Sights-Seen as Materials of Knowledge
Arthur F. Bentley
MOST modern psychological inquiry is conducted under postulation expressible thus : Confronting various material objects are to be found certain experiencing beings, whose experiences (including their knowings) may, and for scientific purposes must, be isolated as subject-matters in behavioral inquiry. Upon psychologies so constructed (as a rule in their crudest forms) practically all our sociologies are based. To such psychologies likewise the current philosophizings about science as knowledge are steadily oriented.
This manner of postulation is not always—indeed, not even commonly—explicit. For the most part it takes itself for granted as plain common sense. Where affirmed, it exhibits shadings of stress ranging upwards to a supreme self-confidence in the eternal verities. It will concern us solely as it enters scientific inquiry as guide to operation. In this form it declares with reasonable modesty, and with presumptive clarity, that investigation into behaviors is to be undertaken, and construction made, as if in fact the materials used consist definitely and precisely of non-organic objects, human beings (or other organisms), and experiences, with specialized isolation of the third of these for technical examination.
Considered in this way with respect to their operative usefulness, such postulates have one test to face and one only : do systems constructed in their terms attain coherence of formulation and solidity of factual interpretation ? Under this test the postulation is bad, because its works are bad; it has far outlived its usefulness. Some small parts of our current psychologies and sociologies are satisfactory to some workers in some small corners of the field, but
(170) the general condition of both branches of inquiry is notoriously unsatisfactory with respect to consistency and to factuality alike.
Any philosopher can tell us of dozens of accusations that have been cast against the materials thus postulated, and of dozens of philosophical efforts at their reformation; but the philosopher will also admit when pressed that no philosophy has ever accomplished anything towards reform that has stayed accomplished. Something of importance has been occurring in the last generation, nevertheless, that affects the entire method of initial observation which both the philosophies and the sciences have been employing. In the present paper I shall describe and develop to some extent a transformed method of inspecting the simplest factual situations that enter behavioral inquiry. In a following paper I shall examine a number of recent psychological attitudes and constructions which tend to break away from the old forms and move towards the new ones. In a third paper I shall consider the probable frame of postulation which the newer method of construction will require.
A Key to Progress.—Some time ago Professor Woodbridge, in a renewed examination of the problem of consciousness, declared in this JOURNAL that "consciousness is seeing, hearing, and the rest," and that "seeing and hearing—and the rest appropriately—are sights seen and sounds heard"; that they "are materials of knowledge," not readily to be appraised as "functions" of anything. His procedure in reaching this conclusion was to focus consideration upon "consciousness" as field of inquiry and as subject of discourse. After long-continued examination of the common-sense applications of the word and of its philosophical and scientific uses, and after a searching genetic appraisal, he achieved an immensely improved description and naming for the involved phenomena. I shall take the "is" and the first "are" in his cited words as asserting full equivalence in the naming of fact, so that when "sights seen" and "the rest appropriately" are specified, a comprehensive naming of the phenomena of consciousness has been given, and no double-naming, collateral or summative, is permissible. We have here, then, a formal substitution of naming, and our procedure will be to start directly upon the basis of the substitution thus achieved. When we specify sights seen, and the rest, we shall regard ourselves as having exhaustively specified all that the word "consciousness" covers, so that nothing
(171) further will be implied or supplied by further use of the vocabulary of the "conscious," which may then drop out of the discussion altogether, except as it appears in occasional cases of critical offsetting.
Let us now take the words "sights" and "seen" and hyphenate them to sharpen their status as a single term which offers scientifically definite phenomena for our consideration. Let us then add an "etc." to permit ourselves to escape repetitional detail of naming when we include the correlated phenomena Professor Woodbridge has set forth, which are assimilable for all the purposes of the coming inquiry to the sights-seen proper. Taking these "sights-seen, etc." directly as "materials of knowledge," and proceeding to examine the forms of observation that may now be employed and the actual observations that can be made, we shall find that we have acquired an extremely efficient tool for further work.
