An introduction to the philosophy of conciousness-James Ferrier-1838

An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness
Part 1

James Frederick Ferrier

February 1838

Chapter I.

Among the fables of the East there is a story which runs thus. A certain young man inherited from his forefathers a very wonderful lamp, which for generations had been the ornament of his family, and from which he now derived his livelihood, as they, in former times, had done. Its virtues were of such a nature that, while by its means all his reasonable wants were supplied, a check was, at the same time, imposed upon any extravagant exercise of its beneficence. Once-a-day, and no oftener, might its services be called into requisition. It consisted of twelve branches, and as soon as these were lighted, twelve dervishes appeared, each of whom, after performing sundry circumvolutions, threw him a small piece of money, and vanished. Thus was the young man provided every day with means sufficient for his daily subsistence; and his desires being moderate, he for a long time considered this a bountiful provision, and remained satisfied with the good which he enjoyed upon such easy terms.

By degrees, however, when he reflected upon his situation, his heart became disturbed by the stirrings of avarice and ambition, and a restless desire to know more of the extraordinary source from whence his comforts flowed. He was unwilling to die, like his ancestors, and transmit the lamp to his posterity, without at least making the attempt to probe his way into its profounder mysteries. He suspected that he was merely skimming the surface of a sea of inexhaustible riches, the depths of which he was sure the lamp might be made to open up to him, if he but understood and could give full effect to the secret of its working. And then, if this discovery were made, what earthly potentate would be able to vie with him in magnificence and power!

Accordingly, being filled with these aspiring thoughts, and eager to learn, if possible, the whole secret of the lamp, he repaired with it to the abode of a magician, who was famous for all kinds of recondite knowledge. The old man, when he beheld the lamp, perceived at a glance its surprising virtues, and his eyes sparkled at the sight. But when again he turned to the young man, his looks became suddenly overcast, and he thus cautioned him in the words of long experienced wisdom. “Be contented with thy lot, my son,” said he, “and with the good thou now enjoyest. The ordinary favours of the lamp enable thee to live in comfort, and to discharge correctly all the duties of thy station. What more wouldst thou have? Take it, therefore, home with thee again, and employ it as heretofore. But seek not to call forth, or pry into its more extraordinary properties, lest some evil befall thee, and the attempt be forever fatal to thy peace.”

But the young man would not be thwarted in his project. The counsel of the magician only served to whet his curiosity by showing it to be not unfounded, and to confirm him in his determination to unravel, if possible, and at whatever hazard, the mysterious powers of his treasure. The old man, therefore, finding that he would not be gainsaid, at length yielded to his entreaties, and by his art compelled the lamp to render up the deeper secrets of its nature. The twelve branches being lighted, the twelve dervishes made their appearance, and commenced their usual gyrations, which, however, were speedily cut short by the magician, who, seizing his staff, smote them to the earth, where they instantly became transformed into heaps of gold and silver, and rubies and diamonds. The young man gazed on the spectacle with bewilderment, which soon settled into delight. Now, thought he, I am rich beyond the wealth of kings; there is not a desire of my heart which may not now be gratified. Eager, therefore, to experiment at home, he hastily seized the lamp, and bade adieu to the magician, who, turning from him with the simple word “beware,” left him to his fate.

No sooner was he alone, than he lighted the lamp, and repeated what he believed to be the other steps of the process he had just witnessed; but, lo! with what a different result. He had not remarked that the magician held his staff in his left hand when he smote the genii; and as he naturally made use of his right, the effect produced was by no means the same. On the contrary, instead of being changed into heaps of treasure beneath his strokes, the dervishes became transformed into vindictive demons, and handled the incautious experimenter so roughly, that they left him lying half dead on the ground, with the lamp in fragments by his side.

Reader! this lamp is typical of thy natural understanding. Thou hast a light within thee sufficient to enlighten thy path in all the avocations of thy daily life, and to supply thee with everything needful to thy welfare and success upon earth. Therefore be not too inquisitive about it. Whatever thy calling be, whether lofty or low, tend thy lamp with care and moderation, and it will never fail thee. It is a sacred thing; and perhaps thy wisest part is to let it shine unquestioned.

Take example from the tranquil ongoings of creation. There is no self-interrogation here: and yet how glorious and manifold are the results. There is no reflex process passing within the trees of the forest, when, drinking in life at their hidden roots, they dazzle thine eyes with beauty elaborated in darkness. Is this because there is no reason spread abroad through the kingdoms of nature? If thou thinkest so, go and be convinced of the contrary by beholding the geometry of the bee when she builds her honeyed cells. Here is reason, but reason going at once to its point, reason working out its end in a natural and straightforward line. It turns not back to question, and ask the meaning of itself. It entangles its employer in no perplexities; it weaves for him no web of matted sophistries, but how peaceful are its operations, and how perfect are its effects! Go thou, and do likewise.

Next turn to those who, thwarting the natural evolution of their powers, have turned round upon themselves, and questioned the light by which their spirits saw, and what a different spectacle is presented to thee here. What ravelled crossings, and what a breaking-up of the easy and natural mechanism of thought! For them the holy fire of their early inspiration is burnt out; and what is on the altar in its place? Perhaps a fire holier and more precious than the first; the light of an unconsuming and unlimited freedom, self-achieved, and higher than that which man was born to. But more probably the altar is overthrown, and the phantoms of scepticism, fatalism, materialism, or idealism, are haunting the ground whereon it stood, while the man lies prostrate beneath their blows. Wilt thou not take warning from his fate?

Thou, like other created things, wert born a child of nature, and for long her inevitable instincts were thy only guides. Art thou willing to remain still under her fostering care; wilt thou, for ever, derive all thy inspiration from her; and be quickened by her breath, as the budding woods are quickened by the breath of spring? Be so, and in thy choice be active, be contented, and be happy.

