from two versions of
Scepticism of the Instrument
H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells

These pages: A Modern Utopia
first page
second page

Scepticism of the Instrument (here):
notes on versions
article in Mind
appendix to A Modern Utopia
on G. K. Chesterton’s treatment



Utopias ±

index pages:

In a sub-heading of the Appendix, Wells gives the history: “A Portion of a Paper read to the Oxford Philosophical Society, November 8, 1903, and reprinted, with some Revision, from the Version given in Mind, vol. xiii. (N.S.), No. 51.” A bibliography of Wells’s works, compiled by his son, describes Part I of New Worlds for Old (1908) as a further expansion of the ideas it contains.

A note to the Mind version declares the Editor of that journal “has printed it practically as it was read.”

Scepticism of the Instrument

Mind, vol. xiii. (New Series), No. 51

Note (Hal’s):
This quote comes from an introductory segment of the paper, explaining the succession of working titles. This material was omitted from the appendix in A Modern Utopia. The earlier titles, in order:

  • “Metaphysics of an Amateur”
  • “Philosophy of an Amateur”

— end note

They are, I think, none the less expressive because they are essentially absurd. They are absurd because to talk of the Philosophy of an Amateur is to imply a sort of Professional Philosophy, Philosophy that has specialised and become technical, and that is just exactly what Philosophy cannot do. Philosophy must surely remain as wide as thought, as general as literature, as comprehensive as anything, and it is absurd to talk of a professional specialisation that takes everything for its province. Every man who thinks must needs think upon a philosophical framework, explicit or implicit; we are all philosophers directly we broaden to a philosophical inquiry, and it was, I perceived, a quite preposterous modesty to come before you deliberately, self-labelled Amateur.

And yet, as I say, that word, for all its inaccuracy, conveys something I find no other word conveys so well. There exists an extensive philosophical literature, in which I am, in these present surroundings, conspicuously unread, and definite courses of philosophical study that I have not pursued. I am sorry for it. But life is short, crowded with other interests, and some have had a stronger appeal for me. To many minds—conceivably to some of yours—this philosophical literature is the sum of philosophical wisdom, and such courses as you follow here the only proper justification for philosophical pretension. To discuss philosophical questions, without such qualifications, must appear from that standpoint the vilest of presumptions. [...]

But afterwards I decided that it was unfair to you to make such assumptions, that probably it would not offend you if after repudiating that journey I still dealt with you as one Philosopher of a sort among other Philosophers presumably of a rather different and better sort (yet equal under Heaven), and that even if it did not appeal to you quite as that, it really did not—in the last resort—matter so very much.

text checked (see note) May 2006

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Scepticism of the Instrument

Appendix to A Modern Utopia

Copyright © 1905 by H. G. Wells

Now to come to logic over the bracing uplands of comparative anatomy is to come to logic with a lot of very natural preconceptions blown clean out of one’s mind. It is, I submit, a way of taking logic in the flank. When you have realized to the marrow, that all the physical organs of man and all his physical structure are what they are through a series of adaptations and approximations, and that they are kept up to a level of practical efficiency only by the elimination of death, and that this is true also of his brain and of his instincts and of many of his mental predispositions, you are not going to take his thinking apparatus unquestioningly as being in any way mysteriously different and better. And I had read only a little logic before I became aware of implications that I could not agree with, and assumptions that seemed to me to be altogether at variance with the general scheme of objective fact established in my mind.

I have it in my mind that classification is a necessary condition of the working of the mental implement but that it is a departure from the objective truth of things, that classification is very serviceable for the practical purposes of life but a very doubtful preliminary to those fine penetrations the philosophical purpose, in its more arrogant moods, demands. All the peculiarities of my way of thinking derive from that.

I submit to you that syllogism is based on classification, that all hard logical reasoning tends to imply and is apt to imply a confidence in the objective reality of classification. Consequently in denying that I deny the absolute validity of logic. Classification and number, which in truth ignore the fine differences of objective realities, have in the past of human thought been imposed upon things. [...] The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.

It was about this difficulty that the mind of Plato played a little inconclusively all his life. For the most part he tended to regard the idea as the something behind reality, whereas it seems to me that the idea is the more proximate and less perfect thing, the thing by which the mind, by ignoring individual differences, attempts to comprehend an otherwise unmanageable number of unique realities.



