Thursday, December 1, 2016

French and English logic

Commonplaces of all kinds are amongst the most essential parts of our intellectual furniture, and they sometimes assume a degree of importance which makes it necessary to subject them to careful examination. Nothing has been more remarkable in the discussions which have lately taken place upon foreign and domestic affairs than the assumption, so frequently been made on one side of the Channel, and acquiesced in on the other, that there is a radical difference between the modes of argument—we might almost say the laws of thought—which ought to be recognised in France and England. The respective allegations which have been made have usually assumed some such shape as the following. France, we are told, is a country of logic—it is governed by logical instincts. A Frenchman may be right or he may be wrong, but at any rate he is always consistent, and is never without a why for his wherefore. In England, on the other hand, it is said that we do not know what general principles mean. We never assert them—we do not care for or understand them. We live in an atmosphere of compromises. Our law, our language, our Constitution—nay, our very creed—are compromises. We do not believe in truth and falsehood at all, and it is fortunate for us that we are indifferent to them, for we have no organs which would enable us to apprehend them except in the cases in which they assume a base, material, palpable form.

This is the way in which the contrast is usually presented by our Continental candid friends; but there is a school of English talkers and writers which echoes the same opinions in a shape very slightly modified. Theory and practice are, or very lately were, their standard words. Englishmen, it was said, were practical—Frenchmen theoretical. Our views of things were, no doubt, indefensible in theory; but then they came right in practice; and if so, all that could be said was, so much the worse for the theory. That our conduct in many instances is justified by the practical result is no doubt true; but the ignorant and scornful admission that theory is opposed to it rests on a very different foundation. These assertions are so frequently put forward, and exercise so wide, and in many respects so bad an influence over many minds in the present day, that we think it important to consider how far they are grounded in truth.

There unquestionably is a certain degree of ground for the assertion that the French are a logical people. They have a great deal of mental liveliness, and are generally much more anxious to put their opinions in a clear light than to get at the truth, They have, moreover, a language which is thin and clear. It deals very little in synonyms, or in those groups of words denoting minute shades of meaning which are so common in English.  Let any one, for example, try to translate the following into French:—
I have been joyful gathering gear,
I have been happy thinking,
I have been blithe with comrades dear,
I have been merry drinking; 
or this:—“plumes are made of feathers, pens are made of quills.” It is, moreover, unquestionably true, though the remark suggests a very wide discussion, that the scheme upon which French composition is framed is far simpler than that which prevails here. Sentences of six words and paragraphs of five lines do not, for a variety of reasons, suit our national taste; and these circumstances, no doubt, give to French writers and thinkers an air of logical consistency and precision which is often wanting in our own countrymen.

These, however, are but external reasons for a distinction which is unquestionably far more deeply seated. The position which the great French writers occupied, and the education by which their minds were formed, were very different indeed from those which have determined the character of English speculation upon all the great subjects of thought — upon theology, politics, history, and literature. The powerful and systematic organization of the Roman Catholic Church and theology exercised a deep influence over many of their most remarkable men, and its influence was exerted exclusively on the side of systematic authority as opposed to individual speculation. The vast influence which kings and emperors have exercised in France for the last two centuries, and the plan of doing things not by degrees, but by violent jerks, which has been favoured by the strength of some and the weakness of other political parties, have united, with various other influences which it would be easy to enumerate, to impress a certain peremptory and definite form upon many departments of French thought; but though it is true that in this sense, and to this extent, the French may deserve the name of a logical nation, we believe it is altogether untrue that they deserve it in any sense whatever which would entitle them to regard the English as intellectually their inferiors. French logic very often—perhaps generally—means little more than an unlimited capacity for making gratuitous assertions in pretentious language; and, indeed, when the phrase is used in connexion with political discussion, it generally has that meaning. Very big phrases, even if they have the advantage of being used consistently with other phrases of a similar kind, prove nothing as to the logical power of those who use them; and we must own that a great part of the talk which we hear so often about the providential destinies, the “unitary tendencies,” and the natural limits of France appear to us to be just about as wise as Mr. Disraeli's Territorial Constitution and his great Asian Mystery.

It is, however, against the negative application of the phrases in question that we protest most emphatically. Whatever claims the French may have to logical power, we entirely deny that the English are deficient in it. In the first place, it is by no means the case that a priori reasoning on political and social subjects is an unfamiliar thing in English literature. It is perfectly true that the habit has fallen into discredit of late years, but if any one will look back a very few generations, he will find that English writers could, and did, use abstract terms, and argue from first principles which they asserted to be everlasting and self-evident truths, as fluently as any Frenchmen whatever. During the whole of the last century this method was in use in this country upon all sorts of subjects, and especially on theology, morals, and politics. Adam Clarke's “demonstrations” of the existence and attributes of God —Warburton's “demonstration” of the Divine Legation of Moses—the speculations on the law of nature and nations which are to be found in all the writers of the time upon law and morals, and of which the works of Blackstone and Paley furnish many well-known instances—and, above all, the theory of the rights of man first put into explicit shape by Paine, and afterwards transplanted into France, and worshipped under the name of the Principles of 1789, as a sort of embodiment of the logical genius of the French nation—are a few proofs of the fact that, if there is any particular credit in being able to argue upon broad principles, the English are as fully entitled to it as any other nation in the world. The simple truth is, that we are beginning to outgrow the folly of setting up mere phrases for the purpose of worshipping them. Speculation in this country has got beyond the stage at which a plausible assertion is supposed to be equivalent to an eternal truth. We, if we liked, could talk as our predecessors often have talked, of self-evident first principles; but we have happily learnt to see that that way of speaking is a very foolish one, and very far indeed from being in any case even approximately true. The humorist who parodied a well-known work by putting forward, as a near “guess at truth,” the proposition that he “never heard of an eternal truth without thinking of an infernal lie,” recorded in a pithy form the result of much experience. Take, for example, the familiar assertion that all men are born free, which is often regarded as an axiomatic truth. How vast a number of qualifications must be introduced into it before it can be made even proximately correct! In the first case, it clearly should run, “ought to be,” for in point of fact many people are born slaves. Even with this alteration, the proposition will not hold good, unless the other conditions and component parts of natural society can be set forth; and if they are, the assertion will either be that there is but one form of society possible for any men, under any circumstances, which is not an abuse and usurpation, or else that freedom is an element in a particular theory about society. The first of these propositions is false, and the second nugatory,

To persist in forcing speculation into this form is, in fact, a mark of an immature state of mind, whether in a nation or in an individual, and in so far as we have freed ourselves from it in this country, our national reputation for logic ought rather to rise than to fall, unless indeed any one is foolish enough to suppose that logical power can only be shown by reasoning on broad and false premisses, and that to argue from intricate premisses to intricate conclusions is a mark of an illogical mind. This singular delusion is as wide-spread as it is extraordinary. No commonplace is more frequently repeated than that French law must be more logical than English law, because it has been codified. It would be quite as reasonable to say that a tangled string is less continuous than the same string when it is disentangled, or that a polypus is more highly organized than a human being because its construction is more simple. It would require more talent, and a far higher kind of talent, to lay out Kensington Gardens than to lay out the garden of the Tuileries, yet many people would think that the latter was arranged the more systematically of the two, because their eyes, would take in the arrangement more readily. We believe that the whole of the fallacy into which people fall who talk so much about French logic consists in the confusion, which is so frequently made between logical sequence and simplicity of arrangement—two things which have no connexion, and are very frequently opposed to each other.

Saturday Review, April 16, 1859.

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