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Chapter X: I’s and Thou’s

§ 1

“We believe” (said our creed of familiar knowledge) “in a world of men and things.” In the last three chapters I endeavoured to find a satisfactory method of justifying our leading beliefs about things, with (it must be owned) no very conspicuous success. Let us now turn from things to men and see whether in this region of speculation “methodological doubt” will give us happier results.

In pursuing this object the course naturally marked out for us by the general scheme of the argument is to attempt to deal with men, as in the last lecture we attempted to deal with things. In other words, to start with accepted beliefs, and endeavour to find for them satisfactory philosophic support. But here we encounter obstacles which did not trouble us when we were discussing the external world. Our beliefs on that subject are embodied for us in the science of our day. This, to be sure, is no unchanging quantity, and inane earlier lecture I dwelt on the accelerating speed with which, since the scientific era began, man's outlook on Nature had altered and developed. But, in spite of it all, the account which science gives of the most fundamental relations between the observed and the observer remains essentially the same, and we know with some precision what it is that in this connection we have to find a place for in our philosophy of the familiar. In the matter of “I's” and “thou's” we have no such aid. Physical science is silent; psychology hesitating; physiology, when it offers an opinion, unhelpful; philosophy divided against itself. Uncriticised common sense speaks with little authority; and in any case would be much embarrassed were it required to formulate the beliefs about human personalities, about “thee” for instance, and about “me,” which it is firmly resolved to entertain.

§ 2

In the heading of this chapter I describe our problem as one concerning “I's” and “thou's.” But why (you may ask) should we distinguish them? From what point of view can it be useful to say anything about an “I” which cannot also be said about a “thou”? Are they not members of one class? If the members of that class differ among themselves, as of course they do, are their differences in the least relevant to those which are indicated respectively by the first and second person singular? If not, why encumber the problem with a distinction so futile, expressed in terms so unexpected?

But if we are to remain faithful to the individualistic principle which I have already explained and defended, the distinction is one which cannot be ignored. From the point of view of knowledge the status of an “I” is utterly different from the status of a “thou.” An “I” knows himself, or at least something about himself, immediately and from within. About no “thou” does he know anything, except indirectly and from without;—unless, indeed, it be through some kind of thought transference or mystic intuition which few persons would as yet be willing to admit and still fewer be prepared to explain. The New Realists indeed take a different view; to which I shall presently more particularly refer. But leaving these two alternatives for the present on one side, all that any “I” can know of other people's minds is presumably based upon experiences of other people's bodies. “I” (it may be argued) am vividly aware of my own organism, and am conscious of its intimate connection with my own mental life. “I” observe other organisms, which in form and behaviour closely resemble my own. “I” feel justified, therefore, in arguing that in their case also there must be “I's” existing in the background, and that to every particular body is yoked a particular mind.

Observe that I am not suggesting that this argument, be it good or bad, describes the actual process by which we, in fact, become convinced that we are personalities in a world of personalities. Obviously it does not. Nor for our present purpose does it the least matter. We are not for the moment concerned with the train of causes and effects, psychical and physiological, subjective and inter-subjective, which invariably produce this belief in normal human beings. Our present business is to discover, not how the belief arose, but how, being there, it can be rationally justified; and from this point of view I must own that the argument I have just summarised leaves something to be desired.

In the first place, it is open to the general objection that it makes my belief in “thou's” entirely dependent on my belief in such independent material objects as my body and thine. Doubtless this belief is an essential part of our familiar creed; but it is not one with which philosophy has so far dealt in any very satisfactory fashion; while there is one philosophic theory which, if accepted, would, it seems, entirely destroy any system which attempted to base our knowledge of other minds upon the argument from analogy. Mentalism, as we saw, resolves matter into a complex of sensations and ideas. “Thy” organism, therefore, and “mine” are, as experienced by me, nothing more, and nothing other, than groups of “my” mental states. How from such a premise can I argue by analogy to “thy” separate existence? It is no doubt true that the group of my mental states labelled my organism has a relation to me different from that of the group of my mental states labelled thy organism. But both groups are mine, not thine; and why the second group should be connected with what, for me, is a “thou” because the first group is connected with what, for me, is an “I,” seems hard to understand. The view is plausible only if we start with the ordinary belief that both organisms have an independent material existence. Grant this, and it seems fair enough to argue that if one organism is attached to what is (for itself) an “I,” so also should be the other. But their independent material existence is precisely that which mentalism denies. On this theory they have only one status—that of mental phenomena. And the only mind in which I can become immediately acquainted with these mental phenomena must evidently be my own. Even, therefore, if “thou” exist, thou canst not on this theory reveal thyself to “me,” nor is there any road open to “me” by which “I” can hope to penetrate to “thee.”

But this, you may say, is no better than “solipsism”—the fantastic theory which reduces the knowable universe to me and my states of mind, or, if you prefer it, to my states of mind without a me. I agree. Solipsism has always seemed to me the natural issue of mentalism, since if my idealism be of a kind which destroys the belief in matter, it will destroy also the only argument based on experience as ordinarily conceived for the existence of any mind but my own—a conclusion impossible to accept, yet by no means so easy to refute as some very distinguished philosophers seem to imagine.

