Updated: Feb 23
Ritchie, D. G. (1892). What is Reality? The Philosophical Review, 1(3), 265.
THE critics of Idealism, so numerous at the present time, seem to me more ready to uphold against the claims of thought the superior dignity of the Real, than to explain what they mean by that very ambiguous term. Our "Realists" nowadays are too cautious, or too polite, to speak about "the Vulgar;” I am compelled to think, however, that like their predecessors of last century, the Scottish Common-Sense School, they are playing off the vulgar against the philosophers. Nevertheless, I believe that the vulgar are being deceived by words, and that not "Realism" but "Idealism" corresponds to what the plain man really holds, if he can only be induced to go behind the deceptive forms of ordinary speech and think the matter thoroughly out. This may seem a very rash statement, and I must endeavor to prove it. What, then, does "real" mean?
I. There is, first of all, a sense in which every sensation or feeling or idea may be described as "real," if it actually occurs as a psychical event in the experience of anyone. In this sense it is a sense rather in favor with some Realist philosophers than with the plain man the real is whatever is truly in any one's experience and is not falsely alleged to be so. If a person really, i.e. truly, sees "blue devils," they are real to him at the time he sees them, although they become unreal to him when he recovers health, and although throughout they are unreal to other persons. So, too, one's dreams, however absurd they may be, are real to one at the time more or less. But how do we distinguish dreams from reality? Is it not by the test of coherence or persistence in our experience? If one's dream-experience in any one dream were to be perfectly coherent with itself, and if the events of one dream were always to follow in an intelligible sequence on the events of the preceding dream, undoubtedly our dream-life would be as real as our waking life. But these are two pretty big "ifs:" and, consequently, all sane and normal persons are able to distinguish between the merely temporary and subjective reality of dream events and the objective reality of what are commonly called real events. It must be noted that subjective reality is equally predicable of all feelings and thoughts which we actually have, whether or not the content or objective reference of these feelings and thoughts turn out to be valid or not. A distinction, however, must be made: (a) I may form a mental image of a dragon, while fully aware that no such creature exists and that it is a mythical animal ; but (b) people who believed in the actual existence of dragons would, in forming the mental picture of a dragon, add the idea of its reality. Its essence would for them involve existence: to us it involves fabulous existence. Now subjective reality would, I fancy, be generally limited to (b), the actual occurrence of a thought with the added suggestion of its objective reference. When we know that we are dreaming, we are near waking. When we know that our hallucinations are hallucinations, we are on the way to get rid of them. It is said, correctly I believe, that if a person sees a ghost sitting in a chair but can be induced to sit down boldly as if the ghost were not there, the ghost will take offence and go away. I am not personally acquainted with the habits of ghosts: so, I speak under correction. With regard to feelings, I do not think we can make the same distinctions as with regard to mental images or general conceptions, which imply some sort of image or picture to help them out. I cannot have a feeling of pain, unless that feeling is subjectively real to me. I may have a memory or an image of myself as having pain; but that cannot be described as a feeling of pain. In ordinary language more is meant by the reality of a pain, than the fact that a person has a feeling of pain: it is implied that the feeling has causes or grounds such as other persons would regard as sufficient to produce the feeling of pain in them. Thus, when any one is induced to admit that " imaginary pains are, after all, real pains," or that "sentimental grievances are, after all, real grievances," the admission is made with the consciousness that the phrase is an oxymoron.
II. Of objective reality we have a further test than coherence in our own experience: and that is the experience of other persons. If A seems to himself to see a mouse run across the floor, but if B, C, D, E, and F, being all present, having good eyesight, and looking in the same direction, maintain truly that they saw nothing, A may well doubt the reality of that mouse, though no one need doubt, if A be a trustworthy person, that he really had the perception of a mouse, i.e. some affection of the nerves of sight phis a judgment. To settle the question, it might be convenient to obtain the opinion of a sane and fairly hungry cat, whose sense of smell would confirm or contradict the visual perception of A. Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost; but nobody else does. Banquo's ghost, therefore, has no objective reality.
The objectively real is not that which stands outside everybody's mind (if that phrase could have any meaning), but that which has a validity or possible validity for the minds of several persons who can agree as to the content of their mental experience. The agreement between the inferences drawn from the experience of our different senses, the agreement between the judgments of different persons, and the harmony of present experience with the results of our and their previous experience constitute between them the test of reality. In all practical affairs of life, we consider ourselves justified in regarding any alleged reality with suspicion, if it cannot be shown to harmonize with the experience of sane, healthy, and normal persons. What does not so harmonize can claim, at the most, only subjective reality, i.e. reality for the persons having such abnormal experiences.
