The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse



GEORGE HERBERT PALMER Alford Professor of Philosophy In Harvard University


A. F. P.





The substance of these chapters was delivered as a course of lectures at Harvard University, Dartmouth and Wellesley Colleges, Western Reserve University, the University of California, and the Twentieth Century Club of Boston. A part of the sixth chapter was used as an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard, and another part before the Philosophical Union of Berkeley, California. Several of these audiences have materially aided my work by their searching criticisms, and all have helped to clear my thought and simplify its expression. Since discussions necessarily so severe have been felt as vital by companies so diverse, I venture to offer them here to a wider audience.

Previously, in "The Field of Ethics," I marked out the place which ethics occupies among the sciences. In this book the first problem of ethics is examined. The two volumes will form, I hope, an easy yet serious introduction to this gravest and most perpetual of studies.




I. Difficulties of the investigation II. Gains to be expected III. Extrinsic goodness IV. Imperfections of extrinsic goodness V. Intrinsic goodness VI. Relations of the two kinds VII. Diagram



I. Enlargement of the diagram II. Greater and lesser good III. Higher and lower good IV. Order and wealth V. Satisfaction of desire VI. Adaptation to environment VII. Definitions



I. The four factors of personal goodness II. Unconsciousness III. Reflex action IV. Conscious experience V. Self-consciousness VI. Its degrees VII. Its acquisition VIII. Its instability



I. Consciousness a factor II. (A) The intention III. (1) The end, aim, or ideal IV. (2) Desire V. (3) Decision VI. (B) The volition VII. (1) Deliberation VIII. (2) Effort IX. (3) Satisfaction



I. Reflex influence of self-direction II. Varieties of change III. Accidental change IV. Destructive change V. Transforming change VI. Development VII. Self-development VIII. Method of self-development IX. Test of self-development X. Actual extent of personality XI. Possible extent of personality XII. Practical consequences



I. Difficulties of the conception II. It is impossible III. It is a sign of degradation IV. It is needless V. It is irrational VI. Its frequency VII. Definition VIII. Its rationality IX. Distinguished from culture X. Its self-assertion XI. Its incalculability XII. Its positive character XIII. Conclusion



I. Summary of the preceding argument II. Spirit superior to nature III. Naturalistic tendency of the fine arts IV. Naturalistic tendency of science and philosophy V. Naturalism in social estimates VI. Self-consciousness burdensome VII. Impossibility of full conscious guidance VIII. Advantages of unconscious action



I. Advantage of conscious guidance II. Example of piano-playing III. The mechanization of conduct IV. Contrast of the first and third stages V. The cure for self-consciousness VI. The revision of habits VII. The doctrine of praise VIII. The propriety of praise



In undertaking the following discussion I foresee two grave difficulties. My reader may well feel that goodness is already the most familiar of all the thoughts we employ, and yet he may at the same time suspect that there is something about it perplexingly abstruse and remote. Familiar it certainly is. It attends all our wishes, acts, and projects as nothing else does, so that no estimate of its influence can be excessive. When we take a walk, read a book, make a dress, hire a servant, visit a friend, attend a concert, choose a wife, cast a vote, enter into business, we always do it in the hope of attaining something good. The clue of goodness is accordingly a veritable guide of life. On it depend actions far more minute than those just mentioned. We never raise a hand, for example, unless with a view to improve in some respect our condition. Motionless we should remain forever, did we not believe that by placing the hand elsewhere we might obtain something which we do not now possess. Consequently we employ the word or some synonym of it during pretty much every waking hour of our lives. Wishing some test of this frequency I turned to Shakespeare, and found that he uses the word "good" fifteen hundred times, and it's derivatives "goodness," "better," and "best," about as many more. He could not make men and women talk right without incessant reference to this directive conception.

But while thus familiar and influential when mixed with action, and just because of that very fact, the notion of goodness is bewilderingly abstruse and remote. People in general do not observe this curious circumstance. Since they are so frequently encountering goodness, both laymen and scholars are apt to assume that it is altogether clear and requires no explanation. But the very reverse is the truth. Familiarity obscures. It breeds instincts and not understanding. So inwoven has goodness become with the very web of life that it is hard to disentangle. We cannot easily detach it from encompassing circumstance, look at it nakedly, and say what in itself it really is. Never appearing in practical affairs except as an element, and always intimately associated with something else, we are puzzled how to break up that intimacy and give to goodness independent meaning. It is as if oxygen were never found alone, but only in connection with hydrogen, carbon, or some other of the eighty elements which compose our globe. We might feel its wide influence, but we should have difficulty in describing what the thing itself was. Just so if any chance dozen persons should be called on to say what they mean by goodness, probably not one could offer a definition which he would be willing to hold to for fifteen minutes.

It is true, this strange state of things is not peculiar to goodness. Other familiar conceptions show a similar tendency, and just about in proportion, too, to their importance. Those which count for most in our lives are least easy to understand. What, for example, do we mean by love? Everybody has experienced it since the world began. For a century or more, novelists have been fixing our attention on it as our chief concern. Yet nobody has yet succeeded in making the matter quite plain. What is the state? Socialists are trying to tell us, and we are trying to tell them; but each, it must be owned, has about as much difficulty in understanding himself as in understanding his opponent, though the two sets of vague ideas still contain reality enough for vigorous strife. Or take the very simplest of conceptions, the conception of force—that which is presupposed in every species of physical science; ages are likely to pass before it is satisfactorily defined. Now the conception of goodness is something of this sort, something so wrought into the total framework of existence that it is hidden from view and not separately observable. We know so much about it that we do not understand it.

For ordinary purposes probably it is well not to seek to understand it. Acquaintance with the structure of the eye does not help seeing. To determine beforehand just how polite we should be would not facilitate human intercourse. And possibly a completed scheme of goodness would rather confuse than ease our daily actions. Science does not readily connect with life. For most of us all the time, and for all of us most of the time, instinct is the better prompter. But if we mean to be ethical students and to examine conduct scientifically, we must evidently at the outset come face to face with the meaning of goodness. I am consequently often surprised on looking into a treatise on ethics to find no definition of goodness proposed. The author assumes that everybody knows what goodness is, and that his own business is merely to point out under what conditions it may be had. But few readers do know what goodness is. One suspects that frequently the authors of these treatises themselves do not, and that a hazy condition of mind on this central subject is the cause of much loose talk afterwards. At any rate, I feel sure that nothing can more justly be demanded of a writer on ethics at the beginning of his undertaking than that he should attempt to unravel the subtleties of this all-important conception. Having already in a previous volume marked out the Field of Ethics, I believe I cannot wisely go on discussing the science that I love, until I have made clear what meaning I everywhere attach to the obscure and familiar word good. This word being the ethical writer's chief tool, both he and his readers must learn its construction before they proceed to use it. To the study of that curious nature I dedicate this volume.


To those who join in the investigation I cannot promise hours of ease. The task is an arduous one, calling for critical discernment and a kind of disinterested delight in studying the high intricacies of our personal structure. My readers must follow me with care, and indeed do much of the work themselves, I being but a guide. For my purpose is not so much to impart as to reveal. Wishing merely to make people aware of what has always been in their minds, I think at the end of my book I shall be able to say, "These readers of mine know now no more than they did at, the beginning." Yet if I say that, I hope to be able to add, "but they see vastly more significance in it than they once did, and henceforth will find the world interesting in a degree they never knew before." In attaining this new interest they will have experienced too that highest of human pleasures,—the joy of clear, continuous, and energetic thinking. Few human beings are so inert that they are not ready to look into the dark places of their minds if, by doing so, they can throw light on obscurities there.

I ought, however, to say that I cannot promise one gain which some of my readers may be seeking. In no large degree can I induce in them that goodness of which we talk. Some may come to me in conscious weakness, desiring to be made better. But this I do not undertake. My aim is a scientific one. I am an ethical teacher. I want to lead men to understand what goodness is, and I must leave the more important work of attracting them to pursue it to preacher and moralist. Still, indirectly there is moral gain to be had here. One cannot contemplate long such exalted themes without receiving an impulse, and being lifted into a region where doing wrong becomes a little strange. When, too, we reflect how many human ills spring from misunderstanding and intellectual obscurity, we see that whatever tends to illuminate mental problems is of large consequence in the practical issues of life.

In considering what we mean by goodness, we are apt to imagine that the term applies especially, possibly entirely, to persons. It seems as if persons alone are entitled to be called good. But a little reflection shows that this is by no means the case. There are about as many good things in the world as good persons, and we are obliged to speak of them about as often. The goodness which we see in things is, however, far simpler and more easily analyzed than that which appears in persons. It may accordingly be well in these first two chapters to say nothing whatever about such goodness as is peculiar to persons, but to confine our attention to those phases of it which are shared alike by persons and things.


How then do we employ the word "good"? I do not ask how we ought to employ it, but how we do. For the present we shall be engaged in a psychological inquiry, not an ethical one. We need to get at the plain facts of usage. I will therefore ask each reader to look into his own mind, see on what occasions he uses the word, and decide what meaning he attaches to it. Taking up a few of the simplest possible examples, we will through them inquire when and why we call things good.

Here is a knife. When is it a good knife? Why, a knife is made for something, for cutting. Whenever the knife slides evenly through a piece of wood, unimpeded by anything in its own structure, and with a minimum of effort on the part of him who steers it, when there is no disposition of its edge to bend or break, but only to do its appointed work effectively, then we know that a good knife is at work. Or, looking at the matter from another point of view, whenever the handle of the knife neatly fits the hand, following its lines and presenting no obstruction, so that it is a pleasure to use it, we may say that in these respects also the knife is a good knife. That is, the knife becomes good through adaptation to its work, an adaptation realized in its cleavage of the wood and in its conformity to the hand. Its goodness always has reference to something outside itself, and is measured by its performance of an external task. A similar goodness is also found in persons. When we call the President of the United States good, we mean that he adapts himself easily and efficiently to the needs of his people. He detects those needs before others fully feel them, is sagacious in devices for meeting them, and powerful in carrying out his patriotic purposes through whatever selfish opposition. The President's goodness, like the knife's, refers to qualities within him only so far as these are adjusted to that which lies beyond.

Or take something not so palpable. What glorious weather! When we woke this morning, drew aside our curtains and looked out, we said "It is a good day!" And of what qualities of the day were we thinking? We meant, I suppose, that the day was well fitted to its various purposes. Intending to go to our office, we saw there was nothing to hinder our doing so. We knew that the streets would be clear, people in amiable mood, business and social duties would move forward easily. Health itself is promoted by such sunshine. In fact, whatever our plans, in calling the day a good day we meant to speak of it as excellently adapted to something outside itself.

This signification of goodness is lucidly put in the remark of Shakespeare's Portia, "Nothing I see is good without respect." We must have some respect or end in mind in reference to which the goodness is reckoned. Good always means good for. That little preposition cannot be absent from our minds, though it need not audibly be uttered. The knife is good for cutting, the day for business, the President for the blind needs of his country. Omit the for, and goodness ceases. To be bad or good implies external reference. To be good means to further something, to be an efficient means; and the end to be furthered must be already in mind before the word good is spoken.

The respects or ends in reference to which goodness is calculated are often, it is true, obscure and difficult to seize if one is unfamiliar with the currents of men's thoughts. I sometimes hear the question asked about a merchant, "Is he good?"—a question natural enough in churches and Sunday-schools, but one which sounds rather queer on "'change." But those who ask it have a special respect in mind. I believe they mean, "Will the man meet his notes?" In their mode of thinking a merchant is of consequence only in financial life. When they have learned whether he is capable of performing his functions there, they go no farther. He may be the most vicious of men or a veritable saint. It will make no difference in inducing commercial associates to call him good. For them the word indicates solely responsibility for business paper.

A usage more curious still occurs in the nursery. There when the question is asked, "Has the baby been good?" one discovers by degrees that the anxious mother wishes to know if it has been crying or quiet. This elementary life has as yet not acquired positive standards of measurement. It must be reckoned in negative terms, failure to disturb. Heaven knows it does not always attain to this. But it is its utmost virtue, quietude.

In short, whenever we inspect the usage of the word good, we always find behind it an implication of some end to be reached. Good is a relative term, signifying promotive of, conducive to. The good is the useful, and it must be useful for something. Silent or spoken, it is the mental reference to something else which puts all meaning into it. So Hamlet says, "There's nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." If I have in mind A as an end sought, then X is good. But if B is the end, X is bad. X has no goodness or badness of its own. No new quality is added to an object or act when it becomes good.


But this result is disappointing, not to say paradoxical. To call a thing good only with reference to what lies outside itself would be almost equivalent to saying that nothing is good. For if the moment anything becomes good it refers all its goodness to something beyond its own walls, should we ever be able to discover an object endowed with goodness at all? The knife is good in reference to the stick of wood; the wood, in reference to the table; the table, in reference to the writing; the writing, in reference to a reader's eyes; his eyes, in reference to supporting his family—where shall we ever stop? We can never catch up with goodness. It is always promising to disclose itself a little way beyond, and then evading us, slipping from under our fingers just when we are about to touch it. This meaning of goodness is self-contradictory.

And it is also too large. It includes more to goodness than properly belongs there. If we call everything good which is good for, everything which shows adaptation to an end, then we shall be obliged to count a multitude of matters good which we are accustomed to think of as evil. Filth will be good, for it promotes fevers as nothing else does. Earthquakes are good, for shaking down houses. It is inapposite to urge that we do not want fevers or shaken houses. Wishes are provided no place in our meaning of good. Goodness merely assists, promotes, is conducive to any result whatever. It marks the functional character, without regard to the desirability of that which the function effects. But this is unsatisfactory and may well set us on a search for supplementary meanings.


When we ask if the Venus of Milo is a good statue, we have to confess that it is good beyond almost any object on which our eyes have ever rested. And yet it is not good for anything; it is no means for an outside end. Rather, it is good in itself. This possibility that things may be good in themselves was once brought forcibly to my attention by a trivial incident. Wandering over my fields with my farmer in autumn, we were surveying the wrecks of summer. There on the ploughed ground lay a great golden object. He pointed to it, saying, "That is a good big pumpkin." I said, "Yes, but I don't care about pumpkins." "No," he said, "nor do I." I said, "You care for them, though, as they grow large. You called this a good big one." "No! On the contrary, a pumpkin that is large is worth less. Growing makes it coarser. But that is a good big pumpkin." I saw there was some meaning in his mind, but I could not make out what it was. Soon after I heard a schoolboy telling about having had a "good big thrashing." I knew that he did not like such things. His phrase could not indicate approval, and what did it signify? He coupled the two words good and big; and I asked myself if there was between them any natural connection? On reflection I thought there was. If you wish to find the full pumpkin nature, here you have it. All that a pumpkin can be is set forth here as nowhere else. And for that matter, anybody who might foolishly wish to explore a thrashing would find all he sought in this one. In short, what seemed to be intended was that all the functions constituting the things talked about were present in these instances and hard at work, mutually assisting one another, and joining to make up such a rounded whole that from it nothing was omitted which possibly might render its organic wholeness complete. Here then is a notion of goodness widely unlike the one previously developed. Goodness now appears shut up within verifiable bounds where it is not continually referred to something which lies beyond. An object is here reckoned not as good for, but as good in itself. The Venus of Milo is a good statue not through what it does, but through what it is. And perhaps it may conduce to clearness if we now give technical names to our two contrasted conceptions and call the former extrinsic goodness and the latter intrinsic. Extrinsic goodness will then signify the adjustment of an object to something which lies outside itself; intrinsic will say that the many powers of an object are so adjusted to one another that they cooperate to render the object a firm totality. Both will indicate relationship; but in the one case the relations considered are extra se, in the other inter se. Goodness, however, will everywhere point to organic adjustment.

