Chapter 07 Audiobook

The Philosophy of Freedom
Intuitive Thinking As A Spiritual Path, Lipson translation
copyright © Anthroposophic Press, 1995
Audio by Dale Brunsvold
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Chapter 07

Are There Limits To Cognition?

(40:12) Whole chapter audio

Part 1 of 4 audio within text
[1] We have established that the elements needed to explain reality are to be drawn from the two spheres of perceiving and thinking. As we have seen, we are so organized that the full, total reality (including that of ourselves as subjects) initially appears to us as a duality. Cognition overcomes this duality by composing the thing as a whole out of the two elements of reality: the percept, and the concept worked out by thinking. Let us call the way in which the world meets us, before it has gained its true form through cognition, “the world of appearance,” in contrast to the unified reality composed of percepts and concepts. We can then say that the world is given to us as a duality, and cognition assimilates it into a (monistic) unity. A philosophy that proceeds from this fundamental principal can be characterized as monistic philosophy or monism. In contrast to it stands two-world theory or dualism. The latter does not, for example, assume that there are two sides to a unitary reality that are separated merely by our organization, but that there are two worlds that are absolutely distinct from one another. Dualism then seeks the explanatory principles for one world in the other.

[2] Dualism rests on a false conception of what we call cognition. It separates the whole of existence into two regions, each of which has its own laws, and lets those regions confront one another outwardly.

[3] The distinction between the perceived object and the thing-in-itself, which Kant introduced into science and which has not been overcome to this day, originates from this kind of dualism. Following what we have said, the nature of our spiritual organization is such that a separate thing can be given only as percept. Thinking then overcomes this separation by assigning to each percept its lawful place in the world totality. As long as the separated parts of the world totality are designated as percepts, we are simply following a law of our subjectivity when we make this separation. But if we consider the sum of all percepts as one part of the world, and then oppose to these percepts a second part, the “things-in-themselves,” we are philosophizing into thin air. We are just playing a game with concepts. We construct an artificial contrast and then can find no content for its second term—since such content can be created for a separate, particular thing only out of perception.

[4] Every kind of existence assumed outside the realm of percepts and concepts must be relegated to the sphere of unjustified hypotheses. The “thing-in-itself” belongs to this category. It is only too understandable if dualistic thinkers can find no link between the world principle assumed hypothetically and what is given by experience. We can give content to this hypothetical world principle only by borrowing content from the world of experience and then deceiving ourselves about this fact. Otherwise, it remains a concept devoid of content and has only the form of a concept. At this point, dualistic thinkers usually maintain that the content of the concept is inaccessible to our cognition: we can know only that such content exists; we cannot know what exists. In either case, overcoming dualism is impossible. Even if we import a few abstract elements from the world of experience into the concept of the thing-in-itself, it still remains impossible to trace back the rich, concrete life of experience to a few qualities that themselves are only borrowed from perception.

Du Bois-Reymond thinks that unperceivable atoms of matter create sensation and feeling by their position and movement. He uses this to arrive at the conclusion that we can never have a satisfying explanation of how matter and motion create sensation and feeling. Thus he writes:

"It is completely and forever incomprehensible that a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., should be other than indifferent as to how they are lying and moving, how they lay and moved, and how they will lie and move. There is no way to understand, from their interaction, how consciousness could arise."

Du Bois-Reymond’s argument is characteristic of this whole orientation of thought. Position and motion are separated out from the rich world of percepts. They are then transferred to the notional world of atoms. And astonishment follows that it is impossible to develop concrete life out of this homemade principle, imitated from the perceptual world.

[5] From the definition of the principle of dualism given above, it follows that dualists, working with a completely contentless concept of the “in-itself,” cannot arrive at an explanation of the world.

[6] In every instance, the dualist is constrained to set insurmountable barriers to our capacity for cognition. The follower of a monistic worldview knows that everything necessary to explain a given world phenomenon must lie within this world. What prevents us from achieving such an explanation can be only accidental temporal or spatial limits, or deficiencies in our organization—deficiencies not in human organization in general, but only in our own particular organization.