The opposition between the "real" and the "imaginary" is very often supposed to correspond to the opposition between "sensation" and "mere thinking." Mere thinking may of course mean imagining, and then the opposition is to some extent the same; but only to some extent even then. Because there may be sensations (in the psychological sense) or feelings which we may come to discover to be unreal in exactly the same sense as thoughts may be unreal; i.e. they may not fit in with the rest of our experience and with the experience of sane and healthy persons. The antithesis between sensations (in the psychological sense) and thoughts cannot be an absolute one. If by sensation be meant, not simply the excitation of a nerve (which may not be felt and so is not psychologically a sensation), but a sensation as felt, and, moreover, felt as this or that sensation, i.e. discriminated, here we already have an act of judgment…. and it is this judgment which we pronounce to be true or false according as it corresponds or not to reality (i.e. the rest of our experience and the experience of other people). A person hypnotized may be made to feel a sensation of heat, when there is no cause external to his organism to produce the sensation, and not to feel the prick of a pin where there is an external cause. In such cases the sensation, or absence of sensation, not being such as persons in a normal condition would experience, is not considered to correspond to reality.
I fancy that to some persons a sensation might seem to have more reality than a thought, because the organism is affected in an obvious way in the case of sensation, either by some external or internal stimulus, whereas a thought does not so obviously depend on any organic process, and was in old-fashioned psychological theories supposed to occur independently of anything happening in the brain. But all scientific psychologists would, I imagine, admit now that thoughts must have their physiological equivalents just as much as sensations, although in the former case what happens in the brain is much more complex, obscure, and difficult to discover.
Pleasure and pain seem to have reality in a special degree: pain in particular forces itself on our consciousness, in a way which may make mere thoughts or ideas seem unreal in comparison. But pleasure and pain are purely subjective feelings. As psychical events they have no more reality than thoughts as psychical events. When people try to argue one out of a feeling of pleasure or of pain, they do so by saying that it is not real; i.e. it is unimportant, it is not connected with what is permanent and persistent in our experience, it is not such as the sane or healthy man would feel. That is to say, so far as the meaning of reality is concerned, pleasures and pains are real or unreal just as thoughts are subjectively real if they are actually experienced by anyone, objectively real if they fit in with the rest of experience, i.e. if they belong to a coherent and intelligible system of thought-relations. Thinking is, therefore, the test of objective reality.
Such a sentence seems far away from the plain man's mode of expression, and I fancy the objection would be made here that I am ignoring an important distinction: that which is in space is real in a sense in which that which does not occupy space is not. Real things, it will be said, are different from ideas.
First of all, let us observe that this statement about reality is quite inconsistent with that just noticed about the superior reality of feelings. Feelings are not in space: and yet, as we have just seen, feelings are very real. It is true that sensations and feelings imply a physiological process that must take place in space and a body that must be in space. But in exactly the same sense thoughts imply a brain which is extended, and they also imply a society of human beings living and moving in space. Thus, the distinction between sensations and thoughts is not parallel to the distinction between what is in space and what is not in space.
Clearly, however, this notion of filling space is a notion very commonly attached to the real. Let us see what it implies. The sensation of resistance to muscular movement gives us probably our earliest notion of reality notion, I mean, as distinct from mere feeling. Resistance is offered by one part of our body to another, and yet both feel: so, our body as both resisting and feeling is especially real to us. What does not resist, or resists only in a way not easily recognized, is not thought to be real. Thus, air seems to be emptiness empty space. "Airy" is a synonym for "unreal," "imaginary." Yet to the scientific mind, air is real and space-filling, besides being not unimportant to human life. To the scientific mind the space between our earth's atmosphere and the stars is not empty but filled by what is called the luminiferous aether. To the unscientific mind this does not seem to be real quite in the same way as stone or clay is real. The more resisting seems the more real. "Solidity" and "reality" are used as convertible terms.
