You are here

Lecture XV: Interest and Values

As has already been pointed out repeatedly in these lectures, conscious behaviour implies that the world of our conscious experience is inseparably coordinated, not only in respect to space-relations, but also in respect to time-relations. This means that our world is not a mere biological world, but a world of developing interest manifesting itself in separately distinguishable values. In the present lecture I propose to consider generally the nature and extent of interest and values.

In a universe conceived merely physically or merely biologically, no account is taken of interest and values. Thus though for a physical universe regarded in the light of Einstein's conception, space-relations cannot be separated from time-relations, no account is taken of any essential connexion or co-ordination existing among events in the space-time medium, or the “distortions” in it. The matter and events in it are mere separate bodies and events. From the psychological standpoint of interest and values the criticism on such a world is that it fails to represent the world as it is perceived. If, in other words, there is a universe of mere separate bodies, events, and distortions in a space-time medium which isolates them, it is not our universe, and has no relation to the universe as perceived. Nor does a world which is only biologically interpreted represent the universe as perceived. Neither the physically interpreted nor the biologically interpreted universe is more than an abstraction from the universe we perceive.

The interest and values revealed in perception and conscious action are, in appearance, very complex and different in kind. Let us first consider what may at first sight appear to be merely individual interest, unconnected with what are interests not centred in ourselves alone. The conception of what is called “physical well-being” may perhaps seem to express individual interest. We are interested in the maintenance through the future of conditions which from past experience we know to be essential to the maintenance of “physical well-being,” and our interest is of such a nature that the relationship which is consciously maintained between our bodies and their environment coincides with “physical well-being.” The expression “physical well-being” is, however, an imperfect and indeed self-contradictory one. From a purely physical standpoint any condition is of the same general character as any other condition. We might, perhaps, endeavour to define comfort as a physical state of dynamical balance or equilibrium with the environment. But if so, where does organism end and environment begin? There is, and can be, no answer to this question. We can only describe “physical comfort” in biological terms as a condition in which the relations between the organs of the body, and between the body and its biological environment, are of an ideally “normal” character, so that biological unity is completely manifested in the life of the individual. The conception of “normality” or “health” is, in fact, a purely biological conception which cannot be expressed in physical terms, so that “physical” is not a descriptive adjective in this connexion, and is only used owing to the confusion arising from the neglect of biological facts in the prevailing Newtonian interpretation of visible reality.

Individual interest could not, of course, be identified with the presence for the moment of ideal health or normality. Both the anticipated future and the remembered past are essentially involved in interest. Individual interest is not being maintained except in so far as future normality is being promoted, together with present, as an outcome of past, normality. Interest can only be defined in terms of past normality and its future realization.

From the standpoint of life, individual existence is centred round, but not confined to, a “here,” but has a “now” which is continuously changing, and in which life is alone permanent. From the standpoint of Newtonian physics there is also no particular “here,” and the “now” is continuously changing in a flux of events, in which mass and energy are alone permanent. From the standpoint of relativity physics there is not only no particular “here,” but also no particular “now”; and the universe is a flux of events, apparently occurring discontinuously. From the standpoint of individual interest the universe is centred round, but not confined to, a particular “here,” just as from the biological standpoint; but the “now” is no longer fleeting: reality reaches forward into the future, and back into the past, so that it extends over time-relations as well as space-relations. Hence there is no longer a fleeting now, but a reality which manifests itself progressively in past, present, and future together.

Let us now examine this apparent individual interest more closely. Even from the purely biological standpoint a merely individual centre of life is unreal. The behaviour of the individual centres of life in a living cell, or of the individual cells in any higher organism, is unintelligible biologically from the standpoint of their individual lives. Their life is centred in their common life as a whole, with only an unreal centre in their individual lives. The same face is shown to a greater or less extent in the relations of one higher organism to others. Individual interests are similarly unreal in the sense that our conception of them is incapable of interpreting actual conscious experience. In presence of others a wider interest manifests itself. It may be that this wider interest is consistent with the furtherance of what could be regarded as purely individual interest; but equally this may not be so, since the wider interest may imply the complete suppression of the apparent individual interest.

