The Nature of Human Brain Work. Joseph Dietzgen 1869

II Pure Reason or the Faculty of Thought in General

When speaking of food in general, we may mention fruits, cereals, vegetables, meat and bread and classify them all, in spite of their difference, under this one head. In the same way, we use, in this work, the terms reason, consciousness, intellect, knowledge, discernment, understanding, as referring to the same general thing. For we are discussing the general nature of the thought process rather than its special forms.

“No intelligent thinker of our day,” says a modern physiologist, “pretends to look for the seat of the intellectual powers in the blood, as did the ancient Greeks, or in the pineal gland, as was the case in the middle ages. Instead we have all become convinced that the central nerve system is the organic center of the intellectual functions of the brain.” Yes, true enough, thinking is a function of the brain and nerve center, just as writing is a function of the hand. But the study of the anatomy of the hand can no more solve the question: What is writing? than the physiological study of the brain can bring us nearer to the solution of the question: What is thought? With the dissecting knife, we may kill, but we cannot discover the mind. The understanding that thought is a product of the brain takes us closer to the solution of our problem, in as much as it draws it into the bright light of reality and out of the domain of fantasy in which the ghosts dwell. Mind thereby loses the character of a transcendental incomprehensible being and appears as a bodily function.

Thinking is a function of the brain just as walking is a function of the legs. We perceive thought and mind just as clearly with our senses as we do pain and other feelings. Thought is felt by us as a subjective process taking place inside of us. According to its contents this process varies every moment and with each person, but according to its form it is the same everywhere. In other words, in the thought process, as in all processes, we make a distinction between the special or concrete and the general or abstract. The general purpose of thought is understanding. We shall see later that the simplest conception, or any idea for that matter, is of the same general nature as the most perfect understanding.

Thought and understanding cannot be without subjective contents any more than without an object which suggests individual reflection. Thought is work, and like every other work it requires an object to which it is applied. The statements: I do, I work, I think, must be completed by an answer to the question: What are you doing, working, thinking?

Every definite idea, all actual thought, is identical with its content, but not with its object. My desk as a picture in my mind is identical with my idea of it. But my desk outside of my brain is a separate object and distinct from my idea. The idea is to be distinguished from thinking only as a part of the thought process, while the object of my thought exists as a separate entity.

We make a distinction between thinking and being. We distinguish between the object of sense perception and its mental image. Nevertheless the intangible idea is also material and real. I perceive my idea of a desk just as plainly as the desk itself. True, if I choose to call only tangible things material, then ideas are not material. But in that case the scent of a rose and the heat of a stove are not material. It would be better to call thoughts sense perceptions. But if it is objected that this would be an incorrect use of the word, because language distinguishes material and mental things, then we dispense with the word material and call thought real. Mind is as real as the tangible table, as the visible light, as the audible sound. While the idea of these things is different from the things themselves, yet it has that in common with them that it is as real as they. Mind is not any more different from a table, a light, a sound, than these things differ among themselves. We do not deny that there is a difference. We merely emphasize that they have the same general nature in common. I hope the reader will not misunderstand me henceforth, when I call the faculty of thought a material quality, a phenomenon of sense perception.

Every perception of the senses is based on some object. In order that heat may be real, there must be an object, something else which is heated. The active cannot exist without the passive. The visible cannot exist without the faculty of sight, nor the faculty of sight without visible things. So is the faculty of thought a phenomenon, but it can never exist in itself, it must always be based on some sense perception. Thought appears, like all other phenomena, in connection with an object. The function of the brain is no more a “pure” process than the function of the eye, the scent of a flower, the heat of a stove, or the touch of a table. The fact that a table may be seen, heard, or felt, is due as much to its own nature as to that of another object with which it enters into some relation.

But while each function is limited by its own separate line of objects, while the function of the eye serves only for the perception of the visible, the hand for the tangible, while walking finds an object in the space it crosses, thought, on the other hand, has everything for its object. Everything may be the object of understanding. Thought is not limited to any special object. Every phenomenon may be the object and the content of thought. More than this, we can only perceive anything when it becomes the object of our brain activity. Everything is therefore the object and content of thought. The faculty of thought may be exerted quite generally on all objects.

