A book to nurture the crucial art of our times: hard thinking
The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker's Anthology, selected and edited by Charles P. Curtis Jr. and Ferris Greenslet. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 692 pages. $8.95 (paperback).
This anthology is more than a collection of nice quotations; it is a survival manual. Compiled by a lawyer and a literary editor during the World War II, and revised after the conditions of life with the bomb had sunk in, the book is now published in paperback especially for those who, with the great Puritan John Bunyan, can say, ''I come from the Town of Stupidity; it lieth about four degrees beyond the City of Destruction.''
Four degrees! And yet ''The Practical Cogitator'' is not a book of quick fixes. Far from it. In the preface to the 1945 edition, the compilers wrote, ''We have tried to build a dry wall. If the reader finds that one of the stones has fallen out into the field, let him only take care not to stumble over it.'' The metaphor of stones is apt: This book demands a pertinacious reader with hard hands. It may come as cold comfort to some who feel that the way to respond to the contemporary situation is to join a political-action group.
Not that action is unnecessary: Cogitation as practiced here is a form of praxis. Addressing the current situation in 1955 in a text that will seem prophetic to those readers born after 1955 - and we hope the book will have many - John von Neumann concluded, ''The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to (a technological) evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous.'' That is on Page 618; on Page 4 we find the following, from Oliver Wendell Holmes: ''I dare say that I have worked off my fundamental formula on you that the chief end of man is to frame general propositions and that no general proposition is worth a damn.''
We find ourselves in a scary situation, yes, but not so scary as to justify our giving up our honesty.
In between the situation out there and the situation within, there is much of interest, and ''The Practical Cogitator'' takes due note of it. The past, society, nature, the ruling abstractions (peace, security, liberty, justice), art, friendship, love: Nothing is scanted. This is a long book. There are substantial passages by Felix Frankfurter (we remember that Curtis was a lawyer, and are grateful), Henry Adams, Marx and Engels, A. N. Whitehead, and so on - mostly moderns. Of the ancients (Curtis was an amateur Hellenist), Aristotle, Thucydides, Plato, Plutarch. There is a lot of Emerson and Holmes; there is no Horace. There is Dryden and no Pope. The poet most often quoted is not Shakespeare but W. B. Yeats.
What keeps this dry wall from crumbling is a reader dedicated to what the compilers call ''the technique of thought.'' Thought is itself a part of nature and so open to scientific scrutiny. The two quote the great American philosopher Charles S. Peirce: ''The best hypothesis, in the sense of the one most recommending itself to the inquirer, is the one which can be the most readily refuted if it is false. This far outweighs the trifling merit of being likely .... (Our) errors are just what the scientific man is out gunning for more particularly.'' Hence the value of general statements: They beg refutation; they help us come to terms with our ignorance.
Ferris Greenslet was the literary editor of the distinguished Boston publishing firm of Houghton Mifflin Company, in whose interest he persuaded Henry Adams to publish his autobiography; it is their book still. We learn from the introduction to the third edition that Greenslet was a polisher of phrases, something of a connoisseur. The rocks of this dry wall have been inspected for shape and coloration as well as soundness.
Every page bears witness to the possibility of uniting thought and style. For an age in which ''style is the man'' can so easily be taken as a justification for sheer bravado or congenial foppishness, ''The Practical Cogitator'' comes as something of a shock.
Houghton Mifflin is to be thanked for not allowing this classic to go out of print; indeed, for making it available to a whole new generation - and to those of the older generations who may have missed it. In the best of possible worlds ''The Practical Cogitator'' would provide an ideal touchstone for the hard thinking that lies ahead for all of us. Aside from this, it is a joy to read. Both instructive and pleasing, as the neglected Horace could have told us, it is bound to do both for years to come.