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Book I Chapter 2 - § 6

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« on: January 07, 2023, 12:25:29 am »

§ 6. In the present state of philosophical opinion, the proposition that "whatever is real consists of experience," or again, "of psychical matter of fact," is in danger not so much of being rejected, as of being accepted in a fundamentally false sense. If we are to avoid the danger of such misunderstanding, we must be careful to insist that our principle does not assert that mere actuality is a complete and sufficient account of the nature of reality. When we say that there is nothing real outside the world of psychical fact, we are not saying that reality is merely psychical fact as such. What we do say is that, however much more it may be, it is at least that. How much more we can say of reality, beyond the bare statement that it is made up of experiences or psychical matters of fact, it is the task of our metaphysical science to determine; at present our problem, though given to us in its general elements, still awaits solution. In particular, we must take care not to fall into the error of so-called "Subjective Idealism." We must not say that reality consists of "the states of consciousness of sentient subjects" or of "subjects, and their states." We must not falsify our data as metaphysicians by starting with the assumption that the psychical facts of which reality is made up are directly experienced as "states" or "modifications" of "subjects" which are their possessors. Such a theory would in fact contradict itself, for the "subject" or "I," who am by the hypothesis the owner of the "states," is never itself given as a "state of consciousness." Hence Hume was perfectly correct when he argued from the principle that nothing exists but states of consciousness, to the conclusion that the thinker or "subject," not being himself a state of consciousness, is an illusion. Yet, on the other hand, if there is no thinker or subject to "own" the passing states, they are not properly "states" or "modifications" of anything. Apart from this explicit contradiction in the formulation of the theory that all things are "states of consciousness," we must also object that the theory itself is not a statement of the data of experience, but a hypothesis about their connection. The division of experience into the self or the subject on the one side and its states on the other is not given in our immediate apprehension, but made in the progress of reflection on the contents of apprehension. Sensible things and their properties never appear to us in our direct apprehension of them to be states or modifications of ourselves; that they really are this and nothing more is simply one hypothesis among others which we devise to meet certain difficulties in our thought. Reality comes to us from the first in the guise of pieces of psychical fact; we feel certain, again, that these pieces must somehow form part of a coherent whole or system. We try to understand and account for this systematic character of the real on the supposition that the matters of fact of which it consists are connected with one another through the permanent character of the "subjects" to which they belong as temporary "states" or "modifications." But this special interpretation of the way in which the facts of experience form a system is no part of our initial postulate as to the general nature of the real; it is simply one among other theories of the concrete character of the universe, and it is for Metaphysics itself to test its merits.

Similarly, we should be making an unwarranted addition to our initial postulate about Reality if we identified it with the doctrine of Hume and his followers, according to whom what really exists is merely a series of "impressions and ideas" connected by certain psychological laws of succession, any profounder structural unity of experience being dismissed as a "fiction of the mind." The secret of the fallacy here lies in the petitio principii committed by the introduction of the word "merely" into our statement. From the identification of reality with psychical facts which somehow form a systematic unity, it does not in the least follow that the only unity possessed by the facts is that of conformity to a certain law or laws of sequence. That all reality consists of psychical facts, and that these facts must form a system, we are, as we have already seen, entitled to assert as a fundamental metaphysical principle which cannot be doubted without falling into contradiction; how they do so we have yet to discover, if we can.

The merits of the Humian solution of the problem will come before us for consideration at a later stage; the impossibility of assuming it without inquiry as a principle, may perhaps be brought home to the mind of the reader by a simple illustration. Take the case of any ęsthetic whole, such as, for instance, the play of Hamlet. The play of Hamlet consists, for the student who reads it in his closet, of  a succession of printed words. These words form the whole material of the play; it is composed of them all and of nothing else. Again, the words which are the material of the play are connected by the grammatical and euphonic laws which regulate the construction of English sentences, and the metrical laws of English dramatic versification. Thus it would be a true description of the play, as far as it goes, to say that it is a series of words put together in accordance with grammatical and metrical laws. It would, however, be positively false to say that Hamlet is nothing more than such a succession of words; its character as a work of art depends entirely on the fact that it possesses, as  a whole, a further unity of structure and aim, that the words and sentences which are its material embody an internally coherent representation of human character and purpose. Apart from this inner unity of meaning, mere uniformity of grammatical and metrical construction would not of themselves constitute a work of art. It will be one object of our later discussions to show that what is thus obviously true of an ęsthetic whole is universally true of every genuine system or totality.
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