Thursday, September 15, 2016

Theory and Practice

A while ago, I picked up a copy of Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, of Immanuel Kant. Having read through the essay "On the Proverb: That May Be True in Theory, But Is of No Practical Use", it strikes me that Kant has demonstrated that a number of maxims that serve in everyday use are of no use in theory. To be sure, Kant's "practical" has a large theoretical component: the "practical" of Kant's Critique of Practical Reason is not the "practical" of Bowditch's Practical Navigator.

Having read Kant's demonstration in the essay, which has the force one would expect, I found myself thinking of Bagehot on the Members of Parliament:
They are common Englishmen, and, as Father Newman complains, "hard to be worked up to the dogmatic level". They are not eager to press the tenets of their party to impossible conclusions. On the contrary, the way to lead them--the best and acknowledged way--is to affect a studied and illogical moderation. You may hear men say, "Without committing myself to the tenet that 3 + 2 make 5, though I am free to admit that the honourable member for Bradford has advanced very grave arguments in behalf of it, I think I may, with the permission of the Committee, assume that 2 + 3 do not make 4, which will be a sufficient basis for the important propositions which I shall venture to submit on the present occasion." This language is very suitable to the greater part of the House of Commons. Most men of business love a sort of twilight. They have lived all their lives in an atmosphere of probabilities and of doubt, where nothing is very clear, where there are some chances for many events, where there is much to be said for several courses, where nevertheless one course must be determinedly chosen and fixedly adhered to. They like to hear arguments suited to this intellectual haze. So far from caution or hesitation in the statement of the argument striking them as an indication of imbecility, it seems to them a sign of practicality. They got rich themselves by transactions of which they could not have stated the argumentative ground--and all they ask for is a distinct though moderate conclusion, that they can repeat when asked; something which they feel NOT to be abstract argument, but abstract argument diluted and dissolved in real life. "There seem to me," an impatient young man once said, "to be no stay in Peel's arguments." And that was why Sir Robert Peel was the best leader of the Commons in our time; we like to have the rigidity taken out of an argument, and the substance left.
I cannot imagine this argument appealing to Immanuel Kant. But just now  the next couple of Bagehot's sentences sound not unappealing
Nor indeed, under our system of government, are the leaders themselves of the House of Commons, for the most part, eager to carry party conclusions too far. They are in contact with reality.

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