§ 3

This difficulty, if it be one, is peculiar to philosophic mentalism. Let me briefly refer to other difficulties which seem inseparable from philosophic realism.1 The New Realists are by no means content with the indirect evidence for the existence of “thou's” supplied by the argument from analogy. They think, if I rightly understand them, that we may have direct acquaintance with other people's minds,—an acquaintance wider indeed and more trustworthy than any acquaintance we have with our own. An “I” (it seems) knows, or may know, the experiences of a “thou” better than he knows his own, and he knows them (I gather) in much the same way!

This, I own, seems to me one of the most violent paradoxes to be found in modern philosophy. I do not deny that it is in harmony with the New Realists'general theories on the nature of actuality. They hold, as I understand them, that my toothache is not merely mine. It is mine, no doubt, in so far as it is part of my experience. But it need not be experienced either by me or by anyone else. In itself it is essentially an independent entity, which so far as we know may simultaneously be an element in many people's experiences, or may, on the other hand, for ever remain unfelt and unknown—a “neutral” element in the realm of unexplored reality.

It is quite in conformity with this point of view that my dentist should know more of my toothache than I. And in one sense we may all agree that he does. He knows its causes, its consequences, and, perhaps, its cure. “I” may know none of these things. But surely “I” suffer under a direct acquaintance with it of a sort which my dentist neither possesses nor desires to possess. What I know, I know intuitively and from within. What he knows, he knows inferentially and from without. This second kind of knowledge may obviously be the most agreeable. It is so in the case of a toothache. It may also be the most complete. It is so in the case of a man of the world who divines the motives of those with whom he consorts more quickly and more surely than they. It is so in the case of the moralist who exposes unthought-of mean nesses to the horrified conscience of those who practise them. It is so in the case of the trained psychologist who imparts to his pupils general verities about their inner life which they might themselves have discovered by introspection had they known how to look. But are we, therefore, to say that the dentist, the man of the world, the moralist, the psychologist, have the same sort of direct apprehension of what passes in other minds as they have of what passes in their own? I cannot think so. My feelings may be guessed by my companions; but in the absence of some kind of mystical intercommunion they can be experienced only by myself. The possibility of such mystical intercommunion I do not wish to deny. But it is not this, I imagine, that the New Realists desire to recommend to our favourable notice.

§ 4

So far I have been concerned with the difficulties which beset our inevitable beliefs in the being and character of our fellow-men. But how about our own being and character? I have been insisting that while “thou's” are known only by inference, “I's,” on the other hand, are known immediately by intuition. One might be tempted in these circumstances to suppose that what we know intuitively we ought to know well, and that what is looked at from within should be clearly seen. Unfortunately this is not so. How many persons are there prepared to explain the nature of that self whose existence seems to them so obvious and so certain? What is an “I,” an “Ego,” a “subject,” a “self-conscious personality,” or by whatever other name, fitting or unfitting, it figures in ordinary discourse and in works on philosophy? Does it exist? What are we to say about its characteristics, its place (if any) in experience, its reality, its relation to particular mental phenomena such as thoughts, or feelings, its relation to such material things as the nervous system, its natural origin, its natural end, the stages (if any) of its development?

We are here in the presence of a philosophic situation not unlike that which confronted us when discussing the problem of the external world. In our ordinary moments, in the practice of daily life, neither mind nor matter, neither persons nor things, suggest difficulties as to the general character of the really existent. We accept them cheerfully, and ask no questions. But if compelled by the necessities of our argument we do ask questions, speculative mists immediately arise, and even the beliefs which remain inevitable lose much in precision of outline.

§ 5

In proof of this, consider for a moment the following example. I cannot doubt that I know something about myself—that, in other words, I am not only conscious but self-conscious. I am confident, again, that I am an enduring entity—in other words, that I have a past of which the present is a continuation, and a present which is always melting into a future. These are beliefs which I entertain without misgiving about myself; and I do not for a moment suppose that my case is exceptional. Formulated or unformulated such convictions are the common property of mankind. But will they bear critical examination—the unsparing application of “methodological doubt”?

Take, for instance, the statement that I am a self-conscious being—that I have (at least some) immediate knowledge about myself. This to me is indubitable; but is it clear? Let us suppose that I feel hungry. Whatever else this feeling may be it is certainly one of my conscious states. Is it necessarily also a self-conscious state? Do I never hunger without knowing that I hunger? Is there no element in the latter condition of mind which was not also fully present in the former? Even if the two conditions are distinguishable in thought, are they separable in fact? To me the answer which best harmonises with the immediate evidence supplied by introspection and memory might be indicated as follows:

Present feelings may certainly be part of a self-conscious state; that is, they may be recognised by me as mine, while I am experiencing them. This, however, seems far from being the invariable rule. When I interrogate memory I have no difficulty in recalling feelings, which I know with complete assurance were mine, but which, so far as I can recollect, were not realised as mine while they were still being felt. To be sure, if I had thought about the question I should immediately have known them to be mine. But I was so absorbed in the feelings themselves that there was not room, so to speak, in consciousness for self-consciousness, for the recognition of the fact that the feeling was being felt by me.

