Marxism and the Irrationalists

John Lewis


Witchcraft and the Professors

1. Professor Polanyi and the Magicians

THE close connection of contemporary philosophy of science with class interests has been strikingly revealed in a series of broadcasts and articles by Professor Michael Polanyi. It is sometimes as valuable to read bad philosophy as good. Good philosophy may tell us the truth about the universe, but bad philosophy may tell us something of the mind of man. It may not tell us the truth about the universe, but it cannot fail to tell us the truth about its author. It does much more than that, it tells us the truth about its readers. Even writing as dishonest intellectually as Polanyi’s is startlingly honest as a public document.

He begins by telling us [1] that the Azande in the Southern Sudan have a system of magical beliefs which cunningly allows for every apparent failure in experience. The blindness of the Azande to facts which to us seem decisive is sustained by remarkable ingenuity. “They reason excellently” (says Evans-Pritchard) “in the idiom of their beliefs, but they cannot reason outside, or against, their beliefs because they have no other idiom in which to express their thoughts.” Polanyi proceeds to point out that almost any system of beliefs, scientific or otherwise, even one as erroneous as the Ptolemaic theory of the solar system, can be sustained in the face of any number of evidential discrepancies by the simple process of multiplying subordinate hypotheses. By accounting for motions of the planets, which a simple system of circular orbits with the earth as centre could not explain, by making them move in smaller circular orbits on the existing orbit, and then postulating still other smaller orbits on these, the

1 The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. III, No. 11 Article, “The Stability of Beliefs”, by Michael Polanyi.

[72/ 73]

Ptolemaic system accounted with a fair degree of accuracy for the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies as seen from the earth, assumed to be fixed in the centre of the universe. It was completely wrong but it lasted for 1,400 years. “It is impossible” says Polanyi, “to overthrow a theory by advancing facts which are inconsistent with it. Supplementary—‘epicyclic’— hypotheses can always be advanced to extend the original theory to cover the new facts” [1] Circularity in the argument is involved, since the theory is always assumed to be true, so that explanations must be found, But granted a readily available reserve of epicyclic elaborations and the consequent suppression in the germ of any rival conceptual development, we may achieve a remarkable degree of stability for almost any system of beliefs. Professor Ayer lends support to Polanyi when he says, “It is nearly always possible to save a theory if you are prepared to make enough additional hypotheses”. Now Polanyi proceeds to argue that science itself is such a system. It is a faith, it is the acceptance of a tradition. To be a scientist one must become a member of the tribe with its whole outfit of traditional beliefs, pre-suppositions, unchallengeable first principles. Science, he argues, is not self-justifying. It can only be accepted in a spirit of uncritical detachment.

But if so, is not religion in precisely the same situation? It too is a water-tight system of beliefs with supplementary theories for every possible difficulty—the existence of pain and sin, the apparent lack of Divine control in history. Whether you believe in science, or witchcraft, or Christianity, or the principles of the Conservative Party, you must join a “Church” with its unproveable, dogmatic creed. You are simply a believer. Here, Polanyi argues, we have the sanction for “abandoning the critical obsession” and acquiring the capacity to hold beliefs.

It is amazing to find a competent scientist making such complete nonsense of his own profession. Professor Polanyi

1 The orthodox theory of genetics can be maintained in the same way in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, as Professor Waddington has recently explained.


surely believes that the Ptolemaic astronomy has been refuted and is not merely discarded as lacking the neatness of the Copernican theory. I am quite certain that he believes in oxygen as a gas and in the process of oxidation and not in the exploded “phlogiston” theory. He does not accept the circulation of the blood on faith, he knows that it is a fact. He knows that the major theories of his own science, chemistry, give a view of what really lies behind experience and thus explain why things behave as they do. But Polanyi is prepared to subvert his own science in order to rehabilitate religion, even if in order to do so he must drag science back into the crudest obscurantism.

How intellectual integrity is thus subverted by the “will to believe” becomes clear when he confesses explicitly just what his motive is in arguing in this way. “Fundamental beliefs”, he says, “spring from the political will, the will to accept, sustain and support the type of society which is felt to be in danger.” This “will to believe” produces the beliefs necessary to uphold such a society. We must recognise “the connection between the kind of society we want and the kind of beliefs we have to hold in order that society, may be able to exist”.

And yet Marxists are reproached for pointing out that ideologies are created to defend the interests of social classes, and are not the result of a disinterested search for truth!

This whole conception of “belief” is, of course, pragmatic. The very conception of objective truth has gone. These people do not really believe. They only believe that they have the right to believe what they believe. It is necessary for us to hold such systems of belief, they say. The validity of belief lies in their continuing to work. There is an authoritative need to believe the things that are necessary to the human mind. But surely one of those necessities is precisely a belief in objective truth. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.


