Truth Reality and Relation


Leighton, Joseph A. “Truth, Reality, and Relation.” The Philosophical Review 23, no. 1 (1914): 17. https://doi.org/10.2307/2178500


IN the following discussion I shall mean by 'truth' judgments held to be true by human thinkers. I am not concerned at present with the question whether there be an absolute system of truth or an absolute knower.


Every judgment involves a twofold relation; first, the relation of the object of the judgment to the mind which holds it to be true; second, the relation of the object of the judgment to some class of entities (I employ the term entity to include all sorts of objects of knowledge). The second relation is the objective condition of the validity of the first relation. For example, if I say, 'the desk is here,' this judgment involves: (I) the relation of the desk, as apprehended content of experience, to my mind as apprehending it; and (2) the relation of the desk, as apprehended content, to some system of entities, which latter relation is a condition, independent of my present act of judging, of the desk’s being actually in the relation in which I think it is. If it were a hallucinatory desk it would be a mental content taken by me in wrong relations as an element in an objective system. A hallucination is an erroneously placed entity.


The Neo-Realists deny any significance to the first relation in many cases of knowledge, and affirm that the second relation, entirely independent of its being known, is the sufficient condition of many knowable entities. Some of them seem to hold, further, that many entities need not be in any relation whatsoever. They are, thus, ontological pluralists. Now, relation is the fundamental form or category of all knowing. Nothing can exist as a knowable entity out of all relation. The crucial question in regard to the relation of knowing and being is this: can any knowable being be regarded as independent of all relation and yet be in the relation of knowledge? Is there any so-called relation of independence which makes no sort of conceivable difference to the terms related? Does a relation of absolute independence mean anything in science and philosophy? It seems to me that to state these questions is to call for negative answers, and that the dogma of purely external relations is one that has no meaning in a world of intelligible experience. I propose to examine Mr. Perry's elaborate argument on these points.


Mr. Perry states: 'Independence is not non-relation' (p.113). 'Independence is the total absence of dependence in the senses enumerated above' (p. 117); namely, relation, whole-part, part-whole, thing-attribute, attribute-thing, causation, reciprocity, implying, being implied (Part II, Meanings of the Term Dependence) 'Independence itself is not a relation but the absence of a certain type of relation.' 'Hence independence itself does not define anything' (p. 117). After careful study of Mr. Perry’s paper, I have reached the conclusion that the last statements are true of his whole discussion of the meaning of independence in a more literal sense than he intended, and that theme-realistic theory of independence is incapable of defining anything, except in terms of bare negation. If independence is the total absence of dependence in a specific number of senses, and if relation is a kind of dependence, then independence must be the absence of all relation. (I assume that when a philosopher says that Relation is a kind of dependence, he means all relation. If he does not mean this, he should say what he does mean.) But Mr. Perry says that independence is not non-relation. It is only the absence of a certain type of relation. He has previously asserted simpliciter that it is the absence of relation. How can independence be both 'absence of relation' and 'not non relations’ think we have here the fallacy of 'equivocation' and the error of 'pseudo-simplicity' of which Mr. Perry so triumphantly convicts idealists. Indeed, in his vague and shifting treatment of independence, relation, and dependence I think he is guilty of the error of 'indefinite potentiality.' Realism, he says, defines dependence as a peculiar kind of relation (p. 115) although relation has already been enumerated as a kind of dependence. And yet there are non-dependent relations (p. 117et al). Further on we are told that 'Independence is not a question of relation or non-relation, but of the presence or absence in any given case of a certain type of relation. Entities are independent unless they are proved dependent' (p. 122). In short, without any positive definition of independence or relation, and, indeed without a consistent usage of these terms, Perry assumes pluralism. Independence is a relation but not a relation of dependence. Certainly, independence is not dependence, but what in heaven's name is it?


Mr. Perry says that being known is not a relation of dependence. This means that 'reality ... is capable of sustaining the relation which constitutes knowledge, while at the same time sustaining that relation only accidentally' (p. 117). One would like to know just what 'accidentally' means here. Mr. Perry states that realism does not deny that, when a part of reality enters into the knowledge relation, it acquires that relation and is accordingly different by so much but denies only that this added relation is necessary to a as already constituted. Thus, when a is known, it is itself, as constituted without knowledge, that is independent of that circumstance. The new complex Known a is of course dependent on knowledge as one of its parts. In short, our realist knows that reality as unknown is entirely unaffected by knowledge, and when it becomes known and is thus modified by being known, he knows that reality-modified by-knowledge does not involve any alteration in the original unknown reality. One who asserts that unknown reality is unaffected by being known is on safe footing. He has uttered a solemn platitude that is without further consequence. Certainly, what is unknown is unpolluted by knowledge. All that can be positively affirmed about this sacrosanct 'reality' is that, if there be a reality independent of knowledge, then that reality is independent of knowledge. When our realist essays by one jot or tittle to define what this mysterious reality is, he has by apathy unrevealed to other men crossed the divide between the known and the unknown. He has no logical or empirical ground for attempting to define the relation of the unknown and thus independent reality to known and thus dependent reality. He cannot tell us what the relation is between a thing as known and not known or how one could possibly determine such a relation.


Mr. Perry makes a show of being critical and of avoiding a begging of the question by stating that "simple entities depend on no relation." In fact, he simply begs the whole question by taking his own definition of a simple entity to represent the ultimate stuff of a large part of reality.

No objective idealist, so far as I know, denies that physical complexes exist independent of human consciousness. But this assertion has significance only insofar as the nature of our knowledge of physical things and of consciousness in the concrete leads logically to the assertion that the nature of physical things is such that they must exist in the totality of experience independent of their presence immediately in or to a finite consciousness. Every kind of relation is, as matter of rational discourse, cognized relation. The law of gravitation symbolizes a system of connections in the texture of physical actuality. This system must, if the law be true, exist independently of our acts of thinking it. Nevertheless, the law of gravitation does not exist as such in the physical world. Such a reification of concepts is not implied in the truth of science, although the realism of some neo-realists seems to consist in just this reification. Any true system of relations in science must have its empirical basis in the actual physical order, independent of the individual thinker. This is precisely what is meant by a scientific truth. But the texture of relationships which gives to the contents of individual experiences objectivity as elements in the logically articulated complex of reality, is nonetheless the discovery of thought in its over individual function. Through this universalizing function of thought the systematic interconnectedness of the real gets known. Relation is at once the fundamental category of knowledge and fundamental to the structure of reality. In this respect knowing and being are identical in character. Thus far Hegel was righting his assertion of the oneness of cognitive thinking and reality. Mind comes to know itself as rational in the very process by which it gradually discovers progressively the organized or systematic wholeness of experience. Experience is of reality, since the latter mind writ large mind expanded into a universe; and knowledge, as the counterpart of this, is the self-expansion of mind into harmony with its universe. The common and persistent error of English or 'psychological' idealism and of its realistic critics is the initial assumption that the knowing self is a self-enclosed particular. (For the pathetic form of this fallacy see Mathew Arnold’s poem "To Marguerite.")

All objects of genuine knowledge are terms-in-relation. Theine is meaningless without the other. Relations must relate to something, and terms without relations are like the grin without the cat. Absolutely external relations do not relate anything. Taken literally and logically the dogma of external relations would make knowledge the subjective dream of a solipsistic thinker. Of course, there is an indefinite variety of degrees in the internality of relationships. A relation that from one standpoint internal may be from another standpoint quite external. A man, for example, is not quite the same man before and after becoming a husband or father, although these relations may make no practical difference in him as an art critic, a wearer of neckties, or a golf-player. To argue that, for example, because the fact that I have become a golfer does not affect my taste in neckties or seafood, therefore relations are external is beside the mark. The internality of relations means that all significant relations constitute the individual relation members in a more significant whole or individual system. It does not follow that he who maintains the theory that all significant relations are internal to a system of some sort should be able forthwith to produce the absolute system and display the relation between his own necktie and the errors of neo-realism, for example. This sort of argumentations simply appeals to ignorance. Equally preposterous is it to say that if truth is an organic whole then we cannot know that anything is true until we know the absolute. The ultimately true may be the whole, which yet in a developing reality leaves free play for error and ignorance, and, on the other hand, sustains the adequacy of our partial knowledge.


A logical 'simple' so-called, no more subsists on its own feet than a cell, an atom, or an electron, has significant reality out of relation to the complex in which it is an element. To argue that, since by analysis we may arrive at simples that are not further analyzable in a certain scientific or philosophical confectionary, therefore these simples are absolutely independent pluralistic entities is to forget that the very process and results of analysis have meaning only with reference to the implied synthesis, which is always the logical complement of analysis.


The assertion, that entities exist antecedently to their being known as matter of experience, legitimately means that such existence is logically inferrible from some content of experience. It may also mean that the entities in question may subsequently become actual contents of experience. Reality is not equivalent to experience. It must include logically derived factors which support or complete experience. In general terms, reality is the self-coherent whole which is logically implied in that part of itself which constitutes the immediate content of experience. Reality as systematic totality is the complete fulfilment of what experience means. To say that entities exist entirely independent of the cognitive relation would be to assert that one can mean something relevant and significant without saying what one means. To say that a thing exists is to say what it is, or it is today nothing. But to assert in any degree what a thing is, is to admit the relation of the thing in question to the process of knowing. The denial of this principle is the assertion that one knows something to be what it is known to be absolutely out of relation to its being known.


That entities may exist independently of their being known is true but irrelevant. Until such entities come within the sphere of knowledge they are for science and philosophy non-entities. On the other hand, if our acts of knowledge, considered as events in our individual life-histories, created the objects of knowledge there would be no valid distinction between error and illusion on the one hand, and truth and reality on the other hand. But the very independence that an object of knowledge may have of the intellectual contingencies of finite minds is a rationally valid proposition which can obtain only in a universe that is a systematic or organized totality of knowable objects and knowing subjects in functional interrelation. The knower is, qua knower, over-individual and rational. In this over-individuality of mind consists the ground of its harmony with its objects of knowledge. Truth is the over-individual awareness of the interconnectedness of the elements of reality. Minds transcend their supposed self-enclosed particularity in thus apprehending the objective interrelatedness of the real. Truth involves a relation of two-sided dependence. Mind, as knowing, is dependent for the truth of its judgments on the actual interrelationships of things; these interrelationships are precisely the characteristics of reality which imply mind, since thereby they become objects of intelligent awareness and reaction. Mind, as knower, functions just by virtue of being a reflective centre of actual relationships. Truth is thus a function of two interdependent factors: mind, for which relations are true, and the world which is the actual system of related elements progressively apprehended by mind. Truth is mind organizing itself by grasping the interrelationships of things. Truth is thus a principal form of the process of self-realization by self-expansion into a more universal whole which is the very meaning of mind. From the converse standpoint, truth is the coming to systematic awareness in individual centres of the objective interrelationships of the real. Truth's goal is the organic whole which transcends the particular thinker by uniting him with the living system of reality. Knowledge, the awareness of reality as consisting of things in relation, is a function of the whole operating in individuated centres. By virtue of this function, these centres transcend their existential particularity. The mental or logical subsistence of truth is the symbolic expression of the contexture of reality. In knowing, the mind is in an inactive relation with those elements of experience which are not themselves cases of awareness but objects thereof.


A raw unmediated content of experience is neither true nor real. Knowledge of reality is to be found through the development of the system of relations, by which seemingly isolated contents are seen to be elements in an objective totality. The category of relation is fundamental. Thing, substance, cause, quality, and so forth, are modes of relation. Nothing can exist in a knowable universe out of relation and no relation has meaning and validity apart from the indiscerptible unity-in-duality of thought and its objects. Truth is the integrated awareness of the systematic togetherness of things.


The neo-realist asserts that the truths of logic and mathematics must subsist independently of any thinker. Otherwise, they must be created by everyone in thinking them and destroyed when one does not think them. And, of course, since there is no whole of truth and no universal thinker, these truths are an aggregate of subsisting entities (but without means of subsistence!). His argument is an imperfect disjunction. He simply omits the third and most plausible alternative. The finite mind in thinking truly discovers the truths contained in its judgments. It does not make them out of whole cloth. In thus discovering the truths of reason or a priori truths, the activity of the finite mind is determined by its conformity to the structural principles of the universal or over-individual reason. These truths are the formal and universal conditions of rational thinking. If one wills to think truly one thereby accepts the determination of one's individual thinking by these principles. To deny them is to deny the rational will in the same instant that one affirms it by setting out to think at all. With Mr. Royce, one may say that these truths express the absolute nature of the wills rational. This rational will must be the systematic whole of which our logical and mathematical truths are partial expressions. It is the cosmical will-reason with which our finite intelligences are in harmony in so far as we think truly. In place of a pluralistic aggregate of logical but non-mental subsistences or logical atoms, which are an aggregate for no thinker since no finite thinker knows the aggregate, and, consequently many of which truths are true for no whole whereas truth for us men consists in actual judgments, I would put the hypothesis of a Universal Systematic Intelligence or World-Reason whose structure is embodied in the actual world of experience and progressively repeated in the rational activities of finite intelligences. The progressive discovery of a harmony between the determinations of logical thinking in finite minds and the structure of the empirical world-order justifies the assumption that the two orders have a common root. The relations between non-mental actualities in the empirical process of things are found to be impartial and ever-growing accord with the structural character of thought.

A good deal of confusion still prevails in regard to the relation of particular facts of experience to percipients. Admitting that there is much justice in Mr. Montague's charge that many idealists are guilty of a fallacy in passing from the use of the word’s 'idea' and 'experience' (which denote primarily processes of consciousness) as denoting the objects of consciousness, to the assumption that all such objects must be conscious processes, the controversy is not thereby settled in favor of the view that perceived objects exist just as they are perceived out of all relation to percipients. It would be superfluous to repeat here the well-worn arguments from the variableness of perception, from illusions, and so forth. Mr. Bertrand Russell agrees that ‘sense data' are not independent of percipients. Since, then, physical things are inferred from the character of the sensory data the former are not independent of the total system or organic complex of which experience is the actual living Centre. There must be continuity of sensory data with non-experienced reality, and the latter is a logical structure whose function is to fill out and complete the significance of experienced content. No satisfactory answer can be found to the question, regarding the relation of facts which are not conscious process to the knowledge of these facts, unless one recognizes that non-conscious facts and the knowledge thereof are reciprocally conditioning elements in an organized totality for which the least misleading name is the system of actual and possible experience. Physical facts, then, exist independently of the existence of particular finite minds, but not independent of the system of experience in which physical fact and finite mind are integral and interrelated elements. Starting from sensory data we construct, for various purposes, (and the construction varies with the purpose) conventional objects or 'facts.' These are useful supplementations or enlargements of the data, not ontological substitutes therefore. The only world with which we are concerned is the world of experienced and experienceable fact shot through by the general structural relations which constitute its intelligibility. In this world, independent existence means now, that is, without reference to time, public or common perceivableness, and, with reference to time, continuous perceivableness. A 'real' fact is a more or less conventionalized group of sense qualities that are perceived under normal conditions by normal percipients. Take the hackneyed illustration of the straight stick which appears bent in the water. We say that the 'real' stick is straight and that it 'appears' bent. In truth, the visual sticks seen in the water are really bent. But practically the most important aspects of the stick are the tactual stick which continues to feel straight in the water in association with the visual stick as seen out of water. So, for practical and social purposes we treat the latter as the real stick and explain the bentness as due to optical aberrations of water in comparison with air as a standard medium. Theoretically we might regard water as the standard medium and explain the visual straightness in air and the tactual straightness as aberrations, but practically such a procedure would cause great inconvenience. The 'real' objector common sense is a conventionalized grouping of sense-qualities with reference to cooperative action and thought. The objective and independent fact is such only in a relative and special sense determined by social experience and aims. From the standpoint of philosophical totality of view there can be no absolutely independent facts out of all relation to other facts or themselves devoid of relational structure. The thing is a thing only in the sense of being a grouping of qualities known and operative in certain specific relations in the total system of reality.


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