Philosophy, Mockery and Learning


Thomas Hobbes. Engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, after J. B. Caspar


Practice Makes Perfect


The prose style of Alfred, father of the English nation, was “verbal and concrete,” filled with “concrete examples”of law and governance. A greater number of texts, denominated as “practical,” “survives from Anglo-Saxon England than from any other Western European country.” 2 Anglo-Saxon scientific writings, for example, “constitute a large corpus of writings—far beyond anything produced contemporaneously on the continent.”That curiously English heretic Pelagius asserted that Christian worship lay in the sphere of practical and moral action rather than in the cultivation of a more exalted spirituality. We read of the Anglo-Saxon theologian Eadmer, who manifested a “practical working simplicity in religious matters [which] was characteristically Anglo-Saxon” together with “a turn of mind which to some extent has remained a feature of the English way of thought.”4

That there is a spiritual continuity cannot seriously be in doubt. One contributor to the Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature has noted that French scholars believed “English spirituality before 1300 . . . to have been pragmatic and particularist” and one which “generated little by way of complex abstract reflection.”When Julian of Norwich is described as evincing a “very practical and common-sense outlook,”and in another context Wycliff is claimed as “a realist philosopher,”the associations and affiliations become clear.

When Roger Ascham composed The Schoolmaster he was intent upon a highly practical course of learning to create a “Civil Gentleman” in whom learning would be utilised to instigate a right course of action. At a slightly later date Gabriel Harvey “was urging young wits in 1593 to leave poetry for studies of more ‘effectual use.’ ”8 The burgeoning publishing industry of the sixteenth century satisfied the taste for efficacy, too, with books upon medicine and husbandry, navigation and arithmetic. John Dee may now be remembered only as a magician or mystic, but he also wrote treatises upon navigation and mechanics. John Aubrey lists him as a mathematician. In the English imagination, scholarship is applied and learning utilised. Even the finer arts came within the same orbit of practical taste. Sir Philip Sidney suggested that the poet, eschewing the “wordish description” of philosophy, was in truth “a right popular philosopher.” Of sixteenth-century English composers it has been written that “their approach was pragmatic; what was congenial, they used, adapting it to native traditions,”where pragmatism can be seen to have a double perspective; it creates a tradition, but is also applied to it.

The history of English philosophy is also the history of empiricism, from the writings of Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century to the logical positivism of the twentieth century. W. R. Sorley’s A History of British Philosophy might in fact be described as a text-book of pragmatism. As the German philosopher Hegel summarised the matter, “abstract and general principles have no attraction for Englishmen.” In The German Ideology Marx and Engels distinguished between French “philosophical system” and English “registration of fact.” Duns Scotus was himself “critical of all intellectual arguments in the domain of theology”10 and thus may be described as the harbinger of that anti-intellectualism which has always been so prominent an aspect of the English sensibility. His successor and follower in more than one sense, William of Ockham, propounded the theory that “all knowledge is derived from experience,”11 a native sentiment which now needs no introduction or interpretation.

In the sixteenth century William Temple’s logic “had the advantage of clearness and practicality,”12 and Francis Bacon can be claimed as the first significant proponent of experimental science. “The matter in hand is no mere felicity of speculation,” he wrote in Novum Organum, “but the real business and fortunes of the human race, and all power of operation.” The swipe against mere “speculation” may have been instinctive, a manifestation of native taste, since Bacon’s method “had affinities with the practical and positive achievements of the English mind.”13

The first English philosopher of empiricism was Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan of the thirteenth century whose speculations upon science were maintained by the “high value” he placed “on experiment, with numerous but odd concrete illustrations.”14 Yet there is no doubt that his namesake, Francis Bacon, set the seal upon the superiority of empirical knowledge. He believed that a vast reformation in the understanding of nature could be effected only by a resolute and rigorous empiricism in matters of experiment or methodology. The pre-eminent method was to be that of induction, by which specific particulars were scrutinised in order to discover their form. Axioms were to be understood, therefore, only in terms of experience and of experiment; the investigator should then “be able to meet the test of practice and bring about purposeful effects in the actions of nature.”15

