Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

The First Principles of Knowledge
Part II. Special Treatment of Certitude.

Chapter I.
Short Introduction.


  1. Transition from the general to the special treatment of the subject.
  2. (a) Substance and (b) Efficient Causality at the basis of the treatment.
  3. Enormous difference between the point of view taken by pure phenomenalism and that taken by the schoolmen.

1. A DESCRIPTION of certitude in general has now been given; and it might be supposed that next, each of the several faculties concerned in the production of certitude would be taken separately, and shown to be a valid instrument of knowledge. This would fairly stand as the special treatment of the subject. But it is convenient to leave alone the question as to how many faculties there are, and how to divide them; for a more serviceable method suggests itself. If it be established successively, that our sensations, our ideas, our consciousness of self and its affections, our memory, and our belief in the testimony of others, are all, in their own nature, means for putting us in possession of certitude, whatever may be their liability to occasional, accidental error; then, without any list of faculties, enough will be done to satisfy any reasonable requirements on the part of those who ask a detailed justification of our claim to real knowledge. Here is our work in this Second Part.

2. Before proceeding to the task proposed, it is quite necessary to make explicit statement of some doctrines about substance and efficient causality, doctrines lying at the very root of any theory of knowledge, yet doctrines which do not belong to this treatise, but to that on General Metaphysics. Here, however, a brief declaration is almost imperative, in this country where Hume has such an influence.

(a) The notion of substance, which scholasticism upholds, is not what the school of Hume is apt to fancy. By substance is not meant a mysterious entity which cannot be reached, and is hidden away under a shell of merely phenomenal realities -- whatever these may be -- like an Oriental monarch, awful in his utter unapproachability. Listen to what are the essential demands of the schoolmen, who hold a very different doctrine. Many of them, it is true, do suppose, between the quantity and the qualities of an object on one side, and their subject of inherence on the other side, a distinction so real, that it is second only to the distinction between substance and substance. At the same time, they admit that such real distinction is not contained in the primary notion of substance; that it is a secondary point of investigation, quite open, on merely natural grounds, to strong controversy.

But the primary notion of substance, the incontrovertible notion, the universal notion applying even to God Himself, Who is without accidents -- this they place in what they call perseity. Substance is what exists per se; and what to exist per se means is brought out by a contrast, the validity of which cannot be gainsaid. We leave alone these accidents of quantity and quality which are supposed by some to be more than modal, and the nature of which is matter of dispute. We keep to what is indisputable; thought, volition, motion, rotundity, these are in some sense realities, and yet none of them can exist per se, all must inhere in some subject, and are really distinct from that subject at least modally, or, inasmuch as they are modes, which may, or may not, affect a thing, while that thing remains substantially the same. But they are only modes: no one yet ever came across rotundity existing by itself; no one ever met a piece of motion unattached, without a thing of which it was the movement. Similarly a wandering thought or volition, in the sense of an entity which is nothing but a thought or a volition, an isolated phenomenon, is an absurdity.

To recur again to examples. A cannon-ball is now at rest, and now endowed with a most terrific velocity: in the one instance a child may support it, in the other hardly the strongest target that man can make will resist the momentum undamaged. Therefore the velocity has some sort of a reality not wholly identified with the substance, as such, of the ball. Again, the mind may rouse itself to intense thought, or yield to comparative quiescence; the thought is some sort of a reality not wholly identified with the substance mind. There is then at least one class of accidents, the modal, which are real, and which present some real contrast to substance. These suffice to enforce the definition: "An accident is that which exists in another, as in a subject of inhesion;"{1}

where the precise degree of real distinction involved by the in alio. may be left without further niceities of discussion. Mill has a glimpse of the truth, soon to be lost amid erroneous ideas about the unknown substratum. In the third chapter of his Logic he says: "Destroy all white substances, and where would be absolute whiteness? Whiteness without any white thing is a contradiction in terms."

As illustration of a doctrine, the full proof of which is to be sought in General Metaphysics, the above account must suffice to justify the assertion, that the radical notion of substance is intelligible and real. After the manner described,{2} "substance is that which exists by itself, and does not inhere in something else as in a subject of inhesion."{3} Realities cannot be inherent one in another indefinitely, any more than among substances the earth can be supported by a rock, and that rock by another, and this by a third, and so on unlimitedly; in the end there must be something which exists per se. Now per se might mean self-existent, uncreated, unproduced; but here it does not mean that: a se is the expression used to signify underived existence. God alone is a se, and therefore also He is per se. How perseity can be assigned to creatures without denying their continuous dependence on the Creator is a difficulty which is briefly met by saying, that unless some creatures were per se, all would inhere in God as accidents of the Divinity, as parts of His total reality. This would be pantheism.

Whence it further appears that the primary idea of substance is not permanence under varying accidents. God is substance, though having no accidents. He is immutable; created substance, though it were annihilated almost as soon as created, would have been for the moment real substance.