In order to see this we have only to consider the conscious behaviour of members of a family, or tribe, or of fellow-countrymen. Both their perceptions and their conscious actions express no mere individual interest, but a wider interest which may entirely overbear what would be interpreted as individual interest. The latter thus shows itself to be unreal in itself, and only real in so far as it expresses the wider interest.

When we examine what appears to be merely individual, self-regarding interest, we find that its scope is very wide. It extends in all directions, and in many different ways, to environment. In other words, the normal relations which express individual interest, and thus have value, are very wide in their scope, so that harmony of environment covers a great deal. The individual as such is by no means indifferent to the maintenance of what we call harmony or beauty, through whichever of the senses it appears to him. He avoids what would be ugly or inharmonious, and maintains what is beautiful and harmonious, whether revealed in sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell.

If we attempt to define, in terms of anything else than our direct perception of it, what is “normal” in the life of an organism, we always fail. Life appears to us as a unique whole, revealed in the perception of its maintenance. Further insight into it is only given by the addition of further detail to this unique perception, whether the further detail is added through special experiment or not. We may, for instance, employ only the naked eye, or else the microscope, or we may observe the manner in which the wholeness of life is maintained under what we interpret as altered conditions of physical or chemical environment. Or as a consequence of further physical or chemical investigation of the environment we may discover new details of normality. In every case the normal is a unique unity, revealed in the perception of its maintenance.

It is the same with harmony or beauty of environment as expressing maintenance of individual interest. We can reach no artificial definition of what is harmonious. We can only point to its maintenance as of value in even individual experience. It defines itself in its maintenance, just as life defines itself in its maintenance. Thus it is empirically revealed and can therefore only be studied empirically, just as the apparent physical universe or apparent biological universe can only be studied empirically.

The wider interest which shows itself in presence of other individuals, or in which apparent individual interest is superseded, is only an extension of what seemed to be individual interest. We are not merely interested in the health or physiological normality in a narrow sense of those near to us, as belonging to the societies to which they, together with ourselves, belong, but are also interested, in a wider sense, in harmonious relations between them and their environment. Individual interest in beauty or harmony of environment thus takes a wider form. What is beautiful or harmonious is perceived as a value developed in, and to be further developed in, the social unity we belong to. It is thus perceived as of social and not merely individual value. Our conscious actions in presence of it express its social development, just as do our perceptions.

The social values which we perceive and act upon are not merely centred in family or country. They are not even limited to human society, for lower animals share in the fellowship of human beings. What, from the physical standpoint, we interpret as a mere inorganic world surrounding us, becomes also a world of beauty and value in relation to social interest. The land of our fathers and children is not capable of description in mere physical terms; nor are the stars which have lighted and guided them, and will light and guide them.

We make, in practice, a sharp distinction between what we regard as of value from a mere individual standpoint and what has a wider social value. From the individual standpoint what is of value can be exchanged between different individuals, and has thus what is called a market value. This is often also called a material or money value. From the wider social standpoint, however, there is no such thing as market value, and values in the wider sense are distinguished as spiritual values. He who, in his conduct, puts a market value on a spiritual value is ipso facto separating himself from human fellowship. The person, for instance, who lets his “material” advantage interfere with social duty is thus contradicting himself or acting against his real interest.

If we ask why we should act honestly when if we acted dishonestly in our own individual interest it would almost certainly never be found out, or why we should go out of our way to act courteously to persons who do not know us and whom we shall never see again, the answer is that it is in our own wider and more real interest to act honestly or courteously. This wider interest is just a fact, and a fact which obliterates the mere individual interest which, owing to ill-breeding or defective education, we may have mistaken for a fact and assigned a market value to.

