Blackwood's Magazine/Volume 44/Issue 276/An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness (Part 5)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILOSOPHY OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

Part V.

Chapter I.


The question of Liberty and Necessity has been more perplexed and impeded in its solution by the confounding of a peculiar and very important distinction, than by all the other mistakes and oversights burdened upon it besides. The distinction to which we allude is one which ought to be constantly kept in mind, and followed out as a clue throughout the whole philosophy of man—the distinction, namely, between one's existence for others, and one's existence for oneself; or, in other words, the distinction between unconscious and conscious existence. This distinction, we remark, is very commonly confounded; that is to say, the separate species of existence specified, instead of being regarded as two, are generally regarded as only one; and the consequence is, that all the subsequent conclusions of psychology are more or less perplexed and vitiated by this radical entanglement, and more particularly is the great question just mentioned involved in obscurity thereby, and, to all appearance, doomed to revolve in the weary rounds of endless and barren speculation. We have already, in various parts of this discussion, endeavoured to establish a complete distinction between these two kinds of being; and now, with a view of throwing some light on the intricate question of Liberty and Necessity, not derived from reasoning, but from immediate fact, we proceed to illustrate and enforce this discrimination more strenuously than ever.

What, then, is our existence for others; and in what respect is it to be taken into account in a scientific estimate of ourselves? A little reflection will explain to us what it is, together with all its actual or possible accompaniments.

It will be admitted that except in man there is no consciousness anywhere throughout the universe. If, therefore, man were deprived of consciousness, the whole universe, and all that dwell therein, would be destitute of that act. Let us suppose, then, that this deprivation actually takes place, and let us ask, What difference would it make in the general aspect and condition of things? As far as the objects of the external universe, animals and so forth, are concerned, it would confessedly make none; for all these are without consciousness at any rate, and therefore cannot be affected by its absence. The stupendous machinery of nature would move round precisely as heretofore. But what difference would the absence of consciousness make in the condition of man? Little or none, we reply, in the eyes of a spectator ab extra. In the eyes of a Being different from man, and who regards him, we shall suppose, from some other sphere, man's ongoings without consciousness would be the same, or nearly the same, as they were with consciousness. Such a Being would occupy precisely the same position towards the unconscious man as the conscious man at present holds towards the unconscious objects of creation; that is to say, man would still exist for this Being, and for him would evolve all his varied phenomena. We are not to suppose that man in this case would be cut off from any of those sources of inspiration which make him a rational, a passionate, a sentient, and an imaginative creature. On the contrary, by reason of the very absence of consciousness, the flood-gates of his being would stand wider than before, and let in upon him stronger and deeper currents of inspiration. He would still be visited by all his manifold sensations, and by all the effects they bring along with them; he would still be the creature of pleasure and of pain; his emotions and desires would be the same as ever, or even more overwhelming; he would still be the inspired slave of all his soft and all his sanguinary passions; for, observe, we are not supposing him deprived of any of these states of being, but only of the consciousness, or reference to self, of them—only of that notion and reality of self which generally accompanies them—a partial curtailment perfectly conceivable, and one which sometimes actually takes place; for instance, in that abnormal condition of humanity denominated somnambulism. In the case we are supposing, then, man's reason or intelligence would still be left to him. He would still be a mathematician like the bee, and like the beaver a builder of cities. He might still, too, have a language and a literature of a certain kind, though destitute, of course, of all allusions and expressions of a conscious or personal character. But the "Goddess" or the "Muse" might and would still infuse into his heart the gift of song; and then an unconscious Homer, blind in soul as well as blind insight, filled by the transmitted power of some foreign afflatus, might have sung the wrath of an unconscious Achilles, and the war waged against Troy by heroic somnambulists from Greece. For poetry represents the derivative and unconscious, just as philosophy represents the free and conscious, elements of humanity; and is itself, according to every notion of it entertained and expressed from the earliest times down to the present, an inspired or fatalistic development, as is evident from the fact, that all great poets, in the exercise of their art, have ever referred away their power from themselves to the "God," the "Goddess," the "Muse," or some similar source of inspiration always foreign to themselves.[1]"Est Deus," says the poet,

"Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo."

Listen, also, to the testimony of our own Milton, who, in one of his elegies, gives voice to the belief that he owed his genius to the spring, and, like a tree in the budding woods, was wont to blossom into song beneath the vivifying spirit of that genial time. "Fallor?" he asks,

"Fallor? an et nobis redeunt in carmina vires,
Ingeniumque mihi munere veris adest?"[2]

The sublimest works of intelligence, then, are quite possible; and may be easily conceived to be executed without any consciousness of them on the part of the apparent and immediate agent. Suppose man to be actuated throughout his whole nature by the might of some foreign agency; and he may realize the most stupendous operations, and yet remain in darkness, and incognizant of them all the while. A cognizance of these operations certainly does not necessarily go hand in hand with their performance. What is there in the workings of human passion that consciousness should necessarily accompany it, any more than it does the tossings of the stormy sea? What is there in the radiant emotions which issue forth in song, that consciousness should naturally and necessarily accompany them, any more than it does the warblings and the dazzling verdure of the sun-lit woods? What is there in the exercise of reason, that consciousness should inevitably go along with it, any more than it accompanies the mechanic skill with which the spider spreads his claggy snares? There is obviously nothing. The divorce, then, between consciousness, and all these powers and operations, may be conceived as perfectly complete; and this conception is all that is here necessary for the purposes of our coming argument.

Existence, then, together with all the powers and operations just indicated, might be truly predicated of man, even in his unconscious state. And even more than this might be affirmed of him. We could not, indeed, with propriety, say (the reason of which will appear by-and-by) that man, without consciousness, would be invested in any degree with a moral character. Yet even here, according to the moral philosophy of Paley and his school, in which morality is expounded as the mere adaptation of means to ends in the production of the social welfare—which adaptation might be perfectly well effected without any consciousness on the part of man, just as bees and other animals adapt means to ends without being aware of what they are about—according to this view, man, although unconscious, would still be a moral creature. Neither, without consciousness, would man possess laws in the proper sense of the word; but here, too, according to the Hobbesian doctrines which make law to consist in the domination or supremacy of force, and the power of a supreme magistrate all that is necessary to constitute it, man might, in every respect, be considered a finished legislator, and a creature living under laws.

But it is time to turn these preliminary observations to some account. Let us now, then, ask, depriving man of consciousness, what is it we actually leave him, and what is it we actually deprive him of? We leave him all that we have said. We leave him existence, and the performance of many operations, the greatest, as well as the most insignificant. But the existence thus left to him, together with all its phenomena, is, we beg it may be observed, only one species of existence. It is a peculiar kind of existence which must be noted well, and discriminated from existence of another species which we are about to mention. In a word, it is existence merely for others. This is what we leave man when we suppose him divested of consciousness.

And now we again ask, depriving man of consciousness, what do we really deprive him of? and we answer, that we totally deprive him of existence for himself; that is, we deprive him of that kind of existence in which alone he has any share, interest, or concern; or, in other words, by emptying him of consciousness, we take away from him altogether his personality, or his true and proper being. For of what importance is it to him that he should exist for others, and, for them, should evolve the most marvellous phenomena, if he exists not for himself, and takes no account of the various manifestations he displays? What reality can such a species of existence have for him? Obviously none. What can it avail a man to be and to act, if he remains all the while without consciousness of his Being and his actions? In short, divested of consciousness, is it not plain that a man is no longer "I," or self, and, in such circumstances, must not his existence, together with all its ongoings, be, in so far as he is concerned, absolutely zero, or a blank?

Thus existence becomes discriminated into two distinct species, which, though they may be found together, as they usually are in man, are yet perfectly separate and distinguishable; existence, namely, for others, and existence for one's self. Recapitulating what we have said, this distinction may be established and explained thus, in a very few words:—Deprive man of consciousness, and in one sense you do not deprive him of existence, or of any of the vigorous manifestations and operations of existence. In one sense, that is, for others, he exists just as much as ever. But in another sense, you do deprive him of existence as soon as you divest him of consciousness. In this latter sense he now ceases to exist; that is, he exists no longer for himself. He is no longer that which was "I," or self. He has lost his personality. He takes no account of his existence, and therefore his existence, as far as he is concerned, is virtually and actually null. But, if there were only one species, and one notion of existence, it is impossible that man, when denuded of consciousness, should both exist and not exist, as we have shown he does. If existence were of one kind only, it would be impossible to reconcile this contradiction, which is yet seen to be perfectly true, and an undeniable matter of fact. The conclusion, therefore, is inevitable and irresistible, that existence is not of one, but of two kinds; existence, to wit, for others, and existence for ourselves; and that a creature may possess the former without possessing the latter, and that, though it should lose the latter by losing consciousness, it may yet retain the former, and "live and breathe and have a being in the eyes of others."

Does some one here remark that consciousness is not our existence, but is merely the knowledge of our existence? Then we beg such a person to consider what would become of his existence, with respect to him, if he were deprived of the knowledge of it. Would it not be, in so far as he was concerned, precisely on the footing of a nonentity? One's knowledge, therefore, or consciousness of existence, is far more than mere consciousness of existence. It is the actual ground of a species of existence itself. It constitutes existence for one's self, or personal existence; for without this consciousness a man would possess no personality, and each man's personality is his true and proper being.

Having divided existence, then, into two distinct kinds, the next question is—to what account do we propose turning the discrimination? If it is of no practical use in removing difficulties and in throwing light upon the obscurer phenomena of man, it is worthless, and must be discarded as a barren and mere hair-splitting refinement. What application, then, has it to the subjects we are engaged in discussing; and, in particular, what assistance does it afford us in clearing up the great fact of Human Liberty—that key-stone in the arch of humanity, without which all our peculiar attributes, morality, responsibility, law, and justice, loosened from their mighty span, would fall from their places, and disappear for ever in the blind abysses of Necessity?

In availing ourselves, then, of the assistance of this distinction, and in applying it to our purposes, the first circumstance connected with it which attracts our attention is the following fact, deserving, we may be permitted to say, of very emphatic notice; that while the one of these species of existence precedes the act of consciousness, the other of them follows that act. Our existence for others is antecedent, but our existence for ourselves is subsequent to the act of consciousness. Before a child is conscious, it exists for others; but it exists for itself only after it is conscious. Prior to consciousness, or in the absence of that act, man is a one-sided phantasmagoria; vivid on the side towards others with all the colours, the vigorous ongoings, the accomplishments, and the reality of existence; but on the other side, the side where he himself should be, but is not yet, what is there? a blank—utter nothingness. But, posterior to consciousness, and in consequence of it, this vacuity is filled up, new scenery is unfolded, and a new reality is erected on the blank side behind the radiant pageant. The man himself is now there. The one-sided existence has become doubled. He no longer exists merely for others; he exists also for himself—a very different and, for him, a much more important matter.

Existence for one's self, then, personal existence, or, in other words, that species of Being which alone properly concerns man, is found not to precede, but to follow the act of consciousness; therefore the next fact of humanity to which we beg to call very particular attention is this: that man, properly speaking, acts before he exists; for consciousness is, as we have already shown, and will show still further, a pure act, and partakes in no degree of the nature of a passion. At the same time, the proof that consciousness is of this character will convince us that it cannot have its origin in the first-mentioned and given species of existence, which we have called existence for others, or existence without consciousness. But this is not the place for that proof. It will be attempted by-and-by.

This fact, that man acts before he truly and properly exists, may, perhaps at first sight appear rather startling, and maybe conceived to be at direct variance with what are called "the laws of human thought;" for it may be said that these laws compel us to conceive man in Being before we can conceive him in act. But if it should be really found to be thus at variance with these laws, our only answer is, that facts are "stubborn things," and that we do not care one straw for the laws of human thought when they contradict the facts of experience; and a fact of experience we maintain it to be (let people conceive or not as they please or can), that man's true Being follows and arises out of man's act—that man, properly speaking, cannot be said to be until he acts—that consciousness is an act, and that our proper existence, being identical and convertible with our personality, which results from consciousness, is not the antecedent but the consequent of that act.

Need we say anything further in enforcement and illustration of this very extraordinary fact? Every man will admit that his true Being is that which for him is "I." Now suppose no man had ever thought himself "I," would he ever have become "I," or possessed a proper personal Being? Certainly not. It is only after thinking oneself "I," and in consequence of thinking oneself "I," that one becomes "I." But thinking oneself "I" is an act—the act of consciousness. Therefore the act of consciousness is anterior to the existence of man, therefore man is in Act before he is truly and properly in Being; or, in other words, he performs an act before he has an existence (i.e., a standing out) for himself.

But how can man act before he is? Perhaps we cannot perfectly explain the How, but we can state, and have stated the That, namely, that the fact is so. But at the same time we beg it to be understood that it is only in one sense that this is true. We would not be misunderstood. We here guard ourselves from the imputation of saying that in every sense man is absolutely a nonentity before he acts, or that he actually creates his Being. This we are very far indeed from affirming. Prior to the act of consciousness, he possesses, as we have said, an existence in the eyes of others; and this species of existence is undoubtedly given. Anterior to this act, the foundations of his Being are wonderfully and inscrutably laid. He is a mighty machine, testifying his Creator's power. But at this time being destitute of consciousness, we again maintain that he is destitute of personality, and that therefore he wants that which constitutes the true reality and proper life of humanity. We maintain, further, that this personality, realized by consciousness, is a new kind of existence reared up upon the ground of that act; that, further, there was no provision made in the old substratum of unconscious Being for the evolution of this new act; but that, like the fall of man (with which perhaps it is in some way connected), it is an absolutely free and underived deed, self-originated, and entirely exempt from the law of causality; and, moreover, in its very essence, the antagonist of that law. This we shall endeavour to make out in the following chapters, and if we can succeed in showing this act to be primary original and free, of course it will follow that the Being which results from it must be free likewise. But, whether we succeed or not, we at any rate think that, having shown fully that the thought "I" precedes and brings along with it the reality or existence "I," and that this thought "I" is an act, we have now said enough to establish this important truth in psychology, that man, when philosophizing concerning himself, does not do well to commence with the contemplation, or with any consideration of himself as a Being (we say this with an especial eye to the substance and doctrine of "Mind"), for his proper Being is but a secondary articulation in his actual development, and therefore ought to form but a secondary step in his scientific study of himself, and ought to hold but a subordinate place in his regard. But he ought to commence with the contemplation of himself as an act (the act of consciousness), for this is, in reality, his true and radical beginning; and, therefore, in speculation he ought to follow the same order; and, copying the living truth of things in his methodical exposition of himself, should take this act as the primary commencement or starting-point of his philosophical researches. Such, in our opinion, is the only true method of psychological science.


Chapter I.


Man's existence for others, his unconscious existence, is immediately given; his existence for himself, his conscious personal existence, the reality ego, is not immediately given, but is realized through an act. Thus a radical distinction between these two sorts of existence is established, the one being found to precede, and the other to follow that act. The Necessitarian, however, takes no note of this distinction. He breaks down the line of demarcation between them. He runs the two species of existence into one; and the Libertarian, usually acquiescing in this want of discrimination, places in his adversary's hand the only weapon with which he might successfully have combated him. Disagreeing widely in their conclusions, they yet agree so far in their premises, that both of them postulate, in an unqualified manner, man's existence, as a substratum for his actions. On this account, therefore, it must be confessed that the victory, in point of logic, has always been on the side of the Necessitarian, however much common sense and moral principle may have rebelled against his conclusions. For a given or compulsatory existence can never be free in any of its acts. It can merely serve to conduct the activity transmitted to it from other quarters; and the peculiar inflections, whatever these may be, whether to evil or to good, which it may appear to give to that activity, cannot be owing to any original or underived power it possesses, but must depend upon its natural construction, just as a prism has no power in itself to refract this way or that the rays of light which pass through it, but is determined to this refraction by the particular angles into which, without being consulted, it was at first cut by the hand of its artificer. In point of fact, the activity of such a being is no activity at all, but pure passivity; for a derivative act is not properly action, but passion. In merely receiving and passing on an act, a creature is not an agent, but a patient. Such a creature, bringing nothing original into the field, cannot, in any sense, be said either to operate or co-operate. All its doings being derivative, are done for it or necessitated; therefore it is free in nothing, and, by the same consequence, must remain devoid of morality and responsibility.

The usual reasoning on this subject, therefore, being utterly fatal to the cause of Human Liberty, we have endeavoured, in the foregoing chapter, to lay the groundwork of a new line of argument; the only argument by which, in our opinion, the conclusions of the Necessitarian can be met and disproved. In clearing away the weeds by which the premises of the question were overgrown, and in bringing them under our close and immediate inspection, we found that these premises, when viewed and tested as facts (as all premises ought to be, if we would ascertain their exact truth and value), are directly the reverse of those usually laid down, and allowed to pass current. We found, in a word, that an act is the substratum of man's proper existence, and not vice versâ.

But this draws the controversy respecting Liberty and Necessity to its extremest or narrowest point. For it may here be asked, and indeed must be asked—Whence comes this act? We have divided man's existence into two distinct species, one of which, that, namely, which we may now call his natural existence, was found to be given and to precede the act of consciousness. Now, does not this act naturally spring out of that existence? Is it not dependent upon it? Is it not a mere development from a seed sown in man's natural being; and does it not unfold itself, after a time, like any other natural germ or faculty of humanity? We answer, No. It comes into operation after a very different fashion. It is an act of pure will; for precisely between the two species of existence we have indicated, Human Will comes into play, and has its proper place of abode; and this new phenomenon, lying in the very roots of the act of Consciousness, dislocates the whole natural machinery of man, gives a new and underived turn to his development, and completely overthrows, with regard to him, the whole law and doctrine of causality; for Will (as contradistinguished from, and opposed to, wish or desire) is either a word of no meaning and intelligibility at all, or else it betokens a primary absolute commencement—an underivative act. But as the Necessitarian may admit the former of these alternatives, and may hold Will, when applied to man, to be an unmeaning word, it will be proper to postpone any discussion on that subject at present; and, without involving ourselves in what, after all, might be a mere skirmish of words, to do our best to go more simply and clearly to work, by addressing ourselves as much as possible to facts, or the realities of things.

But lest it should be urged that man, although perhaps really free, is yet incompetent to form a true and adequate conception of Liberty; and that, therefore, his freedom must, in any event, be for him as though it were not; lest this should be urged, we deem it incumbent upon us, before proceeding to establish Human Freedom as fact, to endeavour to delineate a faithful and correct representation of it; in short, to place before our readers such a conception as would be Liberty if it were actualized or realized in fact. Before showing that Liberty is actual, we must show on what grounds it is possible.

The ordinary conception of liberty, as a capacity bestowed upon a given or created being, of choosing and following any one of two or more courses of action, is no conception at all, but is an inconceivability. It is, in truth, so worthless and shallow as hardly to be worthy of mention. On account, however, of the place which it holds in ordinary philosophical discourse, we must contribute a few words to its exposure. It arises out of a miserable attempt to effect a compromise between liberty and necessity; and the result is a direct and glaring contradiction. This doctrine endeavours to hold forth an act, as at once original and yet derived, as given and yet not compulsatory or necessitated, as free and yet caused. No wonder that human liberty, embodied in an act of this kind, should halt upon both feet, and harbour in the dingiest lurking-places of a perplexed and vacillating metaphysic—a thing not to be scrutinized too narrowly.

But since we are examining it, let us do so as closely and narrowly as possible. What, then, does this conception of liberty amount to, and what does it set forth? There is, in the first place, the being in question—man—a derivative creature, we are told, from the alpha to the omega of his existence. In the next place, there is the power with which he is said to be invested, of choosing between two or more lines of conduct. In virtue of this power, he is at first indifferent, or equally open to all these courses. He must follow one of them, but is not constrained to follow any one of them in particular: and precisely in this indetermination it is said that human liberty consists. In the third place, when the choice is made, there is the practical following out of the course fixed upon. Such are the three elements usually noted in the process. But, allowing the dust occasioned by this language to subside, let us see whether nothing has escaped us in the confusion. We observe, then, that the power of choice said to be given, is, at first, undetermined; that, indeed, it is on this openness or want of determination that the essence of the liberty here described is placed. But while this indetermination continues, the power of choice of course remains inoperative. Before any of the courses laid down can be followed, this power must be determined to the particular course fixed on; that is to say, an act of determination (the choice itself) must intervene between the undetermined power of choice, and the course chosen. Here, then, we have a new element an element seldom specifically or rigidly noted in the usual analysis of the process. The statement now stands thus:—1st, The given being. 2d, The undetermined power to choose—the power as yet open to several courses of conduct; 3d, The act of determinate choice—the power now adstricted to one course; 4th, The actual performance itself. Now the third element of this statement—the one usually passed over without notice, is the only step which we would raise any question about. We ask what adstricted the power to the course selected? Whence comes this act of determination? Is it, too, given, or is it not? If it is, then what becomes of human freedom? The act of determination being given or derivative, the being in question was of course determined to the conduct adopted, not by an original act, but was determined thereto out of the source from whence his act of determination proceeded. It was therefore absurd to talk, as we at first did, of several courses having been open to him. In truth, his act of determination being derived, or compulsatory, no course was ever open to him except the one which he followed, and was necessitated to follow in obedience to that act. On the other hand, is this act of determination not given or enforced?—then here has a new and underived act started into light; one which plays an important part, and forms an essential ingredient in his composition; and what now becomes of the assumption upon which this modified conception of liberty proceeded, namely, that man is throughout a derivative creature? The conclusion is, that human liberty is impossible and inconceivable if we start with the assumption that man is, in everything, a given or derivative being; just as, on the other hand, the conception that man is altogether a derivative being is impossible, if we start with the assumption that he is free.

But our present object is to realize, if possible, a correct notion of human liberty. Nothing, then, we remark, can be more ineffectual than the attempt to conceive liberty as a power of choice, resting in a state of indetermination to two or more actions; because this state would continue for ever, and nothing would be the result, unless an act of determination took place in favour of some one of these actions; so that, between the undetermined power and the action itself, an act of determination always intervenes; and therefore the question comes to be—not, whence comes man's undetermined power of choosing; but, whence comes his act of particular choice or determination? Is it derivative? can it be traced out of him up into some foreign source? Then, of course, his liberty vanishes. Is it not derivative? Then his liberty stands good, but is no longer found to consist in a state of indetermination to several courses of action. It must be conceived of as an underived or absolutely self-grounded act of determination in favour of one.

Thus, then, the conception of liberty is reduced to some degree of distinctness and tangibility. If there be such a thing as human liberty, it must be identical with an absolutely original or underived act; and the conception of the one of these must be the same as the conception of the other of them. But it is still our business to show in what way the conception of such an act is possible.

It is palpably impossible to conceive liberty, or an underived act, as arising out of man's natural or given existence. According to our very conception of this species of existence, all the activity put forth out of it is of a derivative or transmitted character. As we have already said, such kind of activity is not activity at all, but passivity. Not being originated absolutely by the creature who apparently exerts it, every particle of it falls to be refunded back out of this creature into the source from whence it really comes; and this clearly leaves the being in question a mere passive creature throughout; and, at any rate, incapable of putting forth a primary and underived act.

But though it is impossible for us to conceive an underived act put forth out of man's natural existence, there is yet nothing to prevent us from conceiving an act of this kind put forth against man's natural or given existence. If we consider it well, we shall be satisfied that it is only on this ground that the conception of an underived act is possible: and, moreover, we shall see that, on this ground, the conception of such an act is inevitable.

For if we suppose an act of antagonism to take place against the whole of man's given existence, against all that man is born—it is impossible that this act itself can be given or derivative; for the supposition is, that this act is opposed to all the given or derivative in man, and is nothing except in so far as it is thus opposed. If, therefore, it were itself derivative, being no longer the opposite of the derivative, it would be a nonentity; or it would be a suicidal act, exterminating itself. Therefore, if we are to form a conception at all of such an antagonist act, we must conceive it as absolutely primary and underived; and on the other hand, if we would frame a true conception of human liberty, or an underived act, we can only conceive it as the antagonist act we have been describing—we must conceive it is an act opposing or resisting everything in man which is given, passive, natural, or born.

Thus, then, we have now shown in what way a correct conception of human liberty is to be framed; or, in other words, we have pointed out the grounds upon which man's freedom is possible. It is possible, because the particular act described as identical and convertible with it, namely, an act of determinate antagonism against the natural or unconscious man, can, at any rate, be conceived. But, admitting that it may be conceived, we must now ask, Is it also practised? Is Human Liberty actual as well as possible? Besides finding its realization in thought, does it also find its realization in fact?


Chapter III.


For an answer to this question we must refer ourselves to observation and experience. But observation and experience have already decided the point. Consciousness itself is the actualization of the conception we have been describing. Lying between the two species of human existence discriminated at the commencement of this paper, consciousness is an act of antagonism against the one of them, and has the other of them for its result. A glance at the very surface of man showed it to be a matter of general notoriety, that sensation and the consciousness of sensation, passion and the consciousness of passion, never coexist in an equal degree of intensity. We found the great law connected with them to be this; not that they grew with each other's growth and strengthened with each other's strength, but, on the contrary, that each of them gained just in proportion as the other lost. Wherever a passion was observed to be carried to its greatest excess, a total absence or cessation of consciousness was noticed to be the result, and the man lost his personality. When consciousness began to reassert itself, and to regain its place, the passion, in its turn, began to give way, and, becoming diminished or suspended, the man recovered his personality. The same was observed to be the case with regard to sensation. A sensation is notoriously most absorbing when the least consciousness of it has place; and, therefore, is not the conclusion legitimate that it would be still more effective—that it would be all-absorbing, provided no consciousness of it interfered to dissolve the charm? And does not all this prove that consciousness is an act of antagonism against the modifications of man's natural being, and that, indeed, it has no office, character, or conceivability at all, unless of this antagonist and negative description?

But this act has, as it were, two sides, and although single, it fulfils a double office. We have still to show, more clearly than we have yet done, how this act, breaking up the great natural unities of sensation and of passion, at once displaces the various modifications of man's given existence, and, by a necessary consequence, places the being which was not given, namely, the "I" of humanity—the true and proper being of every man "who cometh into the world." This discussion will lead us into more minute and practical details than any we have yet encountered.

The earliest modifications of man's natural being are termed "sensations." These sensations are, like all the other changes of man's given existence, purely passive in their character. They are states of suffering, whether the suffering be of pleasure or of pain, or of an indifferent cast. There is obviously nothing original or active connected with them. There is nothing in them except their own given contents, and these are entirely derivative. In the smell of a rose, for instance, there is nothing present except the smell of a rose. In a word, let us turn and twist, increase or diminish any sensation as we please, we can twist and turn it into nothing except the particular sensation which it is.

Let us suppose, then, a particular sensation to be impressed upon any of man's organs of sense—let us suppose it propagated forward along the nerves—let us trace it forth unto the brain—let us admit Hartley's or any other philosopher's "vibrations," "elastic medium," or "animal spirits," to be facts; and finally, let us suppose it, through the intervention of the one or other of these, landed and safely lodged in what metaphysicians are pleased to term the "mind;" still we maintain that, in spite of this circuitous operation, the man would remain utterly unconscious, and would not, in consequence of it, have any existence as "I" (the only kind of existence which properly concerns him), nor would the external object have any existence as an object for him. He would not perceive it, although sentient of it; the reason of which is, that perception implies an "I" and a "not I," a subject and object; and a subject and object involve a duality; and a duality presupposes an act of discrimination. But no act of discrimination—no act of any kind, is involved in sensation—therefore, man might continue to undergo sensations until doomsday without ever becoming "I," and without ever perceiving an external[3] universe.

