III. Relation of Subject and Object.

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



  THE subject and object cannot meet in the fact of life without generating a result. Their shock one against the other cannot take place without an echo. This echo adds another to the elements of thought. Thought may therefore be defined to be a phenomenon with three indestructible elements, all equally essential to its production; no one of which can be abstracted without destroying thought and the possibility of thought.

  These three elements are, 1. SUBJECT; 2. OBJECT; 3. FORM. The Subject is always ME; the Object always NOT ME; the Form is the NOTION, or what the subject notes, in the act of thinking, of both subject and object.

  Subject and object are the bases of thought, and necessarily precede the phenomenon. The subject must exist before it can think, the object before it can be thought. Neither then is produced by thought. Both do and must remain in themselves what they are, be the notion the mind takes of them, or the Form of the thought, what it may. The subject generates neither, nor determines the office of either in the generation of thought, for it cannot think without including both as the necessary conditions on which it thinks.

  But with the FORM of the thought, or Notion, it is altogether different. This is the product of the subject; not indeed of the subject alone, as free, voluntary cause; but of the subject acting in conjunction with the object. It is the view which the subject takes of both itself and the object, and according to the conditions of thought cannot be produced without the presence, and so to speak, coöperation of the object or not me. But the intelligence that notes, views, or perceives, is the subject exclusively. The conjunction of subject and object can generate thought only on condition that the subject is intelligent. In thought there is always intelligence; as we have seen, always direct perception of the object, and a reflected perception of the subject. This intelligence is the subject. The form of the thought, being the notion which the subject takes of both subject and object, is therefore the product of the intelligence of the subject, only of the subject displaying itself in conjunction with the object.

  The subject taking note of both subject and object, in the fact of life, is called the fact of consciousness. Consciousness is myself perceiving that which is not myself, and recognizing myself as the agent perceiving. It is not one thing to perceive, and another to be conscious. It is not correct to say that I am conscious of my perceptions. Consciousness is not a phenomenon separate or even distinguishable from perception, unless it be in the fact that it marks a certain degree or intenseness of perception. Both perception and consciousness are the subject displaying itself in conjunction with the object; both are maifestations of one and the same intelligent subject. In every fact of consciousness I perceive; though I am not conscious in every fact of perception. But those perceptions in which I am not conscious, differ from those in which I am, that is, from my thoughts or apperceptions, only in being feebler, more confused, less marked or distinct. They, in like manner as thought, imply both subject and object, but in them the subject perceives the object, without any reflected perception of itself as the percipient agent. Not seeing itself in those perceptions, the subject is unable to give them form, or to note distinctly what they reveal of either subject or object. Add another degree of perception, render the perception sufficiently vivid and distinct to be what I call thought or apperception, and it is instantly clothed with a form; the mind notes, marks or distinguishes both itself and the object. It follows from this that the Form or Notion is merely that higher degree of intelligence which includes in one view both subject and object, and therefore is identical with the fact of consciousness.

  The Form of the thought, or notion, is often taken for the whole of the phenomenon. Thought is indeed impossible without form, and where there is no notion of either subject or object, or of both, there is no thought; but if the form, or the notion, were the whole phenomenon, thought would be a mere empty form, a notion where nothing is noted. Locke called the form of the thought or notion, Idea, which would have been well enough, if he had not made ideas a sort of intermediary between the subject and the object. Locke does not teach that we perceive the object, but an idea or notion of the object. This was his fundamental error. We perceive the object itself, never a notion of it, for the notion, instead of being the immediate object of the perception, is simply what, in perceiving, we note of the subject and the object of perception, the form which by virtue of our intelligence we are able to give to the perception.

  In the fact of consciousness, or under the form of the thought, are always, as has been said over and over again, both me and not me. Then under the form of every thought, even the simplest, the feeblest, lies always absolute truth. Me and not me, these two certainly embrace all reality. These both are essential to the production of the least conceivable thought. All reality lies then under every notion as its conditions. God, man, and nature, all three conspire to produce each one of our thoughts, and each one of our thoughts reflects them all three. Without the combined activity of them all, no thought, nor even possibility of thought. How wonderful a creation then is thought! Of what inconceivable grandeur! Before it the wise stand in awe, or bow down and revere as before the transparent symbol of the Almighty.

  But, if absolute truth enters into every thought as its basis, is essential to its production, yet no more of this truth is expressed by the form of the thought than comes within the scope of the intelligence of the subject. This intelligence, in the case of all beings but One, is and must be limited. Man is an intelligence, or else he could not think; but he is a finite intelligence. His light is a true light, as far as it is bright; but it is feeble and dim. It shines only a little way into the darkness, and even that little way merely as a sudden flash, permitting us to see that there are objects there, but vanishing too soon to enable us to see what they are. It cannot enlighten all reality. It can enlighten only that side of reality which is turned towards us; that turned from us it throws into shade. The smaller body can never illumine at once all sides of the larger body. Man, therefore, cannot comprehend the infinity which lies at the bottom of his thoughts. Always then must his NOTIONS, or views of that infinity, partake of his own feebleness, and be inadequate, dim, and partial.

  With these dim, inadequate, partial, one-sided views, man constructs, and must construct, his systems of religion, morals, and politics. Compelled by the necessities of his nature, to conclude from the luminous to the dark, from the known to the unknown, the certain to the uncertain, error is the inevitable consequence, and his systems reared with honestest intention, and infinite pains, can be, even while they stand, little else than monuments to the wide disparity there is, and ever must be, between his ambition and his strength.

  But this, while it may well humble pride, and check theoretic presumption, need not alarm or dishearten the inquirer. Thought, owing to the finiteness of the human intelligence, is always inadequate, and therefore has and must have its face of error; but since it necessarily includes under its form both the ME and NOT ME, and therefore the infinite, the absolute, it must also have always its face of truth.

  Man, moreover, as will hereafter be demonstrated, is a progressive being. He stands indeed on the borders of a universe of darkness, hoping, trembling, half-longing, half-fearing to plunge in; and never will that universe wholly disappear; but it shall ever recoil from his glance, and leave a larger and a larger space within the circumference of his vision. Nature as a whole, and in its parts, is in a state of uninterrupted progress. Man goes on with it, and by its aid. His faculties are continually enlarging, by the successive growth of ages, and his whole being becomes elevated and expanded, enabling him to penetrate farther and yet farther into the darkness, to enlighten a larger and a larger portion of the infinite, and to give to his thoughts clearer and more adequate forms. The face of truth is thus ever becoming broader and more radiant, while that of error is continually diminishing.

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