Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter X.
The Primary Facts and Principles of the Logician.


  1. The philosopher's mental outfit in general when he starts on his course.
  2. The disengagement of certain great primaries, notwithstanding the complicated condition of adult thought, and the impossibility of reverting to the first thoughts of childhood. (a) The primary fact in all knowledge. (b) The primary condition of all knowledge. (c) The primary principle of all knowledge.
  3. Other primaries may be asserted, but the above three deserve special mention.


1. The outfit as to bodily means, with which some begin a University career, has excited partly the amusement and partly the compassion of those who have heard such stories as are typified, on one side by the youth with the "great coat and the pair of pistols;" and on the other side by some of the poorer students of Glasgow and Edinburgh, who all too grimly appreciate Sydney Smith's joke: "We tune our song on slender oats."{1} Still some manage to feed fat the mind, while the flesh remains lean, especially if they start with a good mental outfit: for that is the immediately important thing in the freshman. The philosopher's stock-in-trade at starting, after the clearing out of his premises, has been reduced by Descartes to what we have seen to be ruinous conditions: and therefore we naturally ask ourselves with what supplies we undertake to make a commencement. Already we have settled to keep our natural knowledge, not in the extravagant trust that all our judgments have been correct, but with a general assurance that we have fairly trained minds, and have laid in a store of certitudes, the ultimate foundation of which we may proceed to examine at leisure, without the slightest fear of bringing about a total collapse. We did not begin systematically to philosophize during our school life, because we were not ripe for the exercise; but we began in early manhood, when at least we might hope that we were moderately prepared for the work. We should have held it preposterous had we been called upon, at the inaugural lecture of our philosophic course, to recite, instead of a Credo a Dubito, after the style of the Cartesian formula: I doubt all the truths which hitherto I have held most certain; I question the reality of my body, and the reports of all my senses; I doubt the competency even of my mental powers, and by means of this doubt do I expect salvation.

2. Not, however, to rest content with declaring a general trust in the results of our previous life, subject to many such accidental corrections as a more critical study of details shall suggest, we must pick out a few primary truths, as of universal prevalence throughout every act of knowledge. It has before been declared that we cannot give, in perfect order, first a single principle, then another, and then another, and lay it down, that this is the progress, step by step, of every human mind. Much has been said, both in prose and in verse, about the first waking up of the child to conscious life, and especially to the distinction of self and not self. One sage regards the latter crisis as very solemn, and tells how the infant mind, seeing itself opposed to a whole universe, with a strong cry proclaims its right to assert its own individuality, and to live. Ferrier{2} describes the moment as one of transition from the "feral" to the "human" state. Other authors have carefully chronicled the indications of dawning intelligence in young children, and the study of new-born animals has not been neglected. Richter fancied that he remembered the time and the circumstances, in which the thought first flashed upon him, "I am I;" and he gives a detailed account of the grand revelation.

But these are matters we may leave to other inquirers. Probably anything like the clear, steady possession of one definite certitude does not come till after the mind has acquired many floating ideas, which appear and disappear fluctuatingly on the surface of consciousness, and after many judgments of similarly fluctuating character. That the child's first thoughts are fixed, clear-cut, and coherent judgments, is more than we can believe.

Much as we dissent from the whole theory upon the origin and the nature of knowledge, as propounded by Mr. Spencer,{3} we may take some useful hints from a passage like the following: "Every thought involves a whole system of thoughts, and ceases to exist if severed from its various correlatives. As we cannot isolate a single organ of a living body, and deal with it as though it had a life independent of the rest; so, from the organized structure of our cognitions, we cannot cut one, and proceed as though it had survived the separation. Overlooking this all-important truth, however, speculators have habitually set out with some professedly simple datum or data; have supposed themselves to assume nothing beyond this datum or these data; and have thereupon proceeded to prove or disprove propositions which were, by implication, already unconsciously asserted along with that which was consciously asserted." Our own application of the doctrine will appear in what we are now to explain.