If this double aspect of goodness is as clear and important as I believe it to be, it must have left its record in language. And in fact we find that popular speech distinguishes worth and value in much the same way as I have distinguished intrinsic and extrinsic goodness. To say that an object has value is to declare it of consequence in reference to something other than itself. To speak of its worth is to call attention to what its own nature involves. In a somewhat similar fashion Mr. Bradley distinguishes the extension and harmony of goodness, and Mr. Alexander the right and the perfect.


When, however, we have got the two sorts of goodness distinctly parted, our next business is to get them together again. Are they in fact altogether separate? Is the extrinsic goodness of an object entirely detachable from its intrinsic? I think not. They are invariably found together. Indeed, extrinsic goodness would be impossible in an object which did not possess a fair degree of intrinsic. How could a table, for example, be useful for holding a glass of water if the table were not well made, if powers appropriate to tables were not present and mutually cooperating? Unless equipped with intrinsic goodness, the table can exhibit no extrinsic goodness whatever. And, on the other hand, intrinsic goodness, coherence of inner constitution, is always found attended by some degree of extrinsic goodness, or influence over other things. Nothing exists entirely by itself. Each object has its relationships, and through these is knitted into the frame of the universe.

Still, though the two forms of goodness are thus regularly united, we may fix our attention on the one or the other. According as we do so, we speak of an object as intrinsically or extrinsically good. For that matter, one of the two may sometimes seem to be present in a preponderating degree, and to determine by its presence the character of the object. In judging ordinary physical things, I believe we usually test them by their serviceability to us—by their extrinsic goodness, that is—rather than bother our heads with asking what is their inner structure, and how full of organization they may be. Whereas, when we come to estimate human beings, we ordinarily regard it as a kind of indignity to assess primarily their extrinsic goodness, i. e., to ask chiefly how serviceable they may be and to ignore their inner worth. To sum up a man in terms of his labor value is the moral error of the slaveholder.

If, however, we seek the highest point to which either kind of excellence may be carried, it will be found where each most fully assists the other. But this is not easy to imagine. When I set a glass of water on the table, the table is undoubtedly slightly shaken by the strain. If I put a large book upon it, the strain of the table becomes apparent. Putting a hundred pound weight upon it is an experiment that is perilous. For the extrinsic goodness of the table is at war with the intrinsic; that is, the employment of the table wears it out. In doing its work and fitting into the large relationships for which tables exist, its inner organization becomes disjointed. In time it will go to pieces. We can, however, imagine a magic table, which might be consolidated by all it does. At first it was a little weak, but by upholding the glass of water it grew stronger. As I laid the book on it, its joints acquired a tenacity which they lacked before; and only after receiving the hundred pound weight did it acquire the full strength of which it was capable. That would indeed be a marvelous table, where use and inner construction continually helped each other. Something like it we may hereafter find possible in certain regions of personal goodness, but no such perpetual motion is possible to things. For them employment is costly.


I have already strained my readers' attention sufficiently by these abstract statements of matters technical and minute. Let us stop thinking for a while and observe. I will draw a picture of goodness and teach the eye what sort of thing it is. We have only to follow in our drawing the conditions already laid down. We agreed that when an object was good it was good for something; so that if A is good, it must be good for B. This instrumental relation, of means to end, may well be indicated by an arrow pointing out the direction in which the influence moves. But if B is also to be good, it too must be connected by an arrow with another object, C, and this in the same way with D. The process might evidently be continued forever, but will be sufficiently shown in the three stages of Figure 1. Here the arrow always expresses the extrinsic goodness of the letter which lies behind it, in reference to the letter which lies before.

[Fig. 1]

But drawing our diagram in this fashion and finding a little gap between D and A, the completing mind of man longs to fill up that gap. We have no warrant for doing anything of the sort; but let us try the experiment and see what effect will follow. Under the new arrangement we find that not only is D good for A, but that A, being good for B and for C, is also good for D. To express these facts in full it would be necessary to put a point on each end of the arrow connecting A and D.

[Fig. 2]

But the same would be true of the relation between A and B; that is, B, being good for C and for D, is also good for A. Or, as similar reasoning would hold throughout the figure, all the arrows appearing there should be supplied with heads at both ends. And there is one further correction. A is good for B and for C; that is, A is good for C. The same relation should also be indicated between B and D. So that to render our diagram complete it would be necessary to supply it with two diagonal arrows having double heads. It would then assume the following form.

[Fig. 3]

Here is a picture of intrinsic goodness. In this figure we have a whole represented in which every part is good for every other part. But this is merely a pictorial statement of the definition which Kant once gave of an organism. By an organism he says, we mean that assemblage of active and differing parts in which each part is both means and end. Extrinsic goodness, the relation of means to end, we have expressed in our diagram by the pointed arrow. But as soon as we filled in the gap between D and A each arrow was obliged to point in two directions. We had an organic whole instead of a lot of external adjustments. In such a whole each part has its own function to perform, is active; and all must differ from one another, or there would be mere repetition and aggregation instead of organic supplementation of end by means. An organism has been more briefly defined, and the curious mutuality of its support expressed, by saying that it is a unit made up of cooperant parts. And each of these definitions expresses the notion of intrinsic goodness which we have already reached. Intrinsic goodness is the expression of the fullness of function in the construction of an organism.

I have elsewhere (The Field of Ethics) explained the epoch-making character in any life of this conception of an organism. Until one has come in sight of it, he is a child. When once he begins to view things organically, he is—at least in outline—a scientific, an artistic, a moral man. Experience then becomes coherent and rational, and the disjointed modes of immaturity, ugliness, and sin no longer attract. At no period of the world's history has this truly formative conception exercised a wider influence than today. It is accordingly worth while to depict it with distinctness, and to show how fully it is wrought into the very nature of goodness.


Alexander's Moral Order and Progress, bk. ii. ch. ii.

Bradley's Appearance and Reality, ch. xxv.

Sidgwick's Methods, bk. i. ch. ix.

Spencer's Principles of Ethics, pt. i. ch. iii.

Muirhead's Elements of Ethics, bk. iv. ch. ii.

Ladd's Philosophy of Conduct, ch. iii.

Kant's Practical Reason, bk. i. ch. ii.

The Meaning of Good, by G.L. Dickinson.




Our diagram of goodness, as drawn in the last chapter, has its special imperfections, and through these cannot fail to suggest certain erroneous notions of goodness. To these I now turn. The first of them is connected with its own method of construction. It will be remembered that we arbitrarily threw an arrow from D to A, thus making what was hitherto an end become a means to its own means. Was this legitimate? Does any such closed circle exist?

It certainly does not. Our universe contains nothing that can be represented by that figure. Indeed if anywhere such a self-sufficing organism did exist, we could never know it. For, by the hypothesis, it would be altogether adequate to itself and without relations beyond its own bounds. And if it were thus cut off from connection with everything except itself, it could not even affect our knowledge. It would be a closed universe within our universe, and be for us as good as zero. We must own, then, that we have no acquaintance with any such perfect organism, while the facts of life reveal conditions widely unlike those here represented.

What these conditions are becomes apparent when we put significance into the letters hitherto employed. Let our diagram become a picture of the organic life of John. Then A might represent his physical life, B his business life, C his civil, D his domestic; and we should have asserted that each of these several functions in the life of John assists all the rest. His physical health favors his commercial and political success, while at the same time making him more valuable in the domestic circle. But home life, civic eminence, and business prosperity also tend to confirm his health. In short, every one of these factors in the life of John mutually affects and is affected by all the others.

But when thus supplied with meaning, Figure 3 evidently fails to express all it should say. B is intended to exhibit the business life of John. But this is surely not lived alone. Though called a function of John, it is rather a function of the community, and he merely shares it. I had no right to confine to John himself that which plainly stretches beyond him. Let us correct the figure, then, by laying off another beside it to represent Peter, one of those who shares in the business experience of John. This common business life

[Fig. 4]

of theirs, B, we may say, enables Peter to gratify his own adventurous disposition, E; and this again stimulates his scientific tastes, F. But Peter's eminence in science commends him so to his townsmen that he comes to share again C, the civic life of John. Yet as before in the case of John, each of Peter's powers works forward, backward, and across, constructing in Peter an organic whole which still is interlocked with the life of John. Each, while having functions of his own, has also functions which are shared with his neighbor.

Nor would this involvement of functions pause with Peter. To make our diagram really representative, each of the two individuals thus far drawn would need to be surrounded by a multitude of others, all sharing in some degree the functions of their neighbors. Or rather each individual, once connected with his neighbors, would find all his functions affected by all those possessed by his entire group. For fear of making my figure unintelligible

[Fig 5.]

through its fullness of relations, I have sent out arrows in all directions from the letter A only; but in reality they would run from all to all. And I have also thought that we persons affect one another quite as decidedly through the wholeness of our characters as we do through any interlocking of single traits. Such totality of relationship I have tried to suggest by connecting the centres of each little square with the centres of adjacent ones. John as a whole is thus shown to be good for Peter as a whole.

We have successively found ourselves obliged to broaden our conception until the goodness of a single object has come to imply that of a group. The two phases of goodness are thus seen to be mutually dependent. Extrinsic goodness or serviceability, that where an object employs an already constituted wholeness to further the wholeness of another, cannot proceed except through intrinsic goodness, or that where fullness and adjustment of functions are expressed in the construction of an organism. Nor can intrinsic goodness be supposed to exist shut up to itself and parted from extrinsic influence. The two are merely different modes or points of view for assessing goodness everywhere. Goodness in its most elementary form appears where one object is connected with another as means to end. But the more elaborately complicated the relation becomes, and the richer the entanglement of means and ends—internal and external—in the adjustment of object or person, so much ampler is the goodness. Each object, in order to possess any good, must share in that of the universe.


But the diagram suggests a second question. Are all the functions here represented equally influential in forming the organism? Our figure implies that they are, and I see no way of drawing it so as to avoid the implication. But it is an error. In nature our powers have different degrees of influence. We cannot suppose that John's physical, commercial, domestic, and political life will have precisely equal weight in the formation of his being. One or the other of them will play a larger part. Accordingly we very properly speak of greater goods and lesser goods, meaning by the former those which are more largely contributory to the organism. In our physical being, for example, we may inquire whether sight or digestion is the greater good; and our only means of arriving at an answer would be to stop each function and then note the comparative consequence to the organism. Without digestion, life ceases; without sight, it is rendered uncomfortable. If we are considering merely the relative amounts of bodily gain from the two functions, we must call digestion the greater good. In a table, excellence of make is apt to be a greater good than excellence of material, the character of the carpentry having more effect on its durability than does the special kind of wood employed. The very doubts about such results which arise in certain cases confirm the truth of the definition here proposed; for when we hesitate, it is on account of the difficulty we find in determining how far maintenance of the organism depends on the one or the other of the qualities compared. The meaning of the terms greater and lesser is clearer than their application. A function or quality is counted a greater good in proportion as it is believed to be more completely of the nature of a means.


Another question unsettled by the diagram is so closely connected with the one just examined as often to be confused with it. It is this: Are all functions of the same kind, rank, or grade? They are not; and this qualitative difference is indicated by the terms higher and lower, as the quantitative difference was by greater and less. But differences of rank are more slippery matters than difference of amount, and easily lend themselves to arbitrary and capricious treatment. In ordinary speech we are apt to employ the words high and low as mere signs of approval or disapproval. We talk of one occupation, enjoyment, work of art, as superior to another, and mean hardly more than that we like it better. Probably there is not another pair of terms current in ethics where the laudatory usage is so liable to slip into the place of the descriptive. Our opponent's ethics always seem to embody low ideals, our own to be of a higher type. Accordingly the terms should not be used in controversy unless we have in mind for them a precise meaning other than eulogy or disparagement.

And such a meaning they certainly may possess. As the term greater good is employed to indicate the degree in which a quality serves as a means, so may the higher good show the degree in which it is an end. Digestion, which was just now counted a greater good than sight, might still be rightly reckoned a lower; for while it contributes more largely to the constitution of the human organism, it on that very account expresses less the purposes to which that organism will be put. It is true we have seen how in any organism every power is both means and end. It would be impossible, then, to part out its powers, and call some altogether great and others altogether high. But though there is purpose in all, and construction in all, certain are more markedly the one than the other. Some express the superintending functions; others, the subservient. Some condition, others are conditioned by. In man, for example, the intellectual powers certainly serve our bodily needs. But that is not their principal office; rather, in them the aims of the entire human being receive expression. To abolish the distinction of high and low would be to try to obliterate from our understanding of the world all estimates of the comparative worth of its parts; and with these estimates its rational order would also disappear. Such attempts have often been made. In extreme polytheism there are no superiors among the gods and no inferiors, and chaos consequently reigns. A similar chaos is projected into life when, as in the poetry of Walt Whitman, all grades of importance are stripped from the powers of man and each is ranked as of equal dignity with every other.

That there is difficulty in applying the distinction, and determining which function is high and which low, is evident. To fix the purposes of an object would often be presumptuous. With such perplexities I am not concerned. I merely wish to point out a perfectly legitimate and even important signification of the terms high and low, quite apart from their popular employment as laudatory or depreciative epithets. It surely is not amiss to call the legibility of a book a higher good than its shape, size, or weight, though in each of these some quality of the book is expressed.


A further point of possible misconception in our diagram is the number of factors represented. As here shown, these are but four. They might better be forty. The more richly functional a thing or person is, the greater its goodness. Poverty of powers is everywhere a form of evil. For how can there be largeness of organization where there is little to organize? Or what is the use of organization except as a mode of furnishing the smoothest and most compact expression to powers? Wealth and order are accordingly everywhere the double traits of goodness, and a chief test of the worth of any organism will be the diversity of the powers it includes. Throughout my discussion I have tried to help the reader to keep this twofold goodness in mind by the use of such phrases as "fullness of organization."

Yet it must be confessed that between the two elements of goodness there is a kind of opposition, needful though both are for each other. Order has in it much that is repressive; and wealth—in the sense of fecundity of powers—is, especially at its beginning, apt to be disorderly. When a new power springs into being, it is usually chaotic or rebellious. It has something else to attend to besides bringing itself into accord with what already exists. There is violence in it, a lack of sobriety, and only by degrees does it find its place in the scheme of things. This is most observable in living beings, because it is chiefly they who acquire new powers. But there are traces of it even among things. A chemical acid and base meeting, are pretty careless of everything except the attainment of their own action. Human beings are born, and for some time remain, clamorous, obliging the world around to attend more to them than they to it. There is ever a confusion in exuberant life which bewilders the onlooker, even while he admits that life had better be.

