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The Limitations Of Knowledge

1. HODGE, who has never left his native village, knows little of this wondrous planet, and less of the wondrous universe of planets ; yet something of it he does know, and this knowledge is real, if narrow, nor would it be made more real by a wider horizon. The cattle grazing in the meadow, the pigs foraging through the quiet street, the apple-blossoms brightening the orchard, the rooks cawing among the squire's elms, the children at his hearth, the neighbors in the parlor of the King's Arms, the parson, the doctor, the squire, — these, and the other objects of his world, are realities, not phantasms ; nor are Hodge's affections and duties illusions. His world is bounded by a not very distant horizon. Visitors passing through his village now and then bring news from the larger towns. Newspapers carry to him murmurs of the far-off roar of things. These tell him that his world is not the whole world ; and the death of those dear to him tells dimly of a world of mystery surrounding all he knows. But these intimations of a larger life do but intensify the reality of his village life.

Hodge has a brother, who early left home, travelled far, learned something of other villages, cities, continents ; passed into strange lands where alien faces and unfamiliar voices obtruded on his notice. His conception of the world widened. The details of external nature acquired new significance for him. Things passed from the commonplace into the grandiose. The sun no longer pleasantly warmed; it scorched ; the wind became a whirlwind ; the rain a deluge ; woods were forests, hills mountains, cats tigers. In the moral world the changes were equally great. That which in one place was duty, in another place was sin, in a third was indifferent; what inspired honor here was held as infamy elsewhere. Yet under all these varieties there came to him no deepened sense of reality ; more relations of things were learned, but Life still remained at once the old revelation and the old mystery.

Hodge is the common man ; his brother a philosopher. The parochial conception of the world formed from the experience of the one is different from the provincial conception of the other; but neither conception embraces the whole Universe, though both conceptions are real, and relatively true.

2. The principle of the Relativity of Knowledge, which is indicated in these sentences,. is sometimes resisted on the ground of its leading to universal scepticism. The fact, however, is otherwise, and may be shown to be so by the teachings of Psychology and the examples of History. The certainty of knowledge is not affected by its circumscription. The principle of Relativity furnishes a Criterium which is coextensive with the domain of intelligence. The opposing principle is productive of scepticism, because it has no Criterium. It remains fluctuating, because its data are personal, and cannot be communicated. Those who, affecting to despise the certainty attainable through Science, because it can never transcend the relative sphere, yearn for a knowledge which is not relative, cheat themselves with phrases and were it not so, we might still fall back on the position that relative knowledge is all we need. The aim of Science is prevision, — the .guidance and regulation of action. Our ancestors guided their course by the stars, without knowing much about the stars ; the ascertainment of a few relative positions sufficed. Their successors constructed an elaborate science of Astronomy without inquiring into the nature of gravity, contented with the ascertainment of its law. And so throughout. What is positive may be absolutely certain and available, although it is but a small section of the circle swept by Speculation.

3. The world is to each man as it affects him ; to each a different world. Fifty spectators see fifty different rain-bows in the sky, and all believe they see the same one. Nor is this unanimity delusive ; for "the same" here means the similarity in their states of consciousness. Whether we affirm the objective existence of something distinct from the affection of consciousness, or affirm that this object is simply a reflection from consciousness, in either case we declare that the objective world is to each man the sum of his visionary experience, — an existence bounded on all sides by what he feels and thinks, — a form shaped by the reactions of his organism. The world is the sum total of phenomena, and phenomena are affections of consciousness with external signs.

4. We may for the present set aside the questions whether there is one Existence (Matter), and another Existence in every way contrasted with it (Mind) ; or only one Existence, Matter or Mind ; enough if we recognize the fact that among phenomena there are two classes, broadly distinguishable,—the material and the psychical. These classes require corresponding names, even should we finally regard them as only different aspects of a common reality, and with Fechner regard material and psychical as the convex and concave of the same curve.

At the outset, therefore, we declare the limitations of Research to be fixed by the natural limits of Consciousness. A truism, no doubt, but not to be despised. We can determine what problems are inaccessible (as distinguished from those which are simply unapproached) by ascertaining the conditions under which objects do affect, or could affect us ; and we can determine what elements in every problem are unapproachable, by ascertaining if they lie outside the sphere of Experience .

Nor would this position be disputed, in its first clause at least, even by those who believe in the possibility of a knowledge of things transcending Experience; for they claim their β priori organ as a " fact of consciousness "; and they affirm that because it is c priori its verdicts have a higher validity than those of inductive reasoning. In presence of such a school we must be careful not to affix limits to the reach of Investigation, which this school would reject. It would be absurd to exclude an organ so important as that named Intellectual Intuition (or its equivalent fund of Innate Ideas, Fundamental Truths, d priori Forms of Thought), unless we could show either that this faculty does not exist, or, granting its existence, that its products must be so removed from all Verification as to, be of no avail in Research. The former alternative — that no such faculty exists — cannot be demonstrated ; since its assumed range of operation lies beyond the sphere of demonstration ; the latter alternative — that it lies beyond the sphere of Verification — is implied in the very statement of its pretensions. Philosophy, therefore, is not called upon to take any account of it, since for all the purposes of Research it is non-existent.* It is a musician playing on a violin without strings, in the halls of a castle in the air. Fancy may endow this musician with superhuman skill, since Fancy has created him ; but the melodies are too subtle for human ears.

