The most vital question which any system of philosophy is required to answer is whether truth is attainable by the human soul. If this is not decided at the outset and the fact that the soul has inherently the capacity to attain truth is not established, then the system of philosophy is like a superstructure without foundations, a speculation as to the nature of something which may have no reality.
The implications which follow when it is postulated that truth cannot be known are so appalling that the human mind instinctively revolts from them. Man is born in the physical world surrounded by countless objects the nature of which he has to learn, acted upon by forces which at first he cannot understand, and with a purpose of which he is ignorant. The whole of life is a process of learning, of acquiring the knowledge of the world around him, of the powers which operate in it and in himself, and of the purposes for which both he and it exist. If in the course of this process, never easy and sometimes painful, he could not attain to any truth, if all the result of his experience, his labour, and his suffering was but to store his mind with fallacious shadows of reality, the whole of existence would be a stupendous farce and a hideous nightmare, all thought, effort, and experience would be useless, and an abyss of nothingness would yawn before all humanity.
Yet in spite of this some of the systems of philosophy which have flourished in the last two hundred years have caused a doubt to arise as to whether the human mind does possess the capacity to know absolute truth. Moreover the theory of Relativity is sometimes interpreted so as to suggest or imply that truth itself is relative and that absolute truth is therefore either a figment of the imagination or beyond the reach of human intelligence.
Truth may be defined as the conformity of thoughts to things, of the order of ideas to the order of existences. Certitude, which is the conscious attainment of truth, is reached when the correspondence between existing things or actual events and the ideas and causes which are behind them is fully realized, when the relations between the subjective and the objective, the inner and the outer, the above and the below, are perceived by the intelligence in such a way that they can be accurately demonstrated.
Man is not only a physical body; he has a spiritual as well as a corporeal nature; he lives in the world of ideas as well as in the physical world; hence he has faculties which enable him to contact that which is noumenal, ideal, and subjective, just as he has faculties which enable him to contact that which is phenomenal, actual, and objective.
To establish fully man’s capacity of attaining truth it is necessary to know the nature of the human gnostic faculties and the objects to which they address themselves, and to prove that these faculties are completely reliable when used for their proper purposes.
In a profound passage of the “Republic” Plato classifies the faculties by which the soul gains knowledge, together with the divisions of the field of the knowable to which they severally address themselves.
Socrates has been discussing the kind of education which it will be necessary to give the guardians of his ideal state in which the kings are to be philosophers, and has come to the conclusion that only the vision of absolute goodness, truth, and beauty will enable them to direct it safely. Glaucon, with whom he is conversing, is somewhat amazed by the notion of absolute goodness—which Socrates describes as that which not only enables all known things to be known but gives them their very being—but presses him to continue. Socrates then divides the whole sphere of things into two sections: that of the intelligible and that of the visible or sensible. Each of these he again sub-divides into two, thus splitting up the whole field of that which is knowable into four regions. Of the divisions of the sensible, the first is that of images, such as of shadows and reflections in water and in smooth and polished surfaces. The next is that of the things of which these are the resemblances, that is of actual existing things, such as animals and all natural and artificial objects. Socrates compares the difference between the image and the object which causes it to the difference in the degree of truth attained by opinion and knowledge.
He then goes on to the division of the intelligible section, and distinguishes its two subdivisions by the fact that in the lower the soul investigates by means of hypotheses “using the imitations which we have just now detailed as images; and does not ascend to a first principle but descends to a conclusion; but in the other she proceeds beyond hypothesis and images, and approaches ideas by means of ideas.” Glaucon has some difficulty in understanding this, and Socrates in explanation gives, as an example of the lower sub-division, the processes of geometrical mathematical investigations, in which the investigator assumes such self-evident facts as odd and even numbers and simple geometrical figures. Beginning from these visible forms (which themselves have reflections in water) he proceeds by means of them to the investigation of the properties of the absolute square and the absolute diameter, “seeking to see those things themselves which cannot be seen except by reason.”
He goes on:
“Then I spoke of this kind as intelligible*—although the soul is compelled to make use of hypotheses in the investigation of it, and does not go to a principle, being unable to ascend above the hypotheses, but using as images the things which themselves are reflected by that which is below them, and those which are believed to be illuminating in relation to the others (the ideas themselves) and are prized for this quality.
I suppose, he said, that you mean those which are used in geometry and its sister arts?
Then you may understand that by the other division of the intelligible I mean this which reason itself lays hold of by its dialectic power, using hypotheses not as first principles, but actually as hypotheses, like stepping-stones and starting points, so that it may proceed as far as the unhypothetical to the supreme principle of all, and, having gained a grasp of that, it may, holding fast to the attributes of that, so descend again to the conclusion, not availing itself of the sensible at any point whatever but, using ideas themselves and proceeding by means of ideas to ideas, may find its end with them.
I understand, he said, though not fully—for it seems to me that you refer to a work of some magnitude—that you wish to distinguish the vision which they give are compelled to do so by means of the reason; but because they behold it, not by ascending to their first principle but by starting from hypotheses, you do not think that they exercise intellect (nous) in regard to them, although such arts are intelligible after their beginning. But you seem to me to call skill in geometry and similar arts reason (dianoia) but not intellect (nous), as though the reason were something mid-way between intellect and opinion.
You have understood me, I said, most completely. And you may take it that the soul has these four faculties, corresponding to the four divisions—Pure Intellect (Noesis, the exercise of Nous) corresponding to the highest division, but Reason (Dianoia) to the second. Now put Belief (Pistis) in the third and Inference (Eikasia, the knowledge derived from images) in the last, and arrange them: in proportion as each partakes of truth, so you may think of it as partaking of clarity.
I understand, he said, and agree, and I am arranging them as you say.”
The divisions of the field of the knowable and the human gnostic faculties may therefore be tabulated thus:
Field of that which is knowable Faculty
Pure and Universal Ideas … Noesis
Intelligible – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Relatively Universal Ideas … Dianoia
Material Objects … … Pistis
Sensible – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Impressions and Images . . . . Eikasia
Thus, beginning from below, the first objects of knowledge are the images and impressions of things which are contacted by the senses. But each separate sense contacts a different quality of the object perceived: the sight its colour and shape, the touch its texture, and so on. But the faculty of Eikasia is something more than the functioning of anyone separate sense. All the senses, as such, are passive; but Eikasia has an active quality, for it is the faculty which announces to the consciousness the nature of the image, as a wholeness. By itself, although perfectly reliable within the range of its proper objects, it is not adequate as guide to the ordering of life; for, because it is purely instinctual, it can only draw inferences from the data with which the senses supply it, and has not the capacity to distinguish an object from its image or to state which is the reflection and which the original. This capacity belongs to the faculty above Eikasia which Plato calls Pistis or Belief.
This is the faculty which announces to the consciousness that certain things are so. In dealing with concrete objects it can distinguish them from their images. It is the natural tendency to accept that which is presented to the mind. It is opinion based on the evidence of the instincts and senses and is sometimes called the Estimative Faculty, because in using it the mind decides by a species of selection or irrational judgement as to the degree of truth contained in any statement. Its sphere is that of concrete facts and the objective realm generally. It is able to know that a thing is but not to announce why it is.
The cause or reason which lies behind any event or phenomenon is not concrete but abstract, and consequently the faculty which deals with the reasons of things must belong to the division of the intelligible. It is because man is a rational or reasoning being that he is able to ascend from effects to causes and embrace with his consciousness both the objective and the subjective. The lower sub-division of the intelligible is the sphere of Dianoia, which is the Discursive Reason. Reason is able not only to deal with concrete objects and by inductive processes to extract, as it were, the ideas which they express and arrive at a conclusion or generalization, but also to deal with ideas in themselves and by deductive or eductive processes to arrive at further ideas. The first may be termed the Logical Reason, the second the Dialectic Reason.
