Proudhon on Property (1846) – Part 2

[continued from Part 1]

The organization of common sense presupposes the solution of another problem, the problem of certainty, which divides into two correlative species, certainty of subject and certainty of object. In other words, before searching for the laws of thought, one must assure oneself of the reality of the being that thinks as well as that of the being that is thought, without which one runs the risk of researching the laws of nothing.

The first moment of that great polemic is thus that in which the self proceeds to the recognition of itself, feels itself, so to speak, and seeks the point of departure of its judgments. “Who am I,” it asks; or rather, “Am I something? Am I certain that I am?” That is the first question to which the common sense had to respond.

And it is that question to which it has effectively responded by that much-admired judgment: I think, therefore I am.

I think, and that is enough. I have only to make a thought in order to be certain of my existence, since all that I can understand in that regard is that no being is proven if I do not affirm it, and that consequently without me nothing exists. The self is the point of departure for the common sense, and its response to the first question of philosophy.

Thus the common sense,—or rather the unknown, impenetrable nature, which thinks and speaks, the self finally,—is not proven; it is posited. Its first judgment is an act of belief in itself: the reality of thought is declared by it as a first, necessary principle, an AXIOM, finally, outside of which there is no place to reason. But, either through lack of judgment, or subtlety of ideas, certain thinkers will find this affirmation of common sense already too bold. They want common sense to produce its titles. Who guarantees us, they say, that we think, that we are? What is the authority of the inner sense? What is an affirmation of which all the value comes from its very spontaneity?…

Some long debates will be started in this connection. The common sense puts an end to them by this famous judgment: Given that doubt which bears on doubt itself if absurd; that investigation which has for object the legitimacy of investigation is contradictory; that such a skepticism is anti-skeptical, and only refutes itself; that it is a fact that we think and that we desire to know; that it would not be possible to dispute this fact which embraces the universe and the eternal; consequently, that the only thing that remains to do is to know where thought can lead: Pyrrhon and his sect would be recognized by philosophy for an absurdity which reassures the self on its existence; for the surplus, their opinion being convicted, by its own terms, of contradiction to common sense, it is excommunicated from common sense.

Despite the energy of these grounds, some people believe it necessary to protest still, and engage in reconsideration. The true skeptics, they will claim, are not those who doubt the reality of their doubt, for such a skepticism is ridiculous; it is those who doubt the reality of the content of doubt, and for stronger reason means to verify if that content is real: which is very different….

It is then as if you said, replied the common sense, for example, that you do not doubt the existence of religions,—since religion is a phenomenon of thought, an accident of the self,—but only of the reality of the object of religions, and for stronger reason of the possibility of determining that object;—or rather that you do not doubt the oscillation of value, since that oscillation is a phenomenon of the general thought, an accident of the collective self, but instead doubt the very reality of values, and for greater reason of their measure. But if, in relation to man, the reality of things is not distinguished by the law of things, like, for example, the reality of the values which is and can only be the law of values, and if the law of things is nothing without the self which determines and creates it, as you are forced to agree, your distinction of the reality of doubt and of the reality of the content of doubt, as well as the a fortiori which comes with it, is absurd. The universe and the self become, by thought, identical and adequate. Thus, once again, our task is to discover if, in relation to itself, the self can be misled, and if, in the exercise of its faculties, it is subject to perturbations; what are the cause of these perturbations; what is the common measure of our ideas; and above all, what is the value of this concept of the non-self, which grasps the self as soon as it enters into action, and from which it is impossible for the self to separate itself.

Thus, in the judgment of common sense, the metaphysical theory of certainty is analogous to the economic theory of value, or, to put it better, these two theories are only one; and the skeptics who, while admitting the reality of doubt, still deny the reality of the content of doubt, and therefore the possibility of determining that content, resemble the economists who, affirming the oscillations of value, reject the possibility of determining these oscillations, and consequently the very reality of value. We have dealt with that contradiction of the economists, and we will show soon that as value is determined in society by a series of oscillations between supply and demand, just so, truth is constituted in us by a series of fluctuations between the reason that affirms and the experience that confirms, and that from doubt itself certainty is formed bit by bit.

The certainty of the subject thus obtained and determined, it remains then, before passing to the investigation of the laws of knowledge, to determine the certainty of the object, basis of all of our relations with the universe. That is the second conquest of common sense, the second moment of philosophical labor.

We cannot feel, love, reason, act, or exist, finally, as long as we remain shut up in ourselves: the self must give development to its faculties, must unfold its being, and depart in some way from its nullity. After being posed, must oppose, that is, it must put itself in relations with something—no matter what—which is or which seems to it to be other than it, in a word, with a non-self.

God, infinite being, that our reason, once consolidated on its double base, will suppose invincibly—God, I say, because his essence embraces all, has no need to come out from himself in order to live and to know himself. His being is deployed entirely in himself. His thought is introspective. In him the self does not grasp the non-self as like itself, because both are infinite. But the infinite is necessarily unique, and in God, consequently, time is identical with eternity, movement identical with repose, action synonymous with will, love without another object, without determining cause apart from him. God is perfect egoism, absolute solitude, supreme concentration. In all these regards, God, opposite nature of man, exists by himself and without opposition, or rather he produces the non-self from within himself instead of seeking it outside. While he is distinguished, he is always himself; his life rests on nothing else. As soon as he knows himself, he lives, and all exists, all is proven for him: Ego sum qui sum, he says. God is truly the incomprehensible, ineffable, and therefore necessary being: let reason be averse to say it, it is nonetheless forced to do so.

It is otherwise for men, for finite beings. Man exists neither by himself nor in himself; his individuality requires an ambient environment in which his reason is reflected, his life is stimulated, and his from which his soul, like his organs, draws its subsistence. Such at least is manner in which we conceive the development of our being: this point is admitted by all those who do not persist in the contradiction of the pyrrhonians.

It is a question thus of recognizing the sense of this phenomenon and of determining the quality of that non-self, that consciousness present to us as an external reality, necessary to our existence, but independent of it.

Now, say the skeptics, let us admit that the self could not reasonably doubt that it exists: by what right will it affirm an external reality, a reality which is not itself, which remains impenetrable to it, and that it describes as non-self? Are the objects that we see outside of ourselves truly outside of us? And if they exist outside of us, are they as we see them? Does what our senses report of the laws of nature come from nature, or is it instead only a product of the activity of thinking, which shows us outside of us what we projects from within ourselves? Does experience add something to reason, or is it only reason manifested to itself? What means, finally, do we have to verify the reality or non-reality of this non-self?…

That singular question, that the common sense alone would never had asked, presented by the most profound geniuses that have honored our race, and developed with an eloquence, a sagacity, a variety of marvelous forms, has given rise to an infinity of systems and conjectures, which it is very difficult to understand in the voluminous writings of so many authors, but of which we can give an idea, by reducing them to a few lines.

Some have at first pretended that the non-self does not exist. It was natural, and one should have expected it. A non-self which is opposed to the self, is like a man who comes to trouble another in his possession: the first movement of that one is to deny such a proximity. There is no body, they have said, no nature, no apparitions apart from the self, no other essence than the self. Everything happens in the mind; matter is an abstraction, and what we see and affirm as the tenant of we know not what experience, is purely the product of our activity, which, in determining itself, imagines that it receives from outside that which it is of its essence to create, or, to speak more justly, to become, since, relative to the soul, to be, to produce and to become, are synonyms.

But, observes the common sense, we distinguish, for good or ill, two modes of cognition, deduction and acquisition. By the first, the mind seems indeed to create all that it learns: such is mathematics. By the second, on the contrary, the mind, ceaselessly arrested in its scientific progress, no longer advances except with the aid of a perpetual excitation, of which the cause is fully involuntary and apart from the sovereignty of the self. How then, in spiritualism, are we to make sense of this phenomenon, which it is impossible to be unaware of? How, if all science comes from the self alone, is it not spontaneous, complete from the origin, equal in all individuals, and in the same individual at all moments of existence? How finally to explain error and progress? Instead of resolving the problem, spiritualism rejected it; it was mistaken about the best established, the most indubitable facts, namely the experimental discoveries of the self; it tortures reason; it is forced, in order to sustain itself, to revoke in doubt its own principle, by denying the negative testimony of the mind. Spiritualism is contradictory, inadmissible.