5. Rejecting, as I think we must, the notion of a possible source of Knowledge transcending Experience, we may admit that the notion has had some justification in the great imperfection of the psychological analysis put forward by the Sensational School. Striking as have been the merits of that school, which explain its survival in the face of violent opposition and virulent criticism, and its gradual extension over the convictions even of opponents, these merits have not sufficed to displace altogether the doctrine of its opponents ; and very eminent thinkers still reject with scorn the conception of Knowledge being limited by Experience. This implies one of two things : either the doctrine itself is imperfect, or there is a radical imperfection in the statement of its principles and canons. I think both causes operate in keeping up the fundamental discordance between the empirical and metempirical schools. Let us first glance at the difficulties which' beset not only the investigation but the exposition of metaphysical questions, difficulties not found in science.

6. Suppose we have to ascertain the changes in Sensibility produced by some modification of a nerve-centre, or the introduction of some poison into the blood. Complex as the question is (bow complex only those can appreciate who have made the experiment), it is at any rate free from doubts overhanging the very instruments we employ, and the laws by which the effects are measured. If in physical research we use a thermometer, or a then-no-electric pile, we have no need to pause and investigate the theory of the instrument, or to prove that its indications are quantitatively exact. We accept from the chemist the reagents we employ, and the ascertained laws of their properties. We never need argue respecting the accuracy of chronometer or hygrometer. All the primary physical facts are ready to hand, and have not now first to be established. Quite otherwise is - it with Metaphysics. There every problem, besides its own obscurities, is overshadowed by the uncertainties hovering round its data. We cannot, for instance, accept Force as the cause of motion unless Cause and Motion have already been clearly defined ; and they are as obscure as the Force they are employed to render intelligible. We cannot stir a step in the exposition of the relation of Object and Subject without presupposing to be already settled fundamental points of Psychology which are still under discussion. No explanation can be given of Matter which does not involve a conception of Force. Thus the inter-connections which are potent aids in physical inquiry are so many obstacles in metaphysical research.

7. Over and above these difficulties there is the special difficulty arising from the misleading influence of language. The sciences have each their technical terms, terms which, however arbitrary, are exact, terms which mean always the same thing, and not various things. Exaggerated as Condillac's notion was of Science being simply une langue bien faite,* — ΰ notion which reappears in the writings of those who hold that Mathematics is founded solely on its definitions (as if the objective relations thus defined were not real), — there is an important truth in it ; and no one can doubt that the superior exactness of Mathematics would vanish if the language in which its operations are expressed were tainted with the laxity so common in Metaphysics. No equations could be successfully treated if 5 were sometimes the symbol of 4 + 1, sometimes of 4 + 3, and sometimes 2 + 1. Yet such variation in the values is trifling compared with the variation in many metaphysical terms. Probably no two men mean precisely the same thing by the word Sensation, or Thought, or Cause, or Force. If these terms agree pretty well in their denotations, they differ greatly in their connotations. Thus the proposition that thought is a transformed sensation, may appear preposterous, or indisputable, according to the meaning assigned to the terms. We often hear a dispute dismissed as "a dispute about terms." In Metaphysics, a dispute about terms is frequently the whole of the question : that once settled, Logic takes its course, and all differences disappear. I have already compared a metaphysician to the algebraist who does not assign arithmetical values to his symbols; and it is obvious that the chief difficulty in Metaphysics, as in Algebra, is finding the value of the unknown quantity which will satisfy the equation.

8. The great dispute respecting the origin of knowledge is a very striking example of this laxity in the use of terms ; and as the question is fundamental, we must pause here to consider it with some attention. Each school has seized one aspect of the truth ; and a reconciliation may be effected if we can point out the common ground of agreement, and their points of. divergence. In attempting such a reconciliation I am not unaware of the position which a mediator between con-tending schools must necessarily seem to occupy ; mediation always carries with it an air of superiority which is resented by both the antagonists ; nor will any disclaimer of such an assumption allay the irritation. On the other hand, the first lesson in controversy is to unlearn our native tendency to treat our adversaries as fools. If we learn this lesson, and try to seize the aspect of the truth which presents itself to their minds, we may find that this aspect which represents their experience also represents our own, and, that the points of difference are reducible to differences in the data, leading to errors of interpretation.

( Originally Published 1874 )

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