1902 Encyclopedia > Philosophy > Psychology, Epistemology, and Metaphysics

(Part 3)

Psychology, Epistemology, and Metaphysics

This leads to the consideration of our first group of subsidiary sciences -- PSYCHOLOGY (q.v.), epistemology (theory of knowledge, Erkenntnisstheorie), and metaphysics (ontology ; see METAPHYSIC). A special relation has always existed between psychology and systematic philosophy, but the closeness of the connexion has been characteristic of modern and more particularly of English thought. The connexion is not difficult to explain, seeing that in psychology, or the science of mind, we study the fact of intelligence (and moral action), and have, so far, in our hands the fact to which all other facts are relative. From his point of view we may even agree with Sir W. Hamilton when he quotes Jacobi’s dictum -- "Nature conceals God; man reveals God." In other words, as has just been said, the ultimate explanation of things cannot be given by any theory which excludes from its survey the intelligence in which nature, as it were, gathers herself up. But knowledge, or the mind as knowing, willing, &c., may be looked at in two different ways. It may be regarded simply as a fact, in which case the evolutions of mind may be traced and reduced to laws in the same way as the phenomena treated by the other sciences. This study gives us the science of empirical psychology, or, as it is now termed, psychology sans phrase. In order to give an adequate account of its subject-matter, psychology may require higher or more complex categories than are employed in the other sciences, just as biology, for example, cannot work with mechanical categories alone, but introduces the conception of development or growth. But the affinities of such a study are manifestly with the science as such rather with philosophy ; and it has been already pointed out that the division of labour in this respect is proceeding rapidly. Since it has been taken up by specialists, psychology is being established on a broader basis of induction, and with the advantage, in some departments, of the employment of experimental methods of measurement. But it is not of mind in this aspect that such assertions can be made as those quoted above. Mind, as studied by the psychologist—mind as a mere fact or phenomenon -- grounds no inference to anything beyond itself. The distinction between mind viewed as a succession of "states of consciousness" and the further aspect of mind which philosophy considers is very clearly put in a recent article by Professor Croom Robertson, who also makes a happy suggestion of two terms to designate the double point of view.

"We may view knowledge as mere subjective function, but it has its full meaning only as it is taken to represent what we may call objective fact, or is such as is named (in different circumstances) real, valid, true. As mere subjective function, which it is to the psychologist, it is best spoken of by an unambiguous name, and for this there seems none better than Intellection. We may them say that psychology is occupied with the natural function of Intellection, seeking to discover its laws and distinguishing its various modes (perception, representative imagination, conception, &c.) according to the various circumstances in which the laws are found at work. Philosophy, on the other hand, is theory of knowledge (as that which is known)." --"Psychology and Philosophy," Mind, 1883, pp. 15, 16.

The confusion of these two points of view has led, and still leads, to serious philosophical misconception. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, in the English school since Hume, psychology superseded properly philosphical inquiry. The infusion of epistemological matter into the numerous analyses of the human mind rendered the substitution plausible and left men satisfied. And we find even a thinker with a wider horizon like Sir W. Hamilton encouraging the confusion by speaking of "psychology or metaphysics," (FOOTNOTE 1) while his lectures on metaphysics are mainly taken up with what belongs in the strictest sense to psychology proper, with an occasional excusus (as in the theory of perception) into epistemology. That this confusion is on the way to be obviated for the future is largely due to the Kantian impulse which has been strongly felt of late in English thought, and which has acted in this matter on many who could not, by any laxity of terminology, be numbered as Kantians or Neo-Kantians. The distinction psychology and theory of knowledge was first clearly made by Kant, who repeatedly insisted that the Critique of Pure Reason was not to be taken as a psychological inquiry. He defined his problem as the quid juris or the question of the validity of knowledge, not its quied facti or the laws of the empirical genesis and evolution of intellection (to use Professor Robertson’s phraseology). Since Kant philosophy has chiefly taken the form of theory of knowledge or of a criticism of experience. Not, indeed, a preliminary criticism of our faculties or conceptions such as Kant himself proposed to institute, in order to determine the limits of their application ; such a criticism ab extra of the nature of our experience is essentially a thing impossible. The only criticism which can be applied in such a case is the immanent which the conceptions or categories exercise upon one another. The organized criticism of these conceptions is really nothing more than the full explication of what they mean and of what experience in its full nature or notion is. This constitutes that theory of knowledge, and lays down, in Kantian language, the conditions of the possibility of experience. These conditions are the conditions of knowledge as such, of self-consciousness in general, or, as it may be put, of objective consciousness. The inquiry is, therefore, logical or transcendental in its nature, and does not entangle us in any decision as to the conditions of the genesis of such consciousness in the individual. When we inquire into subjective conditions, we are thinking of facts causing other facts. But the logical or transcendental are not causes or even factors of knowledge; they are the statement of its idea. Hence the dispute at the present time between evolutionist and transcendentalist rests, in general, on an ignoratio elenchi ; for the history of the genesis of an idea (the historical or genetic method) does not contain an answer to—thought it may throw light on—the philosophic question of its truth or validity. Speaking of this transcendental consciousness, Kant goes so far as to say that it is not of the slightest consequence "whether the idea of it be clear or obscure (in empirical consciousness), no, not even whether it really exists or not. But the possibility of the logical form of all knowledge rests on its relation to this apperception as a faculty or potentiality" (Werke, ed. Hartenstein, iii. 578 note). Or, if we return to the distinction between epistemology and psychology, by way of illustrating the nature of the former, we may take the summing up of Mr Ward in a valuable article on "Psychological Principles" recently contributed to Mind (April 1883, pp. 166, 167). "Comparing psychology and epistemology, then, we may say that the former is essentially genetic in its method, and might, if we had the power to revise our existing terminology, be called biology; the latter, on the other hand, is essentially devoid of everything historical, and treats, sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza might have said, of human knowledge, conceived as the possession of mind in general."

