Avenarius' Philosophy of Pure Experience/Part II

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AVENARIUS’ PHILOSOPHY OF PURE EXPERIENCE (II.).


By Norman Smith.


In the preceding article I have sketched the general philosophical position from which Avenarius propounds his theory of the introjectionist argument, and may now proceed to the consideration of that argument in itself. Avenarius has given two very different statements of it, one in Der Menschliche Weltbegriff, and the other in four articles entitled “Bemerkungen zum Begriff des Gegenstandes der Psychologie” in the Vierteljahrsschrift.[1] I shall start from the latter as being the more definite. Avenarius’ teaching is that though the attitude of pure experience is perfectly consistent with itself, there inevitably arises at a very early stage of mental development that falsification of experience to which may be given the name introjection. It consists in a false interpretation of the experience of others which by a backstroke necessitates a similar, and equally false, interpretation of our own experience. When we look at another person we observe that the objects which he perceives lie outside him, and, arguing that the perceptions of them are in him and not outside him, we feel compelled to conclude that he does not apprehend the real external objects but only subjective images or counterparts. As this interpretation is applied by me to the experience of all other persons and is applied by all other persons to me, I feel compelled to apply it to my own world, and accordingly conclude that I do not perceive the outer objects but only their inner copies. There must be two external worlds, the actual world in space and the apparently real but merely subjective world of each separate observer.[2] Such an argument is, as Avenarius contends,[3] obviously false. It rests on the assumption that the objects which I immediately experience as outside the body of another person are the real objects which that other person apprehends only indirectly through mental copies. That is to say, on a realistic interpretation of my own experience I base an idealistic interpretation of the experience of others. This contradiction becomes explicit when I am compelled to extend the conclusion thus reached to my own experience, for in so doing I destroy the premiss upon which the whole argument rests.

Now I have not the least intention of seeking to defend such a form of argument. Also, I do not question that in all subjectivist thinking a perpetual alternation between the realistic and the idealistic attitudes is inevitable. In one form or another the realistic assumption is always tacitly made; and that assumption undoubtedly has its origin in the realistic attitude which we spontaneously take up towards the sensible world of immediate experience. Avenarius, in tracing the presence of this self-contradictory assumption through all the various forms of subjective idealism, has rendered a genuine service to philosophy. What I call in question is his assertion that subjective idealism not only logically implies, but finds its originating cause in, this false inference. It is to be observed that Avenarius has given no ground for the assumed necessity of the introjectionist argument save only the spatial externality of objects to the bodies of those who perceive them; and that seems to me insufficient to account for desertion of the realistic attitude of ordinary consciousness. No one at the standpoint of pure experience can fail to observe this spatial externality, and, so far from finding it a stumbling-block and a source of problems, must surely recognise it as necessary for the very purpose of knowledge. We cannot in looking through a window see an external landscape unless the landscape actually exists outside the window, and just as little can we in looking out upon the external world through the eyes—and that is what primitive and unreflective man conceives himself as doing—see that world unless it is actually there outside the eyes. Avenarius insists that the realistic attitude of pure experience is a perfectly satisfactory one. From its point of view any and every possible experience can be consistently interpreted. But if so, why should one of the most universal of experiences, the experience, namely, that objects are always external to the body of the observer, or at least, as regards the parts of his own body, to the organ through which they are apprehended, inevitably lead the mind to draw self-contradictory conclusions? Why should such inconsistent conclusions be drawn from a consistent experience?

