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11: The Interpretation of Reality

IN science and philosophy, and indeed in discourse of every kind, we are concerned with our experience. We are thinking about it or its issues or its conditions. And we speak of the purpose of our thought as being to describe or explain or interpret its object. The use of these different terms indicates differences in our way of thinking or in the end which that thinking seeks to achieve. But the differences are not marked with any accuracy, and in common usage the terms are apt to overlap; nor is there any accepted definition of their exact signification. An attempt may be made, however, to fix their meanings as nearly as possible and in particular to bring out the nature of the process of interpretation.

A famous argument begins with the supposition that, in crossing a heath, a man finds a watch upon the ground and proceeds to ask himself how it came to be there. The argument has served its purpose and need not be repeated; but the illustration may be used again. Let us suppose that the traveller has never seen a watch before. What are the things which he will seek to find out about it? He observes its shape and size, the case and glass and dial; he opens it and sees the internal mechanism, each part of which and the relative positions of the parts may be examined by him. He identifies the different metals, other examples of which may be supposed already known to him; he observes the movements of the spring and wheels, and, continuing his examination, finds that the hands on the dial are also in motion and that their movements correspond in a regular way with the motion of the parts inside the case. The record of this examination, or of any portion of it, is a description of the watch. The description may be more or less complete and more or less exact. The primary form of description is an account which will enable us to form a mental picture or image of the object, so that we may be able to identify it at sight. Even this purpose may not be easily achieved when two or more objects resemble one another closely. A very minute examination might be required to distinguish two blades of grass or two watches turned out at the same factory. Always our descriptions of objects are only approximately complete. Besides, completeness may not be our ideal, nor the distinction of this object from others like it our purpose. Our traveller, for instance, may be interested in the different metals which he finds in the watch and his description of it may be an account of the parts of brass and steel and silver or gold which it contains, their shape and weight. Or he may be more particularly interested in the movements which he observes and he may arrive at a highly abstract account of them which, so far as he can see, describes what actually takes place and can yet be set forth in precise mathematical formulæe. Further experience will show him that the mechanism of the watch, instead of distinguishing this particular object, is common to a number of other objects which he afterwards meets with. Such a description does not aim at completeness, though it does aim at exactness. It is abstract in so far as it disregards the qualities of the material substances present and is restricted to their movements; and it is general in that it is equally applicable to an indefinite number of other instances.

When an explanation, rather than a description, is asked for, the question can usually be put in the form—not What is it that is there? but—How did it come about? Our traveller, for example, may ask how the watch came to be where it was found, and he may be satisfied with the answer that it was dropped by a previous passer-by in a careless attempt to return it to his pocket. This is the cause of its lying on the heath, and the cause is accepted as a sufficient explanation. Or he may ask how the hands come to move as they do, and he may be satisfied when he finds out that they are connected with the internal mechanism in such a way that the winding of the watch issues in a series of movements which determine the position of the hands on the dial. Here again the cause is given and accepted as the explanation.

According to this view a description tells simply what there is and what is happening, whereas an explanation traces events to their causes. The discovery of the cause would thus give the differentia which marks off an explanation from a description. But, when we press further this method of drawing the distinction, we are faced with the difficulty of determining the nature of a cause. Now the term ‘cause,’ as commonly defined for the purposes of scientific investigation, signifies nothing more than a certain uniform sequence or order. The explanation therefore would seem to be simply a generalised description; and the only distinction between description and explanation will be that in the latter the event is classified or shown to be a particular instance of a general rule which holds of all similar instances in like conditions. The explanation consists in a reference to the general formula, valid for many other cases, under which the particular event may be brought. This view is the basis of the descriptive theory of scientific concepts. It is not necessary to examine it here1; but it agrees with what has been already said2 as to the interest of science being in the general or universal, not in the individual.

A different kind of question is put and a different kind of answer expected when the finder of the watch proceeds to ask, Why this complicated piece of machinery? He may discover, or some one may inform him, that its purpose is to tell the time of day; and with this answer he may be satisfied; it interprets to him the meaning of the watch. This process of interpretation needs further consideration.

