George Walford: Did Walsby Get This Bit Wrong?

Harold Walsby: Attitude to Paradox

I have said and written a good deal about Harold Walsby’s theories and have always set myself as it were on his side, accepting what he said and trying to take it farther. But there is one paper he issued which I am not able to accept; his diagram entitled “Attitude to Paradox,” which appears on the sheet inserted into this issue of IC (the small diagram at upper right is an addition of my own; it will be explained further on).

This diagram of Walsby’s has troubled me since I first saw it (I think that was in 1974 or 1975) and the more I have thought about it the firmer my objections have become. It seems to me both to go against the evidence and also to contradict much that Walsby said elsewhere, to go against the main tenor of his work. I am well aware that in the matters with which he was dealing simple “straight-line” consistency is not to be expected; as I have shown elsewhere [FOOTNOTE: In addition to Harold Walsby’s History of the Dialectic and in The Dialectic of Demand] it is above all in social affairs that dialectical contradictions – what Walsby himself terms “meaningful self-contradiction” – is a significant feature and one that has to be accepted if understanding is to be achieved. But he himself was perfectly clear that not all self-contradictions are meaningful, and I have not been able to convince myself that the contradictions, between this diagram and its lettering on one hand, and what he has said elsewhere on the other, are meaningful ones. I cannot see how what he says here and what he says in, for example, The Domain of Ideologies, can both be true or valid in any significant or useful sense, and I think it is with this diagram the fault lies. My main motive in writing this article is to invite correction; I hope somebody will be able to show me that this diagram and its lettering are in agreement with the evidence and, also, either that there is no contradiction between these and the rest of Walsby’s work, or that the contradiction is a meaningful one.

My quarrel is not with the general proposition that society is divided into those tending to value paradox and those tending to reject or disvalue it. It is, firstly, with the composition Walsby gives for each of these groups and, secondly, with the suggestion that they are of similar size.

The entries for practical and impractical, and for formal and informal religion and politics I can accept; it is the others that give me trouble: “literati, artists, poets, writers.” Think about “writers” for a moment. Writers are those who originate printed matter; the evidence for their attitudes is found in what they produce, and it seems to me undeniable that the overwhelming bulk of printed matter is anti-paradox. It is conventional, “straight-line,” “either-or,” Aristotelian. When paradox arises then, almost without exception, it is regarded as at best an oddity, rather like a two-headed sheep; recognition that it can be meaningful, let alone deeply significant, is a rarity. It is true that paradox, when encountered, is not always attacked, but this is because criticism of it is not thought necessary; it is taken for granted that of course nobody takes paradox seriously.

Walsby says of the pro-paradox people that they are “basically identified with equality, immanence, and freedom from rules and regulations.” This is not true of most writers. Our society is predominantly identified not with these things but with their opposites, with hierarchy, transcendence and obedience to rules and regulations, and writers generally show themselves by their writings to be not opposed to this society but in harmony with it, sharing its principal identifications.

Printed matter is overwhelmingly supportive of the existing social structure and shares its identifications with the features Walsby lists as characteristic of the anti-paradox group. This is so even if we overlook the strong tendency for each anti-paradox item to enjoy a greater circulation than a pro-paradox one, if we take the latest best-seller as one item (so it is quantitatively equivalent to the latest SPGB pamphlet) and the Daily Express also as one item (so it is equivalent to the Morning Star). Take any general list of printed matter, and whether it be the Catalogue of the British Library or this week’s issue of The Bookseller the pro-paradox titles are always a tiny minority. In classifying printed matter into pro- and anti-paradox one thing that must not be overlooked is that works having no intentional reference to paradox, or to the equality and so on Walsby in this diagram associates with it, are not neutral. They tend to support our anti-paradox society, they have to be entered as anti-paradox. For paradox it is true that “he who is not with us is against us.”

Taking “poets” and “literati” as groups not included in “writers” it seems to me indisputable that these also have to reckoned on the anti-paradox side. Here is a description of the contents of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, an anthology of English verse very popular in its day. I have forgotten who wrote the description, but I think he was unduly modest in its application; it applies not only to Palgrave’s book but to most verse of most countries at most periods:

Some five per cent to God and to his saints, A little more to Nature and her proxies, And all the rest, God help us, to complaints From chaps pursuing, or pursued by, doxies.