Mr. Bain, therefore, is utterly wrong in saying that substance has no meaning; and Mr. Huxley, who says that "whether mind or matter has a substance or not, we are incompetent to discuss." But Mr. Spencer has got hold of a partial truth, when he holds, that "the conception of a state of consciousness implies the conception of an existence which has the state; we are compelled to think of a substance, mind, that is affected, before we think of its affections:" and that "it is rigorously impossible to conceive that our knowledge is of appearances only, without at the same time conceiving a reality, of which they are the appearances."{4} It is idle to pretend that the necessary recurrence to substance is a mere association of ideas, or a mere grammatical notion. Grammar, it is true, distinguishes substantive and adjective; but so manifestly is this not the philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, that many nouns substantive confessedly stand for accidents, as velocity, rotundity, volition. Also, it is true, Aristotle teaches that the concrete substance, the prima substantia, prôtê ousia, can never be predicated of anything else as of its subject; but what is this against the reality and the knowableness of substance? In the notion of substance we have got hold of the undoubtedly real. We do not lay bare a great mystery, as many suppose we pretend to do; but we do affirm a clear truth, which is elementary in the human understanding, and without which the mind is lost in nihilism.

(b) Efficient causality, like substance, is supposed to be a chimera by the disciples of Hume. Again let us oppose our doctrine to theirs. We waive the question whether there are any substantial changes in nature: but at least there are real changes, and a vast multitude of them. Forthwith we take our stand on plainest and surest of principles. Nothing begins to be without a sufficient reason: real events are perpetually beginning to be in this world, which we familiarly style "a world of change:" the sufficient reason, or part of the sufficient reason, for a real change is an efficient cause. There are then real efficient causes, and we know that there are. We do not know how efficient causality ultimately acts, but we know flat it acts. We may be silent as to the difference or the identity between substance and its powers: but on the reality of the powers we may not be silent. They clamour for recognition. If anything is certain in this world, it is that mere uniform sequence, without any idea of power, is an inadequate account of a real succession of events. Mill, after the manner of his school, seems to be confounding the primary with the secondary question, the question as to the reality of power with the question of the reality of its distinction from its substance, when he says with an air of apparent triumph: "It is as easy to comprehend that the object should produce the sensation directly, as that it should produce the same sensation by the aid of something else, called the power of producing it." If the reader will admit substance efficiently active, without any question raised as to an intermediate reality between the substance and its activity, he will admit enough for the purposes of the following discussions on the details of certitude. But if he will not admit thus much, he is putting himself in a radically unreasonable position.

3. That these preliminary remarks, these borrowings from a department of philosophy outside our own, are not uncalled for, will be recognized immediately by any one who will consider the vast difference between certitude viewed from the point of pure phenomenalism, and certitude seen from the point of view here enforced. Of course, as a matter of fact, no one is consistently a pure phenomenalist, believing only in appearances without a reality: and Mill's admission{5} that he cannot regard mind as "a series of states aware of itself as a series," without any bond of union, is a shabby acknowledgment of substance. Nevertheless, the principles of pure phenomenalism are ever being insisted on, to the active promotion of the cause of scepticism; and the perpetual ridicule cast on faculties, or on anything beyond ideas, their associations, and their sequences, necessarily fosters agnostic conclusions. The conclusions, when reached, contradict the principles which have been used to establish them; for, bad as the account is, the account which the pure empiricist gives of the genesis of mind, without substance and without efficient causality, by the heaped-up experiences of unconscious nerve-shock, involves more of real mind in its arguments than ever could have been supplied by a mind so generated. Some real psychological knowledge, and some acute pieces of reasoning, are mixed up with the unreasonable parts of the procedure. The upshot of the whole, however, is logically a complete destruction of the edifice of human knowledge. Accept this theory of mind, and you have no mind left.

Therefore, in this treatise, so much stress is laid upon starting from the notions of substance and efficient causality, as from real, indispensable groundworks for a philosophy of certitude. Those who know something of the state of philosophic opinion in this country, will be ready to admit the relevancy of our brief reference to substance and causality, outside of the treatise in which they are properly discussed; and those whose reading has not qualified them to be judges on the matter, will do well to accept our assertion on faith for the present, and verify it themselves hereafter.

{1} "Accidens est id quod existit in alio tanquam subjecto in haesionis."

{2} "Id quod per se stat, et non inhaeret in alio tanquam subjecto inhaesionis."

{3} See Lepidi's Elementa Philosophiae, Vol. II. Lib. II. sect. ii. c. i. For Mill's admissions, see the present volume, Bk. I. c. xi. Addenda.

{4} How far, however, Mr. Spencer is from holding the true doctrine of substance, will appear on reading Psychology, Part II. c. i. "The Substance of Mind."

{5} Examination, c. xii. P. 213. See still more what be admits io the Appendix on this subject.

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