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Copyright © 2003 by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. All inquiries should be addressed to Transaction Publishers, Rutgers-The State University, 35 Berrue Circle, Piscataway, New Jersey 088548042. This book is printed on acid-free paper that meets the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials. Library of Congress Catalog Number: 2002073210 ISBN: 0-7658-0136-1 Printed in Canada Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
This book is dedicated to the victims of September 11, 2001.
Stove, D. C. (David Charles) On enlightenment I David Stove; edited with an introduction by Andrew Irvine; with a preface by Roger Kimball. p. em. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-7658-0136-1 (alk. paper) 1. Enlightenment. 1. Irvine, A. D. II. Title. B802576 J90-dc21 2002 20020732]0
"I cannot help feeling that rational thought, 'the calm sunshine of the mind: has a light to exist, as well as madness; and even that it has some right to be heard (though I admit that that is more debatable), It is, in any case, a necessity oflifejor some people, "... [But] given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win. You could as reasonably expect a thousand unbiased dice, all tossed at once, all to come down Jive: say. There are simply far too many ways, and easy ways, in which human thought can go wrong. 0/; put it the other way round: anthropocentrism cannot lose. The jungle will reclaim the clearing ..." =David Stove, "What is Wrong with Our Thoughts?" (1991)
The Columbus Argument
There might be good arguments for being anti-conservative in particular circumstances. But are there any good arguments for being anti-conservative in all circumstances? If there are, they would clearly have to be very general arguments: general enough to be philosophical, or at least to be of interest to philosophers. There has only ever been one very general argument for anticonservatism, as far as I know, and it is not a good one. But it is one which has been so widely thought good that hardly anyone in the last 150 years, touched at all by education, can have entirely escaped its influence. I call it the "They All laughed at Christopher Columbus' Argument," and for short "the Columbus argument." It goes as follows: "Throughout almost all of human history, people who have opposed innovations, whether in belief or in behavior, have met with hostility. Death, or persecution, or prison, or at best neglect, has been the regular reward for their efforts. Yet whatever improvements have actually been made in human life, either in our opinions or in our practice, have depended, and must always depend, on some innovator in the first place. We ought, therefore, not merely to tolerate, but to welcome,innovators." The germ of the argument goes back to Socrates' suggestion, when on trial for his life, that he actually deserved, not death, but a life pension from the state for the moral and intellectual stimulation he had given it. But the modern locus classicus is, of course, John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty (1859). And the argument in the form which Mill gave it (which is essentially as I have given it above) has swept the world. With every day that has passed since Mill published it, it
This essay first appeared in 1987.--Ed. 149
The Columbus Argument
has been more influential than it was the day before. In the intellectual and moral dissolution of the West in the twentieth century, every step has depended on conservatives being disarmed, at some critical point, by the Columbus argument: by revolutionaries claiming that any resistance made to them is only another instance of that undeserved hostility which beneficial innovators have so regularly met with in the past. Mill's essay did not go unanswered in its own time. Some conservatives saw clearly enough both the dangerousness, and the weakness, of the Columbus argument. The best reply to On Liberty was Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1878), a book by J.P. Stephen (Leslie Stephen's brother and hence Virginia Woolf's uncle). The contest was very unequal intellectually: Stephen made mincemeat of Mill. But, historically, his book soon vanished without a trace, while Mill's essay continued its all-conquering career. We need no books to teach us now how dangerous the Columbus argument is: we have as our teacher instead the far greater authority of experience-experiences nombreuses et funestes (as Laplace said in another connection). For "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus" led, by a transition both natural and reasonable, to "It's an outrageous proposal, but well certainly consider it." That in turn led, naturally enough to "We must consider it because it's an outrageous proposal." And this in turn has brought us to the uncontrollable violence and irrationality of life in the free countries in 1987. People who have surrendered, in their own minds, the right to deride ideas however absurd, or to repress conduct however vicious, are (as the vulgar in Australia say) history. As to the weakness of the Columbus argument, it is perfectly glaring. No doubt it is true that, for any change for the better to have taken place, either in thought or in practice, someone first had to make a new departure. But it is equally true that someone first had to make a new departure in order for any change for the worse ever to have taken place. And there must have been at least as many proposed innovations which were, or would have been, for the worse as ones which were, or would have been, for the better. But if in the past bad innovations have been at least as common as good ones, then we have at least as much reason to conclude that we ought to discourage innovators in the future as to conclude that we ought to encourage them.
