Metaphysic and Psychology


Watson, John. “Metaphysic and Psychology.” The Philosophical Review 2, no. 5 (1893): 513. https://doi.org/10.2307/2175425


In a former number of this Review Professor Andrew Seth makes a praiseworthy effort to mark out the province of Psychology in bold and clear outlines, distinguishing it on the one hand from Epistemology, and on the other from Metaphysic. Whatever view may be taken of the correctness or incorrectness of the distinctions there drawn, it must be admitted that they have all the appearance of that simplicity which is usually regarded as a mark of truth. Superficially, at least, they are clear and distinct, and no one who is untroubled by a desire to comprehend the deeper relations of things will hesitate to pronounce them satisfactory and illuminating; for what they amount to in substance is, that Psychology deals with the Self, Epistemology with the World, and Metaphysic with God. "How simple! how admirably simple!" one naturally exclaims. "We have been looking for truth afar off, when, in Plato's phrase, it was 'tumbling out at our feet.' "


The problem of Psychology, if I understand Mr. Seth aright, may be stated somewhat in this way. It is a fact that I am conscious, and that my consciousness takes the form of a series of states. The reality of these states as facts of my consciousness is beyond doubt, and I am therefore building upon solid rock, when I affirm their reality as such facts. Doubt can only arise, when, going beyond these states themselves, I ask whether they are signs or symbols of a reality other than themselves. But the psychologist, if he values his own peace of mind, will resolutely refuse to be moved from his impregnable position. He "cares not what the sects may brawl." He "holds no form of creed." There may be a reality lying beyond his consciousness or there may not: that is no concern of his: he is as determined to hold by the indubitable fact that there is in his own consciousness a series of states, as Shylock to have 'law' and nothing but 'law.' His one task is to examine this series as well as he can, and to find out by analysis what are the elementary or primitive 'states,' out of which the whole complex structure of his own consciousness has been evolved. No doubt the psychologist finds, in the course of his analysis, that he has the consciousness of an external world, and the belief in its 'trans-subjective' reality; but that consciousness and that belief are for him only a 'complex presentation,' existing nowhere but in his own mind. It is, of course, part of his duty to explain how within his own consciousness the idea of a 'trans-subjective world,' and the conviction of its existence, have grown up; but, if he is wise, he will refuse to budge one step further.


So far all seems clear. The psychologist is sure of his own mental states, but he is not responsible for what they 'mean,' or, indeed, whether they 'mean' anything. But Mr. Seth drops a remark, almost parenthetically, which brings back the old obscurity and confusion, and blurs, if it does not efface, the clear-cut lineaments of Psychology. Psychology, he says, has an experimental or physiological side, and here it is "as purely objective as it was before purely subjective." This is perplexing, and not only perplexing, but disappointing. The pure individual subject, alone in a 'God-like isolation' with his own states, seems to have been invaded by that 'trans-subjective world' of which he knows nothing. Thus Psychology, false to itself, has become Epistemology, if not even Metaphysic. Why should it thus gratuitously forsake its impregnable fortress? By what right can a science, which "ex vi termini can have no concern" with "the extra-conscious or trans-subjective, "speak of "objective facts of nerve and brain"? Are these facts 'states of consciousness,' and, if not, how can the psychologist know anything about them? The psychologist may very properly explain, if he can, how the 'complex presentation' called nerve and brain has arisen in his own consciousness; but how can he deal with nerve and brain as 'objective facts'?


Do not nerve and brain, as 'objective facts,' belong to that 'trans-subjective' world, which, for aught the psychologist as psychologist knows, may be a pure fiction? I submit that for Mr. Seth's psychologist, who has shut himself up in his own individual consciousness, there is no nerve and brain, any more than there is a solar system or other individual conscious subjects. He is alone in the universe and must remain alone until the epistemologist lets him out, if indeed that happy deliverance should ever take place. I fear that' Mr. Seth must have had the fear of the physiological psychologist before his eyes when he destroyed the symmetry of his theory by admitting prematurely the existence of "objective facts of nerve and brain." I am aware that the physiological psychologist, like Michel Angelo, has about him a certain terrible hard to withstand still, one must pluck up courage, and resist the adversary. A clear-cut theory must not be sacrificed from mere lack of courage.

