Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beattie on Truth I: Introduction

James Beattie (1735-1803) is not widely read today, but he was well-known in his own time. Educated at Aberdeen University, he eventually became professor of moral philosophy in Marischal College there. In an age of overachieving Scotsmen, he was one of the most successful overachieving Scotsmen. He became a celebrated English poet, which was not a small feat; Scots and English, while closely related, were farther apart in those days, and Scotsmen like Beattie and David Hume who made their splash south of the border only did so by working very hard to master the tongue of England. Of all the great literary Scotsmen of the day, Beattie was the most successful at this difficult discipline. His most famous poetic work, still worth reading, is The Minstrel, or the Progress of Genius; the conceit of the poem is that it traces "the progress of a Poetical Genius, born in a rude age, from the first dawning of fancy and reason, till that period at which he may be supposed capable of appearing in the world as a Minstrel, that is, as an itinerant Poet and Musician;—a character, which, according to the notions of our fore-fathers, was not only respectable, but sacred." Its major strength, however, is in its descriptions, which are generally lovely and sometimes rise to true poetic genius.

His most famous prose work, which was perhaps even more famous than his poetic work, was An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism. In England, although not generally elsewhere, it was often considered the decisive refutation of the philosophical ideas of David Hume, with which it is concerned at great length. One of the roles it plays in the history of philosophy is in the rise of Kant. Immanuel Kant famously is said to have woken from his dogmatist slumbers -- that is, his general acceptance of the rationalist approach of people like Wolff -- because of David Hume. In fact, while Kant eventually does seem to have read Hume directly, like many Germans, his first acquaintance with Hume came from Beattie's attempt to refute him. Kant wasn't impressed with Beattie's refutation, and in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, Kant dismisses Beattie by saying that Hume had as much common sense as Beattie but he also had critical reason, which Beattie did not have at all. Not very flattering, but Kant is also pushing a particular philosophical perspective, and he doesn't have any respect for the particular approach found in Beattie's work. That approach is usually called Scottish Common Sense philosophy, because it puts a great deal of emphasis on common sense (hence Kant's snipe about common sense and critical reason). And Common Sense philosophers like Beattie would no doubt have some things to say about Kant, too, if they had had the chance to read him; judging from later British responses to Kant, it's likely they would not have been impressed by what Kant called critical reason. In any case, Beattie is not the greatest of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers -- that place surely goes to Thomas Reid -- but he has the distinctive merits of (1) summarizing the basic approach in a very straightforward way and (2) not pulling any punches, but going for the full refutation without any hesitation, which gives a much better sense of just how far you can go with the Common Sense approach. Beattie lacks Reid's nuance and tact, but he makes up for it in style. It's important, though, to underline that while Beattie is not as original as Reid, what we get in Beattie is not purely derivative, but shows some genuine ingenuity on occasion (his all-out defense of human equality and attack on Hume's racism is just the most obvious example); Beattie's style is not superficiality, but integral to his own conception of common sense and how it works, and a mark of the fact that he is much more pragmatic in focus than Reid is.

The motto on the titlepage of the Essay on Truth, as it is usually called, is Nunquam aliud Natura, aliud Sapientia dicit, which is from Juvenal's Satires, and more or less means, "Never does Nature say something and Wisdom say something else," and is a good summation of how Beattie is going to approach the question of truth and how we know it. And even though it's somewhat flowery, it's worth lingering a bit over Beattie's introduction to the book. It opens with a sort of tight-rope walk. On the one side, Beattie addresses those who think too much philosophy is mere verbal disputation, arguing over words, and he agrees that this has been the tragedy of much of the history of philosophy. He promises that he won't do this. He will oppose, rather than fall into, merely verbal disputation, and hopes that he will stand a chance of doing so because of his approach: he aims at no startling paradoxes, he will judge his success by how well it fits with truth and virtue, and he will accept no principles unless he has reason to think that they "have influenced the judgment of a great majority of mankind in all ages of the world" (p. 10). This, however, brings him to the danger of the other side. Some people might think that this is a somewhat useless promise; of course a mere verbal disputant is no true philosopher, and in this day and age we all see that. People today are surely too discerning to be misled by mere cavils of words. Beattie, however, thinks that this self-congratulation premature, and that many of those who will say this most loudly are also people who are most completely duped by sophistry with words, and that this age is not so firm-minded as to be immune from merely verbal disputation itself. This is actually pretty important. Why will Beattie spend so much time attacking someone like Hume rather than taking a more constructive approach? Because one of his points is that the philosophy of the day really does subscribe to ideas he is attacking. While it's not his only reason, it has the benefit of showing that Beattie is serious when he says that merely verbal dispuation is a clear and present danger that must be addressed. While we must appreciate the advances of the time, we must take care not to overlook our own potential faults:

