Experience and Thought


Creighton, J. E. “Experience and Thought.” The Philosophical Review 15, no. 5 (1906): 482. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177754


UNDER this very general title I wish to discuss certain fundamental doctrines regarding the nature of experience which are directly involved in the current discussion of pragmatism. The fact that some of those who have not been entirely swept from the old moorings by the strength of this 'new movement ‘still find it necessary at frequent intervals to take their bearings and define their position in relation to it, may be taken as a sufficient acknowledgement of its vitality and significance. Nevertheless, as Professor Moore has happily remarked, the differences in regard to pragmatism are still numerous enough to insure long period of fruitful development. But, in order that these differences may become really fruitful, they must be carefully defined, and the presuppositions on which they rest must be scrutinized and subjected to discussion. I shall try to show that the contentions of certain adherents of pragmatism regarding the nature of experience are based on principles that fail to take account of the significance of experience in its totality, or rightly to interpret its organic character.


It has been frequently maintained in recent discussion that the old epistemological problem has lost its meaning. The questions of the relation of knowledge to reality, and of the general proband functions of thought, it is said, have no longer any significance. For, it is urged, the distinctions which these questions commonly imply are artificial rather than real. When rightly understood, they are seen to be distinctions of function or use that arise and have a real meaning only within experience. More particularly, it is to be noted that this ' new movement 'is characterized by its identification of thought with the reflective process that arises as a definite response to a particular situation with experience. The whole meaning and significance of thought must, accordingly, be defined in terms of the particular experience out of which it arises, and of the immediate consequences to which it gives rise. There is thus no problem as to the nature of thought in general, and no reality apart from the specific situation in experience with which it is called upon to deal. The problem of logic consists in describing the instrumental function of thought in these definite situations, and thus exhibiting in detail its relation to the other aspects of experience.


This doctrine has been so clearly and persuasively set forth by well-known writers that it requires no further exposition in this connection. Nevertheless, I cannot persuade myself that the epistemological problem can yet be set aside as superannuated, though doubtless all schools of thought have got beyond the older formulation of it in dualistic terms. Students of the history of philosophy will scarcely concede, however, that to pragmatism belongs the credit for this advance. Dualism was definitely set aside by Kant and his successors in Germany a hundred years ago; and, thanks to the efforts of the so-called Neo-Hegelians, our English-speaking philosophy may be assumed to have abandoned that standpoint. But the truth that was contained in dualism must be retained, though the problem of experience has become radically transformed. This, it appears to me, has been largely overlooked by the exponents of pragmatism.


Nevertheless, one who criticizes pragmatism from the standpoint of idealism is confronted with peculiar difficulties. For his own watchwords are largely the same as those of the pragmatists. Like them, he is seeking to exhibit the unity of experience through the functional relation of its parts. And, in working toward this end, he has often to acknowledge the positive suggestiveness of much that is emphasized by certain representatives of the 'new movement.' But on the other hand, idealism can give no quarter to the conclusions in which pragmatists specially delight, the irrationalism, showing itself in a depreciation of thought and ideas, the relativity and subjectivism, and the uncritical claim to base itself upon 'pure' experience, for it recognizes in these doctrines its historical enemies under a new form. Now, in order to carry on this 'ancient quarrel' on equal terms, it is necessary at the present time to begin with an emphatic protest against the pragmatist's assumption that he and he alone speaks in the name of experience. The so-called 'radical empiricist' cannot be allowed to claim a monopoly of experience. The question of the nature of experience is the very point at issue. The idealist maintains that in his doctrine of immediate experience the pragmatist is appealing to an oracle that is dumber, in other words, that the conception of an immediate presuppositionless experience is a contradiction in terms. He has thus the ungracious task of thrusting presuppositions on the attention of those who have attempted to forswear all presuppositions and insisting on a method of procedure which shall be more adequate to experience than that of radical empiricism.


In order to make my criticisms more intelligible, however, I propose first to describe in outline the position from which they are made. This general point of view is, of course, not unfamiliar, though I hope that my statement of it may help to emphasize some points that are of importance at the present time.