[7] It follows from the concept of cognizing, as we have defined it, that we cannot speak of limits to cognition. Cognizing is not the business of the world in general, but a transaction that we must each accomplish for ourselves. Things demand no explanation. They exist and work on one another according to laws that thinking can discover. They exist in indivisible unity with these laws. Our Ihood then confronts them, initially comprehending in them only what we have described as the percept. But within this I-hood also lies the power to find the other part of reality. Cognitive satisfaction is attained only when the I has united for itself both the elements of reality that are indivisibly connected in the world—for then the I has reached reality once again.

[8] The preconditions for cognizing exist through and for the I. The I itself poses the questions of cognition. In fact, it draws them from the element of thinking, which is completely clear and transparent within itself. If we ask ourselves questions that we cannot answer, their content cannot be clear and distinct in every aspect. It is not the world that poses questions to us; we pose them to ourselves.

[9] I can easily imagine that I would be quite incapable of answering a question that I happened to find written down somewhere if I did not know the sphere from which its content came.

[10] Our cognition involves questions that emerge for us because a conceptual sphere, pointing to the totality of the world, confronts a perceptual sphere conditioned by place, time, and subjective organization. Our task is to balance these two spheres, both of which we know well. This has nothing to do with a limit to cognition. At a particular time, this or that might remain unexplained because the place of our vantage point in life prevents us from perceiving the things in question. But what is not found today may be found tomorrow. The limits determined in this way are only temporary, and they can be overcome by progress in perception and thinking.

[11] Dualism mistakenly transfers the contrast between objects and subjects, which has meaning only within the perceptual realm, to purely imagined entities outside this realm. But things separated in the perceptual field are separate only as long as the perceiver refrains from thinking— for thinking suspends all separation and reveals it to be merely subjective. Therefore a dualist is really transferring— to entities behind the percepts—categories that have no absolute but only a relative validity, even for the percepts. A dualist splits percept and concept, the two factors involved in the cognitive process, into four: 1) the object in itself, 2) the subject’s percept of the object, 3) the subject, and 4) the concept that relates the percept to the object-in-itself.

For the dualist, the relationship between an object and a subject is a real one; the subject is really (dynamically) influenced by the object. This real process is said not to emerge into our consciousness. It is supposed to evoke a response in the subject to the stimulus proceeding from the object. The result of this response is supposed to be the percept, which alone emerges into consciousness. The object is supposed to have an objective reality (that is, a reality independent of the subject), while the percept is supposed to have a subjective reality. This subjective reality supposedly relates the subject to the object. That relationship is said to be ideal (conceptual). Thus, dualism splits the cognitive process into two parts. One of them, the creation of the perceptual object out of the thing-in-itself, is assigned a place outside consciousness, and the other, the connection of the percept to the concept and the relation of the concept to the object, is assigned a place within consciousness.

Given these presuppositions, it is clear why dualists believe it possible to attain only subjective representations of what lies before our consciousness. For dualists of this kind, the objective/real process in the subject, through which the percept arises, and, all the more so, the objective relationships of things-in-themselves, are not directly knowable. In their view, human beings can only construct conceptual representations of what is objectively real. The bond of unity that links things, both among themselves and to our individual spirit (as a thing-in-itself), lies beyond consciousness in a being-in-itself of whom, likewise, we can only have a conceptual representative in our consciousness.

[12] Dualism believes that the whole world would evaporate into an abstract conceptual schema if “real” connections were not affirmed alongside the conceptual connections of objects. In other words, the conceptual principles discoverable through thinking appear too airy to dualists, and so they look for additional, real principles by which to support them.

[13] Let us look more closely at these real principles. The naive person (that is, a naive realist) regards the objects of external experience as realities. The evidence for their reality is that they can be grasped by the hand and seen by the eye. “Nothing exists that cannot be perceived” is actually the first axiom of the naive human being, and its converse is seen as equally valid: “Everything that can be perceived exists.” The best proof of this assertion is the naive human belief in immortality and in spirits. The naive realist imagines the soul as fine, sense-perceptible matter, which under certain circumstances, can even become visible to ordinary human beings (i.e., the naive belief in ghosts).

[14] Compared to their “real world,” naive realists see everything else, such as the world of ideas, as unreal, as “merely conceptual.” What we add to objects through thinking are mere thoughts about things. Thought adds nothing real to a percept.