They who form opinions concerning the manners and principles of the times, may be divided into three classes. Some will tell us, that the present age transcends all that have gone before it, in politeness, learning, and good sense; will thank Providence (or their stars) that their lot of life has been cast in so glorious a period; and wonder how men could support existence amidst the ignorance and barbarism of former days. By others we are accounted a 'generation of triflers and profligates; sciolists in learning, hypocrites in virtue, and formalists in good-breeding; wise only when when we follow the ancients, and foolish whenever we deviate from them. Sentiments so violent are generally wrong: and therefore I am disposed to adopt the notions of those who may be considered as forming an intermediate class; who, though not blind to the follies, are yet willing to acknowledge the virtues, both of past ages, and of the present. And surely, in every age, and in every man, there is something to praise, as well as something to blame. (pp. 11-12)

In the sciences -- that is, mathematics, natural philosophy, and natural history -- the modern age is an age of great accomplishments. This has not been true elsewhere, although even moral philosophy and logic, Beattie thinks, while not sharing in the same kind of success, have at least been improved by the removal of pedantry and jargon. Incidentally, whatever the case may be with moral philosophy, historically and in hindsight we can see that Beattie was wrong about logic; clearing out the pedantry and jargon from logic also ended up clearing out a lot of the logic from logic, and the eighteenth century is a very low point for logic in the English-speaking world. Prior to that century at least the deteriorating remnants of scholastic logic had some kind of wide circulation, after that century there was the revival touched off by Whately that led to a new explosion in logical thought. But the eighteenth century could very well be called a logical dark age, if it were ever entirely correct to call a period a dark age simply because it had its strengths elsewhere. Perhaps more accurately we could say that logic in the eighteenth century, especially the eighteenth-century English speaking world, was a pretty bare and undeveloped thing. Really, of course, the standard Beattie is using is not the sort of standard we would use looking back, but the dominant standard of the day: these fields at the time were very suitable to the sentiments of a free people engaged in the process of cultivating good taste and fair-minded civic eloquence. And put that way, one has to admit that there are worse standards to use. And Beattie does not leave it at that: despite what he sees as the improvements in moral philosophy and logic, he thinks that people should not rest on their laurels. There is much work to do. In particular, there is a serious worry that the thrust of the day is toward the destruction of these two fields:

All sciences, and especially Moral Philosophy, ought to regulate human practice: practice is regulated by principles, and all principles suppose conviction yiction: yet the aim of our most celebrated moral systems is, to divest the mind of every principle, and of all conviction; and, consequently, to disqualify man for action, and to render him as useless, and as wretched, as possible. (pp. 13-14)

In short, the tendency of the age is to paradoxes of Scepticism, which, not being directed merely to making us humble, are going so far as to making it difficult for people to do good in the world. What is more, Beattie says, he can prove it. And Beattie thinks this is a point at which we must avoid a deceptive open-mindedness. Certainly we should be fair and open. But in the ultimate analysis we have to have an allegiance to truth and virtue, and this requires recognizing them as good, as useful, and as attainable. Any purported philosophy with the implication that truth or virtue are not good, useful, or attainable, is not just an idle speculation but an attack on humanity, and the honest man will rise to do battle with it. Moreover, the honest man has a chance of winning. Scepticism does not succeed because it is clever; it succeeds because it is obscure. Bring in more clarity and its refutation rises almost on its own. We see here Beattie preparing the reader for his rather aggressive approach, and he immediately goes on to apologize for it, saying that in what follows he will not always be able to do justice to the superior virtues and talents of some of the great names of the day. People like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume are all exemplary in many ways, and much is owed to them, but there is a real need for someone actually to stand up to them and criticize them striaghtforwardly, and this is what Beattie intends to do. His brief discussion of Hume is particularly interesting and amusing; he admires his History of England and admits that Hume may well be an excellent writer on political subjects, but that despite being the author of A Treatise of Human Nature he is "not much acquainted with human nature" (p. 17). Despite Hume's many strengths, Beattie thinks, his ideas have done serious harm to the progress of philosophy, being in places little other than an full-scale attack on the the principles that are required for human beings to discover truth and become virtuous.

Despite dealing with difficult philosophical topics, Beattie has an explicitly popular aim, and intends to try to make the basic points intelligible to everyone. "Truth, like virtue, to be loved, needs only to be seen" (p. 26). He will be more concerned with clear description than fancy argument, bringing his reasoning into contact with the real world, real experience, at every point he can. Scepticism survives by ambiguity and subtle disguise; its opponent must speak plainly. It is true that this plain speaking may at times open one to the charge of having misunderstood one's opponent, and no one can rule that out completely. But Beattie promises that he has done what he can to prevent it. He has not rushed into publication, he has sought out the opinions of others on his interpretations and arguments, and he has deliberately looked for any objection he could. He recognizes that polemic is not the most respectable genre and that he is attacking some very fashionable ideas. He agrees entirely. But he nonetheless hopes, and has had the encouragement of others to think, that publishing his essay, despite its polemical character, may do some real good.

And that's Beattie's introduction. I've spent some time on it because I think a great many misinterpretations of Beattie arise from not taking seriously the reasons for his approach. We need to understand that Beattie is not attacking at random, and that he is in attack mode because he thinks that there is a serious dearth of critical thinking about some very fashionable ideas, most notably, scepticism, and that the rise of scepticism is dangerous all the way across the board. An analogy might be helpful. Beattie thinks of the scepticism of people like Hume in much the same way that many people have thought of postmodernism in the past several decades, and for many of the same reasons: it is seen by them as a fashionable philosophy devoted to the subversion of everything regardless of whether it is good or useful or important, as an attack on progress and scientific knowledge, and as something that manages to thrive not because it itself contributes anything good or useful or important, but because it is obscure and ambiguous, and therefore lets its practitioners treat themselves as superior to the common man who can't peer through the fog of words they throw up. Setting aside whether this is an accurate characterization of postmodernism itself, this is precisely the attitude Beattie has to Hume; we may not think of Hume in this way, but it's really not difficult to see why someone in the eighteenth century would see Hume in this light. If we allow ourselves this sort of comparison, we could very well say that as far as Beattie is concerned, Hume is the Derrida of the eighteenth centur, and he has exactly the same attitude toward Hume that many analytic philosophers have toward Derrida today. I mention this only because most contemporary philosophers will start their reading of Beattie, if they read him at all, by being on Hume's side, and this sometimes leads to the assessment that Beattie is a bit unhinged, and doing the sort of thing that no philosopher would get away with today. It is not so.

In any case, the introduction just gives us an idea of what Beattie is doing. We get down to some seriously interesting philosophy in Part I.


  1. Martin8:30 PM

    W as h e a freind of Chesterton?    Phone wont let me paste the relevant qoute attacking the skeptics.

  2. branemrys8:48 PM

    Hi, Martin,

    No, much earlier; and by the time Chesterton was born, Beattie's star had long since faded. But certainly there is much in Scottish common sense philosophy that parallels Chestertonian common sense. Beattie would be much less patient with paradox than Chesterton, though.


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