I. The Subject and the Object.

From: Synthetic Philosophy (1842)
Author: O. A. Brownson
Published: Langtree & O'Sullivan Dec. 1842 Washington, D. C.



  PHILOSOPHY is the science of Life. Its problem is to find the Ultimate from which we may explain the origin of man and nature, determine the laws of their growth, obtain a presentiment of their destiny, and become inspired with a pure and noble zeal to live and die for the glory of God, and the progress of mankind.

  There is and can be no higher problem than this, —none more worthy to engage the whole force of our minds and our hearts. It is the problem of problems; it includes all other problems; and on its solution depend all other problems for theirs. We have answered no question, whether of man or nature, of society, religion, or morals, till we have traced it to the Ultimate, beyond which there is no question to be asked, or to be answered.

  But the Ultimate for ever escapes us. It recedes always in proportion as we advance; and is never seized save in a finite and relative form. The complete solution, therefore, transcends, and for ever must transcend, the reach of our powers. All that we can do, and all that we should attempt, is to obtain the solution that shall meet the wants and satisfy the heart of our own epoch. This solution, though it must one day needs be outgrown, as we outgrow the garments of our childhood, will, nevertheless, bring us a measure of peace, become the point of departure for new inquirers, and pave the way for new and more adequate solutions.

  Philosophy is the creation of the human understanding, naturally or supernaturally enlarged and enlightened. All begins and ends with Thought, our only medium of knowledge, whatever its sphere or its degree. Thought is, for us, always ultimate. We cannot go before nor behind Thought; for we have nothing but thought with which to go before or behind it. What, then, is Thought? What is its reach? What are its conditions? “For I thought,” says Locke, “that the first step towards satisfying certain inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was to take a survey of our own understandings, examine our powers, and see to what things they were adapted.”

  Thought implies both Subject and Object, that which thinks and that which is thought. What, then, is the Subject? What is the Object?

  The SUBJECT is the me, that which I call myself, and express by the pronoun I in the phrases I am, I think, I will, I love; or by the pronoun me, when I say of some particular thing, it pleases me, grieves me, injures me, does me good.

  I do not know myself by direct immediate knowledge; I come to a knowledge of myself only in the phenomenon, in which I see myself reflected as in a glass. I am never my own immediate object. “The understanding,” Locke very properly remarks, “like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance, and make it its own object.” This, if we substitute no direct notice for “no notice,” is as true when affirmed of me, as when affirmed of my understanding. I never stand face to face with myself, looking into my own eyes. The Seer and the Seen, the Subject and the Object, are as distinct in psychology as they are in logic; and they are distinct in logic, because they are distinct in the nature of things.

  Yet some modern psychologists, misapprehending the fact of consciousness, have questioned this statement, and contended that the Subject may be its own object, and that I may know myself by direct, immediate knowledge. But if this were so, I could know at once, and prior to experience, all that I am, and all that I can do or become. I could know myself active without having acted; thinking without having thought; sentient without having felt. I should know beforehand the nature and the reach of the passions;—love without having ever loved; hatred without having ever hated; grief without having ever grieved. I should know at once all that I ever can know, whether of myself or of that which is not myself. But it is only God who can know himself by direct immediate knowledge; for only that which is independent, self-existent, and self-living, can contain in itself its own object.

  No man knows thoroughly himself, or can say, till enlightened by experience, what he is able to do, or to become. Even they who best obey the injunction, “Know thyself,” are but slight proficients in self-knowledge. The bulk of mankind are grossly ignorant of themselves. Moreover, we advance in the knowledge of ourselves. Every day reveals us to ourselves under some new aspect. The older we grow, the more varied our experience, severe our struggles, and trying the vicissitudes of life, the better do we come to know and comprehend ourselves. But did we know ourselves by direct, immediate knowledge, what room would there be for this progress? and how could this varied experience, and these struggles, trials, and vicissitudes, become the medium of advancing us in the knowledge of ourselves?

  But, though I know not myself by direct, immediate knowledge, yet I know myself mediately, indirectly, through the medium of my acts. Whenever I think, I find myself as one of the elements of the thought. I never think without knowing that it is I and not another that thinks. This is the meaning of the “Cogito, ergò sum” of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am. Descartes did not offer in this, nor pretend to offer, as he himself expressly tells us, an argument for his existence; but merely stated the fact in which he found it. Not being able to see or to recognize myself in myself, to see, as it were, my own eye, I should be to myself as if I were not, did I not think. When I do not think, I do not exist to my own apprehension. How know I then that I exist at all? I cannot prove my existence; but I have no need to prove it, for whenever I think, I always find myself in the thought as THAT-WHICH-THINKS. As certain as it is that I think, so certain is it then that I am; for I always think myself as the subject of the thought.

  I do not infer my existence from the fact of thinking. I do not infer it at all; but in the act of thinking I find it. My existence is never an inference, and logic has nothing to do with establishing it. I cannot prove my existence, neither can I deny it, nor doubt it. To doubt is to think. But I never think without finding myself as the one who thinks. Consequently, in doubting my existence I should find it. I cannot deny my own existence; not only because in denying it I should logically affirm it, by affirming the existence of the denier, but I should be conscious of myself, in the act of denying, as the one who makes the denial.

  This finding of myself in the phenomenon, or as the one who thinks, is precisely what is meant by the term CONSCIOUSNESS. Consciousness is not a faculty, nor even an act of a peculiar sort. It is simply a higher degree of what philosophers call perception. As its name implies,—cum scientia,—it is something that goes along with knowledge, or something in addition to simple perception,—ad-perceptio, apperception,—and is easily comprehended. I think a rose. This is a simple phenomenon, or rather a single act of the mind; but, in addition to the perception of the rose, the object of the thought, I recognize, but as an integral part of the same phenomenon, myself as the agent thinking, or the one who perceives the rose. This recognition of myself is the consciousness. All acts in which I so recognize myself as actor or thinker, are called by Leibnitz APPERCEPTIONS. All thoughts are properly apperceptions, for they all include in the view of the thinker, both the subject thinking and the object thought.

  But according to this, consciousness is not, as is sometimes supposed, the immediate perception of myself in myself. I am conscious of myself only in the phenomenon, and even then only under the relation of its subject. I can speak, I can think, or even conceive of myself only as the subject of an act. I can define myself only by referring to my acts. I express myself, indeed, by the personal pronoun, but never without joining it to the verb. I, me, taken alone, without a verb, expressed or understood, means nothing. It must be always I am, I do, I think, I will, I love, or I hate. In my essence, save so far as my being is revealed in my doing, I never know or apprehend myself. I find myself never as pure essence, but always as cause, and as being only so far forth as cause; that is to say, I find myself, exist to myself, only in my efforts, productions, or phenomena. I am conscious, therefore, of myself only under the relation of subject or cause; and, therefore, it is only under this relation of subject or cause, only as projected into the phenomenon, that I can be my own object, that I can study myself, and learn what I am and of what I am capable.

  But the phenomenon is never the SOLE product of the subject. There is and can be no thought with a single term. It is impossible to think without thinking an OBJECT as well as a subject. I never think without encountering an object, and only in concurrence with the object. But in the act of thinking where I find myself, and where only I find myself, I always find myself as subject, never as OBJECT. I find the OBJECT always, invariably opposed to the subject, and, therefore, never as me, but ALWAYS AS NOT ME.

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