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Chapter Six: Implications of Action

We must now consider some of the most general implications of action and in particular some of the very general modifications which have to be made in traditional philosophical theory when we adopt the standpoint of the Agent rather than of the Thinker. In doing this we shall be laying the foundations for a theory of action not primarily for a theory of knowledge; yet such a theory of action will exhibit the form of the personal by including within it as its negative aspect a theory of knowledge.

Since the ‘I do’ which is the absolute presupposition of all our experience contains the ‘I know that I do’ as a constitutive aspect of itself we can lay down at once a negative criterion for the truth of any philosophical theory. The ‘I do’ is indubitable. It is presupposed in the act of denying it: its contradictory is therefore self-contradictory. It follows from this that any theory which either explicitly or by implication denies the ‘I do’ that is to say denies that there is action is false. This negative principle has a very wide range of application. It disposes at once of any theory that implies that the world is fully determinate; for to assert this is precisely to deny the possibility of action though not of course the possibility of activity. The ‘I do’ is not problematic.

We may go further than this; for it is an immediate corollary that whatever is necessarily implied in the possibility of action is itself certain. We have already seen that the possibility of knowledge is so implied; and consequently the possibility of knowledge is not problematic. Any purely sceptical theory is therefore false. Our immediate business is to bring to light some of those necessary implications which have their guarantee in the fact that there is action.

We may begin by defining action itself—not its mere logical form but the form of its actuality—as a unity of movement and knowledge. Some comments are necessary to elucidate the definition and to prevent misunderstanding. In the first place the notion of unity must be taken strictly. Movement and knowledge are inseparable aspects of all action not separable elements in a complex. To represent action as consisting of a cognition which is the cause of a movement is to misrepresent the unity of action radically. We relapse into the mind-matter dualism if we analyse an action into two events the one subjective and the other objective which stand in causal relation. This is not merely untrue to experience; it is a logical monstrosity. That thought moves nothing is an implicate of the concept of thought. An act may indeed be analysed into a number of elements which compose it but each of these elements is itself an act and itself therefore a unity of knowledge and movement. What is distinguishable theoretically is not necessarily separable in fact: for to distinguish elements in a whole theoretically is merely to limit attention to an aspect of what is presented. In order therefore to eliminate this tendency to misunderstand the definition I propose to call knowledge and movement dimensions of action. The use of the metaphor is intended only to keep before our minds the indivisible unity of knowledge and movement in action.

In the second place the terms movement and knowledge must not be construed objectively. By ‘movement’ is not meant an observed displacement in space; nor by ‘knowledge’ an ascertained truth. The two terms represent on the contrary a theoretical analysis of the ‘I do’ into ‘I move’ and ‘I know’. ‘Movement’ here refers to our experience of moving ourselves; ‘knowledge’ to the awareness of the Other which ‘informs’ this moving. We might rephrase it thus: ‘When there is an acting there is a moving and a knowing and the indivisible unity of these constitutes the acting.’ I make no apologies for using the term ‘knowledge’ in this connexion. It is the proper term to use; for this is its primary significance from which other usages are derived by qualification. Knowledge is that in my action which makes it an action and not a blind activity. It is ‘objective’ awareness; or rather awareness of the Other and the Self in relation. It is not ‘knowing that’ neither is it ‘knowing how’; neither is it ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ for it is acquaintance. We use the term ‘know’ in this primary sense when we say that jure know our friends and are known by them. If it is objected that knowing implies certainty and that the term should only be used at least in a philosophical context to express certainty I reply that this is what we are doing though why anything less than certainty—the whole of science for instance—should be excluded from knowledge I cannot understand. All reflective judgements are hypothetical and have an element of logical uncertainty in them; but if I say that I know someone I cannot be mistaken. If the statement is false then I am lying.