[15] But naive persons hold sense perception to be the sole evidence of reality, not only for the existence of things, but also for events. In this view, one thing can only affect another if a sense-perceptible force proceeds from the one and touches the other. In ancient physics, it was believed that very fine matter streams out from objects and penetrates our souls through our sense organs.  Actually seeing such matter was said to be impossible only because of the crudeness of our senses in comparison to the fineness of the matter. In principle, this kind of matter was accorded reality on the same grounds by which reality is accorded to the objects of the sense-world— namely, because of its mode of existence, which was thought of as analogous to that of sense-perceptible reality.

[16] For naive consciousness, the self-sufficient existence of what can be experienced through ideas is not considered to be real in the same way as what can be experienced through the senses. Until conviction of its reality is supplied by sense-perception, an object grasped in “idea alone” is a mere chimera. In brief, the naive person demands, in addition to the conceptual evidence of thinking, the real evidence of the senses. The basis for the development of primitive forms of belief in revelation lies in this naive human need. To naive consciousness, the god given through thinking always remains merely a “thought” god. Naive consciousness demands revelation through means accessible to sensory perception. God must appear bodily, and the testimony of thinking counts little. Rather, divinity must be confirmable by the senses through such things as the transformation of water into wine.

[17] The naive person imagines that cognition is itself a process analogous to sensory processes. Things make an impression on the soul, or they emit images that penetrate through the senses, and so forth.

[18] What naive human beings can perceive with their senses is considered real, and what cannot be perceived in this way (god, the soul, cognition, etc.) is imagined to be analogous to what is perceived.

[19] If naive realism wants to establish a science, it can do so only through the exact description of perceptual contents. For naive realism, concepts are only means to this end. They exist to provide conceptual counter-images of the percepts. They have no significance for the things themselves. For the naive realist, only individual tulips that are seen, or that can be seen, count as real; the idea of a tulip counts only as an abstraction, as an unreal thoughtimage that the soul assembles from characteristics common to all tulips.

[20] Naive realism, with its fundamental principle of the reality of everything perceived, is contradicted by experience, which teaches us that the content of perception is transient. The tulip that I see is real today; a year hence, it will have vanished into nothingness. What lasts is the species of tulip. But, for naive realism, this species is “only” an idea, not a reality. Thus, the naive realist world-view is in the position of seeing its realities come and go, while what it regards as unreal is more lasting than the real. In addition to percepts, naive realism has to acknowledge something conceptual. It has to include entities that cannot be perceived with the senses. It reconciles itself to this by conceiving their mode of existence as analogous to that of sense objects. The invisible forces through which sense perceptible things affect one another are just such hypothetically assumed realities. So, too, is heredity, which has effects above and beyond the individual, and which is the reason for the development out of one individual of a new individual that is similar to the first, so that the species persists. The life principle permeating the organic body is another such assumed reality; so is the soul (for which naive consciousness always forms a concept analogous to sense realities); and so, finally, is the naive human’s Divine Being. This Divine Being is thought to act in a fashion that exactly corresponds to the perceptible ways in which human beings act—that is, anthropomorphically.

[21] Modern physics traces sense impressions back to processes in the smallest parts of the body and in an infinitely fine substance, the ether—or something similar. For example, what we sense as warmth is the movement of the parts within the space occupied by the body that is the source of warmth. Here, too, something imperceptible is thought of by analogy to what is perceptible. The sensory analogue of the concept “body” might be, in this sense, the interior of an enclosed space, in which elastic spheres move in every direction, hitting one another, bouncing off the walls, and so forth.

[22] Without such assumptions, the world of naive realism disintegrates into an incoherent aggregate of percepts, without mutual relationships and constituting no unity. But it is clear that naive realism can arrive at its assumptions only through inconsistency. If it remains true to its fundamental proposition that only the perceived is real, then it may not assume something real where it perceives nothing. From the standpoint of naive realism, those imperceptible forces operating out of perceptible things are actually unjustified hypotheses. Because such a theory knows of no other realities, it equips its hypothetical forces with perceptual content. It attributes a form of existence (perceptual existence) to a realm where sense perception—the sole means of making an assertion about this form of existence—is lacking.

