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The Self as Agent 1952–1953

John Macmurray

CHAPTER THREE
The Rejection of Dualism
I was concerned in the last chapter to offer a comment on the Critical philosophy for several reasons. I wished to show how a great philosopher of the past dealt with the emergent problem of a revolutionary epoch. I wanted, also, to exhibit the adequacy of Kant's philosophy as a whole. By this adequacy I intend two closely related characters; firstly, that against the romantic tendency to subsume science and morality under the artistic standpoint, so creating a philosophy of organic development, Kant insisted on distinguishing the three types of judgement on which science, morality and art respectively depend, while at the same time exhibiting their systematic relation; secondly, that the Critical philosophy contains the possibility of all the major types of philosophy which modern Europe has produced from Descartes to the present time, with the possible exception of those which are the emergent philosophies of our own revolution. Both the rationalist and the realist tendencies of the Cartesian period are taken up into the Critical philosophy and their fundamental purpose is defended against the romantic attack. As for subsequent philosophies, they can be derived from Kant by a suitable suppression of recalcitrant doctrines. Objective idealism was derived from the Critical philosophy by suppression of the thing-in-itself. Modern realism, whether organic or mathematical in type, can be similarly derived, as can positivism. These later types of thought, though often more coherent within their limits, are much less adequate; and the basis for their criticism can also be found in Kant. Their inadequacy lies in this, that they fail to hold together, as the Critical philosophy docs, the different aspects of human experience. They are, in fact, mainly concerned with knowledge and indeed with scientific knowledge only; and fail to give such an account of science as will be compatible with an aesthetic and a moral philosophy. They fail, to use Kant's language, to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.
This adequacy of Kant's work is made possible, as he himself insists, by the doctrine of the ‘Thing-in-itself’. Suppress this doctrine of the unknowable reality, and the Critical philosophy comes to pieces at the joints. For it is this alone that enables Kant to do justice both to science and to morality. The failure of subsequent thought to reach beyond the boundaries of the foundation laid by Kant is a failure to find any more satisfactory theory to perform this function. There is reason, therefore, to hope that we may find in the Critical philosophy, as a result of its adequacy, the suggestion that we need to carry us beyond it: and it is likely to lie in the central and revolutionary conclusion that reason is primarily not cognitive, but practical.
We must now turn to the criticism of Kant's philosophy as a whole; leaving aside all questions of detail, however important. There are two major criticisms to be made, one concerning its coherence, the other with reference to its adequacy. The first is that there is a radical incoherence in Kant's method of relating the theoretical and the practical activities of Reason: the second that he fails to do justice to the religious aspect of human experience.
The incoherence of the Critical philosophy centres in the doctrine of the thing-in-itself. The function of this doctrine is to resolve the antinomy of freedom; the criticism, that it fails to perform this function satisfactorily. Kant's programme was to distinguish the objective validity of scientific and of moral judgement from the subjective validity of aesthetic judgement. He does this by reference to law—in the one case to natural law, in the other to moral law. Now these two types of law are antithetical. The first is a law of determinism; the second a law of freedom. If there is to be a rational knowledge, the object of knowledge must be already determinate. The determination of the object by a theoretical judgement must, if it is to be true, be a discovery, not merely an invention. On the other hand, if there is to be rational action, then the object of action—what is acted upon—must be indeterminate. For to act is to determine, not a representation of the object, but the object itself. This indeed is what Kant expresses in his definition of the Will as ‘a kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational’.1 The same world clearly cannot both be completely determined and, even partially, indeterminate. This is the antinomy. Kant resolves it by distinguishing two worlds—the world of things as they appear to us and the world of things as they are in themselves. The former, the phenomenal world, is completely determinate, and therefore knowable; and its determinateness arises from its spatio-temporal character. The latter, the noumenal world, is not spatio-temporal—space and time being forms of our intuition—and is therefore not subject to the determination which knowledge presupposes. But for that very reason it is necessarily unknowable. Both these worlds are independent of us as particular persons, and we are members of both. On the other hand, they cannot be independent of one another, for then our noumenal being and our phenomenal being would be totally unrelated, and we could neither think both nor act in both. In some sense, therefore, the two worlds must be one world. We can think their unity only by taking the noumenal world as the real world, and the phenomenal as its appearance to us in the guise that our spatio-temporal form of intuition imposes upon it. Such language is necessarily analogical, for the relation between the known and the unknowable cannot be formulated otherwise. The analogy is drawn from perceptual experience, where we need at times to distinguish between what something appears to be and what it really is.