Probably it is our common experience, that we cannot, by memory, recall how knowledge first sprang up in the mind, but we can do something suggestive on the subject. We can actually remember how, upon our beginning some new study, the terms and principles one moment seemed to show a gleam of light, and then were suddenly dark again; then once more the flame flickered up, till gradually a few strong lights were fixed, around which we could range others.

And if this was the case in later years, yet more strongly would the like features be marked, when our intelligence was first feeling its way to the exercise of its own powers. The child's mind is full of abortive ideas, incoherences, and fantastic combinations; so that nurses, in talking to children, by a sort of instinctive sympathy, talk nonsense, while nonsense verses form the child's earliest literature. Some of our recollections of childhood are probably of grotesque, impossible events, which yet we should simply say that we remembered, were it not that we now perceive such incidents to be absurd as realities; they are incidents like those of the nursery rhymes, one writer of which Mr. Lear, has had positively to defend himself against symbol-scenting interpreters, by the declaration, "nonsense plain and absolute has been my aim throughout."

So far, however, as we did form any judgment, we must have been in practical possession of certain great general principles, though we could not single out the abstract elements from their concrete embodiments and universalize them. Now at length we are called upon to evolve what must have been involved in our earliest cognitions, whatever may have been their concrete matter; nor must we overlook the difficulties in the way of our analysis. We have to abstract first principles, not out of our first thoughts, which are equivalently lost to us, but out of our adult thoughts, which are often so complicated that a single sentence may suppose an acquaintance with a vast subject- matter. Without falling into the exaggerated doctrine of relativity, we must allow those facts of which it is the perverted account, for instance, that all knowledge is closely interrelated. Reverting to the passage just now quoted from Mr. Spencer, we must allow the almost illimitable blending of idea with idea, in the texture of mind: indeed the body of our knowledge is a sort of organism, the property of which is, that the parts exist for the whole, and the whole for the parts. It will be a test that we are able sufficiently to isolate by reflexion a few primary truths, which can be absent from no act of knowledge. We insist much on this power of reflective abstraction, and by its means we are going to work. A primary fact, a primary condition, and a primary principle -- these are what we are about to single out.

(a) The fact of his own existence is given implicitly, in every act of genuine knowledge which a man elicits. For knowledge is of no avail unless it comes home to the subject as his own; or, according to one phraseology, perception is useless without apperception, whereby the object known is, for each one, brought under the form, " I know."Ego Cogito, not Est Cogitatio, is what Descartes rightly regards as an important recognition, made by every human mind when it comes to the proper use of its powers.

An ordinary man would hardly raise any difficulty against what has just been asserted, unless he laboured under some delusion as to the extent of the assertion; fancying, for instance, that it required a clear, explicit thought about self, or a cognition of self which should amount to a definitionality or of selfhood. To guard against such misconceptions, be it understood that the recognition of self need be only implicit, and need be no more scientific than what comes within the competency of the newly dawned reason of the child. But here precisely we are taken up. Does not a child show that it has no perception of self, by speaking of itself as "baby," "Georgie," "Maggie," in the third person? This fact proves nothing, for it is natural enough that a child should call itself by that name by which it hears others call it, instead of at once seizing upon the use of the first personal pronoun. Also there is no difficulty in allowing that self-consciousness is not as strong in the child as in the adult: and hence the simplicity and candour of children. The assertion of this characteristic is nol invalidated by the counter-assertion, that there is to be met with in children the unpleasing trait of great selfishness, imperiousness, vanity, jealousy of rivals, which manifestations cannot all be shown to proceed from a sort of mere animal instinct, devoid of all intelligent perception.

