Feliks Mikhailov 1976
The Riddle of the Self

2. Something about “Something”

But even in the “Dark Ages” (and they must have seemed very dark to the enlighteners of the Renaissance) the flame of philosophical enquiry was kept alive beneath the ashes of theological scholastics. The same “accursed” questions of knowledge and soul continued to confront those who pondered upon the meaning of the world, the meaning of God, on what we know about both of them.

Porphyry, a commentator on Aristotle, who showed a keen sense of the basic contradiction in knowledge, posed the following questions (1) do kinds and species exist independently or only in thought? (2) if they exist, are they bodies or bodiless things? and (3) have they a separate being or do they exist in sensuous objects as well as outside them?

These questions certainly go to the heart of the matter. Where and how do the kinds and species (universals) exist? Answers to this question (we have examined them in outline) were given by those who believed that universals have real existence either as certain ideal elements preceding particular things (extreme “realism”) or as forms of the things themselves existing within them (moderate “realism”). Many people regard the answer of the former as a return to Plato’s “ideas” and that of the latter as a revival of Aristotle’s contradictory attempt to combine the general and the particular.

But there is another possible answer to Porphyry’s questions. Kinds and species, the universal as such, do not exist in reality. There is nothing general in heaven or earth, in things or before things, or apart from things. There are only particulars, things that are unique in themselves. Only the consciousness of man contains the general names that people give to various groups of particular things. If we give this answer to Perphyry’s first question, we don’t have to answer the other two. The nominalists (from the Latin nomina – name) thus open up a new path of investigation. We can leave aside the “extreme” nominalists, who denied all possibility of existence of the general in objective reality, but we should say something about the “moderate” nominalists, the conceptualists (from the Latin conceptus – concept).

In the introduction we were considering their point of view when we erected the pyramid of knowledge. The conceptualists were its first builders. Their logic, which established itself so firmly that to this day many materialists will acknowledge no other, is based on the “granite foundation” of contemplative philosophy. Its first and fundamental principle is that the world consists only of particulars. To them it is quite absurd to imagine that alongside the actual, particular, real cats in the world there is yet another “cat in general”. But all cats possess general, repetitive features, properties, qualities. Our sense organs perceive this visible repetition and give it the first name that comes to hand. The generality of the qualities in particular things is not “generality as such”. It always exists as something particular. All cats have tails but there is a particular tail for every cat and not some tail “in general”. The universals therefore exist only in consciousness, as the name with which the memory of the repetitive features of things is associated.

But we are quite justified in asking whether the conceptualists ever answer the question: “What is a concept?” Did they or did they not tell us how it appeared in our heads? Unfortunately the reply must be that having built their pyramid the nominalists merely buried the problem of the emergence of knowledge beneath it, and this constantly gave rise to intense controversies that inevitably involved the question of worldview. The whole history of the fight between empiricism and rationalism and even the fact that the principles of nominalism are used by the modern idealist semantic school bears this out.

Space does not permit me to trace the development of this struggle throughout the history of philosophy. But one can hardly imagine that nothing has changed since ancient times with regard to solutions of the problem with which this book is concerned. One often speaks of the New Age, and it was new not only because it superseded an older age. A new mode of activity and a corresponding new style of thinking became established in history. What brought about this change?

In the old days, theoretical knowledge of particulars and processes came about as an accident of knowledge of the world as a whole and there wore good historical reasons for this in the mode of activity of the ancients. In the Middle Ages, too, the general principles explaining the world were also determined by specific interpretations of observed phenomena. Admittedly the principles themselves were different. The hierarchy of the feudal system, the political organisation of society found its ideological, illusory reflection in the hierarchy of the “celestial powers”, in religion, and in its principles and dogmata. To the philosopher – theologians of the Middle Ages the world appeared to be a divine creation, the realisation of some supreme purpose. Its organic integrity lay in the fact that every separate “creation” seemed to embody divine providence, the striving towards the ultimate goal. Alchemists, doctors, astrologists, magicians, all proceeded from a speculatively assumed general to the real diversity of particular states. The very manner of such theorising left no room for experience, even in the experiments carried out by the alchemists.

What mattered to the theologians of the Middle Ages was not the created world as such, not its present qualities, but its universal basis – the purpose of creation which could be discovered only through divine revelation. For the medieval theologians the authority of the universal knowledge comprising the inviolable laws of being was reinforced by a way of writing comprehensible only to the initiated. And the predominant logical method of theorising was to proceed from this universal knowledge to definitions of particular phenomena.

But in the 15th century trade and industry began to have a decisive influence on the feudal organisation of society. Artisan work spread and manufacturing arose. The previous domination of agriculture over industry (country over town) was broken and manufacturing became the predominant material activity in the general system. The division, specialisation and cooperation of production lifted sensuous – objective, “experimental” activity out of the control of guild traditions.