Bacon’s reliance upon practical detail and purposeful experiment seems to breathe an English spirit. He has been described as the originator of experimental science, and his critical empiricism heralded the native aptitude for scientific craftsmanship. He was the direct progenitor of the Royal Society, and his influence can also be traced in the Benthamism of the nineteenth century. A whole cluster of English attitudes and activities seems to form around his name. In his essays, too, he presents himself as an eminently practical scholar, collecting together many aphorisms or apophthegms and compressing them within a small space; he called it “broken knowledge,” just as English music divided into many parts for different instruments was known as “broken music.” Two metaphors come to mind in any illustration of his prose. One is that of the Elizabethan miniaturist, who packs so much exquisite detail within so small a space. “Ambition is like choler. . . . Virtue is like a rich stone, best plain set. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. . . . Fortune is like the market; where many times, if you can stay a little, the price will fall.” His essay “Of Adversity” is less than 500 words in length. The other metaphor may be taken from English architecture, since Bacon’s is an aggregate learning; he collects his sources and places them side by side, just as retro-chapels and cloisters were erected next to existing buildings without any formal or general design. In similar spirit Jacobean grand gardens were in fact “small gardens linked to one another.” 16 This arrangement reflects a linear imagination, accustomed to consider matters in sequence rather than in system.

His literal and materialistic vision entered all the ramifications of his complicated life, as writer and courtier as well as experimental scientist. Bacon said of his essays that they “come home to men’s business and bosoms” where the “business” is the most important consideration; his advice is politic, sage and cautious. It is aimed at “the pragmatic intelligence.”17 His own ascendancy at court, during the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, was achieved only by wiliness, hypocrisy and all the self-seeking counsels of pragmatic political wisdom. He became Lord Chancellor in 1618, but was summarily removed from his post after pleading guilty to taking bribes. Nevertheless his essays have been described as “concerned with prudential expedients and instruction in appearances in the pursuit of self-interest.” 18 It should come as no extraordinary surprise, therefore, that “his approach to moral philosophy was predominantly practical, looking invariably to use.” For this and for his other purposes he attempted to refashion the English language itself and, in his writing, to curb “all ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptinesses.” He composed the Advancementof Learning in English (only at a later date did he translate it into Latin) precisely because he wished to sway his reader with his simple words. In one sense this must be an atavistic pursuit; to prune “eloquence” is to remove Latinate or aureate diction in favour of Anglo-Saxon materiality and energy. It is as if in pursuing the doctrine of practicality and pragmatism Bacon was at the same time invoking the ancient spirit of the race. He also wished to discredit “delicate learning,” otherwise known as “contentious learning” and “fantastical learning,” all of which could arguably be considered as importations from continental Europe; the native idiom of Bacon has territorial as well as philosophical contexts.

One exponent of the English tradition has formulated a number of key oppositions out of the Baconian model; from “concrete/abstract” and “practice/theory” come “common sense/dogma” and “amateur/professional” as well as “truth/pleasure,” “Protestant/Catholic” and “English/French.” Another derivation is to be found in “centre/extreme,” 19 from which may be adduced the English partiality for compromise and accommodation. In this context it is interesting that, in Bacon’s discourse, knowledge comes not from feudalism “in which inherited rank decides truth,”20 but from bourgeois individualism of a distinctively Protestant and democratic stance. The faith in compromise has also been described as essentially English, simply because it manifests “a belief in a self-evidencing reality which you can retrieve if you rid yourself of fantasy”; 21 it is a question of things rather than of words.