The deep opposition between these contrasted sides of goodness is mirrored in the conflicting moral ideals of conservatism and radicalism, of socialism and individualism, which have never been absent from the societies of men, nor even, I believe, from those of animals. Conservatism insists on unity and order; radicalism on wealthy life, diversified powers, particular independence. Either, left to itself, would crush society, one by emptying it of initiative, the other by splitting it into a company of warring atoms. Ordinarily each is dimly aware of its need of an opponent, yet does not on that account denounce him the less, or less eagerly struggle to expel him from provinces asserted to be its own.

By temperament certain classes of the community are naturally disposed to become champions of the one or the other of these supplemental ideals. Artists, for the most part, incline to the ideal of abounding life, exult in each novel manifestation which it can be made to assume, and scoff at order as Philistinism.

Moralists, on the other hand, lay grievous stress on order, as if it had any value apart from its promotion of life. Assuming that sufficient exuberance will come, unfostered by morality, they shut it out from their charge, make duty to consist in checking instinct, and devote themselves to pruning the sprouting man. But this is absurdly to narrow ethics, whose true aim is to trace the laws involved in the construction of a good person. In such construction the supply of moral material, and the fostering of a wide diversity of vigorous powers, is as necessary as bringing these powers into proper working form. Richness of character is as important as correctness. The world's benefactors have often been one-sided and faulty men. None of us can be complete; and we had better not be much disturbed over the fact, but rather set ourselves to grow strong enough to carry off our defects.

Because ethics has not always kept its eyes open to this obvious duality of goodness it has often incurred the contempt of practical men. The ethical writers of our time have done better. They have come to see that the goodness of a person or thing consists in its being as richly diversified as is possible up to the limit of harmonious, working, and also in being orderly up to the limit of repression of powers. Beyond either of these limits evil begins. What I have expressed in my diagram as the fullest organization is intended to lie within them.


It remains to compare the view of goodness here presented with two others which have met with wide approval. The competence of my own will be tested by seeing whether it can explain these, or they it. Goodness is sometimes defined as that which satisfies desire. Things are not good in themselves, but only as they respond to human wishes. A certain combination of colors or sounds is good, because I like it. A republic we Americans consider the best form of government because we believe that this more completely than any other meets the legitimate desires of its people. I know a little boy who after tasting with gusto his morning's oatmeal would turn for sympathy to each other person at table with the assertive inquiry, "Good? Good? Good?" He knew no good but enjoyment, and this was so keen that he expected to find it repeated in each of his friends. It is true we often call actions good which are not immediately pleasing; for example, the cutting off of a leg which is crushed past the possibility of cure. But the leg, if left, will cause still more distress or even death. In the last analysis the word good will be found everywhere to refer to some satisfaction of human desire. If we count afflictions good, it is because we believe that through them permanent peace may best be reached. And rightly do those name the Bible the Good Book who think that it more than any other has helped to alleviate the woes of man.

With this definition I shall not quarrel. So far as it goes, it seems to me not incorrect. In all good I too find satisfaction of desire. Only, though true, the definition is in my judgment vague and inadequate. For we shall still need some standard to test the goodness of desires. They themselves may be good, and some of them are better than others. It is good to eat candy, to love a friend, to hate a foe, to hear the sound of running water, to practice medicine, to gather wealth, learning, or postage stamps. But though each of these represents a natural desire, they cannot all be counted equally good. They must be tried by some standard other than themselves. For desires are not detachable facts. Each is significant only as a piece of a life. In connection with that life it must be judged. And when we ask if any desire is good or bad, we really inquire how far it may play a part in company with other desires in making up a harmonious existence. By its organic quality, accordingly, we must ultimately determine the goodness of whatever we desire. If it is organic, it certainly will satisfy desire. But we cannot reverse this statement and assert that whatever satisfies desire will be organically good. My own mode of statement is, therefore, clearer and more adequate than the one here examined, because it brings out fully important considerations which in this are only implied. Whatever contributes to the solidity and wealth of an organism is, from the point of view of that organism, good.


A second inadequate definition of goodness is that it is adaptation to environment. This is a far more important conception than the preceding; but again, while not untrue, is still, in my judgment, partial and ambiguous. When its meaning is made clear and exact, it seems to coincide with my own; for it points out that nothing can be separately good, but becomes so through fulfillment of relations. Each thing or person is surrounded by many others. To them it must fit itself. Being but a part, its goodness is found in serving that whole with which it is connected. That is a good oar which suits well the hands of the rower, the row-lock of the boat, and the resisting water. The white fur of the polar bear, the tawny hide of the lion, the camel's hump, giraffe's neck, and the light feet of the antelope, are all alike good because they adapt these creatures to their special conditions of existence and thus favor their survival. Nor is there a different standard for moral man. His actions which are accounted good are called so because they are those through which he is adapted to his surroundings, fitted for the society of his fellows, and adjusted with the best chance of survival to his encompassing physical world.

While I have warm approval for much that appears in such a doctrine, I think those who accept it may easily overlook certain important elements of goodness. At best it is a description of extrinsic goodness, for it separates the object from its environment and makes the response of the former to an external call the measure of its worth. Of that inner worth, or intrinsic goodness, where fullness and adjustment of relations go on within and not without, it says nothing. Yet I have shown how impossible it is to conceive one of these kinds of goodness without the other.

But a graver objection still—or rather the same objection pressed more closely—is this. The present definition naturally brings up the picture of certain constant and stable surroundings enclosing an environed object which is to be changed at their demand. No such state of things exists. There is no fixed environment. It is always fixable. Every environment is plastic and derives its character, at least partially, from the environed object. Each stone sends out its little gravitative and chemical influence upon surrounding stones, and they are different through being in its neighborhood. The two become mutually affected, and it is no more suitable to say that the object must adapt itself to its environment than that the environment must be adapted to its object.

Indeed, in persons this second form of statement is the more important; for the forcing of circumstances into accordance with human needs may be said to be the chief business of human life. The man who adapts himself to his ignorant, licentious, or malarial surroundings, is not a type of the good man. Of course disregard of environment is not good either. Circumstances have their honorable powers, and these require to be studied, respected, and employed. Sometimes they are so strong as to leave a person no other course than to adapt himself to them. He cannot adapt them to himself. Plato has a good story of how a native of the little village of Seriphus tried to explain Themistocles by means of environment. "You would not," he said to the great man, "have been eminent if you had been born in Seriphus." "Probably not," answered Themistocles, "nor you, if you had been born in Athens."

The definition we are discussing, then, is not true—indeed it is hardly intelligible—if we take it in the one-sided way in which it is usually announced. The demand for adaptation does not proceed exclusively from environment, surroundings, circumstance. The stone, the tree, the man, conforms these to itself as truly as it is conformed to them. There is mutual adaptation. Undoubtedly this is implied in the definition, and the petty employment of it which I have been attacking would be rejected also by its wiser defenders. But when its meaning is thus filled out, its vagueness rendered clear, and the mutual influence which is implied becomes clearly announced, the definition turns into the one which I have offered. Goodness is the expression of the largest organization. Its aim is everywhere to bring object and environment into fullest cooperation. We have seen how in any organic relationship every part is both means and end. Goodness tends toward organism; and so far as it obtains, each member of the universe receives its own appropriate expansion and dignity. The present definition merely states the great truth of organization with too objective an emphasis; as that which found the satisfaction of desire to be the ground of goodness over-emphasized the subjective side. The one is too legal, the other too aesthetic. Yet each calls attention to an important and supplementary factor in the formation of goodness.


