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Part IV - 1802: Bentham in Paris
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Whether his horizon is that which is visible from his parish steeple or from St. Peter's at Rome, it is still strictly limited: and the outside universe, known vaguely and indirectly, does not affect him like the facts actually present to his perception. The most candid thinkers will come to different conclusions when they are really provided with different sets of fact. In political and social problems every man's opinions are moulded by his social station.
The artisan's view of the capitalist, and the capitalist's view of the artisan, are both imperfect, because each has a first-hand knowledge of his own class alone: and, however anxious to be fair, each will take a very different view of the working of political institutions.
An apparent concord often covers the widest divergence under the veil of a common formula, because each man has his private mode of interpreting general phrases in terms of concrete fact. This, of course, implies the further difference arising from the passions which, however illogically, go so far to determine opinions.
Here we have the most general source of difficultY in considering the actual history of a creed. We cannot limit ourselves to the purely logical factor. All thought has to start from postulates. Men have to act before they think: before, at any rate, reasoning becomes distinct from imagining or guessing. To explain in early periods is to fancy and to take a fancy for a perception. The world of the primitive man is constructed not only from vague conjectures and hasty analogies but from his hopes and fears, and bears the impress of his emotional nature.
When progress takes place some of his beliefs are confirmed, some disappear, and others are transformed: and the whole history of thought is a history of this gradual process of verification. We begin, it is said, by assuming: we proceed by verifying, and we only end by demonstrating. The process is comparatively simple in that part of knowledge which ultimately corresponds to the physical sciences.
There must be a certain harmony between beliefs and realities in regard to knowledge of ordinary matters of fact, if only because such harmony is essential to the life of the race. Even an ape must distinguish poisonous from wholesome food. Beliefs as to physical facts require to be made articulate and distinct; but we have only to recognise as logical principles the laws of nature which we have unconsciously obeyed and illustrated -- to formulate dynamics long after we have applied the science in throwing stones or using bows and arrows.
But what corresponds to this in the case of the moral and religious beliefs? What is the process of verification? Men practically are satisfied with their creed so long as they are satisfied with the corresponding social order. The test of truth so suggested is obviously inadequate: for all great religions, however contradictory to each other, have been able to satisfy it for long periods.
Sokol, Mary 1945-
Particular doctrines might be tested by experiment. The efficacy of witchcraft might be investigated like the efficacy of vaccination. But faith can always make as many miracles as it wants: and errors which originate in the fancy cannot be at once extirpated by the reason. Their form may be changed but not their substance. To remove them requires not disproof of this or that fact, but an intellectual discipline which is rare even among the educated classes. A religious creed survives, as poetry or art survives, -- not so long as it contains apparently true statements of fact but -- so long as it is congenial to the whole social state.
A philosophy indeed is a poetry stated in terms of logic.
Considering the natural conservatism of mankind, the difficulty is to account for progress, not for the persistence of error. When the existing order ceases to be satisfactory; when conquest or commerce has welded nations together and brought conflicting creeds into cohesion; when industrial development has modified the old class relations; or when the governing classes have ceased to discharge their functions, new principles are demanded and new prophets arise.
The philosopher may then become the mouthpiece of the new order, and innocently take himself to be its originator.
His doctrines were fruitless so long as the soil was not prepared for the seed. A premature discovery if not stamped out by fire and sword is stifled by indifference. If Francis Bacon succeeded where Roger Bacon failed, the difference was due to the social conditions, not to the men.
The cause of the great religious as well as of the great political revolutions must be sought mainly in the social history. New creeds spread when they satisfy the instincts or the passions roused to activity by other causes. The system has to be so far true as to be credible at the time; but its vitality depends upon its congeniality as a whole to the aspirations of the mass of mankind.
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- Bentham, Jeremy (1748–1832).
- Virtual International Authority File.
- Linked bibliography for the SEP article "Jeremy Bentham" by James E. Crimmins.
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The purely intellectual movement no doubt represents the decisive factor. The love of truth in the abstract is probably the weakest of human passions; but truth when attained ultimately gives the fulcrum for a reconstruction of the world. When a solid core of ascertained and verifiable truth has once been formed and applied to practical results it becomes the fixed pivot upon which all beliefs must ultimately turn.
The influence, however, is often obscure and still indirect. The more cultivated recognise the necessity of bringing their whole doctrine into conformity with the definitely organised and established system; and, at the present day, even the uneducated begin to have an inkling of possible results. They do not feel the necessity of unifying knowledge or bringing their various opinions into consistency and into harmony with facts.
Jeremy Bentham - Wikipedia
There are easy methods of avoiding any troublesome conflict of belief The philosopher is ready to show them the way. He, like other people, has to start from postulates, and to see how they will work. When he meets with a difficulty it is perfectly legitimate that he should try how far the old formula can be applied to cover the new applications. He may be led to a process of 'rationalising' or 'spiritualising' which is dangerous to intellectual honesty.
The vagueness of the general conceptions with which he is concerned facilitates the adaptation; and his words slide into new meanings by imperceptible gradations. His error is in taking a legitimate tentative process for a conclusive test; and inferring that opinions are confirmed because a non-natural interpretation can be forced upon them.
This, however, is only the vicious application of the normal process through which new ideas are diffused or slowly infiltrate the old systems till the necessity of a thoroughgoing reconstruction forces itself upon our attention. Nor can it be denied that an opposite fallacy is equally possible, especially in times of revolutionary passion. The apparent irreconcilability of some new doctrine with the old may lead to the summary rejection of the implicit truth, together with the error involved in its imperfect recognition.
Hence arises the necessity for taking into account not only a man's intellectual idiosyncrasies and the special intellectual horizon, but all the prepossessions due to his personal character, his social environment, and his consequent sympathies and antipathies. The philosopher has his passions like other men. He does not really live in the thin air of abstract speculation.
On the contrary, he starts generally, and surely is right in starting, with keen interest in the great religious, ethical, and social problems of the time.