Bacon can be considered the father of empirical philosophy and of experimental science in England, then, but his linguistic injunctions proved to be no less powerful. His denunciation of falsely affected prose, for example, was taken up by the early founders of the Royal Society and has been repeated ever since in the English distaste for rhetorical prolixity. The Royal Society was formally instituted in 1662 but had already existed for some years as a loose association of scientific experimenters, experimental philosophers and virtuosi intent upon practical resolutions concerning such diverse matters as barometric pressure and the migration of birds. In its diversity, and somewhat amateur status, it was a very English institution. In his History of the society Thomas Sprat declares that its members preferred “a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen and Merchants before that of Wits and Scholars.” The reference to “Artizans” and “Merchants” represents a powerful current of materialism and purely commercial speculation; at a later date, of course, Napoleon would denounce the English as “a nation of shopkeepers.” In the History Sprat also advocated a “return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words,” in which knowledge and judgement consist of a return to origins. Only in a “primitive” linguistic community is truth to be found.

There may, therefore, only be a step between the scientific treatises of the Anglo-Saxons and the prevailing ethos of the Royal Society, which, like other London institutions, was devoted to pragmatic and technical advancement. The experiments of the society were of a highly practical kind, since its fundamental project lay in the improvement of “Manufactures, Mechanic practices, Engynes and Inventions.” No other scientific institution in the world so readily discarded questions of scientific theory or experimental philosophy. The concern, as outlined in the first issue of the Philosophical Transactionscomposed by the Secretary in 1666, was “solid and useful knowledge.” Since the emphasis was upon “legitimate Experiments” the members of the society felt able to criticise Descartes’s “geometric method” and deductive system, for example, on the thoroughly English grounds that “he was for doing too great a part of his work in his Closet, concluding too soon, before he had made Experiments enough.” They doubted his concept of methodical doubt, principally because it smacked of speculation and theory. The assault upon Descartes was of course an assault upon France. As Sprat remarked of useful or applied knowledge, “For the improvement of this kind of light, the English disposition is of all others the fittest.” The learned members of the Royal Society were not concerned with “setling of Principles” or “Doctrines ” but with “the way to attain a solid speculation.” It is the tone of the merchant or the broker, even of the stereotypical John Bull himself. “Solid speculation” may be seen as equivalent, or complementary, to “common sense” based upon a notion of shared responses and an implicit community of judgement; other native virtues, such as the tendency towards moderation, were also supposed to spring from the eschewal of general doctrines or abstruse theories.

In the roll-call of English philosophers we must include here Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Of Hobbes it may be said that he felt the pressure of power upon his pulse and that, of all English philosophers, he harnessed the claims and exigencies of simple if brutal human experience. He disclaimed rhetoric, and repeatedly declined to quote from the wisdom of the ancients; his “Discourse of Civil and Ecclesiastical Government,” entitled Leviathan, was “occasioned by the disorder of the present time” to which he would apply the balm of “solid reasoning.” He has been described as “the founding father of modern metaphysical materialism,”22 which consorts well with all the pragmatic tendencies of his age. It has been said that, for Hobbes, “everything is a material process.”23 He himself wrote that “there is no conception in a man’s mind which hath not at first . . . been begotten upon the organs of Sense”; imagination was “nothing but decaying sense” and spirits themselves “really Bodies.” His life was one of retirement and contemplation. Of humble origin, he lived in the houses of the nobility in the role of tutor and companion. He suffered from what Aubrey called “a contemplative Melancholinesse,” and translated his fearfulness into the doctrine of absolute power.