It is true you can make your net of logical interpretation finer and finer, you can fine your classification more and more—up to a certain limit. But essentially you are working in limits, and as you come closer, as you look at finer and subtler things, as you leave the practical purpose for which the method exists, the element of error increases. Every species is vague, every term goes cloudy at its edges, and so in my way of thinking, relentless logic is only another phrase for a stupidity,—for a sort of intellectual pigheadedness. If you push a philosophical or metaphysical inquiry through a series of valid syllogisms—never committing any generally recognised fallacy—you nevertheless leave a certain rubbing and marginal loss of objective truth and you get deflections that are difficult to trace, at each phase in the process. Every species waggles about in its definition, every tool is a little loose in its handle, every scale has its individual error. So long as you are reasoning for practical purposes about the finite things of experience, you can every now and then check your process, and correct your adjustments. But not when you make what are called philosophical and theological inquiries, when you turn your implement towards the final absolute truth of things.

Compare to:

A.E. van Vogt




Our instrument of knowledge persists in handling even such openly negative terms as the Absolute, the Infinite, as though they were real existences, and when the negative element is ever so little disguised, as it is in such a word as Omniscience, then the illusion of positive reality may be complete.

Please remember that I am trying to tell you my philosophy, and not arguing about yours. Let me try and express how in my mind this matter of negative terms has shaped itself. I think of something which I may perhaps best describe as being off the stage or out of court, or as the Void without Implications, or as Nothingness or as Outer Darkness. This is a sort of hypothetical Beyond to the visible world of human thought, and thither I think all negative terms reach at last, and merge and become nothing. [...] I will neither affirm nor deny if I can help it about any not things. I will not deal with not things at all, except by accident and inadvertence. [...] Now a great number of apparently positive terms are, or have become, practically negative terms and are under the same ban with me. A considerable number of terms that have played a great part in the world of thought, seem to me to be invalidated by this same defect, to have no content or an undefined content or an unjustifiable content. For example, that word Omniscient, as implying infinite knowledge, impresses me as being a word with a delusive air of being solid and full, when it is really hollow with no content whatever. I am persuaded that knowing is the relation of a conscious being to something not itself, that the thing known is defined as a system of parts and aspects and relationships, that knowledge is comprehension, and so that only finite things can know or be known. When you talk of a being of infinite extension and infinite duration, omniscient and omnipotent and Perfect, you seem to me to be talking in negatives of nothing whatever. When you speak of the Absolute you speak to me of nothing.

Contrast with:


These then are my first two charges against our Instrument of Knowledge, firstly, that it can work only by disregarding individuality and treating uniques as identically similar objects in this respect or that, so as to group them under one term, and that once it has done so it tends automatically to intensify the significance of that term, and secondly, that it can only deal freely with negative terms by treating them as though they were positive. But I have a further objection to the Instrument of Human Thought, that is not correlated to these former objections and that is also rather more difficult to convey.

Essentially this idea is to present a sort of stratification in human ideas. I have it very much in mind that various terms in our reasoning lie, as it were, at different levels and in different planes, and that we accomplish a large amount of error and confusion by reasoning terms together that do not lie or nearly lie in the same plane.

You see, I hope, what I mean, when I say that the universe of molecular physics is at a different level from the universe of common experience;—what we call stable and solid is in that world a freely moving system of interlacing centres of force, what we call colour and sound is there no more than this length of vibration or that. We have reached to a conception of that universe of molecular physics by a great enterprise of organised analysis, and our universe of daily experiences stands in relation to that elemental world as if it were a synthesis of those elemental things.

I would suggest to you that this is only a very extreme instance of the general state of affairs, that there may be finer and subtler differences of level between one term and another, and that terms may very well be thought of as lying obliquely and as being twisted through different levels.

Through the bias in our Instrument to do this, through reasoning between terms not in the same plane, an enormous amount of confusion, perplexity and mental deadlocking occurs.

The old theological deadlock between predestination and free-will serves admirably as an example of the sort of deadlock I mean. Take life at the level of common sensation and common experience and there is no more indisputable fact than man’s freedom of will, unless it is his complete moral responsibility. But make only the least penetrating of analyses and you perceive a world of inevitable consequences, a rigid succession of cause and effect. Insist upon a flat agreement between the two, and there you are! The Instrument fails.

It is upon these three objections, and upon an extreme suspicion of abstract terms which arises materially out of my first and second objections, that I chiefly rest my case for a profound scepticism of the remoter possibilities of the Instrument of Thought. It is a thing no more perfect than the human eye or the human ear, though like those other instruments it may have undefined possibilities of evolution towards increased range, and increased power.


