Feliks Mikhailov 1976
The Riddle of the Self

1. Bertrand Russell’s Mistake

Many centuries have passed since Plato’s attempt to discover what knowledge is. Humanity has learned much since those days. But there is still food for thought in what Bertrand Russell said about its still being unclear, after all the amendments made to Plato’s philosophy in the past two thousand years, how we understand each other and ourselves by using names referring to whole classes when in the real world there exist only individual things. And since the nature, the essence of the concept ultimately determine the nature and essence of consciousness as a whole, the question of the human consciousness in Russell’s opinion still remains an open one. One is tempted to ask whether the approach to its solution has changed at all in philosophy that does not share the Marxist point of view. For the moment we shall note only the obvious points. It is generally admitted for instance, that to make any philosophical analysis of the process of the acquisition of knowledge one has to investigate social phenomena.

Present-day philosophers looking for a solution to the riddle of the Self simply cannot avoid considering social relations, the independent life of social institutions and, above all, the specific laws of linguistic communication, which do not depend on the individual. The work of the philosophical school that Bertrand Russell himself helped to found has something to tell us in this respect.

Many philosophers of the past devoted a lot of attention to the study of language. But when considering its role in the formation of consciousness they quite often abstracted themselves from the fact that language is a social phenomenon. “Language as a means of expressing thought”, “language as the invention of men of distinguished intellect who desired that their thoughts should not disappear along with them”, “language as the result of a contract between individuals to call things that they understood without language by certain names in communicating with each other” such, in general outline are the old notions of the origin, essence and function of language. The individual is central. He invents the language and with its help conveys his thoughts.

And nearly always in the works of the old philosophers language led a strange double life. On the one hand, it is a means of communication and, as such, a social phenomenon. But the thoughts conveyed by means of language, the feelings we express in words, and so on, are profoundly individual, personal mental states and processes. The “sociality” of language is reduced in practice only to the collective use of its external envelope. Acoustic vibrations become the birthright of the whole of society, but the semantic side of language, that which makes it possible for us to understand speech, remains purely personal and peculiar to the individual as such.

Modern Western philosophers would appear to give a totally different assessment of the nature and essence of language. The neo-positivists, for example, are led by the logic of science to believe that the social character of language is a fact requiring no proof.

We shall try to sketch out how this happened. The social division of labour, particularly in its present stage, makes it obvious that scientific theory plays a part in social production and no less clearly indicates the degree to which social production participates in the advance of scientific knowledge. Science itself is converted into one of society’s productive forces, and this demonstrates the social character of the process of cognition in the clearest possible way.

Moreover, knowledge serves automated production primarily as a formalised, deductive system amenable to mathematical treatment. No wonder that the advance of scientific theory today involves the active elaboration of methods of quantitative analysis. The mathematics that always impressed the philosophers by the strict necessity and universality of its judgements, by the fact that the perfectly proportioned edifice of its conclusions rests not on separate experimental observations, not on the sense impressions of the individual, but on intuitively clear premises is becoming and in many cases has already become an indispensable tool of theoretical cognition in the most diverse branches of science.

All this suggested the feasibility of studying epistemological functions regardless of individual experience of the content of mathematical knowledge, a subject that had caused much debate among the earlier philosophers. The mathematisation of physics of which Lenin wrote in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism as a fact of truly revolutionary significance in the history of that science simply would not fit into the accepted framework of the old empirical theory of knowledge. The question was urgent, for individual experience, beyond which the theoreticians of “physical cognition” had no intention of venturing, could not remain purely a subject for philosophy.

The new physics of the microcosm was being born inside-out, so to speak, before the very eyes of the astounded scientists. Almost entirely on the basis of pure mathematics one had, first, to draw conclusions about the behaviour of physical reality with which not a single experimenter had ever had any dealings and, second, one had to put forward ideas that could not be made to correspond with classical mechanics. The position became all the more desperate because of the dilemma: either one must give a vote of no-confidence to the most exact of the sciences – mathematics, or one had to admit that the path of knowledge did not consist of two stages (a) the sensuously direct experience of the individual subject and (b) the rational explanation of it (which would have social significance going beyond the individual).

The natural scientist’s usual notion of the process of cognition was threatened by the mathematisation of physics. Doubts about the reliability of all that had been learned from the hard world of experimenters in the course of centuries, doubts as to the truth of classical physics brought some physicists to the point of scepticism, agnosticism and subjective idealism not because the new discoveries contradicted the picture of the world drawn by Galileo and Newton. At the end of the 19th century there were plenty of contradictory notions in the air and a healthy scepticism concerning the immutability of the pillars of science had always been characteristic of the true scientist. But this was a much more serious matter. Behind the obvious incompatibility between the emerging physical hypotheses and the classical notions lay the crisis of the empirical conception of knowledge.