III. Our attention is thus called conspicuously to the fact that the real world of ordinary belief and the real world of scientific belief are very different. Colors, sounds, etc., are translated into their physiological and then into their physical "causes;” i.e. they are represented as movements in space. The primary qualities of matter thus seem, from the scientific point of view, to have greater reality than the secondary. Not that which is felt, but that which can be thought in terms of mathematical conceptions, has the greater reality to the scientific mind. A thing really is that way of thinking about it which fits it into its place in an intelligible system of the universe.
This difference between ordinary and scientific reality is not the antithesis between the "phenomenal" and the "real." The real with which science has to do is what would be the phenomenal, if we had keener vision, etc.; e.g. what appears at rest to the naked eye is seen to be in motion if we look through a microscope. If by reality were meant things-in-themselves, and not phenomena or possible phenomena, then reality would be identical with the unknowable. Ultimate reality may be the unknowable to us, as well as the unknown, but it must be that which would appear to a being possessing complete knowledge. Complete knowledge is to us a mere ideal: but the most real world we can know must be what the world means when we come to think it out. Thus, when science comes to put aside any theory, such as, e.g. the corpuscular theory of light, this means that the light corpuscles are considered unreal, because their existence conflicts with the less rapid transmission of light in water than in a vacuum, etc. The logical tests of the value of any scientific theory always imply that that alone can be real which is coherent, which forms part of an intelligible system. To say that thinking is the test of reality may seem to open up the way to the most mischievous and unscientific delusions of metaphysics: metaphysicians being supposed to be persons who evolve the world out of their inner consciousness, instead of making their minds the passive mirrors of reality (whatever that may mean). But we are familiar with this test of reality in its negative form the inconceivability of the opposite. This test has sometimes been discredited for two reasons:
(I) Conceiving has been taken to mean representing in a mental image or picture, whereas it is only in the sense in which conceiving means thinking that inconceivability can be the test of truth. (2) We are very apt to suppose we can or cannot think something, simply because we have not taken all the conditions into account. Thus, (I) when the infinity of time or space is discussed, our incapacity to form a mental picture of infinite time or space has been taken as if it were a consideration that weighed against our incapacity to think a limit in time or in space without contradiction. (2) People used to think the Antipodes inconceivable, because they thought of gravity as a force acting in the direction of an absolute down: that human beings, constituted in any such way that we could consider them human beings, should be able to walk on the lower side of the world meant, to the disbelievers in the Antipodes, the same sort of thing as if it were said that we here could walk like flies on the inside of the roof with our heads down. Change the meaning of gravitation, change the meaning of up and down, and it becomes inconceivable that a man walking in New Zealand should fall off into air, because falling off would mean falling up, which is a contradiction. The obvious difficulty of applying the test safely comes simply from the difficulty of being sure that we have exhausted all the relevant conditions. And that is why we can only apply the test easily in very abstract matters, where we have purposely eliminated all except the very simplest conditions, e.g. in the mathematical sciences. In the case of more complex subjects the inconceivability of the opposite remains rather the ideal to which our knowledge approximates. The more thoroughly we understand anything, the more we see that it must be so and not otherwise. To the savage or the child anything may happen, anything may account for anything: to the scientific mind the world appears more and more as a necessary system of thought-relations, "a materialized logical process," as Professor Huxley has described the course of nature.
But I may be reminded, "a materialized logical process" implies a difference between thought and existence. "What things are," it will be said, "is one thing; what we may think about them is another, and so is what we may say about them. No one, at least no careful person, would confuse what we say about things with the real existence of them. Why should you confuse what we think about them with their real existence?”
Now what we, i.e. any particular "we," may happen to think about them is certainly not their reality. Their reality is what we ought to think about them and would think about them if we knew them completely. That is a big "if;” for to know any one thing, the " flower in the crannied wall," or even a mere atom completely, would be to know everything. And, if we think out the conception of omniscience, we shall find that it is identical with omnipotence. The will of God cannot be separated from the intellect of God without making God cease to be God and become a finite, imperfect being with things to be learned and ends to be attained outside his own nature. The thoughts of God are the ultimate nature of things, as Kepler recognized when he said he was "thinking the thoughts of God after him." The identity of thought and being does not imply the identity of any particular thought with any particular thing; e.g. that my idea of one hundred dollars is one hundred dollars, but only that the ultimate reality of things is only to be found in thought. Even the reality of the one hundred dollars consists not in their merely being space occupying things, but in their meaning, their significance for the thought of more than one human being; i.e. their reality is their ideality.
I think I hardly need recur to the suggestion that reality must be what is in space; for that would make our feelings unreal. Nevertheless, reality to beings constituted as we are must appear spread out in space and in time. Yet the very fact that we know space as space and time as time, i.e. that we recognize the outside-one-another of things and the after-one another of events, proves that in some sense or other (whether we can explain it or not) we are not in space and time. Space and Time exist for thought as forms in which we must perceive things. But if we ascribe to them an absolute existence, independent of any one's thought, we are speaking about what we cannot possibly know. Because if we did know them as absolutely existing, they would no longer exist absolutely. Thought cannot grasp anything outside itself, "outside thought" being simply a metaphorical way of saying "not thought about at all." My thought is, of course, incomplete; coming to know more of reality means that our thought comes to be more coherent, that it comes to itself.
Ordinary language does indeed always suggest a dualism of thought and things. Knowing is distinguished from the known. And the distinction is necessary for our ordinary thinking, which is picture-thinking, and takes different aspects as if they were separable in fact. But any philosophical theory of dualism raises more difficulties than it solves. If thought and reality are ultimately separated, then we have to face the question how they can be combined. How can we ever know anything, if thought and reality are ultimately distinct from one another? Skepticism is the logical outcome of dualism.
Is it necessary nowadays to discuss the idea of material substance as something existing apart from and independently of thinking? Matter either means (1) sensations and mental images referred in thought to past or future sensations and this is what matter means to the ordinary person or (2) it means the metaphysical hypothesis of an unknown and unknowable matter-in-itself. But if matter means sensations, present, past, and future, it can have no real existence except for a thinking being which can relate these sensations and images to one another. As already said, if sensation means anything more than a psychical event, it implies judgment; i.e. an act of thought. On the other hand, to attempt to think an unknown and unknowable material substance is to try to get outside thought, which is as impossible as to get outside one's skin and yet remain alive.
It might be said, however, that the element of matter in things is the as yet unknown element. This, I suppose, is the Aristotelian view. But can we then say that matter is the real? If we did, we should be left with this difficulty, that as knowledge grows, reality diminishes a position which the plain man would hardly be inclined to take up. If the reality of things be not their intelligibility, but just that element in them which cannot be known and cannot be expressed, should we not go on, in the fashion of Gorgias, to argue that nothing exists, that reality is that which is not?
The sciences ultimately refuse to recognize dualism. The world is only intelligible by science on the assumption that it forms one coherent system. A philosophy based on the special sciences cannot recognize anything outside the material universe. But then an examination of the nature of science (a criticism of the conditions of knowledge) shows us that the material universe can mean nothing except for thought. Science leads us to Monism; and Monism, to be philosophic, must be idealistic.
When all this is said, the feeling somehow comes up that there must be some confusion between things and thoughts, between fact and theory. This feeling I believe to be entirely due to fallacies of language, to the habits of picture-thinking and the influence of old philosophical theories. What are facts (to put the question about reality in a different form)? Facts are theories. Is sunrise a fact? It is a theory, now discarded, to explain some of our sensations. The reality, we know, is not sunrise but the rotation of the earth: and yet we are in the habit of speaking as if sunrise were the reality and the rotation of the earth the theory. But if we think the matter out, we see that the reality, by which we explain, to which we refer, our sensations, is an object of thought and not of sensation at all. And I have already shown that objectivity means coherence of my thinking with that of others.
IV. One sense of the term real need not detain us long the sense in which we speak of "a real circle," meaning a perfect circle. In this sense "the real" is confessedly "the ideal." We call a figure of wood or stone or iron a circle only in so far as we can think it under the form of a perfect circle: we admit that the material figure existing in actual space is not the real circle.
V. Connected with this use of reality, is that in which real is used in a moral sense, the sense in which it is held that "The Real is the Rational." People have scoffed at this utterance of Hegel's; but it expresses a truth constantly recognized in practical life a truth which people ignore at their hazard. The real is distinguished from the sham. We go behind the phenomenal existence of institutions to examine their ethical content, and we pronounce them real or unreal. Now this sense fits in with the main sense of reality, as the coherent and intelligible, except that we bring a moral standard of value, so that what is real in the sense of not being imaginary, may yet be unreal in the sense of being absurd or mischievous. The precise relationship between reality in this sense of rationality, and reality in the general sense of intelligibility, is the initial question of the science of ethics: What is the relation between being and well-being? Does well-being differ from being except in having respect to more permanence and to a more complex system of relations? These are questions I need not discuss at length now. Enough, if it is clear that the real in the sense in which it is said to be the rational, is at least a further carrying out the principle that the real is the intelligible.
The real as the rational differs from the merely existent (the objectively real the second sense noted) just as definite species in plants or animals differ from "sports" and from " survivals." If a variation proves advantageous it gives rise to a new species: when a survival comes to be distinctly disadvantageous the individuals in which it exists tend to disappear. The distinction between simple objective reality and reality as rationality thus corresponds to the distinction between simple causality and teleology. In the purely physical sense, the real is what can be thought of and must be thought of in the causally connected system which we call the nature of things. In the moral sense the real is what can be and must be thought of as serving an end, as having a value.
This moral sense of reality is extremely common in ordinary language. "Real jam" (to quote a vulgar expression) is the genuine article with no humbug about it. Now when the Realist Philosopher insists that an atom is more real than a thought, the vulgar are deceived; for they fancy that this means that an atom is more important than a thought, whereas all that it means is that an atom occupies space, while a thought does not. A thought, even a foolish thought, belongs to a higher type of existence than an atom.
Yes, it will be said, but does not such a phrase admit that existence is wider than thought, if thought is only some particular kind of existence? This merely quantitative way of stating the problem might well be objected to. But passing that over, let us admit that, from the point of view of the physicist, if the ultimate physical reality of material things was to be found in atoms, then it would be true that there could be no thought without atoms; so that thought would be resolved into atoms as the ultimate reality. That would be true, from the point of view of the physicist; but philosophy is the endeavor not merely to speak the truth, but the whole truth. And so, we have to go further and ask what an atom would be except for thought? Will any Realist undertake to tell us what an atom? is, unless it is either a way of thinking which we find convenient in trying to think out the nature of things, or an unknown and unknowable which he can neither think nor express?
That within reality we can make a distinction between greater and less reality may be used as an argument to prove that the universe contains an element which cannot be rational: in other words that Thought finds itself confronted by an irrational "Other." So that we seem thrown back on the Platonic dualism. And, if this argument be combined with the feeling which lurks even in the mind of the convinced idealist that thought, and things are not ultimately identical does not this dualism seem to have good grounds?
It must be admitted that, unless thought had an other over against it, we never could call anything in our experience imperfect or evil nay more, we could have no knowledge of the kind we now have. The problem of knowledge seems to leave us with this dilemma: If thought has ultimately an alien something to confront it, there can be knowledge; but if thought merely thinks itself, there can be no knowledge. Of this dilemma I can see only one solution and it is one which I know many persons will consider nonsensical the metaphysical hypothesis that thought makes its own other; that the distinction falls within the identity. I have called this a metaphysical hypothesis, but I believe it to be much more, and to be the ultimate fact to which every avenue in philosophy leads. In Logic, abstract identity brings us to a deadlock: so, would abstract difference. Identity cannot exclude difference, nor difference identity. In the evolution of the physical universe, the rationality of the process can only be manifested in the chaotic multiplicity and variability of nature. We cannot know anything except by thought getting its material from sensation and feeling. Good has no meaning to us save in reference to imperfection and evil. But all these distinctions fall within thought in its widest sense. In theological language, God is both transcendent and immanent: nothing in the world is outside God and yet God is not simply the sum of particular existences. This idea of Thought realizing itself in nature, its own "other," in order to return into itself seems the only way out of the difficulties of these philosophical problems. If it is asked "Why should the Absolute be this self-differentiating unity? "I cannot answer that question, because to explain the whole universe would mean that one could get outside the whole universe, which is impossible and absurd.
I come now to what may be thought the most formidable objection of all, though an answer to it seems to me to be contained in what has just been said. As all thought has to work with universals, thought, it is urged, never can be adequate to the fulness of Reality. "The individual alone is the real."
Very good; but what is the individual? In what sense are we to take this old Nominalist objection.
(1) Is everything to be called an individual that can be thought of or spoken of as " one?” I have heard of a preacher who wished to prove that all nature testified to Unity a very good thesis, but he tried to get at his conclusion by a shortcut. "There is one sun, there is one moon, there is one great multitude of stars." The one great multitude of stars, nay, even our one solar system, is only one in the same sense that humanity is one, or a nation is one (though a nation or a solar system is one in a much fuller sense than a mere multitude is). If the individual is identical with the real, it must follow either that the great multitude of stars is an individual or that it is not real. I suppose it would be answered the individual star is real; the collective unity is merely a creation of our thought.
(2) Well, then, is the individual whatever can be expressed by a single term? Popular belief would, I fancy, consider a noun substantive to have more reality about it than an adjective, because the real is thought of as substance rather than as attribute. But if the real is the individual we are limited to singular terms not the horse, but this horse. But if this horse be allowed to be an individual, what is to be said of this lump of clay? Is that more an individual than this great multitude of stars? Are we not falling a prey to the popular habit of speaking of every thing as if it were an ultimate reality incapable of analysis? What is any individual thing except a meeting point of universal attributes? Qualities are all universals: are we then to say that they are not real? This would be in strange conflict with what the plain man believes. If the redness and the heaviness and the stickiness of the lump of clay are put aside as being only universals, what remains except that metaphysical phantom of the thing-in-itself? Even if we deal with the organic, the individual organism for science and for ordinary belief is only an individual from some points of view; it is a collection of units from other points of view. This horse is an individual; but so is this hair out of this horse's tail. So is every cell of which its body is composed. If we take "individual" strictly we must get back to atoms. But the qualities of the atoms, if they have any, must be universals. If they have no qualities, not even impenetrability nor indivisibility, are they even atoms? Are they not fictions of our minds convenient or otherwise?
(3) It might be answered that qualities are real, but only as individual sensations. I have already shown that the individual sensation is not at all what the plain man understands by reality. The individual sensation is an abstraction, a metaphysical phantom, except as my sensation or your sensation and except as discriminated from other sensations; i.e. except as interpreted by thought. The feeling of the moment is real only in that sense of the term which is least familiar to the unsophisticated mind.
(4) Well, then, is the individual the conscious self which has sensations? Are the ultimate reals monads or spiritual atoms? This is a possible metaphysical speculation, and by the help of it a very pretty picture of the universe may be made, a sort of glorified or "animated" atomism. But is it not a speculation which results simply from taking literally the popular Vorstellung of independent individual persons, while discarding the popular Vorstellung of independent individual things? Berkeley applied analysis to material substances and resolved them into "ideas" (i.e. sensations plus images of sensations); and yet he left a world of individual spiritual substances existing alongside of one another. Hume applied to mind the same analysis which Berkeley had applied to matter, and resolved mind into its component parts also. If by the "self" we mean the person who is born, grows up, and dies, the concrete phenomenal ego what the ordinary man would call the "real person" is this strictly individual? In the waste and restoration of the bodily tissues there is a constant transition between the organism and the environment: and the same holds with respect to the mind or spirit. So much is inherited; i.e. represents a mere part of a continuous stream; so much is constantly being acquired from the physical and social environment. Self-identity is not an immediate datum of consciousness: it is a matter of inference. I think of myself as the permanent substance of which particular actions, feelings, etc., are predicable. But the real self is not a bare unity: the real human individual is his ancestry and his age epitomized. What we call "originality" is a new combination of elements already there. If there is any difference between a person and a thing in respect of individuality, it is a difference in degree only and not in kind. Spiritual substance, like material substance, is either simply a meeting point of universal qualities or a metaphysical phantom like the geometrical abstraction of a point treated as if it were a real thing. But it will be said "there is the difference of consciousness." Well, if by reality he meant consciousness, an idealist is not likely to quarrel with the statement. But then, I suspect, the realist means by consciousness simply an attribute of a substance: he has got his Vorstellung of spiritual substance in the background.
(5) If, however, the self be taken to mean, not an object existing among other objects, but the subject logically implied in all knowledge, the "Transcendental Ego" which we never can know as an object, and which therefore we never can "get behind," that may be allowed to be the ultimate reality. But that is individual only in the sense in which the unity of the cosmos is individual: and that, I fancy, is hardly what the realist means to mean. "Nothing in the world is single" except the whole world itself: and that is not "in" the world.