In the pragmatic tradition he was a social moralist as well as a philosopher, and his principles were indeed of a thoroughly practical kind. “No man,” he wrote, “gives except for a personal advantage.” We pity others “because we imagine that a similar misfortune may befall ourselves.” He made a metaphysics out of worldliness. “Not he who is wise is rich, as the Stoics say; but, on the contrary, he who is rich is wise.” It can be assumed that Leviathan itself is a practical document, too, since it is concerned with the purpose and nature of political life. It has been suggested that Thomas Hobbes cannot be considered as representative of English philosophy because of his urgent desire to create a “system” of knowledge based upon first principles. But this is not an Hegelian or Platonic “system,” which seems propelled by unearthly powers and by a desire to forge abstractions into truth, but a wholly earthbound project designed to illustrate the social conditions of mankind. The work itself was prompted by the specific political circumstances of the period and, although Hobbes professed to despise the procedures of the Royal Society, he was equally concerned to demonstrate the practical efficacy of “solid speculation.” He detested scholasticism, and distrusted rhetoric; he evinced also a “profound suspicion of anything like authority in philosophy.” 24

In Leviathan itself he argued that between men there is “a perpetual contention for Honour, Riches and Authority,” which in an ill-ordered world would create a condition of perpetual warfare; thus, to create civil order and stability, the will of each individual must be subsumed by a greater will. The fear of death and the promise of felicity also prompt men willingly to surrender their power to a supreme authority, which emerges in “the generation of the great Leviathan, the King of the Proud.” 25 The Leviathan himself must be armed and potentially dangerous since “Covenants, without the Sword, are but words.” This abbreviated résumé is not designed to introduce the reader to Hobbes’s philosophy but, rather, to emphasise his often brutally pragmatic nature. The wisdom springing from such perceptions may then be considered “the end and crown of experience.” It is a fitting conclusion for a philosopher who led the English imagination into unknown paths.

The native spirit of John Locke has never been in doubt. In his “Epistle to the Reader,” introducing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , he places the origin of his treatise in “five or six friends meeting at my chamber” who agreed after more than usually strenuous debate that “it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were or were not fitted to deal with.” There is no dogmatism or regimentation to be found, therefore, only the fruits of a modest enquiry. The Essay itself was “begun by chance” and “continued by entreaty”; it was “written by incoherent parcels; and, after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted.” It was “spun out of my own coarse thoughts,” and “I am now too lazy or too busy to make it shorter.” Here are all the signs of that embarrassed modesty which has ever been the accompaniment of the English writer, together with a characteristic diffidence or detachment. Despite his lack of accomplishment, John Locke has emerged in print “being on purpose to be as useful as I may”; he is content to be “employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little,” particularly by identifying “the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected or unintelligible terms introduced into the sciences.” This is an enterprise entirely in line with the English imagination, therefore, and the Essay itself, humbly presented, became “the philosophical Bible of the eighteenth century”26 in England, modifying the work of Sterne and Johnson, Reynolds and Addison.

In his History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945, Bertrand Russell distinguishes Locke from European philosophers such as Leibniz or Descartes or Hegel by concluding that, in continental writing, “a vast edifice of deduction is pyramided upon a pin-point of logical principle” whereas in Locke “the base of the pyramid is on the solid ground of observed fact, and the pyramid tapers upward, not downward.”27 His philosophy is established upon observation rather than speculation, and can justifiably claim a Baconian lineage. In this context it has also been asserted by Russell that “British philosophy is more detailed and piecemeal than that of the continent,”28 eschewing system or authoritarian organisation; the significance of detail and organic accretion is once more underlined. It represents individual liberty of thought. In politics as well as in philosophy, therefore, Locke was “tentative and experimental”; such diffidence encourages toleration and a trust in freedom of expression, so that the philosopher was “not at all authoritarian.” 29 Here are the lineaments of native thought.

One of its conclusions would then run as follows. The desired goal is not that which is ideally or speculatively the best, but that which is most practical. This is, in a nutshell (to use the English phrase), also the history of the English constitution and of English common law. In the knowledge of nature, according to Locke, we possess only “the twilight of probability”; but that is enough. In this condition our faculties must be “accommodated to the use of life.” It is a philosophy of earnest practicality, one well suited to the accomplishments of Gresham College and the Royal Society. Engines may be less exciting than theorems, and utensils more homely than speculations, but they are somehow more appropriate. An Essay Concerning Human Understandingis animated by a kind of inspired common sense, then, or by what Locke more elegantly terms “the common light of reason.” He remarks in passing that “it is the affectation of knowing beyond what we perceive that makes so much useless dispute and noise in the world”; this dislike of noise and dispute, the philosophical equivalent of not making a scene in a restaurant, also seems innately English. That is why Locke uses the most homely metaphors to make his point. He illustrates his theory of the association of ideas, for example, by citing the instance of a man who could dance only when there was a trunk in the room. The image might have come out of Tristram Shandy, and is an instance of that whimsicality which seems endemic to the native genius.

