essays

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1831

Individual Minds are Endless and Invaluable: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Our author holds that individuals are universes-in-themselves, and social interactions allow for truly cosmic exchanges of intelligence and emotion.

Editor’s Note

In his next essay, Godwin expands upon earlier reflections on the history of philosophy and physics to reiterate his own radical—but realistic—skepticism. Using Newton, Locke, and Berkeley, Godwin posits that all of reality—everything with which we are familiar in any sense of the word—exists in the individual mind. The entirety of the observable universe is present in the brain’s electrical impulses, the sensations produced, and the experiences strung together like pictures from a magic lantern to form a coherent whole. But if the entirety of existence is in our own heads, how can we ever hope to truly share our lives with fellow humans? The individual brain is indeed the most complex mechanism we are familiar with in the universe, but multiple human brains means the complexity of multiple universes. Other intelligent beings offer us even more illimitable space to expand ourselves, our understandings of existence, and our virtues as individual people. Our existence as individuals is magical enough in Godwin’s view, but society is truly sublime. Intelligence is the most powerful, energetic, and valuable commodity we know of, and when persons coordinate their individual, infinite intelligences together, the results are profound and transcendent. Disrupting the isolated individual’s world of imposed materialism, society allows us to experience emotions and grow beyond the merely physical world of isolated intellects. Contact with the unlimited capacities of others alone allows human beings to rise above the other animals and actually explore the furthest reaches of thought, sensation, and emotion.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

THOUGHTS ON MAN:  HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)

By William Godwin

ESSAY XXII. OF THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE.

In the preceding Essay I have referred to the theory of Berkeley, whose opinion is that there is no such thing as matter in the sense in which it is understood by the writers on natural philosophy, and that the whole of our experience in that respect is the result of a system of accidents without an intelligible subject, by means of which antecedents and consequents flow on for ever in a train, the past succession of which man is able to record, and the future in many cases he is qualified to predict and to act upon.

An argument more palpable and popular than that of Berkeley in favour of the same hypothesis, might be deduced from the points recapitulated in that Essay as delivered by Locke and Newton. If what are vulgarly denominated the secondary qualities of matter are in reality nothing but sensations existing in the human mind…we then certainly come very near to a conclusion, which should banish matter out of the theatre of real existences.

But the extreme subtleties of human intellect are perhaps of little further use, than to afford an amusement to persons of curious speculation, and whose condition in human society procures them leisure for such enquiries. The same thing happens here, as in the subject of my Twelfth Essay, on the Liberty of Human Actions…[One] regards himself and other men as beings endowed with a liberty of action, as possessed of a proper initiative power, and free to do a thing or not to do it, without being subject to the absolute and irresistible constraint of motives. It is from this internal and indefeasible sense of liberty, that we draw all our moral energies and enthusiasm, that we persevere heroically in defiance of obstacles and discouragements, that we praise or blame the actions of others, and admire the elevated virtues of the best of our contemporaries, and of those whose achievements adorn the page of history.

It is in a manner of precisely the same sort as that which prevails in the philosophical doctrines of liberty and necessity, that we find ourselves impelled to feel on the question of the existence of the material universe. Berkeley, and as many persons as are persuaded by his or similar reasonings, feel satisfied in speculation that there is no such thing as matter in the sense in which it is understood by the writers on natural philosophy, and that all our notions of the external and actual existence of the table, the chair, and the other material substances with which we conceive ourselves to be surrounded, of woods, and mountains, and rivers, and seas, are mere prejudice and misconception. All this is very well in the closet, and as long as we are involved in meditation, and remain abstracted from action, business, and the exertion of our limbs and corporal faculties. But it is too fine for the realities of life…Nature is too strong, to be prevailed on to retire, and give way to the authority of definitions and syllogistical deduction…

But, if thus, in the ordinary process of human affairs, we believe in matter, when in reality there is no such thing as matter, how shall we pronounce of mind, and the things which happen to us in our seeming intercourse with our fellow-men, and in the complexities of love and hatred, of kindred and friendship, of benevolence and misanthropy, of robbery and murder, and of the wholesale massacre of thousands of human beings which are recorded in the page of history? We absolutely know nothing of the lives and actions of others but through the medium of material impulse. And, if you take away matter, the bodies of our fellow-men, does it not follow by irresistible consequence that all knowledge of their minds is taken away also? Am not I therefore…the only being in existence, an entire universe to myself?”

