The Mind and the Brain/Book II/Chapter VI

The Mind and the Brain by Alfred Binet
Book II: Chapter VI
Definition of the Consciousness—Categories of the Understanding
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It has often been said that the rôle of intelligence consists in uniting or grasping the relations of things. An important question, therefore, to put, is, if we know whereof these relations consist, and what is the rôle of the mind in the establishment of a relation?

It now and then happens to us to perceive an isolated object, without comparing it with any other, or endeavouring to find out whether it differs from or resembles another, or presents with any other a relation of cause to effect, or of sign to thing signified, or of co-existence in time and space. Thus, I may see a red colour, and occupy all the intellect at my disposal in the perception of this colour, seeing nothing but it, and thinking of nothing but it. Theoretically, this is not impossible to conceive, and, practically, I ask myself if these isolated and solitary acts of consciousness do not sometimes occur.

It certainly seems to me that I have noticed in myself moments of intellectual tonelessness, when in the country, during the vacation, I look at the ground, or the grass, without thinking of anything—or at least, of anything but what I am looking at, and without comparing my sensation with anything. I do not think we should admit in principle, as do many philosophers, that “we take no cognisance save of relations.” This is the principle of relativity, to which so much attention has been given. Taken in this narrow sense, it seems to me in no way imperative for our thoughts. We admit that it is very often applied, but without feeling obliged to admit that it is of perpetual and necessary application.

These reserves once made, it remains to remark, that the objects we perceive very rarely present themselves in a state of perfect isolation. On the contrary, they are brought near to other objects by manifold relations of resemblance, of difference, or of connection in time or space; and, further, they are compared with the ideas which define them best. We do not have consciousness of an object, but of the relations existing between several objects. Relation is the new state produced by the fact that one perceives a plurality of objects, and perceives them in a group.

Show me two colours in juxtaposition, and I do not see two colours only, but, in addition, their resemblance in colour or value. Show me two lines, and I do not see only their respective lengths but their difference in length. Show me two points marked on a white sheet of paper, and I do not see only the colour, form, and dimension of the points, but their distance from each other. In our perceptions, as in our conceptions, we have perpetually to do with the relations between things. The more we reflect, the more we understand things, the more clearly we see their relations; the multiplication of relations is the measure of the depth of cognition.[1]

The nature of these relations is more difficult to ascertain than that of objects. It seems to be more subtle. When two sounds make themselves heard in succession, there is less difficulty in making the nature of these two sounds understood than the nature of the fact that one occurs before the other. It would appear that, in the perception of objects, our mind is passive and reduced to the state of reception, working like a registering machine or a sensitive surface, while in the perception of relations it assumes a more important part.

Two principal theories have been advanced, of which one puts the relations in the things perceived, and the other makes them a work of the mind. Let us begin with this last opinion. It consists in supposing that the relations are given to things by the mind itself. These relations have been termed categories. The question of categories plays an important part in the history of philosophy. Three great philosophers, Aristotle, Kant, and Renouvier have drawn up a list, or, as it is called, a table of them, and this table is very long. To give a slight idea of it, I will quote a few examples, such as time, space, being, resemblance, difference, causality, becoming, finality, &c.

By making the categories the peculiar possession of the mind, we attribute to these cognitions the essential characteristic of being anterior to sensation, or, as it is also termed, of existing a priori: we are taught that not only are they not derived from experience, nor taught us by observation, but further that they are presupposed by all observation, for they set up, in scholastic jargon, the conditions which make experience possible. They represent the personal contribution of the mind to the knowledge of nature, and, consequently, to admit them is to admit that the mind is not, in the presence of the world, reduced to the passive state of a tabula rasa, and that the faculties of the mind are not a transformation of sensation. Only these categories do not supplement sensation, they do not obviate it, nor allow it to be conjectured beforehand. They remain empty forms so long as they are not applied to experience; they are the rules of cognition and not the objects of cognition, the means of knowing and not the things known; they render knowledge possible, but do not of themselves constitute it. Experience through the senses still remains a necessary condition to the knowledge of the external world. It may be said that the senses give the matter of knowledge, and that the categories of the understanding give the form of it. Matter cannot exist without form, nor form without matter; it is the union of the two which produces cognition.

Such is the simplest idea that can be given of the Kantian theory of categories, or, if it is preferred to employ the term often used and much discussed, such is the theory of the Kantian idealism. This theory, I will say frankly, hardly harmonises with the ideas I have set forth up to this point. To begin with, let us scrutinise the relation which can exist between the subject and the object. We have seen that the existence of the subject is hardly admissible, for it could only be an object in disguise. Cognition is composed in reality of an object and an act of consciousness. Now, how can we know if this act of consciousness, by adding itself to the object, modifies it and causes it to appear other than it is? This appears to me an insoluble question, and probably, even, a factitious one. The idea that an object can be modified in its nature or in its aspect comes to us through the perception of bodies. We see that, by attacking a metal with acids, this metal is modified, and that by heating a body its colour and form become changed; or that by electrifying a thread it acquires new properties; or that when we place glasses before our eyes we change the visible aspect of objects; or that, if we have inflammation of the eyelids, light is painful, and so on. All these familiar experiments represent to us the varied changes that a body perceived can undergo; but it must be carefully remarked that in cases of this kind the alteration in the body is produced by the action of a second body, that the effect is due to an intercourse between two objects. On the contrary, when we take the Kantian hypothesis, that the consciousness modifies that which it perceives, we are attributing to the consciousness an action which has been observed in the case of the objects, and are thus transporting into one domain that which belongs to a different one; and we are falling into the very common error which consists in losing sight of the proper nature of the consciousness and making out of it an object.

If we set aside this incorrect assimilation, there no longer remains any reason for refusing to admit that we perceive things as they are, and that the consciousness, by adding itself to objects, does not modify them.

Phenomena and appearances do not, then, strictly speaking, exist. Till proof to the contrary, we shall admit that everything we perceive is real, that we perceive things always as they are, or, in other words, that we always perceive noumena.[2] After having examined the relations of the consciousness with its objects, let us see what concerns the perception, by the consciousness, of the relations existing between these objects themselves. The question is to ascertain whether the a priorists are right in admitting that the establishment of these relations is the work of the consciousness. The rôle of synthetic power that is thus attributed to consciousness is difficult to conceive unless we alter the definition of consciousness to fit the case. In accordance with the definition we have given and the idea we have of it, the consciousness makes us acquainted with what a thing is, but it adds nothing to it. It is not a power which begets objects, nor is it a power which begets relations.

Let us carefully note the consequence at which we should arrive, if, while admitting, on the one hand, that our consciousness lights up and reveals the objects without creating them, we were, on the other hand, to admit that it makes up for this passivity by creating relations between objects. We dare not go so far as to say that this creation of relations is arbitrary and corresponds in no way to reality; or that, when we judge two neighbouring or similar objects, the relations of contiguity and resemblance are pure inventions of our consciousness, and that these objects are really neither contiguous nor similar.

It must therefore be supposed that the relation is already, in some manner, attracted into the objects; it must be admitted that our intelligence does not apply its categories haphazard or from the caprice of the moment; and it must be admitted that it is led to apply them because it has perceived in the objects themselves a sign and a reason which are an invitation to this application, and its justification. On this hypothesis, therefore, contiguity and resemblance must exist in the things themselves, and must be perceived; for without this we should run the risk of finding similar that which is different, and contiguous that which has no relation of time or space. Whence it results, evidently, that our consciousness cannot create the connection completely, and then we are greatly tempted to conclude that it only possesses the faculty of perceiving it when it exists in the objects.[3]

According to this conception, the rôle of the consciousness in the perception of a connection is that of a witness, as in the perception of objects. The consciousness does not create, but it verifies. Resemblance is a physical property of objects, like colour; and contiguity is a physical property of objects, like form. The connections between the objects form part of the group object and not of the group consciousness, and they are just as independent of consciousness as are the objects themselves.

Against this conclusion we must anticipate several objections. One of them will probably consist in accentuating the difference existing between the object and the connection from the dynamical point of view. That the object may be passively contemplated by the consciousness can be understood, it will be said; but the relation is not only an object of perception—it is, further, a principle of action, a power of suggestion, and an agent of change.

It might, then, be supposed that the consciousness here finds a compensation for the rôle that has been withdrawn from it. If it is not the thing that creates the relation, it will be said, at least it is that which creates its efficacity of suggestion. Many psychologists have supposed that a relation has the power of evocation only when it has been perceived. The perception of resemblance precedes the action of resemblance. It is consequently the consciousness which assembles the ideas and gives them birth by perceiving their relations.

This error, for it is one, has long been wide-spread—indeed, it still persists.[4] We have, however, no difficulty in understanding that the perception of a resemblance between two terms supposes them to be known; so long as only one of the terms is present to the consciousness, this perception does not exist; it cannot therefore possess the property of bringing to light the second term. Suggestion is therefore distinct from recognition; it is when suggestion has acted, when the resemblance in fact has brought the two terms together, that the consciousness, taking cognisance of the work accomplished, verifies the existence of a resemblance, and that this resemblance explains the suggestion.

Second objection: we are told that the relations between the objects—that is, the principal categories—must be of a mental nature, because they are a priori. That they are a priori means that they are at once anterior and superior to the experience. Let us see what this argument is worth.

It appears that it is somewhat misused. With regard to many of the categories, we are content to lay down the necessity of an abstract idea in order to explain the comprehension of a concrete one. It is said, for example: how can it be perceived that two sensations are successive, if we do not already possess the idea of time? The argument is not very convincing, because, for every kind of concrete perception it is possible to establish an abstract category.

It might be said of colour that it is impossible to perceive it unless it is known beforehand what colour is; and so on for a heap of other things. A more serious argument consists in saying that relations are a priori because they have a character of universality and of necessity which is not explained by experience, this last being always contingent and peculiar. But it is not necessary that a function should be mental for it to be a priori. The identification of the a priori with the mental is entirely gratuitous. We should here draw a distinction between the two senses of the a priori: anteriority and superiority.

A simple physical mechanism may be a priori, in the sense of anteriority. A house is a priori, in regard to the lodgers it receives; this book is a priori, in regard to its future readers. There is no difficulty in imagining the structure of our nervous system to be a priori, in regard to the excitements which are propagated in it. A nerve cell is formed, with its protoplasm, its nucleus and its nucleoli before being irritated; its properties precede its functions. If it be possible to admit that as a consequence of ancestral experiences the function has created the organ, the latter is now formed, and this it is which in its turn becomes anterior to the function. The notion of a priori has therefore nothing in it which is repugnant to physical nature.

Let us now take the a priori in the sense of superiority. Certain judgments of ours are, we are told, universal and necessary, and through this double character go beyond the evidence of experience. This is an exact fact which deserves to be explained, but it is not indispensable to explain it by allowing to the consciousness a source of special cognitions. The English school of philosophy have already attacked this problem in connection with the origin of axioms. The principle of their explanation lies in the virtue of what they have termed “inseparable association.” They have supposed that when an association is often repeated it creates a habit of thought against which no further strife is possible. The mechanism of association itself should then add a special virtue to the contingency of facts. A hundred repetitions of related facts, for example, would give rise to so firm an association, that no further repetition would increase it.

I consider this explanation a very sound one in principle. It is right to put into association something more than into experience. I would only suggest a slight correction in detail. It is not the association forged by repetition which has this virtue of conveying the idea of necessity and universality, it is simply the uncontradicted association. It has been objected, in fact, and with reason, to the solution of Mill, that it insists on a long duration of experience, while axioms appear to be of an irresistible and universal truthfulness the moment they are conceived. And this is quite just. I should prefer to lay down as a law that every representation appears true, and that every link appears necessary and universal as soon as it is formed. This is its character from the first. It preserves it so long as no contradiction in fact, in reasoning, or in idea, comes to destroy it.[5]

What seems to stand out most clearly after all these explanations is the rôle which we ought to attribute to the consciousness. Two rival theories have been maintained: that of the mirror-consciousness and that of the focus-consciousness. It would seem—I merely say it would seem—that the first of these best harmonises with the preceding facts. For what seems most probable is, that the consciousness illuminates and reveals but does not act. The theory of the focus-consciousness adapts itself less to the mechanism of the association of ideas.

From this we come quite naturally to see in the intelligence only an inactive consciousness; at one moment it apprehends an object, and it is a perception or an idea; at another time it perceives a connection, and it is a judgment; at yet another, it perceives connections between connections, and it is an act of reason. But however subtle the object it contemplates may become, it does not depart from its contemplative attitude, and cognition is but a consciousness.

One step further, and we should get so far as to admit that the consciousness serves no purpose whatever, and that it is a useless luxury, since, if all efficacious virtue is to be found in the sensations and the ideas which we consider as material facts, the consciousness which reveals them adds nothing to, takes nothing from, and modifies nothing in them; and everything would go on the same, nor would anything in this world be changed, if one day the light of consciousness were, by chance, to be put out. We might imagine a collection of automatons forming a human society as complicated as, and not different in appearance from, that of conscious beings; these automatons would make the same gestures, utter the same words as ourselves, would dispute, complain, cry, and make love like us; we might even imagine them capable, like us, of psychology. This is the thesis of the epiphenomenal consciousness which Huxley has boldly carried to its uttermost conclusions.

I indicate here these possible conclusions, without discussing them. It is a question I prefer to leave in suspense; it seems to me that one can do nothing on this subject but form hypotheses.

  1. At the risk of being deemed too subtle, I ask whether we are conscious of a relation between objects, or whether that which occurs is not rather the perception of an object which has been modified in its nature by its relation with another object.
  2. This conclusion may seem contradictory to that which I enunciated when studying the constitution of matter. I then asserted that we only know our sensations and not the excitants which produce them. But these sensations are matter; they are matter modified by other matter, viz. our nervous centres.
         We therefore take up very distinctly an opposite standpoint to the principle of relativity: in other terms, we reject the phenomenism of Berkeley.
         When we go into metaphysics we are continually astounded to see how different conceptions of things which have a classic value are independent of each other. In general, phenomenism is opposed to substantialism, and it is supposed that those who do not accept the former doctrine must accept the latter, while, on the contrary, those who reject substantialism must be phenomenists. We know that it is in this manner that Berkeley conquered corporeal substantialism and taught phenomenism; while Hume, more radical than he, went so far as to question the substantialism of mind. On reflection, it seems to me that, after having rejected phenomenism, we are in no way constrained to accept substance. By saying that we perceive things as they are, and not through a deluding veil, we do not force ourselves to acknowledge that we perceive the substance of bodies—that is to say, that something which should be hidden beneath its qualities and should be distinct from it. The distinction between the body and its qualities is a thing useful in practice, but it answers to no perception or observation. The body is only a group, a sheaf of qualities. If the qualities seem unable to exist of themselves and to require a subject, this is only a grammatical difficulty, which is due to the fact that, while calling certain sensations qualities, we suppose a subject to be necessary. On the other hand, the representation which we make to ourselves of a material substance and its rôle as the support of the qualities, is a very naïve and mechanical representation, thanks to which certain sensations become the supports of other and less important sensations. It would suffice to insist on the detail of this representation and on its origin to show its artificial character. The notion we have of the stability of bodies and of the persistence of their identity, notwithstanding certain superficial changes, is the reason for which I thought proper to attribute a substance to them, that is to say, an invariable element. But we can attain the same end without this useless hypothesis; we have only to remark that the identity of the object lies in the aggregate of its properties, including the name it bears. If the majority of its properties, especially of those most important to us, subsists without alteration, or if this alteration, though of very great extent, takes place insensibly and by slow degrees, we decide that the object remains the same. We have no need for that purpose to give it a substance one and indestructible. Thus we are neither adherents of phenomenism, nor of substantialism.
  3. I borrow from Rabier this argument, which has thoroughly convinced me (see Psychologie, p. 281).
  4. Pilon is the psychologist who has the most forcibly demonstrated that resemblance acts before being perceived. I refer the readers to my Psychologie du Raisonnement, where I have set forth this little problem in detail.
  5. We think spontaneously of the general and the necessary. It is this which serves as a basis for the suggestion and the catchword (réclame), and it explains how minds of slender culture always tend towards absolute assertions and hasty generalisations.