How then does man become "I?" how does he become percipient of an external universe? We answer, not through sensation, but by and through an act of discrimination, or virtual negation. This negation is not, and need not be, expressed in words. It is a silent but deep deed, making each man an individual person; and it is enough, if the reality of it be present, even although the expression and distinct conception of it should be absent. But, if the reality were actually absent, then there would be a difference indeed. If "no," in thought, and in deed, were taken out of the world, man would never become "I," and, for him, the external universe would remain a nonentity. Sensation, passion, &c., would continue as strong and violent as ever, but consciousness would depart; man and nature, "I" and "not I," subject and object, lapsing into one, and everything merging in a great unity, would be as though they were not. Indeed, the consequences of the disappearance of this small and apparently insignificant element are altogether incalculable.

An illustrative view will help to render our meaning more distinct, and our statement more convincing. Let us suppose man to be visited by particular sensations of sight, of smell, of touch; and let us suppose these induced by the presence of a rose. Now, it is evident that, in this process, the rose contributes nothing except the particular sensations mentioned. It does not contribute the element of negation. Yet, without the element of negation, the rose could never be an object to the man (and unless it were an object to him, he of course would never perceive it); neither without this element could the man ever become "I." For let us suppose this element to be absolutely withdrawn—to have no place in the process, then "I" and the rose, the subject and object, being undiscriminated, a virtual identification of them would prevail. But an identification of the subject and object, of the Being knowing and the Being known, would render perception, consciousness, knowledge inconceivable; for these depend upon a setting asunder of subject and object, of "I" and "not I." But a setting asunder of subject and object depends upon a discrimination laid down between them. But a discrimination laid down between them implies the presence of the element of negation; that is to say, knowledge, consciousness, perception, depend upon the restoration of the element we supposed withdrawn, and are inconceivable and impossible without it. It is therefore evident, that if man, in sensation, were virtually identified with the object, were the same as it, he would never perceive it,—it would never be an object to him, and just as little would he be "I." But the only way in which this virtual identification is to be avoided is by and through an implied discrimination. Then only do the "I" and "not I" emerge, and become the "I" and the "not I." But an implied discrimination involves an act of negation, either implicitly or explicitly. Therefore, an act of negation, actual or virtual, is the fundamental act of humanity—is the condition upon which consciousness and knowledge depend—is the act which makes the universe an object to us—is the ground and the placer of the "I" and the "not I."

Do metaphysicians still desire information with respect to the "nature of the connexion," the "mode of communication," which subsists between matter and what they term "mind"? or do they continue to regard this question as altogether insoluble? About "mind" we profess to know nothing. But if they will discard this hypothetical substance, and consent to put up with the simple word and reality "I" instead of it, we think we can throw some light on what takes place between matter and "me," and that the foregoing observations have already done so. The point at which all preceding philosophers have confessed the hiatus to be insurmountable, the hitch to be inscrutably perplexing, was not the point at which the impression was communicated to the organ of sense—was not the point where the organ communicated the impression to the nerves—was not the point where the nerves transmitted it to the brain,—but was the point where the brain, or ultimate corporeal tissue, conveyed it to the "mind." Here lay the gap which no philosophy ever yet intelligibly cleared; here brooded the mist which no breath of science ever yet succeeded in dispersing. But, repudiating the hypothesis of "mind," let us use the word, and attend to the reality "I," and we shall see how the vapours will vanish, how the prospect will brighten, and how the hiatus will be spanned by the bridge of a comprehensible fact. In the first place, in order to render this fact the more palpable, let us suppose, what is not the case, that the "I" is immediately given—comes into the world ready-made; and that a sensation, after being duly impressed upon its appropriate organ of sense, and carried along the nerves into the brain, is thence conveyed into this "I." But we have just seen that, along with this transmission of sensation, there is no negation conveyed to this "I." There is nothing transmitted to it except the sensation. But we have also just seen that without a negation, virtually present at least, there could be no "I" in the case. This supposed "I," therefore, could not be a true and real "I." Its ground is yet wanting. In point of fact it may be considered to lapse into "mind," and to be as worthless and unphilosophical as that spurious substance which we have been labouring to get rid of. Throwing this "I," therefore, aside, let us turn back, and supposing, what is the case, that the "I" is not immediately given, let us follow forth the progress of a sensation once more. A particular impression is made upon an organ of sense in man, and what is the result? Sensation. Carry it on into the nerves, into the brain, what is the result? Mere sensation. Is there no consciousness? As yet there is none. But have we traced the sensation through its whole course? No: if we follow it onwards we find that somewhere or other it encounters an act of negation—a "no" gets implicated in the process, and then, and then only, does consciousness arise—then only does man start into being as "I"—then only do subject and object stand asunder. We have already proved, we trust with sufficient distinctness, that this act must be present, either actually or virtually, before man can be "I," and before the external universe can be an object to him—that is, before he can perceive it—and therefore we need not say anything more upon this point. But does "the philosopher of mind" now ask us to redeem our pledge, and to inform him distinctly what it is that takes place between "matter" and "me" (matter presenting itself, as it always does, in the shape of a sensation)? then we beg to inform him that all that takes place between them is an act of negation, in virtue of which they are what they are; and that this act constitutes that link (or rather unlink) between body and mind—if we must call the "I" by that name—which many philosophers have sought for, and which many more have declined the search of out of despair of ever finding it.

