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The Function Of Cognition
by [?]

[Footnote: Read before the Aristotelian Society, December 1, 1884, and first published in Mind, vol. x (1885).–This, and the following articles have received a very slight verbal revision, consisting mostly in the omission of redundancy.]

The following inquiry is (to use a distinction familiar to readers of Mr. Shadworth Hodgson) not an inquiry into the ‘how it comes,’ but into the ‘what it is’ of cognition. What we call acts of cognition are evidently realized through what we call brains and their events, whether there be ‘souls’ dynamically connected with the brains or not. But with neither brains nor souls has this essay any business to transact. In it we shall simply assume that cognition IS produced, somehow, and limit ourselves to asking what elements it contains, what factors it implies.

Cognition is a function of consciousness. The first factor it implies is therefore a state of consciousness wherein the cognition shall take place. Having elsewhere used the word ‘feeling’ to designate generically all states of consciousness considered subjectively, or without respect to their possible function, I shall then say that, whatever elements an act of cognition may imply besides, it at least implies the existence of a FEELING. [If the reader share the current antipathy to the word ‘feeling,’ he may substitute for it, wherever I use it, the word ‘idea,’ taken in the old broad Lockian sense, or he may use the clumsy phrase ‘state of consciousness,’ or finally he may say ‘thought’ instead.]

Now it is to be observed that the common consent of mankind has agreed that some feelings are cognitive and some are simple facts having a subjective, or, what one might almost call a physical, existence, but no such self-transcendent function as would be implied in their being pieces of knowledge. Our task is again limited here. We are not to ask, ‘How is self-transcendence possible?’ We are only to ask, ‘How comes it that common sense has assigned a number of cases in which it is assumed not only to be possible but actual? And what are the marks used by common sense to distinguish those cases from the rest?’ In short, our inquiry is a chapter in descriptive psychology,–hardly anything more.

Condillac embarked on a quest similar to this by his famous hypothesis of a statue to which various feelings were successively imparted. Its first feeling was supposed to be one of fragrance. But to avoid all possible complication with the question of genesis, let us not attribute even to a statue the possession of our imaginary feeling. Let us rather suppose it attached to no matter, nor localized at any point in space, but left swinging IN VACUO, as it were, by the direct creative FIAT of a god. And let us also, to escape entanglement with difficulties about the physical or psychical nature of its ‘object’ not call it a feeling of fragrance or of any other determinate sort, but limit ourselves to assuming that it is a feeling of Q. What is true of it under this abstract name will be no less true of it in any more particular shape (such as fragrance, pain, hardness) which the reader may suppose.

Now, if this feeling of Q be the only creation of the god, it will of course form the entire universe. And if, to escape the cavils of that large class of persons who believe that SEMPER IDEM SENTIRE AC NON SENTIRE are the same, [Footnote:1 ‘The Relativity of Knowledge,’ held in this sense, is, it may be observed in passing, one of the oddest of philosophic superstitions. Whatever facts may be cited in its favor are due to the properties of nerve-tissue, which may be exhausted by too prolonged an excitement. Patients with neuralgias that last unremittingly for days can, however, assure us that the limits of this nerve-law are pretty widely drawn. But if we physically could get a feeling that should last eternally unchanged, what atom of logical or psychological argument is there to prove that it would not be felt as long as it lasted, and felt for just what it is, all that time? The reason for the opposite prejudice seems to be our reluctance to think that so stupid a thing as such a feeling would necessarily be, should be allowed to fill eternity with its presence. An interminable acquaintance, leading to no knowledge-about,–such would be its condition.] we allow the feeling to be of as short a duration as they like, that universe will only need to last an infinitesimal part of a second. The feeling in question will thus be reduced to its fighting weight, and all that befalls it in the way of a cognitive function must be held to befall in the brief instant of its quickly snuffed-out life,–a life, it will also be noticed, that has no other moment of consciousness either preceding or following it.