Out of Locke ’s self-deprecation, evinced in his “Preface,” irony may also spring. It has in turn been suggested that within “the English discursive tradition, attending as it does upon empiricist attitudes, irony is pervasive.”30 Irony suggests that there is some kind of collective experience which shadows any individual statement, and that there are certain shared sentiments which need only to be intimated rather than expressed. It also suggests the primacy of experience over theory. It might be put another way by declaring, with Locke, that “all ideas have their origin in experience.”31No more radical exposition of English empiricism has been made. As Locke’s editor suggests, “the very word ‘principle’ has evil associations for him”;32 it is as if all the theoretical arguments were purposeless. So “Locke has written himself down as the founder of the English philosophy of experience,” to which may be added the suggestion that “English philosophy is instinctively the philosophy of experience, and the advance of English philosophy is the more precise definition of what experience means.”33 It appears also in Francis Hutcheson’s An Enquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue where he coined the phrase “the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers,” which was in turn co-opted by the English utilitarians. The sentiment was reasserted by Joseph Priestley, who concluded that happiness is “the great standard by which everything relating to that state must finally be demanded.”

We approach the nineteenth century with Jeremy Bentham, who appropriated and reformulated Hutcheson’s proposition by suggesting that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham, like Locke and, indeed, like the humanists of the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, was preoccupied by civic conduct. In texts such as Fragment on Government, Anarchical Fallacies and the Constitutional Code he eschewed what he called the politics of “abstract advantage” and speculation in order to concentrate upon practical, if radical, reform. His pre-eminence meant that “philosophical radicalism in England, unlike the corresponding revolutionary doctrines in other countries, was based upon an empirical utilitarianism and not upon a priori ideas about natural rights.”34 The same conclusion might be drawn of Bacon and of Hobbes, so traditional has it become.

But there is more than philosophy in the sphere of pragmatism. The French Revolution was considered by many English observers to be the direct consequence of “French theory” and Arthur Young, in his The Example of France a Warning to Britain, urged a political ethic established “merely upon experience.” Burke’s animadversions against that revolution are well documented, but his sense of historical violation rendered his Reflections on the Revolution in France sympathetic to an English audience. The unspoken pact between past and present, in which the example of the dead earns the suffrage of the living, is the single most poignant note of Burke’s exposition; it is the “great melody” in which the voices of past orators mingle with Burke’s own to furnish a savage denunciation of the French revolutionaries who thought to create a society ab novo and to extirpate the historical roots of their culture or nation. But English observers posited the power of practical as well as historical experience. The strength of the English Constitution, for example, according to one modern cultural historian, lay “in its having no theory, in its being the gradual and patient accumulation of practice and precedent, in its being, above all, unwritten.”35 A general aversion to “rules,” and a disdain for theoretical enquiry, mark English political discourse which accommodates the claims of individual liberty and individual circumstance more readily than abstract speculations about the “rights” of those individuals.

