Liberty Matters

W.E.H. Lecky Versus J.M. Robertson on how Public Opinion Changes

In my last comment I summarized the views of the rationalist and classical-liberal historian W.E.H. Lecky on the process of intellectual change. In this comment I will explain the criticisms that Lecky’s account elicited from J.M. Robertson, a leading Victorian atheist whose four volumes on the history of freethought remain unsurpassed to this day.
As I explained previously, Lecky did not believe that significant intellectual changes, or shifts in public opinion, are caused primarily by specific arguments in favor of a new position, nor are they usually caused by new information (though new information may provoke new questions and doubts about established beliefs). As Lecky wrote in the Preface to History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (1861):
A change of speculative opinions does not imply an increase of the data upon which those opinions rest, but a change of the habits of thought and mind which they reflect. Definite arguments are the symptoms and pretexts, but seldom the causes of the change. Their chief merit is to accelerate the inevitable crisis. They derive their force and efficacy from their conformity with the mental habits of those to whom they are addressed. Reasoning which in one age would make no impression whatever, in the next age is received with enthusiastic applause.[80]
Corroboration of Lecky’s thesis may be found in a commonly noted example in the history of classical liberalism. We are often told—with some exaggeration, in my opinion—that few if any economic arguments in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations were original, that his arguments had been defended by earlier economic thinkers. Those earlier incarnations, however, had relatively little influence on public opinion, whereas the impact of The Wealth of Nations was profound. So why this difference? Why did essentially the same arguments for free trade and related proposals have dramatically different outcomes at different times? The standard explanation (which I do not entirely accept) has to do with the “spirit of the age,” or the “climate of opinion,” or what we now call “public opinion.” By the time Smith presented his free-trade arguments, public opinion was in a receptive stage. The ground for Smith’s viewpoint had already been laid by various social and economic events and conditions, and by earlier arguments along the same line.
This method of explanation is similar to that employed by Lecky to explain a wide range of intellectual changes. According to Lecky, public opinion in a given age and country will depend on the “standard of belief” – a notion (as explained in my last comment) that is closely related to public credibility, i.e., to widely accepted criteria that determine which beliefs qualify as probable or improbable, possible or impossible, and so on. In a passage that reads, in part, as if it could have been written by Hayek, Lecky said:
And this standard of belief, this tone and habit of thought, which is the supreme arbiter of the opinions of successive periods, is created, not by the influences arising out of any one department of intellect, but by the combination of all the intellectual and even social tendencies of the age. Those who contribute most largely to its formation are, I believe, the philosophers. Men like Bacon, Descartes, and Locke have probably done more than any others to set the current of their age. They have formed a certain cast and tone of mind. They have introduced peculiar habits of thought, new modes of reasoning, new tendencies of enquiry. The impulse they have given to the higher literature, has been by that literature communicated to the more popular writers; and the impress of these master-minds is clearly visible in the writings of multitudes who are totally unacquainted with their works. But philosophical methods, great and unquestionable as is their power, form but one of the many influences that contribute to the mental habits of society.[81]
In Lecky’s judgment, free trade and other manifestations of individual freedom were not caused solely by intellectual arguments; social and psychological factors contributed as well.
Thus the commercial or municipal spirit exhibits certain habits of thought, certain modes of reasoning, certain repugnances and attractions, which make it invariably tend to one class of opinions. To encourage the occupations that produce this spirit, is to encourage the opinions that are most congenial to it. It is impossible to lay down a railway without creating an intellectual influence. It is probable that Watt and Stephenson will eventually modify the opinions of mankind almost as profoundly as Luther or Voltaire.[82]
The historian, according to Lecky, should not restrict himself to “a single department of mental phenomena, and to those logical connections which determine the opinions of the severe reasoner.” Instead, he is “obliged to take a wide survey of the intellectual influences of the period he is describing, and to trace that connection of congruity which has a much greater influence upon the sequence of opinions than logical arguments.”[83] Ideas and events have a symbiotic relationship. Ideas about freedom will help to bring about a free society, while the benefits of a free society will tend to enhance and encourage arguments in its defense.
Any appeal to the “spirit of an age” is likely to be attended with a certain amount of vagueness and ambiguity. J.M. Robertson exploited this problem in his criticism of Lecky. Unfortunately, Robertson’s comments appeared in a little-known book, Letters on Reasoning (1902), so it is understandable if an obscure book written by an obscure author is unknown even to readers, including libertarian readers, with a serious interest in this topic.
Lecky, according to Robertson, had used some key words in a loose, inexact manner. Consider Lecky’s argument, quoted above: “Definite arguments are the symptoms and pretexts, but seldom the causes of the change.” Here is what Robertson had to say about this claim:
What Mr. Lecky ought to have said … is that every great change of belief had been preceded by many smaller changes of belief. He writes of “intellectual condition” and “intellectual influences” as if these were not in terms of beliefs. Obviously they are. Instead therefore of saying that pressure of general intellectual influences determines a predisposition which determines beliefs (that is what Mr. Lecky’s loose phrasing comes to), one should say that beliefs on great or central issues are prepared or determined by beliefs on smaller issues.How, then, are those minor beliefs so altered as to affect major beliefs? We must answer, Either by simple definite argument or by presentments of fact which evoke and clinch definite argument. To say that definite arguments merely “accelerate the inevitable crisis” is a fresh confusion. There can be no “crisis” until definite arguments are forthcoming. What Mr. Lecky should have said is that definite arguments of an innovating kind on a great or central issue have to be preceded by definite arguments on minor issues if they are to be made acceptable. “Mental habits” are substantially habits of belief.[84]
Later, Robertson repeated his basic point.
Important changes of opinion, or changes in important opinion, whether on the part of individuals or of numbers, are the result of minor changes of opinion, or changes in minor opinions. Not that any one minor change is necessarily primary in a given process: many minor opinions may be revolutionised as the result of a great change; but the point is that no great change of belief occurs save as a result of a number of small mental adaptations—that is, changes of belief.[85]
Thus, as Robertson saw the matter, to attribute dramatic shifts in public opinion to something other than arguments and beliefs, and to attribute such changes instead to some vague, ethereal phenomenon called “intellectual climate” or “spirit of an age,” is the result of sloppy thinking and imprecise speaking. All such phenomena, by whatever name we call them, are ultimately reducible to subjective human beliefs, whether about major or minor issues. Moreover, it is a mistake to contrast, as Lecky did, beliefs that are based on reasoning to beliefs that are based on tradition, or authority, etc. These are all processes of reasoning, however defective that reasoning may be. The real problem is that “the processes of reasoning of most people are incomplete, short-sighted, relatively ‘uncritical,’ uncandid.”[86]
[80.] W.E.H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe (New York: George Braziller, 1955), I: x. Online version: </titles/1666#Lecky_1341.01_1>.
[81.] Ibid., I: xi. Online: </titles/1666#Lecky_1341.01_2>.
[83.] Ibid., I: xii. Online: </titles/1666#Lecky_1341.01_3>.
[84.] f John M. Robertson, Letters on Reasoning (London: Watts & Co., 1902), 79.
[85.] Ibid., 80.
[86.] Ibid., 83.