We said a moment ago that everything may be perceived, but we now modify this to the effect that only perceivable things may be perceived. Only the knowable can be the object of knowledge, only the thinkable the object of thought. To this extent the faculty of thought is limited, for it cannot replace reading, hearing, feeling, and all other innumerable activities of the world of sensations. We do, indeed, perceive all objects, but no object may be exhaustively perceived, known, or understood. In other words, the objects are not wholly dissolved in the understanding. Seeing requires something that is visible, something which is, therefore, more than seeing. In the same way, hearing requires something that can be heard, thinking an object that can be thought of, something which is more than our thoughts, something still outside of our consciousness. We shall learn later on how we arrive at the knowledge that we see, hear, feel, and think of objects, and not merely of subjective impressions.

By means of thought we become aware of all things in a twofold manner, viz., outside in reality and inside in thought, in conception. It is easy to demonstrate that the things outside are different from the things in our thoughts. In their actual form, in their real dimensions, they cannot enter into our heads. Our brain does not assimilate the things themselves, but only their images, their general outlines. The imagined tree is only a general object. The real tree is different from any other. And though I may have a picture of some special tree in my head, yet the real tree is still as different from its conception as the special is different from the general. The infinite variety of things, the innumerable wealth of their properties, has no room in our heads.

I repeat, then, that we become aware of the outer world in a twofold way, viz., in a concrete, tangible, manifold form, and in an abstract form, which is mental and unitary. To our senses the world appears as a variety of forms. Our brains combine them as a unit. And what is true of the world, holds good of every one of its parts. A sense-perceived unit is a nonentity. Even the atom of a drop of water or the atom of any chemical element, is divisible, so long as it exists at all, and its parts are different and distinct. A is not B. But the concept, the faculty of thought, makes of every tangible or sense-perceived part an abstract whole and conceives of every whole or quantity as a part of the abstract world unit. In order to understand the things in their entirety, we must take them practically and theoretically, with body and mind. With the body we can grasp only the bodily, the tangible, with the mind only the mental, the thinkable. Things also possess mental quality. Mind is material and things are mental. Mind and matter are real only in their inter-relations.

Can we see the things themselves? No, we see only the effects of things on our eyes. We do not taste the vinegar, but the relation of the vinegar to our tongue. The result is the sensation of acidity. The vinegar is acid only in relation to our tongue. In relation to iron it acts as a solvent. In the cold it becomes hard, in the heat liquid. It acts differently on different objects with which it enters into relations of time and space. Vinegar is a phenomenon, just as all things are. But it never appears as vinegar by itself. It always appears in connection with other phenomena. Every phenomenon is a product of a subject and an object.

In order that a thought may appear, the brain or the faculty of thought is not sufficient in itself. It requires, besides, an object which suggests the thought. From this relative nature of our topic it follows that in its treatment we cannot confine ourselves “purely” to it. Since reason, or the faculty of thought, never appears by itself, but always in connection with other things, we are continually compelled to pass from the faculty of thought to other things, which are its objects, and to treat of their connections.

Just as the sight does not see the tree, but only that which is visible of the tree, so does the faculty of thought assimilate only the perceivable image of an object, not the object itself. A thought is a child begotten by the function of the brain in communion with some object. In a thought is crystalized on one side the subjective faculty of thought, and on the other the perceivable nature of an object. Every function of the mind presupposes some object by which it is caused and the spiritual image of which it is. Or vice versa, the spiritual content of the mind is derived from some object which has its own existence and which is either seen or heard, or smelled, or tasted, or felt, in short, experienced.

Referring back to the statement that seeing is limited to the visible qualities of some object, hearing to its audible qualities, etc., while the faculty of thought has everything for its object, we now understand this to mean that all objects have certain innumerable, but concrete, qualities which are perceptible by our senses, and in addition thereto the general spiritual quality of being thought of, understood, in short, of being the object of our faculty of thought.

This mode of classifying all objects applies also to the faculty of thought itself. The spirit, or mind, is a bodily function connected with the senses which appear in various forms. Mind is thought generated at different times in different brains by different objects through the instrumentality of the senses. We may choose this mind as the object of special thought the same as all other things. Considered as an object, mind is a manysided and sense-perceived fact which in connection with a special function of the brain generates the general concept of “Mind” as the content of this special thought process. The object of thought is distinguished from its contents in the same way in which every object is distinguished from its mental image. The different kinds of motion perceived by the help of the senses are the object of a certain thought process and supply to it the idea of “motion.” It is easier to understand that the mental image of some object perceived by the senses has a father and a mother, being begotten by our faculty of thought by means of some sense-perceived object, than it is to grasp the existence of that trinity which is born when our present thought experiences its own existence and thus creates a conception of its own self. This has the appearance of moving around in a circle. The object, the content and the function of thought apparently coincide. Reason deals with itself, considers itself as an object and is its own content. But nevertheless the distinction between an object and its concept, though less evident, is just as actual as in other cases. It is only the habit of regarding matter and mind as fundamentally different things which conceals this truth. The necessity to make a distinction compels us everywhere to discriminate between the object of sense perception and its mental concept. We are forced to do the same in the case of the faculty of thought, and thus we find it necessary to give the name of “Mind” to this special object of our sense perceptions. Such an ambiguity of terms cannot be entirely avoided in any science. A reader who does not cling to words, but rather seeks to grasp the meaning, will easily realize that the difference between being and thinking applies also to the faculty of thought, that the fact of understanding is different from the understanding of understanding. And since the understanding of understanding is again another fact, it will be permitted to call all spiritual things facts or sense perceptions.