The question, then, is whether this distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal does provide a solution for the antinomy of freedom. Consider how Kant uses it to solve the problem of the moral struggle, which he rightly sees to be the crux of the matter. There exists in us a tension between inclination and duty. This tension implies that we are capable of action in two modes, from inclination or from duty. In the former mode we act for the satisfaction of our desires, in the latter in conformity to the law of practical reason. In acting from inclination I act as a member of the phenomenal world, since I determine empirically what my desire is and what would satisfy it, and so can calculate the means to a determinate end. In the latter I act as a member of the noumenal world, by conforming to a rule of reason. In this mode I cannot determine an end to which my action should be the means. But my inclinations are themselves phenomenal, and so themselves determined. When therefore I act from inclination my action is determined. When I act in conformity to the moral law, then I act freely.
Now it needs no great argument to show that this distinction of phenomenal and noumenal worlds fails of its purpose. If I am free to act either in the one world—as phenomenon—or in the other—as noumenon—I cannot be a member of either but must have my being beyond both. In that case the distinction of the two worlds fails to account for the struggle in myself. If, on the other hand, I am a member of both, it cannot be in the same sense. For the two worlds differ in status; one is the real world, the other a world of appearances. In that case the moral struggle is not explained, but explained away. For there can be no real struggle between the real and its appearance. We should only be entitled to say that all our actions are really free though they necessarily appear to us to be determined. There is no way that I can find out of this dilemma. It does not help to take Kant's meaning to be that our acts are determined though our wills are free. Will is the conception of the self as agent, and a will which determined nothing but itself would be an illusory will, a cause which was without effect. Here then is the central incoherence of the Critical philosophy. If the moral struggle is to be real, the opponents, sensibility and the rational will, must be equally real. If one belongs to the world of appearance and the other to the world of reality then the contest is between a man and his shadow. There is a formal impossibility that the rational will should be overcome, or even influenced by sensibility, if sensibility is phenomenal. For this would mean that the world of appearance could determine the world of reality.
It is important to realize that this is a formal inconsistency. It arises through Kant's determination to do full justice to the facts both of scientific and of moral experience, and so to achieve a philosophical adequacy. Formally, it means that the doctrine of the thing-in-itself must be given up. For the justification of this conception lies in the claim that it enables us to think the unity of the same self in the theoretical and the practical fields. If it does not do this—as it does not—then there is no ground for retaining it. But if we reject the doctrine, we must be aware of the consequences. The ‘Thing-in-itself’ is no excrescence upon the critical teaching: it is not a hang-over from a pre-critical phase of Kant's thinking. Without it the theoretical and the practical aspects of our experience lose relation and fall apart. If Kant's solution fails, then another solution must be found if philosophical adequacy is to be achieved. For it is essential to philosophy that a means should be discovered of thinking coherently the unity of experience as a whole.
The common objection that experience cannot be a totality and so cannot be thought as a unity is beside the point, and Kant himself would surely have treated it with contempt. For no philosopher has ever insisted with greater force that the world we know cannot be a totality; yet none has ever made a more strenuous effort to achieve systematic adequacy in philosophy by thinking the unity of experience. The unity of experience as a whole is not a unity of knowledge, but a unity of personal activities of which knowledge is only one. It consists in the fact that the same person may be at once scientist, artist, moral agent and sinner. We must therefore consider whether this particular expression of formal incoherence—the failure of the doctrine of the ‘Thing-in-itself’—is not the consequence of a more general and equally formal inconsistency.
The incoherence arises in the attempt to relate theory and practice. Now the formal principle upon which the whole critical exposition rests is the ‘I think’—the transcendental unity of apperception. This signifies that Kant constructs his philosophy on the presupposition that the theoretical is primary. That this is the case is shown, not merely by an analysis of the structure of the Critical philosophy, but by the fact that the problem he bequeathed to his successors is a problem of knowledge, even in the field of morality. Even for the moralists who stand closest to Kant, the ethical problem is theoretical; for it takes the form expressed in the question, ‘How can we discriminate between truth and falsity in ethical judgements?’ Yet the central conclusion of the Critical philosophy is that reason is primarily practical. To the question, ‘How can I know that what I do is right?’ Kant's answer, strictly expressed, is that I cannot, since the objective of moral action is indeterminable. At most I can know how to act rightly. By implication, something similar must be said in the theoretical field. To the question, ‘How can I know what I should think?’ the proper critical answer must be, ‘You cannot; what you can know is how to think rightly, in conformity with the rules which reason lays down for the employment of the understanding’. Yet even Fichte, who thought to start from the primacy of the practical, failed to maintain it, and subordinated the practical to the theoretical. For though he began from the assertion, ‘In the beginning was the Act’, it soon appeared that the ‘act’ is theoretical, and its objective the achievement of a full self-consciousness.
