Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge is a classic philosophy essay collection by Alexander Philip. When we find Science, which has done so much and promised so much for the happiness of mankind, devoting so large a proportion of its resources to the destruction of human life, we are prone to ask despairingly--Is this the end? If not; how are we to discover and assure for stricken Humanity the vision and the possession of a Better Land?
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Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge
By Alexander Philip
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2015 Philosophical Library/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Time and Periodicity
We can measure Time in one way only—by counting repeated motions. Apart from the operation of the physical Law of Periodicity we should have no natural measures of Time. If that statement be true it follows that apart from the operation of this law we could not attain to any knowledge of Time. Perhaps this latter proposition may not at first be readily granted. Few, probably, would hesitate to admit that in a condition in which our experience was a complete blank we should be unable to acquire any knowledge of Time; but it may not be quite so evident that in a condition in which experience consisted of a multifarious but never repeated succession of impressions the Knowledge of Time would be equally awanting. Yet so it is. The operation of the Law of Periodicity is necessary to the measurement of Time. It is by means, and only by means, of periodic pulsative movements that we ever do or can measure Time. Now, apart from some sort of measurement Time would be unknowable. A time which was neither long nor short would be meaningless. The idea of unquantified Time cannot be conceived or apprehended. Time to be known must be measured.
Periodicity, therefore, is essential to our Knowledge of Time. But Nature amply supplies us with this necessary instrument. The Law of Periodicity prevails widely throughout Nature. It absolutely dominates Life.
The centre of animal vitality is to be found in the beating heart and breathing lungs. Pulsation qualifies not merely the nutrient life but the musculo-motor activity as well. Eating, Walking,—all our most elementary movements are pulsatory. We wake and sleep, we grow weary and rest. We are born and we die, we are young and grow old. All animal life is determined by this Law.
Periodicity—generally at a longer interval of pulsation—equally affects the vegetal forms of life. The plant is sown, grows, flowers, and fades.
Periodicity is to us less obvious in the inanimate world of molecular changes; yet it is in operation even there. But it is more especially in the natural motions of those so-called material masses which constitute our physical environment that Periodicity most eminently prevails. Indeed it was by astronomers that the operation of this Law was first definitely recognised and recorded. Periodicity is the scientific name for the Harmony of the Spheres.
The two periodic motions which most essentially affect and concern us human beings are necessarily the two periodic motions of the globe which we inhabit—its rotation upon its axis which gives us the alternation of Day and Night, and its revolution round the Sun which gives us the year with its Seasons. To the former of these, animal life seems most directly related; to the latter, the life of the vegetal orders. It is evident that the forms of animal life on the globe are necessarily determined by the periodic law of the Earth's diurnal rotation. This accounts for the alternations of waking and sleeping, working and resting, and so forth. In like manner the more inert vitality of the vegetable kingdom is determined by the periodic law of the Earth's annual revolution. When fanciful speculators seek to imagine what kind of living beings might be encountered on the other planets of our system, they usually make calculations as to the force of gravity on the surface of these planets and conjure up from such data the possible size of the inhabitants, their relative strength and agility of movement, etc. So far so good. But the first question we should ask, before proceeding to our speculative synthesis, should rather be the length of the planet's diurnal rotation and annual revolution periods. Certain planets, such as Mars and Venus, have rotation periods not very different from those of our own Earth. Other things being equal, therefore, a certain similarity of animal life must be supposed possible on these planets. On the other hand, the marked difference in their revolution period would lead us to expect a very wide divergence between their lower forms of life, if any such there be, and our own terrestrial vegetation. The shorter the annual period the more would the vegetal approximate to the animal, and vice versa. It would, however, be foolish to waste more time over a speculation so remote.
But these two facts remain unshaken:—(1) That our measurements and whole science of Time depend absolutely on the operation throughout Nature of the Law of Periodicity, and (2) that the periodicities which affect and determine animal and vegetal life upon our Earth are the periodic movements of rotation and revolution of that Earth itself.
Now it is to the curvilinear motions of the heavenly bodies that we must ascribe our subjection to the periodic law. If these heavenly bodies moved for ever in straight lines, as they would do if unacted on by natural forces, the periodic rhythm of Nature would disappear.