The “I,” therefore, in which each one of us inevitably believes, is not always realised by us as a continuing entity through all our waking hours, much less through our hours of sleep. It suffers eclipse whenever consciousness either fades away or is strongly concentrated on some absorbing object or situation. As an element, therefore, in our experience its appearances are spasmodic, and its continuity through all our changing states, however certain, cannot be established by contemporary observation. It is true that the very act of recollection by which my past experiences are known carries with it the full assurance that they were mine—though on what the assurance is based is not, it may be, quite so evident.

§ 6

Sceptical empiricists, following Hume, would, indeed, not be content with the modest admission that our consciousness of a continuing self was broken and imperfect. They would say that no such self exists. If it does exist, where (they ask) is it to be discovered? It is neither a sensation nor an idea; we can neither see it nor feel it; it is neither a concrete entity nor an abstract notion; though the contents of consciousness be explored to their remotest depths we never find it; though its name is for ever on our lips it vanishes into nothingness when we strive to close with it in thought.

For philosophers of this school an “I” would seem to be no more than a succession of mental states loosely held together by partial recollections of its own vanished fragments, but wholly without any enduring bond which could unite its diverse elements into one self-conscious whole. How, from dust like this, can man be formed? Can a procession of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and memories constitute, singly or collectively, any tolerable substitute for the “I's” and “thou's” of common sense and familiar knowledge? These may defy description, but at least they compel belief; they may not satisfy the sceptic, but they meet the needs of life. Nor will the analysis which we owe to Hume and his successors provide us with any theory more agreeable to reason. Its results can hardly be expressed in ordinary language. Grammatical and linguistic usage is so saturated with “I's” and “thou's” that it is scarcely possible to dispute the ordinary doctrine without the help of phrases which imply that the ordinary doctrine is true. This, it may be replied, is the fault of language, not the fault of philosophy. Perhaps so. But the fault is so deeply rooted in the practice of mankind, that it is itself in great need of a philosophical explanation.

§ 7

Try, for example, and translate into terms that will conform to Hume's analysis some such declaration as this: “Since first we met, thou and I have always loved one another.” I will not attempt the task, for in its integrity it seems to me plainly impossible. What the lover here implicitly assumes is exactly what our philosophic analysts explicitly deny. He asserts about himself that he loves—thus plainly distinguishing himself from his feelings. He implies also that while these feelings have been of no transitory character, yet he himself—the “I” that feels—existed before them, and exists independently of them, thus assuming his personal identity in the midst of change. What he believes about himself he evidently believes (mutatis mutandis) about the lady of his affections; and great would be his surprise were he informed that, inasmuch as, strictly speaking, there are no “I's” and no “thou's” neither he nor the lady can properly be said to exist as persons. Two minds we may indeed assume—minds in the shape of more or less organised processions of mental events. But no such processions are capable either of constancy or love, however frequently amorous emotions may figure in their ranks. Mentalism of this type can never give us personality. Will materialism serve us better? If the lover in our illustration shrinks from the notion that one procession of mental states can pay court to another, is he prepared to adopt the views which some modern realists have taken under their protection? Will he substitute for the loves of two mental processions the loves of two material nervous systems? Romance, perhaps, will suffer; but in exchange he may believe himself to have obtained what he greatly needed—a basis of psychical continuity solidly established on sound scientific data.

But will he? Evidently (with all deference to psycho-physical idealists) my nervous system is not myself. It may be, and from the physiological point of view it certainly is, a constant member of all the varying groups of material causes associated with my states of mind. But, unless I perceive it, which is plainly impossible, it is never on any theory one of those states itself; and if it were, it would still not be me—a cause of “me” perhaps—but not me.

§ 8

I am aware that some distinguished philosophers even in our own day take a different view. Their description of mind is materialistic in the full-blown fashion which, when I was young, we used to call “crude.” In their own opinion they and their nervous systems are one—a doctrine which I will not attempt to refute, for to me it seems not so much incorrect as meaningless. I understand, though I do not accept, the theory that every psychic state is completely accounted for by some physiological cause, so that mind may be treated as no more than a function of matter. I also understand the view that as every organism has a unity of its own, it may be expected to impress some kind of unity upon the collection of mental states which, on this theory, are its product. But that an “I” should not only depend on matter but be matter2 is a doctrine which I am unable to comprehend, and cannot, therefore, venture to dispute.

  • 1.

    I do not say anything in this connection about scientific, as distinguished from philosophic, realism. As we have seen, this has troubles of its own, which are, of course, transferred undiminished to any theory which founds its belief in a multitude of minds upon resemblances between material organisms realistically conceived. But if the ordinary scientific view of the physical world be accepted, as I accept it, the argument from analogy, indirect though it be, is certainly plausible, and I have nothing to say against it.

  • 2.

    I find it hard to put any other construction on much that Professor Perry says in “Present Philosophic Tendencies,” ch. xii.

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