The Objects of Knowledge

Leighton, Joseph A. “The Objects of Knowledge.” The Philosophical Review 16, no. 6 (1907): 577.

THE distinction between 'object' as a thing existentially external to an individual mind and 'object' as the goal or term of reference for thought, is obviously of the utmost importance for epistemological discussion; and yet this distinction is one not always kept in mind in such discussions. It is with ‘objects' in the second sense that we are concerned in this article. An object in this general sense, which includes, as a special class, objects in the first sense, is anything that may be qualified by the judgmental reference of thought to it. Object, in this fundamental, epistemological meaning of the term, includes all termini of judgment, whether the aim be simply to render a theoretical account of fact or to treat such account as a step towards practical achievement. Since conscious possession of knowledge always requires the activity of judgment, no sharp line of division can be drawn between theoretical and practical thinking. The success of practice involves the truth of theory.

An object, then, is any specific situation or element in experience which yields conscious meaning or reflective significance for a thinking self. And 'object,' as the terminus or 'objective' of judgment in cognition, is analogous to 'object' in the practical sense, as the goal of volition or action. In this respect, no hard and fast line can be drawn between thinking and willing, cognition and action. When one asks me, “What is the object of all this labor of yours?" he means, and I understand that he means, “What end have you in view in carrying on this piece of literary work, i. f., what is the goal of your effort of will, involving, as it does, so much reflection?" Another may be asked, "What is the object of this strenuous physical training or this assiduous devotion to business?" To which he may reply, "To beat Ain a race," or, "To get rich before I am forty." His object is called more 'practical' than mine, simply because it can be more readily appreciated by the average intelligence.

The object of knowledge involves the consciousness of the distinction between the idea of an object and the object that warrants the idea, a distinction without which there would be no knowledge and which carries in its train all the perplexing questions as to the way in which thinking can refer to an object, as to how knowledge can be more than a merely subjective or psychological process, in short, the whole nest of epistemological problems.

It does not fall within the main purpose of the present article to discuss these questions at large. I must be content here to emphasize one consideration involved in the distinction between the idea of an object and the object of an idea.

Knowledge begins in simple judgments, judgments of feeling or sentience, as yet devoid of explicit conceptual relations, but containing the germs of all the higher functions of thinking. And the problem of the nature and function of cognitive thinking, in short, the entire problem of knowledge, arises directly out of the emergence of images and ideas as products of judgment in its function as the mediating activity between immediate consciousness and its objects. Images and ideas are at once the distinguishing and the relating terms between the self as knower and doer, and the world in and through which it knows and does.

It would be interesting and important to trace in some detail the psychological process of the genesis of images and ideas, but I cannot pause to do so here. A few words on this point must suffice. The simplest judgments of sentience are ploughed deep into the texture of mind because of their emotional and practical interest. They are retained, just how, we need not stop to consider, since this is primarily a matter for psychology. When similar judgments are made again, i.e., when the mind consciously reacts to similar situations, they are felt as similar, and this feeling is the condition of more specific identification. There is a thrill of recognition of partial identity, perhaps a distinct redintegration. Memory images are thus formed through the feeling of similarity that binds together fragments of past imagery, of experiences of pleasure-pain, tension, movement, etc., as significant of consciously active attitudes. In this way more or less definite images or ideas of typical objects of judgment arise in consciousness. For instance, the candle, now judged by the child to be the same in behavior as the lighted thing which formerly burnt it painfully, does not now inflict auburn, because the recognition of sameness in behavior involves the judgment that it would burn if touched, and so the child makes the further practical judgment of not touching it. Images and ideas get freighted with all sorts of significant relationships for a self, and these constitute their cognitive values. As instruments for storing up and directing experiences, they gain a quasi-independent reality; but their entire raison d'etre, as well as their use, lies in their functions as instruments of a thought-directed adjustment of the self to the world of experience. And this adjustment involves what are commonly called theoretical, as well as practical and emotional, relations.

