Page images






- The problem of the origin and nature of knowledge has occupied the attention of the philosophers for something over twenty-five centuries without much progress toward solution. This perhaps results from the fact that the problem itself is but part of a larger problem that should be first considered; for knowledge is but a species of opinion, which may be either true or false. Hence the inquiry as to the origin and nature of opinion must be the first in order of investigation. Nor until this investigation has been made will we be prepared to determine the specific characteristics by which true knowledge is differentiated from opinion in general.

$ 2. KNOWLEDGE BUT VERIFIED OPINION. -Men generally confound this distinction, and regard all their settled opinions or beliefs as knowledge. This is not merely false, but absurd; for not only do the opinions of men differ, but the opinions of the same man are often inconsistent and contradictory; and some, it is clear, must be false. And this is apparent also from the nature and generation of our opinions. For, in general, these come to us not from any conscious process, but naturally and spontaneously and from many sources, as, l.g., from testimony, from authority, from inaccurate observation or careless reasoning, and even largely from mere prejudice or bias. Hence, familiar to us as our opinions are, their origin in general is as unknown to us as were anciently the sources of the Nile; nor have we any just notion of the grounds on which they rest, or of the nature and justice of their demands on our belief. Hence, until some means of verifying our opinions be found and applied, we can have no assurance of their rectitude. The first step in Science or Philosophy must, therefore, be to distinguish between verified and unverified opinions. The former constitutes true knowledge or science; the latter—though it is in

fact the stuff out of which most of the current philosophy is woven — has no just pretension to the name.

$ 3. THE SOURCES OF OPINION DISTINGUISHED.—With regard to the source of our opinions, we must distinguish between those derived from our own experience and those de. rived from the experience of others; of which those derived from the common experience of mankind are the most extensive and important. The last have come to us by means of language, which may therefore be said to be their source; nor could they otherwise have been transmitted to us. The former constitute -comparatively speaking—but a small and insignificant part of the sources of the mass of our opinions. For the greater part of what we know, or think we know, is not original with us, but has come to us from others by or from language. The distinction, therefore, is, not between opinions derived from experience and opinions not so derived,- for it may be said all opinions that are true, or rather that we know to be true, are derived ultimately from experience,'—but in the manner of their derivation; the one class being those opinions de. rived by us, each from his own experience, the other, those derived not directly from our own, The distinction made in the text is of fundamental import

The necessity of a constant resort to experience as the


but from the experience of others from or through language.

$ 4, OF LANGUAGE AS A RECORD OF HUMAN THOUGHT.-Of the two classes of opinions, the latter is infinitely the more extensive in scope and important in character; for all that men have seen or thought or felt has been expressed, and is thus preserved to us in language; which thus constitutes, as it were, the record of the results of all human experience and reason. Here, therefore, is to be found the principal source of our opinions, verified and unverified — that is to say, not

, only of our opinions generally, but of our knowledge or science. But, regarding language as a record and source of opinion, we must distinguish between the forms in which opinion is embodied in it. These forms may be described, with sufficient accuracy for our purposes, as consisting in terms, propositions, and syllogisms. But of these the syllogism in its end and effect is but the reduction of two

ultimate source of our knowledge cannot be too strongly insisted upon. But to construe this proposition as referring to each man's individual experience is to fall into an error of the kind called by Bacon “ Idols of the Den”; and thus to fall under the reproach of Heraclitus “ that men search for knowledge in lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world,” i. e., the great world of the common notions of mankind, derived from the universal experience and embodied in the common language. (Nov. Org., bk, i., aph. xliii.)

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »