Shayne Wissler
“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek proverb

Will Durant’s “Philosophy and the Social Problem”

15 March 2015

Will Durant’s PhD thesis, Philosophy and the Social Problem (1917), is a very unique and valuable work.

A key theme of his, which I agree with, is that philosophy has lost its way:

And that is why [philosophers] are so hard to understand. Even so subtle a thinker as Santayana finds them too difficult, and abandons them in righteous indignation. There is no worse confounding of confusion than self-deception: let a man be honest with himself, and he may lie with tolerable intelligibility and success; but let him be his own dupe and he may write a thousand critiques and never get himself understood. Indeed, some of them do not want to be understood, they only want to be believed. Hegel, for example, was not at all surprised to find that no one understood him; he would have been surprised and chagrined to find that some one had. Obscurity can cover a multitude of sins.

Add to this self-befoggery the appalling historismus (as Eucken calls it), the strange lifeless interest in the past for its own sake, the petty poring over problems of text and minutiae of theory in the classics of speculation;–and the indictment of philosophy as a useless appanage of the idle rich gains further ground. We do not seem to understand how much of the past is dead, how much of it is but a drag on the imaginative courage that dares to think of a future different from the past, and better. Philosophy is too much a study of the details of superseded systems; it is too little the study of the miraculous living moment in which the past melts into the present and the future finds creation. Most people have an invincible habit of turning their backs to the future; they like the past because the future is an adventure. So with most philosophers today; they like to write analyses of Kant, commentaries on Berkeley, discussions of Plato’s myths; they are students remembering, they have not yet become men thinking. They do not know that the work of philosophy is in the street as well as in the library, they do not feel and understand that the final problem of philosophy is not the relation of subject and object but the misery of men.

And so it is well that philosophy, such as it chiefly is in these days, should be scorned as a busy idler in a world where so much work is asking to be done.

Philosophy was vital in Plato’s day; so vital that some philosophers were exiled and others put to death. No one would think of putting a philosopher to death today. Not because men are more delicate about killing; but because there is no need to kill that which is already dead.

Durant is driven to correct this. He passionately wants a philosophy that is relevant, he passionately yearns to solve the problem of human misery, and these are not separate desires but the same desire. For him, philosophy both defines and is defined by the social problem (“By the ‘social problem’ we shall understand, simply and very broadly, the problem of reducing human misery by modifying social institutions.”); his concern for humanity as it is his concern for what it might and ought to become, and his love of philosophy is both a love of wisdom and a love of the necessary instrument of human flourishing.

Durant uses Part I to show us how his passionate yearning for a synthesis between philosophy and the problems of human life has been a basic concern of many of who he calls the “greater philosophers”, and this is a fascinating and edifying journey, particularly so because we see eventual success by some of these, in particular by Francis Bacon, who founded and inspired the institutions of modern science. We commonly assume these institutions formed through unconscious communal activity, but in truth, it was Bacon who led the way, with key figures of The Enlightenment consciously following his lead.

The book is filled gems like these:

“The ghosts of scholasticism – of a pursuit of knowledge divorced from its social end – hover about the microscopes and test-tubes of the scientific world; … The blunt truth is that unless a scientist is also a philosopher, with some capacity to see things sub specie totius [a complete perspective on the whole], – unless he can come out of his hole into the open, – he is not fit to direct is own research. … without philosophy as its eye piece, science is but the traditional child who has taken apart the traditional watch, with none but the traditional results.”

“Our political movements are conceived in impulse and developed in emotion; they end in fission and fragmentation because there is no thought behind them.”

“Intelligence is organized experience; but intelligence itself must be organized.”

“The function of education in the eyes of a dominant - class is to make men able to do skilled work but unable to do original thinking (for all original thinking begins with destruction); the function of education in the eyes of a government is to teach men that eleventh commandment which God forgot to give to Moses: thou shalt love thy country right or wrong. All this, of course, requires some marvelous prestidigitation of the truth, as school text-books of national history show. The ignorant, it seems, are the necessary ballast in the ship of state.”

In Part II, he presents his suggested solution to the social problem. This part has many virtues but I will mostly restrict myself to commenting on two key flaws in his proposed solution.

To radically oversimplify, his solution is to create an army of fact-gatherers that will do work akin to that of the great French encyclopedists, or of our modern Wikipedians – Durant’s hope is that providing these facts will enable society to make better and better decisions. And indeed, this sort of work is both obviously very valuable and can help pave the way to solving the social problem, but just as obviously, is not a solution to the problem, for if it was, then Wikipedia would have saved the world, rather than merely (!) having substantially informed it.

Surprisingly, given his great wisdom and even explicit awareness of most of the following, Durant suffers from Plato’s disease, for his solution requires around 5000 elite scientific fact-gatherers, elected primarily from the groups of physicians and professors – i.e. he offers authorities anointed from already existing institutions (forged out of a political environment mired in the social problem) as a proxy for intellectual integrity. His entire solution leans heavily on already existing institutions, which are and must be corrupted by the social problem, and thus falls prey to the lack of integrity that is endemic to them.

We may perhaps forgive Durant this error. Perhaps the institutions of his time were centered more around merit than around politics, but in our time there is a very incestuous relation between politics and the social sciences. Our Universities are not the bastions of freedom of speech and free inquiry that they might be.

The worst flaw in his solution runs even deeper in Durant himself. While he is an incisive and generally unbiased critic of past thinkers, he is often a poor and biased critic of his contemporaries. I would not fault him so severely here, except that in his “The Story of Philosophy”, on the chapter on Schopenhauer, he derides Schopenhauer precisely for being frank regarding his opinions of his contemporaries. Durant finds this to be in poor taste; he thinks it is wise for an author of nonsense to be chastised after he dies but not before. Indeed, “The Story of Philosophy” suffers in later chapters, precisely because he holds his tongue regarding the philosophers who are still living. I can only assume he is holding his tongue, because 1) I perceive him as highly insightful regarding the earlier philosophers, and much less so regarding the later; 2) he’s tacitly declared that he will not be frank regarding living philosophers. Such behavior is not the virtue he thinks it is; on the contrary, it is vulgar, vicious, and unprofessional. Imagine a doctor who will not tell you the whole truth about your disease, because he knows it was caused by one of his less competent peers.

Now of course, Durant is not alone in this “judge not” attitude, this tribalistic patriotism towards one’s contemporaries and peers – his is indeed the majority view in our own society. But the fact that he is trying to address the root of the social problem and fails to question this very destructive habit of letting the guilty off the hook (and especially when they happen to still be able to cause mayhem), must be pointed out. My opinion is it is precisely a lack of frank rational criticism that permits our institutions to run amok – so I see this as a particularly glaring oversight by Durant.

His specific solution consists in utterly and almost specifically neglecting the power of moral judgment. His intellectual leaders are not to aim at possessing sound moral judgment, but rather, to be almost exclusively concerned with mountains of “facts”[1]. Durant seems to suppose that to really know the facts is to have good moral judgment, however, it is a skilled application of principles to facts that constitutes judgment. But skill and principles must be developed, not assumed. The root of the social problem actually lies in not knowing the difference between right and wrong, not merely in not knowing the “facts”. Yes, injustice can stem from not having all the facts, but the key difference between a just and unjust person is in how they evaluate such facts. Evaluation then, and not “facts”, is at the center of the social problem. What Durant proposes is tantamount to declaring that wise moral judgment is per se foolish – which is per se foolish.

I hasten to add that the above flaws are only present in Part II, which is shorter than Part I. Furthermore, there are many good aspects of Part II, in spite of the flaws. Overall this is one of my favorite books of all time, and I highly recommend it.

  1. Durant, surprisingly, seems unaware of the fact that facts are theory-laden. But one cannot talk about facts regarding (say) electrons without relying on the very sophisticated theory that there are electrons.

  2. This review is also published on Amazon.