The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 5 Fragments on the Process of Reflection[1]

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REFLECTIVE thinking arises in testing the means which are presented for carrying out some hypothetical way of continuing an action which has been checked. Lying back of curiosity there is always some activity, some action, that is for the time being checked. The problem is always a stoppage of something one is doing by the excitement of some other action. The solution of the problem will be some way of acting that enables one to carry on the activity which has been checked in relation to the new act which has arisen.

The problem is, then, the checking of an action with the tendency to carry on still present. The inhibited action opens the door, so to speak, to all sorts of stimuli, and the new actions started up are hypothetical. In the mind of man they would be ideas, hypotheses. The problem itself, however, is antecedent to thinking and may be solved without thinking. Thinking is a certain way of solving problems. The importance of correct thinking is simply the importance of solving our problems.

2. The life in which the human community finds itself inevitably presents a set of problems. We get the warmth we need by clothes or by furnaces. If it is too hot, we get methods to cool the air. In order to meet these problems, we have to understand nature. The problem is, then, first of all a set of processes that have to be kept going, and it brings up whole sets of inhibitions that have to be resolved. Our understanding of nature is a way of solving these problems. If we find ourselves attacked by a new disease, if we find that we cannot get the right sort of food, we turn to science to find out what the

(80) ground for it is, so that science is simply a part of the process of living.

3. Aristotle's logic is built up on the theory of the thing. From his standpoint the thing is something there. That is not the attitude of modern science. For Aristotle the tree, the lion, the tiger, had always been there from time immemorial. They had certain natures, and they continued to have them. Our science is of an evolutionary character not only in regard to cats, dogs, and men but also with reference to stellar bodies, and even with reference to the so-called elements. We try to show how things appear, arise. From Aristotle's standpoint the thing was there. The business was to find out its nature. Our interest is to find out how any particular thing comes to be, and for that we have a different type of logic.

4. Science always tries to state an organized system of relations, but it never states the character of the object in itself apart from its relations. Take a scientific statement of the solar system. Each solar body has a certain mass. You can think of the mass as something having inertia inhering in it, a certain force lying in it. There you have a body that has something that can be measured, but you could not possibly state scientifically what that inertia is. You cannot find mass in terms of its quantity because you cannot determine the density. You have to measure it by the amount of resistance offered, to get the relationship between that body and some other body. If you weigh the earth, you are determining what the deflections of the other planets are by the so-called attraction of the earth. You cannot deal with a body just by itself and find out what it is and so build up a system; you have to state it in terms of its relation to some system there. Now it is these necessary relations between bodies with which science is occupied. Where you get A and B and their relation in a single event, you have a passage of relations, and, if you can duplicate the event, you can duplicate the A and B which belong to that event. Science is always trying to get back to these processes.

5. History serves a community in the same way as the mem-

(81) -ory does the individual. A person has to bring up a certain portion of the past to determine what his present is, and in the same way the community wants to bring up the past so it can state the present situation and bring out what the actual issues themselves are. I think that is what history uniformly is. It is always prejudiced in one sense, that is, determined by the problem before the community.

So far as I see, our history is trying to restate the past so as to make our present situation intelligible. Greek and Roman histories are always written from the standpoint of interpreting an immediate situation in which the Greek and Roman communities found themselves-bringing those situations up to date, so to speak, so that present problems may be accurately defined. That is what the persons who write history are interested in doing.

You will find that tendency in all historians. It cannot be escaped because, after all, the only way the historian can present the facts is in terms of his own experience. You can show that he is not as artistic as others, or that his statement is not accurate, or that he fails to use certain material, but in the final statement you cannot criticize his interpretation. In actual literary history you are really getting the past so far as that enters into the present problems. And there is no possibility of getting a final history anyway in that sense. It is important, of course, to distinguish between the two phases of the writing of history, the interpretation from given data and the utilizing of the different social sciences. There you can reach certain definite results-not as definite as in the physical sciences, but, nevertheless, definite results. You can get events which succeed one another. Nit whenever you get to the point of introducing what situations existed in the past, you are stating your present, the present of the community, in terms of the past in so far as that past enters into the present problem. The historian is correct in so far as he states the past in its relation to the present problem.

6. The reaching of universal ways of acting that you can

(82) depend upon, and the application of these ways to particular instances, represents the phase of thinking with which logic has primarily to do.