The self becomes, not only a center of feeling that can be affected by, and that can affect objects, but also a center of thinking that by judgmental activity forms 'ideas' about things, that carries about memory-images of objects. In short, the self becomes a knowing and devising self, one that judges and plans, that is aware of the distinction between itself as judging and devising, the objects concerning which it judges and devises, and the judging or knowing process which is at once the connection link and distinguishing term between knowing self and known object.

It may become necessary, in the course of thought's development, to divide experience up into two disparate realms, physical and psychical, and to conclude that the former has an independent being to which thought may validly refer, but which is of wholly foreign nature. But it is certainly untrue to the manner in which experience is operated upon from within and reconstituted by thinking, as well as fatal to a theory of knowledge, to begin with an assumption of this character. Experience, in its beginnings as psychical immediacy, is neither physical nor psychical, in the sense in which these terms are employed when they are contrasted. The sharp contrast between physical and psychical is one that has grown up through the formation of memory-images and ideas that seemingly are carried about in the head, and hence may be supposed to have an entirely different sort of existence from that of the 'external ‘objects to which they refer. It is, in short, the interposition of reflective knowledge, as a third term, between the immediate states of a psychical Centre and the objects of its thought and action, that leads to the assumption of a purely independent and utterly non-psychical world. What ultimate warrant this assumption may have, we need not stop to enquire here. I am concerned now to insist that, from the standpoint of the origin and nature of knowledge, the truly important distinction of subject and object is that between the cognitive meanings which thinking, as judgment, has, and the objects to which these meanings refer. True judgment is always a dynamic act of intelligence, the reference of meanings or of ideas in their significance to reality. The objects which constitute reality for us may be either what we commonly call psychical or physical. A thought or an emotion of my own is just as truly, and in quite the same valid sense, the object of my cognitive meaning in the act of reference called judgment, is a skyscraper or a mountain.

I may interpolate here the observation, that it is the confusion between object as object of thought in judgment, and object as an extended mass having form, color, etc., that is responsible for the assumption of naive realism, that the world of objects must differ Toto calo from the world of thought. In truth, no experience has meaning, except insofar as the constitutive act of thought is or has been at work upon it. Either all experience is actually or potentially meaningful for thought from the outset, or it remains forever dumb and blind. The germs of thought's mediating activity must be present in the crudest datum of sense perception. Knowledge does not begin with some raw un-mentalized datum thrust into the mind from without. The physical object, to which judgment refers, may be as impenetrable as wrought steel, as hard as a diamond, but, as object of thought, it is not something thrust into a mind from without, but reference of a thought’s meaning or an idea's cognitive bearing to reality.

If knowledge or truth, then, be never, in any case, either an image or idea taken by itself or a particular existence outside the mind, what is it? Knowledge must be, in simplest and most general terms, a consciousness of the relation between a thinking or judging mind and anything concerning which a mind may judge. Hence truth or specific knowledge, the result of judgment, does not exist in the same sense in which particular things exist. Truth is actual or real, but its reality is that of Val meaning. Truth does not exist, but it nevertheless is, and existence is one class of its objects. Existence has truth or is true, in so far as it enters into the relation to the judging mind which yields psychic meaning. Every kind of real existent must somehow yield this ideal quality of psychical meaning; for only thus, is there any sense in speaking of a thing's existence.

Now, what is the relation between particular objects of knowledge, which somehow exist, and the principles of truth or judgment, which do not exist in the same sense in which, for example, a pebble exists, but the reality of which must be involved in the truth of any matter of fact?

If knowledge does not consist in the mere psychical existence either of ideas or of non-ideational things, and yet, on the other hand, existence implies truth, and truth somehow refers to existents, reality must have a dual character. Reality, as a whole, must involve the correlative or interdependent being of fact and meaning, of thought and its object. Then nothing can be an object of knowledge that has not the quality or power of receiving and sustaining the constitutive act of thought called judgment. It is an essential characteristic of a knowable object that it is a subject of judgment. Then, if the valid reality of thought implies the reality of a systematic whole of thought, the truths of particular fact cannot be independent of truths of general principles. The organism of truth must be a systematic unity, from the barest and most isolated matter of fact up to the most-wide reaching generalization.