Reality is not to be found in the ideal world of economics, dealing with market values, any more than in the ideal worlds of physical or biological science. A mere economically constituted society is only an ideal construction, like a society assumed to be held together by brute force. Those who keep nothing but their own self-interest before them are very properly treated with contempt in good society. A real State depends on the honesty, loyalty, courage, and mutual charity of its citizens; and true citizenship bears no relationship to the possession of wealth or specialized knowledge. We depend at every turn on the reality of this citizenship, and the general extension of the franchise in civilized States is only an acknowledgment of it. It is in the real world which is present with us everywhere and at all times that we find spiritual values when we open our eyes to see them. Actual realism is their representation, and is not the sham which is at present often taken for realism.

We are accustomed to the thought that at any rate inanimate things around us have in reality only a physical existence, and that though we attribute inherent value to their presence, this is only a matter of sentiment, and does not enter into their real existence. But what right have we to this thought? The basis of all our inferences as to our universe is our experience of it in perception. If we leave out of account its biological relations, together with the fact that it is perceived and that perception is an expression of interest, we can treat the inorganic environment as a physical environment, existing, if not in media of space and time, in a space-time medium. But we have no right to leave perception out of account, any more than we have any right to leave out of account, in the interpretation of physical environment, the Michelson experiment or the bending of light-rays passing near the sun. When we leave the fact of perception out of account we are dealing only with an artificial or ideal world of our own subjective invention. However useful such an artefact is for certain limited practical purposes, it certainly does not represent reality.

What is called realism consists commonly in the ascription of reality to the world as interpreted physically, or else biologically. It is at present customary either to endeavour to make such interpretations the basis of art, or else to banish art to a palpably unreal world of what is supernatural. In reality these interpretations are destructive of all art, since art deals with values which have no meaning in a universe which is only physically or biologically interpreted. Values only stand out the more clearly the more their presence is, through artistic insight, rendered manifest in what, apart from that insight, might appear as mere individual calamity. Thus true tragedy is never sordid. A deeper reality shines through the apparent calamity, or if it does not there is no art. It is not away from, but towards reality that true art points. I can think of no simpler example of true literary art, without any trace of unreality, than Dr. John Brown's story of Rab and His Friends.

The interest and values of the psychological or spiritual world show themselves, not only in direct social relations, and the relations of individuals and societies to their environment, but also in the artifices and tools which are employed in the maintenance of social and individual interest. Of these artifices or tools perhaps the most important is language. Language may be regarded as a very complex and at the same time very adjustable tool for the maintenance of social interest and values. The use of this tool is guided by the interest and values, and is capable of revealing and expressing them with either exquisite delicacy or immense power. The proper use of spoken language, with the proper gestures, intonations, and facial expressions accompanying it, aided, it may be, by rhythm, rhyme, and musical intonation, thus becomes an art by itself, based, however, on an appreciation of the values expressed, apart from which language and intonation become mere verbiage and noise. Written or printed language cannot be aided by gesture, facial expression, or intonation, and for this reason requires even greater care than spoken language, though rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration can be equally well used as an adjunct in written and spoken language.

The use of tools and apparatus of every kind expresses the values in the development of which the tools are employed; and we naturally regard the tools themselves as partaking in the values. Hence a tool is often not merely designed and maintained always fit for service, but ornamented or beautified in various ways, so that it has a further value apart from its proper function; and this applies very evidently to language as a tool, or to buildings or clothes.

In the use of language we apply the same word to designate what we recognize as common in different values and their maintenance. Thus words represent abstractions from concrete reality, so that from them we can build up systems of abstractions. We can, for instance, regard time or space-relations abstractly, as if they existed independently of the interest which they express in all its concrete reality, as a manifestation of values. Within such a system of abstractions various relations hold good and form the basis of a science which can be used with immense simplification of action in cases where the abstraction does not matter so far as certain practical actions or interests are concerned. Thus though the conception of a gallon of beer is a highly abstract conception, and the beer may be in vessels of any description, or lying in the gutter, the ideas that it may be regarded as amounting to just a gallon, and that it is a substance called beer, of a certain origin, and therefore does not need to be tasted and drunk to prove its value, are of the utmost practical service. Scientific measurement of the abstraction called volume is therefore of corresponding importance.

If, however, we confuse the very practical abstractions of spoken or written language with reality itself, and thence proceed to build up sciences under the presumption that they express actual reality, we are only deceiving ourselves, and it becomes the business of philosophy to lay bare the difference between reality and its representation in these sciences. It is, for instance, extremely convenient for practical purposes to assume that there is one reality called time, another separate one called space, and other separate ones called matter, energy, living organisms, and persons. Sooner or later it appears, however, that these abstractions are not consistent with one another. Space and time, for instance, turn out to be inseparable from one another, so that it seems to become necessary in mathematics and physics to substitute a four-dimensional medium, space-time. The conception of a living organism as a special sort of entity in space and time or space-time is similarly inconsistent with the physical conception, so that we have to choose between shutting our eyes to facts and clinging to the physical conception, or else adopting a new conception to cover the actual facts. The conception of personality as something existing in space and time associated with life is, finally, inconsistent with either personality or the physical or biological conception. It is for philosophy to point out the inconsistencies between different kinds of scientific interpretation, and at the same time to discover as far as possible how these inconsistencies may be reconciled.

In spite of their inconsistencies, the abstractions of different sciences or branches of what we are familiar with as knowledge are so useful for practical purposes that we cannot dispense with them as tools in the perception and development of interest. If, therefore, we bear in mind that the abstractions of language, and the sciences based on them, are in reality only practical tools for the perception and development of interest, we can assign to these abstractions their proper and indispensable place in our experience. But if we regard them as more than tools for special purposes, we are encountered by fatal philosophical criticism which points out that they do not represent our experience as it actually exists.

It is always to the actualities of experience that philosophy, just like any experimental science, points us. This implies that any universe which is not the universe of our actual experience has no meaning for us. Before no tool of theory set up by either scientific, ecclesiastical, State, or any other kind of authority, will philosophy bow her head. She bows her head only to actual experience, and not to what for her are only tools.

The interest and values which we experience are those which present themselves to us in the society we belong to, and they extend backwards into the remote past, and forwards into the unlimited future. We belong in the most intimate sense to our environment, or the environment belongs to us. The idea that individual persons represent units which exist apart from their environment is not consistent with experience. The man or woman who emigrates to a new country carries also his or her traditions and interests. In a physical sense the environment is new, but in a deeper and truer sense it may be the same. Scotland, for instance, seems to go with the Scottish settler, so that other Scots may even find themselves more at home in a remote colony than in Scotland itself. The interests and values associated with Scottish character may appear more plainly than where they are obscured by the vulgarities so often associated with a more complex civilization. It is not possible to distinguish personality from the concrete environing interests and values associated with it.

In the sphere of biological interpretation we are familiar with analogous facts. As a reproductive cell casts loose from the environment of the parent organism it reproduces that environment. In the earliest stage of reproduction the ovum and its immediate progeny provide within their own substance the nutrient environment, and during further development the complete environment of the parent organism is reproduced more and more perfectly. We can never at any stage separate the organism from its environment; and this applies no less to the chromosomes within a cell than to cells themselves. Organism and environment are inseparably united where life is present; but where conscious behaviour is present, the social environment extends also over time-relations in the form of tradition and aspiration.

The social environment is a complex psychological or spiritual world of interests and values. This is the world which literature and other arts portray or reveal; but they can reveal nothing to those for whom the values and interests do not already exist to a greater or less extent. Interests and values are part of ourselves: they cannot be pieced on from outside of us. We of Scottish origin are specially near to the art of Scott or Burns, or Raeburn or Dr. John Brown; but this is because the real world which they light up and so render clearer is also our own world.

Since philosophy is our ultimate interpretation of reality, every philosophy must claim to be realistic. The philosophical conclusion which I have so far placed before you is that reality is not to be found in mathematical, physical, or biological interpretations of reality, since these interpretations deal only with abstractions from the psychologically interpreted world of interest and values, which is thus prior to them, or more elementary. So-called materialism, or philosophy which bases itself on the physical interpretation of experience, is thus out of account, though it still survives in popular literature among those who have never given any serious study to philosophy. I should like, however, to refer at this point to a very different form of realism, of which a systematic presentation was made by my distinguished predecessor in the Gifford Lectureship, Professor S. Alexander.

I think we can regard Alexander's writings as a protest against any system of so-called idealism which seeks to find the basis of reality in mere ideas. Up to this point I can fully agree with him. Ideas or universals may be immortal things, but at the same time they are only abstractions from reality, however useful they may be for certain limited practical purposes. Out of mere ideas we can never construct reality, and if we regard the post-Kantian philosophy of Hegel as an attempt to show that reality does, as it were, construct itself through the dialectic activity of the most general ideas, such as that of pure being, we must admit his philosophy to be a failure in this respect.

Alexander starts from the assumption that space and time are real, and not mere ideal, things, and he seeks to show that what he regards as the concrete reality of the physical, biological, and psychological worlds arises from space and time. It seems to me that he has set himself just as impossible a task as Hegel did if he set out to deduce a concrete world from the implications of “Pure Being” and “Nothing.” If the latter were abstract ideas, so also are Space and Time, or Space-Time.

On attempting to follow Alexander's deduction, I find first an unintelligible jump from space and time to the Newtonian physical world. The “bodies” of that world are not pieces of space or extension, but pieces of something very different, namely, matter or mass. Descartes and Spinoza endeavoured to interpret them as pieces of extension, but Newton showed clearly that they must be regarded as masses. The space occupied by a body is no criterion of its mass. In other words, there is no fundamental connexion between the space occupied by even an atom and its massiveness, so that there is no transition from the mere conceptions of spaces and their movements to those of matter and its exchanges of energy.

The transition from physical existence to life in Alexander's deduction seems to me equally abrupt and unintelligible. He assumes that with a certain complexity of physical structure, or “constellation,” life “emerges” as something new. He avoids the common futile attempt to reduce life to mechanism, but under the cover of the word “emergence” he in reality supposes that a miracle—something super-natural—occurs, so that organic co-ordination appears where it was absent before.

It is the same with the further transition from mere life to conscious behaviour. When physical structure attains sufficient further complexity, as he supposes that it does in a central nervous system, another miracle occurs, and mind “emerges.” He is well aware of the difference between perception and physical action, and that perception passes backwards over time. The latter fact he gives metaphorical expression to by saying that time is the mind of space. But time which does not pass away irreversibly is no longer the time of physical science, so that the hiatus between mere life and conscious behaviour remains.

It seems to me that Alexander produces the real world very much as a conjurer produces rabbits from a hat. The rabbits are real enough, and not shams; but in reality they were there from the beginning. Newtonian matter was there from the beginning if it is there now. Life was also there from the beginning if it is there now; and I have already pointed out that organic evolution presupposes life, since it presupposes heredity. Equally without beginning are the interest and values of conscious behaviour.

It does not seem to me that Alexander's ostensible realism avoids the difficulties of ostensible idealism. Time which disappears as it passes, and space of which the parts are simply outside one another, are both of them only abstract ideas like pure being and pure nothing: they are nothing real, and out of them nothing real can come. Reality is there all the time, and we cannot deduce it. Our perception of it is, however, more adequate or less adequate according as our interpretation of it is more adequate or less adequate. The mathematical interpretation as space- and time-relations is extremely inadequate; the physical interpretation less inadequate; the biological interpretation still less inadequate; and the psychological interpretation as a world of interest and values least inadequate of all these interpretations.