Things may be different now; with the advent of permissiveness and the pill love and sex have become matters of practice and less of theory and verbalisation. In the works of Auden or Robert Graves (although what Auden would be pursuing or pursued by would in any case hardly be doxies) there may well be less concern with personal and more with social affairs than in some earlier poets. But identification with paradox, equality and the rest is still a rarity. Auden and his friends quickly recovered from not to their ivory towers then to such substitutes (redbrick towers?) as are available to poets in latter part of the Twentieth Century. The great bulk of verse and belles lettres, now as formerly, takes the social structure, its hierarchy, its rules and regulations, for granted and gives not the slightest indication that poets or literati, taken as groups, tend to value paradox.

Walsby also speaks of artists, and since he lists them separately from poets and writers we are perhaps meant to understand the word to refer to painters. These also are said to be basically identified with equality, immanence and freedom from rules and regulations, and certainly some artists do display such attachment. “Guernica” comes to mind, Andy Warhol producing self-destructive art so it shall not become an object of trade; and in art as well as literature there are the surrealists – pro-paradox people par excellence. But one must be careful not to mistake the prominent for the dominant. There are also the academics and the art schools; these are identified with hierarchy and obedience to rules and regulations, and when one takes account of the numbers of these artists, against he numbers of those notable for their attachment to freedom and equality, there can be little doubt on which side we have to place artist as a group. And there are the commercial artists too, perhaps the biggest group of all and, again, identified with hierarchy and obedience to rules and regulations.

If one extends the meaning of “artists” to include the arts generally the same pattern appears. The theatre is not a force for equality and freedom, nor is architecture, or sculpture, or music. Pop music may encourage sporadic outbreaks of disorder, but that is not the same thing as belief in freedom from rules and regulations and when, on the last night of the Proms, the audience is given its head, what is played and repeated ad nauseam is not The International or The Red Flag; it is Land of Hope and Glory. It is no more true of artists in this more general sense than it is of painters, poets, literati or writers generally that as a group they value paradox and are basically identified with equality, immanence and freedom from rules and regulations. So what can Walsby have meant?

The only answer I can see is that he did – not as a rule but in this one instance – take the prominent for the dominant. In each of the occupational groups he lists as being pro-paradox there are some individuals who do exhibit identification with equality, immanence and freedom from rules and regulations. These tend to be the ones who make the headlines even though it is the orthodox majority whose work fills the book shops, the libraries and the art galleries. I can make sense of what Walsby says in connection with this diagram only by assuming that it was, for each named occupational group, this minority he had in mind.

If this was so then his meaning can be better expressed. The distinctive feature of those he had in mind as pro-paradox people was – and is – not that they were artists, literati, and so on but that they were leaders in their respected fields, the leaders not necessarily in technical accomplishment (though they often were that) but in opening new paths, in entering onto new ground. When Wordsworth and Colerage produced the Lyrical Ballads, Whistler the painting Ruskin called “a pot of paint flung in the face of the public,” when the street- and cafe-musicians of New Orleans first blasted out jazz and Ibsen brought social questions onto the stage they were engaging in the sort of activity Walsby, I believe, had in mind. In all these instances, as in all those others when art was extended to take in something previously foreign to it there was, always, a paradox. It took a different form in every case, but put in general terms it was the paradox that art – an organised, established system of aesthetic principles – should be proven capable of incorporating this visual, verbal or auditory cacophony. Walsby ascribes to the pro-paradox group identification with revolution and it is obvious, from the attitudes taken by those attached to the old ideas when they find themselves confronted by these interruptions, that they feel themselves to be in the presense of revolution. They express the same revulsion, the same certainty that the valued achievements of the generations and the centuries are being destroyed, the barbarians coming over the walls. When Walsby, in connection with this diagram, speaks of literati, artists, poets and writers I can make sense of his remarks only by assuming that he had in mind not these groups in any collective sense but the innovators, the revolutionaries, among them.

As I find difficulty in accepting literati, artists, poets and writers, as groups, as being pro-paradox, so I find corresponding (though smaller) difficulty in accepting “logicians, mathematicians, mathematical and physical and other scientists” as being, without significant exceptions, anti-paradox, pro-hierarchy and in favour of obedience to rules and regulations.

