Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mr. Mansel's Metaphysics

Mr. Mansel has just republished, in a separate form, an article on metaphysics which he contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and which illustrates the common conviction that it is almost equally unlikely that metaphysical inquiries should ever lose their interest or ever issue in any conclusion. It is not necessary, in order to account for this, to resort to the humiliating theory that metaphysics are merely a game which ingenious people may play at indefinitely. The true inference is that their value must not be measured by their tendency to produce unanimity. They have substantial indirect results, for they furnish convincing proofs of the falsehood of many opinions, though they may not prove the truth of any. Almost all discussions upon politics, morality, theology, and other subjects which interest human beings as such, involve metaphysical considerations; and if it can be shown that the metaphysical foundation of a proposition belonging to any one of these subjects is wrong, the proposition itself falls to the ground, though it does not follow that the proposition is true because its metaphysical foundation is not shown to be unsound. A man's metaphysical opinions thus almost always are, and are almost universally regarded as being, the fortifications of his opinions, or of the opinions of those with whom he sympathizes, upon matters of more immediate interest; and every new metaphysical system, even if it differs little in essence from its predecessors, may be regarded as a new line of works thrown up to defend a position which always has been, and always will be, attacked and defended with all the resources which the existing state of skill and science can bring to bear upon it. The questions of free will, moral obligation, and the origin of knowledge, are like the barrier fortresses of Belgium and France. They are bones of contention in every generation, and are occupied sometimes by one power and sometimes by another, whilst they have been, or will be, attacked and defended by battering-rams, by archers, by arquebuses, and by Armstrong guns. The obstinacy and continuity of the warfare rather enhances than diminishes its interest; for, as the question whether Antwerp is to be French or Belgian for a whole generation is one of vast importance to that generation—though it is highly probable that in thirty or forty years the old quarrel will have come round to the old place—so the determination of the question whether, at a particular time, nominalism or realism is to give the tone to the leading minds of the period, though it constantly recurs, decides as constantly the whole complexion of each successive age.

Mr. Mansel's contribution to the great perennial controversy is a remarkable one. It is remarkable for its weight and brevity, and for the precision and vigour of the language in which it is embodied. It is divided into two parts, of which the first treats of pyschology, and the second of ontology—which include respectively the philosophy of the phenomena of consciousness, and of the realities by which consciousness is produced. Consciousness is a state of the conscious person, and though in itself a single act or state, may be mentally resolved into two elements—intuition, or presentative, and thought, or representative consciousness. Presentative consciousness is the recognition by the mind of sensation. Representative consciousness, or thought, includes three stages—the formation of a mental image of the object perceived by presentative consciousness; the formation of a general notion derived from a number of similar images; and the appropriation of a sign— generally (though not always, as in the case of the deaf and dumb) a name or word—to the notion. Thus the mind recognizes the impression which a tree makes on the retina of the eye—this is presentative consciousness. It then depicts it. From many such pictures it forms a general notion, and to that notion it at last appropriates a name. These three acts together constitute thought, or representative consciousness. By an obvious analogy, consciousness may be viewed in relation to its matter or to its form. The impressions supplied from without constitute its matter. The mind itself supplies the form which, in its widest sense, is that of relation to the mind; but this universal characteristic of consciousness manifests itself under the two special forms of space and time, subject to which we conceive, and cannot but conceive, all existences whatever; for every object which affects the senses occupies some portion of space, and every thought which occurs to the mind occupies some portion of time. As space and time are invariable elements of every act of consciousness, which no effort of thought can get rid of or conceive as absent—and as they are, both logically and in some degree chronologically, prior to the objects of sense— they are, in Mr. Hansel's opinion, innate elements of the ideas which experience calls into actual consciousness.