[23] This self-contradictory worldview leads to metaphysical realism. Alongside perceptible reality, metaphysical realism constructs another, imperceptible reality that it conceives as analogous to the first. Therefore, metaphysical realism is necessarily dualistic.

[24] Wherever metaphysical realism notices a relationship between perceptible things (approaching something through movement; something objective entering consciousness, etc.) it posits a reality. Yet the relationship it notices cannot be perceived; it can only be expressed through thinking. This conceptual relationship is arbitrarily made into something akin to the perceptible. For this line of thinking, then, the real world is composed of perceptual objects that emerge and disappear in eternal flux, and of imperceptible forces that produce the perceptual objects and endure.

[25] Metaphysical realism is a contradictory mixture of naive realism and idealism. Its hypothetical forces are imperceptible entities with perceptual qualities. Beyond that region of the world for whose form of existence a means of cognition is present in perception, it is determined to acknowledge still another region, for which this means is inadequate, and which can be ascertained only by thinking. Metaphysical realism, however, cannot, at the same time, decide to recognize that the form of existence transmitted by thinking—the concept or idea—is an equally valid factor with perception. To avoid the contradiction of imperceptible percepts, we must admit that the relationships between percepts, as transmitted through thinking, can have no other form of existence for us than that of concepts. If we reject the invalid components of metaphysical realism, the world presents itself as the sum of percepts and their conceptual (ideal) relations. Thus, metaphysical realism arrives at a worldview that requires, as a matter of principle, that we be able to perceive percepts, while it requires us to be able to think the relations among percepts. Beside the world of percepts and concepts, this metaphysical realism can validate no third region of the world for which both principles, the so-called principle of the real and the principle of the ideal, are simultaneously valid.

[26] When metaphysical realism claims that, along with the ideal relation between the perceptual object and its subject, there must exist a real relationship between the “thing-in-itself” of the percept and the “thing-in-itself” of the perceptible subject (the so-called individual spirit), then this claim rests on the false assumption of the existence of a process analogous to the processes of the sense world but imperceptible. When metaphysical realism further states that we enter into a conscious-ideal relationship with our perceptual world but can enter into a dynamic relationship (of forces) only with the real world, it commits the same error again. We can speak of a relationship of forces only within the perceptual world (in the area of the sense of touch), but not outside this world.

[27] The worldview into which metaphysical realism merges when it eliminates its contradictory elements can be called monism, because it combines one-sided realism with idealism into a higher unity.

[28] For naive realism, the real world is a sum of perceptual objects. For metaphysical realism, imperceptible forces as well as percepts attain reality. Monism replaces these forces with the conceptual connections achieved through thinking. But these connections are the laws of nature. A natural law, after all, is nothing other than a conceptual expression for the connection between certain percepts.

[29] Monism never has to seek for explanatory principles of reality outside percepts and concepts. Monism realizes that, in the whole realm of reality, there is never occasion to do so. It sees the perceptual world, as it appears immediately to our perceiving, as something half-real. It finds full reality in the union of that world with the conceptual world. The metaphysical realist may object to the monist: “As far as your organism is concerned, it may be that your cognition is perfect in itself, that it lacks nothing; but you do not know how the world would be reflected in an intelligence organized differently from your own.” To this monism will respond: “If there are non-human intelligences whose percepts have a form different from our own, what has meaning for me is still only what reaches me through my perceiving and concepts.”

Through my perceiving—in fact, through specifically human perceiving—I am located as a subject over against an object. The connection between things is thus interrupted. The subject then restores that connection through thinking. Thereby it reintegrates itself into the world as a whole. Since it is only through our own subject that the whole appears to be torn apart at the place between our percept and our concept, it is also in the union of those two that true cognition is given. For beings with a different perceptual world (for example, beings with double the number of sense organs), the connection would appear interrupted at a different place, and its reunion would accordingly have to take a form specific to those beings. The question of limits to cognition exists only for naive and metaphysical realism, both of which see in the soul’s content only a conceptual representation of the world. For them, what exists outside the subject is something absolute, something self-existent, and the content of the subject is a picture of this absolute, standing completely apart from it. The completeness of the cognition depends on the degree of similarity between the picture and the absolute object. A being with fewer senses than human beings have will perceive less of the world; one with more senses will perceive more. The former will therefore have less complete knowledge than the latter.

