Cultural Reality

Chapter 1: Culturism

Florian Znaniecki

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The predominant feature of intellectual evolution during the last hundred and fifty years has been the growing separation and struggle between realism, representing the relatively new and common ground of all sciences of nature, and idealism, representing partly a survival, partly a development of the fundamental points of that view of the world which was achieved by the synthesis of mediaeval religious doctrines and ancient philosophy. And—a curious historical problem — the faction which, from the standpoint of logical consistency, was and is decidedly and irremediably in the wrong has been continually victorious in this struggle, has gradually wrestled away from its opponent its whole domain, appropriated all the vital intellectual issues, and left to the spoiled, though not subjugated, enemy nothing but the empty and practically useless consciousness of his eternal right.

It is not difficult to see how this process went along. The triumph of realism, in any sphere of investigation, has not consisted in a successful logical demonstration of the validity of its claims and methods, but simply in an actual growth of the number and importance of the concrete particular problems which it set and solved, without concerning itself much as to the philosophical justification of the standpoint assumed in these problems. The defeat of idealism, in any sphere of investigation, was not due to a logical inferiority of its general philosophical doctrine, but simply to the fact that it failed to develop a large and continually growing body of positive 'empirical knowledge based on idealistic premises.


Thus realism grew stronger with every step and no efforts could prevent idealism from losing ground continually in the wide field of intellectual life covered by empirical science, and popular reflection. Every particular realistic science, in its beginnings usually despised by idealistic philosophy for its lack of logical perfection, became more and more self-consistent as it developed, and some of these sciences have reached a level where idealism itself is forced to treat them as models of systematic construction. And it can scarcely deny to them this tribute, because it has in its past days emphasized the importance and the rational perfection of those very organa which realistic sciences use in systematizing their investigations, i.e., the logic of things—substances and the mathematical theory of functions. Idealism has become thus unable to attack the internal organization of realistic sciences; it can criticize only their foundations, their explicit or implicit epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions. Of course, as long as a realistic science claims an absolute validity for its foundations, idealistic criticism has an easy task in showing the absurdity of such claims, in demonstrating, for example, that the assumption of an absolute objectivity of geometrical space is self-contradictory or that the reduction of all sensual qualities to movements of matter is not a substitution of reality for illusion but merely an expression of all kinds of sensual data in terms of one particular kind of sensual data, a combination of certain sensations of sight with certain sensations of touch and of the muscular sense. If, however, a realistic science begins to base its claims not on the abstract philosophical justification of its presuppositions, but on the practical applicability of its results; if it concedes that its assumptions cannot be demonstrated a priori but that they show themselves valid a posteriori by the growing control of reality which they permit, the attacks of idealism lose much of their force. For in this line also idealism itself has unconsciously strengthened in

(3) advance the position of realism by bringing forth, in order to defend traditional religion and morality against realistic theoretic analysis, the idea that practical claims can have an objective validity of their own, independent of theoretic criteria; it can therefore hardly reject now the test of practical applicability to which realistic science appeals.

This is not all. During the first three centuries of its development scientific realism was practically unable to reach any general view of the world. Not only did a large part of experience remain for a long time outside of realistic investigations, but the connection between such investigations as were pursued in various sciences of nature was not close enough to become the foundation of a consistent realistic conception of the entire empirical world. The rise of a realistic psychology and sociology on the one hand, the doctrine of natural evolution on the other, obviated these difficulties and led to modern naturalism—the most comprehensive and consistent realistic doctrine ever reached. The application of positive realistic methods to individual consciousness and to social institutions brought within the scope of naturalistic science a domain from which idealism drew most of its materials; at the same time the theory of evolution not only gave a general foundation on which all sciences of nature could hope to attain their metaphysical unity, but bridged over the chasm between man as thinking subject and his object, the inorganic and organic natural reality which he studies and controls. By putting concrete problems concerning the development of human consciousness out of the elementary needs of organic life and up to its highest rational manifestations, modern naturalism claims to have actually and definitively incorporated man into nature. Reason itself, as manifested in science, is then only a continuation of the natural evolution of the animal world, the latest stage of adaptation of living beings to their environment; and all the forms of thinking on which idealism constructs its systems are products of the

(4) natural reality and, as instruments of adaptation, dependent both on their natural object-matter and on the natural organization of the living beings who use them.