Passing from these general forms of consciousness to its special forms, he proceeds to describe the action of the different senses, as well as that of the different powers and passions of the mind; and amongst these he includes several elements the existence of which always has been, and will be, hotly contested. The most important of these are as follows:—He agrees in the opinion that there is in morality an intuitive element as well as one which is contributed by experience, though he observes that the two are so much mixed up together from the very beginning of our conscious life that we cannot say how much of our existing conception of morality at any given time belongs to either; but he believes that the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is an ultimate one, perceived, like the distinction between colours, by an intuition which supplies the foundation of all subsequent reasonings. He believes also in free will, the evidence of which he asserts to exist "in the consciousness of the power of choosing between two alternative determinations." He also believes that people are directly conscious of their personal existence. "Unless our whole consciousness is a delusion and a lie, self is something more than the aggregate of sensations, thoughts, volitions, &c I am immediately conscious of myself, seeing and hearing, thinking and willing." "This personality .... can be made clearer by no description or comparison, for it is revealed to us in all the clearness of an original intuition." He also believes that thought has its form as well as its substance, and that this form consists of three "laws of thought as thought"—which are identity (A is A), contradiction (A is not-A), and the law of the "excluded middle" ("every possible object is either A or not-A"). These three principles are the foundation of formal logic. Finally, he maintains that it is a "fact of consciousness which it is the duty of the philosopher to admit, instead of disguising it to suit the demand of a system," that" there are certain necessary truths which, once acquired, no matter how, it is impossible by any effort of thought to conceive as reversed or reversible." These are of four kinds—Logical judgments, in which the predicate is identical with the whole or part of the attributes comprehended in the subject, as that every triangle must have three angles; mathematical judgments, which express a necessary relation between two distinct notions concerning quantity, continuous or discrete, as that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, or that 7+5=12; moral judgments, which state the immutable obligations of certain laws of conduct, whether actually observed in practice or not, as that ingratitude or treachery must at all times, and in all persons, be worthy of condemnation; and lastly, metaphysical judgments, expressing an apparently necessary relation between the known and the unknown, between the sensible phenomenon and the supersensible reality—as that every attribute belongs to some substance, and that every change is brought about by some cause. The logical judgments are only particular cases of the general laws of thought just mentioned. The mathematical judgments, though suggested by the experience of external phenomena, are supplied by the direct intuition of the mind itself that two straight lines cannot enclose a space, or that two and two make four. Moral judgments, in the same way, give experience its form, and do not receive their form from it. Upon observing certain facts, I am conscious of an obligation to act in certain ways in reference to them, nor is it in my power to suppose this obligation to be reversed whilst my own personality is unchanged, for it is a constituent element of my personality. The metaphysical judgments as to cause and substance do not appear to Mr. Mansel to be as certain as the other three. They are only accidentally and not essentially necessary. We cannot think about qualities except as being the qualities of some thing, nor can we think of any occurrence except as preceded by some other without which it would not have occurred. But this inability is capable of being resolved into association.

Such are the principal points maintained by Mr. Mansel in relation to the constitution of the mind itself. Of that upon which the mind acts, or ontology, he says very little, and most of what he does say consists of an account of the views of others. His own opinions are summed up shortly in the book itself, and must here be referred to in a manner even more summary. The principal subjects upon which we think are the external world, ourselves and our own constitution, theology, morality, and all that is included under the word taste, in its most extended sense. Mr. Mansel maintains that, in relation to all these subjects, with the single exception of ourselves, or psychology, we deal with phenomena only, and not with realities — that all we can say about the external world is that we think, and are, by the constitution of our minds, compelled to think, certain thoughts, but that we have no means of ascertaining whether in fact there are, or are not, any realities independent of, and corresponding to, these thoughts. He entertains the same opinion with regard to theology, morality, and taste; but with regard to psychology, he says it is otherwise, for our consciousness does not prove, but constitutes our existence, and that consciousness asserts the existence of a permanent self under and inclusive of successive modifications, of which some are passive, and others active and determined by free will.

Such is a sketch of the main positions of Mr. Mansel's book—compressed, no doubt, to an extent which is barely compatible with a fair representation of its purpose and spirit, and which is incompatible with that full recognition and exemplification of the intellectual merits of the author which it would be unjust to omit from a more extended notice. It is, however, sufficient to render intelligible some observations on the general character of the class of speculations to which Mr. Mansel's work belongs. The practical importance of metaphysics depends principally on the fact that the two great metaphysical schools are the representatives in abstract speculation of the two great parties which divide between them almost every department of human affairs. To use a rough and scanty, but intelligible metaphor, those who refer our knowledge to sensation and experience are the Whigs, and those who refer it to intuition are the Tories, of speculation. The tacit conviction that this is so in the main, though the observation would require many important modifications before it could be advanced as even approximately true, is that which gives to metaphysical inquiry almost all the interest which it possesses for the world at large. Perhaps the broadest explicit metaphysical question in which this sentiment could find its full expression is, whether there are any opinions whatever in any department of human affairs which are by their own nature exempt from criticism and inquiry, and which, therefore, furnish that for which human nature is constantly craving, in one way or another—an ultimate, infallible standard of truth, by comparison with which the truth or falsehood of specific opinions may be decided. It will appear, from the foregoing account of his opinions, that, with many limitations and explanations, Mr. Mansel answers this question in the affirmative, though his admission (it is his own term, and it is a very characteristic one) that all departments of thought, including theology, but excepting psychology, are concerned with phenomena, and not with absolute realities, makes his speculations far more formidable to all received opinions than almost any others which have attained any considerable popularity. This point need not be discussed here, however interesting it may be to those who suppose that in Mr. Mansel they have at length found the Athanasius who is to beat down the heresies which flourish so vigorously in various departments of theological and social belief. The validity of his affirmative answer to the question just stated is a subject of discussion more suitable to this place. With all the skill of a subtle controversialist, Mr. Mansel contrives to put his propositions in a form which makes it very difficult for any one to be sure whether he agrees with them or not. The distinction between psychology and ontology—between the subject which thinks and the objects of which it thinks—is broad in appearance, but subtle in reality, for it is next to impossible to keep up in speculation the distinction between the object which suggests the impression and the impression which is suggested. Indeed, the distinction itself (as Mr. Mansel admits) is hypothetical, and it is inevitably unnoticed by language. Thus, the earlier part of Mr. Mansel's book is full of propositions which are ontological in their terms, and would be so understood by any ordinary reader, but which he might probably defend against objectors by saying that he asserted them only psychologically.

