The Philosophy of the Practical: Economic and Ethic by Benedetto Croce

IV

INSEPARABILITY OF ACTION FROM ITS REAL BASE AND PRACTICAL NATURE OF THE THEORETICAL ERROR

 

 

The connection between the actual situation and will, means and end having been made clear, no distinction that it may be desired to establish between general and concrete volition, ideal and real volition, that is to say between intention and volition, is acceptable. Intention and volition coincide completely, and that distinction, generally suggested with the object of justifying the unjustifiable, is altogether arbitrary in both the forms that it assumes.
Volition in the abstract and in the concrete: critique.
The first form is that of the distinction between abstract and concrete, or better, between general and particular. It is maintained, that we can will the good in the abstract and yet be unable to will it in the concrete, that we may have good intentions and yet behave badly. But by our reduction of the thing willed to the volition,[Pg 54] to will the abstract is tantamount to willing abstractly. And to will abstractly is tantamount to not willing, if volition imply a situation historically determined, from which it arises as an act equally determined and concrete. Hence, of the two terms of the pretended distinction, the first, volition of the abstract, disappears, and the second, concrete volition, which is the true and real volition and intention, alone remains.
Thought volition and real volition: critique.
The second form abandons, it is true, the abstract for the concrete, but assumes two different volitional acts in the same concrete: the one real, arising from the actual situation, the other, thought or imagined, side by side with the former: this would be the volition, that the intention. According to such a theory, it is always possible to direct the intention, that is, the real volition can always join with the volitional act imagined and produce a nexus, in which the volition exists in one way, the intention in another; the first bad and the second good, or the first good and the second bad. Thus the honourable man approved by the Jesuit, of whom Pascal speaks, although he desire the death of him from whom he expects an inheritance and rejoice when it takes place, yet endows his desire with a special character, believing that what he[Pg 55] wishes to attain is the prosperity of his affairs, not the death of his fellow-creature. Or the same man may kill the man who has given him a blow; but in so doing he will fix his thought upon the defence of his honour, not upon the homicide. Since he is not able to abstain from the action, he at least (they say) purines the intention. The worst of this is that the real situation, the only one of which we can take account, is the historical, not the imaginary situation. In the reality of the consequent volition, it is not a question of his own prosperity and nothing more, but of his own prosperity coupled with the death of another, or of false prosperity. It is not a question of his own honour and nothing more, but of his own honour in conjunction with the violation of the life of another, that is, of false honour. Thus the asserted fact of prosperity and honour is changed into two qualified bad actions, and what was honourable in the imaginary case, becomes dishonourable in the real case, which is indeed the only one of which it is question. It is of no use to imagine a situation that differs from reality, because it is to the real situation that the intention is directed, not to the other, and therefore it is not possible to direct, that is to say,[Pg 56] to change the intention, if the actual situation do not change.
The antipathy that has been shown for good-hearted and well-intentioned men in recent centuries, and for practical doctrines with intention as their principle (the morality of intention, etc.), arises from the sophisms that we have here criticized. But since it is henceforward clear to us that those so-called well-intentioned and good-hearted people have neither good hearts nor good intentions and are nothing but hypocrites, and because we do not admit any distinction between intention and will, we are without fear or antipathy in respect to the use of the word "intention," understanding it as a synonym for "volition."
Critique of volition with base either unknown or imperfectly known.
But it will be said that we have here considered the case, in which, while the real situation is known, there is a hypocritical pretence of not knowing it, in order to deceive others and maybe oneself, and that we have justly here declared that in such a case the will and the intention were inseparable. But there is another case, in which, though the situation of affairs be not known, yet it is necessary both to will and to act at once. Here the concrete will is separated at the beginning from the intention: the will[Pg 57] is what it can be, the intention is as the action would wish to be.
But this instance is equally or even more inconceivable than the preceding. It has been clearly established that if we do not know, we cannot will. Before arriving at a resolution, man tries to see clearly in and about him, and so long as the search continues, so long as the doubt is not dissipated, the will remains in suspense. Nothing can make him resolve, where the elements for coming to a resolution are wanting; nothing can make him say to himself "I know," when he does not know; nothing can make him say "it will be as if I knew," because that "as if I knew" would introduce the arbitrary method into the whole of knowledge, and would cause universal doubt to take the place of doubt circumscribed. This would disturb the function of knowledge itself, against which an act of real felony would be committed. From nothing nothing is born.
Illusions among the cases that are cited.