The process of interpretation is exemplified most simply in translating from a foreign language. An explorer discovers an ancient monument inscribed with characters which have, as he suspects, a meaning, but a meaning unintelligible to him. A scholar is then appealed to, who deciphers the inscription and translates it into the vulgar tongue. Here, therefore, three things are involved first, a meaning expressed in terms which are not understood; secondly, the translation of this meaning into intelligible terms; and thirdly, the scholar, who is the medium of this translation. Normally, therefore, interpretation is a triadic relation, as Royce calls it3, and involves the operation of three minds: that of the person who expressed his meaning; that of the person who receives this expression of meaning without being able to understand it; and that of the mediator who interprets to the second the meaning of the first. It is possible, indeed, that the second and third may be the mind of the same person the explorer may himself discover the meaning of the symbols and then express them to himself in better known terms. Or the first and the third mind in a process of interpretation may be the mind of the same person, expressing itself at successive periods of time: he may first relate a parable and then show its meaning. But what we always have is the expression of a meaning in terms not immediately understood and then the translation of this meaning into another and better known set of symbols. Sometimes both sets of symbols are of the same (fundamental kind, as in the translation from one language into another; sometimes they are of different orders, as when the first expression of the meaning is in the form of a fable or parable, and the second describes. actual experience.

In rendering one language into another, two processes may be involved—transliteration and translation. When the former is required, the meaning has been expressed at first in a set of visible symbols or letters whose corresponding audible symbols are unknown, and they have to be replaced by other symbols which are familiar to the observer and enable him to pronounce the words. The latter process or translation discloses the meaning of the written or spoken words by rendering them into other and familiar words which suggest a succession of images, or a train of thought, or an emotional experience. Even transliteration, however, may by itself serve to reveal a meaning. A reader of poetry who knows no Greek may be attracted by verses in which there are some Greek words and phrases interspersed in the English context, so that his enjoyment of the whole is spoiled. Two things are needed by him in such a case—a transliteration of the words so that he may be able to pronounce them and thus appreciate the technique of the poem, and a translation of them that he may understand the meaning. But, psychologically, the quality of the sounds is itself part of the meaning. On it depends the rhythm of the line or stanza, and it has a share therefore in the emotional value of the verse. The written characters are mere symbols; but the spoken words have a technical quality of their own which is of the essence of the poetical effect, as much as the ideas or images which the language signifies and which may need the translator.

Language is the most familiar example of symbols expressing meaning. But meaning is obviously possessed by other things than words. A picture, a sonata, a knock at the door, may have meaning. So may natural objects: a heavy cloud may mean rain, or a rise in the temperature of the body be a symptom of disease. In Berkeley's theory of vision we have an interpretation of the whole visible world as a system of meanings—an orderly set of visible signs indicative of other, namely, tactual and muscular experiences. “The proper objects of sight,” he says, “are light and colours with their several shades and degrees; all which, being infinitely diversified and combined, do form a language wonderfully adapted to suggest to us the distances, figures, situations, dimensions, and various qualities of tangible objects—not by similitude, nor by inference of necessary connexion, but by the arbitrary imposition of Providence, just as words suggest the things signified by them4.” In expounding his theory of vision Berkeley spoke as if the objects of touch had an independent existence which the objects of sight did not possess, and this enabled him to bring out the analogy between things seen and a written or spoken language. But he had reached the further conclusion that all sensible objects are in the same way and in the same degree dependent for their being on mind. If the objects of sight were symbols charged with a meaning beyond their content as sense-presentations, a similar meaning might be expected to be revealed by the other senses, and the whole of nature be interpreted as conveying a meaning. And this was the result of his later thought. “The phenomena of nature, which strike on the senses and are understood by the mind, do form not only a magnificent spectacle, but also a most coherent, entertaining, and instructive Discourse; and to effect this, they are conducted, adjusted, and ranged by the greatest wisdom. This language or Discourse is studied with different attention, and interpreted with different degrees of skill. But so far as men have studied and remarked its rules, and can interpret right, so far they may be said to be knowing in natures5.” For this is his view of knowledge: “We know a thing when we understand it; and we understand it when we can interpret or tell what it signifies6.”

