Reason in Common Sense/Chapter III
At first sight it might seem an idle observation that the first task of intelligence is to represent the environing reality, a reality actually represented in the notion, universally prevalent among men, of a cosmos in space and time, an animated material engine called nature. In trying to conceive nature the mind lisps its first lesson; natural phenomena are the mother tongue of imagination no less than of science and practical life. Men and gods are not conceivable otherwise than as inhabitants of nature. Early experience knows no mystery which is not somehow rooted in transformations of the natural world, and fancy can build no hope which would not be expressible there. But we are grown so accustomed to this ancient apparition that we may be no longer aware how difficult was the task of conjuring it up. We may even have forgotten the possibility that such a vision should never have arisen at all. A brief excursion into that much abused subject, the psychology of perception, may here serve to remind us of the great work which the budding intellect must long ago have accomplished unawares.
Consider how the shocks out of which the notion of material things is to be built first strike home into the soul. Eye and hand, if we may neglect the other senses, transmit their successive impressions, all varying with the position of outer objects and with the other material conditions. A chaos of multitudinous impressions rains in from all sides at all hours. Nor have the external or cognitive senses an original primacy. The taste, the smell, the alarming sounds of things are continually distracting attention. There are infinite reverberations in memory of all former impressions, together with fresh fancies created in the brain, things at first in no wise subordinated to external objects. All these incongruous elements are mingled like a witches’ brew. And more: there are indications that inner sensations, such as those of digestion, have an overpowering influence on the primitive mind, which has not learned to articulate or distinguish permanent needs. So that to the whirl of outer sensations we must add, to reach some notion of what consciousness may contain before the advent of reason, interruptions and lethargies caused by wholly blind internal feelings; trances such as fall even on comparatively articulate minds in rage, lust, or madness. Against all these bewildering forces the new-born reason has to struggle; and we need not wonder that the costly experiments and disillusions of the past have not yet produced a complete enlightenment.
The onslaught made in the last century by the transcendental philosophy upon empirical traditions is familiar to everybody: it seemed a pertinent attack, yet in the end proved quite trifling and unavailing. Thought, we are told rightly enough, cannot be accounted for by enumerating its conditions. A number of detached sensations, being each its own little world, cannot add themselves together nor conjoin themselves in the void. Again, experiences having an alleged common cause would not have, merely for that reason, a common object. Nor would a series of successive perceptions, no matter how quick, logically involve a sense of time nor a notion of succession. Yet, in point of fact, when such a succession occurs and a living brain is there to acquire some structural modification by virtue of its own passing states, a memory of that succession and its terms may often supervene. It is quite true also that the simultaneous presence or association of images belonging to different senses does not carry with it by intrinsic necessity any fusion of such images nor any notion of an object having them for its qualities. Yet, in point of fact, such a group of sensations does often merge into a complex image; instead of the elements originally perceptible in isolation, there arises a familiar term, a sort of personal presence. To this felt presence, certain instinctive reactions are attached, and the sensations that may be involved in that apparition, when each for any reason becomes emphatic, are referred to it as its qualities or its effects.
Such complications of course involve the gift of memory, with capacity to survey at once vestiges of many perceptions, to feel their implication and absorption in the present object, and to be carried, by this sense of relation, to the thought that those perceptions have a representative function. And this is a great step. It manifests the mind’s powers. It illustrates those transformations of consciousness the principle of which, when abstracted, we call intelligence. We must accordingly proceed with caution, for we are digging at the very roots of reason.
The chief perplexity, however, which besets this subject and makes discussions of it so often end in a cloud, is quite artificial. Thought is not a mechanical calculus, where the elements and the method exhaust the fact. Thought is a form of life, and should be conceived on the analogy of nutrition, generation, and art. Reason, as Hume said with profound truth, is an unintelligible instinct. It could not be otherwise if reason is to remain something transitive and existential; for transition is unintelligible, and yet is the deepest characteristic of existence. Philosophers, however, having perceived that the function of thought is to fix static terms and reveal eternal relations, have inadvertently transferred to the living act what is true only of its ideal object; and they have expected to find in the process, treated psychologically, that luminous deductive clearness which belongs to the ideal world it tends to reveal. The intelligible, however, lies at the periphery of experience, the surd at its core; and intelligence is but one centrifugal ray darting from the slime to the stars. Thought must execute a metamorphosis; and while this is of course mysterious, it is one of those familiar mysteries, like motion and will, which are more natural than dialectical lucidity itself; for dialectic grows cogent by fulfilling intent, but intent or meaning is itself vital and inexplicable.
