Trans-Subjective Realism and Hegelianism

MacLennan, S. F. “Trans-Subjective Realism and ‘Hegelianism.’” The Philosophical Review 10, no. 6 (1901): 630.

A CONSIDERATION of the attack made recently by Mr. A. K. Rogers upon ' Hegelian' thinkers in England and America, falls naturally under two heads. Mr. Rogers's criticisms from the epistemological standpoint made familiar to us by Professor A. Seth under the title “Trans-subjective Realism, “and is intended to show that the " school of Professor Green "is guilty of subjective idealism. Inasmuch as Mr. Rogers feels that the trans-subjectivist position has been misrepresented, and inasmuch, also, as many students of 'Hegelian' doctrine are convinced that the opinions of Professor Green and others have been entirely distorted, an adequate treatment of the question presupposes, first, an examination of trans-subjective realism, and second, an exposition of the main lines of 'Hegelian' epistemology.


Trans-subjective realism rests upon what, at first thought, appears to be a natural assumption with reference to the character and relations of subject and object. These are regarded as separate existences, possessed of specific thing-hood, yet falling within the unity of the single system which is the world. Individually considered, 'things,' both of subjective and objective order, are exclusive; the reality of one cannot become the reality of any other; existentially they are and must remain absolutely distinct. And yet, these exclusive existences are bound together and are organically related in the world's system.

From this basis the trans-subjectivist proceeds to the definition of knowledge. As an existence, it is confined absolutely to the subject within which it occurs; as a representation, its significance carries it out of and beyond the subject-knower and to the object (or subject) known. Thus, the nature and relations of the ‘things’ beyond the individual knowing subject, are revealed in and to that subject, while at the same time these 'things ‘maintain themselves as they would if the specific knowing subject were non-existent. Subject and object are alike real; knowledge is representation. Just how the exclusive subject-construct can reveal the equally exclusive external thing, is the 'problem ‘of the trans-subjectivist. Each subject and object are, as it were, shut up in a room existentially. Knowledge, although confined to subject constructions, still represents what is different from and existentially exclusive to the room.

Having acknowledged the mystery which envelopes the primal assumptions of knowledge, the trans-subjectivist divides its process into two forms. (a) There is immediate, instinctive knowledge, (b) There is also reflective, constructive knowledge.

(a) Underlying the constructive activities of thought, is an inexhaustible fund of immediately revealed 'facts.' This is an atom beyond which we cannot go. It is the sure and firm foundation of rational existence. To deny it is to assert asceticism destroys itself upon this adamantine rock of primal certitude. It is instinctive for the reason that as direct, immediate experience it is a postulate and not an outgrowth of individual acquisition. Furthermore, in this most direct of experiences, the factors of complete knowledge are entirely present, immediately experiencing and directly representing the externally existent 'thing.' So direct in fact is this reference that the sensation which serves as the vehicle for the representative construct is submerged in the given significance and is brought to mind only by a later process of reflection. The subject is not first aware of sensational states, and then by a process of inference concludes the presence of an external thing. The awareness of the object's presence and character is the original experience. Perception in fact is immediate; we cannot get beyond subject and object as immediately revealed and related. On this point the trans-subjectivist believes himself to be entirely atone with common sense. The line of distinction between them is drawn in reflective knowledge.

(b) Man is essentially a reflective being, and, accordingly, cannot rest in the immediately given. He must examine, analyze, and reconstruct what immediate experience has revealed. Thus, reflective knowledge has grown up. Reflection, however, may be of two kinds, and these must be clearly distinguished one from the other. On the one hand, analysis, and reconstruction may be undiscriminating and unsystematic, giving rise to confusion, contradiction, distortion. Thus, opinion arises, and to this unreliable form of reflection much common-sense knowledge belongs. In it there is a sure basis of immediately certified 'fact,' but this is overlaid with a mass of intellectual rubbish. On the other hand, reconstruction may be discriminating, systematic, and scientific. In this way, experience is rationalized, and knowledge becomes a self-conscious possession. Distinction is made between the reliable and the unreliable ; the rubbish of mere opinion is cleared away ; the solid core of the given is laid bare for both subject and object; piecemeal results are woven together into a consistent harmonious whole, in which 'fact' agrees with 'fact, ‘and confusion and contradiction are removed; subject and object are brought forth into the sun-clearness of reflective knowledge. Thus, the worlds of science and philosophy are constituted. Based on the solid foundation of immediate knowledge, these disciplines appear at last as structures which tower to heaven because they have been fairly founded on the earth. The critical thinker no longer appears as the despoiler and mutilator of air reality, but as her interpreter and freedman.