On the other hand, indeed, idealism preserves some of the old arguments which enable it to prove that the naturalistic conception of the world as a whole moves in a vicious circle. It is clear that natural evolutionism presupposes for its own validity the ideal validity of those same principles of thought and standards of practical valuation which it tries to deduce genetically from natural reality. Ideas may be, indeed, instruments of real adaptation of the living being to its environment, but only if used not as realities but as ideas referring to reality and logically valid or invalid in this reference. The system of ideas constituting the evolutionistic theory itself certainly claims to be a valid theory of reality and not a mere part of reality. The entire content of evolutionism as a rational system is subjected to ideal criteria, to these very criteria which it wants to deprive of their ideality. In the measure in which it succeeds in reducing thought to biological functions it will make itself and this very reduction devoid of objective significance; that is, its claim of objective significance for its form proves it is false in its content.

An analogous reasoning can be used with regard to the practical test of natural science. If this test is to be objectively valid, it presupposes objective standards for appreciating practical activity as successful. But since the practical test is by hypothesis independent of theory, we cannot take as the standard of success the adaptation of the active being to its natural environment, for the conception of the active being as a living being, the conception of natural environment, and the whole conception of adaptation have been reached by a purely theoretic study subjected to criteria of theoretic validity. Therefore, the standards of practical succor must be sought in the sphere of practical human values, and they can guarantee the objectivity of the practical test only if they

(5) are themselves objective as values, not merely as existential data; that is, if they are not merely reactions of living beings to their environment, as the biologist in his character of a theorist conceives them, but objective ideal values as the moralist, the artist, the religious man, etc., assumes them. The practical success of the applications of the natural sciences can be thus a proof of the objective bearing of these sciences as instruments of adaptation only if we accept, besides theoretic reason, some objective values, of the type of the moral values of Kantianism, which are not the products of biological evolution and by which the practical results of our activity can be measured. If there are no objective values independent of those produced during the biological evolution of the human race, the test of naturalism by its practical applicability has no objective significance.

But however binding the criticism which idealism opposes to the theory of natural evolution, and we have here merely schematized the two central arguments among the many found in idealistic literature, its weak point is that it has no positive doctrine to oppose to it which can solve the problems put by the theory of evolution. While naturalism has made an enormous progress and undergone deep changes during the last fifty years, idealism has remained on the same ground on which it stood in the beginning of the past century; instead of nature as a dynamic and changing process it is still facing nature as a changeless substance or a system of substances, as it did when the timeless evolution of the Hegelian Idea seemed the limit of dynamism. Is idealism merely unwilling to enter into the heart of evolutionistic problems, or is it not rather essentially incapable of doing it? The fact is that it has lost all touch with modern science, that the present scientific issues are unable to move it, and that Platonism, mediaeval realism, Kantianism, and Fichteanism still continue to be revived and accepted as if nothing had happened since their first promulgation, as if our intellectual

(6) life were the same as a hundred, a thousand, or even two thousand years ago.

Yet it is clear that we cannot accept the naturalistic view of the world without violating most of our highest standards of intellectual, moral, aesthetic, validity, standards which have been reached after innumerable centuries of constructive and critical activity, at the cost of incalculable efforts and sacrifices. We cannot voluntarily and consciously resign ourselves to a doctrine which in the light of theoretic criticism proves irremediably self-contradictory; we cannot voluntarily and consciously accept as guide of our moral life a view which considers free creation a psychological illusion and proclaims the impossibility of bringing into the world anything that is not already virtually included in it; we cannot admit an interpretation of our aesthetic life which treats it as nothing but a play. Above all, we cannot consciously agree to look at these our highest standards as mere by-products of natural evolution, instruments of adaptation of one particular species of living beings to their natural environment, having no other objective validity than the one derived from the success of this adaptation; we cannot resign ourselves, in spite of all realistic argumentation, to be nothing but insignificant and transient fragments of a whole which, while transcending us infinitely, remains almost unaffected by our existence, absolutely indifferent toward our claims, and absolutely inaccessible to our valuations. We might, indeed, train ourselves to become satisfied with naturalism by lowering our standards and limiting our aspirations, forgetting the general problems of life and knowledge for the sake of the many and various particular problems which confront us at every step of our personal and social activity. Such a course would be identical to that which Pascal pre-