We must here guard our readers against a delusive view of this subject which may be easily taken up. It may still, perhaps, be conceived that "mind," or the "I," is immediately given—is sent into the world, as we have said, ready-made—and that it puts forth this act of negation out of the resources of its natural being. Such a doctrine borrows its support, as we have already hinted, from what are called "the laws of human thoughts," but is utterly discountenanced by facts; that is to say, by the sources themselves from whence these laws are professedly, although, as it appears, incorrectly deduced. This doctrine directly reverses the truth of facts and the real order of things. It furnishes us with a notable instance of that species of misconception and logical transposition technically called a hysteron-proteron;[4] in vulgar language, it places the cart before the horse. For, as we have all along seen, the being "I" arises out of this act of negation, and therefore this act of negation cannot arise out of the being "I." All the evidence We can collect on the subject—every ray of light that falls upon it, proves and reveals it to be a fact, that the act of negation precedes the being "I," is the very condition or constituent ground upon which it rests, and therefore the being "I" cannot possibly precede or be given anterior to this act of negation. We may say, if we please, that this act of negation is the act "I," but not that it arises out of the being "I," because the whole testimony of facts discountenances such a conclusion, and goes to establish the very reverse. The perfect truth is, that man acts I before he is I, that is to say, he acts before he truly is—his act precedes and realizes his being;—a direct reversal of the ordinary doctrine, but a most important one as far as the establishment of human liberty is concerned; because, in making man's existence to depend upon his act, and in showing his act to be absolutely original and underived—an act of antagonism against the derivative modifications of his given nature, we encircle him with an atmosphere of liberty, and invest him with a moral character and the dread attribute of responsibility, which, of course would disappear if man, at every step, moved in the preordained footprints of fate, and were not, in some respect or other, unconditionally free. And move in these footprints he must, the bondsman of necessity in all things, if it be true that his real and proper substantive existence precedes and gives rise to his acts.

If this act of negation never took place, the sphere of sensation would be enlarged. The sensation would reign absorbing, undisputed, and supreme; or, in other words, man would, in every case, be monopolized by the passive state into which he had been cast. The whole of his being would be usurped by the passive modification into which circumstances had moulded it. But the act of negation or consciousness puts an end to this monopoly. Its presence displaces the sensation to a certain extent, however small that extent may be. An antagonism is now commenced against passion (for all sensation is passion), and who can say where this antagonism is to stop? (We shall show, in its proper place, that all morality centres in this antagonism.) The great unity of sensation, that is, the state which prevailed anterior to the dualisation of subject and object, is broken up, and man's sensations and other passive states of existence never again possess the entireness of their first unalloyed condition—that entireness which they possessed in his infantine years—that wholeness and singleness which was theirs before the act of negation broke the universe asunder into the world of man and the world of nature.

This, then, proves that consciousness, or the act of negation, is not the harmonious accompaniment and dependent, but is the antagonist and the violator of sensation. Let us endeavour once more to show that this act, from its very character, must be underived and free. The proof is as follows. Sensation is a given or derivative state. It has, therefore, from the first a particular positive character. But this act is nothing in itself; it has no positive character; it is merely the opposite—the entire opposite of sensation. But if it were given and derived as well as sensation, it would not be the entire opposite of sensation. It would agree with sensation in this, that both of them would be given. But it agrees with the sensation in nothing. It is thoroughly opposed to it. It is pure action, while the sensation is pure passion. The sensation is passive, and is opposed to consciousness because it is derivative. Consciousness is action, and is opposed to sensation because it is not derivative. If consciousness were a given state it would not be action at all; it would be nothing but passion. It would be merely one passion contending with another passion. But it is impossible to conceive any passion or given state of Being without some positive character besides its antagonist character. But this act of negation has no positive character—has no character at all except of this antagonist description. Besides, it is opposed to every passion. If consciousness co-exist with any passion, we have seen that it displaces it to a certain degree. Therefore, if consciousness were itself a passive or derivative state it would be suicidal, it would prevent itself from coming into manifestation. But passing by this reductio ad absurdum, we maintain that consciousness meets the given, the derivative in man, at every point—that it only manifests itself by doing so—and therefore we must conclude that it is not itself derivative, but is an absolutely original act, or, in other words, an act of perfect freedom.

Let us here note, in a very few words, the conclusions we have got to. At our first step we noticed the given, the natural, the unconscious man—a passive creature throughout all the modifications of his Being. At our second step we observed an act of antagonism or freedom taking place against sensation, and the other passive conditions of his nature, as we have yet more fully to see: and at our third step we found that man in virtue of this antagonism had become "I." These three great moments of humanity may be thus expressed. 1st, The natural or given man is man in passion—in enslaved Being. 2d, The conscious man—the man working into freedom against passion—is man in action. 3d, The "I" is man in free, that is, in real personal Being.


Chapter IV.


Are we then to hold that man does not become "I" by compulsion—that he is not constrained to become "I"? We must hold this doctrine. No man is forced or necessitated to become "I." All the necessitated part of his Being leans the other way, and tends to prevent him from becoming "I." He becomes "I" by fighting against the necessitated part of his nature. "I" embraces and expresses the sum and substance of his freedom, of his resistance. He becomes "I" with his own consent—through the concurrence and operation of his own will.

We have as yet said little about Human Will, because "Will" is but a word; and we have all along been anxious to avoid that very common, though most fatal, error in philosophy—the error, namely, of supposing that words can ever do the business of thoughts, or can, of themselves, put us in possession of the realities which they denote. If, in philosophy, we commence with the word "Will," or with any other word denoting what is called "a faculty" of man, and keep harping on the same, without having first of all come round the reality without the assistance of the word,—if we seek to educe the reality out of the word,—the chances are a thousand to one that we shall end where we began, and never get beyond the region of mere words. It makes a mighty difference in all kinds of composition, whether the reality suggests the word, or whether the word suggests the reality. The former kind of suggestion alone possesses any value—it alone gives truth and life both to philosophy and to poetry. The latter kind is worthless altogether, either in philosopher or poet; and the probability is, that the reality which the word suggests to him, is not the true reality at all.[5]

Without employing the word "will," then, let us look forth into the realities of man, and perhaps we shall fall in with the reality of it when we are never thinking of the word, or troubling ourselves about it; perhaps we shall encounter the phenomenon itself, when the expression of it is the last thing in our thoughts; perhaps we shall find it to be something very different from what we suspected; perhaps we shall find that it exists in deeper regions, presides over a wider sphere, and comes into earlier play than we had any notion of.