The new structure of the social division of labour representing the developing forces of production of a new socioeconomic formation destroyed the closed guild principle of activity with its supremacy of living labour over objectified labour, its mystique of the universal “formula” empirically discovered and preserved often as a secret of craftsmanship. And it was this new structure that made a knowledge of the “algorithms” of natural processes an essential condition of production itself. “The inherent development of manufacturing is the division of labour.” “The developed principle of capital lies precisely in making superfluous the special skill and manual labour, immediate Physical labour in general, in making superfluous both particularly skilled labour and labour based on muscular exertion; on the contrary special skill is to be instilled in the dead (inanimate) forces of nature.” The latter operate in the process of production as a system of machines and “... now, on the contrary, the machine that possesses skill and strength instead of the worker is now the virtuoso that has its own soul in the form of the laws of mechanics operating in the machine.”

So the cooperation that was characteristic of the newly developing industry and the division of labour that went with it naturally led to the algorithmising of each separate operation, now based mainly on the laws of mechanics. Marx noted that science, in becoming a productive force structured according to the current social division of labour and turning the dead forces of nature into means of production, evolved the aims and method of a theoretical approach to any object of cognition.

The method was spatial representation of the interaction of bodies and substances and investigation of the constant, invariant forms of this interaction. Mechanics was therefore the first and most general form of theory. Time itself – the content of the process – was the fourth coordinate of space, the measure for dividing spatial interaction. Engels wrote that this method, which Bacon and Locke had borrowed from natural science and applied to philosophy, became the specific limitation of subsequent centuries, the so-called metaphysical, i.e., anti-dialectical method of thought, and the empirical sciences of the New Age do, in fact, develop as a compendium of knowledge about separate mechanical, separate physical, separate chemical, biological and other constant properties (regular features) of the most diverse integral processes of development.

Clearly the predominant medieval method of thinking had offered no scope for the development of the experimental sciences. And those who undertook to study nature had first of all to evolve a method of approach. So, from the very start the science of nature (particularly mechanics) was confronted with the need to study not only bodies and their interactions but also itself, its own method of investigating objects, and by criticising the logic of the Middle Ages that was of no use for its purposes, to create its own new method, new logic, a logic of deducing the general from the particular, experimental data.

This new method is full of surprises. It pushes the idea of an integrated scheme of knowledge of the world into the background. In fact, it ignores it. How could there be such a scheme? Where would it come from? Experimental science has a boundless field of as yet uninvestigated separate objects and their properties to research. The universal can obviously only emerge later by generalising all the conclusions from these separate researches. The main thing is to be able to make the primary generalisations from observations and experiment.

Experiment offers an infinity of interacting facts. The task is to find their point of contact in space among their countless “collisions”, those that are necessarily repeated. These constant interactions (connections) of bodies are bound to reveal their essence, their essential nature. And this is the law of their being, a law which determines the properties that may and should serve humanity. The “dead forces of nature” can only come to life in the machine, when the machine by its action reproduces the laws (stable repetitive connections) of nature. How do bodies interact? On what does their interaction depend? On the bodies themselves, of course. The scientist has nothing else in view, so it must depend on their structure. The body thus confronts the researcher as a definite structure in space. So the only way of describing, defining, revealing the principle of action of this structure is to investigate its parts and their interaction.

Why do animals breathe? Because they are built that way, replies the science of those days. Here are the “parts” of their organisms and their interaction explains breathing as a process of interaction of their bodies with an external body (air). Why does a man see? Study the structure of the eyes, comes the answer from the science of the Renaissance. Why does he think? Study the way his head is made, and so on. Every object of investigation, from boulder to brain, is thus treated like a piece of clockwork. The universe is a gigantic mechanism whose parts interact in infinite space in a certain way because they in their turn consist of parts interacting in a certain way because these too, consist of parts, and so on to – to what? Perhaps, to infinity? Perhaps this chain has no end? But, surely, there must be! The method of theorising itself pre-supposes the existence of primary initial elements out of which the infinite universe is built.

Now we can begin to see how our “riddle” is interpreted in these forms of theory. We shall naturally pay our first visit to the philosopher, who, in the words of Marx, was the progenitor of “English materialism and all modern experimental science...”, to Francis Bacon.

It is at once apparent to us that Bacon is interested in the same question as we are. How does man acquire knowledge? What Bacon wants is a method of thinking that establishes a correct combination of experiment and reason, the separation of which has led to general confusion in the family of men. He wants a method laying down certain laws that we can use to correct the mistakes of the senses and experience and to acquire correct notions of things. Bacon provides a detailed set of such rules in an attempt to equip scientific research with the ability to move on from experimental study of particular phenomena, particular things, to general reliable knowledge about it.