There is, however, one objection to the whole of his theory upon the subject of consciousness which, if well founded, goes to the root of all attempts to lay down unassailable propositions. This objection seems occasionally to present itself to Mr. Mansel's mind; but he never fully states it, and, of course, does not answer it. It is as follows:—Thought, Mr. Mansel tells us, is composed of four stages or elements. First, there is the mental recognition of that physical emotion which constitutes one branch of sensation; next, imagination; then the formation of a notion from many images; and, lastly, the naming of the notion by means of language. Thought, therefore, implies language as its indispensable instrument; and, so far as we know, where there is no language there is no thought, in our sense of the word. Thus, whatever can claim the name of knowledge must be embodied in words or signs. Assuming this account of thought and of language to be true, it follows that between the first direction of the mind to any object whatever, and the enunciation of any proposition whatever about that object, there are four different openings at which any amount of error may enter—which error, being antecedent to the very construction of language, cannot be eliminated by its use. First, the mind may not fully take in the information which the senses supply; and that it does not always do so is plain from the fact that by repeated and careful attention we increase our knowledge of the appearance of objects. When a man looks, for example, at a pattern, he sees, first, a surface of confused colours, and afterwards colours disposed on a particular plan. Next, the imagination may form a more or less exact and complete picture of the object perceived. Thirdly, the notion derived from these pictures may express the important common features of each with infinitely various degrees of accuracy and completeness. And, lastly, the same is true of the appropriateness of the sign or word which is affixed to the notion. Thus words, which are the materials of thought, are impregnated with error. Daily experience informs us of the consequences. If any one attempts to determine the meaning of any one of the familiar words which are constantly passing his lips, he will find that each has its history, and that many form a sort of summary of the thoughts and observations of ages. What, for example, is the meaning of the common words "gentleman" and "comfortable?" Essays, perhaps volumes, might be written on either of them. What is meant by any one of the words which enter into the propositions asserted by Mr. Mansel to be absolutely and eternally true? Consciousness, he says, assures me of my own existence. But no one, as Mr. Mansel would say, is "presentatively" or directly conscious of a proposition. No one feels that the words "I exist" are absolutely true. What we all feel is something which we describe by those words, not because we know that they are absolutely true, but because we have always been accustomed to hear them. Our direct consciousness neither does nor can decide whether any and what ambiguities and mysteries lurk in the two words "I" and "exist," any more than that part of our consciousness to which we give the name of a perception of water tells us whether water is or is not composed of oxygen and hydrogen. What that is to which the word "I" is" affixed, is a boundless question. The word "exist" is a mere metaphor. No one could say that he was conscious of the proposition "I stand out;" and who can say what is the exact distance from its original meaning to which the word has travelled?

If these considerations are well founded, it will follow at once that whatever may be the process by which we arrive at what we call our knowledge— whether it is the result of mere experience, or whether, as certainly appears far more probable, the mind itself contributes something to what Mr. Mansel calls the form of thought—it will equally follow that such a thing as a self-evident verbal proposition, the absolute truth of which can never be contested, is not to be found; for the question as to the meaning of the words in which it is couched is always open, and the assertion that the words are either founded on imperfect observation, or imperfectly express the observation on which they are founded, or are incomplete metaphors, or are defective in some other essential particular, must always be open to proof. This is greatly confirmed by the circumstance that almost every word which describes mental operations is obviously metaphorical, and may therefore be assumed to be tentative and incomplete. To "attend," for example, is a metaphor from stretching; to "apply," a metaphor from folding; and men who have made a special study of philology would be able to illustrate this observation indefinitely. One thing at least is certain, that if any words are original names of specific things, and exactly fit and express them, many more are not, and we can never know which are which. Who, for example, can say that the words "space" and "time," of which Mr. Mansel speaks so definitely, really describe the things to which they apply as nearly as human language can describe them? Every one knows that nothing is more easy than to extract from the word "space" every sort of contradiction. Surely it is at least as possible that this may be the fault of the inadequacy of the word as that it proceeds, as Mr. Mansel seems to think, from conditions under which, by the constitution of our nature, we are compelled to think.

