Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980

Search by issue:

Syllogisms in grass

SIR: Nick Humphrey’s review of ray Mind and Nature (LRB, 6 December 1979) touches on matters which are more important than his or my personal opinions. May I try to illuminate the contrast between his philosophy and mine? As I see it, this, contrast is fundamental to the old controversies between churchmen and scientists and between C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’. This is the rift, the resolution of which William Blake called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

I will try (as a scientist)to anatomise that rift even while I hear old Blake’s voice rumbling in the wings: ‘It is but lost time to converse with you whose works are only Analytics.’

Humphrey says that my recognition or assertion that evolution and mental process are the same sort of thing – members of the class which I call mental phenomena – is a piece of ‘logical sleight of hand … which rests fair and square on the fallacy logicians know as affirming the consequent’ (my italics). I agree that I am indeed affirming the consequent – and proud of it. There are other names for this pattern of thought, indeed the whole of science is (or claims to be) knit together by assertions of the general type: ‘This set of phenomena is an example under the same rule as that set of phenomena.’ I believe C.S. Peirce called the building of this type of argument abduction. In any case, the unity of science depends upon it. When Humphrey asserts that it is wrong to affirm the consequent, he (and Logic) reduce the human race (and all our fellow organisms) to the level of silly computing machinery.

Consider two syllogisms. Humphrey’s quite orthodox scientific syllogism is called ‘Barbara’:

Men die.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates will die.

In contrast, mine is the syllogism which Von Domarus long ago called ‘schizophrenic’ (in an essay entitled ‘The Specific Laws of Logic in Schizophrenia’ and published in Language and Thought in Schizophrenia, edited by J.S. Kasanin, University of California Press, 1944). It goes like this:

Men die.
Grass dies.
Men are grass.

Humphrey’s syllogism depends upon identification of subjects and their assignment to classes; mine depends upon the equating of predicates and the creation of a class from the equated predicates.

Von Domarus was right in recognising that indeed the talk of schizophrenics exemplifies this latter mode of thought. But I think he did not quite see that this mode is profoundly human. It is fundamental to the natural history of Man. Freudian psychoanalysts call the same mode ‘primary process’ and recognise it in the coherence of dreams. They know it to be the universal base of all thought. Other common names for it are poetry and metaphor and sacrament. (‘This is my body … This is my blood.’)

It seems to me that the long and silly battles with the Church have left the biologists a little punch-drunk and, as a result, there is an accumulation of ‘consequents’ within biology which badly need affirming, even though to affirm will not be to utter anything new. What is required is to see that what is claimed by theologians as due to transcendental interference is also due to immanent mind. Of course this will not detract from the religious importance of the generalisations (e.g. that evolution and thinking are formally similar processes). It will simply convert biology into a religion. But let us not fall into the error of thinking that the syllogism in ‘grass’ has the same species of cogency as the syllogism in ‘Barbara’. That would be to commit the error of fundamentalism. The error ot scientism is to deny the syllogisms in grass. That of fundamentalism is to assert that these have the same sort of cogency as Barbara.

When some A and some B meet and interact, we talk as though the events of the interaction were somehow an expression of abstractions (‘.courage’, ‘humour’, ‘hostility’, ‘greed’, ‘ego’, ‘instinct’, and even ‘mass’ and ‘viscosity’). Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle. To avoid this false reification, we resort to narrative. We tell each other stories and then we try (because we are religious and therefore scientists) to link our stories together. The result is metaphors and parables – syllogisms in grass.

We talk as though we had direct knowledge of a man’s ‘character’ but indeed our knowledge even of the colour of his shirt is only indirect. We tend to believe the images that our eyes and brains somehow create and from these we build a materialistic prison. Between one experiment and the next our physicists sneak around the corner to consult mediums. We long to believe in the miracles of professional tricksters and fear to recognise the miraculous nature of our own perception and imagination.

Gregory Bateson
Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California

‘A Faust Book’

SIR: Mr James Fenton’s review (LRB, 6 December 1979) is the worst single piece of reviewing I have seen in a serious journal. By chance I had already read four of the five volumes under review, and I therefore knew that Mr Fenton had great diversity and richness at his disposal – and dispose he certainly did. But if I had not read these poets, I would still have known that Mr Fenton’s review was cheap in its praise, insensitive in its observations and wilfully biased (even Mr Fenton must know that in a review length is judgment) to a degree shameful to see, shameful to share.

I have not read Hugo Williams’s new book and so cannot comment, but along with the volumes by Raine and Christopher Reid. I read with delight and lasting pleasure D.J. Enright’s A Faust Book and Yehuda Amichai’s Time. In Amichai’s case, Mr Fenton is dealing with a world reputation, a poet who has produced astonishing poems. If, therefore, Mr Fenton actually does find Amichai’s new collection vapid, he must say how this is so, and more particularly, give some account of how the new poetry falls short of past excellence. Instead, Mr Fenton gives us one very brief paragraph, in which the only thing approaching description or judgment is Mr Fenton’s claim that Amichai is a fool.

But surely the meanest distortion is Mr Fenton’s treatment of D.J. Enright’s A Faust Book. This volume is in fact a small masterpiece of its kind, a vigorous revival of wit, punning and allusion, of language working by turns as gesture, as farce, as tonal dance, in the finest British tradition. To make the Faust legend come alive, to capture its gravity through comic means, to use Marlowe and Goethe as sounding-boards for satire upon just the sort of literary intelligence Mr Fenton represents – all this comes across with wonderful ease and authority. And to have done this by making Mephistopheles the dominant voice – cynical, playful, perverse, witty amid lapses of bleakest honesty – is surely the correct angle of vision for a time as askew as our own.

Both quotations supplied by Mr Fenton come from the same page of A Faust Book, a fact Mr Fenton conceals, in order not to have to say why such disparate forms are directly linked. He would also have to remark that the poem is a narrative, in which different parts (poems) are spoken by different voices at different dramatic moments. Rather, he faults A Faust Book for being a sequence of the kind written ‘by people who have not solved the problem of how to write a long poem’ – as if Shakespeare were less the poet for hanging his verse on stories, or as if the capacity to reconfirm one of our central myths by sheer flexibility of form were less than the marvellous accomplishment it is. And when, finally, Mr Fenton condemns Enright because he ‘punctuates as he pleases’, Mr Fenton is being more than picky. He is ignorant and someone should inform him that poets do indeed punctuate as they please.

Terrence Des Pres
London NW8


SIR: As one who would have liked to have been ‘literary’ but doesn’t have the brains or the background, I read a lot of reviews – and even occasionally the books. I am always struck by the seemingly gratuitous and extreme personal rudeness of many reviewers to their subjects – unless of course they all know each other, but I think that unlikely. The example I have in mind is John Sutherland’s reply to Ken Follet’s letter (Letters, 20 December 1979) defending – or defining – thrillers. I personally think Frederick Forsyth’s books are not of much account, but there are times when I am glad to read them; and even if there weren’t, I wouldn’t call him a cheap hack because he has a swimming-pool and I haven’t, or is lucky enough to live in the South of France. Writing for money doesn’t make people blockheads. I suspect that without the huge sales of those ‘deplorable’ books, the weighty and important ones that ‘we’ read might not be published.

Struan Robertson
Ships Pilot, Sovereign Venture

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences