An Account of the Matter


By Laura Riding, 1930


            And after science has explained there is always science to explain. Science, of course, only serves; it analyses everything but its own function. As Professor Eddington says: ‘The path of science must be pursued for its own sake, irrespective of the views it may afford of a wider landscape.’

            But if there be in any household a lower servant, the presence of an upper servant is axiomatic. You must know from my heartless tone that I am referring to Philosophy. Science explains and Philosophy explains explanation.

            And yet, however just this account of the matter may be, it seems to me a little hard, and I do not wish to be hard. Of course I wish to be just, and if I can only be just by being hard, then I must be hard. But I think it may be possible to be just and a little pleasant at the same time. At least, I shall make the effort. And whatever the result, I shall have at any rate been just. So there is nothing to lose and perhaps a little agreeableness to gain.

            Let me say as if from the beginning, then, that science explains the present to the past, on which the explanation is naturally lost. Philosophy, likewise, explains explanation to the future, on which explanation is naturally also lost. For the past was the present in its own way, was it not, and, I think, unlikely at this late date to be won over to a broader outlook. And the future, too, will be the present in its own way, will it not, and, I think, unlikely to be won over to any view which treats it as non-existent at the moment of formulation and therefore as neither broadly nor narrowly cognizant of the circumstances, so that they must be presented to it in the vaguest terms possible.

            But my manner here, as you must be beginning again to notice, is beginning again to get a little out of hand, that is, cruel. And while I do not wish to put any restraint upon myself, I do wish to be as pleasant as possible without doing so. And I think that perhaps the whole effect would seem more restrained, without of course actually being so, if I tentatively put my account of the matter on quite a different – we might say more benevolent – plane, by giving to the future, as to a race, the name of Mentaurs.

            The Mentaurs, this account of the matter must now run, have, instead of flesh, understanding, and are therefore without mind, and therefore incapable of understanding even the explanation of explanation. Suppose we say that the Mentaurs are asleep. But, if asleep, they perhaps dream. But, if dreaming, it would seem probably that they dreamed in scientific rather than philosophical terms, the method of dreams being – admittedly absurd in operation – serious rather than ironic.

            And I must own here that this alteration of plane finds me a little unprepared. So, to steady the account in this treatment, I must be permitted the latitude of a few experimental remarks. How would it be, then, if I slightly altered my characterization (surely permissible in view of my alteration of plane) and defined philosophy more humanely, and less rhetorically, as the past explaining the present to the future (to the Mentaurs, that is); my definition of science remaining much the same, except perhaps to make it correspond more contrastively with my revised definition of philosophy by saying that as philosophy is the past explaining the present to the future, so science is the present explaining the future to the past. And I don’t want you to feel that the account is undergoing any fundamental reorganization. It is always the same account; and you must really trust me in this; and you must really believe that anything a little irregular in the treatment is due to my desire to be a little pleasant, if that is possible at the same time as one is being just.

            On the whole, the account would probably move more quickly if I pressed this benevolent vein somewhat further, even at the risk of being eventually, in compensation, a little harder than I might have been if I had not undertaken to be pleasant. For I cannot hide from you the fact that dallying has the effect on me of making me unjust. And so I will without further hesitation call the past, speaking of it also as of a race, the Centaurs. And I should also like to submit for your approval, while I am being so extremely pleasant, the idea that science is a process of direct and, we might indeed say, internal contact between the Centaurs and the Mentaurs, while philosophy makes the relationship an external one in which communication is possible only in the most indirect, verbal manner. And, pursuing this note, it may not seem extravagant to suggest that science is in very truth a case of Mentaurs explaining to Centaurs; from which pleasantry it must follow that philosophy is a case of Centaurs explaining back to Mentaurs; which deduction, if a little more hard than pleasant, you will at least allow to be rather humorous. And while I am being, if not humourous, at least cheerfully resigned to the necessity of being hard if I must so be in order to be just, I might record while this vein lasts (lest my next step find me completely intractable) that, as the address of Mentaurs to Centaurs may be said to be scientific in force and that of Centaurs to Mentaurs philosophical, the address of Centaurs to Centaurs is no less technically describable, as indeed being, to put it vulgarly, artistic in force, and, further, that the address of Mentaurs to Mentaurs, though of prose-like familiarity, is of undoubtedly poetic force – by force meaning here on paper, of course, the net result on paper.

            But, speaking of net results on paper, I fear that this account of the matter has, in spite of my plain tenderness, come to a hard though just end. For confess: is not my account an exact one? And yet have you had any pleasure of it, even when I made a story of it – as far as I could without any loss of identity in the characters? And are we to conclude that an account may not be pleasant if it would be just, or just if it would be pleasant? But need we conclude? And is not that perhaps the solution of the difficulty – that we need not conclude? And will you therefore understand that this account of the matter is not concluded, but only come to a point where to make an end would be to make a hard though just end?