Psychology and Reason

The Criterion: A Quarterly Review 9 (July 1930): 606-617.

It is apparent to the unprejudiced eye that the popularity of any particular science and the respect paid to it are little less subject to the caprices of fashion than actresses and their frocks. For example, anyone who cares to look back into the more serious popular literature and the higher journalism of the period covering the turn of the century, and leading roughly up to the outbreak of war, will readily perceive looming up dimly behind it all a shadowy figure; and this figure, if he wishes to go into the matter a little more deeply, will gradually reveal itself to him as the science of Biology. Today, on the other hand, if we dip our little bucket of  observation into the same stream of popular controversy, as it flows above a certain level, we become aware of another and a different flavour; this time it is the science of Psychology.

Of course this assertion must not be taken with too sweeping a simplicity. All  efforts to  detect  and  mark changes in some such imaginary entity as ‘ public opinion’ or ‘ the general outlook’ suffer from this great drawback among others, that they are obliged to confine themselves to that section of the public which makes the most noise. Moreover, apart from  that  small  and  silent  portion of the thinking world, which prefers the cultivation of wisdom and repose to the breathless following of ephemeral  contemporary ‘ movements’, there are many  even among the noisy who show no signs as yet of transferring their allegiance from the old ’ology to the new. Mr. Wells still raises the standard of Biology in our midst and, behind it a small but devoted phalanx of Eugenists, with the Rev. W. R. Inge as chaplain and fugleman, marches truculently into battle. Nevertheless I hold the attempt to be worth making.

Psychology, including under that head Psycho-analysis, undoubtedly the science of the hour. It creeps in everywhere. We take it with our morning tea and have it again for supper before we go to bed. Or rather we take it in our tea – without knowing it. And that after all is the true test. For it is not so much that a vast number of articles on Psychology are actually written and read by the intelligent section of the public; but rather that this same science of psychology, itself invisible, is worn, like a pair of spectacles through which the rest of the world has to be seen, if it is to be seen at all. Ostensibly we are reading an article on, say, Economics, or Philosophy, or Social Reform, or Politics, or Education, or perhaps on the glory that is Selfridges, but if we attend a little more closely to our writer’s choice of words, we shall very soon detect the apparatus psychologicus as the underlying pigeon-hole system into which he has fitted his ideas. Nor does the apparatus always remain (if I, too, may enter the arena) ‘subconscious’ throughout. On the contrary: recently, when I have picked up a periodical and begun to read some article on anything less specialized than, say, turnip-hoeing or electrolysis, I have more than once caught my eye running instinctively down the page, looking for the name of Sigmund Freud. One feels one has a right to expect it. And it is surprising how rarely one is disappointed. The man is like King Charles’s head. I defy you to keep him out, though, as a matter of fact, I doubt if many people have actually read anything he has written. What is so important is that everybody thinks everybody else has; it is therefore impossible to discuss any subject of general interest without making it quite clear to the reader that you know what he would say.

Now there is no question here of ‘attacking’ Psychology or any nonsense of that sort. I wish only to consider one or two points in connection with its increasing popularity and a corresponding inevitable tendency toapply universally certain rather trite formulas, to erect, if I may say so, a complete, if vague, metaphysic upon them, to see all experience included in the circle of abridged Psychology instead of seeing Psychology included in the circle of all experience. In short, spectacles are a very fine thing – provided one is able to take them off.

As regards the popularization of the science then, one of the first things that strikes me is its ill effect on the ordinary conduct of discussion and argument. It does not seem to improve a man’s manners. The person with a true reverence for Psychology does not reply to his opponents’ arguments; he talks about them. He considers, not what you say, but why you say it. He does not give the reasons for his own point of view, but the causes of yours. You suggest tentatively that the square on the hypotenuse of a right­ angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides, and immediately you blush and wilt and your knees tremble as you feel his deep eyes penetrating right through to the dark unconscious motives which led you to make that absurd remark. After all, you say to yourself, if I am really that sort of self-deceiving noodle, it cannot be true. Or at least that is what you are intended to say to yourself.

Nor is it altogether a jesting matter. The method has penetrated too deep, and the very popularity of Psychology assures its devotees of an exceptionally wide hearing. Take for instance education. Most of us can remember employing the argumentum ad hominem (for that, after all, is what it is) ourselves, when we were at school. But then it used generally to be kept to the playground; as when Jones minor’s proposition ‘Your tie is crooked,’ was refuted by Robinson minimus’s objection, ‘You’ve got a face!’ But nowadays, apparently the same method is continued in the classroom. I do not know how far it is carried. Perhaps, when Jones minor shows up a mathematical proof that π=3·14158, the master replies, ‘Jones, that is emotion masquerading as  thought,’  or  ‘Come,  come, Jones, that sort of thing dates terribly you  know!’ I say I do not know. But judging by the stress laid on cheap Psychology in any of the teachers’ training-courses I have ever heard of – I should suggest that the thing is not impossible.

