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Chapter VI: Feeling as a Mode of Participation

I shall start off, today, by going rapidly over the stages that have brought us up against the problem of the nature of feeling.

In our last lecture, our point of departure was a very general question: Who am I? We were led to ask just what connection my being—and by ‘my being’ I mean here just what I would mean by ‘my way of existence’—has with what I call my body. I sought to prove, in regard to two typical notions (my body as a possession of mine, and my body as an instrument of mine), that when I seek to imagine some external relationship between me and my body I am invariably led into a self-contradictory position, that betrays its absurdity by implying an infinite regress. This induced me to assert (in a negative sense, a sense whose main purport was the denial of such external relationships) that I am my body. We noticed, however, the ambiguity of this assertion; it must not be interpreted, in our context, in materialist fashion. I am my body only in so far as for me the body is an essentially mysterious type of reality, irreducible to those determinate formulae (no matter how interestingly complex they might be) to which it would be reducible if it could be considered merely as an object. Let us remind ourselves of exactly what the notion of being an object implies; the body is an object in so far as it can be scientifically known, gives scientific knowledge something solid to get to grips with, and gives a whole range of techniques, from hygiene to surgery, derived originally from scientific knowledge, something equally solid to work upon. It is also obvious, though I did not think it necessary to press home this point in our last lecture, that my body can be an object for me; my situation as an incarnate being implies an ability on my part to consider my body just as if it were any other body whatosever. And it is certainly very necessary that I should be able to consider my body in this detached way; the necessity has a connection with what I said in my fourth chapter about truth, about the intelligible setting or background, against which minds are able to communicate with each other and, I should like to add at this point, with themselves.

So much for body as object: it seems, on the other hand, impossible to insist on what is specifically mine in my body without putting one's emphasis on the notion of feeling as such. Feeling, my feeling, is really what belongs only to me, my prerogative. What I feel is indissolubly linked to the fact that my body is my body, not just one body among others. I am out, let us say, for a walk with a friend. I say I feel tired. My friend looks sceptical, since he, for his part, feels no tiredness at all. I say to him, perhaps a little irritably, that nobody who is not inside my skin can know what I feel. He will be forced to agree, and yet, of course, he can always claim that I am attaching too much importance to slight disagreeable sensations which he, if he felt them, would resolutely ignore. It is all too clear that at this level no real discussion is possible. For I can always say that even if what he calls ‘the same sensations’ were felt by him and not by me, still, they would not really be, in their new setting, in the context of so many other sensations and feelings that I do not share, the same sensations; and that therefore his statement is meaningless.

But here we are up against a difficult question, a question that one has a tendency to dodge. What, after all, is feeling, and what makes it possible for us to feel?

We have already noticed that in trying to grasp what I mean when I talk of my body as something felt, or of myself having the feeling of my body, I run into difficulties. It does seem that I must postulate the body as the necessary instrumental condition of bodily feeling, unless, on the other hand, I am willing to admit that feeling is something that cannot be given an instrumental base, that it is by its nature irreducible to the functioning of an apparatus.

We may see our way more clearly here if we change the terms of our question and ask ourselves what makes it possible for us, not merely vaguely to feel, but more precisely to have sensations. How is sensation in general a possibility? (I am taking up here an argument that I developed formerly in my first Metaphysical Diary and rather later, merely in a more elaborate but not in an essentially altered form, in my essay, Existence and Objectivity.)1

In so far, then as we cling to the data of primary reflection, we cannot help thinking of sensation as some stimulus sent from an unknown source in outer space and intercepted by what we call a ‘subject’, but a subject, in this case, thought of objectively, that is, as a physical receiving apparatus; in other words we think of sensation on the model of the emission and reception of a message. It is difficult, almost impossible, for a mind at the stage of primary reflection to deny that what is sent out at point x (that is to say, somewhere or other), then transmitted through space under conditions of which physics claims to give us an intelligible picture, is finally received and transcribed by the sensitive subject—transcribed, of course, in the key of the sense concerned. In short, we can hardly avoid thinking of sensation as the way in which a transmitter and a receiver communicate with each other and in this case—as in that of telepathy, to which we shall come back later—the imaginary model that conditions our thinking is that of a system of radio telegraphy. Let us notice, however, that the communication between emission post and reception post will be conceived, and even imagined, in a quite different manner, according to whether one does or does not adhere to a panpsychist doctrine—a doctrine that leaves, clouds, stones, roses, too, have in a sense their souls—like, for instance, that of Feschner. Those who reject panpsychism will not be willing to admit that more than one of the posts (the reception post, in fact) knows itself for what it is. The emission post, on this theory, does not know that it is an emission post, and is only grasped as such at the reception post. The rose and the stone are such for us, and not for themselves. They send out no conscious message. The panpyschists on the other hand (who are certainly a much smaller party) believe that the emission post itself already has a certain awareness, however tenuous or diffuse one may suppose it to be, of the message which it is addressing to us. The most suggestive example might be that of an odour, ascent; between the flower-bed whose scents are now reaching me and my own organism, something is travelling, something is being transmitted to me, which the physicist would consider to be a mere shaking pattern of waves; but for the panpsychist, at the beginning of this journey between the flower-bed and my nose, something must already exist, a smell not yet smelt, which must, in its essential nature, be comparable to an element of actual awareness, comparable, perhaps, to a confused joy at mere existence.

But what everybody admits, without asking how this is possible, is that this shaking of the atmosphere once it reaches its destination, my nose, is translated into the language, or transcribed in the key, of the sense of smell. What we must notice very carefully is that, for an investigation of our sort, this is the only thing that matters. The conjectures, the finally unverifiable conjectures, on the original nature of such a thing as a smell—on what it is, in itself, before we smell it—pass beyond the limits of the phenomenological method. It would be only from a strictly ontological point of view that one would be led to take up a position for, or against, the panpsychist hypothesis. It must therefore, fascinating as it may be in itself, no longer detain our attention; and in any case, if there is such a thing as the presence of the flower to the flower itself—a wavering, ghostly presence, one imagines it!—perhaps it would reveal itself only to the intuition of a poet. On the other hand, for the purposes of our own more prosaic investigation, it is of the greatest importance that we should ask ourselves whether there is any point at all in telling ourselves this little story about a so-called message (and the alleged origins of the message are irrelevant) which is transcribed in the key, or translated into the language, of the senses. Just as in our last chapter we probed critically at the notion of the body as an instrument, so we must now probe at the notion of sensation as transcription or translation of a message; and following a path now well known to us, we shall arrive, naturally enough, at a familiar kind of destination.

What does translation really consist of? Of the substitution of a set of given elements for another set of given elements, at least partly different in kind; however many differences there may be between the two sets, we should specially notice that both sets must be objective, that is, fully accessible to the mind. This is as true of the simple rendering of a piece of plain prose out of one language into another as of the deciphering of a cryptogram. In both cases, the translator must have access to a code, even though in the former case the code is nothing more than an ordinary dictionary. In the code the elements of both sides of the transaction, equated with each other, are fully accessible to the mind.

Now in the case of sensation, just nothing at all of this sort, or even remotely comparable to this, takes place. If I want to exercise the activity of a translator, I must start with a given something to work on, the text I am to translate from. This is a sort of prior datum: but the physical event prior to sensation, which I am supposed to be translating into the language of sensation, cannot be said to be a datum of mine in any sense whatsoever. If we do not at first acknowledge this fact, it is because we are spellbound by physical science's picture of some distant stimulus travelling towards the organism and shaking it up, and we confuse that conceptual picture with the fact of having an objective datum. What we are really doing is to project, in physical terms, the mysterious relationship which the term datum implies. But if we feel we must be more stringent in our reasoning than this, we are soon caught in a dilemma: either on the one hand, we must acknowledge that the physical event as such is not a datum of ours, is not, whatever modifications it may exercise on our bodies in so far as the latter too are considered in a purely objective fashion, literally given to us in any sense at all, in which case it seems impossible that this non-given physical event should ever be transformed into sense data; or on the other hand we shall have to bridge the gap between physical events and sense data by postulating the existence of an intermediary order of sensibilia, or unsensed sensa—of things that are like sensations in all respects, except that nobody is aware of them. This way out of our difficulty will not stand up to critical examination. At the most, it pushes our troubles one stage farther back. How are we to understand the notion of a sensation which is a sensation in all respects, except that nobody is aware of it? If we stick to the general lines of the interpretation we started with, we shall have to treat the unsensed sensum as itself a message sent out from an emission post (but missing, in this case, its destination at the reception post), and then we are back where we started. Or, on the other hand, we can, of course, treat the unsensed sensum, or the sensibilium, as something primary and unanalysable; in that case, of course, it cannot be a message, and so the interpretation of sensation we started with has foundered. Moreover, if we have technically solved our problem in this latter instance, we have done so, quite obviously, by a piece of trickery; the sensibile or unsensed sensum, whose existence we are assuming as our starting point, is something about whose nature, by the very notion of the thing, nobody can know anything at all.

But is there any way at all, then, out of this labyrinth? Secondary reflection is forced to recognize that our primary assumptions must be called in question, and that sensation, as such, should certainly not be conceived on the analogy of the transmission and reception of a message. For, and this is our basic reason for rejecting the analogy, every kind of message, however transmitted or received, presupposes the existence of sensation—exactly in the way in which, as we have already seen, every kind of instrument or apparatus presupposes the existence of my body.

