Letters on Spiritual Christianity——KNOWLEDGE
My dear ——,
You ask me to explain, in detail, what I mean by asserting that the Imagination is the basis of knowledge. “Apparently,” you say, “our knowledge of the world external to ourselves seems to you to spring, not from the sensations as interpreted by the Reason, but (at all events to a large extent) from the sensations as interpreted by the Imagination. If you mean this, I wish you would show how the Imagination thus builds up our knowledge of the world. But I think I must have misunderstood you.”
You have not misunderstood me. I would go even further than the limits of your statement: for I believe that we are largely indebted to the Imagination for our knowledge, not only of the external world, but also of ourselves. However, suppose we first take a simple instance of the knowledge of external things: “This inkstand is hard. How did I come to know that it was hard? How do I know that it is hard now?”
Let us begin from the beginning. I am an infant scrambling on the floor where the said inkstand is casually lying. Having a congenital impulse (commonly called “instinct”) to touch and suck anything that comes in my way, and especially anything bright, I greedily and rapidly approximate my lips to the corner of this polished object. I recoil with a sharp shock of pain. The pain abates. The instinctive recoil from the inkstand has left in me an instinctive aversion to the pain-causing object: but my touching and sucking instinct again revives, and as soon as it prevails over the recoiling instinct, I am impelled again towards the inkstand, not so rapidly as before, but still too rapidly. I recoil again, with pain lessened but still acute. I am acquiring “knowledge”: I “know,” though I cannot put it into words, that I have twice found the inkstand not-to-be-rapidly-approached-under-penalty-of-a-certain-kind-of-pain, in other words, “hard.” But I try again; I try four, five, six times: I find that when I approach with less velocity my pain is less, and when with sufficiently diminished velocity, there is no pain at all; I touch and suck in peace: but when I forget my experience and suppose that the inkstand—even though I dash wildly at it after my old fashion—will “behave differently this time,” I find that I am mistaken: the inkstand will not “behave differently”; it always behaves in the same way. By this time then I know something very important indeed.
But pause now, my friend, and ask yourself how much this infant has a right to say he “knows,” so far as the evidence of the senses guides him. All that the senses have told him is that on five, six, seven, say even seventy, occasions, he found the inkstand hard. But is this all that he “knows”? You know perfectly well that he knows infinitely more: he has made a leap from the past into the future and knows that the inkstand will be found hard whenever he touches it. When he grows up and attains the power of speech he will generally express his knowledge in the Present Tense: “I must not strike the inkstand with my mouth for it is hard”: but in reality this “is” implies “will be”; “I must not strike the inkstand with my mouth for I shall find it hard.” Now what is it that has produced in him this conviction which no philosopher can justify by mere logic, but which every baby acts on? It seems to have arisen thus. The baby has received in rapid succession two sensations, first, that of a violent approximation to the inkstand, secondly, a sudden shock of pain. Having received this pair of sensations very frequently, he cannot help associating them together in his thoughts; so that now the thought of a violent approximation to the inkstand necessarily suggests to him the thought that it is not-to-be-approached-violently, or “hard.” He began by learning to expect that perhaps, or probably, the first sensation would be followed by the second; but having found, after constant experiments, that the second sensation, so far as his experience goes, always follows the first, he gradually passes from belief into certainty, or knowledge, that the second always will, or must, follow the first.
A similar transition is going on at the same time in the infant’s mind—I mean the transition from belief to certainty—in regard to thousands of other propositions besides the one we have selected, “this inkstand is hard.” Every single case of such transition facilitates the transition in other cases, by making the child feel that, if he is to get on in the world and make his way through it without incurring the constant pains and penalties of Nature, he must not disregard these juxtapositions, or pairs of sensations, (which, when he grows older, he will, if ever he becomes an educated man, call “cause” and “effect”), but must take them to heart and remember them; when the first of a familiar pair comes, he must be prepared to find the second immediately following. Not unfrequently the child’s limited experience associates together in his mind sensations that Nature has not associated; as, for example, when he infers that a clock must tick because he has never yet in his life seen a clock that has stopped. In this and other cases the child has afterwards to dissociate what he had too hastily joined together, and to correct his conclusions by wider experience. But, on the whole, the transition from belief to certainty, in any one case, is facilitated by the great majority of similar cases in which the same transition is going on with results that are confirmed by his own experience and by that of his elders. What helps the transition, in each case, is its general success; it works: it helps the child to move more and more confidently in the world without subjecting himself to the punishments which Nature has attached to ignorance.