Thirdly we must remember that all personal activities have the form of a positive which includes its negative. This is the form of the unity of movement and knowledge in action. Knowledge is the negative which constitutes action by its inclusion in movement—which is the positive dimension. But if we distinguish the two dimensions each of them has the same form. Moving includes its own negative—not of course rest as mere absence of movement but a negative activity a resistance to movement. If it did not I could not move I should simply fall down. The active resistance to movement is a condition of the possibility of my moving. We may borrow here from science the distinction between ‘kinetic’ and ‘potential’ energy which indeed is derived from the personal experience of moving by abstracting from its personal completeness. The experience ‘I do’ is an experience of expending energy. In its positive mode as ‘I act’ this expenditure of energy expresses itself positively in a bodily movement. In its negative mode as ‘I think’ the energy is still expended but it is self-negated; I myself provide a resistance to the tendency of cognition to ‘pass over’ into action which negates the tendency so that the energy remains ‘potential’. That thinking does involve an expenditure of energy is shown by the fact that it can produce bodily fatigue.

Knowledge in action is similarly constituted by its own negative. Knowing in action is possible only through an active ignoring of most of what is presented that is to say by a selectivity of attention. I can only ignore what I am aware of and the elements in the situation are apprehended. So we find ourselves saying at times that we were ‘unconsciously’ aware of a thing when our attention was concentrated on something else. These unnoticed elements in the situation however play an essential role in the determination of our action. We see them and respond to them without noticing them. Now we have already contrasted cognition with motive consciousness in an earlier chapter.1 We now see that knowledge2—which is cognitive consciousness—depends for its possibility upon the inclusion within it of a non-cognitive or motive consciousness. This indeed is the basis of habit; and habit is a necessary constituent of any actual action. Habit is conscious behaviour or response to stimulus which involves awareness. But in human behaviour save in abnormal conditions such as somnambulism it can only be present as a negative element in action. This organic consciousness is then the negative aspect in the constitution of personal consciousness.

Since we are considering the Self as agent and therefore i its existence and from the standpoint of action we are no required like Kant to adopt purely theoretical procedures. We must of course proceed by abstraction if we are to consider the universal character of action; but the abstraction is a practical one by which I mean a limitation of attention to the most general characters of something that is itself actual and not merely theoretical. I propose therefore to follow the method employed by Sir Isaac Newton in determining the principles of motion and to consider the Agent as a particle in space and time at an infinite distance from all other particles. We shall have to endow this particle with the power of movement and the power to know itself and its environment. This is a legitimate procedure since we merely restore the complete situation from which Newton's moving particle is abstracted by ignoring the element of consciousness. The advantage to be gained is that we eliminate from attention the complex influence of the Other upon the action of the Self while still considering the Self as an existent. We exclude also the complexity of internal conditions which necessarily determine any particular act. We consider the Agent simply in respect of his agency alone in an undifferentiated environment. The capacity to act is then represented by the capacity to move; and the suppression of all differentiation in the environment reduces it to empty space and time. We are imagining per impossibile an action which requires neither support nor resistance just as Newton does.

What we cannot eliminate if we are to think movement at all is space and time; and our first question must be about the nature of these. If the agent moves he must move from ‘here-now’ to ‘there-then’ and a spatio-temporal determination is involved. If we objectify the movement by eliminating the activity of moving so that the movement is merely contemplated by a subject we find we can eliminate the reference to time and say simply the agent moves from ‘here’ to ‘there’. This however describes a ‘possible’ moving only. If the moving is actual the time factor must come in. Space would seem then to represent the possibility of movement rather than its actuality; and this is confirmed by the observation that in an actual movement the space factor is one-dimensional. The other dimensions of space represent merely paths that the movement did not take or possible paths that it might have taken. We might almost say that the space-factor is simply the time-factor objectified or thought either in anticipation or in retrospect. For in retrospect all the successiveness in the actual movement disappears and all its moments are apprehended simultaneously. From the point of view of the Subject therefore time is spatialized and is represented by a ‘line’ or ‘path’ or ‘track’. We can only distinguish space from time by saying that in space all the elements are simultaneous; not as in time successive; and simultaneity is itself a determination of time. This indicates that time is logically prior to space; and if we remember that all reflection is included in action as its negative component the relativity of space and time is accounted for since the reflective discrimination of space from time must be relative to the action of moving. We can put this in another way. From the standpoint of action the distance of an object from the present position of an agent is a representation of the time that must elapse before he can come into contact with it; and this time is relative to the velocity of his movement.

