Tuesday, September 20, 2016


We learn from the Latter-day Pamphlets that there is somewhere in the United States a lubberland, called Bunkum.  As might be expected of an American Utopia, it is distinguished from other mythical creations by the quality of its favourite stump oratory. The Bunkumites have an objection to fairness, to fulness, and to calmness—they like a man to be a good hater, and to have a fine flow of indignant language. They are fond of a portable fallacy, and have no objection to a crotchet if it is inconsistent, or to a paradox if it is neither new nor clever. But above all, they like cries and nicknames, and set the greatest price on those which lay the lightest tax on the memory and the imagination. Hence, "speaking to Bunkum" has become a standard phrase in the United States. It might, we think, be applied with advantage to a large school of writers and speakers in England. When we consider the number of hasty theories and questionable facts which are put forward on platforms and in pulpits, as being quite good enough for the audiences to which they are addressed, we wish that the “lamps of the temple" had the fear of Bunkum a little more before their eyes. They are, after all, men as well as lamps; and if they will thow up blacks instead of burning their camphine in a luminous manner, merely because those who sit under them are grimy, they must not be offended at a little friendly trimming at the hands of such of their disciples as are more or less accustomed to—let us say—composition candles. Just a month ago, we drew the attention of our readers to a lecture by Dr. Vaughan, the well-known Principal of the Lancashire Independent College, “On the Credulities of Scepticism," which appeared to us to be open to the imputation of dealing with a most important subject in a very shallow and hasty manner. Nothing was further from our intention than to treat the author—who has many well-known and undoubted claims to respect—with any want of civility. We merely wished to show what flimsy perfunctory thought a man of his acknowledged eminence thought good enough for the Christian Young Men's Association, and to point out the harm which such weak defences of a good cause were likely to produce. For this offence we have been taken to task with some severity, and a great deal of contempt, by a writer in the British Quarterly Review [April, 1856], who originally, “for reasons which we need not mention" (but which will readily be understood), had not intended to call attention of any sort to Dr. Vaughan’s publication, but who was moved to do so by “some scribbling, betraying more temper than intelligence.” In an amusing foot-note, this writer gives an account of us which we extract at length, as it contains information about the objects and origin of the Saturday Review which will, we doubt not, be new to our readers :—
‘This new periodical (a friend writes) owes its origin to a few young University-men, who have money to expend upon their hobby, whatever may be said of their wit. What they do, or get done, is meant to be done with surpassing cleverness. The intention, indeed, in this respect, is so obvious, that it defeats its own purpose. The politics of the paper are peculiar, especially as being those of, gentlemen so aspiring. They consist in a seventh-day worship of an old woman, known in the upper circles as Lady Aberdeen. From this cause, or some other, the circulation of the work does not, I suspect, answer expectation. I infer this from the fact that it is found necessary to hunt from week to week for some subject that may do for a spicy piece of personality, or for a free use of the tomahawk. This expedient is not new; but men who understand such matters generally construe it as a sign of distress. Unless, however, something much better is done in this way than is done by the reviewer of the Credulities of Scepticism, there is little room to think that this high-minded policy, so befitting gentlemen fresh from their academic bowers, Will be successful. Indeed, I should not be surprised to find some wag ere suggest that the unmeaning title—the Saturday Review—be taken down, and that the Slatternday be set up in its stead.
The reviewer is certainly a very bitter wag indeed, but his logic is far more merciful than his wit.  We objected to a remarkable statement in Dr. Vaughan’s lecture, to the effect that, if a man did not believe in a certain “substance or essence supposed to underlie all phenomena," he ought in consistency to walk out in the middle of the night as often as in the middle of the day. In our view of the subject, the two things had no sort of relation to each other. To disbelieve in the existence of matter is one thing—to believe that it is composed of particular elements is quite another thing. A disciple of Berkeley has just as great an objection to receive the impression of being knocked on the head, from that collection of impressions which, put together, make up what is commonly called a life-preserver, as the disciple of Reid has to be knocked down by the invisible, impalpable, imponderable essence in which the qualities of weight, solidity, blackness, flexibility, &c. &c., mysteriously inhere. In fact, the case of the idealist is, that it makes no more difference in practice whether you express the calamity in the technical language of the one or of the other theory, than whether you describe it in French or English. He says that either theory adapts itself equally well to the affairs of life, but that the one is encumbered with an unnecessary hypothesis from which the other is free. This was our argument. What is our reviewer's answer? “There are sceptics who may take exception to this language with justice, but can the same be said of others?"—and then he goes off to another point.