Dr. Stout in his article on introjection in Baldwin’s Philosophical Dictionary has quoted a passage in which Herbart has anticipated Avenarius’ argument. “A child sees a dog run whimpering from a stick which is raised to strike it. Immediately the child locates (hineindenkt) the pain of the blow in the dog; but as a future pain, for the dog is not yet struck. He also locates the stick in the dog, for the dog runs away from it; not, however, the real stick for it is outside the dog, but the stick without its reality, that is the image of the stick. . . . For an image is distinguished from the object represented by the fact that though not possessing its reality it yet resembles it in every other respect. In this way, then, the child is led to ascribe the representation (Vorstellung) of the stick to the dog and to distinguish it from its object. The child now possesses a representation of a representation, a very easy but indispensable step in the development of self-consciousness.”[4] This is exactly Avenarius’ argument, but the more concrete form of statement enforces the obvious objection that no child ever does argue in this way. A child would never dream of thus setting a mental copy of the stick inside the dog. The mind must become thoroughly sophisticated by reflexion on philosophical problems before it can be brought to admit, even as a possibility, that the world immediately experienced is a merely subjective copy. The child feels no difficulty in regarding objects as immediately apprehended by all observers. Just as various spectators may look out of different windows upon the same external landscape, so, the child holds, may animals and men look out through their eyes upon the actual real objects that constitute their common environment. The observers are different and so accordingly are their apprehensions or experiences, but the immediate contents of these experiences are the identical real objects. There is, of course, much difficulty as to how the child conceives the distinction between the objects and his experience of them, and as to what is involved in the implied distinction between mind and body,[5] but even granting the possibility of the most various interpretations of these terms, it remains true that the child does not conceive the objects apprehended as being representative images or copies of external bodies. The statements of Herbart and Avenarius are therefore in flagrant contradiction with the facts. .Realism is the fundamental characteristic of the standpoint of primitive man and of the child-mind, and the considerations which lead to subjective idealism, even in the Cartesian form, are quite beyond their range of vision.

The true originating cause of subjective idealism seems to me to be physiological. Subjective idealism was not definitely formulated until the physiology of the nervous system had been developed by Descartes and his contemporaries;[6] and the fundamental reason which inclined them to subjective idealism may perhaps be stated in the following simple manner. So long as the eyes can be regarded as windows through which the mind can look out, every observer may directly apprehend the real external objects. But when it is discovered that the eyes are not exits but always only entrances, that they are not passages through which the mind may issue out but only channels through which currents pass into the brain, the mind then appears to be shut off from direct communion with the external objects, and to depend for all its knowledge on mental images which in a mysterious manner accompany the brain-states. These physiological considerations apply as directly to my own experience as to that of others, and so, on the same identical grounds, I may infer that both my own experience and that of other men, though an apparently immediate apprehension of an external world, is purely subjective. Avenarius explicitly disavows this explanation.[7] Nowhere, however, does he consider it, much less refute it.

I should further contend that the subjectivist position is not a falsification of the attitude of naive realism but a necessary step on the way to its correction. Subjective idealism may not itself be true, but the facts upon which it is based suffice to prove that naïve realism is certainly false. In the end Avenarius’ own theory breaks down because of its irreconcilability with these physiological facts. As I have tried to prove in the previous article, he only escapes them by inconsistently accepting the extreme subjectivism involved in the parallelist position.

To revert, however, to my previous line of argument. Avenarius seems to have confused two quite different mental attitudes, the attitude of animism which in its full and unchecked development is found only in the primitive and savage mind but which in a modified form is still the attitude of the child-mind, and that subjective idealism which was first definitely formulated in the time of Descartes. As these two attitudes are fundamentally different, he was bound to fail in any attempt to trace them both to a common root in introjection. Being, however, profoundly impressed by Tylor’s treatment of animism in Primitive Culture, and following Tylor in his exaggerated view of the part which animism plays in the development of theological and philosophical thought,[8] he very naturally tried to connect the Cartesian dualism, which is the stumbling-block of all naturalistic systems, and which is therefore in a very especial sense the bête noire of his own philosophising, with the animistic theories of primitive man. That dualism had previously compelled Avenarius to develop his naturalistic system on idealist lines.[9] The relief which he felt in escaping both idealism and dualism by readoption of the realistic attitude of natural science and physiology he has described in his introduction to the Menschlicher Weltbegriff.[10]

