Are There Useful Errors?

Dennett has recently modified his position in respect of whether error can ever be beneficial. His initial line had been that truth as a component of knowledge is always the primary epistemic goal. While not abandoning truth altogether, he now argues that there are many situations in which truth and usefulness are not coextensive. This argument features prominently in the writings of Nietzsche. In this paper I will examine the extent to which Nietzsche is precursor of Dennett in this respect.

The central question that prima facie appears to require no consideration is whether we should seek the truth. It seems obvious that in our daily progress, anything other than an unswerving devotion to truth seeking would have the most severe and immediate consequences for all of our pragmatic aims. This seems to be just as much the case across the animal kingdom.

McKay and Dennett (“M&D”) argue that truth seeking may not constitute the entirety of the goals of a well-adapted organism. This argument is based on an evolutionary perspective. If the most adaptive beliefs are always the true ones, then the belief-forming mechanisms that we have will be the ones that have found the truth most often. Nietzsche’s line is more appropriately characterized by the phrase ‘one goal among many’ rather than ‘a major goal with some exceptions’ which would be more appropriate for M&D. First I will discuss the latest line of M&D and then I will consider Nietzsche’s views while at the same time covering the parallels with M&D.

1. The M&D Argument

1.1. Design Feature Argument

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The central view of M&D is that if there are adaptive goals other than truth, then we should expect these also to figure in the relevant belief forming mechanisms. This means simply that if there are benefits to false belief under certain circumstances, then we should now be such that those circumstances will produce false belief.

This may be for negative or positive reasons: I may wish to avoid some truths because they are damaging or otherwise unhelpful. Alternatively, if I benefit from believing some propositions falsely, because for example they assist me in forming a self-image that directly or indirectly enhances my reproductive success, then I ‘should’ so believe. The ‘should’ here is not normative; it merely indicates that if adaptive false belief mechanisms exist and are evolutionarily accessible to human cognition, then we will have them.

M&D begin by dividing false belief into two categories. The first category simply relates to situations where the subject has incomplete or inaccurate data. This is unavoidable and not philosophically interesting. The focus of the paper is entirely on the second category: scenarios in which the subject could have formed a correct belief. These deviations might be termed ‘design features’.

1.2. Biological ‘Design Faults’ Not Always Faults

Transferring to the biological domain, potentially beneficial faults are illustrated in the context of error management theory. This relies on asymmetries between the adaptive costs of false positives and false negatives. Where the cost of error is much higher in one direction, evolution will favour estimation in the direction of the less costly error. Note that this is not to abandon truth as an objective; merely to acknowledge that where there is unavoidable error, it may be better to err on the side of caution.

A familiar example of cost asymmetry from philosophy would be Pascal’s wager. He argues that the costs of error are very much larger in one direction (failure to believe when there is a deity) than the other (false belief when there is not).

A biological example of error management theory and how this cost asymmetry could play out is as follows. If an animal is in conflict for resources with others, it will need to assess its relative ability to prevail by force amongst the likely competitors. If it overestimates its own strength, it is likely to suffer severe adverse consequences in combat. The opposite error means that it avoids some combats it could have won, and thus does not gain some resources that were in fact available to it, but this outcome is much less severe. Thus in this case, the belief that animal A could not overcome animal B is both false and adaptive for animal A.

There is also an asymmetry with respect to ‘agent detection’; it is better to misidentify a rock as a bear than vice versa. So M&D have made out their case that there are many natural examples of cost asymmetries influencing systems away from a total adherence to truth.

An explanation of the imperfect nature of evolution is needed, to allow M&D to claim that the results of lengthy and intensive selective pressure on humans have not eliminated all real and apparent flaws in truth mapping. This is found by noting that selection can become trapped in local minima in design space; each incremental adaptation must itself be adaptive and there is no long-term perspective allowing penalties to be paid now in order to reach an optimal solution later.

1.3. Beneficial ‘Design Faults’ In The Context Of Beliefs About The Self

M&D extend these ideas into self-deception, by considering whether there are circumstances in which inaccurate beliefs about the self could be beneficial. The well-known ‘better-than-average’ effect is cited, where most people hold that view of themselves across many parameters, despite the fact that it is impossible in the context of the population and extremely unlikely in individual cases. Examples include AIDS patients who lived longer if they had unrealistic expectations of likely remaining lifespan or further, complete ignored or denied their status. In addition, various forms of the placebo effect are well documented, even in relation to surgery.

The important qualification is made that it is not to be expected that adaptive false beliefs be generated by a mechanism that is ‘designed’ to produce false beliefs, because such a mechanism could not itself be adaptive. Rather, adaptive false beliefs will be by-products of normally reliable systems operating out of their usual domain or fast heuristics evolved to deal with the many situations where a quick semi-accurate decision is better than a slow and more accurate one. The latter example represents an evolutionary mechanism that would produce ungrounded beliefs. To the extent these are harmless, they will not be selected out; even less so if they happen to be beneficial.

Once a mechanism like this has been made plausible, a self-limiting device must be found in order to avoid predicting that humans would be fantasists convinced of their own abilities to leap tall buildings. M&D therefore observe that once the delusions of self-performance grow too distant from reality, they will become dangerous.

1.4. Genetic Fallacy In Relation To The Eye

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There is an ironically false claim in the M&D paper that I believe makes an error of a type in which Nietzsche was most interested. M&D criticise Fodor for his objection that an understanding of evolution would not allow us to distinguish evolved features from accidental by-products. Fodor is committed to saying that it is not true to say that eyes are for seeing and bird wings are for flying, although it is true to say this of aeroplane wings.

But Fodor is exactly right to say that the eye is not for seeing in the sense that the first step in its evolution, thought to be development of a light-sensitive area of skin, did not occur with the eventual aim of vision in mind. This is true a fortiori because there is no such mind, but additionally, no evolutionary mechanism exists to allow this. Each evolved step must pay its own way. The response of M&D fails for this reason; moreover their line is in conflict with their stated line elsewhere that false beliefs can arise as side effects only. That the eye is now used for seeing is irrelevant; Fodor and M&D are using the word for in different senses.

This is an example of what Nietzsche called the genetic fallacy, most prominently considered in On the Genealogy of Morality . He means that there is no reason to believe that the original cause for the emergence of a particular biological or cultural feature must be the same as its current use, and in fact given the elapsed time, this is unlikely.

2. Nietzsche’s Views And Their Similarities To M&D

Origin Of Knowledge

Nietzsche’s most clear statement of his overall position in this respect comes in an eponymous section: “throughout immense stretches of time the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them proved to be useful and preservative of the species: he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.” Nietzsche does not put the word ‘knowledge’ in quotation marks; so he may be seen as accepting the non-standard view that ‘knowledge’ can be false. We can most easily comprehend him here to be referring to ‘knowledge’ as commonly understood; i.e. some of what people think of as true and as being part of knowledge is in fact false.

It is important to note that Nietzsche identifies two mechanisms by which this could happen. One might fall into error culturally by picking up the habits of others. One might also inherit errors. This biological term could be understood culturally, but it also provides a clear link to the M&D claim that false belief mechanisms can be adaptive.

Useful Blindness About Oneself

Nietzsche is sympathetic to the view that the world of perception is an illusory flux hiding an unchangeable invisible interior; the Eleatics, Schopenhauer and Kant held similar views. In particular, Nietzsche claims that in order to avoid succumbing to the error of believing in fixed objects, the Eleatics needed to “deceive themselves concerning their own condition: they had to attribute to themselves impersonality and unchanging permanence, they had to mistake the nature of the philosophic individual, deny the force of the impulses in cognition, and conceive of reason generally as an entirely free and self-originating activity”.

There is a Sartrean feel to this argument, which holds as he did that we pretend that our characters are fixed and that our choices are limited to as not to be overwhelmed by the ‘nausea’ resulting from the realisation of the fact that we have absolute freedom at every moment. There is nothing in reality that gives us a fixed identity or requires us to do what we have previously decided to do. There is also a very clear recognition by Nietzsche that a denial of the truth that reasoning has partisan ends is necessary to allow one to pursue it in the belief that it will produce impartial results.

The existence of a self is a pre-requisite to the idea of self-deception; though of course there is a further Sartre/Freud paradox in the vicinity of the question as to who is deceiving whom in such circumstances. M&D’s related discussions extend beyond the delusional and yet healthier AIDS patients to those who gain from self-deception about themselves: college lecturers, students and drivers who think that they are better than average. They even note that people think of themselves as less prone to self-deception than others! There is perhaps an echo in Nietzsche of the various placebo errors when he writes of “a melancholy invalid, who, in order to forget his present condition, writes the history of his youth”.

Alchemy As Prelude To Science

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Nietzsche notes the importance of beginning from falsely conceived projects in order to motivate more realistic approaches: “Prelude to Science. Do you believe then that the sciences would have arisen and grown up if the sorcerers, alchemists, astrologers and witches had not been their fore-runners[?]”. This means that the desire for power could have arisen before the means of satisfying it could be properly constructed and the failed attempts motivated the better ones and facilitated them by the nature of their falsity. M&D touch on Dawkins’ meme idea , whereby a natural selection mechanism for cultural items is posited. Those beliefs including fitness enhancing elements such as religions including punishment for non-belief would survive; alchemy and similar pre-sciences would fail via lack of predictive power.

Nietzsche later discusses the role of hypotheses in science, which are of necessity not true at the time they are selected, the impossibility of a pre-suppositionless science, which must nevertheless be assumed possible and how the value of truth must be affirmed without warrant: “the question whether truth is necessary, must not merely be affirmed beforehand, but must be affirmed to such an extent that the principle, belief, or conviction finds expression, that ‘there is nothing more necessary than truth, and in comparison with it everything else has only secondary value.’ ”

Necessary Error

Nietzsche praises criticism and the illusion that we change our minds for impartial reasons: “something now appears to thee as an error which thou formerly lovedst as a truth, or as a probability: thou pushest it from thee and imaginest that thy reason has there gained a victory”. The biblical flavour of the terminology immediately suggests here that Nietzsche has religion in mind as a candidate for a beneficial false belief, though we should note that this may be a translation artefact: the Nauckhoff translation modernises this section. M&D discuss at length the various arguments that may be summarised as ‘no atheists in foxholes’; they also consider the idea that supernatural beliefs may be exaptations of theory of mind capabilities, themselves extremely adaptive.

Monkeys And Error Asymmetry

In the context of discussing how people wish to be prophets without understanding the concomitant difficulties, Nietzsche retails a parable concerning monkeys before a storm: “these animals then behave as if an enemy were approaching them, and prepare for defence, or flight: they generally hide themselves, they do not think of the bad weather as weather, but as an enemy whose hand they already feel”.

While one should not make too much of the biological nature of this example, it does indicate that Nietzsche has a good understanding of how in the natural world, it may be better to behave as if. The parallel to M&D would be to their argument on error management theory and asymmetry when it is better to mistake a boulder for a bear than vice versa. The monkeys are better off by behaving as if the storm were a physical enemy approaching.

See Also:

Leibniz’s Arguments For Monads: A Summary

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Nozick’s Claim That Knowledge Is Truth-tracking: A Critical Evaluation


R McKay, University of Zurich and D Dennett, Tufts University, The Evolution of Misbelief, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press), Cambridge University Press 2009
F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998
F Nietzsche, The Gay Science,, (“GS”) III, s110
GS III, s110
R Dawkins, The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press 2006


Nietzsche’s Account Of Truth

We first need to understand what theory of truth Nietzsche favours. There are two prima facie candidates: a correspondence theory and a pragmatic theory. I will outline what those theories are and show how he cannot be seen as a whole-hearted adherent of either. Rejection of both of those options leads to examination of Nietzsche’s perspectivism, and his aims in pursuing it.

What are the two primary theories? Correspondence theories of truth are tripartite; they will generally define a truth-bearer, a truth-maker and an appropriate relationship between the two. A truth-bearer would typically be a proposition, a truth-maker would typically be a fact in the world, and if the proposition corresponds to the fact, then the proposition is true.

A pragmatic theory on the other hand, will say that the truth is what works. This appears much less useful at first, because it seems to allow no defence against relativism. If someone believes in Santa Claus for the emotional benefits, one would have to allow the existence of that festive individual. However, noting that much of science proceeds on a variant of this basis, allows us to approach a stronger version. Here, predictive capability is key. If a theory makes better predictions than its rivals, then it more nearly approaches the truth.

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Nietzsche begins his consideration of these questions by noting the strangeness of the fact that humans seek truth at all. After all, there is an immense asymmetry: the truth-bearers can only figure as mental elements in transient beings while the truth-makers exceed those beings in all dimensions. The human intellect viewed in the context of nature is “insubstantial and transitory, […] purposeless and arbitrary”.

This makes a number of very modern points. The mental may or may not be reducible to the physical, but certainly we do not observe physical minds. Each individual mind persists for a microsecond when viewed from the perspective of cosmic time. Our intellects have evolved solely in order to keep us alive, which aim is itself not grounded in any particular overriding aim. An understanding of the stars is of no relevance to survival, and so it is remarkable that we are able to achieve any element of such understanding. The addition of cognition to certain creatures for a certain time seems also to lack reason.

Under these circumstances, how could Nietzsche possibly support anything other than a pragmatic theory? Given such an all-encompassing list of severe limitations of the human intellect, how could one pretend to use such an unimpressive instrument to achieve any correspondence with the majesty of the external? And why should one even try when it may offer no advantage. McKay and Dennett give an array of practical disadvantages of knowing the truth, including loss of the placebo effect and the view that optimal mental health is associated with delusionally positive self-beliefs.

Further apparent evidence for Nietzsche favouring a pragmatic theory over a correspondence theory emerges from consideration of his ideas on the origination of the intellect. It must help us survive, and it must do so in social contexts: “[a]s a means for the preservation of the individual, the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals”. By this, Nietzsche simply points out that it is advantageous to lie, and the best liars are those who believe their own falsehoods.

And yet this is really a pragmatic theory of belief, not a pragmatic theory of truth. Nietzsche holds that what works is a good guide to what people will believe, but this in fact contradicts the idea that what works is true: people can really only lie in correspondence theories.

So what does Nietzsche say about correspondence theories? His question: “[i]s there a perfect match between things and their designations?” introduces his discussion. His answer is that even believing this requires forgetting the unbridgeable gap between phenomena and things-in-themselves. A correspondence could never occur, because “[w]hat is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds.” On this view, all we could ever do is correlate similar sense data, label them and observe correlations between the occurrences of the labels.

Thus we do not appear to see Nietzsche subscribing to either a pragmatic theory of truth or a correspondence theory of truth. What does he say when confronting the question directly? The following: “[w]hat then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike people as firmly established, canonical and binding”.

Here we can begin to see the source of our difficulties in interpreting Nietzsche’s views on truth. This paragraph appears to be a ringing expression of support for a pragmatic theory. And yet, once again, it is in fact not to be taken as such. Nietzsche is not here discussing absolute truth; he instead means ‘truth as people take it to be’. The entire line here is an echo of Hume’s contention that we tend to identify items that are in fact associated but not the same.

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Nietzsche illustrates this by using the term metaphor instead of simile; we may use the metaphor ‘she is a rose’ when in fact we are only really licensed as far as the simile ‘she is like a rose’, which is already rather stretched. In any case, the import here would be ‘she shares a characteristic with a rose’; extending this to the relation between words and objects makes the correspondence theory much less plausible for Nietzsche. We cannot even manage to arrange for our words to match each other let alone the impenetrably shrouded things in themselves.

Likewise with metonymy, which idea covers a quite astonishingly wide array of methods whereby we routinely take one thing for a quite different thing. This might be a part for the whole, as in ‘headcount’ for total number of people, or a building for a function, as in ‘White House’ for the US Federal government. And the reference to anthropomorphism suggests our unceasing tendencies to see everywhere ourselves, complete with motivations and behaviours: since we are not everywhere and not in external items, this cannot be correct.

Worse, there is no standard for the meaning of each individual word. All language is poetry. The resonances in the mind two people hearing the same word will be vastly different depending on their experiences. Even a simple word naming a concrete object where no one disagrees on the referent will have this effect. Imagine the response to the word ‘cat’ evoked in someone who was injuriously scratched by a cat at a very young age, and the difference in someone who spends all their free time with a much-loved pet. Reference to this lack of standardisation is Nietzsche’s intention when he mentions poetics.

Once the army has ceased its mobility and entrenched itself, its resting places appear fixed and canonical: it is no coincidence that Nietzsche indicates his mistrust by employing a clerical term. One obvious problem for Nietzsche is that absent a correspondence theory of truth, he cannot make any statements about the world – at least, not ones that he expects us to relate to the world as it actually is. There is thus nothing in the world that corresponds to will to power, for example, even though he claims that this is what the world fundamentally is. He could alternately claim on a pragmatic basis that it is useful to assume that there is a will to power, even if it is false. But he surely wants to say more than that. His response to this trilemma will be perspectivism: he will say that multiple readings of the world are unavoidable and also essential and also all valid.

This term perspectivism is most simply understood as meaning the embrace of multiple perspectives; and is often resisted as the best place from which to oppose relativism. If there is a view from nowhere, then one view is privileged and objectively correct. If not, then anything is allowed. We should be careful to note though that Nietzsche can allow multiple perspectives without apportioning them all equal value. And to the extent that the multiple of perspectives are those of different people, it would be profoundly contrary to his firmly anti-democratic views for him to allow any such thing.

Strong makes the following suggestion for Nietzsche’s project in pursuing perspectivism: it is “Nietzsche’s attempt at replacing epistemology with an understanding of the self and of knowledge that does not posit any particular position (or self) as final.” Nietzsche has two approaches to argue for perspectivism. The first is via the denial of the unitary self, which he does using the very Schopenhauerian line that true self-knowledge because, by analogy, the eye cannot see itself. The fictional nature of the putative single viewpoint means that avoiding multiple perspectives is impossible. Secondly there is the Nachlass claim that this is not only unavoidable but preferable: Nietzsche writes “[t]he wisest man would be the richest in contradictions”.

This paradox again flirts with relativism, but we need not interpret it as meaning that all views are as good as each other. The wise man may instead possess the type of riches that means he can choose from among a wide range of perspectives. Of course, ‘choice’ is a loaded word here. While there may not be a single correct perspective, some may offer more value than others, and being in possession of a larger range may allow for the construction of better selection criteria for use among the views. These criteria may themselves include consideration of what they allow and what they exclude from the other perspectives. Once again, we must note the importance of not equating this with the democratic idea that if a view is widely held, it must be better: such a line would be anathema for Nietzsche who seeks rather some “grandiose harmony” of multiple views.

We should note how consonant this is with Nietzsche’s general opposition to binary oppositions, itself a claim not remote from paradox. His purpose in many of his works, notably GM , is not merely to attack the standard pairings that many assume: good/evil, true/false, subject/object, but to overthrow the entire system that includes such pairings. He is opposed not merely to a particular morality, but to all possible moralities; he opposes even nihilism because even the negation of morality is a type of morality. On this basis, he could scarcely be advocating multiple perspectives in order to find the one that is true. This is exactly not the aim, as pointed out by Schacht: “Nietzsche derives his models and metaphors from various sources […] precisely in order to play them off against each other, and to avoid becoming locked into any one […] of them”.

The value in truth on any model may be as a test of strength. Facing the indifference of the universe alone and unblinking may be too difficult for most individuals. From BGE : “It might be a basic character of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much ‘truth’ one could still barely endure”. Perhaps the perspectivist position offers two benefits here. It may alleviate the intensity of the raw truth by allowing that other views are possible if, say, the scientific picture of the distance between galaxies is too oppressive and diminishing of our precious selves. And secondly, perhaps it allows some strength in numbers to be accessed by carrying within itself a reminder that other individuals are looking at the same vastness with us as well as in different ways.

There may be a self-refutation problem with perspectivism. From which privileged single perspectice could it be seen as true or the right approach? Nietzsche’s response to this is to admit the point: he is not advocating perspectivism, merely stating that it is the case; an inevitable consequence of the multiplicity of selves. One piece of evidence for this may be seen – parodoxically as ever – from Nietzsche’s purpose in writing his autobiography.

We know from TSZ that we are to turn away from all prophets, including Zarathustra himself. Once we have rejected them and all their teachings, they may come back to us. Nietzsche’s ostensible project in writing Ecce Homo is dual. The phrase is that used by Pilate at the trial of Christ: thus Nietzsche sets himself up as a prophet. The message of the prophet in Ecce Homo derives from the description of a life as a unified whole. ‘Nietzsche’ appears singularly and with clarity in the text.

So the subtext is that all of this is to be negated. All of Nietzsche’s texts call themselves into question and the grand summary of all of them and his life is no exception. The irony in the various headings ‘Why I am So Clever’ and ‘Why I am so Wise” is unmistakable: we are supposed to react against it.

There is no one called ‘Nietzsche’. There are many, as many as there are readers. And far more, for each reader is multiplied. And there are many texts, many for each reader and many more for each reader at different times. The only name for this hermeneutical hall of mirrors is perspectivism: not as a truth, but as a solution.

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“Does not one write books precisely to conceal what one harbours?” harbours its own truth precisely via the paradox of the liar. If the answer is yes, it is also no. The concealment hides a shape, which we can divine only from multiple sides and different visions.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

#Proust On #Memory

Nietzsche on Memory: Conclusion

Does Schopenhauer Show How Altruism Is Possible?


F Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense, in The Birth of Tragedy And Other Writings, Eds. R Geuss and R Speirs, Cambridge University Press, 1999 (“BT”), p. 141
R T McKay & D C Dennett, The Evolution of Misbelief, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press)
T Strong, Text and Pretexts: Reflections on Perspectivism in Nietzsche, Political Theory, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 164-182, Published by: Sage Publications, Inc., Stable URL:
F Nietzsche, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, eds. G Colli, M Montinari, de Gruyter, 1968, (“KGA”), VII 2, pp. 179-80
F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998
B Magnus and K Higgins, eds., Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 166, orig, emp.
F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, s. 39
F Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2005
F Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,
KGA, VI, 2, 244


Schopenhauer: Altruism

Does Schopenhauer Show How Altruism Is Possible?

No. But why should he? He does attempt to, and succeeds to an extent, but only by adjusting the meaning in a radical fashion. I will show how Schopenhauer does this and how it matches with his overall system. The accommodation means that believers in altruism will not recognise the version supported by Schopenhauer. I will also examine why Schopenhauer might have been motivated to pursue such an argument at variance with the spirit of his philosophy.

Let us first examine the definition.

“al·tru·ism n.

1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.

2. Zoology Instinctive behaviour that is detrimental to the individual but favours the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives.”

Examples of definition one are not observed. Occasionally one comes across apparently altruistic behaviours; this is merely indicative of a lack of information in respect of motivation.

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All behaviour benefits the individual or may be expected to. Wealthy people pay for expensive equipment in hospitals in order to gain the approbation of society and fast track admittance for friends and family. Undergraduates attend demonstrations in order to indicate their political commitment and enhance their opportunities to engage with ‘like-minded’ and attractive others: in fact, “fitness enhancing group effects may become common in sexual populations”. Busy workers buy The Big Issue in order that they may carry it around the office all day to illustrate their fine conscience. Religious people perform charitable duties as the price of eternal admission to paradise. Even in the case of an anonymous donation, the individual may expect to benefit by way of an improvement in self-perception.

This is borne out by definition two, which appears to be in tension with definition one in a crucial way. Definition two admits that there is an expected reward, but shifts the benefit in an interesting way. From an evolutionary perspective, we would expect exactly this: that behaviours are observed which benefit primarily oneself but also to a reduced but significant extent those carrying the same genes. In fact, what is observed is that this cooperation is finely modulated to the extent of the consanguinity. So if we extend the sense of ‘individual’ to mean those (partially) sharing a particular genotype, we arrive at a good match with definition one.

All of this appears explicable and indeed unavoidable on Schopenhauer’s system. After all, Auguste Comte coined the very word altruism relatively recently, probably by way of opposition to egoism. This latter term is one that Schopenhauer sees as a central motivating factor: a man “is ready to annihilate the world, in order to maintain his own self […] This disposition is egoism, which is essential to everything in nature”.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer also sees room for a variant of compassion. The word ‘altruism’ does not appear in The World as Will and Representation. “Mitleid” does, and may be translated literally as ‘with-pain’ or more idiomatically as compassion or perhaps pity. We may therefore investigate this compassion as a surrogate for altruism, since Schopenhauer’s definition is as follows: “Compassion; which desires the weal of others, and may rise to nobleness and magnanimity”. This has the additional benefit that we will be investigation a phenomenon that does exist as opposed to one which does not.

The way in which the scope shift in the second part of the dictionary entry harmonised the two parts suggests how he will account for compassion. If we write the opposed pair egoism and altruism in plain English, we have really ‘self-ism’ and ‘other-ism’. Schopenhauer’s radical approach will be to derive from his metaphysics a different and unusual delineation of what is self and what is other.

“But it is precisely through egoism that the will’s inner conflict with itself attains to such fearful revelation, for this egoism has its continuance and being in that opposition of the microcosm and macrocosm, or in the fact that the objectification of the will has for its form the principium individuationis, and thus the will manifests itself in innumerable individuals in the same way”.

Schopenhauer’s largely Kantian metaphysics involves transcendental idealism; we have the division between the phenomenal world we can perceive and the noumenal world we cannot. We apply time and space in the former realm, and since those are the only qualities that can provide separation, the noumenal realm has unity. This noumenal realm for Schopenhauer is the will, and it is our failure to perceive the oneness of the will and the illusory nature of individuality that leads to egoism and indeed makes it possible.

In referring to the conflict of the will with itself, Schopenhauer means the way apparently different individuals fight each other for all kinds of resources including at the very basic level material ones necessary to be embodied and continued. This happens at all grades of the will’s objectification including that of inanimate objects. This points to a difficulty with both Schopenhauer’s proposed route to salvation, the denial of the will, and also with his explanation of compassion.

For the former project appears to involve the will being in conflict with itself within an individual, to the extent that I am advised to will to cease willing. Perhaps Schopenhauer can respond by saying that this tension is just another feature of the illusory nature of individuals. We must also deny the will that seeks only the continuance of the individual to assist others; yet who are these others if there are no individuals? And “A theory of morals which does act as a motive can do so only by working on self-love”. If this is so, then does not weakening the idea of the self also decrease the effectiveness of the prescription? The answer is that “such virtue must spring from that intuitive knowledge which recognises in the individuality of others the same nature as in our own”.

How is this argued for? Schopenhauer first notes that virtue cannot be taught or communicated in words, because otherwise the many ethical theories produced since Aristotle would have changed the character of people. And knowledge or persuasion could not work, because reason and the intellect are subordinate to the will and merely its instruments. Moral slogans may act only as rationalisations of virtuous behaviour. And yet, “The principium individuationis, the form of the phenomenon, no longer holds him so tightly in its grasp, but the suffering which he sees in others touches him almost as closely as his own.”

This can now be motivated by suggesting that compassion is possible because it is beneficial: “through the diminished interest in our own self, the anxious care for the self is attacked at its very root and limited”. Thus we see compassion as a form of insurance contract, necessitated by the unavoidable shocks and dangers to which individuals are exposed, and rationally purchased by those expecting a continuation of the hostility of the world as it is. Once we have expanded the scope of the self to include multiple manifestations, then while one of them may suffer and indeed die, other manifestations may continue.

Whether this is true or false does not alter the fact that it is not altruism. It is risk sharing. It does have the explanatory benefit that it accounts for apparent examples of altruistic behaviour. Yet this is a double-edged sword. If “the same inner human nature ultimately bears all of the pain and all of the guilt” , then why may I not indulge myself in an enjoyable orgy of destruction and pleasure at the expense of others, since I am only borrowing money from myself, as it were, and further I will pay the price in terms of guilt and perhaps retribution in any case. And I will not worry about retribution; in fact I will welcome it as an opportunity to mortify my own will.

The previous mention of retribution leads us to the question of Schopenhauer’s difficult to understand motivation for constructing this argument and this will draw out a central paradox. The World as Will and Representation must be one of the most religious books ever written by an atheist. Retribution for wealthy unmarried philosophers is to be expected only from divine sources, surely, providing they avoid pushing noisy cleaning women downstairs. In the absence of such divine authority, Schopenhauer must have felt the need to found good behaviour on a stronger platform.

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It remains strange to see encouragement to negate the will because the person who does “is certain of all virtue and blessedness, and is on the direct road to salvation”. Although we should note that the Payne translation has ‘bliss’ for ‘blessedness’, these are all strongly religious terms. Who will give us this bliss and by whom will we be blessed or saved? Schopenhauer has been admirably outspoken as an atheist writing at times when this was still severely frowned upon and worse: “Cayetano Ripoll, a school teacher put to death in 1826 at Valencia, is the last person in Spanish history to be executed on charges of heresy.” Nevertheless, perhaps he lacked the full courage of his convictions. The solitude, suffering and futility that he saw clearly in all directions need some amelioration.

The lives of saints are held up for admiration; but not for the religious observance that is clearly pointless in the absence of a deity (or indeed either way). But this happens in the most extraordinary fashion: “Fanatics, martyrs, saints of every faith and name, have voluntarily and gladly endured every torture, because in them the will to live had suppressed itself.” These are the people we should emulate. In every case, their reasons for their action were false, but Schopenhauer nevertheless believes they were taking the right path.

Saints have a place because it is asceticism that is Schopenhauer’s final destination. The looked-for amelioration is to come via noting that the will is the source of all disquiet. It can never be satisfied. The lives of the great majority of people are filled with struggle to maintain the barest existence; this is as true today globally as when Schopenhauer was writing. For the fortunate and small minority who can escape hunger or drudgery, the terrible punishment of boredom beckons. “Solitary confinement and idleness” are the most terrible punishments imaginable.

We can escape this wheel of Ixion only by quieting the will and embracing asceticism. Schopenhauer knows he cannot persuade us to do this unless he first persuades us of the lack of significance of the individual. This brings out another major difficulty at the heart of Schopenhauer’s reasoning. He has two central ethical doctrines, and they are incompatible. The first, as we have seen, is that morality is based on compassion. Secondly, as we have seen, we are to renounce the will.

But Schopenhauer is a hard determinist like Kant. On that basis, how is any ethics possible? How should we understand his praise for certain actions and condemnation of others? But most importantly, how are we to renounce the will? And how are we to exercise compassion? There are no choices at all open to us, and so, a fortiori, none of these are choices that are open to us. Note how in the previous quotation the will was to suppress itself. Some of us will no doubt be fortunate enough to be the individual manifestations in which it chooses to do this.

Schopenhauer uses the same escape route as Kant here, placing the necessity of determinism in the phenomenal world and the freedom of the will in the noumenal world. Yet since the noumenal is untouched by the principium individuationis, how is my will free? Why am I to be praised or blamed for my actions, if it is not my will but everyone’s, and why counselled in any direction? In short, given Schopenhauer’s worldview, why does anything at all we do in the world matter? Of the man who has renounced the will, Schopenhauer writes “nothing can trouble him more, nothing can move him, for he has cut all the thousand cords of will”. In which case, what scope is there for the existence of compassion or even stirring oneself sufficiently to notice the suffering of others?

And what does compassion mean, should I somehow manage to embrace it? If I observe a family alternately starving or suffering from boredom while I am in possession of adequate means to supply plentiful bread and circuses, what should I do? Surely my best course of action is to assist them in renouncing their wills by taking no action. I will be helping them to welcome suffering by giving them practice.

Schopenhauer’s desire to lead us to asceticism misleads him. This is why he attempts to explain compassion when it would have been simpler and more in accord with his system to deny it. After all, a biographer will conceal the misfortunes that make up a life since “he knows that others can seldom feel sympathy or compassion, but almost always satisfaction at the sight of the woes from which they are themselves for the moment exempt”.

Likewise, compassion remains deeply mysterious yet fundamental for him, as he admits: “the sense of Compassion, however much its origin is shrouded in mystery, is the one and sole cause whereby the suffering I see in another, of itself, and as such, becomes directly my motive”.

Nietzsche is impatient with this entire analysis, which he considers mistaken historically and psychologically. He points out that not only are there other possible motives for apparently compassionate actions, but that we could not even be certain when we had pure motives, because we do not have sufficient insight into our own subconscious. “For all we know, Nietzsche suggests, it might be that honour, fear, self-defence, or revenge moved us to help the sufferer even though we believe that some desire solely for the other’s well-being moved us to help.” Nietzsche will also suggest plausibly that disrespect is a component of compassionate actions; this would disqualify it from playing the role Schopenhauer casts it in, and be much more consistent with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic outlook. Why should the endless suffering of the world not be compounded by Sartre’s hell that is other people in this way?

Schopenhauer has not shown how altruism is possible, he should not try because it does not happen, and in any case, he could not produce such a demonstration within his system.

See Also:

Are Sense Data The Primary Objects Of Perceptual Awareness?

Nietzsche’s Account Of Truth

Are There Useful Errors?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Joel R. Peck, Sex Causes Altruism. Altruism Causes Sex. Maybe, Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol. 271, No. 1543 (May 22, 2004), pp. 993-1000, Published by: The Royal Society
Origin: 1850–55; < F altruisme, equiv. to autru(i) others; popularized through trans. of A. Comte, who perh. coined it, on the model of égoisme egoism, Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.
A Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, Trans. E Payne, Dover Publications Inc., 1969 (“WWR”), p. 332 (original emphasis)
A Schopenhauer, The basis of morality, Tr. A B Bullock, Macmillan Co., 1915, p. 172 (“TBM”)
WWR, p. 332 (original emphasis)
R Wicks, Arthur Schopenhauer, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
H Schomer, Review of Religious Freedom in Spain: Its Ebb and Flow by J D Hughey, Jr., Church History, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Dec., 1958), pp. 382-383, Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History
D E Cartwright, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche on the Morality of Pity, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1984), pp. 83-98, Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?

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Prima facie, this question appears to have a straightforward answer; surely one can judge merely from the names Nietzsche has chosen that he favors the former over the latter. However, the picture is more complex than that. While he frequently uses scornful terms of slave morality, he also sees it as at least a cunning striving for power, which he is forced to admire to some extent.

Master morality has some of the characteristics of being a self-generating force of nature, which paradoxically makes it admirable and not admirable at the same time. It would be admirable because it does not exhibit the weakness of reference to the external; and yet by this same token it shows itself almost as something automatic and an inevitable consequence of how things are. We do not admire a tree for being a tree; it has no choice in the matter.

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On balance however, the weight of Nietzsche’s contempt for slave morality is decisive. It is nevertheless too simple to argue that this entails that he favors master morality.

Nietzsche has a clear historical analysis of how the two moralities evolved. Examination of the terminology he uses will be useful in assessing which of the moralities he favours. Master morality emerges first, with slave morality being a reaction to it.

Master morality is the domain of the strong; it is “knightly-aristocratic”, appropriate to a “warrior caste” in possession of “powerful physicality” devoted to “war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and, in general, everything which involves strong, free, happy action”. Its exponents exercise their privileges without concern for the consequences; they are almost extra-moral or pre-moral. They come closest to the purest expression of the will-to-power, which is Nietzsche’s variant on Schopenhauer’s view of the noumenal.

Slave morality emerges as a response and in the form of an alternate power structure. There will be some members of the privileged classes who are unable to maintain their position by exercise of physical strength because they do not possess it. These will be the priests, who “are the most evil of enemies—[…] [b]ecause they are the most powerless”. Since they are unable to impose themselves, their resentment is repressed, generates hatred, and is turned inwards, as opposed to being expended on the world.

The development of slave morality proceeds by an inversion of values: “only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the low are the only good people”. This is illustrated with an example from nature of lambs and birds preying upon them. Nietzsche agrees that it will be highly natural for the lambs to both resent the predations of the stronger, and identify the negation of such predation as good. And yet “[t]o demand from strength that it does not express itself as strength […] is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength”.

Nietzsche regards the Jews as responsible for the revolt that created slave morality. If it were then the case that he could be convicted of anti-Semitism, then we would have an argument that he held slave morality in disfavor. While there is a general view that Nietzsche is in fact anti-Semitic, this has more to do with the misuse by his sister of writings that he had not himself chosen to publish, and his posthumous adoption by the Nazis. Regarding Nietzsche himself as a Nazi seems to require further evidence, when we note that Nietzsche was insane in 1889, dead in 1900 and Hitler was not elected Chancellor until 1933. But as Tracy Strong reminds us, anti-Semitic contemporaries complained of Nietzsche making negative judgments about anti-Semites, and he also viewed the entire outlook as being driven by ressentiment.

There are complex loops of self-reference here. Ressentiment is Nietzsche’s special term for that source and product of slave morality that impotently hates the powerful. An analytical problem is produced in that if it is true that Nietzsche opposed anti-Semitism, then one of his reasons for doing so could have been that he also disfavored those who expressed ressentiment, which would then be capable of extension into the view that he disfavors slave morality. Then there is an inconsistency problem to the extent that if he disfavors slave morality, then he might be expected to be open to anti-Semitism on the grounds that he ought to oppose those he holds responsible for the introduction of a disfavored development.

Under these circumstances, we can only let Nietzsche speak for himself. In response to her marriage plans, Nietzsche wrote to his sister “[y]our association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy”. So it seems that Nietzsche is not a generic anti-Semite, even though he does appear to blame the Jews for what he says they did historically.

Therefore we must look elsewhere for evidence as to Nietzsche’s favor or disfavor of slave morality. And we again come up against apparent inconsistency. The revaluation of values that constituted the slave revolt was a “huge and immeasurably disastrous initiative”. And yet, “[h]uman history would be a really stupid affair without that spirit which entered it from the powerless”.

These two statements can only be reconciled if we note Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism “what does not kill him, makes him stronger”. Thus, the introduction of slave morality, while disastrous, did provide something against which to struggle. And the struggle itself makes people strong. Also, because those partaking of slave morality cannot use force, they must use patience and cunning to prevail: “[a] race of such men of ressentiment will necessarily end up cleverer than any noble race.”

We must note here that the Clark translation has ‘more prudent’ for ‘cleverer’. This is feasible in terms of the sense of the sentence and consistent with Nietzsche’s view at this point, but is in my view not an optimal translation of klüger, which is the word used by Nietzsche. In evidence for this, I note the usage “aus jdm. nicht klug werden”, meaning to be unable to figure someone out. This is scarcely comprehensible with prudence, becoming prudent about someone is much less smooth a fit to ‘figuring them out’ than becoming clever about them. In any case, the key point here is that Nietzsche allows that die Klugheit is a virtue and that those partaking of slave morality will of necessity develop this virtue.

Nietzsche is passionately opposed to democracy, equality and utilitarianism. We should not try to raise everyone to the same level, because this inevitably involves penalizing the best. All rules applied generally will harm some. The institution of a level playing field is disadvantageous for those who can score goals against the slope. The function of the bulk of humanity is to serve as adjuncts to those rare geniuses that can advance culture. Opposing this on equality grounds is to think, falsely, “as though slavery were a counterargument, and not rather a condition of every higher culture, of every elevation of culture”. Nietzsche is here writing of women, but this does not detract from the point that for Nietzsche, some subjugation is necessary and beneficial.

There is an interesting parallel to Heidegger, which proves instructive because on close inspection, it is the same question and the same ambiguity, and it derives in Heidegger from Nietzsche. Heidegger claims in his evaluation of ‘fallenness’ that “the term does not express any negative evaluation”. There is much discussion as to the extent to which he can be taken seriously in this claim, because he then treats the concept with undisguised contempt.

For Heidegger, fallenness means the tendency of social creatures to absorb passively the culture, mores and behaviors of society without analyzing them, without a critical approach. This is “guided by idle talk”, “inauthentic”, “tempting and tranquillizing” and represents a “downward plunge” into “groundlessness and nullity”. Heidegger’s only countervailing line is to accept that there is a certain inevitability to fallenness.

All of this is exactly parallel to the question at hand about Nietzsche, and this is so because in fact it is the same question. For what is fallenness for Heidegger other than the unavoidable and yet undesirable ascent of slave morality? Both philosophers see clearly the unfortunate effects of this slavishness and yet neither quite manage to be inhumane enough to condemn what the herd seems incapable of escaping.

Nietzsche’s least ambiguous attack on slave morality comes in the third treatise of GM, where he deals with asceticism. His total distrust of that part of Schopenhauer’s recommendation for nullifying the will reflects his identification of the central paradox in Schopenhauer, “an attempt is being made to use one’s power to block up the sources of that power”. While this is less immediately contradictory than a simple concept of the type ‘use of energy to destroy itself’, it remains ultimately self-defeating. This is because the power being used to attack its own sources will be weakened precisely to the extent that it is successful.

And here we learn Nietzsche’s unambiguously negative views on the priests who are the embodiments of asceticism and who are only made possible by slave morality and the “diseasedness” of humans. The weakest, who are the slaves, are “the ones who most undermine life among humans, who most dangerously call into question our confidence in life, in man, in ourselves. […] Here the worms of vengeful and grudging feelings teem […] here the web of the most vicious conspiracy spins itself constantly – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the well-formed and the victorious.” So the priests minister to the sick and allow the herd to pretend to themselves both that their suffering is not of their own doing and that they will be compensated in another life. Whether this is comforting or not does not bear on its truth.

To what extent can we now identify the opposition to this conspiracy with master morality and argue that Nietzsche favors it? This is in fact too simple. For we have already learned that the exponents of master morality are like “a wild beast of prey, as joyful monsters, who perhaps walk away from a dreadful sequence of murder, arson, rape, and torture with an exhilaration and spiritual equilibrium”. This hardly seems like a endorsement or a recommendation to return to the heroic world of Homer that is “marvelous but, at the same time, horrifying and violent”.

In addition, the despised priests represent an element of master morality emerging from within slave morality: “We need to look on the ascetic priest as the preordained healer, shepherd, and advocate of the sick herd […] The ruling power over suffering people is his kingdom […]”; he is to be “the master over suffering people at all times”.

There is only one way to resolve this: to say that Nietzsche does not favor either morality because he is opposed to all moralities – or at the very least, all moralities existing at the time he wrote. This is the sense in which he is an immoralist. Here again is the parallel to Heidegger’s opposition to fallenness, which is the uncritical adoption of any morality. Nietzsche enlists us as psychologists, and says that a psychologist “detests that disgraceful moralizing way of talking, which effectively covers in slime all modern judgments about human beings and things”.

Deleuze has been criticized for arguing that Nietzsche “was a great philosopher because he was mad”. If Deleuze is recommending our attendance at asylums in order to benefit from deranged ravings, then his recommendation has little to be said for it. On the other hand, Deleuze has noted that Nietzsche’s central insight is the extent to which morality has been inculcated in us at such a deep fundamental level that it has become a part of who we are. Perhaps some madness is needed merely in order to question morality.

This would fit with Nietzsche’s recognition that even those who are to advance this questioning are infected with morality. “We are probably sacrificial victims and prey, as well, made sick by this contemporary taste for moralizing, no matter how much we also feel we’re its critics—it probably infects even us as well”. To the extent that madness is the self in conflict with itself, then perhaps Deleuze can well argue that some madness would do us good. Or better yet, place us beyond good and evil.

We can confirm this view that Nietzsche was opposed to both master and slave morality be consulting the rather poetic Zarathustra, which may also give us some oblique clues as to what he wishes to set up in their place. The sentence “[w]hen I came unto men, then found I them resting on an old infatuation: all of them thought they had long known what was good and bad for men” is a clear indication that Nietzsche is here referring to the prevailing systems of morality and their lack of groundedness. We know also he is referring both to slave and master morality from the previous mention of “And where there is sacrifice […] there also is the will to be master. By by-ways doth the weaker then slink into the fortress, and into the heart of the mightier one—and there stealeth power”. What is to replace these faded moralities we learn only vaguely: “These masters of to-day—surpass them, O my brethren—these petty people: THEY are the Superman’s greatest danger!” By ‘masters’ here, Nietzsche means the slaves who have re-valued their values so as to become the new masters, thus also enslaving the previous masters. The superman is to supersede both. The doctrine of the superman and of eternal recurrence, which only he has the strength of will to affirm, are key to Nietzsche’s prescriptions. While space is lacking to describe them here, it is clear that the superman is not an exponent of either slave or master morality and so neither is Nietzsche.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Does Nietzsche Support A Collective Memory Type?

Nietzsche on `What I Owe the Ancients’: Summary

Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?


  • F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998 (“GM”), p. 16 B Magnus & K Higgins, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge University Press, 1996, (“CC”), p. 131
  • F Nietzsche, Collected Letters, Christmas letter (1887) in Vol. V, #479
  • F Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 11
  • F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 168
  • M Heidegger, Being and Time, Tr. J Macquarrie & E Robinson, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1962, (“BT”), p. 220
  • F Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,, (“Z”), LVI.2

Schopenhauer’s Ontology

Schopenhauer Claims Objects Are Representations — What Does This Mean And Can It Be Defended?

There are many ways to dismiss Schopenhauer’s ontology by misunderstanding it. A correct view of his actual claims is not only defensible, but compelling; further it is remarkably consistent with modern science. I will begin showing this by illustrating the intellectual background forming the context of Schopenhauer’s work. Then I will discuss his two senses in which objects are representations. Finally I will consider how Schopenhauer’s views appear from a scientific perspective.

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While the Kantian influence is obvious, Schopenhauer himself saw a wider set of influences: “I do not believe my doctrine could have come about before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant could cast their rays simultaneously into the mind of one man”.

Schopenhauer’s relationship with Kant is the most important and also the most complex. He saw Kant as the towering figure in philosophy, he frequently uses and accepts Kantian terminology, his major reason for despising Fichte, Schelling and Hegel is that he sees them as having betrayed the Kantian legacy; but most significantly, Schopenhauer is a transcendental idealist. Yet he frequently reaches very Kantian conclusions by alternate routes; a process necessitated for him by his belief that the Kantian proofs are often not valid: “Kant’s fourfold antinomy will be shown to be a groundless piece of jugglery”. Then again, his respect for Kant is shown by his devotion of a substantial appendix in WWR to Kantian criticism.

This may be perhaps rendered more comprehensible by remembering that Schopenhauer does not privilege different approaches to truth: “it is specially necessary to give up the prejudice that demonstrated truth has any superiority over truth known through perception or intuition”. There is perhaps an echo of the Eastern philosophy here, but again we should be careful to avoid traducing Schopenhauer by mischaracterising his claim as that we can ignore the proofs of Euclid if we perceive something different. He does not say this, but merely holds that logical demonstration reaches the truth in less satisfactory ways; we learn that x is the case without learning why. A drawing may show us a geometrical truth via perception far more directly and convincingly than a lengthy logical demonstration.

The first major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer arises in connection with the claims of transcendental idealism. Any crude characterisation of this as meaning that the world is in my head is radically implausible. Such a straw man would indeed be vulnerable to the infamous stone kicking and rebounding ‘refutation’ of Dr Johnson, who was responding to Berkeley. But experience is not being questioned; on the contrary, it is being insisted upon.

Kant’s development of transcendental idealism divides the world into phenomenon and noumenon. We can perceive only the former; the latter for Kant are unknowable. While Schopenhauer deprecates Kant’s usage of these terms as incorrect Greek, he accepts the result. Preconditions for experience and knowledge are the categories, including the notions of time, space and causality. We apply these to our sense data in order to understand them, to make them coherent and to make knowledge of the world possible. Therefore, our knowledge is only of the phenomenal world.

Yet Kant perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the implications of his pioneering work fully. He placed causation firmly in the phenomenal realm, and yet allowed the entities in the noumenal realm some role in causing our individual perceptions. Schopenhauer has no time for this: in his terms: “The principle of sufficient reason explains connections and combinations of phenomena, not the phenomena themselves”. This limits the application of the principle, which holds that “Nothing is without a reason for its being” in the formulation discussed by Schopenhauer. The principle can require that phenomena be appropriately related to one another causally, but can say nothing of the things-in-themselves or of the causation of the existence of the phenomena.

Objects exist entirely in the phenomenal realm. They are not things-in-themselves and cannot be because we can know the former and not the latter. Thus we see the first sense of Schopenhauer’s meaning in claiming that objects are representations. They are our representations only, the results of our application of space, time and causation to the world. Subject and object are inseparable – similarly the phenomenal and the noumenal are related as two sides of the same coin – and neither pair stand in causal relations to one another: “the demand for the existence of the object outside the representation of the subject, and also for a real being of the actual thing distinct from its action, has no meaning at all, and is a contradiction”.

Here we find a second echo of Eastern thought, in the suggestion that we cannot look for any illusory ‘real being’, and we would perhaps benefit from ceasing our strivings in this direction. This is also one of Schopenhauer’s central arguments for transcendental idealism, which asks what grounds we have for postulating a ‘second world’ behind the one we perceive, and notes that such a further postulation is both ineffective and dramatically inefficient.

A further argument of Schopenhauer’s for objects being representations can appear so powerful as to almost be analytic. “Every object always and eternally presupposes a subject, and thus remains representation.” This needs to be combined with the dismissal of the idea that the object is in any way like what it represents. We know that no objects are coloured; they merely have surface properties that preferentially absorb and scatter light of different wavelengths. This realisation is a potent confirmation that we are mistaken if we think that the world is in any way ‘what you see is what you get’. It must be true that representation is involved if the properties the subject perceives ‘in relation to’ an object is not the same as the ‘real properties’ of the object.

Schopenhauer goes further: “And yet the existence of the whole world remains for ever dependent on that first eye that opened”. We must again note that the highly modulated nature of the prima facie implausible claim that nothing existed before the first human, animal or insect eye evolved to survey the scene. Schopenhauer means that the world as representation perforce awaited that event; there remains the world as will, now apparent to us in the form of an incomprehensibly long and vast history of silently wheeling galaxies. We may not know it, and we may not ask questions about its origin in time or its pre-existence of life, for it stands outside of the phenomenal framework of space and time.

And again, if objects are not representations, then from whence issues their significance? They would float past us like so many images appearing briefly to a subject itself as insubstantial as a “winged cherub without a body”. Yet the importance we attach to the pictures and our interaction with them belies this.

Further, Schopenhauer notes the frequency with which identical expressions of the will appear in objects. Crystals of a certain type grow identically at all times and places, providing the relevant conditions are the same. The laws of magnetism do not alter their behaviour in relation to iron filings attracted to a magnet, providing again the same caveat. “The infallibility of the laws of nature contains something astonishing, indeed at time almost terrible, when we start from knowledge of the individual thing”. How could such objects, events and processes be made plausible if not representations of a single underlying principle?

In the second book of WWR, Schopenhauer turns to the non-representational aspect of the world, which in Kant’s terminology would be the noumenal. He notes that there is one object – one’s own body – which one knows under both aspects. If I move my hand, I can observe my hand as representation. But I also have internal experience in that case, which is denied to me in the case of other persons viewed as objects or representations, or any other objects at all. For this reason, Schopenhauer identifies the second aspect of the world as the will.

This terminology represents a second major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer, for he is claiming that the will is the organising principle of all objects, not just persons. We need to be very careful to note that he is using an expanded definition of the term. He is not saying that inanimate objects have motivations: “if I say that the force which attracts a stone to the earth is of its nature, in itself, and apart from all representation, will, then no one will attach to this proposition the absurd meaning that the stone moves itself according to a known motive”. So we are to understand this term as more akin to energy or a force of nature, that expresses itself in all objects as representations, that results in the “endless striving” of “the will’s objectivity”. This is justified because “if we refer this concept of force to that of will, we have in fact referred something more unknown to something infinitely better known”.

Schopenhauer identifies objects by his principium individuationis: this means that separate objects occupy discrete portions of space-time. So, since the noumenal is beyond time and space it is therefore one and undifferentiable; plurality cannot apply to it. This is why the Kantian term things-in-themselves is inappropriate: the noumenon or the will has unity. Here is the third suggestion of Eastern influences.

The influence of Plato on Schopenhauer derives from his identification of the will with the Forms: “these grades of objectivation of the will are nothing but Plato’s Ideas”. This has some superficial appeal at least, for the Forms are the unreachable perfect ideals of various qualities such as Justice and the Good. Objects in the world are imperfect representations of these noumenal qualities. People are trapped in the cave of Plato’s Republic , where they mistake the phenomenal representations that are the shadows of a fire for the Forms.

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Finally we may consider science. Prima facie, one might imagine that no field of endeavour could be more hostile to both Eastern thought and Schopenhauer’s suggestion that objects are representations, or represent the phenomenal extrusion of will or force or energy. Surely physics shows that real objects back our perceptions.

Yet this is just what it does not do. We are told in excellent and useful detail what an electron will do under various circumstances; this does not address what it is. Physicists indeed do not attempt this: they do not address the question of what it is beyond what it does. They would regard any attempt to do so as mysticism. The regularities that physicists observe, and the high pragmatic value of the theories they construct using the idea of an electron, are consistent with the suggestion that what we observe when we measure the properties of an electron is just how it behaves phenomenally.

Indeed, wave-particle duality, under which electrons and other subatomic particles behave as waves or as particles depending on what experimental mode is used, does not increase our confidence that we know there is something material there. As Magee points out, Schopenhauer, Kant and physics all endorse the view that “bodies are spaces filled with force”. There is even the possibility posited by physicists as serious as Richard Feynman in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that there is only one electron ; this underlying unity would surely appeal to Schopenhauer and is suggestive of the unity of the will.

Another idea associated with Feynman and widely accepted today, is that an electron moving forward in time is the same as its antiparticle, the positron, moving backwards in time. This is counter-intuitive to say the least, but can also be seen as suggesting that time is more related to the subject’s frame of reference and less related to the fundamental nature of the electron/positron.

Similarly, we see in post-Darwinian biology a highly Schopenhauerian view emerging. Organising principles are expressed through the behaviour of animals and we see evidence for the action of natural selection – though Schopenhauer might add that the most convincing proof of natural selection is our perception of the better or stronger animals destroying the weaker, rather than a lengthy discussion on changes in fossils from different dates. And how could it be otherwise?

We may illustrate this by considering a rather strange criticism of Dawkins by Midgley. Dawkins famously though ambiguously favours the idea of The Selfish Gene. Midgley retorts: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous” which misses the point in an illuminating way.

Dawkins does not mean that genes have personalities. He has two other meanings. First, genes can make animals and humans act selfishly. Second, genes can operate as if they wish to perpetuate themselves. This is because those that are still here have so operated. What clearer parallel could be found to Schopenhauer’s view that those objects that are animals are representations of the will? They are certainly striving for some purpose which, given the general suffering of the world, does not appear to be for their own benefit or even fully grasped by higher animals including humans.

There is another scientific example introduced by Schopenhauer from the field of medicine. The example appears difficult for him, but can be seen to be a result of inadequate information available to him at the time. He writes of persons who apparently can commit suicide by holding their breath, naming Diogenes as having done this. “We might have here a striking example of the influence of abstract motives, i.e., of the superior force of really rational over mere animal willing.” This could be an adverse example for Schopenhauer as he seeks to extend his concept of objects being representations of the will to the inanimate, mentioning “the keen desire with which iron flies to the magnet”.

We now have a better understanding of breathing which excludes the possibility of suicide by hypoxia, because automatic breathing is a separate mechanism which does not involve the conscious part of the brain or a choice: “The brainstem, spinal cord, motor neurons and respiratory muscles work in a feedback system that controls automatic breathing.” This is more supportive of Schopenhauer’s case that all objects are manifestations of the will with inanimate matter, plants, animals and humans all merely different grades of that manifestation. Given that he had no acquaintance with the work of Darwin at the time he wrote, or with modern physics, or with this particular development in physiology, it is remarkable that his system holds up so well across disparate fields and extended periods.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

Is Evans’s Axiom On Referents and Sense Useful?


A Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains vol. I, , ed. A Hubscher, Berg Publishers 1988-90, quoted in C Janaway, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 2002, p. 18
A Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, Trans. E Payne, Dover Publications Inc., 1969 (“WWR”), p. 30
A Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Open Court Publishing Co., 1974
Plato, The republic, ed. G Ferrari, Tr. T Griffith, Cambridge University Press, 2000
B Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 111
R Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976
M Midgley, Gene-Juggling, Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210 (Oct., 1979), pp. 439-458
WWR, p. 116
WWR, p. 118
L Guion, Respiratory Management of ALS, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, LLC, 2010


Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I

The Ethics are set out in geometrical form, an arrangement intended to parallel the canonical example of a rigorous structure of argument producing unquestionable results: the example being the geometry of Euclid. The structure is synthetic rather than analytic; Spinoza begins with definitions and axioms and then derives the consequences. Both definitions and axioms are intended to carry high levels of certainty. The axioms are supposed to be indubitably true, to reflect ‘common notions’. The definitions could in principle be regarded as less certain; they could be regarded as stipulated, with the remainder of the results being of the form that if the definitions are true, then the results are true. While this is possible, we can take it that Spinoza believes his definitions are also in fact truly reflective of reality.

However, there are immediate difficulties. We open with “by cause of itself, I understand that whose essence involves existence” . We must be careful here because it already involves a variant of the ontological argument. Essence is generally defined as a property without which something cannot exist. So the definition refers to something that cannot exist without existing, which in fact has either no referents or encompasses the whole universe and thus has no explanatory power. Spinoza will later employ this ontological argument, and so if we accept it here, we must accept his subsequent position.

The axioms also display varying levels of certainty. Axiom 1 has the form (A v ~A): “Each thing that exists exists either in itself or in something else” . This of course is certain as it stands, though we must take note of the dichotomy introduced and its subsequent use, which may be less certain. On the other hand, axiom 4 seems more questionable: “Knowledge of an effect depends on the knowledge of the cause” . This seems to confuse ontology and epistemology. Hume would argue that we never observe cause or effect, merely constant conjunction. Even when setting that aside, there are manifold examples of situations wherein we claim to have knowledge of an effect without knowing anything of its cause. A child can observe a ship sinking without knowing anything about metal fatigue. The same objection applies to definition 4. Spinoza’s rigid determinism is expressed in axiom 3: “From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect”

Spinoza’s three major concepts are substance, attribute and mode. A substance is any self-sufficient entity that can be conceived solely through itself. An attribute is an essential property of a substance. A mode, or affection, is the opposite of a substance in that it can only exist as a way of being of something else, i.e. it cannot be understood through itself solely. Spinoza espouses monism in the physical realm at least, and in p5, he brings these concepts together to argue that there is only one substance: “There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances of the same […] attribute” .

The argument proceeds via the claim that substances could only be distinguished either by having different attributes or different modes. If the former is the case, Spinoza has made his point; if the latter, then Spinoza claims that a difference merely in mode is insufficient to make a distinction.

Bennett holds that Spinoza commits the modal fallacy in this p5: the claim is that Spinoza has invalidly argued from (Fx and possibly Fy) to possibly (Fx and Fy). The inference is indeed logically invalid from the following substitution: x = the first student in the room, y = the second student in the room, F = the property of being the oldest student in the room. Spinoza is supposed to have done this in the move from ‘two substances x and y differ only modally’ to ‘two substances x and y could become the same and thus really be one substance’. However, a more charitable interpretation here would allow that Spinoza is guilty not of an error but of a suppressed assumption, viz. that a substance can be in any mode and may move freely among them irrespective of whether any other putative substance is already ‘occupying’ that mode. While this should have been spelt out, it does not seem a fatal error.

In p7, Spinoza introduces his version of the ontological argument: “It belongs to the nature of substance to exist” . Spinoza must be using his own definition of ‘substance’. In the tradition, the term is often associated with Aristotle, who would not have understood the idea of a single substance. “That Aristotle accepted it as a consequence of the identity of a substance with its essence that an individual substance like Socrates or Callias was identical with his essence may be disputed.”

While we do find support here for Spinoza’s line that a substance and its essence are identical, Aristotle clearly holds that there are multiple substances, as does Descartes. This would be a problem for Spinoza at this point, because then his version of the ontological argument would be open to the standard ‘floodgates’ objection, whereby if we can define a perfect dog or perfect island, then these must exist. It could be a neat inversion of the problem for Spinoza to claim that since he has used the ontological argument and this objection can be made when there are multiple substances, then there can be only one substance. There will also turn out to be a theological argument, because there cannot be more than one perfect being: the existence of one would impair the putative perfection of the other. Since Spinoza will later argue for the identity of the one substance, the universe and a perfect being, this line carries weight from his perspective.

Nevertheless, p5 and p7 are incompatible with a traditional definition of ‘substance’. Charlton considers various solutions to this, including Russell’s view that a substance is something self-causing – note the consistency of this with definition 1 and the fittingness that Spinoza should open his treatise with a reference, albeit disguised, to a perfect being. Also mentioned is Curley’s view that a substance is anything that is independent of everything else.

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It is held in p8 that “every substance is necessarily infinite” . Spinoza needs this because following his identification of the one substance with a perfect being, he will be open to a concern of Descartes that finitude is “unworthy of the divine nature” in Spinoza’s own later comment on the problem. The solution is that nothing external can act on the perfect being or limit it if it is infinite.

Spinoza aims to support his argument in p7 in p8s: “If anyone were to say, therefore, that he has a clear and distinct, that is true idea of substance and yet doubts whether such a substance exists, then that would be the same as if he were to say, if you please, that he has a true idea and yet is inclined to think that it may be false”.

Spinoza has adopted Descartes’ clear and distinct perception test of truth. The form of the argument is a reductio, because the consequent that someone could simultaneously consider a proposition to be false and true at the same time is clearly unappealing. But whether the antecedent entails the consequent seems open to question. It appears that Spinoza subscribes to a correspondence theory of truth, in that if a proposition is true then there is, following Aquinas, an adaequatio intellectus et rei, meaning that what is in the mind corresponds well or adequately to a real entity. Spinoza often speaks of adequate ideas later in his work.

So the current argument viewed in this light seems to say that if someone considers that they have a clear and distinct idea of substance, then that idea is true, which means it is adequate, which means that it must correspond to something existing in the world. Objections to this would include the point that the clarity and distinctness test may not actually be a valid guide to truth, and in fact Descartes needs the existence of a perfect being as a guarantor of that. This is fine for Descartes, but Spinoza does not have a perfect being who is personal; his perfect being is one infinite substance comprising all that there is, and taking no interest in humanity: such an entity would not seem likely to confer guarantees. Further, to what extent is it reasonable to claim that we can have a clear and distinct perception of infinity? Also a variant of the argument from illusion may be relevant here, in that we often have clear and distinct perceptions of false propositions that we must correct by reason.

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Later in this same section, Spinoza gives an interesting further demonstration by considering a universe comprising 20 men. Since he is determinist, each man must have a cause. But “the true definition of man does not involve the number 20” as may be appreciated from the fact that a different number could have been chosen. So the cause must be external, and “everything of whose nature several individuals can exist must necessarily have an external cause” . This is neat, because it reinforces Spinoza’s line on substance as being single and self-caused, and is a good example of his style of argument.

See Also:

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Why Kids Are Robots


Spinoza, Ethics, Ed. and Tr. G H R Parkinson, Oxford University Press, 2000 (henceforward Ethics), p. 75, def. 1
Ethics, p. 77
J Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Hackett Publishing Company, 1984
Ethics, p. 78
M. J. Woods, ‘Substance and Essence in Aristotle’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 75, (1974 – 1975), pp. 167-180
William Charlton, ‘Spinoza’s Monism’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1981), pp. 503-529


Leibniz’s Monads

‘Monadology’ was not a title chosen by Leibniz, it was added by a later editor. It is nevertheless appropriate, for the paper explains Leibniz’s metaphysics in which the monads are central.

The argument for monads proceeds from admitting the existence of composites. If these exist, they are made up of either further smaller composites or of simple parts. One of Leibniz’s great elements of methodological bedrock, as it were, was the principle of sufficient reason, by which he meant that nothing was the case without there being a reason for why it exactly was the case and not something somewhat different. He employed this in the argument for monads by noting that there would be no sufficient reason for divisibility to cease at any particular level: thus composites are infinitely divisible. The simple substances that found such infinite divisibility are the non-extended monads.

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If we were to say that Leibniz had ‘design aims’ underpinning his metaphysics, they would include the concepts that the state of the world should adequately reflect the greatness of the perfect being that created it and also that the perfect being should have acted in such a way as to realise the best possible world.

We know that the former was an aim of Leibniz, because he states that “only this theory […] shows up the greatness of God in an appropriate way” . And the latter of these two aims also illustrates another fundamental principle for Leibniz, that of contradiction. This holds that the opposite of a contradiction is a necessary truth. Here, the implication is that a perfect being by definition could not be restricted in terms of will or power, and so it would be a contradiction for this being not to have created the best possible world.

Voltaire and others mocked Leibniz for taking this line, and it would indeed be a natural point to bring in the traditional problem of evil. This points to the inconsistency of the perfect being having unlimited benevolence and power with the existence in the world of acts accorded the epithet ‘evil’ by people. While this argument carries force in general it is a misplaced criticism in the context of Leibniz, because it rests on a misapprehension of what he meant by the ‘best possible world’. This is a world that maximises the amount of variety, complexity and diversity extant, which satisfies the first of the design aims.

Monads “have no windows” ; they cannot interact causally or otherwise with each other. Because they have no parts (they are simple by definition), there is nothing internal that can alter to reflect such a putative interaction. They appear to interact, but this is because of the doctrine of pre-established harmony, whereby each one of the infinite number of monads has an internal organising principle controlling its evolution in such ways that the developments fit together. So a spiritual monad or human mind perceives developments in bodily monads that match with its expectations. Thus when I decide to raise my arm, the decision represents a change in my spiritual monad and then when the arm moves, a separate change uncaused by the first change takes place in the infinite bodily monads that are part of my arm.

It can already be seen that this is a picture of significant complexity, thus again admirable fulfilling the first design principle. Yet it is not however complete at this stage. Each of the infinite monads in each of an infinite number of items has an infinite number of relationships with an infinite number of other monads. This addition clearly significantly extends the ‘amount of complexity’ in the world.

This can perhaps be illustrated by a metaphor: each monad is “a perpetual living mirror of the universe” . If we imagine standing outside at night and holding a mirror, we could perhaps see the reflections of many stars. If we tilted the mirror, the reflections would all change. Thus the ‘perceptions’, by which Leibniz means the relations of a monad to other monads would all change, even though there would be no causal interaction between the bodily monads in the mirror and the bodily monads in the stars. There is theoretically no limit to the distance from which light could reach the mirror; confused perceptions could come from an infinite number of stars.

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There are also eastern elements to Leibniz’s thought, hinted at in his statements in the context of what can be termed reincarnation that “only a small number of the elect who move up onto a larger stage” .