This logical priority of time is clearly recognized if we recall the distinction between positive and negative activity. The negative mode of ‘doing’ is we have said ‘thinking’. Thinking does not involve an actual movement but only a permanent tendency to pass over into movement which is continuously negated. It has therefore no spatial factor but only a temporal one. The ‘I do’ is necessarily temporal for all doing takes time. But the ‘I think’ in its actuality is only temporal. Space remains merely virtual as the possibility of realizing what is thought in a practical activity.

We are now in a position to summarize these considerations by asserting that time is the form of action; while space is the form of reflection and that time is prior to space because action is prior to reflection. The priority is that of the positive in respect of the negative which it includes. That time and space are mere forms and in themselves nothing needs no argument. They are negations of intuition; ideal lower limits of imaginal consciousness. To see an empty space between two objects is to apprehend the possibility of moving between them without resistance. We ought to note here however that it may be misleading to ground our account of space upon visual experience. A man born blind is as much involved in the determination of space as any other and his mode of apprehending space is open also to those whose sight is unimpaired. The tactual awareness of space is more fundamental than the visual; the latter being as we have seen a mediate apprehension which refers to the immediacy of touch. If we disregard vision space reveals itself much more evidently as a tactually apprehended possibility of movement; as the absence of a resistance anticipated as possible.

Since time is the positive and space the negative form we must begin with time; and consider it from the standpoint of the Agent. Time we have said is the form of action. If the agent moves he is aware of his moving and of time as the form of his motion. And since he is aware of the motion as his doing he is aware of time as the form generated by his doing whether as positive doing (movement) or negative doing (thought). In consequence time cannot be apprehended directly in reflection. It can only be represented symbolically and the primary symbol is spatial. Time and indeed action of which it is the form cannot be object for a subject. It can only be experienced in action. In such experience of time the characteristic structure is a distinction between past and future. When the agent moves his action continues. At any point in this continuing movement he is aware of the distinction between past and future. The past is what has been done; the future what has not been done but remains to do. That part of the movement which is past is already actual the part which is future is not actual but only possible. In general therefore the past is the field of actuality the future the field of possibility. The present is simply the point of action. Now to be actual is to exist; consequently the past is that which exists and the future that which does not exist. It is not that which will exist for the action may not be completed or it may complete itself in an unanticipated manner; and in any case the future never comes. When what is now future comes to existence it is no longer future but past.

In action then the Agent generates a past by actualizing a possibility. This ‘generation’ or ‘bringing into existence’ is practical determination and the actual is the determinate. To act therefore is to determine; and the Agent is the determiner. To determine is to make actual what is apart from the acting merely possible. Theoretical determination is the negative of this and is contained within it as the specific awareness of what has been practically determined by the agent. We may therefore define acting as determining the future. The past is then that which has been determined and is in consequence completely determinate.

This analysis has certain important implications. The first concerns the conception traditionally termed ‘free-will’ and its negation ‘determinism’. To possess free-will is simply to be able to determine the indeterminate that is the future. We can now see that this is implied in the very conception of action. The Agent is the determiner. To deny free-will is to deny the possibility of action. We have already established as a negative criterion of truth that any theory which denies the possibility of action is false. That I am free is an immediate implication of the ‘I do’; and to deny freedom is to assert that no one ever does anything that no one is capable even of thinking or of observing.

What then of the antinomy of freedom? This antinomy arises we have seen because knowledge presupposes the determinateness of its object. Only that which is already determinate can be determined reflectively by thought. But the antinomy depends upon the ‘I think’. When we insist on the primacy of the practical and adopt the standpoint of the Agent rather than of the Subject the antinomy between freedom and determinism vanishes. Knowledge is necessarily of the actual or the existent. The merely possible the non-existent cannot be known. We have seen that the actual or the existent is the past. It is that which is determinate because it has been already determined. To act is to determine the future: the past is already determinate. Knowledge then in its primary form is the theoretical determination of the past in action. The freedom of the agent then so far from being incompatible with the possibility of knowledge is the ground of that possibility. The Agent in action generates the determinate as the object of knowledge. The falsity of determinism lies simply in the dogma that the future is already determinate. But if this were so there would be no future; the future would be already past.

