question. Is it these things that the mind is seeking to realize, or is it something less and other? This question answers itself. To say that the aim of thought, for example, is not at truth but at some mask or appearance of it, or at anything else whatever, is, on reflection, absurd. Truth is its sole and sufficient end; and the course of thought is unintelligible unless it is taken as the embodiment through the mind, brokenly always and fitfully and in continually varying degree, but nevertheless essentially, of truth itself."
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