In closing these dull defining chapters, in which I have tried to sum up the notion of goodness in general—a conception so thin and empty that it is equally applicable to things and persons—it may be well to gather together in a single group the several definitions we have reached.

Intrinsic goodness expresses the fulfillment of function in the construction of an organism.

By an organism is meant such an assemblage of active and differing parts that in it each part both aids and is aided by all the others.

Extrinsic goodness is found when an object employs an already constituted wholeness to further the wholeness of others.

A part is good when it furnishes that and that only which may add value to other parts.

A greater good is one more largely contributory to the organism as its end.

A higher good is one more fully expressive of that end.

Probably, too, it will be found convenient to set down here a couple of other definitions which will hereafter be explained and employed. A good act is the expression of selfhood as service. By an ideal we mean a mental picture of a better state of existence than we feel has actually been reached.


Alexander's Moral Order and Progress, bk. iii. ch. i. Section 10.

Martineau's Types of Ethical Theory, vol. ii. bk. i. ch. i. Section 2.

Mackenzie's Manual of Ethics, ch. v. Section 13 & ch. vii. Section 2.

Janet's Theory of Morals, ch. iii.

Dewey's Outlines of Ethics, Section lxvii.

Spencer's Principles of Ethics, pt. i. ch. 3.




In the preceding chapters I have examined only those features of goodness which are common alike to persons and to things. Goodness was there seen to be the expression of function in the construction of an organism. That is, when we ask if any being, object, or quality is good, we are really inquiring how organic it is, how much it contributes of riches or solidity to some whole or other. There must, then, be as many varieties of goodness as there are modes of constructing organisms. A special set of functions will produce one kind of organism, a different set another; and each of these will express a peculiar variety of goodness. If, then, into the construction of a person conditions enter which are not found in the making of things, these conditions will render personal goodness to some extent unlike the goodness of everything else.

Now I suppose that in the contacts of life we all feel a marked difference between persons and things. We know a person when we see him, and are quite sure he is not a thing. Yet if we were called on to say precisely what it is we know, and how we know it, we should find ourselves in some difficulty. No doubt we usually recognize a human being by his form and motions, but we assume that certain inner traits regularly attend these outward matters, and that in these traits the real ground of difference between person and thing is to be found. How many such distinguishing differences exist? Obviously a multitude; but these are, I believe, merely various manifestations of a few fundamental characteristics. Probably all can be reduced to four,— they are self-consciousness, self-direction, self-development, and self-sacrifice. Wherever these four traits are found, we feel at once that the being who has them is a person. Whatever creature lacks them is but a thing, and requires no personal attention. I might say more. These four are so likely to go together that the appearance of one gives confidence of the rest. If, for example, we discover a being sacrificing itself for another, even though we have not previously thought of it as a person, it will so stir sympathy that we shall see in it a likeness to our own kind. Or, finding a creature capable of steering itself, of deciding what its ends shall be, and adjusting its many powers to reach them, we cannot help feeling that there is much in such a being like ourselves, and we are consequently indisposed to refer its movements to mechanic adjustment.

If, then, these are the four conditions of personality, the distinctive functions by which it becomes organically good, they will evidently need to be examined somewhat minutely before we can rightly comprehend the nature of personal goodness, and detect its separation from goodness in general. Such an examination will occupy this and the three succeeding chapters. But I shall devote myself exclusively to such features of the four functions as connect them with ethics. Many interesting metaphysical and psychological questions connected with them I pass by.


There is no need of elaborating the assertion that a person is a conscious being. To this all will at once agree. More important is it to inspect the stages through which we rise to consciousness, for these are often overlooked. People imagine that they are self- conscious through and through, and that they always have been. They assume that the entire life of a person is the expression of consciousness alone. But this is erroneous. To a large degree we are allied with things. While self-consciousness is our distinctive prerogative, it is far from being our only possession. Rather we might say that all which belongs to the under world is ours too, while self- consciousness appears in us as a kind of surplusage. No doubt it is by the distinctive traits, those which are not shared with other creatures, that we define our special character; but these are not our sole endowment. Our life is grounded in unconsciousness, and with this, as students of personal goodness, we must first make acquaintance.

Yet how can we become acquainted with it? How grow conscious of the unconscious? We can but mark it in a negative way and call it the absence of consciousness. That is all. We cannot be directly aware of ourselves as unconscious. Indeed, we cannot be quite sure that the physical things about us, even organic objects, are unconscious. If somebody should declare that the covers of this book are conscious, and respond to everything wise or foolish which the writer puts between them, there would be no way of confuting him. All I could say would be, "I see no signs of it." My readers occasionally give a response and show that they do or do not agree with what I say. But the volume itself lies in stolid passivity, offering no resistance to whatever I record in it. Since, then, there is no evidence in behalf of consciousness, I do not unwarrantably assume its presence. I save my belief for objects where it is indicated, and indicate its absence elsewhere by calling such objects unconscious.

But if in human beings consciousness appears, what are its marks, and how is it known? Ought we not to define it at starting? I believe it cannot be defined. Definition is taking an idea to pieces. But there are no pieces in the idea of consciousness. It is elementary, something in which all other pieces begin. That is, in attempting to define consciousness, I must in every definition employed really assume that my hearer is acquainted with it already. I cannot then define it without covert reference to experience. I might vary the term and call it awaredness, internal observation, psychic response. I might say it is that which accompanies all experience and makes it to be experience. But these are not definitions. A simple way to fix attention on it is to say that it is what we feel less and less as we sink into a swoon. What this is, I cannot more precisely state. But in swoon or sleep we are all familiar with its diminution or increase, and we recognize in it the very color of our being. After my friend's remark I am in a different state from that in which I was before. Something has affected me which may abide. This is not the case with a stone post, or at least there are no signs of it there. The post, then, is unconscious. We call ourselves conscious.

In unconsciousness our lives began, and from it they have not altogether emerged. Yet unconsciousness is a matter of degree. We may be very much aware, aware but slightly, vanishingly, not at all. Even though we never existed unconsciously, we may fairly assume such a blank terminus in order the better to figure the present condition of our minds. They show sinking degrees moving off in that direction; when we think out the series, we come logically to a point where there is no consciousness at all.

Such a point analogy also inclines us to concede. In our body we come upon unconscious sections. This body seems to have some connection with myself; yet of its large results only, and not of its minuter operations, can I be distinctly aware. In like manner it is held that within the mind processes cumulate and rise to a certain height before they cross the threshold of consciousness. Below that threshold, though actual processes, they are unknown to us. The teaching of modern psychology is that all mental action is at the start unconscious, requiring a certain bulk of stimulus in order to emerge into conditions where we become aware of it. The cumulated result we know; the minute factors which must be gathered together to form that result, we do not know. I do not pronounce judgment on this psychological question. I state the belief merely in order to show how probable it is that our conscious life is superposed upon unconscious conditions.

In conduct itself I believe every one will acknowledge that his moments of consciousness are like vivid peaks, while the great mass of his acts—even those with which he is most familiar—occur unconsciously. When we read a word on the printed page, how much of it do we consciously observe? Modern teachers of reading often declare that detailed consciousness is here unnecessary or even injurious. Better, they say, take the word, not the letter, as the unit of consciousness. But taking merely the letter, how minutely are we conscious of its curvatures? Somewhere consciousness must stop, resting on the support of unconscious experiences. Matthew Arnold has declared conduct to be three fourths of life. If we mean by conduct consciously directed action, it is not one fourth. Yet however fragmentary, it is that which renders all the rest significant.


