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All our distinct ideas may be kept separate, and it is quite
easy for us to picture an object one moment as not existing, the
next as existing, without any idea whatsoever of a cause or a
creative principle being required. If we look at the things each for
itself, no one of them necessarily presupposes another. Nor can
we come to the causal concept by way of experience. We see the
one phenomenon exist at the same time as the other or follow
after it, but we do not see it follow the other. The production or
causation itself we do not sec.- -The firm connection postulated
between two tb-ngs, which are called cause and effect, docs not
itself belong to these objects. The necessity exists only in con-



sciousness, not in the things. But what can that be which unites
our ideas in such a way? This is in itself just as mysterious as
the union between the objects. The only possible explanation is
this, that repeated experiences create a habit, an instinct, a dis-
position, to pass from an idea to other ideas with which it is usually
combined. This subjective impulse, which we experience in the
course of our ideas, we then anthropomorphically ascribe to nature.^

Hume disposed of the popular notion by carrying its assumptions
to their legitimate conclusion. His criticism was based on the
supposition that something distinct from the effect is the cause.
This isolation of the several members of the causal relation stands
in close connection with his psychological theory, v/hich conceives
consciousness as a sum or series of independent ideas (see B. 5).

Instead of saying with Hume, that we cannot see in a thing or
infer from our conception of it that it is the cause or the effect of
another thing, we must on the contrary maintain that we only know
a thing at all in so far as it is cause or effect. Things are always
given to us as members of a system. If they are taken out of this
system in which they live, move, and have their being, it seems
indeed wonderful that they have anything to do with one another.
Hume says, a thing remains always the same, whether it is a cause
or not. But the thing which is a cause, i.e. from which a change
proceeds, must be in a state different from that in which it would
be if no change were determined by it. It cannot bring about a
change without being itself changed. Instead of starting with the
idea of independent things and marvelling over the causal relation,
it would be more reasonable to start with the causal relation and
to marvel over the independent things.

Hume saw plainly the connection between the theory of the
causal concept and the psychology of cognition. " The uniting
principle among our internal perceptions," he says (I. 3, 14), "is
as unintelligible as that among external objects." If Hume's
psychology were corrected, his theory of causality would sustain a
corresponding correction.

Difference and contrast are conditions of the existence of
phenomena {cf. II. 5 andV. ^. 5). But, on the other hand, whatever is
new and varied excites astonishment and sets in motion our cognitive
impulse. While things or phenomena are presented to us as
in all respects different, they are not intelligible. We then exert
ourselves to get rid of the difference and the contrast, by tracing

1 Treatise on Human Nature, book i., part 3, sects. 3-14.


the new phcnoincnon back to one that is familiar, and showing
how it is its continuation or conversion in another form. When
it appears that the phenomenon B inevitably succeeds the
phenomenon A, we are then really learning to know A from a new
side. While we confine ourselves to mere perception, A and B ap-
pear to be quite different things. The thunder-cloud and the flashes
of lightning have absolutely no points of resemblance to our per-
ception. But the more we can penetrate into the relation between
the two phenomena, the more we discover a continuous system
which embraces both. The lightning, that phenomenon occurring
so suddenly, and so strongly contrasting with the dark cloud, is
only a continuation (a discharge) of the electrical current already
passing in the clouds ; this current makes the air glow as it flashes
through it. The continuity extends yet farther, for the atmosphere,
even when no thunderstorm threatens, always contains more or
less electricity. The sudden phenomenon is thus only a special and
concentrated form of a something that is at work to a lesser degree
at every instant. Cause (in the example given, the electricity of
the air or the clouds) and effect (the flash of lightning) are thus
presented as members or stages of one and the same process ; and
when we trace back from the differences given in perception to a
more comprehending system, we find the identity behind the

The connection between the relations of identity and causality
appears also in the fact that when the same thing and the same
relations are given, we expect the same eftects. This expectation
Hume explained as the mere result of a habit, and Stuart Mill, who
starts from the same premises as Hume, was similarly unable to
find any other reason for it, than that it has arisen from the
generalization of a very large number of experiences. It is, how-
ever, clear that if the same thing and the same relations arc really
given, the same effects must follow, the effect being nothing else
than the way in which the nature of the thing and of the relation
finds expression. If the effect were something quite distinct and
different from the cause, then the proposition, like causes like
effects, could indeed be based only upon habit and collective
experience. Certainly it is often difficult, if not impossible, to
establish the extent to which relations and things are really the
same. Scientific work has to a large extent for its aim, to establish
by measuring, weighing, and counting, what is really given, or, as
it has been put, " to describe things in all respects numerically."

P 2



The nature of the causal relation may, then, be expressed by
these two main propositions : (i) Cause and effect are members
of one and the same process, parts of one and the same whole ;
(2) like causes have like effects.

