English Common Sense Philosophy
and its Limitations

Thanks ever so much for your letter of December 22nd. I am greatly relieved that you have no major objection to what I did with the "Postscript." FN

. . . . There is one point on which you have very justified misgivings, however politely you express them: the question of the "understatement." I have misgivings myself. Yet there is more to the problem than appears in the "Postscript."

We are faced with the oddity that English philosophy, or thought in general, acquires a peculiar subduedness after the Glorious Revolution. After Hobbes, Locke, and Berkeley, English thinking loses the incisiveness which characterizes the French Enlightenment and the German outburst from Kant, via [Johann Gottlieb] Fichte and Hegel, to Schelling and Marx.

The English 18th century— setting aside Hume and his belated skepticism based on Sextus Empiricus, an aftermath of the Pyrrhonian revival of the sixteenth century has produced the "common sense" philosophy from [Thomas] Reid onward. And "common sense" is, for Reid and his successors, a deliberate toning down of philosophy, from Aristotelianism and Stoicism, to Reason, in the same sense as Aristotle and the Stoics have understood it, on the level of the common man who does not engage in philosophical meditations.

The common sense man of the Scottish philosophers is a man who holds the same truths with regard to man and his ethical conduct as a philosopher but without the philosophical apparatus. It is a regression to what one might call a pre-philosophic "wisdom" literature which, however, has absorbed the results of the philosophers.

On this level, of course, one can think only as long as the substance of the wisdom holds out. It cannot be renewed actively from the philosopher's movement in intellectual meditation. Still, it holds out for quite a while. John Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, of 1925, is still a pure product of this Common Sense thinking.

But it becomes extremely vulnerable, when the social scene is dominated by ideologists who think incisively, however wrong their thought may be. To illustrate what I mean, let me quote a passage from [Edmund] Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he speaks of the function of the Church to instill "worthy notions of their function and destination," including their hope of immortality in the rulers of a society.

These notions, Burke says, are necessary "to build up that wonderful structure Man; whose prerogative it is, to be in a great degree a creature of his own making; and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation. But whenever man is put over man, as the better nature ought ever to preside, in that case more particularly, he should as nearly as possible be approximated to his perfection."

There can be no doubt that Burke in this passage speaks of the nature of man in the classical sense, as well as of the classical tension between potentiality and actualization. Still, he uses the symbolism of progressive ideology—man a creature of his own making, approximating to his perfection, etc.—so that the classical actualization which cannot overstep the limits of man's nature is softened up to man's making himself his own creature. The definite limit drawn by nature is transformed into a "great degree" to which no limit is stated.

Here you have a good example of what I mean by an "understatement" that blurs the intellectual structure of the problem so badly that any progressivist can quote Burke, if he wants to, for justifying the immanentist approach to perfection which Burke abhorred. The "fuzziness" in the use of symbols, which I criticized in James, is also peculiar to Burke. It is an English style of messing up the Logos of reality that goes parallel with the development of the symbols "understatement" and "gentility."

From these remarks, I hope, you will see that there is more to the problem of "understatement" than I could let meet the eye in the Postscript. But you will also see that here we have a secular problem of an English style of thinking (which also has entered the American style as a component) yet quite insufficiently explored.

I should add perhaps that these observations are not meant as a negative evaluation: The deliberate refusal to enter into explicit intellectual debate has proved an effective preservative for the substance of common sense in England and America. The French and German adventures in more penetrating thought have proved disastrous in their social consequences.

Still, the Anglo-Saxon world is no longer an island. The contemporary penetration of our public scene by the concoction of Hegel-Marx-Freud, on top of an undigested progressivist Enlightenment, can spell disaster also for America—incalculable in its dimensions, because intellectual resistance cannot fall back on an established discipline of thought, but must move in such dubious wash-out modes as "traditionalism" and "conservatism."

Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin
A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984,
Not a Poscript at All
but a New Essay,
Letter 123, Stanford, December 30, 1969 ,

pp 258-260.

Footnote. See Published Essays, 1966-1985, Collected Works,
Volume 12,
Included is the essay entitled "Postscript" which Voegelin wrote to appear with and following his essay, "On Henry James's Turn of the Screw " Back to Text