Dreams of a Spirit-Seer/Part 1/Chapter 1

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If we put all together, that the school-boy rehearses, that the crowd relates, and that the philosopher demonstrates about spirits, this would seem to constitute no small part of our knowledge. Nevertheless, I dare assert that all these smatterers could be placed in a most awkward embarrassment, if it should occur to somebody to insist upon the question, just what kind of a thing that is about which these people think they understand so much. The methodical talk of learned institutions is often simply an agreement to beg a question which is difficult to solve, by the variable meaning of words. For we seldom hear at academies the comfortable and ofttimes reasonable “I do not know.” Certain newer philosophers, as they like to be called, overcome this question easily. A spirit, they say, is a being possessed of reason. Then it is no miracle to see spirits; for he who sees men, sees beings possessing reason. But, they continue, this being in man, possessing reason, is only a part of man, and this part, the animating part, is a spirit. Very well then. Before you prove that only a spiritual being can have reason, take care that first of all I understand what kind of conception I must have of a spiritual being. Self-deception in this matter, while large enough to be seen with eyes half-open, is moreover of very evident origin. For, later on and in old age, we are sure to know nothing of that which was very well known to us at an early date, as children, and the man of thoroughness finally becomes at best a sophist in regard to his youthful delusions.

Thus I do not know if there are spirits, yea, what is more, I do not even know what the word “spirit” signifies. But, as I have often used it myself, and have heard others using it, something must be understood by it, be this something mere fancy or reality. To evolve this hidden meaning, I will compare my badly understood conception of it with sundry cases of application, and, by observing with which it conforms, and to which it is opposed, I hope to unfold its hidden sense.[1]

Take, for example, the space of a cubic foot, and suppose something filling this space, i.e., resisting the intrusion of any other thing. Then nobody would call the substance occupying that space “spiritual.” It evidently would be called material, because it is expanded, impenetrable, and, like everything corporeal, subject to divisibility and to the laws of impact. Thus far we are still on the smooth track of other philosophers. But imagine a simple being, and impart to it at the same time reason. Would that, then, comprise the meaning of “spirit?” To discover this, I will leave to the aforesaid simple being reason as an inner quality, and will consider that being only in its external relations. And now I ask, if I want to place this simple substance in that space of one cubic foot, which is full of matter, would a single element have to make room for it, so that the spirit might enter? You think yes? Very well, then this supposed space would have to lose a second elementary particle—were it to take in a second spirit, and thus, if you keep on, a cubic foot of space would be filled with spirits whose mass exists just as well by impenetrability, as if it was full of matter, and, just like the latter, must be subject to the laws of impact. But substances of this kind, although they might contain the power of reason, would not differ at all from the elements of matter of which also we know only the powers which they exert externally by their very existence, and do not at all know what might belong to their interior qualities. Thus it is beyond doubt that simple substances of that kind, of which masses could be accumulated, would not be called spiritual beings. You will, therefore, be able to retain the conception of a spirit only if you imagine beings who can be present even in a space filled with matter,[2] thus beings who do not possess the quality of impenetrability, and who never form a solid whole, no matter how many you unite. Simple beings of this kind would be called immaterial beings, and, if they have reason, spirits. But simple substances which, if combined, result in an expanded and impenetrable whole, would be called material units, and their whole, matter. Either the name of a spirit is a mere word without any meaning, or, its significance is of the nature described.

From the explanation of what a spirit consists in, it is a long step indeed to the proposition that such natures are real, yea, even possible. We find in the works of philosophers many good and reliable proofs that everything which thinks must be simple; and that every substance which thinks according to reason, must be a unit of nature; and that the undivisible Ego could not be divided among many connected things which make up a whole. My soul, therefore, must be a simple substance. But this proof leaves still undecided, whether the soul be of the nature of such things as, united in space, form an expanded and impenetrable whole; whether, therefore, it be material, or whether it be immaterial, and, consequently, a spirit; and, what is more, whether such beings as are called spirits, are possible.