I may now turn to Avenarius’ earlier statement of the introjectionist argument in the Menschlicher Weltbegriff. His articles in the Vierteljahrsschrift enter upon the problem of introjection only in so far as that is necessary in order to refute the current conception of the data of psychology, and to vindicate that view of its province which has been advocated in this country by Ward and Stout. As the current conception was based on subjective idealism, the theory of introjection required to be formulated only in its connexion with idealism. No direct reference is made to animism,[11] or, save very briefly, to the attitude of ordinary consciousness. In Philosophie als Denken der Welt and in the Kritik Avenarius had, however, traced all the false conceptions of dualistic metaphysic to primitive animism; and the problem which still remained for solution, and which he set himself to solve in the Menschlicher Weltbegriff, was that of accounting for, and removing, the various dualisms (between inner and outer, soul and body, mind and matter, God and the world, etc.) into which the unity of pure experience had thus been resolved. This involved explanation of the transition from pure experience to animism and from animism to subjective idealism; and by interpreting his introjectionist argument, here propounded for the first time, now in a wider and now in a narrower sense he sought to make it yield an explanation of both these vitiating transformations of experience. With the elimination of all introjection both animism and subjectivism, and together with them every vestige of dualism, would, he claims, entirely vanish, leaving that pure experience out of which through introjection they originally emerged. To eliminate introjection is to overthrow both agnosticism and spiritualism, indeed every philosophy which asserts that there are realities which cannot be completely known or problems that cannot be completely solved by ideal completion of the existing sciences. The kind of completion which Avenarius would regard as satisfactory has already been indicated in the previous article.[12]

The introjectionist argument is stated in the Menschlicher Weltbegriff[13] in much the same manner as in the Bemerkungen, but is developed to a very different conclusion.[14] The conclusion now drawn is not that the world perceived is a mental copy of external reality but only that the perception of external objects is in the mind. Since the object which another person perceives is seen by us to lie outside him, we infer that there exists in him the perception of it. “Thus in consequence of introjection [we] find on the one side the parts of the environment as ‘things,’ and on the other side individuals who ‘apprehend’ the ‘things’; that is to say, ‘things’ on the one hand and ‘perceptions of things,’ or, more shortly, ‘perceptions’ on the other.”[15] As the voice of each individual comes from within him, and as each individual locates certain feelings in organs which are as a rule inside the body, the perceptions are regarded as forming an inner world. This conclusion seems all the more inevitable as these perceptions are not discoverable on the outside (am Äussern) of the body.[16] The inference may therefore be stated as follows: All other persons have an outer world which they perceive or experience and each has an inner world which consists of these perceptions or experiences. The introjectionist argument is then completed through application to the self. I have an outer world which I perceive or experience and an inner world which consists of these perceptions and experiences.

Many objections to this argument at once suggest themselves. In the first place, the distinction between objects and perceptions of objects must be present in our own experience before we can infer its presence in the experience of others. Dr. Ward has stated that “the essence of introjection consists in applying to the immediate experience of my fellow-creatures conceptions which have no counterpart in my own”.[17] But if the self has no conception of inner experience or of perception as something distinguishable from the objects apprehended, it could not invent the distinction by any amount of reflexion upon the spatial externality of objects to the bodies of others. Also, it is not clear why the spatial externality of objects to our own body should not in itself, without this roundabout argument through other selves, suffice to direct our attention to so fundamental a distinction as that between objects and the perception of them. But since Avenarius admits as original and primitive the distinction between characters and contents, that is to say, between experience or perception and the contents experienced or perceived, he can only mean that the introjectionist fallacy consists in transforming distinguishable aspects into separate worlds, the inseparable aspects of experience into two kinds of experience.

To that the reply is that neither primitive man nor the child does thus oppose inner and outer. Here again Avenarius is interpreting the words ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ in terms of the latter subjectivism of reflective consciousness. The distinction between inner and outer, between perception and object perceived, is not in itself illegitimate and false. Everything depends upon the particular manner in which it is viewed; and when Avenarius interprets the spatial metaphor and the localisation of perceptions within the body in a quite literal fashion he is guilty of ignoring the subtleties of a highly complex and very vaguely denned position. The language which he employs to express the distinction has been created in the course of philosophical inquiry and as such is thoroughly misleading. Primitive man and the child do not use so general a term as perception or experience. They say ‘I see the object’ or ‘I touch it,’ and thus always keep in view that complexity of relations by which soul and body, mind and object, are interconnected. And no better illustration of this fact could be obtained than the animistic conception of the soul as depicted by Tylor. As Tylor has shown, and as Avenarius himself admits, the soul is not pictured by primitive man as consisting of inner experiences, nor even as the subject or bearer of such experiences, but as a duplicate of the body, itself possessing sense-organs and therefore related to objects in the same manner as the physical organism. Animism is a form of naive realism, and indeed its extremest form, and just for that reason it always makes use of spatial metaphors, conceiving the inner body as related to the outer body as an individual is related to the house which he inhabits or the clothes which he wears.[18] It is not the dualising of experience, but the duplication of one of the objects experienced, that constitutes animism.