No less clearly than the ancients he saw the contradictions in knowledge understood as contemplation of the objective world: the “deceptive light” of the emotions cannot serve as a source of true knowledge of “forms” (according to Bacon, the objective inherent laws of being). The “great restoration of science” that he undertook was designed to solve the contradiction between knowledge of the particular fact and knowledge of the general, knowledge of law. Here we have the classical formulation of a problem that split empiricism and rationalism right down the middle over the principles of logic.

But the logical principles of inductive research that Bacon evolved rest on the unstated assumption: to see is to know. Whatever mistakes a person may make in assessing particulars, he knows or understands something even when perceiving things by the “false light of emotion”. But how? With the solid tradition of conceptualism behind him Bacon fully shared its epistemological credo. One sees what certain animals have in common and what distinguishes them from others. And this means that one has acquired some knowledge. The name given to the sensuous image embracing the similar allows us to discuss and think and have a sufficiently generalised picture before our eyes. So this is not the problem. The problem lies in the fact that people simply do not know how to use words. “Vicious and unskilful abstractions” are the main target of Bacon’s indignation. “The idols of the market”, the most troublesome of all the idols that obstruct knowledge, is his way of describing people’s inability to name things properly and to use names correctly. It is not difficult to see that, although the main urge behind the “restoration of science” is to find a method of proceeding from empirical knowledge to theoretical generalisations, the initial problem of primary knowledge, the relation between name and thing, while not stated explicitly, also worries the founder of English materialism.

“...Words are generally formed in a popular sense, and define things by those broad lines which are most obvious to the vulgar mind,” Bacon observes. The “vulgar mind” naturally does not follow the strict scientific rules of abstraction of which the philosopher dreams and which he strives to formulate. It relies on its own direct opinions, on what it sees and hears, on what it feels. “But by far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dullness, incompetence, and errors of the senses; since whatever strikes the senses preponderates over everything, however superior, which does not immediately strike them . . . The senses are weak and erring, nor can instruments be of great use in extending their sphere or acuteness.”

So, according to Bacon, the meaning of the words used by conscious beings depends on the various ways of generalising the outward attributes of things. Sense impressions in themselves are dull, deceptive and too weak for us to catch the true essence of things. The whole problem is how to “divide things”, that is, how to classify them into kinds and species, so that things are given the most appropriate names. Before Bacon’s time this had been done spontaneously, following the opinion of the “vulgar mind”. Bacon’s idea is to draw up clear tables of examples dealt with by reason and methodically compare what features are always present in certain things and what are absent, thus noting the different degrees to which a property manifests itself in them. This would ultimately yield strict scientific knowledge about this property in general, and its classification, as a form, law or necessity. Knowledge, he says, arises as a result of comparison, generalisation, elimination of the properties of things sensuously observed in experience. So the whole point is to produce a strict scientific system of generalisation and abstraction.

So far so good! But we still have our doubts. Can even the simplest knowledge of things emerge as the generalisation of their sensuously perceived properties. Having refused to accept the opinion of the “vulgar mind”, Bacon tries to arrive at true knowledge of heat, for instance, to find a “form”, a law of heat. In doing so he assumes that knowledge (opinion, notion, concept) is a simple combination of the sensation gained from contact with frequently repeated properties plus the word that designates it. But is this assumption correct? Another look at what Bacon has to say tells us that the meaning of even the simplest word cannot be reduced to the retention in the memory of common sensuously perceived properties. “Take some word, for instance, as moist, and let us examine how far the different significations of this word are consistent. It will be found that the word moist is nothing but a confused sign of different actions admitted of no settled and defined uniformity.” To Bacon it seems that “... it is quite clear that this notion is hastily abstracted from water only, and common ordinary liquors, without any due verification of it”.

The methods he proposes for more precise “abstraction” demand a clear knowledge of far more abstract concepts than that of moistness. And even if we assume that common concepts are simply sense perceptions and notions that have been given names for convenience of intercourse, the problem is still not where Bacon hopes to find it.

The common concept (sensation, image plus word) of, say, heat allows us to express the thought: this thing is warm. But how are we to know what law (“form”, “essence”, the term doesn’t much matter) always evokes one and the same (or differing in degree) sensation of warmth? I can analyse, compare, “eliminate”, generalise, and so on, all the possible cases of heat sensation only to the extent that I have a notion of “abstraction” “comparison”, “analysis”, “cause”, “phenomenon”, “essence”, and so on. One can scarcely define these concepts as sensuously perceived properties, sensations or images that have merely had words attached to them. They could only arise through exceptionally complex cognitive effort. So before he even begins to investigate what is given in the experience of the senses, the individual must have a massive arsenal of logical weaponry. And where can he get it?

