The Great Conversation

A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something
that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the
development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.

Robert Maynard Hutchins


Quotes from Robert Maynard Hutchins:  Great Books of the Western World, vol. 1:  The Great Conversation:  The Substance of a Liberal Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952


“Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books.”  p. xi


“This set of books is the result of an attempt to reappraise and re-embody the tradition of the West for our generation.”  p. xi


“We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking.  We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation.”  p. xii


“ in the West has been steadily deteriorating; the rising generation has been deprived of its birthright; the mess of pottage it has received in exchange [for the great books] has not been nutritious; adults have come to lead lives comparatively rich in material comforts and very poor in moral, intellectual, and spiritual tone.”  p. xiii


“The reiteration of slogans, the distortion of the news, the great storm of propaganda that beats upon the citizen twenty-four hours a day all his life long mean either that democracy must fall a prey to the loudest and most persistent propagandists or that the people must save themselves by strengthening their minds so that they can appraise the issues for themselves.”  p. xiii


“...the idea that liberal education is the education that everybody ought to have, and that the best way to a liberal education in the West is through the greatest works the West has produced, is still, in our view, the best educational idea there is.”  p. xiv


“...we believe that the obligation rests on all of us, uneducated, miseducated, and educated alike, to [go on educating ourselves all our lives].”  p. xv


“[Adult Americans] now have the chance to understand themselves through understanding their tradition.”  p. xvi


“Why read Copernicus or Faraday if scientists now know everything that they knew, and much more besides?”  p. xxi


Quoting James B. Conant:  “What I propose is the establishment of one or more courses at the college level on the Tactics and Strategy of Science.  The objective would be to give a greater degree of understanding of science by the close study of a relatively few historical examples of the development of science.”  p. xxi


“The atmosphere we breathe today, because of the universal use of gadgets and machines, because the word ‘scientific’ is employed in a magical sense, and because of the half-hidden technological fabric of our lives, is full of the images and myths of science.  The minds of men are full of shadows and reflections of things that they cannot grasp.  As Scott Buchanan has said, ‘Popular science has made every man his own quack; he needs some of the doctor’s medicine.’”  p. xxiv


“Much of the background in Dante is in Euclid and in Ptolemy’s astronomy; the structure of both the poem and the world it describes is mathematical.”  p. xxv


“The Advisory Board recommended that no scholarly apparatus should be included in the set....  The books should speak for themselves, and the reader should decide for himself.”  p. xxv


“When the history of the intellectual life of this century is written, the Syntopicon will be regarded as one of the landmarks in it.”  p. xxvi


“The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day.”  p. ___


Quoting Sir Richard Livingstone:  “We are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to the commonplace.  That is where contact with great thinkers, great literature helps.  In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius.  And some of their vision becomes our own.”  p. 2-3


“This set of books is offered not merely as an object upon which leisure may be expended, but also as a means to the humanization of work through understanding.”  p. 16


“It would seem that [education through great books and the liberal arts] is the best for everybody... provided everybody can get it.  The question, then, is:  Can everybody get it?  This is the most important question in education.  Perhaps it is the most important question in the world.”  p. 17


“This is not to say that the educational system should not contribute to the physical, social, and moral development of those committed to its charge.  But the method of its contribution, apart from the facilities for extra-curriculum activities that it provides, is through the mind.  The educational system seeks to establish the rational foundations for good physical, moral, and social behavior.  These rational foundations are the result of liberal education.”  p. 26


“By the end of the first quarter of this century great books and the liberal arts had been destroyed by their teachers.  The books had become the private domain of scholars.”  p. 27


“Do science, technology, industrialization, and specialization render the Great Conversation irrelevant?”  p. 29


“...specialization [in the education provided], instead of making the Great Conversation irrelevant, makes it more pertinent than ever.”  p. 30


“...the task of the future is the creation of a community.  Community seems to depend on communication.... The effectiveness of modern communication in promoting a community depends on whether there is something intelligible and human to communicate.  This, in turn, depends on a common language, a common stock of ideas, and common human standards.  These the Great Conversation affords.”  p. 30


“The experimental method [of science] has won such clear and convincing victories that it is now regarded in some quarters not only as the sole method of building up scientific knowledge, but also as the sole method of obtaining knowledge of any kind.”  p. 32


“...we are often told that any question that is not answerable by the empirical methods of science is not really answerable at all, or at least not by significant and verifiable statements.  Exceptions may be made with regard to the kinds of questions mathematicians or logicians answer by their methods.  But all other questions must be submitted to the methods of experimental research or empirical inquiry.

          “If they are not answerable by these methods, they are the sort of questions that should not be asked in the first place.  At best they are questions we can answer only by guesswork or conjecture; at worst they are meaningless or, as the saying goes, nonsensical questions.  Genuinely significant problems, in contrast, get their meaning in large part from the scientific operations of observation, experiment, and measurement by which they can be solved; and the solutions, when discovered by these methods, are better than guesswork or opinion.  They are supported by fact.  They have been tested and are subject to further verification.

