Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Secondhand Knowledge

It has become a sort of fashion amongst an influential class of writers to depreciate the importance of all knowledge except that which is derived from a scrupulous and laborious study of the original sources of information upon particular subjects. Mr. Froude's well-known essay on the course of instruction given at Oxford, in which he recommended that students of English history should acquaint themselves minutely with portions of the Statute Book and other original authorities, instead of reading histories like Hume or Lingard, is as good an illustration of this fashion as any other. It is not difficult to understand, or, to some extent, to sympathize with, the feelings in which it originated; and, no doubt, when kept within proper limits, the suggestions which it prompts are wise. It is perfectly true that there is much more to be known upon any subject than any one book contains; and it is also true that, when a man writes the history of a country, he writes from the point of view and under the influence of the feelings of his own time and country, so that most histories fail to bring before the mind of the reader the real characteristics of the times and persons to which they refer. All this, abundantly amplified and illustrated, has become commonplace; and it may be taken as true to this extent—that a profound study of any subject is likely to bo more instructive and to be, in many respects, a better discipline for the mind, than a general acquaintance with it derived from summaries. A man could discipline his mind more effectually by studying the whole range of Greek literature than by reading Mr. Grote's History of Greece; and it may be true that the existing plan of studying the classics at the universities is better for the students than any plan for making them read, not the classics themselves, but books about them.

These considerations have been so much and so successfully dwelt upon of late years, that they have brought about several results which their authors probably did not foresee, and which are not in themselves desirable. There can be little doubt that they have contributed their full share to the growth of the pernicious habit which has so deeply infected several departments of literature, of dwelling upon details to an extent utterly disproportioned to their real importance. The notion that every detail which can be discovered respecting a dead man or a past generation must of necessity be instructive and important, is only a somewhat vulgar application of the principle that, in order to obtain any knowledge worth having, it is necessary to go back to original sources of information. From the fact that such sources usually abound in details, it is not very difficult for an inaccurate mind to infer that details share the dignity of original sources.

A more serious and more legitimate consequence of the same theory is to be found in the tendency which it sometimes produces, and generally encourages, to feebleness and timidity of thought. The tendency of our generation to exaggerate the importance of young people, and to look upon particular mental processes as good for every one, because they have advantages in respect of education, is discussed elsewhere.(See Essay XXI., "Juniores Priores," p. 191.) This habit of mind displays itself conspicuously in the slighting way in which it is customary to speak of the information to be obtained from summaries, such as histories or books which give the results of inquiry in any department of knowledge. A person who had not merely read, but had read carefully and with considerable intelligence, such a book as Blackstone's or Stephen's Commentaries, or works of a similar kind relating to medicine or to physical science, would be almost sure to be given to understand by professional lawyers, physicians, or scientific men, that his labour had been thrown away; and that, unless he gave up his whole time to studying the subject, he could never hope to be able to give an opinion upon any question relating to it.

In almost every department of thought, the process of the division of labour is being carried on so quickly that it seems by no means unlikely that we may at last arrive at a state of things in which the claim to any other sort of knowledge than a microscopic acquaintance with some particular department of some one branch will be regarded as an absurd presumption. It is difficult to imagine how calamitous this would be. The mere accumulation of knowledge in this form would have as little tendency to elevate and enrich the minds of its possessors, or to produce any broad and permanent advantages to society at large, as the collection of a vast number of masons and bricklayers would have to raise a palace. The great subjects which always engage the attention and attract the interest of mankind at large, are those which concern them as human beings, and relate to their religious, political, or social condition. It is, happily, impossible to treat these subjects in a purely professional manner. It is not possible to frame rules by the observation of which any man may make sure of succeeding in political life. Before a man can be a statesman, in any elevated sense of the word, he must take into consideration a great variety of subjects. He must have a real grasp of the principles of law, of history, and of political economy. He must understand and be able to sympathize with the leading feelings of his countrymen, and he must have knowledge of the world and of mankind. It would be physically impossible that any man should acquire all this knowledge at first hand, and yet, if each part of his knowledge is worthless, the whole must be so also. But this is not, in fact, the case, and therefore secondhand knowledge is, in this instance, not merely an instrument, but an indispensable instrument, for fitting men for some of the most arduous and important duties which they can have to discharge.

Probably this would not be disputed in regard to practical life; but its application to speculation is not so generally admitted. There are many persons who appear to think that a man is not entitled to be heard upon any speculative subject, unless he has collected,  by original inquiries, all the materials of his speculation. They will say, for example, that no one can be allowed to give an opinion upon a metaphysical theory unless he has qualified himself by reading all the principal metaphysical books which have been written from the days of Plato downwards. If he has not done so, what he may say will be met, not by an answer, but by a reference to some theory of the Infinite which either is or is supposed to be opposed to him. You have no right, it is said, to have an opinion as to the doctrines of Sir. W. Hamilton unless you have read all the books on which his opinions were founded or which they were meant to controvert. If, therefore, in pursuing inquiries upon other subjects, you find yourself involved in metaphysical difficulties, you must not presume to attempt to solve them, but must content yourself with collecting facts, and observing similarities in your own particular department.