Just above our unconscious mental modifications appear the reflex actions, or instincts. Here experience is translated into action before it reaches consciousness; that is, though the actions accomplish intelligent ends, there is no previous knowledge of the ends to be accomplished. A flash of light falls on my eye, and the lid closes. It seems a wise act. The brilliant light is too fierce. It might damage the delicate organ. Prudently, therefore, I draw the small curtain until the light has gone, then raise it and resume communication with the outer world. My action seems planned for protection. In reality there was no plan. Probably enough I did not perceive the flash; the lid, at any rate, would close equally well if I did not. In falling from a height I do not decide to sacrifice my arms rather than my body, and accordingly stretch them out. They stretch themselves, without intention on my part. How anything so blind yet so sagacious can occur will become clearer if we take an illustration from a widely different field.

To-day we are all a good deal dependent on the telephone; though, not being a patient man, I can seldom bring myself to use it. It has one irritating feature, the central office, or perhaps I might more accurately say, the central office girl. Whenever I try to communicate with my friend, I must first call up the central office, as it is briefly called and longly executed. Not until attention there has been with difficulty obtained can I come into connection with my friend; for through a human consciousness at that mediating point every message must pass. In that central office are accordingly three necessary things; viz., an incoming wire, a consciousness, and an outgoing wire; and I am helpless till all these three have been brought into cooperation. Really I have often thought life too short for the performance of such tasks. And apparently our Creator thought so at the beginning, when in contriving machinery for us he dispensed with the hindering factor of a central office operator. For applied to our previous example of a flash of light, the incoming message corresponds to the sensuous report of the flash, the outgoing message to the closure of the eye, and the unfortunate central office girl has disappeared. The afferent nerve reports directly to the efferent, without passing the message through consciousness. A fortune awaits him who will contrive a similar improvement for the telephone. A special sound sent into the switch-box must automatically, and without human intervention, oblige an indicated wire to take up the uttered words. The continuous arc thus established, without employment of the at present necessary girl, will exactly represent the exquisite machinery of reflex action which each of us bears about in his own brain. Here, as in our improved telephone, the announcement itself establishes the connections needful for farther transmission, without employing the judgment of any operating official.

By such means power is economized and action becomes extremely swift and sure. Promptness, too, being of the utmost importance for protective purposes, creatures which are rich in such instincts have a large practical advantage over those who lack them. It is often assumed that brutes alone are instinctive, and that man must deliberate over each occasion. But this is far from the fact. Probably at birth man has as many instincts as any other animal. And though as consciousness awakes and takes control, some of these become unnecessary and fall away, new ones—as will hereafter be shown—are continually established, and by them the heavy work of life is for the most part performed. Personal goodness cannot be rightly understood till we perceive how it is superposed on a broad reflex mechanism.


But higher in the personal life than unconsciousness, higher than the reflex instincts, are the conscious experiences. By these, we for the first time became aware of what is going on within us and without. Messages sent from the outer world are stopped at a central office established in consciousness, looked over, and deciphered. We judge whether they require to be sent in one direction or another, or whether we may not rest in their simple cognizance. Every moment we receive a multitude of such messages. They are not always called for, but they come of themselves. My hand carelessly falling on the table reports in terms of touch. A person near me laughs, and I must hear. I see the flowers on the table; smell reports them too; while taste declares their leaves to be bitter and pungent. All this time the inner organs, with the processes of breathing, blood circulation, and nervous action, are announcing their acute or massive experiences. Continually, and not by our own choice, our minds are affected by the transactions around. Sensations occur—

"The eye, it cannot choose but see; We cannot bid the ear be still; Our bodies feel, where'er they be, Against or with our will."

These itemized experiences thus pouring in upon our passive selves are found to vary endlessly also in degree, time, and locality. Through such variations indeed they become itemized. "Therefore is space and therefore time," says Emerson, "that men may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and divisible."


Have we not, then, here reached the highest point of personal life, self-consciousness? No, that is a peak higher still, for this is but consciousness. Undoubtedly from consciousness self-consciousness grows, often appearing by degrees and being extremely difficult to discriminate. Yet the two are not the same. Possibly in marking the contrast between them I may be able to gain the collateral advantage of ridding myself of those disturbers of ethical discussion, the brutes. Whenever I am nearing an explanation of some moral intricacy one of my students is sure to come forward with a dog and to ask whether what I have said shows that dog to be a moral and responsible being. So I like to watch afar and banish the brutes betimes. Perhaps if I bestow a little attention on them at present, I may keep the creatures out of my pages for the future.

Many writers maintain that brutes differ from us precisely in this particular, that while they possess consciousness they have not self- consciousness. A brute, they say, has just such experiences as I have been describing: he tastes, smells, hears, sees, touches. All this he may do with greater intensity and precision than we. But he is entirely wrapped up in these separate sensations. The single experience holds his attention. He knows no other self than that; or, strictly speaking, he knows no self at all. It is the experience he knows, and not himself the experiencer. We say, "The cat feels herself warm;" but is it quite so? Does she feel herself, or does she feel warm? Which? If we may trust the writers to whom I have referred, we ought rather to say, "The cat feels warm" than that "she feels herself warm;" for this latter statement implies a distinction of which she is in no way aware. She does not set off her passing moods in contrast to a self who might be warm or cold, active or idle, hungry or satiated. The experience of the instant occupies her so entirely that in reality the cat ceases to be a cat and becomes for the moment just warm. So it is in all her seeming activities. When she chases a mouse we rightly say, "She is chasing a mouse," for then she is nothing else. Such a state of things is at least conceivable. We can imagine momentary experiences to be so engrossing that the animal is exclusively occupied with them, unable to note connections with past and future, or even with herself, their perceiver. Through very fullness of Consciousness brutes may be lacking in self-consciousness.

Whether this is the case with the brutes or not, something quite different occurs in us. No particular experience can satisfy us; we accordingly say, not "I am an experience," but "I have an experience." To be able to throw off the bondage of the moment is the distinctive characteristic of a person. When Shelley watches the skylark, he envies him his power of whole-heartedly seizing a momentary joy. Then turning to himself, and feeling that his own condition, if broader, is on that very account more liable to sorrow, he cries,—

"We look before and after, And pine for what is not."

That is the mark of man. He looks before and after. The outlook of the brute, if the questionable account which I have given of him is correct, is different. He looks to the present exclusively. The momentary experience takes all his attention. If it does not, he too in his little degree is a person. Could we determine this simple point in the brute's psychology, he would at once become available for ethical material. At present we cannot use him for such purposes, nor say whether he is selfish or self-sacrificing, possessed of moral standards and accountable, or driven by subtle yet automatic reflexes. The obvious facts of him may be interpreted plausibly in either way, and he cannot speak. Till he can give us a clearer account of this central fact of his being, we shall not know whether he is a poor relation of ours or is rather akin to rocks, and clouds, and trees. I incline to the former guess, and am ready to believe that between him and us there is only a difference of degree. But since in any case he stands at an extreme distance from ourselves, we may for purposes of explanation assume that distance to be absolute, and talk of him as having no share in the prerogative announced by Shelley. So regarded, we shall say of him that he does not compare or adjust. He does not organize experiences and know a single self running through them all. Whenever an experience takes him, it swallows his self—a self, it is true, which he never had.

It is sometimes assumed that Shelley was the first to announce this weighty distinction. Philosophers of course were familiar with it long ago, but the poets too had noticed it before the skylark told Shelley. Burns says to the mouse:—

"Still thou art blest, compared wi' me! The present only toucheth thee: But, ooh! I backward cast my e'e On prospects drear! An' forward tho' I canna see, I guess an' fear."