Let us see, now, if we can form a less strictly negative idea of the conclusions to which our argument has led us, always bearing in mind that what we are looking for is an answer to the question that started us off on our enquiries into body, feeling, and sensation: the question, ‘Who am I?’ on which, of course, there depends the other question of what exactly I mean when I ask who I am.

Every transmission of a message, indeed every instrumental act of any sort at all, can be regarded as a kind of mediation. By mediation, of course, I mean, here, in the broadest sense, any operation at all that consists of reaching some final terminus by making use of intermediary stages. We are talking about mediation whenever we use such phrases as ‘by means of’, ‘by way of’, ‘passing through’, ‘at the present stage’, and so on.

From the point of view of pure thought, as Hegel saw with incomparable strength and clarity, everything that is immediate can be considered as mediatizable ad infinitum; and this is true above all of the two determinants that constitute immediate experience as such, the ‘here’ and the ‘now’. ‘Here’, when I say, ‘Here I am’, is a particular determinate spatial locus which, by definition, has its place in the infinite network of determinate spatial loci in general: ‘now’, similarly, when I say, ‘Now I see it’, is a moment of time which is strictly bound up with all the other moments of time. This does not, of course, imply that this great network of loci and moments, or, as an English philosopher like Lord Russell would say, of point-instants, forms in itself an exhaustive whole, forms, for instance, our complete universe of rational discourse; that, to my mind, is a meaningless hypothesis. No, what we have to acknowledge is merely that the privilege which, from the point of view of my immediate experience, attaches itself to the ‘here’ and to the ‘now’ cannot be justified from the point of view of pure thought.

But as soon as we bring into the argument my body, in so far as it is my body, or the feeling which is not separable from my body as mine, our perspective changes, and we have to recognize the need to postulate the existence of what I will call a non-mediatizable immediate, which is the very root of our existence. This is a very difficult notion; and intelligence must simply bombard this non-mediatizable immediate with its rays if we are to have more than a dark and groping awareness of its whereabouts. Yet this notion is the only means available to us of overcoming, at least in principle, all the difficulties we have come up against in our previous lectures.

Let us note that we are now in a better position to give a content to what we formerly said about my certitude, ‘I exist’, being a sort of touchstone, for me, of existence in general. Our temptation, when this argument was first brought up, may have been to consider this ‘I exist’ as a sort of kernel of subjective certitude—and yet such a subjective certitude would not, after all, would it, have taken us beyond the limits of idealism? It would remain an open question whether a real existence did, in fact, correspond to this subjective consciousness of existence. But this temptation is no longer a possible temptation for us once we have passed beyond the interpretation of sensation as the transmission and reception of a message. For it should be very clear that solipsism remains at least a menace so long as we insist on interpreting sensation as the translation or transcription of a message sent out from an emission post whose nature, and indeed whose very existence, had to remain in doubt. On the ground on which we now stand the case is quite altered, and that is what I want to make as clear as possible.

Fundamentally, we are in the situation of a man who has just perceived that the key with which he hoped to open a certain door will not, after all, fit into the lock. He must therefore try another key, try, that is, to interpret feeling and sensation in another language, a non-instrumentalist language. Yet let us be wary and let us notice that the term ‘interpretation’ is itself a highly ambiguous one. I am awakened, let us say, in the middle of the night by an unaccustomed noise. My imagination, startled into activity, suggests the most frightening hypothesis that can be: is it not a burglar who has just broken his way into the house? But I suddenly remember that one of my fellow lodgers warned me he would be home very late. I feel immediately reassured, I have interpreted, and in a sense even liquidated, the disturbing unusual sensation. In so far as I am an active being, whose activity must get to work on well-defined objects each with its proper place and unmistakable label, this is the kind of interpretation that I have need of in my everyday life. I might have had to look for a pistol and to face the thief, or simply to phone the police; happily, these unpleasant possibilities remained mere possibilities; I need only go to sleep again.

But the kind of interpretation with which we are concerned is essentially not only different from but, in a way, even opposed to this practical, everyday kind of interpretation; it has to do, for instance, in such a case as this, with the fact that I was able to be awakened so abruptly—and all to no purpose, indeed! How was that possible? Of course, in so far as we remain at a purely descriptive level of discourse, a physical explanation might seem to hold good; I am an extremely sensitive physical apparatus and I was shaken up by the noise of a window opening; but on the other hand, when I talk of this physical apparatus, it is not really about myself that I am talking, and it is impossible to make it and me completely coincide. It is for this reason that we have to bring in the notion of what I have called elsewhere an existential immediate, that is to say, of something I am. Perhaps we might say, to clear up this difficulty at least negatively, that we are dealing here with something that cannot be treated as a thought-content; every thought-content gives rise to mediations and is a thought-content only through mediations. I will be coming back to the topic later, but it may be useful here to anticipate a point I shall make in my ninth chapter: namely, that everything becomes much clearer if one brings in the idea of what I have called one's exclamatory awareness of existence. For there is something in the exclamation—in the ‘O!’, the ‘Oh!’, the ‘Ah!’, the ‘Ugh!’, the ‘Ah, me!’, the ‘Alas!’—that transcends any thought-content which can be inserted into it.

All this being so, it seems that the key for which I shall be looking to open my door will be, in the widest sense, the idea of participation—sharing, taking part in, partaking of. The importance of the idea of participation was clear to me even in the days of my earliest philosophical gropings, before the first World War; and the idea plays a leading part, also, in the work of a French philosopher who is a contemporary of mine, Louis Lavelle. All the same, at the very outset we run up against a difficulty here, for we have got to take care that participation itself should not—like our former inadequate analogies of the instrument and the message—be conceived in objective terms. Here, as elsewhere, we have to deal with a sort of graduated scale. At one end of the scale we have what is objective, what can be possessed. A cake is brought in, I claim my share of it; it is only as something that is objectively in front of me, that can be weighed and measured, that the cake can be sliced or that the cake even exists. Let us add, that if I claim my own slice in a peremptory fashion, it is very probably to eat it, but that it may be not to consume it at once, but to store it away somewhere, and it may be even to give it to someone as a present. But there are cases in which the meaning of the verb ‘to consume’ is by no means so precise. For instance, if I claim my share of a collection of pictures, consuming my pictures, in that case, can strictly mean looking at them. Possibly, if I have the soul of a gambler in stocks and shares, my chief desire is to hang on to the pictures until I can throw them into the market at some favourable moment, when their value will have sufficiently risen; possibly, also, it is not myself but my son who is to make this financial kill; in such a case my share in the pictures is an ideal share, and it is very strikingly so if, for instance, I allow the pictures to remain provisionally in somebody else's house. However, though we can work out all sorts of variations on this example, underlying all of them there remains the objective character of what has to be shared. My participation in the ownership of the pictures remains, in spite of everything, my share in a share-out. But participation need not always have this character. We have only to think of what it means to participate, not in the ownership of something, but in some ceremony. In general, to speak of participating in a ceremony means that one is one of a number of people present at it, but such participation can also have an ideal character. I can, for instance, though tied to a sick-bed, associate myself with this ceremony through prayer. Let us say, to make our image more precise, that it is a ceremony of thanksgiving to God for the end of some national calamity, an epidemic or a war.

What, in a case of this sort, is objectively given to me? Very little, perhaps merely an announcement in the papers or on the radio that the ceremony in question is going to take place, and at what time, and at which church. Yet the obstacle created by my illness does in such a case appear to me as quite contingent and even, in the last analysis, as non-existent. What can it matter to God whether I am physically present or not in such and such a church? What can the place where I happen to be matter to Him, since it is for reasons independent of my will that I have not been able to come to church? Naturally, of course, if I had been well enough to come to church with a rather painful effort, and if I had refused to make that effort, my refusal would on the contrary have a definite significance, a negative bearing.

But we can erase from our minds, in imagining such an example, the strictly objective element that is still represented by the announcement of the ceremony in question in the press or on the radio. I do not really need to know that at a given time and a given place such and such an office of thanksgiving will be celebrated. This thanksgiving ceremony is, after all, only a particular expression of an act of adoration with which I can associate myself, through prayer, at any moment. Thus we arrive at the notion of an act of participation which no longer leaves any place for the objectivity of a datum or even of a notification. Let us notice also that the whole question of the number of people participating has ceased to be relevant. It is not only that in this last case I am no longer interested in knowing how many of us, at a given moment, are participating in the act of adoration, whereas in our former case we were concerned with a ceremony held at a particular church at which a determinate number of persons were present; but it is also that in this last case I cannot be sure that the question of how many people are joining in the act of adoration has any meaning—it has at least, I am sure no bearing at all. The more all of us who are praying at the same moment are genuinely melted into a single love, the less significance, obviously, the question of how many of us there may be really has. Melted, I say: for nevertheless it is not as if I were alone any more, I do really feel myself strangely strengthened by the fact that it is a multitude who are turning at one moment towards Him whom we adore.

I have lingered over this example because it does seem to give us a real glimpse of what non-objective participation means. We ought to linger, also, over this idea of non-objectivity itself; enphasizing its value, enphasizing the fact that it is the condition of the reality of participation itself. All this, no doubt, will become clearer in the sequel.

