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Chapter III: The Empirical Problems

How the problems arise.

Qualities are the empirical as distinguished from the non-empirical or categorial features of existences, the brand of their finitude, or rather (since we must provide for the possibility of infinites with quality) of their being less than the whole of Space-Time. Qualities are to be noted and registered but accepted without the pretence of accounting for them. All that philosophy can do is to show that they correspond to and are identical with the spatio-temporal configurations which are their ultimate basis; and, taking over from the sciences what can be learnt as to the actual order which exists among them, to exhibit, as the attempt has been made in the preceding chapter to exhibit, the way in which the higher quality is identical with a certain complexity in the existences of a lower order of quality.

This account of the relation of what is strictly empirical to the non-empirical is one portion of the second of the two departments of philosophy which were described in the Introduction. The first department was to describe and account for the categorial features of things. The second department was to consider the relations of empirical things to the non-empirical, and their relations to one another which arise from their being complexes of space-time, and related to one another consequently on being contained within the one Space-Time. Empirical facts and laws are the subject of the so-called special sciences. Whatever questions arise from the generation of empirical existences within the matrix in which they are not lost, but contained, fall to the special science of philosophy. One of these questions has now been answered, however imperfectly, in the philosophy of quality. The larger question remains. Its interest resides to a great extent in the position which is to be assigned to minds. Minds are one set of finites, the highest we know, whose life or ‘minding’ is experience. But their relations to other finites should be, if they also are in the end complexes of space-time, nothing but illustrations of universal relations, which hold between finites as such, in virtue of their spatio-temporal nature. Accordingly the prerogatives of mind, which seem at the first blush to place it in a unique position, will appear to be illustrations of more fundamental characters in which all things share alike. The answer to the question what knowledge is and how it is possible, will be to show that given a finite with the distinctive character or quality of mind or consciousness, knowing falls into its place in a common scheme. The so-called theory of knowledge becomes an incident in metaphysics and not the foundation of it.

The problems stated.

Some of these relations will now be enumerated. The consideration of them I call the empirical problems.

I. The first and simplest relation is that all finites are merely connected together within the one Space-Time. They may be successive, or co-existent with one another, but they all belong together. In order to use a word which covers both cases, I shall say they are compresent. Such compresence involves directly or indirectly connection by way of causality. When one of the finites is a mind, and the other of lower level, the compresence is the relation described as consciousness of an object, or in general cognition (ch. iv.).

II. Finite things are substances, and as such are volumes of space-time with a determinate contour and internal configuration. That is to say, they are determinate volumes of space-time which are the scene of movements possessing their appropriate qualities, and they persist throughout the succession and interplay of these movements through a finite time, and have a beginning, a history, and a death. The spatio-temporal volume or contour is that which unifies all its qualities into a connected whole. There are therefore three constituent ‘elements’ to be distinguished within a thing. First, its space and time. Second, the processes with their qualities which take place within it. Third, its permanent plan of construction or configuration. Considered in relation to a percipient (I use this word to cover a mind engaged in any mental operation whatever, not merely that of perception proper) the first is the place, date, extent, and duration or the thing. The second is the sensible qualities of the thing. As transitory or momentary these are the percipients sensa or sensibles. The sensible quality as we have seen is itself a substance or thing within the thing whose quality it is, it is a continuum of sensa or sensibles. The third, or plan of configuration or spatio-temporal pattern (itself a pattern of qualities), is the object of thought or conception. It is clear that these elements are not separable: there is no finite space-time which does not consist in movements and which has not its universal plan of configuration. But unless there is a percipient, these movements and this plan are not sensed or thought. To call them sensa or thoughts is to speak of them in their compresence with a percipient (ch. v.).

Furthermore, each movement or let us say process or act of the thing, though itself transitory or momentary, being one act of the thing does not, or at least may not, leave the whole unaffected in its internal character, but the next act may be affected by the past act, or the thing may acquire a disposition in virtue of its history. This is the case, for instance, with the arrangement of the molecules in a permanently magnetised bar. In the case of percipients, this is the fact of retention of past experiencings, or reproduction.

III. A thing affects another with which it is compresent differently according to the latter's relative position in space or time or its intrinsic receptivity. In consequence it presents to the second thing only a portion of its whole character. For instance, a thing which is luminous on one side only, like a dark lantern, illuminates objects on that side but not objects on the other side. Again, a platinum crucible may be unaffected by acids contained in it which might enter into combination with a glass vessel. Flowers may blush unseen. It depends on the nature of the second thing how much of the first thing affects it. But the first thing is still the spatio-temporal unity of all its characters.