If next we consider the opposition that is likely to be made against our First Fact from the part of philosophic theory, then the antagonism is greater than what was offered by the ordinary thinker. Still in the presence of a plain testimony of experience we have a right to disregard the mere exigence of a philosopher's system, which otherwise we know to be wrong. It is enough therefore to mention, without taking the view of Mr. Spencer.{4} Driven by his theory to hold that subject can never be object, and that reflexion is never made upon a present state of mind but always on a past, lie says that though we have a "certainty" of self, we cannot have a "knowledge of self." "The personality of which each one is conscious, and of which the existence is to each a fact beyond all others the most certain, is yet a thing which cannot be truly known at all, knowledge of it being forbidden by the very nature of thought." It is far better to assert simply, on the strength of evident experience, that we know self, than thus recur to a distinction, which supposes "a fact most certain" not to come under "knowledge," but only under some obscurer form of consciousness. If such consciousness does not amount to knowledge, it can be only a sort of blind belief; a consequence we may deduce from many other parts of Mr. Spencer's philosophy. In reliance on his principle{5} that "the invariable persistence of a belief is our sole warrant for any truth of immediate consciousness and of demonstration," he makes the unsatisfactory announcement, that "in the proposition, I am, he who utters it cannot find any proof but the invariable persistence of the belief in it." It is far simpler and truer to say, that to each sane man his own existence is self-evident, and admits of no strict proof; his constant belief in it not being so much a proof, as something which requires no justification by proof, because the thing is self-evident, and therefore above proof strictly so called.

(b) Descartes, with us so far, now abandons us, declaring that he can and does doubt the validity of his very faculties; and that in consequence hey is driven to set about a scientific verification of his mental powers. We maintain that our ability to know cannot be to is matter of strict demonstration, of inference from premisses more evident, but must be taken as the First Condition. This is no assumption, in the bad sense of the phrase; for we are made immediately conscious of our power to know, in the very exercise of our faculties. Nor could we learn the fact any other way, as, for example, by the testimony of others. If a rational being uses his reason, the result is that he finds out what manner of being he is; a thing that the irrational being never does, especially if it be also insensate, like a plant or a stone. As Cardinal Newman puts it, we trust first of all, not our faculties, but their acts, or our faculties in act. And Dr. M'Cosh, in his Intuitions of the Mind, says: "We do not found knowledge, as the Scotch metaphysicians seem to do, on belief in our nature and constitution. It would be as near the truth to say, that we believe our constitution because it makes known realities. But the truth is that the two seem involved one in the other. In our cognitions and feelings, we know and believe in objects, and in doing so we trust in our constitution."

One little allowance, however, may be made to those who teach that we prove our ability to know, though, it is to be feared, they will not be satisfied with the concession. We must remember here what we stated in our last chapter, how a man waking slowly from a vivid dream, may gradually explore his own state and so convince himself by degrees that he is in his right mind. But such a case lends no support to the adversaries of what here is being assumed as the First Condition of all knowledge, a condition the fulfilment of which is tacitly recognised in every intelligent act that we perform. "Knowledge is power," and feels itself to be such intrinsically: it feels that it is a power to know.

(c) Within the thinking subject we have now got a First Fact, the recognition by the subject of self; and a First Condition, the subject's power to know, also recognised as a fact; we must next add a First Principle on the objective side, namely, the Principle of Contradiction. To show the objectivity of this principle we formulate it, not on the logical, but on the ontological side. We do not simply say, "the same thing cannot, in the same sense, be affirmed and denied," but "the same thing cannot, in the same way, be and not be." Under both aspects the principle is self-evident, and it is only the extreme of irrationality in Mill, which makes him refrain from asserting its absoluteness both for all thought and for all things. Yet even he ventures so far as to write,{6} "that the same thing should at once be and not be; that identically the same statement should be both true and false, is not only inconceivable to us, but we cannot conceive that it should be made conceivable." He admits too, that if there are any primitive necessities of thought, this is one of them. With him Mr. Bain agrees to the extent of affirming that, "were it admissible that a thing could be and not be, our faculties would be stultified and rendered nugatory." Hampered by no theories from Hume, we simply assert. as self-evident to reason, the Principle of Contradiction, or as Hamilton prefers to call it, the Principle of Non-contradiction. No statement that we could make would have any meaning, if this principle had not clear objective validity.

