Review of ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ by E. F. Schumacher

Anthroposophical Quarterly 22.4 (Winter 1977): 21-22

There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. Everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see. Every thought can be scrutinised directly except the thought by which we scrutinise. A special self-awareness is needed…

There are two different ways in which people may be prompted to begin acquiring that self-awareness. One, of which the best example I know is C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, is to take some typical utterance by a contemporary writer, whether scientific or literary, to expose by analysing them the fundamental presuppositions and basic assumptions that underly it, and then (if it be the case) to show how illogical they are in their reasoning and how pernicious in their effects. The other way is to begin by describing the world, as it must appear to any normal human being who approaches it without the presuppositions; then to contrast this description with the world-picture which the presuppositions have in fact brought about in the great majority of mankind; and out of that contrast to develop a detailed exposure and analysis. This is the method adopted by the book from which the passage above is quoted. And it is surprisingly successful.

Thus, it is simply a matter of experience that there are four Levels of Being, characterised by increasing inwardness at each level: mineral, plant, animal and man; and further that each higher level comprises everything lower and is open to influence from everything higher. It is equally clear that man comprises all four levels. “He is a physico-chemical system, like the rest of the world, and he also possesses the invisible and mysterious powers of life, consciousness and self-awareness.” Moreover, when it comes to knowing the world, each level of being is only available to a level of consciousness that corresponds or is superior to it. Our five bodily senses make us ‘adequate’, as knowers, only to the lowest, inanimate level of being. They can tell us nothing of life, consciousness and self-awareness, nor even of inanimate nature itself so far as that is penetrated by the higher levels, giving rise to form, pattern, rhythm, meaning and the like. Applied for example to such a common phenomenon as a printed book, they can tell us only its size, weight and the quantity of ink and paper comprised in it.

All this, Schumacher points out, was taken for granted by pretty well everyone up to three or four hundred years ago. By contrast the presuppositions and assumptions of today make it improper even to conceive of a hierarchical structure of being, in which the more inward is recognised as ‘higher’  and the more exclusively external as ‘lower’. Knowledge, if it is to be ‘scientific’, can never include knowledge of meaning or acknowledgement of values.

Proceeding to analysis, Schumacher distinguishes ‘instructional’ from ‘descriptive’ sciences. The former, being based on sense-perceptions alone, are adequate only to the lowest level; they simply instruct us how to manipulate matter regarded as inanimate; and the disastrous presuppositions by which the cosmology of the West in the 20th century has been shaped and determined have arisen from its stubborn insistence on seeking to apply to descriptive sciences the methods (notably verification and falsification by prediction and experiment) proper only to instructional ones, and then drawing all manner of reckless conclusions from the meagre evidence they afford concerning the real nature of the world and man. “What we have to deplore is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalising.”

The book, as its title indicates, is by no means exclusively concerned with the present state of science; it is however very much concerned with just that, for the simple reason that the average man of today looks to science for answers to all the great questions, such as What is the end of man? How is he related to the world he lives in? What must I do to be saved? How should my child be educated? It concludes with a brief and trenchant discussion of the necessarily descriptive (not instructional) science of Evolution, which has been degraded by the insistence above referred to into the Doctrine of Evolutionism, sometimes loosely referred to as ‘progress’. Concerning this the author’s analysis leads him to the following all too justifiable conclusions:

The Doctrine is generally presented in a manner that betrays, and offends against, all principles of scientific probity … It is one of the great paradoxes of our age that people claiming the proud title of ‘scientist’ dare to offer such undisciplined and reckless speculations as contributions to scientific knowledge – and that they get away with it! … Evolutionism is not science; it is a hoax that has succeeded too well and has imprisoned modern man in what looks like an irreconcilable conflict between ‘science’ and ‘religion’.

These are home truths on which the educated world is today very slowly and very sporadically beginning to open its eyes. How much time is left? It is gratifying to reflect that the author of that earlier work, whose title “Small is beautiful” show signs of acquiring the status of a familiar proverb, can be fairly sure of a substantial hearing for this admirable and badly needed little book.

Owen Barfield