But the popularity of the psychological method of argument and instruction is itself only one aspect of a far wider movement, which has its origin a long way back in the historical evolution of our consciousness and is only now coming of age. The only name I can find for it is the Revolt against Reason. It will bear examining a little more closely.

It can hardly  be  without  significance  that  the  great social upheaval, which tore the crucifixes and altars from a hundred French churches and erected gimcrack wooden thrones to some hussy-goddess of Reason in their stead, should have derived some of its initial impulse from the apostle of a ‘return to Nature’.  Here, to begin with, we find these two things peculiarly close together, living indeed side by side in the same temperament – an extreme worship of Reason and intellect and on the other hand an extreme revolt against them.

Now in the history of modern Europe the first tendency – the worship of Reason – may be likened to the seed that fell on stony ground; it shot up rapidly and left its mark all over our civilization. The latter, on the other hand, needed deeper soil and plenty of time for its germination. It needed a Blake, a Wordsworth, a Fichte, a Nietsche, it needed a whole family tradition of romantic poets, working and dreaming away in the darkness, and misunderstood by the bulk of their fellows, before it could appear at last in its transmuted form under the light of common day. And now here it is all over the place!

Today we sneer at Romanticism – and are all romantic!  Only we prefer to say Psychologists. We think nothing real but the personality – and that not very. Everywhere we look it is the same story. Personality. Personality. Personality. Our historians spend the time they can spare from whitewashing the personal reputation of John Doe in blackwashing that of Richard Roe. Our biographies are cleverer and cleverer collocations of striking anecdotes designed to illustrate the romantic personal quality of the subject, and we are frankly bored if anything is said about the man’s work or his thoughts. For his thoughts, as we romantically hold, are mere romantic blossoms on the graves of his romantic love-affairs. All of us know that Milton was a disappointed husband, and that therefore he was the sort of man who would write a pamphlet on divorce. Which of us has read the Pamphlet? And that reminds me that literary criticism bids fair to become as bad an offender as any in this romantic-personal-psychological­-Gadarene rush down hill into intellectual chaos. The modern critic is no longer capable, it seems, of conceiving that a work of art has an existence of its own and apart from its creator. He is no longer capable of approaching it as an object in itself, per se, ἀυτό καθ᾽αὑτὸυ,and considering its value for all time. No, the cunning fellow must show you how the machine worked when it was produced, just what bits of personal experience went to the making of this metaphor and the other character, and so forth. Thus we are told by Mr. Robert Graves that ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is spelt F-a-n-n-y B-r-a-w-n-e – and according to Miss Rebecca West that is just the sort of thing that the good critic is there to tell us.

But I will not multiply instances; each of us can do that for himself. The question here is rather: what does it amount to? What does it signify, this perpetual, prurient prodding and probing back to the personality behind the idea? It signifies, first and foremost, that we have lost all sense of the reality of ideas. Thought – and indeed anything mixed with thought– we now feel to be no more than a shadow hovering over the surface of something more solid – ‘these thoughts’ (as the author of Trivia once put it) ‘dipped up from that phantasmagoria or phosphorescence which, by some unexplained process of combustion, flickers over the large lump of soft gray matter in the bowl of my skull.’ Today we are all Marxists, to this extent, that we feel a profound contempt for mere ‘ideology’. Only, unlike Marx, we do not all admit it or realize it. Yet, none the less, in our secret heart of hearts do we no longer believe knowledge of any sort to be possible. Ignorabimus! said Du Bois Reymond; and we have taken his word for it. The ancient philosophers felt confident that by investigating things, phenomena, they could acquire knowledge of these things. Modern philosophy (I mean that part of it which is generally recognized and spoken of as such by those who do not read it) ended with Kant in severing the knower from his universe and confining knowledge to the categories and forms of perception by which he schematizes for himself an unknown and unknowable cosmos. We have only carried this process one stage further, by not even believing in the objective reality of the categories. Now we are not even interested in the activity of knowing – only in the pitiful empirical personality of the knower. For we see ourselves as a community of somnambulists, ships that pass in the night, uncommunicative and that by necessity, each hopelessly imprisoned in a misty aura of his own phantasies, men like trees walking. Philosophy is dead.  Long live Psychology!

