Alan Wood writes: ‘Russell’s object in The Analysis of Mind, was, he said, “to subject Mind to the same kind of analysis as I applied to Matter in Our Knowledge of the External World“. In this he treated a piece of ‘matter’ as a logical construction based on ‘sense data’. He now decided that mind was a logical construction based on ‘sensations’, and decided that sensations and sense data were the same.’ (p. 119)
Thomas Mautner writes in his Dictionary of Philosophy: ‘Russell’s view was that the only things we can in fact know by acquaintance are basic items such as sense data, mental images, thoughts and feelings … What can be known by acquaintance is certain, whereas what can be known only by description is inferred and problematic … the certainty which Russell, like Descartes, always sought should be “Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities” and “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly out of constituents with which we are acquainted”.’
The Wikipedia entry on ‘Bertrand Russell’s views on philosophy’ explains: ‘Russell thought that we could only be acquainted with our own sense data—momentary perceptions of colours, sounds, and the like—and that everything else, including the physical objects that these were sense data of, could only be inferred, or reasoned to—i.e. known by description—and not known directly.’
Ryle writes in a chapter on ‘Sensation and Observation’: ‘We have constantly to refer to the sensations which are connected with the organs of sense, for we are constantly having to mention what we see and do not see, what we hear, smell, taste, and feel. But we do not talk about these sensations ‘neat’; we ordinarily mention them only in reference to the things or events which we are observing or trying or claiming to observe. People … when asked how something looked, or sounded, or tasted … will normally say that it looked like a haystack, that it sounded like something humming, or that it tasted as if it had pepper in it. This procedure of describing sensations by referring in a certain way to common objects like haystacks, things that hum, and pepper is of great theoretical importance.’ (p. 192)
On the basis of this observation, Ryle can take the Sense Datum Theory on: ‘We can, it is suggested, talk about sensations ‘neat’ by talking about ‘looks’, ‘appearances’, ‘sounds’, ‘flavours’, ‘whiffs’, ‘tingles’, ‘glimpses’, and so on (p. 200) … I shall try to prove that this whole theory rests upon a logical howler, namely, of assimilating the concept of sensation to the concept of observation; and I shall try to show that this assimilation makes nonsense simultaneously of the concept of sensation and of the concept of observation … there is an important logical connexion between the concept of sensation and that of observing or perceiving, a connection which by itself entails that they are concepts of different kinds. There is a contradiction in saying that someone is watching or peeping at something, but not getting even one glimpse of it; or in saying that someone is listening to something, though he gets no auditory sensations … Sensations then, are not perceivings, observings, or findings; they are not detectings, scannings, or inspectings; they are not apprehendings, cognizings, intuitings, or knowings. To have a sensation is not to be in a cognitive relation to a sensible object. There are no such objects. Nor is there any such relation. Not only is it false that sensations can be objects of observation; it is also false that they are themselves observings of objects (203-4) … A linguistic consequence of all this argument is that we have no employment for such expressions as ‘objects of sense’, ‘sensum’, ‘sense datum’, ‘sense-content’, ‘sense-field’, and ‘sensibilia’; the epistemologist’s transitive verb ‘to sense’ and the intimidating ‘direct awareness’ and ‘acquaintance’ can be turned to store. They commemorate nothing more than the attempt to give the concepts of sensation the jobs of concepts of observation, an attempt which inexorably ended in the postulation of sense data as counterparts to the common objects of observation.’ (p. 210-211)
Let me go back to Alan Wood’s Bertrand Russell: ‘Having ‘constructed’ physical objects from sense data, and having decided that a brown sense datum and the sensation of seeing brown were the same, Russell was on his way to showing that minds were constructions using the same ingredients as physical objects. He said that “physics, in so far as it is an empirical science, not a logical phantasy, is concerned with particulars of just the same sort as those which psychology considers under the name of sensations”. … If the only function of mind was to have sensations, if consciousness simply consisted of seeing things and hearing things and touching things, then out and out neutral monism could be established. Both mind and matter could be represented as constructions from sensations (or sense data), grouped in different ways. But minds also have beliefs, desires, memories and so on. If all these were also constructions from sensations, then exact neutral monism could be triumphantly established.’ (p. 120) – ‘Russell would obviously have liked to show that psychical laws could be reduced, with greater knowledge, to physical ones; but with characteristic candour he admitted that he did not know yet whether this could be done. And so a fundamental dualism remained, perhaps even more uncomfortable to philosophical common sense than the original dualism between mind and matter.’ (p. 121)
Here I cannot quite see, which thoughts are Russell’s and which are those of Allan Wood. And so I am left with a dilemma: 1/ Go back to Plato and forget Bertrand Russell, or, 2/ In months to come to try to combine the two, Russell and Plato. The glimpse of Russell’s philosophy mediated to me by Wood on the one hand, and Ryle’s dismissal of Russell (without naming him) on the other, leave me with no real choice; I must at least try to follow the 2nd option.
Let me end by a reflection on Wood’s quote from Russell’s Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy and on his comment on the quote: ‘It is often said … that phenomena [or “appearances”] are subjective, but are caused by things in themselves…. Where such hypotheses are made, it is generally supposed that we can know very little about the objective counterparts. In actual fact, however, if the hypotheses as stated were correct, the objective counterparts would form a world having the same structure as the phenomenal world, and allowing us to infer from phenomena the truth of all propositions that can be stated in abstract terms, and are known to be true of phenomena.’ Wood comments: ‘This idea was not so important from the point of view of Russell’s philosophy of the time; but it became of great importance on reverting to the ordinary view of an external world which causes our perceptions. Such knowledge as we have from our perceptions is knowledge of its structure.’ (p. 123-4)
The ordinary world which causes our perceptions requires us to take account of the way in which the external world causes our perceptions, and in doing so we cannot bypass neurophysiology. The perception of ‘the outside world’ caused by the outside world is structured in the brain in a completely different way than both the phenomenal ‘outside world’ and the outside world. Since we perceive in our minds ‘the outside world’, there must be an X that transforms the information about the outside world as it is coded in the brain into the structures of ‘the outside world’ in our mind. I have called this X the subconscious part of our human spiritual nature (see ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ on my website).