3. The above three are called primaries, but not in the exclusive sense. Such a phrase as the "three first" is often criticized, and by some declared to be quite inadmissible. If it stands for objects which are respectively first, second, and third in a series, we may leave it undiscussed; but when it stands for three which are abreast in forming the first rank, then we are here concerned to defend the expression, so far as to justify our assertion of "three primaries." The word "first," like any superlative, may qualify simply an individual, or it may qualify a whole class, and be predicated of the individuals in that class. Thus we can use it when we say, "the ten first men in England" each of the ten holds independently a first place. When, therefore, we are speaking of the three primaries, we are not putting one before the other, nor even denying that there are other primaries: it is sufficient that the three are primaries, and further, that among primaries, they deserve a special prominence to be given to them, because of their importance. But, in addition to them, the principle of identity is primary, so is the principle of sufficient reason, that nothing can be without an adequate account for its existence; and so is the principle of evidence, that what is evident must be accepted as true. To compile a catalogue of all the truths which are self-evident, and cannot be reduced to components simpler than themselves, would be a tedious work, and not helpful to present purposes. If, however, we are called upon to emphasize any beyond the three mentioned primaries, it will be the Principle of Sufficient Reason, so often violated by pure empiricists, and yet so vital to all philosophy. When Mr. Bain declares that there is no repugnancy in "an isolated event," or "in something arising out of nothing," if we are to take him literally, he puts himself out of the pale of reasoning creatures. His friend Mill is nearer to the sane principle, at least as far as a single sentence goes, when he writes: That any given effect is only necessary provided that the causes tending to produce it are not controlled; that whatever happens could not have happened otherwise, unless something had taken place, which was capable of preventing it, no one needs surely to hesitate to admit." Unfortunately when he says, "cause," Mill does not mean "cause," but otherwise his words are in the right direction; and we at any rate do well to put in the position of a primary truth, the principle of Sufficient Reason.

We must dissent, however, from the peculiar treatment of this principle by Mansel, who first of all states it only in its logical side, "Every judgment must have a sufficient ground for its assertion," and then denies it to be a principle. "The only reason for a thought of any kind is its relation to some other thought, and this relation will in each case be determined by its own proper law. The principle of sufficient reason is, therefore, no law of thought, but only the statement that every act of thought must be governed by some law or other."{7} He even ventures something like a possible suspicion of the principle, but does not clearly assert it: "If considerations [concerning free-will] suggest a limit to the universality of the principle of sufficient reason, so be it."{8}


(1) Mill{a} declares "there is no ground for believing that the Ego is an original presentation of consciousness." When it does become such we have the following account of it: "The fact of recognizing a sensation, of remembering that it has been felt before, is the simplest and most elementary fact of memory; and the inexplicable tie, or law, or organic union, which connects the present consciousness with the past one, of which it reminds me, is as near, I think, as we can get to a positive conception of self. That there is something real in this tie, real as the sensations themselves, and not a mere product of the laws of thought, without any fact corresponding to it, I hold to be indubitable. . . . Whether we are directly conscious of it in the act of remembrance, as we are conscious in fact of having successive sensations, or whether according to the opinion of Kant we are not conscious of self at all, but are compelled to assume it as a necessary condition of memory, I do not undertake to decide. But this original element which has no community of nature with any of the things answering to our names and to which we cannot give any name but its own peculiar one, without implying some false or ungrounded theory, is the Ego or Self. As such I ascribe a reality to the Ego -- to my own mind -- different from that real existence as a Permanent Possibility, which is the only reality I acknowledge in matter."

(2) There have been authors, whose connexions may be traced back at least as far as Heraclitus, and who, under the idea of "becoming," as distinguished from "being," try to do away with the asserted contradiction between simultaneous being and not being. Ferrier{b} explains Heraclitus thus: "When he says that all things are in a continual state of flux, that a thing agrees with itself and yet differs from itself; when he says that strife is the father of all things, that everything is its own opposite and both is and is not, he means that things are continually changing, or that the whole system of the universe is a never-ceasing process of 'becoming.'" "The principal feature in the conception of 'being' is rest, fixedness. Now the opposite of this is the principal feature in the conception of 'becoming.' It is unrest, unfixedness. A thing never rests at all in any of the changing states into which it is thrown. It is in that state and out of it in a shorter time than any calculus can measure."

