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Josiah Royce

American Philosopher


A selection from the book

Narrated by Dick Hill

Download mp3 file: The World and the Individual

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An individual Self grows by means of very numerous imitations of many models. Every new act of imitation has this character of interposing a new intermediary between a pair of facts that, apart from the imitation, would have appeared less related. The result is that the new Individual, the life of the empirical human Self, comes to be, in one aspect, a series of results of intermediation, a more or less systematic establishment of new terms whereby triads are constituted. Every result of imitation tends, however, to the establishment of recurrent processes, whereby the new sort of action, once discovered, tends to repeat itself indefinitely in new acts of the same sort. For the mark of the will that has once discovered its own purpose is that its activities assume the recurrent form. Hence, in initiating new acts, the imitative activity tends to the establishment of new forms of recurrent self-expression.

In addition to this more definite experimental search for new forms of activity by means of imitative adjustments to the social environment, and in addition also to the recurrent activities whereby a growing individual shows that he has discovered what to do, and so seeks novelty only in the form of the new terms of a self-representative series, we find, indeed, in the life of any growing self, a still vaguer process of growth through mere trial and error. And in the early life of any mind, as well as in our maturer life whenever we are in the midst of very novel conditions, this process plays a large part. In this case, a being, as yet unconscious of a plan, and too ignorant or too unfortunate to find the right social models to guide him, acts at random in accordance with his instincts, until by mere happy accident he discovers a plan, which he then begins to pursue in recurrent fashion. This is in a great measure what happens when a child gradually learns to creep, stand, walk. This way of acquiring new habits by a wholly or partly non-imitative adjustment to the environment, has been studied by psychologists even more than the more complex processes of imitation. It is in this way that we vaguely look for new ideas, find our way in new places, help ourselves in learning new arts such as bicycling, and so on. Yet we always prefer the imitation of social models to this vaguer sort of wandering whenever social guidance is possible.

It is to be noted, however, that even here the new adjustment is learned by a process of finding constantly something new that stands between our former course of action and our vaguely appreciated goal. We are dissatisfied. That means, so far as we are conscious, that we find ourselves doing something, and conceive vaguely, in the yet unknown future, a way of acting that would satisfy if we could find it. Our course, hereupon, is to seek something between that unknown goal, and ourselves as we are. This something, as soon as found, tends to satisfy the will as an effort, even if it leaves us disappointed with the result.

All our finite striving thus includes a creation of new intermediaries between the starting-point and the goal, by imitation where that is possible, by random attention to new facts where such is our only course.

The evolution of a new Self, in the realm of our own conscious life, thus involves, at every step, just the contrast between the two finite ways of viewing the world, and between the two sorts of resulting series,—just the contrast, I say, which we studied so extensively when we compared the structure of the World of Description and the World of Appreciation. Either, namely, one has already found out, according to one's lights, what to do, or else one is vaguely trying to discriminate, in the vast background which constitutes the world, the facts whose union into series, through the establishment of intermediaries, will give one a comprehension of what one's environment is, a sense of how the One and the Many are related, and so an insight into what one has to do. In the first of these two ways of dealing with one's world, one is already, as far as one's consciousness goes, possessed of one's plan as a Self. One's life then consists in doing again and again what, according to one's conscious plans, one has to do, and in thereby winning new stages of self-representative life. But in the second case, one is receptive, rather than freely constructive; is searching; and succeeds, if at all, only by an experimental interpolation of new terms in given series of discriminated facts. The union of these two tendencies leads to a constant differentiation of new stages of self-consciousness. The principal source of the novel forms of self-expression is the second of the two tendencies. The first tendency leads to the sort of novelty in results that the number-series has illustrated.

So much for the two processes, so far as we can observe them within the limits of our human consciousness. I now make the wholly tentative hypothesis that the process of the evolution of new forms of consciousness in Nature is throughout of the same general type as that which we observe when we follow the evolution of new sorts of plans, of ideas, and of selfhood in our own life. And, as the general evidence for the worth of such an hypothesis, I point out the following facts.