In relation to a percipient, this is the simple fact that all experience is selective and depends on the position in space and time, and on the sensibility or other receptivity of the mind. An object wears partial aspects to the percipient on different occasions, and the thing perceived is collected from many experiences which are synthesised. The varying aspects of a thing are then called its sensible appearances; and it is hardly possible to speak of the relations of things in general to one another in this regard without using the language of human experience. The table presents a different aspect to the fireplace and to the wall. The glass vessel is sensitive to acids which do not affect the platinum crucible; and the like (chs. iv. and vii.).

IV. Since Space-Time is continuous, things are not cut off from one another, and a thing itself contains other things, and is part in turn of a larger complex. Thus the room in which I write contains chairs, and walls, and air, and me, and is also part of the house. At the same time fairly distinct lines are drawn in nature (in Space-Time) which make it artificial to speak of me together with my chair as a thing in the same sense as I am a thing or the chair is a thing; just because we can be parted from each other. Now the characters which belong to anything intrinsically are those which are contained within its own spatio-temporal volume. These are presented to any compresent thing as the ‘sensible appearances’ of the thing. But the thing owing to its combination with something else may affect a compresent thing (A) differently from when it is alone. Thus when the stick is half immersed in a pool, the light proceeding from the stick to a lens (the lens of the human eye is only a particular case) produces an image of a bent stick, because the lower half of the stick is a stick in water and not in air. Thus the aspect which the stick wears is not intrinsic to the stick in air. Again, it may happen that if A has a defect or is unlike in any way to things of its kind, and is thus abnormal, the thing will not produce on A its standard effect but a distorted one; as for instance if a hammer strikes a cracked metal bell, or a ‘dud’ shell buries itself in the ground without exploding.

When A is a percipient we say that the sensible appearances of the thing which is masked by the cooperation of some other condition do not really belong to the thing; that they are not its sensible appearances but its ‘mere appearances.’ When the abnormal character of A affects the result, the appearances are illusory appearances, and A is the victim of illusion in his apprehension of the object (chs. vii. and viii.).

V. The processes within a substance are in direct or indirect causal relation with one another; the thing acts in a determinate way. In mind mental acts are also connected causally with one another, and the mind is subject to determination like all other things. But the mind enjoys its own life and the causal interrelation of its states is enjoyed as freedom (ch. x.).

VI. Every finite is a part which subsists within Space-Time, and so far as it retains its own individual character it is accommodated or adapted to its surroundings in Space-Time. Such accommodation means the return of a separate thing out of its relative isolation into participation with the whole. In respect of minds, this adaptation to other minds which surround it and to the world of other things is the foundation of values—truth, goodness, beauty (as well as the special case of economic value). Unvalues—error, badness, ugliness—rest on the failure of adaptation and consequent impermanence of the thing in its evil form (ch. ix.).

These are some if not all1 of the relations (whether internal or external) among things which arise from their belonging to the one Space-Time. They are not primary categorial characters of things, for they presuppose the existence of things as empirical, that is as possessing Quality. They arise out of the participation of things in Space-Time, and they are thus not empirical characters. They may be called derivative universal characters. Now it would be feasible, however difficult, to carry the inquiry further in detail along these general lines, and to exhibit in each case the corresponding features of mental life. But the procedure would be intolerably artificial. Already we have found it difficult to present the data without metaphors derived from human experience. In particular the last two problems, those of freedom and value, are almost unmeaning without prior reference to ourselves—the problem whether freedom is a unique privilege of man or, as will appear, a common feature of all finites when regarded from their own point of view; and the problem whether values are confined to us or have their analogues lower down in the scale. Accordingly in the statement of these last empirical problems I have been obliged barely to name the general grounds of the relations in question, without attempting to formulate it in such fulness as was possible with the other three, leaving the sequel to make the statement plausible. It is just because our minds are but one set of things amongst others, and at the same time are, in this connection at least, so much more familiar to us, that all the problems arise for us naturally in reference to our own experience, and traditionally are always so treated.

Accordingly I shall treat these problems, in what remains, as they present themselves in mind, leaving the reader to translate the results back into the simpler general form, and return hereafter, so far as may be necessary, to things in general. I shall thus expound the general relations in their illustration by mind. Moreover, while the treatment still remains of the nature of a sketch, it will be necessary to enter into some detail as to the nature of the mental life; partly because though in psychology and the sciences of values there is a large amount of results which are accepted, there is great doubt and disagreement as to the fundamental ideas of these sciences—the middle propositions, as Bacon called them, are a vast and growing field, but the elementary conceptions are open to revision; partly because the mind has not generally been regarded from the point of view of these general metaphysical problems; partly also because I am much more familiar with the subject-matter of these than of the other sciences.

  • 1.

    See later, ch. ix. F, p. 312, for a possible seventh problem.