But art thou one who believes that thy true strength consists, in every instance, in being a rebel against the bondage of nature; that all her fetters, however flowery, must be broken asunder; and that all her lessons, however pleasing, must be scattered to the winds, if man would be emphatically man? Then thou art already a philosopher indeed, and all these words are vain as addressed to thee. Thou hast now found thy true self, where alone it is to be found, in opposition to the dominion and the dictates of nature, and thou wilt own her guardianship no more. Her laws and thy laws now no longer agree, but stand opposed to each other in direct and irreconcilable hostility. Nature works beautifully, but blindly and without reflection. Thou must work, it may be with pain and difficulty, but, at the same time, with a seeing soul, and a full consciousness of what thou art about. Nature fills thy heart with passions, and tells it to find its happiness in giving way to them. But, out of consciousness, conscience has germinated; and thou sayest unto thyself, that passion is to be trodden underfoot. In the midst of thy afflictions, nature lends thee no support, no comfort except the advice that thou shouldst yield to them. Obey her dictates, and thou shalt sink into the dust; but listen to thyself, and even in the heart of suffering, thou shalt rise up into higher action. Further, art thou determined to follow out this opposition between nature and thyself, and, for practical as well as speculative ends, to look down into the foundations on which it rests? Then it will be idle to seek any longer to deter thee from penetrating into the “obscure cave of old philosophy,” to have thine eyes unscaled, and the innermost mysteries of thy “lamp” revealed to thee. Thou hast chosen thy part; and, for the chance of freedom and enlightenment, art willing to run the risk of having thy soul shaken, and thy peace overthrown, by the creations of thy own understanding, which may possibly be transmuted into phantom demons to bewilder and confound thee. Still pause for a moment at the threshold, and before entering carry with thee this reflection; that thy only chance of safety lies in the faithfulness and completeness of thy observations. Think of the fate of the young man who observed imperfectly, and, dreading an analogous doom, pass over no fact which philosophy may set before thee, however trivial and insignificant it may, at first sight, appear. Do thou note well and remember in which hand the magician holds his staff.

Chapter II.


In resorting to philosophy, therefore, there is no safety except in the closeness and completeness of our observations; and let it be added, that there is no danger except in the reverse. Push speculation to its uttermost limits, and error is impossible, if we have attended rigidly to the facts which philosophy reveals to us: overlook perhaps but a single fact, and our reason, otherwise our faithful minister, and truly a heap of untold treasure, may be converted into a brood of fiends to baffle and destroy us.

The whole history of science shows that it is inattention to the phenomena manifested, and nothing else, which, in all ages, has been the fruitful mother of errors in the philosophy of man. Entirely in consequence of this kind of neglect have philosophical systems become vitiated. A taint enters into them by reason of the exclusion of certain essential particulars: and when the peccant humour breaks out, as it is sure to do sooner or later, it is strange that this incipient symptom of a cure is often mistaken for the worst form of the disease. Never was such a taint more conspicuously brought to light, never was such a mistake as to its nature more strikingly illustrated, than in the instances of Locke and Hume. Locke, founding on the partial principle of an older philosophy, “Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu,” banished all original notions from the mind. Hume, following in the footsteps of the approved doctrine, took up the notion of cause and effect, and demonstrated that this relation could not be perceived by sense, that it never was in sense, and that consequently the notion of it could not possibly have any place in intelligence. In fact, he proved the notion of cause and effect to be a nonentity. But all moral reasoning, or reasoning respecting matters of fact, rests upon the notion of cause and effect: therefore all moral reasoning rests upon a notion which is a nonentity; and by the same consequence is a nonentity itself. Thus Hume, following fairly out the premises of Locke, struck a blow which paralysed man’s nature in its most vital function. Like Samson carrying the gates of Gaza, he lifted human reason absolutely off its hinges; and who is there that shall put it on again upon the principles of the then dominant philosophy?

But what was the issue of all this; what was the good consequence that ensued from it? Was it that the conclusion of Hume was true? Far from it. Hume himself never dreamt it to be so, never wished that it should be thought so. Such an intention would have been at variance with the whole spirit of his philosophy—the object of which was to expose, in all its magnitude, the vice of the prevailing doctrines of his times. Is this, says he, your boasted philosophy? Behold, then, what its consequences amount to! And his reductio, designed, as it was, to act back upon this philosophy, and to confound it, was certainly most triumphant. If Hume did not rectify the errors of his predecessors, he at any rate brought them clearly to light; and these errors consisted in the omission of certain phenomena, by which man was curtailed of his real proportions, and emptied of his true self. Take another instance. What has involved the doctrine of perception in so much perplexity, except the uncertainty and fluctuation which prevail respecting its facts? Without speculating one word on the subject, let us look for a moment to the facts of the question, let us see in what a state they stand, and how they have been dealt with by two of our most illustrious philosophers. At the time of Hume three facts were admitted in the prevailing doctrine of perception, and understood to stand exactly upon the same level with regard to their certainty. First, the object (i.e., the external world perceived). Second, the image, impression, representation, or whatever else it may be called, of this. Third, the subject (i.e., the mind of man perceiving). Hume embraced the second of these as a fact immediately given; but displaced the other two as mediate and hypothetical. Reid, on the other hand, rejected the second as mediate and hypothetical, and maintained the first and third to be facts immediately given. So that between the two philosophers the whole three were at once admitted as facts, and rejected as hypotheses. Which is right and which is wrong cannot be decided here. Probably Hume is not so much in the wrong, nor Reid so much in the right, as they are generally imagined to be; for it is certain that common sense repudiates the conclusion of the latter, just as much as it does that of the former. The subject and object, mind and matter, supposing them to exist, are certainly given in one indivisible simultaneous fact constituting immediate perception. This is what the natural understanding maintains. This is the fact of representation, the second in our series:—a synthesis perhaps of the other two facts; but nevertheless, according to the testimony of common sense, a distinct and undeniable fact, just as much as they are distinct and undeniable facts. This is the fact which Hume admits, and which Reid, however, rejects—his rejection of it being indeed the very lever by which he imagines himself at once to have replaced the other two facts in their original position, and to have displaced the conclusions by means of which Hume was supposed to have dislodged them. Common sense, therefore, is not more enlisted on the side of Reid, than on the side of Hume; and the truth is, the question remains as much open to question as ever. But the issue to which these philosophers have brought it, prove that there must have been some flaw in the original observation of the facts of perception. The great discrepancy between them, and the fact that neither of them has brought the question to any satisfactory termination, notwithstanding the thorough and sifting manner in which they have discussed and exhausted all the materials before them, can only be accounted for upon this ground. They have certainly made it apparent that the phenomena of perception have never been correctly observed, or faithfully stated: and that is the good which they have done.

