Purpose as Logical Category

Updated: Jun 17


Creighton, J. E. “Purpose as Logical Category.” The Philosophical Review 13, no. 3 (1904): 284. https://doi.org/10.2307/2176282


THE category of purpose, after having fallen into discredit for a long time, has begun recently to reassert its right to a central place in philosophical theories and discussions. There is, however, an important difference between the old teleology and the new. The former view endeavored to interpret the world in the light of some objective purpose, which was regarded either as immanent in the world, or as having a transcendent existence in the mind of God. The new teleology, on the other hand, is subjective and individual in character, and maintains that in the needs and ends of our personal lives we find the only possible key to the interpretation and evaluation of reality. It is thus, as has sometimes been observed, essentially in harmony with that modern spirit which, as a foe to all absolutism, refuses allegiance to external standards, and judges everything in accordance with its bearing on human life and human interests.


There is nothing essentially new in principle, I think, in this general tendency of current thought. There is much in the doctrine that connects it with Fichte, and still more closely with Positivism, and with many forms of the neo-Kantianism of our own day. During the last dozen years or so, the theory has been advanced from many sides, apparently worked out from different standpoints, and with a corresponding diversity in its emphasis upon particular points. Mach, Karl Pearson, and many others who draw their material primarily from the physical sciences, agree with those who have approached the matter from the standpoint of philosophy and psychology in regarding thought as instrumental in character, and subordinate to the practical ends of human will. Professor James has expounded the doctrine in a number of essays, bringing into popular use the term 'Pragmatism ‘proposed some twenty-five years ago by Mr. C. S. Peirce. In the hands of Professor Dewey and those associated with him at the University of Chicago, the position has been much strengthened and elaborated by being brought into connection with the general standpoint of evolutionary science. It thus appears as a comprehensive theory of experience, in the form of a genetic and evolutionary psychology that furnishes the general standpoint from which the problems of logic, ethics, and the other philosophical disciplines are to be worked out in a systematic way. Whatever one's final judgment may be, one cannot fail to receive intellectual stimulus and suggestion from this new movement, or to recognize the strength and persuasiveness of the exposition and illustration that it has received at Professor Dewey's hands.


The general theses of the current teleological doctrines have been so often set forth that it is not necessary for me to attempt here any extended summary. Their fundamental postulates or principles may perhaps be stated in the following way: Thoughts a particular function or activity within experience, not the universal form or constituent element of conscious life. It is always instrumental in character, having for its object the discovery of ways in which the purposes and needs of the practical life can be realized in action. It is thus always determined by its relation to a specific situation and to a definite problem. Moreover, its standard of success and test of adequacy is found in the practical success which it achieves. From this it follows, negatively, that thought has no ontological reference beyond experience. It is not its business to know or define a reality in any sense outsider independent of the experience of the individual. As a reconstructive function of experience, it necessarily works within the limits that the latter sets, and in the service of the practical ends to which it gives rise.

These propositions are supported by various lines of argument. The obvious use and importance of knowledge for practical purposes, the historical fact that the sciences have grown up in response to practical necessities, and the close and essential connection between idea and action in the psychological life, are all brought forward by various writers. In addition, however, there are two lines of argument adduced that seem still more significant. In the first place, the purposive or teleological view is sustained by regarding thought as a function of life in general, which in itself sets no new ends, but appears upon the scene as a favorable variation in the service of ends already present, and can therefore be treated in analogy with the other functions of life. And, secondly, the supposed difficulties of the ontological or absolute view are made to furnish indirect or negative support to this position. For this new view of thought avoids, it is claimed, the insuperable difficulties and inevitable contradictions of any theory that assumes that thought has to know a transcendent object. Quite apart from the impossibility of understanding how thought could ever set itself such a task, the ontological view, it is claimed, affords no possible test of success or failure in its performance. ‘No bell rings’ as Professor James graphically puts it, as a signal that thought has reached its goal.


When we turn to examine these arguments, we must say that at least those first enumerated do not seem conclusive, even if we accept them in the form in which they are commonly stated. That knowledge is actually employed as a guide of life, does not imply that this is its sole or even its chief function. It would be equally cogent to argue that the practical activities exist only as means to knowledge, since we do frequently find them employed in this service. Nor, in the second place, does the close psychological connection of idea and action require us to conclude that the former is subordinated to the latter. The process of knowing, as has often been pointed out, involves will and purpose in the form of interest, attention, and selection; but this is not a complete description of the psychological situation. In any genuine case of knowing, there must also be present an objective interest, a detachment from the personal and private ends of our will, in order to permit the true end of knowledge to be realized. The facts of experience, then, when we look at all sides, seem to show that ideational life is not defined or determined by any merely individual end. Instead of separating the ideational and the volitional elements of experience, or reducing one to terms of the other, the facts of the case compel us rather to recognize them as distinguishable, though not distinct, moments in the total attitude of the self toward reality.


In the third place, it does not follow, even if we grant the premise, that because the sciences have been developed through the stimulus of practical needs, they have therefore no further aim or significance. In accordance with what Wundt calls the heterogony of ends, we may suppose that the process of development has brought into view in more highly evolved forms of conscious life a different end, that of knowledge, which may now be of supreme importance. Apart from this, however, the premise of the argument may well be questioned. In the early history of both the individual and the race, practical interests and needs are doubtless most insistent and absorbing, and largely dominate the life. Freedom from the most pressing needs of life is certainly essential to any progress in science. But it is doubtful if it is permissible to assume that the disinterested impulse toward knowledge is entirely absent at any stage of human consciousness.


However confidently we may turn aside these commonplace ripples of argument, we cannot forget that there are two great waves still to be faced. To meet these, we shall find it necessary to lay our course on the open sea with philosophical exactness, and to put our craft in the best possible condition to meet the shock.


The argument from biological analogy professedly carries with it the full authority and weight of '

current evolutionary science. It points out that the idea, like everything else, is developed as

a necessary function within experience. The idea, it is said, comes in response to a definite demand for 'readjustment and expansion in the ends and means of life.' It thus works in the service of life, having for its object to readjust habits in the light of new situations, to loosen tensions that arise within experience, and, in general, to quiet uneasiness, restlessness, and pain. Now, it is to be noted that, if thought is to be regarded as analogous to other functions of life, it cannot be taken as setting any new ends of its own that are independent of the ends of the life of the organism in which it has arisen. The problems that it is called to solve are never theoretical problems, difficulties set by the intellect itself. For if this were the case, the biological view of thought would be completely out of court ; for thinking would be no longer merely performing the task prescribed by the organism, or by unreflective experience, but seeking to realize an end which is quite different in character.


This point requires to be carefully noted; for just here, as we shall see more explicitly hereafter, serious ambiguity arises in these that are made of terms like 'practical,' and 'the demands of life.' It is surely clear that one cannot blow hot and cold at the same time, and that from the standpoint of the present argument 'practical ends ' must be limited to those which belong to the organism, or which are in some sense antecedent to thought. If thought sets any ends of its own and works for their realization, it is surely clear that it cannot be regarded as a particular function of life and treated as analogous to the other biological functions.


The whole point at issue here, then, is whether thought can be adequately described as a particular function of experience. When we take the external point of view, looking at the psychophysical individual as an object of scientific investigation, we can only construe thought in this way, and such an interpretation has ascertain truth, it may be that this is the only truth about thought that biological science is able to furnish. But philosophy, as the science of experience, occupies a different viewpoint from that of the special sciences. It looks at experience from within, not as an object, or a collection of objects, but in its immediate relaxations the knowing and willing subject. Now, from this point of view, the thought function is seen to be central and constitutive, not an external process of reflection superinduced upon life or experience. The dualism that is implied between the ideational process and a life of habit or feeling, or of immediate values, has no real existence, but results from the abstraction that is forced upon us when we look at experience from the outside. From the internal view-point of self-consciousness, however, thought, not as an abstract reflective principle, but as the concrete and self-conscious attitude of the self, which includes will and purpose as an essential moment of its own life, thought, in this sense, is seen to be the central principle that gives to experience its significance and its possibility of interpretation.


In the light of this position it would seem to follow that these so-called 'practical' ends can never be final or independent ends for a rational being. They only find a place within such a life by being included as means within the ultimate ends or ideals in which the self-expresses the unity and completeness of its olive. In the realization of a string or series of particular purposes that are not subordinated to an ultimate end, there can be no true self-expression or self-realization.


We have at length come to consider the indirect support that the instrumental view of knowledge receives through the alleged incapacity of all ontological systems to explain how thought can deal with a reality that in any sense transcends experience. There is no test of thought, it is urged, but the practical test of success as shown by trial and experience itself. Reality as an ontological system, eternally complete and finished, and thus contrasted with the incompleteness and growing adequacy of our experience, is an unmeaning abstraction, something that does not function at all in our thought and is dumb to our successes or failures.


I certainly cannot escape the conviction that those who put their objections in this form have not understood the position of their opponents. Everyone would admit that there is no external test of truth, and that the standard must be found within experience itself. But the question recurs: What is the nature of experience? And it is in the reading or interpretation of experience that many idealists take issue with those whose arguments we are examining. If, as the latter maintain, the experience of the individual, in its essential nature, is isolated and detached as a finite phenomenon, if the nature of a larger whole does not function constitutively within it in the form of universal principles, then all tests of truth are impossible, practical tests no less than theoretical, as I shall presently show. But if (as I have always understood idealists to maintain) experience by its very nature involves a reference to reality, the case is not so hopeless. For then the reality which is taken as a standard is not external, but functions as an immanent principle within experience. It does not, however, fall wholly within any individual experience, but exists as the extension and supplementation that individual experience seeks and demands. It is this relation of individual thought to the reality that is at once continuous with it and also its necessary complement and fulfilment, that finds expression within experience in the aspects of universality and necessity. These are not characteristics of ideas as such, nor is an idea made universal through the fact of its existence in all minds, but it only partakes of universality and necessity through being an element within an experience that has the nature of reality bound up with itself.

The objective or ontological view does not then have to undertake the impossible task, which its opponents would thrust upon it, of explaining how thought-in-itself can know reality-in -itself. There is no warrant whatsoever for identifying this form of idealism with the older representational theories of knowledge. The truth is that it was just this school of thought that first showed both the inadequacy of representations, and the possibility of avoiding its difficulties by starting from a truer and more concrete view of experience. Thought, idealism points out, has no existence as something standing apart from reality; but, in Hegel's graphic words, it is its very nature to shut us together with things. No bell then is necessary as a signal that our thought has touched reality; every real thought has some degree of truth, even though the proposition in which it is expressed may not be adequate to the expression of this truth. The real problem in any given case, therefore, is to determine which of two or more possible ways of judging about reality is truer and more adequate.


Here the appeal is to experience itself, but to experience as systematized by thought. It is to be noted, however, that the system to which we appeal is not a fixed circle of abstract ideas that have the power of determining truth through their own internal consistency. It is rather the concrete and fluid processor thinking, in which the nature of reality functions effectively, both as something already partially determined, and also as that which sets the ideal for further determination. As thus an active process of transformation directed towards the realization of an ideal, thought seeks to extend and supplement its present content. It looks before and after and seeks guidance and direction from every quarter. To this end, it appeals to direct perceptive experience, and makes use of trial and experiment as its instruments. With the same object of broadening its outlook, it makes use of the opinions of other men, testing and correcting its own conclusions by the light which these results afford. Herder has well remarked that it is not without significance that the word Vernunft is derived from Verne men, to learn or give ear to. For reasoning involves, as one of its essential moments, a looking abroad and learning from every quarter, not in an attitude of passive receptivity, but with a mental alertness and selective attention that employs the whole process of experience as a means of realizing and fulfilling its own ideal.


For this view of reason, we are indebted to the men who inaugurated the historical movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For the eighteenth-century rationalists, reason was something limited and self-enclosed. That is, they commonly assumed that every normal person had only to look into his own consciousness to know what is reasonable. Reason was thus regarded as an infallible organon, which each individual carried with him as a private possession, and which had the power to determine truth by means of the laws of formal consistency.