[30] For monism, things are otherwise. The organization of the perceiving being determines where the connectedness of the world will seem torn apart into subject and object. The object is not absolute, merely relative to the particular subject. By the same token, the opposition can be bridged only in the specific way appropriate to human subjects. As soon as the I, which is separated from the world in perceiving, reintegrates itself into the connectedness of the world through its thinking contemplation, then all further questioning ceases—since it was only a result of the separation.

[31] A differently constituted being would have a differently constituted cognition. Our own cognition is sufficient to answer the questions posed by our own nature.

[32] Metaphysical realism must ask: How is what is given to us as perception given? How is the subject affected?

[33] For monism, the percept is determined by the subject. But, at the same time, the subject has the means in thinking to cancel out what it has itself determined.

[34] Metaphysical realists face a further difficulty when they seek to explain the similarity of the world pictures of different human individuals. They have to ask themselves: “How is it that the world picture that I construct out of my subjectively determined percepts and concepts is equivalent to those that other human individuals construct from the same two factors that are subjective to them? From my own subjective world picture, how can I draw any conclusions about that of another human being?” Because people manage to get along with one another in practice, the metaphysical realist believes it possible to infer the similarity of their subjective world pictures. From the similarity of these world pictures, a further inference is then drawn regarding the similarity of the individual spirits —the “I-in-itself”—underlying the separate human perceptual subjects.

[35] This kind of conclusion infers, from a sum of effects, the character of their underlying causes. After a sufficient number of cases, we believe that we understand the situation enough to know how the inferred causes will operate in other cases. We call such an inference an inductive inference. If further observation yields something unexpected, we will find ourselves forced to modify its results, because the character of the result is, after all, determined only by the individual form of our observations. Yet, according to the metaphysical realist, this conditional knowledge of causes is perfectly sufficient for practical life.

[36] Inductive inference is the methodological foundation of modern metaphysical realism. Once people believed that, from concepts, they could evolve something that was no longer a concept. They believed that, through concepts, they could know the metaphysically real entities that metaphysical realism necessarily requires. Today, this kind of philosophy belongs to a vanquished past. Instead, we believe that from a sufficient number of perceptual facts we can infer the character of the thingin- itself underlying those facts. Just as earlier people sought to develop the metaphysical from concepts, they seek today to develop it from percepts. Since concepts were present to people in transparent clarity, they believed that they could deduce the metaphysical from them, too, with absolute certainty. But percepts are not so transparent to us. Each successive percept appears somewhat different from those of the same kind that preceded it. What is inferred from the earlier ones is consequently somewhat modified by each successive percept. Therefore, the form that we thus give to the metaphysical can be called only relatively correct. It is subject to correction by future cases. Eduard von Hartmann’s metaphysics is characterized by this methodological principle. Hence, on the title page of his first major work, he placed the motto: “Speculative results following the inductive method of natural science.”

[37] The form that metaphysical realists give to things-inthemselves today is arrived at through inductive inferences. By reflecting on the process of cognition they have convinced themselves of the existence of an objectively real world continuity alongside what is “subjectively” cognizable through percept and concept. They believe they can determine how this objective reality is constituted by inductive inference from their percepts.

Addendum to the new edition (1918)
[1] Certain ideas based on natural-scientific study will always pose distractions for the kind of unprejudiced observation of experience in percepts and concepts that I have tried to present in the preceding discussion. According to modern science, for instance, the eye perceives colors in the light spectrum from red to violet. Beyond violet, there are forces of radiation corresponding to no color-percept in the eye, but rather only to a chemical effect. In the same way, beyond the red limit, there are radiations that manifest only as warmth. Consideration of these and similar phenomena leads to the view that the range of the human perceptual world is determined by the range of the human senses, and humans would face an altogether different world if they had additional, or completely different, senses. Anyone who indulges in extravagant fantasies, for which the brilliant discoveries of current natural science offer quite seductive opportunities, can easily conclude that, after all, nothing enters the human field of observation but what can affect the senses formed by our bodily organization. We have no right, then, to regard what we perceive because of our bodily organization as any standard of reality. Each new sense would place before us a different picture of reality.

