The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard
Edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp
The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard is volume XV of The Library of Living Philosophers, which includes among its number comparable compendiums of the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other notables.
These essays vary a good deal in their competence, but it's fair to say that all are interesting. Together, they provide a fairly thorough picture of the views taken by academia of his philosophy through the late decades of the 20th century. Blanshard's responses to his critics (and admirers) are invariably courteous, and always astonishingly incisive, given that he was 88 at the time of publication.
Prior to the release of this volume, Blanshard's last major publication had been Reason and Belief, in 1975. Many of the topics covered here had not been substantially revisited by him in print in some decades, but his thinking hadn't been stagnant in the interim, so that PoBB provides numerous invaluable updates and clarifications of his positions in most areas of his philosophy.
What is perhaps most remarkable in the sparring that takes place here is the rarity with which his peers catch him out. The vast majority of critiques are clearly, and sometimes even absurdly, wide of the mark and are accordingly politely but entirely crushed; and in the few instances where the criticisms do gain traction, Blanshard is quick to acknowledge this, and modifies his views before our very eyes.
What is also notable here is that Blanshard explicitly repudiates idealism - the philosophical school with which he is most often classified - but not in favor of inclusion in any other philosophical movement beyond that of rationalism. Apart from that rationalism, his philosophy is largely sui generis.
Blanshard comments, initially quoting Charles Hartshorne (on pg. 644): "'Blanshard is in some sense an idealist. To be is to be perceived.' In none of my writings, so far as I know, have I accepted this argument of Berkeley's, and it still seems to me unacceptable. I am an idealist in the sense that I think everything immediately apprehended is mental. I am not an idealist in the sense of supposing that I have some substitute proof that everything is mental. The earth existed before human life appeared on it, but if Berkeley's esse est percipi is denied, in whose mind did it exist? In that of Berkeley's God? But there seems to be no good proof that his kind of God himself exists. If someone could prove to me that universals are necessarily mental, I should have a right to the name of idealist. But I know no proof for that either. So I must apparently be content to be a gypsy philosopher, an absolutist and a rationalist but unacceptable in any idealist camp." (Blanshard also repudiates idealism in the 'Cosmology' section of Reason and Belief.)
Blanshard's only major publication following this volume was his magisterial Four Reasonable Men, so that the positions taken here must be regarded as being canonical.
Any reader of Blanshard's is sure to find his autobiography a delight; and the bibliography of his writings is the most authoritative available. It does, however, omit Blanshard's never-published, book-length critique of behaviorism.
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. Blanshard here is largely found meeting objections or clarifying a host of confusions and misconceptions, so that the usual wealth of quotable material is somewhat diminished. But his commentators sometimes offer worthwhile comments in their own right; and no volume concerning Blanshard's thought can fail to throw up some remakable insights.
Here are a few representative quotes.
. . .I saw enough of the seamy side of war to hate it and to detest all glorification of it. I am not a pacifist. When a Hitler turns himself loose on the world, I am not clear that there is any acceptable alternative to halting him by force. But as a rationalist, I do not think that there is any sort of dispute that honest men would find beyond adjudication by reason, and I look with distrust both on the cynics who call war inevitable and on the philosophers who intone that "reason is and must be the slave of the passions."
The revolutions proposed by extremists are of course always "liberations," though they usually end in dictatorships.
Dewey holds that what thought was originally it still is, a device for the prudent ordering of behavior. But the fact that it was, and still is, used for practical purposes should not blind us to the fact that it has an end of its own. That end is knowing. The practical and theoretical ends are quite distinct and easily distinguishable. Columbus's judgment that the earth was round was an instrument to his end of sailing round it; true. But his judgment was not merely that; it was meant as a statement of fact. Its cognitive meaning and its practical intention were not the same, and the truth of the judgment was wholly different from its utility. The judgment worked, to be sure, but it worked because it was already true; it did not become true only when it worked. It is the essence of pragmatism to confuse meaning with intention, and truth with utility or with verification in practice.
Philosophy is in a peculiar position among the liberal disciplines. It has no subject matter of its own; the stuff for its reflection is supplied by art, religion, and the sciences, of which it is the natural extension. If they form the central part of the spectrum of knowledge, philosophy is its infrared and ultraviolet ends; logically, it begins before they do and goes on when their work is done. It raises two types of question about these other disciplines. First, how are their fundamental terms to be defined - terms such as cause, fact, person, right value - and how are their fundamental assumptions, the possiblity of perceptual knowledge, for example, or the law of causality, to be made out? And secondly, when the results of their inquiries are in, how are they to be put together into a consistent whole? For the answer to this question, reflective men have always turned to philosophy; indeed its greatest traditional problems - the relation of body and mind, the place of value in a world of fact, the place of freedom in a world of law, the relation of mechanism to purpose, of science to religion - are precisely attempts to put fragmented human knowledge into an intelligible whole. The instument of this synthesis is reflection. Philosophy, of course, has no monopoly of that instrument. But it is the discipline that cultivates it most assidulously; and only by its cultivated use can the scattered islands be linked and the intellectual traveler enabled to pass without losing his way from the realm of physics to the realm of mind and from anthropology to ethics.