Bacon complains that simple words such as “moisture” and “heat” are incorrectly abstracted from things and proposes the method of induction as a means of correcting the error. But where and how does he obtain the logical rules and methods of induction? Every step in inductive research rests on the granite foundation of already existing general concepts. Bacon himself sees as well as we do that the word moist is nothing but a confused sign of different actions admitted of no settled and defined uniformity.

Then how is it that people understand each other when they use this word? Even in the commonest word, or rather in its meaning there must be something that cannot he reduced to separate sensations or images, that is understood even when a person has no time or is unable in principle to remember his sense perceptions, something that reflects not so much the outward appearance of things and their separate properties as that which is hidden from the senses, a certain significance of the object or its properties. What is this Something that makes the words we use comprehensible, and that often refers to completely dissimilar things and cannot be reduced to sense impressions?

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes also sought a mathematically exact method of ensuring the authenticity of common ideas and relying on experience. Hobbes reasoned that since people have no difficulty in noticing the connection between things that follow one upon another, one phenomena could act as a mark to remind us of another. The sight of a cloud, for instance, warns us of the approach of rain, a cloud is the mark of rain. And such marks can be used not only for memory’s sake, but to inform other people. In this case Hobbes thinks that it is better to call such marks “signs”. A mark is the information that people receive about the objects themselves, whereas a sign is a special mark, used for the exchange of information. A sign is the mark of marks (the signal of signals). If you simply say “rain”, that is simply a mark-name that people give to an atmospheric phenomenon. But if you use a number of names in a definite order: “we had some rain last night”, you are using names as signs because you are conveying a certain message and not simply naming a phenomenon. And here we come to Hobbes’s categorical definition: “Words so connected as that they become signs of our thoughts, are called SPEECH, of which every part is a name.” [Leviathan]

Now we must examine Hobbes’s basic idea. The sounds made by human beings are the marks of their thoughts, notions, and sensations. We use them to remind ourselves and tell others what we perceive, experience and think. But since “the causes of names are the same as the causes of our ideas”, the real properties of things, we relate the names to the things themselves. This is where we see the actual logic used in conceptualism, a logic that, on the one hand, has been convincing enough to satisfy all the demands of common sense for centuries and, on the other, a logic whose initial proposition comes into insoluble contradiction with the further course of the argument.

When a person directly perceives something, an object or phenomenon, he has no need of signs. The object speaks for itself and is clear enough for the individual contemplating it. The whole point is not to forget one’s impressions, to keep them in the memory. This is why Hobbes himself gave marks to his impressions and thoughts about them. So that all his knowledge should not die when he died, these marks were communicated to other people, thus becoming signs and, when correlated to the specific impression of the specific object, names.

But is that the whole argument? Surely every word registers not so much the external repetitive sensuously perceptible properties as the general meaning of phenomena. But how? Why can the essence of sensuously perceived phenomena be described only by names indicating not separate, “clearly perceived” things, but whole groups of primary names (kinds, species)? After all, according to the logic of conceptualism the impression of separate sensuously perceived cows should constitute a piece of knowledge to which the name “cow” adds nothing. When he gets to know about an individual cow a man knows that it feeds its young on milk. What new knowledge is contained in this statement: “The cow is a mammal”? “Mammal” is simply another name indicating something we know already (and nothing more!).

This is just what Hobbes says: the sentence “man is a living being” is true only because somebody at some time had the idea of giving these two names to one and the same thing. Their connection in a statement by means of the copula “is” adds nothing to our knowledge of man. But if this is so why do we try to define (by comparison with related types or species, for example) our terms and concepts? Why is science not satisfied with something that appears to be obvious? Why does it try to get to the bottom of things, to understand something that is not to be seen at first glance? Again we are up against the same “fateful” questions.

And now we come to the most difficult question for conceptualism: what real thing is signified by the names “essence”, “cause”, “necessity”, and so on? We use these names to build scientific knowledge. Hobbes himself uses them to find a mathematically exact method of cognition. But they do not signify, and by their very nature cannot signify, any sense impressions or objects. Then what do they signify? “... The first beginning, therefore, of knowledge, are the phantasms of sense and imagination... writes Hobbes; man gives them names. And is that all there is to it? In all history up to the time of Hobbes, was philosophy just fighting the windmills in trying to find out how man discovers the hidden essence of things and what that essence is?