The Critical philosophy, then, is an argument whose conclusion contradicts its major premiss. This premiss is the pre-supposition that reason is primarily theoretical. The conclusion it that reason is primarily practical. This is the general formal incoherence which comes to a head in the attempt to solve the antinomy of freedom. For it dictates the form in which the question is put; How can we determine, theoretically, a world in which we can act freely? The answer is, we have seen, that such a world cannot be determined by thought. Nevertheless, the real world is conceived in terms of the world which we can determine; but negatively, as a world which does not possess the particular determinateness which makes the world we know determinable; as a world which could be determined by a being not limited, as we are, by the need for a sensuous presentation, but capable of intellectual intuition. Thus the form in which Kant seeks to resolve the antinomy depends upon assuming the primacy of the theoretical standpoint. It is this which makes it necessary to conceive the problem as a relation between two possible objects of knowledge—two worlds—one of which is and the other is not determinable through our modes of cognition. It is not surprising, therefore—it is indeed inevitable—that the attempt should bring to light the underlying inconsistency and produce a palpable incoherence.
In this general inconsistency, this failure to decide between the primacy of the theoretical and the practical the Critical Philosophy points beyond itself. There is much to be said for the view that Kant's thinking, or at least his method of exposition, is dialectical: and this would be in full accordance with his acceptance of the romantic doctrine that thinking, in concreto, is a process of imaginative synthesis. Thinking is not limited to the production of knowledge. A system of transcendant metaphysics is a product of thinking; it is illusory only because, though not purely formal, it does not admit of verification by reference to experience. It is a familiar point to students of the first Critique, that the doctrine of time expounded in the Aesthetic does not tally with the treatment of time in the Analytic; and that the most obvious reason for this lies in the method of exposition. For in the aesthetic we abstract completely from all conceptual elements; and in the analytic we discover that without concepts no experience whatever is possible. It follows that by excluding conceptual elements from consideration in the Aesthetic we make a complete account of time impossible, and what account is given at this stage must be amplified and qualified later on. But Kant does not rewrite the aesthetic in the light of the analytic, nor the analytic in the light of the dialectic. He proceeds from stage to stage by including elements of experience which have so far been left out of consideration; and consequently at each stage a more comprehensive synthesis is made possible, in which the contents of the earlier stages appear as elements. Yet the modification which they must undergo when so qualified by new considerations is left to the reader.
If we take this view of Kant's method of construction in the Critical Philosophy as a whole, we may resolve the formal contradiction between premiss and conclusion. Through every stage of the progressing argument Kant proceeds as if reason were primarily theoretical; as if the ‘Cogito’ and the standpoint it establishes were adequate. The conclusion, that reason is primarily practical, takes us beyond this premiss, and involves its qualification from a more comprehensive standpoint. But there is this difference from all earlier stages, that the discovery of the primacy of practical reason is a final conclusion, and not the starting-point of a new stage. Kant goes no further. Instead he erects a barrier against every attempt to go further. Our acceptance of practical reason and its categorical imperative remains a matter of faith. Our belief in freedom is a necessary but incomprehensible belief, and we can comprehend its incomprehensibility. We can indeed use its necessity as a basis for a reasonable hope that there is another life to bridge the gulf between duty and happiness, and a supreme being whose business it is to see that the gulf is bridged. Nevertheless, the Critical Philosophy points the way, even if it forbids the attempt, to a formal reconstruction which would start from the primacy of the practical, and take up into itself the theoretical as an element within the practical.
Before we carry this further we must consider the second major criticism of the Critical philosophy, which is in respect of its adequacy. I have said that it is the most adequate of modern philosophies; but it is not fully adequate. It fails to do justice to that aspect of human experience of which religion is the reflective expression. It is true that in 1793 there appeared a treatise written by Kant under the title Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason. But this work, for all its great merits, cannot be considered an integral part of the Critical philosophy. It is rather in the nature of an addendum to the Critique of Practical Reason. For it treats religion not as a distinct field of experience, grounded in a form of judgement which claims to be valid in its own right, but simply as a set of beliefs which are justifiable pragmatically in so far as they tend to support the rational will in its struggle against the incitements of inclination. There is indeed no room in the compact structure of the Kantian systematic, for a separate critique of religion. In the first Critique the proofs of the existence of God have been shown to be illusory, and in the religious field there can be no knowledge, and not even, in the logical sense, a necessary belief. The most that we can have is a reasonable hope, on the condition that we do our duty without regard to happiness in this world. Religion appears as a kind of justifiable mythology, concerned wholly with another life and another world; as a sop to the weakness of human nature or a crutch to aid the feebleness of our all too human wills. Above all Kant insists that religion must never be considered as the ground of morality. It is moral experience which provides the ground of religious belief.