Absent entirely from our development will be any preferential imputation either to the "seeing" or to the "sights" in the term "sights-seen." In its freedom from such imputations lies one of the term's highest merits. Precisely here, however, appears a problem as to the localization of the phenomena, "sights-seen, etc.," which we may not at all evade. If the locus of these phenomena is not assigned exclusively to the organism in severance from the object (the changed status following at once if neither seen-object nor seeing-process has preferential stress), where are we to say that they are to be looked for and found? The answer to this question is not to be given out of hand. It is evident, however, that man's anatomical skin no longer is master in the old sense over the full scheme of observation and description. For the moment it will suffice to say that the locus may be assigned to a "situation" that includes organism and object, not as isolated beings forcing themselves or being forced into contact with one another, but as phases of one common, naturalistic process or event. Any such localization will, of course, be a provisional
(172) device for purposes of study, a possible first approximation to spatial form, and not at all a purported determination of reality.
Sights-Seen, Etc., in Evolution.—Sights-seen, etc., enter the long array of evolutionary forms—sidereal, terrestrial, vital, and social—at the same stage at which an individualized "consciousness" is commonly averred to enter. They enter under slow gradation and differentiation just as an evolutionist might hope to make such a "consciousness" enter. They enter, however—and here lies an important difference in the outcome—as newly elaborated process, not as newly created (or creatively evolved) things. This contrast of process versus thing is not one that primarily involves the older specifications of "substance," whether material or immaterial. Rather it is a question of force, whether as a settled resident of a locality, or as distributed across a field with only such stress on localization as the conditions surrounding inquiry provisionally require.
An individualized "consciousness" entering the evolutionary train presents itself as a new "thing," or "quality," or "possession," or "capacity," or "power," or "force." "Emergent evolution" is friendly to it, and indeed the term "emergent" seems employed peculiarly to signalize this attitude, emphasis being placed upon the "new," not merely as produced through the processes of evolution, but more emphatically still upon this "new" as "present at" and "active at" the spot where it is thus "produced." Such an emergent "consciousness" acquires residence in or upon an organism or perhaps a brain, with all the possible consequences therefrom up to and including full theological dignity.
In sharp contrast with this, the evolving sights-seen, etc., acquire no such residence. They remain process under way across a field, with their localizations having the rank only of descriptions within inquiry, to be maintained to such an extent, and only to such an extent, as proves continuingly useful. They are not "things" in the defective sense of that term; they are not closely localized residents of cerebral or other narrow areas; they make no claim to the possession of independent powers of their own.
Circularity.—While sights-seen, etc., are thus established in an evolutionary setting, this setting itself is an outgrowth of knowledge, and this very "knowledge" arises directly out of the sights-
(173) seen, etc., which provide its materials. We face the great circle of all circles. So far as we know, such a circle of knowledge is inevitable under our present conditions of living, being, and knowing. Our age has overcome the heaviest of the ancient fixations and dogmatisms, but it has not yet reached the possible future stage of calm assurance; it shows itself at its best where it attains maximum freedom for search and discovery in the manner called scientific. What here concerns us, then, is not the fact of circularity, but only the type.
Where "consciousness" enters as a quasi-thing with a definite organic location, alleged to possess and exercise a power-specialization of its own, it carries with it all the old embroilments of solipsism and realism. A "mental" which eschews its old linguistic companions and parades itself in a fresh disguise as "emergental," remains after all the same old "mental": a device for practical communication, a grammarizing of fact, a crude and imperfect manner of talking, a bit of mysticism. In it the "knower" is still opposed to the "known," with little change except in the stuff out of which he is assumed to be made. The same old duplicities appear, as well in the knower when he is appraised in terms of the known, as in the known when it is appraised in terms of the knower. The old difficulties with "raw" sensation are not very far away.
In contrast with all this is the situation when sights-seen, etc., are taken in direct view. The distinction of subjective and objective no longer dominates. Concreted oppositions of the type of knower and known lose their microcosmic pretenses. The processes under way cease to appear as personality-masses in particle-point construction, but instead are broken down and spread over the long course of the evolutionary series, under conditions which give inquiry greatly heightened prospects of success. Sets of descriptions may now connect with one another the full length of the evolutionary chain. Well-knit descriptions will pass from stages prior to the entry of the sights-seen, etc. (as displayed in terrestrial time), not only up to the sights-seen, but straight on
(174) through them (now in a time in which the terrestrial clock seems shrunk in significance) into descriptions of the processes called concept, word, thought, and symbol, and into those further processes called "constructions," which in the end set forth that very evolutionary background within which the sights-seen, etc., themselves are described. The "circle" is not lost, but its radius now becomes so great that along a segment of our working lives we may attain what seems to us to be direct vision forward or backward alike; this, however, solely when our "feel" is that of inquiry, and when we disregard the assertion of realities, and concern ourselves neither with terminus a quo nor ad quem. We have thus indications of an empirically established empiricism, in significant contrast with the older patterns of empiricism, rationalistically proclaimed.
Seeing Sights-Seen, Etc.—If a sight-seen is material of knowledge—if, indeed, there is any system in knowledge and observation—then we may expect the sight-seen itself to be observable. To what observation can we attain ?
We start with a handicap. In current ways of talking, an observation is an organism's "act." For us, in contrast, it is the existence—the very phenomenal presence—of a sight-seen, which is not a "function" of anything. In current speech the conventions of our prescientific language, particularly its grammar, dominate report, belief, and in a well-known sense the observing itself ; an illusion being no less an illusion where ancient respectability is its boast. The current form of speech is a recognized obstacle to progress in the psychological and social sciences, the existing status of these sciences being evidence enough of the fact. In replacing the current form—if replacement is to come at all—we need the simplest and most efficient direct description we can obtain. The description must be verifiable, and it must be uncompelled ; otherwise we do not want it at all.
Observing the situation set before us by the report "I see a tree," we have a right to take it as event, as an event, and to approach thus its examination. We lay aside the usual inattentive procedure of resting casually on the items "I" and "tree" under the impression that we are safe in allowing these items to explain, or serve as bases for, a possible third item, "see." The barest hint of the dubious status of the first two items should be enough to require us to seek as closely as possible the observation of the
(175) event, regardless of what possible re-orientation of the items "I," "see," and "tree" may follow.
The position now briefly to be sketched occupies ground common to many men of many views. The outcome depends on how far one proceeds, on where he stops, and on what he does at his chosen stopping point. Our first step is to note the extreme over-generalization of the expression "I see a tree." In its place we may substitute and use for introductory purposes an expression that is much closer to the event, thus : "Standing at my window, I look out and see a tree on the hill." Even this must be made more definite in terms of "my present organism now," "this window to my left," and "that white oak beyond," and by recognizing that the "see" in question is no longer some generality of "power" or "act," but instead the indicated process of a much more definite verb than "see"—namely, "to see a," expressing precisely a present event of seeing.
In my own case the more clearly I narrow observation down to the immediate instance, the more certainly I identify the form "sight-seen" directly, without further differentiation into components such as "I," "see," or "it." I identify no component such as tree-object (apart from observable presence), no separate "idea" or mental element, or capacity, or personality factor, and no separated "act" of observing, separately performed. I observe no array of performers or performances under the conventional linguistic specifications, but instead precisely the immediately present event. Lurking in the underbrush around the edges of observation may be a myriad candidates for attention, but the behavioral techniques of their entries and exits is not our problem at this moment ; once entered, they exhibit themselves in the form of sights-seen, etc.
The illustration, "sight-seen," will suffice for the full range of "sights-seen, etc.," although if the presumptive procedure under examination were that of an independent mind-thing, with a private array of powers of its own, a single specimen—such as a
(176) "seeing"—would fall far short of being adequate. In our case, consider in differentiation : (a) the sight-seen as an instance of observation, and (b) the sight-seen as an object-phase of observation, where the form in place of (tree-sight)-seen is (sight-seen)seen. The two cases reduce to one, and although they exhibit an immense range of complexities greatly in need of exploration and organization, everywhere in them is also exhibited the characteristic process or event. Case (b) is an instance within the phenomena of sights-seen, etc., just as fully as was the special instance of a single sight-seen we considered above. The outlines of coherent scientific construction are clear. This is in sharp contrast with the painful problems that arise where "observation" is the "act" of an "I." The words "solipsism" and "introspection" tell enough of the story. The latter word reports certain sporadically plausible attempts to make direct contact with a linguistically engineered fiction. The former recognizes that a comparable fiction inserted into any "other" organism is beyond plausible reach of such contact. Where observation proceeds under the form of sights-seen, etc., the fiction is eliminated, and along with it the full nest of fictive problems.
Obstacles to Observation.—Мy observation and report, as I have above set it down may, of course, be erroneous. I can not claim validity for it unless it is also valid for other organisms like mine. The decision, however, is not a matter of statistics of attitudes at a given moment, nor of personal likings. Verifications or rejections that count come only when issues are analyzed, goals identified, obstacles overcome, and sufficient training obtained ; the use of a great telescope requires all of these, and much more does our problem require them. We may mention the main obstacles that interfere, and then indicate the influence of prominently recognized objectives.
If despite all the characterization that has been given them, a reader still regards the sights-seen, etc., as "subjective" in contrast with things-objective, he illustrates a manner of obstacle, perhaps to be styled propaedeutical inelasticity, of which nothing further need here be said. In specific experience such as memory-image, however, a quasi-subjective influence may assert itself, despite high discipline of attention. One may grant, tentatively at least, a basic observation of sights-seen where tree and man confront, but feel forced to deny it when man has moved five minutes and a thousand feet down the road and memory-image comes. Hobbes in his time and in his matter-of-fact way found no difficulty here. Have we such clarity of knowledge about
(177) light-waves-at-an-instant that an event of light-waves-with-neural-continuations is in contrast a mystery ?
The above difficulty under analysis shows itself to involve the particular space and time backgrounds of our ordinary reference and our connected attitude which sees events as the results of impact-causation. Our three-dimensional surveyor's space rose to unique magnificence in Newton's mechanics, but has been shorn of its older claims through the extensions of physical observation which modern physics has achieved; yet it still dominates the description of most things "psychological"; which is to say that it dominates the very region in which its standing was never sound, and its descriptive powers never adequate. Confirmed addicts of such space and time and causation bar themselves automatically from improvement of their observational processes beyond what these forms will permit.
But again these space and time backgrounds are complexly involved with our language systems. Perceptional phases are entangled with "categories" and other expressive phases. Obstacle of obstacles to progress is the too highly specialized verbal device, good enough, perhaps, in its special uses, but allowed to dominate problems far beyond its proper competence. So many enterprises are under way at present towards setting the world right linguistically that it is enough here to mention the situation.
Not as direct obstacle, but more widely as conditioning of opinion, we come finally to the nature of the problems men set themselves, in their respective times and places. We possess as yet no usable sociological theory of the conditions of progress, that is, of the nexus of change with change in social life. We may nevertheless very simply note that devices good for older uses, in time prove defective and must undergo replacement; and that the present age is one in which a basic "I" which "sees," and a basic "it" which "is seen," are both devices which have fallen into disrepute because of their failures to do sound work where sound work is scientifically most needed. The sights-seen, etc., appear in replacement, precisely to attempt to perform the task.
Favoring Signs.—Is there a serious student of behaviors today who asserts the existence (i.e., presence for study) of "mental
(178) states" (ideas, concepts, or whatsoever) devoid of all "content"? Probably, no. Suppose, now, an inquirer includes this admitted "content" fully and honestly in his behavorial materials, and then, in disregard of minor aims and games, seeks the most comprehensive construction for behavior he can get. Can he stop short of full recognition of sights-seen, etc., as basic phenomena of observation? The answer is, I think, that he can not. An accompanying incidental comment is necessary, however, to the effect that few inquirers have either occasion or desire to seek so far.
William James was our greatest observer. His "stream of thought" (with "thought" the equivalent of "consciousness") was perhaps his greatest observation. He saw, of course, with the eye of the physiologist, and located this "stream" within the skin; but even that localized setting did not suppress his feeling that by rights he should be using the impersonal verb to report "simply and with the minimum of assumption" his observation that "it thinks." "Every thought," he continued, "tends to be part of a personal consciousness" (italics mine). In our present generation with its greatly widened knowledge of environing and social processes, James's impersonal observation "it thinks" moves readily from intra-organic localizations into the full situations of organism-object. where the form "sights-seen, etc.," becomes characteristic of it.