There are no exceptions to this law, and those that are adduced can be only apparent. A man is cautiously descending the dangerous side of a mountain, covered with ice: will he or will he not place his foot on that surface, of which he does not and cannot know the resistance? How[Pg 58]ever, there is no time to be lost: he must go on and take the risk. It seems evident that in a case like this he wills and operates without complete knowledge. But the case is not indeed unique or of a special order: every act of life implies risk of the unknown, and if there were not in us (as they say) potestas voluntatem nostram extra limites intellectus nostri extendendi, it would be impossible to move a step, to lift an arm, or to put into one's mouth a morsel of bread, since omnia incerta ac periculis sunt plena. What must be known in order to form the volition is not that which we should know if we were in a situation different from that in which we are (in which case, also, the volition would be different), but that which we can know in the situation in which we really find ourselves. The man on the glacier has neither time nor means to verify the resistance of the surface of the ice; but since he is obliged to proceed further, he does not act in a rash, but in a very prudent manner, in putting his foot trustfully on the ice that may be unfaithful to him. He would be acting rashly if, having the means and the time, he failed to investigate its resistance, that is to say, if he were in another and imaginary situation, not in that real and present situation, in which he finds himself. If I knew[Pg 59] the cards of my adversary, as the cheat knows them, I should play differently, but it cannot be argued that because, as an honest player, I know only my own, I am therefore playing inconsiderately: I am playing as I ought, with the knowledge that I possess, that is, with full knowledge of the real situation in which I find myself.
With this very simple observation is also solved an old puzzle of the theory of volition. How does it happen that a man can choose between two dishes of food at an equal distance and moving in the same manner,[1] or between two objects altogether identical, offered for sale to him at the same time, at the same price, by the same individual? First, we must correct the hypothesis, for as two identical things do not exist in nature, so the two objects in question and the two possible actions of the example are not identical.
[1] This was an example used by the Schoolmen and by Dante.
Indeed the refined connoisseur always discovers some difference between two objects, which to the ignorant, the absent-minded, and the hasty seem to be the same. The question, then, is not of identical objects and actions, but of those as in which there is neither time nor[Pg 60] mode (majora premunt) of recognizing the difference. For this reason, therefore, we take no account of this difference, or, as is said, they are looked upon as equal in this respect. But the adiophora, the indifferent, do not exist, and owing to that abstraction, we do not take account of other differences that always exist in the real situation, owing to which my volition becomes concrete in a movement that causes me to take the object on my right, because (let us suppose) I am wont to turn to the right, or because, owing to a superstition that is not less a matter of habit, I prefer the right to the left, or because, through sympathy due to dignity, I prefer the object that is offered to me with the right hand to a similar object offered with the left, which, if only for this reason, is, strictly speaking, not the same, but different, and so on. These minute circumstances are absent from consciousness and are not felt by the will, not because they escape as a rule reflection. If we neglect them in analysis as non-existent, this always occurs, because we substitute for the real situation another unreal situation imagined by ourselves. Thus it has also been remarked, as a proof of the irrationality believed to exist in our volitions and to be the cause of our acting without precise knowledge, that[Pg 61] no reason nor any theoretic precedent can be adduced as to why, when fixing legal punishments, or in the application of sentences, we give forty and not forty-one days' imprisonment, a hundred lire fine instead of a hundred and one. But here, too, it is clear that the detailed facts are not wanting, the knowledge of which causes us to will the punishment to be so and so. This knowledge is to be found in traditions, in the sympathy that we have for certain numbers, in the ease with which they can be remembered or calculated, and so on.—To sum up, man forms the volitional act, not because he possesses some portentous faculty of extending his will outside the limits of the intellect, but, on the contrary, because he possesses the faculty of circumscribing himself within the limits of his intellect on each occasion and of willing on that basis and within those limits. That he wills, knowing some things and ignorant of infinite other things, is indubitable. But this means that he is man and not God, that he is a finite and not an infinite being, and that the sum of his historical knowledge is on each occasion human and finite, as is on each occasion the act of will which he forms upon it. Psychologists would say that this arises from narrowness[Pg 62] of consciousness, but Goethe, on the contrary, remarked with metaphor more apt and thought more profound, that the true artist is revealed in knowing how to limit himself. God himself, as it seems, cannot act, save by limiting himself in finite beings.
Impossibility of volition with a false theoretic base.
If the intention cannot be separated from the volition, because this belongs to the real and not to the imaginary, and proceeds from the known and never from the unknown, there yet remains a third possibility, which is, that the will results differently from the intention, owing to a theoretical error; as when we are said to err in good faith as to the actual situation, that is, we do not indeed substitute the unknown for the known, nor do we substitute the imaginary for the known, but we simply make a mistake in enunciating the historical judgment to ourselves: intending to perform one action, we perform on the contrary another.
This third possibility is also an impossibility, because it contradicts the nature of the theoretical error, which, precisely because it is a question of error and not of truth, cannot be in its turn theoretical and must be and is practical, conformably to a theory of error of which many great thinkers have seen or caught[Pg 63] sight and which it is now fitting to restore and to make clear.