Now whatever view we may hold about religion, this treatment of the subject cannot be regarded as a critical examination of the claims of religious experience. No great religious teacher could recognize in Kant's account anything that is of central significance to himself. St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, comes in some ways close to Kant in his discussion of the moral law. ‘I find then a law,’ he writes, ‘that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.’2 But Paul's conclusion is very different. He answers Kant's question, ‘If I do my duty, what may I hope?’ by pointing to the impossibility of keeping the law. ‘There is no difference. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’3 The law can only judge and condemn us. St. Paul finds the significance of religion in being set free from the law of sin and death, as a matter of grace and not of desert. But we need not labour what is very obvious. How little evidence there is that Kant's discussion of religion has contributed anything to the purification of religious belief! How much reason there is for considering it one of the factors which have contributed to the idea that religion is unnecessary!
What concerns us, however, is not so much the inadequacy of Kant's treatment of religion, but the reason for it. It would not be enough, even if it were true, to suggest that Kant himself was not a deeply religious man. For an adequate intellectual critique of religious experience that would not be necessary. His treatment of aesthetic judgement is very adequate, yet there is no evidence that Kant was unusually sensitive to art. The adequacy in question is an intellectual adequacy, and the reason for it must be a formal one. The reason is that the adoption of the ‘I think’ as the centre of reference and starting-point of his philosophy makes it formally impossible to do justice to religious experience. For thought is inherently private; and any philosophy which takes its stand on the primacy of thought, which defines the Self as the Thinker, is committed formally to an extreme logical individualism. It is necessarily egocentric. Whether it is logically committed to solipsism we need not inquire. It may be so. But the point here is a purely formal one. It is simply that in recognizing the existence of a multiplicity of persons, it must treat them all as identical instances of the ‘I think’, whose differentiation is, for theoretical purposes, accidental. They must be represented as a multiplicity of ‘I’ s. But it is a primary fact of experience that for each individual person there is only one ‘I’—himself. He cannot address another person as ‘I’ but only by means of the second personal pronoun ‘You’. We may restate our criticism by saying, therefore, that any philosophy which takes the ‘I think’ as its first principle, must remain formally a philosophy without a second person; a philosophy which is debarred from thinking the ‘You and I’.
Now the form of religious experience involves the distinction between the first and second persons. The idea of ‘God’ is the idea of a universal ‘Thou’ to which all particular persons stand in personal relation. The question of the validity of religious belief is a question of the validity of this form. Consequently, a philosophy which does not formally recognize the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘You’ cannot even formulate the religious problem; and a Critique of religion is thus rendered impossible. It must substitute for the second person an object which is thought to possess the characters by which we discriminate persons from things. God is then conceived as the supreme object of thought, and the knowledge of God must signify the determination of this object by means of the categories of the understanding. The necessary failure of this effort to categorize an infinite person is demonstrated by Kant in the Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason. But it was already a commonplace of theology; and it misses the point of religious experience totally, since the conception of God as the supreme object of the understanding is not a religious, but a pseudo-scientific conception.
But even if the universalization of the second person as an infinite Thou is invalid, this would not dispose of the problem. We should still have to inquire how the idea, valid or not, actually arises. For the formal distinction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ is not disposed of by the rejection of religion. What is generalized, legitimately or not, in the religious use of the term God, is a matter of empirical experience. It is our experience of personal relationship with one another. If we confine ourselves to the theoretical aspect of this—its aspect as knowledge, the form of the question is ‘How do I know you?’ It is not, ‘How do I know that other “I” s exist?’ The problem, therefore, which underlies any critique of religion is a problem of interpersonal knowledge. We may then reformulate our criticism of the adequacy of the Critical philosophy by saying that it fails to do justice to, and even to allow for the possibility of our knowledge of one another; and this failure arises because its formal conception of knowledge excludes this possibility by postulating the ‘I think’ as the primary presupposition of all experience.
