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The Philosophy of Freedom

On-line since: 22nd November,1996

Knowledge of Freedom

CHAPTER TWO

The Fundamental Desire for Knowledge

Two souls reside, alas, within my breast,
And each one from the other would be parted.
The one holds fast, in sturdy lust for love,
With clutching organs clinging to the world;
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage.

Faust I, Scene 2, lines 1112-1117.


In these words Goethe expresses a characteristic feature which is deeply rooted in human nature. Man is not organized as a self-consistent unity. He always demands more than the world, of its own accord, gives him. Nature has endowed us with needs; among them are some that she leaves to our own activity to satisfy. Abundant as are the gifts she has bestowed upon us, still more abundant are our desires. We seem born to be dissatisfied. And our thirst for knowledge is but a special instance of this dissatisfaction. We look twice at a tree. The first time we see its branches at rest, the second time in motion. We are not satisfied with this observation. Why, we ask, does the tree appear to us now at rest, now in motion? Every glance at Nature evokes in us a multitude of questions. Every phenomenon we meet sets us a new problem. Every experience is a riddle. We see that from the egg there emerges a creature like the mother animal, and we ask the reason for the likeness. We observe a living being grow and develop to a certain degree of perfection, and we seek the underlying conditions for this experience. Nowhere are we satisfied with what Nature spreads out before our senses. Everywhere we seek what we call the explanation of the facts.

The something more which we seek in things, over and above what is immediately given to us in them, splits our whole being into two parts. We become conscious of our antithesis to the world. We confront the world as independent beings. The universe appears to us in two opposite parts: I and World.

We erect this barrier between ourselves and the world as soon as consciousness first dawns in us. But we never cease to feel that, in spite of all, we belong to the world, that there is a connecting link between it and us, and that we are beings within, and not without, the universe.

This feeling makes us strive to bridge over this antithesis, and in this bridging lies ultimately the whole spiritual striving of mankind. The history of our spiritual life is a continuing search for the unity between ourselves and the world. Religion, art and science follow, one and all, this aim. The religious believer seeks in the revelation which God grants him the solution to the universal riddle which his I, dissatisfied with the world of mere appearance, sets before him. The artist seeks to embody in his material the ideas that are in his I, in order to reconcile what lives in him with the world outside. He too feels dissatisfied with the world of mere appearance and seeks to mould into it that something more which his I, transcending it, contains. The thinker seeks the laws of phenomena, and strives to penetrate by thinking what he experiences by observing. Only when we have made the world-content into our thought-content do we again find the unity out of which we had separated ourselves. We shall see later that this goal can be reached only if the task of the research scientist is conceived at a much deeper level than is often the case. The whole situation I have described here presents itself to us on the stage of history in the conflict between the one-world theory, or monism, and the two-world theory, or dualism.

Dualism pays attention only to the separation between I and World which the consciousness of man has brought about. All its efforts consist in a vain struggle to reconcile these opposites, which it calls now spirit and matter, now subject and object, now thinking and appearance. It feels that there must be a bridge between the two worlds but is not in a position to find it. In that man is aware of himself as “I”, he cannot but think of this “I” as being on the side of the spirit; and in contrasting this “I” with the world, he is bound to put on the world's side the realm of percepts given to the senses, that is, the world of matter. In doing so, man puts himself right into the middle of this antithesis of spirit and matter. He is the more compelled to do so because his own body belongs to the material world. Thus the “I”, or Ego, belongs to the realm of spirit as a part of it; the material objects and events which are perceived by the senses belong to the “World”. All the riddles which relate to spirit and matter, man must inevitably rediscover in the fundamental riddle of his own nature.

Monism pays attention only to the unity and tries either to deny or to slur over the opposites, present though they are. Neither of these two points of view can satisfy us, for they do not do justice to the facts. Dualism sees in spirit (I) and matter (World) two fundamentally different entities, and cannot, therefore, understand how they can interact with one another. How should spirit be aware of what goes on in matter, seeing that the essential nature of matter is quite alien to spirit? Or how in these circumstances should spirit act upon matter, so as to translate its intentions into actions? The most ingenious and the most absurd hypotheses have been propounded to answer these questions. Up to the present, however, monism is not in a much better position. It has tried three different ways of meeting the difficulty. Either it denies spirit and becomes materialism; or it denies matter in order to seek its salvation in spiritualism (see fn 1); or it asserts that even in the simplest entities in the world, spirit and matter are indissolubly bound together so that there is no need to marvel at the appearance in man of these two modes of existence, seeing that they are never found apart.

Materialism can never offer a satisfactory explanation of the world. For every attempt at an explanation must begin with the formation of thoughts about the phenomena of the world. Materialism thus begins with the thought of matter or material processes. But, in doing so, it is already confronted by two different sets of facts: the material world, and the thoughts about it. The materialist seeks to make these latter intelligible by regarding them as purely material processes. He believes that thinking takes place in the brain, much in the same way that digestion takes place in the animal organs. Just as he attributes mechanical and organic effects to matter, so he credits matter in certain circumstances with the capacity to think. He overlooks that, in doing so, he is merely shifting the problem from one place to another. He ascribes the power of thinking to matter instead of to himself. And thus he is back again at his starting point. How does matter come to think about its own nature? Why is it not simply satisfied with itself and content just to exist? The materialist has turned his attention away from the definite subject, his own I, and has arrived at an image of something quite vague and indefinite. Here the old riddle meets him again. The materialistic conception cannot solve the problem; it can only shift it from one place to another.