It is necessary first of all to raise the question as to the concrete form of experience. In what terms are we to give the reading of experience? On the answer to this question our whole account will depend. Now, whatever may be the standpoint which psychology may find it convenient to assume, philosophy cannot begin with isolated mental states, but must recognize that experience consists from the first in an attitude of a subject to other subjects and to objects: We may for the present speak of this attitude as the subject-object relation. The subject and object are not, however, to be regarded as ontologically separate and independent, and as entering into external relations at this or that point of time. What we must insist upon is not a theory of dualism, but the essential duality of experience. What an experience could be without this form or prior to this duality I am unable to imagine. It therefore appears to me unjustifiable to regard the subject-object relation as derivative, as a functional relation within experience. For the relation of a subject to other subjects and to a world of objects is the universal form, and not a particular fact or function at all. The demand that this attitude of the subject shall be exhibited as a particular fact of the content of experience, as, for example, in the form of a definite process of will or feeling, on pain of being declared unreal, is based on presuppositions that would render all experience unintelligible. For though experience is life, its differentia is founding the fact that it is something more than life. Nor is it sufficient to say that experience is life that has become conscious of itself if we limit that consciousness to an awareness of its own states. For experience is essentially a life consciously lived in relation to an environment. The inner life of the subject exists precisely in and through this relation to objects and apart from this it is nothing. To attempt to define this subject-object relation in terms of something more ultimate is to confuse the problem which experience sets with the fruitless task of trying to show how experience is made.


Now there are two objections which may be made from opposite sides to the view here advanced, and although neither can be fully dealt with here, it may be well to consider them in passing in order to render more definite what has already been said. On the one hand, it may be urged that the attitude of self or subject to reality yields only an individual and subjective experience. How can such an individual experience possess the universality and necessity which characterizes real objectivity? This objection can be met only by insisting that the subject of experience is not a mere capacity for sensations or feelings but is essentially a process of objectification.


As we have seen, subject and object are correlative terms, and any defect in our conception of one of these terms is certain to involve a corresponding deficiency on the other side. Without genuine subject, no objects, and without real objects, no possibility of a true subject. For example, the unsatisfactory character of Berkeley's idealism, its lack of objectivity, is the immediate consequence of the empirical view of the self and its functions which he inherited from Locke. The subject with which we begin expresses itself, however, in no mere immediacy of sensation, but is itself a process of interpretation in terms of ideas and universal relations. Experience is, indeed, teleological as the expression of a conscious subject; but the ends and ideals by which it is guided are not merely personal attitudes or desires operating at haphazard, but possess the food universal demands, binding on all and also systematically related and connected. In other words, we are true to experience in our account only when we describe it as an effort to realize a rational life. And this rational life is something that is not realized in an individual consciousness as a thing apart but implies both a relation to objects and to other subjects. The relation to objects is obviously essential both from a theoretical and practical point of view. Rationality implies an objective order to be known which at once may serve as the limiting term and the instrument of our practical activity. But the relation to other subjects is not a less important or a less essential constituent of our experience. A rational life can be lived only in relation to other subjects who are regarded from the standpoint of our life, notes objects or means, but as sharing with us a common experience and cooperating with us in the realization of common ends. The demand for a rational life therefore carries with it a demand for a social life. So far from being a subjective affair, then, experience involves those relations to objects and to other subjects. If we use the term 'consciousness' to describe this attitude on the part of the subject, we may then say that consciousness is a claim that experience while remaining mine is also objective, valid beyond the present moment and not circumscribed by my mental states, and thus constitutes a rational order that is shared with other individuals.


The other difficulty is urged from the opposite point of view-If we regard experience as objective, it may be said, we fail to take account of its quality as the inner life of a subject. After all, experience is the life of an individual, and takes the form of his immediate sensations, feelings, and desires. The question philosophy must face, then, is how to get objectivity from such an experience.

It is undoubtedly true that philosophy must view experience as the conscious life of a subject; and I have elsewhere maintained that this standpoint is that which essentially differentiates science from philosophy. Nevertheless, the inner life of a subject is not subjectivity, but consists precisely in an attitude to objects and to other persons. Apart from this it is nothing. There Isa sense in which thought is primary and overlaps and includes the object, reducing it to the form of its own 'glassy essence, ‘but this position is not identical with, but rather fundamentally opposed to the theory that makes mental states or feelings primary.


It is only by abstraction that we get the mere 'affection of the subject,' and such an abstraction has no proper title whatever in the name of ‘inner experience.' The true inner experience is the rational life of a subject which, as such, includes and implies objective relations. It is not 'psychical fact' but interpretation and significance; and the 'psychological facts' of consciousness are abstract constructions from the standpoint of concrete experience. The tendency to abstraction is here so strong, however, and the historical influences so powerful, that our modern epistemology has not yet liberated itself from the doctrine of mental states.