The process of counting is perhaps as simple an instance as can be found of a mental operation on sensible data. The clock, let us say, strikes two: if the sensorium were perfectly elastic and after receiving the first blow reverted exactly to its previous state, retaining absolutely no trace of that momentary oscillation and no altered habit, then it is certain that a sense for number or a faculty of counting could never arise. The second stroke would be responded to with the same reaction which had met the first. There would be no summation of effects, no complication. However numerous the successive impressions might come to be, each would remain fresh and pure, the last being identical in character with the first. One, one, one, would be the monotonous response for ever. Just so generations of ephemeral insects that succeeded one another without transmitting experience might repeat the same round of impressions—an everlasting progression without a shadow of progress. Such, too, is the idiot’s life: his liquid brain transmits every impulse without resistance and retains the record of no impression.
Intelligence is accordingly conditioned by a modification of both structure and consciousness by dint of past events. To be aware that a second stroke is not itself the first, I must retain something of the old sensation. The first must reverberate still in my ears when the second arrives, so that this second, coming into a consciousness still filled by the first, is a different experience from the first, which fell into a mind perfectly empty and unprepared. Now the newcomer finds in the subsisting One a sponsor to christen it by the name of Two. The first stroke was a simple 1. The second is not simply another 1, a mere iteration of the first. It is 11, where the coefficient represents the reverberating first stroke, still persisting in the mind, and forming a background and perspective against which the new stroke may be distinguished. The meaning of “two,” then, is “this after that” or “this again,” where we have a simultaneous sense of two things which have been separately perceived but are identified as similar in their nature. Repetition must cease to be pure repetition and become cumulative before it can give rise to the consciousness of repetition.
The first condition of counting, then, is that the sensorium should retain something of the first impression while it receives the second, or (to state the corresponding mental fact) that the second sensation should be felt together with a survival of the first from which it is distinguished in point of existence and with which it is identified in point of character.
Now, to secure this, it is not enough that the sensorium should be materially continuous, or that a “spiritual substance” or a “transcendental ego” should persist in time to receive the second sensation after having received and registered the first. A perfectly elastic sensorium, a wholly unchanging soul, or a quite absolute ego might remain perfectly identical with itself through various experiences without collating them. It would then remain, in fact, more truly and literally identical than if it were modified somewhat by those successive shocks. Yet a sensorium or a spirit thus unchanged would be incapable of memory, unfit to connect a past perception with one present or to become aware of their relation. It is not identity in the substance impressed, but growing complication in the phenomenon presented, that makes possible a sense of diversity and relation between things. The identity of substance or spirit, if it were absolute, would indeed prevent comparison, because it would exclude modifications, and it is the survival of past modifications within the present that makes comparisons possible. We may impress any number of forms successively on the same water, and the identity of the substance will not help those forms to survive and accumulate their effects. But if we have a surface that retains our successive stampings we may change the substance from wax to plaster and from plaster to bronze, and the effects of our labour will survive and be superimposed upon one another. It is the actual plastic form in both mind and body, not any unchanging substance or agent, that is efficacious in perpetuating thought and gathering experience.
Were not Nature and all her parts such models of patience and pertinacity, they never would have succeeded in impressing their existence on something so volatile and irresponsible as thought is. A sensation needs to be violent, like the sun’s blinding light, to arrest attention, and keep it taut, as it were, long enough for the system to acquire a respectful attitude, and grow predisposed to resume it. A repetition of that sensation will thereafter meet with a prepared response which we call recognition; the concomitants of the old experience will form themselves afresh about the new one and by their convergence give it a sort of welcome and interpretation. The movement, for instance, by which the face was raised toward the heavens was perhaps one element which added to the first sensation, brightness, a concomitant sensation, height; the brightness was not bright merely, but high. Now when the brightness reappears the face will more quickly be lifted up; the place where the brightness shone will be looked for; the brightness will have acquired a claim to be placed somewhere. The heat which at the same moment may have burned the forehead will also be expected and, when felt, projected into the brightness, which will now be hot as well as high. So with whatever other sensations time may associate with this group. They will all adhere to the original impression, enriching it with an individuality which will render it before long a familiar complex in experience, and one easy to recognise and to complete in idea.