Certainly this is a very different conclusion from any that Berkeley ever contemplated. In the very title of the Treatise in which his notions on this subject are unfolded, he professes his purpose to be to remove “the grounds of scepticism, atheism and irreligion.” Berkeley was a sincere Christian, and a man of the most ingenuous dispositions…

There are examples however, especially in the fields of controversy, where an adventurous speculatist has been known to lay down premises and principles, from which inferences might be fairly deduced, incompatible with the opinions entertained by him who delivered them. It may therefore be no unprofitable research to enquire how far the creed of the non-existence of matter is to be regarded as in truth and reality countenancing the inference which has just been recited…

How then does the question stand with relation to mind? Are those persons who deny the existence of matter, reduced, if they would be consistent in their reasonings, to deny, each man for himself, that he has any proper evidence of the existence of other minds than his own?

He denies, while he has the sensation of colour, that there exists colour out of himself, unless in thinking and percipient beings constituted in a manner similar to that in which he is constituted. And the same of the sensations of hot and cold, sweet and bitter, and odours offensive or otherwise. He affirms, while he has the sensation of length, breadth and thickness, that there is no continuous substance out of himself, possessing the attributes of length, breadth and thickness in any way similar to the sensation of which he is conscious. He professes therefore that he has no evidence, arising from his observation of what we call matter, of the actual existence of a material world. He looks into himself, and all he finds is sensation; but sensation cannot be a property of inert matter. There is therefore no assignable analogy between the causes of his sensations, whatever they may be, and the sensations themselves; and the material world, such as we apprehend it, is the mere creature of his own mind.

Let us next consider how this question stands as to the conceptions he entertains respecting the minds of other men…

In mind there is a precise resemblance and analogy between the conceptions we are led to entertain respecting other men, and what we know of ourselves. I and my associate, or fellow-man, are like two instruments of music constructed upon the same model…We can utter the same sound or series of sounds, or sounds of a different character, but which respond to each other. My neighbour therefore being of the same nature as myself, what passes within me may be regarded as amounting to a commanding evidence that he is a real being, having a proper and independent existence.

There is further something still more impressive and irresistible in the notices I receive respecting the minds of other men. The sceptics whose reasonings I am here taking into consideration, admit, each man for himself, the reality of his own existence. There is such a thing therefore as human nature; for he is a specimen of it. Now the idea of human nature, or of man, is a very complex thing. He is in the first place the subject of sensible impressions, however these impressions are communicated to him. He has the faculties of thinking and feeling. He is subject to the law of the association of ideas, or, in other words, any one idea existing in his mind has a tendency to call up the ideas of other things which have been connected with it in his first experience. He has, be it delusive or otherwise, the sense of liberty of action…

Our lives are carried forward by the intervention of what we call meat, drink and sleep. We are liable to the accidents of health and sickness. We are alternately the recipients of joy and sorrow, of cheerfulness and melancholy. Our passions are excited by similar means, whether of love or hatred, complacency or indignation, sympathy or resentment…

Now with all these each man is acquainted in the sphere of his inward experience, whether he is a single being standing by himself, or is an individual belonging to a numerous species.

Observe then the difference between my acquaintance with the phenomena of the material universe, and with the individuals of my own species. The former say nothing to me; they are a series of events and no more; I cannot penetrate into their causes; that which gives rise to my sensations, may or may not be similar to the sensations themselves…

But the case is very different in my intercourse with my fellow-men…The impressions I receive from that intercourse say something to me; for they talk to me of beings like myself. My own existence becomes multiplied in infinitum. Of the possibility of matter I know nothing; but with the possibility of mind I am acquainted; for I am myself an example…

The belief in the reality of matter explains nothing. Supposing it to exist, if Newton is right, no particle of extraneous matter ever touched the matter of my body; and therefore it is not just to regard it as the cause of my sensations. It would amount to no more than two systems going on at the same time by a preestablished harmony, but totally independent of and disjointed from each other…

But…take away the existence of my fellow-men; and you reduce all that is, and all that I experience, to a senseless mummery. “You take my life, taking the thing whereon I live.”