In a mathematical demonstration certain self-evident facts are assumed as first principles and a chain of reasoning is extended from these until a conclusion is reached. But even the knowledge obtained in this way is not characterized by absolute certitude because, as Plato points out, the facts or axioms which are assumed in the first instance are not related to their own first principles, but are assumed as the first principles of the demonstration. Hence in order to reach absolute certitude we must ascend to the highest subdivision of the intelligible realm, the contacting of which is effected by Noesis or the exercise of Nous or Pure Intellect. Here the hypotheses are assumed not as first principles but merely as hypotheses, and the argument instead of descending to a conclusion ascends to the Supreme Principle of all things, which is unhypothetical. Having become thus established on an unhypothetical foundation “it may, having gained a grasp of that and holding fast to the attributes of that, so descend again to the conclusion, not availing itself of the sensible at any point whatever but using ideas themselves and proceeding by means of ideas to ideas.” This is the exercise of the Dialectic Reason which, by relating things to their first principles and these first principles to the First Principle of all principles, attains to a knowledge of them in their subjective and objective natures, in their beginnings and endings. The exercise of Nous in its highest aspect completely transcends the processes of the discursive reason, for at its summit the dialectic reason verges into pure spiritual intuition which is the subjective contemplation of real universal ideas.
All these four faculties are inerrant when used for their proper purposes and in their own fields of operation. Error and confusion only arise when it is attempted to make one faculty do the work of another.
It is often affirmed that the evidence supplied by the eyes is fallible because they are deceived by what are termed optical illusions; but the eyes are not deceived, they faithfully transmit to the sensorium the impressions which they receive. The faculty of Eikasia or Inference then operates and an instinctive impression is produced on the consciousness. But the capacity to interpret this impression belongs to faculties higher than the instincts and senses, and the conclusion which is eventually arrived at will be true or false according to whether these higher faculties are operating normally and fully and whether they are in possession of all the necessary data.
Thus in the case of a conjuring trick the eyes are affected by certain stimuli and an impression is received through the faculty of Eikasia that certain events have taken place. But here the next faculty, that of Pistis, steps in and announces to the consciousness that a feat of sleight of hand is being witnessed and that therefore it is probable that the apparent events are not what has actually occurred. Each faculty, when functioning normally, is perfectly reliable within its own domain, and it is only when the senses or instincts are expected to give explanations or to distinguish between fact and appearance that error is the result.
If the lower faculties are reliable within their own domain, the higher ones will be even more certain in their operation.
The fact that the reasoning process is in itself inerrant is proved by the fact that any two human beings reasoning in an accurate manner from the same premises must reach the same conclusion. If this were not the case no demonstration in geometry or any similar science could be relied upon.
Finally, the intuition, which when it is real is a spiritual perception or cognition of pure universal ideas and aspects of truth, must be the most reliable of all, for it sees truth as a wholeness independent of any processes and includes within itself the capacity to demonstrate any aspect of it.
Yet although the gnostic faculties may be classified in this manner the fact that the human consciousness, although so complex, is a unity, makes it difficult in practice to say where one faculty begins and the one below it ends. Inference merges into opinion, opinion is often tinged with some species of reasoning, while Reason merges into Intuition. In terms of these faculties the mysterious division between the subjective and the objective may be said to be bridged by logic, for logic is higher than mere opinion yet lower than pure reason. In its lowest aspects it deduces concrete conclusions from concrete facts, but in its highest aspect, as Metaphysical Logic, it is concerned with abstract notions and verges to Dialectic.
It is evident, therefore, that since man has faculties which address themselves to every point in the scale of being and existence from the most concrete to the most abstract, and since certitude consists in the realization of the correspondence of the objective to the subjective and the conformity of thoughts to things, it is possible for man, when all his faculties are fully active and consciously exercised, to arrive at Absolute Truth. The lower faculties which deal with the concrete and sensible can never enable him to do this, for the right interpretation of the evidence with which they supply him depends upon the use of the higher faculties. But when, by the exercise of the dialectic reason, the ability to relate all things to a few abstract ideas is gradually gained, and when these few ideas are related to the One Idea which is Thought of God, Noesis or Spiritual Intuition becomes more and more a permanent possession and there dawns upon the consciousness the vision of Absolute Truth.
* Plato’s Republic, End of Book VI.