But the danger accruing from inattention on the part of man, to the facts revealed to him in the study of himself, is to be seen in its strongest light when reflected from the surface of his moral and practical life. Man takes to pieces only to reconstruct; and he can only reconstruct a thing out of the materials into which he has analysed it. When, therefore, after having analysed himself, he seeks to build himself up again (such a task is self-education), he can only work with the divided elements which he has found. He has nothing else under his hand. Therefore, when any element has escaped him in the analysis, it will also escape him, and not be combined, in the synthesis: and so far he will go forth into the world again shorn of a portion of himself—and if the neglect has involved any important ingredient of his constitution, he will go forth a mutilated skeleton. Such things have often happened in the history of mankind. Speculative inquirers, who, in analysing man (i.e., themselves), or man’s actions (i.e., their own), have found no morality, no honour, no religion therein, have seldom, in putting the same together again, placed any of these elements in their own breasts as practical men. And after a time, it is the tendency of these omissions, and of this influence of theory upon practice, to operate on a wider scale, and pervade the heart of the whole people, among whom such things occur, particularly among its well-educated ranks—witness France towards the end of the last century, with its host of economists, calculators, and atheists, who emptied the universe of morality, and set up expediency in its stead.

“Arouse man,” says Schelling, “to the consciousness of what he is, and he will soon learn to be what he ought.” It may be added, teach him to think himself something which he is not, and no power in heaven or in earth will long keep him from framing himself practically in conformity with his theoretical pattern, or from becoming that which he ought not to be. Speculative opinion always acts vitally upon practical character, particularly when it acts upon masses of men, and long generations. Theory is the source out of which practice flows. The Hindoo beholds himself, as he conceives, whirling, with all other things, within the eddies of a gigantic fatalism. So far he is a speculator merely. But trace out his philosophy into his actual life, and see how supine he is in conduct and in soul. All his activities are dead. His very personality is really gone, because he looks upon it as gone. He has really no freedom of action, because he believes himself to have none. He views himself but as “dust in the wind,” and viewing himself thus, he becomes, in practice, the worthless thing which in theory he dreams himself to be. Fatalism, too, has ever been the creed of usurpers; and they have ever made it their apology, also in their strivings after more tyrannical rule. Did conscience for a moment cross the path of these scourges of the earth, it was brushed aside with the salving dogma that man is but a machine in the hands of a higher power. Napoleon, in his own eyes, was but a phantom of terror shaped on the battle-field, by the winds of circumstance, out of the thunder-smoke of his own desolating wars; and, with this reflection, his enslaving arm was loosed more fiercely than before. Finally, through inattention to the true phenomena of man, we may be misled into all the errors of Rochefoucault. And here our errors will not stop at their theoretical stage. In order to prove our creed to be correct, we must, and will ere long make our own characters correspond with his model of man, believing it to be the true one.

Such and so great is the peril to which we are exposed in our practical characters, as well as in our speculative beliefs, from any oversight committed in studying the phenomena of ourselves. There is no call upon any man to observe these phenomena. Sufficient, in general, for his day are the troubles thereof, without this additional source of perplexity. But if he must study them, let him study them faithfully, and without curtailment. If he will bring himself before the judgment-seat of his own soul, he is bound to bring himself thither unmutilated and entire, in order that he may depart from thence greater and better, and not less perfect than he came. He is not entitled to pass over without notice any fact which may be exhibited to him there, for he cannot tell how much may depend upon it, and whether consequences, mighty to change the whole aspect of his future self, may not be slumbering unsuspected in this insignificant germ. Let him note all things faithfully; for although, like the young man in the fable of the lamp, he may be unable to divine at first the great results which are dependent on the minutest facts, he may at any rate take a lesson from his fate, and, when studying at the feet of philosophy, may observe correctly in which hand that magician holds his staff.

Chapter III.


But, inasmuch as our observation must not be put forth vaguely or at random, but must be directed by some principle of method, the question comes to be,—In what way are the true facts of man’s being to be sought for and obtained? There is a science called the “science of the human mind,” the object of which is to collect and systematize the phenomena of man’s moral and intellectual nature. If this science accomplishes the end proposed, its method must be the very one which we ought to make use of. But if it should appear that this science carries in its very conception such a radical defect that all the true and distinctive phenomena of man necessarily elude its grasp, and that it is for ever doomed to fall short of the end it designs to compass—then our adoption of its method could only lead us to the poorest and most unsatisfactory results. That such is its real character will, it is believed, become apparent as we proceed.

The human mind, not to speak it profanely, is like the goose that laid golden eggs. The metaphysician resembles the analytic poulterer who slew it to get at them in a lump, and found nothing for his pains. Leave the mind to its own natural workings, as manifested in the imagination of the poet, the fire and rapid combinations of the orator, the memory of the mathematician, the gigantic activities and never-failing resources of the warrior and statesman, or even the manifold powers put forth in every-day life by the most ordinary of men;—and what can be more wonderful and precious than its productions? Cut into it metaphysically, with a view of grasping the embryo truth, and of ascertaining the process by which all these bright results are elaborated in the womb, and every trace of “what has been” vanishes beneath the knife;—the breathing realities are dead, and lifeless abstractions are in their place; the divinity has left its shrine, and the devotee worships at a deserted altar; the fire from heaven is lost in chaotic darkness, and the godlike is nothing but an empty name. Look at thought, and feeling, and passion, as they glow on the pages of Shakespeare. Golden eggs, indeed! Look at the same as they stagnate on the dissecting-table of Dr Brown, and marvel at the change. Behold how shapeless and extinct they have become!

