Suggested Reading For Analytical Philosophers: Wordsworth’s Prelude


This modest offering stems from two provocations.  One is Richard Cocks’ piquant disquisition at The People of Shambhala, referenced here at The Orthosphere, concerning the limitations inherent in the modern school of thought that calls itself Logical Positivism or Analytical Philosophy; the other is a pedagogical necessity that befell me last week to explicate in class for the students of my “Writing about Literature” course a famous passage from William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Book I.  My title must obviously be taken cum grano salis, as logical positivists and analytical philosophers would immediately reduce Wordsworth’s  observations and arguments to their own insipid categories.  Frankly, I cannot imagine the logical positivists or analytical philosophers, or howsoever they dub themselves, making any sense whatsoever of Wordsworths verses or, for that matter, being interested in or aware of them.  Wordsworth’s fundamental assumptions must be opaque to such people.

I have written up my lecture-outline as a short essay.  I append the text on which I comment at the end of the essay.  Those sufficiently generous to feel curiosity about the essay might want to read the excerpt first.  I take for my illustration the fourth panel of The Voyage of Life (1842) by Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley School.


A Brief Essay on the Adventure of the Boat at Night: It is an observation of natural philosophy that ontogeny repeats phylogeny: That is, the gestation and maturation of the individual repeat the gestation and maturation of the family, genus, or the species.  More generally speaking, everything that exists is an effect that research – or introspection – can trace back to a cause until the procedure finds its destination in a First Cause.  These facts entail any number of paradoxes, not least the poet William Wordsworth’s contention, found in his little poem “My Heart Leaps Up” (1802), that “the child is the father of the man”:


Wordsworth averred often in his prosaic self-explanations that his every line of verse belonged to one great conjectural poem such that each smaller poem was but part of a transcendent whole, which could perhaps never be completed in the poet’s lifetime.  That one Wordsworthian poem should  comment on another should come therefore as no surprise.  The few short lines, almost throwaway verse, of “My heart leaps up” indeed suggest much concerning a crucial passage from one of the early books of one of Wordsworth’s most ambitious poems – the epic-length verse-autobiography The Prelude, begun by the poet as early as 1798 but never published until after his death in 1850.  In the episode in question, Wordsworth recounts one of the adventures of his boyhood, in the Lake District of Northwest England just below the Scottish Border, the native locale where he spent his childhood and to which he returned to live later in life after the peregrinations of his young adulthood.

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Tenured Astronomy Professor Fired after Discovering Trans-Neptunian Object: Women’s and Minorities’ Grievance Committee Says Object Insufficiently Diverse


L: Ugna (Planetesimal); R: Ugna (Provost)

A hard-working, well-liked, and professionally productive Associate Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Upstate Consolation University has hired a law firm to help him in his fight to have his recent summary termination of employment overturned and is promising to take his complaint to civil court.  Brainerd Feta-Stilton’s firing came astonishingly enough just after he had generated major publicity for his institution by discovering a new Trans-Neptunian object.  Even more surprisingly, Feta-Stilton had tentatively named the object Ugna, in honor of Dr. Edwima Ugna, the very same university official who subsequently terminated him.  Ugna, who has served as Upstate Consolation University’s Provost since 2006, had in the past praised Feta-Stilton for his scientific achievements, which have brought many grants and endowments to the institution, as well as much positive exposure.

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UCU to Launch Studies Studies Program

Portlandia Season 5, Story of Toni and Candace

A press-release from the Office of the President at Upstate Consolation University contains an announcement that beginning in the fall semester, a new graduate program, the first of its kind in North America, will offer a master’s degree in Studies Studies.  In the announcement, UCU President Chloe Alexandra Brainepanne expresses her enthusiasm for the new Studies Studies Program, funds for which became available when the Academic Senate passed a measure eliminating all literature courses in the English Department, which will henceforth dedicate itself entirely to Freshman Remedial Writing and Advanced Internet Media Appreciation.  Several former English faculty members will transfer to Studies Studies, while the rest have been indefinitely furloughed.

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When Nothing Changes

Zola Paradise

In case my tendency to allude to the classroom might strike anyone as tedious or repetitive, I offer an apology in advance and invite the uninterested to skip the following.  The classroom is nevertheless a consistently renewed sample of the contemporary cohorts as they advance up the ladder of what remains of actual social initiation hoping to join the ranks of the accredited when testing the job market for the first time as prospective adults.  In my classroom, a mid-tier state-college classroom, I therefore have the opportunity (and I take it) to observe the diminishing returns of the near-criminal enterprise of North America’s public primary and secondary instruction, especially where it concerns the inculcation of literacy of both the strict and cultural varieties.

In the just-completed semester, my department chair had asked me, as she regularly does, to supervise the graduate-level “Business in Literature” course that English teaches at the behest of and as a favor to the School of Business’s five-year accountancy program.  I like teaching this course because over the years the five-year accountancy students have demonstrated themselves to be cooperative and disciplined in degree sufficient to distinguish them from the general run of students.  In any given semester, I ask the students to read a short anthropological study – The Gift  (1925) by Marcel Mauss – and three or four novels that take as their setting a recognizably “business” milieu.  This semester’s syllabus obliged the enrollment to read the two “Vinland” sagas, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, Tono-Bungay (1909) by H. G. Wells, and The Paradise of Women (1883) by Emile Zola, the last the basis of two recent television serials and a forgotten French sound-film from 1932.  As a means of putting moral pressure on students to complete the reading, I require them to turn in reading-notes, documenting in detail their progress through the chapters, on a regular basis.  I am fairly certain that most of the accountancy enrollment in the just-completed semester did ninety percent of the reading.  (By contrast, in most of my classes, I would estimate that only sixty per cent of students do as much as sixty per cent of the reading.)

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Ontological Depth versus Improper Reduction

The specification string of a class can be finite. But the specification string of any actual is infinite (Rescher: “The number of true statements about any actual thing is infinite.”), for it must include specifications of its relations to all other things – and while the number of things is always definite, there is no upper bound to it. Thus a specification string such as we might derive from our scientific speculations and experiments can work to specify a class of things, but never any particular concrete thing.

When we reduce a thing to nothing but the mechanical operations of the natural laws that we have decided furnish a complete causal account for items of its type, then, we engage in improper reduction, even though these operations do indeed characterize it.

A particular cheetah is far, far more, and denser, and richer, than the class of cheetahs, or the string that completely specifies that class. So likewise with any actuality.

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Doubt is Incomprehension

Once we understand a doctrine properly, it becomes much easier to relate to the rest of the intellectual economy, ergo credible. Indeed, only with elimination of incomprehension is belief really possible. We can’t decide whether we think a notion is either true or false – cannot come to a belief about it – until we know what exactly it is, what it means and portends, how it links up (if it does) to the rest of our experience and knowledge.

Not that we ever attain complete exactitude in our understanding of anything, for we don’t.

Nevertheless there is such a thing as understanding that is good enough for our purposes. Such understanding of a concept generally takes the form of seeing how it fits with other more familiar concepts. What we are really trying to do when we try to understand something new is relate it intelligibly to familiar concepts that have proven reliable in practice – tried and true, as the saying goes.

Once we have arrived at clear comprehension of a proposition, a judgement of its truth often follows with little further ado; or else, the research needed to confirm or deny it makes itself fairly obvious, even straightforward.

Thus the lion’s share of most intellectual work is just getting clear on what is being considered. Once we’ve done that – and provided that a proposal has not in it revealed its utter absurdity – it becomes much easier to see how belief in it could actually work. And once we see how it *could* work, it becomes ipso facto credible. It *could* be true. We then take it more seriously, and then lo! Not infrequently, finding it credible, we find that we credit it. Seeing how it fits into reality as we have understood it, we can find it compelling to accept that in fact it *does* fit into reality.

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A Basic Modern Error

Oswego River

Modern people say: “Everything is changing all the time.”  They apparently believe it.

A guest of The Orthosphere made this error recently in one of the threads on atheism by claiming that language “is changing all the time.”

Languages indeed change, but it appears that they change abruptly rather than gradually and that the hiatuses between such changes tend to be long. On good evidence, for example, Anglo-Saxon was a stable language for at least five hundred years and maybe as much as a thousand years. The events of 1066 AD destabilized Anglo-Saxon, which, in the course of the next hundred years, fused with Norman French to create the Anglo-Norman tongue, which reached its perfection in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Modern English speakers can understand very little of Anglo-Saxon, but they can grasp eighty-five or ninety per cent of Chaucer’s verse. Chaucer wrote in the Fourteenth Century, which means that English has been quite stable for some seven or eight centuries.

Similarly, Thirteenth-Century French is comprehensible, with some effort, to Modern French speakers, who, however, might well be baffled by the Latin precursor-language.

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A Strictly Derivative Proposition

Seven Seals

For discussion: Atheism is a strictly derivative proposition. If every single theist of every kind were at last one day to die off, leaving a human population of atheists only – the atheistic proposition would still, historically, conceptually, and grammatically be a strictly derivative proposition. Being a derivative proposition, atheism is necessarily prone to resentment, and what atheism resents is the originality of theism, or theism’s firstness, whose status it can never usurp. Indeed, atheism can have no status at all, not even its derivative status, except for the prior existence of theism. Whereas atheism is clearly derivative of theism, it is difficult to imagine how a subsequent theism might ever derive itself from an original atheism. There would be nothing, in the first place, to negate, and therefore nothing to serve as the basis for a derivation. Such resentment, attaching necessarily to its embarrassing structural character, would explain the vehemence and petulance of atheism. Lucretius, following Epicurus, was probably wise to reject outright atheism for his brand of theistic minimalism, never denying the being of the gods, but declaring their non-intervention policy with respect to humanity. Even for Lucretius, however, imitating the gods – following the model of their blitheness – remained a desideratum.*

Atheism’s debt to theism resembles the debt of any attempt to dethrone metaphysics to the selfsame metaphysics that it would dethrone.  The abolition of the axioms is left finally with its own lame axiom, just the one, complete with the embarrassing negation, dangling from the proposition like a wet tail.  Nietzsche’s God who is Dead, for example, must previously have been Alive, an irritation concerning which Nietzsche seems to have been aware, to credit him with that much, at least.  (Was Nietzsche really an atheist?  In his own description he was a Dionysiac, pitching Dionysus against Christ.)

In their pursuit of firstness, derivative propositions are always-already checked.

Of course the bland terms theism and atheism, to put them in their proper order, are not quite adequate.  The Theos against which atheism pits itself is never Huitzilopotchli or Istustaya, Sol Invictus or Domna Luna; it is invariably the Christian Trinity.  The atheism of our age (and it is not clear that atheism can claim any previous age) is simply another form of the pervasive and resentful anti-Christianity, which spurns the Christian remonstrance to give up resentment, and which has been angrily present in Western society since the Parisian Blutrausch of 1789.

[*A minor mystery of antiquity is the sudden disappearance of the Epicureans, who had constituted a major segment of the Imperial citizenry all over the Empire, in the middle of the Third Century.  The most plausible explanation for their abrupt departure from the scene was offered by Walter Pater in his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885): In rejecting the sacrificial gods, the Epicureans were already extremely close to Christianity, to which they converted very nearly en masse.]

The Pragmatic Argument from Verisimilitude

What would life be like if God did not exist? If we found that such a life would be quite unlike our own lives as actually lived, that would be a pretty strong indication that atheism is false; that it disagrees with reality as we actually encounter it. Since God, if he exists, is by far – infinitely far – the biggest most important thing there is, our decision about whether he exists is the most important and far-reaching decision we can make in life. Thus if God exists, and we approached the question of his existence in the wrong spirit, it would be the worst mistake of our lives; as if we had spat on the Good King, but far, far worse; for the King in question would be the King of Everything.

It behooves us to approach the question in the right frame of mind, so that we are less likely to err in our thinking.

Part of approaching the question in the right spirit is being honest with ourselves about how things would be if God did not exist. To begin with a closed mind, or to beg the question and insist that nothing could be different if God did not exist, would be to cheat the whole project. But it is crucial to recognize that, in cheating the project, we would be hurting only ourselves.

What are the aspects of life that we are going to find most indicative? What, that is, are the things that might be quite different for us if there were no God? Well, what are the basic features of our lives?

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