The strongest evidence for the phenomena, sights-seen, etc., so far as my own feeling goes, lies in the duplicity of perhaps all of those words in our language by which specific instances of "mental process" are displayed. This evidence is strong because it exhibits the utmost that speaking beings, all together across the millenia, have been able to accomplish towards isolating factually the "psyche" of their belief; and this utmost is just nothing. Long-range word-couples like "mind" and "matter," or like "subjective" and "objective," are easy enough to emit and to hold in plausible imaginative severance; but when we come down to particular instances of behavior, this is no longer possible. The philosophical ins and outs of the word "idea" in its specific applications are notorious. The word "observation," considered above, exhibits much of the same condition; it fades in and out between the observing and the observed, and is never safe until these are
(179) brought frankly into fusion, and the start is made thus. Such words as "thought," "knowledge," "meaning," "percept," "concept," all have the common affliction. Even the word "operation," since the enormous increase in its use following Bridgman's brilliant application, swells with confusion; a certain recent inquiry into operational constructions employed this word in closely succeeding passages, first with the implications we call "subjective," next with those we call "objective," and finally in a way hardly otherwise to be labelled than "mixed." The more remote we place ourselves from specific facts, the more easily we proclaim the separateness of the poles of knowledge. The closer we come to specific facts, the more certainly these poles fuse into the processes of one common field.
Comment.—To adopt sights-seen, etc., as materials of knowledge brings no interference whatever with the procedures of the established sciences. Physics can select its objects for inquiry, and bring them towards precision just as it does now—indeed it will be released from some of its present incentives to paradox-hunting. Physiological psychology can carry on its researches without either present interference or any suggestion of limits to be placed upon its expansion. Only the physicist who craves to orate over God and Nature, and the physiologist or psychologist who, with similar futility, burns to instruct us of Man and Society, will fall victim; and they only as respects these particular splutterings of their linguistic energies.
No summation of physics and physiology has ever yet shown signs of yielding behavioral knowledge. In the "psychological" range of behavioral inquiries, the enterprise of most pressing importance (noted incidentally under the heading "Circularity" above) is the development of an interpretation of the processes called "concept" and "word" directly out of perceptive and sub-perceptive processes. The steps here to be taken are fairly plain (though if I had not already explored them to a considerable degree, I should probably not feel justified in so positive a stand as I am here taking). A very real progress had been made in this direction a generation or two ago, only to fall forfeit when an up-
(180) -surging physiology took into its bosom most of the evil of the old "psychic," while tossing away much of the good.
From the "social" range of behavioral inquiries, an illustration—a vivid one to all students of the subject who are sufficiently interested—will suffice. This is the case of the "institution," most plainly inspected as economics has struggled to develop it. Veblen's magnificent insights and analyses were in terms of "institution," yet the best description he could give was in such phrasing as: "the institutions—that is to say the habits of thought—under the guidance of which men live";18 and such phrasings are wholly non-informative where the "habits of thought" themselves are not technically examined and established in their operations. Commons has created an institutional economics around a definition of the institution as "Collective Action in Control of Individual Action,"  although such a "collective" is the purest fiction, since no behavioral processes are anywhere known except as those of individual organisms. Mitchell calls the word "institution" "merely a convenient term for the more important among the widely prevalent, highly standardized social habits"; in other words, he avoids characterization altogether, and this is wisdom on his part so long as the older "psychic" terms and implications are all he can muster for his uses, even though his own admirable manner of placing the "psychological" in the framework of the "institutional" runs far beyond the import of that older terminology. The social sciences require specifications for their important terms such as institution—not in any miracle of precision, but at least to the extent of distinguishing fish, flesh, and fowl—as much as do the physical and physiological sciences. The construction "sights-seen, etc.," puts an entirely new face on the issue, since the materials we call physical and mental, and individual and social, now enter from the start in system—a system
(181) which needs only phenomenal development, not miraculous intervention, to become workable.
By Way of Contrast.—Typical working programs with which the above suggestions are radically out of harmony may be exhibited in two well-known older formulations, and in one newer one:
Bertrand Russell: "I wish to preserve the dualism of subject and object in my terminology, because this dualism seems to me a fundamental fact concerning cognition."
Sigmund Freud : "What is meant by "conscious' we need not discuss; it is beyond all doubt."
Edwin B. Holt: "When entities are combined into wholes, novel properties emerge." "A genuine analysis of the mind and the cognitive process will inevitably analyze these into things and processes which are neither mental nor cognitive."