The qualifications that this statement requires that is to say the recognition of the negative which it necessarily includes will concern us in the sequel. For the moment we are considering the Agent as solitary in empty space and time. In such a situation if it were possible the agent could determine the future in any way he pleased. His freedom would be unlimited. What does in fact limit the freedom of particular agents is the presence of other agents in the same field of action. But there is one limitation which arises apart from this which is indeed a self-limitation of the Agent's freedom by his own action. In determining the future he determines an environment which itself provides a limitation to his further action. This is the principle of the irreversibility of action and therefore of the form of action which is time.

But before dealing with the limitation of freedom we must consider the spatial factor in action more closely. Space we have asserted is the form of reflection. By reflection is meant the negative aspect of action which in contrast with movement we have called knowledge. As a negative activity we have identified it with thought intending by thought a conscious activity which proceeds in terms of a distinction between true and false. As an actual activity of the personal thought as a spontaneity of the Self must include a negative aspect or receptivity which we call sense-perception. But ‘thinking’ is an ambiguous term often restricted to that form of reflective activity which intends knowledge and so to the processes of inference. There are other forms of reflective activity; that for instance which proceeds in terms of the distinction between beautiful and ugly. Both of these are forms of secondary reflection. The primary reflection is the reflective element in action which proceeds in terms of the distinction between right and wrong.3

When we say then that space is the form of reflection the primary reference is to knowing in action to the reflective element in acting though there is a secondary and mediate reference to activities which are constituted by a reflective intention. The bare form of this awareness is spatial. If we start from the concrete awareness of a world of objects then all those objects are presented simultaneously without a temporal discrimination. But they are also represented separately as occupying different locations that is different positions relative to the position of the agent. From the agent's point of view these objects represent resistances (and also supports) to his action. Their distances from him represent the time of his movement which must elapse before making contact with them. Their distances from one another represent an empty space through which he can move without resistance from them; their directions the direction of his movement if he decides to make contact with them. If now we eliminate the objects in imagination what remains is empty space; and from the Agent's point of view this is the awareness of an infinite number of possible directions of movement.

We may realize this in another way by reference to a retrospective rather than an anticipatory awareness. When I move I am also aware of my movement. But this is possible through a distinction between my present position and the positions I have successively occupied before. But I am aware of all the positions I have occupied since the start of my movement simultaneously as the path I have followed and this is a spatial determination. I represent the time factor as a path (i.e. a line) This does not mislead me because my activity of reflection has its own temporal form. I can read the successiveness of my past movement into the line by attending successively to differentiated points upon it. I supply the time factor from my own theoretical activity. I can of course take the points in the line in any order I please. I can reverse the order of movement. But so long as it is I who am moving the continuation of my movement and the position I now occupy determine the order in which I must take them. It is only when I am being passively moved—at rest in a train for instance that I can be in doubt whether it is my train or the train beside it which is moving. Kant you may remember offered the reversibility of a movement as a criterion for distinguishing between subjective and objective time. He had to do this because he was thinking from the standpoint of the Subject-self. From the standpoint of the Self as agent the criterion is unnecessary.

We can now return to the irreversibility of action and to the limitation of freedom which this implies. Consider again the solitary agent in empty space. He can move from here-now to there-then. This movement cannot be repeated. He can of bourse move from Edinburgh to Glasgow every week. But each repetition is another movement at a later date. The first movement creates a determinate past and all action is into the future. What has been determined remains for ever determinate; what has been done cannot be undone. Action is irreversible. That time is irreversible is merely the abstract or formal way of stating this. It is an immediate implication of the very form of ‘doing’ whether active or reflective.