No, it was not such a useless process as that. In Hobbes’s own philosophy “phantasms” of sense and imagination are ultimately not those things that are “more known to nature”. “... By those things that are more known to us we are to understand things we take notice of by our senses, and by more known to nature, those we acquire the knowledge of by reason”. But how do we acquire the knowledge of them? That is the question. And the nominal theory does not answer it. The objects “more known to nature” and cognised by reason, that is, the essences, the causes of things, the necessity of their being, are from the point of view of nominal theory only signs indicating our thought about specific objects. That is why, according to Hobbes, both space and time cannot be things themselves. Although our spatial notions arise as a result of the action of things, space, like nearly all the other accidents (that is, the forms in which we conceive of the body) exists as such only in the consciousness. Here, for example, is what Hobbes writes about people’s notion of time: “... they must needs confess it to be, not in the things without us, but only in the thought of the mind.”

As the reader has probably noticed, the things “more known to nature”, those we acquire knowledge of by reason, are in fact our “Something”. Hobbes was unable to answer the question of how “things more known to nature” become known to the mind. It is this question that occupies the attention of Descartes. But he too regards cognition primarily as contemplation. In his view what we have to do is to work out a method by which the human mind can reach a reliable judgement about the “objects we encounter”. But neither the senses themselves nor the generalisation of repeated sensations of the properties of things can be fully trusted. Even the sensation of one’s own body is at times deceptive. It is no accident that people who have lost a leg tell us that they sometimes feel a pain in the toe of the missing leg. On the contrary, this something that seems to be so comprehensible at the mere mention of its name cannot be merely the sensuous, external image of an object, its individual, accidental property. This cognisable Something is the clear, necessary essence that is not veiled by the “deceptive light of the feelings”.

It would appear that to discover how the reason can grasp the essence of things one must question all the forms and means of cognition, everything that man considers sufficient for acquiring knowledge until in the end one comes to the something that cannot be judged, that must by its very nature be trusted. The conclusion reached by Descartes needs no detailed commentary: I may doubt everything, even the fact that I actually have a body, that I feel, but I cannot doubt that I doubt, therefore I think, and since I think, I must exist. Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Does this knowledge require any proof? It is given to me with the fact of my existence. It is clear, definite knowledge, something I know intuitively. I come into the world with it, as it were, and together with me come this knowledge and all similar innate ideas. Yes, in my soul there is Something that is revealed to me not through the contemplation of things, something that is true not just because I see it. To illustrate this, here is yet another quotation. [See Discourse on Method]

“... Let us take, for example, this piece of wax: it has been taken quite freshly from the hive, and it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey which it contains; it still retains somewhat of the odour of the flowers from which it has been culled; its colour, its figure, its size are apparent; it is hard, cold, easily handled, and if you strike it with the finger, it will emit a sound. Finally, all the things which are requisite to cause us distinctly to recognise a body, are met within it. But notice that while I speak and approach the fire what remained of the taste is exhaled, the smell evaporates, the colour alters, the figure is destroyed, the size increases, it becomes liquid, it heats, scarcely can one handle it, and when one strikes it, no sound is emitted. Does the same wax remain after this change? We must confess that it remains; none would judge otherwise. What then did I know so distinctly in this piece of wax? (that is, what tells us that this changed wax is still wax? F.M.). It could certainly be nothing of all that the senses brought to my notice, since all these things which fall under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing, are found to be changed and yet the same wax remains ...” And directly after this comes the conclusion. “... But what must particularly be observed is that its perception in neither an act of vision, nor of touch, nor of imagination, and has sever been such although it may have appeared formerly to be so, but only an intuition of the mind...”

Here is our Something once again. Everything that can be sensuously perceived in the wax has changed, but the Something remains the wax is still wax. It is clear to Descartes that in the process of contemplation it is impossible to abstract this simple but essentially necessary property from the sensuously given thing.

This is known to us because certain ideas by means of which our reason understands the essence of things are born along with reason itself, by the will of the benevolent creator who made us.

Descartes maintains that the soul (intellect, mind, consciousness) has the ability to perceive the everlasting essence through the changeable appearance of things thanks to certain general ideas that are given to us by God. The individual’s consciousness is endowed with a “natural light”, that is independent of the individual himself or his experience – a property or ability that in those days would have been hard to explain without resorting to the help of God.

But here we come to the heart of the matter. I am, of course, tracing the development of Descartes’s thought, but this is no substitute for the original. And if you read Descartes not merely for the sake of classifying his knowledge, if you can get away from specific comparisons of what Descartes knew about physiology and what we know about it today, you will see how much deeper than many of our contemporaries the great philosopher felt and understood how to state the problem of the soul, its abilities and passions.

The greatness of Descartes lies in the fact that, although obliged to use the method of theorising described above (and Descartes was one of its founders), he did not allow himself to be lulled by the optimism that this method evoked. No, he says, within the framework of the mechanistic interpretation of the world as an infinite assembly of interacting structures the problem of consciousness is insoluble.