Avenarius’ assumption that experience has been at some point in the long past of the human race, and is at some stage in the life of each child, pure experience, and that this primitive experience has been vitiated in both cases by a supervening process of introjection, aided in the case of the child though not of course in the history of the race by current thought and language, has no sufficient ground either in anthropology or in child-psychology. We may get back to a stage at which the child does not distinguish self and not-self, inner and outer, but the differentiating process by which its confused experience is articulated through these distinctions does not seem to be vitiated at some particular stage in its development, but rather constantly to advance towards a more and more definite, more and more exact, appreciation both of the opposition between self and not-self and of their interrelations. At no stage is the development describable as a transition from a consistent and true experience to an impossible or illegitimate dualism. If at certain stages duality, such as that of soul and body in the animistic theories, is unduly emphasised, it can be said with equal truth that in the preceding stages the duality was unduly ignored. A duality that leads through animism to the idealism of Plato can only be reckoned an illegitimate development of thought by those who, like Avenarius, advocate a purely naturalistic interpretation of spiritual experience. His attempt to give logical and conclusive proof of its illegitimacy by his theory of the introjectionist argument has certainly failed. In so far as introjection goes beyond the distinction between my experience and the experience of others, that is to say, beyond the hypothesis implied in the attitude of pure experience,[19] it is not involved in animism. For, as we have just seen, though animism modifies the attitude of pure experience, the opposition which it develops is not between inner experience and the outer world, but only between an inner and an outer body. Also—to indicate a further important point—animism in its development is not determined by the introjectionist argument. For it does not originate in any fallacious inference from others to the self, but spontaneously arises as the natural explanation of a very special set of concrete phenomena—those of sleep, dreams and death. As Tylor has by reference to these concrete facts accounted for it in a satisfactory manner, a second explanation is quite superfluous.

Avenarius’ conception of the part which animism has played in the development of thought is as unsatisfactory as his attempted explanation of its origin by means of introjection. His position is entirely motived by the desire to trace all the higher conceptions of religion and philosophy back to the animistic belief in visions of the dead, and so to condemn them as Aberglaube, as ‘the shadow of a shade’. From this point of view Avenarius seeks to interpret the progress of philosophy as an inevitable development of animism through more and more subtilised forms of spiritualism back to naturalism. Philosophy, as it develops the conception of spirit, passes by completion of the dualism between it and all the objects of possible experience into agnosticism, and agnosticism, by elimination of the spiritualistic opposition of appearance and reality which it has unconsciously retained, returns to the naturalism of pure experience.[20] The various conceptions of spirit, including that of the unknowable, are the Schutzformen or Beibegriffe[21] through which the human mind has sought to maintain its inherited beliefs in face of the contrary evidence of pure experience. They are progressively modified to fit the facts as these become more fully known, but the completion of the adaptation coincides with their complete elimination. The following passage from Tylor’s Primitive Culture may be quoted as the source from which Avenarius probably gained his point of view: “The animism of savages stands for and by itself; it explains its own origin. The animism of civilised men, while more appropriate to advanced knowledge, is in great measure only explicable as a developed product of the older and ruder system. . . . As we explore human thought onward from savage into barbarian and civilised life, we find a state of theory more conformed to positive science, but in itself less complete and consistent. . . . The soul has given up its ethereal substance, and become an immaterial entity, ‘the shadow of a shade’. Its theory is becoming separated from the investigations of biology and mental science, which now discuss the phenomena of life and thought, the senses and the intellect, the emotions and the will, on a groundwork of pure experience.”[22]