Reason, or the faculty of thought, is therefore not a mystical object which produces the individual thought. On the contrary, it is a fact that certain individual thoughts are the product of perception gained in contact with certain objects and that these in connection with a certain brain operation produce the concept of reason. Reason as well as all other things of which we become aware has a two-fold existence: one as a phenomenon or sense-perception, the other as a concept. The concept of any thing presupposes a certain sense-perception of that thing, and so does the concept of reason. Since all men think as a matter of fact, every one has himself perceived reason as a part of reality, as a phenomenon, sense-perception or fact.

Our object, reason, by virtue of the fact that it partakes of the nature of the senses, has the faculty of transforming the speculative method, which tries to dip understanding out of the depths of the spirit without the help of sense-perception, into the inductive method, and vice versa of transforming the inductive method, which desires to arrive at conclusions, concepts, or understanding exclusively by means of sense-perception, into the speculative method, by virtue of its simultaneous spiritual nature. Our problem is to analyze the concept of thought, or of the faculty of thought, or of reason, of knowing, of science, by means of thought.

To produce thoughts and to analyze them is the same thing inasmuch as both actions are functions of the brain. Both have the same nature. But they are different to the same extent that instinct differs from consciousness. Man does not think originally because he wants to, but because he must. Ideas are produced instinctively, involuntarily. In order to become fully aware of them, to place them within the grasp of knowing and willing, we must analyze them. From the experience of walking, for instance, we derive the idea of walking. To analyze this idea means to solve the question, what is walking generally considered, what is the general nature of walking? We may answer: Walking is a rythmical motion from one place to another, and thus we raise the instinctive idea to the position of a conscious analyzed idea. An object is not consciously, theoretically, understood, until it has been analyzed. In examining what elements constitute the concept of walking, we find that the general attribute of that experience which we agree in calling “walking” is a rythmical motion. In actual experience steps may be long or short, may be taken by two feet or by more, in brief may be varied. But as a concept walking is simply a rythmical motion, and the analysis of this concept furnishes us with the conscious understanding of this fact. The concept of light existed long before science analyzed it, before it was understood that undulations of the ether form the elements which constitute the concept of light. Instinctive and analytical ideas differ in the same way in which the thoughts of every day life differ from the thoughts of science.

The analysis of any idea and the theoretical analysis of any object, or of the thing which suggested the idea, is one and the same. Every idea corresponds to some real object. Ludwig Feuerbach has demonstrated that even the concepts of God and immortality are reflections of real objects which can be perceived by the senses. For the purpose of analyzing such ideas as animal, light, friendship, man, etc., the phenomena, the objects, such as animals, friendships, men, and lights, are analyzed. The object which serves for the analysis of the concept “animal” is no more any single animal, than the object of the concept “light” is any single light. These concepts comprise classes, things in general, and therefore the question, or the analysis, of what constitutes the animal, the light, friendship, must not deal with any concrete, but with the abstract elements of the whole class.

The fact that the analysis of a concept and the analysis of its object appear as two different things is due to our faculty of being able to separate things into two parts, viz., into a practical, tangible, perceptible, concrete thing and into a theoretical mental, thinkable, general thing. The practical analysis is the premise of the theoretical analysis. The individually perceptible animals serve us as a basis for the analysis of the animal concept, the individually experienced friendships as the basis for the analysis of the concept of friendship.

Every idea corresponds to an object which may be practically separated into its component parts. To analyze a concept is equivalent, therefore, to analyzing a previously experienced object by theoretical means. The analysis of a concept consists in the understanding of the common or general faculties of the concrete parts of the analyzed object. That which is common to the various modes of walking, the rythmical motion, constitutes the concept of walking, that which is common to the various manifestations of light constitutes the concept of light. A chemical factory analyzes objects for the purpose of obtaining chemicals, while science analyzes them for the purpose of obtaining their concepts.