In the case of so vivid a thing as the sun’s brightness many other sensations beside those out of which science draws the qualities attributed to that heavenly body adhere in the primitive mind to the phenomenon. Before he is a substance the sun is a god. He is beneficent and necessary no less than bright and high; he rises upon all happy opportunities and sets upon all terrors. He is divine, since all life and fruitfulness hang upon his miraculous revolutions. His coming and going are life and death to the world. As the sensations of light and heat are projected upward together to become attributes of his body, so the feelings of pleasure, safety, and hope which he brings into the soul are projected into his spirit; and to this spirit, more than to anything else, energy, independence, and substantiality are originally attributed. The emotions felt in his presence being the ultimate issue and term of his effect in us, the counterpart or shadow of those emotions is regarded as the first and deepest factor in his causality. It is his divine life, more than aught else, that underlies his apparitions and explains the influences which he propagates. The substance or independent existence attributed to objects is therefore by no means only or primarily a physical notion. What is conceived to support the physical qualities is a pseudo-psychic or vital force. It is a moral and living object that we construct, building it up out of all the materials, emotional, intellectual, and sensuous, which lie at hand in our consciousness to be synthesised into the hybrid reality which we are to fancy confronting us. To discriminate and redistribute those miscellaneous physical and psychical elements, and to divorce the god from the material sun, is a much later problem, arising at a different and more reflective stage in the Life of Reason.
When reflection, turning to the comprehension of a chaotic experience, busies itself about recurrences, when it seeks to normalise in some way things coming and going, and to straighten out the causes of events, that reflection is inevitably turned toward something dynamic and independent, and can have no successful issue except in mechanical science. When on the other hand reflection stops to challenge and question the fleeting object, not so much to prepare for its possible return as to conceive its present nature, this reflection is turned no less unmistakably in the direction of ideas, and will terminate in logic or the morphology of being. We attribute independence to things in order to normalise their recurrence. We attribute essences to them in order to normalise their manifestations or constitution. Independence will ultimately turn out to be an assumed constancy in material processes, essence an assumed constancy in ideal meanings or points of reference in discourse. The one marks the systematic distribution of objects, the other their settled character.
We talk of recurrent perceptions, but materially considered no perception recurs. Each recurrence is one of a finite series and holds for ever its place and number in that series. Yet human attention, while it can survey several simultaneous impressions and find them similar, cannot keep them distinct if they grow too numerous. The mind has a native bias and inveterate preference for form and identification. Water does not run down hill more persistently than attention turns experience into constant terms. The several repetitions of one essence given in consciousness will tend at once to be neglected, and only the essence itself—the character shared by those sundry perceptions—will stand and become a term in mental discourse. After a few strokes of the clock, the reiterated impressions merge and cover one another; we lose count and perceive the quality and rhythm but not the number of the sounds. If this is true of so abstract and mathematical a perception as is counting, how emphatically true must it be of continuous and infinitely varied perceptions flowing in from the whole spatial world. Glimpses of the environment follow one another in quick succession, like a regiment of soldiers in uniform; only now and then does the stream take a new turn, catch a new ray of sunlight, or arrest our attention at some break.