In passing on to another point we may say that the attitude of the human subject to the world may be described as a demand for a rational life and that experience is the process in which that end is progressively realized. This attitude of the subject is, however, no abstract unity but takes many forms and realizes it through various modes of functioning. Nevertheless, if we describe these diverse forms of functioning as feeling attitudes, will attitudes, and cognitive attitudes, we must not overlook the fact that they are all organically united as parts of one rational life. Thinking or rationality is not limited to the process of abstract cognition, but it includes feeling and will, and in the course of its development carries these along with it. There is, of course, no such a thing as what we have called abstract cognition; but the different moments are all united in the concrete experience which we may name the life of thought. Furthermore, we are perhaps justified in using the term 'thought' in this way, since the cognitive attitude is more universal than either of the others and, as a process of mediation and interpretation, may be said to overlap and include them. For not only are states of feeling and will know, but in a human life at least, they seem to derive their meaning and place through falling within the life of knowledge. This is not, however, to deny the reality or genuine function 'of feeling' and will, or to imply that in the development of experience they are transformed into abstract logical truths. It has been rightly urged recently from many sides that knowledge involves and implies feeling and will as parts of its own concrete process. But it is equally true that feeling and will, in rational human experience, are informed and guided by knowledge, and thus, without any loss of their own specific character are universalized and become real elements of the intellectual life.


We shall therefore use 'thought' in this concrete sense to express the concrete form of experience. And then we may atone go on to say that the activity through which the subject realizes its demand for a rational life is judgment. Moreover, as the conscious life is everywhere and always just such an activity, judgment and consciousness may be said to be identical conceptions. To be conscious, is to judge; to be in consciousness, is, to some degree, to be already interpreted and universalized. The end and aim of judgment may be said to always be the same: the development and maintenance of a rational life. At any given point, then, we may describe the conscious life as a continuous judgment, which not only embraces and gives meaning to all the states of the moment but includes and supports the whole system of our knowledge up to date. Of course, such a judgment is never completely coherent and harmonious, and therefore leads onto further processes of analysis and interpretation. Yet these subsequent acts of thinking, however special the problem which is the immediate concern, or however methodological their starting point and procedure, are not merely detached and separate functions, but have a more ultimate significance as the means through which experience progresses towards its goal. The complete continuity of experience, if by this is meant the organic and functional unity of its various parts, implies the subordination of the various ends of life to one all-embracing purpose, which can be nothing else than the attainment of rationality in all its modes of experience.

This bare sketch may serve as an indication of a standpoint which takes issue with pragmatism on several fundamental points. In the first place, it would seem impossible to resolve the problem of knowledge into a series of particular or specific problems which have reference only to some immediate situation, or to the requirements of some proximate end. Practically, such a procedure may possess the advantage of rendering the problem manageable and capable of solution in concrete terms. And for certain purposes the solutions which are offered in these terms may be found valid and satisfactory. In judging of the adequacy of any answer, one must always have reference to the nature of the inquiry. For certain purposes it may be legitimate and even necessary to limit the inquiry, and to define the function of knowledge in terms of its bearing on a particular situation in experience. This inquiry if carried out strictly under these limitations would not be logical at all but would belong to the sphere of functional psychology. As a matter of fact, in the treatment of the pragmatists, there always is an unacknowledged reference beyond the specific situation to the larger purpose of experience, and therefore the result is, I think, always something more than functional psychology. However, that may be, the specifically logical problem never refers merely to a definite situation in experience but must always deal with this as the outcome and expression of the life of reason. The real locus of the logical problem, to adopt Professor Dewey’s term, cannot be adequately defined except in the light of the object and end of experience as a whole. It maybe conceded that an eminently useful, practical, or instrumental set of rules might be worked out without any such ultimate reference, just as we may have a practical ethics which describes the type of conduct demanded by particular situations without any explicit consideration of the problem regarding the nature of the ultimate ethical end. But philosophy, whether as logic or as ethics, cannot thus limit the scope of its inquiry. As philosophy, it must insist on seeing the part in the light of the whole, and on interpreting the particular problem as an element and a stage in the process of attaining rationality. Its object is the complete analysis and description of experience, the discovery of the realm of pure experience, if this is anywhere to be found.


Again, it is not possible to accept the antithesis between thinking and 'concrete ways of living' which is assumed in much of the discussion of the present day. The distinction between reflective and unreflective experience, though only relative, is not indeed to be ignored. But, on the other hand, the distinction must not be stated as if it involved an absolute opposition in the form of experience. It seems to me that the pragmatists, in emphasizing this distinction, have converted it into a virtual antithesis or at least that the result has been to obscure the essential unity of function which belongs to the nature of all experience. What is involved here is not merely a question of terminology as to whether we shall call the organizing principle of all experience 'thought' or by some other name; but whether we shall recognize any such unitary process at all. Can we regard experience as a single process throughout its various stages of development? It is evident that the unity of the process cannot be any simple abstract identity. Differentiation of function is the condition of development in the conscious life, as in an organic body. But in both cases, and even more emphatically in the case of experience, the process is the development of a single principle which maintains itself in and through the differentiations. It is of this principle that the parts are functions. In other words, it is only when we insist upon this unity that we have a right to talk about functions at all.


Now it is indeed true that the pragmatists emphasize the continuity of experience. My contention, however, has been that experience to be intelligible must be a unity, and not a mere continuity. But it may be asked, is not a functional unity where one part is shown to depend upon another the only kind of a unity or system that can be demanded for experience? It is certainly true that if the relation between the parts of experience can be shown to be functional in the full sense, the whole must be regarded as a real unity. It seems necessary to point out, however, that the mere dependence of one part upon another does not constitute functional unity. Even a reciprocity of dynamic elements is not yet organic unity. A functional relation in the full sense implies cooperation in the realization of a common end, and hence the bond of a common nature. Now, in reading the writings of my pragmatic friends I find it difficult to decide whether the 'functional relation,' to which they make very frequent reference, and which is in their hands a universal solvent of difficulties, is anything more than a dynamic relation of parts, or whether there is not a real though unfavored reference to a general end of experience through which it finds a unity. This point is of fundamental importance, and it is necessary to request an explanation of the sense in -which the term 'organic unity' is to be employed. If the former interpretation is correct, then they are not functionalists at all in any real sense; while if the latter alternative is the true one, the difference between this view and idealism is one of emphasis rather than of difference of principle.


These general considerations may perhaps receive illustration by reference to one or two particular points. What, we may ask, is the character of the antecedent experience out of which thought comes? Now, at times the quality of immediacy and the merely presentative character of the experience are emphasized in the pragmatic account. Then the problem is to understand how this immediacy can put on mediation, or how any crises or problems arise in an experience so devoid of speculation. But again another passages, so much is put into the immediate experience that its immediacy vanishes in everything but name, and the only real distinction that remains between it and the reflective process seems to consist in the degree of explicitness of purposive attention that is directed towards a particular problem. The impossibility of finding any point of contact between a mere datum of fact and reflective experience has been often demonstrated, and this impossibility is emphasized by Professor Dewey in stating the points of agreement between his own doctrine and that of idealism. But if we admit, as he does, that the antecedent experiences 'already organized,' if 'it is no mere existence but qualified as respects meaning,' if finally crises arise within it which set a problem for reflection, there would seem to be no ground for denying to this prior experience the title of thought. It is doubtless true that thought can select any part of its own content as a datum from which to proceed to further analysis. In this sense every judgment proceeds from a concept, and the description of the relation between them as one of function or use seems to me extremely suggestive. But I would maintain, the distinction is one which falls, not merely within experience, but within thinking itself.

The same considerations, mutatis mutandis, may be urged in regard to the stage beyond thought in which the reflective processes are said to issue. Although the act of thinking is supposed to cease with the solution of its definite problem, the experience to which it gives place retains and preserves the product of the transforming judgment. It has been reconstituted, adjusted, and harmonized in such a way as to solve the problem which gave rise to the particular process of reflection. But, if we have passed out of the territory of thought into a different realm of experiencing, it seems difficult to understand how the results of reflection still continue to exist. The new distinctions and relations which the thinking activity has introduced would surely cease to be if thought should entirely disappear or should be occupied merely at some other 'point of tension.' That which has been constituted by thinking would seem to require thought for its support. The question, then, seems to force itself upon us as to whether the nature of thought can be adequately described as a mere process of transition from one unreflective experience to another. Is it not more consistent with our actual experience to recognize that thought has at once a conserving and a transforming function? These two moments seem to be present in every act of thought, though sometimes one aspect and sometimes the other is predominant in experience. The rhythm or alternation, then, is never between an absolute resting place and an absolutely transitive state, but between a thinking experience where conservation is the main characteristic and another thinking experience which is predominantly a process of transition. But there is no suspension or interruption of thinking, no mere 'going on' of life that is not sustained and directed by thought. Even when there appears to be no positive advance in knowledge, so long as consciousness persists, judgment as its universal form must support the ideal system of meanings and relations of which experience consists.


The main contention of my paper, accordingly, is that in order to completely transcend dualism and attain to a standpoint that is really organic or functional it is necessary to regard experience as the process through which a subject expresses and realizes a rational life.


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