Forms of the theoretical error and problem concerning its nature.
We have elsewhere amply demonstrated how theoretical errors arise from the undue transference of one theoretical form to another, or of one theoretical product into another distinct from it. Thus, the artist who substitutes for the representation of the affections, reasoning on the affections, mingling art and philosophy, or he who in the composition of a work, fills the voids that his fancy has left in the composition, with unsuitable elements taken from other works, commits the artistic error, ugliness. Thus too, the philosopher, who solves a philosophical problem in a fantastic way, as would an artist, or, instead of a philosopheme, employs the historical, naturalistic or mathematical method, and so produces a myth, or a contingent fact universalized, or an abstraction in place of concreteness, that is to say, a philosophical error. It is also a philosophical error to transport philosophical concepts from one order to another and to treat art as though it were philosophy or morality as though it were economy. This also happens in an analogous manner with the historian, the natural scientist, and the mathematician, all of whom are wrong, if they interweave[Pg 64] extraneous methods with those that are their own, and with the views, conceptions, and classification of one order, those of another.—But if this be the way in which particular errors and general forms of theoretical error arise, what is the origin of the theoretical error in universal? We have not asked this question explicitly elsewhere, because only now can it receive the most effective reply.
Distinction between ignorance and error: practical genesis of the latter.
Error is not ignorance, lack of knowledge, obscurity or doubt. An error of which we are altogether without consciousness is not error at all, but that inexhaustible field which the spiritual activity continues to fill to infinity. True and proper error is the affirmation of knowing what we do not know, the substitution of a representation for that which we do not possess, an extraneous conception for the one that is wanting. Now affirmation is thought itself, it is truth itself. When an inquiry has been completed, a process of cogitation closed, the result is the affirmation that a man makes to himself, not with a new act added to the foregoing, but with the act itself of thought that has thought. It is therefore impossible that in the circle of the pure theoretical spirit error should ever arise. Man has in himself[Pg 65] the fountain of truth. If it be true that on the death-bed there is no lying, because man transcends the finite and communicates with the infinite, then man who thinks is always on his bed of death, the death-bed of the finite, in contact with the infinite. We may know that we are ignorant, but this consciousness of ignorance is the cogitative process in its fieri, not yet having attained to its end, certainly not (as has been said) error. Before this last can appear, before we can affirm that we have reached a result, which the testimony of the conscience says has not been reached, something extraneous to the theoretical spirit must intervene, that is to say, a practical act which simulates the theoretical. And it simulates it, not indeed intrinsically (one does not lie with the depth of oneself or on one's death-bed), but in taking hold of the external means of communication, of the word or expression as sound and physical fact, and diverting it to mean what, in the given circumstances, it could not mean. The erroneous affirmation has been rendered possible, because something else has followed the true affirmation, which is purely theoretical, something that is improperly called affirmation in the practical sense, whereas it is[Pg 66] only communication, which can be substituted in a greater or less degree for the truth and falsely represent it. Thus the theoretical error in general arises, as do its particular forms and manifestations, from the substitution for, or the illegitimate mating of two forms of the spirit. These cannot be both theoretical here, but must be the theoretical and the practical forms, precisely because we are here in the field of the spirit in general and of the fundamental forms of its activity. We are ignorant, then, because it is necessary to be ignorant and to feel oneself ignorant, in order to attain to truth; but we err only because we wish to err.
Proofs and confirmation.
Like all true doctrines, this of the practical nature of the theoretical error, which at first sight seems most strange (especially to professed philosophers), is yet found to be constantly confirmed in ordinary thought. For all know and all continually repeat that (immoderate) passions and (illegitimate) interests lead insidiously into error, that we err, to be quick and finish or to obtain for ourselves undeserved repose, that we err by acquiescence in old ideas, that is to say, in order not to allow ourselves to be disturbed in our repose that has been unduly prolonged, and so on. We do not mention those[Pg 67] cases in which it is a question of solemn and evident lies, the brazen-faced manifestation of interests openly illegitimate. Let us limit ourselves to the modest forms of error, to the venial sins, because if these be proved to be the result of will, by so much the more will this be proved of the shameless forms, the deadly sins. It is also said that we err in deafening ourselves and others with words, with the verse that sounds and does not create, with the brush that charms but does not express, with the formulæ that seem to contain a thought but contain the void. In this way we come to recognize that will has been rendered possible, owing to the communication being a practical fact, of which a bad use can be made by means of a volitional act. For the rest, if this were not so, what guarantee would truth ever possess? If it were possible to err even once in perfect good faith and that the mind should confuse true and false, embracing the false as true, how could we any longer distinguish the one from the other? Thought would be radically corrupt, whereas it is incorrupt and incorruptible.