Free will

This insistence upon the element of uniqueness in being, this subordination of the class to the individual difference, not only destroys the universal claim of philosophy, but the universal claim of ethical imperatives, the universal claim of any religious teaching. If you press me back upon my fundamental position I must confess I put faith and standards and rules of conduct upon exactly the same level as I put my belief of what is right in art, and what I consider right practice in art. I have arrived at a certain sort of self-knowledge and there are, I find, very distinct imperatives for me, but I am quite prepared to admit there is no proving them imperative on any one else. One’s political proceedings, one’s moral acts are, I hold, just as much self-expression as one’s poetry or painting or music.



Scepticism of the Instrument is for example not incompatible with religious association and with organisation upon the basis of a common faith. It is possible to regard God as a Being synthetic in relation to men and societies, just as the idea of a universe of atoms and molecules and inorganic relationships is analytical in relation to human life.

The repudiation of demonstration in any but immediate and verifiable cases that this Scepticism of the Instrument amounts to, the abandonment of any universal validity for moral and religious propositions, brings ethical, social and religious teaching into the province of poetry, and does something to correct the estrangement between knowledge and beauty that is a feature of so much mental existence at this time. All these things are self-expression. Such an opinion sets a new and greater value on that penetrating and illuminating quality of mind we call insight, insight which when it faces towards the contradictions that arise out of the imperfections of the mental instrument is called humour. In these innate, unteachable qualities I hold—in humour and the sense of beauty—lies such hope of intellectual salvation from the original sin of our intellectual instrument as we may entertain in this uncertain and fluctuating world of unique appearances. . . .

text checked (see note) Mar, May 2006

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Chesterton’s treatment

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton plainly refers to this paper, although he calls it “Doubts of the Instrument.” Using terms such as “decadent” and “ultimate evil,” Chesterton contends that Wells, by questioning the instrument of reason, threatens the destruction of all thought.

Chesterton’s attack misses the point entirely: Wells’s own continuing intellectual efforts belie the claim that his scepticism “stops all thought.” Had Chesterton said “checks all thought” (in the sense of controlling for error) he might have come nearer the mark. Wells argues that bare argument by logical rules, unsupported by any independent verification, can go astray. Classification – the mere act of generalizing enough that one can reason in the first place – introduces doubtful assumptions into the premises.

Hardly a better example can be found than Chesterton’s own comments. The passage from Orthodoxy goes on to justify “horrible persecutions” on the ground that they are necessary to defend authority against such scepticism. (About the same time, Chesterton published a similar passage in The Man Who Was Thursday.) Unchecked logic leads him easily to the claim that persecution, torture, religious war, and oppression are good things, if they protect the logic of authority from all question. He tries to justify the “horrible” (his own word!) rather than allow the possibility that such conclusions, however logical, should be reconsidered. This is unnerving, because it is entirely clear that Chesterton does not really favor oppression.

I wholeheartedly admire almost everything of Chesterton’s I’ve read, with the exception of these few passages. The hidden premise seems to be that Christian authorities directly represent God’s will, so the same methods used by Pilate and the Sanhedrin to suppress Jesus of Nazareth are suddenly sanctified when used by the Christian Church against any dissent.

This would seem to call into question the notion that Christian conversion represents any significant change in ethical outlook. But if Christianity is merely a matter of picking sides, there’s nothing left but dualism: a dualism based not on a choice between good and evil, but merely an arbitrary choice of sides, as among fans at a football game. There seems little doubt that Chesterton would anathematize such a dualism, but his views on authority, in effect, put it into practice.

I had hoped to excuse Chesterton on grounds that his acquaintance with Wells’s paper was incomplete. His erroneous title reference suggested he might have received a second-hand account from someone who attended the Oxford reading. Nevertheless, two versions were in print two or three years prior to Orthodoxy, and at least one was in Chesterton’s hands: in Heretics, he quoted directly from the first chapter of A Modern Utopia.

The whole attack appears to have been directed at a somewhat different notion, for which Scepticism of the Instrument was merely the closest available approximation and scapegoat. As always, the flaw in a “straw man” argument is the possibility the rhetorician’s construct fails to represent anything real – yet another error which might be avoided by adopting Wells’s sceptical view of a priori reasoning.

I should note that Chesterton also praises Wells: reasons range from the quality of his fiction to his critical assessment of “scientific marriage” or eugenics. (And his treatment of eugenics, incidentally, is closely related to his “scepticism of the Instrument.”) Over a decade of Chesterton’s life and a conversion to Roman Catholicism separate these two attitudes toward Wells.

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Background graphic copyright © 2006 by Hal Keen