It is to the fact that all Nature is under the constraint due to the constant silent operation of physical Force that we owe, therefore, the law which determines the most essential features of vitality. The pulsations in which life consists and by which it is sustained are attributable to the constraint and limitation which we recognise as the effect of the operation of Natural Force. It is to this same cause that we ascribe the resistance of cohering masses in virtue of which sensation arises and by which our experience is punctuated. It is by means of these obstructions to free activity that our experience is denoted, and by reference to these that it is cognised. Indeed, Activity itself as we know it depends upon and presupposes the existence of these cohering masses.
Thus the operation of Natural Force and the constraint and limitation which are thereby imposed upon our activity appear at once to determine the conditions of life and to furnish the fundamental implements of Knowledge.
We cannot overleap the barriers by which Life is constrained. These, whilst, on the one hand they seem to create the environment which sustains Life, on the other hand seem to impose upon it the limitations under which it inevitably fails and dies. We cannot even in imagination conceive, either as reality or as fancy, the illimitable puissance of a Life perfectly free and unrestrained. Yet the assurance that Perfect Love could overcome the bonds of Materiality and Death encourages in mankind the Hope of an existence beyond the impenetrable veil of physical limitation. And this at any rate may be admitted, namely, that that dynamic condition in which materiality arises is also the condition-precedent of Tridimensionality, of Force, of Time, and of Mutation. But we cannot thus account for the elan vital itself.CHAPTER 2
The Origin Of Physical Concepts
"Penser c'est sentir," said Condillac. "It is evident," said Bishop Berkeley, "to one who takes a survey of the objects of Human Knowledge that they are either ideas actually imprinted on the senses or else such as are perceived by attending to the passions and operations of the Mind, or lastly ideas formed by help of memory and imagination either combining, dividing, or barely representing those originally perceived in the foresaid ways." J. S. Mill tells us, "The points, lines, circles, and squares which one has in his mind are, I apprehend, simply copies of points, lines, circles, and squares which he has known in his experience," and again, "The character of necessity ascribed to the truths of Mathematics and even, with some reservations to be hereafter made, the peculiar certainty attributed to them is an illusion." "In the case of the definitions of Geometry there exist no real things exactly conformable to the definitions."
Again Taine, "Les images sont les exactes reproductions de la sensation." Again Diderot, "Pour imaginer il faut colorer un fond et détacher de ce fait des points en leur supposant une couleur différente de celle du fond. Restituez à ces points la même couleur qu'au fond,—à l'instant ils se confondent avec lui et la figure disparait," etc. Again, Dr. Ernest Mach, Vienna, remarks, "We are aware of but one species of elements of Consciousness: sensations." "In our perceptions of Space we are dependent on sensations." Dr. Mach repeatedly refers to "space-sensations," and indeed affirms that all sensation is spatial in character.
According to the view of Knowledge of which we have extracted examples above, the ideas of the mind are originally furnished to it by sensation, from which therefore are derived, not necessarily all our Thoughts, but all the materials of Discourse, all that constitutes the essence of Knowledge.
Our purpose at the moment is to show that this view is altogether false, and our counter proposition is, that it is from our Activity that we derive our fundamental conceptions of the external world; that sensations only mark the interruptions in the dynamic Activity in which we as potent beings partake, and that they serve therefore to denote and distinguish our Experience, but do not constitute its essence.
We do not propose now to devote any time to the work of showing that sensations from their very nature could never become the instruments of Knowledge. We propose rather to turn to the principal ideas of the external world which are the common equipment of the Mind in order to ascertain whether in point of fact they are derived from Sensation.
Of course to some extent the answer depends on what we mean by Sensation. If by that term we intend our whole Experience of the external, then of course it necessarily follows—or, at least, we admit—that our Knowledge of the external must be thence derived. But such a use of the term is loose, misleading, and infrequent. The only safe course is to confine the term Sensation to the immediate data of the five senses—touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste, with probably the addition of muscular and other internal feelings. It is in this sense that the word is usually employed, and has been employed by the Sensationalist School themselves.
Now we might perhaps begin by taking the idea of Time as a concept constantly employed in Discourse, but of which it would be absurd to suggest that it is supplied to us by Sensation. It might, however, be urged in reply that the idea of Time is not derived from the external world at all, but is furnished to us directly by the operations of the Mind, and that therefore its intellectual origin need not involve any exception to the general rule that the materials of our Knowledge of the world are furnished by Sensation alone. Without, therefore, entering upon any discussion of the interesting question as to what is the real nature of Time, we shall pass to the idea of Space.
Mach, the writer whom we have already quoted, in his essay on Space and Geometry speaks constantly and freely of sensations of Space, and as there can be no denial of the fact that Space is a constituent of the external world, it would seem to follow that those who hold Sensation to be the only source of our Knowledge must be obliged to affirm the possibility of sensations of Space. Mach indeed claims to distinguish physiological Space, geometrical Space, visual Space, tactual Space as all different and yet apparently harmoniously blended in our Experience. He is, however, sadly wanting in clearness of statement. He never tells us when and where exactly we do have a sensation of Space. In truth he never gets behind the postulate of an all-enveloping tridimensional world; so that he throughout assumes Space as a datum, and his inquiry is an effort to rediscover Space where he has already placed it.
Let us, however, consider for a moment what can be meant by a sensation of Space. Does it not look very like a contradiction in terms? Pure Space, if it means anything, means absolute material emptiness and vacuity. How, then, by any possibility can it give rise to a sensation? What sensory organ can it be conceived as affecting? How and in what way can it be felt?
The truth is the idea of Space is essentially negative. It represents absence of physical obstruction of every kind. No doubt, we may describe it positively as a possibility of free movement, and such a description is at once true and important. Yet even it involves a negative. The term "free" is in reality, though not in form, a negative term and means "unconstrained." And the reason why such a term is necessarily negative is to be found in the fact that a state of dynamic constraint is the essential condition under which we enter upon our organic existence. Freedom is a negation of the Actual. Absolute freedom is a condition only theoretically possible, and is essentially the negation of the state of restraint in which our life is maintained.
But the definition last quoted is nevertheless valuable because it clearly shows what really is the origin of the idea of Space. It proves that the idea of Space is a representation of one condition of our Activity. It is because the primary work of Thought is to represent the forms of our dynamic Activity that we find the idea of Space so necessary and fundamental.
But it will perhaps be argued that our ordinary sensations carry with them a spatial meaning and implication, and that indirectly, therefore, our sensations do supply us with the idea of Space. It will readily be agreed that if this is so of any sensations it is preeminently true of the sensations of vision and touch. Indeed, it will perhaps not be disputed that the ordinary vident man derives from the sensations of vision his most common spatial conceptions. We propose, therefore, to inquire very briefly how the character of spatial extension becomes associated with the data of Vision.
The objects of Vision appear to be displayed before us in immense multitude, each distinct from its adjacent neighbour, yet all inter-related as parts of one single whole—the presentation thus constituting what is called Extensity.
This is the most commonly employed meaning of the term spatial. Yet it is evidently in its origin rather temporal than spatial. In ordinary movement we encounter by touch various obstacles, but only a very few of these impress us at any one moment of time. On the contrary, they succeed one after the other. To the blind, therefore, as Platner long ago remarked: Time serves instead of Space. In Vision, on the other hand, a large number, which it would take a very long time to encounter in touch, are presented simultaneously. In this there is an immense practical advantage, the result being that we come habitually to direct our every action by reference to the data of Sight. Now it is because these data—so simultaneously presented—are employed by us as the guides of action that their presentation acquires the character which we denominate Extensity. The simultaneous occurrence of a large number of Sounds does not seem to us to present such a character. But let us suppose that all the objects which constitute obstacles to our Activity emitted Sounds by which they were recognised; it is not doubtful that these would then come to be employed by us as the guides of our Activity and would acquire in our minds the character of Extensity. They would arrange themselves in a cotemporaneous, extensive, or spatial relation to one another just as the objects of Vision do at present.
Excerpted from Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge by Alexander Philip. Copyright © 2015 Philosophical Library/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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