(7)-scribed against religious doubts by advising the doubter to follow in detail the ceremonies and prayers of the church instead of raising any fundamental problems of dogma and morality. Or we might, like James, accept as a matter of personal belief any doctrine we need to supplement, for our individual use, the deficiencies of naturalism, an attitude which has a curious analogy with the attitude of the workman who, dissatisfied with his everyday job, instead of trying to learn a wider and more interesting speciality, supplemented the monotony of his work by the excitement of day-dreams.

However insufficient and lacking in concreteness and vitality the idealistic philosophy may be, it certainly has the merit of being a permanent protest against these two extremes of powerless pessimism and of self-satisfied intellectual philistinism to which the naturalistic view of the world alternatively leads. Weak, inefficient, and unfruitful when brought into connection with concrete problems of actual life, idealism preserves nevertheless some vestige of its old importance in the abstract domain of the highest theoretic and practical standards, and this explains the attraction which it still has for all those who, while realizing the vitality of naturalism in particular fields and not wishing to intoxicate themselves with some rationally unjustifiable faith, still refuse to resign those aspirations of which Greek and mediaeval philosophy were the expression, and cling desperately to what is left of the old values in modern philosophic abstraction.

This is, or rather was still a few years ago, the predominant situation of our intellectual life. The opposition of idealism and naturalism has completely absorbed the attention of scientists and philosophers. More than this: it has been carried over into practical fields and more or less consciously identified with the fight between social and religious conservatism and synthetic traditionalism on the one hand, and progressive radicalism and analytic rationalism on the other.

By one of the most curious failures of observation ever found in history, neither the theorists nor the men of practice

(8) involved in this great struggle have ever noticed how, alongside with the gradual development, unification, and systematization of naturalism, there had grown slowly, but ceaselessly, an independent domain of concrete theoretic and practical problems at least as wide as that covered by natural science and technique, but remaining completely outside of the entire opposition of idealism and realism and implying a view of the world entirely different from both. We mean, of course, the domain of investigations and practical problems concerning human culture in its historical past and its actual development —politics, economics, morality, art, language, literature, religion, knowledge. Certain schools of psychology and sociology have tried indeed to reduce cultural evolution to natural evolution; but, as a matter of fact, this reduction remains only a postulate and, as we shall see in detail later on, the essential and objectively significant side of cultural life remains forever inaccessible to naturalistic science. On the other hand, certain idealistic currents appealed to history for help in determining the content and the meaning of the absolute values which they exposed and defended; but they did not see that the historical and absolutistic standpoints are irreconcilable by their very logical essence and that to search in history for a justification of any absolute values is simply self-contradictory.

We can, however, hardly wonder that neither the realistic scientist nor the idealistic philosopher sees the full significance of the great problem of cultural evolution, since even those who are most immediately interested in this problem—the historians and the active and conscious builders of culturescarcely begin to realize that their work has a much more general and fundamental intellectual meaning than a mere description of some past cultural happening or a mere modification of some present cultural situation. The reason is easy to understand. Whatever new and original contributions the cultural workers ever brought to our methods of

(9) studying and controlling the world were produced and offered in connection with particular problems put within the limits of special cultural sciences or special fields of cultural practice. Thus the wider meaning of each such contribution was seldom seen at once and the fundamental unity of standpoint underlying all cultural sciences and reflective cultural practice was very slow to develop, slower even than in natural sciences and technique, for as a matter of fact, there has always been a more far-going specialization in the sciences of culture than in the sciences of nature and the intellectual connection between special problems has been therefore more difficult to establish in this field. Moreover, the sciences of culture, for many reasons, have been so far unable to reach the same relative degree of methodical perfection as the sciences of nature, and this has prevented them from becoming as conscious of their own significance as the latter. Finally, as we shall have many opportunities to see, the entire logical and metaphysical foundation of both natural science and idealistic philosophy represents a more primary stage of intellectual activity than that required by cultural science, so that the statement of problems of knowledge in terms of natural realism or idealism seems so much simpler and easier in this relatively early period of theoretic evolution in which we live as to appear almost self-evident and to exclude any attempt to transgress its limitations.

