Identity in Human Cognition

It is no easy task to try to understand the principle of identity in human cognition. In order to do so, I would like to proceed by first looking at how confrontation exists in human cognition. In our individual lives and also in the history of philosophy, an understanding of human cognition which talks about confrontation predates a later understanding of cognition which talks about identity. But, if we begin with a contrary viewpoint about the nature of cognition and about how this viewpoint has been articulated in a theory of confrontation, this should make it easier for us to understand how one can properly talk about identity in human cognition. A conception which speaks about confrontation is sublated by a conception which speaks about identity. A concluding discussion will speak about an isomorphic structure which should exist between knowing and being: between the order and elements present in the structure of human knowing and a like order and elements which is present in the structure of what is known in the known. From cognition, one moves into metaphysics.


To begin with what is meant by confrontation, instead of thinking about a definition which one can always attend to (a definition that I can always devise and immediately put out to be read), let us be still for a moment and think about what we are doing right now in our work. As you read these words, you are looking at a flat surface with markings that are etched on it. You are looking at marks which stand or lie before you. You close your eyes and you no longer immediately see them though, no doubt, you remember them and can picture them to yourself. Then, you open your eyes and, readily, you see the markings again. With the seeing, you can return to what you were doing before and you can resume your reading. On the one hand, you are the subject. You are the person doing the seeing. You are opening your eyes and focusing on what stands or lies before you. Walk away from your desk or put aside this present reading, and you see something else. In your seeing and in your walking, you are experiencing yourself seeing and you are experiencing yourself walking. But, on the other hand, when you think about what you are experiencing or about what you are seeing when you are seeing, you can speak about colors, shadows, and shades that you see. You exist on one side as a seer and what is seen exists on the other side. What is seen exists as the object of your seeing. It is other than your seeing. You perceive, you see what you see but you do not assume that what you see exists within you. Yes, you see what you see. There is a kind of communion which exists in this seeing. Both Aristotle and Aquinas speak about a communion between one's seeing or sensing and what is seen or what is being sensed. But, your seeing is always of things that exist outside of you. The seeing, one's sensing always has an extroverted orientation. If we remember anything that we have seen or sensed in some other way, we have an experience which appears to be more interior than what we experience in our acts of sense. But, even with remembering what we have seen or what we have witnessed, the reference is to an experience of some kind that is directed toward something that exists externally or outside of who or what we are.


In thinking then about ourselves and our sense of what it is like to be a seer or a senser, we find that we have an experience which grounds or explains what is meant by confrontation. Subject and object exist in a relation which is juxtaposed with each other. An opposition of sorts exists as a subject sees, touches, hears, smells, tastes something which is other and which exists or comes from the outside. In this type of interpretation or conception, human knowing thus exists as a form of visual seeing. We are in contact with reality if we can see it, if we can contemplate it, behold it. In contemplation, we have a word which is usually used to refer to a kind of spiritual seeing that we can experience in an inward way. In the praxis of contemplation within religion, if we are engaged in contemplative prayer, with the eyes of our mind, we behold, we conjure a sacred scene or tableaux that we are visualizing as we use our imagination. By this means, we attend, we direct our attention to religious mysteries. The attention which we give makes these mysteries more present to us. Our consciousness expands as it attends to things that are seen, metaphorically, with the eyes of our minds (as distinct from what is seen when we refer to the eyes of our body).


In thinking about human cognition in terms of confrontation, two key points are crucial. These need to be remembered if one is going to think about the difference which exists between a notion of human cognition which thinks in terms of confrontation and one which thinks in terms of identity. First, on the model of confrontation and as a conclusion, human knowing is viewed and is thematized to exist essentially as an act of sense. Its activity does not differ from what happens in an act of sense. Or, to put this in another way, the intelligibility which is present in all acts of knowing is an intelligibility that can be reduced to the nature of an act of sense. All acts of cognition exist fundamentally as acts of sense. The same kind of nature obtains. Second, human knowing occurs with an immediacy which is akin to the immediacy which exists in all acts of sense. In the seeing which occurs as one opens one's eyes, in the same sort of way, one's knowing occurs with an immediacy which suggests that human cognition occurs without any kind of struggle or labor. In this type of conception, not much thought is given to any kind of mediation which occurs when, through our acts of cognition, something is being cognitively experienced. From the immediacy that we enjoy in our acts of sense, one easily concludes that knowing is to be equated with intuition (the seeing of intuition). Through an intuition, knowing occurs or it is reduced to some kind of simple act that immediately moves a person from a condition of not knowing to one of knowing.


Having said these things then about how one can speak about human knowing as a species of confrontation, one can now begin to think about how one can move from this notion to one which speaks about identity. In thinking thus about this question and by referring to a transition which one can find as one moves from Plato's philosophy of human cognition to Aristotle's philosophy of human cognition, one can find a pivot (a point of departure) if one attends to a discussion which one finds in the Meno, one of Plato's dialogues. In the Meno, a question and answer conversation takes place between Socrates and a young slave boy who has had no formal training in mathematics. Socrates wants to make a point about the nature of human cognition and how human learning should be understood. He takes a slave boy and begins to solve a mathematical problem by drawing a diagram in the sand as, at the same time, he asks the slave boy short questions as he draws specific lines. By drawing lines and by asking the slave boy questions, he brings the slave boy to the solution of a geometrical mathematical problem. The boy correctly solves a problem though, as noted, this boy is lacking in formal mathematical instruction. For Plato, the whole point of this story is to show that the slave boy knows how to solve a mathematical problem because, in a previous life, before the boy's soul has fallen or been incorporated into a body, the boy's soul, through spiritual eyes, has beheld or has contemplated mathematical forms or mathematical ideas which possess a purely spiritual or intellectual nature and which exist apart from any kind of material incarnation. In the context of an earlier pre-incarnate life, all human beings behold separately existing spiritual or intellectual forms and, in the context of a later incarnate life, when certain experiences awaken one's spirit or one's soul within, one remembers what one has seen and known in an earlier life. Human knowing occurs through remembering the contents of what one has previously seen (what one has previously contemplated).


However, in contrast with this interpretation, Aristotle offers a different kind of argument. The marks or lines which Socrates draws in sand do not awaken a slave boy's memory. The marks serve another purpose. They act as clues (as heuristic clues). As material causes, they help trigger an act of understanding which occurs in the mind of the slave boy. An act of understanding grasps a form or an intellectual content which somehow exists within the drawn image. A drawn image does not direct an inquirer toward a form, an intellectual content, which exists apart from matter. Instead, the drawn image directs an inquirer to grasp that an invisible form or an invisible meaning somehow exists within visible, sensible matter. The forms exists within matter and not apart from matter. If some kind of cognitional proof needs to be alluded to in support of this argument, all one has to do is to think about how one's questioning leads to an imaginative play with material images. All knowing begins with experiences of raw data. But, with inquiry and questions, one imaginatively plays with raw data to produce constructions which exist as rarefied images. One continues to see images or pictures but the images or pictures exist as refinements of raw data. Construct an apt image or phantasm and one will have a material cause which can act to trigger a cognitional act which is not an act of sense but an inner act of understanding. With one's mind, one's understanding receives a form that can never be seen. In the form or nature, an equation joins a set of variables that are understood. An act of understanding has dawned and this act goes beyond, it transcends all acts of sense and all acts of imagination. And, whenever acts of understanding dawn, they grasp a content that can never be seen. It is only understood. An act of understanding possesses a nature of its own; it exists in the way that it does because its intelligibility (its form or structure) is other than the kind of intelligibility which exists in acts of sense.


To understand directly what is meant by identity, one must first attend to the relation which exists between a question which asks about reasons and how, through inquiry, it is possible to find reasons which answer a question that one is asking about a reason which probably explains why something is the way that it is. Take, for example, a question that was posed in the 17th Century by Galileo Galilei. What is the nature of a free fall (the free fall of a falling object)? What is the nature of the free fall of an object falling close to the earth? When we walk outside and see hail falling from the sky, we see that heavy droplets of hail fall at the same time as lighter droplets of hail. Heavy objects fall as the same time as light objects. But, is there not something strange here? Should heavy objects fall sooner than lighter objects? Heavy objects should fall with more speed. Heavy objects and light objects should not fall at the same time. What we see here conflicts with our commonsense expectations. Hence, what is a free fall? What is the nature of a free fall? What is its intrinsic intelligibility? What is its inherent rationality? And so, if we think about the kind of question that is being asked here, we find that a question is being asked that wants to go behind the sensible appearance of things. The object of interest is not how things look or how they appear. One wants something deeper. One wants to know how things are in themselves, how things exist in themselves. One wants to understand something that is known behind, beyond, or despite any appearances. One wants to move from the external, changing appearances of things to something that exists within a thing, something that is constitutive of what a given thing is. In the language of Aristotle, one wants to know about the form or nature of a thing or the form or cause of an event. One wants to know about a formal cause. In the language of modern science as this has developed since the 17th Century, one wants an equation which can state how a set of variables can be related to each other: the relations determine the meaning of the individual terms and the meaning of the individual terms determine the relations. In a context that is common to both Aristotelian science and contemporary modern science, one wants to know about a none obvious principle which does not exist as a datum of sense. It is never seen with one's eyes but it is understood by one's mind. It can be understood through an act of understanding.


To identify what happens in understanding so that one can begin to talk about how identity exists in human cognition, one perhaps best returns to what we do when we take raw bits of data and then imaginatively construct images (sometimes with pen and paper). As noted, this process produces a refinement in the data that we are working with. At some point, an apt image presents itself and this image triggers an internal event within the consciousness or experience that we have of ourselves: an internal event which is experienced as a dawning act of understanding. A solution is grasped in the middle of efforts to solve, for example, a mathematical problem. But, what exactly happens when an act of understanding comes our way and we have an experience of intellectual consciousness?


Please note that, in speaking about the reception of an act of understanding, we are not speaking about acts of understanding as if these are produced by us at will (by our wanting of them). A theory of understanding does exist which claims that our acts of understanding exist essentially as humanly willed products: we produce them as we would want to produce any given thing that we make. As human beings, we are good at making things which satisfy our needs and desires. And so, human acts of understanding have been seen in a similar way. They are actions that we do. We work for an understanding of something by asking questions and gathering information. We work and play with what he have and, according to this view, we come up with an insight, an act of understanding, which reveals a meaning which is not seen but understood. However, if we attend closely to ourselves when we are engaged in acts of understanding, we might begin to realize that our acts of understanding come to us when we least expect them to come. We can spend long periods of time engaged in inquiry and yet we do not come up with a desired solution. The work that we expend does help us; our work conditions us to be able to experience acts of understanding. But, when we see that acts of understanding come to us at unexpected times and often during times of leisure or when we are doing something else that is quite different, we can begin to realize that understanding comes to us as a gift. Aquinas used to speak about acts of understanding coming to us by way of “divine helps.” We properly speak about grace in order to speak about the salvation of our human souls. Grace is also a gift but it is a supernatural gift. It is something that we receive. But, in speaking about our human lives as we try to live in a human way in a manner that is distinct from questions having to do with our eternal salvation, it is best to talk about divine helps which we must suppose if we are to adequately understanding the nature of human cognition in terms of how it happens.


This reception or giftedness of acts of understanding accordingly points an activity or an achievement which refers to what the reception of an act of understanding effects. An act of understanding supervenes. It comes from above and moves within us. As it works with apt images, it separates a material component from an intellectual or spiritual component. As every act of understanding removes or abstracts a formal or intelligible element from any attached material or empirical elements, it immediately presents a meaning which is apprehended as the term or the content of one's act of understanding. In every act of understanding, something is being understood. One cannot have an act of understanding without a term or content which refers to what is being understood in one's act of understanding. What is understood refers to an intelligibility. Intelligence refers to one's acts of understanding. Act and term stand together or they fall together. Nothing is understood without an act of understanding and no act of understanding exists apart from what is understood in a given act of understanding. In other words, a perfect coincidence exists between act and term. Or, in yet other words, in an act of understanding, one can speak about an identity between act and content. Aristotle used to say that the intelligence in act is the intelligible in act. An intelligible only exists if it is the term of an act of understanding and an act of intelligence only exists if its term is an intelligible that is being experienced from within.


But, before we proceed any further, please note that, in acts of sense, one can also speak about an identity between an act of sensing and a content which is being sensed. In Aristotle's language, sense in act is the sensible in act. No act of sensing can exist unless something is being sensed. For instance, if one stands in a dark room that entirely devoid of light, one's eyes may be open but there is no seeing. One's eyes are not seeing anything. But, if any light begins to enter the room, one begins to see something. The image might not be too clear but, whether it is clear or not, one will experience the fact that a perfect correlation exists between one's seeing and something that is seen. A perfect identity exists between them. One cannot have one without the other. With one's mind, one can distinguish between an act of seeing and what is seen by one's act. But, when one must make a judgment about the reality of an act versus the reality of a content (do they each refer to the same thing?), one soon realizes that act and content are inseparable. If you have one, you always have the other. In acts of sense, an identity exists at the level of sense which is other or which is different than the identity which exists in an act of understanding (at the level of understanding). In these identities, one experiences cognitive identities: a cognitive identity between what is being known in sense and understanding and the sensing and understanding that one is experiencing as an internal kind of experiencing. However, a cognitive identity is not the same thing as a metaphysical identity. What is seen by an act of seeing can exist independently of whether or not it is being seen by any one who is engaged in an act of sense. In fact, it exists separately from its being seen by a given act of seeing. And, in the same way, what is being understood by a given act of understanding can exist separately from whether or not it is being understood by a given human subject. If one wants to speak about any identity between a cognitive form of identity and a metaphysical form of identity, one can only begin to speak about such things if one thinks about what happens in human self-understanding. In self-understanding, what is being understood is the self who is engaged in self-understanding. Admittedly, more often than not, the self-understanding is incomplete. Not all of one's self is being understood. And so, if we want to talk about perfect self-understanding, we have to talk about God. Only in God's self-understanding do we have a perfect identity between God as he exists in his reality and God as he exists as an act of understanding.


The raising of a question which asks about the kind of relation that exists between the understanding of something and the being of something accordingly serves as a point of departure for talking about a third kind of cognitional human act. If questions asking about what and why help lead persons to forms of thinking and analysis which can lead them to the possible reception of an act of understanding, a second kind of question asks if something is really so. Is something really true or is it false? Instead of what or why, the object of focus shifts to questions that ask about truth. If an idea is true, a potential knower cognitively participates in reality. A cognitive form of identity exists between what one is doing as a knower and something which happens to be real. The pivot or point of mediation is a truth which is known to be a truth or, conversely, a falsehood which is known to be false. Any falsehood which is known to be false is known through a reflective act of understanding which exists as a judgment, a reflective act of understanding which knows a truth to be true and a falsehood to be false. In either case, in a judgment, in a reflective act of understanding, a potential knower participates or communes with something that is found to be real. Without an act of reflective understanding, a knower could be participating, a knower could be in communion with an order of real objects. But, such a person would not know if he or she is truly in communion with a world of real objects. For a full discussion then about how we can speak about identity in human cognition, no account can be complete without attending to the nature of a reflective act of understanding and what happens in a reflective act of understanding.