But are we right? Are we nearer to the truth than the ancient philosophers? Was it always this way and did they merely deceive themselves? Or is it we, who have, so to say, bombinated ourselves into these cocoons of dream and ourselves voluntarily shut ourselves off from reality? Does thought, does Reason, dwell in the things themselves, in the phenomenal world around us, so that we draw it thence, becoming one with the things in the act of thinking? I attempt no answer to these questions beyond  reminding the reader of an ancient rustic proverb, to the effect that ‘you  cannot  get  more  than  a  pint  out of  a  pint pot!’ Instead, I would merely like to offer a few simple maxims for the consideration of the amateur psychologist – that is to say, of nearly everyone – which may, it is true prove to have some bearing on the questions.

The maxim is this: that the antidote to excessive indulgence is development, not restraint. When the young psychologist feels that he is getting altogether too abstract, too intellectualistic; that he is taking logic too seriously and forgetting ‘ Life’, let him meet  the situation by – taking logic a little more seriously still! Only this time let him do so of his own free will. Suppose, for example, that certain ideas are put before him, which he regards as erroneous; instead of immediately detailing the ‘complexes’, ‘ulterior motives’, ‘disguised desires’,  ‘attempted adaptation to environment’ and so forth which gave rise to them, let him first of all consider those ideas on their own merits and in the light of pure Reason. Moreover, let him seek out the best and most rational expression of them, not contenting himself with a refutation of some flaw in the particular exposition which fate has thrown in his way. In this way let him gradually accustom himself to the notion that, if a proposition is really false, it can be proved so out of itself and irrespective of the fact that its originator yearns for it to be true or has indigestion.

Should the time eventually come when he feels he has fathomed the whole matter in its rational aspect and either detected the error or reduced the difference of opinion to an actual difference of intuition, then it may be a very good thing to delve down into the welter of frustrated impulses which, of course, lie behind the objectionable notion somewhere in his opponent’s bosom or bowels. Even now however, let him remember that it is possible to do this without immediately informing the world about it, certainly without telling the object of his investigations whom (as experience has no doubt already revealed to him) he is not at all likely to convince that way. The only thing it is necessary to make public is the logical error or difference of intuition itself. The causes which led up to that error are, to say the least of it, not his business.

This is the recommendation I would make to those members of the rising generation who feel that their analytical faculty has been getting, as Carlyle would say, too  ‘victorious’:  not  to  run  away  from reason  but  rather to try and outshoot her in her own bow. To carry the processes of analytical intellect to their logical conclusion may seem for the moment to destroy all the meaning of life.

Sweet is the lore which nature brings:

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things –

We murder to dissect.

Yet, if we have the will really to persist, the reward is unspeakably rich. For just in the intense and concrete experience of this fact – that analysis destroys meaning – we find ourselves generating the power to create and apprehend anew the very meaning which we have destroyed. This I know, is a hard saying. But it is true.

The Atoms of Democritus

sang Blake,

And Newton’s Particles of Light

Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,

Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Nevertheless, to flee the dry and sandy wastes of abstractionism and analysis in any other way than by walking on through them is simply to bring ruin about our ears. It is to exhaust the very element in which we swim and breathe. I said that we distrust, and in particular that the apostles of the revolt against Reason distrust, anything that is even mixed with thought. But what if everything is mixed with thought? Which is in fact the first and most important discovery that those who are not afraid of carrying intellectual analysis to its logical conclusion do make about the World. Nothing proves the existence of an ocean so conclusively as a walk to Land’s End. Like some impalpable ubiquitous medium, the Concept permeates all human experience, making it possible, as the air does life. It is as much ‘everywhere’ as the physicist’s ether, and to say so is to speak more than metaphors. For was it not just their losing sight of this omnipresence of Reason, in the older sense of the word, as the link and the only link between otherwise discrete and unintelligible phenomena that obliged the men of Science to invent that wonder working relic of natural magic, that ‘Un-ding’, that perfect Non-entity, which they still insist on classifying as physical phenomenon, while at the same time denying it every one of the attributes by which ‘physical’ is defined?

Indeed, in the long run it cannot fail to be necessary for science herself to recognize that mind, or reason, or whatever we choose to call it, is the primary medium. It comes first, not second.  All our experience as knowers is after all, and in whatever direction it is extended, whether towards the infinitely small or towards the infinitely great, no more than a congregation of thoughts and perceptions. This is something which Aldebaran through the new 100 inch telescope and my own grey matter through the last microscope share absolutely in common. And it is too often forgotten that the ‘tissues’ which the Behaviourist psychologist is fond of talking about, as if they were some final link between ‘ourselves’ and an ‘outside’ world, or indeed as if they were actually ourselves, are in fact quite as much the outside world as the stars. Else they would never have been susceptible of observation. Nor are the theories which the Behaviourist weaves about these tissues merely the Behaviourist’s behaviour. Or why does he believe them? You cannot reduce all thought to anecdote – and make an exception of that thought; you cannot reduce idea to behaviour and still take science seriously. Thus, for science herself to erect Psychology into some imaginary position anterior to Philosophy is to begin a hunger-strike which can only end in death.