          “We are told furthermore that the best answers we can obtain by the scientific method are never more than probable.  We must free ourselves, therefore, from the illusion that, outside of mathematics and logic, we can attain necessary and certain truth.  Statements that are not mathematical or logical formulae may look as if they were necessarily or certainly true, but they only look like that.  They cannot really be either necessary or certain.  In addition, if they have not been subjected to empirical verification, they are, far from being necessarily true, not even established as probable.  Such statements can be accepted provisionally, as working assumptions or hypotheses, if they are acceptable at all.  Perhaps it is better, unless circumstances compel us to take another course, not to accept such statements at all.

          “Consider, for example, statements about God’s existence or the immortality of the soul.  These are answers to questions that cannot be answered—one way or the other—by the experimental method.  If that is the only method by which probable and verifiable knowledge is attainable, we are debarred from having knowledge about God’s existence or the immortality of the soul.  If modern man, accepting the view that he can claim to know only what can be demonstrated by experiment or verified by empirical research, still wishes to believe in these things, he must acknowledge that he does so by religious faith or by the exercise of his will to believe; and he must be prepared to be regarded in certain quarters as hopelessly superstitious.

          “It is sometimes admitted that many propositions that are affirmed by intelligent people, such as that democracy is the best form of government or that world peace depends upon world government, cannot be tested by the method of experimental science.  But it is suggested that this is simply because the method is still not fully developed.  When our use of the method matures, we shall find out how to employ it in answering every genuine question.

          “Since many propositions in the Great Conversation have not been arrived at by experiment or have not been submitted to empirical verification, we often hear that the Conversation, though perhaps interesting to the antiquarian as setting forth the bizarre superstitions entertained by ‘thinkers’ before the dawn of experimental science, can have no relevance for us now, when experimental science and its methods have at last revealed these superstitions for what they are.  We are urged to abandon the reactionary notion that the earlier voices in the Conversation are even now saying something worth listening to, and supplicated to place our trust in the experimental method as the only source of valid or verifiable answers to questions of every sort.

          “One voice in the Great Conversation itself announces this modern point of view.  In the closing paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:  ‘When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make?  If we take in our hand any volume . . . let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames:  for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’

          “The books that Hume and his followers, the positivists of our own day, would commit to burning or, what is the same, to dismissal from serious consideration, do not reflect ignorance or neglect of Hume’s principles.  Those books, written after as well as before Hume, argue the case against the kind of positivism that asserts that everything except mathematics and experimental science is sophistry and illusion.  They state and defend propositions quite opposite to those of Hume.

          “The Great Conversation, in short, contains both sides of the issue that in modern times is thought to have a most critical bearing on the significance of the Great Conversation itself.  Only an unashamed dogmatist would dare to assert that the issue has been finally resolved now in favor of the view that, outside of logic or mathematics, the method of modern science is the only method to employ in seeking knowledge.  The dogmatist who made this assertion would have to be more than unashamed.  He would have to blind himself to the fact that his own assertion was not established by the experimental method, nor made as an indisputable conclusion of mathematical reasoning or of purely logical analysis.

          “With regard to this issue about the scientific method, which has become central in our own day, the contrary claim is not made for the Great Conversation.  It would be equally dogmatic to assert that the issue has been resolved in favor of the opposite point of view.  What can be justly claimed, however, is that the great books ably present both sides of the issue and throw light on aspects of it that are darkly as well as dogmatically treated in contemporary discussion.”  p. 33-35


“[the great books] afford us the best examples of man’s efforts to seek the truth, both about the nature of things and about human conduct, by methods other than those of experimental science; and because these examples are presented in the context of equally striking examples of man’s efforts to learn by experiment or the method of empirical science, the great books provide us with the best materials for judging whether the experimental method is or is not the only acceptable method of inquiry into all things.”  p. 37-38


“How many valid methods of inquiry are there?”  p. 40


“What is here proposed is interminable liberal education.  Even if the individual has the best possible liberal education in youth, interminable education through great books and the liberal arts remains his obligation; he cannot expect to store up an education in childhood that will last all his life.  What he can do in youth is to acquire the disciplines and habits that will make it possible for him to continue to educate himself all his life.  One must agree with John Dewey in this:  that continued growth is essential to intellectual life.

          “The twin aims that have animated mankind since the dawn of history are the conquest of nature and the conquest of drudgery.  Now they seem in a fair way to be achieved.  And the achievement seems destined, at the same time, to end in the trivialization of life.  It is impossible to believe that men can long be satisfied with the kind of recreations that now occupy the bulk of their free time.  After all, they are men.  Man, though an animal, is not all animal.  He is rational, and he cannot live by animal gratifications alone; still less by amusements that animals have too much sense to indulge in.  A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.

          “The trials of the citizen now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew.  Private and public propaganda beats upon him from morning till night all his life long.  If independent judgment is the sine qua non of effective citizenship in a democracy, then it must be admitted that such judgment is harder to maintain now than it ever has been before.  It is too much to hope that a strong dose of education in childhood and youth can inoculate a man to withstand the onslaughts of his independent judgment that society conducts, or allows to be conducted, against him every day.  For this, constant mental alertness and mental growth are required.”  p. 52-53


“Yet the great issues are there.  What is our destiny?  What is a good life?  How can we achieve a good society?  What can we learn to guide us through the mazes of the future from history, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts?