In Berkeley's view of interpretation we may find the triadic relation already described. There is (1) the symbol which expresses a meaning or further experience, (2) the meaning or further experience of which it is the expression or sign, and (3) the rendering of the first into the second, which is the central feature of the interpretation. In his earliest statement the first of these consisted simply of visible objects or ideas; they were taken as signs of more stable tangible objects, which formed their meaning. But, in his later thought, the whole of nature is regarded as a system of signs. What its meaning is is not fully explained; but it is clear that, in Berkeley's view, it must be sought in the realm of values. Even the “optic language,” he says, “hath a necessary connexion with knowledge, wisdom, and goodness7.” The interpreter of the language of vision is not Berkeley or any particular philosopher, but all men, who from their earliest years have been unconsciously learning the connexion of sign and thing signified. “If we have been all practising this language, ever since our first entrance into the world: if the Author of Nature constantly speaks to the eyes of all mankind, even in their earliest infancy, whenever the eyes are open in the light, whether alone or in company: it doth not seem to me at all strange that men should not be aware they had ever learned a language begun so early, and practised so constantly as this of Vision8.” Berkeley's part was therefore simply to convince men that, when they thought they saw things immediately, they were really interpreting signs: although, having been doing so all their lives, they had come to confuse the sign with the thing signified, and so to imagine that they were only percipients when they were really also interpreters. If Berkeley's analysis of vision is correct, then all men who use their eyes are, it is clear, also interpreters of what they see. But, when we extend his doctrine, as he himself does, from sight and visible objects to all sensible experience and treat the whole of nature as a system of signs, then it is obvious that we pass beyond the range of the plain man's interpretations and into a region where the interpretations even of the experts are not always clear and do not always agree. Thus a problem is set in which the philosopher must act as interpreter and where even the philosopher may not be able to do more than give hints towards a true interpretation. We must therefore examine more closely the nature of the meaning which can be attributed to experience, and also that reference of meaning to its origin in mind which was Berkeley's chief concern.

Berkeley laid stress on the arbitrariness of the connexion between a sign and the thing signified. Visible ideas, he thought, have no connexion with tangible objects either by way of resemblance or by way of causation. They may and do serve to bring to our minds tactual experience; but that meaning must have been imposed arbitrarily just as is the connexion between the word table and the object table. In this way the inference to a mind behind the meaning and expressed in it is made easy. But Berkeley was not fully justified in the use he made of this conception of arbitrariness. Strict arbitrariness can be asserted only when a symbol or technical term is deliberately framed for a particular purpose and is selected solely on the ground of its simplicity and convenience in manipulation. Ordinary speech was not framed in this way; both imitation and direct emotional expression entered into its formation, so that the signs have some connexion both causally and by way of resemblance with the things signified. But this connexion does not in any way interfere with their function as signs; what is needed in order that they may serve as a language is simply their habitual suggestion of a definite meaning, or their coming to be deliberately used to express this meaning.

Similarly, Berkeley overstates his case when he argues that sight and touch have nothing in common. It is true that there is little or no resemblance between the visible appearance of a table and its ‘feel’ to the exploring hand. But the senses have been developed from a common origin, and certain lines of correspondence may perhaps be traced throughout the course of this development; so that an emotional rapport is found to exist between the impressions of different senses: Locke's blind man was not so far out when he said that the colour scarlet must be like the sound of a trumpet; both alike have a rousing or stimulating effect. In truth, the presence or absence of resemblance or of causal connexion between the sign and thing signified does not affect the meaning. The word ‘hum’ is not less effective as meaning the sound made by a bee on the wing because it has some resemblance to that sound; nor is the visual impression of a round table less truly a sign of the tactual impression because we are able too trace a causal connexion in the development of the two sense-impressions. On the other hand, the symbol π means the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle without having any connexion with that meaning beyond its ‘arbitrary’ selection for the purpose by one mathematician and its acceptance by others. Meaning is independent both of resemblance and of causal connexion and need not be affected either by their presence or by their absence. It is something beyond the immediate content of the sense-presentation, but it does not follow that it is disconnected causally or otherwise with that content. It is only in the limiting ease of the deliberate selection of a symbol for a particular meaning that we find complete absence of such connexion, and in this limiting case the connexion is brought about by the mediation of the human mind.

