[The material of this chapter is also treated in Modes of the Finite, Part 3, Section 3, Chapter 4 and also Part 1, Section 5.]

6.1. Sensations and concepts

There are some complications coming; but our main problem is solved.

What basically remains to us in our study of the acquisition of knowledge is to dig out the implications of the solution, and define and clarify some familiar, but vague, terms.

Evidently, then, our mind has two distinct sorts of "operations" it performs: (a) that by which it reacts to the energy outside it (and so gets the subjective reactions which it compares); and (b) that by which it compares these reactions in order to learn about the relations between their causes outside it.

DEFINITION: SENSATION refers to the acts by which the mind reacts to objects, and unifies, stores, and recalls these reactions.

DEFINITION: UNDERSTANDING is the act by which the mind becomes aware of relations among sensations, and therefore among the objects that caused them.

Sensation actually involves many, many different acts. First, there are the acts of the "five senses" (of which there are more than five), which react to different forms of energy: seeing (electromagnetic energy), hearing (air vibrations), smelling (particles in the air), tasting (chemical changes), touching (heat, cold, pressure, pain, position of body and several others).

Then there is the unification of all this into a single perception, so that we hear the sound as coming from this colored shape that we are looking at and touching. We don't understand the relations, here; we merely have a unified whole of sensations.

These perceptions are stored and all or parts of them can be called back from storage. This is called "imagination."

The images are "filed" basically in level of vividness, which is a kind of time-sequence.

Sensation also has a "program" called "instinct," which monitors the bodily state and directs energy from the perception-centers to the motor-nerves and causes automatic behavior-patterns. The operation of this "program" shows up as emotions.

All of these are sensations. They are the data we use to understand.

DEFINITION: The CONCEPT is the form of the act of understanding; it is the relationship understood and the foundation of that relationship.

A relationship involves three "phases or aspects": the relationship itself (e.g. similarity, difference, position, causality), the relata or the terms of the relationship (in understanding, these would be the sensations which are related by the relationship--but they would refer to the objects related outside of us), and the foundation of the relationship in the relata (that is, the particular aspect of each by which it is related to the other relata (in other words, the aspect of the object which relates it to the others).

In understanding the room to be green, for instance, the relata are the causes of the various sensations you have that have this aspect, (the painted walls) the foundation is the aspect itself (the color, greenness), and the relationship is similarity. In understanding that the pink wall is a different color from the green one, the relata are the two walls, the relationship is one of difference, and the foundation is again the color.

Notice that the concept "leaves out" the relata, though the act of understanding includes them. Notice also that the concept includes both the relationship and its foundation, even though the words we use to express concepts refer to one or the other (and only imply the one they leave out). Thus, the word "greenness" refers to the foundation (the characteristic that is in each green thing) and implies sameness. But "fatherhood" refers to the relationship (causing a child) and implies the foundation (what the father has that makes him a father). But when you understand what is meant by fatherhood you understand the relationship and its foundation together; this is because understanding is a conscious act, and knows what it is doing when it does it; but words are basically forms of energy, and they can't "double back" on themselves to include themselves within themselves.

Hence, the concept is an aspect of an act of understanding, and is not a "something." We use the term because it is convenient to have a single word instead of continually saying, "the aspect of understanding that is not sensations and is proper to understanding itself.

If "concepts" are abstract aspects of understanding, then it might be convenient to have a single term for the complete act, instead of talking of "the act of understanding" or "the actual, concrete act of understanding," or "the complete act of understanding."

DEFINITION: The JUDGMENT is the concrete act of understanding; it contains within it the sensations as relata of the concept, together with the consciousness of whether these sensations are imaginings or are perceptions, and hence whether they refer to objects or not.

6.1.1. Abstraction

There is a good deal about understanding that is interesting, but belongs, really, in the philosophy of human nature.

There, understanding is treated as a property of human beings, and isn't exactly related to understanding as knowing things about objects. However, there are some things we must say about it for purposes of our investigation here.