We had further objected to Dr. Vaughan's assertion that a man must be credulous who denies the existence of the “substans," because he believes that all mankind are mistaken. We replied, that such a man joined issue on the universal belief of mankind, as well as on the truth of the opinion. We asserted that the opinion was one entirely foreign to the thoughts of almost everybody', and that, in the present day, there was a preponderance of authority, amongst those who did think on the subject, against Dr. Vaughan's views. Now, the charge of credulity brought against the unfortunate and imaginary sceptic rests entirely on the supposition that he believes that all the world are mistaken. We plead that he does not believe that all the world are mistaken, inasmuch as he considers that the greater part of the world is totally without a theory on the subject. Dr. Vaughan's apologist replies, that the greater part of the world are (constructively) cognizant of the question, and answer it as he does ; but even if this is so, it is no reply to our plea. The "sceptic's" assertion as to what the world thinks is only is reason for not entertaining an opinion which would make him liable to the charge of credulity—the opinion that he is right, and the rest of mankind wrong. You cannot show that he is credulous unless you show that he does in fact hold the opinion which would prove him to be so-not that he ought to hold it. His reason for not holding it may be a bad reason; but unless he does hold it, you cannot charge him with credulity for holding it. "What a rogue you are," says a creditor to a debtor, “for repudiating Your debt." “I admit the debt, but I have paid it," says the debtor. “You do repudiate your debt," replies the creditor, “for you have not paid it." This is precisely the logic of Dr. Vaughan and his reviewer. “How credulous you are, to think that all the world is wrong in holding such and such opinions!" "I don't think the world is wrong, for I don't think it holds the opinions." “You are as credulous as ever, for it does hold them." At this rate, everybody is credulous who is mistaken.

We had asked Dr. Vaughan—as we are now informed, “with a great air of authority"——-Do you mean to say that when we take from a piece of paper colour, form, weight, and all its other properties, the essence of the paper remains? “If this question," responds the reviewer, “has any meaning as so put, it must mean that, when the paper qualities are taken away, nothing remains; the colour was the colour of nothing—the form, the form of nothing—the weight, the weight of nothing. The lecturer says that this is not the common belief, nor, in his judgment, the true one." This is, perhaps, as bungling a sentence as ever was written; for—not to dwell upon the ludicrous clumsiness of saying that a question means a statement—it contains a gross verbal fallacy, and a flagrant petitio principii. We affirmed that if weight, colour, form, &c., were taken from a piece of paper, nothing would remain. Then, says our critic, you must mean that these things “are the qualities of nothing." In just the same way, he might say—if you maintain that, after taking two shillings and sixpence from half-a-crown, nothing remains, you must mean that the two shillings and sixpence were the component parts of nothing. He does not perceive that, by assuming that the phrase “quality of paper" means that the quality sticks in the paper as plums stick in a pudding, he begs the whole question. What we affirmed was, that paper is nothing else than a compound of certain phenomena usually called qualities. Whether or not substance is implied by the use of the word “quality" is the very point at issue.

But the reviewer's quiver is not yet exhausted. “Suppose," he says, "the properties of matter, as they are called, to be the properties of nothing, what you have thus done with matter you may do with mind. Denude mind of its phenomena—its thought, memory, imagination, and so on— and you have nothing left. . . nihilism ensues." We are very much afraid that nihilism would ensue if any philosopher could deprive both mind and matter of their phenomena. One comfort is, that it would not make much difference whether it did or not. A universe of matter without qualities, and of mind without powers, would be, for all conceivable purposes, the same as none at all; but, inasmuch as we can neither accomplish the one process nor the other, we do not see the force of the observation. We can no more deprive the mind of its powers than we can deprive matter of its properties by asserting that, if deprived of them, it would, as far as we know, be destroyed. It is quite fair to ask a person who believes that the essence of any object is its “substans,” whether he believes in colourless, imponderable, and impalpable wood, or in a mind incapable of thought, feeling, imagination, or self~consciousness? But there is no more meaning in charging one who does not hold that opinion with destroying matter and mind, than there would be in asserting that a man destroyed St. Paul’s Cathedral because be doubted whether the dome was supported by a truncated cone of brickwork.