But if all these reasons explain why the theoretic implications of cultural sciences have been scarcely noticed and intellectual interest has concentrated during the past century and a half on the various phases of the idealism-realism controversy, no reason can justify at present a continuation of this policy. Naturalism has reached the summit of its power with the theory of evolution and, while always still able to extend its presuppositions and methods to new data, it can no longer produce, at the present moment at least, any fundamentally new standpoints; it may still change in detail but

(10) not in its essential outlines as a general view of the world. It has become a complete system with definite foundations and a definite framework in a great measure filled out. There is, indeed, a very large place left for new content, for new results of particular scientific investigations, but the framework cannot be modified any further without ruining the whole building. This may come some day, but certainly not now, when there is still so much to do before the building is completed. On the other hand we have seen traditional idealism unable not only to develop any fundamentally new standpoints, but even to extend its old doctrines to any new data. It is evident that the time has come to search for some new view of the world, more comprehensive, more productive, and more able to grow by creative additions.

By a view of the world we mean here not merely an abstract philosophical doctrine, but a complex of concrete intellectual functions manifested in numerous particular acts of investigation and reflection in various fields of theoretic and practical life and culminating in an intellectual ideal. As examples we can quote, besides modern naturalism, the Greek rationalism of the fourth century B.C., the later Stoicism and Epicureanism, neo-Platonism, mediaeval Aristotelism. It is evident that a view of the world in this sense cannot be created by a single thinker: it is the accumulated product of whole generations; it arises slowly, thanks to many efforts of synthesis, out of innumerable scattered activities, and, after being unified and formulated as an explicit ideal, goes on developing by many various and unexpected applications. It is clear therefore that no new view of the world can be substituted at the present moment in the place of naturalism, however unsatisfied we may be by the latter, unless such a view has already been gradually developing in concrete intellectual life and is sufficiently mature to find its explicit expression in an intellectual ideal. This makes it evident that a revolution of our intellectual life such as is demanded by the

(11) present situation cannot come from any other source than from the domain of cultural science and practice, because this is the only field outside of naturalism where a creative intellectual development has been going on in modern times. The only question is whether the synthetic activity in this domain has already reached the point where we can formulate the fundamental aims of cultural science and practice and attain thus an intellectual ideal sufficiently unified and sufficiently wide, not only to take the place of naturalism, but to include, besides the positive elements of naturalism itself, all those important principles of our intellectual life for which naturalism found no place.

Whether this is possible to fulfil only actual attempts can show. Certainly such attempts are now, if ever, indispensable. Not only is a new ideal needed to satisfy the demand for a harmonization and modification of our complex and scattered intellectual activities, but the time has come when, for all actual human purposes, the most intense reflection must be concentrated on the field of culture. It is more and more generally recognized, particularly since the outbreak of the present cultural crisis, that we have permitted ourselves to be blinded by the successes of natural science and material technique and have failed to bring a consistent, self-conscious, and critical intellectual attitude into the domain of cultural science and practice, so that the results attained in this domain, however important by themselves, are very insufficient if compared with the number of failures at the cost of which they have been reached and if measured by the scale of demands which can and should be put in the name of cultural progress. At present our attention is forcibly attracted to this domain, and it is clear that we shall have to face, for the next two or three generations at least, such problems of cultural construction as will require all our creative and critical powers. Needless to say that we are very inadequately prepared for this task, particularly in so

(12) far as theory is concerned, in spite of the enormous accumulation of materials during the past few centuries. This inadequacy manifests itself chiefly in two respects. First, we lack laws of cultural becoming which would give us means of controlling the cultural world as we control the natural world. Secondly, we lack objective and applicable standards of appreciation of cultural values which would permit us to organize the aims of our constructive activities so as to avoid wasting our energies in useless fights and destroying almost as much as we create.