Avenarius’ treatment of animism has been approved in most unexpected quarters,[23] and on that account I have dwelt upon it at greater length. But surely if we were called upon to make a choice between Avenarius’ condemnation of animism as the source of all false metaphysics and Fechner’s idealisation of it as containing the germ of a final philosophy, we should be compelled to side with the latter. Animism is not the source of the distinction between soul and body but only the first and crudest attempt to comprehend and define their interrelations. To say, as Tylor and Avenarius both do, that the real grounds for the conception of the soul lie in primitive thinking, and that all later attempts to develop it fail to strengthen the grounds upon which it was adopted by the savage mind, is a grotesque misrepresentation of the history of human thought. Some distinction between self and not-self is present from the very start of human experience, and the philosophical value of animism may perhaps be regarded as chiefly consisting in the definiteness which it gave to that more primitive distinction—a definiteness which enabled it to take hold on the human mind and so ultimately to become a subject of scientific reflexion. As an opposition between soul and body it may or may not be tenable, as containing the germ of the distinction between mind and matter, thought and extension, it is indispensable for clearness in philosophical thinking. Avenarius’ attempt to remove the distinction by contending that with the advance of knowledge it has ceased to exist even as a problem has resulted in his own case in a one-sided materialism. In overcoming the opposition of subject and object he very seriously misrepresents it. When, on the one hand, he identifies the opposition of subject and object with the distinction between character and content, by using these new and quite general terms, and by describing character and content as inseparable aspects of every experience, he escapes the duty of analysing the varied and complex forms in which they are related in special cases. And when, on the other hand, he identifies the opposition of subject and object with the distinction between self and not-self, in analysing the self into its varied factors he ignores the aspect of character or subjectivity which is the fundamental feature whereby a self is distinguished from all other objects.[24] To this separate treatment of these allied distinctions we may ascribe both the misleading plausibility and the complete failure of his attempted re-establishment of a scientific realism.

In conclusion I may sum up my criticisms of Avenarius’ theory of the introjectionist argument. He gives two quite distinct and conflicting statements of it. Both cannot be true, and, as I have tried to show, both are in some degree false. If introjection is interpreted in the wider sense as covering the distinction between inner and outer, perceiving and perceived, it is a quite legitimate distinction, and one which has been formulated by Avenarius himself as the relative opposition of characters and contents. Animism, as the recognition of this duality and a first attempt to define it, is not so much the source of the subsequent errors of philosophy as the beginning of its positive development. And lastly, animism does not originate in the introjectionist argument but in the interpretation of a very special set of concrete phenomena. Avenarius, therefore, has not succeeded in proving either that introjection in this abstract form is a fallacy or that its concrete embodiment in animism is the ultimate source of metaphysical error. If, on the other hand, introjection is identified with subjective idealism, it is undoubtedly a fallacy, involving that self-contradictory alternation between the realistic and the idealistic attitudes which Avenarius has so acutely and suggestively analysed. As a title for this particular fallacy the term ‘introjection’ is entirely satisfactory. When Avenarius, however, presents the introjectionist argument as the generating cause of subjective idealism, his thinking is evidently perverted by a false view of the development of knowledge. He has again been misled by his confusion of animism with subjectivism, and so has been compelled to represent the latter as a universal illusion of the human mind. Such a view is refuted both by the facts of anthropology and by the actual history of philosophy. Subjectivism is a purely philosophical development which is based on physical and physiological considerations and which did not take definite form until modern times.

Notes[edit]

