A Guide for the Perplexed

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9780060138592: A Guide for the Perplexed

E F Schumacher asserts that it is the task of philosophy to provide a map of life and knowledge which exhibits the most important features of life in their proper prominence. The questions: How am I to conduct my life? What is the nature of art and nature? What is the meaning of religion? are restored to daylight on Schumacher's map of life by his maxim 'if in doubt show it prominently'. Science is therefore restored to its home territory and its growing imperialism over the fields is reserved.

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About the Author:

Before the publication of Small is Beautiful, his bestselling reappraisal of Western economic attitudes, Dr E. F. Schumacher was already well known as an economist, journalist and progressive entrepreneur. He was Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board from 1950 to 1970, and was also the originator of the concept of Intermediate Technology for developing countries and Founder and Chairman of the Intermediate Technology Development Group Ltd (now Practical Action). He also served as President of the Soil Association (Britains largest organic farming organisation, founded thirty years ago) and as Director of the Scott-Bader Company (pathfinders in polymer chemistry and common ownership). Born in Germany, he first came to England in 1930 as a Rhodes Scholar to study economics at New College, Oxford. Later, at the age of twenty-two, he taught economics at Columbia University, New York. As he found theorising without practical experience unsatisfying, he then went into business, farming and journalism. He resumed the academic life for a period at Oxford during the war, afterwards serving as Economic Adviser to the British Control Commission in Germany from 1946 to 1950. In later years, his advice on problems of rural development was sought by many overseas governments. Dr Schumacher was awarded the CBE in 1974. He died in 1977.

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Chapter One

On a visit to Leningrad some years ago. I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: "We don't show churches on our maps." Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. "That is a museum," he said, "not what we call a 'living church.' It is only the 'living churches' we don't show.

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete; and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the, soundness of the maps.

The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs andabsurd superstitions. Even illustrious scientists, like JohannesKepler or Isaac, Newton, apparently spent most of their timeand energy on nonsensical studies of nonexisting things. Enormous amounts of hard-earned wealth had been squanderedthroughout history to the honor and glory of imaginary deities,not only by my European forebears, but by all peoples, in allparts of the world, at all times. Everywhere thousands of seemingly healthy men and women had subjected themselves toutterly meaningless restrictions, like voluntary fasting; tormented themselves by celibacy; wasted their time on pilgrimages, fantastic rituals, reiterated prayers, and so forth; turningtheir backs on reality-and some do it even in this enlightenedage-all for nothing, out of ignorance and stupidity; none ofit to be taken seriously today, except of course as museumpieces. From what a history of error we had emerged! What ahistory of taking for real what every modern child knew to betotally unreal and imaginary! Our entire past, until quite recently, was today fit only for museums, where people couldsatisfy their curiosity about the oddity and incompetence ofearlier generations. What our ancestors had written, also, wasin the main fit only for storage in libraries, where historians andother specialists could " study these relics and write books aboutthem, the knowledge of the past being considered interestingand occasionally thrilling but of no particular value for learningto cope with the problems of the present.

All, this and many other similar things I was taught at school and university, although not in so many words, not plainly and frankly. It would not do to call a spade a spade. Ancestors had to be treated with respect: they could not help their backwardness; they tried hard and sometimes even got quite near the truth in a haphazard sort of way. Their preoccupation with religion was just one of their many signs of underdevelopment, not surprising, in people who had not yet come of age. Even today, of course, there remained some interest in religion, which legitimized that of earlier times. It was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God, certainly not one capable of creating anything, and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is, by chance and natural selection. Our ancestors, unfortunately, did not know about evolution, and so they invented all these fanciful myths.

The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life, showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical mapmakers seemed to be "If in doubt, leave it out," or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: "If in doubt, show it prominently"? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they constitute no challenge to the living.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, taught that "The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things. "Slender" knowledge is here put in opposition to "certain" knowledge, and indicates uncertainty. Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as can the lesser things, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.

The philosophical maps with which I was supplied at school and university did not merely, like the map of Leningrad, fail to show "living churches"; they also failed to show large unorthodox" sections of both. theory and practice in medicine, agriculture, psychology, and the social and political sciences, not to mention art and so-called occult or paranormal phenomena, the mere mention of which was considered to be a sign of mental deficiency.

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