A Theory of Knowledge
IX. Thought and Consciousness
It appears, however, as if we ourselves had here introduced the very subjective element we were so determined to exclude from our theory of knowledge. Although the rest of the perceptual world does not possess a subjective character — so it might be deduced from our explanation — yet thoughts, even according to our own opinion, do bear such a character.
This objection rests upon a confusion of two things — the theater in which our thoughts play their role and that element from which they derive the determination of their content, the inner law of their nature. We do not at all produce a thought-content in such fashion that, in this production, we determine into what interconnections our thoughts shall enter. We merely provide the occasion through which the thought-content unfolds according to its own nature. We grasp thought a and thought b and give them the opportunity to enter into a connection according to principle by bringing them into mutual interaction one with the other. It is not our subjective organization which determines this interrelation between a and b in a certain manner, but the content ofa andb is the sole determinant. The fact that a is related to b in a certain manner and not in another, — upon this fact we have not the slightest influence. Our mind brings about the interconnection between thought masses only according to the measure of their own content. Thus we fulfill the principle of experience in its very baldest form in the case of thinking.
This refutes the opinion of Kant and Schopenhauer, and in a broader sense of Fichte also, that the laws we assume in order to explain the world are merely an effect of our own mental organization, and that we inject them into the world only because of our own mental individuality.
Another objection might be raised from a subjective point of view. Even though the law-controlled relationship of the thought masses is not brought about according to our own organization, but depends upon the thought-content, yet this very content may be a mere subjective product, a mere quality of our mind, so that we should merely be uniting elements produced first by ourselves. In this case our thought-world would be none the less a subjective appearance. But it is very easy to meet this objection. That is, if it were well founded, we should be uniting the content of our thoughts according to laws while remaining wholly unaware as to whence these laws come. If these do not spring from our subjective being — a supposition we have already taken under consideration and set aside as untenable — what, then, could provide us with laws of interconnection for a content produced by ourselves?
In other words, our thought-world is an entity resting wholly upon itself, a totality self-enclosed, complete and entire within itself. Here we perceive which of the two aspects of the thought-world is the essential one: the objective aspect of its content and not the subjective aspect of its mode of emergence.
This insight into the inner purity and completeness of thought appears at its clearest in the scientific system of Hegel. No one else has attributed to thinking a power so complete that it could form a foundation in itself for a world-conception. Hegel has absolute confidence in thinking. Indeed, it is the only factor of reality which he trusts in the fullest sense of the word. Yet, although his point of view is in the main highly correct, he more than any one else has destroyed confidence in thought by the excessively unqualified form in which he has applied it. The way in which he has presented his view is responsible for the irremediable confusion which has found its way into our “thinking about thinking.” He desired to make the importance of thought, of the idea, evident by defining rational necessity in the same terms as factual necessity. In doing so he has given rise to the fallacy that thought-determinations are not purely ideal, but factual. His point of view was soon so conceived as if he had sought for thought itself as one of the facts in the world of sensible reality. Indeed, he failed to make himself entirely clear in regard to this. The truth must be firmly grasped that the sphere of thought is in human consciousness alone. Then it must be shown that the thought-world does not thereby sacrifice in the least its objectivity. Hegel exposed to view only the objective aspects of thought; but most persons see only what is easier to be seen — the subjective aspect — and it seems to them that Hegel treats something purely ideal as a thing — that is, that he indulged in a mystification. Even many scholars of the present time cannot be said to be quite free of this fallacy. They condemn Hegel because of a defect which he himself did not possess, but which can certainly be interjected into him because he failed to explain the matter in question with sufficient clearness.
We admit that we are here faced by something which is difficult for us to judge with the capacities we possess. Yet we believe it can be mastered by every energetic thinker. We must form two different conceptions: first, that by our own activity we bring the ideal world to manifestation; and, secondly, at the same time that what we by our activity call into existence rests, nevertheless, upon its own laws. It is true that we are accustomed so to conceive a phenomenon as if we needed only to stand passive before it, observing it. But this is not at all an absolute necessity. No matter how unfamiliar the conception may be to us, that we by our activity bring an objective entity to manifestation — that is, in other words, that we do not merely become aware of a phenomenon, but at the same time produce it — this conception is not at all invalid.
It is only necessary that we should abandon the customary idea that there are as many thought-worlds as there are human individuals. This idea is nothing more than an ancient preconception. It is tacitly presupposed everywhere without any consciousness that another conception is at least equally possible, and that the arguments for the validity of one or the other must, therefore, at least be weighed. Let us for a moment imagine, in place of the above preconception, the following: that there is one sole thought-content, and that our individual thinking is nothing more than the act of working ourselves, our individual personalities, into the thought-center of the world. This is not the place to investigate whether this point of view is correct or not; but it is possible, and we have attained what we wished to attain: that is, we have shown that it is entirely in order to postpone for the present undertaking to prove that the objectivity of thought, which we have declared to be a matter of necessity, is not a self-contradictory conception.
From the point of view of its objectivity, the work of the thinker may very appropriately be compared with that of a mechanic. Just as the latter brings natural forces into reciprocal action and thus brings about a purposeful activity and exertion of forces, so the thinker causes thought-elements to come into reciprocal activity, and these evolve into the thought-systems which compose our sciences.
There is no better means of throwing light upon a conception than by exposing the fallacies arrayed against it. Here again let us resort to this method, already profitably employed more than once.
It is generally supposed that the reason why we unite certain concepts into greater complexes, or why we think at all in certain ways, is because we sense a certain inner (logical) compulsion to do this. Volkelt also has appropriated this opinion. But how can this be harmonized with the transparent clearness with which our whole thought-world is present in consciousness? We know nothing in the world more thoroughly than we know our thoughts. Must we, then, assume a certain connection on the ground of an inner compulsion when everything is so clear? What need have I of the compulsion when I know the nature of what is to be united — know it through and through — and can guide myself according to this nature? All the operations of our thinking are processes which come to pass by reason of insight into the essential nature of the thoughts, and not according to compulsion. Such compulsion contradicts the nature of thinking.
We might certainly admit the possibility that it may be a part of the essential nature of thinking to stamp its content directly upon its manifestation, but that, nevertheless, we cannot immediately perceive this content by means of our mental organization. But such is not the case. The way in which the thought-content meets us is a guarantee to us that we here have the essential nature of the thing before us. We are assuredly aware that we accompany with our mind every process in the thought-world. Yet we can only think that the form of manifestation of a thing is determined by its essential nature. How could we reproduce the form of appearance if we did not know the essential nature of the thing? It is possible to conceive that the form of appearance emerges before us as an existent whole and we then seek for its central core. But it is impossible to maintain the point of view that we cooperate in producing the appearance without effecting this production by means of its own central core.