These two criticisms of Kant's philosophy—of its formal coherence and its formal adequacy—have a common root. It is that any philosophy which takes the ‘Cogito’ as its starting point and centre of reference institutes a formal dualism of theory and practice; and that this dualism makes it formally impossible to give any account, and indeed to conceive the possibility of persons in relation, whether the relation be theoretical—as knowledge, or practical—as co-operation. For thought is essentially private. Formally, it is the contrary of action; excluding any causal operation upon the object which is known through its activity, that is to say, upon the Real. If we make the ‘I think’ the primary postulate of philosophy, then not merely do we institute a dualism between theoretical and practical experience, but we make action logically inconceivable—a mystery, as Kant so rightly concludes, in which we necessarily believe, but which we can never comprehend. However far we carry the process of thought it can never become an action or spontaneously generate an action. We may formulate the dualism in different ways, as a dualism of mind and body, of mind and matter, of theory and practice, of appearance and reality, of subjective and objective, of phenomenal and noumenal worlds, but we can never abolish it. Consequently I can never know another person, since thinking about another person can never amount to personal knowledge of him, nor even to personal acquaintance.
This may be clarified if I give here my reason for thinking that contemporary logical empiricism escapes from the range of the Critical philosophy, and belongs to a new emergent phase. My reason is that it shifts the locus of logical analysis from thought to language, and in doing so implicitly rejects the formal dualism which characterizes the two earlier periods of modern philosophy alike. For it substitutes for the ‘I think’ the ‘I say’, and thought becomes that aspect of speech which makes it intelligible—its logical structure. Speech is public. It is at once thought and action, or rather a unity of which ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ activity are distinguishable but inseparable aspects; and as a result it establishes communication, and introduces the ‘you’ as the correlative of the ‘I’. For if the ‘I think’ logically excludes the second person, the ‘I say’ makes the second person a logical necessity. The ‘I say’ is logically incomplete. To complete it we must formulate it as follows: ‘I say to you; and I await your response’. Thus the problem of the form of the personal emerges as the problem of the form of communication. Contemporary existentialism, which concerns itself with the matter of personal experience in its personal character, equally, and perhaps more consciously exhibits the emergence of the new problem. But here the problem shows a religious face. In the tension between its theistic and its atheist exponents it revolves around a religious axis, and formulates the problem of the personal in the antithesis, ‘God—or Nothing’.
The final question, then, which the Critical philosophy leaves on our hands is this, ‘Is it possible to take its conclusion—that reason is primarily practical—as the starting-point and centre of reference for a new effort of philosophical construction?’ Can we substitute for the ‘I think’ the ‘I do’? Kant insisted that we cannot. Is he justified in this? In the end the only answer must be to attempt it; the only refutation of Kant's negative must be to do it. For since the reason for Kant's denial lies in the acceptance of the ‘Cogito’ as his own centre of reference, it cannot be conclusive, and it may help us towards the effort we must make if we consider the ‘Cogito’ as it was originally formulated by Descartes, who established it as the starting-point of modern philosophy.
There is no need to consider any of the traditional criticisms of the Cartesian formula ‘Cogito ergo sum’. For the original assertion was intended to make a radical break with philosophical tradition and to establish a new starting-point. By its success it initiated a new philosophical tradition, and consequently all criticisms of it within the tradition which it established, are internal criticisms which depend upon its acceptance. They can only be criticisms of the manner of its formulation, not of what is formulated. The ‘Cogito’ establishes a new starting-point and centre of reference for philosophical reflection; it can only be challenged from outside the tradition it establishes, by establishing a different starting-point, with which it can be shown to be incompatible.
Historically, the ‘Cogito’ represents a challenge to authority and a declaration of independence; and so well did its author know this that he went in fear of the penalties that his boldness might incur. For Descartes it was equivalent to the assertion ‘I am a substance whose essence is thinking’. If we eliminate the terms ‘substance’ and ‘essence’, which would limit its application to the first period of modern philosophy—(the second period substitutes the assertion ‘I am a thinking organism’)—we may paraphrase its significance for its time in the following way. ‘I am a thinking being: to think is my essential nature. I have therefore both the right and the duty to think for myself, and to refuse to accept any authority other than my own reason as a guarantor of truth.’ In this way the ‘Cogito’ constitutes an appeal from authority to reason.
In Descartes' own thinking the ‘Cogito’ appears as the conclusion of a systematic process of doubt. Unless interpreted in the light of this preliminary process, it loses a good deal of its significance. The method of doubt is the rejection of authority in operation. Within the body of tradition doubts of its authority had been growing for some centuries. Their social expression is the formation and spread of heretical sects which challenge the authority of the Church in matters of belief. This had been regarded as an evil, a disruption of social unity and a challenge to divinely established authority. The Church considered herself justified in taking the extremest measures for the suppression of heresy. Descartes, however, has systematized this doubt, and set it up as a canon for the proper employment of the intellect in the search for truth. This too has been accepted by modern thought, and it is now so familiar to us that we fail to recognize how paradoxical it is. Is it not prima facie unlikely that the effort to extend doubt systematically to the limits of possibility should issue in an extension of certainty? Is it not more likely that our capacity for scepticism is as unlimited as our credulity, and increases, like all our powers, with exercise. If, as a first result, we find something that we are unable to doubt, may this not signify merely that we have not doubted hard enough or systematically enough?