My position in ethics is teleological. I prefer this term to "utilitarian" because the latter suggests that the end is usefulness, and usefulness is never a good in itself. It is an instrumental good, like that of furniture or a good weapon or a good tool. A teleological ethics, as the name implies, holds that conduct should be directed to an end, but an end that is good in itself and not merely as a means to something else. Teleological moralists have generally identified this end with the greatest good on the whole, that is, the greatest net surplus of good over evil if one takes into account all the goods and evils produced in those affected by it. Moore in his later life preferred to put it in this way: it is self-evident that we ought to make the world as much better as we can. This is my own view also . . . .
. . . I have argued that there is an ethics of belief [in Reason and Belief] according to which it is self-evidently right, even in matters religious, to follow the evidence where it leads. Now justice, which has been called the most intellectual of the virtues, does involve, I think, the acceptance of certain self-evident truths. Examples are: One man's good, other things equal, should be regarded as of the same intrinsic importance as the like good of anyone else; or in the distribution of respect and of goods, it is more fitting that merit should be rewarded than that wickedness should.
Pgs. 294 - 295
. . . I feel sure that Mr. Johnson, who knows my other writings on ethics, would not classify me as an egoist. It must be admitted, however, that anyone who takes self-realization or self-fulfillment as the end is very likely to be so classified. He is bound to concern himself with what will realize or fulfill a self, taking it for granted that he will be read as talking not about his own self but any and all selves. Thus it was a shock to me to read in so discerning a writer as Broad that T. H. Green was an egoist, and it is something of a shock to learn that my own expressions were capable of a like interpretation. But Mr. Johnson is no doubt correct that I should have made it clearer how one passes from the proposition that one ought to pursue the fulfillment and satisfaction of one's own nature to the very different proposition that one should promote the like good in others. How is one to deal with an egoist who insists that though he feels the pull of his own prospective good, he feels none at all toward the good of others "Why should I put myself out for a good I am never going to realize?"
Now you cannot refute an egoist if his egoism is a Kierkegaardian commitment. You cannot deny or disprove an act of will. But as soon as he puts into a proposition the belief on which he is evidently proceeding, I think he is lost. This propostion is that an experience in another mind, even when qualitatively identical with a good experience of his own, is not to be regarded as good. And this is merely irrational. If being fulfilling and satisfying is what defines goodness, one cannot confer the name on one experience and deny it to the same kind of experience in another mind. The egoist may try to include in his definition of goodness its presence in one mind only, his own. But that is as arbitrary as to say that two and two are four only when this presents itself to one's own mind but not when it presents itself to another. The intrinsic goodness of an experience is no more a function of time, place, or person where it appears than is the truth of a proposition. To prize one's own happiness and be indifferent to another's is a clear case of irrationality.
But why should I be rational? If to this question one wants a rational answer, one has the answer already; one's nature supplies it even in asking the question; the craving for rationality is part of being human. Why should one believe that two and two are four rather than seven? I suppose because it is true, and the interest of one's knowing nature is in truth, not in falsity. Why in truth? Because truth reveals reality, and it is only by fulfilling this cognitive interest that we can live in a real world rather than in one of illusion and insanity. A person may choose, if he wishes, to live in an insane world, and to object that he cannot do so consistently will presumably not interest him, for consistency is part of the baggage he now wants to get rid of. To me this seems mere suicide. The craving for truth is part of my nature, and in a sense the most important part, for only as it is fulfilled am I able to see with any clearness the ends of the other needs and hungers of my nature. I hold with all deliberateness that to be moral is to be rational, and to be rational is to be moral. Thus egoism is the living of a lie.
. . . a moral judgment is as objective as a judgment in science. For of any proposed action it is either true or not that it will have certain consequences in the way of experience; and of these consequences it is either true or not that they will be as good, in the sense defined, as any alternative consequences. If it is, the action is right, objectively and impersonally right, and it would still be right whatever the speaker or his culture or even mankind as a whole happened to think about it.
Unlike Blanshard's other books, The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard has no true conclusion, as there is no one topic under sustained consideration. However, a conclusion concerning the place of the book in Blanshard's oeuvre can be offered, and it is this: we here find Blanshard engaged in what he most loved: the careful consideration of topics of the utmost importance. And we have here, far more than anywhere else, how it is that Blanshard engaged with his peers in that consideration, which is respectfully, courteously, and fairly, but with a thoroughness and a clarity of thought never equalled anywhere else in the whole of philosophy. It is impossible to come away from Blanshard's presence without being a better philosopher - and a better human being.
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