It will perhaps be observed, and justly observed, that even this non-objective participation does presuppose an idea on which it depends (the idea of God, in our last example); however indistinct and unspecific from the point of view of its metaphysical attributes that idea may be. This, as I say, is true, and it is in fact only by virtue of the idea that participation emerges; the idea, around which non-objective participation becomes possible, is itself the principle of the emergence of participation. But can we not also conceive of a kind of participation which is not emergent but, so to say, submerged? And is it not within the power of reflection to turn back towards that level of submerged participation once it has reached the emergent level, the level illuminated by thought? Our point here is whether the very existence of feeling, as such, does not bear witness to the reality of this level of submerged participation; it is on this question that we must now concentrate.

Here, as elsewhere, our thought seems to come up against the obstacle of its own tendency to represent things to itself in physical terms, in images, metaphors, models, analogies; but we should be proving ourselves all the more certainly the slaves of material comparisons, if we supposed that all thought has to do is to blast such obstacles out of its way, as one blasts a rock when building a road. Our situation here is far more complicated. Our picture of participation as submerged in a sort of sea and then emerging from it into the light of thought cannot be treated as a sort of intrusive foreign body, a mote in thought's eye; thought has given us the image, and therefore it is only by reshaping itself that thought can escape from the image. Secondary reflection, as we have already said, is merely this sort of inner reshaping, and indeed this inner reshaping is also what takes place when we wish to attain to participation. At the outset we are still obsessed, in spite of everything, by the visible shape that participation takes, and we fail to realize that this shape is not what really matters. What matters is a sort of inner bias of which we cannot, really, make a picture. To understand this bias, it is enough to imagine, as vividly as one can, how it is with a person who desires very strongly to take part in a certain task, a self-testing task—and who does not particularly desire to take his share of some objectivized good which can be more or less properly compared to a cake cut in slices. No doubt, from the point of view of the psychologist, it is still quite possible to depreciate and belittle this desire to take one's share in a task. It will be said, for instance, that what I desire above all is to be well thought of by others and that I should not be well thought of if I sat back with my arms folded while other people were working. But really to say this is merely to push the problem one stage back; we can then ask the psychologist why I bother so much about being well thought of by others? Only a very stupid person would reply that I bother about it because being well thought of entails material advantages, and that it is these I am really interested in.

For it may well be that, by insisting on taking part in some self-testing task, I expose myself not only to suffering but to death; and this, if I am not a believer, without my being sustained by any hope of being rewarded in heaven. Let us notice also that there are historical situations, of which the last war was one, in which this will to participate in some dangerous task can be exercised against, as it were, the very grain of the individual's given social background. Very generally indeed, we can say that these aspects of human experience which we can least easily set aside we can also least easily explain, unless we reserve a very important place, and perhaps even a central place, in human nature, for the will to participate. But—and this is what matters, at this point in our argument—this will to participate is itself metaphysically possible only on the basis of a kind of human consensus (and a consensus, of course, is literally merely a common feeling about something, and so by definition is something felt, rather than something thought); one might add that this consensus could only become intellectually articulate to itself at the cost of a tremendous effort.

Where it is a matter, of course, of some large human undertaking, a war or a revolution, the statement of group feeling in intellectual terms is possible; there are appeals, exhortations, statements of a case. But such rationalizations of a consensus are only a single aspect of a much vaster reality which undoubtedly transcends the order of mere relationships between persons. Think, for instance, of the incredibly strong link that binds the peasant to the soil. Nothing could be wider of the facts than to attribute to this link an exclusively utilitarian character—than to say that the peasant is attached to the soil only because of what he can get out of it, or because his holding assures him a certain independence which he values, and so on. The peasant's attachment to the soil is something that transcends utility, that transcends gain. To feel the truth of this, we have only to think of the peasant who has sold his holding and his stock and has settled down in the city, living with his children who work there. Let us allow, even, that his children are fond of him and show their fondness. Materially, no doubt, this man is better off than he was in the past; but he does not succeed in adapting himself to his new life, he suffers from a kind of incurable internal bleeding. This is a favourite subject with French novelists, and has been very well treated, for instance, by Charles Louis-Philippe in Le Père Perdrix.

It seems legitimate to suppose that in searching more deeply into the nature of this link between the peasant and the soil, or between the sailor and the sea, for that matter, we are placing ourselves at a more favourable point of vantage for grasping what participation means and for seeing, at the same time, in what the specific nature of feeling consists.

In this connection, indeed, I would like to make the point that for a philosophical approach like ours, which is essentially a concrete rather than an abstract approach, the use of examples is not merely an auxiliary process but, on the contrary, an essential part of our method of progressing. An example, for us, is not merely an illustration of an idea which was fully in being even before it was illustrated. I would rather compare the pre-existing idea to a seed; I have to plant it in the genial soil that is constituted by the example before I can really see what sort of a seed it is; I keep a watch on the soil to see what the seed grows up into.

We have thus progressed, and progressed is indeed the proper word, towards a concept of real participation which can no longer be translated into the language of outer objects. It is perfectly clear that the soil to which the peasant is so passionately attached is not something about which he can really speak. We can say that the peasant's soil transcends everything that he sees around him, that it is linked to his inner being, and by that we must understand not only to his acts but to his sufferings. The contrast between the soil experienced in this way as a sort of inner presence, and anything that a landscape may be to the amateur of beauty who appreciates it and who selects a few epithets from his stock to pin down its salient notes, is surely as deep and as firmly rooted as could be. On the other hand, we could properly speak of participation (though it is quite another form of participation, of course) in such a landscape, in connection with its appreciation by a real artist, particularly by a painter, of participation just to the degree in which the painter is authentically creative; and no doubt we shall later on have an opportunity to emphasize the intimate relationship that exists between participation and the creative spirit.

In our remark about the presence of the soil being linked, for the peasant, both to his acts and his sufferings, we have already had occasion to note that effective participation transcends the traditional opposition between activity and passivity; participation can be considered now as active, now as passive, according to the point of view at which we place ourselves. This is probably true in all cases of participation, except for the limiting case where to participate means merely to receive a share, a fragment of a certain given whole—but it is impossible, on the other hand, to participate with all one's being in an undertaking, a task, even in a casual adventure, without having, to some degree at least, the feeling that one is being carried along, buoyed up by an outer current; and this no doubt is the indispensable condition without which the individual who is participating in some enterprise would not be able to endure its fatigues—fatigues under which he would certainly succumb if he were acting only on his own behalf.

But these remarks have their relevance also to what has been said above about feeling. In spite of what an empiricist materialism has said, and has said for such a long time, feeling is not passive. Feeling is not suffering; to feel is merely to receive, but on the express condition that we restore to the notion of receptiveness a positive value of which philosophers have generally sought to deprive it. As I have often had occasion to remark in the past, it does seem as if Kant was guilty of a gross confusion when he admitted, without argument, that receptiveness was a kind of passivity. Receptiveness is not passive except in the limiting case, to which the empiricism of the eighteenth century recurred so eagerly, of a piece of hot wax receiving an impress from a seal. But the general notion of receiving, when one looks at it more closely, is very different from this. In a previous work of mine, Du Refus à l'Invocation, I have written ‘I will postulate it as an axiom that one cannot speak of reception (nor, in consequence, of receptiveness) except having regard to a certain prior orientation of the feelings or ordering of the mind. One receives a guest in a room, in a house, or, in the strict limiting case, in a garden; but not in a wide undefined wasteland nor in the depths of a forest’. In the same passage, I emphasized the metaphysical value that attaches, or rather that should be attached, in the French language to the preposition chez, our equivalent of the Latin apud: there is no exact equivalent in English, you have to use at and the possessive case, ‘at So-and-so's’. ‘There is no point in using chez except in relation to a self, which may, moreover, be some other self than one's own: and by a self I mean someone about whom we must at least suppose that he is able to say, “Myself,” to see himself or to be seen as a self in the first person.… And it is also necessary—it is even the essential point that this self should regard a certain domain as properly his.’ I do not know whether this point comes over very strikingly in English: but when one says ‘at Smith’ s’, for instance, that does imply that Smith is at his own centre, and that I can be aware of him as being at his own centre, not at mine, and also that Smith, to be Smith adequately, does need his own proper place that he can be at. Here, anyway, we touch again on what I said in the last lecture about having—about ownership or possession in the widest sense—and about its deep roots in feeling.

In point of fact, we shall not be able to have a real concept of participation unless we first of all emphasize everything that chez, in such a phrase as chez soi (the equivalent of the German Bei-sich-sein) implies; and what it implies, we should notice, is not at this point anything at all like pour soi. (Again, it is difficult to express this in English idiom: it is so obvious that ‘at Smith's’ does not imply ‘for Smith’, ‘for Smith alone’, ‘for Smith's sole sake’, or anything of that sort, that the point seems hardly worth making.) But if to receive is, in the widest sense, to receive chez soi—to receive in one's own prepared place of reception—then to receive (and do not let us forget that feeling as a kind of receptiveness is what we are talking about) is also in a sense to welcome, and welcoming is not something passive, it is an act. The term ‘responsiveness’ is probably our least inadequate way of designating the activity we have in mind; we think of responsiveness as contrasting with that inner inertia which is insensibility or apathy.

But can we, it will be asked, trace this elementary responsiveness to its sources? I think we must say categorically that such a backward exploration is impracticable, that any attempt to deduce the simple fact of responsiveness from more fundamental and even simpler facts must be condemned in advance. Responsiveness must be treated as given.

But in that case, do we not find ourselves faced with an irreducible duality between what is non-sentient, non-responsive, and what, on the other hand, participates, to however feeble a degree, in that huge consensus which is, in fact, nothing other than existence itself? It does seem, at least, that what we ought first of all to observe as clearly as possible is the radical difference of kind between what is non-responsive and what is responsive to however feeble a degree, though this difference, of course, is relevant not so much to how something really is constituted in itself as to how it presents itself to us. Our experience does not provide us with the evidence that would allow us to decide what the inner nature of something that presents itself to us as non-sentient really is. We are, in fact, in the case of non-sentient things reduced to the categories of activity and passivity, we can no longer, as in the case of what is sentient, transcend these; what is non-sentient comes before us as an obstacle or, in other cases, to be sure, as a springboard, and it might be added that these two aspects of the non-sentient world are in the last analysis complementary to each other. The mountain that crushes me with the fall of its avalanche is the same mountain into the side of which I can dig a quarry.

It might seem, perhaps, that I have only to reflect upon the conditions under which a determinate being could intrude himself into this non-sentient world in order to rediscover the notion of participation as I have been striving to define it. But the difficulty, here again, is that we cling to the physical picture, and this because science, by definition, cannot transcend the limits of the physical picture. In reality, the science of embryology, pushed, for instance, to a point of perfection which today we can hardly imagine, would still be quite unable to throw any light at all upon the particular problem we have been discussing. All that embryology can do is to describe the manner in which an apparently elementary structure progressively becomes more complex. We ought not, in this connection, to underestimate the usefulness of films which, showing, for instance, a speeded-up version of the growth of a flower throughout a whole season, enable us to grip together in a sort of intuitive synthesis a process of development which has been, as it were, stretched thin across time. But what such films can never do is to enable us to grasp the inner drive of which the rapid efflorescence we see before our eyes is merely the outward show.

Such films, it is worth noticing, provide two separate kinds of stimulus. In the scientific technician, they awaken a desire to reproduce in the laboratory what is happening before his eyes on the screen, that is, to manufacture life. The artist, on the other hand, is very far from being fascinated, as the biological technician is, by a preparatory process; he is interested in the final form which that process subserves, in the full-blown flower. He, too, but in a quite different way, envisages the possibility of making that form live again, by recreating it with his brush or chisel. But it does not look as if these two opposite kinds of stimulus can be resolved in a higher unity; they are like the inside and outside of a glove; the artist's ambition is possible only at the level of participation, while the technician's, on the other hand, in some sense implies a refusal to participate, a blank negation. His ambition consummates a purpose which, from the religious point of view, or, more precisely, from the point of view of any vision at all of the world as holy, must be considered sacrilegious.

The key, of course, to the scientist's purpose is the idea that every phenomenon is the product of a certain given set of conditions. In his laboratory he hopes to reconstitute the set of conditions, however complex they may be, which, once they are fully reconstituted, cannot fail to give rise to the phenomenon he is after, life. In other words, he seeks to start off a mechanically fated chain-reaction; and, of course, in enumerating the conditions that have made it possible for him to manufacture his phenomenon he systematically discounts the huge mental toils, the plodding, methodical research, of himself and others. It is material conditions only that he is interested in. Thus, by a singular contradiction, he succeeds in convincing himself and, of course, attempts to persuade others, that he has arrived at the real origin of his phenomenon; and he sets out to demonstrate that everything in the universe runs perfectly smoothly by itself, without any creative power at any time intruding. It is against belief in such intrusion, indeed, that the technician, strictly speaking, takes his stand; his hybris lies precisely in an intention which is like that of a religious propagandist, with the propaganda turned inside out.

In the artist's case, however, there is no such intention. In his mental world, such notions as condition, origin, original condition, and so on, have no proper place; this is to say, if we go into it more deeply, that for the artist, as such, the problem of how creatures and things have gradually developed into what we see them to be today is not a matter of any interest at all. It is in the present form of things that he is interested. But just, strangely enough, to the degree to which he is not interested in such fundamental problems, he is a citizen of that kingdom of participation from which one exiles oneself as soon as one seeks to rediscover life's source or to play the drama of Genesis over again in the laboratory.

I have emphasized, in another work,2 the necessity of distinguishing between man as a spectator and man as a participator, but I must confess that this distinction has latterly, in my own thinking, begun to lose some of its point; at least it is clear now to me that it is an inadequate distinction, and that the notion of the spectator is an ambiguous notion. The spectator is present on the scene, his dominating motive is a curiosity which has no touch of anxiety, still less of anguish, about it, for he knows very well that he is not himself caught up in anything that is happening on the stage; however bloody the conclusion of the tragedy may be, he feels sure that he himself can leave the theatre peacefully, catch his bus or his tube, and arrive home in time for a cup of tea, having, on the way home, brushed away whatever emotions the play may have aroused in him, rather as one brushes dust off a coat. And this, of course, is an attitude of mind which does not belong exclusively to the spectator in the actual theatre. During the first World War, it was still pretty much the attitude of plenty of people in neutral countries, who watched that war, from their safe seats, as if it had been a boxing match or a bullfight. In distinguishing between homo spectans and homo particeps, I wanted to put my emphasis on the fact that in the latter case there is self-commitment, and in the former there is not. But I was wrong not to have taken into account the case of contemplation, for the contemplative is certainly somebody essentially different from the sort of spectator to whom a war, from a safe distance, is a stimulating spectacle, and at the point we have reached now it is important to see where the difference between the two lies.

It seems to me now that the spectator, in the ordinary sense of the word, makes as if to participate without really participating; he has emotions which are superficially similar to those of people who really are committed to some course of action or other, but he knows very well that in his case such emotions have no practical outcome. In other words he is the playground for a game of make-believe or let's-pretend, a game, however, which, as children know, is not really enjoyable unless the beliefs and the pretences are taken, for the time being at least, fairly seriously. It is this game of at least half-serious voluntary self-deception that enemies of the theatre, like Tolstoy, no doubt intended to condemn. But mock-belief of this sort is, of course, something quite alien to contemplation properly so called; and it is perhaps because we have become infected by the stage and the screen in one way, and by the attitude of the technician in a quite other way, that contemplation today has become something so extremely foreign to us that we find it hard to get even a glimpse of its real nature. I would like, in passing, to add that it is impossible not to ask oneself whether this almost complete vanishing away of the contemplative activity in the modern world has not something, at least, to do with the terrible evils from which mankind is suffering; and it may be that the discovery of this connection between the presence of evil and the absence of contemplation will turn out to be one of the most important results of this volume and its successor.

Without attempting, at this point, to go really deeply into the matter, we cannot, even now, fail to see that the relation of the contemplative activity to time—not to time in general, so much as to duration, to the concrete time of human experience—is something quite different from the relationship to time implied by the attitude of the spectator. Contemplation utterly excludes curiosity: which is to say, in other words, that contemplation is not orientated towards the future. It is just as if for contemplation the temporal polarities of past and future—which are always relative in any case, since what has been the future is always becoming the past—had lost their meaning or, at the very least, lost all their practical relevance. Time, for contemplation, is nothing if it is not present time; the whole topic requires a deeper analysis, but what we can press home, even at this point, is that contemplation is a possibility only for somebody who has made sure of his grip on reality; for somebody who floats on the surface of reality, or who, as it were, skims over the thin ice of that surface on skates, for the amateur or the dilettante, the contemplative act is inconceivable. And we can already divine that the ascesis, the discipline of the body, which in all ages and for all religions has been held necessary if the soul is to be made capable of contemplation, amounts precisely to a set of steps which, to certain spirits, appear simply as having to be taken, if the soul is to strengthen its grip on the real.

We may conclude from all this, and it is a very important conclusion, that contemplation, in so far as it cannot be simply equated with the spectator's attitude and in a deep sense is even at the opposite pole from that attitude, must be considered as a mode of participation, and even as one of participation's most intimate modes. But, on the other hand, a true artist, a Vermeer, a Corot, a Hokusai, is also a contemplative—he is anything but a superficial spectator and nothing if not a deep participant—only in his case contemplation embodies itself in visible works. We shall have, perhaps, to ask ourselves later whether in the saint's case, too, contemplation does not embody itself—but in those invisible works, which are sanctity's very fruits!

But what at once complicates and darkens our whole quest is that the technician, as such, cannot be lined up, either with the spectator—that should be obvious—nor, or at least so it seems to me, with the properly creative spirit. In other words, does not the traditional notion of homo faber, man the craftsman, man the tool-making animal, mask an ambiguity to which we must discover the clue? I think we shall hit, in this connection, on a way of handling our topic that is not without affiliations to Bergson's distinction between intelligence and instinct. But I shall take care, in my handling of the topic, not to extrapolate as Bergson did, and not to deliver myself of rash speculations about the nature of instinct in animals. It is exclusively at the level of thought, that is to say, of human knowledge, that it seems to me either necessary or possible to follow out this line of investigation.

  • 1.

    Printed as an appendix to the Journal.

  • 2.

    Etre et Avoir, p. 25.