The sign, or expression which conveys a meaning, has always some content of its own apart from the meaning or thing signified. Even the mathematical symbol has its visible character on which its convenience depends, so that the formation and selection of symbols is a matter to which anxious care is devoted. And meaning may be conveyed by a portion of experience which has obvious importance of its own apart from this meaning. Visible phenomena, for instance, are not mere symbols of the tactual experiences which they suggest: as Berkeley put it, they form “a magnificent spectacle” as well as an “instructive discourse.” Indeed, the relation of sign and thing signified can often be reversed. The sight of the objects in a room is a sign of the ‘feel’ of them and of the resistance to our movements which we might experience in walking about the room: in this way it is a guide to our activity and has meaning for life. But it is equally true that we may explore a dark room by touch and movement and that our tactual impressions teach us what to expect if the light were turned on tangible phenomena may act as a sign and guide to visual experience, and that will be their meaning in certain circumstances. The relation of sign and thing signified may thus be reversible. The visible appearance means the tangible phenomenon, and the tangible can also mean the visible. The relation in one irreversible direction between a word and the thing or idea it stands for is an inadequate analogy for the wealth of meaning expressed in the world of experience. Further, one bit of experience may be the sign of another, and that of still another, and so on indefinitely. An author expresses a meaning by a series of muscular movements communicated to a pen or pencil; signs are recorded on paper and the document is transmitted to the printer. For the printer it has a meaning, but not the same meaning as it had for the author or will have for the reader. For the printer it is simply ‘copy’; each written letter is for him simply the sign of a corresponding type. Other series of muscular and mechanical movements then ensue, as a result of which the printed book passes into the hands of readers to whom the printed signs convey ideas which more or less resemble those which the author wished to convey in preparing his manuscript. We may trace a causal succession throughout this process, and it has been even sometimes imagined that we might be able to give a purely mechanical description of it. But even if we could do so our understanding of it would remain imperfect. Why this process and not another? we may ask. The whole is a series of stages in expressing and conveying a meaning, from the first movements which fix that meaning in written signs to the later movements which change these signs into others so that the meaning may be more easily and widely apprehended. It begins with a set of ideas which one man wishes to communicate and ends with the apprehension of these ideas by others. What intervenes is a sequence of causes and effects, but it is also a series of signs selected simply for the purpose of conveying the meaning—of acting as an intermediary between the mind of the author and the minds of his readers.

These phenomena which we take as signs of meaning are fashioned by human art; but as we have seen the same process of interpretation may apply to natural phenomena. The presentations of one sense are signs of experiences which the other senses will bring; together they are signs of an orderly objective world in which our lives are passed and our purposes manifested. They reveal the conditions of these purposes and the promise of their fulfilment. All this the environment comes to mean for us. We find in it an orderly procession of events, whose issue is not always plain but is continuously being partially revealed as life progresses. The causal order may itself be said to be part of the meaning which we find in it, but it does not exhaust this meaning. Scientific explanation finds regularity or uniformity in the scattered fragments of sense-experience, and enables us to predict future experience; it is thus itself an interpretation, though an interpretation restricted within definite limits. Beyond these limits we find other indications of meaning. There are still further aspects of experience—beauty in the colours which have been scientifically analysed into vibrations of an elastic medium or molecular changes in neural matter; truth in scientific theorems and elsewhere; faith, heroism, love in the conduct which the psychologist submits to analysis. These are facts of life as certain as the dance of electrons or the principle of the conservation of energy. And they are not separated from the facts of the sensible world; it is only for a limited purpose that they have been distinguished from it. They belong to the complex of our experience, and we can discover their modes of connexion with the other portions of that experience. This connexion is not merely or chiefly an explanation of how these aspects of value arise, or a view of the way in which they are brought out by the process of events and its causal order. They are principles for the interpretation of experience, and supplement the causal principle of explanation. They reveal a meaning in it over and above the regularity and uniformity with which scientific explanation deals. And the order thus disclosed, in accordance with which our experience may be interpreted, is not of the same fashion as the causal order. It is not limited, for example—so we have already found9—by any axiom of conservation. Energy, we are told, is always of the same amount in any isolated physical system: there is no question of more or less. But it is not so with value: its realised amount is subject to the risk of decrease; but it bears also with it the hope of indefinite increase.