Man is a “living soul;” but science has been trained among the dead. Man is a free agent; but science has taken her lessons from dependent things—the inheritors and transmitters of an activity—gigantic indeed, but which is not their own. What then will she do when brought face to face with such a novelty, such an anomaly as he? Instead of conforming herself to him, she will naturally seek to bend him down in obedience to the early principles she has imbibed. She has subdued all things to herself; and now she will endeavour to end by putting man, too, under her feet. Like a treacherous warrior, who, after having conquered the whole world in his country’s cause, returns to enslave the land that gave him birth, Science, coming home laden with the spoils of the universe, will turn her arms against him whose banner she bore, and in whose service she fought and triumphed. By benumbing a vitality she cannot grasp, and by denying or passing by, blindly or in perplexity, a freedom she can neither realize nor explain, she will do her best to bring him under the dominion of the well-known laws which the rest of the universe obeys. But all her efforts ever have been, and ever shall be, unavailing. She may indeed play with words, and pass before us a plausible rotation of “faculties.” She may introduce the causal nexus into thought, and call the result “association.” But the man himself is not to be found in this “calculating machine.” He, with all his true phenomena, has burst alive from under her petrific hand, and leaves her grasping “airy nothings,” not even the shadow of that which she is striving to comprehend; for, though she can soar the solar height, and gaze unblinded on the stars, man soars higher still, and, in his lofty region, she has got waxen wings, that fall to pieces in the blaze of the brighter sun of human freedom.

These things are spoken of physical science; but they apply equally to the science of the human mind, because this science is truly and strictly physical in its method and conditions, and, to express it in general terms, in the tone it assumes, and the position it occupies, when looking at the phenomena of man. As has been already hinted, it is not wonderful that man, when endeavouring to comprehend and take the measure of himself, should, in the first instance at least, have adopted the tone and method of the physical sciences, and occupied a position analogous to that in which they stand. The great spectacle of the universe is the first to attract the awakening intelligence of man; and hence the earliest speculators were naturalists merely. And what is here true in the history of the race, is true also in the history of the individual. Every man looks at nature, and, consciously or unconsciously, registers her appearances long before he turns his eyes upon himself. Thus a certain method, and certain conditions, of inquiry, are fixed; what is considered the proper and pertinent business of science is determined, before man turns his attention to himself. And when he does thus turn it, nothing can be more natural, or indeed inevitable, than that he should look at the new object altogether by the light of the old method, and of his previously-acquired conception of science. But man not having been taken into account when these conceptions were first formed, and when this method was fixed, the question comes to be—how does this application of them answer when man forms the object of research? For it is at least possible, that, in his case, the usual mode of scientific procedure may misgive.

It is unfair to condemn anything unheard. It is idle and unreasonable to charge any science with futility without at least endeavouring to substantiate the charge, and to point out the causes of its failure. Let us, then, run a parallel between the procedure of science as applied to nature, and the procedure of science as applied to man, and see whether, in the latter case, science does not occupy a position of such a nature, that if she maintains it, all the true phenomena for which she is looking necessarily become invisible; and if she deserts it, she forgoes her own existence. For, be it observed, that the “science of the human mind” claims to be a science only in so far as it can follow the analogy of the natural sciences, and, consequently, if its inability to do this to any real purpose be proved, it must relinquish all pretensions to the name.

In the first place, then, what is the proper business and procedure of the natural sciences? This may be stated almost in one word. It is to mark, register, and classify the changes which take place among the objects constituting the material universe. These objects change, and they do nothing more.

In the second place, what is the proper business and procedure of science in its application to man? Here science adopts precisely the same views, and follows precisely the same method. Man objectises himself as “the human mind,” and declares that the only fact, or at least that the sum total of all the facts appertaining to this object, is that it is visited by certain changes constituting its varieties of “feeling,” “passion,” “states of mind,” or by whatever other name they may be called, and that the only legitimate business of science here is to observe these changes and classify them.

This makes the matter very simple. The analogy between mind and matter seems to be as complete as could be wished, and nothing appears to stand in the way of the establishment of kindred sciences of the two founded upon this analogy. But let us look into the subject a little more closely; and not to rush hastily into any difficulties without a clue, let us commence with certain curious verbal or grammatical considerations which lie on the very surface of the exposition given of the usual scientific procedure, as applied both to nature and to man. A phenomenon breaking through the surface of language, and startling our opinions out of their very slumbers, makes its appearance, we may be sure, not without authentic credentials from some deeper source; and if we attend to them we may be assisted in rectifying our hasty views of truth, or in correcting errors that we may have overlooked by reason of the very obviousness and boldness with which they came before us. First, however, it is to be premised that the reader must suppose himself in the situation of one who can extract no more from language than what the words, of themselves, that is, taken irrespectively of any previously acquired knowledge on his part, afford to him. He must bring no supplementary thought of his own to eke out explanations which the words do not supply him with. He must not bridge or fill up with a sense born of his own mind, hiatuses which the language leaves gaping. It is only upon such conditions as these that the question upon which we are entering can be fairly canvassed; it is only upon these conditions that we can fairly test the “science of the human mind,” and ascertain, as we are about to do from its verbal bearings, whether it be a valid or a nugatory research.

Chapter IV.

In order, therefore, to make sure that the requisitions demanded in the preceding chapter are complied with, let us suppose the following dialogue to take place between an “enquirer” into “the human mind,” and an inhabitant of some planet different from ours: a person who can bring to the discussion neither ignorant prejudices nor learned prepossessions, and whose information respecting the subject in hand does not outrun the language in which it is conveyed.

The universe, commences the metaphysician,[1] is divided into two distinct orders of existence, mind and matter. Matter is known by its changes alone, mind also is known only by its changes. Thus, continues he, for all scientific purposes, the analogy between the two is complete, and science in both cases is practicable only by noting these changes and the order in which they recur.

“But may I ask,” interposes the foreign interlocutor, “to whom these changes are known?”

“To me, the inquirer, to be sure!” answers the metaphysician.

