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Philosophy of Spiritual Activity
GA 4

VI. Human Individuality

PHILOSOPHERS have found the chief difficulty in the explanation of representations in the fact that we are not the things themselves, and yet our representations must have a form corresponding to the things. But on closer inspection it turns out that this difficulty does not really exist. We certainly are not the external things, but we belong together with them to one and the same world. The stream of the universal cosmic process passes through that segment of the world which, to my perception, is myself as subject. So far as my perception goes, I am, in the first instance, confined within the limits bounded by my skin. But all that is contained within the skin belongs to the cosmos as a whole. Hence, for a relation to subsist between my organism and an object external to me, it is by no means necessary that something of the object should slip into me, or make an impression on my spirit, like a signet ring on wax. The question—How do I gain knowledge of that tree ten feet away from me—is utterly misleading. It springs from the view that the boundaries of my body are absolute barriers, through which information about things filters into me. The forces which are active within the limit of my body are the same as those which exist outside. I am, therefore, really the things, not, however, I in so far as I am subject of perception, but I in so far as I am a part within the universal world-process. The percept of the tree belongs to the same whole as my I. This universal world process produces alike, there the percept of the tree, and here the percept of my I. Were I a world-creator instead of a world-knower, object and subject (percept and I) would originate in one act. For they condition one another reciprocally. As world-knower I can discover the common element in both, so far as they are complementary aspects of the world, only through thinking which by means of concepts relates the one to the other.

The most difficult to drive from the field are the so-called physiological proofs of the subjectivity of our percepts. When I exert pressure on the skin of my body I perceive it as a pressure sensation. This same pressure can be sensed as light by the eye, as sound by the ear. I perceive an electrical shock by the eye as light, by the ear as sound, by the nerves of the skin as shock, and by the nose as a phosphoric smell. What follows from these facts? Only this: I perceive an electric shock, or a pressure, followed by a light, or a sound, or, it may be a certain smell, etc. If there were no eye present, then no perception of a light quality would accompany the perception of the mechanical vibrations in my environment; without the presence of the ear, no sound, etc. But what right have we to say that in the absence of sense-organs the whole process would not exist at all? All those who, from the fact that an electrical process calls forth light in the eye, conclude that what we sense as light is, when outside our organism, only a mechanical process of motion, forget that they are only passing from one percept to another, and not at all to something altogether outside the range of percepts. Just as we can say that the eye perceives a mechanical process of motion in its surroundings as light, so we can affirm that every change in an object, determined by law, is perceived by us as a process of motion. If I draw twelve pictures of a horse on the circumference of a rotating disc, reproducing exactly the positions which the horse's body successively assumes in movement, I can, by rotating the disc, produce the illusion of movement. I need only look through an opening in such a way that, in the proper intervals, I see the successive positions of the horse. I see, not separate pictures of twelve horses, but the picture of a single galloping horse.

The above-mentioned physiological fact cannot, therefore, throw any light on the relation of percept to representation. Hence, we must seek a relation in some other way.

The moment a percept appears in my field of observation, thinking also becomes active through me. A member of my thought-system, a definite intuition, a concept, connects itself with the percept. When, next, the percept disappears from my field of vision, what remains? My intuition, with the reference to the particular percept which it acquired in the moment of perception. The degree of vividness with which I can subsequently recall this reference depends on the manner in which my spiritual and bodily organism is working. A representation is nothing but an intuition related to a particular percept; it is a concept which was once connected with a certain percept, and which retains the reference to this percept. My concept of a lion is not constructed out of my percepts of lions; but my representation of a lion is formed according to a percept. I can convey to someone the concept of a lion without his ever having seen a lion, but I can never give him a vivid representation of it without the help of his own perception.