At this point I cannot but recommend caution against rash conclusions which enter most easily into the deepest and obscurest questions. For that which belongs to the common conceptions of experience is commonly regarded as if the reason why it existed was also comprehended. But of that which differs from experience, and cannot be made comprehensible by any experience, not even by analogy, we of course can form no conception, and, therefore, are apt to reject it immediately as impossible. All matter offers resistance in the space in which it is present, and on that account is called impenetrable. That this is so, experience teaches us, and the abstraction of this experience produces in us the general conception of matter. But this resistance which something makes in the space in which it is present, is in that manner indeed recognized, but not yet conceived. For this resistance, as everything that counteracts an action, is true force, and, as its direction is opposed to the prolonged lines of approach, it is a force of repulsion which must be attributed to matter and, therefore, to its elements. Every reasonable man will readily concede that here human intelligence has reached its limit. For while, by experience alone, we can perceive that things of this world which we call “material” possess such a force, we can never conceive of the reason why they exist.2 Now, if I suppose other substances being present in space with other forces than that propelling force which has for its consequence impenetrability, then, of course, I cannot think in the concrete of their activity, because it has no analogy with my conceptions from experience. And if, in addition, I take away from those substances the quality to fill the space in which they are present, I miss a conception which makes thinkable the things which come within the range of my senses; thence, necessarily, they must become in a way unthinkable. But this cannot be said to be a recognized impossibility, for the very reason that the possibility of the existence of its opposite remains also unintelligible, although its reality comes within the range of my senses.

The possibility of the existence of immaterial beings can, therefore, be supposed without fear of its being disproved, but also without hope of proving it by reason. Such spiritual natures would be present in space in such a manner that it would still be penetrable for corporeal beings. For by their presence they operate in space, but do not fill it, i.e., they cause no resistance, which is the basis of solidity.3 If such a simple spiritual substance be supposed,—notwithstanding its indivisibility,—it can be said that the space where it is immediately present is not a point, but itself a space. For, calling in the aid of analogy, even the simple elements of the body must occupy there a space which is a proportionate part of its whole extension, inasmuch as points are not parts but limits of space. Thus space is filled by means of an active force—repulsion. But the fact that it is being filled is apparent only by a greater activity of its components. The way, therefore, in which it is being filled—by accumulating individual elements—does not at all conflict with its simple nature, although the possibility of this cannot be pointed out more clearly, for this can never be done with first causes and effects. In the same way I shall meet with at least no demonstrable impossibility, although the thing itself remains incomprehensible, if I state that a spiritual substance, although it is simple, still can occupy a space, i.e., can immediately be active in it without filling it, which means without offering resistance to material substances in it.4 Such an immaterial substance also could not be said to possess expansion, any more than the units of matter. For only that which, existing separate and for itself alone, occupies a space, possesses extent; but the substances which are elements of matter occupy space only by the exterior effect which they have upon others. But for themselves alone, where no other things can be thought of as being in connection with them, and as they contain in themselves nothing which could exist separately, they contain no space. This applies to corporeal elements. The same would apply also to spiritual natures. The limits of extent are determined by the figure of a thing. Consequently, we cannot think of the figures of spiritual natures. These are reasons for the supposed possibility of the existence of immaterial beings in the universe, but they can be comprehended with difficulty. He who is in possession of means which can lead more easily to this intelligence, should not deny instruction to one eager to learn, before whose eyes, in the progress of research, Alps often rise where others see before them a level and comfortable footpath on which they walk forward, or think they do so.

Suppose now that it had been proved that the soul of man is a spirit (although it may be seen from the preceding that this, as yet, has not been proved), then the next question which might be raised is—Where is the place of this human soul in the corporeal world? I would answer, that body the changes of which are my changes, is my body, and its place is, at the same time, my place. If the question be continued, where then is your (your soul’s) place in that body? then I might suspect that there is a catch in the question. For it is easily observed that it presupposes something which is not known by experience, but rests, perhaps, in imaginary conclusions, namely, that my thinking Ego is in a place which differs from the places of other parts of that body which belongs to me. Nobody, however, is conscious of occupying a separate place in his body, but only of that place which he occupies as man in regard to the world around him. I would, therefore, keep to common experience, and would say, provisionally, where I sense, there I am.5 I am just as immediately in the tips of my fingers, as in my head. It is myself who suffers in the heel and whose heart beats in affection. I feel the most painful impression when my corn torments me, not in a cerebral nerve, but at the end of my toes. No experience teaches me to believe some parts of my sensation to be removed from myself, to shut up my Ego into a microscopically small place in my brain from whence it may move the levers of my body-machine, and cause me to be thereby affected. Thus I should demand a strong proof to make inconsistent what the schoolmasters say: my soul is as a whole in my whole body, and wholly in each part. Common sense often perceives a truth before comprehending the reasons with which to prove or explain it. I should not be entirely disconcerted by the objection, that thus I am believing that the soul possesses extension and is diffused through the whole body, just as it is pictured for children in the “orbis pictus.” For I would remove this obstacle by saying: the fact that the soul is present in the whole body goes only to prove the extent of its sphere of exterior activity, but not a multiplicity of its inner parts and thus no extension or figure, for these exist only in a being which occupies a space set apart for itself, i.e., if the being contains parts which exist outside of each other. Finally, I should either claim to know this little of the spiritual quality of my soul, or, if that should not be conceded, I should be satisfied that I know nothing about it.

