David Corfield
The Present Need of a Philosophy



Your invitation to continue the correspondence opened by Sir Herbert Samuel in the last issue of the JOURNAL is one which I cannot in honour refuse; and I am the less reluctant to accept it, because the President’s letter has expressed so many of my own convictions that I can follow his lead where I should have hesitated to venture alone. That philosophy ought in some way to help our generation in its moral, social, and political troubles; that epistemology and the theory of value are not directly contributing to that end; and that in this respect some special significance attaches to the idea of evolution–all this I fully and gladly accept; and I will try to say, as briefly as I can, what it is that in my opinion philosophy can do.

But first, there is something which it cannot, and must not be tempted to do. It cannot descend like a deus ex machina upon the stage of practical life and, out of its superior insight into the nature of things, dictate the correct solution for this or that problem in morals, economic organization, or international politics. There is nothing in a philosopher’s special work qualifying him to pilot a perplexed generation through those rocks and shoals. If a mariner finds himself at sea without navigator, chart, or compass, the Astronomer Royal himself, discovered among the passengers, could do little for him; he would be wiser to hail some coastwise fisherman. Even Plato did not think otherwise. He never proposed that professional philosophers should be dragged, blinking, from their studies and forcibly seated on thrones; only that expert knowledge of political life and its practical difficulties should be illuminated by philosophical reflection on its ultimate end.

If nowadays we should hesitate to go even as far as Plato, it is not because our opinion of philosophy is lower, but because our opinion of the plain man is higher. Christian theology holds that the faith of a simple peasant, without any tincture of theological learning, is sufficient for salvation; modern philosophy, of whatever school, follows its example in holding that non-philosophical thought in all its forms–moral and political, scientific, religious, or artistic–is able to do its work without asking philosophy’s help and to justify itself without awaiting philosophy’s verdict.

In this opinion there lurks an opposite danger. It may seem that philosophy’s only task is to analyse knowledge we already possess, and theorize about activities we are already able to perform; that it is no more able to influence the processes which it describes than astronomy can influence the movements of the stars; that the only motive to pursue it is a pure disinterested curiosity, the only good to be gained from it, pure theoretical knowledge; and that Plato, Spinoza, and all others who have thought this knowledge somehow serviceable to our well-being were victims of a gigantic and inexplicable illusion.

The truth seems to me to lie somewhere between these two extremes. If the philosopher is no pilot, neither is he a mere spectator, watching the ship from his study window. He is one of the crew; but what, as such, is his function? In order to find an answer to this question, I suggest that we should look back three hundred years or more, to the infancy of modern science. At the beginning of the seventeenth century no one could foresee the triumphs which science was one day to achieve. It was not, therefore, a foreknowledge of these triumphs that encouraged innumerable men to persevere in almost incredibly detailed inquiries concerning the laws of nature, in a corporate effort shared by all parts of the civilized world and extending over many generations. The will to pursue those inquiries was not based on any conception of their future outcome, but it was based on something: it was based on the belief that nature is a single system of things, controlled throughout its extent by a single system of laws. In adopting this idea, civilized man was setting aside his immemorial belief in demonic agencies, magical influences, and the inscrutable caprices of individual things, and accepting a new view of the world, not received on faith, and not arrived at by scientific induction, but thought out and stated in a systematic form by the philosophers of the sixteenth century.

The notion of a uniformly law-abiding natural world is so familiar to ourselves that we are apt to forget how recent a thing it is in the history of thought, how hardly it was won by Renaissance thinkers–for example, with what difficulty sixteenth–century thought gave up Aristotle’s doctrine that the law of gravitation holds good only in the sublunary sphere-and how dramatic was its verification by one scientific discovery after another. This philosophical conception of nature has played the part, in relation to scientific research, of a constant stimulus to effort, a reasoned refutation of defeatism, a promise that all scientific problems are in principle soluble.

There is a certain analogy between the state of things at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the special problems of civilized life were concerned with man’s control over nature, and the state of things in the modern world, whose special problems are concerned with human relations. Sir Herbert Samuel justly enumerates them: “personal and social morality, economic organization, international relationship.” These problems, like the problems of natural science, can be solved only by detailed and patient investigation, exhaustive inquiry, skilful experiment. But this arduous and slow labour, if it is to be undertaken at all, must rest on two things: a conviction that the problems can be solved, and a determination that they shall be solved. Of these two, the first is, I think, capable of being provided, in a reasoned form, by philosophy. Apart from such a reasoned conviction, the will to solve them is so handicapped by doubts within and opposition without, that its chance of success dwindles to vanishing-point. There is always a vast mass of opinion (and very respectable opinion) in favour of allowing established institutions to stand firm for fear of worse to follow; there is always a dead weight of inclination, however bad things may be, to enjoy what good we can snatch for the short time allowed us; but, more dangerous than either of these, there is the defeatist spirit which fears that what we are aiming at is no more than a Utopian dream. And this fear becomes paralysing when, not content with the status of a natural timidity or temporary loss of nerve, it calls in the help of philosophical ideas, and argues that the evils admittedly belonging to our moral, social, and political life are essential elements in all human life, or in all civilization, so that the special problems of the modern world are inherently insoluble. The philosophical ideas underlying this argument are connected with certain aspects of the idea of progress; especially the false conception of progress as due to a cosmic force which can be trusted to advance human life automatically, without the active co-operation of human beings, and (the natural reaction from this) an equally false denial that progress is possible at all.

As the seventeenth century needed a reasoned conviction that nature is intelligible and the problems of science in principle soluble, so the twentieth needs a reasoned conviction that human progress is possible and that the problems of moral and political life are in principle soluble. In both cases the need is one which only philosophy can supply. What is needed to-day is a philosophical reconsideration of the whole idea of progress or development, and especially its two main forms, “evolution” in the world of nature and “history” in the world of human affairs. What would correspond to the Renaissance conception of nature as a single intelligible system would be a philosophy showing that the human will is of a piece with nature in being genuinely creative, a vera causa, though singular in being consciously creative; that social and political institutions are creations of the human will, conserved by the same power which created them, and essentially plastic to its hand; and that therefore whatever evils they contain are in principle remediable. In short, the help which philosophy might give to our “dissatisfied, anxious, apprehensive generation” would lie in a reasoned statement of the principle that there can be no evils in any human institution which human will cannot cure.

This cannot be done in a day. But it has already been well begun. I will mention three writers whose work, taken as a whole, seems to me unmistakably converging upon a conception of man and his place in the universe which would justify that principle. There is Mr. Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity; there is General Smuts’s Holism and Evolution; and there is Mr. Whitehead’s series of books grouped round Process and Reality. These, with others hardly less important, seem to me the first fruits of a new philosophical movement in which epistemological discussions and the old controversy between realism and idealism have fallen, as Sir Herbert desires that they should fall, into the background; in which the central place is taken, as Sir Herbert wishes it should be, by the idea of development; in which philosophy feels itself a collaborator with science, neither its enemy nor its slave, but having its own dignity and its own methods, while it respects those of science; and in which man is conceived neither as lifted clean out of nature nor yet as the plaything of natural forces, but as sharing, and sharing to an eminent degree, in the creative power which constitutes the inward essence of all things.

Yours faithfully,


OXFORD. April 24, 1934.

Last revised on July 23, 2010 at 12:11:25. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.