Now therefore, reviewing the stages of the progress upwards, we see that the knowledge of which we are speaking is based upon an inherent and fundamental belief of which we can give no logical justification whatever. Why should an inkstand always be hard? The child can allege no reason for this except that, having found the inkstand to be hard in a great number of past instances, he is compelled to believe that it will be always hard, with such a force of conviction that he cannot but feel and say he “knows” it. But of course there is no logical justification for this assertion. He might argue for some months or even years, in precisely the same way about a clock, and say that “a clock always ticks,” because he has seen the clock tick times innumerable and never known it not to tick. Why should not a larger experience confute his so-called knowledge in the case of the inkstand as in the case of the clock? As the clock collapses, why should not the nature of the inkstand collapse—be, come unwound, so to speak, or altogether transmuted? There is no possible answer to this question for the child, at present, except the following:—“It never has done so, and therefore I believe that it never will. I believe in the uniformity of Nature. The sequences of observed cause and effect are Nature’s promises, and if she does not keep them, life will break down. I am compelled to believe, and to act on the belief, that life will not break down. I believe that this inkstand is hard, because this belief works.”
I conclude therefore that all knowledge of the kind we are now describing is based on belief (viz. the belief that what has been will be) tested by experience. I think it must also be admitted that Imagination contributed to the result: for the child not only remembers his two past consecutive sensations but gradually images in his mind a kind of bond between them, which memory pure and simple could not have contributed. Memory reproduces “Inkstand and then hardness;” Imagination paints, or begins to paint, a new idea, “Inkstand and therefore hardness.” Again, Memory reproduces vaguely numerous instances, “The inkstand was hard ten, eleven, twenty, many times;” then comes Imagination and at a leap sets before the mind an entirely new notion, and invents for it the word “always.”
Concerning other and more complex kinds of knowledge what need is there to say a word? For if such simple propositions as “a stone is hard,” are shown to depend upon Imagination for suggesting, and Faith for retaining, a conviction of the uniformity of Nature, much more must these influences be presupposed if the child is to attain knowledge about matters avowedly future, e.g. “the sun will rise to-morrow.” In reality all knowledge of any practical value has to do with a future, immediate or remote; and therefore I do not think I shall be exaggerating in saying that for all knowledge about things outside us we depend largely upon Imagination and Faith.
But I pass now to consider a child’s knowledge about himself. Take for example such a proposition as this, “I like sugar.” Is Faith or Imagination required to enable a child to arrive at the knowledge of this proposition about himself? I think so. The very use of the word “I,” if used intelligently, appears to need some imaginative effort. Of course I do not deny that this subtle metaphysical idea may have been suggested to us originally by our faculty of touch, and especially the faculty of self-pinching or self-touching. I dare say you have read how men have sometimes caught hold of their own benumbed hand by night, and awakened a household by shouting that they had caught a robber: has it ever occurred to you that, if you never had the power of distinguishing your own hand from anybody else’s hand by the sense of touch, you might have gone through life with no sense, or with a very tardily acquired sense, of your own identity? If the monkey who boiled his own tail in the caldron had felt no pain, might he not have been excused for doubting sometimes whether the tail belonged to him? And if his head were equally painless or joyless when he thumped it or scratched it, ought he to be condemned for disowning his own head? And if a monkey, or even a child, could not lay claim to its own head, it seems to me doubtful whether he could ever claim such a separation from the outside world as would necessitate his using the word “I.” But, as it is, having this self-pinching faculty, the child soon finds that to pinch a ball, or a bladder, or a sister, is an entirely different thing from pinching himself: and this self-touching faculty confirms the evidence suggested by the bumps and thumps of the external world; all of which lead him to the belief that he has a bodily frame of his own, liable to pain and to pleasure, and largely dependent for pain and pleasure on his own motions, which motions he dimly perceives dependent upon something that appears to be inside himself.
