On Behalf of Ideas

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Steven T. Byington

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ON BEHALF OF IDEAS.

To the Editor of The New Freewoman.

Madam,

I do not know whether page 165 of The New Freewoman is consciously aimed at me or not. Nor do I very greatly care. The cap fits me and I put it o n; and I find it flimsy. The best thing on the page is the perfection with which it characterizes itself in the words "There is nothing more amusing than rhetoric when one has the swing of it. It is as jolly and as chest-swelling as getting drunk, and without the consequences."

It must surely be obvious to the writer of that page that it and its adjoining pages are a flood of what the man on the street would call "ideas" and "rhetoric." I understand, however, that the paragraphs use the word "ideas" in a somewhat special sense as expressing ideas which are at the same time ideals, formulas adopted as fundamentals to which everything must conform or be committed to the abode of evil spirits. Such are the "ideas" that are condemned. But are they therefore eschewed? Nay; look at the pages. "Right being might"; "the only way to abolish undue depredations is to abolish the non-predatory"; "all ideas are bad"; these, and more, are obviously ideas grown into ideals, formulas invested with authority to condemn all suggestions that do not conform to them.

To be sure, further down the page we see a distinction drawn between "ideas" and "facts," and doubtless we shall be asked to admit that these which I have quoted are "facts." But the distinction is not well defined. If it is that "facts" are in accord with truth and "ideas" are not, it certainly brings us no new wisdom; no devotee of any set of ideas has ever doubted that the value of ideas depends on their soundness, and that unsound ideas are to be cleared away. But the paragraph reads more as if the difference was one of positiveness: ideas, we are told, are hostile to action because they involve a suspension of judgment; the man who knows is ready to act. As if one could not act on a suspended judgment! Clive did not know whether to fight at Plassey or not; but he decided his action, and fought, while his judgment remained uncertain. This must be a very common experience in the life of every general with brains. Any poker-player takes the positive action of placing his bet, or the equally positive action of throwing up his hand, on the basis of an uncertain idea of the opponent's cards or of the opponent's nerve; and the higher the stake grows, the more livelily does his mind work in improving and polishing his idea. A man who cannot take decided action on a suspended judgment must be either too bigoted or too inactive to amount to much. But then the difference may be that the "idea" is carelessly taken up without enough verification to warrant calling it a "fact." We are told as an illustration that the man with ideas does not venture far within the precincts of the physical scientists; they know too much to suffer an interruption in the shape of an "I think," which a little work in the laboratory would turn into "I know." "Physical scientists" is an unfortunate illustration from the pen of a writer living in Great Britain; the life of Lord Kelvin shows clearly enough how warmly physical scientists welcome ideas that still await verification, even ideas whose verification must be postponed to the indefinite future, provided only that the ideas are of the sort which The New Freewoman declares to be worst of all , "good , i.e. attractive ideas." Or, to go slightly beyond physical science in the narrowest sense, consider how Darwin acquired the reputation of the greatest scientist of his century by ideas of which some took a good while to verify, and some of the chief are still under dispute. To be sure there were those who d id not pay respectful attention to Darwin's ideas, but their not having done so is of no advantage to their reputation to-day.

Of course any man who loves truth will try to verify his ideas as far as he can, by experiment or by whatever method may be appropriate. Hence one of Lord Kelvin's chief specialties was the devising of new instruments of measurement. So too Proudhon, against whom all this condemnation of ideas is directed, worked hard to bring his ideas to the test of experiment; and Tucker also has spent much strength for the same purpose. But to insist that the idea must be kept out of sight till the verification is complete would be the mark of a person quite unpractically devoted to an idea of method.

As to Proudhon and experiment, the same paragraph says that Proudhon's ideas will find favour in America because Americans are "young in social experiment." If this is part of a general confession for the human race, that we are all of us disreputably poor in record of social experiment, I agree. But it has the air of being a comparative statement, an intimation that England is much better off for such experience. If that is what it means, the bluff ought to be called. I hereby challenge anybody to show the existence of any record or memory of any quantity of social experimentation in the British Isles, from the Phoenician tin-miners down to Sir Edward Carson, comparable to the body of social experiment that is on record as having been tried between the years 1600 and 1700 in what is now the United States, or comparable to what is on record as having been tried in these same United States between the years 1700 and 1900.

But let us simply accept the name of "facts" for the things that The New Freewoman says, without settling the question why they are so called, and let us further observe how they differ from ideas. We seem to see that the point where The New Freewoman's flag is most flatly unfurled and most splendidly swung is in the words "We expect . . . life-data expressed in terms of the mobile. By being critical of the static, we at least create a void which in itself will force the production of a more accurate substitute." One who has seen many arguments will be likely to be suspicious of that second sentence; it so often turns out that a statement is true in its positive half and false in its negative half! What if the kinetic and the static should both be necessary, each in its place? However, if there must be a choice between the two, we may agree in preferring the kinetic to the static. Only I do not see quite how the preference of the kinetic is to be a ground for objecting to ideas. It will be acknowledged, I hope, that the two centuries from 1450 to 1650 were a period strongly dominated by ideas; and I should think it might be acknowledged that the world has seldom seen a more kinetic period, and that the ideas bore a causal relation to the kinesis. For another instance of the same thing, see the history of the French Revolution; or, for an absolutely contemporary instance, the record of the past half-century in Japan. These men had ideas, or, if you like, ideas had them; they moved; they moved swiftly, crushingly; and it was their ideas that made them so active. If what is wanted is mobility, it would seem that abundance of ideas is just what we want.