Others then presented themselves, who maintained that only matter exists, and that it is mind that is an abstraction. Nothing is true, they have said, nothing is real outside of nature; nothing exists but what we can see, touch, count, weight, measure, transform; nothing exists but bodies and their infinite modifications. We are ourselves bodies, living and organized bodies; what we call soul, mind, consciousness, or self, is only an entity serving to represent the harmony of that organism. It is the object which by the movement inherent in matter engenders the subject: thought is a modification matter; intelligence, will, virtue, progress, are only determinations of a certain order, of the attributes of matter, of which the essence, moreover, is unknown to us:

But, replies the common sense, si Satanas in seipsum divisus est, quomodo stabit? The materialist hypothesis presents a double impossiblity. If the self is nothing other than the result of the organization of the non-self; if man is the high point, the leader of nature; if it is nature itself raised to its highest power, how does it have the faculty to contradict nature, to torment it and remake it? How to explain that reaction of nature on itself, a reaction which produces industry, the sciences, the arts, all a world apart from nature, and which has as its sole end to vanquish nature? How to reduce, finally, to a few material modifications, that which, according to the testimony of our senses, to which alone the materialists give faith, is produced outside of the laws of matter?

On the other hand, if man is only matter organized, his thought is the reflection of nature: how then does matter, how does nature know itself so badly? From whence comes religion, philosophy, doubt? What! Matter is all, mind nothing. And when that matter has come to its highest manifestation, to its supreme evolution; when it is made man, finally, it no longer knows itself; it loses the memory of itself; it wanders, and advances only with the aid of experience, as if it was not matter,—was not experience itself! What then is this nature forgetful of itself, which needs to learn to know itself as soon as it attains the fullness of its being, which becomes intelligent only by ignoring itself, and loses its infallibility at the precise instant that it acquires reason?

Spiritualism, denying the facts, succumbed to its own powerlessness; the facts crush the materialism of their testimony: the more these systems work to establish themselves, they more they show their contradiction.

Then came the mystics, with a devout air and a rapt countenance.—Mind and matter, thought and extent, they have said, both exist. But we do not know it by ourselves: it is God who, by his revelation, vouches for their reality. And as all things have been created by God, as all exist in God, it is still in God, infinite mind, from which intelligence proceeds, that our intelligence can see them. Thus is explained the passage from the self to the non-self, and the relations of mind and matter become intelligible.

It was a question of God for the first time: the attention of the listeners redoubled.

Doubtless, says common sense, the mind being able to put itself in communication only with mind, it is clever of us to make appear in God, who is mind, the corporal things which are his works. Sadly this system rests on a vicious circle and a begging of the question. On one hand, before believing in God, we need to believe in ourselves: now, we sense ourselves, we are assured of our existence, only insofar as an external reaction makes us feel it, that it to say, only insofar as we admit a non-self, which is precisely the question. As for revelation, it has been made, according to its partisans, by miracles, by signs, the instruments of which are taken from nature. Now, how to judge the miracle and believe in revelation, if we are not assured beforehand of the existence of the world, of the constancy of its laws, of the reality of its phenomena?

Thus, mysticism has this importance, that after having recognized the necessity of the subject and of the object, it sought to explain both by their origin. But that origin, which would be God, according to the mystics, that is to say a third term, intelligent like the self, and real like the non-self, was not defined, was not proved, and was not explained; on the contrary, by separating it from the world and from man, in was rendered inaccessible to the intelligence, therefore untrue. Mysticism is a mystification.

This was the controversy. Theists and unbelievers, spiritualists and materialists, skeptics and mystics, being unable to agree, the world could only believe. One watched speechless, when, with a grave air and a modest spirit, without grandiloquence, a philosopher, the most wily and the most clever who ever was, entered the conversation.

He began by recognizing the reality of the self and of the non-self, as well as the existence of God: but he alleged that it is radically impossible for the self to be assured, by way of reasoning or experience, of that which is outside of it, and that moreover it could not help but admit this. Yes, he said, bodies exist: the manner in which knowledge is formed in us proves it. But we do not know these bodies, this non-self, in themselves, and all that experience reports to us in this regard, arises only from our own core. It is the proper fruit of our mind, which, solicited by its outward apperceptions, applies to things its own laws, its categories, and then imagines that the form that it gives to nature is the form of nature. Yes, again, we must believe in the existence of God, in a sovereign essence, which serves as sanction of morals and counterpart to our life. But that belief in a Supreme Being is also only a postulate of our reason, an entirely subjective hypothesis, imagined to serve our ignorance, and to which nothing, besides the necessity of our dialectic, gives testimony.