When we discover values such as beauty or love or truth in certain events, this is a meaning which the events express to us, and in recognising it we are interpreting them—much in the same way as we interpret the meaning of language. The spoken or written words have no meaning to one who does not understand the language; they need an interpreter. In the same way the difference between the assassin and the saint need not be appreciated by any one who only describes their conduct scientifically from the point of view of the physicist; the physiologist, or perhaps even of the analytic psychologist. It needs interpretation through the divergent values which ruled the two lives. Our understanding of them and of the way in which they differ from one another is not merely a description, nor is it an account of their temporal, spatial, and causal relations; it is an interpretation which discovers the meaning of the facts. In this case and wherever we are dealing with human conduct there is meaning behind the actions, and the observers may discover this meaning. Sometimes they can see it more clearly than it appeared to the agents themselves. It is often so in literature and art. There may be more in the picture or the poem than its maker was conscious of putting into it, as, on the other hand, he may fail fully to convey his meaning owing to imperfect command of his medium. But in all these cases what we have is mind speaking to mind. When we attempt to interpret the non-human environment which lies about us, the same method is followed, but it is beset by greater difficulties. Without giving good reason for the procedure; we cannot appeal to a mind behind the appearances and ask whether the meaning has been rightly read. Even in works of human art this is not always possible, for the artist may have left no clue to his meaning beyond the work itself; but at least we know that it is the work of a mind that resembles our own.

It is here that the difficulty lies in interpreting the world of nature. We can discover the orderly connexion of its phenomena and speak of our generalisations as laws of nature, and repeated experience confirms our theories. But where can we find an objective criterion for any further meaning which we may read in it or into it? Berkeley's reflexions showed that the orderly connexion of sight and touch has significance for our lives, and that they may be looked upon as sign and thing signified. His view was supported by uniform experience, and at first he dealt only with the relation between two sets of phenomena which were on the same plane of experience—both phenomena of sense. But we seek—and he also sought—to go further than this: to connect sense-phenomena with other and higher levels of experience. And here the appeal to uniform experience is less successful. The older teleologists claimed that all things were made for man, and tried to read the purpose of each natural event. But their principle was without objective confirmation, and subjective desire often influenced their interpretation of details. They were apt to take human needs or desires as the standard for interpreting the world; relying on unstable factors in man's nature as the key to the whole mystery, they courted disillusion. There is an echo of the old method of interpretation in the assertion now often made10 that what the philosopher seeks is satisfaction. Even if intellectual satisfaction be meant, the assertion can hardly be taken without qualification. The mind, as Bacon11 said, “is far from being a flat, equal, and clear mirror that receives and reflects the rays without mixture.” The intellect is not only liable to be deflected by the emotions; its own past history may incline it to accept one group of ideas rather than another. Many men receive intellectual satisfaction from something less or something more than truth—from a neat and simple formula, however far short it may fall of nature's subtlety, or from a theory which fits in with preconceived views or with familiar experience. It is not merely satisfaction that is needed, but reasonable justifiable satisfaction; and it is not satisfaction but a rational ground for satisfaction that we should seek. Unless our satisfaction is based upon the nature of reality itself, we are apt to read a wrong meaning into experience—a meaning which experience itself will falsify.

There is more meaning in the world than the orderly connexions which the sciences exhibit. This much is certain. The values, which have been already dealt with, are found by us in the events and order of the world; they are the meaning which the world somehow conveys to us. But mistakes are often made in its interpretation. Are there then any means by which we may guide and test our interpretations, not of particular events only but of the world of experience as a whole? The criteria of moral value have been already discussed in this volume. It remains to consider what criteria there are for an interpretation of the reality which includes moral values as one factor in its constitution.