Against this axiom that we must think in terms of the mobile rather than the static, I venture to set up —as a rival, not exactly as a contradiction—my own axiom, printed in these columns three months or so ago, that we should not think or talk of the abstract without plenty of the concrete. For, first, the concrete is more intelligible; second, its truth or falsity is more readily demonstrated; third, it brings us nearer to reaching not only conclusions but results. The concrete may be real or imaginary. A classic instance of the usefulness of the imaginary concrete is Bastiat's demonstration of the necessity of interest on capital from the undisguisedly impossible case of the two men with the plane and the planks, and Henry George's demonstration of the impossibility of interest from the same imaginary premises. The question whether Bastiat is right or whether George is right can be determined just as unanswerably as the solution of any other mathematical problem on which two solvers have disagreed, and the result is absolutely conclusive as to the normalness of interest. Take into account the fact that a plane helps to make a new plane, and George's treatment of the problem comes into harmony with Bastiat's. This gives us proof that where private property exists we must expect to find interest; and by continuing the method of concrete illustration we learn that even an absolutely communistic society cannot understand its economic processes, nor intelligently plan its industries, without counting interest on its capital. Which is a thing worth knowing.

Now in these three pages of "Views and Comments" the only things that have any air of being concrete are the comparison of Sir Edward Carson with the Dublin strikers which fills the first page, and the comment on uranianism in the last paragraph. The latter, accordingly, seems very like the grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff. As to the former, it is a most perfect example of how a concrete topic may be handled with utter abstractness. It begins by forgetting that if England can claim to be mature in any department of social experimentation, the handling of strikes is that department; that the unions have long since tried all the methods they could think of, including that of armed force, and that the methods now prevalent are the result of the survival of the fittest, fitness being defined as efficiency; wherefore any armchair critic who sets out to suggest a more efficient method should be notably cautious, or he will find he has been notably incautious. But here our critic makes no attempt to conceive the concrete working of her own suggestions. The most definite of these is that if the strikers are hungry they should break into the breadshops. Make it concrete. They get bread for one day. The bakers bake no more; so next day you must break into the flour-stores and bake your own. The flour-stores, if not burned or otherwise wasted in the fighting, will feed you for several days, probably weeks; then there is no more flour, for the millers shipped no more when they saw that no pay was coming to them. At this point we have to take up the additional advice that they should first make such preparations as will make their campaign effectual. By this The New Freewoman seems to mean that they should supply themselves with indigestible things like cartridges and bayonets; it looks as if they would in the end be quite as much in want of a persuasive that would bring wheat from Chicago. But, whichever way you take it, if the workers are to begin their campaign for better wages by accumulating a fund sufficient either to equip an army or to provision Dublin for a siege, might they not more profitably use that fund to better themselves by Some less roundabout method? It reminds me of a passage in Proudhon's "Contradictions." Someone had proposed, or was made to seem to have proposed, that the poor were to raise wages by living more luxuriously so as to become fatter, of which the physiological result would be fewer births, causing a decrease in the supply of labour and a consequent rise in its price. Proudhon thought that when the poor were able to take the first step in that process their prospects would be good.

As I write, one of the latest pieces of news in the American papers is that the Asquith Government is in a sort of panic over Larkin because he has been causing them to lose votes and bye-elections, while Carson never worried them because he turned no votes. I do not know exactly how true this is; but at least it seems that gaol was not strong enough to hold Larkin, while I shall be surprised if it is not strong enough to hold Carson whenever they may choose to put him in. Carson smites Asquith on the hardest plate of his military armour, and Asquith grins. Larkin pricks the most defenceless and vital part of a politician's anatomy, and Asquith gives way. Larkin gets reproved by The New Freewoman for using inefficient methods, and probably Larkin grins.

If ideas are really a snare of the devil, and men need to suppress that part of their natures which bids them to form ideas and be guided by them, by all means let them be taught this self-denial at once. But if they will not believe the preaching, what is to make them believe? Where are the miracles?

Steven T. Byington.

[The cap, as far as our memory of it goes, was stock size and not intended for Mr. Byington. We prepare one for our correspondent however in the current "Views and Comments" which we hope will sit a little more heavily than the one which he assumed in pure venturesomeness. We likewise commend to him for consideration, M. Bergson's philosophy of ideas of which we are enabled to publish a fragment. Our excuse for having so to do to the translator of Max Stirner, who anticipated Bergson in this domain by more than half a century, is that he appears to ask for it. —Ed.]



  • Steven T. Byington, “On Behalf of Ideas,” The New Freewoman 1, no. 13 (December 15, 1913): 258-259.