Since a given judgment understands only one relationship, with its foundation (concept) in the sensations that are in consciousness, each judgment leaves out of consciousness all other relationships (with their foundations) that could be understood among the same sensations.

Thus, when you understand that the wall is the same color as the grass, you do not understand in that act that the wall is the same as the grass in, say, visibility in general, in materiality, in hardness, in distance from your eyes; and you do not understand any of the ways in which the wall is different from the grass, or any other relation there might be between this wall and the particular grass you are perceiving or imagining.

You do, however, understand in that act of understanding that it is a real wall that is really the color of the real grass, because you recognize that both of these sensations are perceptions, and you didn't make them up. (Of course, I am pretending that you are actually looking at them; I, as I sit in my white-walled study and write this, realize that the wall and the grass are really imaginary.)

DEFINITION: ABSTRACTION is the name for the fact that understanding, in being conscious of one relationship (with its foundation) leaves out all other relationships and foundations from its consideration.

Hence, understanding is always abstract. But this does not mean that it is false. The wall really is the same in color as the grass. The fact that this act of understanding does not include the difference in size between the wall and a blade of grass does not make what it understands false. It merely means that any given act of understanding is never complete knowledge about the object.

Complete knowledge about the object would mean all the possible relationships it would have within itself and with every other possible thing. For any human being to manage this would be impossible; there are obviously an infinity of such possible relationships.

Therefore, human knowledge is by its nature always incomplete.

Even if we did understand all the possible relationships dealing with a given object, our understanding would still leave out ("abstract from") the "thing-in-itself": that is, the thing as it is independently of our knowing it.

Remember, we only know indirectly, by being subjectively affected by objects, and then using relationships to bypass the subjectivity and get at relationships among the objects. But that still leaves the "object-itself" an "unknown-except-as-related-to..." Hence, there is no hope that human knowledge will ever be total knowledge of anything.

6.2. Facts

The concept is the relation as derived from the sensations.

When these sensations are perceptions, then they are causes by objects; and the idea is that the concept then expresses the relation, not only between the sensations, but between the objects that caused the sensations. Thus, when my "green-reactions" (perceptions) are recognized as the same, I also recognize that the wall and the grass (the objects) are also the same as each other (in color; that is, as causes of these reactions).

DEFINITION: A FACT is a relation among objects.

Hence, what we know objectively (what we understand) are not objects, but facts about objects. We react to objects; but our reaction is subjective. When we understand, however, we circumvent the subjectivity by being conscious of relations; and so by knowing the relations among the subjective effects of the objects, we understand facts about them.

Thus, it is a fact that grass is green; it is a fact that you are reading this page (that's a relationship between you and it); it is a fact that the page is an object (that is, that it is causing you to react). We don't understand anything but facts about anything.

And, of course, facts are always abstract. Since they are relationships, a fact about some object always leaves out other relationships (facts) dealing with that object.

Further, you can't replace the object with a set of facts about it; it is the term of the relationship, the relatum; the fact is the relationship it has. Our factual knowledge will never be all-inclusive.

Nevertheless, our factual knowledge is the only objective knowledge we have. Sensations, if they can be called "knowledge," are subjective knowledge; sensations are not like the causes of them.

But I said earlier that the relationships we understand can be thrown off by some discrepancy in the chain of causes that goes from the object to our reaction; and thus the concept we get might not turn out to be the same relation that the fact is.

This is the next topic.

6.3. Truth

Suppose, like the colorblind man, you see the green wall and the pink wall as the same color.

Notice that the concept "sameness in color" is a perfectly valid or worthwhile concept. That is, colors are related by sameness, and even this particular type of sameness; it is just that in this case, the two walls aren't related this way.

But the colorblind man makes the judgment that "this wall is the same color as that wall" (that is, when his complete act of understanding includes these two sensations and their objects as related in the way the concept says), then he has made a mistake.

If, however, he realizes that he is colorblind and asks someone, and the other person says that they're different colors, and he accepts that, then the judgment he makes is a correct one, because he understands the walls to be related in the way that they are in fact related. His judgment agrees with what the fact is.