  1. Vol. xviii., p. 150, § 35 ff.
  2. Vol. xviii., p. 154, § 46.
  3. Ibid., § 47 ff.
  4. Psychologie als Wissenschaft, § 133.
  5. Cf. below, p. 156.
  6. So far as subjective idealism appears in Greek philosophy, as for instance in the philosophy of Democritus, it involves, and would seem to be due to, physical and physiological considerations.
  7. Vierteljahrsschrift, vol. xviii., “Bemerkungen,” p. 419, § 116: “Diese logisch unberechtigte Deutung der Abhängigkeit der ‘Farben,’ ‘Gefühle’ u. s. w. vom Gehirn ist nicht der Grund der Introjection, sondern ihre Folge.”
  8. Cf. previous article in Mind (January, 1906), No. 57, p. 27.
  9. The stages in the gradual development of Avenarius’ philosophy are clearly marked in his published works. The above interpretation of animism, together with a somewhat immature statement of his later doctrine of pure experience, is presented in Philosophie als Denken der Welt, but from a point of view indistinguishable from subjective idealism (cf. § 115 ff.). In the Kritik this subjectivism is rejected in favour of realism. His doctrine of introjection, as the explanation both of animism and of subjectivism, appears, however, only in the Menschlicher Weltbegriff. Finally, in the Bemerkungen, Avenarius restates the introjectionist argument, and also develops more explicitly certain aspects of his naturalistic system.
  10. Pp. ix.-x.
  11. Except in a very significant note (Vierteljahrsschrift, vol. xviii., Bemerkungen, pp. 153-154) which seems to indicate consciousness of the unsatisfactory manner in which introjection and animism had been connected in the Menschlicher Weltbegriff (cf. § 56).
  12. Cf. previous article, pp. 25-26.
  13. § 38 ff.
  14. The two views do not seem to have been distinguished by previous writers. The statement of the theory given by Ward (Naturalism and Agnosticism, vol. ii., p. 172) is somewhat indefinite. Taylor (Elements of Metaphysics, pp. 81, 299) is more explicit, but though apparently basing his statement on the Menschlicher Weltbegriff seems to have read into it the view of the Bemerkungen. Stout, on the other hand, bases his statement entirely on the latter.
  15. Menschlicher Weltbegriff, § 43.
  16. Ibid., § 45.
  17. Naturalism and Agnosticism, vol. ii., 172.
  18. Cf. Menschlicher Weltbegriff, § 59.
  19. Cf. previous article, p. 15.
  20. Menschlicher Weltbegriff, § 55 (cf. Kritik, vol. ii., p. 281, pp. 296-297). According to Avenarius this desertion of the attitude of pure experience and consequent development through spiritualism and agnosticism back to naturalism is not only inevitable, but also fruitful as leading to a naturalism which is conscious of its own meaning and so can never again be tempted to transcend possible experience. Fechner states in a less exaggerated and much more satisfactory manner a similar, though opposed, view of the development of knowledge (Zend-Avesta, first edition, vol. ii., pp. 87-96). He shares Avenarius’ belief in a primitive state of pure and true experience. Though the starting-point of human experience is the ‘unaufgeschlossenes Ei des Glaubens,’ in which the whole truth of the Universe is contained in germ, “it was so unstable that it yielded to every idle suggestion, so uncertain of itself that it fell victim to every deceptive appearance, so little capable of grasping the parts simultaneously with the whole, that every attempt to enter more fully into the parts caused it to lose the meaning of the whole. . . . And so reality divides and subdivides itself without ceasing, becoming always clearer and more intelligible in detail, and always more meaningless (todter) and self-contradictory as a whole” (Zend-Avesta, loc. cit.). While Avenarius regards the completion of this development as involving a return to that attitude of pure experience which he believes to have preceded animism, Fechner with more historical justification identifies both the primitive and the final attitudes with animism. ‘The axiom of the forms of knowledge,’ formulated by Avenarius in the Kritik (Vorwort, p. vii) and emphasised in his earlier Philosophie als Denken der Welt—that scientific forms of knowledge are in all cases developments of the pre-scientific—does not by itself in any way justify his naturalistic conclusions. It is accepted by Fechner, as well as by all idealist writers. This is one of the many points in which Avenarius’ view of the development of knowledge reveals kinship with the Hegelian philosophy.
  21. Cf. previous article, p. 27.
  22. Primitive Culture (1871), i., pp. 452-453. I have not been able to find any authoritative statement as to the extent of the influence which Tylor’s treatment of animism exercised on Avenarius. But that it was decisive in determining Avenarius’ conception of the main stages in the development of philosophy, and of human thought generally, seems fairly obvious.
  23. Cf. Ward in Naturalism and Agnosticism, vol. ii., 172.
  24. For a fuller treatment of this important point, see previous article, pp. 20-21, 28-29.