Kant’s problem is not, in its wording, very different from that which Locke set before him when he resolved to "inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent." Lockes’ Essay is undoubtedly, in its intention, a contribution to the theory of knowledge, as any one may verify for himself by turning to the headings of the chapters in the fourth book. But, because time had not yet made the matter clear, Locke suffered himself to digress in his second book into the purely psychological question of the origin of our ideas, or, as Kant called it, the physiology of the human mind. Appearing thus, first as the problem of perception (in Locke and his English successors), widening its scope and becoming, in Kant’s hands, the question of the possiblity of experience in general, epistemology may be said to have passed with Hegel into a completely articulated "logic," that claimed to be at the same time a metaphysic, or an ultimate expression of the nature of the real. This introduces us to the second part of the question we are seeking to determine, namely, the relation of epistemology to metaphysics.

It is evident that philosophy as theory of knowledge mush have for its complement philosophy as metaphysics or ontology. The question of the truth of our knowledge, and the question of the ultimate nature of what we know, are in reality two sides of two sides of the same inquiry; and therefore our epistemology results have to be ontologically expressed. But it is not every thinker that can see is way with Hegel to assert in set terms the identity of thought and being. Hence the theory of knowledge becomes with some a theory of human ignorance. This is the case with Herbert Spencer’s doctrine of the unknowable, which he advances as the result of epistemological considerations in the philosophical prolegomena to his system. Very similar positions were maintained by Kant and Comte; and, under the name of "agnosticism," the theory has popularized itself of the late outer courts of philosophy, and on the shifting borderland of philosophy and literature. The truth is that the habit of thinking exclusively from the standpoint of the theory of knowledge tends to beget an undue subjectivity of temper. And the fact that it has become usual for men to think from this standpoint is very plainly seen in the almost universal description of philosophy as an analysis of "experience," instead of its more old-fashioned designation as an inquiry into "the nature of things." Now it is matter of universal agreement that the problem of being must be attracted indirectly through the problem of knowledge ; and therefore this substitution certainly marks an advance, in so far as it implies that the fact of experience, or of self-conscious existence, is the chief fact to be dealt with. But if so, then self-consciousness must really be treated as existing, and as organically related to the rest of existence. If self-consciousness be treated in this objective fashion, then we pass naturally from epistemology to metaphysics or ontology. (For, although the term "ontology" has been as good as disused, it still remains true that the aim of philosophy must be to furnish us with an ontology or a coherant and adequate theory of the nature of the existent.) But if, on the other hand, knowledge and existence be ab initio opposed to one another -- if consciousness be set on one side as over against existence, and merely holding up a mirror to it -- then it follows with equal naturalness that the truly ojective must be something which lurks unrevealed behind the subject’s representation of it. Hence come the different varieties of a so-called phenomenalism. The upholders of such a theory would, in general, deride the term "metaphysics" or "ontology"; but it is evident none the less, that their position itself implies a certain theory of the universe and of our own place in it, and philosophy with them will consist, therefore, in the establishment of this theory.

Without prejudice, then, to the claims of epistemology to constitute the central philosophic discipline, we may simply note its liability to be misused. The exclusive ledge during t he last quarter of a century or more drew from Lotze the caustic criticism that "the continual sharpening of the knife becomes tiresome, if, after all, we have nothing to cut with it." Stillingfleet’s complaint against Locke was that he was "one of the gentlemen of this new way of reasoning that have almost discarded substance out of the reasonable part of the world." The same may be said with greater truth of the devotees of the theory of knowledge ; they seem to have no need of so old-fashioned a commodity as reality. Yet, after all, Fichte’s dictum holds good that knowledge as Knowledge -- i.e., so long as it is looked at as knowledge -- is ipso facto, not reality. The result of the foregoing, however, is to show that, as soon as epistemology draws its conclusion, it becomes metaphysics ;the theory of knowledge passes into a theory of being. The ontological conclusion, moreover, is not to be regarded as something added by an external process; it is an immediate implication. The metaphysic is the epistemology from another point of view—regarded as completing itself, and explaining in the course of its exposition that relative or practical separation of the individual known from the knowable world which it is a sheer assumption to take as absolute. This, not the so-called assumption of the implicit unity of the being and thought, is the really unwarrantable postulate; for it is an assumption which we are obliged to retract bit by bit, while the other offers the whole doctrine of knowledge as its voucher.


(1) It is true that he afterwards modifies this misleading identification by introducing the distinction between empirical psychology and the phenomenon of mind and inferential psychology or ontology, i.e. metaphysics proper. But he continues to use the terms "philosophy," "metaphysics," and "mental science" as synonymous.

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