What had seemed to be the one and only possible notion of the process of cognition had been shaken.

And it was not merely because mathematics “had got slightly ahead of experiment”. The unexpected disturber of the natural scientists’ dogmatic philosophical slumber was something quite different. Mathematics refuted conclusions that had been reached as it then seemed, by purely empirical means. Now it was rational, a priori science against empiricism!

Here we must recall Lobachevsky’s geometry. The interesting point is this. The Euclidean postulate on parallel straight lines is simple, clear and exactly corresponds to our experience. And all Euclidean geometry is similarly clear and apparently self-evident. But the great Russian mathematician Lobachevsky “quite wittingly” and seemingly in the teeth of experience gave us a different postulate: not one (as in Euclid) but at least two (or even more!) lines parallel to the given line may be drawn through a point not lying on the given line and in the same plane. And on the basis of this postulate he built the splendid mathematically exact edifice of the new geometry. The new postulate on parallel lines sounded like a mockery of common sense, like an obvious absurdity. Perhaps all Lobachevsky’s geometry was simply an amusing toy, rather like one of those specially invented languages that could not be used in real life? It certainly should have been from the standpoint of the purely empirical theory of knowledge. And many of Lobachevsky’s contemporaries did, as we know, take just this view of his geometry.

But the years went by and, all of a sudden, it turned out that the properties of space described by Lobachevsky exist in reality, and that his geometry provides a true picture of reality. Today the new geometry faithfully serves practice, and movement that is close to the speed of light is calculated on its basis.

But let us return to physics. Here, too, fundamental conclusions of a most revolutionary kind, which overturned the usual notions of the universe, were born in “purely” mathematical researches and the mathematical formulas were arrived at not through generalisation of the data of experience. Formulas instead of directly observed matter! That was enough to reduce common sense to despair.[1] Who could really tell whether there was any objective content behind the formulae? Equations have to be interpreted in a certain way, the scientists’ notions of physical reality were shaped accordingly, but (from the standpoint of empiricism) these notions were supposed to emerge only on the basis of perception. How could notions generated on the basis of the “conjectures of mathematics” reflect the real world? They depended not on the sensuously observed fact, but on thought, on the general rational propositions of the mind, that is, on the subject.

The spontaneous materialist was brought up short by this unexpected turn in the road of knowledge. He may even have been rather frightened at the prospect of further studies taking the new and strange line of mathematical prognostication, interpretation by physics, and only after that, experiment.

So a problem that philosophers had been wrestling with for centuries was brought to a head by the development of natural science. Natural science now had to face up to the question of the role of experience in cognition, the limited nature of experience, and its subordination to the general, necessary and essential. The usual notion of cognition was crumbling but its ruins only covered the base of the pyramid. For the pyramid itself to be demolished there had to be a fundamental rethinking of man’s place in the world.

There was no lack of “revolutionaries” claiming the laurels of Copernicus, who had shown that man was by no means the centre of the Universe. But to paraphrase a witty remark of Russell’s about Kant, all such “Copernican revolutions’ turned out to be typical “Ptolemaic counter-revolutions”. The focus of the initial premises and methodological principles was still natural, eternal “man in general”. He could be called an animal, a plaything of elemental forces of fear, or anything. But in all such theories it was man, “as nature made him”, understood anthropologically, who remained unchanged, given once and for all, identical with himself. To understand man as a world of developing culture would mean breaking out of the framework of the usual empirical attitude to man as one of many other objects of study. It would mean understanding man as a subject, a maker of history. And for this there would have to be a different logic, a different historico-political orientation.

This was why the foundation of the Babylonian tower of empirical cognition held out so long, even after the collapse of some of the illusions of the epistemological Robinsonade.

Philosophical thinking was in a difficult spot. On the one hand, the philosophers’ ideological and methodological orientation that rejected the very possibility of serious comprehension of the role of man’s objective practical activity in history kept the Robinsonian theory intact, while on the other, the very logic of the development of science brought them face to face with the problem of the social nature of cognition.

Mathematics had played a crucial role in smashing the illusions of empiricism, which had for centuries dominated natural science – the branch of learning that had most clearly demonstrated its general necessary character. So it was natural that mathematics now attracted the philosophers who wanted to find out what had happened to cognition and how man did in fact reach the peaks of universal knowledge. One of the first to master the new field of knowledge in the 20th century was Bertrand Russell, who produced the critical study of the logic of mathematics of which it was now deeply in need. And as the specific logical problems confronting this science were solved, a clear idea emerged. Mathematics and, even more so, logic are founded on certain laws of thinking in general, laws of the universal “language of science”, which enable us to draw conclusions essential to the given logical structure.

The researches by Russell and other logicians and philosophers showed the independent nature of logical and also linguistic constructions and incisively posed the question of the domination of social language over the experience of the individual. It became a truism that in human knowledge there is something that is of primary importance for its whole system and that belongs, so to speak, to society as a whole. This impersonal, social foundation of knowledge is above all the, logic of thought, enshrined in the rules of language. The language of scientific research (as a set of terms, each of which acquires a definite meaning given certain rules, principles, laws regulating their interrelationship) constitutes a system that is above the individual and therefore, so it seemed to the empiricists, above experience. It was impossible to get away from this fact and hide in the shade of our pyramid. Today it seems incontrovertible that the forms of thought, that wore once a stumbling block to the classical empiricists, the forms giving a definite direction to experience itself, do nevertheless exist. They exist is supra-individual forms, independent of any individual experience. In language their existence is quite obvious.

For more than half a century philosophers and logicians have been studying the objective structural laws of the language of science and the language of the people. Ignoring for a moment the positive results of their researches, let us note merely that for more than half a century they have been confronted with this “accursed” question: why does every word generalise, why is it comprehensible? If only one could answer this question one would have the answer to the riddle of the Self.

It is interesting that in their attempts to answer it Western philosophers come very close to seeing social production as the source of linguistic communication, but then they stumble over the fact of individual action and fail to grasp the essential problem. One of the founders of pragmatism Charles Peirce believed that the meanings of words are the habits and. consequences of action, preserved by words. The operationalist Percy Bridgman was convinced that the meaning of a word was determined by the sum total of operations needed to obtain a certain result. Every word, he maintained, represents a set of operations with an object and its meaning is to be sought not in speech but in action. Modern neo-positivism holds that the meanings of words stem from logical or linguistic operations. And in all cases the meaning of a word is seen no longer as the relatedness of some chance name to this or that object, but as a result of an active historical process of relating the habits and methods of an action to its result. The trouble is that action is still treated as the activity of the individual or a group of individuals in the framework of the sensuous experience that the old empiricism knew so well. So the contradiction between the social and the individual, the personal and the impersonal reaches its highest culmination.

This contradiction appears most clearly in the work of Russell himself. One of his books (Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits) begins with a chapter that is actually called “Individual and Social Knowledge”. it contains the methodological key to the whole book, the philosopher’s whole conception. An analysis of Russell’s views will once more compel is to ,try the road of classical philosophy in its studies of the “impersonal,” social language and attempts “without Marx” and “against Marx” to solve the problems of human knowledge and consciousness.

Russell’s brief chapter on individual and social knowledge is highly characteristic and revealing. It begins by stating a very important fact: “Scientific knowledge, aims at being wholly impersonal and tries to state what has been discovered by the collective intellect of mankind.” As we have already noted, it is now quite impossible not to take cognisance of the social, “impersonal” character of scientific knowledge. Russell, of all people, knew perfectly well that “... Language, our sole means of communicating scientific knowledge, is essentially social in its origin and in its main functions... And further: “... The chief purpose of language is communication, and to serve this purpose it must be public, not a private dialect invented by the speaker. ...”

But here one runs into the basic contradiction of cognition and consciousness. Only knowledge of a personal nature can be true because there is no such thing as consciousness in general; consciousness in general is Platonism or Hegelianism. No one has any doubts on that score. But actually we are not on the edge of a precipice at all. Today it is not enough to formulate an antinomy, one must be able to find the third term, that in which the impersonal is personal and the personal is.... But we are perhaps running too far ahead. We shall return to this point later on. For the moment let us follow Russell.