Within appropriate limits, this view is thoroughly justified. But those who allow themselves to be misled by this opinion and prevented from an unprejudiced observation of the relationship between percepts and concepts expressed here are sealing off the path to a knowledge of the world and of human beings that is rooted in reality. To experience the essence of thinking—that is, actively to elaborate the conceptual world—is something completely different from the experience of something perceptible through the senses. Whatever senses human beings might have, not one could give us reality if our thinking did not permeate what is perceived through them with concepts. However constituted, any sense permeated by concepts in this way offers human beings the possibility of living in reality. The fantasy of the completely different perceptual picture possible with other senses has nothing to do with the question of how human beings stand in the real world. We must realize that every perceptual picture takes its form from the organization of the perceiving entity, but that the perceptual picture permeated by an actually experienced thinking contemplation leads us into reality. It is not the fantasy depiction of how differently a world would look for other than human senses that can enable us to seek knowledge of our relationship to the world; rather, it is the insight that every percept gives only a part of the reality hidden within it, and that it thus directs us away from its own reality. This insight is then joined by another—that thinking leads us into the part of the percept’s reality that was hidden by the percept itself.

In the field of experimental physics, it is sometimes necessary to speak not of elements that are immediately perceptible, but of unobservable quantities such as lines of electric or magnetic force. This can also distract us from the unprejudiced observation of the relationship described here between the percept and the concept worked out in thinking. It can appear as if the elements of reality that physics describes have nothing to do either with what is perceptible or with the concept worked out in active thinking. Yet such a view would be based on self-deception. We must realize, in the first place, that everything worked out in physics—except unjustified hypotheses that ought to be excluded—is achieved with percepts and concepts. A physicist’s accurate cognitive instinct transposes what is apparently an unobservable content to the field where percepts exist, where it is then thought out in familiar concepts from that field. The strengths of electric or magnetic fields, for example, are not obtained through an essentially different cognitive process than that which operates between percepts and concepts.

An increase or alteration in the human senses would result in a different perceptual picture, an enrichment or alteration of human experience. But real knowledge must be achieved, even in regard to this experience, by the interaction of concept and percept. The deepening of cognition depends on the forces of intuition that live in thinking (cf. p. 88). In the experience of thinking, such intuition can immerse itself either more or less deeply in reality. The extension of the perceptual picture can stimulate this immersion and so, indirectly, promote it. Yet this immersion in the depths—this attainment of reality— should never be confused with encountering a broader or narrower perceptual picture, in which there is always only a half reality, as determined by the cognizing organism. Anyone not lost in abstractions will realize how relevant it is for our knowledge of human nature that physics has to infer elements in the perceptual field to which no sense is attuned as directly as for color or sound. Concretely, the essence of the human is determined not only by the kind of immediate perception with which we confront ourselves through our organization, but also by our excluding other things from this immediate perception. Just as both the conscious waking state and the unconscious state of sleep are necessary for life, so both the sphere of sense percepts and a (much greater) sphere of elements that are not sense-perceptible, in the field from which sense percepts originate, are necessary for human self-experience. All of this was already expressed indirectly in the original presentation of this text. I add this extension of its content here because I have found that many readers have not read it with sufficient precision.

It should also be kept in mind that the idea of the percept, as developed in this text, must not be confused with that of external sense perception, which is only a special case of it. Readers will see from what has been said, but still more so from what will be said later, that everything both sensory and spiritual that meets a human being is here taken to be a “percept” until it is grasped by the actively elaborated concept. “Senses” of the kind normally meant by the word are not necessary to have percepts of soul or spirit. One could object that such an extension of normal linguistic usage is illegitimate. But it is absolutely necessary unless we want our cognitive growth in certain areas to be held in chains by linguistic custom. Anyone who speaks of perception only as sense perception will not arrive at a concept appropriate for knowledge—even knowledge of this same sense perception. Sometimes we must extend a concept so that it can have an appropriate meaning in a narrower field. Sometimes, too, we must add something to what a concept initially calls to mind so that what is thought of initially can be justified or adjusted. Thus, on page 100 of this book we read that “A mental picture, then, is an individualized concept.” I have heard the objection that this is an unusual use of words. But if we are to understand what a mental picture really is, this usage is necessary. What would become of the progress of knowledge, if everyone who has to adjust concepts meets with the objection, “That is an unusual use of words”?

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