In estimating the doctrines of trans-subjective realism, we shall begin with the superstructure and work down to the foundations.

I. Reflective knowledge involves the separation of fact from fiction, of truth from opinion. According to the trans-subjectivist, this is accomplished in two directions in determining the connection between facts, and in determining the real nature of the facts themselves. In neither case is any attempt made to ascertain whether the construction of reflective knowledge corresponds to, correctly represents, in short, copies the external original. Unless such a correspondence actually exists, knowledge is vain, and with it both science and philosophy. But dire results of every attempt to compare a 'copy' with anon-obtainable original have been pointed out so frequently and so thoroughly that the trans-subjectivist apparently has no desire to validate knowledge after such a fashion. In fact, he has emphasized the mutual exclusiveness of subject and object so strongly, that it would have been a matter for surprise, had he endeavored to defend, even in a modified form, a strictly representative theory of knowledge. And yet, although the trans-subjectivist cannot (and knows that he cannot) compare the knowledge construct (which is entirely a subjective existence)with the external thing, such a correspondence, even to minute detail, is implied in the truthfulness of this theory. Trans-subjective realism must seek its criterion in some other source and so it does. This criterion is found in the direct deliverances of intuition. For reflection, there remains the work of harmonizing and rationalizing the immediate data. To harmonize to find the connection between rationalized facts, to find the consistent place of each in an ideal whole ; to rationalize is to find for the reflective consciousness the real nature of the facts revealed in intuition. Harmony does not construct content. It can do no more than use it with consistency. Therefore, the ideal whole which appears to present a criterion for the reflective consciousness, really fails to do so. It has value only insofar as the factors which constitute its parts are trustworthy. The trans-subjectivist must, accordingly, fall back upon the process by means by which he rationalized 'facts.' Here he draws an alien between essential and unessential parts. But, on what basis the distinction between the two is really made, he fails to inform us explicitly. One has a feeling that, for the trans-subjectivist, the development of experience and the process of scientific investigation gradually separate the wheat from the chaffs as far as 'fact' is concerned. And it may be quite true that they are great agencies in developing facts. But so far, the trans-subjectivist cannot avail himself of their aid. He must first show how these agencies distinguish between the true and the false. In other words, we require a criterion as to how and when a fact is 'rationalized.' The answer may be given that each fact is 'rationalized' when its nature as a reflective construct identical with its nature as an immediately given reality. This again may be quite true, but it does not help us unless we are already certain of the 'fact' by intuition, and in that case its help is not needed at all.

2. We are now led to raise the question of the real gain for the trans-subjectivist of the distinction between intuitive and reflective knowledge. The question would seem to resolve itself into this. If intuition gives clear, distinct, and certain knowledge concerning 'things,' there would appear to be no room for opinion or error. All should be sun clear. But in such a case there would appear to be no call for 'rationalizing' knowledge. Everything should be 'rational' in intuition. A sphere, however, would remain for 'harmonizing' knowledge, inasmuch as the deliverances of immediate experience are piecemeal and fragmentary. Reflection should, therefore, confine its activity to the construction of consistent systems of knowledge. If, again, intuition does not give clear and certain knowledge, the trans-subjectivist is without a criterion entirely. His data resolve themselves into blind guides, his reflective constructions into chimeras. The truth would seem to be that the trans-subjectivist rests in the certainty of the 'fact,' as a given reality whose nature is immediately and directly revealed, but whitener-connections with other 'things ‘is discovered by reflection.

Thus, finally knowledge rests upon faith. Ultimately there can be no question of 'proving' the conformity of subjective representation with objective existence. We are brought back to our starting point by a circular process. Trans-subjective epistemology rests upon an unproved (and to it an unprovable) assumption. On such a basis we are nowhere, philosophically.

3. The trans-subjective realist's fallacy may be exhibited in another and more general form. Whatever is 'fact' being for him fixed and given. He, as it were, draws a circle about 'fact, ‘proclaims everything within the sacred, and forbids investigation. The 'plainest distinctions of common sense ' are used as potent arguments against opponents, although he himself has assured us that 'unrationalized' common sense is untrustworthy. Now 'facts,' no matter what their character, are not fixed, but fluent things. The innermost structure of subjective and objective existence has changed within the history of man. Every age produces a modification and leaves a deposit of its own. What is 'fact' to-day is not 'fact' in the same way to-morrow. Scientific observation just as truly constructs 'fact' as interpretation generalizes it. In short, as modern logic has made it quite plain, what is 'fact' at any time involves two distinct factors: 'existence' and 'content.' 'Existence' alone is given, and it tells us absolutely nothing of anything beyond itself. To 'content’ belongs all reference and implication, but it is to the very core reflective, constructive, and mediate. It is a transformation, an enlargement of the immediate, and must justify its procedure by presenting criteria for the distinction between the true and the false. Whatever, therefore, about 'fact ‘appears fixed is blind, and whatever is significant is fluent.

4. Furthermore, trans-subjective realism involves us in contradictions with reference to perception and conception. In consistency with trans-subjective doctrine, perception must be considered matter of intuitive knowledge, and conception an affair of later reflective construction. But when we examine closely the nature of the meanings involved in percept and in concept, they are found to be identical. The distinction between the two processes is not one of meaning, but of the use to which the same meaning is put. Meaning embodied in some limited portion of space or time is perception. Meaning used freely and as possibly embodied in many portions of space or time, is conception. As meaning grows, so do perception and conception develop. It also would appear to be impossible to bring the trans-subjectivist’s theory of perception into agreement with contemporary psychology. To the trans-subjective theorist, percepts must appear as complete, ready-made revelations of externally existing 'things.' No genetic factor whatsoever would appear possible. Nevertheless, psychology has shown that every determinate characteristic of perception is a matter of definite growth.

Criticism, therefore, cuts the grounds away from trans-subjective realism, and necessitates a new formulation of the problem of knowledge. And it is such a formulation that the Hegelian endeavors to make.


"Hegelian" is nowadays a title of very uncertain application in any strict sense of the term. Inasmuch, however, as it has been used by Mr. Rogers to denote certain important philosophic thinkers in Great Britain and America, it may be allowed to stand as indicative of a general agreement in attitude among these idealists.

As the trans-subjective realist rests his epistemological argument upon a specific assumption with reference to 'fact ‘in general, and subjective and objective ‘fact' in particular, so the Hegelian proceeds from a base, but a base which embodies reasoned persuasion. Convinced by investigation that 'fact' is fluent, and that the 'content' which constitutes its distinguishable features is, throughout its fabric, a product of reflection, he finds it impossible to explain knowledge in terms of that which is a product of knowledge. Subject and object (and with them every determinate aspect of existence) are embodiments of content. They thus arise within knowledge and are not limits set to its function.

Once this point has been apprehended, it is apparent that any theory of knowledge must be metaphysical, and that in the most fundamental way.

The ultimate presupposition of thought, the presupposition which absolute skepticism cannot deny, is not, as the trans-subjectivist affirms, an immediate knowledge of subjective and objective realities, but thinking and its indeterminate content. Doubt may be raised concerning every determinate aspect of existence, its 'what' or 'content,' and proof of their validity may be demanded; but existence as indeterminate (the undiscriminated 'that’) is beyond destruction. Doubt cannot exists in a vacuum, and there remains, therefore, as real beyond question, what, from one point of view, may be described as an indeterminate thought-content, and from another, the thought activity which finds in itself the ultimate criterion of reality. Reality, in other words, is undeniable: the only question which doubt can raise concerns the 'what' of reality. 'Existence, ‘therefore, is the final presupposition both of doubt and of reflection: 'content' must be taken, in every case, as material for criticism of which a satisfactory account must be given before positive knowledge emerges. Indeterminate 'existence,' the fullness of the world taken immediately and without determination is the presupposition and datum of knowledge. Reflection, and reflection alone, provides the criterion; for only through reflective criticism is it possible to pass from the indeterminate to the determinate, from mere acquaintance with and blind participation in reality to certified knowledge and conscious participation.