Human nature, and the nature of mind, are to us a theme of endless investigation. “The proper study of mankind is man.” All the subtlety of metaphysics, or…the science of ourselves, depends upon it. The science of morals hangs upon the actions of men, and the effects they produce upon our brother-men, in a narrower or a wider circle. The endless, and inexpressibly interesting, roll of history relies for its meaning and its spirit upon the reality and substance of the subjects of which it treats. Poetry, and all the wonders and endless varieties that imagination creates, have this for their solution and their soul…

Observe the difference between what we know of the material world, and what of the intellectual…

The material world, or that train of antecedents and consequents which we understand by that term, goes on for ever in a train agreeably to the impulse previously given. It is deaf and inexorable. It is unmoved by the consideration of any accidents and miseries that may result, and unalterable. But man is a source of events of a very different nature. He looks to results, and is governed by views growing out of the contemplation of them. He acts in a way diametrically opposite to the action of inert matter, and “turns, and turns, and turns again,” at the impulse of the thought that strikes him, the appetite that prompts, the passions that move, and the effects that he anticipates. It is therefore in a high degree unreasonable, to make that train of inferences which may satisfy us on the subject of material phenomena, a standard of what we ought to think respecting the phenomena of mind.

It is further worthy of our notice to recollect, that the same reasonings which apply to our brethren of mankind, apply also to the brute creation. They, like ourselves, act from motives; that is, the elections they form are adopted by them for the sake of certain consequences they expect to see result from them. Whatever becomes therefore of the phenomena of what we call dead matter, we are here presented with tribes of being, susceptible of pleasure and pain, of hope and fear, of regard and resentment…

To adopt the sententious language of the Bible, “It is not good for man to be alone.” All our faculties and attributes bear relation to, and talk to us of, other beings like ourselves. We might indeed eat, drink and sleep, that is, submit to those necessities which we so denominate, without thinking of any thing beyond ourselves; for these are the demands of our nature, and we know that we cannot subsist without them. We might make use of the alternate conditions of exercise and repose.

But the life of our lives would be gone. As far as we bore in mind the creed we had adopted, of our single existence, we could neither love nor hate. Sympathy would be a solemn mockery. We could not communicate; for the being to whom our communication was addressed we were satisfied was a non-entity. We could not anticipate the pleasure or pain, the joy or sorrow, of another; for that other had no existence. We should be in a worse condition than Robinson Crusoe in the desolate island; for he believed in the existence of other men, and hoped and trusted that he should one day again enter into human society…Life must be inevitably a burthen to us, a dreary, unvaried, motiveless existence; and death must be welcomed, as the most desirable blessing that can visit us…

Thus far I have allowed myself to follow the refinements of those who profess to deny the existence of the material universe. But it is satisfactory to come back to that persuasion, which, from whatever cause it is derived, is incorporated with our very existence, and can never be shaken off by us. Our senses are too powerful in their operation, for it to be possible for us to discard them, and to take as their substitute, in active life, and in the earnestness of pursuit, the deductions of our logical faculty, however well knit and irresistible we may apprehend them to be. Speculation and common sense are at war on this point…

It is however no small gratification to the man of sober mind, that, from what has here been alleged, it seems to follow, that untutored mind, and the severest deductions of philosophy, agree in that most interesting of our concerns, our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. The inexorable reasoner, refining on the reports of sense, may dispose, as he pleases, of the chair, the table, and the so called material substances around him. He may include the whole solid matter of the universe in a nutshell, or less than a nutshell. But he cannot deprive me of that greatest of all consolations, the sustaining pillar of my existence…the intercourse of my fellow-creatures. When we read history, the subjects of which we read are realities; they do not “come like shadows, so depart;” they loved and acted in sober earnest; they sometimes perpetrated crimes; but they sometimes also achieved illustrious deeds, which angels might look down from their exalted abodes and admire. We are not deluded with mockeries. The woman I love, and the man to whom I swear eternal friendship, are as much realities as myself. If I relieve the poor, and assist the progress of genius and virtuous designs struggling with fearful discouragements, I do something upon the success of which I may safely congratulate myself. If I devote my energies to enlighten my fellow-creatures, to detect the weak places in our social institutions, to plead the cause of liberty, and to invite others to engage in noble actions and unite in effecting the most solid and unquestionable improvements, I erect to my name an eternal monument; or I do something better than this,—secure inestimable advantage to the latest posterity, the benefit of which they shall enjoy, long after the very name of the author shall, with a thousand other things great and small, have been swallowed up in the gulph of insatiable oblivion.

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