DEFINITION: TRUTH is the fact that the judgment of what the fact is agrees with what the fact is.

DEFINITION: ERROR is the fact that the judgment of what the fact is fails to agree with what the fact is. "Agrees with" of course, means "involves the same relation as"; but the point here is that the fact is the standard to which the judgment must conform, or the judgment is in error.

Notice that truth is a fact (when it occurs), and so is error. That is, truth is a relation between relations: the relation understood (the judgment) and the relation among the objects (the fact). Error, of course, is the fact (relation) of discrepancy between these two relations.

6.3.1. Goodness/badness and humor

But why does the judgment have to agree with the fact?

Why couldn't you take the judgment as the standard and demand that the fact agree with it (and perhaps change the fact until it did come to be what you thought it "really is").

In fact, there's no law that says you can't do just that. The catch is that we don't call the relationship "truth/error" then, but "goodness/badness."

That is, when we understand something as "really" being a certain way, and yet it isn't in fact the way we understand it, there are times when we don't change our minds, but say, "There's something wrong with that thing; it ought to be like this"; and then we try to change the object until the fact about it agrees with our understanding of the way it "ought" to be.

Whenever we use the term ought we are taking our understanding of things as the standard to which the facts are expected to conform.

DEFINITION: EVALUATION is thinking which uses the judgment as the standard to which the facts about the object are to conform.

DEFINITION: Something is called GOOD when the facts about it agree with our understanding of the way it ought to be.

DEFINITION: Something is called BAD when the fact about it disagrees with our understanding of the way it ought to be.

Hence, goodness and badness are just truth and error looked at backwards. We say that it is bad for a man to be blind, because we expect him (because he has eyes, whose nature it is to see) to be able to see; and he can't. Rather than say, "Oh, I made a mistake; not all human beings can see," we say, "This is a bad example of a human being; he has something wrong with him; let's correct it." The generalization overrides the instance to the contrary and gives us a motive for making the instance agree with our understanding.

When we can't do this, we suffer, or are frustrated. The reason is that the world appears now to us as contradicting our understanding of it; it isn't the way it "really is," because we won't give up our understanding and simply say we made a mistake. We insist on expecting the facts to agree with our understanding of what they "really are."

A whole book could be written about this: why we think this way, whether and under what conditions it is legitimate to think this way, what moral badness is, and so on and so forth. But since in this book we are interested in truth rather than goodness, we will just note a few important points.

1. The evaluative judgment is "made up"; there are no objective standards for making an evaluation.

This is necessarily true, since the "standard" used for evaluation is an ideal, which is created by using the imagination, and which you are using to see whether what is "out there" agrees with it or not. How then could you have got this standard from what is objective? Ideals never exist as such.

2. The subjectivity of "good" and "bad" and values in general does not mean that morals are subjective.

This area of morals (Ethics) is a whole field or series of fields in itself. Basically, it deals with (a) which acts we perform are inconsistent with our reality (i.e. when are we acting hypocritically, as if we weren't what we really are), and (b) why should we act consistently (honestly) if we can gain by inconsistency.

"Morally right" and "morally wrong" are defined by whether the act in fact (i.e. objectively) is consistent with the reality of the agent or not (e.g. it is morally wrong for a person to steal from others if he claims the right not to have others steal from him). Such consistencies or inconsistencies are simple facts, and do not depend on anyone's knowing them. Hence, they are not values; they have nothing in themselves to do with your expectations of people's moral behavior (your moral ideals, which would make you say a person is a "good person" or an "evil person").

That is, you may expect a person never to be a hypocrite and always behave consistently, and thus have moral standards. But these standards and expectations are not the same as the morals themselves.

Since morals are facts, morals belong more to the realm of truth than the realm of values. And this leads to the third point:

3. Truth and values are opposites: truth is not a kind of goodness, and goodness is not a kind of truth.

One of the mistakes today is to regard truth as a "value" and to consider whether some truths are not "better" than others.

