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On Being Present to the Mind: A Sketch for the History of an Idea1

  • John W. Yolton (a1)


I want to discuss a doctrine and a concept in theory of knowledge which has various manifestations from at least the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. The concept is that of direct or immediate cognition, the doctrine says that only what is like mind can be directly or immediately present to mind. This doctrine raises the question of how we can know things other than ourselves and our experiences: the concept of direct presence most usually had the consequence of making our knowledge of the world indirect, uncertain, or impossible. The directly present must in some way inform us about the indirectly present.



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2 A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. by , Selby-Bigge, Bk I, Part II, Sect. VI. pp. 6768. Cf., Part IV, Sect. II, pp. 197, 212.

3 “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description”, in Mysticism and Logic (Anchor book), p. 211, and in Problems of Philosophy, p. 58.

4 Moore's doctrine of propositions went along with a theory of judgment. A proposition was “the combination of concepts which is affirmed” in the judament. Concepts are for the early Moore even stranger entities than Russell's sense-data: they are possible objects of thought, incapable of change, and they are what the world is composed of. An existent is “nothing but a concept or complex of concepts standing in a unique relation to the concept of existence”. (“The Nature of Judgment”, in Mind, 1899, pp. 183, 179, 182.)

5 Moore chose the word “concept” over “idea” in order to avoid psychological entities in his analysis of judgment. Truth and falsehood “are not dependent on the relation of our ideas to reality”; if some judgment is false, “that is not because my ideas do not correspond to reality, but because such a conjunction of concepts is not to be found among existents”. (Op. cit., pp. 177, 179.)

6 In, Logic and Knowledge, page 45.

7 Ibid., pp. 55–56.

8 In, Ibid., page 231.

9 Ibid., page 242.

10 Bertrand Russell and the British Tradition (Fontana Library), 1967, p. 213.

11 Pears cites P.T. Geach as one who interprets Russell as importing objects into the mind. In his Mental Acts, Geach cites the passage from “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” about actual objects. He takes this phrase to refer to the objects of acquaintance (page 46. See also his Reference and Generality, page 54). I think it dubious to say Geach charges Russell with importing objects into the mind, since all that he says is (following Russell) that the actual objects judged about are constituents of the judgment. The ambiguity is still here, for, while acquaintance-objects are the constituents of judgments or propositions, what we judge about is frequently and most typically for Russell nonacquaintance objects.

12 In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and The Analysis of Mind. Russell tried to fit the doctrine of neutral monism into his account. If such a doctrine can be successful, sense-data would not be present to a mind, since mind too would be a series of sense-data. Sense-data become neutral in their ontological status. Neutral monism follows naturally upon Russell's earlier views on sense-data: they are objects of acquaintance but constituents of propositions. There are special problems with neutral monism, however. Whether the notion of presence to mind disappears or is merely transformed, is not clear.

13 One useful discussion is that of G. Dawes Hicks. “Sense-Presentation and Throught”, Proc. Arist. Soc, VI, 1905–06.

14 Lovejoy, A.O., “Representative Ideas in Malebranche and Arnauld”, Mind, 1923, page 454. Cf., Hirst's, R.J. definition of direct realism in the article “Realism”, in the Ency. of Philosophy, vol 7, page 78: “the general view that perception is a direct awareness, a straight-forward confrontation (or being in touch, contact) with the external object”.

15 Statement and Inference, vol I, page 62.

16 Dawes-Hicks' way of making the same point is to say “our discriminative activity can never be what it knows, and just for that reason it can know the world of which it forms a part”. (Op. cit., page 316.)

17 Cf. his Lectures on Metaphysics: “the mind can only know immediately that to which it is immediately present; but as external objects can neither themselves come into the mind, nor go to them, such presence is impossible…” (Lect 25, page 122. Quoted by Brody, B.A., “Reid and Hamilton on Perception”. The Monist, 55, 1971, page 436).

18 Stewart, D., Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind, 1808.

19 Opticks (Dover Edition), page 403.

20 The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, ed., by Alexander, H.G., 1956. These letters were exchanged between November, 1715 and October, 1716.

21 Thomas Reid cites this principle also: “That nothing can act immediately where it is not, I think must be admitted …. It is a consequence of this, that nothing can be acted upon immediately where the agent is not present”. (Essays On the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1786, Vol. 1, page 242.) Reid had been discussing the use of this principle by Clarke and Porterfield. He thinks it depends upon another assumption which he rejects: “when we perceive objects, either they act upon us, or we act upon them”. As Arnauld had done, Reid rejects the notion “that, in perception, the object must be contiguous to the percipient”, as borrowed from analogy and hence as misleading (p. 244).

22 In Oeuvres, ed. by Rodis-Lewis, G. (1962), vol. 1, pp. 413–14.

23 For two recent discussions of perception as information, see Brown, Harold, “Perception and Meaning”, in Studies in the Philosophy of Mind, ed., by Rescher, N., 1972, pp. 19, and Gibson, J.J., The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, 1966. Cf. my discussion of Gibson, , “Gibson's Realism”, Synthese, 19. 19681969, pp. 400407.

24 Op. cit.

25 Op. cit., page 178.

26 I have treated this aspect of Locke's account of perception and ideas in more detail, along with Arnauld, in “Ideas and Knowledge in Seventeenth Century Philosophy”, to appear in Journal for the History of Philosophy.

1 The Presidential Address given to the Canadian Philosophical Association at its Conference in June, 1974 in Toronto. An earlier version of this paper has been improved as a result of discussion at Trent University and by comments from Fraser Cowley, Richard Hissey, and John Wright.

On Being Present to the Mind: A Sketch for the History of an Idea1

  • John W. Yolton (a1)


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