“Then,” rejoins the other,” ought you not, logically speaking, to say that your universe resolves itself into three distinct orders of existence: 1st, Mind; 2d, Matter; and 3d, This which you call ‘me,’ to whom the changes of the other two are known; and when sciences of the first and second are complete, does not a science, or some knowledge, at least, of the third still remain a desideratum?”

“Not at all,” replies the inquirer, “for ‘I’ and ‘mind’ are identical. The observed and the observer, the knowing subject and the known object, are here one and the same: and whatever is a science of the one is a science of the other also.”

“Then you get out of one error only to be convicted of another. You set out with saying that mind, like matter, was visited by various changes, and that this was all; you said that changing was its only fact, or was, at least, the general complementary expression of the whole of its facts. So far I perfectly understood the analogy between mind and matter, and considered it complete. I also saw plainly that any principles of science applicable to the one object would likewise be applicable to the other. But when you are questioned as to whom these changes are known, you answer ‘to me.’ When further interrogated, you will not admit this ‘me’ to be a third existence different from the other two, but you identify it with mind, that is to say, you make mind take cognizance of its own changes. And in doing this, you depart entirely from your first position, which was, that mind did nothing more than change. You now, in contradiction to your first statement, tell me that this is not all. You tell me that moreover it is aware of its own changes—and in telling me this, you bring forward a fact connected with mind altogether new. For to change and to be cognisant of change; for a thing to be in a particular state, and to be aware that it is in this state, is surely not one and the same fact, but two totally distinct and separate facts. In proof of which witness the case of matter;—or perhaps matter also does something more than change; perhaps matter too has a ‘me,’ which is identical with it, and cognisant of its changes. Has it so? Do you identify your ‘me’ with matter likewise, and do you make matter take notice of its own changes? And do you thus still preserve entire the analogy between mind and matter?”

“No.”

“Then the parallel is at an end. So far as the mere fact of change in either case is concerned, this parallel remains perfect, and if you confine your attention to this fact, it is not to be denied that analogous sciences of the two objects may be established upon exactly the same principles. But when you depart from this fact, as you have been forced to do by a criticism which goes no deeper than the mere surface of the language you make use of; and when you take your stand upon another fact which is to be found in the one object, while the opposite of it is to be found in the other object; the analogy between them becomes, in that point, completely violated. And this violation carries along with it, as shall be shown, the total subversion of any similarity between the two methods of inquiry which might have resulted from it, supposing it to have been preserved unbroken. You have been brought, by the very language you employ, to signalize a most important distinction between mind and matter. You inform me that both of them change; but that while one of them takes no cognizance of its changes, the other does. You tell me that in the case of matter the object known is different from the subject knowing, but that in the case of mind the object known is the same as the subject knowing. Disregarding, then, the fact of change as it takes place in either object, let us attend a little more minutely to this latter fact. It is carelessly slurred over in ordinary metaphysics; but it is certain, that our attention as psychologists ought to be chiefly directed, if not exclusively confined to it, inasmuch as a true knowledge of any object is to be obtained by marking the point in which it differs from other things, and not the point in which it agrees with them. We have found in mind a fact which is peculiar to it; and this is, not that it changes, but that it takes cognizance of its changes. It now remains to be seen what effect this new fact will have upon your ‘science of the human mind.’ “

“First of all,” says the metaphysical inquirer, “allow me to make one remark. I neglected to mention that mind is essentially rational. It is endowed with reason or intelligence. Now, does not this endowment necessarily imply that mind must be conscious of its various changes, and may not the matter in this way be relieved of every difficulty?”

“To expose fully,” replies the other disputant, “the insufficiency of this view, would require a separate discussion, involving the real, and not the mere logical bearings of the question. This is what we are not at liberty to go into at present We are confining ourselves as much as possible to the mere language of metaphysical inquiry—I, therefore, content myself with answering, that if by reason is meant conscious or reflective reason, and if this is held to be identical with mind, of course, in that case, mind is necessarily conscious of its own changes. But such reason is not one phenomenon but two phenomena, which admit of very easy discrimination, and which are often to be found actually discriminated both in ourselves and in the universe around us. Reason, taken singly, and viewed by its own light, is a mere ‘state of mind’ in which there is nothing, any more than there is in the ‘states of matter,’ to countenance the presumption that it should take cognizance of its own operation; à priori, there is no more ground for supposing that ‘reason,’ ‘feeling,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘states of mind’ whatsoever, should be conscious of themselves, than that thunder and lightning, and all the changes of the atmosphere should. Mind, endow it with as much reason as you please, is still perfectly conceivable as existing in all its varying moods, without being, at the same time, at all conscious of them. Many creatures are rational without being conscious—therefore human consciousness can never be explained out of human reason.”

“All I suppose, then, that can be said about the matter,” replies the inquirer, “is, that human consciousness is a fact known from experience.”

“Exactly so,” rejoins the other; “and now we have reached the point of the question, and I wish you to observe particularly the effect which this fact has upon ‘the human mind,’ and the ‘science of the human mind.’ The results of our arguments shall be summed up and concluded in a few words.”