One source of contemporary relativism is the realization that values are subjective (which is true), and to conclude that if they are, so are morals and so is truth (both of which conclusions are false).

Thus, a good deal of what used to be education in morals (where you were taught that stealing, lying, murder, adultery, and so on were objectively wrong and given the objective reasons why they were inconsistent) has become in the present day "values clarification," where you are given situations of, say, cheating or sexual intimacy and asked, "what kind of person do you want to be? Which of these acts do you feel 'comfortable with'?"

A person who is "comfortable with" getting his sexual satisfaction by whipping another till blood flows is assumed to be following a "different lifestyle," which is "objectively no better or worse" than any other sexual "lifestyle."

--And this is true, if the issue is framed purely on the level of values, which are subjective. But there is also the question of whether we can be consistent as human beings if we inflict pain and physical injury on others.

But to pursue this further would lead us deep into ethics and its relation to axiology (the study of values), and we must press on. Suffice it that "value clarification" is not the same as moral education.

To return to the relation between our judgment and the fact, there is one other way of considering the disagreement between understanding and the fact. This disagreement, we said, is error if you take it that the understanding doesn't agree with the fact; it is badness if you take it that the fact doesn't agree with your understanding. But suppose you don't take sides, and just notice the fact of the disagreement.

DEFINITION: HUMOR or THE COMIC is a disagreement between the fact and our understanding of the fact, when the person notes the simple fact of this disagreement as a fact, and does not "expect" either one to agree with the other.

Thus, when the coyote blows himself up trying to bomb the roadrunner, we laugh; because even though he has destroyed himself, we don't really sympathize with a cartoon coyote (then it would be horrible), and we see in a detached sort of way the discrepancy between what he expected to happen and what actually happened. The coyote and his plans backfiring becomes a kind of symbol for the way the world is; this sort of thing happens; and so we notice the discrepancy itself as a kind of fact and a truth; and it pleases us.

Again, we could make a great deal of this and go into the various kinds of humor; but, not to mention that it is extremely unfunny to analyze the funniness of the funny, it is not really to our purpose. It is enough here to say that humor involves a peculiar kind of understanding: the understanding that it is a fact that the world isn't always understandable. Things don't always make sense.

Look at that statement from one point of view (as an evaluation), and it's horrible; look at it from another (as an effect or error), and all it means is that we make mistakes; look at it as the humorist does, and it's funny. This is why, by the way, so many humorists have really horrible childhoods.

Note that humor does not evaluate; when it passes over into evaluation, it becomes satire, and isn't funny any more.

Finally, let me just mention one other thing that I am not going to talk about here.

There are times when, instead of using our five senses as the "receiving instruments," we use our emotions as the sensation as caused by the external object. Thus, you look at a lion, and you feel a certain type of fright. Two days later John yells at you, and you feel the same kind of fright. You notice the sameness in the emotional effects, and realize that the objects produced these effects, and so in telling about it you say, "John roared at me like a lion."

Or you look out at the sunny field and it makes you feel good; and you notice that the feeling that the field causes in you is the same sort of feeling you get when someone smiles at you. And so you talk about "the smiling field"; and people understand what you mean.

Notice that there are no teeth in the field, no lips, nothing by which it looks like a smiling face. Nor does John's yelling actually sound like the lion's roar, or his face look like the lion's. The only connection between the two is the emotion they produced.

DEFINITION: An ESTHETIC CONCEPT is a relation based on the emotions caused by the objects.

Esthetic understanding does understand facts about the world; real, objective facts. But to show how this is the case, and why esthetic concepts are tricky, would take a whole book in itself (in fact I wrote one, called Esthetics). So I will drop the subject at this point.

6.3.2. Pragmatism's criterion of truth

William James was an important philosopher in the only "school" of philosophy in America that has gained any international recognition ("Pragmatism").

He define truth as "what works," or "what has a cash value." Sounds very American, doesn't it? By this, however, what the pragmatists mean, basically, is that something is true, not if it "agrees" with some putative "reality out there" (they hadn't solved the Kantian problem), but if it fits together into the rest of what you know so that the whole thing makes sense. If all your knowledge goes together, then intellectual life is at least possible; and if some "knowledge" contradicts other things you think true, then you can't practically live out your "knowledge."