Now, in abandoning this abstract conception of thought or reason as a thing-in-itself, it is necessary to avoid the opposite error of resolving thought into a mere plurality of experiences, into consciousness of the result of movement, for example. Forti is impossible to dispense with the functional reality of thought as a guiding and controlling principle. This principle is not merely regulative of experience, but constitutive as well; or, rather, we may say that it is constitutive just through the fact that it is regulative. In other words, thought, in its work of determining reality as a system, operates not only through retrospective categories, but possesses in a certain sense the power of prevision, and this prospective reference, as guiding purpose and ideal, operates effectively in building up the system of truth.


It is only when we take account of these facts that we can find any meaning in the conception of 'workability' as a test of truth. Those who emphasize the all-sufficiency of this practical standard, however, usually assume that it is a new principle come to supersede and destroy, not to fulfil, the claims of the older logical principles. At this point a little reflection will show that the conditions under which the practical test is applied presuppose logical thinking as their necessary framework and background. It may be said that the practical criterion of 'workability ‘merely asserts that the test of any present system of experience is the future experience that comes through trial and experiment. It means simply, it may be said, that present ideas must be tried by their future results. But we can maintain with equal reason that the present system of knowledge furnishes the standard by means of which we must judge the future. This antinomy obviously has its source in the abstract separation of present and future experience. Instead of being external and independent centers that exercise authority from the one side or the other, future experience and present experience necessarily imply each other, the present looking forward to the future for its completion and correction, the future looking back to what is for it the past. Now, this reciprocal implication and determination of parts presupposes that these parts are elements of a rationally coordinated system. It follows, therefore, that the so-called practical test that judges the truth of an idea by its results, is applicable only when it is issued within a rationally determined system of thoughts that contains as immanent ideal its own principles of criticism. (Everything works in some way, but the practical question always is, how does it work?)


Passing from this point, we may find that some further explanation and justification are still demanded of the proposition that thought is necessarily and organically connected with an objective reality. How is it possible, it may be asked, for a reality to be at once both within and without an individual consciousness ?It is impossible to deny that the consciousness of each person has an aspect of uniqueness, in virtue of which it may be said to be strictly self-enclosed and particular. But the facts of experience, impartially and comprehensively viewed, compel us to recognize another moment of mind as equally essential to its true individuality. This is expressed through the principles of universality and necessity, which are, as we have seen, marks of the functional efficiency of the objective ideal. This ideal, though a part of present experience, points always to a system of reality in which it is completely fulfilled and realized. Nevertheless, the fact that the objective world functions in individual consciousness as an ideal, does not exclude its reality either within our consciousness or without it. For the ideal and the real are continuous with each other, and complementary in nature, not separate and opposing modes of existence. It is the presence of reality as ideal in our consciousness, not as something that is already attained, but as the mark to which we press forward, that differentiates our thinking from the aimless play of subjective ideas.


This view, I venture to think, makes no impossible demands, and appeals to no questionable hypotheses. It appears to me to be simply a more complete and adequate reading of the facts of experience than that furnished by its opponents. The relation of the mind to reality, to a world of things and persons, is given


with the very fact of conscious experience. If we find no difficulty in ascribing an objective reality, in the ontological sense, to persons, if we do not reduce our fellow men to functions within experience, why should we pronounce it unmeaning to give the same kind of reality to things? Recent investigations into social and genetic psychology have emphasized in a striking way the fact that it is the very nature of the individual consciousness to transcend the limits of its own particularity and unite with other individuals. This social relation, we say, is not external and accidental, but a real and constituent element in the life of the individual, the nature of the Alter being essentially involved and included in the nature of the Ego. Now, if we find no obstacle to prevent us from admitting the transcendence by the individual of the bounds of its particularity in this social connection, why should we make a difficulty in the case of objects in general? Our relations to persons are, indeed, more intimate, and also more varied than are those in which we stand to things. Moreover, we may perhaps say in general that these relations continue to lose something in intimacy, variety, and emotional warmth, as we pass downwards through the various forms of organic life to the objects of inorganic nature. But there is no difference in principle between the mode in which we know persons and that in which we know things. Furthermore, we have also to admit that the feelings and emotions that seem distinctive of our attitude toward persons are not original, but have grown up through experience: persons are only gradually distinguished and classified by the child as different from other objects of the real world.