It is not my purpose, in the present article, to consider at length what may be the specific character of this organism of truth. Our previous discussion is in the nature of a preamble toa classification of the various types or classes of objects of knowledge, with a view to indicating their interrelations, and so preparing the way for a fuller consideration of the doctrine of a systematic unity of intelligence or organism of knowledge as the ultimate implication and ground of knowledge.

Let us then briefly consider the various classes of cognitive objects. These classes are as follows:

Class I. The class of all objects external to the mind of the individual knower, i. e., existing in apparent independence of the individual’s consciousness of them. This class includes (a) all physical objects (including the thinker's own body, after he has developed a consciousness of the distinction between his mind and his body and of the causal relationship between his own body and other bodies); (b) social psychological objects, or the ideas and feelings of other minds, whether as now existing or as having existed in past time and having left, in historical records, expressions of their ideas and feelings. Class I is the class of over-individual or socially shareable objects of thought; and, since all the objects of knowledge in this class, although known only through the constitutive act of judgment, are thought as independent existences, we may call it the class of over-individual existents, i.e., of existents that are socially recognized as such, in distinction from those that are known only to the individual thinker. A complete epistemological enquiry would have to decide whether these social existents as knowable object simply an over-social consciousness, or whether the doctrine of social consciousness is sufficient foundation for their knowable reality.

Class II. The class of the individual thinker's own ideas, feelings, etc., as objects of immediate awareness, when he feels them, or of retrospective awareness in memory and reflection. (My supposed knowledge of my own past states sets, of course, a serious problem that cannot be entered upon here.) This is the class of strictly individual objects of cognition. Only I can be directly aware of my own psychic states. But objects of this class may pass over into Class I (b) by expression and intercommunication. This passage is only very partially achieved in the case of our deepest feelings and strivings. The complex individuality of these makes communication through conventional and generalized signs very difficult. Inter-communication, of course, requires also the constructive interpretative activity of the mind which receives the communication. How one mind can know another, is a special form of the general epistemological problem, how a mind can know anything beyond its own passing states.

Class III. The class of universal truths, viz., the first principles of logic and mathematics (and of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion, if there be such). Much ado is made today in some quarters as to how the propositions of logic and mathematics can exist, and it is argued by one school l that these propositions must exist as entities independent of any thinking mind. According to the view of the present writer, they are not to be taken as existents at all. There are two obvious types of existents, physical processes and psychical or psychological processes. Whether these two types can with any show of sound reason be reduced to one, is an ultimate problem for metaphysics. The members of Class III, such as the principle of contradiction, the axioms of geometry, etc., are objects of cognition whose actuality or reality consists in their being as laws or formulas which express fundamental operations or functions of thought, by which any existent is known through judgment as an existent in relation to others. These principles, then, are over-individual or general objects of cognition, not of the type called 'existents,' but of the type called 'valid' or 'significant' activities of reason. Their being does not consist in a particular factual existence, like that of a table or a toothache, but in their actuality as fundamental principles or laws expressive of that universal structure and functioning of thought or reason on which depends the whole development of psychic meaning or conscious significance in the world of things. These principles do not exist, but they express fundamental conditions of existence and non-existence in a world that is conscious of itself, and in a consciousness that knows itself only in relation to things of which it is or may become conscious. In short, this is the class of over-individual principles of validity, or of absolute intelligible values.

Now, if every truth be true, every meaning valid, only in so far as it fits into an organized or systematic and coherent whole of truth, then the universal truths of logic, mathematics, etc., must somehow fit into this systematic whole, although we may not be able now or at any time to determine finally how these principles cohere. The validity of this self-coherent system is the reality of a supreme mind or organization of truth. The absoluteness of truth consists in the completeness and systematic coherence of all the thought relations involved in knowing the existent as actual and possible. Now Classes I and II, referring respectively to over-individual and to individual existents, as objects of cognition, involve judgments which, if true, must be universally valid. For example, it is a particular and local fact that I have a headache to-day; but if true now, it must somehow be an element of truth for all time that I, at this particular date, had a headache, whatever 'I' and the 'headache' may mean at some future time. If the judgment respecting it have any truth, then the fact of the headache is somehow implicated with all the conditions of existence now, and the judgment about the fact is implicated with the whole system of judgments by which existence in its totality gets psychical meaning or significance. It would be still easier to show that judgments concerning isolated physical facts are implicated, through the laws of the physical order, in the whole system of meanings which belong to physical existence as object of organized thinking. It follows that Classes I and II of cognitions involve Class III. In short, any valid judgment or act of cognitive reference, by which fact is constituted for a knowing mind, is implicated in the whole system of valid judgments, whose first principles or underlying texture are to be found in the absolute values which constitute the principles of logic, mathematics, etc. All types of cognition, then, presuppose the absolute validity of an ideal systematic or self-coherent whole of experience conscious of itself. This is what we mean by the reality of a universal mind.