7. Logical analysis of the experimental method:

a) The presence of a problem. -- A problem can be most generally described as the checking or inhibition of some more or less habitual form of conduct, way of thinking, or feeling. We meet an obstacle in overt action, or an exception to an accepted rule or manner of thought, or some object that calls out opposing emotions.

b) The statement of the problem in terms of the conditions of its possible solution.-We find ourselves tending to act or think or feel with reference to a situation in ways that are so opposed that they inhibit one another. The statement of just what it is in the situation that calls out these inhibiting reactions is what we call gathering the data or facts. The effort to formulate these leads us to find like situations in the present or the past, but the goal of the process is such a definition of the facts that we are aware of exactly what are the conditions which must be met to enable us to continue our action, or thought, or feeling, and such a statement is a statement of the problem in the form that invites solution.

c) The formation of hypotheses, the getting of ideas.-The hypothesis or idea is of some possible representation, restatement, or reconstruction of the situation, in which the data or facts will no longer inhibit action, thought, or feeling.

d) The mental testing of the hypothesis.-The real test is whether activity goes on or not. We are trying to continue an act that is stopped. If we find ourselves acting in accordance with a hypothesis, we feel it is the right one. It is this testing with which logic has most to do, especially through the relations of propositions.

e) The experimental or observational test of the hypothesis. This amounts to constructing or finding an actual situation answering to the hypothesis or idea, and discovering whether action, thought, or feeling can continue unimpeded. For ex-

(83) -ample, a physician finds that the spread of an infectious disease invalidates his method of quarantine and therefore inhibits his use of it. He gathers the cases of the disease that so appear, and they constitute the conditions which any solution of his problem must meet. He gets the idea of other channels of infection, which is his hypothesis. He proceeds to act upon this hypothesis under conditions which are carefully controlled to see whether he can successfully continue fight against the disease. The scientific character of the method is evidently found in the careful exactness with which the problem is defined, the data gathered, the hypothesis formulated, and the experiment carried out, but these are merely the elaboration of the simple processes of everyday inference by which we meet our constantly recurring difficulties.

8. The method that is commonly opposed to the experimental method is that of deduction, and this is supposed to be exemplified most characteristically in mathematics. The term is unfortunate, for what is called "deduction" is involved in various stages of the experimental procedure, e.g., mathematical physics presents a field within which experimental method has achieved many of its most striking victories. The real distinction lies between the fields within which we are free to apply this elaborated method of human intelligence to the solution of our problems and those within which the problems are accepted as inevitable and insoluble, or those within which attempted solutions are regarded as dangerous, because they would bring with them the reorganization of situations, especially social situations, which the community is afraid to have touched.

In the elaboration of these situations in which problems are shown to be insoluble or to be problems whose solution must not he scientifically attempted, we use what we call "deduction." Indeed all formulations of problems are deductive, whether we undertake their solution or not, but as, in the cases of these two latter fields, we do not advance to attempted solutions, the method of approach seems to be entirely deductive.

9. What sort of procedure is this mental testing of a hy-

(84) -pothesis? It is putting together your past experiences and seeing what the result is. In the case of the mathematical problem concerning the sum of the angles of a triangle, you have past experience of angles without reference to your experience of triangles, and you put these together. You have to have hypotheses to start off with. The difference between that case and the problems of the empirical sciences would be that you could not carry out your testing of such problems simply in the fourth stage. You say, "My hypothesis is that the exterior angles are each equal to two interior opposite angles. Then, of course, the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles." You draw lines parallel with the opposite sides of the triangle, and that is testing just as much as testing a hypothesis by observation of the heavens. The only difference lies with the point at which you do your testing. There are those who maintain you can carry on mathematical problems without any hypothesis: you simply have implications which lead to the result. I think you will find that every mathematical problem is a problem that has to have some sort of hypothesis for a solution, and that you test the hypothesis by deduction of the sort we have described.

Most scientific problems worked out by means of hypothesis and experimentation reveal the process of mind by which they were actually reached and not simply a demonstration at the end. The scientist presents all the data and asks other people to go through the experiment. Darwin's theory as to the origin of species may be followed out in detail-the situation in which his hypothesis appeared and the material that has come in to support it. But with mathematicians what takes place is not accounted for in the demonstration. If followed out, we would find the same procedure as in the so-called empirical or inductive sciences.

10. Syllogism is a way of determining what the result of a certain act will be if carried out. It is only a part of the whole process. The syllogism does not stand by itself but is a way of testing a possible response. Take the engineer building a skyscraper; he has a vast amount of deductive work to do concern-

(85) -ing the strains and stresses on the material put into the building. If the parts have such and such tensile strength they can stand so much weight. If they have that strength, then he has established his hypothesis that he can use them. His deductive process gives him the response that he can make use of certain material, since it will carry so much weight. Deduction is a way of determining what the consequence will be upon certain acts, and then on the basis of that determination you can test stone and concrete and steel as the engineer does and conclude that you can use this material. The process of thinking is not shut up inside of the syllogism.