In turning then to the nature of reflective acts of understanding, it is not without point to note that it is one thing to be aware of reflective acts of understanding and another thing to be able to speak intelligently about the nature of reflective acts of understanding. It is an achievement to be able to realize or to sense that reflective understanding differs from acts of abstractive understanding. In his Posterior Analytics, Aristotle speaks about a first operation of the human mind and a second operation of the human mind. In the philosophy of mind which one finds in St. Augustine, material acts of sense are distinguished from another kind of act which refers to acts of the mind. Judgment occurs if or when one refers to a set of eternal reasons that one looks at or inspects. We know truths by looking at ideas from a viewpoint which refers to eternal reasons. In the language of St. Augustine, a language is employed which is derived from Plato and from how Plato spoke about the difference which exists between the world of sense and the world of ideas. A real or critical knowledge of things is only given if one works from a viewpoint which refers to ideas as these exist in a transcendent manner (as these exist apart from or beyond a world which is constituted by material objects and which can be known by us in a material way if we refer to spatial and temporal coordinates). Plato's understanding of judgment presumes or perhaps we can say that it assumes that truths are known by a species of human activity that is fundamentally akin to what happens in acts of sense. The confrontation which occurs or which exists whenever anyone sees or looks at an external, outer object is replicated at a higher level by a mental, intellectual, or spiritual form of seeing which is imagined to exist when we think about outer, external, eternal ideas and how we can speak about our knowledge of them. The awareness that we have of ideas which never change is explained by a species of apprehension which suggests that we have had some kind of inner mystical experience. In the context of our current lives, we somehow see the truth of things. A light has shone within our minds. A light has been cast upon us or upon our world to reveal where real truth exists. We have mysteriously seen this light and the mysteriousness of our experience helps to explain why it is so difficult to us to speak about what has happened (what we have experienced). An awareness of truth exists within us. But, if we work with language, with a conceptuality which is grounded in acts of sense and which has arisen to explain what happens in our acts of sense, we cannot too easily explain what happens when we want to speak about the reflective understanding of judgment and how judgment exists as a specific kind of activity.


However, if we turn to the kind of discussion that we can find in Aquinas and if we can attend to what we do when we need to move toward a critically grounded act of reflective understanding, we can speak about how judgment operates as an act which differs from an act of sense or any later act of understanding which brings an idea or theory into our consciousness of self. As Aquinas used to speak about these matters in the De Veritate, in every perspective judgment, we have to think back on ourselves. In a way, we need to examine ourselves. We need to examine our cognitive conscience, our cognitive consciousness. We look at how, in an initial act of understanding, we have moved from an experience of sense to the experience that comes to us as an idea or theory. A transition has occurred. But, if we need to be sure about the rightness of what we have done through our cognitional acts, we need to move back toward a basis or foundation which functions as our cognitive ground (a basis or foundation whose truthfulness no one can dispute). And so, Aquinas speaks of judgment as a reduction to first principles: first principles as these exist in grounding acts of sense and first principles as these exist in basic laws of the mind which are common to all human beings (to the degree that a given human being exists as a rational human being). As our thinking through understanding has moved from what we already know as something which is not questioned to something new which we think that now we know as a consequence of the questions which we have been asking, can any contradictions be found? Is our thinking in our understanding consistent with the demands of a first principle which says that it is impossible for something both to be and not be in the same way and at the same time? Are there any rational gaps in how we have moved from one bit of knowledge or understanding to another? And then, after engaging in a logical form of self-reflection, as we work back from the kind of understanding that is given to us in possible answers to what and why questions, can we point to a basis which refers to a datum of sense? Is there a grounding act of sense that each of us can possibly experience and which points to the verification of a proffered idea or theorem? In judgment, verification exists in a public way through acts which all persons should be able to participate in. As a reflective act of understanding, judgment always exists within individual persons. But, each individual should be able to refer to the same set of logical laws which all are to observe (they are common to all) and each individual should be able to experience the same acts of sense which move a potential knower to an awareness that experiences the same set of material conditions. From acts of sense our human cognition begins and toward acts of sense our cognition moves or concludes. A recurrent cycle or circuit is continually operative.


