wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

David Stove

The Plato Cult

Let the universe, down to its last electron, be of as high a grade of intelligence as you please. Suppose even (since there is no point in stinting ourselves here) that it is bung-full of love too. It is still perfectly clear that there is nothing at all idealist about this theory. If the world is that way, then that is the way the world is, and thought's only concern in the matter is to acknowledge that there is this much thought, love, and so on around. Our physics and biology would then be miles away from where they are now. But our philosophy would not be one inch nearer to being idealism.

The spirituality, or thought, or ideality, then, which idealism ascribes to the world, is not any sort of possible way the world might be, or any sort of contents it might have. No amount of intelligent electrons, affectionate air, etc., will ever suffice to make idealism true. To make idealism true, what is needed is that electrons, if they are intelligent, be identical with thoughts of intelligent electrons; and that electrons, if they are not intelligent, be identical with thoughts of non-intelligent electrons; and so on, for red billiard balls, and everything else.

Yet that is what can never be, and even the idealist knows it can never be. For you cannot believe that a red billiard ball is a thought of a red billiard ball, unless you understand it. To understand it, you have to know what is meant, respectively, by the phrases, 'a red billiard ball,' and 'a thought of a red billiard ball.'

But if you do know what those phrases mean, then you know that a thought of a red billiard ball cannot possibly be the same thing as a red billiard ball, just as a thought of a murder cannot possibly be the same thing as a murder. Only someone who knows that idealism is impossible, then, can believe it. The spirituality which idealism ascribes to the world is therefore not only a 'light that never was on land or sea,' and never could be: it is a light which the idealist himself, if he believes his philosophy, knows there never could be.

To say this is not to accuse idealists of hypocrisy. They are not hypocrites. They are merely divided in their minds, and overwhelmed by a wish. With half of his mind an idealist knows, quite as well as everyone else does, that a red billiard ball cannot be a thought of a red billiard ball. But he also must have the world congenial, saturated all through by thought, and nothing short of the identity of thing with thought will make that congeniality intimate enough.

But while idealism is not hypocritical, it is hard to beat for anthropocentricity. What are we best qualified for, what is the strongest part of our game? Why, thought, of course: both in general, as being members of the most intelligent species, and in particular as being philosophers. Well then, thought must perforce be the very constitution of reality. And if this is not possible, that does not make it any the less imperative.

The only way to be more anthropocentric than ordinary idealism would be if some heterodox sect of idealists were to identify reality, not with thought in general, but just with false or senseless thought. For surely that is the really strongest part of our game: that is where neither animals nor angels nor God can come near us, and where we philosophers leave even our fellow-men for dead. If a philosopher wants to make the universe maximally congenial, he should identify reality with error, contradiction, and absurdity. This would, after all, spread real ideality all round, and stamp our distinctive trademark indelibly on all reality in a way which mere true thought never could.

This doubly impossible kind of idealism, it is likely enough, actually was embraced by some philosophers in the third or fourth century AD: it certainly has a sort of neo-Platonist, or perhaps a Gnostic-Christian, ring to it. But even if no one ever has held it, it is nevertheless the very conclusion to which all idealism inevitably tends. This statement will probably seem outrageous or unserious, but I am convinced of its truth. The reason is that, just as ordinary religion is believed partly because it is known to be false, so idealism, whenever it has been believed, has been believed partly because it was known to be impossible: believed from an active preference for absurdity, and for more absurdity rather than less.

Almost any philosopher will sometimes take a certain pleasure in maintaining, for fun or in the hope of learning something, some logical impossibility which he does not at all believe, but cannot see his way to avoid. But this is taking an occasional, superficial, and innocent pleasure in impossibility. Idealist philosophers are very different: they take a pleasure in impossibility which is neither occasional, nor superficial, nor innocent.

In the case of the objective idealists, this fact is even obvious. Hegel and Bradley are always bringing bad news, of course, of the outbreak of 'contradictions' in even the most settled districts: but who cannot detect that they do so with satisfaction? They pretend to be only fire-spotters, but anyone can tell that they are actually firebugs. Some people's idea of paradise is to have flowers springing up around one's feet at every step: theirs is to have impossibilities doing the same.

The same thing is sufficiently obvious in Kant: recall this attitude to his famous four 'antinomies.' These things, precisely because they are supposed to impose impossibilities inescapably on us, are quite clearly very precious to him, like children to a doting parent; even though these ones are, to any non-parental eye, uncommonly feeble and ugly. But Kant would have killed to keep them, or at least would have had forty more if he could have come by them.

And even as to Berkeley, what do you think it was that made his philosophy so pleasing to his own mind, and so inexhaustibly attractive to other minds? Was it his celestial mechanics of spirits: the business about the infinite immaterial television-station and its flock of little television-receivers? Of course not: there is not even anything really idealist about that. If the world is 'will and idea' in that particular way, then that is the way the world is, and thought does not constitute it so. Whereas it is precisely that, of course—the most paradoxical, incredible, impossible thing of all—which is the priceless thing to Berkeley's mind: that perception or thought is the essence of physical things. Or in other words, that perceptions or thoughts of ours, to which according to Berkeley himself, nothing corresponds or could correspond, are the very constitution of physical reality.

What all idealism does, then, and the secret of its attraction, is this: it diffuses through all reality that falsity, or impossibility, or absurdity, which in fact distinguishes, and which we know distinguishes, human beings from all other things, and philosophers from all other human beings. It is by one touch of erring human nature that idealism makes the whole world kin. And this is why idealism inevitably gravitates towards its doubly impossible special case.

If this suggestion seems to you too fanciful, and the preference for impossibility which I impute to idealists too improbable to be true, then I think you must know little of the lengths that intelligence will go to, once deprived of popular religion, to hide from an indifferent universe. But I will also remind you that the nineteenth century was not only the century of objective idealism, but the century of romanticism. If I had said of certain poets of that time, that the only world that attracted them was not only not the actual world but not even a possible one, and that its impossibility was for them an essential part of its attraction, then I would have been thought to utter a commonplace of literary history, rather than a paradox. Yet is is only another case of this same preference for the known-to-be-impossible, that I ascribe to the philosophical contemporaries of those poets.