Potentia ex Impotentia


MS 149: Summer 1868


In the last number of this Journal, we instituted some inquiries "concerning certain faculties claimed for man." The degree of probability to which any metaphysical or psychological conclusions can at present attain, is unfortunately as compared with the results of several other sciences, not very high. It is of no avail that philosophers adopt strictly demonstrative forms of argument as long as they cannot, after all, come to agreement upon conclusions. //What competent men disagree about is not certain./That is not certain upon which competent men disagree.// I was content, therefore, in discussing those questions in the last number, to use inductive and hypothetic reasoning, which are the processes of natural science, thinking that, perhaps, there is nothing in such merely presumptive evidence which need render my conclusions less certain than those which have been deduced from first principles, by other psychologists. Nor did I think fit to engage in the vain attempt to hedge about my inferences with all the safeguards and precautions used in astronomy and physics. When a science first enters upon the inductive road the caution, afterwards so healthful, amounts to fruitless and indolent scepticism. The thousand confirmations which make mechanics, for example, so secure, have been the result of generations of labour, consequent upon the adoption of the theories, themselves. The proposition that a body left to itself would move on forever in a straight line, was, when first enunciated by Galileo, something more, indeed, than a shrewd guess. It was a regular and deliberate inference, but not supported upon all sides, as a new theory must be before it can claim a place among the body of truths of regularly instituted science of mechanics. Now, dynamics just before the time of Galileo was in a state not dissimilar to that in which philosophy now is. It had been studied from the earliest times without any certain results. It had been the grand theatre of disputation and of dialectical subtilety; but it had lately manifested symptoms of emergence from this condition (consisting partly, it is true, in the multiplication of jarring theories) and the quite arbitrary and mystical dogma of the indifferentists that reasonable certainty was unattainable in this science did not find quite so unyielding an acquiescence among sensible men as it had a little while before. If metaphysics has the happy future before it which dynamics then had, it must be content to rest upon tangible external facts and to begin with theories not supported by any great multitude of different considerations or held with absolute confidence. When these first theories have been systematically traced to their consequences, we can see how many facts they serve to explain, and which are the ones which require to be retained. Meanwhile, I think it becoming neither to contemn the views of others nor to hold too confidently to my own, regarding them rather as things yet to be inquired into further, than as //facts/beliefs// which are to influence my faith or my hopes.

In this spirit, I purpose to take up the conclusions of my former paper, which must probably stand or fall together, and see what are their bearings upon the reality of knowledge, the validity of logic, the instincts of religion, and other matters of common sense or common prejudice. In the present paper, I shall confine myself more particularly to the question of reality.


Potentia ex Impotentia

To consider from what point we shall take our departure in philosophy seems to be unnecessary, inasmuch as we cannot start from any other condition than that in which we actually are. To attempt such a solution of the problem as Hegel has done, seems like going to China by proceeding first due north to the pole and thence due south to China--a method which certainly has the merit of being highly systematic, and has also a pleasing paradoxical appearance, but which would present certain inconveniences in practice. We really believe many things, and, therefore, philosophic doubts upon such matters must be mere pretence and can result in nothing but a show of demonstration of things really taken for granted. Nothing can be gained by gratuitous and fictitious doubts, nor can any conclusions be reached without premises. Now whatever is doubted by men whom there is reason to think competent judges, is so far doubtful; and, therefore, a certain shade of doubt will hang over almost all psychological or very general propositions. It is, therefore, proper to rest philosophy,--upon what every real science must rest--namely those ordinary facts of which (in a general way) we are actually assured and therefore cannot, if we would, mistrust. Moreover, to hold your own system to be certain when intelligent, candid, and well-informed persons cannot agree with you, is a thing to be ashamed of and to be eradicated, as a sin; and on that principle metaphysics must be held to be very uncertain. Thus, the strictly demonstrative style of argumentation usually adopted by philosophers has utterly failed of its purpose, and we might as well content ourselves with such probable inferences as support astronomy and chemistry, since if we can only reduce the uncertainty of metaphysics to a hundred times that appertaining to those sciences, we shall have much to congratulate ourselves upon. Nor ought we to aspire at first to the rigidness of proof which pertains to the physical sciences in their developed state, but should rather take as our examples those less complicated reasonings upon which Galileo established the laws of motion and Copernicus the order of the solar system. It was upon these principles, that in the last number of this journal, in a paper entitled "Questions concerning certain faculties claimed for man," I endeavored to establish with the degree of probability which the subject admits of at present the following propositions--

1st, We have no intuitive power of distinguishing intuitive from mediate cognitions;

2nd, We have no intuitive self-consciousness;

3rd, Subjective elements of consciousness are not immediate objects of consciousness.

4th, We have no power of introspection.

5th, All thought is in signs.

6th, No sign consistently means anything essentially incognizable.

7th, There is no intuitive cognition.

For the further support of the 6th proposition the two following arguments may be added. In the first place, every character which belongs to the immediate object of cognition is essentially cognizable, since the character means nothing else than the possibility of the cognition. It is indeed, not denied that an inaudible sound or an invisible colour, is an absurdity. But it is held that since thought is active and not dependent only on the presence of an outward object, it is sufficient that a relation for example, should be thinkable and that it need not be inferrable. But thought is no more active than imagination, since all thoughts are but combinations of conceptions abstracted from experience, and it would be impossible to name any other. Now abstraction takes place only by generalization. Hence nothing essentially foreign to experience can enter into any thought. Take, for example, the conception of other. This can only arise, by abstraction, from the various particular cognized others; consequently other must mean with us cognizable other, and therefore "other than the cognizable", can only consistently mean one cognizable other than another cognizable, for the incognizable other would be the incognizable cognizable.

Let us now go on to trace out the consequences of the above seven propositions, with a view partly to test them further, partly to obtain new truths, and in great measure also simply to discover unsuspected alternatives which philosophers must refute before they can establish any theory.

The representationists tell us that we can have no knowledge of things-in-themselves. But we go further and deny that we can so much as attach any consistent meaning to the "absolutely incognizable". Hence if we mean anything by the very things themselves, they are cognizable. So that a still more rigid criticism than that of the representationists restores the most important faculty which they have denied to us.

Therefore, there is nothing absolutely out of the mind, but the first impression of sense is the most external thing in existence. Here we touch material idealism. But we have adopted, also, another idealistic //conclusion/doctrine//, that there is no intuitive cognition. It follows that the first impression of sense is not cognition but only the limit of cognition. It may therefore be said to be so far out of the mind, that it is as much external as internal. Our experience of any object is developed by a process continuous from the very first, of change of the cognition and increase in the liveliness of consciousness. At the very first instant of this process, there is no consciousness but only the beginning of becoming conscious. It is also not a real state of mind because it instantaneously passes away.

There is a paradox here. But so there is in respect to any beginning or other limit of anything continuous. Does the line of separation between contiguous black and white surfaces lie within the black or the white? Since the surfaces are contiguous, points on this line lie within one or the other, for the black covers by definition all points with a certain space not covered by the white and no others. But these points are no more in one surface than in the other. Whatever may be the solution of this antinomy, it is plain that the apparent contradiction respecting our beginning of consciousness is of the same nature.

Thus the first impression is out of the mind in the sense that the degree of consciousness in it is zero. But there is another far more important use of the term externality as synonymous with reality and opposed to figment.