This characterization of space and time as the forms respectively of reflection and of action has important implications. We have to recall now that reflection is only actual as the negative aspect of action and so as contained within it. We must therefore consider space and time in their unity as the form of action space being the negative element which is contained within time. Consider first the physicist's conception of the space-time continuum. It follows from what has been said that the time factor in this continuum is not real time or rather that it is only past time and consequently it is spatialized. For this reason it has sometimes been described as a ‘fourth dimension’ of space. Real time is constituted by the distinction between past and future. From a purely theoretical point of view action is excluded and only reflection remains. To think this we are driven to represent ourselves as pure observers travelling or rather being carried from the past into the future and so discovering as we move a future world which was already determinate though we have only now reached it. Time here is obviously replaced by space and the movement is represented as a movement of the observer. But it is impossible to think this through without a patent contradiction. It means that the form of the world is a four-dimensional space and only the observer is in time and therefore external to the world—whatever this can be made to signify.

Let us put this in a non-metaphorical way. I can imagine myself at any point in space or time—as living for example under Pericles in ancient Athens. If I do this while actually I am in Scotland now I must think the time that has elapsed since then as future relative to my imaginary existence in the fifth century B.C. But this future is as I am well aware already determinate and some at least of its determinations I know. I think it as future although it is really past. In this way there arises for reflection a distinction between past and future in the past. Now by analogy with this I may project myself in imagination into the future to the ‘end of time’ if I please and in that case I must think what is really the future as if it were already past. This must mean that I think the future as already determinate; and some of its determinations I may be prepared to specify theoretically. I call this theoretical determination of the future ‘prediction’ if I believe I have sufficient grounds in my knowledge of the past to offer for it and ‘prophecy’ if I only have ‘a hunch’. In this way there arises the conception of the future as already determinate; and of all time as an order of determination that is to say as already past. Time as a determinate sequence of events is necessarily past time; it is indeed the conception of the past and the distinction of past and future in it is the relative distinction which arises by a theoretical selection of a point in time as the present. This is clearly possible only theoretically; and if it is taken otherwise it implies that the Self exists as subject but not as agent. Theoretically I can select any point in time I please as the present and call what came before it the past and what came after it the future. But as agent the present is determined for me. It is the ‘here-and-now’ my only point of action for I can act neither in the past nor in the future. And even in reflection I can only think here and now; and my ability to place myself in thought at any point in time I please depends on the fact that all points in time are it-presented here and now for my reflection simultaneously. Now an order of simultaneity is spatial. In so far then as time is a given order within which events can be assigned to determinate positions the time is past time and the determination is a theoretical determination. A determinate future is not a real future. The real future is the indeterminate which is determined in action and in being determined becomes the past. The physicist's time is not real time; it is time represented as past without a future.

Now let us turn to another implication of action which we can best formulate in the proposition that action is choice. Consider again our solitary agent in empty space. He is aware of space as the possibility of moving in an infinite number of directions from his present position. But if he moves it must be in one of these directions and in no other. He cannot move in several directions at once. Now since action is irreversible when he acts and so moves in one of the possible directions all the others become by his action impossible. His action then is a choice of one possibility which negates the possibility of all the others. They become past possibilities which are no longer actually possible. To do anything is to do this and not that. After it is done I may wish I had done something else but I cannot do it. What I have done remains actual and I cannot undo it. Action is thus the actualizing of a possibility and as such it is choice. It is important to notice that this means precisely what it says. It does not mean that an action is preceded by a choice; nor that a mysterious ‘act of will’ somehow connects a theoretical selection with a physical movement. This is only an attempt to construe the mystery of action from a dualist point of view. There may indeed in particular cases be a reflective activity which precedes action and which consists in deciding between a number of alternative courses which is the right course to pursue. But this is only a theoretical not an actual choosing; as is shown by the fact that the action so ‘chosen’ may not in fact be performed. The actual choice is the doing of the action; and action is choice whether or not this preliminary reflection takes place. There can undoubtedly be no choosing apart from reflection; but this need only be that primary reflection which is in action as one of its dimensions.