At these words a long murmur was raised. Some resigned themselves to believe that they are condemned to never be demonstrated; others will claimed that there are motives for belief superior to reason; these rejected a belief that had for itself only its spontaneity, and the object of which could be reduced to a simple formality of reason; those openly accused the critical philosopher of inconsequence. Nearly all fell again, into spiritualism, or materialism, or mysticism, each taking advantage, for the system that best agreed with them, of the confessions of that philosopher. Finally a man, magnanimous at heart, with a passionate soul, managed to overcome the noise and to turn attention to himself.

That philosophy, he observed with bitterness, which claims to have found the key to our judgments, and claims to represent pure reason, absolutely lacks unity and shines only by its incoherence. What is this God, that nothing, one says, demonstrates, but which nonetheless arrives just in time for the denouement? What is this objectivity which has no other function than to excite thought, without furnishing it with materials? If the self, nature and God exist, as we appears to believe, they are in direct and reciprocal relations, and in that case we can know them. What, then, are these relations? If, on the contrary, these relations are nil, or if they are purely subjective, as some still claim, how do we dare to affirm the reality of the non-self, and the existence of God?

The self is essentially active: it has no need of any stimulation. It possesses the principles of science; it knows and performs it; it possesses the creative power, and what you name “experience” in it is a veritable ejaculation. As the worker who, by making the experiment of a new idea, creates the very object of his experience, and produces thus a value adequate to his own thought: thus in the universe the self is the creator of the non-self; consequently he carries his sanction in himself, and has nothing to make from the testimony of nature, nor from an intervention of divinity. Nature is no chimera, since it is the work which manifests the worker; the non-self, as real as the self, is the product and the expression of that self; and God is nothing more than the abstract relation which unites the self and the non-self in an identical phenomenality: everything makes sense, everything is linked and explained. Experience is written science, the thought of the subject manifested, and regained by the subject.

For the first time, philosophy came to give a system. Until that moment it had only oscillated from one contradiction to the other, proceeding by negation and exclusion, suppressing that with which it could not agree. More, it had attempted to affirm simultaneously its different theses, but without hope, and without being able to resolve them. That stage had passed: a new period of investigation was going to begin.

To the conclusions that we just heard, someone responds, there would have been nothing to say, and the system that they summarize would be unassailable, if it was demonstrated,—and this is what is always in question,—that man knows something a priori, that there exists in him a single idea prior to experience. One could conceive then what it teaches, he only deduces it; what he experiences, he remembers. But it is not true that the self has by itself any idea; it is not true that it can create science a priori; and I challenge the proponent to lay the foundation stone of his edifice.

Here is, added an inspired voice, what reason and experience have taught me. The relation which unites the self and the non-self is not at all, as one has said, a relation of filiation and causality; it is a relation of coexistence. The self and the non-self exist vis-à-vis one another, equal and inseparable, but irreducible, unless it is in a higher principle, subject-object, which engenders them both,—in a word, in the absolute. That absolute is God, creator of the self and non-self, or, as the Nicene Creed said, of all things visible and invisible. That God, that absolute, embraces in his essence man and nature, thought and understanding: for he alone has the fullness of being, he alone is All. The laws of reason and the forms of nature are thus identical: no thought manifests itself except with the aid of a reality; and reciprocally no reality is shown that penetrates except with intelligence. That is the source of that marvelous agreement of experience and reason, which has made you take by turns mind as a modification of nature, and nature as a modification of mind; the self and the non-self, humanity and nature, are equally enduring and real; humanity and nature are contemporary in the absolute; the only thing that distinguishes them is that in humanity the absolute develops with consciousness, while in nature it develops without consciousness. Thought and matter are inseparable and irreducible: they are manifested, in various beings, in unequal proportions, each of the constitutive principles of the absolute showing itself in creatures by turns in inferiority or in predominance. It is an infinite evolution, a perpetual emission of forms, essences, lives, wills, powers, virtues, etc.

One moment this system appeared to remove suffrages. The fusion of the self and the non-self in the absolute; that distinction and that inseparability at the same time of thought and being, which constitutes creation; the incessant development of the mind, and the progression of beings on a endless scale, delighted everyone. That enthusiasm passed like lightning. A new dialectician, rising up suddenly, said: This system needs only one thing, and that is proof. The self and the non-self are confounded in the absolute: what is that absolute? What is its nature? What proof can we have of its existence, since it does not manifest itself, and since it is even impossible that in its absolute character it could manifest itself?… Thought and being, one adds, identical in the absolute, are irreducible in creation, as well as inseparable and homologous: How do we know that? How does the identity of the laws imply the identity of essences, the identity of realities, since it is recognized that the only thing real for us is the law? And what use is it to appeal to a mystical and impenetrable absolute, to reproduce that old chimera of God, in order to reconcile two terms which, by the declared identity of their laws, are completely reconciled?… Nature and humanity are the development of the absolute: why does the absolute develop? By virtue of what principle and according to what law? Where is the science of that development? What is your ontology, your logic? And if the same rules regulate matter and thought, it suffices to study the one in order to know the other: science, whatever you say is possible, according to you, a priori: why then do you deny science and give us only experience, which explains nothing by itself, since it is not science?

Well! he added, I charge myself, without appealing to the absolute, and holding myself to the identity of thought and being, with constructing that science of development which escapes you, and that you have not been able to find, because you distinguish that which cannot be admitted as distinct, mind and matter, that is the double face of the idea.

And we see that this Titan of philosophy attempts to reverse the eternal dualism by dualism itself; to establish identity on contradiction; to draw the being from nothing, and, with the aid of this sole logic, to explain, prophesy,—what should I say?—to create nature and man! No other, before him, had penetrated so deeply the innermost laws of being; none had illuminated with so lively a light the mysteries of reason. He succeeded in giving a formula which, if it is not all of science, nor even all logic, is at least the key to science and logic. But we have glimpsed quite quickly that even its author had only been able to construct that logic by constantly mixing in experience and taking from it his materials. All his formulas followed observation, but never preceded it, and since, according to the system of the identity of thought and being, there was no longer anything to await from philosophy, the circle was closed, and it was demonstrated once and for all that science without experience is impossible; that if the self and the non-self are correlates, necessary to one another, inconceivable without one another, they are not identical; that their identity, as well as their reduction in an elusive absolute, is only a view of our intelligence, a postulate of reason, useful in certain cases for reasoning, but without the least reality; finally that the theory of contraries, of an incomparable power in order to control our opinions, to discover our errors and to determine the essential character of the true, is not however the unique form of nature, the sole revelation of experience, and consequently the sole law of the mind.

Beginning with the cogito of Descartes, we are thus brought back, by an uninterrupted series of systems, to cogito of Hegel. The philosophical revolution is accomplished; a new movement will begin: it is for common sense to make its conclusions and render its verdict.

Now, what says common sense?

With regard to knowledge: Since the being is revealed to itself only in two indissolubly linked moments that we call, first, consciousness of self, and second, revelation of the non-self, it follows that each step subsequently accomplished in knowledge always involves these two moments together; that this dualism is perpetual and irreducible; that outside of it, there no longer exists either subject or object; that the reality of one partakes essentially of the presence of the other; that it is as absurd to isolate them as to attempt to reduce them, since, in both cases, it is to deny truth entirely and abolish science: we will conclude first that the character of science is invincibly this: Agreement of reason and experience.

With regard to certainty: Since, despite the duality of origin of knowledge, the certainty of the object is at base the same as the certainty of the subject, it follows that that has been put beyond doubt against the anti-skeptical Pyrrhonians; that in that regard there is a force of the thing judged; that experience is as much a determination of the self as an appreciation of the non-self: it is enough for the satisfaction of reason. What more can we wish for than to be as assured of the existence of bodies as we are of our own? And of what use is it to ask if the subject and the object are identical or only adequate; if, in science, it is we who lend our ideas to nature, or if it is nature which gives us its own; while, by that distinction, one always supposes that the self and the non-self can exist in isolation, which is not the case; or that they are resolvable, which implies contradiction?

Finally, with regard to God: Since it is a law of our soul and of nature, or, in order to incorporate these two ideas into one alone, of creation, let it be ordered according to a progression which goes from existence to consciousness, from spontaneity to reflection, for instinct to analysis, from infallibility to error, from genus to species, from eternity to time, from the infinite to the finite, from the ideal to the real, etc.; it follows, from a logical necessity, that the chain of beings, all invariably constituted, but in different proportions, in self and non-self, is contained between two antithetical terms, the one, that the vulgar call creator, or God, and which reunites all the characteristics of infinity, spontaneity, eternity, infallibility, etc.; the other, which is man, assembling all the opposed characteristics of an existence that is evolutionary, reflective, temporary, subject to perturbation and error, and the foresight of which forms the principal attribute, as the absolute science, that is instinct at its highest power, is the essential attribute of Divinity.

But man is known to us at once by reason and experience; God on the contrary is still only revealed to us as a postulate of reason: in short, man is, God is possible.

Such has been, on the works of philosophy, the second judgment of common sense; a judgment of which the reasons are drawn from the materials furnished by philosophy itself, a judgment without appeal, and which was clearly produced the day when philosophy recognized that reason could do nothing without experience; that with regard to God, we lack nothing but the evidence of fact, the experimental demonstration; and where covering its face with its mantle, it has said goodbye to the world, and pronounced on it the consommatum est.

Is it possible to deny dualism, that we see burst everywhere into the world?—No.

Is it possible to deny the progression of beings?—Not any more. Now, the law of that progression being known, and the last term given, it is a necessity of reason that a first term exists, and that that term be the antipode of the last. Thus the infinite being, the great All, in quo vivimus, movemur and sumus, the supreme Genus, from which man tends incessantly to free himself and to which it opposes itself as to its antagonist, that eternal Essence, finally, will not be the absolute of the philosophers: like man, its adversary; it also exists only by its distinction into self and non-self, subject and object, soul and body, spirit and matter, that is to say under two generic aspects, also in diametrical opposition. Moreover, the attributes, faculties and manifestations of God will be the inverse of the attributes, faculties and determinations of man, as logic, as well as the infinite, inevitably leads us to believe: from then on, the proof of the hypothesis no longer lacks anything but its realization, the proof of fact. But all that deduction is ineluctable in itself: and if it was possible that it could be demonstrated false by the primordial dualism would have disappeared, man would no longer be man, reason would no longer be reason, pyrrhonism would become wisdom, and the absurd would be truth.

That is, however, what makes the humanitary philosophy tremble. It is so badly given over to the absolute, as to all its pantheistic fantasies; it has felt so great a joy, in believing to have discovered that man is all at once God and the absolute; it is so exhausted, so breathless after so many systems, that is does not have the courage to draw, against God and against man, the conclusion of its own doctrines. It dares not admit, this somnambulant philosophy, that the means necessarily suppose the extremes; that the last calls for a first, the finite an infinite, the species a genus:—that this infinite, as real as the finite that divides it; this supreme genus, which becomes a species in its turn by the contrast of the progressive creation which emanates from its heart; this God, finally, antagonist of man, cannot be the absolute; that this is precisely that which makes it possible; that if it is possible, it is necessary to seek what fact it corresponds to, and that to deny it under the pretext of resolving it in man, is to misunderstand our militant nature, and to create above, below and entirely outside of man an incomprehensible void, that philosophy is held to fill, under pain of annihilating man and seeing its idol perish.

For me,—I regret to say it, since I sense that such a declaration separates me from the most intelligent party of socialists,—it is impossible for me, the more I think about it, to subscribe to that definition of our species, which is only at base, among the new atheists, an echo of religious terrors; which, in the name of humanism rehabilitating and consecrating mysticism, lead to prejudice in science, habit in morals, communism in social economy, that is to say atony and misery; in logic, the absolute and the absurd. It is impossible for me, I say, to welcome that new religion, in which one seeks in vain to interest me by saying that I am its god. And it because I am forced to repudiate, in the name of logic and experience, that religion as well as all its predecessors, that it is necessary for me to still admit as plausible the hypothesis of an infinite, but not absolute, being, in which liberty and intelligence, the self and the non-self exist in a special form, inconceivable but necessary, and against which my destiny is to struggle, like Israel against Jehovah, until death.

[to be continued…]
About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.