Social and Ethical Interpretations in Mental Development


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IN his paper on 'Natural Law, Evolution, and Ethics,' in this journal (July, 1895, p.489), my friend Professor Royce presents under the caption of ' Discussion' an interesting attempt to reconcile the 'cosmic' with the ' ethical process,' apropos of the current discussions raised by Mr. Huxley's much-talked-of paper on ' Evolution and Ethics.' The development given by Mr. Royce is based upon the well-known distinction between the 'world of description' and the ' world of appreciation' of the same author's work, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy. He also refers to the article of his on ' The External World and the Social Consciousness' in the Philosophical Review (September, 1894). The currency already attained by these views of Mr. Royce makes it unnecessary that I should stop long on the preliminaries of his present paper.


Briefly, the argument is this : All the formulas of natural science are descriptions of phenomena which are held together just for the purposes of natural science. The growth of the thought of the objective is, genetically, the sorting out and grouping by these formulas of the items of experience which have two general characters : they are capable of description,' and also of ' social verification.' The description is necessary to their being statable in interconnected wholes or groups : the verification is necessary to their being the matter of science, i_e., objectively there for the discovery of all men alike. The remaining contents of experience, not presenting these characters, are not thrown together under the statement of natural laws, or ' cosmic process' : they are capricious, in the sense that they are not describable ; and they are subjective, in the sense that they are not verifiable. They are therefore set off against the cosmic process : and when we come to see their characters as involving desire, with certain ingreclients of the desirable known as ' the ideal,' the opposition crystallizes into that of the ' ethical' over against the ' cosmic process.' The distinction is, therefore, genetically one of the method and flow of experience ; it does not seem to require a corresponding division or dualism in the nature of reality itself.

So far Mr. Royce's discussion seems to me to be very clear and, in its main contention, true. I think the distinction in consciousness, when genetically considered, between the two points of view of ' description' and ' appreciation' is the root of opposition between the cosmic and the ethical. I am not able, however, to accept his tests of the objective ; and it may not be out of place, in view of the active discussions now going on, to examine his argument a little in detail.[2]

In the first place, Mr. Royce seems, after getting consciousness into this dilemma of the necessary antithesis between the 'ought' and the ' is,' to find no psychological way of getting consciousness out of it. He seems to say: ' Remain a man of science and the moral sense is an illusion'—'remain a moralist and the man of science is a liar!, No man can be both at once. The only way that a reconciliation can be effected is by a philosophy which still recognizes the opposition, it is true, but is able to reinforce the statement of one side with profounder reasons. The ethical process gets reinforced in Professor Royce's philosophy. and so the protest of the spirit is heard in the court of claims of ultimate reality. Science is tolerated, then, not justified ultimately.


Now this theory, it seems, does not ' reconcile' the two processes ; it merely gives us an interesting account of the genesis of the opposition. It seems to require, both in its account of the description of phenomena and in that of the meaning of desire, the same opposition between a unity which is merely recognized as there, and a unity which is demanded, although not there. Professor Royce leaves the desire urging on to something essentially indescribable and unverifiable. He says: " The object of our ideal is desirable not in so far as it is describable, and, again precisely in so far as it is not yet verifiable [italics his]. Herein, then, lies a double contrast between the natural fact as such, and the object of desire as such." With this account of desire we should expect failure to get any real reconciliation ; for it confuses the ' object' of desire with the fact that with the object there is what we call, very obscurely often, the accompanying sense of an ideal. But when we come to distinguish between the object and this ideal accompaniement, we see that the object is both describable and verifiable ;[3] and then we see that through the attainment of it —if perchance we do attain it—we have brought the ideal which it stood for nearer to a similar construction. It, too, becomes now in so far also describable and verifiable, not now, however, as ideal, but as fact. The sense called ideal still goes on to attach to a further object of desire. But inasmuch as by the successful pursuit of this object, then and there, we have so far realized our ideal, in so far we have turned the 'ought' into the ' is' ; we have made natural history out of the objects of our ethical cravings. May not this give a real reconciliation of the two points of view, rather than an account merely of the opposition which remains to plague Mr. Royce?

The sense of ought, then, from my point of view, is the anticipation of more experience, not yet treated under the rubrics of description ; but as far as it is identified with any object of desire, it is thought to exemplify the canons of description of that object as being most nearly the sort of experience that expectation is reaching out after. And natural science, the 'cosmic process,' is the same series read backwards. It is experience fully described, and hence rid of that colouring of expectation and desire which, when it was looked at the other way, made it the vehicle for the realization of the ideal.

When we come to the metaphysical point of view we find the same criticism of Mr. Royce in order. What shall we say to a ' reconciliation' which still, as I think, allows the two parties to the controversy each to establish his own side by cutting off half of consciousness and

(553) throwing it away? The positivist may say: "From profound philosophical reasons, I find consciousness justified in its' descriptions ; so it is under illusion in its appreciations." And the idealist turns the tables; justifying himself also on profound philosophical grounds. The reason that they can do this is found in Professor Royce's failure to find an actual identity anywhere between the experiences described and the good desired : instead of holding that the 'is' is always, in so far, also the 'ought' (that is, so far as it is the legitimate outcome of the cosmic process, i.e., is statable universally, and is not a mere accident) ; but that, by the very movement by which consciousness gets it as an 'is,' it has to transcend it in a search for a further 'ought.' But if this is true, —if the series is one and the antithesis arises from the two points of view, 'prospective and retrospective,' from which it is viewed,—then a being who could hold both points of view adequately at once, would know no such opposition. He would ' appreciate' the world as good without being under illusion, and also describe it as true without being a liar.

This inadequacy, as I venture to think it, of Mr. Royce's paper, may be brought out also by the consideration of one other point. We may ask how one is to meet the objection that in giving a natural history of the distinction between the ' is' and the 'ought' one lays himself open to the charge of giving exclusive weight to the ' is' after all. The very sense of appreciation is itself a cosmic product, how then can it have any meaning apart from the details of history out of which it has arisen? This very dilemma seems to me to be the fruitful source of confusion in Mr. Huxley's Address. He treats the ' ought' in the body of the Address as in essential opposition to the ' cosmic is' ; and in an appendix says it is nevertheless due to the principle of selection. If it is due to selection, we may ask, must it not have existed as a fact, a variation, say, before it was selected? But if so, how can it as a fact have been in essential opposition to the series of facts which the theory of survival for utility presupposes? Now, I think Professor Royce's paper does not answer this question. He seems to leave a gap between the sense of the thing and the sense of its value ; he says, however, that the sense of value attaches to all things; and by making the essentially valuable aspect of the thing indescribable and unverifiable, he says in effect that it cannot be a natural history outcome.[4]

On the contrary, apart from details of natural history which I have

(554) tried to supply elsewhere,[5] I think the matter described by the ' is' is the inadequate content of that which we feel ' ought' to be; and the description of what 'oughted' to be, i.e., what was the object of description of a past ought,' is what ' is.' In short, the ' ought' is a function of a mental content, of a descriptive 'is,'—a motor function, I think, —and so like every other function of content has its own natural history as a single fact ; but its meaning is progressive, prospective, and the discovery of its full meaning still remains a question apart from its evolution.

I can say, therefore, with Professor Royce : 'Novelty is a conditio sine qua non of all ideal value when regarded from a temporal point of view;' but I must add that novelty, as such, is not the only conditio sine qua non. Rather is the full fact what is called in his context the 'interestingly novel.' For an object 0f desire there must be enough description to make the thing interesting; and this description is the essential content. Realize the desire, and you in so far add to the description, and so set another content for further desire. It is just this progressively built up content, viewed first from the point of view of novelty, then from that 0f history, then from that of novelty again, that the final identity 0f reality must rest upon. An all-comprehensive experience would be appreciated as the all-good. So I say 'no' to this sentence of our author: " There is no chance of reconciling the metaphysically real and ultimate universality of the so-called cosmical processes, or processes according to describably rigid laws, with any even remotely ethical interpretation 0f the same reality." Rather must reality, when viewed metaphysically, be both rigidly true and divinely fair—as far as metaphysics may allow us to hold to either category as more than a human analogy.

In conclusion, I do not think this is the only topic the discussion of which calls for a reconciliation of the same two points of view. I have developed, in a paper in the Psychological Review (Nov. 1895, ' The Origin of a Thing and its Nature') a general distinction of ' prospective' and 'retrospective' points of view under which that between' description' and ' appreciation' may be subsumed. In general, I may add that the distinction, genetically considered, is that which I have endeavoured to set out in extenso, and in part from a biological point of view, under the terms 'Habit' and - 'Accommodation,' in my work 'On Mental Development'. Under these principles, respectively, the ' is' and the ' ought' find their genesis. And with this the main psychological position 0f Professor Royce is, I think, in harmony.


  1. Reprinted from the Int. Journ. of Ethics, Oct., 1895.
  2. Cf. the further remarks in Appendix E.
  3. It is the ' thing of fact' described in Sect. 242 f.
  4. I know he gives it a natural history in the individual's private experience, but that seems to be, in a sense, apart from the cosmic movement.
  5. See my Mental Development, pp. 341 ff.

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