The types of life that are phenomenally known to us in Nature, form series such as indicate a gradual evolution of new forms from old. A new individual life, so far as we observe, in the outer world, the signs of its presence, is a new way of behavior appearing amongst natural phenomena. This new collection of functions comes to be manifested to us gradually. In the process of heredity, its generation involves, in a vast number of cases, the phenomena which our science interprets as the sexual union of cells that represent previously living individuals. As a result of this union of sexual elements, the cell from which the new organism developes has, in all this class of cases, characters that lie between those represented by the parent cells. The resulting organism consequently has characters, and accordingly developes functions, that lie between those of formerly existing organisms; and so the new living individual is at once a new link in the series of the possible forms of its type, and an individual variation of its species. In these respects, sexual generation is analogous to the process of conscious imitation. For imitation (not, to be sure, in the case of a whole organism, but in the case of a single voluntary function) means that a new process results from the conscious union of the influence of two previous processes; and in case of imitation, as we have just seen, the new process lies between the original processes. Thus the conscious union of former types of activity, in the very act that, while uniting, discriminates them, results in a new sort of intermediate activity. A corresponding union of two elements, with a resultant that lies between formerly existent beings, characterizes sexual generation. But in another class of cases, new living individuals, as they are phenomenally known to us, result asexually. Here the processes involved are sufficiently typified, for our present purposes, by the very process of cell-multiplication from which any new organism always results. All such processes are, in form, relatively recurrent. Novelty, where it becomes notable at all in the course of such processes, depends upon the massing of the results of former stages of this same recurrent process. So it is, in part, when the multiplying cells of a new organism undergo differentiation just because the newer cells find their places in a whole which is formed of all the previous cells, and so adjust themselves to an environment different from that in which the earlier cells grew. But this whole process is analogous, in structure and in result, to the recurrent processes of the conscious will that has found what it has to do, that does it again and again, and that reaches novel results in a way which the counting process has most clearly illustrated for us. Whether such novel results are significant, depends on the grade of significance that the special will, whose expression we observe, has reached. But such recurrent processes are, as we have seen, the normal ones of the World of Appreciation. They are known to us, in our own consciousness, as the source of a particular sort of novelty in the results of conduct. They lead to Well-Ordered series of self-expressions.

But further, the new living individuals, in their development, largely illustrate what we call the process of gradual adaptation to the environment by novel forms of structure and function. Here again the character of the enormously complicated organic processes involved is still analogous to a process that we observe in consciousness, viz. to our conscious process of learning new arts through trial and error. The series of facts that we observe in the living beings are, in this type of instances, on the whole, non-recurrent. The process is one of interpolating new terms in a series of stages that lie between the original condition of the organism, and a certain ideal goal of perfect adjustment to the environment which the individual organism never reaches.

So far then, for certain analogies between the evolution of new living beings in the phenomenal world, and the evolution of new forms of selfhood in conscious life. But now for one more analogy, and one that relates to that most critical phenomenon, the death of an organism, and to the temporal cessation of a given process of conscious striving.

The discriminating tendency that, in our consciousness, gives rise to the conceptions of the World of Description, is always, as we have seen, one of two contrasting tendencies that our finite relation to our world determines. Of these two tendencies, this is the subordinate one, which yields to the tendency to recurrent expression of our already established Purpose, whenever we know what to do. So far as we conceive our world in terms of the will that is now explicit in us, we do not need to give ourselves over to the discrimination of new phenomena, and we do not do so. Descriptive Science is secondary to life, and the scrutiny of that world “in the background,” in search of novelties, ceases whenever we are absorbed in what seems to us triumphant self-expression. This is true even when the will which seems to itself clearly conscious of what it has to do, and of how to do it, is in fact of what we have to call a relatively low grade. For in us the will can be base in content, even when it is in form to a great extent of the higher type.

Consequently, our discriminative activities, and also our imitations, our processes of trial and error, and all our tentative seekings after greater clearness, are subject to the often rigid selection exerted by our already established conscious plans of recurrent action. Or, as they say, practical motives predominate in our life. We make these tentative efforts for the sake of establishing new plans of action wherever we lack plans. But when we have plans, already accepted, the tentative establishment of new courses of action between stages already existing, is permitted only in so far as it does not run counter to these already established plans.