The law of causality is the great law of nature. Now, what do we precisely understand by the law of causality? We understand by it the keeping up of an uninterrupted dependency throughout the various links of creation; or the fact that one Being assumes, without resistance or challenge, the state modification, or whatever we may choose to call it, imposed upon by another Being. Hence the law of causality is emphatically the law of virtual surrender or assent.

Now the natural man—man as he is born—is clearly placed entirely under the dominion of this law. He is, as we have often said, a mere passive creature throughout. He dons the sensations and the passions that come to him, and bends before them like a sapling in the wind. But it is by no means so obvious that the conscious man—the man become "I"—is also placed under jurisdiction of this law.

The "I" stands in a direct antithesis to the natural man; it is realized through consciousness, an act of antagonism against his passive modifications. Are we then to suppose that this "I" stands completely under the law of causality, or of virtual surrender—that the man entirely assents, and offers no resistance to the passive states into which he may be cast?—then, in this case, no act of antagonism taking place, consciousness, of course, disappears, and the "I" becomes extinct. If, therefore, consciousness and the "I" become extinct beneath the law of causality, their appearance and realization cannot depend upon that law, but must be brought about by a direct violation of the law of causality. If the "I" disappears in consequence of the law of causality, it must manifest itself (if it manifests itself at all) in spite of that law. If the law of virtual assent is its death, nothing but the law of actual dissent (the opposite of causality) can give it life.

Here, then, in the realization of the "I," we find a counter-law established to the law of causality. The law of causality is the law of assent—and upon this law man's natural being and all its modifications, depend. But the life of the "I" depends upon the law of dissent—of resistance to all his natural or derivative states. And if the one of these laws—the law of assent—is known by the name of causality—the other of them, the law of dissent, which, in man, clashes with the law of causality at every point, is, or ought to be, known by the designation of will; and this will, this law of dissent, which embodies itself in an act of antagonism against the states which depend upon the law of causality—and which may therefore be called the law of freedom, as the other is the law of bondage, is the ground-law of humanity, and lies at the bottom of the whole operation of consciousness, at the roots of the existence of the "I." Much more might be said concerning these two great laws, which may be best studied and understood in their opposition or conflict with one another.

But we have dug sufficiently deep downwards. It is now time that we should begin to dig upwards, and escape out of these mines of humanity, in which we have been working hard, although, we know, with most imperfect hands. We have trod, we trust with no unhallowed step, but with a foot venturous after truth, on the confines of those dread abysses which, in all ages, have shaken beneath the feet of the greatest thinkers among men. We have seen and handled the dark ore of humanity in its pure and elemental state. It will be a comparatively easy task to trace it forth in its general currency through the ranks of ordinary superficial life. In our next and concluding discussion, we will endeavour to point out the consequences of the act of consciousness; and we trust that the navigation through which we shall then have to steer will be less intricate and perplexing than that through which our present course has lain.

  1. Hence the truth of the common saying—Poeta nascitur, non fit; an adage which is directly reversed in the case of the philosopher—Philosophus fit, non nascitur.
  2. Miltoni Poemata. Elegia quinta. In adventum Veris.
  3. The statement that we become acquainted with the existence of an external world through, and in consequence of, our sensations, besides its falsehood, embodies perhaps the boldest petitio principii upon record. How are we assured of the reality of an external world? asks the philosophy of scepticism. Through the senses, answers the philosophy of faith. But are not the senses themselves a part of the external universe? and is not this answer, therefore, equivalent to saying that we become assured of the reality of the external universe through the external universe? or, in other words, is not this solution of the question a direct taking-for-granted of the very matter in dispute? It may be frivolous to raise such a question, but it is certainly far more frivolous to resolve it in this manner—the manner usually practised by our Scottish philosophers.
  4. ὑστερον προτερον—a last-first.
  5. Some curious considerations present themselves in connexion with this subject. Human compositions may be divided into two great classes. In the first, the commencement is made from feelings, ideas, or realities. These beget and clothe themselves in words. These precede the words. The workers in this order are, in poetry, the true poets. But the words having been employed and established, it is found that these of themselves give birth to feelings and ideas which may be extracted out of them without recourse being had to any other source. Hence a second class of composers arises, in whom words precede ideas—a class who, instead of construing ideas into words, construe words into ideas—and these again into other words. This class commence with words, making these feel and think for them. Of this class are the poetasters, the authors of odes to "Imagination," "Hope," &c., which are merely written because such words as "hope," "imagination," &c, have been established. These are the employers of the hereditary language of poetry. In philosophy the case is precisely the same. An Aristotle, a Leibnitz, or a Kant, having come, by certain realities of humanity, through an original exertion, and not through the instrumentality of words, makes use of a certain kind of phraseology to denote these realities. An inferior generation of philosophers, finding this phraseology made to their hand, adopt it; and, without looking for the realities themselves independently of the words, they endeavour to lay hold of the realities solely through the words; they seek to extract the realities out of the words, and, consequently, their labours are in a different subject-matter, as dead and worthless as those of the poetaster. Both classes of imitators work in an inverted order. They seek the living among the dead: that is, they seek it where it never can be found. Let us ask whether one inevitable result—one disadvantage of the possession of a highly cultivated language, is not this:—that, being fraught with numberless associations, it enables poetasters and false philosophers to abound—inasmuch as it enables them to make words stand in place of things and do the business of thoughts?