Now, while laws are found only by empirical investigation of particular problems and aims are created only in particular actual pursuits, the history of cultural science and practice shows with a perfect evidence that the present unsatisfactory situation in both lines is directly due to the lack of a general understanding of culture, to the lack of a view of the world based on cultural experience. The theorist of culture associated scientific laws with naturalism, so that when he found that the laws of natural sciences did not apply to culture, his immediate reaction was to proclaim cultural becoming to be essentially inaccessible to any method which tries to determine laws of becoming. The builder of culture associated objective standards of appreciation and selection of aims with the idealistic search for absolute values, and when he saw that absolute valuation could not be applied to cultural experience he proclaimed concrete cultural life to be inaccessible to any standardization and hierarchization of values, to be a chaos of valuations whose only justification is their existence.

The fundamental and distinctive characters of cultural data which were discovered in the course of positive empirical investigations or found in concrete constructive activities were thus formulated negatively, in terms of opposition to naturalism or idealism, instead of being formulated positively in terms of their own. The scientist and the practical man were accustomed to see no other possible order of becoming

(13) than the order of nature, no other possible order of appreciation and aims than the idealistic order of absolute values, because their world as d whole was the world of material things and of individual or social conscious processes, subjected to laws of natural causality and, eventually, to principles of ideal finality. Cultural data had to comply with this double causal and final order as well as they could; they were not supposed to have any positive order of their own, because they did not constitute the world, because in reflecting about them, in philosophizing about them, the theorist or the builder of culture saw in them, not a unified and ordered totality of experience, but only a plurality of detached phenomena, each separately rooting in the consciousness of human beings and in their natural environment and each separately drawing whatever objective meaning it might possess from its reference to the "kingdom of ends," to the absolute order of super-worldly values.[1]

If thus, on the one hand, the predominance of idealism and naturalism in modern thought has prevented the new view of the world implied by cultural knowledge and practice from developing more rapidly and manifesting itself explicitly in a conscious intellectual ideal, the lack of such an explicit formulation of this view has, on the other hand, contributed to keep cultural knowledge and practice under the domination of idealism and naturalism and prevented them from becoming more efficient and from developing consciously and methodically along their own independent lines. This shows with

(14) particular clearness the necessity of collaboration between philosophy and particular sciences, a collaboration which has become lately very imperfect. The rôle of philosophy in the past has been certainly incomparably more important than it is now. This importance was due to the fact that philosophy was a special discipline, with its own field of investigation, its own perfectly elaborated and efficient methods, and at the same time from its own standpoint was able to supervise the entire field of knowledge and practice and to outline general intellectual ideals which scientific and practical activities could follow with a profit to themselves. Now, the peculiar modern intellectual conditions sketched above had, among other consequences, the effect of almost entirely separating philosophy as a special discipline from philosophy as a synthetic, dynamic unity of other disciplines. As a particular branch of knowledge, with its own aims and standards. philosophy is idealistic and critical; it has preserved or even increased its methodical perfection, but, as we have seen, it has nothing new to say, no vital ideals to give to science and practice. As a dynamic unity of other disciplines, philosophy is realistic and constructive; it has, indeed, given new and vital ideals; without it natural science and social life would not be what they are; but these ideals, as we have seen, are narrow and uncritical and represent a striking lowering of philosophical standards as compared with the past.

If we claim therefore that it is time to substitute a new culturalistic philosophy for both idealism and naturalism, it is because we believe that a systematic and explicit philosophical study of culture will both regenerate philosophy, in the same way as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contact with nature regenerated it when it was slowly dying between scholasticism and occultism, and give us the most powerful instrument possible for the progress of concrete cultural sciences and concrete cultural creation. Our scientific knowledge and reflective control of culture can reach a

(15) level superior or even equal to that of our knowledge and control of nature only with the help of an independent, systematic, and productive philosophy of culture.


We shall use the term "culturalism" for the view of the world which should be constructed on the ground of the implicit or explicit presuppositions involved in reflection about cultural phenomena. Let us try to formulate first of all the most general of these presuppositions.