In the examples of interpretation already given, one portion of experience has always been interpreted by means of another portion of experience; and this must always be our method. We cannot get outside experience altogether and interpret the whole by something beyond it—for there is nothing beyond to which we can appeal. The meaning, of the whole can be found only within the whole. The appeal is always to experience—but to experience in the widest sense of the word. All possible experience must be included, and even our most ordinary interpretations pass beyond the actual event to the future of which it is prophetic. And all the aspects of experience which we can apprehend must be taken into account—not merely the simple fact as it appears to immediate perception of things without or of states of mind, but all the relations of objective order to which thought extends, including the laws of logic, of nature, and of value. These must be included in forming an idea of reality as a whole. Hence we may see how, although the meaning of the whole is not to be found in anything outside, it may yet be possible to arrive at an interpretation of reality by means of those ideas which are partially revealed in it and which have been already shown to possess objective validity. An adequate interpretation will consist in bringing these ideas into their true relation with the realm of existing things. Reality is not separated from existence but it is wider than it, for it includes the ideas through whit the meaning or purpose of existing things may be discerned.

Contents which go beyond immediate experience are always involved in every account which we give of things—whether that account be called a description, an explanation, or an interpretation. And they have been applied to the whole realm of existence. The mechanical, theory of the universe is an account of reality determined by purely logical or mathematical conceptions. Naturalism commonly represents the world as ruled through and through by causal connexion. Such accounts may be valid, so far as their positive features go; but they are not exhaustive. They describe facts, and perhaps they explain how facts come to be as they are: and in doing so they utilise ideas or modes of conceiving whose objective validity we are bound to assume. But there is one range of objectively valid ideas which they do not use in the accounts they give of reality, and that is ideas of value. Yet these ideas also have validity as well as the others, and they may not be excluded if our account of reality is, to be exhaustive. They are required for its completion. Without them we may be able to answer the questions What? and How? But only through them can we expect an answer to the question Why? They reveal purpose as well as order, and make possible a view of reality of the kind which has been described as an interpretation.

The reason which justifies us in applying moral ideas in interpreting the world is similar to that which justifies us in understanding it as an orderly and causal system. Moral ideas are not a system of concepts without relation to existence. They apply directly to conscious agents, and are realised in the lives of those conscious agents—lives which are immersed in a material environment and thus connected with the whole physical universe. Morality, therefore, is connected with the realm of existence. The problem is to show the nature of this connexion. The existing world is the scene on which moral ideas seek manifestation. Can we say that they express the meaning, or part of the meaning, of that world?

On the religious view of the world the answer to this question is not in doubt. There may be doubt and divergence of view as to the special form the interpretation is to take, as to whether, for example, a particular providence may be asserted; but there is always confidence that the purpose of God is expressed in the events of the world. His meaning is made manifest there, however slow we may be to discover it. On this view, therefore, we have clearly the disclosure of mind to mind through a medium which needs interpretation. But this clear view is only possible if we have already reached a conviction of the existence of God. It does not correspond, therefore, with the method of approach in the present argument. We are arguing from experience and the ideas involved in experience to a general conception of reality which may issue in theism, but which does not start with the assumption of theism, Accordingly we have first to decide whether the world does express or convey moral meaning, and only if this question has been decided in the affirmative, may we ask further whether this meaning reveals a Supreme Mind.

The preceding argument has reached this point. We have seen that in reality as a whole moral values are included, and that these moral values have validity for and are manifested in conscious beings. How these values are related to the realm of existence generally—whether we may speak of them as the meaning which the world expresses in its temporal process, and if so, whether this result implies also a theistic view of the universe—these questions remain. What has been established so far is the legitimacy of an interpretation of this sort if it can be shown to fit the facts.

The objections which have been taken to any such interpretation of reality as a whole are mainly two. In the first place, it is said that it is the result of imagination, not of intellectual demonstration, and gives only a fancy-picture of the world, which may have poetic value but is without objective truth. In the second place, it is urged that it is incapable of verification and has therefore no claim to rank with scientific theories. These objections affect any comprehensive or synoptic view of the world, and it is necessary to see how far they are valid.