If one would insist upon showing how incomprehensible, or, what amounts to the same for the most people, how impossible these thoughts are, I would admit even that; and then I would sit down at the feet of the wise to hear them talk as follows: The soul of man has its seat in the brain, and its abode there is indescribably small;[3] there it exercises its sensitive faculty, as the spider in the centre of its web. The nerves of the brain push or shake it, and cause thereby that not this immediate impression, but the one which is made upon quite remote parts of the body, is represented as an object which is present outside of the brain. From this seat it moves the ropes and levers of the whole machinery, causing arbitrary movements at will. Such propositions can be proved only very superficially or not at all, and as the nature of the soul is, indeed, not well enough known, they can be just as weakly combatted. And so I do not care to join in that kind of learned dispute, in which both parties usually have most to say about that of which they know nothing. But I will follow only the conclusions to which a doctrine of this nature must lead me. In the first instance, according to the propositions so much recommended to me, my soul does not differ from any element of matter in the way in which it is present in space. Further, the power of reasoning is an internal quality which I could not perceive anyhow, although it might be found in all these elements. From these considerations no valid reason can be brought forward, why my soul should not be one of the substances of which matter consists, nor why its peculiar manifestations should not originate in the place which it occupies in such an ingenious machine as the human body, where the combination of nerves favours the inner faculty of thinking and of will-power. In that case, however, there would remain no peculiar characteristic of the soul by which it could be surely recognized and distinguished from crude elementary matter, and the jocose suggestion of Leibnitz would not be laughable any more, that in our coffee we swallow, perhaps, atoms which are to become human souls. But in such a case would not this thinking Ego be subjected to the common fate of material natures, and, as it was drawn out of the chaos of all elements to vivify an animal machine, why should it not, after this casual combination has ceased, return in future to its origin? It is at times necessary to frighten the thinker who is on the wrong path, by the consequences, so that he may pay more attention to the principles by which he has been led off as in a dream.

I confess that I am very much inclined to assert the existence of immaterial natures in the world, and to put my soul itself into that class of beings.[4] But then, how mysterious does the communion of soul and body become?8 But, at the same time, how natural that it is incomprehensible, inasmuch as our conceptions of external actions are derived from those of matter, and are always connected with the conditions of impact and pressure, which do not exist in this case. For how could an immaterial being be such an obstruction so that matter in its motion could collide with it, a spirit; and how could corporeal things act upon an unknown being which does not oppose them with impenetrability, and which does not hinder them in any way from being at the same time present in the space in which it is itself? It seems that a spiritual essence is inmostly present in matter, and that it does not act upon those forces which determine the mutual relations of elements, but upon the inner principle of their state. For every substance, even a simple element of matter, must have an inner activity as the reason for its external efficiency, although I cannot specify in what it consists.[5] 9

But what is the necessity which causes a spirit and a body to form a unit; and, again, what is the cause which breaks up this unit in case of certain disturbances? These are questions which, among various others, are above my intelligence.10 And although I have as a rule hardly the daring to measure my power of reasoning with the secrets of nature, I should, nevertheless, have sufficient confidence not to be afraid, in such a case, of putting any opponent to the test, if it were my nature to be inclined to fight, nor of attempting to refute him by contrary reasons, which with scholars means nothing else but the art of convincing another that he does not know.