You really construct your experiment by means of the syllogism, the "if-then" process. The "if-then" relation is the very form you give to your experiment. Take, for example, the experiment used in testing Einstein's theory of relativity. The paths of light ,yhich go by the sun bend, through the attraction of the sun, in the proportion that the doctrine of relativity calls for, or only by what would be called for by the Newtonian theory. The statement of carrying out that experiment will be in the form of such an inferential process as that "if .... , then ....... This gives you the form of your experiment of determining how much the light is displaced. You get a case where you can test the two doctrines.

11. Science never gets hold of a force which answers to an effort on our own part. It does not discover anything like an arm stretched out from the sun pulling the earth toward it. It only finds the force that takes place, the acceleration and velocity that take place. Thus the term "cause" is a very ambiguous sort of a term. When we speak of science as trying to find the cause of changes, we are really trying to find out what the laws of change are; what the uniformities are in the changes themselves under certain given conditions.

12. Our experience is not simply an experience of color at this moment and color at the next moment; our experience is of something that is taking place. Hume overlooked the fact that there is such a thing as passage in experience and that

(86) it is a real relation. If we simply set up things that just appear, the most we can say is that, given such a condition, something else happens; but we cannot say that there is any causal relation. We can set up all the conditions if we like, we can take a cross-section of the universe at one moment and a cross-section of the universe at another moment, but then the only thing we can say is that the world is this way at one instant and that way at another. There is no necessary relation. The question comes up when we inquire what basis we have for assuming that there is any necessary order in the universe, ordinarily stated in terms of the uniformity of nature. What 1 was pointing out is that we do have an actual experience of one moment as determining the other. We experience the dependence of the movement of the first part and the movement of the later part. It is that that really lies back of causation. Science now is trying to get back in this relation of A to B to a process or situation in which both A and B are part of one event. It may be a very elaborate process, such as a life-history, and we may want to find out how, for instance, digestion affects the health. What we try to find is the life-process of which both are a part. The same thing holds in working with the movement of bodies. There is a definite process going on in the movement of one body, and we want to state that the positions of the body at one moment and another moment are a part of the process going on. Natural law is not a mere connection of A and B; it is finding A and B as essential parts of some process going on.

13. We cannot follow out the path of the separate molecules, but we can get a statistical statement of the range of their paths taken as a whole, and on that basis we can get a statement in the form of the law as to what is taking place on an average with the average molecule. The assumption is that, if we could follow out the separate molecules, we would get an absolute statement of what is taking place. Our statistical statement is a statement of what is taking place in a mass of observations; when we cannot follow out each separate object, we assume that there is uniformity. We assume that there are laws which de-

(87) -termine the actual motion of the arm, the weight of the tossed penny. We must not get the impression that we have a coefficient of correlation representing law for part of a process, and mere chance on the other part.

14. What is probability? It is what you might expect to appear in a certain number of cases. In one way it is a sort of exclusion. Where there is absolute ignorance, you do not know what will happen; but, if you get a statement in terms of probability, you commence to reduce the extent of your ignorance just so much. You are really stating what is most likely to happen. If you have some sort of evidence, you have a basis for assuming that one thing will happen rather than another. It is really a determination of the way in which you can most rationally act under circumstances where there is a mixture of knowledge and ignorance. If you could know everything involved in throwing up a penny, you could determine just what will happen; but, as you do not, you simply make one guess that is as good as another. When you find through a series of trials that one side comes down just as much as the other, then you are justified.

15. All our reasoning attempts to get back to some process taking place. We assume there is regularity in everything that takes place. If we could get all the facts, we would be able to deduce certain results. In the field in which we are making our investigation, we could predict. Does that necessarily mean that nothing can happen in the world which could not be predicted? Supposing we have all the facts implied in the exact sciences. Suppose we get a complete mechanical statement of what is going on in the earth, would that carry with it also the assurance that nothing could happen at all that could not be predicted? Take such a -simple affair as water. Supposing we knew all about the molecules involved in the atoms comprising water, would that state to us in advance the character of water, as water? We would be able to determine the positions of the atoms, but water is something more than H2O. We obtain certain wholes as a result of various compositions which have char-

(88) -acters not given in the parts themselves. Another striking illustration is that we could not prophesy the different colors which appear in our sensuous experience from our knowledge of the colors appearing in the spectrum. Things emerge, and emerge in the mechanical order of things, which could not be predicted from what has happened before. The result has characters which are not necessarily given in the statement of the different parts in their relation to one another.