Now what of the proposition, that every phenomenon has a
cause ?

A close affinity has been shown between the relation of identity
and that of causality. A corresponding affinity exists between the
principle of identity, the highest law of thought, the validity of
which is the pre-supposition of all inference and consequently of
all proof {B. 11), and i\\e pri?iciple 0/ causality, which requires the
firm and inevitable connection of real phenomena, and the
validity of which is the pre-supposition of all explanation of
nature. The principle of identity might, however, hold good,
even if the principle of causality did not. We should then be able
to classify and draw conclusions, but should not be in a position
to explain the origin of the different phenomena. The principle of
causality shows us the way in which, in accordance with the
nature of our cognitive faculties, we must look for the reason of
the real phenomena. It is a special kind of proof, but cannot
be deduced a priori from the general principle of proof.
Both principles are derived from one and the same fundamental
property of our thinking and cognitive consciousness ; the same
activity, searching for similarity and unity, finds expression in both
principles. They set the problems for our research, conformably
with the nature of our cognitive faculties.

As a principle of knowledge, the causal principle contains a
problem, a postulate, but does not in itself justify any assertion as
to how far the problem can be solved and the postulate satisfied in
actual experience. Kant, without further preliminaries, founded
the law of causality upon the principle of causality, and conceived
this law, the proposition that every phenomenon has a cause, as
an a priori law of nature, because, as he held, all experience (as
distinct from dream and illusion) pre-supposes it. The question is,
however, (as Maimon already urged against Kant), how far we really
have experience in this sense : namely as necessary connection
among phenomena.

It may even be maintained that we can never obtain absolute
corroboration of the law of causality by experience. The causal
principle sets up an ideal, which can never be fully realized in our


In the first place, experience can show us no absolute continuity.
In every course of development to which we can point, there are
gaps, variations unexplained. Any one who wishes to deny the
real validity of the causal law, will find no lack of material. In
fact this material is eyen constantly added to ; for when we have
explained the transition from A to B by indicating C as the middle
term, we are left with two new questions in place of the one
which we have answered, namely : how may the transition from
A to C, and the transition from C to B be explained.'* The farther
science advances, the more numerous are the riddles it finds and
creates ; continuity is an ideal that can only be approximately

In the second place, experience shows us also no absolute
repetition. There are always collateral circumstances and de-
grees ; quite the same situation never comes again. This is par-
ticularly true of organic, psychological and historical phenomena,
on account of the complex and complicated conditions under which
they make their appearance ; but even in the inorganic province
it is only approximately possible to establish the identity of
the conditions in different cases. So that repetition also is an

In the third place, the series of causes is infinite, in the same
sense as time and space are infinite. It is always an accidental
or arbitrary point, at which we bring our inquiry to a close.
According to the causal principle, every cause is in its turn effect.
Though we are obliged even in our boldest hypotheses to come to
an end at a certain point, yet the limit is only one of fact. We
always leave off with a mark of interrogation.

In the strictest sense therefore no single phenomenon is com-
pletely explained. On the other hand, the principle of knowledge
that could not be at least approximately confirmed by experience,
would contradict itself. We should share the fate of Tantalus if
we were condemned to inquire without ever being able to find. And
as Tantalus would soon die of hunger and thirst, so out postulate
of causality, like every useless organ, would die of atrophy,
even if under such circumstances it were psychologically possible
at all.

Now in fact continuity and rhythm are exhibited in nature ; move-
ments and processes lead from link to link (even when we cannot re-
construct all the intermediate links), and have a periodic character.
And if we cannot bring the series of causes to a conclusion,


we can at least work through a great stretch, as far as our view
extends. A relative proof of the causal principle is contained,
indeed, in the bare fact that there is such a thing as exact ex-
periential science, however great or small the range of its results.
To this extent the causal principle is not merely a postulate, but
also a result.

From the psychological point of view we may add, that in a
world of purely absolute differences, a world where consequently
the law of causality would not hold, conscious life, as we know it,
would not be possible. Neither perception (V. B. i) nor self-
consciousness (V. B. 5), nor association of ideas (V. B. 8), nor
logical thought (V. B. li) would be possible, if there were no
rhythm and no continuity in the sensations, through which the
content of existence announces itself in consciousness.

4. The full development of the causal concept belongs to the
philosophical theory of knowledge, not to psychology. In what
precedes, we have overstepped the limits between these two
departments. We now turn back to the psychological province,
in order to inquire into the psychological origin of the causal
concept. With regard both to motive and to form, the causal
concept proceeds originally out of a practical interest.

It is only at an advanced stage that men take an interest in the
system of nature, apart from its power of serving their ends. The
instinct of self-preservation first leads to the knowledge of the
external world ; need teaches thought, as it teaches prayer. The
knowledge which cannot be immediately utilized, is not needed.
A missionary, who narrated to an Indian the story of the creation,
received for answer : " My father, our grandfathers and our great-
grandfathers were wont to contemplate the earth alone, sohcitous
only to see whether the plain afforded grass and water for their
horses. They never troubled themselves about what went on in
the heavens." ^ And even later, science and knowledge are means
by which man adapts nature to his ends. Thus, Bacon, the
prophet of modern natural science, and of industrialism, says :
" The knowledge and the power of man coincide, because ignor-
ance of the cause makes it impossible to produce the effect. For
we can only conquer nature by obeying her. And that which in
investigation is presented as the cause, in action appears as the
rule." 2 The cause is thus originally the means, a by-path which

1 Lubbock, Origi7i of Civilization, slh edition, p. 385.

2 Novum Organon, i. 3.



must be taken if the end is to be attained. It is only in pure
instinct that an obscure impulse immediately produces action.
Reason (in the widest sense of the word) is raised above instinct
by the fact, that with the impulse is united an idea of that which
must first take place before the impulse can be satisfied. In this
idea of an indispensable middle term, we have the germ of the
conception of necessity and of the causal concept ; and when this
idea obtains a comprehensive content, and becomes the object of
independent interest, the causal concept comes to be emancipated
from the concept of the end.

Closely connected with the originally practical motives deter-
mining the causal concept is the original form in which it is
apprehended. From its close connection with the nature of con-
sciousness, the causal concept is to be found at all stages of human
development ; but the cause may be sought in very different
directions. What will be regarded as a good and valid cause at the
several stages of mental development, depends entirely on the
standpoint. When an Australian native sees one of his tribe die
without having been shot or having met with any other external
injury, he concludes that witchcraft must have been practised, and
in order to discover who has slain his comrade by witchcraft, he
goes in the direction in which the first insect seen leads him
from the scene of death ; and the first person he then encounters
must be the murderer.^ Given his premises, this is valid, rational
thought. And that similar premises are in a measure held even at
the present day may be seen from the fact that millions of people
in the most highly civilized countries ascribe the so-called spiritua-
listic phenomena to the influence of spirits.''^ While the gods of
mythology or similar beings are accepted by consciousness as
realities, they provide a capital and easy means of satisfying
the desire for causahty. From such a standpoint this is easily
satisfied without further preliminaries. When the imagination has
gone back a couple of steps in the series, it requires a rest
and draws the conclusion. The Greeks regarded the gods as
the creators of natural phenomena (at any rate, of all important or
obvious phenomena). But whence did the gods come ? This
question Hesiod answers in his Theogo/iy, where he describes how
the dynasties of the gods were gradually evolved out of chaos.

1 Fr. Miiller, AU^-ineine Ethnographic, 2. Ausg. IVien, 1879, p. 214.
'•' Cf. Ginard dc Rialle, La Mylhoio^ie Comparfe, Paris, 1878, i., chap. 14. Le
Fiticliismc chez Us Fcuples Civilises.


But he did not ask whence chaos came, although he expressly
declared that it began to be. (" First of all chaos began to be."
V. 1 1 6.) From the mythological to the scientific account of nature
is a continuous series of stages. The anthropomorphic form is
sacrificed as more and more intermediate links become necessary',
the more the conviction grows that these links are independent of
personal caprice. The scientific causal concept is characterized by
this, that the explanation of a natural phenomenon is found in its
reduction to a set of other natural phenomena. Nature is explained
by itself, not by something outside it. The observer who is skilled
in medicine inquires in a case of sudden death into the constitution,
mode of life, descent, etc., of the dead person. He perhaps finds
in the autopsy, a stoppage (a clot of blood) in one of the arteries,
and then explains the death, either as the result of an inhibited
supply of blood to the brain, or through stoppage of the heart. In
this way he forms the image of a connected process, in which link
follows link ; the mysterious and sudden phenomenon is then
presented as the natural conclusion of this process.

5. There is another epistemological question which may be raised
here, since it stands in close connection with the psychology of
cognition, that, namely, of the limits of our knowledge.

The study of sensations proves them to be subject to the law of
relativity^ since a sensation is, in respect of its existence and its
quality, determined by its relation to other sensations. A corre-
sponding law holds good for our ideas and concepts. These also
are relative, i.e., they express relations, and consequently have
validity only for what may be apprehended as the member of a
relation. Our knowledge attacks an insoluble problem when it
tries to grasp something which from its nature cannot stand in any
relation to something different from it— something therefore that is
absolute and self-contained.

A brief examination of our most important concepts will make
it clear, that the law of relativity holds good not only for sensations,
but also for ideas and concepts.