The common idea, that science proceeds in an orderly manner, advancing smoothly and ineluctably from one conclusion to the next, is increasingly coming to be recognised, even sometimes by scientists themselves, as an illusion. Here, in the same way as in the literary and artistic fields, advance proceeds by upsets and reversals. Here also there are revolutions. To summarise in a phrase Kuhn’s book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions, science proceeds in revolutionary leaps from one paradigm to another, each paradigm in turn being exhausted by steady normative work briefly before the revolutionary leap to the next. Newton, Einstein, Priestly, Darwin: these, and others like them, are now the high priests of science, respected establishment figures. But they have not always been so. They have been elevated by the process which has brought also Cromwell, Luther and Socrates to that same accepted eminence and is now placing Lenin and Mao there. All of these, in their time, were regarded in a very different light, as destroyers of the accepted, and the same is true of all the scientists who have accomplished the great advances. Their work, like that of the artists we spoke of earlier, involves the paradox that an established orthodoxy should be found capable of incorporating radical novelty.

It is true that the groups Walsby lists on this side of his diagram are, taken as groups, anti-paradox; as groups logicians, scientists and the others are identified with hierarchy, transcendence and obedience to rules and regulations. But if we are to think as clearly as Walsby habitually thought then we have to add that in each of these groups there are exceptions, and that these exceptions are not all minor ones but include some of the greatest figures in their respected fields. In science, logic and mathematics, as well as in literature and the arts, progress is, partially at least, by means of revolution; Walsby himself says of his paper The Paradox Principle and Modular Systems Generally that it “contains the beginnings of a revolution” in logic and mathematics. Here as elsewhere the revolutionaries are a small minority and they alone are identified with paradox, equality, immanence and freedom from rules and regulations, the orthodox, pro-establishment majority, in science as in the arts, holding the contrary identifications.

My other objection to this diagram is to its suggestion that the two groups, those who tend to value paradox and those who tend to disvalue it, are of similar size. To some extent my point here has already been made; if we take it that those tending to value paradox are the innovators in their respective fields then, in all the occupational groups Walsby names, on either side of the diagram, they are a tiny minority (except for the mystics). Since our interest here is not in technical proficiency but in attitude of mind we need to take account not only of these “actors” but also of their “audience,” those who accept their innovations while these are still new and paradoxical, before they in their turn have been watered down and conventionalised, digested into the body of accepted, established art or science. But these again are always a minority; it is still true that those tending to reject or belittle paradox are overwhelmingly in the majority.

Walsby’s diagram shows pro- and anti-paradox attitudes to be symmetrically distributed, equal numbers on each side. But all his other work leads us to regard these attitudes as ideological phenomena, the pro-paradox attitude being associated with the epidynamic class, the anti-paradox with the ediostatic. If this be so then the anti-paradox group is (as all the other evidence indicates) much the larger of the two; the diagram needs to be redrawn as the small one which I have added in the upper right-hand corner and its lettering altered to agree with what has been said in this article. To me – and to Walsby also in all his writings save only this single sheet – the whole tenor of our society indicates a massive tendency toward rejection of paradox, as also of the equality, immanence and freedom from rules and regulations which he associates with it. If this were not so then paradox would play a larger and more obvious part than it does, and revolution would be more widely and readily accepted.

There is a division between those who value paradox and those who disvalue it, but it does not come between “logicians, mathematicians, mathematical and physical and other scientists” on the one side, “literati, artists, mystics, poets and writers” on the other. It comes between those who, in whatever field, work in an innovative, creative revolutionary way and those who work in a regulated, orthodox, conventional way. There is a tendency for each type of thinking to be associated with certain fields, but this is because some fields offer greater scope for innovation and paradox than others. The science of mechanics, for example, is said to have been completed; if so then it offers no scope for innovation and the revolutionary, pro-paradox minds are unlikely to be found associated with that science. Psychology, on the other hand, from the nature of its subject-matter is incapable of being reduced completely to rules and formulae; it is a field in which there is much scope for innovators and in which, therefore, they are frequently found. But it is, always, the nature of the activity, not the subject-matter to which it is applied or the field in which it works, that is decisive for classification as pro- or anti-paradox.

I don’t know when Walsby issued this diagram (and shall be grateful to anybody who can tell me) but believe it to have been some few years before he died in 1973. The prominent phrase “The Two Cultures” probably gives an approximate date; it was around the late sixties that this concept of C. P. Snow’s was a fashionable subject for discussion. Walsby was concerned to maintain close contact between his work and the intellectual life of the time, and it is notoriously difficult to distinguish, until historical perspective has been attained, between substantial insights which further experience will confirm and trendy cults of no abiding value. To me it seems likely that Walsby misjudged the importance of Snow’s conception and expected its impact to be more enduring than in any event it was, that this diagram was an attempt to overcome his isolation by linking up with what he mistakenly expected to be a strong and enduring current of thought.

from Ideological Commentary 10, January 1982.