The senses in their natural play revert constantly to familiar objects, gaining impressions which differ but slightly from one another. These slight differences are submerged in apperception, so that sensation comes to be not so much an addition of new items to consciousness as a reburnishing there of some imbedded device. Its character and relations are only slightly modified at each fresh rejuvenation. To catch the passing phenomenon in all its novelty and idiosyncrasy is a work of artifice and curiosity. Such an exercise does violence to intellectual instinct and involves an aesthetic power of diving bodily into the stream of sensation, having thrown overboard all rational ballast and escaped at once the inertia and the momentum of practical life. Normally every datum of sense is at once devoured by a hungry intellect and digested for the sake of its vital juices. The result is that what ordinarily remains in memory is no representative of particular moments or shocks—though sensation, as in dreams, may be incidentally recreated from within—but rather a logical possession, a sense of acquaintance with a certain field of reality, in a word, a consciousness of knowledge.
But what, we may ask, is this reality, which we boast to know? May not the sceptic justly contend that nothing is so unknown and indeed unknowable as this pretended object of knowledge? The sensations which reason treats so cavalierly were at least something actual while they lasted and made good their momentary claim to our interest; but what is this new ideal figment, unseizable yet ever present, invisible but indispensable, unknowable yet alone interesting or important? Strange that the only possible object or theme of our knowledge should be something we cannot know.
An answer to these doubts will perhaps appear if we ask ourselves what sort of contact with reality would satisfy us, and in what terms we expect or desire to possess the subject-matter of our thoughts. Is it simply corroboration that we look for? Is it a verification of truth in sense? It would be unreasonable, in that case, after all the evidence we demand has been gathered, to complain that the ideal term thus concurrently suggested, the super-sensible substance, reality, or independent object, does not itself descend into the arena of immediate sensuous presentation. Knowledge is not eating, and we cannot expect to devour and possess what we mean. Knowledge is recognition of something absent; it is a salutation, not an embrace. It is an advance on sensation precisely because it is representative. The terms or goals of thought have for their function to subtend long tracts of sensuous experience, to be ideal links between fact and fact, invisible wires behind the scenes, threads along which inference may run in making phenomena intelligible and controllable. An idea that should become an image would cease to be ideal; a principle that is to remain a principle can never become a fact. A God that you could see with the eyes of the body, a heaven you might climb into by a ladder planted at Bethel, would be parts of this created and interpretable world, not terms in its interpretation nor objects in a spiritual sphere. Now external objects are thought to be principles and sources of experience; they are accordingly conceived realities on an ideal plane. We may look for all the evidence we choose before we declare our inference to be warranted; but we must not ask for something more than evidence, nor expect to know realities without inferring them anew. They are revealed only to understanding. We cannot cease to think and still continue to know.
It may be said, however, that principles and external objects are interesting only because they symbolise further sensations, that thought is an expedient of finite minds, and that representation is a ghostly process which we crave to materialise into bodily possession. We may grow sick of inferring truth and long rather to become reality. Intelligence is after all no compulsory possession; and while some of us would gladly have more of it, others find that they already have too much. The tension of thought distresses them and to represent what they cannot and would not be is not a natural function of their spirit. To such minds experience that should merely corroborate ideas would prolong dissatisfaction. The ideas must be realised; they must pass into immediacy. If reality (a word employed generally in a eulogistic sense) is to mean this desired immediacy, no ideal of thought can be real. All intelligible objects and the whole universe of mental discourse would then be an unreal and conventional structure, impinging ultimately on sense from which it would derive its sole validity.
There would be no need of quarrelling with such a philosophy, were not its use of words rather misleading. Call experience in its existential and immediate aspect, if you will, the sole reality; that will not prevent reality from having an ideal dimension. The intellectual world will continue to give beauty, meaning, and scope to those bubbles of consciousness on which it is painted. Reality would not be, in that case, what thought aspires to reach. Consciousness is the least ideal of things when reason is taken out of it. Reality would then need thought to give it all those human values of which, in its substance, it would have been wholly deprived; and the ideal would still be what lent music to throbs and significance to being.
The equivocation favoured by such language at once begins to appear. Is not thought with all its products a part of experience? Must not sense, if it be the only reality, be sentient sometimes of the ideal? What the site is to a city that is immediate experience to the universe of discourse. The latter is all held materially within the limits defined by the former; but if immediate experience be the seat of the moral world, the moral world is the only interesting possession of immediate experience. When a waste is built on, however, it is a violent paradox to call it still a waste; and an immediate experience that represents the rest of sentience, with all manner of ideal harmonies read into the whole in the act of representing it, is an immediate experience raised to its highest power: it is the Life of Reason. In vain, then, will a philosophy of intellectual abstention limit so Platonic a term as reality to the immediate aspect of existence, when it is the ideal aspect that endows existence with character and value, together with representative scope and a certain lien upon eternity.
More legitimate, therefore, would be the assertion that knowledge reaches reality when it touches its ideal goal. Reality is known when, as in mathematics, a stable and unequivocal object is developed by thinking. The locus or material embodiment of such a reality is no longer in view; these questions seem to the logician irrelevant. If necessary ideas find no illustration in sense, he deems the fact an argument against the importance and validity of sensation, not in the least a disproof of his ideal knowledge. If no site be found on earth for the Platonic city, its constitution is none the less recorded and enshrined in heaven; nor is that the only true ideal that has not where to lay its head. What in the sensualistic or mystical system was called reality will now be termed appearance, and what there figured as an imaginary construction borne by the conscious moment will now appear to be a prototype for all existence and an eternal standard for its estimation.
It is this rationalistic or Platonic system (little as most men may suspect the fact) that finds a first expression in ordinary perception. When you distinguish your sensations from their cause and laugh at the idealist (as this kind of sceptic is called) who says that chairs and tables exist only in your mind, you are treating a figment of reason as a deeper and truer thing than the moments of life whose blind experience that reason has come to illumine. What you call the evidence of sense is pure confidence in reason. You will not be so idiotic as to make no inferences from your sensations; you will not pin your faith so unimaginatively on momentary appearance as to deny that the world exists when you stop thinking about it. You feel that your intellect has wider scope and has discovered many a thing that goes on behind the scenes, many a secret that would escape a stupid and gaping observation. It is the fool that looks to look and stops at the barely visible: you not only look but see; for you understand.
Now the practical burden of such understanding, if you take the trouble to analyse it, will turn out to be what the sceptic says it is: assurance of eventual sensations. But as these sensations, in memory and expectation, are numerous and indefinitely variable, you are not able to hold them clearly before the mind; indeed, the realisation of all the potentialities which you vaguely feel to lie in the future is a task absolutely beyond imagination. Yet your present impressions, dependent as they are on your chance attitude and disposition and on a thousand trivial accidents, are far from representing adequately all that might be discovered or that is actually known about the object before you. This object, then, to your apprehension, is not identical with any of the sensations that reveal it, nor is it exhausted by all these sensations when they are added together; yet it contains nothing assignable but what they might conceivably reveal. As it lies in your fancy, then, this object, the reality, is a complex and elusive entity, the sum at once and the residuum of all particular impressions which, underlying the present one, have bequeathed to it their surviving linkage in discourse and consequently endowed it with a large part of its present character. With this hybrid object, sensuous in its materials and ideal in its locus, each particular glimpse is compared, and is recognised to be but a glimpse, an aspect which the object presents to a particular observer. Here are two identifications. In the first place various sensations and felt relations, which cannot be kept distinct in the mind, fall together into one term of discourse, represented by a sign, a word, or a more or less complete sensuous image. In the second place the new perception is referred to that ideal entity of which it is now called a manifestation and effect.
Such are the primary relations of reality and appearance. A reality is a term of discourse based on a psychic complex of memories, associations, and expectations, but constituted in its ideal independence by the assertive energy of thought. An appearance is a passing sensation, recognised as belonging to that group of which the object itself is the ideal representative, and accordingly regarded as a manifestation of that object.
Thus the notion of an independent and permanent world is an ideal term used to mark and as it were to justify the cohesion in space and the recurrence in time of recognisable groups of sensations. This coherence and recurrence force the intellect, if it would master experience at all or understand anything, to frame the idea of such a reality. If we wish to defend the use of such an idea and prove to ourselves its necessity, all we need do is to point to that coherence and recurrence in external phenomena. That brave effort and flight of intelligence which in the beginning raised man to the conception of reality, enabling him to discount and interpret appearance, will, if we retain our trust in reason, raise us continually anew to that same idea, by a no less spontaneous and victorious movement of thought.