“Matter is not ‘I.’ I know it only by its changes. It is an object to me. Objicitur mihi. This is intelligible enough, or is at least known from experience, and a science of it is perfectly practicable, because it is really an object to me. Suppose, then, that ‘mind’ also is not I, but that I have some mode of becoming acquainted with its phenomena or changes just as I have of becoming acquainted with those of matter. This, too, is perfectly conceivable. Here, also, I have an object. Aliquod objicitur mihi: and of this I can frame a science upon intelligible grounds. But I can attribute no consciousness to this object. The consciousness is in myself. But suppose I vest myself in this object. I thus identify myself with mind, and realize consciousness as a fact of mind, but in the meantime what becomes of mind as an object.[2] It has vanished in the process. An object can be conceived only as that which may possibly become an object to something else. Now what can mind become an object to? Not to me, for I am it, and not something else. Not to something else without being again denuded of consciousness; for this other being could only mark its changes as I did, and not endow it with consciousness without vesting in it its own personality, as I had done. Perhaps you imagine that the synthesis of ‘I’ and ‘mind’ may be resolved; and that thus the latter may again be made the object of your research. Do you maintain that the synthesis may be resolved in the first place really? Then you adopt our first supposition when we supposed that ‘mind’ was not ‘I.’ In this case ‘mind’ is left with all its changing phenomena, its emotions, passions, &c. and the consciousness of them remains vested in that which is called ‘I,’ and thus ‘mind’ is divested of its most important fact; or, in the second place, do you suppose the synthesis resolved ideally? But, in this case too, it will be found that the fact of consciousness clings on the one side of the inquiring subject (‘I’), and cannot be conceived on the side of the object inquired into (‘mind’), unless the synthesis of the subject and object which was ideally resolved be again ideally restored. The conclusion of this is, that if the synthesis of ‘I’ and ‘mind’ be resolved either really or ideally, consciousness vanishes from ‘mind,’ and if it be maintained entire, ‘mind’ becomes inconceivable as an object of research. Finally, are you driven to the admission that mind is an object, only in a fictitious sense; then here indeed you speak the truth. That which is called ‘I’ is a living reality, and though mind were annihilated, it would remain a repository of given facts. But that which is called mind is truly an object only in a fictitious sense, and being so, is, therefore, only a fictitious object, and consequently the science of it is also a fiction and an imposture.”

“How, then, do you propose to establish a science of ourselves?”

“In the first place, by brushing away the human mind, with all its rubbish of states, faculties, &c., for ever, from between ourselves and the universe around us: and then by confining our attention exclusively to the given fact of consciousness. Dr Reid was supposed to have done philosophy considerable service by exploding the old doctrine of ideas. By removing them he cut down an hypothesis, and brought ‘mind’ into immediate contact with external things. But he left the roots of the evil flourishing as vigorously as ever. He indeed lopped no more than a very insignificant twig from a tree of ignorance and error, which darkened, and still darkens, both the heavens and the earth. Until the same office which he performed towards ideas be performed towards ‘mind’ itself, there can be neither truth, soundness, nor satisfaction in psychological research. For ‘the human mind’ stands between the man himself and the universe around him, playing precisely, only to a greater and more detrimental extent, the part of that hypothetical medium which ideas before the time of Dr Reid played between it and outward objects. And the writer who could make this apparent, and succeed in getting it banished from the vocabulary of philosophy, and confined to common language as the word ideas now is, would render the greatest possible service to the cause of truth. Is it not enough for a man that he is himself? There can be no dispute about that. I am—what more would I have? what more would I be? why would I be ‘mind?’ what do I know about it? what is it to me, or I to it? I am myself, therefore let it perish.”

Chapter V.


In the foregoing dialogue it was shown that language itself, and consequently that the very nature of thought, render impracticable anything like a true and real science of the human mind. It appeared that if mind be conceived of as an object of research, its vital distinguishing and fundamental phenomenon, namely, consciousness, necessarily becomes invisible, inasmuch as it adheres tenaciously to the side of the inquiring subject; and that if it be again invested with this phenomenon, it becomes from that moment inconceivable as an object. In the first case, a science of it is nugatory, because it cannot see or lay hold of its principal and peculiar phenomenon. In the second case, it is impossible, because it has no object to work upon. We are now going to tread still more deeply into the realities of the subject.

In the preceding chapter the question was put, whether reason or intelligence, considered as the essential endowment of mind, was not sufficient to explain away every difficulty involved in the consideration, that while one kind of existence (matter) changed, without being aware of its changes, another kind of existence (mind) also changed; and, moreover, took account to itself of its changes, or was cognizant of them. In virtue of what does this difference exist between them? In virtue of what does this cognizance take place in the one case and not in the other? It is answered, in virtue of reason present in the one instance, and absent in the other. But this is not so plain, so simple, or so sure as it appears. We now address ourselves to the examination of this question and answer; as the subject we had in hand in the foregoing chapter did not permit us to discuss them fully in that place.

Leaving man out of the survey, let us look abroad into the universe around us, and consider what is presented to us there. In mineral, in vegetable, and in animal nature, we behold life in the greatest possible vigour and variety. Active processes are every where going on; and throughout the length and breadth of creation there is a constant succession of changes. The whole earth is, indeed, teeming with every form and every colour of existence; and that enjoyment is there too, who can doubt when spring is in the air, and the lark singing in the cloud?

Here, then, we have a creation brimful of activity and life, and no pause in all its vigorous and multifarious ongoings. What is there, then, in man which is not to be found here also, and even in greater and more perfect abundance? Is it intelligence? Is it reason? You answer that it is. But if by reason is meant (and nothing else can be meant by it) the power of adapting means to the production of ends, skill and success in scientific contrivances, or in the beautiful creations of art, then the exclusive appropriation of reason to man is at once negatived and put to shame by the facts which nature displays. For how far is human intelligence left behind in many things by the sagacity of brutes, and by the works which they accomplish. What human geometer can build like a bird its airy cradle, or like the bee her waxen cells? And in exquisite workmanship, how much do natures still more inanimate than these transcend all that can be accomplished even by the wisest of men? “Behold the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin; yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them.” Perhaps you may say that these things are entirely passive and unintelligent in themselves, and that in reality it is not they, but the creator, who brings about all the wonders we behold; that the presiding and directing reason is not in them, but in him. And this may readily be admitted; but, in return, it may be asked home: Is man’s reason vested in the Creator too?

Do you answer yes? Then look what the consequences are. You still leave man a being fearfully and wonderfully made. He may still be something more than what many of his species at this moment are, mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. He may still be a scientific builder of houses and of ships—a builder and a destroyer of cities. He may still subdue to his dominion the beasts of the field, and raise himself to be a ruler over his fellow-men. The reason within him is not his own, yet in virtue of it he may perform works inconceivably wonderful and great. But, with all this, what is he, and what sort of activity is his? Truly the activity of a spoke in an unresting wheel. Nothing connected with him is really his. His actions are not his own. Another power lives and works within him, and he is its machine. You have placed man completely within nature’s domain, and embraced him under the law of causality. Hence his freedom is gone, together with all the works of freedom: and, in freedom’s train, morality and responsibility are also fled.

Do you answer No, to the question just put? Do you say that man’s reason is his own, and is not to be referred to any other being? Then I ask you why, and on what grounds do you make this answer? Why, in one instance, do you assign away the reason from the immediate agent, the animal, and fix it upon the creator, and why in another instance do you confine and attribute it to the immediate agent, the man? Why should the engineer have the absolute credit of his work? and why should not the beaver and the bee? Do you answer that man exhibits reason in a higher, and animals in a lower degree; and that therefore his reason is really his own? But what sort of an answer, what sort of an inference, is this? Is it more intelligible that the reason of any being should be its own absolutely, when manifested in a high degree, than when manifested in a low degree? or is the converse not much the more intelligible proposition? If one man has a hundred thousand pounds in his coffers, and another a hundred pence, would you conclude that the former sum was the man’s own, because it was so large, and that the latter sum was not the man’s own, because it was so small; or would you not be disposed to draw the very opposite conclusion? Besides, the question is not one of degree at all. We ask, why is the reason of man said to belong to him absolutely as his own, and why is the reason put forth by animals not said to belong to them in the least?

As it is vain, then, to attempt to answer this question by attending to the manifestations of reason itself, as displayed either in man or in the other objects of the universe, we must leave the fact of reason altogether, it being a property possessed in common, both by him and by them, and one which carries in it intrinsically no evidence to proclaim the very different tenures by which it is held in the one case and in the other; and we must look out for some other fact which is the peculiar possession of man: some fact which may be shown to fall in with his reason, and give it a different turn from the course which it takes in its progress through the other creatures of the universe, thus making it attributable to himself, and thereby rendering him a free, a moral, and an accountable agent. If we can discover such a fact as this, we shall be able, out of it, to answer the question with which we are engaged. Let us, then, look abroad into the universe once more, and there, throughout “all that it inherit,” mark, if we can, the absence of some fact which is to be found conspicuously present in man.

Continuing, then, our survey of the universe, we behold works of all kinds, and of surpassing beauty, carried on. Mighty machinery is everywhere at work; and on all sides we witness marvellous manifestations of life, of power, and of reason. The sun performs his revolution in the sky, and keeps his appointed pathway with unwearied and unerring foot, while the seasons depend upon his shining. The ant builds her populous cities among the fallen forest-leaves, collects her stores, and fills her granaries with incomparable foresight. Each living creature guards itself from danger, and provides for its wants with infallible certainty and skill. They can foresee the very secrets of the heavens, and betake themselves to places of shelter with the thunder in their quaking hearts long before the bolt falls which shatters the green palaces of the woods. But still verily “there is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen. The lion’s whelps have not trodden it, nor the fierce lion passed by it. The depth saith it is not in me: and the sea saith it is not in me.”[3] And this path which is “kept close from the fowls of the air,” and, with one exception, from the “eyes of all living,” is no other than the path of consciousness.

What effect has the absence of consciousness upon the universe? Does it empty the universe of existence? Far from it. Nature is still thriving, and overflowing with life throughout all her kingdoms. Does it empty the universe of intelligence? Far from it. The same exquisite adaptation of means to ends is to be witnessed as heretofore, the same well-regulated processes, the same infallible results, and the same unerring sagacities. But still, with all this, it is what may be termed but a one-sided universe; under one view it is filled to the brim with life and light. Under another view it is lying within the very blackest shadow of darkness and of death. The first view is a true one, because all the creatures it contains are, indeed, alive, and, revelling in existence, put forth the most wonderful manifestations of reason. The second view is also a true one, because none of these creatures (man excepted) know that they exist, no notion of themselves accompanies their existence and its various changes, neither do they take any account to themselves of the reason which is operating within them—It is reserved for man to live this double life. To exist, and to be conscious of existence; to be rational, and to know that he is so.

But what do we mean precisely by the word consciousness, and upon what ground do we refuse to attribute consciousness to the animal creation? In the first place, by consciousness we mean the notion of self—that notion of self, and that self-reference, which in man generally, though by no means invariably, accompanies his sensations, passions, emotions, play of reason, or states of mind whatsoever. In the second place, how is it known that animals do not possess this consciousness? This is chiefly known from the fact that certain results or effects in man may be distinctly observed and traced growing out of this consciousness or self-reference on his part, and these results not making their appearance in the animal creation, it is fairly to be inferred that the root out of which they spring is wanting in the animal creation too. The most important of these are conscience, morality, and responsibility, which may be shown to be based in consciousness, and necessary sequents thereof. It will be admitted that animals have no conscience or moral sense, therefore if it can be shown that this has its distinct origin in consciousness; that consciousness in its simplest act, contains the seeds of a nascent morality, which must come to maturity; it must also be concluded that animals have no consciousness either. Or if they have, deep and dreadful, indeed, is the condemnation they merit, having the foundation laid, and yet no superstructure erected thereupon; the seed sown, and yet the field altogether barren. Wherever we behold corn growing, we conclude that corn has been planted; and wherever we behold none, we are entitled to infer that the conditions upon which corn grows have been awanting—namely, that the sowing of it has never taken place. There are other reasons besides these; but as it will probably be universally admitted that animals do not possess the notion of self, and are incapable of any sort of self-reference, it seems unnecessary to argue this point at any greater length.

