When questions have been often debated without coming nearer to a conclusion, it should be regarded as a sign that they are too delicate and subtle for debate. A trial should then be made of the amicable or co-operative treatment represented by the Essay. The Freedom of the Will might, I think, be adjusted by friendly accommodation, but not by force of contention. External Perception is beyond the province of debate. It is fair and legitimate to try all problems by debate, in the first instance, because the excitement quickens the intelligence, and leads to new suggestions; but if the question involves an adjustment of various considerations and minute differences, the contending sides will be contentious still.
A society that really aims at the furtherance of knowledge, might test its operations by now and then preparing a report of progress; setting forth what problems had been debated, what themes elucidated, and with what results. It would be very refreshing to see a candid avowal that after several attempts—both debate and essay—some leading topic of the department remained exactly where it stood at the outset. After such a confession, the Society might well resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole House, to consider its ways, and indeed its entire position, with a view to a new start on some more hopeful track.
My closing remark is, as to avoiding debates that are in their very nature interminable. It is easy to fix upon a few salient features that make all the difference between a hopeful and a hopeless controversy. For one thing, there is a certain intensity of emotion, interest, bias, or prejudice if you will, that can neither reason nor be reasoned with. On the purely intellectual side, the disqualifying circumstances are complexity and vagueness. If a topic necessarily hauls in numerous other topics of difficulty, the essay may do something for it, but not the debate. Worst of all is the presence of several large, ill-defined, or unsettled terms, of which there are still plenty in our department. A not unfrequent case is a combination of the several defects each perhaps in a small degree. A tinge of predilection or party, a double or triple complication of doctrines, and one or two hazy terms, will make a debate that is pretty sure to end as it began. Thus it is that a question, plausible to appearance, may contain within it capacities of misunderstanding, cross-purposes, and pointless issues, sufficient to occupy the long night of Pandemonium, or beguile the journey to the nearest fixed star.
[Footnote 12: An Address, delivered on the 28th of March, 1877, to the Edinburgh University Philosophical Society. CONTEMPORARY REVIEW, April, 1877.]
[Footnote 13: This very plausible utterance begs every question. There would be some difficulty in condensing an equal amount of fallacy, confusion of thought, in so few words.