  1. If the conception of a spirit were something taken out of our own empirical conceptions, the procedure to make it clear would be easy; for we should only have to point out those characteristics which the senses reveal to us in that kind of beings, and whereby we distinguish them from material things. But people talk of spirits even while it is doubtful if there are such beings. Thus the conception of spiritual nature cannot be drawn from experience. But if you ask, how could this conception arise at all, if not from experience? I answer: many conceptions arise in secret and obscure conclusions incidental to experiences, and afterwards are transmitted to other minds without even the consciousness of that experience or conclusion which has first established the conception. Such conceptions may be called “surreptitious.” Many of that kind are partly only delusions of imagination, partly also true, since obscure conclusions do not always err. Usage, and the context in different accounts in which the same expression is found, give to the expression a definite meaning. This meaning can, therefore, be evolved by drawing this hidden sense out of its obscurity through a comparison of sundry cases of application, so as to see with which it agrees, and which it contradicts.
  2. It will be easily recognized that I am speaking only of spirits which are parts of the universe, and not of infinite spirit which is originator and preserver of the universe. For the conception of the spiritual nature of infinite spirit is easy, because it is merely negative, and consists in the denial of those qualities of matter which conflict with infinite and absolutely necessary substance. But with a spiritual substance, which is to be conjoined with matter, as is the case with the human soul, the difficulty arises that I must conceive of a mutual combination of it with corporeal beings for the sake of forming a whole, and yet must remove the only connective which is known to exist among material beings.
  3. There are examples of injuries whereby a good part of the brain has been lost without causing the loss of life or of thought. According to the common conception, which I quote here, the removal of an atom would have been sufficient to cause instant death. The prevalent opinion which assigns to the soul its seat in the brain, seems to originate mainly in the fact, that we feel distinctly how, in deep meditation, the nerves of the brain are taxed. But if this conclusion is right it would prove also other abodes of the soul. In anxiety or joy the sensation seems to have its seat in the heart. Many affections, yea most of them, manifest themselves most strongly in the diaphragm. Pity moves the intestines, and other instincts manifest their origin in other organs. The reason why the meditating soul seems to feel especially in the brain is, perhaps, the following. All meditating requires the instrumentality of signs that ideas may be created, and that, accompanied and supported by these signs, the required amount of clearness may be attained. But the signs of our ideas are mainly such as have been received either by hearing or sight, both of which senses are stimulated by impressions in the brain, as their organs are also next to this part. Now, if the production of these signs which Cartesius calls “ideas materiales,” is properly an irritation of the nerves such as to produce a movement similar to that which formerly caused the sensation, then, in meditation, the tissue of the brain will be compelled to quiver as with the former impressions and it is chiefly the brain, therefore, that will become tired. But, if the thinking be accompanied by affections, we feel not only the brain to be taxed, but also those irritable parts which, usually, are in sympathy with the soul.
  4. The reason of this, which appears to myself very obscure, and probably will remain so, concerns at the same time that which sensates in animals. Whatever in the world contains a principle of life, seems to be of immaterial nature. For all life rests on the inner capacity to determine one’s self by one’s own will power.6 But the essential characteristic of matter is that it fills space by a necessary force which is limited by counteraction from without. Thus the state of everything that is material is externally dependent and forced. But those entities which are said to contain the cause of life, which act from themselves and from inner power, in short, the intrinsic nature of which is to be able to change themselves at will, can hardly be said to be material. It cannot reasonably be expected that we understand, in their sub-divisions, under their various species, such unknown beings,—the existence of which we know for the most part only by hypothesis. We can see, however, that those immaterial beings which contain the cause of animal life, are different from those which comprise reason in their self-activity, and are called spirits.7
  5. Leibnitz says that this inner reason of all the external relations and changes of a substance is the power of conception, and later philosophers received this undeveloped thought with laughter. But they would have done better if they had first considered whether a substance of the nature of a simple particle of matter is possible without any inner state. If then they would not have excluded such a state, it would have been incumbent upon them to think out another possible inner state than that of conceptions and the activities which depend upon them. Everybody recognizes at once that, even if a power of obscure conceptions is conceded to the simple elementary parts of matter, it does not follow thence that matter itself possesses power of conception, because many substances of that kind, united into a whole, can yet never form a thinking unit.