Let us suppose, then, that nothing has been said about the "objective facts of nerve and brain." Psychology, as we can now affirm clearly and boldly, deals only with the successive states of the individual subject, and neither affirms nor denies the reality of anything beyond those states. But though the psychologist may preserve, and should preserve, absolute neutrality in regard to the existence of a 'trans-subjective world,' the problem must be faced by somebody, and the epistemologist is the man to do it. Are these mental states of mine, asks Mr. Seth's epistemologist, the signs or symbols of a reality lying beyond my consciousness? Are there realities which have a different fashion of existence from the fleeting and evanescent mode of psychical states beings or things which are in some sense permanent and independent? With what right do we pass beyond our subjective states? What is the ground of our belief in an independent world? In a word, what is the relation of knowledge to reality?


The transition from Psychology to Epistemology, Mr. Seth contends, is natural and inevitable. I have the belief in an objective world, and I must justify my belief. This latter problem, indeed, cannot be shirked, were it only that there always are unpleasant people who persist in raising difficulties, and asking how the individual subject, shut up within the circle of his own ideas, manages to get out of himself. "The office of the theory of knowledge must, in the main, be negative or indirect, ruling out certain solutions as inadmissible rather than itself supplying us with a ready-made solution." L Epistemology, however, it is held, only prepares the way for a new branch of philosophy. Granting that we have somehow passed beyond our subjective states to the objective world, we have still to ask: "What is the ultimate nature of the reality which reveals itself alike in the consciousness which knows and the world which is known? From psychology the subject has learned the reality of his own mental states; epistemology has shown him that his natural belief in other men and things cannot be overthrown by skepticism; and now metaphysic seeks to determine the ultimate ground or essence of these two forms of reality. Thus, our progress from psychology to epistemology, and from epistemology to metaphysic, is so simple and natural that it almost looks like the logical transition from premises to conclusion.


One has almost a guilty feeling in even venturing to suggest a doubt of the value of so neat and symmetrical a scheme; but, for my part, I do not see my way to accept it, until I have been convinced that the basis of the whole structure is sound. That basis, obviously, is the assumption that by no possibility can the conscious subject have a knowledge of anything but his own mental states. Not only does that assumption seem to me incapable of proof, but, so far as I can see, it makes all real progress in the solution of philosophical problems an impossibility. In my opinion, a subject confined to his own mental states is a subject that never existed and never could exist; yet, upon this product of a false abstraction, Mr. Seth's whole theory of the demarcation of psychology, epistemology, and metaphysic rests. It is the supposed limitation of knowledge to the states of the individual subject which leads to the restriction of psychology to an analysis of consciousness, to the exclusion of all investigation into the living process by which the subject becomes aware of reality; it is the same assumption which sets to epistemology the vain task of showing how "the individual knower" can "transcend his own individual existence and become aware of other men and things; and, finally, it is the same hypothesis which burdens metaphysic with the insoluble problem of showing how an unknowable God can become known. Psychology, as I believe, does not deal with the ' conscious states ' of the individual subject, for there are no such 'states'; there is no sphere for an epistemology which deals with these 'states' as 'signs' or 'symbols' of 'trans-subjective' realities; and metaphysic does not deal with an 'ultimate reality' distinct from both, but it has to do from first to last with real existence, apart from which it has no serious problem whatever. I venture to deny that there is any branch of philosophy such as that to which Mr. Seth gives the name of epistemology, but which, as he is himself fain to confess, has no positive content, or almost none. Epistemology, as I believe, is a part of Metaphysic or Ontology, that part which deals with the explicit knowledge of reality. I do not, however, propose at present to examine our author's view of epistemology; I shall merely try to show by a short consideration of his metaphysic, especially as it is indicated in his Hegelianism and Personality, where the results of his initial assumption are most clearly seen, that his view of the nature and mutual relations of psychology and metaphysic cannot be accepted.


Metaphysic, as Mr. Seth conceives it, is the science of ultimate Reality, or God. When we ask what is meant by the existence is unique or individual, and is therefore, as to existence, absolutely separated from all other existences. But, containing within himself all perfection, he infinitely transcends all other forms of existence. Agreeing with these in his self-centered individuality, he is the only being of whom we can predicate necessity, all other forms of existence being contingent. God is not involved in the process of the world or of human history. We cannot comprehend the inner nature of God, but we are entitled to affirm that he is self-conscious and contemplates reality as it truly is.