A representation is, therefore, an individualized concept. And now we can see how real objects can be represented to us by representations. The full reality of a thing is present to us in the moment of observation through the combination of concept and percept. The concept acquires by means of a percept an individualized form, a relation to this particular percept. In this individualized form which carries with it, as an essential feature, the reference to the percept, it lives on in us and constitutes the representation of the thing in question. If we come across a second thing with which the same concept connects itself, we recognize the second as belonging to the same kind as the first; if we come across the same thing twice, we find in our conceptual system, not merely a corresponding concept, but the individualized concept with its characteristic relation to the same object, and thus we recognize the object again.

Thus, the representation stands between percept and concept. It is the determinate concept which points to the percept.

The sum of those things about which I can form representations may be called my experience. The man who has the greater number of individualized concepts will be the man of richer experience. A man who lacks all power of intuition is not capable of acquiring experience. The objects simply disappear again from his field of vision, because he lacks the concepts which he ought to bring into relation with them. On the other hand, a man whose faculty of thinking is well developed, but whose perception functions badly owing to his clumsy sense-organs, will be no better able to gather experience. He can, it is true, by one means and another acquire concepts; but his intuitions lack the vivid reference to definite things. The unthinking traveler and the scholar living in abstract conceptual systems are alike incapable of acquiring a rich experience.

Reality presents itself to us as percept and concept; and the subjective representative of this reality presents itself to us as representation.

If our personality expressed itself only in cognition, the totality of all that is objective would be contained in percept, concept and representation.

However, we are not satisfied merely to refer the percept, by means of thinking, to the concept, but we relate them also to our private subjectivity, our individual Ego. The expression of this relation to us as individuals is feeling, which manifests itself as pleasure or displeasure.

Thinking and feeling correspond to the two-fold nature of our being to which reference has already been made. By means of thinking we take part in the universal cosmic process. By means of feeling we withdraw ourselves into the narrow precincts of our own being.

Our thinking links us to the world; our feeling leads us back into ourselves and thus makes us individuals. Were we merely thinking and perceiving beings, our whole life would flow along in monotonous indifference. Could we only know ourselves as Selves, we should be totally indifferent to ourselves. It is only because with self-knowledge we experience self-feeling, and with the perception of objects pleasure and pain, that we live as individuals whose existence is not exhausted by the conceptual relations in which they stand to the rest of the world, but who have moreover a special value in themselves.

One might be tempted to regard the life of feeling as something more richly saturated with reality than the consideration of the world through thinking. But the reply to this is that the life of feeling, after all, has this richer meaning only for my individual self. For the universe as a whole my life of feeling can be of value only if, as percept of my Self, the feeling enters into connection with a concept and in this roundabout way links itself to the cosmos.

Our life is a continual oscillation between our living with the universal world-process and our own individual existence. The farther we ascend into the universal nature of thinking where the individual, at last, interests us only as an example, an instance, of the concept, the more the character of the particular Being, of the quite determinate, single personality, becomes lost in us. The farther we descend into the depths of our own life and allow our feelings to resound with our experiences of the outer world, the more we cut ourselves off from the universal life. True individuality belongs to him who reaches up with his feelings to the farthest possible extent into the region of the ideal. There are men in whom even the most general Ideas still bear that peculiar personal tinge which shows unmistakably their connection with their author. There are others whose concepts come before us as devoid of any trace of individual colouring as if they had not been produced by a being of flesh and blood at all.

The act of representing gives our conceptual life at once an individual stamp. Each one of us has his special place from which he looks out on the world. His concepts link themselves to his percepts. He thinks the general concepts in his own special way. This special determination results for each of us from the place where he stands and is dependent on the range of percepts peculiar to his place in life.

This determination is distinct from another which depends on our particular organization. Our organization is, indeed, a special, definite, individual thing. Each of us combines special feelings, and these in the most varying degrees of intensity, with his percepts. This is just the individual element in the personality of each of us. It is what remains over when we have allowed fully for all the determining factors in our milieu.

A life of feeling, wholly devoid of thinking, would gradually lose all connection with the world. But man is meant to be a whole, and knowledge of objects will go hand-in-hand for him with the development and education of the life of feeling. Feeling is the means whereby, in the first instance, concepts gain concrete life.