Judge for yourself. The first and main definitive property of the body, so Descartes assumes, is extension. Everything we can say about corporeal substance is expressed in terms of space, or “physical” time. But none of these concepts are any help at all when we come to defining the state and “passion” of the soul. It is impossible to compare the movement of a body covering a certain extent or distance, with the extra-spatial movement of thought. This is not a question of speaking or writing in signs expressing thought. In that case the only problem would be the distance covered by the tongue in the mouth or the pen on paper. These movements are corporeal and my thought can become known to other people with their help. But try to indicate the distance that thought covers when originating in my consciousness. Admittedly, such attempts are being made to this day. What people discuss nowadays is not the amplitude of the motions of the tongue in the mouth or the course of the pen on paper, but the motion of nerve impulses along the neuron “chains”. Descartes would probably have said that there is no fundamental difference between all these measurements of the movement of corporeal intermediaries, that the whole problem consists in the fact that thought is only a spiritual phenomenon and only deserves the name of “thought” when it is about something, when we are concerned with its content. This is what is meant by the Cartesian proposition that the movement of the soul cannot be conveyed by means of concepts that are necessarily used to define the movement of corporeal substances. And, vice versa, everything that we can say about the “passions of the soul” is inapplicable to extensive substance.

The problem was what essentially determines the difference between space and thought and it took the philosophical wisdom and methodological insight of Descartes to find another solution to the problem, a solution that did not involve the invention of a “spiritual fluid”, some kind of “Philogen” or “spiritogen” (by analogy with “calorigen”) that was “responsible” for thought. Although there would seem to be nothing simpler than to find a corresponding corporeal structure for the properties of human thought (soul) because every property is determined by a corporeal structure.

Descartes was convinced (and I am almost quoting him) that to understand the life of any organism, including that of man, there was no need to know any other laws except the laws of mechanics. In his assiduous study of the corporeal mechanisms of life, he regarded even the most complex behavioural acts of animals and human beings as reflexes, as combined reactions of a complex body to external influences. Even tears and the expressions of pain, satisfied grunting and human laughter are nothing more than the reflex action of the mechanism of the living body. But for Descartes a “thought body” would be a hot ice-cream. He could see that the incompatibility of the two substances – extensive (corporeal) and spiritual (thought) – lay in the fact that no structure of the body could in itself account for what we call thought. Descartes – one of the creators of the mechanical picture of the world – was enough of a philosopher to exclude thinking from the mechanics of bodily interaction. Nevertheless, even three hundred years after his death some natural scientists and some philosophers who follow them in every respect are engaged in the detailed description of a specific body whose physical structure, so they imagine, engenders all mental functions as such.

In his mechanical picture of the world Descartes could find no place for thought. And since the prevailing method of theorising could not even presuppose any other picture, he was compelled to regard thinking as the action of a special spiritual substance differing from the extensional. In this way Descartes posed the famous “mind-body problem”, the problem of the causal connection between the soul (psyche, consciousness) and the body (primarily the brain). Only in the logic of mechanicism is it formulated as a problem.

Descartes expressed the contradiction between the “spirit” and “body” as something truly dialectical. The high tension between its two poles had to be relaxed. Attempts to reduce one pole to the other could serve only as an apparent relaxation. This is the subtlety of Descartes’s position. While staying within the framework of mechanicism, he is nevertheless clearly aware of its narrowness. This is the only way we can understand the ambivalence of his position. He seeks a causal dependence between thought and corporeal substances and at the same time clearly demonstrates the futility of any such search. So this “ambivalence” is nothing more than an expression of the internal contradictions of mechanicism. Descartes is therefore a dualist. And this dualism (or it may also he called “mind-body parallelism”) at least clearly portrays both “poles” of the problem. But if this is so there must be some mediation between the poles, there must be a go-between, some third party in which both opposites are joined. For Descartes the go-between is God, with whose help one is ultimately able to ensure the interaction of the two substances.

But was there any other way? Yes, there was. Spinoza found another mediator, although, as tradition demanded, he called it God. But this god turned out to be so “unreligious” that its inventor was anathematised by the church and black-listed forever as an atheist.

Spinoza found his god “intuitively”, that is, by a method not envisaged in any of the rules of formal logic. He found it because he clearly saw the impossibility of reducing “thought” to “body” or “body” to “thought”. Spinoza’s answer was truly dialectical. The third element, he said, was the integral, general foundation of the two opposites. This was the one universal substance, God, Nature. And the interesting thing is that Spinoza virtually eliminated the Cartesian mind-body problem by arguing that the spatial motion of certain “modes” of this substance – reproduced the properties of other “modes”, and always reproduced them on the basis of the general universal principles of the integral Nature – God, which turns spatial motion into the mediated relationship of nature to itself, into its self-reflection, into thought. This argument does not, of course, solve the difficult mind-body problem, but Spinoza is not really concerned with it. Why should he try to solve it if it is a problem only when theoretical thought becomes hopelessly lost amidst countless numbers of separate facts and is unable to rely on its own general forms! The problem of the responsibility (as a modern author would have put it) of the corporeal structures for producing incorporeal ideas becomes a problem only when the thought of the natural scientist is focussed on ready-made, completely formed things in their direct, present existence. Only then can the question arise: “How can spiritual, ideal thought emerge directly from the spatial interaction of soulless material bodies?”

The method of natural scientific theorising about things is in itself designed to build the whole (general picture of the world) from the separate parts (particular knowledge of the properties of separate things). Spinoza goes beyond this method because it is his philosophical aim to understand the place and role of every part, “mode”, in the general plan of the whole, to understand the part as a separate manifestation of universal, integral Nature. The whole, in Spinoza’s philosophy, is more than the sum of its parts, because it is present wholly in each one of its parts and creates the parts that are lacking. Therefore, extensional, corporeal substance which reflects on itself as a whole in each of its “modes” – particularly in man – correlates any spatial change with its universal essence and sees itself as its own reflected, mediated definition.

The spatial corporeality of substance thus not only does not exclude thought, but on the contrary is its essential condition. The movement of the hand that describes a circle does not require that there should be something in the hand itself, in the body in general, or in the brain as such, that would take the form of a circle as a “codified” image of an external circular object. The image of the circular object is created by the movement of the hand according to the logic of the object itself. The hand’s spatial movement builds its form, coordinating itself with the form and reproducing its objectivity. A “mode” of substance – in this case, a human body – must be built so that its motion can reproduce the external, objective properties of other “modes”. In his spatial actions a human being is capable of reproducing any properties of any “modes”. In this he is helped by the tools that he creates. But his thought is nothing else than reproduction correlated with the unified essence of all substance in the modes of his corporeal activity, of properties of the substances of nature that are external to him, i.e., objective.

Spinoza’s discovery was not, alas, appreciated as it deserved to be either at the time or later. Developing scientific knowledge did not find it satisfactory. Science was faced with the task of understanding how the individual facts observed in experience become a general concept that illuminates our life with the light of reason.

After Descartes the great English materialist John Locke has to begin all over again. Locke’s classical work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding starts with a clear statement of “our” problem: how do ideas (concepts) come into the mind. And the point here is that they come and are not already present there from birth, Locke is firmly convinced on that score. He methodically examines all the arguments in defence of innate ideas and rejects thein one by one as unfounded. All knowledge lies in experience and comes only through experience; there is nothing in the reason that has not been in the sensations, in the direct experience of the individual. Individual consciousness (and can there be any other?) is filled with knowledge in the course of personal, individual experience by means of the “contact” of our sense organs with the objects of the external world.

Locke gives a classical description of the pyramid that we already know so well. But from its summit one still cannot see the Something that exists in every name, in every idea, in every term. The Cartesian experiment with wax cannot be ignored because the logic of rationalism contains a “grain of reason”. The contradictions in the philosophy of Locke’s predecessors – Bacon and Hobbes – also demand a solution. And Locke explains the ability of the mind to understand the general, necessary, essential properties of things that cannot be perceived by the sense organs in the following way: the mind, which receives all information about things from the sense organs, has the inner ability to evaluate its sensations, to register and classify them. The relation of the mind to this ability is, in fact, reflection, which enables us to acquire ideas that we have not gained from experience. The thing that made Hobbes regard accidents not as the properties of substance but as the properties of our mind, makes Locke deduce ideas that by virtue of their universality and necessity organise and guide the experience of the individual, directly from the mind’s cognition of its own abilities.

A son of the 1688 class compromise in politics, Locke as a philosopher allowed himself to arrive at a compromise with rationalism under the influence of the logic of scientific research. With the inexorability of an internal law this logic forces the scientist to pass some judgement on the fact that the activity of the individual consciousness is guided, organised by ideas that cannot be explained by analysis of his personal sensuous experience. For anyone who regards consciousness as a natural gift to the individual it is impossible to explain the extra-sensuous and relative independence from experience of a number of “abilities of the mind” otherwise than as the “discovery” of innate, immanent, a priori properties in the mind itself.

The fact that Locke’s concept of reflection is an attempt to explain the presence of the ideas in the mind not acquired directly through the individual’s sense experience was duly appreciated by all his critics, and particularly his main opponent – Leibnitz. Defending the Cartesian thesis on the existence of innate ideas in our consciousness and asserting that the human consciousness cannot be a tabula rasa from birth, Leibnitz writes that Locke’s reflection “is nothing but attention to what is given in us and it is certainly not the senses that give us what we bring ourselves.” If this is so, it can scarcely be denied that there is much that is innate in our minds because we are, so to speak, innate in ourselves, or that in us there are existence, unity, substance, duration, change, activity, perception, pleasure and other objects of our intellectual ideas. “So,” Leibnitz continues, “I am inclined to think that essentially the view of our author (Locke – F.M.) on this question, does not differ from my own views or rather from the general views since he acknowledges two sources of our knowledge – senses and reflection.”

The great sensualist materialist did not arrive at the idea of reflection by chance. The literature on Locke often suggests that he was inconsistent. Although a materialist in his understanding of the origin of knowledge from sensation, Locke spoke of the observation of the self-activity of our soul – and this is, in fact, reflection – which thus acquires ideas that are not given in the sensation. But how can one be consistent when standing “on the granite foundation” of the conceptualist pyramid? Perhaps, having once allowed himself to be beguiled by the arguments of “common sense”, Locke should simply have taken refuge behind the pyramid and not seen all the difficulties that beset Bacon and Hobbes? Perhaps he should not have felt that there was something in Cartesian logic and should simply have claimed that there is nothing in the reason that was not previously in the sensations? If this is how Locke’s consistency should have demonstrated itself, then one must not forget the “consistency” of Berkeley, who “proceeded” from Locke and rejected his reflection, arguing that if it relied only on reflection the intellect would indeed have no other knowledge except knowledge of our own sensations. This “iron logic” of contemplative materialism should be recalled by those who even today share Locke’s sensualist and conceptualist principles, even if they do reject the inconsistently introduced reflection as a concession to idealism. (Here, of course, it would be more exact to say rationalism, but for those who consider that materialism is conceptualism, any deviation from the latter is a turn towards idealism). The reader must forgive me for the paradox but how much more consistent is Locke’s inconsistency than the usual idea that “seeing is knowing”!

What I have been saying up to now is an introduction to the idea that the contradiction in Locke’s Essay is the basic internal contradiction in the pre-Marxist theory of knowledge, and thus the inconsistency of Locke’s epistemological doctrine as an individual philosophy turns out to be the consistency of the objective development of philosophy as a science.

Not only philosophy, but natural science itself constantly revealed the limitations of empirical notions at every stage of its development. Mechanics clearly demonstrated that its general principles (laws) are not generated by the method of generalisation from the particulars of objects studied through experiment. On the contrary, if theory blindly followed what was observed in experience we should arrive at a contradiction. For example, why and in what case do bodies move steadily and in a straight line. If we judge on the basis of experience, it is because and when an external force is applied to them: horse and cart, man and wheelbarrow, and so on. In all other cases the body moves either with acceleration (downhill) under the influence of gravity, or (in the two other cases, on the level or uphill) slowing down its movement. But Galileo drew a conclusion directly opposite to that which is required by empirical generalisation: a body moves straight and steadily only when no external force is applied to it.

One only had to interpret certain experimental data by applying certain principles not deduced from these data, one had only to rely on the abstract-logical thinking with universal forms of thought and the conclusion became a law explaining experimental data. But how? In contrast to what was sensuously perceived.

Today such theoretical conclusions seem quite obvious, almost directly observed facts. But we have only to recall the desperate resistance put up against them by “ordinary common sense”, based on thousands of years of the experience of perception, to understand the revolutionising role that the general forms of our thought played for theory, and this is not to mention the notions of modern physics constructed by the imagination on the basis of the semantic, physical interpretation of purely mathematical operations.

As Kant wrote in his time (the example, incidentally, is taken from him), “... natural philosophers ... learned that reason only perceives that which it produces after its own design; that it must not be content to follow, as it were, in the leading strings of nature, but must proceed in advance with principles of judgement (general forms of thought – F. M.) according to unvarying laws, and compel nature to reply to its question.... Reason must approach nature with the view, indeed, of receiving information from it, not, however, in the character of a pupil, who listens to all that his master chooses to tell him, but in that of judge, who compels the witnesses to reply to those questions which he himself thinks fit to propose...” [Critique of Pure Reason] Admittedly Kant credits natural philosophers with a methodological insight that, as a rule, they do not possess. The natural philosophers of the time had not as yet quite “understood” how reason should deal with nature. But Kant did note the fact that this question had objectively become highly important for natural philosophy and was able to refer to the “thorough thought” in the experiments of Galileo and Torricelli.

Consequently the development of natural science also demanded an answer to the question of the origin and essence of the general forms of thought, which plays such an essential role in the cognition of nature.

Contents | 3. When Is Kant Right?