There seems to be still another class of objects of knowledge, viz., those that refer neither to existents nor to valid principles of thinking, and yet are objects of thought; for example, a 'round square,' ‘wooden iron,' 'Pegasus,' 'Centaurs,' etc. This class may be subdivided into (a) contradictory objects of thought, such as a 'round square'; (&) mythological and imaginary figures or ideas, such as 'Centaur,' 'castles in Spain,' a 'mountain of gold. ‘Sub-class (a) is simply that of contradictory and invalid ideas which a mind can entertain, not as objects of logical thinking, but as imaginary or 'play-objects' of thought. A 'round square, ‘wooden iron,' a 'rope of sand,' a 'capital made up of debts,' etc., are non-existent, invalid objects of thought, entertained bay process of logical play or conscious illusion, in which the logical faculty 'let’s up' or recreates itself in the region of absurd make-believe. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are classical examples of this play or make-believe.

It is often the case that a mind which is not conscious of theological relations of opposition or incompatibility among ideas, joins incompatibles and seriously holds them as true. In other words, contradictions and absurdities may be entertained unwittingly by a mind that unites ideas unconscious of the contradictions in fact, or principle involved in the union. Such contradictions exist simply as psychical processes. It would belong to a psychology and logic of error to deal fully with such cases and shall not dwell upon them further.

The objects of subclass (b) such as 'Centaurs,' 'Pegasus, ‘Minerva is the daughter of Jupiter,' etc., exist for thought in a 'universe of discourse.' The figures of Greek mythology have psychical existence as members of a system or group of ideas which we may refer to minds that once existed and created these figures, just as the imaginary figures of a modern poet, Blake or Shelley for instance, exist in the mind of that poet and for the sympathetic minds of his readers. These objects of thought, mythological figures, etc., have an over-individual psychical existence and meaning through their reference to the creative imaginations of poets or peoples, the Homeric Greeks, for example. The existence of these mythological figures of the past, now, as objects of thought, refers to the present activity of minds possessed of sufficient imagination and feeling to endow historical records with psychical meaning.

In conclusion, I will briefly point out the application of our classification of objects of knowledge to the arrangement of the sciences. The physical sciences, including physics, chemistry, and biology, are sciences of over-individual physical existents. The psychological sciences are sciences of over-individual psychic existents, i.e., of common or socially verifiable facts of mind. Mathematics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of religion are sciences of the over-individual values or valid principles of thinking, of conduct, of the feeling for beauty, and of devotion or worship respectively. These values, of course, invalid, must apply to the world of existents and be discoverable therein. The distinction made between descriptive and normative sciences rests upon this difference, in mode of approach, between the study of observable and verifiable facts of existence and the study of the values or ultimate principles involved in the interpretation of the world of fact. One may study physics without a preliminary enquiry into the logical foundations of induction or mathematics, and one may experience beauty or religious uplift without the study of aesthetics or of the philosophy of religion. But, in every case, the truth of what one studies, or experiences depends upon the functioning in one's mind of the ultimate values or principles of validity. And these principles must, in turn, being the facts of experience. Hence no absolute separation can be made of descriptive and normative sciences.

There can be no science of purely individual existents or private and immediate experiences, no science of my toothache and headache, of my love and aspiration, except in so far as these pass over, through physiological processes, into the realm of over-individual physical existents, or, through expression, into the realm of over individual or social psychical processes.

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