Burke’s Scattered Hints Concerning Philosophy and Learning

Born in 1729, Edmund Burke was in his twenties during the 1750s. Some of his notes from that period were collected in a slim volume called A Note-Book of Edmund Burke, edited by H.V.F. Somerset and published in 1957. An essay in the volume is “Several Scattered Hints Concerning Philosophy and Learning Collected Here from My Papers,” now republished online

“Several Scattered Hints” is very little known, even to Burke scholars. Reproduced here are some especially worthy passages.

The essay was written before or around the time of Burke’s first works, A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) and A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Not long after Burke published those works, he entered politics. During his long political career, he produced many important speeches and pamphlets. The revolution in France, beginning in 1789, the year Burke turned 60, brought on the most glorious and profound phase of Burke’s life and thought—until his death in 1797. Selections of Burke are gathered in Edmund Burke and the Perennial Battle, 1789-1797.

Here is a selection from the early essay, “Scattered Hints Concerning Philosophy and Learning”:

[T]o learn only to be learned is moving in a strange Circle. The End of learning is not knowledge but virtue; as the End of all speculation should be practice of one sort or another. It is owing to inattention to this that we so often see men of great Erudition immersed as deeply as any in the passions, prejudices, and vain opinions of the vulgar; nay we often see them more servile, more proud, more opinionative, fonder of money, more governed by vanity, more afraid of Death, and captivated more by little appearances and trifling distinctions. 

It is worth observing that when anything not a principal itself, and cultivated only as an accessory to something else, is diverted from its proper end, it not only does not promote that end, but it goes a great way to destroy it. The Gymnastic exercises among the Greeks were undoubtedly designed to form their people to war; and they seem well calculated for that purpose. But when they forgot that purpose, when they made that art acquiesce in itself, when they sought a reputation from the exercise alone, it lost its use; and the professed Wrestlers always made the worst Soldiers. 

I would make an ingenuous and liberal turn of mind the End of all learning and wherever I don’t see it I should doubt the reality of the knowledge. For the End of all knowledge ought to be the bettering us in some manner; and whoever has a sour, splenetick, unsocial, malevolent Temper; who is haughty in his own acquirements and contemptuous of others; ostentatious of his knowledge, positive in his Tenets, and abusive to those who differ from him; he may be a Scholar, —and indeed most of those called Scholars are something in this Character,—but sure he is not a man of learning, nor a philosopher. The more he vaunts his reading, the more loudly he proclaims his ignorance. If a deep and general knowledge does not make a man diffident and humble, no human means I believe can do it.

[W]e ought if possible to keep all our talents subservient to the uses of Life, and not to make ourselves the Slaves of any of them. Those who lay out their whole time on any one Science, are apt to be carried away by it; and are no longer their own masters so far as to decide when and where, and in what measure they shall indulge their Speculations; and therefore are not so generally fit for the world.

There is great reason to believe that being engaged in business is rather of Service to Speculative knowledge than otherwise; because perhaps the mind can do more in sudden starts than in an even progression. Experience may show that an entire application to study alone is apt to carry men into unprofitable Subtilities and whimsical notions. Man is made for Speculation and action; and when he pursues his nature he succeed best in both.

One may know all the maxims of a Science, be perfectly conversant in their Grounds, ready in the reasonings about them, and know all that has been thought, written, or experimented on that Subject, and yet have but a superficial knowledge in that Science. Another who knows but few of its principles, if yet he can extend them, can multiply their resources, can strike out something new, can remedy some defect, he has a deeper knowledge in the Science than the other, if this other should not be able to advance its landmarks,– as thousands well conversant in Arts cannot do, and who therefore have a more superficial knowledge, because a less useful one. 

A man who considers his nature rightly will be diffident of any reasonings that carry him out of the ordinary roads of Life; Custom is to be regarded with great deference especially if it be an universal Custom; even popular notions are not always to be laughed at. There is some general principle operating to produce Customs, that is a more sure guide than our Theories. They are followed indeed often on odd motives, but that does not make them less reasonable or useful. A man is never in greater danger of being wholly wrong than when he advances far in the road of refinement; nor have I ever that diffidence and suspicion of my reasonings as when they seem to be most curious, exact, and conclusive. 

When Diogenes was dying, his friends desired to know how he would have his Body disposed of. ‘Throw it into the fields,’ says he. They objected that it might be liable to be devoured by wild Beasts. ‘Then set my Staff by me to drive them off.’ One answered, ‘You will be then insensible and unable to do it.’ ‘So shall I be’ (sayd he) ‘of their injuries.’

I like the vivacity of the Turn in this Story. The philosophy is shewy but has no substance; for to what would he persuade us by this odd example? Why, that our Bodies being after Death neither capable of pain nor pleasure, we should not trouble our heads about them. But let this pass into a general principle, and thence into a general practice, and the ill consequence is obvious. The wisdom of nature, or rather providence, is very worthy of admiration in this, as in a thousand other things, by working its ends by means that seem directed to other purposes. A man is anxious and solicitous about the fate of his body which he knows can have no feeling... He considers such an event as personally terrible; and he does piously for others what he would wish done for himself.

In reasoning about abstruse matters and the assent we give to Propositions concerning them, we don’t sufficiently distinguish between a Contrariety and a Contradiction. No man in his Senses can agree to a Contradiction; but an apparent, nay a real, Contrariety in things, may not only be proposed and believed, but proved beyond any reasonable doubt. 

Perhaps the bottom of most things is unintelligible; and our surest reasoning, when we come to a certain point, is involved not only in obscurity but contradiction.

The Information we receive from Books about Business and Men are, I believe, to be but cautiously trusted; because even if they should be right, yet being written at a distance of time, tho’ Nature be justly described, yet a Variation in Customes, in the Characters and Manners of the Age, of which every Age has its own, makes a great variation in the Conduct to be pursued in the Management of Affairs. 

It is much more common with Men to contend in violent disputes about the Excellence of their Studies, their profession and their Countrys, than to exert themselves to do anything that may be for the Credit or advantage of them.

Daniel B. Klein is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute, and Chief Editor of Econ Journal Watch.
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