by WT Stace
It was very
late when I finished reading my
manuscript. I could see through the windows the first
streaks of the summer dawn. Jim yawned audibly. Peter
had been dozing during the reading of the last two
chapters, but woke up with a start assuring me that he
had heard every word. As a matter of fact they had
both been attentive and interested on the whole, I
thought. They sat in silence for a while. Jim lit his
pipe and let the long wreaths of blue smoke trail
across the room. After a while he began to question
me. "Do you believe", he said, "that there is in the
universe any sort of purpose or plan? Do you suppose
that it is driving at anything in particular? Do you
think that the universe is interested in our values,
in goodness and beauty and truth and all that sort of
"Why do you ask?" I enquired.
"Because", he said, "nothing of that sort appears in
your book, although if the universe had any reason or
plan in it one might suppose that morality had
something to do with the plan. Picture a universe
without a God, a soulless piece of mechanism,
perfectly indifferent to any sort of value. Suppose
that there were human beings in that universe. They
might very well evolve themselves the sort of morality
you describe in your book. They might try to be kind
to one another, and to alleviate each other's
sufferings. They might invent the ideal of altruism.
And they might give for being moral just the reasons
you give in your book."
"You describe the position perfectly", said I.
"But is there in morality nothing more than that?" he
asked. "Do you not yourself believe that it embodies
in some way some sort of a cosmic purpose?"
"I don't know. What do you think?"
"It is difficult to say anything definite", he
admitted. "But I will express myself by saying that
even if there is no Mind which consciously supervises
the affairs of the world, I think there must at least
be some principle in things which drives the world on
towards a better state of affairs. Would you not admit
"The question is beyond me", I replied. "One has, of
course, vague feelings of that sort. But if one tries
to formulate them in intelligible conceptions, one
fails. All the attempts which have ever been made to
formulate such conceptions either in religious creeds
or in metaphysical systems seem to me ridiculous. But
suppose for the sake of argument I admit what you say.
"Only this", he said, "that in that case you will have
to admit that the account of morality which you have
given in your book is wretchedly incomplete and even
shallow. It leaves out all the profounder issues."
"I believe", I answered, "that what my book says is
true so far as it goes. Of course it is incomplete. As
to whether it is shallow or profound I have no idea. I
express in my writing what there is in me to be
expressed. I cannot get out of myself more than is
Jim meditated, blowing smoke rings in the air. After a
while he said: "Then the difference between us is
this. You believe in a purely naturalistic morality
which does not in any way spring from the essential
nature of the world. Our values, you think, are
irrelevant to the universe which neither knows nor
cares anything about them. I, on the contrary, believe
that morality involves something deeper. The feeling
of moral obligation is really an instinctive sense of
the necessity we are under of cooperating with the
cosmic purpose. It appears in our consciousness as a
blind driving force which we do not understand. We
rationalize it, as you have tried to do in your book.
I admit that when we talk about purpose in the world
we are probably using hopelessly metaphorical
language. Hence the difficulties and contradictions
into which we fall when we attempt to systemize the
idea. But there is something in the universe which we
can only vaguely express by calling it a striving
towards a goal. Our anthropomorphism is no doubt very
crude. But we cannot express ourselves in any other
"I do not think", I replied, "that there exists
between us the sharp difference which you have
"I do not deny any of the things which you assert."
"Then if you agree with me, why not say so in your
"You go too fast. I did not say that I agreed with
you. What I say is that I do not know whether your
ideas are in any sense true or not. They may be the
expression of some sort of vague groping towards a
truth. We seem to have dim perceptions and intuitions
of this kind. Or rather, I do not know whether they
are dim perceptions of truth or more dreams of our
own. That is the trouble. Hence I neither assert nor
deny what you say."
"That is a spineless sort of attitude!" said Jim. "Why
don't you make up your mind? I would rather you went
over to the enemy altogether and flatly denied that
there is any rhyme or reason or meaning or sense in
the world at all."
All this while Peter had remained silent,
contemptuous, I thought, of the whole discussion. But
now he suddenly burst out saying that he agreed
entirely with Jim. This surprised me very much, seeing
that Peter prides himself on being tough-minded,
scientific, and positivistic; and I could not imagine
him agreeing with Jim's semi-religious ideas. I began
to twit him gently with his inconsistency.
"Stop!" he exclaimed. "Of course I don't mean that I
agree with Jim's beliefs. I mean that I agree with him
about you and your intellectual ineptitude. As to the
rest of what Jim has said I think it is sheer
sentimentalism. It is mere primitive thinking. Purpose
can be attributed to human beings and perhaps to
animals. But to attribute it to the universe is
absolutely meaningless. This is a world of brute facts
and nothing more. Science can tell us what happens.