16. Most scientific laws are in the form of working hypotheses. You say, "If this is true, then such and such would result"; and you continue to use the hypothesis as long as you get those results. You use the hypothesis that works. You say, "If A is B, then B is C." You find that this hypothesis at least works, and if you have a better hypothesis you use it, but if not you continue to use the other one. And by "better" I mean a simpler one, if it fits in better with your conditions. I want to make that quite clear. When you have your problem and present a hypothesis that will solve it, then you say, "If such and such is true, the hypothesis must be true." If such and such does happen, then you have a hypothesis that will work, although it may not be proven absolutely. I want to point out that the hypothetical proposition is just that form in which you bring out the working hypothesis. What it does show is that you can use this hypothesis until you can get a better one. Science has gone on the basis of the law of parsimony, and it has been justified. On the whole, science in selecting the simplest theory has found it more successful. The law of parsimony is supported by the actual advance of science itself.

17. Are all propositions hypothetical? Can we say absolutely even that "this desk is here"? That proposition, too, is ultimately hypothetical; it could become a problem. If there is the sort of response we expect to have when we come up to it, then it is a desk-but there are further implications that always remain untested and which could become problematic. The problem is the stoppage of the action, and the solution is one

(89) which allows the action which has been stopped to be completed.

18. Inasmuch as the physical object which is implied by the physical sciences includes the physiological organism of the observer, it is evident that the individual is not included in this world of physical objects. He stands outside and presents it. This is made possible by the social character of the self, through which the individual addresses and observes himself. He does this by assuming the role of another. The self that one addresses and observes may be the social individual perceived as other individuals are perceived, and in an environment of objects which have the same qualities of immediate experience as those which belong to other social individuals. In this case the individual observed is identified with the physiological self, especially its vocal gestures, tones of voice, facial expressions, attitudes of body, and all that calls out social response in others. The distinction between the self as speaker and the self as an individual addressed is the distinction between the self which is doing something and the self which is the result of past conduct. This former self is at the threshold of action and has as its function the statement and reordering of the world as past and present in the interest of the conduct which is in hand. Out of this conduct grows a changed situation in which the action of the individual has its place. He is creative. This is evident in the social world. It would not be what it is without his conduct. The change may be slight, but it is unquestioned. The same is true in so far as his conduct is that of invention and discovery. A new world in so far results from his creation. It is also true that for the social consciousness of the community the past and the present world 1 is reconstructed by the action of the individuals. The world of history has been changed as often as new conduct has called for a different order of action. The assumption remains, however, that the new past which is discovered, the new structure of the physical and biological world, has been in existence back of the earlier doctrine. If we regard the object

(90) of knowledge as the organization of means for the accomplishment of our undertakings, we are in the position of affirming that the real order of nature and the real succession of events can never be known, as every essential change in the order of conduct will bring with it a somewhat different ordering of the mechanism of the world of things and society. The past can never remain entirely the same, and the order of the physical universe cannot remain the same. The implication of this attitude toward the object of knowledge is that there is a universe which has an existence as an object of possible knowledge but that this knowledge is unattainable.

If, on the other hand, we assume that the object of knowledge is the experience of the thing which has been so brought under control that conduct has become possible where it has been thwarted, the formulation of the mechanism of things and of the order of history will be true in so far as it is experimentally shown to work in conduct. It Will, of course, be further true that through considerable periods the formulation of things and history will remain substantially unchanged, as the condition of successful conduct. just in so far as the order of things is not called into question by the specific problems engaging thought, their order will be unquestioned and will stand as true in the solution of the actual difficulties that face us. As none of the problems that engage our attention is of the universe as a whole, there will always be an undisputed structure of the world, within which we pursue the specific truths which our research is after. This structure will for the time being always be a condition of the truth sought, though later problems may bring parts of this undisputed structure into debate and take it out of the realm of accepted fact and theory.

19. The outstanding fact 'in all the undertakings of knowledge in this century and the last is what is called the scientific method. There is no difficulty in showing that, whether we call it the inductive or the experimental method, it is implicated in all intelligent conduct and that it has been involved in knowing the world at all times. It can be found in the absurdest con-

(91) -clusions of children and primitive communities. That the inferences are improperly drawn does but disguise the fact that these minds were with varying degrees of carefulness or inexactness trying to explain something, to solve some problem, by some idea or hypothesis, testing the idea by its fitting into their experience so that it can become a part of this world. A child's explanation of the conduct of others and the savage's appeal to magic are uncritical uses of a method which requires only analysis and recognition of the implications of its technique to become scientific. What has therefore characterized this recent period is the critical interest in the technique and steadily growing awareness that it is being used under all conditions and needs only the control which reflection upon it reveals. The importance of scientific method in our period which has led to its elaboration is not found in its novelty but in the successful invasion of this elaborated method into fields where it was not previously employed.


1-17, except for 7, taken from student notes.

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