The special object of our analysis, the faculty of thought, is likewise distinguished from its concept. But in order to be able to analyze this concept, we must analyze the object. It cannot be analyzed chemically, for not everything is a matter of chemistry, but it may be analyzed theoretically or scientifically. As we have already stated, the science of understanding deals with all objects. But all objects which this science may wish to analyze theoretically, must first be handled practically. According to their special natures, they must either be handled in various ways, or carefully inspected, or scrutinized by intent listening, in short they must be thoroughly experienced in some way.

It is a fact of experience that men think. The object or suggestion is furnished by facts, and we then derive the concept instinctively. Thus, to analyze the faculty of thought means to find that which is common or general to the various personal and temporary processes of thought. In order to follow this study by the methods of natural science, we require neither physical instruments nor chemical reagents. The sense perception which is indispensable for every scientific understanding, is so to say present in this case a priori, without further experience. Every one possesses the object of our study, the fact of thought faculty and its experience, in the memories of himself or herself.

We have seen that thought like any other activity as well as its scientific analysis is everywhere developing the general or abstract out of particular and concrete sense perceptions. We now express this in the following words: The common feature of all separate thought-processes consists in their seeking the general character or unity which is common to all objects experienced in their manifold variety by sense perceptions. The general element which is common to the different animals, or to the different manifestations of light, is that which constitutes the general animal or light concept. The general is the nature of all concepts, of all understanding, all science, all thought processes. Thus we arrive at the understanding that the analysis of the faculty of thought reveals its nature of finding that which is general and common to concrete and distinct things. The eye studies the visible, the ear the audible, and our brain that which is generally conceivable.

We have seen that thought like any other activity requires an object; that it is unlimited in the choice of its objects, because all things may become the objects of thought; that these objects are perceived in manifold forms by various senses; and that they are transformed into simple ideas by extricating that which they possess in common, which is similar, which is general in them. If we apply this experienced understanding of the general method of thought processes to our special object, the faculty of thought, we realize that we have thus solved our problem, because all we were looking for was the general method of the thought process.

If the development of the general out of the concrete constitutes the general method by which reason arrives at understanding, then we have fully grasped reason as the faculty of deriving the general out of the concrete.

Thinking is a physical process and it cannot exist or produce anything without materials any more than any other process of labor. My thought requires some material which can be thought of. This material is furnished by the phenomena of nature and life. These are the concrete things. In claiming that the universe, or all things, may be the object of thought, we simply mean that the materials of the thought process, the objects of the mind, are infinite in quantity and quality. The materials which the universe furnishes for our thought are as infinite as space, as eternal as time, and as absolutely manifold as the nature of these two forms of being. The faculty of thought is a universal faculty in so far as it enters into relations with all things, all substances, all phenomena, and thus generates thought. But it is not absolute, since it requires for its existence and action the previous presence of matter. Matter is the boundary, beyond which the mind cannot pass. Matter furnishes the background for the illumination of the mind, but is not consumed in this illumination. Mind is a product of matter, but matter is more than a product of mind, being perceived also through the five senses and thus brought to our notice. We call real, objective products, or “things themselves” only such products as are revealed to us simultaneously by the senses and the mind.

Reason is a real thing only in so far as it is perceived by the senses. The perceptible actions of reason are revealed in the brain of man as well as in the world outside of it. For are not the effects tangible by which reason transforms nature and life? We see the successes of science with our eyes and grasp them with our hands. It is true that science or reason cannot produce such material effects out of themselves. The world of sense perceptions, the objects outside of the human brain, must be given. But what thing is there that has any effects “in itself?” In order that light may shine, that the sun may warm, and revolve in its course, there must be space and other things which may be lighted and warmed and passed. In order that my table may have color, there must be light and eyes. And everything else which my table is besides, it can be only in contact with other things. Its being is just as manifold as those various contacts or relations. In short, the world consists only in its interrelations. Any thing that is torn out of its relations with the world ceases to exist. A thing is anything “in itself” only because it is something for other things, by acting or appearing in connection with something else.