We have found, then, the fact of consciousness prominently visible in man, and nowhere apparent in any other being inhabiting the universe around him. Let us now pause upon this fact, and, availing ourselves of its assistance, let us sum up very shortly the results to which it has conducted us. The first question put was, whether man, being endowed with reason, is not, on that account, necessarily cognisant of his powers; whether in virtue of it he does not necessarily form the notion of self, and become capable of self-reference; and, in short, whether reason ought not to be regarded as the essential and characteristic property by which he may be best discriminated from the other occupants of the earth. A review of the universe around us then showed us that other creatures besides man were endowed with copious stores of reason, and that their works were as rational and as wonderful as his. So far, therefore, as mere reason on either side was concerned, they and he were found to stand exactly upon the same footing. The facts themselves forbade that he should appropriate it exclusively to himself. But here the argument was interrupted by the statement that the reason of animals is not their own. This was rebutted by the question: is man’s reason, then, his own? Was the answer no? then freedom, morality, and responsibility were struck dead, and other consequences followed, too appalling to be thought of. Was the answer yes? then some reason for this answer was demanded, and must be given, for it contradicts the other statement with regard to the reason of animals, in which it was declared that this power was not their own. To find, then, a satisfactory reason of fact for this answer, we again looked forth over the life-fraught fields of creation. We there still beheld reason operating on a great and marvellous scale, and yet at the same time we found no consciousness thereof. This, then, plainly proved that the presence of reason, by no means necessarily implied a cognizance of reason in the creature manifesting it. It proved that man, like other beings, might easily have been endowed with reason, without at the same time becoming aware of his endowment, or blending with it the notion of himself. The first question, then, is completely answered. It does not follow that man must necessarily take cognizance of his operations, and refer his actions to himself because he is rational, for all the other creatures around are also rational, without taking any such cognizance, or making any such reference—neither can reason be pointed out as his peculiar or distinguishing characteristic, for it is manifested by all other beings as well as by him.

But when we turned from the universe to man, we found in him, besides reason, another fact, a phenomenon peculiarly his own,—namely, the fact of consciousness. This, and this alone, is the fact which marks man off from all other things with a line of distinct and deep-drawn demarcation. This is the fact, out of which the second question which occupied us is to be answered. This is the fact, which reason falling in with, and doubling upon in man, becomes from that moment absolutely his own. This is the fact which bears us out in attributing our reason and all our actions to ourselves. By means of it we absolutely create for ourselves a personality to which we justly refer, and for which we lawfully claim, all our faculties, and all our doings. It is upon this fact, and not upon the fact of his reason, that civilized man has built himself up to be all that we now know, and behold him to be. Freedom, law, morality, and religion have all their origin in this fact. In a word, it is in virtue of it that we are free, moral, social, and responsible beings.

On the other hand, look at the effect which the absence of this fact has upon the animal creation. Reason enters into the creatures there, just as it does into man, but not meeting with this fact, it merely impels them to accomplish their ends under the law of causality, and then running out, it leaves them just as it found them. They cannot detain it, or profit by its presence, or claim it as their own, indeed their reason cannot be their own, because, wanting this fact, they also necessarily want, and cannot create for themselves, a personality to which to refer it. In fine, because the fact of consciousness is not present within them, they continue for ever to be the mere machines they were born, without freedom, without morality, without law, and without responsibility.

Our present limits compel us to be satisfied with having briefly indicated these consequences, which result from the fact of consciousness; but we shall treat more fully of them hereafter. Our first and great aim has been to signalize and bring prominently forward this fact, as κατ᾽ ἐξοχηνthe psychological fact, the human phenomenon, neglecting the objects of it, namely, the passions, emotions, and all the other paraphernalia of “the human mind,” which, if they are psychological facts at all, are so only in a very secondary and indirect manner. And now, to round this part of our discussion back to the allegory with which we commenced it, let us remark, in conclusion, that this is the fact, upon an attentive observation of which our whole safety and success as philosophers hinge; and from a neglect of which, consequences most fatal to our intellectual peace may ensue. This is that minute and apparently unimportant fact upon which the most awful and momentous results are dependent. To pass it by carelessly (and thus it is too frequently passed by), is to mistake the left hand of the magician for the right, and to bring down upon our heads evils analogous to those which befell the unfortunate experimentalist who committed this error. To note it well is to observe faithfully in which hand the staff of the magician is held, and to realize glorious consequences similar to those which would have been the fortune of the young man, had his observations of the facts connected with his lamp been correct and complete. Let us, therefore, confine our attention to this fact, and examine it with care. Thus we shall be led into extensive fields of novelty and truth; and shall escape from the censorious imputation of the Roman satirist, who exclaims, in words that at once point out the true method of psychological research, and stigmatize the dreary and intolerable mill-round monotony of customary metaphysics,

“Ut nemo in sese tentat descendere, nemo!
⁠Sed præcedenti spectatur mantica tergo.”


  1.  In order to show that the accompanying dialogue is not directed against imaginary errors in science, and also with the view of rendering the scope of our observations more obvious and clear, we will quote one or two specimens of the current metaphysical language of the day. The whole substance of Dr Brown’s philosophy and scientific method is contained in the following passage.—”That which perceives,” says he (namely, mind), “is a part of nature as truly as the objects of perception which act on it, and as a part of nature is itself an object of investigation purely physical. It is known to us only in the successive changes which constitute the variety of our feelings; but the regular sequence of these changes admits of being traced, like the regularity which we are capable of discovering in the successive organic changes of our bodily frame.”—(Physiology of the Mind, p 1, 2.) “There is,” says Dr Cook of St Andrews, “a mental constitution, through which we communicate with the world around us.” (Synopsis of Lectures, p. 4.) We could quote a hundred other instances of this kind of language, but these two are sufficient for our purpose. Now, what is the obvious and irresistible inference which such language as this forces upon us, or, rather, what is the plain meaning of the words we have quoted? It is this,—that we possess a mind just as we possess a body, that is to say, that man consists of three elements, mind, body, and himself possessing both. This view of the subject may be disclaimed and protested against in words, but still it continues virtually to form the leading idea of the whole of our popular psychology. We may, indeed, be told that “mind” and ourselves are identical, but this statement is never acted upon to any real purpose, this fact is never sifted with any degree of attention. If it were, then “mind” would be altogether annihilated as an object of investigation. This is what we have endeavoured to make out in the chapter which this note accompanies.
  2.  Of course it is not merely meant that mind is not an object of sense. Far more than this; it is altogether inconceivable as an object of thought.
  3.  Job xxviii. 7.

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