The progress of knowledge about culture demonstrates more and more concretely the historical relativity of all human values, including science itself. The image of the world which we construct is a historical value, relative like all others, and a different one will take its place in the future, even as it has itself taken the place of another image. Yesterday man conceived himself as part of an invisible, spiritual society, and regarded the visible material nature as an instrument created exclusively for his purposes; today he conceives himself as part and product of the visible material nature; tomorrow he will reject this conception as naïve and uncritical and find a new one, and so on. More than this. The methods with which he operates in studying and controlling the natural world; the principles which he applies, consciously or not, to his material environment; the logic which he uses in isolating and determining things and their relations; his very ways of perceiving the sensual reality, have changed more or less slowly, but perceptibly, even during the short historically known period of cultural evolution, and will change still more. History of culture is the only field in which we can follow directly and empirically at least a part of the evolution of the human "mind," and the only theory of mind which can be directly based upon empirical data is therefore a theory which takes mind as a product of culture. The theories of the old type of idealism are in disaccordance with experience, for

(16) they conceive mind, individual consciousness or superindividual reason, as absolute and changeless, whereas history shows it relative and changing. The theories of modern naturalism are not empirical, for the pre-cultural evolution of consciousness, whatever it was, has left no historical traces by which it can be directly reconstructed; the entire genetic conception of biological evolutionism is based on indirect inference and cannot be accepted even as a metaphysical doctrine, since it leads, as we have seen, to a self-contradiction.

Hundreds of thousands of years of cultural life have agglomerated such an enormous mass of habits and traditions that man is absolutely unable to perceive or to conceive any other nature than the one he sees through the prisms of culture, absolutely unable to act upon nature otherwise than in culturally determined ways. Our whole world, without any exceptions, is permeated with culture, and we can no more imagine what was the world of our pre-human ancestors than we can imagine the fourth dimension. There is no way out of culture. The study of the animal or of the child? But we must either interpret their consciousness by analogy with our consciousness, identifying the world as given to them with the world as given to us, or else we study their behavior as a part of the processes going on in our world and their behavior is seen by us as is everything else, through the prisms of culture. Our own childhood remembrances ? But we found ourselves from the very beginning in a cultural world, and our cultural training began much earlier than our memory can reach; moreover, every later addition to our cultural stock has modified the form and content of our first memories. The study of the organism? But the organism, our own or that of any other being, as seen by us while studying it, is also a part of our culturally conditioned world. Its sensual image all the meanings of this image, all the connections that we find between it and the rest of material reality, all the con-

(17) -nections between the elements of this image, even the manual acts by which we prepare it for anatomical or physiological studies, even the acts by which we turn our attention to it, are products of culture to a degree which we are unable to determine—and how much more the theory which we construct on the basis of all this!

Naturalism will here interpose the argument that the practical efficiency of our adaptation to nature guarantees some kind of accordance between nature in itself and our images of it. We cannot avail ourselves of the opposite argument of idealism, as that presupposes the existence of absolute values, whereas we reject absolute values, both in the explicit claims of idealism and in the implicit assumptions of naturalism. But the argument from practical success does not prove anything in favor of naturalism or against culturalism, for it justifies as well any one of the images of the world which have been advocated and discarded during the process of cultural evolution, and it may be used in the future to justify quite different images from the one which modern naturalism defends.[2] Our success depends on our claims and on the part or side of reality to which we apply those claims: our claims are one-sided and limited, and the range within which we attempt to realize them does not include the entire empirical world, but only relatively few phenomena taken from a certain standpoint. Therefore to the savage his magical technique seems as successful as scientific technique seems to the modern engineer.