That empirical temper can be found to be no less prominent in the art and music of England. Of eighteenth-century landscape painting it has often been suggested that “in Italy the tradition of painting was one of idealisation and generalisation” where in England more attention was granted to “revealing particularities of sky and water.” 36 The art of Stubbs and Joseph Wright is preoccupied with “the nature of things”37 and even the work of Turner has been described as “not scientific but empirical.”38 In eighteenth-century English music, too, the emphasis shifted “from scientific and metaphysical speculation to empirical discussion of music itself.”39 The triumphs of nineteenth-century architecture were those in which practical engineering played a formative role, as in the construction of the great railway stations of Newcastle Central, Paddington and King’s Cross. The engineers themselves were celebrated for their “inventive genius” and became the new heroes of Victorian England. “These men,” Samuel Smiles wrote, “were strong-minded, resolute and ingenious.” In Germany the philosopher-scientist was king, but in England it was the technician. The Department of Practical Art was established in London as a direct consequence of the Great Exhibition of 1851, but it had already been anticipated by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The “science” was, as usual, “applied.” As a character in Charles Kingsley’s novel Two Years Ago (1857) explains, “We doctors, you see, get into the way of looking at things as men of science; and the ground of science is experience.”

The same attitude is present in Matthew Arnold’s belief that the English only exert themselves within “the field of plain sense, of direct practical utility.” A Russian, Oloff Napea, wrote in Letters from London that “in France every particle glistens, all is blandishment; in England all is utility, but no glitter.” This may account for the ugliness and lack of symmetry in London, contrasted with the elegance and formality of Paris; London grew instinctively and organically, while the centre of Paris was fashioned by administrative fiat and aesthetic principle.

The English possess moralists and psychologists rather than metaphysicians, and in England the tree of knowledge is prized only for its fruit in practice and activity. Thus A. J. Ayer, in Logical Positivism in Perspective, suggests that in England there has been “an almost complete disregard of the current extravagancies of German speculative thought.” 40 He also describes the tendency of “contemporary British philosophers . . . to deal with philosophical questions in an unsystematic illustrative way.”41 The continuity of methods and preoccupations, from Bacon to the last century, would be astonishing if it were not for the fact that such remarkable continuities are found in every area of the English imagination. The discipline of logical positivism, associated with “the Vienna Circle,” for example, was welcomed and adopted in the English philosophical habitat; but it was subtly adapted for native circumstances. Its “uncompromising positivism” and its “blanket rejection of metaphysics” were modified. All extremes, in other words, were toned down. As a result of this process of assimilation, “generalisations are distrusted, particular examples are multiplied . . . common sense reigns as a constitutional, if not an absolute, monarch, philosophical theories are put to the touchstone of the way in which words are actually used.” 42 A. J. Ayer calls the approach “empirical in the political sense, the sense in which Burke was a champion of empiricism”; 43indeed his reference to “constitutional” monarchy does suggest the larger context in which English empiricism prevails.

There is room in this cave of knowing for one other echo. Ayer himself adhered to the principle “that general statements of science and those about the past can be meaningful if experience can show them probable,” 44 which might be described as a doctrine of enlightened pragmatism. Such a statement would have been welcome to the members of the Royal Society. A further conclusion, that “all scientific propositions, however complex, are reducible to empirically verifiable propositions,”45 might have come out of the mouth of John Locke, rather than from his counterparts almost three centuries later.


Dedicated to the practicalities of scientific study: the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, 1675

Yet there is another way of regarding these tendencies within the English imagination. It is the nature of the language itself to be fluid and comprehensive, to cross the boundaries of Latin and Saxon, to compromise and moderate its various sources and origins. There are very few rules in English syntax and grammar which cannot be broken; the principles of its deep structure hold, but its local manifestations are often flexible and peculiar. It is an absorbent medium established upon the imperatives of usage and practice; words are introduced, or coined, and idiomatic changes are common. It carries a pragmatic force, therefore, and may bear a certain responsibility for English empiricism itself. One study of nineteenth-century literature has come to the conclusion that “the most authentically ‘English’ literature (and this was the preferred term, rather than ‘British’) came to be more and more defined as that which was most resistant to theoretical epitome or to the language of theory in general.”46 The language is deemed to be resistant to theory on every level; as the language, so the imagination which it carries and maintains. The paths of English empiricism have been long and wayward, but they have arrived at their destination.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!