That action is choice discloses another implication of action which it is important to clarify. The distinction between right and wrong is inherent in the nature of action. Knowingly to actualize one of a number of possibles and in doing so to negate the others is to characterize the act that is so performed as right and the others as wrong. Again it is the doing of the action which so distinguishes between right and wrong not a theoretical judgement which may or may not precede accompany or follow the doing. Consequently if we may say that a proposition is that which can be true or false we may also say that an action is what can be right or wrong. The question which underlies any philosophical inquiry into action is ‘How can I do what is right?’ It is not ‘How can we know what it is right to do?’ If this second question were to prove unanswerable it would not follow that the first question was so too. The belief that we can only do what is right by first knowing what it is right to do and then doing this is an assumption. It implies the very principle which Kant was so rightly concerned to deny that the good can be determined as an object in time. For it presupposes in ourselves two capacities to neither of which we can lay claim—theoretical infallibility and practical omnipotence. If I am to do what is right by first deciding what it is right to do in the circumstances in which I must act my moral judgement must be infallible. If not I may be mistaken and if I then do what I judge mistakenly to be right not merely have I done wrong but I could not have done otherwise. But this is not all. Suppose we grant to ourselves this infallibility of moral judgement what follows? I know absolutely before I act what I ought to do. If I then seek to do it I may fail. Circumstances over which I have no control may intervene and I discover in the event that what I have done is not what I set out to do. Again I have not done what is right; and again I could not have done it. Whatever may be true of our ability to judge what is right—and can we really believe that it is not liable to error?—it is certainly untrue that we have an absolute power to carry out our decisions and achieve our objectives. In some sense ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. In some sense therefore if we can act rightly it must be without a prior theoretical determination of what it is right to do. The discrimination of right and wrong in action must be prior to and not dependent upon the theoretical discrimination of the truth or falsity of a judgement. This may seem incomprehensible; and it is indeed one way of exhibiting what Kant called the incomprehensibility of freedom and of deducing from it as he did the primacy of practical reason. We have seen earlier that this incomprehensibility arises from the confrontation of the two antithetical standpoints in the Critical philosophy—the ‘I think’ and the ‘I do’. Since we have decided to stand firmly on the ‘I do’ and to take up the ‘I think’ into it as its negative aspect we have a right to expect that this incomprehensibility is not final. We cannot however proceed now to resolve the paradox. For though we are seeking to overcome the purely theoretical standpoint of our philosophical tradition we are still accepting its egocentricity. The Self as agent is still solitary and self-contained; and this makes it impossible to throw light on this darkness until we come to discuss the interrelation of persons. For the present we must put up with the paradox. What we can do now is to show why the solitary self even as agent cannot provide the possibility of action. In actuality the solitary self can only mean the Self in reflection self-isolated from the world withdrawn into itself This is the Self in self-negation the negative aspect of selfhood or the Self as subject. The standpoint of the solitary self if that Self is considered to be actual or existent is therefore necessarily the theoretical standpoint.

We have been considering the agent as solitary in empty space and time. We recognized that this was an abstraction legitimate for methodological purposes. Let us now ask in what this abstraction consists; and in particular why even as an abstraction it is inadequate for its purpose which was to exhibit the characteristics of action in the simplest possible form. It has yielded certain fundamental conclusions: that action is the realization of possibility; that it is therefore choice; and that the distinction between right and wrong is inherent in it. Now we must notice that the abstraction to which we committed ourselves negates all these characteristics; because in the conditions we have supposed no action is possible. The reason is that we have abstracted from the presence of the Other and therefore from the possibility of resistance in action; and we have already seen that it is the experience of resistance that establishes the distinction of Self and Other. Without an other there can be no self. Without a resistance there can be no action.

We postulated a solitary self in time and space: but we found that time and space are nothing in themselves; and when we took them as mere forms they resolved themselves into the forms of action and of reflection respectively. As such they are the forms of the positive and negative aspects of the existence of the Self. But since the Self is the correlate of the Other they must equally be forms of the existence of the Other in its positive and negative aspects; as acting upon the Self and being known by the Self. If then there is to be a self there must also be an other in space and time. The Self cannot exist in isolation.

We said that if the Agent moved in any direction his action chose that direction as the right direction by negating all the other possible directions of movement. We can recognize the inadequacy of our abstract representation if we say that this must mean that whatever the agent does will be right because he does it. No action can then be wrong and where wrong action is impossible right action is equally impossible. An action is that which can be right or wrong. This really signifies that without an other no action is possible. The scientific analogue of this is the relativity of motion. No movement in space can be determined and therefore no position in space except by reference to a fixed point independently determined. Our hypothetical agent in empty space could not discriminate possible directions of movement because there is no ground for discrimination outside himself. Any one movement would then be identical with any other. There is however one way in which we might introduce a ground of discrimination without actually referring to the existence of the Other. Suppose that the Agent is as agent already in motion. Then there is one direction of movement which is by this fact discriminable. It is the direction which continues without alteration the movement already begun. This then would be the right course for the agent to pursue; but since it would also be the only course for which any ground of discrimination existed it would also be the only possible course. Because of this however we should not call it an action but merely the continuance of an action already initiated. We see here the origin of Newton's first law of motion and the ground of its abstract certainty. We derive the standpoint of physical science from our experience of action by eliminating from the latter the rational aspect—knowledge and the organic aspect—reaction to stimulus. What remains is the material world—the displacement of masses in space. If we first suppress the Other from the experience of action and conceive the agent as isolated in space and then eliminate knowledge and reaction to stimulus from the conception of the agent we have Newton's particle moving in space in complete isolation. The first law of motion follows. The particle will continue to move in the same direction without any change. Its movement will continue unaltered. If now we conceive the Other in general as rational and inorganic we conceive a material world. For the reasons indicated I propose to call this the conception of the Other as the Continuant in contrast to the Self as the Agent.

If we conceive the Agent not as isolated in empty space but as alone in a material world we provide an element of resistance to support action. The Other as continuant offers a resistance to the movement of the Agent and so makes actual movement by the Agent possible. Is this sufficient to provide the possibility of action? The answer must be negative. The resistance of the continuant is a negative resistance and the support it provides is a negative support. It provides for the possibility of movement but not of action. For though the resistance limits the possibilities for the agent it still provides no ground for discriminating between the possibilities which remain open. Within the limits of his freedom the agent can still do as he pleases and whatever he does will be right because he docs it. He has the means of action but no ground of action; for the material environment as such does not serve to discriminate between possible objectives.

This merely elaborates the general principle that Self and Other are correlative. If the Other is conceived in purely material terms then the Self must be similarly conceived. If then we make the Self an organism we cannot leave the Other a mere material world a mere system of physical energy. We shall have to conceive it as an organic environment as Nature itself adapted to provide the means of life for living creatures and to provide stimuli which will awaken in them the responses through which they adapt themselves to her and in which their life consists. If then we grant the agent an organic environment something more than movement becomes possible and this something more we call behaviour. Nature will provide stimuli to which he can respond. But action is still impossible. For at most the knowledge of Nature will reveal a plurality of possible activities some easier some more difficult some pleasurable and some painful. But this still provides no ground of discrimination. At most the agent could ‘follow the line of least resistance’ and this excludes the determination of an objective. If we say that natural teleology prescribes an objective the preservation of his life and the avoidance of death we are brought up short by the fact that the agent knows that this is an impossible objective. Death is unavoidable; consequently any choice of self-preservation as objective of action is inherently irrational. The biblical story of the Fall is quite correct in linking the knowledge of good and evil with the knowledge ‘Thou shall surely die’. The solitary agent for whom the Other is an organic environment can only behave as an organism responding to environmental stimuli. He cannot act: he could at most know the complete futility of all his behaviour through an objective consciousness which accompanied but was not integrated with it.4

We are left with one possible conclusion. The possibility of action depends upon the Other being also agent and so upon a plurality of agents in one field of action. The resistance to the Self through which the Self can exist as agent must be the resistance of another self. The distinction between right and wrong depends upon a clash of wills. How the relation of persons in action makes action possible cannot as has been said be determined at this stage of our argument. That it must be so we are at liberty to affirm since other possibilities are excluded and the ‘I do’—the fact that there is action—is the primary certainty.

  • 1. Chapter V, pp. 119 ff.
  • 2. ‘Knowledge’ here refers to primary knowledge or knowledge in action not to secondary or reflective knowledge.
  • 3. The terms ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ here have no specifically moral connotation.
  • 4. This is one of the permanent themes of Existentialism; and it arises in Existentialism because the organic concept of the Self has not been overcome.
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