1. As regards the former objection, it is true that a synoptic view of reality needs imagination in its formation, but it does not follow that it is therefore divorced from logic or that in this respect its method is unscientific. Certainly, logical deduction will not reach to a view of the whole, for deduction is concerned with general truths valid for a class of things, and the object of philosophy is not things in a class but the whole of reality. Even if it be thought that philosophy seeks the universal, then it must be the highest universal—which could not be the conclusion, though it might be the premiss, of a syllogism. Nor can the enquiry be an induction which proceeds from an enumeration of similar cases, for here there are no similar cases: the universe is one, and there are no other universes with which it may be compared. But a world-view is not therefore independent of these processes of discursive thought. It may be arrived at after a long intellectual process. Behind it and contained in it lie efforts after the apprehension of facts and endeavours to form conceptions by which these facts may be described. But it is not a mere transcript of presented facts, and it involves imagination. It does not follow, however, that the idea thus formed is merely a fancy-picture. Science also involves, a similar exercise of the imagination. If we take any scientific theory, such as the atomic theory, or the electrical theory of matter, or a general formula such as the postulate of the conservation of energy, it is evident that all these are a great deal more than simply conceptual transcripts of the facts. They all point to something behind or underlying the facts of experience by which the latter may be understood. The conceptions they use, also, differ from the facts perceived. Atoms, electrical units, energy are concepts, which could not be formed without adding to and taking away from the material immediately presented in perception; and their formation is the work of imagination.

Thus the logical constructions of scientific theory involve imagination. Nothing generically different is required in the formation of a general philosophical theory, although it may have a wider range than the scientific hypothesis, and it may need insight into experience of a different kind. Neither in science nor in philosophy, is the work of imagination a mere flight of fancy. It arises out of insight into experience. Only, in philosophy, it aims at a more complete view of experience and in particular does not ignore its value-aspect as science very properly does. But the validity of the philosophical theory need not be inferior, nor does it refuse to submit to the tests which can be applied to it.

2. This brings us to the second objection—that it is incapable of verification. It is chiefly through its capacity for verification that the scientific hypothesis is held to be distinguished from the philosophical and to attain a higher level of certainty. It is worth while therefore to ask what the nature of scientific verification is and whether it, or any similar process fulfilling the same function, can be applied to a speculative view of reality as a whole.

It is clear that a scientific hypothesis deals with a more limited range of experience than the philosophical, and that it is consequently easier to bring to bear upon it the test of agreement with facts. The facility for verification is certainly all in favour of science, and is one reason for its steady progress. Philosophy, seeking a more comprehensive view, has a more complex task; and there are greater difficulties in applying the appropriate tests. But it does not follow that the nature of these tests is essentially different from those applicable to science.

Scientific verification is of two kinds. A fact may be discovered which is inconsistent with the hypothesis formed, that is, which cannot be explained or described if the hypothesis be true; and as the fact cannot be disputed, the hypothesis must in such a case be relinquished. In this way the refutation of a hypothesis may be effected by the discovery of a single fact inconsistent with it. But the same hypothesis would not have been satisfactorily established if the new fact discovered had been in agreement with it. This would add to the probability of its truth, but it would not, in the strict sense of the word, verify it. This agreement of fact with theory is, however, one kind of verification, as the term is used in scientific method; and, as the facts multiply which agree with the hypothesis, the probability of its truth increases.

But another kind of verification is conceivable, which, when or if attainable, would be of greater importance. Suppose the new fact admitted of one and only one explanation. If it agreed with our hypothesis and disagreed with every other possible hypothesis, then its discovery would be a complete verification of the former. Verification of this kind can be obtained only when every possible hypothesis is before us, so that the new fact can test each of them in turn and refute all but one of them. The method proceeds by exclusion, and its conclusive evidence rests on the assumption that the hypotheses before us are exhaustive—that no other is possible with which also the fact might be found to agree. It is seldom if ever that we can be sure that our list of possible explanations is exhaustive, so that probability nearly always enters to disturb complete confidence in the result. The crucial experiment which decides between two conflicting hypotheses and establishes the truth of one of them proceeds on the assumption that no other alternative explanations than those before us are possible.