The method of doubt rests upon an assumption, which should be made explicit, that a reason is required for believing but none for doubting. The negative, however, must always be grounded in the positive; doubt is only possible through belief. If I find myself possessed of a certain belief, and know no reason for questioning it, I cannot doubt it; and if I could my doubt would be irrational. Moreover, if I do doubt one of my beliefs, then it is no longer a belief of mine, but only something that I used to believe.
It may be objected that this is to make an elementary mistake by confusing practical with theoretical doubt, and so failing to distinguish between logical certainty and psychological certitude. This is an internal objection, for the distinction itself derives from the method of doubt. In making the criticism we are indeed revealing the origin of the distinction between certainty and certitude, which is one aspect of the dualism of theoretical and practical which follows from the ‘Cogito’. Since we are doubting—for good reasons—the adequacy of this standpoint, its implications have become problematical for us, and arguments which presuppose it are invalid. Belief and doubt are primarily practical; and from the standpoint of practical experience the distinction shows a different face. If in practice I believe, for instance, that I am surrounded by objects which have an independent material existence of their own, I can pretend to doubt this, without really doing so. If we call this a ‘theoretical’ doubt, we must beware lest the phrase misleads us into thinking that there are two species of doubt. A ‘theoretical’ doubt, in this usage, is an imaginary or non-existent doubt. When we talk about the lion and the unicorn we are not distinguishing two species of vertebrate animals. There are lions; there are no unicorns. We might agree to express the difference by calling unicorns ‘theoretical’ animals. But it would be foolish to conclude that there ought to be a science of ‘theoretical’ biology, and set out to explore systematically the rational structure of the world of theoretical organisms.
It cannot be true that I ought to doubt what in fact I believe, by a deliberate act of will. For this is an impossibility, and ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. If then I am asked to adopt the method of systematic doubt, I am invited, as a matter of principle, to pretend to doubt what in fact I believe. What shall I gain by engaging in this game of make-believe? We are told that it is the proper way to start a systematic quest for the truth. In the end, it is hoped, we shall exchange our practical belief for a theoretical certainty. But what probability—I shall not ask what certainty—is there that this will be the result? Is it likely that a sustained effort of pretence will lead to knowledge? And if, by some happy chance, this theoretical certainty does emerge, what guarantee have I that it is not an imaginary certainty; and the knowledge which it certifies, a mere pretence of knowledge?
The method of doubt would have us abstract from the fact of belief or disbelief, separate what is believed from the believing of it and entertain it simply as a ‘proposition’ whose truth or falsity is undetermined. It is hoped that this will provide us with a neutral starting-point for an activity of thinking which aims to determine, purely theoretically, whether it is to be accepted as true or rejected as false. Only when it has been so certified by reason can it properly be said to be known. This, it may be said, is the point of view of philosophy—that nothing is known until it has been transformed, by rational criticism, from a mere belief into a logical certainty. Knowledge, in this strict sense of the term, is the product of thought and lies at the end of a process which begins in doubt.
We must reject this, both as standpoint and as method. If this be philosophy, then philosophy is a bubble floating in an atmosphere of unreality. Belief—not theoretical assent—is a necessary element in knowledge. A logical system of true propositions does not of itself constitute a body of knowledge. To constitute knowledge it must also be believed by someone. For knowledge cannot exist in the void; it must be somebody's knowledge. A proposition may be true even though no one believes it; but it cannot, until it is believed, be an element in knowledge. Suppose that I am presented with a triumphant logical demonstration. I accept its premisses; I can find no flaw in the argument. The conclusion follows with logical necessity and is therefore logically certain. But at the same time I find the conclusion impossible to believe. What then? I can only reject it in toto, even if I can find no theoretical grounds for doing so. This indeed was Hume's position in respect of Berkeley's philosophy. It admitted of no refutation, he said, yet it carried no conviction. And this proved, for Hume, that it was ‘merely sceptical’. If we take the method of doubt with complete seriousness, and the ‘Cogito’ which is already implicit in it, we must conclude, with some of our contemporaries, that all philosophy which is more than a logical analytic of language is ‘nonsense’. We must leave all positive knowledge to the empirical sciences.
