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Book I Chapter 2 - 10

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« on: January 07, 2023, 07:13:25 am »

10. Our foregoing discussion of the metaphysical criterion will suggest a fairly definite ideal of what a completely adequate apprehension of the whole of reality would be. A completely adequate apprehension of reality would be one which contained all reality and nothing but reality, and thus involved no element whatever of deceptive appearance. As such it would, in the first place, be all-embracing; it would include in itself every datum of direct experience, and, since nothing but data of experience, or, as we have also called them, matters of psychical fact, are the materials of reality, it would contain nothing else. In the second place, it would contain all its data without contradiction or discrepancy as part of a single system with a harmonious internal structure of its own. For wherever there is discrepancy, as we have already seen, there is imperfect and therefore partially false appearance. And, in the third place, such an all-embracing harmonious apprehension of the whole data of experience would clearly transcend that separation of existence from content which is temporarily effected by our own efforts to restate our experience in a consistent form. It would, because complete in itself, involve at a higher level that immediacy which, at a lower level, we know as characteristic of feeling. It would thus experience the whole of real existence directly as a system with internal consistency and structure, but without any reference to anything beyond itself. As we said of the artistic whole, so we may say of the whole of existence as it might be apprehended by a  completed insight, it would be what it meant, and mean what it was. To such an ideally complete experience of reality as a single system, by way of marking its exclusively experiential nature, we may give the name, introduced into Philosophy by Avenarius, of a "pure" experience, that is, an experience which is in all its parts experience and nothing else. Of course, in adopting the name, we are not necessarily identifying ourselves with the further views of Avenarius as to what in particular the structure of such an experience would be.
 
Our own human experience clearly falls far short of such an ideal, and that for two reasons. To begin with, our experience is incomplete in respect of its data: there is much in reality which never directly enters into the structure of our experience at all. Of much of what falls within the scope of our knowledge we can only say, in a general way, how it would appear to ourselves supposing certain conditions of its perceptibility to be realised, and even these conditions are usually only most imperfectly known. What the actual matters of psychical fact corresponding to these conditions and to the appearance which they would determine for us are, we are totally unable to say. Again, there may  well be much in the real world which never, even in this indirect way, enters into the structure of human knowledge at all. Hence our human experience and the intellectual constructions by which we seek to interpret it have always the character of being piecemeal and fragmentary. Perfect apprehension of systematic reality as a whole would be able to deduce from any one fact in the universe the nature of every other fact. Or rather, as the whole would be presented at once in its entirety, there would be no need for the deduction; every fact would be directly seen as linked with  every other by the directly intuited nature of the system to which all facts belong. But in our imperfect human apprehension of the world our facts appear to be largely given us in isolation and independence of one another as bare "casual conjunctions" or "collocations," and the hypotheses by  which we seek to weld them into a system, however largely determined by the character of our data, never quite get rid of an element of arbitrary "free" construction. They are never fully necessitated as to their entirety by the nature of the facts they serve to connect. Hence we can never be certain that our hypothetical constructions themselves are true in the sense of consisting of statements of what for a completed experience would be matters of fact. Our ideal is to connect our presented facts by constructions in which each link is itself matter of fact, or experience, in the sense that it would under known conditions form the content of a direct apprehension. But it is an ideal which, owing to the fragmentary character of our own experience, we are never able adequately to realise. In all our sciences we are constantly compelled to use hypothetical constructions, which often are, and for all we know always may be, merely "symbolic," in the sense that, though useful in the co-ordination of experienced data, they could never themselves become objects of direct experience, because they conflict either with the general nature of experience as such, or with the special nature of the particular experiences in which they would have to be presented. Our scientific hypotheses thus present a close analogy with the uninterpretable stages in the application of an algebraical calculus to a numerical or geometrical subject-matter. Their usefulness in enabling us to co-ordinate and predict facts of direct experience need no more guarantee their own reality, than the usefulness of such a calculus guarantees our ability to find an intelligible interpretation for all the symbolic operations it involves.[1] In a pure or completed experience, at once all-comprehending and systematic, where existence and content, fact and construction, were no longer separated, there could of course be no place for such ultimately uninterpretable symbolism.