The argument becomes more serious when it appeals not to the mere fact of the relative success of a certain technique at a certain period, which must be always appreciated from the viewpoint of those who use the technique, but to the absolute growth of the range of control which we exercise over nature. our savage ancestors may have

(18) been as successful in attaining things which they wanted as we are in attaining things which we want, and the proportion of their unsatisfied claims to those which they could satisfy may not have been any larger than ours, but we want and attain incomparably more than they did. This is clear; but in order to conclude from this that our image of the world has grown more objectively true than theirs we should have to assume that man and nature as given to man have remained essentially 'unchanged: the growing range of our control of nature would then have no other explanation than a more perfect adaptation of our image of the world to the world itself. Now, such an assumption would be manifestly false. Our knowledge has indeed become much wider and more methodical, but its development is only a fragment of the general development of man and of the world, and it would need a special and long investigation to show what part of our present wider range of control is due to the higher stage of our knowledge and what part to other factors. Besides, the relation between knowledge and practice may be quite different from that which naturalism assumes. Whatever it may be, it is clear that if we want more and attain more than our ancestors did, it is not merely because our knowledge is more perfect, but because our whole personalities are richer, better organized and more creative, and because the world contains for us more and means to us more; in a word, because our selves and our world are products of a longer cultural development.

However, if an investigation of the history of culture shows the relativity of any naturalistic view of the world, it does not lead to idealism in any sense. We have above referred to mind, and to our ways of perceiving and conceiving the world, using the traditional terminology, but we do not mean to imply that, the world of things-in-themselves remaining unchanged, only the mind has evolved in its ways of perceiving and conceiving them, or that the world is not a world of real nature at

(19) all, but only immanent data of individual or super-individual consciousness. The point is not that the world as men see and conceive it is not the world as it really is, but that the world as men see and conceive it and as it really is changes during cultural evolution, and that therefore our present nature. being objectively such as we see it, is quite different from pre-human nature, for it is, in a measure which it is impossible to determine a priori, a product of cultural evolution.

We may agree that human culture has not brought it out of nothingness, that it found a pre-human world ready as material for further development, but it has modified it so deeply, not only by technical invention, but by sensual and intellectual, social and economic, aesthetic, religious, and moral activities, and in modifying it has evolved so many and various types of these activities, so many new ways for future modifications, that whatever this pre-human world may have been, none of the generalizations of our knowledge based on our now existing world can be true of that distant past. Our science of nature is valid when applied to our present natural reality, but not valid if extended to nature as it was before the appearance of humanity. Our astronomical, physical, geological, biological theories hold true of nature only for the relatively short historical period during which the character of reality has not fundamentally changed. When projected into a more distant past, our scientific conceptions lead to more or less fantastic images of the world as it might have been if it had been and remained continually as it is now, except for those changes which, according to the present character of natural reality, should have occurred between the imagined moment of the past and the present moment. An analogous limitation makes all scientific prophecies about future states of the world appear the more fantastic, the more distant the imagined state. In other words, our science of nature is in its proper field when it searches for abstract definitions and for the laws of the present reality, and when

(20) it uses them to reconstruct and to control this reality, but it transcends its domain and is mere imagination whenever it tries to reconstruct the unique concrete evolution during which the world and man have become what they are or to foresee the concrete unique course of the future evolution of the world or of man. This means, for example, that all attempts to understand the pre-human evolution of the solar system, of earth, of the organic world, of consciousness, etc., are irremediably devoid of objective validity if pursued, as they are now, exclusively by naturalistic methods and based upon the naturalistic view, for they can never, not even hypothetically, reconstruct the past as it really was, but only as it might have been if certain impossible conditions had been realized. The only merit of the theory of natural evolution, aside from its particular applications to specific present happenings, is that in its extension over the entire past of nature it satisfies the philosophical aspirations of the modern scientist by permitting him to construct a monistic system of the universe. But this merit is a doubtful one, for naturalistic monism prevents the application of a more adequate standpoint to the history of the world.

If we want, indeed, to understand the past of the world as it really was, assuming that we may take for granted at this point that there is a possibility of developing proper methods of reconstructing past phenomena, we shall evidently first of all study the nearest and most accessible past, that is, the historical period of evolution. By careful analysis of the history of culture we can determine the gradual additions brought during the historical existence of humanity to its own consciousness and to the world as given to it at various moments. We cannot tell in advance how far into the past we shall be able to go, nor how much will be left of our world when we have subtracted all the cultural additions the origin of which we can determine directly from historical traces. We can only hope that this investigation will bring to our hand

(21) principles which will permit us to extend hypothetically our theories beyond the historical past, into the pre-historical period; we can obtain materials for this hypothetical indirect determination of the past from ethnographical studies of still existing lower stages of culture. Then, and only then, by a still more hypothetical extension we can try to reach the still more distant period of pre-human evolution, and at this point only we may be able to use the data of natural sciences as raw material. Our method should then be a special analysis subtracting from these data everything which has been proved to be an addition posterior to that moment of the past that we are trying to reconstruct.

