05 June 2010

Chesterton on the landlady and the lodger

Ciceronianus posted some fascinating thoughts on Wednesday regarding G.K. Chesterton, an author he finds clever, witty, and unprofound.

Chesterton first got onto my personal radar because William James quotes him right at the start of Pragmatism. Chesterton wrote thus: "There are some people -- and I am one of them -- who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers, but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run anything else affects them."

James professes himself on Chesterton's side in this belief, yet he immediately gives it a more Jamesian twist. Chesterton had spoken of a hypothetical landlady and her equally hypothetical lodger. James, giving a lecture, dispensed with hypothetical people and spoke of "you," the people in the audience before him.

"I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds."

That is a new twist not only because of the direct address to "you," but because of that reference to the "several worlds" of his audience, which seems to me a very un-Chestertonian turn of phrase. Chesterton was of the view that there is only one Orthodoxy and multiple heresies -- that confidence is itself a source of his charm. There is only one Objective world and several ways of getting it wrong. James was of a very different view. The landlady and her lodger may be residents, in an important sense, of different worlds, deternmined by their different perspectives, (although, yes, those worlds obviously overlap and produce disputes over rent and leaky pipes.)

At any rate, I recommend Ciceronianus on this, as on much else.


ciceronianus said...

Thank you for the kind words.

I enjoy reading Chesterton, and don't mean to discourage anyone from doing so. I just don't think he was a very rigorous thinker. There's only so much that can be establised by a quip, or turn of phrase, or unsupported statements.

Christopher said...

I agree. And, now that we're on the subject, I plan to say something more about Chesterton tomorrow.

Ol'BuckNut said...

I think to say that Chesterton wasn't a 'rigorous' thinker is rather difficult to support when looking at his writings. The man was of serious genius. He fathomed certain matters in philosophy far more capably than many experts in subjects (his book "What's Wrong With the World" contains several examples of unappreciated intelligence). Where the charge of flippancy levelled against Chesterton orginates (a charge that he himself recognized) is I think in Chesterton's strong resistance to becoming trapped under particular questions. The man wrote on a broad array of subjects, and preferred the general far more to the particular. Another source of percieved flippancy I think occurs in his rhetorical style: he makes points not by formal argumentation but by a blend of examples, personal experience and paradox. All of these techniques give the feeling of answers coming (seemingly) from nowhere because they're not really all that deductive in nature. But I think for Chesterton he's often not so much trying to argue points as he is trying to deconstruct others'points, a task he would likely agree is far easier. He was undoubtedly a critic. But what sets him apart from most critics is that he had a knack for suggesting what we should believe by pointing out what we shouldn't. His method was almost a method of madness, for he dwelled in most of his writings amongst the madness. He painted a picture by proving how black everything outside it was. This gives the reader the feeling that Chesterton often doesn't prove his positive points, but I think such readers are overlooking the subtlety of Chesterton's method. It is becoming more universal in the sciences that a method of prove is disproof of every other option. It helps if the method can help explain the experiences it is meant to. For Chesterton, I think something similar is occuring.

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.