Since Kant had for practical purposes destroyed the "agreement" definition of truth, this "definition" that you can throw out as false something that isn't useful for life seems, practically speaking, to be as good as any.

But of course, it is a definition based on despair, in one sense. James tried to prove, for instance, that the existence of God was "true" based on the fact that those who believed in God's existence as a fact had happier and better integrated lives than those who didn't. But there are plenty of people who seem to do better believing that there is no God and no heaven and hell--which means that God's non-existence is true for them.

So we're back to relativism, which contradicts itself, as you will recall, and so certainly must be false even by James's definition. But then James's definition, which leads into this position, must itself be false--it certainly isn't useful to say that a fact is a fact for me and a non-fact for you, just because I get more out of admitting it and you get less.

Note, by the way, that this business of something's being "true" if it "works" or is useful to fitting your life's pieces together makes truth a value among other values. It is pragmatism which is partially responsible for the confusion in our country I mentioned above between truth and values.

Now I think James's definition can be a useful criterion for judging whether something is true or not. It's not too good at finding when something is true; but if "facts" contradict each other, then something has to be false.

That is, test what you think to be true. Does it fit with the other facts you know? If it doesn't, then there must be something wrong somewhere. Reality doesn't contradict itself, and if your knowledge does, then your knowledge can't be in agreement with reality.

As to a critique of the definition as a definition, I think our analysis above has shown a way the "agreement" definition of truth "works" better than James's. Hence, by his definition of "truth" our definition of it is "truer" than his.

Summary of Chapter 6

Our minds have two kinds of activity: (1) the reactions (including the storage and retrieval) to energy from outside: sensation, and (2) knowing the relationships among these reactions, and thus the relationships among their objects: understanding.

A concept is the form of the act of understanding; it is the relationship and its foundation (the aspect in the relata, or things related); it is not something, but just an abstract aspect of the judgment, which is the concrete act of understanding, and includes the sensations and their objects. Concepts are abstract, in that they ignore all other aspects and relations except the one in question, and hence human knowledge, which is understanding, is always incomplete. The incompleteness, however, does not imply that it is false.

A fact is a relation among objects; hence, what we understand is not objects, but facts about objects. Factual knowledge is the only kind of objective knowledge we have, since sensations (the reactions to the objects) are subjective.

Truth is the fact that the judgment of what the fact is agrees with what the fact is; if there is disagreement, this is error. The fact is the standard to which the judgment must conform.

If we expect the facts to agree with our judgment (ideal) of what they "ought" to be, we are not understanding, but evaluating; and our judgment is not said to be true or mistaken, but the objects are said to be good or bad. Goodness is the agreement of the facts with our evaluative judgment; badness is the disagreement.

Evaluative judgments are created by using the imagination, and so are subjective; there are no objective standards for evaluating. But this does not mean that morals are subjective, because morally right means the fact that our acts are consistent with our natures; our acts are morally wrong when in fact they are inconsistent. Hence morality deals with truth, not values. Truth and values are opposites; truth is not a value.

Humor is the recognition of the fact that there is a disagreement between our judgment and the fact "out there," with no expectation that one side "must conform" to the other. Humor does not evaluate.

When we use our emotions as "receiving instruments" instead of our "five senses," then concepts formed are esthetic concepts, and judgments of facts based on these concepts are esthetic judgments.

William James's pragmatic "definition" of truth as "what works" (in the sense of what makes information fit together consistently) does not "work" as a definition of truth, since then the same thing could be true for one person and not true for another if it fit or did not fit his lifestyle, which makes truth a value; and the pragmatic criterion itself would turn out to be false for anyone for whom it "worked" less well than some other definition of truth. Used negatively, it can be used as a criterion of whether something is false, since there are no real contradictions, and therefore, some apparent "fact" that contradicts what is already known could not really be a fact.