What of the spiritualistic theory? The genuine spiritualist denies to matter all independent existence and regards it merely as a product of spirit. But when he tries to use this theory to solve the riddle of his own human nature, he finds himself driven into a corner. Over against the “I” or Ego, which can be ranged on the side of spirit, there stands directly the world of the senses. No spiritual approach to it seems open. Only with the help of material processes can it be perceived and experienced by the “I”. Such material processes the “I” does not discover in itself so long as it regards its own nature as exclusively spiritual. In what it achieves spiritually by its own effort, the sense-perceptible world is never to be found. It seems as if the “I” had to concede that the world would be a closed book to it unless it could establish a non-spiritual relation to the world. Similarly, when it comes to action, we have to translate our purposes into realities with the help of material things and forces. We are, therefore, referred back to the outer world. The most extreme spiritualist — or rather, the thinker who through his absolute idealism appears as extreme spiritualist — is Johann Gottlieb Fichte. He attempts to derive the whole edifice of the world from the “I”. What he has actually accomplished is a magnificent thought-picture of the world, without any content of experience. As little as it is possible for the materialist to argue the spirit away, just as little is it possible for the spiritualist to argue away the outer world of matter.

When man reflects upon the “I”, he perceives in the first instance the work of this “I” in the conceptual elaboration of the world of ideas. Hence a world-conception that inclines towards spiritualism may feel tempted, in looking at man's own essential nature, to acknowledge nothing of spirit except this world of ideas. In this way spiritualism becomes one-sided idealism. Instead of going on to penetrate through the world of ideas to the spiritual world, idealism identifies the spiritual world with the world of ideas itself. As a result, it is compelled to remain fixed with its world-outlook in the circle of activity of the Ego, as if bewitched.

A curious variant of idealism is to be found in the view which Friedrich Albert Lange has put forward in his widely read History of Materialism. He holds that the materialists are quite right in declaring all phenomena, including our thinking, to be the product of purely material processes, but, conversely, matter and its processes are for him themselves the product of our thinking.

The senses give us only the effects of things, not true copies, much less the things themselves. But among these mere effects we must include the senses themselves together with the brain and the molecular vibrations which we assume to go on there.

That is, our thinking is produced by the material processes, and these by the thinking of our I. Lange's philosophy is thus nothing more than the story, in philosophical terms, of the intrepid Baron Münchhausen, who holds himself up in the air by his own pigtail.

The third form of monism is the one which finds even in the simplest entity (the atom) both matter and spirit already united. But nothing is gained by this either, except that the question, which really originates in our consciousness, is shifted to another place. How comes it that the simple entity manifests itself in a two-fold manner, if it is an indivisible unity?

Against all these theories we must urge the fact that we meet with the basic and primary opposition first in our own consciousness. It is we ourselves who break away from the bosom of Nature and contrast ourselves as “I” with the “World”. Goethe has given classic expression to this in his essay Nature, although his manner may at first sight be considered quite unscientific: “Living in the midst of her (Nature) we are strangers to her. Ceaselessly she speaks to us, yet betrays none of her secrets.” But Goethe knows the reverse side too: “Men are all in her and she in all.”

However true it may be that we have estranged ourselves from Nature, it is none the less true that we feel we are in her and belong to her. It can be only her own working which pulsates also in us.

We must find the way back to her again. A simple reflection can point this way out to us. We have, it is true, torn ourselves away from Nature, but we must none the less have taken something of her with us into our own being. This element of Nature in us we must seek out, and then we shall find the connection with her once more. Dualism fails to do this. It considers human inwardness as a spiritual entity utterly alien to Nature, and then attempts somehow to hitch it on to Nature. No wonder that it cannot find the connecting link. We can find Nature outside us only if we have first learned to know her within us. What is akin to her within us must be our guide. This marks out our path of enquiry. We shall attempt no speculations concerning the interaction of Nature and spirit. Rather shall we probe into the depths of our own being, to find there those elements which we saved in our flight from Nature.

Investigation of our own being must give us the answer to the riddle. We must reach a point where we can say to ourselves, “Here we are no longer merely ‘I’, here is something which is more than ‘I’.”

I am well aware that many who have read thus far will not find my discussion “scientific”, as this term is used today. To this I can only reply that I have so far been concerned not with scientific results of any kind, but with the simple description of what every one of us experiences in his own consciousness. The inclusion of a few phrases about attempts to reconcile man's consciousness and the world serves solely to elucidate the actual facts. I have therefore made no attempt to use the various expressions “I”, “Spirit”, “World”, “Nature”, in the precise way that is usual in psychology and philosophy. The ordinary consciousness is unaware of the sharp distinctions made by the sciences, and my purpose so far has been solely to record the facts of everyday experience. I am concerned, not with the way in which science, so far, has interpreted consciousness, but with the way in which we experience it in every moment of our lives.



Footnotes:

  1. The author refers to philosophical “spiritualism” as opposed to philosophical “materialism”. See reference to Fichte that follows. — Translator's Footnote.




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