HOW do we become acquainted with the world in which we live? and what are the realities in and for experience?
It might seem at first sight that these are questions which we could well afford to pass over. What does it matter, to those who wish to interpret nature, how we become acquainted with it? May we not leave to psychology the discussion of the manner in which the universe of things is mirrored in consciousness and how the images in the mirror are formed? We wish in the first instance, at any rate, to interpret the reality itself, not merely its presentment in consciousness. But what is the reality itself? If we reply that it is that which casts the image on the mirror, the question must still arise: How then do we get beyond the mirror so as to become acquainted with this reality?
Is it then necessary for the astronomer to preface his treatment of the solar system with an account of the processes by which we become cognisant of the existence of the sun, moon, and planets? Is it requisite that the biologist should discuss the manner in which animals and plants are perceived through the channels of sense before he proceeds to deal with them under the conditions laid down by the methods of organic science? Must the chemist and the physicist render an account of how matter and energy enter into the field of consciousness before they lay before us their conclusions as to the molecular, atomic, and (one must now add) subatomic mechanics of the universe? By no means. Each science has its special field of work, and within that field takes certain preliminary facts as data that is to say, it begins to build on a basis of common experience. None of the sciences which deal with what we may call departmental interpretations of nature need inquire into the manner in which the basal facts with which they are concerned are known (if indeed they are so known) as existences independent of the mental faculties of those who investigate them. But it is otherwise when the results won through such departmental study are organised into a complete whole. It is otherwise when we desire to reach a comprehensive explanation of nature in relation to man. For then the question must arise: What is nature? And this is tantamount to an inquiry as to the manner in which we become acquainted with the world in which we live, so that we may thus disclose the order of reality with which we are concerned in the investigations of science. In other words, we have to examine the foundation of that common experience which the several departmental studies take for granted at the very outset of their researches. No doubt such inquiries open up questions which are regarded, and rightly regarded, as metaphysical. But they must be faced, especially if we are to consider the claims of what is known as naturalism to afford a valid interpretation of nature which shall satisfy all the needs of the inquiring mind. I revert then to the question: How do we become acquainted with the world in which we live?
Now the world is a somewhat unmanageable item to deal with as a whole. Let us therefore take a small sample. There is a rose-bud, tangible, delicately formed, sweet-scented, warm-tinted, out there on the table before me. Let that be our sample of the world as given in practical experience. I suppose we may agree that if, say, half a dozen common sense people, who shall be our sample of mankind, see, touch, smell, and handle this little blossom, it is as real as any object of experience can possibly be the scent and colour as real as the size, shape, and resistance to the touch. Now each individual, when he sees it, has a visual impression or presentation. But the impression at once suggests that if we reach out our hands towards the rose-bud we can take it up, feel it, and touch it; or if it be out of reach we can walk towards it and then become further acquainted with its properties. And if we convey it to our noses we shall experience its fragrant scent. An impression which thus carries a suggestion of other modes of impression which has meaning in terms of other kinds of experience is raised to the level of perception. Thus the impression is a bit of experience and apart from other modes of experience gained in the same kind of way through the avenues of other senses it has no practical meaning for us.
But for the six individuals the impressions are all different, since each person sees the rose bud from a slightly different point of view. The impression or presentation answers to the image on the retina of the eye, and for no two persons can the image be quite the same. On the other hand, the meaning, the suggested or recalled part of the perception, is substantially the same for all six people. It is probably, however, not quite the same, since no two persons have quite the same experience even of a rose-bud. The first point to be noticed then is that each of the six individuals has an impression which is suffused with meaning, that this is essentially a product within the field of his experience, and that apart from such perception there could be no presentational experience at all.
But men and women are social beings, and they require names by means of which they may label their experiences so that they may describe them and compare notes about them. I have applied the name "rose-bud" to the perception of any one of the six persons. But this is something that is given within the individual experience of the person who feels that he has it. For each several person it is a mental product. But not only for each is it a mental product; for each it has a corresponding reference. And it is to this reference, rather than to the individual mental product as such, that we give the name "rose-bud." The general term we apply to any such centre of reference is "object"; and studies in terms of such reference are "objective" studies.
At the risk of some repetition, we may ask: What then is an object? We all know the common use of this word for the well known things we see around us the writing-table, the letter-weight, the piano, the golden pippin, and so forth. These are objects which directly appeal to our senses—objects of which we gain experience through impressions, and of which, without impressions, we can gain no direct and firsthand experience. Let us grant that the impression, as such, is a purely individual subjective state of consciousness. Is the word "object," as applied to any one of the things around us, only a different name for an impression? No, quite clearly it is not; a little consideration will show that it implies something more. The golden pippin which we see on the sideboard not only does afford a visual impression, but it can afford other impressions. We can touch it, lift it, smell it, bite it, taste it. The piano, now silent, can, if some one touches the keys, give us auditory impressions, or we can go to it and feel the peculiar cold smoothness of its polished case. And similarly with other objects of sense, each of which is a centre both of actual and possible impressions, the actual impression having meaning in terms of the others. The object then is a common centre of reference for a number of different kinds of impressions, and is thus independent of any given state of consciousness. And even the impressions of one kind, such as the visual impressions, of which the same object is the centre of reference, are very numerous, and depend on its distance and the way in which, and the direction from which, it is illuminated, and so on; that is to say, it is related to our experience as a whole in terms of cross-reference. As we watch a yacht sail out of harbour, and visually pursue her course until she is a mere speck upon the horizon, the sight impressions undergo continuous change; but the yacht as an object, as a centre of reference independent of them severally, remains the same. And it is a common centre for my impressions and those of my neighbour for the presentations of all those who are constituted as we are, and are the heirs to like modes of experience.