We often hear it argued "thought implies a thinker." True, but a thinker is not necessarily a thinking substance: a thinker is a thinking subject. All that is immediately given in consciousness is the mere Ego, the mere selfness, a unique and individual experience in the moment of feeling or thinking or willing. As already said, a feeling is only real, in the lowest sense of reality, as my feeling, a thought as my thought. This absolute subjectivity is the ultimate reality: we never can get behind it. That other persons are, each of them, subjects in the same way we know only by inference. That the "I" is the same in different moments of our own experience we know only by inference. That the transcendental Ego is identical in any way with the phenomenal Ego (what we call our " real self ) is an inference. The mode of that identity is a matter of speculative hypothesis, as is also the question whether or in what way it is the same or different to different persons. "I" is experienced directly; or rather it is "I" alone that experiences. "You" is a matter of inference. The relation of "I" to "you," "they," etc., is a matter of hypothesis.
An analysis of the nature of the logical judgment gives the same result. The subject of every logical judgment is ultimately "I." "I am such that A is B," "I experience (I feel, or I think) A B." Recent writers on logic generally lay down that "Reality" is the ultimate subject. "Reality is that which . . .," or "Reality is such that . . ." This comes to the same thing. The only fault I can find with the latter formula for the ultimate logical judgment, is that reality is a notion capable of farther analysis, whereas the mere "I" is not. Whether we say that judgment always contains a reference to and implies "Reality" or "the unity. of the cosmos" or "I" is a matter of indifference in the science of logic. The last term seems to me preferable philosophically, simply because then the judgment is expressed in a way that corresponds most exactly to our actual experience. Thus, if we examine judgment in its simplest form, where it is just becoming differentiated from mere inarticulate cries, we find a predicate such as "hot," "hungry," "happy," "sore," "[it] hurts." Now the subject of these predicates, the x which may be expressed in our language by the impersonal pronoun, but which in many languages is not expressed at all, may be described as being either "the nature of things" or "I," but "I" seems to me nearer the exact truth of feeling.
We may picture the universe as a multitude of centers of circles, recognizing that every one is the center of his own universe just as each of us sees a different rainbow; but such a picture is the result of inference and hypothesis. In strict truth (and that is what Philosophy is concerned with) we never get outside one circle, nor away from one center. I may admit the truth of judgments about other persons and other things, when stated without any reference to my consciousness; but strictly speaking they are only true to me (and that is what I mean by truth) when this reference is introduced.
The distinction, noticed at the beginning of this article, between subjective and objective reality is a distinction which falls within what one may call the absolute subjectivity (or the essential relativity they mean the same thing) of all reality. When we distinguish the particular self, the self with a history in time, from the not-self generally and from other selves, then we distinguish between the subjective and the objective. But this particular self is, as I have shown, not an individual incapable of further analysis, but like other things it is a unity of the manifold, an identity with differences in it. The ultimate subject of knowing, the ultimate reality, is incapable of further analysis, in the sense that we cannot get behind or round it: we cannot know it as an object like other objects. But on the other hand, it only becomes properly "real," knowledge only passes from mere possibility into actuality, by the recognition of differences, of a manifold, within consciousness.
When the "I" is treated psychologically, it is made into an object. We are not any longer dealing with the strict truth or genuine reality of it; we are dealing with an abstracted material as in all the other special sciences. Philosophy must take account of the fact that everything we can know is within the "I." The knowledge of reality is thus the "I" coming to know itself, i.e. its content. "God" must be thought of as the "Incompletely actualized, the absolute "subject-object." We are aware that we never can know anything fully. The "I" is always striving for a more complete realization, seeking to become "real," in the moral sense, i.e. to be more adequate to what it professes to be.
Except as to this ultimate question we need have no quarrel with the realist, and are quite as ready to talk of "thought conforming to reality "as we are to talk of sunrise and sunset, although in both cases we have accepted the "Copernican" theory. We might even get at the same ultimate result, although we accepted provisionally the point of view of ordinary language and of the special sciences. If we abstract from the mode in which alone, we can know the world, we may talk of phenomena as having behind them a thing-in-itself, and we may call that the ultimate reality. The tendency of modern science is to regard all the various phenomena of nature as different manifestations of one "Energy." Consciousness or thought is then simply the highest form of energy which we know. (Will itself is not the highest form: for rational volition implies thought.) If we call energy (or material substance or anything else) the potentiality of which thought is the realization, and if we take this notion of potentiality and realization quite seriously, we are arriving from a starting point of "dogmatic materialism" at the same result as if we started with a philosophical theory of knowledge: the ultimate reality is thought. But unfortunately, the uncritical metaphysics of the ordinary and of the scientific understanding do not generally take the notion of potentiality quite seriously. Hence it is necessary to take the longer route of philosophical criticism.