The particular unreality which concerns us is the disruption of the integrity of the Self through a dualism of practical and theoretical activity. We are asked to embark upon a purely theoretical activity which isolates itself from the influence of all ‘practical’ elements—since these must introduce bias and prejudice—in the hope of attaining a knowledge which will take precedence over the beliefs by which, in practice, we live. This, I say, is impossible in practice, and in conception self-contradictory. If we could so isolate our theoretical activities from practical influences—from the emotional motives, for example, and the intentional valuations which determine our behaviour, we should have destroyed our own integrity. We should need to become two selves, neither of which would be a complete self. There would be a ‘practical’ or ‘bodily’ self which acts without thinking, and a ‘theoretical’, ‘spiritual’ or ‘mental’ self, which thinks without acting. This is the genesis of the ‘mind-body’ problem, which is in fact no problem but a patent absurdity. How could we determine the relation between two entities which are themselves constituted by a postulate of unrelatedness? This disrupted self, consisting of a body and a mind incomprehensibly—that is, magically—united is happily described by Professor Ryle as ‘the ghost in the machine’. We might comment, with advantage, that the machine is, of course, as imaginary as the ghost.
We can now understand why, in Descartes, the assertion of the ‘Cogito’ implies immediately both the definition of the Self as a thinking being, and the dualism of mind and matter. ‘Cogito ergo sum’ in spite of its form, does not infer existence from thought. It identifies the two. Thought is the essence of my being. The dualism of mind and matter, again, is formally invalid, because it objectifies the distinction between subject and object, and so represents it as a distinction between two incompatible objects of thought. It is, in fact, the theoretical representation of the dichotomy between ‘thinking’ and ‘acting’, and in Kant's profounder analysis it appears in its proper form as a dualism of the theoretical and the practical. The point, however, which should be stressed is that the dualism arises, in whatever form, in the interest of the primacy of the theoretical. It follows from the definition of the Self as the Thinker. Consequently all philosophies which share the ‘Cogito’ as their starting-point, however they differ, have this in common, that they presuppose the primacy of the theoretical. They conceive reason at once as the differentia of the personal, as that which constitutes the human organism a ‘self’, and at the same time as the capacity for logical thought. Any philosophy which does this must find itself faced with the Kantian dilemma, ‘How can pure reason become practical?’ It was the impossibility of any answer that led Kant to conclude that reason is primarily practical; not primarily, that is to say, the capacity to think in terms of a distinction between ‘true’ and ‘false’ but to act in terms of a distinction between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
We are now able to interpret the ‘Cogito’ in its essential significance, and in doing so to refute it. If thinking is my essence, then I am an active being—as Descartes, indeed, insists. ‘Cogito ergo sum,’ then means, ‘I am an agent, and my act is thinking.’ Any other activities which may be ascribed to me are accidents, which must be excluded from my definition. My activity of thinking is what constitutes my existence. Now this is a contradiction in terms. Action is practical, and thinking denotes an activity which is not practical but purely theoretical. To exist is to have a being which is independent of thought; and what depends on thought for its being is no thing but a mere idea, like the unicorn. To say that it has an ideal existence is simply a confusion of categories, which can only mislead us. Unicorns do not have an ideal existence. They do not exist. There are no such things. To put it otherwise, to exist is to be part of the world, in systematic causal relation with other parts of the world. Thinking, however, is non-causal; it ‘moves nothing’ as Aristotle said. If it is an activity, it is an activity which is without effect in the realm of existence. If, with Descartes, I say that I am a thinking substance, I must go on to say with him that I am a totally insubstantial substance. In a word, in distinguishing between action and thought I distinguish between existence and non-existence. As an activity of thinking the Self appears as an activity which is no activity; as mind it appears as a substance which is no substance. Its existence, in a word, is a non-existence. In Kantian language we must recognize the ‘Cogito’ not as an element in existence, but as a transcendental unity of apperception, a formal, logical centre of reference; the primary postulate of the possibility of experience. But there is an advantage in keeping to the commonsense language of Descartes. If, in any sense, the fact that I am thinking proves—or should we say, presupposes—my existence, then it certifies my existence not as a mind, but as a body. If the actuality of my thinking reveals that I am an agent, my act cannot be an act of thought; for thinking can only be defined negatively in relation to a positive activity which is material, causal and effective in the modification of the not-self. It is an activity which is immaterial, and non-causal, having no effect in the existential determination of its object. If then I distinguish between action and thought, between the practical and the theoretical—as in some sense I must; and if I wish to use an existential language to mark the distinction, I must identify my existence with action; and my thinking with non-existence. I must say not ‘Cogito ergo sum’, but ‘Cogito ergo non-sum’. What is to be made of this paradox we shall have to inquire later. It is easy to hide it by dressing it up in suitable words. One might say that thought transcends existence. We might speak of an existence beyond space and time, in an eternal present; or we might say, more simply that in thinking the self stands ‘over against’ the world which it knows. It is wiser not to use such devices for concealing our ignorance. The paradox is only the antinomy of freedom in another form. However we seek to resolve it, we may at least say this, that we can exhibit the ‘Cogito ergo sum’ as self-contradictory because it asserts the primacy of the theoretical; while in truth, as Kant rightly concluded, it is the practical that is primary. The theoretical is secondary and derivative.