2. Professor Broad and Psychical Research

A great deal of light is thrown on contemporary, philosophy as we find it in the analytical or positivist school of Moore, Broad, Russell and Ayer by the attitude of Professor Broad to psychical research. [1]

Broad enunciates certain basic principles, mostly of a negative or restrictive kind, which lay down the limits of material phenomena. E.g. 1, A body cannot enter or leave a closed vessel as long as the walls are intact. 2, The weight of an object at the earth’s surface cannot be altered except by immersing it in fluids of various densities. 3, A human mind cannot directly initiate or modify the motion of any material thing except certain parts of its own organism, such as its arms and legs, and so on. He then proceeds to say that if anything really contradicts these principles, and does not merely appear to do so, we are confronted with the miraculous. Broad regards telepathy and certain other “paranormal” phenomena as well attested, and finds in this breach of his basic principles evidence of the supernatural and therefore of the possibility of human survival after death.

He proceeds to, advance the hypothesis of a psychic factor acting along with but independently of the brain. There is nothing against it “except a superstitious objection to dualism”; and it leaves open the possibility “that these debatable phenomena are genuine.” In that case the brain is not an organ productive of thoughts, for it is the psychic factor that thinks and is capable of remembering everything. The brain acts as a kind of sieve; its function is elimination; it keeps us from being overwhelmed and confused by irrelevant knowledge.

Broad finds here a slender foothold for the re-establishment of religion. “Ordinary human nature abhors a vacuum, and it will not for long rest content without some system of emotionally toned and unverifiable apocalyptic beliefs for which it can live and die and persecute and endure. When I contemplate communism and fascism, the two new religions. . . .

1 Broad, The Mind and its Place in Nature and Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research.


I appreciate the concluding lines of Mr. Belloc’s Cautionary Tale about the boy who ran away from his nurse in the zoo and was eaten by a lion. ‘Always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding Something Worse’.”

If by chance any misguided seeker after religious consolation should grasp at Broad’s outstretched hand he might be advised to ask himself whether the case for religion is really helped by arguments of this kind. If the philosophy of Plato, the arguments of scholastic theologians, the mystical ecstasies of Juliana of Norwich, the meditations of Traherne and the metaphysical speculations of theistic philosophers need to be verified by the predictions of American undergraduates in the matter of the fall of a card or of dice, then religion must indeed be in a very poor way. Such levity lies beyond any useful comment. If any such seeker should grasp such proferred help he would find himself in the position of those who thought that quantum physics helped with the problem of freedom of the will—out on a limb. Professor A. E. Heath rightly says of such thinking, “I have an uneasy suspicion that a great deal of the contemporary interest in these things comes from undercurrents of human feeling and not from objective concern with unusual statistical results.”

Professor Broad reveals an amazing blindness to science. Would not any honest investigator say of data which did not fit into his “basic limiting principles” either that the data were wrong, as has often enough been the case, or statistically inaccurate as to their correlation, or else that subsequent developments of science itself will account for them? Radio, X-rays, vitamins, hormones, bacteria and a thousand phenomena once inconceivable and totally inexplicable are now comprehended within the orbit of natural science, yet they could all have been attributed quite easily to the supernatural.

If the negative and restricting principles of former days, which might well have included action at a distance, the impenetrability of opaque surfaces to rays and so on, had been

11 Professor A. E. Heath in The Rationalist Annual, 1948.


invoked rather than altered, then wireless sets would be evidences of the supernatural and a gateway to paradise.

Any scientist could knock Broad’s restrictive principles to pieces in five minutes; and if further principles were formulated could they be anything more than milestones in the advance of science to ever new frontiers?

Still more amazing is Broad’s conception of the brain as an eliminative organ behind which lies a non-material thinking substance. The dependence of thoughts on the brain is so completely established and so well substantiated by neurological research that any denial of it simply rules the objector out as hopelessly ignorant of modern science.

We are back at the outworn dualism of Descartes (only something even more preposterous, for Descartes would never have made the brain an instrument of thinking) which has been described by Professor Gilbert Ryle as the myth of “the ghost in the machine.” “There is thus a polar opposition between mind and matter, an opposition which is often brought out as follows. Material objects are situated in a common field, known as ‘space’, and what happens to one body in one part of space is mechanically connected with what happens to other bodies in other parts of space. But mental happenings occur in insulated fields, known as ‘minds’, and there is, apart maybe from telepathy, no direct causal connection between what happens in one mind and what happens in another. Only through the medium of the public physical world can the mind of one person make a difference to the mind of another. The mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe. People can see, hear and jolt one another’s bodies, but they are irremediably blind and deaf to the workings of one another’s minds and inoperative upon them.

“Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle.”

1 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind.


Broad’s dualism has led him, on the one hand, to speculations on spiritualism and on the other to a complete failure to apply scientific thought rigorously to the world and society. Broad as a logician is more interested in discussing the meaning of a sentence than whether it correctly represents objective reality. Like the whole tribe of contemporary British philosophers, he has abandoned the search for what he does not know and concentrated his attention on finding out the meaning of sentences dealing with what he knows already. This has the advantage of leading to great precision in the use of language, but the disadvantage of ceasing to find anything to say. When philosophers have nothing to say they talk about language. The consequence of this is that the real world is left unexamined and uncriticised, in which case the philosopher may well betray an incredible naiveté about contemporary life or simply echo the typical clichés and conventional judgments of his class. On the other hand, he may feel emboldened to speculate about those problems on which critical thought has nothing to say. This may lead him to a crude belief in “the Ghost in the Machine” and ultimately to still cruder beliefs about ghosts.

This becomes abundantly plain when one turns to Professor Broad’s latest book, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research. For the philosophical argument is sandwiched with political judgments of the most reactionary type; taut logical discussion is followed by a defence of Munich, sneers at the workers for demanding “higher wages for less effort”, the usual slanders about slave camps in Russia, and expressions of contempt for democracy. Discussion on psychical research and the evidence for the supernatural leads on to the statement that the word “imperialism” is an emotive noise used to express or to evoke an unfavourable reaction, but on the same page, [1] with a logical inconsistency unworthy of so acute a mind, he tells us that the world was a wonderful place under the imperialisms of Rome and Britain in their heyday. And then this piece of cynicism, just to show how analysis purifies

1 loc. cit., p. 280.


and uplifts the mind: “The world is safest for decent humane people at those rare and transitory conjunctions when a temporary equilibrium between the claims of God and Mammon has been brought about by the statesmanlike good sense of Belial.” [1]

We are told that while Washington is no more than a Home for Retarded Adolescents, submission to its rule is a lesser evil than surrender to Communism, and armaments, at whatever sacrifice, offer the only chance of preventing Soviet aggression, though “I do not pretend to think that even so there is more than a slender chance of avoiding a third world war in the near future.” [2]

And then the usual social defeatism. “I cannot understand how anyone with an adequate knowledge of physics, biology, psychology and history can believe that mankind as a whole can reach and maintain indefinitely an earthly paradise.” [3]

Idealists and supernaturalists are all eager to assume, firstly, that man unaided by Divine Grace can never do anything worth while, and then that scientific humanism always ends up in a loss of values, a bloody anti-humanism, a trend to slavery, because it is centred on man and not God. An intrinsically sceptical, cynical and pessimistic view of human nature is at the bottom of this. The view that all human nature is somehow thoroughly corrupted and that mankind is collectively and individually in a fallen state is the only ground upon which there can be urged the necessity of redemption by supernatural means. There is no other basis on which to erect the superstructure of philosophical idealism or supernatural theology than this pessimistic view of human nature. This is the way out, and the only way out except a futile optimism, if the evils of society in decay dare not be shown to arise from a class society in dissolution.

3. Philosophy in Retreat

Meanwhile the idealism of our British universities increasingly takes the emasculated form of pre-occupation with the

1 loc. cit., p. 180.

2 loc. cit., p. 277.

3 loc. cit., p. 114.


discussion of language and logic. The result on their pupils and themselves is pure scepticism, combined with a complacent delight in the mastery of their parlour game. Book after book appears, and each is more unintelligible and more completely divorced from real life than the last. Thought for these philosophers is no longer the grand instrument with which man may liberate himself from slavery to nature and social oppression, but a technique to ensure that anyone who tries to do so should be ensnared in verbal contradiction and so brought to heel.

“The realist philosophers who adopted this new programme were all, or nearly all,” says Collingwood in his Autobiography, teachers of young men and young women. Their pupils, with habits and characters yet unformed, stood on the threshold of life; many of them on the threshold of public life. Half a century earlier, young people in that position had been told that by thinking about what they were doing, or were about to do, they would become likely on the whole to do it better, and that some understanding of the nature of moral or political action, some attempt to formulate ideals and principles, was an indispensable condition of engaging creditably in these activities themselves.” Our contemporary philosophers on the other hand “were proud to have excogitated a philosophy so pure from the sordid taint of utility that they could lay their hands on their hearts and say it was no use at all; a philosophy so scientific that no one whose life was not a life of pure research could appreciate it, and so abstruse that only a whole-time student, and a very clever man at that, could understand it. They were quite resigned to the contempt of fools and amateurs. If any differed from them on these points, it could only be because his intellect was weak or his motives bad.”

Their pupils were told that they must not expect philosophy to be concerned with ideals to live for and principles to live by. The inference was that “for guidance in the problems of life, since one must not seek it from thinkers or from thinking, from ideals or from principles, one must look to people who


were not thinkers (but fools), to processes that were not thinking (but passion), to aims that were not ideals (but caprices) and to rules that were not principles (but rules of expediency). If the realists had wanted to train up a generation of Englishmen expressly as the potential dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics, commerce or religion, who should appeal to their emotions and promise them private gains which he neither could procure for them nor even meant to procure them, no better way of doing it could have been discovered.” [1]

The barrenness of such philosophising is well shown by the attitude of these philosophers in the pre-war years to the political debates which were then raging. They were asking us what we meant by such words as “democracy” or criticising as meaningless such statements as “fascism is a menace to civilisation.” Today we need not be told that these words were precisely the kind most pregnant with meaning. The willingness of men to fight for such ideas has proved no less conclusive proof of their significance than certification by analytical philosophers.

Analysis would appear to be a “sour grapes” philosophy, rationalising its own inability to think things through by denying that unsolved problems exist; or more likely a deliberate abstraction of the mind from reality under the cloak of sharpening the instrument of reason, thus diverting thought from dangerous problems.

In either case thought is banished, and prejudice, superstition and dogmatism take its place.

4. Professor Dingle and the Poets

In a recent lecture to the P.E.N. Club on “Poetry and Science”, Professor Dingle declared that even if there had been strained relations between them in the past there is no longer any need for this. The conflict arose because “at that time it was thought that there was a real external world, the truth about which was being increasingly found out by the

1 Collingwood, Autobiography.


scientists”, [1] but the philosophical background has altered and this is no longer believed. “Science is the organised description of the relations between experiences; poetry, the expression of the experiences themselves.”

Thus when a surgeon is operating for a septic appendix he is not really penetrating with his instruments that part of the external world which is his patient’s body, to get hold of a very real and a very nasty infected organ and remove it, he is operating on “experiences.” What we know, Dingle says elsewhere, is really “the whole content of consciousness . . . knowing a physical object is simply forming the conception of a physical object which correlates certain experiences. . . . What we know immediately is experience; the world of material objects is what we (rightly or wrongly) infer from it.”

Thus whatever field we are concerned with, whether it be science, or religion, or poetry, we have nothing to go on but subjective experiences. The scientist orders these in his own way, but he no longer accepts the world of material objects. Religion organises other elements of our experience and is just as valid as science. Science cannot explain away any experience as the phantom of a diseased mind. (On the contrary it does. It distinguishes between sane thinking on the one hand and delusions and hallucinations on the other). If we take the world of material objects as real, then by contrast religious experiences may be purely subjective; but by making experiences of physical objects subjective we make religious experiences as valid as those of the physical world. Thus the poet or theologian has just as much justification for creating a world picture that will interpret his experience as the physicist has for creating a world picture that will interpret his.

It does not seem to have occurred to Professor Dingle that this intense subjectivism places on the same plane the findings of science, the experience of the mystics, the paranoiac delusions of Hitler, and the escapist illusions of the self-deceived.

1 Report of a Discussion on Poetry and Science, Nature, Jan. 16, 1954.

2 Dingle, The Scientific Adventure.


Ethical values become what “we” feel to be authoritative; “but for other people quite opposite values may be just as certain. Since on his philosophy no way can be found for deciding on such a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one of objective truth. As Bertrand Russell puts it, “When we assert that this or that has value, we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact that would still be true if our personal feelings were different.”

Thus subjectivism leads to personal intuition as the sole criterion of truth. But as E. M. Forster remarked, “The man who believes a thing because he feels it in his bones is not really very far removed from the man who believes it on the authority of a policeman’s truncheon.” In both cases the belief is fundamentally irrational and has no basis in intellectual conviction.

Are we then to try to be rational about our beliefs or are we to give up the effort? If we are to be rational we must submit our religious and ethical beliefs to severe scrutiny and, in spite of Professor Dingle, find out how to explain away those experiences which are phantoms of the diseased mind. The alternative is not the disinterested acceptance of supernatural truth, but uncritical belief, that is, credulity. Philosophy began precisely in the separation of rational enquiry from emotionally held intuition. Philosophy has ever since been unwilling to exalt convictions which are merely “experienced” to the level of convictions which can be shown to be reasonable. Hence when Dingle comes to us to display his talents, we are tempted to treat him as the citizens of Plato’s Republic treated the poet, paying him reverence as a sacred, admirable and charming personage, but sending him away to another city, where his inspiration will no longer lead us astray.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Irrationalists. London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 1955. Chapter 8: Witchcraft and the Professors, pp. 72-83.

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