Our fundamental metaphysical problem, then, is that of discovering, if we can, the general or formal characteristics of such a complete or "pure" experience, i.e. those characteristics which belong to it simply in virtue of its all-containing and completely systematic nature. Further, it would be the work of a completed Metaphysic to ascertain which among the universal characteristics of our own human experience of the worid are such as must belong to any coherent experience in virtue of its nature, and are thus identifiable with the formal characteristics of a "pure" experience. Also, our science would have to decide what features of human experience, among those which do not possess this  character, approximate most nearly to it, and would thus require least modification in order to enable them to take their place in an absolutely complete and harmonious experience of reality. If we could completely carry out that programme, we should, in the first place, have a general conception of what in outline the constitution of experienced reality as a systematic whole is; and, in the second, we should be able to arrange the various concepts and categories by which we seek, alike in everyday thinking and in the various sciences, to interpret the world of our experience, in an ascending order of degrees of truth and reality, according to the extent to which they would require to be modified before they could become adequate to express the nature of a systematic experienced reality. The knowledge conveyed by such a science would, of course, not be itself the pure or all-embracing experience of Reality, but merely mediate knowledge about the general nature of such an experience, and would therefore, so far, be like all mere knowledge about an object, abstract and imperfect. It would still refer to something beyond itself, and thus have a meaning other than its own existence. But, unlike all other knowledge, our metaphysical knowledge of the formal character of an all-inclusive experienced whole would be final, in the sense that no addition of fresh knowledge could modify it in principle. Fresh knowledge, which in all other cases involves at least the possibility of a transformation of existing theories, would here do no more than fill in and make more concrete our  conception of the system of Reality, without affecting our insight into its general structure.

We may perhaps illustrate this conception of a knowledge which, though imperfect, is yet final, by an instance borrowed from elementary Mathematics. We know absolutely and precisely, e.g., what the symbol 𝜋 stands for. it is completely determined for us by the definition that it is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. And again, we can define unequivocally both the terms, circumference and diameter of the circle, which we have employed in our definition of 𝜋. Thus our knowledge of the meaning of the symbol is clearly final; no fresh accretion to our knowledge will make any modification in it. At the same time, our knowledge of 𝜋, though final, is imperfect. For the quantity 𝜋 is incommensurable, and thus we can never precisely evaluate it. All we can do is to assign its value correctly within any desired degree of approximation. Again, while no approximation gives an absolutely correct value for the quantity, one approximation is, of course, closer than another. Because no approximation is more than approximately the truth, it by no means follows that all are equally wide of the mark. Similarly, it may well be that, though we can say with finality what the general nature of experience and experienced Reality as a systematic whole is, yet, when we come to ask after the character of the system in detail, we have to depend on sciences which are merely approximate in their results; it will not follow, as is sometimes assumed, that the categories of one science do not present us with a nearer approximation to the absolute truth than those of  another.[2]

[1] For some good observations on the fallacy of assuming that mathematical symbolism must always be interpretable, see B. Russell, Foundations of Geometry, p. 45-46; or Whitehead, Universal Algebra, vol. i. p. 10 ff. For a further elaboration of the argument of the foregoing section I may refer to my Problem of Conduct, pp. 14-21. I need hardly warn the reader against confusing a "symbolic" concept in my sense of the word, i.e. one which cannot be fully interpreted in terms of direct experience, with a "symbolic" idea in Mr. Spencer's sense, i.e. one which is not, psychologically, a copy of the presentations for which it stands. Our use of the word is, of course, purely logical, and has nothing to do with the psychological character of mental images, but only with their meaning.

[2] Compare my Problem of Conduct, pp. 22-39.

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