Most of the larger generalisations of science admit of verification of the former kind only. They are repeatedly tested by new facts, and our confidence in their validity increases with the range of facts which we find them capable of describing. The general theory of evolution which we owe to Darwin is mainly supported in this way. The same kind of verification is applicable to such a doctrine as that of the conservation of energy. We do not find facts which refute every theory which may imply the increase or disappearance of energy from the physical system. What we do find is that, however extensive and exact our knowledge of facts, we are not compelled to give up the doctrine: within the limits of accuracy of our observations, it is able to describe new facts as well as old. Each extension of our knowledge can be explained in harmony with it. That it describes the facts up to a certain point is certain; but that it is an accurate account of the energy in the physical universe is not proven, though it may be rendered more and more probable by its agreement with an increasing volume of facts.

Of these two kinds of scientific verification one would give certainty if all possible explanations were exhaustively known, while the other and more common form gathers confirmation from agreement with new facts but never reaches proof. Can the philosopher as well as the man of science avail himself of either or both these kinds of verification for the criticism and confirmation of his hypotheses? We are confronted with different theories concerning the ultimate ground or principle of reality, and these theories may be tested by their ability to explain the facts—including under ‘facts’ not only the facts of nature and of personal life but the values found in personal life. We might make a list of these theories, and it is conceivable that all but one of them should be refuted by their inadequacy to describe the facts. It is even possible to obtain a set of facts or ideas which may be used as a crucial test for deciding between two different hypotheses concerning the universal order. The ideas of moral value may be used in this way for the refutation of certain theories. But, as in the case of scientific verification, we cannot claim more than probability for the exhaustiveness of our enumeration of possible hypotheses. We have thus in philosophy, just as we have in science, for the most part to rely on the other method of verification which finds the confirmation of a hypothesis in its ability to yield a consistent explanation of the new facts and classes of facts that are brought to our notice.

The theories about the world which we form have the precision and fixity which are the marks of intellectual conceptions. But our experience is a living growing experience, always producing something new which may be used as a test of the adequacy of the theory. Thus the human consciousness, as it makes its way in the world and seeks to realise its ideals in the environment, produces at every stage in its progress a new challenge to the faith by which it works. The faith has been crystallised into theory; and both faith and theory must meet the challenge. They are tested by their adequacy to this new experience—to the life which is its source. Often in the history of mankind both the theory and the faith which it expresses in intellectual terms have been shattered in contact with the growing forces of life. At other times the faith may remain intact in its spiritual essence, while the doctrinal forms in which it was expressed are proved inadequate and new forms have to be sought.

As a scientific theory is held to be verified by its ability to anticipate sense-perceptions, so a philosophical theory may be verified by its power to anticipate experience of a wider kind. The faith which lies behind the theory may consist in an immediate attitude of the individual mind to the meaning of things as a whole and may inspire not only intellectual ideas but also the activity in which the individual shows himself as an agent in the world's progress. And this faith may find its characteristic vindication in its power not merely to anticipate but even to create experience.

These considerations are only general, but they may suffice to justify the conclusion that philosophy, however its method may differ from the method of science, does not depend upon the employment of some irrational faculty of apprehension and that for it also the final test lies in experience. Only, experience must not be limited to the phenomena presented to sense-perception and their causal connexions; it must include the values which we recognise and which experience may show and the view of reality which we seek is one which will comprehend and harmonise the causal order with the order of values. One way in which this has been attempted is to give a causal explanation of value itself. This is the way of Naturalism; and it is assumed here that the theory of naturalism has failed to justify itself logically. But another way lies open, in which the conception of cause is not taken as the only or the highest conception under which the facts of experience may be grouped. Facts are significant of value, so that we may be led to an interpretation of reality in which the causal explanation, without being discarded, is supplemented by the conception of meaning.

  • 1.

    On the meaning of Cause see below.

  • 2.

    Above, pp. 110 f.

  • 3.

    The Problem of Christianity, vol. II, p. 140.

  • 4.

    Alciphron, dial. iv, § 10; cp. Essay towards a new Theory of Vision, §§ 64–66, 140 ff.

  • 5.

    Siris, § 254.

  • 6.

    Siris, § 253.

  • 7.

    Alciphron, dial. iv, § 14.

  • 8.

    Alciphron, dial. iv, § 11.

  • 9.

    Above, p. 178 f.

  • 10.

    Even by Mr Bradley, Essays on Truth and Reality, p. 317.

  • 11.

    De augmentis, book V, chap. iv; Works, ed. Spedding, vol. I, p. 643.