Impersonal knowledge expressed in the dry protocol terms of science exists only in the head of the feeling and thinking individual. And he believes it or disbelieves it, considers it to be knowledge or nonsense, depending on his individual and, in the final analysis, sensuous experience. A person lives, feels, sees, hears, experiences the world around him. What else can lay claim to truth, to knowledge of the consciousness, but this “inner world”? What is collective knowledge in comparison with that of the individual? The community knows both more and less than the individual: it knows, in its collective capacity, all the contents of the Encyclopaedia and all the contributions to the Proceedings of learned bodies, but it does not know the warm and intimate things that make up the colour and texture of an individual life.” Need it be said that collective knowledge only acquires meaning thanks to the colour of individual life. Russell writes cogently and clearly on the contradiction between man’s intimate world and its expression by linguistic means: “...This is easily proved by considering the process of learning to understand language. There are two ways of getting to know what a word means: one is by a definition in terms of other words, which is called verbal definition, the other is by frequently hearing the word when the object which it denotes is present, which is called ostensive definition. It is obvious that ostensive definition is alone possible in the beginning, since verbal definition presupposes a knowledge of the words used in the definitions. Yet, can learn by a verbal definition that a pentagon is a plane figure with five sides, but a child does not learn in this way the meaning of everyday words such as ‘train’, ‘sun’, ‘dinner’, or ‘bed’. These are taught by using the appropriate word emphatically while the child is noticing the object concerned. Consequently the meaning that the child comes to attach to the word is a product of his personal experience, and varies according to his circumstances and his sensorium. A child who frequently experiences a mild drizzle will attach a different idea to the word ‘rain’ from that formed by a child who has only experienced tropical torrents. A short-sighted and long-sighted child will connect different images with the word ‘bed’. ...”It is true,” the author notes with sad irony, “that education tries to depersonalise language, and with a certain measure of success.” As a result, you “... become completely a public character, and even your inmost thoughts are suitable for the encyclopaedia. But you can no longer hope to be a poet, and if you try to be a lover you will find your depersonalised language not very successful in generating the desired emotions.”

To become a completely public character is, alas, a rather sad fate. But Russell’s main idea, I think, is that even the most abstract knowledge is impossible without purely personal verification (testing by experience) of the meanings of impersonal words and scientific definitions. Try though it may, knowledge cannot get away from the subjectivity of our perceptions of the world. And individual sensuous perception is always there at the bottom of it. “Individual percepts art” the basis of all our knowledge, and no method exists by which we can begin with data which are public to many observers.” So ends the book’s first chapter.

And so there begins, for the nth time, the Odyssey of reason trying to infer from, or at least associate with, individual, accidental, sensuous perceptions the necessity, universality and authenticity of scientific knowledge. Naturally the well-worn path of scepticism taken by so many philosophers from this point of departure is the one that Russell follows in his quest. He writes: “But there is one thing that is obvious from the start: only in so far as the initial perceptual datum is trustworthy can there be any reason for accepting the vast cosmic edifice of inference which is based upon it ...”

Russell’s whole book seeks to show that there is no very good reason for trusting our perceptions. So the inevitable conclusion for him is doubt and scepticism, which, elegant though it may be, still remains scepticism. Not creative doubt, the enemy of all dogmatism, or the healthy scepticism of the tireless seeker after truth. Scepticism here is the summing up, the conclusion, the position. It can be proclaimed as a merit of the wise contemplative standing “above the struggle”, but it is hard to recommend it as a point of departure for the methodology of science, particularly in the age of a rapidly advancing scientific revolution.

But, the reader may still ask, what was Bertrand Russell’s mistake? And the answer will be that it lay in his preservation of the opposition between the social and the individual in consciousness. At this point we shall leave Russell for a moment. It is time we looked at the individual and social consciousness from another angle. If it is true that the uniquely personal and intimate in each individual comes first, while second place belongs to the impersonal or, as Russell put it, “all the contents of the Encyclopaedia”, a kind of unified world repository spread exit before individuals in imagined space, then the so-called social consciousness is no more than a designation of a given external environment in which an individual lives. He absorbs and assimilates it. And only when it has been assimilated by the individual, only when it has become the content of his mental processes does it really deserve the name of “consciousness”. But according to this logic the so-called “social consciousness” must be recognised as an object world of culture, which is external to the individual and to which he adapts himself. One sometimes bears it said that “unlike the animal, man adapts to the social as well as the natural environment”. Then history, the process of building this special external world in which man has to live is not the personal biography of each of us, but rather the geography of the impersonal body of an objectified culture, a geography that becomes more and more complex every year. And such an attitude to history is by no means peculiar to Russell. It is a sign of the times, which makes it all the more interesting for us to know that the attitude to history is directly related to the answer to the question that interests us: how does the individual become a conscious being possessing the power of Reason?

1. Experience and physical experiment also helped to break down the claims of classical mechanics that its conclusions were universal. We have only to recall the Michelson-Morley experiment. But the empirical notion of the theory of knowledge was exploded by mathematical physics, which Lenin regarded as one of the causes of the methodological crisis in physics (see Lenin’s Collected Works Vol. 14 . 307-08).

Contents | 2. Individual and Social (Hegel versus Russell)