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It is an old proposal, put forward especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the principles and methods of natural science had been lately perfected and were being triumphantly applied to the investigation of the physical world.When Locke undertook his inquiry into that faculty of understanding which 'sets Man above the rest of sensible Beings, and gives him all the Advantage and Dominion which he has over them', the novelty of his project lay not in his desire for a knowledge of the human mind, but in his attempt to gain it by methods analogous to those of natural science : the collection of observed facts and their arrangement in classificatory schemes.Without some knowledge of himself, his knowledge of other things is imperfect: for to know something without knowing that one knows it is only a half-knowing, and to know that one knows is to know oneself.
It seems a fair enough proposal that, in setting out to understand the nature of our own mind, we should proceed in the same way as when we try to understand the world about us.
In studying the world of nature, we begin by getting acquainted with the particular things and particular events that exist and go on there ; then we proceed to understand them, by seeing how they fall into general types and how these general types are interrelated.
He certainly claimed that his own study of the understanding was something more than empirical ; it was to be a demonstrative science ; but then he held the same view concerning the science of nature ; for that also, according to him, has in it an a priori or demonstrative element, and is not based merely on experience.
It is evident that such a ( 207) attain even a tolerable approximation to the truth, could hope for results of extreme importance.
But this is open sophistry: first you say what the mind's nature is, and then you say that because it has this nature no one can know that it has it.
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Actually, the argument is a counsel of despair, based on recognizing that a certain attempted method of studying the mind has broken down, and on failure to envisage the possibility of any other.
It is true that the same Cartesian spirit which did so much for physics was already laying the foundations of critical method in history before the seventeenth century was out; but the modern conception of history as a study at once critical and constructive, whose field is the human past in its entirety, and whose method is the reconstruction of that past from documents written and unwritten, critically analysed and interpreted, was not established until the nineteenth, and is even yet not fully worked out in all its implications.
Thus history occupies in the world of to-day a position analogous to that occupied by physics in the time of Locke : it is recognized as a special and autonomous form of thought, lately established, whose possibilities have not yet been completely explored: And just as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were materialists, who argued from the success of physics in its own sphere that all reality was physical, so among ourselves the success of history has led some people to suggest that its methods are applicable to all the problems of knowledge, in other words, that all reality is historical. I think that those who assert it are making a mistake of the same kind which the materialists made in the seventeenth century.
Here I think they wrong themselves and their own science.
Claiming for it a sphere which it cannot effectively occupy, they belittle the work it has done and is doing in its proper field. There remains a third explanation : that the ` science of human nature' broke down because its method was distorted by the analogy of the natural sciences. It was no doubt inevitable that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dominated as they were by the new birth of physical science, the eternal problem of self-knowledge should take shape as the problem of constructing a science of human nature.