The reduction that we find in Aquinas finds a reflection in a similar kind of reduction which we find in Lonergan's understanding of judgment. In an act of reflective understanding, as Lonergan understood this species of act, one moves into a form of self-reflection which notes that something is true if certain conditions have been met, if certain conditions have been fulfilled. Among contingent things, things are true or things exist because certain conditions exist. Nothing exists in an absolute sense. Nothing exists in a manner which is wholly without prerequisite conditions. If one wants to talk about the existence of something which is wholly lacking in any contingency, then one must speak about God. Only God exists in an uncaused manner. Only God exists as an absolutely unconditioned. But, if one turns to the existence of conditioned things and if one asks about the truth of conditioned things, then one must speak about prospective acts of understanding in judgment which think about conditions and which say that, yes, this is true on the basis of these conditions and if they happen to be fulfilled. In judgment, one first notes that a relation exists between a conditioned and conditions. When we think about the possible truth of an idea or theory, one looks back and, as one attends to one's initial acts of understanding, one notes what relation exists between a conditioned and conditions. An “if…then” type of structure or order presents itself. Then, as one adverts to conditions, one turns to one's experience to see or to ask if it is possible to speak about fulfilled conditions. If something is true if and only if because a particular condition has been fulfilled or is given in some way and if, for instance, the condition is one's experience of a certain datum of sense, if one then notices in one's experiencing that one is experiencing the datum in question, then one can move into a rational affirmation which says that something is indeed the case. Something is so. An idea exists as more than an idea. It now exists as a truth (as a true idea). In the technical language which one finds in Lonergan's analysis, a true idea exists as a virtually unconditioned. An idea is conditionally true but its conditions happen to be fulfilled. In the transition which occurs as a person moves from the experience of a bright idea to an idea which is known to be true, a person participates in something which is real. In a cognitive manner, an identity exists between a knower and what is known by a knower. In every reflective act of understanding, a measure of self-transcendence takes a knower from a prior world of data and a later prior world of ideas into a world of real things (a world of real objects). A knower shares in a world which is greater than him or herself. This world ontologically or metaphysically differs from him or herself (philosophers speak about a real distinction which is other than a verbal difference or a difference which can exist between thoughts or concepts). But, through acts of self-transcendence that are present in human cognition, a knower enters into a universe of being. In a judgment, an existence of something is posited. An existence is known.


Between the universe of being or, more precisely, between the universe of being which is intended by human desires for understanding and knowledge and which is known in an piecemeal fashion by human acts of sensing, understanding, and judging, an ordered relation can thus be adverted when we think about a possible correspondence or a possible correlation which exists between one kind of cognitive act and a correlative which refers to a metaphysical element. In the analysis which one finds in Aquinas, Aquinas speaks about a proportionality which exists between human acts of cognition and a set of metaphysical principles which refer to what is known in a given kind of cognitive act. Put bluntly, human acts of experiencing are to be correlated with potency as a metaphysical principle; human acts of understanding are to be correlated with form as a second metaphysical principle; and human acts of judgment are to be correlated with act as a third metaphysical principle. Potency, form, and act exist as metaphysical principles while experiencing, understanding, and judging exist as cognitional principles. Aquinas speaks about a proportion between these two orders. The Latin refers to proportio. In the language which one finds in Lonergan, it is said that an isomorphic structure exists in the relation between the structure of human cognition and a parallel structure which refers to the order of being, the order of reality. An understanding about the structure of human cognition leads to an understanding about the structure of being or reality. From a critical understanding of human cognition, one moves to a verifiable metaphysics.


Please note in closing, however, that one must take great care in the language that one uses in speaking about this relation. When we speak about correspondence or correlation, we can begin to think in dualistic terms. Rather easily, we can begin to think in terms which assume that, in human knowing, a confrontation or an opposition exists between a knower and what is known. But, this is not the type of meaning which we should grasp with our understanding if we are going to understand why Aquinas speaks about an order of proportion between knowing and being and why, in turn, Lonergan speaks about an isomorphic relation within the context of his analysis. In human cognition, by the self-transcendence which exists in it and which is proper to it, a union exists between knowing and being. Being is greater than knowing although, at the same time, it has to be admitted that knowing participates in being which, to some degree, it always knows through the limited judgments that it is making at any given time. An overlap between knowing and being can be properly adverted to. Two kinds of being can be spoken about if we think about cognitional being and ontological being. If human cognition is not understood in terms of an identity which exists within it through the different kinds of acts which occur within it, then a severance is introduced between human cognition and metaphysics. The world of real objects or real things would exist in a manner that would be apart from human cognition. If a world of real objects exists, it would exist as an unknowable and if a world of real objects exists as an unknowable, there is no point in thinking that metaphysics exists as a legitimate science. One best attends to other things.