Well, just so, in Nature, the variations of organic life that get established by means of the processes analogous (as we have just seen) to those of trial and error, and to those of imitation, are subject to a rigid selection on the part of the “environment.” But the “environment,” according to our own interpretation of Nature, stands, as an environment with already established characters, for the expression of such portions of the Nature-life as have already won the habitual, that is, the more or less definitely and permanently recurrent form, wherein a relatively persistent will to act repeatedly in the same way has become characteristic of the finite consciousness that we suppose to be represented by the natural phenomena in question. In view of this analogy, I suggest that the evolution of new Selfhood in our own conscious case, and of new forms of life in Nature, is a process subject everywhere to the same sort of selection, whereby new tendencies are accepted or rejected according to their relation to preëxistent tendencies. The evolution of new Selfhood, as I conceive the matter, is rendered possible by the fact that a finite form of conscious life may have a twofold relation to the Absolute, and so may seek the truth and its own self-expression in a twofold way,—a more active and definite course of self-expression, or a more tentative one of discovery. That is, it may grow either by performing, in recurrent fashion, over and over, the type of action that it has already come to regard as its own form of Selfhood, or else by adopting the discriminating attitude that gives us, in our own conscious life, our conceptions that together make up our view of the World of Description. When a consciousness adopts the latter of these two attitudes, what happens within the unity of its sphere of experience is the appearance of new contents that lie between previously recognized contents, or that lie, as tentative expressions of its will, between itself and the goal. These new expressions of purpose are tentative, like our trials and errors, or like our imitations. When they are successful, they so mass themselves as to form definite centres of new experience. By emphasizing the contrast between the Self that has created or discovered them, and the rest of the world, they then suggest plans of action, which become recurrent, so long as they survive. But when they suggest nothing that permanently accords with the established habits of the Self within which they arise, they are unadapted to their environment, and so pass away. A rigid selection presides over their persistence. It is the selection established by the more persistent habits, and conscious intents, of the finite Self to which they belong. The portion of Nature where these tentatively adopted new forms of life phenomenally appear to us, we call the Organic World.

But now these new creations, if they survive, are not the mere contents of another and larger consciousness. They are also processes occupying time, and embodying will; they are themselves finite conscious purposes, having an inner unity, a relation to the Absolute, of which they also are ipso facto partial expressions, and a tendency to adjust themselves to the goal in their own way. If, as in case of the conscious Self of any one of us, they become aware of this their own relation to the Absolute, then they no longer survive or pass away merely in so far as they serve the larger purpose that originally invented them as tentative devices of its own. They then, like all finite purposes of self-conscious grade, define their own lives as individually significant, conceive their goal as the Absolute, and their relations to their natural sources as relations that mean something to themselves also. Their destiny thus becomes relatively free from that of the finite Self within which they first grew up.

Thus indeed the natural generation of an organism would be the mere phenomenon of a process of creating new stages within the life of previously existing Selves. But the new stages might become significant for themselves, with their own time-span, their own relations to the Absolute, and their own sort of selfhood. Originally I, as this Individual, coming into existence at this point of time might result from an organic process that phenomenally represents how a finite Selfhood, much vaster than mine (let us say the Selfhood of the human race as a whole) established in a tentative and experimental way, within its own conscious life, a new process that was serially interpolated between the processes represented by the reproductive cells of my parents. This was, for the race, merely a tentative variation in its life-series, due to the same sort of interest that, in our imitative life, makes us interested in trying the effect of creating a new sort of function intermediate between two previous ones, or to the same sort of scrutiny of the world that leads us to make new experimental discriminations in our scientific thinking. Had this variation been inconsistent with the habits of action already established in Nature, I should not have survived. Just so, a useless imitation, or a new idea inconsistent with established ideas, is erelong abandoned. But having survived, I have entered, with all the instincts of my race, into the social order. On one side of my nature I am thus a resultant. My conscious interests were originally narrowed by the act that determined my place in the series. Hence I am primarily constituted by a series of interests in a small group of facts, and am relatively inattentive to all the rest of the universe. But within my narrow span I can still learn about universal truth, because, after all, I am a conscious process, and every such process is really linked to all the world. But when once I become aware that my little form of willing also is a hint of an Absolute truth, I know myself as in intent this Individual in the World. And now I have indeed a character that may well survive, that in fact will survive, all the organic processes which were originally expressed in my life as this variation of the human stock. For in God, I am this seeker after God, so soon as I know myself as a Self at all, and, as such a seeker after God, I no longer wholly depend on the finite Self within which I came into being, just as my organism, even in its physical functions, no longer depends on the parent organisms.

By precisely such processes, the evolution of new life everywhere in Nature would be, upon this hypothesis, explicable. Selves would always originate within Selves, but, as related to the Absolute, would be capable of surviving the finite experimental purposes for which they were originated. Their natural origin would be perfectly consistent with an immortal destiny, just because all facts in the world, however originated, have teleological relations with the Absolute, and because, whatever life includes an explicit seeking for its own selfhood is in conscious relations with the Absolute.

The appearance of new Individual Selves would be, however, when temporally considered, a genuine fact. And their source would be the one that in ourselves enables us to vary the plans of our Will through the tentative play of the Discriminating Attention. And thus, in completing the sketch of our hypothesis regarding the interpretation of Nature and Evolution, we have brought this hypothesis into definite relation to our former contrast between the World of Description and World of Appreciation. This contrast appears, not merely as a fact of our own consciousness, but as a consequence of a tendency that is responsible, in Nature, for the whole process of Evolution. What in us appears as the conflict between science and practical life, is an example of the struggle for existence in Nature.

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