This objection lies against the whole of Mr. Mansel's theory, and is readily applied to each member of it. It entirely overthrows the authority of consciousness considered, as Mr. Mansel seems to consider it, as an enouncer of infallible dogmas; for consciousness is (or rather issues in) thought, thought must be embodied in language, and language is tentative, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory. This doctrine does not, however, lead, as it might appear at first sight to lead, to universal scepticism. It only shows what consciousness cannot do, but it by no means follows that men cannot be sure of anything, or even that the constitution of their own minds contributes nothing to that certainty. It would no doubt tend to overthrow that transcendental authority which Mr. Mansel claims for particular propositions; but it leaves untouched that other certainty of the truth of the very same propositions which is derived principally from experience, partly, in all probability, from experience modified by some attributes of the mind which it is beyond the power of human knowledge, at least in its present condition, to specify with precision. This may be illustrated by a single case. Mr. Mansel asserts that it is a "necessary truth" that two and two make four, that "by no possible effort of thought can we conceive that twice two can make any other number than four . . . nor yet can we conceive it possible that by any future change in the constitution of things, even by an exertion of Omnipotence, these facts can hereafter become other than they are, or that they are otherwise in any remote part of the universe." We are, he adds, far more certain that this is so than that day and night will continue, because it is a truth "conceived as possessing an eternal and absolute necessity which no exertion of power can change," whereas the other is "only one out of many possible arrangements."

The question is, whether our certainty of the truth of the multiplication table arises from experience or from a transcendental conviction of its truth excited by experience, but anterior to, and formative of it. Let Mr. Mansel consider this case. There is a world in which, whenever two pairs of things are either placed in proximity or are contemplated together, a fifth thing is immediately created and brought within the contemplation of the mind engaged in putting two and two together. This is surely neither inconceivable, for we can readily conceive the result by thinking of common puzzle tricks, nor can it be said to be beyond the power of Omnipotence, yet in such a world surely two and two would make five. That is, the result to the mind of contemplating two twos would be to count five. This shows that it is not inconceivable that two and two might make five; but, on the other hand, it is perfectly easy to see why in this world we are absolutely certain that two and two make four. There is probably not an instant of our lives in which we are not experiencing the fact. "We see it whenever we count four books, four tables or chairs, four men in the street, or the four corners of a paving stone, and we feel more sure of it than of the rising of the sun to-morrow, because our experience upon the subject is so much wider and applies to such an infinitely greater number of cases. Nor is it true that every one who has once been brought to see it is equally sure of it. A boy who has just learned the multiplication table is pretty sure that twice two are four, but is often extremely doubtful whether or not seven times nine are sixty-three. If his teacher told him that twice two made five, his certainty would be greatly impaired.

It would also be possible to put a case of a world in which two straight lines should be universally supposed to include a space. Imagine a man who had never had any experience of straight lines through the medium of any sense whatever suddenly placed upon a railway stretching out on a perfectly straight line to an indefinite distance in each direction. He would see the rails, which would be the first straight lines he ever saw, apparently meeting, or at least tending to meet, at each horizon; and he would thus infer, in the absence of all other experience, that they actually did inclose a space, when produced far enough. Experience alone could undeceive him. A world in which every object was round, with the single exception of a straight inaccessible railway, would be a world in which every one would believe that two straight lines enclosed a space. In such a world, therefore, the impossibility of conceiving that two straight lines can enclose a space would not exist; and Mr. Mansel rests his conclusion, that straight lines could not under any circumstances enclose a space, on the impossibility of conceiving that they should do so.

If Mr. Mansel's "necessary truths" are not adequate to such tests as these, how can he maintain that it is a necessary truth that "ingratitude" is wrong, when, with all his great ingenuity, he would find it impossible to say precisely what ingratitude means? The conclusion seems to be, that though it is neither impossible nor improbable that our words and feelings may represent external realities, physical, moral, and spiritual, we are in possession of no verbal propositions whatever respecting any one of them which can claim an exemption from inquiry on its own authority.

Saturday Review, June 30, 1860.

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