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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/December 1893/Correspondence

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 44‎ | December 1893



Editor Popular Science Monthly.

ANY one who reads the book notices in journals wherein literary criticism is conducted as it is 'in many important newspapers will be impressed with the necessity of abolishing the custom of anonymous reviews, if we are to have any criticism worth anything. Under the present system such notices are the work largely of flippant critics, competent only to frame condemnatory epithets, who assume to judge everything without special knowledge of anything; and also of those who have special acquaintance with the topic in hand, but are consumed by feelings of jealousy which prompt them to underrate, to disparage, to stab in the back, to break down reputations acquired, or to prevent the acquiring of any on the part of new authors who may apparently be rising. All these things can be done and are done constantly under the system of anonymous criticism. The critic is safe in his concealment, and can send forth his poisoned arrows with impunity. Whether he is a giant or a dwarf can not be known, save, perhaps, by his weapons; but if, as is usually the case, he is a pygmy, he is not less dangerous, since retaliation is impossible. The New York Evening Post of October 25, 1893, contains a notice of Mr. Herbert Spencer's latest volume. Parts V and VI of the Principles of Ethics, which furnishes a complete illustration of the degradation of criticism. If there were space I would ask the editor of The Popular Science Monthly to reprint it as such, without comment. But, since the article can not be reprinted, I shall draw attention to one or two of its features. It begins by assertions of the marvelous dullness of Mr. Spencer's works, his "cheap and superficial platitudes," making him "an accomplished artist in tedium." This certainly is a novel charge to be brought against the author in question. Of all the modern philosophical writers, according to the general judgment expressed in numberless reviews, notices, and comments published here, there, and everywhere, Mr. Spencer has been esteemed the one most free from the (quality of tediousness! His power of holding the reader's attention without wearying, his lucidity of statement, his felicity in illustration, make his books eminently readable. Of course, they imply a capacity to take hold of thought, but, if this be presupposed, few readers will call Mr. Spencer dull. As to the matter of platitudes, it never occurs to the average reviewer that criticising a scientific writer on this score is often much like criticising a sculptor or painter because his work is true to life. If the philosopher keeps within his topic, it is evidence of his greatness that his statements are so clear, so true, that they seem indisputable. It is his crowning excellence that he says things which the reader recognizes as so evident that he believes he himself and everybody else must always have held the same ideas.

The writer in the Post endeavors to disparage Mr. Spencer's work by the old charge that he is no scholar, that he reads little and knows little of the progress of modern thought. He claims that Mr. Spencer has admitted his ignorance of Kant and is not familiar with German idealism, while the list of authorities he cites is "crude and uncritical material." It is difficult to deal with these charges of little scholarship and failure to know what is significant in philosophical literature, in any other way than by a flat contradiction. That Mr. Spencer has not read everything in German philosophy, or in recent philosophical literature of other countries, is no doubt true, but any one who knows Mr. Spencer's habits is well aware how careful he is to ascertain what literature is produced from time to time and its bearings upon philosophical truth. For an ignorant man and one who takes no note of what is passing in the world Mr. Spencer shows a remarkable aptitude for getting hold of facts and theories bearing upon his own doctrines, as is evinced in his recent discussions of Prof. Weismann's theories in the Contemporary Review. If, then, a critic declares Mr. Spencer has fallen behind the times, he may discover, if he makes inquiry of those who know what Mr. Spencer does, that it is easier to write misleading statements for a newspaper than to prove them when challenged. Perhaps it is expected of Mr. Spencer that he will turn aside from his work and prepare book reviews, to demonstrate his scholarship and his familiarity with questions of present importance in philosophy. But if he should have no better success in that way than his anonymous critic, it would scarcely be worth his while.

This critic is especially severe because, as he says, Mr. Spencer, in a passage quoted, "represents every operation of the mind as a recognition of a likeness or the recognition of an unlikeness. According to this, every operation of volition, every operation of going to sleep, and every other mental operation is but an act of recognition." The passage quoted by this able reviewer is this (Italics mine): "One division of an earlier work in this series of works—the Principles of Psychology—was devoted to showing that all intellectual operations are ultimately decomposable into recognitions of likeness and unlikeness." The writer who assumes to inform his constituency so confidently of Mr. Spencer's paucity of knowledge and his general decrepitude does not seem to know that intellect, feeling, and will are three departments of mind, and that Mr. Spencer's statement is applied to one only. "Intellectual operations" are not all the operations of mind. What Mr. Spencer says he may be criticised for, not what his blind critic avers that he says. Yet this perversion with its comments occupies a long paragraph. I have not space for further illustration of the heedless, dogmatic, crude, and false statements with which this worthless critique abounds; but the public will be exposed to its like so long as anonymity is the fashion in book reviews.

Daniel Greenleaf Thompson.
New York, October 30, 1893.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Dear Sir: Struck with M. Binet's paper, The Problem of Colored Audition, in The Popular Science Monthly for October, without questioning the facts, when consulting my own recollections I was unable to recall any one who possessed such curious powers.

Happening to meet to-day a young lady, the talk was about pleasant or unpleasant voices, such as are in use in ordinary conversation. Both of us commented on the voice of a person of our acquaintance, when the lady said: "So-and-so has a green voice. It always sounds green to me."

Without bringing M. Binet to the front, I questioned the lady in regard to this color comparison. I found that voices, intonations, and sounds had positive color effects on her mind. There was a gentleman whose voice was "red" to her. Then I asked her if she had read M. Binet, and she said she had no acquaintance with the article published by you, nor had she any conception that there was anything peculiar in her associating tones with colors. She said she always did it.

Respectfully,Barnet Phillips.
Brooklyn, October 6, 1893.