And science alone gives any information about the
world. Science alone SAYS anything. There is no reason
why anything is what it is. There is no sense in
asking why things are as they are. I thought I
detected, while you were reading your manuscript,
numerous signs of primitive thinking and of edifying
sentimentality. The fact is that with all your alleged
empiricism--for I do not admit that IT is true
empiricism--you belong to a past generation. You have
a pre-war mentality."
"I am sorry, Peter", I said, "that I appear so feeble.
But may I explain why I cannot see eye to eye either
with you or with Jim?"
"Fire away!" said he, "but you will not convince me."
"I shall not try to convince you", I said. "But I will
try to say what I think. I cannot adopt Jim's position
simply because I do not really understand it. I do not
pretend to know whether the universe has any
purpose--whatever that word may mean when applied to
the universe--or not. This is all an impenetrable
darkness to me. But for that very same reason I cannot
throw in my lot with Peter. I do not know what the
darkness may hold. And I will not, with him, declare
that it holds nothing. He is too dogmatic and
cock-sure. What he cannot understand he labels
'nonsense'. And it seems to me that there is quite a
lot that he does not understand--even of things that
other men see quite clearly. And I will add something
more. When I hear music, or when I see the beauty of
sunsets, I feel--as Jim does too, I think--the sense
of a presence which seems to be trying to get in touch
with us, to break through barriers, something--so it
seems--which lies behind and beyond the veils of the
world of sense. And when men talk about the purpose in
the world, though I admit that what they say cannot in
any literal sense be defended, I think they are
vaguely groping for that something. Hence although I
am sure that the philosophies which try to express
this in intelligible concepts fall at once into
contradictions and absurdities, yet I cannot be so
contemptuous of them as Peter is. There may be that in
the universe which our intelligences cannot grasp. In
my philosophy I prefer to leave a margin for the
unknown. All roads, it seems to me, lead in the end to
a question mark and to ultimate mystery."
"You are an intellectual jellyfish", said Peter. "You
wobble about in all directions. Sometimes you are on
one side of the fence and sometimes on the other. As
to what you say about a mystic presence beyond the
veils of sense, I can prove to you conclusively by the
modern theory of meaning that all such statements are
meaningless verbiage. We have developed a technique. I
shall begin be demonstrating--"
"In the name of heaven", I interrupted hastily, "spare
us the demonstration. I know beforehand all the
arguments you are about to use. I have read all the
books you got them from. You are going to regale us
with tags from Wittgenstein and Carnap and the rest,
At this Peter began to sulk. "Have it your own way",
he said. "If you will not even listen to my arguments
I may as well drop out of the discussion."
"Don't do that, Peter. What you say is always
"Well", he admitted, "I suppose it is true that you
are acquainted with the arguments of the positivists.
So I need not repeat them. But I will ask you what you
have to say in reply to them."
"Not much", I said. "They have done admirable work in
checking our tendency to fly off into high-sounding
and meaningless phrases. There has certainly been too
much of that. I agree with you and your school that
all meaning must be definable in terms of some
possible experience, and that concepts which do not
refer to such experience are meaningless and are not
concepts at all. That, I take it, is the much needed
lesson which you and your friends have enforced. But
This must not be made a ground for narrow-mindedly
limiting the universe to what falls within the petty
range of our human faculties, and declaring to be
non-existent or meaningless whatever WE cannot grasp.
Meaning must be relative to experience--that is your
point. But it does not follow that is relative to OUR
experience. There may be other kinds of experience at
present beyond our reach. Who does not know, indeed,
that there are insects and animals whose members are
sensitive to vibrations which do not reach us? They
apprehend these vibrations, of course, through senses
which are still physical. But it is mere dogmatism to
confine the term experience to sense-experience as you
do. There may be non-physical senses of which we have
no knowledge. Mystics claim that direct non-physical
experiences sometimes come to them. Possibly they may
be deluded by mere subjective visions of their own.
But this is not certain. And I know of no ground but
prejudice for refusing to listen to their claims. Will
you say that their experiences are 'private' and
cannot be checked? But in the country of the blind the
experiences of the one-eyed man would be private and
could not be checked? It is possible that if all men
had the faculties of the mystic, what the mystic sees
could be as easily checked and verified as what we now
see with our physical eyes. However that may be, my
point is that for a genuine empiricism the term
experience ought to mean any direct objective
impinging of the world upon any conceivable mind. To
say that non-physical experiences are not objective is
merely to beg the question. And to a genuine empirical
theory of meaning, meaning must be relative to any
such possible experience. Our senses are the only
channels through which come to us--or to most of us at
any rate--news of the outside world. Do you really
suppose that what little gets through to us is all
there is to know? It is possible that there may be
millions of channels through which the world might
flow in on minds more developed than ours or on beings
differently constituted--channels which in us are not
opened at all. There may be millions of possible kinds
of direct experience for which we have no knowledge.
The dim intuitions of something beyond our ken, or a
presence behind the scenes, may be faint indications
and premonitions of direct experiences of the world
which may flood in upon our remote and more highly
evolved descendants, the supermen of the future, as
clearly as the sunlight now floods our eyes. Suppose
that there existed men who had lived all their lives
within a hollow sphere, whose walls were composed of
almost, but not quite, sound-proof material. Such
faint sounds as filtered through from the outside
world would be heard by a few who might be possessed
of exceptionally acute ears. Those of duller hearing
would suppose these latter to be involved in some
illusory experience of their own. They would say that
this experience was 'private' and 'not empirically
verifiable'. But if a hole was suddenly knocked in the
wall of the sphere, then the noise of the outside
world might break in like thunder upon them all. You
and your friends are very logical, but you have no
imagination. You parcel out the universe with your
concepts into neat little piles. But there remains the
sense that you have unaccountably left out something,
something too subtle to be caught in the crude meshes
of your blundering conceptual machine. And if I cannot
say WHAT that something is, that simply mean that my
concepts too are too crude to catch that faint elusive
experience. It escapes as soon as we try to grasp it."
I glanced at Peter to see the effect of my eloquence.
He was fast asleep.
"Peter!" I shouted, "Peter! You were asleep, and I was
uttering some of my most interesting thoughts."
"I heard most of what you said", he replied. "You were
uttering the wildest and most fantastic nonsense. You
accuse me of lack of imagination. You certainly have
"I give up, Peter. Go to sleep again. But I still have
a word for Jim. I want to come to an agreement with
"What sort of an agreement?" asked Jim.
"Well, I said, it is quite possible for you to accept
everything I say in my book and retain all your own
beliefs as well. Let us suppose, for the sake of
argument, that we accept a purely conventional
theistic creed. There is a personal God, a being like
ourselves, only bigger and more powerful. He has a
plan for the world. Moral action on our part is action
which furthers that plan. Immoral action is action
which tends to thwart it."
"You can believe all that if you want to. There is
nothing in my book which contradicts it."
"But according to you", said Jim, "the reason for
being moral is that morality is a means to happiness.
On the theistic view the reason for being moral is
that to be so fits in with the divine plan."
"BOTH reasons", I answered, "might be true at the same
time. That morality should both forward the divine
plan and advance our happiness would be part of the
infinite cunning of God. And morality might have just
the nature which I attribute to it in my book. And if
what I have written is perfectly compatible with a
crude theism, it is still more obvious that it is
compatible with your vague religiosity."
"What you say is true", admitted Jim. "Still your
account of morality is utterly inadequate. You have
left out all that is truly profound in it, I mean its
"I quite agree", I said. "I have probably said very
little that is of importance. That is because I know
so little. I would say more profound things if I knew
them. I do not deny that the full truth about morality
may be much MORE than I have written. What I am
concerned to teach is that at any rate it is not LESS.
And I do think this is of some importance. For
nowadays philosophers are found who deny that morality
has any meaning at all. They make utter nonsense of
it. According to them it is mere irrational emotion.
It is an unintelligible chaotic jumble of baseless and
mutually contradictory ideas. I have at least tried to
show that this is false, that morality is rational,
and that it is in some sense really binding upon men.
And if I can accomplish that, I am willing to let the
rest go. There are doubtless men of greater vision
than mine. Let them utter their vision. Let me give,
with the tiny lamp of my intellect, what light I can.
What do any of us know of the universe? Each of us is
like a man wandering in an infinite impenetrable
darkness carrying in his hand a ridiculous little
candle. The candle lights up faintly about a foot or
two around us, and beyond there are billions and
billions of miles of black darkness. And if what I can
see with my candle is very little, do not for that
reason despise it."
"Very well", replied Jim. "But you will please nobody
with your book. The idealists will have none of you
because of your empiricism and naturalism and your
complete neglect of what they will consider the only
issues worth considering. As to your radical
empiricist friends, they will refuse to admit that you
are one of themselves. You do not follow the crowd.
You do not repeat their usual catchwords. You do not
wave their banners. And they will look askance at
anyone who calls himself a radical empiricist and yet
admits into the foundation of his philosophy anything
other than sense-experience--introspective experience,
for instance, and the moral experience of humanity.
That, they will say, is not empiricism."
"So be it", I replied, "I shall please nobody. But in
the end one writes a book to work out one's own
intellectual salvation and to please nobody but
"That", said Jim, "is merely your variety of conceited
affectation. Since nobody takes any notice of what you
say, you pretend that you have been talking to
yourself and that you didn't want anyone else to
"Goodnight", I said hastily, "goodnight. You know too
SOURCE: WT Stace's THE CONCEPT OF MORALS (New York:
Macmillan Company, 1937) pp. 295-304.