But neither this nor any other explanation of the manner in which the sensations prepare the way for the construction of the idea of the “I,” ought to prevent us from recognizing that the idea itself is the work of the Imagination, and not of the unaided sensations, nor of the unaided reason. Self-pinching and contact with the rough external world might convince the child that he was different from his environment at the time when he made his last experiments and underwent his last experiences; but they could not convince him that he is different now, or that he will be different in the next instant; and for this conviction he depends upon faith. Again, the imagination of the “I” seems closely bound up with two other nearly simultaneous imaginations, those of Force and Cause. First he feels a desire to touch the inkstand, then he feels himself moving towards the inkstand, then he feels the inkstand touched. These sequences of desire, action, result, he can repeat as often as he likes. By their frequency therefore, as well as by their vividness, they impress him more powerfully than sequences of phenomena not dependent on himself; and it is from these probably that he first imagines the idea of “must,” or “necessity,” or “cause and effect.” If he feels a desire to move a limb, the motion of the limb immediately follows; it always obeys him; it must obey him. He pushes a brick; what caused the brick to fall? He feels that it was his own force that caused it; he no longer looks upon the push and the fall as if the former merely preceded the latter; he imagines a connection of necessity between the push and the fall, the cause and the effect, and gradually comes to imagine himself as the causer of the cause. But all these imaginations are mere imaginations, not proofs. To gather together all the sensations of which he retains the memory, the sensations of which he is at present conscious, and the sensations to which he looks forward, and to put an “I” behind or below all these, as the foundation of them all, and partial causer of them all—what an audacious assumption is this! Not Plato and Aristotle combined could prove to a child, or to the most consummate of philosophers, that he has a right to call himself “I,” or that he is any other than a machine and a part of the universal machinery. How can I prove and vindicate my independence, my right to an “I”? By saying that I will do, or not do, and by then doing, or not doing, any conceivable thing at any conceivable time? Such an attempt is futile. The retort is unanswerable: “In the great machine which you call the universe, that small part which you call ‘I’ was so constructed and wound up that it could no more help saying and doing what it did and said, than a clock could help pointing and striking.”
What then is the real proof that we are right in using the word “I” and in distinguishing ourselves from other objects which we call external? There is no proof at all except that, first, we are led to this way of looking at things by Nature and Imagination, and secondly, this way of looking at things works best. The “I-view” is better fitted than the “machine-view” to develop in us the faculties of judgment and self-control, to give us a sense of responsibility and a capability of amendment, and to make us ultimately more hopeful and more active. So too, the belief in “cause and effect” works better than a mere mental record of past antecedents and sequences, accompanied by a blank and strictly logical neutrality of mind as to what will happen in the future. Faith in “cause and effect” is the foundation of all stable life and all regular progress alike in the individual and in the state. The unfaithful unbeliever in causality is the Esau, both in the moral and in the intellectual world, the happy-go-lucky hunter who depends on stray venison and refuses to resort to system in order to make a sure provision for the needs of the future; the believer is the quiet plodding Jacob who has his goats in the fold where he knows he can find them when wanted. The unbeliever is the unimaginative savage who has not faith enough to see the harvest in the seed; the believer is the man of civilisation who can trust Nature through six long months of waiting and can say to her, not in the language of hope, “do ut des,” but in the language of conviction, “do daturae.” Nevertheless, convenient as these ideas may be for our comfort, nay, though they may be even necessary for our existence, we are bound to recollect that they are merely ideas. Like the ideas of force, cause, effect, necessity, so the idea of “I,”—though produced with the aid of experience and tested by appeal to experience and reason—appears to be nothing but a child of the Imagination, and a foster-child of Faith.
Perhaps your conclusion from all this is that I am proving that we can know nothing? Not in the least. What I am saying does not prove that we know less or more than we profess to know at present. I am merely showing that our knowledge comes to us from sources other than those which are ordinarily assumed.