06 June 2010

Chesterton on the egg (which is an egg).

More on Chesterton. One passage often cited by his admirers comes from his book on Thomas Aquinas:

"Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other
eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God."

As usual, when someone intones a tautology, some form of "A is A," as if it is of tremendous significance, he or she is trying to sneak in a presumption. Here, Chesterton is being less sneaky than are some who use this ploy. For he's been quite open with us, earlier, about the presumption. By "egg" he means a common-sense egg, the egg that an untutored individual who isn't too much concerned about the "particular go of it" will understand to be an egg. When Chesterton says "eggs are eggs" he means that we can't or shouldn't try to get further in than that in our understanding of them. Addling one's brains in an effort to get behind the obviousness of egghood is a bad thing. That's the message here.

IMHO, that message is exactly wrong, and wisdom consists precisely of trying to go further than "an egg is an egg." To consider any more sustained inquiry a matter of "addling one's brains" is to ask that one's brains be perpetually chained by this "authority of the sense." Although we do need the sense to get started, we also need as humans to remember that the reports of the senses are seldom the end.


ciceronianus said...

I wonder sometimes if Chesterton ever really made even an effort to understand the positions with which he disagreed. I tend to think he didn't. If he did I don't think he could in good faith misreprent them to the extent he did, or treat them so dismissively.

Henry said...

In defense of Chesterton's statement, I would distinguish between recognizing that our senses may be deceived in particular instances, and superimposing a philosophical theory upon the evidence of the senses in order to proclaim that our senses never, except through the lens of the superimposed theory, reveal the truth. Chesterton disavows the latter, not the former.

He accepts the correspondence theory of truth, and would support sustained inquiry to help ensure that the evidence of our senses in fact corresponds to the reality behind them. But the correspondence theory not just another philosophical theory, as are the Hegelian, Berkeleian, or Pragmatist theories. It is the theory that we can live by and the only one that we can live by. If you're standing in the middle of the road and a truck is bearing down on you, you are more likely to survive if you accept that a truck is really a truck. It may be that Berkeley was right and that you might merely be dreaming, or that the Hegelian or Pragmatist is right: we cannot prove that the evidence of our senses corresponds to reality. But, if those theories wrong, then you might get run over.

ciceronianus said...

I doubt any pragmatist (Rorty was not one, as far as I'm concerned) would maintain that we cannot prove a truck is bearing down on us, although he might wonder about the need for proof in such circumstances and whether it even makes any sense to require or speak of proof. Nor do I think a pragmatist would maintain an egg is not an egg. Chesterton often sets up straw men, I'm afraid. But that is the way of the facile.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.