{a) It has been shown that comparison is the fundamental form
of cognitive activity at all stages of development : in the inter-
action of sensations, in perception and association of ideas, just as
much as in logical thought and in the search after material causes.
But that which is to be an object of comparison must be confronted
with something else, either similar to or different from it. That
which has nothing outside it— or rather, which has nothing besides


ipraetcr) itself — cannot be either assimilated or understood by
our faculty of cognition. ^

ib) All proof is from several given premises. From a single
principle or a single premise nothing can be inferred — any more
than from several absolutely different principles. Thus our know-
ledge can never be inferred from a single premise ; it arises through
combination of several given premises. \l A = B is given and
nothing more, I am not led a single step farther. But if on the
contrary ^ = C is given too, then I conclude A = C. And if I
wish to get beyond this result again, I must find a new premise
which I can combine with it— and so on.

(f) Time and space are in reality always relative. Every deter-
mination of time and space presupposes a certain starting-point
as constant. This point is, however, always arbitrary ; it must be
itself determined through other starting-points, and so again ad

id) That the causal concept expresses a relation, needs no proof.
The causal scries forms, from a logical point of view, a parallel to
the temporal series, and to the several dimensions of space : every
phenomenon which in a certain connection is presented as cause,
from another side is effect, just as that which, regarded from the
one side, is past, has been, regarded from the other, future, or as
that which from one position is on the left, from another is on
the right. With this relativity is connected the infinity {i.e. the
indeterminatcncss) of time, of space and of the causal series.

(r) Finally, all knowledge rests on the relation between the
knowing subject and the object known : the objects of knowledge
exist for us only through a series of sensations which are elaborated
by activities of thought ; and the object can be known only as it
exists for us. — This gives rise to the question, in what sense, then,
is our knowledge true, if the aspect in our eyes of the object known
is always determined by our mental organization ?

The popular answer to the question as to what makes the truth of
our knowledge, is : " our knowledge is true when, it accords with
reality." But how are we to determine this ? We only know reality
through our sensations and ideas.— Because of our sensations we
attribute to objects certain qualities (light and darkness, colour,
sound, warmth, cold, smell and taste, etc.). But these qualities do

1 This point of view has in our day been especially insisted on by Sir
Hamilton and Herbert Spencer. But Spinoza had already been obliged to enter a
protest against it. Kiirzte/asste Abhandlung, i., 7.


not belong to the objects themselves ; they are a language in which
we describe them according to the way in which they affect our
organism. Purely physically, colours consist only of oscillations
propagated — perhaps through an extremely fine substance, the
ether — from the objects to us ; sound consists of waves of air, etc.
If there were no eyes and no brain, the light, as we experience it,
would not exist. We do not really, then, have sensations of things?
but our sensations correspond to the condition produced in our
brain when effects are transmitted to it from the object. Even the
sensation of resistance does not take us farther than this ; we
always measure resistance by our own exertion of force ; we cannot
experience what it is in itself. Also out of reach are the spatial
relations, in which objects (among which may here be reckoned the
organism, including the brain) make their appearance. We know
spatial relations only through intuition of space, and intuition of
space is a psychological activity. For whether we adhere to the
"nativistic '' or the genetic theory, the intuition of space belongs to
the subjective forms, in and through which objects are given to us
and without which we should know nothing of them. — And what
applies to the qualities applies also to "the objects themselves";
for we form the idea of an object through association of the ideas
of its qualities. And as it is impossible to apprehend anything
about an object except through sensations and ideas, so it is im-
possible to think anything about the object except through ideas
and concepts. In order to make use of the popular criterion for
the truth of our knowledge, we should need to get behind our own
consciousness and to be able to compare the object with the image
or notion, which we have of it in consciousness : but this is im-
possible, for it is self-contradictory.

Ordinarily we are not pulled up by this difficulty, because we
are always occupied with the reciprocal play of our ideas
and sensations. When we say that we correct our notions by
comparison with "reality," we mean by "reality " not something
independent of consciousness, but only percepts more definite and
comprehensive than those we have hitherto had. If, however, we
take the sum of all our actual and possible sensations and ideas,
and ask, how are they related to reality, we reach the limits of our
knowledge. We cannot directly disprove the teaching of Berkeley,
Fichte, and Stuart Mill, that the not-self, the sum of all the
hindrances to our action and of all the objects of our cognition, is
a product of a mental activity of which we are unconscious. We


cannot therefore, to put the thing in an extreme light, know
that life is not a dream, a great, connected, and consistent dream.
Or, more accurately, the contrast between dream and reality would
here cease.

The epistemological significance of the theory of subjectivity
rests upon its energetic insistence, that an account must be given of
the source of the traits with which we endow reality. lUit it becomes

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