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In the prehistoric ages, when men lived on the raw flesh of animals or on the roots they dug from the ground, a man, wiser than the rest of men, with a keen eye for the observation of nature, saw among the grasses one that bore a fruit of hard seeds. This ear of corn he plucked, and rubbing it between his hands the wheat fell out. Hungry as he was and ever ready to find means of subsistence, he put the wheat into his mouth, and was surprised to find that the flavour was not unpalatable. He availed himself of his discovery by collecting all the ears of corn he could, and knowing from experience the fertile growth of grasses, he planted them around the place in which he was wont to dwell. But the soil was sandy and barren, without sufficient firmness to allow the roots to grow, and he found only a scanty crop. Being endowed with the gift of patience, he persevered in his efforts, till at last a happy thought occurred to him—that he would try another situation. This being a soil of clay, afforded the seeds the nourishment they needed, and he was rewarded with a better harvest. Gradually he increased his store, and lived in comparative abundance. The world then was, however, not less chequered
and the smut and the mildew, among other diseases, ravaged his little cornfield. By thinking how to prevent these evils, and neglecting no effort, he at last was able to see his cornfield waving around him with a harvest sufficient for his wants. He had found the staff of life, but with it he had also learned the lesson that his own activity and thought were necessary for the continuance of the blessing.
I had just read this to Amicus, whom I was then visiting, when he said to me, “Verus, I see in that an outline of the search for truth. Truth seems to come as an inspiration, but it is necessary to test it in the battle of life.”
I thought my friend was disposed to enter into one of those conversations on philosophic subjects I always enjoyed, so I laid down the paper from which I had read the above passage and drew my chair a little nearer to him. Although he was engaged in the busy turmoil of trade, he could still at times indulge in the society of the Muses, and he had not forgotten his early love for intellectual pleasure.
Yes,” he continued, “ the growth of knowledge is rapid in these days, but it is chiefly the growth of science. Poetry has lost somewhat of its inward fire and grace, although it may have gained in mechanical symmetry. Philosophy is a mass of conflicting opinion
in which we vainly seek for the ladder connecting earth with heaven. And even our practical common sense is only the knowledge of gaining wealth to indulge in outward luxuries."
“True," I replied, “in some of its manifestations, but not in all."
“No,” said Amicus, “I have not lost faith in the instinctive yearning of the soul for truth. Even a Socrates, whom the oracle is said to have pronounced the wisest of men, could still question and answer as though at least he felt he knew something and desired to know
I often wonder if he really believed the highest wisdom a man could learn was to know that he knew nothing. But, Socrates apart, I do not see why we should all be Pyrrhonists in this age. Agnosticism has no charms for me. I know that I know little compared with the vast universe of knowledge that lies beyond my ken, yet I cannot help, and no one can help, the consciousness that something is known, perhaps too vividly for satisfaction with the past, yet for activity in the present and hope for the future.”
“You do not share,” said I, “in the prominent belief that things will be regenerated by Positivism. Well, neither do I. For my part I cannot see that Comte made any improvement in what Bacon had taught except perhaps in sociology. His idea of the theological, metaphysical, and positive stages of human philosophy is a mere sham. The bad influence of theology on science has resulted from a corrupt theology, and I cannot see how you can educe law in science without metaphysical effort."
“I am no advocate of Positivism,” was the reply of Amicus, “yet I cannot help thinking that it has done good. It has stimulated inquiry and enlarged our knowledge of facts, and that is better than spinning intellectual cobwebs. The mistake of Positivism seems to be that it regards itself as the only source of knowledge, and thus becomes a free lance in things beyond its province. But this reminds me that it is always a vexed question what truth is, and many regard it as a Proteus assuming different forms. You remember an old friend of mine who used to share in our conversations when you were living here; he was not rich in the things of this world, yet I believe he had wandered through many books gathering what knowledge he could. Since you left he has departed from this world; and I was astonished to find that he had wished his papers to be given to me. I have often looked over them; for he was a genuine seeker after truth, and even sacrificed his worldly prospects in the search. The other day I came across a paper on ‘Seeking for Truth,' which I know you
would like to hear—if not for its intrinsic value yet from your love of old associations.”
I acquiesced in the proposal of my friend, and he read to me as follows:
SEEKING FOR TRUTH.
The desire of knowledge seems to be connate with man. However limited by capacity or circumstances, he wishes to know something of the world around him. The desire will be manifested in different ways—sometimes from curiosity, sometimes from pleasure—it may be from the consciousness of ignorance or from the impulse of duty-but, more or less, knowledge is sought by every one. The direction this desire takes is determined by the purpose or end of life. If the purpose be pleasure, variety will be sought; if power, practical knowledge; if usefulness and self-improvement, then truth.
Here we are met by an apparent difference between knowledge and truth. It is the difficulty of determining what the latter is that has been the vexed question of thinkers since the world began. Instead of the preliminary question being, What is truth ? let us ask the more pertinent one, What is knowledge ?