How did an argument so easily answered ever impose upon intelligent people? Easily. It was simply a matter of ensuring what Ludwig Wittgenstein (in another connection) called a one-sided diet of examples. Mention no past innovators except those who were innovators-for-the-better. Harp away endlessly on the examples of Columbus and Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno, Socrates and (if you think the traffic will bear it) Jesus. Conceal the fact that there must have been at least one innovator-for-the-worse for everyone of these (very overworked) good guys. Never mention Lenin or Pol Pot, Marx or Hegel, Robespierre or the Marquis de Sade, or those forgotten innovators of genius to whom humanity has been indebted for any of the countless insane theories which have ever acquired a following in astronomy, geology, or biology. There is no weakness in the Columbus argument which cannot be more than made up for by a sufficiently tendentious choice of examples. In fact, of course, innovators-for-the-worse have always been far more numerous than innovators-for-the-better: they always must be so. Consider the practical side first. Do you understand television sets well enough to be able to repair a non-functioning one or to improve a malfunctioning one'? Probably not: very few do. And if you, being one of the great majority, nevertheless do set out to repair or improve a TV set, it is a million to one, because of the complexity of the thing, that you will make it worse if you change it at all. Now human societies, at least ones as large and rich as ours, are incomparably more complex than TV sets, and in fact no one understands them well enough to repair or improve them. Whatever some people may claim, there are no society repairmen, as there are TV repairmen. So if anyone gets to tryout in practice his new idea for repairing or improving our society, it is something like billions to one that he will actually make things worse if he changes them at all. Of course it is possible that he will make things better, but that is trivially true: it is possible, after all, that a furious kick will repair your ailing TV set. The same holds for innovations in belief, at any rate in sciences like physics and chemistry; for those are intellectual structures of a size and richness comparable with our social structures. Even there, of course, it is always possible that a heretic or an amateur is right and the scientific establishment wrong. But then, possibility is cheap, as I have just pointed out: the thing is extremely improbable, that's
The Columbus Argument
all, and you would be extremely irrational to believe it in any given case. Physicists and chemists rightly try, therefore, to maintain a professional organization and a screen designed to exclude the teeming would-be Columbuses whose letters begin, "I do not have a science degree, but ... ." In less advanced sciences, of course, the situation is proportionately different. And by the time you corne to the festering slums, such as sociology and anthropology have now become, the situation is quite reversed. There, almost any innovation would be for the better, and the rankest amateur, if he could get his foot in the door, would be sure to raise the tone of the place out of sight, morally of course but even intellectually.
Here, then, is a sufficiently curious sequence of events. A philosopher publishes an argument in favor of welcoming innovations. This argument is so bad that, on its own, it could hardly have deceived a child of ten. Supplemented, however, by a tendentious selection of examples, this argument sweeps the world, and does more than anything else to bring about the present internal dissolution, and external irresolution, of free countries. Yet some people think that philosophers, and cheap tricks of argument, do not matter.
Mill pleaded in On Liberty for the widest variety of what he chose to call "experiments in living." The phrase was a sickeningly dishonest attempt to capture some of the deserved prestige of science for things which had not the remotest connection with science; principally-need I say?-certain sexual and domestic arrangements of a then novel kind. Certain respectable people had dropped him, because of his irregular association with Mrs. Harriet Taylor, and Mill thought that this showed clearly the need for a whole new, and more open-minded, philosophy of life. Not much more than that: he would probably have been horrified even by something like the Oneida Community. Yet only sixty-odd years before Mill wrote On Liberty, certain more momentous "experiments in living" had been performed on France, by the Babeufs and the Robespierres. And even while he wrote, the Marxes, Bakunins, etc., were filling Europe with their announcements of the far more drastic "experiments in living" which they were preparing. It is idle to say that Mill could not have foreseen what these things portended: other people could and did foresee what they portended, and no one in England knew what was happening in Europe better than Mill did. The longer he Iived, the more his writings worked to the advantage of the socialist "experiments," even when (as in the case of On Liberty) they were not intended to do so.