Is the Transcendental Ego an Unmeaning Conception


Creighton, J. E. “Is the Transcendental Ego an Unmeaning Conception?” The Philosophical Review 6, no. 2 (1897): 162. https://doi.org/10.2307/2175368


I WISH in this paper to indicate what seem to me to be some of the permanent elements of truth in the doctrine of the Transcendental Ego so far as it has reference to the theoretical consciousness. It will be impossible at present to undertake any discussion of the relation of this conception to consciousness in its volitional or practical aspect.


Under various names, the Transcendental Ego, the Absolute Ego, Pure Thought, etc., the conception which we are to examine formed the central principle in the philosophy of Kant and his successors in Germany. As I have no ambition to rank as a Kantian or a Hegelian, I shall not attempt adherence to the terms in which this conception was formulated, or of the way in which it was employed by these philosophers. At the same time I am unwilling, both on a priori grounds, and as a result of my own reading, to adopt the popular verdict and pronounce the whole doctrine a baseless and unmeaning abstraction.' "One has no right," says Carlyle in one of his letters to Emerson," to say to his own generation, standing quite apart from it: 'Be damned.'' Well, it seems to me equally profane, as well as equally futile, to attempt to isolate ourselves from the past, and especially from that portion of it which stands nearest to us, and out of which our own conceptions have been formed. To throw aside as ' arrant nonsense 'the central doctrine of the whole Idealistic movement is like cursing one's father and mother, and, from an intellectual point of view, it doubtless carries the same penalty with it. That the Ego is the highest principle of philosophy, is a doctrine which has still significance for us. Indeed, if we leave out of account the extravagant claims and expectations to which the discovery of the new principle naturally gave rise, the position scarcely requires restatement. The Ego is not, I think, a conception which philosophy has outgrown, and which may now be cast aside, but one whose importance and possibilities have scarcely as yet been fully realized.


The sciences of nature take as their field of inquiry, things, or objects conceived as existing on their own account. The necessary relation in which objects stand to consciousnesses left wholly out of consideration. All the so-called 'natural sciences' adopt more or less consciously this abstract point of view. The philosophical sciences, on the other hand, are differentiated from the former modes of inquiry mainly by the fact that they make consciousness their starting point. In examining consciousness, itself, however, there are two ways in which we may proceed. There is, first, what we may call the method of psychology. Consciousness is here regarded as a string of processes or states. These processes, as they first appear in consciousness, are found on analysis to be complex, and capable of resolution into elementary sensations. Now, besides the task of analysis, the psychologist has to describe the quality, intensity, extent, and duration of these elements, and, for the sake of exact description, to apply measurements whenever possible. The laws according to which these sensations combine in various ways into complexes, require, in addition, tube investigated and determined. I am not here concerned to describe in detail the nature of psychological problems, and besides it must not be forgotten that what I am about to say has reference only to the theoretical side of consciousness. What I wish to emphasize, however, is the standpoint from which psychological investigations are carried on. Consciousness looked at, as it were, from the standpoint of an external observer. The psychologist is outside of the process; he sees a cross-section of consciousness, one may say, as it would appear if photographed. That is, it is the process in its own particular mode of phenomenal existence which is observed and described; it is its quality, intensity, mode of combining, etc., which furnish the problem. The mental processes are taken simply for what they are in themselves, and no question is asked as to what they may imply beyond themselves. In other words, this investigation is occupied only with subjective states as such. Like the natural sciences, it abstracts from complete experience, which is at once both subjective and objective. The standpoint of the natural sciences is abstract because merely objective; that of psychology is equally abstract because merely subjective.

So long as consciousness is examined from this point of view, and the problems raised are solely of the kind which I have described, there is, of course, no need of a Transcendental Ego, or of an Ego of any kind. Mind is simply the stream of conscious states. The investigation deals only with the nature of the mental processes as conscious existences, and there is no reason for introducing a subject as something different from them. I have called this way of viewing consciousness that of psychology, but in so doing I do not wish to express any opinion regarding the necessity or the advisability of its being adopted by that science. As a matter of fact, many of the standard treatises on the subject do not take consciousness as 'a noetic' to use a term lately employed by Mr. Stout. But, in some of the more recent works on psychology, the method of investigation which I have attempted to describe is consciously adopted, and more or less consistently maintained. Whether this is to be the future standpoint of psychology or not, is a question which will have to be decided on grounds of expediency. If it proves most fruitful of results, it will, I suppose, win in the end.