The fallacy often used to illustrate this theory, is to suppose that mere unextended points of time and space are, not merely limits, or ideal boundaries marking divisions of time and space, but are their actually constituent elements; so that extension is made up of an infinite row of inextensibles placed side by side. This notion is absurd, and is not held even in what is known as the dynamistic theory of matter, which asserts at least extended areas of force, the centres only of which are unextended points. But observing the fallacy, let us see how it is worked. A body, moving continuously, is supposed at once to arrive at any given point, and to leave it at the same moment, and thus to be at once there and not there. The sophism lies in making the point to be at once part of the line and not part of its extension. If we keep to definitions, a point of time is of no duration, and a point of space of no extent. When, then, we say that a body moves over a point of space in a point of time, we are uttering the very true statement, that in no time no space is traversed. It being clear, therefore, that to account for the traversing of a literal point in a body's path is to account for no part of the path at all; it is equally clear that if any part is to be accounted for, then we must take at least some small extent both of space and of time. But as soon as extension is considered, the whole argument fails: it can no longer be pretended, that the body together is and is not at one place.

A somewhat like fallacy is used in reference to circular motion, which may be considered to be composed of a projection in a straight direction and a constant attraction by a definite law to the centre. The result is that the body never gets either nearer to the centre or further from it, the curvilinear path is the compromise between the two motions, but it is never one component alone. Here steps in the fallacy-framer, and pretends that the motion is both tangential, away from the centre, and centripetal, or towards the point of attraction. We answer firmly, there is no such union of contradictories, there is only a movement of revolution, which is never for a moment either centrifugal or centripetal.

(3) Mill's empirical account of the induction by which we reach the principle of contradiction, is thus given: "The principle of Contradiction should put off the ambitious phraseology which gives it the air of a fundamental antithesis pervading nature, and should be enunciated in the simpler form, that the same proposition cannot at the same time be false and true. But I can go no further with the Nominalists, for I cannot look upon this last as a merely verbal proposition. I consider it to be, like other axioms, one of our first and most familiar generalizations from experience. The original foundation of it I take to be, that Belief and Disbelief are two different mental states, excluding one another. This we know by the simplest observation of our own minds. And, if we carry our observation outwards, we also find that light and darkness, sound and silence, motion and quiescence, equality and inequality, preceding and following, succession and simultaneousness, any positive phenomenon whatever and its negative, are distinct phenomena, pointedly contrasted. I consider the maxim in question to be a generalization from all these facts."{c}

(4) There is a limit to human patience in bearing with subtleties, which have for their object the overturning of such fundamental principles as that of contradiction; and in illustration of the way in which exhausted patience rebels, a few examples may be borrowed from Janet's little book on Materialism.

Hegel's dialectic process, which goes on the theory of reconciling contradictories by successive steps of antithesis and synthesis, was allowed a certain degree of triumph; but it also called forth violent denunciations from its opponents, and led to wide divergencies between its friends. Schopenhauer expressed a common feeling when he called such philosophy" a minimum of thought, diluted into five hundred pages of nauseous phraseology." Humbolt, accustomed to the more sober physical sciences, turned to ridicule what he called "the dialectic tricks" of Hegel; while Goethe avowed that, "if the transcendentalists ever became aware of it, they would find themselves to be very absurd."

As a reaction against so much idea-weaving, and so much building up in the clouds, there arose the gross materialism of Moleschott, Büchner, and Vogt. The second of this trio pronounced the pretended philosophy to be "verbiage," "jargon," "metaphysical quackery," "a cooking up of old vegetables under new names," and a proceeding "which inspires legitimate disgust in learned and unlearned alike."