We may conclude these introductory chapters with a final comment on the Critical philosophy. The emergent problem, in the time of Kant, was the form of the organic. For constructive philosophy the task was to determine a logical schema of organic unity through which all experience might be coherently thought; or—to express it otherwise—to reject the Cartesian view that the Self is a substance and substitute for it the doctrine that the Self is an organism. Kant, however, set himself a critical task and raised a prior question. ‘Is the organic form,’ he asked in effect, ‘and its subjective correlative, the standpoint of aesthetic intuition, adequate for the purpose?’ His answer was a negative one. He set limits to the use of the new form. Beyond its validity as an instrument of knowledge lies a range of personal experience which is not amenable to it; and the effort to push it beyond its proper boundaries can only result in drowning morality and religion on the one hand, and true science on the other, in a flood of illusion. Freedom will be lost. Prudence in the pursuit of an all too human happiness will become the only standard of action. Knowledge, seeking to transcend its necessary limits, will be transformed into an illusory ideal. We must humbly recognize that the narrow circle of all possible human understanding is surrounded by unfathomable mystery. We must rest content in the conviction that what is real is forever beyond our ken.
We need not accept this scepticism as final. Philosophical scepticism is always formal; that is to say, it is relative to a particular form of thought. It arises from the discovery, through philosophical analysis, that the most adequate instrument of systematic thought which we possess is unable to represent our experience as a unity: and since the unity of experience is the correlate of the unity of the Self, this means that the form of our thought is inadequate for the comprehension of selfhood. Thus Hume's scepticism is a scepticism of the adequacy of the concept of substance, and so of the form of the material. The Self can not be conceived on the analogy of a material object. The scepticism of Kierkegaard—the most devastating of all modern scepticisms—is a criticism of the form of the organic in its fully developed Hegelian form. It means that the true Self cannot be conceived through the organic analogy. It is not an organic unity. Such scepticism is valid under a condition. It is valid only if the form in question is not merely the most inclusive form of understanding we yet possess, but the most inclusive form we can ever construct. This, however, can never be demonstrated. The answer to Hume's scepticism of the form of the material was the construction of the form of the organic. To the contemporary scepticism of the organic, the answer will be, if we can achieve it, the construction of the form of the personal. Such an instrument of thought would have a finality denied to the other two, for we should no longer be attempting to understand our human experience on the analogy of our knowledge of organisms or of physical substances, but directly, in terms of the personal character which is its own unique distinction.
Kant's scepticism, however, has a character of its own. It is a limited scepticism. As an outlook on life it is the formal definition of a sane, balanced and critical liberalism. Seen in retrospect it is a prophetic warning of the peril to freedom which lurks in the romantic outlook, the danger that the form of the organic will be used to plan and construct the good society on earth. For Kant himself his philosophy is a critical acceptance of Rousseau and the French Revolution. For us it is the prophetic analysis and condemnation of totalitarianism. We are aware today of the totalitarian implications of Rousseau's social theory, particularly in its mature development in Hegel. Totalitarianism is the result of determining the good as an object in the spatio-temporal world, and planning its achievement by the use of scientific techniques within a heuristic framework of organic concepts. Kant's condemnation of the attempt is this, that though it intends a free and self-determining society, it must necessarily result in destroying freedom, and with freedom morality and religion, so bringing human personality under the bondage of a total determination.
Kant could be content to limit knowledge and leave the beyond to faith and hope. For his time a dualism of theory and practice was possible, and indeed was the path of wisdom. For us it is impossible. We are committed to planning, whether we will or not, and planning is the unity of theory and practice under the primacy of the practical. So long as our most adequate concept is the organic concept, our social planning can only issue in a totalitarian society. This is the reason why the emergent problem of contemporary philosophy is the form of the personal. This is why we must disregard Kant's limitation, take the primacy of practical reason as our starting-point and eliminate dualism.
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