Dr.Vaughan's reviewer traces the path which ends in “nihilism” from the fountain. “First," we are told, “comes distrust of the senses." Our critic has tried his hand at answering some of our questions—will he answer a few more? Does he believe that the sun moves round the earth?—that a straight stick bends when it is put into the water?—that all external nature is a variously coloured plane surface?—that when he is tired or unwell, some one comes and sings in his ears?—that as soon as he has drunk a few glasses of port and sherry alternately, all wines taste alike?—that the toes of men whose legs have been cut off, often revisit them?—that bad smells go off after they have been inhaled for a few seconds? If he does not believe these things, does he not distrust his senses as much as any sceptic? and if so, where does he stop on the path to “nihilism?"

On the whole, we cannot feel that either Dr. Vaughan or his reviewer has succeeded in proving that a man who does not believe in a “substans” is necessarily an infidel, or that he is necessarily credulous, or that a man who sometimes distrusts his senses is bound to walk over cliffs, or that there is any human being who does not distrust his senses. But, as the reviewer says, “enough of these subtleties." We go on to a clearer charge against Dr. Vaughan and the writer who reviews him. "No one of course," says the reviewer, “pretends that all sceptics are credulous—but many of those who have propagated sceptical opinions about religion have been very credulous," and it is most important to deprive sceptics of the power which they exercise over the young in virtue of their supposed incredulity. If no one supposes that all sceptics are credulous, why did Dr. Vaughan say that credulity was "inseparable" from philosophical scepticism? Why did he attempt to deduce a regular catena of credulous sceptics, from Lord Herbert of Cherbury down to Andrew Davis? Why did he altogether omit to notice the fact that Hume and Gibbon were notoriously careful and accurate observers of facts, and as little likely to be imposed upon as any authors on record? Simply because he was speaking to Bunkum—because he thought any stone good enough to throw at an infidel—because be trusted in the noisy applause and clamour of the platform and of popular opinion as the proper guardians of Christianity, and not in the force of truth. He wanted to produce an effect, and to raise a cry, and therefore he preferred saying what made for his immediate purpose though it was bad philosophy, bad logic, and bad history—to attempting to convey to those who listened to him really sound information.

It is a painful thing to see a man of undoubted eminence in many ways writing and thinking so loosely, and misusing words so recklessly. We do not wish Dr. Vaughan or his reviewer to try to convert “sceptics,” as he calls them, but we do wish them not to pro agate amongst young men simply false and foolish accounts of “sceptics" opinions; and we a so wish them not to misuse the English language in so ignorant a manner as to call all persons “sceptics," or questioners, who agree only in denying the truth of Christianity. A sceptic, as everyone knows, is a man whose opinions are mere negative. The Mormonites, the believers in rapping spirits, Mr. Atkinson, who is, we believe, a dogmatic Atheist, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, who was a Deist, the Poughkeepsie Seer, who firmly believe, or professed to believe, his own revelations, are no more “sceptics" than Dr. Vaughan himself; and their credulity or incredulity throws no light at all upon the doubts of such men as Hume or Gibbon, or upon the habits of mind which lead to such doubts. The favourite argument of Dr. Vaughan and his reviewer, who most curiously resembles the object of his admiration, may be stated thus:——“I think that your belief leads to an absurdity— therefore you believe the absurdity—therefore you are credulous." And they apply it to the general question thus:— "Sceptics do not believe in Christianity—some persons, not being sceptics, do not believe in Christianity—some of the doctrines of sceptics are, in the opinion of some persons, susceptible of a reductio ad absurdum—some persons, being neither sceptics nor Christians, are grossly credulous—therefore all scepticism leads to credulity." Setting out to prove that all persons who are not Christians are fools, he arrives at the conclusion that some fools are not Christians. This may be very satisfactory Bunkum, but if there is a single Christian Young Man who as the most ordinary acuteness or curiosity, we will venture to say that he will derive, from such logic and such honesty as this, stronger arguments against the opinions which Dr. Vaughan and the British Quarterly profess, than any exposure of the absurdities of rapping spirits or Mormonites is likely to remove.

Saturday Review, April 12, 1856.

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