Consequently I was interested to observe the pronouncedly psychological bias of most of the articles in a copy of The Realist, which I happened to pick up the other day. If I had thought it would be any use, I would have written to the editor, to warn him that the Ginnunga-Gap of the Unconscious is no doubt a fine place – a very fine place indeed – but it is certainly no place for the scientist. The thing becomes more and more painful, as one watches the sphere of human knowledge being more and more closely restricted. Its shrinkage from the Universe to the activity of knowing, and again from the activity of knowing to the personality of the knower: these we ourselves have witnessed and are witnessing. It only remains to carry the series one stage farther by restricting all discussion to the personality of the knower of the knower – for after all everything that he says, too, is determined by his Unconscious and his glands. Thus, the science of the future would consist of an interminable series of rival biographies of Messrs. Freud, McDougall, Jung, Herbart, and Adler! O altitudo!

But what does it all mean? Why has this revolt arisen, and why has it taken a hold so powerful that even science is seized with a curious passion to commit hara-kiri on her own door-step? The truth is, it is not Reason, it is not Mind, against which we are revolting. Of that we know nothing. It is what we ourselves with our complicated and contorted theory-spinning have made of Mind and Reason in the course of the last few centuries. We are not revolting against the Nous of which Aristotle speaks, the universal of universals, that which exists everywhere potentially and γίνετγαι κἕαστα – becomes each thing – according as each thing is known. Nor against the all-­pervading Intelligence of Dante, who could write in the Paradiso such a line as

Quanto per mente o per loco si gira

, ‘whatever revolves through mind or space.’  We are not revolting against these things, for the simple reason that we have no longer the remotest conception of their existence. What we are revolting against is the smug clockwork ‘Reason’ of the Essay on Man – a dead system of contentless ‘laws’ – a shadow or a ghost of Mind if you will but certainly not Mind itself.

I will conclude by drawing up, for convenience’ sake two parallel columns, merely prefacing that the proper names I shall put in them, are intended solely as a kind of shorthand with which to indicate two different types of consciousness. This arbitrary use of proper names involves, I know, a certain unfairness and an appearance of rather contemptuous criticism. That is not my object but it seems to be unavoidable. The first column, then: is headed Lumen siccum, only it must be conceived as very dry indeed – dry as the remainder-biscuit after a voyage. And underneath there are three entries, representing (for the purposes of this context) the same type of consciousness as manifested on three different intellectual planes. The entries are 1. Bertrand Russell, 2. Sydney Webb, and 3. Cross-Word Puzzles. The other column is headed Caligo humida – damp darkness – and the corresponding entries are 1. Sigmund Freud, 2. D. H. Lawrence, and 3. Jazz. Thus – on the one hand – intellectualism, emasculated and without content; on the other sensation without intellect, and indeed rather hostile to intellect.

It remains to point out that the two opposite elements, which are suggested by the two columns were formerly in some real sense an undivided unity, and that that unity was Reason, or Intellect, in the sense of a Plato, an Aristotle, or a Dante. Furthermore that it is only intellect of this kind which can ever be a medium of knowledge and the servant of wisdom. And the revolt against our so-called Reason has, to my mind, just this so much good in it, that it contains an obscure intuition of this very fact. Meanwhile, however, that which was formerly One has become and is emphatically and irreconcilably Two. And the physiologico-psychological jargon which, as from a massed battery of pea-shooters, rattles every day more

nerve-rackingly against our ears, is none other than their bastard offspring.

If I were asked what is needed, in order to stay the suicide of  science and with  it,  perhaps,  of  civilization, I should reply: a third type of  mind, a type for which  the conscious experience, both in feeling and in thought, of the polar antithesis between the other two, should itself be the determining quality. That sort of mind is worst needed, which can enter with enthusiasm into the dry realm of abstract  thought  and  analysis,  yet without  losing itself there, and which, on the other hand, can plunge down into  the formless  and  creative  darkness,  yet  without  a primitivistic self-surrender; which is rather, able, by weaving that darkness back again into the light, to freeze life itself into fresh forms. In this way it might yet be possible to attain to some genuine knowledge, as far from empty sciolism on the one side as from a mere anecdotal empiricism on the other. For there is indeed a kindly mother-wisdom, embracing soul and body alike, of which our encyclopaedias have nothing to tell and our Psychology and our Biology are but pitiful and pining ghosts. In this way Reason might still be reconciled with Nature, and the mourning Demeter win back her Persephone. In this way might the universal Mother fold her forlorn, lost, wandering children once more into the lap of the gods. Why, then – it may be asked – should she ever have let them go? The question points to the heart of the mystery of Three in One. It is not to be answered in the concluding paragraph of an essay.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.