          “These questions lie, for the most part, in areas traditionally assigned to the liberal arts, the humanities, and the social studies.  If through this set of books, or in any other way, the adult population of laymen came to regard these issues as important; if scholars in these fields were actually engaged in wrestling with these problems; if in a large number of homes all over the country these questions were being discussed, then two things would happen.  It would become respectable for intelligent young people, young people with ideas, to devote their lives to the study of these issues, as it is respectable to be a scientist or an engineer today; and the colleges of liberal arts and scholars in the humanities and the social sciences would receive all the support they could use.”  p. 56


“The only civilization in which a free man would be willing to live is one that conceives of history as one long conversation leading to clarification and understanding.”  p. 58


 “Yet there will not be much argument against the proposition that, on the whole, reasonable and intelligent people, even if they confront aggressively unreasonable or stupid people, have a better chance of attaining their end, which in this case is peace, than if they are themselves unreasonable and stupid.  They may even be able by their example to help their opponents to become more reasonable and less stupid.”  p. 59


 “The Great Conversation symbolizes that Civilization of the Dialogue which is the only civilization in which a free man would care to live.  It promotes the realization of that civilization here and now.  This set of books is organized on the principle of attaining clarification and understanding of the most important issues, as stated by the greatest writers of the West, through continuous discussion.  Its object is to project the Great Conversation into the future and to have everybody participate in it.  The community toward which it is hoped that these books may contribute is the community of free minds.”  p. 60


“We hear a great deal nowadays about international understanding, world community, and world organization.  These things are all supposed to be good; but nothing very concrete is put forward as to the method by which they can be attained.  We can be positive on one point:  we are safe in saying that these things will not be brought about by vocational training, scientific experiment, and specialization.  The kind of education we have for young people and adults in the United States today will not advance these causes.  I should like to suggest one or two ways in which they may be advanced.

          “We should first dispose of the proposition that we cannot have world organization, a world of law, without a world community.  This appears to overlook the obvious interaction between legal institutions and culture.  As Aristotle pointed out long ago, law is itself an educational force.  The Constitution of the United States educates the people every day to believe in and support the Constitution of the United States.

          “World community, in the sense of perfect understanding among all peoples everywhere, is not required in order to have the beginnings of world law.  What is required is that minimum of understanding which is sufficient to allow world law to begin.  From that point forward world law will support world community and world community will support world law.”  p. 62-63


“The question for you is only whether you can ever understand these books well enough to participate in the Great Conversation, not whether you can understand them well enough to end it.  And the answer is that you can never know until you try.  We have built up around the ‘classics’ such an atmosphere of pedantry, we have left them so long to the scholarly dissectors, that we think of them as incomprehensible to the ordinary man to whom they were originally addressed.  At the same time our education has undergone so drastic a process of dilution that we are ill-equipped, even after graduation from a respectable college, to tackle anything much above the level of the comic book.

          “The decay of education in the West, which is felt most profoundly in America, undoubtedly makes the task of understanding these books more difficult than it was for earlier generations.  In fact my observation leads me to the horrid suspicion that these books are easier for people who have had no formal education than they are for those who have acquired that combination of misinformation, unphilosophy, and slipshod habits that is the usual result of the most elaborate and expensive institutional education in America.”  p. 77


“If you will pick up any one of these books and start to read it, you will find it not nearly so formidable as you thought.  In one way the great books are the most difficult, and in another way the easiest, books for any of us to read.  They are the most difficult because they deal with the most difficult problems that men can face, and they deal with them in terms of the most complex ideas.  But, treating the most difficult subjects of human thought, the great books are the clearest and simplest expression of the best thinking that can be done on these subjects.  On the fundamental problems of mankind, there are no easier books to read.”  p. 78


“The criteria for choosing each book in this set were excellence of construction and composition, immediate intelligibility on the aesthetic level, increasing intelligibility with deeper reading and analysis, leading to maximum depth and maximum range of significance with more than one level of meaning and truth.”  p. 78


“Do you need a liberal education?  We say that it is unpatriotic not to read these books.  You may reply that you are patriotic enough without them.  We say that you are gravely cramping your human possibilities if you do not read these books.  You may answer that you have troubles enough already.

          “This answer is the one that Ortega attacks in The Revolt of the Masses.  It assumes that we can leave all intellectual activity, and all political responsibility, to somebody else and live our lives as vegetable beneficiaries of the moral and intellectual virtue of other men.  The trouble with this assumption is that, whereas it was once possible, and even compulsory, for the bulk of mankind, such indulgence now, on the part of anybody, endangers the whole community.  It is now necessary for everybody to try to live, as Ortega says, ‘at the height of his times.’  The democratic enterprise is imperiled if any one of us says, ‘I do not have to try to think for myself, or make the most of myself, or become a citizen of the world republic of learning.’  The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush.  It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”  p. 80


Quoting Thomas Jefferson:  “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”  p. 81-82


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