Sunday, January 21, 2007

Chesterton's Presidential Address, 1926

By accident I stumbled upon the archives of The Philosopher, the Journal of the Philosophical Society of England. The 1926 presidential address for the society was, to my surprise and delight, none other than G.K. Chesterton. Apparently Chesterton arrived an hour late due to some mix-up about trains, so he opens his address with apologies for being an idiot; and then notes that one popular understanding of the term 'philosophy' would be keeping one's temper when the trains are late; and this leads him to make suggestions to philosophers about how they should understand the philosophical needs of the common people. As he points out, if we are to popularize philosophy, we have to have some understanding of what the attitudes of the masses really are. Here's an excerpt:

First of all, I would like to point out that most people who are interested in philosophical things are under some illusion as to what ordinary folk believe. We are inclined to think that people are a great deal more inspired by ideas, such as that the world grows better by continual social effort, that all men and nations, when they come to understand each other, will be as brothers. All such ideals are a sort of atmosphere which we philosophers take for granted. They are the air we breathe - sunlight, gaslight, moonshine, what you will.

But you will find that the greater part of human beings have an attitude of mistrust of the Universe and Humanity, their thinking is certainly not that of the 'hilarious highbrow.' If you talk to keepers of shops, to travellers, women who have to work very hard all their lives, you find that, though many of them are strong believers in orthodox religion, it is not too much to say that the majority have a melancholy and sad view of life, quite pagan in its fatalism. The general condition of stoical philosophy is chequered with other curious elements. There is generally a tinge of sadness. The belief in luck, for instance, generally bad luck. A man would probably not say 'I am a favourite of the gods,' but much more probably 'just like my luck.' It is the belief of the old heathen world as expressed in the great heathen religions through the ages. In all rude and simple tribes, the people do not feel safe with their gods: they will sometimes do you a good turn, but they are not to be trusted. Behind the gods there is something fixed, and immutable, Fate itself. This is not perhaps how the ordinary man of today waiting at Clapham Junction would put it.

He then suggests that one possible benefit of a philosophical society is to show people where these nebulous ideas really lead, in order to ask them if they are satisfied with that outcome; and he continues in this vein on a number of particular subjects.

Other interesting offerings from the archives are G. K. Chesterton's The Need of a Philosophy, John Dewey's Individual Psychology and Education, John MacMurray's Reason in Action, Moritz Schlick's Unanswerable Questions, and Mary Midgley's discussion of the moral philosophy of Iris Murdoch. Delightful stuff.

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