(5) Hardly as a serious objection to the principle of contradiction, and yet as furnishing a straw at which a desperate opponent might clutch, but still more as having an interest of its own, the fact may be mentioned, that of late years lists have been compiled of words from out-of-the-way languages, which have a double signification, namely, an idea and its opposite. We are not quite without examples of the kind in more familiar tongues. The case illustrates, so far as the saying is true, the old dictum that "the knowledge of opposites is one." Another observed fact of an analogous order is that people recovering from amnesia, or loss of memory, are found using, instead of the right word for a conception, just its opposite. To these or any other similar discoveries the friends of the Hegelian identification of contradictories are welcome; but their cause will remain hopeless as ever.

(6) At the root of much difficulty made against the isolation of primary, absolute principles, stands the theory of Relativity in all knowledge, on the strength of which the notion of absolute being is denied to us; and all that is refused us under the title of knowledge, "at last is given back to us under the name of an inferior mode of consciousness. A sentence omitted in a quotation lately made from Mr. Spencer, shall here be supplied:{d} "The development of formless protoplasm into an embryo, is a specialisation of parts, the distinctness of which increases only as fast as their combination increases -- each becomes a distinguishable organ, only on condition that it is bound up with others, which have simultaneously become distinguishable organs: and similarly, from the unformed material of consciousness, a developed intelligence can arise only by a process which, in making things definite, also makes them mutually dependent -- establishes among them certain vital connexions, the destruction of which causes instant death of the thoughts." Now if we refer back a little, we shall learn something about what this "unformed material of consciousness" is supposed to be.{e} "We come face to face with the ultimate difficulty -- how can there possibly be constituted a consciousness of the unformed and unlimited, when by its very nature consciousness is possible only under forms and limits? In each consciousness there is an element which persists. It is alike impossible for this element to be absent from consciousness, and for it to be present in consciousness alone; either alternative involves unconsciousness -- the one from want of substance, the other from want of form. But the persistence of this element under successive conditions, necessitates a sense of it as distinguished from the conditions. The sense of this something, conditioned in every thought, is constituted by combining successive concepts deprived of their limits and conditions. The indefinite concept is not the abstract of any one group of ideas, but of all ideas, namely, EXISTENCE, which is an indefinite consciousness of some. thing constant under all modes. Our consciousness of the unconditioned being literally the unconditioned consciousness, or raw material of thought to which in thinking we give definite forms, it follows that an ever present sense of real existence is the very basis of our intelligence. At the same time that by the laws of thought we are rigorously prevented from forming a conception of absolute existence, we are by the laws of thought equally prevented from ridding ourselves of the consciousness of absolute existence; this consciousness being the obverse of our own self-consciousness. And since the only possible measure of relative validity among our beliefs, is the degree of their persistence in opposition to the efforts made to change them; it follows that this which persists at all times, under all circumstances, has the highest validity of any." In brief, our highest belief is about a matter we cannot know; but about which we have an indefinite consciousness.

{1} "Tenui musam meditamur avena." (Virgil, Ecl. i. 2.)

{2} The Philosophy of Consciousness, Part V. c. iii. and per totum.

{3} First Principles, Part II. c. ii. § 39.

{4} First Principles, Part 1. c. iii. § 20.

{5} Ibid. c. iv. § 26 in fine.

{6} Examination, c. vi. p. 67; cf. c. xxi. p. 417. (2nd Ed.).

{7} Proleg. Log., c. vi. pp. 198, 223.

{8} C. v. p. 153.

{a} Examination, Appendix, p. 256. Compare the Appendix to Hume's Treatise, at the end of Bk. 1. Part IV. p. 559.

{b} History of Greek Philosophy; Remains, Vol. 1. pp. 114, 116.

{c} Logic, Bk. II. c. vii. § 4.

{d} First Principles, Part II. c. ii. § 39.

{e} Ibid. Part 1. c. iv. § 26, p. 94.

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