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Pragmatism And Humanism
by [?]

What hardens the heart of everyone I approach with the view of truth sketched in my last lecture is that typical idol of the tribe, the notion of THE Truth, conceived as the one answer, determinate and complete, to the one fixed enigma which the world is believed to propound. For popular tradition, it is all the better if the answer be oracular, so as itself to awaken wonder as an enigma of the second order, veiling rather than revealing what its profundities are supposed to contain. All the great single-word answers to the world’s riddle, such as God, the One, Reason, Law, Spirit, Matter, Nature, Polarity, the Dialectic Process, the Idea, the Self, the Oversoul, draw the admiration that men have lavished on them from this oracular role. By amateurs in philosophy and professionals alike, the universe is represented as a queer sort of petrified sphinx whose appeal to man consists in a monotonous challenge to his divining powers. THE Truth: what a perfect idol of the rationalistic mind! I read in an old letter–from a gifted friend who died too young–these words: “In everything, in science, art, morals and religion, there MUST be one system that is right and EVERY other wrong.” How characteristic of the enthusiasm of a certain stage of youth! At twenty-one we rise to such a challenge and expect to find the system. It never occurs to most of us even later that the question ‘what is THE truth?’ is no real question (being irrelative to all conditions) and that the whole notion of THE truth is an abstraction from the fact of truths in the plural, a mere useful summarizing phrase like THE Latin Language or THE Law.

Common-law judges sometimes talk about the law, and school-masters talk about the latin tongue, in a way to make their hearers think they mean entities pre-existent to the decisions or to the words and syntax, determining them unequivocally and requiring them to obey. But the slightest exercise of reflexion makes us see that, instead of being principles of this kind, both law and latin are results. Distinctions between the lawful and the unlawful in conduct, or between the correct and incorrect in speech, have grown up incidentally among the interactions of men’s experiences in detail; and in no other way do distinctions between the true and the false in belief ever grow up. Truth grafts itself on previous truth, modifying it in the process, just as idiom grafts itself on previous idiom, and law on previous law. Given previous law and a novel case, and the judge will twist them into fresh law. Previous idiom; new slang or metaphor or oddity that hits the public taste:–and presto, a new idiom is made. Previous truth; fresh facts:–and our mind finds a new truth.

All the while, however, we pretend that the eternal is unrolling, that the one previous justice, grammar or truth is simply fulgurating, and not being made. But imagine a youth in the courtroom trying cases with his abstract notion of ‘the’ law, or a censor of speech let loose among the theatres with his idea of ‘the’ mother-tongue, or a professor setting up to lecture on the actual universe with his rationalistic notion of ‘the Truth’ with a big T, and what progress do they make? Truth, law, and language fairly boil away from them at the least touch of novel fact. These things MAKE THEMSELVES as we go. Our rights, wrongs, prohibitions, penalties, words, forms, idioms, beliefs, are so many new creations that add themselves as fast as history proceeds. Far from being antecedent principles that animate the process, law, language, truth are but abstract names for its results.

Laws and languages at any rate are thus seen to be man-made: things. Mr. Schiller applies the analogy to beliefs, and proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially [u lambda nu], it is what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.” [Footnote: Personal Idealism, p. 60.] He adds that we can learn the limits of the plasticity only by trying, and that we ought to start as if it were wholly plastic, acting methodically on that assumption, and stopping only when we are decisively rebuked.