Whether Mr. Seth is entitled to make these assertions as to the existence and nature of God, consistently with the theory of knowledge which he adopts, I shall immediately inquire: at present I assume that he has a right to make them, and I merely ask how far they enable us to unify existence, or reach the 'ultimate ground or essence' of things. Let us, then, see as clearly as possible the logical consequences of the doctrine.


1.) It is held that, as to his existence, God is distinct from every other form of existence. Nor is the plain consequence of this view, namely, that other forms of existence are distinct from God, in any way slurred over; on the contrary, it is affirmed in various ways that each thing is in existence as truly individual as God himself. "The meanest thing that exists has a life of its own, absolutely unique and individual." It would therefore seem that, so far as existence is concerned, God is not the only being, but only one of a number of beings, each of which as truly exists as God. Then, God does not contain all existence within himself, but lacks that part of existence which belongs to other beings. He is, therefore, limited as to existence by the beings outside of him. This may not imply any limitation of his wisdom love or goodness, but it certainly implies the limitation of his existence. But how can a Being of this sort be the principle of unity? The problem of metaphysic, on Mr. Seth's own showing, is to find a real existence, which shall serve to bind together the reality of the individual subject revealed in psychology, and the reality of the objective world guaranteed by epistemology; but the Reality actually certified by metaphysic is merely another Reality as exclusive as the two forms of reality which it is to bring into unity. It is a curious way of reducing mutually exclusive realities to unity of existence simply to add another Reality equally exclusive. Mr. Seth's metaphysic thus leaves us with an aggregate of individual existences, of which God is merely one among the rest. Even if we suppose God to be capable of contemplating all other existences besides his own, we shall have no real unity of existences; all beings will remain as absolutely separate and distinct as before. It would therefore seem that, if the problem of metaphysic is to be solved at all, we must affirm that there is no absolutely individual existence, as our author defines individuality. Mr. Seth shows a tendency to appeal to the popular conception of God as a transcendent Being: let me remind him that the popular consciousness has equal faith in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, as present in the soul of all believers. In any case, I feel certain that, on Mr. Seth's theory, the problem of metaphysic must be abandoned as hopeless.


2.) God is held to be, not only individual in his existence, but conscious of himself. Now, it must be assumed that when self-consciousness is predicated of God, it means what is meant when it is predicated of other forms of being. I am of course aware that Mr. Seth regards the category of self-consciousness as inadequate to express the ultimate nature of God; however inadequate it may be, we are surely entitled to assume that it cannot contradict the perception or consciousness of God as he is for himself. This point will be immediately considered: at present I assume that, in affirming God to be self-conscious, Mr. Seth means what he says. What, then, is self-consciousness? As our author defines it, self-consciousness is the consciousness of a self-centered individuality. No being in his consciousness of himself is conscious of any other being. If God in his existence comprehended all other forms of existence, in being conscious of himself he would also be conscious of all existence. But, as we have seen, God in his existence is absolutely exclusive of all other forms of existence, as they are exclusive of him; and, hence, to be conscious of himself is to be conscious only of himself. All other forms of being thus lie beyond the range of his self-consciousness. But a Being who is thus ignorant of what has a real existence, is as limited in knowledge as we have seen him to be limited in existence. To say, therefore, that 'the truth' exists for him alone is absurd. These considerations seem to show that, if we are to affirm self-consciousness of God in any sense which shall preserve the absoluteness of his knowledge, we must show that self-consciousness as the consciousness of an exclusive individuality is a fiction. If the consciousness of self is not the consciousness of an absolute reality, comprehending self and not self in a single unity, the prediction of self-consciousness in relation to God is the denial of his omniscience.


3.) Holding that God is individual in his existence and consciousness, Mr. Seth naturally denies that He enters into or constitutes the process of the world or of human history. Strictly speaking, indeed, there is no 'world' or history of 'man,' but only changes going on independently in a number of separate individuals. But, if we are to preserve the exclusive individuality of things, we must attribute the changes they undergo to themselves. How, then, can we ascribe infinite power to a Being who in his self-centered individuality is as entirely impotent with regard to the changes of other self-centered individuals as they are with regard to one another and to Him? Either God does 'enter into process,' or there is a process which goes on in entire independence of him. Moreover, if God is thus beyond the process of the world, how can he be the only 'necessary' being? If all beings are in their existence absolutely individual, no other being can possibly affect their existence. The distinction, in short, between 'necessary' and 'contingent' existence is simply the illogical assumption of a relation between God and the world which yet is denied existing.


These considerations seem to show that if God is conceived b as an exclusive self-centered individual, there is no real unity of existence, but merely an aggregate of independent beings, of whom God is one; that such a Being can be conscious only of himself, and must therefore be limited in knowledge; and that, having no relation to other beings, he cannot be the source of their reality, and must therefore be limited in power. An escape from these difficulties may be sought in either of two different ways: we may abandon the conception of exclusive individuality as inadequate, or, clinging to that conception, we may fall back upon the incomprehensibility of God. It is the latter method that Mr. Seth virtually adopts. The inner nature of God being unknown to us, why should he not be an exclusive individual, and yet include all existence within himself? though he is conscious only of himself, why should he not be conscious of other existences as well? though he is unrelated to other beings, why should he not be related to them in some unknown way? And no doubt these and any number of contradictions may be got rid of, if in reality, though not for our knowledge, contradictions meet together in peaceful unity. But the price we have to pay for this metaphysic of the contradictory is that we can have neither a metaphysic, nor an epistemology, nor a psychology, but merely a blind faith, which is a faith in the unfathomable mystery of what for us is pure Nothing.


It is held, then, that we can have no knowledge of God as he really is, we know only ourselves, or beings of like nature with ourselves, and God is infinitely more than we know ourselves to be. We do, indeed, know God in his 'manifestations,' and these enable us in a sense to apprehend his 'essence.' It is thus that we come to believe that the world is constructed on a rational plan; but this belief is not properly speaking knowledge, but merely faith, assurance, or conviction. For, as the time-process of the finite world is the only reality we can be said to know, we can never escape from the limitations of our knowledge. "The truth" is "for God alone." Shut out from a knowledge of God, we are compelled to figure Him to ourselves by the highest symbol we have, the symbol of self-consciousness. Similarly, when we predicate 'eternity' of Him, we must recognize how inadequate such a symbol is to express his real nature.


1.) There can be no doubt, I think, that Mr. Seth denies that we can, properly speaking, have a knowledge of God as he really is. Did this merely mean that our knowledge of God is incomplete, the assertion is one which probably no one would dispute; but neither would there in that case be any reason to limit the assertion to our knowledge of God, for all our knowledge must be incomplete. The whole tenor of Mr. Seth's remarks shows that he means to affirm that God is in his real nature different in kind from us, and hence that he cannot be known by us at all. This impotency, in fact, is regarded as so inseparably bound up with the form of our consciousness, that it prevents us from having anything more than a symbolical apprehension of any being but ourselves. Nor can any other view be consistently maintained by one who starts from the presupposition that each human subject is limited to his own mental states; for, on such a presupposition, we must fall back upon the hypothesis of a correspondence between our own mental states and a reality lying beyond them a correspondence which, from the nature of the case, can never be more than an unwarranted assumption. This separation of knowledge and existence, therefore, leads to much more than the denial of any knowledge of God as he really is its only legitimate result is the denial of any knowledge of the existence of God. It is, therefore, not in the least surprising that Mr. Seth should speak of Kant's "conclusive" reasoning against "the ontological argument for the existence of God". If we cannot "lift ourselves out of the stream of ever-flowing time": most assuredly we can have no knowledge of God's existence. By what right, then, do we assert his existence?


2.) Assume, however, that God does exist, and is so different in nature from ourselves that we cannot comprehend him, and we are forced to deny, not only a knowledge of God, but of anything whatever, including ourselves. For, if the 'specular consciousness' of God is such that it transcends the opposition of self and not-self, we can frame no conception whatever of its nature, and therefore the whole aspect of existence must be absolutely different from existence as it appears to us. This is virtually admitted by Mr. Seth when he tells us that " the truth" is "for God alone" (unless, indeed, he falls back upon the absurd hypothesis of two kinds of 'truth'). Now, it is not possible to introduce a radical incapacity for truth into the very center of consciousness without infecting every object of consciousness. Does Mr. Seth suppose that he can maintain "the truth" to be "for God alone," without at the same time holding that the subject's consciousness of himself under the same spell of illusion as other objects? If not, the very fact that the conscious subject appears to himself as 'unique' is the strongest reason for affirming that in reality, or as he is known by God, he is not 'unique.' We ought, therefore, to discard the term 'knowledge' with its misleading associations. Man literally 'walks in a vain show,' having no real apprehension of God, the world or himself.


3.) That Mr. Seth has not realized the profoundly skeptical character of the opposition of knowledge and existence seems to be shown by his assertion that to God we must apply "the highest category within our reach." Here at least two assumptions are made, neither of which can be justified from our author's point of view. The first is, that we are entitled to speak of higher and lower categories at all. For such a distinction implies that one category is more adequate to the expression of real existence than another. How can this be maintained by one who holds that "the truth is for God alone?” Were it possible for us to contemplate existence from the divine point of view, we should find that self-consciousness as we experience it is not applicable to God? How, then, can we, who are incapable of so contemplating existence, tell whether the category of self-consciousness is higher or lower, or identical with other categories? Nay, as existence, whatever it may be, must be essentially different from what we conceive it to be, higher and lower can from the ultimate point of view have no meaning whatever. Has not Mr. Seth himself told us that every category is an abstraction, which is inadequate to express the nature of existence? So that even the category of 'being' has no application to God, and might mean 'not-being,' were it not that even 'not-being' is meaningless. It will of course be answered that, though no category is adequate, the categories which we apply to other forms of existence have a certain analogical truth or symbolical sense. Thus, we may affirm that God is 'eternal' or persists through time, if only we are careful to note that the real manner of his existence cannot be expressed in terms of time. But this last refuge of nescience can only convince those who refuse to follow a principle to its logical consequences. For, if the real manner of God's existence is absolutely unknown to us, how can we tell that persistence through time is a more adequate conception than momentary duration? If we have no way of comparing our symbol with that which it is supposed to symbolize, by what mysterious process do we come to know that the one corresponds to the other?

The second assumption to which I referred above is, that, having a knowledge of God "as manifested in nature and history," we have somehow a knowledge of the 'essence' or nature of God. But surely the ' essence ' of God must be for us the predicates or categories which we employ in thinking of God. Now, as none of these express the nature of God, how can it be said that he is 'manifested' at all? The 'manifestations' of other human beings, to take our author's own illustration, have a meaning for us, because we can reproduce in ourselves the form of their consciousness. This is not the case with the so-called 'manifestations' of God, who differs from us by the whole extent of the heavens. So that the 'manifestations' manifest nothing. They are in fact illusions which conceal God from us. Nor is the difficulty lessened when we consider that, on Mr. Seth's own showing, God is not presented in nature and history at all: nature being a mere 'collocation and 'history,' not "the development of God, but of man's knowledge of God." How Mr. Seth can continue to speak of God as ' manifested ' at all, or to affirm that the world is 'constructed on a rational plan,' I fail to see. A God who is entirely beyond nature and history cannot be 'manifested ' in either, and even if he were, a being like man, for whom the apprehension of reality is impossible, would not comprehend the 'manifestation' when it was given.


These are some of the difficulties that beset every theory which affirms that Reality is unknowable. If they have any force, they show that the primary assumption from which they proceed the assumption that the subject is limited to his own mental states is absolutely untenable. The distinctions which Mr. Seth has drawn between psychology, epistemology, and metaphysic thus vanish away. As there is no consciousness of self apart from the consciousness of other selves and things, and no consciousness of the world apart from the consciousness of the single reality presupposed in both, the march of our author's 'victorious analysis' is impeded at the very start.


Since the above remarks were written, my attention has been drawn to the new edition of Hegelianism and Personality, in which one or two notes are added, intended to explain, and defend the doctrine set forth in the text. It thus seems incumbent upon me to inquire whether any new light is cast upon that doctrine, which may require a modification or withdrawal of the objections set forth at length above. Of course, I am not directly concerned with the epistemology of Mr. Seth, but only with his conception of God and the individual conscious subject. One of the passages upon which I relied on my statement of our author's position was that in which he said, that "when existence is in question, it is the individual, not the universal, that is real." In the note we are told (2d ed., p. 231) that "there is no attempt here ... to fall back upon isolated, self-existent reals. Each finite individual has its place within the one real universe, or the one real Being, with all the parts of which it is inseparably connected. But the universal is itself an individual or real whole, containing all its parts within itself, and not a universal of the logical order containing its exemplifications under it." Mr. Seth's readers will probably be somewhat perplexed to reconcile this conception of a single universe, in which so-called individuals are merely parts of a whole, with his former assertions that different selves are "absolutely and forever exclusive," and that "the meanest thing that exists has a life of its own absolutely unique and individual." Whether Mr. Seth has changed his view of the world or not is of interest mainly to himself. So far as I am concerned, at any rate, the matter is of small importance. To my mind the only point of any consequence is, not whether Mr. Seth affirms that the world is actually made up of a number of separate individuals or consists of a single individual having a number of parts, but whether he is entitled to affirm either the one or the other. Now, as I understand him, our author still maintains that we have no knowledge of real existence and no knowledge of God as he really is. Under these circumstances we can assert of both anything we please, but what we cannot do is to produce any warrant for our assertion. An unknown world and an unknown God are for us nothing.


That this objection is valid will perhaps be more evident by looking at another of our author's explanations. Replying to Mr. Ritchie's strictures upon the assertion that "the individual alone is the real," he tells us that "after we have banished the 'metaphysical phantom of the thing in itself,' . . . a distinction remains to be made between knowledge and existence." For, "as all knowledge consists of universals, it is obvious, that, however far we may penetrate into the essence of any individual thing, our account of it will be a set of universal attributes." Hence "there is a complete solution of continuity between the abstractions of knowledge and the concrete texture of existence."


But has Mr. Seth banished the ' metaphysical phantom' of the thing in itself? It has always seemed to me that that phantom is as inseparable from a theory which denies knowledge of reality as shadow from substance. Mr. Seth seems to maintain that, as no judgment can be made about a thing which does not involve a 'universal' or 'abstraction,' our knowledge can never be of reality as it actually is. Granting that this contention is sound, it would seem to follow that we can be conscious of reality only if we rigidly exclude all judgment or prediction. Now, such an elimination of predicates must leave us with pure being, or rather with pure nothing; and this pure nothing, it must be observed, is not even the positive consciousness of the absence of all attributes which would still be predication, and very decided predication too but it is the absence of consciousness itself. Thus Mr. Seth can from his point of view banish the ' metaphysical phantom of the thing in itself only if he banishes all consciousness; for, whether we speak of 'knowledge,' or of 'faith, there must be some distinction, and therefore judgment with its 'universal.' The 'thing in itself,' in short, is just the counterpart of the least determinate judgment we can form the judgment that something ' is.' To say that the 'universal ' is in this case such a little one ' does not alter its character, and therefore consistency demands that we should eliminate reality altogether. It would be hard to find a stronger confirmation of what I have maintained above that Mr. Seth's doctrine is fundamentally skeptical. It is also obvious, I think, that to be conscious of self implies some distinction within consciousness, and therefore some degree of predication or judgment. Mr. Seth's view of predication thus leads to the conclusion, already shown in another way to follow from his whole mode of thought, that the subject can no more have a knowledge of himself than of objects, and hence that there can be no real psychology on his theory. To this it may be added that our author's defense of his now famous saying, "the individual alone is the real," does not weaken the objections raised above to his conceptions of God and the Self but confirms their force. For him God is still in existence and nature beyond knowledge, and conscious subjects are still, if not "absolutely and forever exclusive, “at least '' mutually exclusive centers of existence. I do not myself understand how such a God can be legitimately affirmed to exist at all, or how there can be a 'center' where there is no circumference, or how the subject can be conscious of himself without thinking; but it is manifest that no other view is open to one who maintains that the original sin of the intellect is judgment, and it's inevitable penalty expulsion from the paradise of faith.


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