Whatever conclusion may be reached on this point; however, it is important to realize clearly that what I have termed the psychological way of examining consciousness deals only with the modes of existence of mental processes. But to understand experience as a knowledge of objects that is, as a knowledge of something other than and different from subjective states we must adopt a different point of view. This standpoint may be called that of logic or epistemology, in order to distinguish it from the former. It is evident that in dealing with knowledge new conceptions are indispensable. For no account, however exact and accurate, of mental processes, or of the various ways in which these become fused and associated, can stand as an account of cognitive experience. Suppose a tangle of sensations to be fully aware of its own condition, it could at most only remark: "Well, I am a pretty tangle." The most complete awareness of the ways in which its elements were interwoven and intermeshed temporarily could carry it no further. In other words, it would still remain a definite mode of existence with a consciousness of itself.


To explain experience, then, we must take a fresh start. In knowing, the consciousness of each moment is significant of something beyond itself, or rather gains significance, because in knowing we do not read it qua state of consciousness at all, but as a member of an objective system of fact. This is what is implied in the statement that knowledge is concerned with ideas as meanings. For in itself and in isolation, no idea can have any meaning attaching to it at all. Its significance comes from its place or function as a member of a system. Knowledge is thus essentially a process of interpretation, i.e., a process of evaluating the mental modification of each moment in the light of that permanent system of fact which has itself been constructed by previous acts of the same kind. This system of fact which gives value to new experiences, and is constantly undergoing modification through such experiences, is supported by what we may call the permanent judgment which constitutes the consciousness of each and every moment. Consciousness, to use Mr. Banquet’s language, may be regarded as "a single persistent and all-embracing judgment." At every moment is an implicit affirmation of its view of the world revised up to date. It is the Atlas which supports the world, or at least the world so far as it is identical with my idea; and it is constantly adding to its load through its own activity.


What has been said on this point may now be summed up in the statement that the knowing consciousness takes the form of Judgment. For Judgment is just interpretation, just the act which assigns to a new experience its place in an intelligible system of facts; and this act, as we have seen, is the essence of knowing. To guard against any possibility of misunderstanding, it seems necessary to remark that I am not here professing to give a description of the psychological processes involved in Judgment, or seeking to add a new definition of Judgment to the many and contradictory accounts furnished by our standard psychologies. I am not concerned with the question of what Judgment is, or may be, from the standpoint of a disinterested spectator, but with the significance which it has for itself, as a self-appreciative function. With this in mind, we may say that knowledge is the product of the intellectual activity of Judgment, of what Professor James has called the judging Thought.

It is time now to ask, where is the Transcendental Ego? I think that we shall all agree that it must be found in the judging Thought, or not at all. Is there anything in the nature or character of judging Thought itself which will justify the predicates which the Transcendentalists apply to their Ego? That is the real question. There can be no appeal to a thinker which owns the thoughts, an unchanging entity or soul-substance which exists outside of or beyond the thoughts themselves. If we were required to conceive the Transcendental Ego in any such fashion, I should fully agree with Professor James’s remark that " Transcendentalism is simply Substantialism grown shamefaced." But this is certainly not the way in which the doctrine is stated by the German philosophers. Kant insists over and over again that the synthetic Unity of Apperception must not be categorized as a substance or turned into a thing. This supreme transcendental condition of all experience, as Kant calls it, has essentially the same function in theory. d. r. V. as we have assigned to our judging Thought. And Fichte is never weary of proclaiming that the Ego, as the highest principle of philosophy, is not a fact or a thing, but a free activity. We do not, he says, begin with an individual substance which has Reason attached to it as one of its accidents, a useful property to help it through the world; but our starting-point is Reason or Thought, through and for which the individuality {i.e., the empirical or objective Self) comes into existence.


Without going further into this historical question, let us return to what we found to be the real problem of the Ego. Is there in judging Thought, as it actually appears in an individual consciousness, any principle which may be described as permanent, as self-identical, and in some sense as infinite? If our thought possesses such characteristics, it will matter little whether we keep the title 'Ego' or not. Now it may be urged that the facts do not justify us in attributing permanence and identity to Thought. Thoughts, it may be said, are many and not one. Our knowledge is the product of individual thoughts, each of which dies in turn and is succeeded by others. To speak of Thought or Intelligence as a self-identical principle, is to hypostatize an abstraction. In reply to this objection, we may say, in the first place, that its description of the facts does not seem adequate. It is impossible to divide off thoughts into a number of successive and self-contained units. In addition to the fact that thoughts are not thus 'cut off with a hatchet ' from one another, so that it is not as easy as it might appear to say, 'This is one thought, and that another,' the single thought (if, indeed, it is possible to conceive it at all) by itself would have no significance. The cognitive consciousness of every moment, as we have already seen, supports a more or less completely articulated system of objective facts, through which and in which the single thought receives its value. Again, it must be remembered that the one Thought, and the many thoughts, do not stand opposed to each other as they would do if they were things. In an ideal system there is no contradiction between the One and the Many. And it must not be forgotten that the identity of Thought is not to be conceived as the permanence of a thing, or even as the temporal continuity of a process. It simply denotes permanence in mode of functioning. It is this characteristic of Thought to which the various formulations of the law of Identity give expression: A is A; Thought is always one with itself; Truth is always one and indivisible; Once true, always true.


But what, it may be asked, are the positive grounds which compel us to apply these predicates to Thought? I shall try to be very brief in my answer to this question. The knowledge which present feeling has of past feelings is often taken to imply the existence of a permanent principle in consciousness. It was the impossibility of understanding how "something which ex hypothesis is but a series of feelings can be aware of itself as a series," which almost persuaded J. S. Mill to accept Self, or Ego. From our standpoint, however, we can find a still stronger reason for maintaining the permanence and identity of Thought. For, from the point of view of Knowledge, we have seen that: Consciousness is not a series of feelings, but an ideal or intelligible unity. Our experience forms one single system the world of knowledge, which is the product of Intelligence, is a whole, or at least is required to be a whole, and not a thing of shreds and patches. Now, as is well known, Kant argued from the unity of the Ego to the necessary unity of the Ego's experience. We may reverse the argument, and from the unity of experience infer that the thought which has constructed this unity is itself a single and self-identical activity.


This argument, however, requires a further word of explanation. It may be said that the premises which we have employed do not give the required conclusion, for experience is never altogether a whole; as it actually exists, it is always made up of fragments which are never completely coordinated and systematized. It would seem to follow that from experience of this kind (which is all that we actually possess), the unity of the Ego cannot be inferred; and this, I think, must be admitted. Our experience as it actually exists seems to give us as its correlate variously colored and multiple self. But our argument is not based on the nature of experience as it actually presents itself, but rather upon the demand for unity which it implicitly contains. There is always a discrepancy between experience as realized at any time, and the requirement for complete unity immanent in it. And it is this unfulfilled demand for unity, which seems to express the deepest nature of our experience, that is our justification for inferring the unitary character of the principle through which experience arises. We may say that the unity of the Self as object is never completely realized in actual experience, but that the ideal unity of the Ego as subject theine of unity is contained from the first in the judging Thought. And, from the position we have now reached, it is evident in what sense Thought may be called an infinite principle. For, from its very nature, it is impossible for it to complete its task in any finite series, to realize that demand for unity which is its nature. It has an infinite task laid upon it, which can never be fully completed in any finite experience. Its own unity and identity are never fully realized in the world of objects, the world of the many through which it expresses itself. But this world of known objects is never merely finite and fragmentary. However disjointed and uncoordinated it may appear, it yet bears on itself marks which are witnesses to its infinity that is, which show that it belongs to the absolutely unified and complete system of knowledge which the very nature of Thought demands.


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