No language is better calculated to discourage all the higher efforts of the mind than this, and there can be little doubt that it is sometimes designedly employed for this purpose. There are men who try to dissuade others from going to secondhand sources of information, and to confine them to the investigation of original sources, because they hope by that means to prevent them from arriving at conclusions which they dislike or dread. If a man is suspected of wishing to obtain metaphysical opinions in order that he may apply them to theology, and if another fears that the result may be unfavourable to his orthodoxy, there is an obvious reason for insisting upon the importance of his acquainting himself with all the theories of the Infinite that ever were written, instead of relying upon histories of philosophy, or other portable summaries. It will always be highly probable that long before the last theory of the Infinite is reached the inquirer will either have abandoned the subject in despair, or carried his doubts or his investigations to the next world.

In fact, no subject which relates to human affairs and human life can be investigated with any useful result, unless the premisses which support the conclusions ultimately reached are drawn from several different sources which no one mind can investigate from the bottom. It is this circumstance that gives their importance to histories and other works of the same kind. It is perfectly true that no summary, however exact and correct it may be, can put the reader on a level with the author; but it is equally true that no cultivated and intelligent man can read a really good book upon any subject with the general bearings of which he has some acquaintance, without deriving from it a great deal of knowledge and many reflections which he may use with confidence as the basis of further speculation. A man who had read with care Gibbon, Milman, Mosheim, and other works of the same kind, would have a very considerable knowledge of the circumstances under which Christianity has spread itself over great part of the world, and would be entitled to express a strong opinion as to the inferences which might be drawn from its history, although he had not explored all the original authorities upon the subject. Of course, great judgment is required in making use of such works. One principal difference in the way in which different people read and think is, that one man delivers himself over bound, as it were, hand and foot to the authorities to which he resorts, whilst another exercises a discretion as to what he will and what he will not believe. This is true even in the simplest of all cases, where the object is to determine what degree of credit is to be attached to the direct evidence of eye-witnesses, but the difficulty of the task increases progressively as the judge recedes from the transaction itself. If it requires discretion to say what consequence is to be drawn from the fact, that B asserts that he saw A, it requires far more to determine what is the value of C's assertion that B said he saw A; and where C is an historian, B a large number of chroniclers, polemical divines, poets, and letterwriters, and A a complicated series of events, the difficulty reaches its highest point.

Still, though the difficulty is great, it is one which a judicious man will be able to overcome by the exercise of proper caution, and by carefully restricting the statements which he makes, and limiting the inferences which he draws; and it is encouraging to see how successfully this is accomplished in many of the books which have produced the greatest effect on mankind. Such books have seldom been written by men of profound special learning, but rather by persons who, having filled their minds with knowledge taken up at second-hand, have known how to make one subject bear upon another, and have so been able to draw novel and important conclusions from premisses furnished by the investigations of others in their special departments. Many instances of this might be taken. For the purpose of illustration, one or two will be sufficient No one exercised a greater influence over his generation than Bentham. Yet no one was less entitled to the character of a man of great special learning. He was unquestionably possessed of wide information, and his information bore upon a variety of subjects; but the circumstance which gave him so much power over others was that, by seeing what it was that his information proved, and by reflecting boldly and vigorously on the principles of the subjects with which he concerned himself, he was able to elaborate clear theories, and to connect those theories closely and effectively with practical results. If he had eschewed secondhand knowledge and devoted his life to original investigations, he would have accomplished much less. Another instance is afforded by a writer of a very different character—Bishop Butler. The Analogy, though it bears the traces of a wonderful amount of thought, and of a certain sort of study, is not a learned book in the sense in which Gibbon's or Warburton's works are learned. It conveys the notion that its author had studied, and had weighed, with extraordinary patience, all the theories of his day which appeared to him to require an answer, and it is difficult to say what amount of reading may not have contributed to the fulness of mind which the book displays; but parts of it are obviously borrowed from the results of the inquiries of others—for example, the summary of the prophetical and historical evidences of Christianity in the second part.

Such instances as these—and many others might be added—prove that it is not the exclusive province of men of great special learning to instruct mankind; and that when they do so, their labours result in something more valuable than the supply of casual reading to persons whose opinions are of little importance, or of indexes for future students like themselves. Their books are useful in many ways, but especially as materials for men whose strength lies in thinking rather than in reading, and in combining the conclusions of several branches of study rather than in minutely investigating any one.

Saturday Review, December 1, 1860.

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