Some philosophers will tell us that at birth the mind is like a sheet of white paper, fitted to receive impressions, but at present without any. Hard as it may be to tell what the infant state of mind may be, these philosophers of sensation can scarcely fail to admit that, at its earliest moments, a babe will manifest by cries and gestures the presence, in its dawning life, of sensations which must be felt and therefore known. This first knowledge, which is instinctive, is the result of sensation; and this source of knowledge becoming developed, remains a powerful means of intellectual activity. But with the growth of sentient life there comes into operation the unfolding of the hereditary character which determines the direction of the faculty of sensation. The mind takes from this hereditary character a certain groove. What modifies this? The contact with others, by which other sensations are brought to view—other ideas are revealed; and the mind is called upon to discriminate. This discrimination is what we call judgment, and in proportion as our judgments are verified by the life around us our knowledge is apparent or actual.
Such is the general outline of the progress of knowledge, but we cannot omit to notice the originative power of the human mind. This power is not a common manifestation, and its advent can only be traced to reflex action, or to that intuition which is the reception of an influx from a higher source.
Knowledge, then, may be said to be arrived at from experience,
from others, or from intuition as a phase of life. In estimating their prevalence, we shall see that the bulk of the ideas we call knowledge is derived from others. Our own experience is but limited, yet in the sphere of that limitation we feel its certainty. The knowledge we receive from others we (at least at first) take on authority—and hence it is of the nature of belief. Intuitional knowledge comes to us with the force of sensation, yet, being an inward feeling, it retains somewhat of the nature of belief until tested by experience.
Zeuxis painted fruit so that the birds came to peck it-Parrhasius painted a curtain so that Zeuxis wished him to draw it aside; and so the ideas we receive, from whatever source, may be so vivid as to deceive us. If a child doubts the existence of anything, he tries to feel it; if a man cannot understand any idea, he thinks until he rejects or accepts it. The effort of each is to get at the reality, and reality is the test of knowledge.
How is this reality to be arrived at? There are two means given to man by which he may test his knowledge—reason and experience. Whatever has been experienced is accepted as an outward fact, but the idea we hold of it has to be stamped as genuine by reason. Every fresh experience is a link in the chain of experiences, and its relation to the whole determines its value. It may be the keynote that will rule the various modulations of thought. To identify and verify this is the prerogative of reason. And conversely the ideas of reason which are induced from observation, conceived by imagination, or deduced from other ideas, have to be subjected to the trial of experience to discover their value. The service which Bacon rendered to philosophy was in recalling to the votaries of knowledge the indispensable necessity of this test. The scholasticism of the middle ages was brilliant in intellectual power, yet its results were only theoretical from the want of that reality which experience confirms.
This leads to the solution of the question, What is truth? For if, in general terms, men signify by knowledge the ideas they hold, whether opinions or perceptions, the dignity of truth can only be claimed by those which have undergone the trial. Truth is knowledge verified; or as this may be regarded as begging the question, let us say more plainly, Truth is knowledge tested by reason and experience.
It will result from this definition that men have in general but little knowledge which can rightly be called truth. The rest of their knowledge is but apparent. If every idea we have were subjected to a rigid examination, life would be a round of ceaseless inquiry. It
is fortunate for us that habit has so much power that a large proportion of our thoughts, feelings, and activities are automatic. We are by this means able to enjoy and develop life on what must be called apparent truth. Yet this apparent truth, if in harmony with the ruling truths of our lives, may be the vehicle to other truths pertinent to our wellbeing, for it is often through apparent truths that we are led to the formation of belief.
If we consider the relative value of what knowledge we possess, we shall soon discover how largely belief enters into its quantity. The sources of our knowledge being from experience, from others, and from internal action, either reflection or intuition, it will be evident that the test of experience goes a very little way. Even the scientist, who is supposed to trust to experiment as his chief agent, will find that only in a narrow groove can he prove his data by this means. In other sciences, cognate or otherwise to that he pursues, he is compelled to rely on the results attained by others. History, which forms so large a part of human knowledge, and is one of the chief bases of opinion, affords another example of the necessity of accepting human authority. Research does much to verify, but there is left still more to be accepted on the affidavit of the narrator. In the realm of philosophy the principal test will always be reason, and that will have an individuality which will at least render its results difficult to be accepted by all.
If then we divide knowledge into two kinds, viz. of fact and of belief, we shall see that our knowledge of facts is conterminous with our experience, and our knowledge from belief conterminous with our
From this we are led to the conclusion that as our experience is limited the bulk of our knowledge consists of probabilities, which we are justified in accepting as truths if on inquiry they prove to be rational.
The chief source of our beliefs is extraneous to ourselves, and rests upon authority of two kinds—human and divine. We avail our selves of the travels, experience, research, and opinions of others, and accept them in proportion to their credibility. That credibility is determined by the character of the communicator, or our estimate of the value of his past and present communications. But, however disposed we may be to the acceptance of his ideas, we cannot be said to believe them until we have assimilated them to our own minds by reflection, and gained a clear perception of their truth, or at least of their probability. The purest and profoundest thoughts of Plato, Bacon, and Shakespeare are valueless to us as truths unless they are confirmed by our own reason, They may be stored up in our minds