Appearance and Reality/Chapter VII

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In raising the question if activity is real or is only appearance, I may be met by the assertion that it is original, ultimate, and simple. I am satisfied myself that this assertion is incorrect, and is even quite groundless; but I prefer to treat it here as merely irrelevant. If the meaning of activity will not bear examination, and if it fails to exhibit itself intelligibly, then that meaning cannot, as such, be true of reality. There can be no origin, or want of origin, which warrants our predicating nonsense. And if I am told that, being simple, activity can have no meaning, then it seems a quality like one of our sensations or pleasures, and we have dealt with it already. Or I may possibly be answered, No, it is not simple in that sense, nor yet exactly composite. It somehow holds a variety, and is given in that character. Hence its idea may be indefensible, while itself is real. But the business of metaphysics is surely to understand; and if anything is such that, when thought of and not simply felt, it goes to pieces in our hands, we can find but one verdict. Either its nature is nonsensical, or we have got wrong ideas about it. The assertor of the latter alternative should then present us with the right ideas—a thing which, I need not add, he is not forward to perform. But let us leave these poor excuses to take care of themselves, and let us turn to the facts. There, if we examine the way in which the term activity is employed, the result is not doubtful. Force, energy, power, activity, these phrases certainly are used too often without clear understanding. But no rational man employs them except to convey some kind of meaning, which is capable of being discovered and subjected to analysis. And if it will not bear scrutiny, then it clearly does not represent reality.

There is a sense in which words like power, force, or energy, are distinguished from activity. They may be used to stand for something that does not happen at all, but somehow remains in a state of suspended animation, or in a region between non- existence and existence. I do not think it worth while to discuss this at present, and shall pass at once to the signification in which force means force in exercise—in other words, activity.

The element in its meaning, which comes to light at once, is succession and change. In all activity something clearly becomes something else. Activity implies a happening and a sequence in time. And, when I spoke of this meaning as coming to the light, I might have added that it positively stares us in the face, and it is not to be hidden. To deal frankly, I do not know how to argue this question. I have never seen a use of the term which to my mind retained its sense if time-sequence is removed. We can, of course, talk of a power sustaining or producing effects, which are subordinate and yet not subsequent; but to talk thus is not to think. And unless the sequence of our thought, from the power to its manifestation, is transferred to the fact as a succession there, the meaning is gone. We are left with mere co-existence, and the dependence, either of adjective on substantive, or of two adjectives on one another and on the substance which owns them. And I do not believe that anyone, unless influenced by, and in the service of, some theory, would attempt to view the matter otherwise. And I fear that I must so leave it.

Activity implies the change of something into something different. So much, I think, is clear; but activity is not a mere uncaused alteration. And in fact, as we have seen, that is really not conceivable. For Ab to become Ac, something else beside Ab is felt to be necessary; or else we are left with a flat self-contradiction. Thus the transition of activity implies always a cause.

Activity is caused change, but it also must be more. For one thing, altered by another, is not usually thought active, but, on the contrary, passive. Activity seems rather to be self-caused change. A transition that begins with, and comes out of, the thing itself is the process where we feel that it is active. The issue must, of course, be attributed to the thing as its adjective; it must be regarded, not only as belonging to the thing, but as beginning in it and coming out of it. If a thing carries out its own nature we call the thing active.

But we are aware, or may become aware, that we are here resting on metaphors. These cannot quite mean what they say, and what they intimate is still doubtful. It appears to be something of this kind: the end of the process, the result or the effect, seems part of the nature of the thing which we had at the beginning. Not only has it not been added by something outside, but it is hardly to be taken as an addition at all. So far, at least, as the end is considered as the thing’s activity, it is regarded as the thing’s character from the first to the last. Thus it somehow was before it happened. It did not exist, and yet, for all that, in a manner it was there, and so it became. We should like to say that the nature of the thing, which was ideal, realized itself, and that this process is what we mean by activity. And the idea need not be an idea in the mind of the thing; for the thing, perhaps, has no mind, and so cannot have that which would amount to volition. On the other hand, the idea in the thing is not a mere idea in our minds which we have merely about the thing. We are sure of this, and our meaning falls between these extremes. But where precisely it falls, and in what exactly it consists, seems at present far from clear. Let us, however, try to go forwards.

Passivity seems to imply activity. It is the alteration of the thing, in which, of course, the thing survives, and acquires a fresh adjective. This adjective was not possessed by the thing before the change. It therefore does not belong to its nature, but is a foreign importation. It proceeds from, and is the adjective of, another thing which is active—at the expense of the first. Thus passivity is not possible without activity; and its meaning is obviously still left unexplained.

It is natural to ask next if activity can exist by itself and apart from passivity. And here we begin to involve ourselves in further obscurity. We have spoken so far as if a thing almost began to be active without any reason; as if it exploded, so to speak, and produced its contents entirely on its own motion, and quite spontaneously. But this we never really meant to say, for this would mean a happening and a change without any cause at all; and this, we agreed long ago, is a self-contradiction and impossible. The thing, therefore, is not active without an occasion. This, call it what you please, is something outside the standing nature of the thing, and is accidental in the sense of happening to that essential disposition. But if the thing cannot act unless the act is occasioned, then the transition, so far, is imported into it by the act of something outside. But this, as we saw, was passivity. Whatever acts then must be passive, so far as its change is occasioned. If we look at the process as the coming out of its nature, the process is its activity. If we regard the same process, on the other hand, as due to the occasion, and, as we say, coming from that, we still have activity. But the activity now belongs to the occasion, and the thing is passive. We seem to have diverse aspects, of which the special existence in each case will depend on our own minds.

We find this ambiguity in the common distinction between cause and condition, and it is worth our while to examine this more closely. Both of these elements are taken to be wanted for the production of the effect; but in any given case we seem able to apply the names almost, or quite, at discretion. It is not unusual to call the last thing which happens the cause of the process which ensues. But this is really just as we please. The body fell because the support was taken away; but probably most men would prefer to call this “cause” a condition of a certain kind. But apparently we may gratify whatever preference we feel. And the well-meant attempt to get clear by defining the cause as the “sum of the conditions” does not much enlighten us. As to the word “sum,” it is, I presume, intended to carry a meaning, but this meaning is not stated, and I doubt if it is known. And, further, if the cause is taken as including every single condition, we are met by a former difficulty. Either this cause, not existing through any part of duration, is really non-existent; or else a condition will be wanted to account for its change and its passing into activity. But if the cause already includes all, then, of course, none is available (Chapter vi.). But, to pass this point by, what do you mean by these conditions, that all fall within the cause, so as to leave none outside? Do you mean that what we commonly call the “conditions” of an event are really complete? In practice certainly we leave out of the account the whole background of existence; we isolate a group of elements, and we say that, whenever these occur, then something else always happens; and in this group we consider ourselves to possess the “sum of the conditions.” And this assumption may be practically defensible, since the rest of existence may, on sufficient ground, be taken as irrelevant. We can therefore treat this whole mass as if it were inactive. Yes, but that is one thing, and it is quite another thing to assert that really this mass does nothing. Certainly there is no logic which can warrant such a misuse of abstraction. The background of the whole world can be eliminated by no sound process, and the furthest conclusion which can be logical is that we need not consider it practically. As in a number of diverse cases it seems to add nothing special, we may for each purpose consider that it adds nothing at all. But to give out this working doctrine as theoretically true is quite illegitimate.

The immediate result of this is that the true “sum of conditions” must completely include all the contents of the world at a given time. And here we run against a theoretical obstacle. The nature of these contents seems such as to be essentially incomplete, and so the “sum” to be nothing attainable. This appears fatal so far, and, having stated it, I pass on. Suppose that you have got a complete sum of the facts at one moment, are you any nearer a result? This entire mass will be the “sum of conditions,” and the cause of each following event. For there is no process which will warrant your taking the cause as less. Here there is at once another theoretical trouble, for the same cause produces a number of different effects; and how will you deal with that consequence? But, leaving this, we are practically in an equal dilemma. For the cause, taken so widely, is the cause of everything alike, and hence it can tell us nothing about anything special; and, taken less widely, it is not the sum, and therefore not the cause. And by this time it is obvious that our doctrine must be given up. If we want to discover a particular cause (and nothing else is a discovery), we must make a distinction in the “sum.” Then, as before, in every case we have conditions beside the cause; and, as before, we are asked for a principle by which to effect the distinction between them. And, for myself, I return to the statement that I know of none which is sound. We seem to effect this distinction always to suit a certain purpose; and it appears to consist in our mere adoption of a special point of view.

But let us return to the consideration of passivity and activity. It is certain that nothing can be active without an occasion, and that what is active, being made thus by the occasion, is so far passive. The occasion, again, since it enters into the causal process—a thing it never would have done if left to itself—suffers a change from the cause; and it therefore itself is passive in its activity. If the cause is A, and the occasion B, then each is active or passive, according as you view the result as the expression of its nature, or as an adjective imported from outside.

And we are naturally brought here to a case where both these aspects seem to vanish. For suppose, as before, that we have A and B, which enter into one process, and let us call the result ACB. Here A will suffer a change, and so also will B; and each again may be said to produce change in the other. But if the nature of A was, before, Acb, and the nature of B was, before, Bca, we are brought to a pause. The ideas which we are applying are now plainly inadequate and likely to confuse us. To A and B themselves they might even appear to be ridiculous. How do I suffer a change, each would answer, if it is nothing else but what I will? We cannot adopt your points of view, since they seem at best quite irrelevant.

To pass to another head, the conclusion, which so far we have reached, seems to exclude the possibility of one thing by itself being active. Here we must make a distinction. If this supposed thing had no variety in its nature, or, again, if its variety did not change in time within it, then it is impossible that it should be active. The idea, indeed, is self-contradictory. Nor could one thing again be said to be active as a whole; for that part of its nature which, changing, served as the occasion could not be included. I do not propose to argue these points, for I do not perceive anything on the other side beyond confusion or prejudice. And hence it is certain that activity implies finitude, and otherwise possesses no meaning. But, on the other hand, naturally where there are a variety of elements, changing in time, we may have activity. For part of these elements may suffer change from, and may produce it in, others. Indeed, the question whether this is to go on inside one thing by itself, appears totally irrelevant, until at least we have some idea of what we mean by one thing. And our enquiries, so far, have not tended to establish any meaning. It is as if we enquired about hermaphroditism, where we do not know what we understand by a single animal. Indeed, if we returned at this point to our A and B connected in one single process, and enquired of them if they both were parts of one thing, or were each one thing containing a whole process of change, we should probably get no answer. They would once more recommend us to improve our own ideas before we went about applying them.

Our result up to this point appears to be much as follows. Activity, under any of the phrases used to carry that idea, is a mass of inconsistency. It is, in the first place, riddled by the contradictions of the preceding chapters, and if it cannot be freed from these, it must be condemned as appearance. And its own special nature, so far as we have discovered that, seems certainly no better. The activity of anything seems to consist in the way in which we choose to look at that which it is and becomes. For, apart from the inner nature which comes out in the result, activity has no meaning. If this nature was not there, and was not real in the thing, is the thing really active? But when we press this question home, and insist on having something more than insincere metaphors, we find either nothing, or else the idea which we are pleased to entertain. And this, as an idea, we dare not attribute to the thing, and we do not know how to attribute it as anything else. But a confusion of this kind cannot belong to reality.

Throughout this chapter I have ignored a certain view about activity. This view would admit that activity, as we have discussed it, is untenable; but it would add that we have not even touched the real fact. And this fact, it would urge, is the activity of a self, while outside self the application of the term is metaphorical. And, with this question in prospect, we may turn to another series of considerations about reality.