I have thus attempted to examine the main arguments of those who interpret reality in terms of will and purpose, and to answer the objections that are most insistently urged against the older view. It now remains to briefly indicate the chief difficulties that seem to me inherent in this modern form of teleology. As these objections have been more or less explicitly anticipated in what precedes, I shall confine myself to a brief statement that will to some extent serve as a summary of my paper.


1. We have already had occasion to refer to the ambiguity that in this use attaches to the word 'practical’ as well as to the term’s 'end' and 'purpose.' These words seem to be employed by this theory to cover two modes of consciousness that are usually, at least, regarded as essentially different. In some cases the 'practical' end for the realization of which thought acts as an instrument's material in character and involves physical movements; as, e. g., to supply food, provide shelter, or in some way to minister to the needs of the physical organism. In other connections, however, the term 'practical purposes' is broadened to include intellectual interests and problems that concern only the relation of the thinking process to itself and have no discoverable relation to biological needs or to physical movements. The employment of terms in this shifting sense seems to have resulted in certain confusion of the issue, and to have led to a slurring over of one of the fundamental difficulties in the position. Moreover, the claim of the position to novelty depends to a very large extent upon its adoption of the narrower and more usual interpretation of what is to be regarded as a practical purpose. If these words are used to include the ends of knowledge, there is nothing essential gained, so far as I can see; the logical problem still remains and here analogies with the course of biological evolution and arguments based on these analogies cannot help us.


2. From the standpoint of the position we have been examining, one cannot consistently speak of supplementing or broadening the individual standpoint by reference to social purposes. For, as we have seen, the recognition of other individuals, and of our own relation to them, requires the adoption of the transcendent and ontological position against which the instrumental view levels its heaviest artillery. The instrumental view must, then, logically remain purely individualistic. As such, it necessarily fails to do justice to the objective and universal aspect of experience. For a series of individual purposes, as a description of objective reality, is surely open to all the theoretical objections that have been so often urged against a series of subjective feelings; while, if taken seriously as a standpoint for ethics, the doctrine seems open to the gravest objections.


3. A string of individual purposes also fails to afford any unity to life and experience. But there is actually such a unity present, if not in realized form at least as ideal, in all rational life. We must conclude, then, that in maintaining that it is always in the light of particular definite purposes that experience must be interpreted, the instrumental view is emphasizing what in themselves are not true ends of thought at all, but only subordinate ends that find their meaning and place in rational experience from their relation to a universal and dominating end. Without the reference of the various practical purposes to the unity of such an end, experience would remain a chaotic assemblage of elements completely lacking true unity and consistency.


4. In spite of the claim made by its advocates that this theory avoids dualism, it yet introduces a sharp opposition between immediate experience and the ideational process. This opposition does not seem to be warranted by an analysis of consciousness itself. On the one side, the theory seems to place experience or conscious life, consisting of feelings, impulsive and habitual reactions, and immediate appreciation of values. Out of this, as already-made Prius, or an antecedently existing matrix, thought arises as a process of reflection, or a function of transformation and readjustment. Thought is thus necessary to the further development of experience, but it does not appear to be in- any sense organic to it; for experience can apparently exist in independence of thought. Even when it is pointed out that thought arises out of experience, the difficulty is not fully met; for it comes, not as the development of a principle already immanent in, and constitutive of, the earlier stage, but as a variation, or deus ex Machina, that introduces something entirely new. There is thus a departure, I think, from the procedure of the true evolutionary method.


5. What I have already set down must stand at present as justification for the final statement of my paper, that the view of experience we have examined, instructive and valuable as it is in many of its aspects, is only valid in so far as it rests upon a logical and ontological basis that is quite different from that which it claims for itself. It seems to me that I have shown that, in several of its arguments at least, this theory does implicit rest upon such a basis. Even constructive thinkers do not always remember that the underlying principles of experience are not explicitly asserted in consciousness, as are particular facts, but rather are implicitly asserted or assumed. It is therefore easy, from the standpoint of common sense and natural science, to consciously fail to recognize a background that is all the while presupposed as the support which gives the facts of experience their meaning. If the ' instrumental theory were to develop consistently its presuppositions, its claim to be an independent and self-sufficient method of philosophy would, in my judgment, at once appear as groundless and impossible.


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