If we wish to regard the world in the light of the “thing itself,” we shall easily see that the world “itself” and the world as it appears, the world of phenomena, differ only in the same way in which the whole differs from its component parts. The world “itself” is nothing else but the sum total of its phenomena. The same holds good of that part of the world phenomena which we call reason, spirit, faculty of thought. Although we distinguish between the faculty of thought and its phenomena or manifestations, yet the faculty of thought “itself,” or “pure” reason, exists in reality only in the sum total of its manifestations. Seeing is the physical existence of the faculty of sight. We possess the whole only by means of its parts, and we can possess reason, like all other things, only by the help of its effects, by its various thoughts. But we repeat that reason does not precede thought in the order of time. On the contrary thoughts generated by perceptible objects serve as a basis for the development of the concept of the faculty of thought. Just as the understanding of the world movements has taught us that the sun is not revolving around the earth, so the understanding of the thought process tells us that it is not the faculty of thought which creates thought, but vice versa, that the concept of this faculty is created out of a series of concrete thoughts. Hence the faculty of thought practically exists only as the sum total of our thoughts, just as the faculty of sight exists only through the sum of the things that we see.

These thoughts, this practical reason, serve as the material out of which our brain manufactures the concept of “pure” reason. Reason is necessarily impure in practice, which means that it must connect itself with some object. Pure reason, or abstract reason without any special content, cannot be anything else but the general characteristic of all concrete reasoning processes. We possess this general nature of reason in two ways: In an impure state, that is as practical and concrete phenomenon, consisting of the sum of our real perceptions, and in a pure state, that is theoretically or abstractly, in the concept. The phenomenon of reason is distinguished from reason “itself” just as the real animals are distinguished from the concept of the animal.

Every actual reasoning process is based on some real object which has many qualities like all things in nature. The faculty of thought extracts from this many-sided object those properties which are general or common with it. A mouse and an elephant, as the objects of our reasoning activity, lose their differences in the general animal concept. Such a concept combines many things under one uniform point of view, it develops one general idea out of many concrete things. Since understanding is the general or common quality of all reasoning processes, it follows that reason in general, or the general nature of the reasoning process, consists in abstracting the general ideal character from any concrete thing perceptible by the help of the senses.

Reason being unable to exist without some objects outside of itself, it is understood that we can perceive “pure” reason, or reason “itself,” only by its practical manifestations. We cannot find reason without objects outside of it with which it comes in contact and produces thought, any more than we can find any eyes without light. And the manifestations of reason are as varied as the objects which supply its material. It is plain, then, that reason has no separate existence “in itself,” but that on the contrary the concept of reason is formed out of the material supplied by the senses.

Mental processes appear only in connection with perceptible phenomena. These processes are themselves phenomena of sense perception which, in connection with a brain process, produce the concept of the faculty of thought “itself.” If we analyze this concept, we find that “pure” reason consists in the activity of producing general ideas out of concrete materials, which include so-called immaterial thoughts. In other words, reason may be characterized as an activity which seeks for unity in every multiplicity and equalizes all contrasts whether it deals with the many different sides and parts of one or of more objects. All these different statements describe the same thing in different words, so that the reader may not cling to the empty word, but grasp the living concept, the manifold object, in its general nature.

Reason, we said, exists in a “pure” state as the development of the general out of the special, of the abstract out of concrete sense perceptions. This is the whole content of pure reason, of scientific understanding, of consciousness. And by the terms “pure” and “whole” we simply indicate that we mean the general content of the various thought processes, the general form of reason. Apart from this general abstract form, reason, like all other things, has also its concrete, special, sense form which we perceive directly through our experience. Hence our entire process of consciousness consists in the experience of the senses, that is in the physical process, and its understanding. Understanding is the general reflection of any object.

Consciousness, as the Latin root of the word indicates, is the knowledge of being in existence. It is a form, or a quality, of existence which differs from other forms of being in that it is aware of its existence. Quality cannot be explained, but must be experienced. We know by experience that consciousness includes along with the knowledge of being in existence the difference and contradiction between subject and object, thinking and being, between form and content, between phenomenon and essential thing, between attribute and substance, between the general and the concrete. This innate contradiction explains the various terms applied to consciousness, such as the organ of abstraction, the faculty of generalization or unification, or in contradistinction thereto the faculty of differentiation. For consciousness generalizes differences and differentiates generalities. Contradiction is innate in consciousness, and its nature is so contradictory that it is at the same time a differentiating, a generalizing, and an understanding nature. Consciousness generalizes contradiction. It recognizes that all nature, all being, lives in contradictions, that everything is what it is only in co-operation with its opposite. Just as visible things are not visible without the faculty of sight, and vice versa the faculty of sight cannot see anything but what is visible, so contradiction must be recognized as something general which pervades all thought and being. The science of understanding, by generalizing contradiction, solves all concrete contradictions.