This looking backward and forward which is the ground of man's grandeur, is also, Burns thinks, the ground of his misery; for in it is rooted his self-consciousness, something widely unlike the itemized consciousness of the brute. Shakespeare, too, found in us the same distinctive trait. Hamlet reflects how God has made us "with such discourse, looking before and after." We possess discourse, can move about intellectually, and are not shut up to the moment. But ages before Shakespeare the fact had been observed. Homer knew all about it, and in the last book of the Odyssey extols Halitherses, the son of Mastor, as one "able to look before and after." [Greek text omitted.] This is the mark of the wise man, not merely marking off person from brute, but person from person according to the degree of personality attained. It is characteristic of the child to show little foresight, little hindsight. He takes the present as it comes, and lives in it. We who are more mature and rational contemplate him with the same envy we feel for the skylark and the mouse, and often say, "Would I too could so suck the joys of the present, without reflecting that something else is coming and something else is gone."


Yet after becoming possessed of self-consciousness, we do not steadily retain it. States of mind occur where the self slips out, though vivid consciousness remains. As I sit in my chair and fix my eye on the distance, a daydream or reverie comes over me. I see a picture, another, another. Somebody speaks and I am recalled. "Why, here I am! This is I." I find myself once more. I had lost myself—paradoxical yet accurate expression. We have many such to indicate the disappearance of self-consciousness at moments of elation. "I was absorbed in thought," we say; the I was sucked out by strenuous attention elsewhere. "I was swept away with grief," i.e., I vanished, while grief held sway. "I was transported with delight," "I was overwhelmed with shame," and—perhaps most beautiful of all these fragments of poetic psychology,—"I was beside myself with terror," I felt myself, to be near, but was still parted; through the fear I could merely catch glimpses of the one who was terrified.

These and similar phrases suggest the instability of self- consciousness. It is not fixed, once and forever, but varies continually and within a wide range of degree. We like to think that man possesses full self-consciousness, while other creatures have none. Our minds are disposed to part off things with sharpness, but nature cares less about sharp divisions and seems on the whole to prefer subtle gradations and unstable varieties. So the self has all degrees of vividness. Of it we never have an experience barely. It is always in some condition, colored by what it is mixed with. I know myself speaking or angry or hearing; I know myself, that is, in some special mood. But never am I able to sunder this self from the special mass of consciousness in which it is immersed and to gaze upon it pure and simple. At times that mass of consciousness is so engrossing that hardly a trace of the self remains. At times the sense of being shut up to one's self is positively oppressive. Between the two extremes there is endless variation. When we call self-consciousness the prerogative of man we do not mean that he fully possesses it, but only that he may possess it, may possess it more and more; and that in it, rather than in the merely conscious life, the significance of his being is found.


Probably we are born without it. We know how gradually the infant acquires a mastery of its sensuous experience; and it is likely that for a long time after it has obtained command of its single experiences it remains unaware of its selfhood. In a classic passage of "In Memoriam" Tennyson has stated the case with that blending of witchery and scientific precision of which he alone among the poets seems capable:—

"The baby, new to earth and sky, What time his tender palm is prest Against the circle of the breast, Has never thought that 'this is I.'

"But as he grows he gathers much, And learns the use of 'I' and 'me,' And finds 'I am not what I see, And other than the things I touch.'

"So rounds he to a separate mind, From whence clear memory may begin, As thro' the frame that binds him in His isolation grows defined."

Until he has separated his mind from the objects around, and even from his own conscious states, he cannot perceive himself and obtain clear memory. No child recalls his first year, for the simple reason that during that year he was not there. Of course there was experience during that year, there was consciousness; but the child could not discriminate himself from the crowding experiences and so reach self- consciousness. At what precise time this momentous possibility occurs cannot be told. Probably the time varies widely in different children. In any single child it announces itself by degrees, and usually so subtly that its early manifestations are hardly perceptible. Occasionally, especially when long deferred, it breaks with the suddenness of an epoch, and the child is aware of a new existence. A little girl of my acquaintance turned from play to her mother with the cry, "Why, mamma, little girls don't know that they are." She had just discovered it. In a famous passage of his autobiography, Jean Paul Richter has recorded the great change in himself: "Never shall I forget the inward experience of the birth of self-consciousness. I well remember the time and place. I stood one afternoon, a very young child, at the house-door, and looked at the logs of wood piled on the left. Suddenly an inward consciousness, 'I am a Me,' came like a flash of lightning from heaven, and has remained ever since. At that moment my existence became conscious of itself, and forever."

The knowledge that I am an I cannot be conveyed to me by another human being, nor can I perceive anything similar in him. Each must ascertain it for himself. Accordingly there is only one word in every language which is absolutely unique, bearing a different meaning for every one who employs it. That is the word I. For me to use it in the sense that you do would prove that I had lost my wits. Whatever enters into my usage is out of it in yours. Obviously, then, the meaning of this word cannot be taught. Everything else may be. What the table is, what is a triangle, what virtue, heaven, or a spherodactyl, you can teach me. What I am, you cannot; for no one has ever had an experience corresponding to this except myself. People in speaking to me call me John, Baby, or Ned, an externally descriptive name which has substantially a common meaning for all who see me. When I begin to talk I repeat this name imitatively, and thinking of myself as others do. I speak of myself in the third person. Yet how early that reference to a third person begins to be saturated with self- consciousness, who can say? Before the word "I" is employed, "Johnny" or "Baby" may have been diverted into an egoistic significance. All we can say is that "I" cannot be rightly employed until consciousness has risen to self-consciousness.


And when it has so risen, its unity and coherence are by no means secure. I have already pointed out how often it is lost in moments when the conscious element becomes particularly intense. But in morbid conditions too it sometimes undergoes a disruption still more peculiar. Just as disintegration may attack any other organic unit, so may it appear in the personal life. The records of hypnotism and other related phenomena show cases where self-consciousness appears to be distributed among several selves. These curious experiences have received more attention in recent years than ever before. They do not, however, belong to my field, and to consider them at any length would only divert attention from my proper topic. But they deserve mention in passing in order to make plain how wayward is self-consciousness,— how far from an assured possession of its unity.

This unity seems temporarily suspended on occasion of swoon or nervous shock. An interesting case of its loss occurred in my own experience. Many years ago I was fond of horseback riding; and having a horse that was unusually easy in the saddle, I persisted in riding him long after my groom had warned me of danger. He had grown weak in the knees and was inclined to stumble. Riding one evening, I came to a little bridge. I remember watching the rays of the sunset as I approached it. Something too of my college work was in my mind, associated with the evening colors. And then—well, there was no "then." The next I knew a voice was calling, "Is that you?" And I was surprised to find that it was. I was entering my own gateway, leading my horse. I answered blindly, "Something has happened. I must have been riding. Perhaps I have fallen." I put my hand to my face and found it bloody. I led my horse to his post, entered the house, and relapsed again into unconsciousness. When I came to myself, and was questioned about my last remembrance, I recalled the little bridge. We went to it the next day. There lay my riding whip. There in the sand were the marks of a body which had been dragged. Plainly it was there that the accident had occurred, yet it was three quarters of a mile from my house. When thrown, I had struck on my forehead, making an ugly hole in it. Two or three gashes were on other parts of the head. But I had apparently still held the rein, had risen with the horse, had walked by his side till I came to four corners in the road, had there taken the proper turn, passed three houses, and entering my own gate then for the first time became aware of what was happening.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse