Methodology and Truth


Creighton, J. E. “Methodology and Truth.” The Philosophical Review 10, no. 1 (1901): 45. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176539


IN the history of thought, skeptical doubts regarding the objective validity of ideas made their appearance almost as soon as the distinction between the mind and external things had been clearly perceived. Since that time, the relativity of knowledge has been pretty constantly proclaimed; but the peculiar form which this doctrine takes in modern times seems to rest more or less directly upon Kant's view that knowledge is a construction of the mind. Inasmuch as the mind works over the matter immediately given to it, introducing order and system into what would otherwise be without form and void, it seems possible to ask how far this construction corresponds in any way to reality, or indeed whether any reality beyond the construction itself actually exists.


Whether or not we accept the theory that experience as a whole is a mental construction, no one can doubt that scientific knowledge is dependent in an especial sense upon the constructive activity of the mind. Whether or not we agree that the understanding makes nature we will all admit that the understanding makes science. For in the sciences we consciously and more or less deliberately decide regarding the conceptions, or ways of judging about things, which we shall adopt. We make the methodological assumptions which appear best fitted to enable us to proceed and create the hypotheses which seem best suited to the work of systematizing the body of facts with which we propose to deal. Then, too, the choice of a starting-point and the subsequent direction of the inquiry, which influence at least the form of a science very greatly, introduce other elements of subjective or methodological character. We are able to appreciate to some extent the amount and character of this constructive work, when we begin the study of any science or group of sciences which is entirely new to us. It takes us several weeks or months to gain the necessary point of view, to get the conceptions defined, and to become accustomed to their exact employment in making judgments. When we become conscious of these and other special limits in conditions attaching to the scientific form of knowing, it is not strange that questions should arise as to what value we ought attach to the conclusions of science as an account of the nature of the real world. What value, that is, have these conclusions for philosophy, and what attitude should philosophers adopt towards them? When students of the physical sciences are questioned about the relation which they conceive to exist between the propositions which form their science, and the nature of reality, the result is usually unsatisfactory. They have either never thought about the subject or are afraid that there is some metaphysical puzzle lurking about the term 'reality.' And so most frequently we are told that their science professes to deal only with certain facts of experience; its conceptions and hypotheses serve to describe and render coherent these facts. Further than that the science does not go what matter is, or what ultimate reality is, lies entirely beyond the ken of their science.


Now if we abandon, as I think we must, all hope of having our difficulty solved by a direct appeal to the representatives of the special sciences, and attempt to find an answer for this question ourselves, there seems to be three possible positions which we may assume. We may, in the first place, accept without question the account which science gives of nature and of man, as the last word which can be spoken on these subjects. Or, secondly, we may point to the methodological nature of scientific knowledge, and, emphasizing this aspect, refuse to admit that science has any validity or significance whatsoever as an account of what really exists. Or, thirdly, it is possible to take a middle ground, and without either accepting the scientific account as final, or ignoring entirely its results, to maintain that it is in some way significant as an account of reality, though its real importance may be very different from that which at first sight seems to attach to it.


The first point of view, when consistently carried out, abolishes philosophy altogether, and gives us 'naturalism' and 'psychologist' instead of a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of mind. Although the contention that scientific results are significant for philosophy rests on a sound basis, as I hope to show later, yet ‘naturalism' and 'psychologist' are so thoroughly uncritical, and so obviously ignore the special conditions under which the sciences work, that I may assume that they require no extended refutation. In our day, Mr. Spencer (in spite of his doctrine of the 'unknowable,' which really has a very loose connection with his synthetic philosophy) is perhaps the best representative of this mode of thought; and his shortcomings have been so pointed out that it would be a work of supererogation to refer to them again before a professional audience. At the present day, there is perhaps very little danger of any other writer explicitly maintaining as a general thesis the position which I have indicated. It is more likely, I fear, to be adopted unconsciously with regard to some special fact or group of facts which seems to support favorite theory. It is not uncommon, even at the present-day, for philosophers to be guilty of uncritically adopting what they term 'scientific results,' or 'scientific principles,' from this or that field of special investigation, without any examination of the assumptions and postulates of the department from which they have been taken, or of the new meaning which these facts or principles acquire when transferred to another field. Examples of this mode of procedure are not hard to find. In more than one recent work, we have a denial of the existence of any permanent self or ego based upon the psychological analysis of consciousness into series of conscious processes. Many ethical writers of the present day, in their zeal to be 'scientific,' seem especially open to this temptation. For example, the uncritical transference of the biological principle of the 'survival of the fittest' into the domain of conduct, has perhaps done more to obscure than illuminate a field where conscious emotion and intelligent will are the most important terms. Again, it is not uncommon to find writers on ethics assuming that the whole question regarding the relation of motive to desire and to choose, is once for all settled by the psychological doctrine of the affective life, as consisting in pleasantness and unpleasantness. This whole mode of procedure clearly ignores the essential difference between the standpoint which psychology necessarily adopts in viewing the mind as composed of conscious processes, and that which is essential for ethics in attempting to comprehend the life of moral judgments and evaluations.


To deny completely the significance of the construction of facts furnished by science, as the second view which I have enumerated does, may at first sight appear more reasonable. Moreover, this procedure has practical advantages; for by separating science and philosophy and adopting the doctrine of the twofold nature of truth, one is able to arrive at a settlement of long-standing controversies. Now, if this dualistic position is adopted, we have to maintain that ultimate reality with which we contrast our scientific knowledge is either (a) something lying beyond experience and forever unknowable; or (b) an immediate subjective experience totally different in kind from the objective experience with which scientific thought deals. The first view, that of Kant, still survives in some quarters; but it is especially the second form of this doctrine which has found defenders at the present day. According to this theory, there is a complete difference in kind between experience as we live it, and the thoughts and theories which we have about it. The former alone possesses the warm breath of life and reality; the latter is nothing but a cold logical construction, whose only test of truth is self-consistency and coherence. Along with this distinction, we usually find it more or less explicitly maintained that the true reality can only be known by getting rid of the constructions and 'introjections' of thought, and harking back to immediate acts of will, or to some other form of reined Refiring.


Now if I may be dogmatic for the sake of being brief this theory seems to me mistaken both in what it affirms and in what it denies. For there is no such thing as an immediate experience, or a willing experience at least that is known to human beings which is not also a cognitive experience; and no cognitive experience without thoughts. The 'given' element cannot be separated from the contribution of thought but is continuous with it; just as the present cannot be separated from the past or the past from the future. An experience that is ‘pure' in the sense of rebirth, something free from all introjections of thought, is not only practically, but logically an impossible ideal; for it contradicts itself by demanding that the mind shall know without using its own powers of cognition. The same difficulty confronts us, I think, if we make the reality of the immediate experience consisting of will-acts instead of in feeling. It is only by running countertop experience that we can separate will from knowledge or speak of a life which wills and realizes purposes, while knowledge remains to it something external and secondary.


But if it is impossible to discover a real experience outside of, or beyond thought if there is no immediacy which has not been already mediated, we may ask whether thinking ever goes on in separation from reality. In particular, we have to inquire whether its is a possible view of thought which represents scientific judgments as purely conceptual or hypothetical constructions, which are entirely without validity or significance from the point of view of ultimate truth. When we consider any body of scientific truth, were compelled, I think, to say that it professes to describe some aspect of the real world. It will probably contain some conceptions or hypotheses whose main function is very evidently regulative or methodological. But it seems impossible to take this view of any complete science, and still more obviously impossible, of sciences a whole. However, it will be granted that if any science may properly be considered to be purely hypothetical it is mathematics. For mathematical judgments do not appear to deal directly with sensible realities, nor with any other form of individual existence, but seem to be concerned with conceptions of number and space, whose reality is only ideal. Judgments about the properties of a triangle, or the relations of x and y, do not appear to refer to any concrete existence. It may seem, therefore, that their meaning is purely hypothetical, and that their true significance is merely, that if we assume certain conceptions to start with, then certain results necessarily follow. It is no doubt true that there is a certain sense in which not only mathematical judgments, but all universal judgments whatsoever are hypothetical. It is nonetheless true, however, that even in mathematical judgments the categorical element never entirely disappears, though it is undoubtedly somewhat indirect. By this latter statement, I mean that the subject of the proposition does not correspond with the real subject of judgment (as indeed is perhaps rarely or never the case with any universal judgment). In making judgments about the properties of the triangle or the ellipse, what we assume is not the reality of the particular figure, but perhaps the reality of space ; or, at any rate, we may say that the truths of mathematics, like the truths of ethics, are in some way incorporate in the world. Again, it should be remembered that mathematical conceptions are neither a priori ideas, nor merely arbitrary conceptions; but that they have been suggested by the observation of actually existing objects. The procedure of mathematical science, too, is not purely deductive and conceptual, but as Kant pointed out, it has frequently to appeal to perception in order to advance at all. Even the imaginary geometry of non-Euclidean space, though on an entirely different plane from ordinary geometry, is, I suppose, only rendered possible by construction in analogy with what is already known of the tridimensional space of our experience.


If, then, mathematics is never merely hypothetical, but now days more or less directly with the nature of reality, a fortieth is also true of the other sciences. It can be shown, I think, that the reference to reality becomes more obvious and direct, as we pass from mathematics and physics to sciences like chemistry and biology. It may be difficult to state precisely what there is in reality which corresponds to the conception of physical atoms, or to that of masses. But it cannot be doubted that the judgments in which these and similar conceptions are employed, do refer to some characteristic in the nature of the real world. Although these conceptions are methodological, they are likewise functioning of thought, and, like all thinking, aim at grasping the nature of reality beyond themselves. We may say that it is only possible for them to be methodological to systematize and extend our ideas because they are at the same time constitutive in some degree of a reality beyond our ideas. When we assert that a hypothesis is true because it works, or that an assumption justifies itself by enabling us to systematize our experience, or to predict what is going to happen, we are not proposing a purely subjective test of truth.


It is often assumed, indeed, that there are two quite distinct criteria of truth: first, the subjective criterion of consistency of ideas; and secondly, the objective, though perhaps unattainable standard of correspondence with reality. In maintaining that these criteria cannot be separated, I may appear to be adopting the discredited assumption of the pre-Kantian rationalists that the order and connection of ideas correspond to the order and connection of things. The weakness which caused the downfall of rationalism did not, however, consist in the doctrine that thinking is able to transcend its purely subjective existence and come into connection with reality, but in its wholly uncritical character. It failed, that is, to furnish an adequate analysis of the nature of knowledge, and so had no standard for evaluating ideas except that of their clearness and distinctness, and no principle of procedure except the law of identity. The Kantian Criticism supplied, to some extent at least, what was lacking; but in doing so it lost, or almost lost, the connection between thought and reality which had characterized the dogmatic theories. Of course, it is true that this connection was held on a very precarious tenure by the rationalists and was thoroughly inadequate in its dogmatic form. It seems to me, however, that although a breath of criticism suffices to overthrow the naive dogmatic faith, that an analysis of the nature of knowledge which is free from Kant’s unfortunate presuppositions, allows us to see the essential element of truth which it contained. Indeed, it is true universally, I think, that a one-sided view regarding the relation of knowledge and reality is always the result of an imperfect analysis of the nature of intelligence.


This statement may obtain confirmation, if we consider the theory of knowledge which underlies the methodological view of science as it is held by Karl Pearson, and by others of the same school. The conclusions which that theory adopts seem to follow immediately and inevitably, so long as we assume the Lockean doctrine that knowledge consists in the perception of agreement or disagreement of our ideas. That is, for the methodological view which we are examining, scientific knowledge is purely matter of ideas or concepts. Thought is thus nothing but a function of unity among ideas, not the unity of ideas with anything beyond themselves. Modern theories of judgment, however, have shown very clearly the inadequacy of this view. We Would not deal merely with our own ideas in judgment if by our own ideas we mean purely subjective existences which can be described in terms of conscious content. In fact, if we think of an idea as a mental function, rather than as a mental thing, it is quite impossible to overlook its objective reference or, perhaps, better, its real objectivity. This is not something which an idea comes to have through any accidental convention, or in any secondary and external way, but is as much a part of its real nature as what we call its subjectivity. The truth which lies at the basis of parallelism consists just in this fact that the relation idea and object is not a relation which can be adequately expressed in terms of external interaction, but one which is essential and organic. It is of course true that the upholders of the doctrine of parallelism sometimes suppose that they are emphasizing the disparateness, rather than the identity of the physical and psychical. Nothing, however, is more striking in recent discussions than to note how thinkers who uphold parallelism have come to emphasize the necessary correlation and we can almost say, the organic unity of the physical and mental, rather than their separateness and isolation, which seemed to be the aspect most prominent in the minds of the earlier representatives of this doctrine.


Even the figure of the symbol and the thing symbolized does not adequately express the relation between the idea and its object; for this mode of representing it still leaves the connection external and accidental. We shall have to say that the idea, insofar as it is an element of knowledge, is not merely a symbol of reality, but essentially one with the reality known through it. This is not to deny the distinction between ideas, but merely to insist that the two are necessary correlatives, and not irreducible opposites. The idea as a mere subjective existence extends beyond itself and has necessary relations with the larger world of objects; just as the individual involves an organic connection with the society of which he is a member.


The bearing of this discussion upon our main problem is, I think, sufficiently evident. We are now able to see that both of the attitudes towards scientific truth which have occupied us so far have a certain justification. The uncritical adoption of the results of science as a final philosophy is at least right in assuming that knowledge and reality are not divorced. On the other hand, what we have called the methodological view has gained a critical consciousness of the conditions and limitations under which science necessarily works, though, like the critical standpoint of Kant, it is open to the charge of subjectivity. It recognizes that many scientific conceptions do not profess to be directly descriptive of actually existing objects, but can only be regarded as provisional, whose function consists in coordinating for the time being some group of facts. Again, to dwell further on the justification of the methodological view, it might be urged that it is largely a matter of choice what conceptions we shall apply in any particular field; and, more especially, that to a large extent the methodological procedure which any science adopts is determined largely by custom, or by the individual bent of the special investigator. We may speak of many of our sciences as merely instrumental as a scaffolding by means of which we climb towards the truth. It is also essential, in order to state the case fairly, to call attention to the necessary abstractions which science is compelled to make in order to get underway at all. Not only does it go beyond experience by forming conceptions, as e.g. of a perfect triangle or a perfectly rigid or a perfectly inert body, but it is obliged to consider certain facts or aspects of facts in isolation from the concrete surroundings in which they are known in actual experience.


All this it is essential to clearly recognize. And against uncritical attitudes which mistakes a science for a philosophy, a method of investigation for a system of truth, it is well that the methodological character of science should be frequently pointed out. But, on the other hand, the whole duty of the philosopher is not fulfilled when he has shown that there is no absolute finality about scientific truth. One cannot simply bless scientific results and let them go. They are methodological, and false, and hypothetical, to be sure, in that they are abstract, and incomplete, and loaded with limitations and conditions which make them really quite different from what at first sight they appear to be. But, as we have seen, they are not arbitrary or capricious; and, therefore, they possess a real objective value which must be reckoned with in our philosophy.


It is much easier to pass general criticisms on the proposition of science, or even to ignore them entirely, than to evaluate them by understanding what they really say, as distinguished from what they only seem to say. In attempting to understand the significance of any scientific fact or law, the all-important thing is to recognize clearly under what conditions, and with what assumptions, the judgments in question have been made, in order that we may know precisely what is asserted and what is not. Error arises when we fail to understand what a judgment really asserts, and consequently take it for what it is not. To properly estimate the importance of the propositions of any science from the standpoint of philosophy, then, it is necessary to comprehend the limitations and conditions which the postulates of the field in which they were first formulated impose upon these propositions. Otherwise we shall fail altogether to see what is really asserted. An excellent illustration of the violation of this principle is afforded by the popular interpretation of the law of the conservation of energy. This law is a methodological principle of physical science, and simply states the fact, which in certain fields has been inductive proved, that in any particular case the cause is quantitatively identical with the effect. It is not, however, unusual to find this proposition stripped of its limitations, and transformed into the ontological and absolute statement that the world is a constant sum of energy from which nothing can be taken and to which nothing can be added.


I have sought to maintain throughout this paper that every judgment has some reference to reality, and that, therefore, in so far as it is true it must have a genuine significance as a determination of the real world. In the universal propositions of science, the real subject of the judgment rarely (or perhaps never) corresponds with the grammatical subject of the proposition. Thetas then which philosophy has to perform in this connection is to make clear the real implications of these propositions, and thus to become aware of their true import and significance. To put the matter in another way, we may say that each special science necessarily considers some group of facts in isolation from other realms of facts. Its conclusions are therefore valid only under the supposition which it makes namely, that its group of facts is thus isolated. What philosophy must seek to do is to remove these abstractions, and to evaluate the scientific conclusions from the standpoint of the concrete whole. Thus, all the physical sciences consider the world as it would be if it existed out of relation to mind. It is evident at once, that the results of these sciences cannot be carried over, directly and without modification, into our philosophy of nature. Todor this would be to affirm absolutely what the physical sciences assert only under (a more or less conscious) limitation. When we come to psychology, with which philosophy is still more closely connected, we must distinguish, I think, degrees of abstractness in its methods of treating its subject matter. On the one hand, the point of view of the older works, as well as of many of the standard treatises of the present day, are abstract only insofar as all thinking is inevitably abstract, in virtue of its nature as selective activity. These systems of psychology describe the mind, that is, as a system of functions of a self, and thus afford what at least approaches to a philosophy of mind. On the other hand, however, an influential and somewhat numerous group of scholars at present insist on making psychology 'natural' science. By that they mean, if I understand the position correctly, that the same logical demand which requires that the physical world should be described and explained as it would be if it were independent of consciousness, also obliges us to consider the content of consciousness, as it would exist if it were independent of any central principle of intelligence. Which of these methods of procedure is the more profitable for psychology will doubtless be settled in time inside of the science itself? The philosopher, however, if he is to avoid confusion, will find it necessary to distinguish between 'these two psychological standpoints, and to proceed differently in seeking to give to each set of results its proper value in his final account of the nature of mind.


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