How this investigation can be done in detail is a complex problem of methodology. For a general view of the world the fundamental points are that the concrete empirical world is a world in evolution in which nothing absolute or permanent can be found, and that as a world in evolution it is first of all a world of culture, not of nature, a historical, not a physical reality. Idealism and naturalism both deal, not with the concrete empirical world, but with abstractly isolated aspects of it. Idealism continues to treat evolution as a merely phenomenal matter and tries still to find some immovable ground above the moving stream without seeing that to have any significance at all in the development of knowledge it must remain in the stream and move with it: that is, it must cease to be idealism. Naturalism wants indeed to reconstruct evolution, but it takes an abstract cross-section of the concrete becoming and attempts to understand the becoming by studying this cross-section. If therefore modern thought intends to avoid the emptiness of idealism and the self-contradictions of naturalism, it must accept the culturalistic thesis. It must maintain against idealism the universal historical relativity of all forms of reason and standards of valuation as being within, not above, the evolving empirical world. It must maintain against naturalism that man as he

(22) is now is not a product of the evolution of nature, but that, on the contrary, nature as it is now is, in a large measure at least, the product of human culture, and if there is anything in it which preceded man, the way to find this leads through historical and social sciences, not through biology, geology, astronomy, or physics.

But it is much easier to formulate the culturalistic thesis and to show in the abstract the necessity of its acceptance than to develop its consequences in concrete application to the empirical world. The better we understand what a radical revolution of all our intellectual dogmas the realization of such a thesis would demand, the greater appear the difficulties. For, on the one hand, naturalism seems to be simply a systematic and logical development of a view of reality which is implied not only by our common-sense reflection, but by our practical activity, by our language, by the very logic which our knowledge has to use. On the other hand, idealism with its search for the absolute, with its tendency to rise above the relativity of historical becoming, seems to express a necessary and fundamental condition of our thought which cannot conceive itself as being a fragment of a dynamic development, cannot immerge itself back into the stream from which it has just emerged by the very act of constructing or accepting a truth, a good, a beauty, or any other value.

In order to overcome these apparent difficulties, we must go to the very bottom of the problem of reality and thought and try to determine their general empirical character as independently as possible of the implicit or explicit assumptions which common sense, practice, language, science, and philosophical tradition tend to impose upon our conceptions of the world. This does not mean that we should attempt to build a philosophical theory by intentionally ignoring all those assumptions and starting ab ova as if nobody had philosophized before. On the contrary, the history of philosophy shows that such attempts at absolutely new beginnings

(23) involve the danger of accepting uncritically many assumptions which a less pretentious method would avoid. There are no absolutely new beginnings, no fundamental original truths which a philosopher can find at the outset of his reflection and which would make him independent at once. The only way to avoid the undesirable influence of past or present uncritical prepossessions concerning the problem which we are studying is to find them out by critical research, to understand their proper significance, to keep them continually in mind, and to use them in their proper connection. For there is no conception in the history of knowledge which does not have some validity, no methodical assumption ever used which does not have some sphere of application; the only question is, Within what limits is the conception valid? For what purposes can the method be utilized ?


  1. There were, as we know, attempts to conceive the totality of cultural phenomena as constituting a unified and ordered world, not the world, indeed, but a world at least, distinct from the world of nature. But the Hegelian historical school to which these attempts were almost exclusively confined was completely dependent on idealism. By treating culture as gradual manifestation of absolute values, by exaggerating its unity, and by assuming an entirely arbitrary order of cultural becoming, it had discouraged subsequent efforts in this line even before realism extended the theory of natural evolution to this field and attracted general attention by this attempt to absorb definitively culture into nature.
  2. The very concept of adaptation of the conscious being to its environment is, as we shall see later on, philosophically unacceptable.

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