For the Hegelian, the criterion of determinate reality emerges in the critical process itself. He recognizes that the presupposition of thought is an unstable quantity. ‘Existence,' when examined, changes in the thinker's hands, and reveals, in its every aspect, a determinateness of character. This discovery that indeterminate 'existence ‘universally passes over into determinate existence reveals the criterion of knowledge and validates its 'objectivity.' The contention of the Hegelian, therefore, is that knowledge is 'objective' and actual, not because a subjective construction corresponds to an external or extra-mental reality, but because the indeterminate reality, which includes the whole round of creation and is the postulate of the boldest skepticism, cannot maintain itself but universally passes over into determinateness. Reality emerges as the determinate existence implicit and immanent in all indeterminate existence. Knowledge is the function in and through which this determinateness is revealed.

A final point is to be noted in this connection. How does the distinction between subject and object arise in knowledge? Forti has maintained that the trans-subjectivist makes his initial mistake in supposing that it is given to and arises outside the process of reflective knowledge. The point, so far as Hegelianism is concerned, may be explained in this way. Among the changing 'facts' which make up' the web of determinate known reality are those which are self-conscious. As 'facts' among other 'facts,' knowledge distinguishes two factors in them, is the 'existence,' the immediate psychic states in which their individualities are realized. These constitute, on the one hand, a direct participation in reality, and, on the other, the novel expression of the real which gives to each nature its individual and peculiar characteristics. The second factor is the 'content’ which embodies the 'objective' determinateness which the wealth of each individual existence reveals. Add now to this the quality of self-consciousness (itself a matter of growth), and the origin of subject and object becomes plain. As self-conscious 'facts,' individual natures become participators in knowledge, and are made aware both of the immediate character of their several ' existences 'and of the 'objective' significance of the same. Thus, with the development of reflection or self-consciousness, the distinction of subject and object. 'Existence,' rendered self-conscious, becomes 'subject'; 'existence,' taken in its determinateness, becomes 'object.' Or, otherwise, although every ‘existence' participates immediately in reality, there are portions of it which become self-conscious and recognize for themselves their meaning in the determinate whole, which is immanent in every part. Such recognition is knowledge, but it must be reflected in two ways. If the meaning is reflected back into the part, the 'subject' emerges. If, on the other hand, the meaning is reflected toward the whole, the system of 'objects' emerges. For this reason, it is plain that every determination of knowledge must, at one and the same time, be a revelation of subject and object alike. Their development is thus correlative.

Finally, it must also be plain that for the Hegelian the following conceptions must appear to be true, (a) Trans-subjective realism would substitute an outward and mechanical conception of the relation of subject and object in knowledge. Such substitution fails the vital participation in reality which knowledge really demands, (b) Hegelianism may admit that for an indeterminate point of view there is nothing known as real which does not appear as mere psychic existence. (c) But it is also true that all 'existence' reveals the immanent presence of a determinate order which is the real, (d) Thus every 'empirical synthesis' rests in a 'transcendental synthesis' which embodies its 'objective' significance.

If the above exposition be correct, how can the trans-subjectivist justly accuse the Hegelian of being a subjective idealist? As a matter of fact, the Hegelian cuts below any reduction of object to subject. For him all objects and subjects are real in the most thoroughgoing sense of the term Nothing in fact is false except insofar as its inner determinateness is misapprehended.

Concerning the quotations made by Mr. Rogers from the writings of Hegelians the following may be said. It is a canon of criticism that authors are to be judged not by isolated sentences torn from their environments and emphasized as the interpreter sees fit. Such 'proof-texts' (no matter what the 'scripture') generally falsify the real meaning. And this is certainly true of Mr. Rogers's version of the sayings of the school of Professor Green. By emphasizing words which the Hegelian context does not justify, but which apparently express the fixed idea of trans-subjectivist subjectivity, Mr. Rogers succeeds in developing for Professor Green and other Hegelians a meaning which no average student, whether a believer in Hegelian doctrine or not, can find in their systems.

It would appear therefore, that, if Hegelian epistemology is to be successfully attacked, some other method must be adopted than that pursued by the trans-subjective realist. And such a method has been pointed out by members of the Hegelian school itself, and particularly by Mr. F. H. Bradley. This, however, is a different question.

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