It is vain, therefore, to except the existence or the possibility of errors of good faith, because truth alone is of good faith, and error is always[Pg 68] in a greater or less or least degree, of bad faith. Were this not so, it would be incorrigible, whereas it is by definition corrigible. Consequently, the last attempt to differentiate intention from volition fails, since it posits an intention that is frustrated in the volition, as the effect of a theoretical error, a good intention that becomes, through no fault of its own, a bad volition. The intention, being volition, takes possession of the whole volitional man, causing the intellect to be attentive and indefatigable in the search for truth, the soul ready to accept it, whatever it be, pure of every passion that is not the passion for truth itself, and eliminates the possibility, or assumes the responsibility of error.
A proof of this is afforded by the fact that to exquisite and delicate souls, to consciences pure and dignified, even what are called their theoretical errors are a biting bitterness, and they blame themselves with them. On the other hand, in the presence of the foolish and the wicked, one is often in doubt as to whether their folly and wickedness come from the head or from the heart, whether it be madness rather than set purpose. The truth is that all this evil, which seems to arise from defective vision, comes really[Pg 69] from the heart, for they have themselves forged those false views with their sophisms, their illegitimate internal affirmations and suggestions, that they may be more free in their evil inclinations, thus obtaining for themselves and for others a false moral alibi. We must applaud the former and exhort them to continue to persevere in their scruple, the condition of theoretical and practical health: we must inculcate to the second a return to themselves and the removal of the mask that they have assumed' as a disguise from themselves, before assuming it towards others.
Justification of the practical repression of error.
A consequence of the principle established is the justification of the use of practical measures to induce those who err theoretically to correct themselves, castigating them, when this is of assistance, for admonition and example. It will be replied that these are measures of other times, and that we are now in an epoch of liberty, when their use is no longer permissible, and that we should now employ only the persuasive power of truth. But those who say this are without eyes to look within upon themselves. The Holy Inquisition is truly holy and lives for that reason in its eternal idea. The Inquisition that is dead was nothing but one of its contingent historical incarnations. And the Inquisition must have[Pg 70] been justified and beneficial, if whole peoples invoked and defended it, if men of the loftiest souls founded and created it severely and impartially, and its very adversaries applied it on their own account, pyre answering to pyre. Thus Christian Rome persecuted heretics as Imperial Rome had persecuted Christians, and Protestants burned Catholics as Catholics had burned Protestants. If certain ferocious practices are now abandoned (are they definitely abandoned, or do they not persist in a different form?), we do not for that reason cease from practically oppressing those who promulgate errors. No society can dispense with this discipline, although the mode of its application is subject to practical, utilitarian and moral deliberation. We begin with man as a child, whose mental education is at once and above all practical and moral education, education for work and for sincerity (and no one has ever been seriously educated who has not received at the least a provident slap or two or had his ears pulled). This education is continued with the punishments for culpable negligence and ignorance threatened in the laws, and so on until we reach the spontaneous discipline of society, by means of which the artist who produces the ugly and the man of science who teaches the false are[Pg 71] rebuked by the intelligent, or fall into discredit with them. Such illegitimate and transitory applause as they may sometimes obtain at the hands of the unintelligent and of the multitude is but a poor and precarious recompense for them. Literary and artistic criticism always has of necessity, and the more so the better it understands its office, a practical and moral aspect reconcilable with the purest æstheticity and theoreticity in the intrinsic examination of works.
Empirical distinctions of errors and philosophical distinctions.
We certainly have good empirical reasons for distinguishing between errors of bad faith and errors of good faith, errors that are avoidable and errors that are unavoidable, pardonable and unpardonable, mortal and venial. No one would wish to deny that there is a wide difference between a slight distraction that leads to a wide erroneous affirmation, and such malice as gives rise to a small and almost imperceptible error, to a lie, which, externally considered, is almost harmless. We should be as indulgent in respect to the former as we are severe in respect to the latter. And from the empirical standpoint we should recommend in certain cases tolerance and indulgence in respect to the theoretical error, which should be looked upon rather as ignorance than as sin. We cannot but take count of all[Pg 72] those affirmations, which, while they do not represent the firm security of the true, are yet offered as points of support, or as provisional affirmations, like those tibicines, props or stakes, those bad verses that Virgil allowed to remain in the Aeneid, with the intention of returning to them again. But it was needful to record the true bases of the theory of error against the illusions arising from empiricism, the more so since the general tendency of our times (for reasons that we need not here inquire into) has led to their not being recognized. Those bases are in the practical spirit, and the practical theory of error is one of the justified forms of pragmatism, although perhaps it be that very truth against which the pragmatists sin.

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