Leibniz believed that there were worlds within worlds (“there is a world of creatures […] in the smallest part of matter”) and was delighted with the discoveries of the microscope. He in fact visited Leeuwenhoek in Amsterdam . He would have been equally happy with modern progress in particle physics, whereby the process of revealing new levels of complexity has continued apace without any evidence of such continuation coming to an end. His interest in and contribution to physics was of course immense, and also enlightening on his philosophy.

His most noted contribution to physics was the development of differential calculus, at the same time as Newton; tellingly, while Newton more often is credited with the discovery, it is the elegant intuitive notational system of Leibniz that is used today. The essence of the calculus is the infinite divisibility of mathematical quantities by imagining them to ‘tend’ to an arbitrary or infinitesimal difference to a set limit, without actually reaching it. This enormously valuable idea, where we consider mathematical items approaching zero ‘extension’ that nevertheless are as real as anything else in mathematics and also produce extremely powerful and useful consequences, has clear parallels with the equally valuable and important monad in Leibniz’s metaphysics.

Leibniz was able to use this approach to falsify Descartes’ laws of motion; Descartes erroneously believed that “there is always the same quantity of force in matter” . This led him to argue that if two bodies A and B collide, then if A were ‘stronger’, the two bodies would move off in the direction A had been travelling, whereas if the two bodies were of equal strength, they would rebound from each other. Leibniz argued correctly that this could not be correct, because it would allow a discontinuity. One could imagine making the difference between A and B arbitrarily small; there would nevertheless be a dramatically different consequence of there being an infinitesimal difference in strength (moving off together in the direction of B) and zero difference (rebound).

Leibniz replaced Descartes’ approach with a correct conservation law using the square of velocity (v) as a vector quantity multiplied by mass (m) . This means that in a mechanical system of moving bodies, while individual bodies may change velocity, the total quantity mv2 in the system remains the same; nowadays this would be referred to as conservation of kinetic energy. This must have been highly suggestive for Leibniz; indeed he states that if Descartes had seen this, “he would have ended up with my system of pre-arranged harmony” .

There is a parallel between the way that mechanical bodies appear to interact, meaning the causation we believe we see when one billiard ball hits another, and the monads. For Leibniz, extension and causal interaction perceived by us are merely phenomenal, and yet the overall system is governed by a conservation rule. Likewise, for the monads, causal interaction is phenomenal, and yet the monads are so constructed that the overall system is harmonised.

Criticism has been made of Leibniz on the epistemic status of both his frequent invocation that the will inclines without necessitating, and that the best of all possible worlds has been created. Leibniz claims that these two theses are known a priori, and yet they are not the contraries of necessarily false contradictions. He would have to be using a different derivation for such truths than the principle of contradiction. In fact, there is textual evidence that he also uses an analytic notion of truth: “when a truth is necessary, the reason for it can be found by analysis, by resolving it into simpler ideas and truths until we arrive at the basic ones” . It is also worth noting that Kripke has shown that the notions of necessary truth and a priori truth are not coextensive, giving as an example currently unsolved theorems in mathematics. These are true or false necessarily, and yet will be known a posteriori if solved.

This means that some a priori and necessary analytic truths may be so for Leibniz by virtue solely of the meaning of the terms employed. This could take the form in the case of the former assertion about the will of insisting that we are morally responsible, and if this is so, then the definition of ‘will’ specifies that it be contingently realisable. Also, part of the definition of a perfect being for Leibniz could include the assertion that we have been created by it as morally responsible, thus grounding the first claim. Likewise, Leibniz may be using a definition of the perfect being that specifies that it would only create the best possible world.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Does The Observation That Knowledge Ascriptions Are Context-Sensitive Provide The Basis For A Satisfactory Response To Scepticism?

What Ontological Conclusions Does Sartre Present In His ‘Pursuit Of Being’ And With What Justification?

Schopenhauer Claims Objects Are Representations — What Does This Mean And Can It Be Defended


G W Leibniz, Philosophical Texts, Tr. and Ed. R S Woolhouse and R Francks, Oxford University Press, 1998 (hereafter “PT”), p. 275
Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, Ed. N Jolley, Cambridge University Press (hereafter “CC”), p. 27


Hume On Causation


I will discuss Hume on Causation and raise some questions.

Hume gives two definitions of cause:

“We may define a CAUSE to be ‘An object precedent and contiguous to another, and where all the objects resembling the former are plac’d in like relations of precedency and contiguity to those objects that resemble the latter’ ” ;


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“A CAUSE is an object precedent and contiguous to another, and so united with it, that the idea, of the one determines the mind to form the idea of the other, and the impression of the one to form a more lively idea of the other” .

Hume On Causation: Problems

As Noonan points out; there are a number of immediate difficulties here. The two definitions do not appear to be coextensive. Also we may ask whether Hume’s use of the word ‘determination’ in the second definition does not include the concept of causation, thus rendering the definition circular.

Hume himself however believes that the two definitions are two ways of looking at the same object. He is led to this by his theory of mind. We are led by habit formed by repeated observations to assume that there is a necessary connection between events. It is part of Hume’s scepticism to insist that this is an illusion, albeit an unavoidable one.

What is common to both definitions is the tripartite structure and the first two elements thereof. The use of the term ‘precedent’ simply means that Hume does not accept the idea of backward causation; any cause must be prior in time to its effect. Further, he does not allow the idea of simultaneous causation:

“Some pretend that ’tis not absolutely necessary a cause shou’d precede its effect; but that any object or action, in the very first moment of its existence, may exert its productive quality, and give rise to another object or action, perfectly co-temporary with itself.”

No Simultaneous Causation

Hume argues against simultaneous causation on two grounds, the first being that it is inconsistent with our observations. His more detailed argument is that if an object is fully existent then that entails it is existent with its full causal powers. If it then fails to have an effect, then it must require an additional partial cause or organising principle to bring about the effect; it is therefore not the sole cause of the effect.

There is on the other hand a contradiction in the notion of a sole cause that does not exert itself. It must lack some element of causal power. Thus a sole cause must act instantaneously if it can do so. It must be able to do so if the notion of a sole cause is rightly understood. And this outcome is contradictory, because it would immediately populate the universe with effects and destroy any idea of succession.

Contiguity simply rules out the idea of action at a distance.

“nothing can operate in a time or place, which is ever so little remov’d from those of its existence”

Again, here Hume relies on the observational evidence that whenever we see a cause in action, it acts locally, and he further supposes that if we do not observe this, it is because the cause is invisible to us rather than that it does not exist, as noted by Zuboff:

“Thus Hume will sometimes speak of ‘secret springs’ of necessity in nature, which are responsible in ways we could never understand for the observed regularities of causation” .

Phenomenal Vs Noumenal

This is highly suggestive of Kant’s later division of the world into phenomenal and noumenal aspects. It must be part of what he meant when he wrote that Hume had awoken him from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’.

The final elements of the two tripartite definitions may both be understood as variants of the concept of necessary connection. In the first definition, the final elements may be viewed as holding that all events of type A are prior and contiguous to all events of type B, then we can say that A causes B. The final element of the second definition means similarly that the idea of A leads us to the idea of B. Also the impression of A leads to the idea of B. This is in accordance with Hume’s theory on the association of ideas.

Hume On Causation: Complete Definitions

Hume sees the definitions of cause he gives as complete and exhaustive i.e. this is all we can say on the topic. It will be apparent that this is a quite reductionist approach, which is in keeping with his general scepticism. His view on causation is in keeping with his view on the closely related topic of induction.

Hume’s statement of the problem of induction holds that in order to justify inductive reasoning, we need to assert a uniformity of nature principle. This would mean that we could use the past to predict the future. However, there is no way to demonstrate the uniformity of nature principle non-inductively. We can never use our experience to go beyond our experience. Likewise, we can never use our experience of causation to go beyond our experience thereof. Thus what we see is all there is.

Hume is an empiricist and subscribes to the maxim ‘nothing in the intellect not first in the senses’. In his terminology, an impression is a perception of the senses. An idea is a later memory or representation of such an impression.

Hume considers whether we can prove that a cause is always necessary for any event. He examines four arguments for this and dismisses them all.

Arguments For The Necessity Of A Cause

The first argument can be phrased after the scholastic fashion ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’, or nothing comes from nothing. However, Hume demands a falsification of the proposition that “any thing can ever begin to exist without some productive principle” and holds that this is both impossible and also consistent with the scholastic phrasing, or “it is a mistake to think that this defeats the logical possibility of a thing simply existing without being produced at all” .

The second argument asserts that nothing can be a cause of itself. Again Hume accepts this, but does not agree that if anything lacks a cause, it must cause itself: “An object, that exists absolutely without any cause, certainly is not its own cause” . To assert otherwise begs the question.

The third argument, which Hume ascribes to Locke, is that anything produced without a cause is produced by nothing; and this impossible because nothing cannot have any causal power. However, Hume again points out that this begs the question because it has already assumed that every event must have a cause.

Finally Hume defeats a semantic argument from the proposition that every effect must have a cause. This again is analytically true in virtue of the meaning of ‘effect’, but does not entail that every event has a cause:

“this does not prove, that every being must be preceded by a cause; no more than it follows, because every husband must have a wife, that therefore every man must be marry’d” .

Hume On Causation: Why We Experience Causation

Hume is now in a position to conclude:

“Since it is not from knowledge or any scientific reasoning, that we derive the opinion of the necessity of a cause to every new production, that opinion must necessarily arise from observation and experience” .

The example given is of a person being fully constituted with faculties but lacking experience. If this person were to observe a billiard ball approaching another, he would have no reason to expect that their collision would result in the struck ball moving off. It could just as well disappear in a puff of smoke or combine with the first ball. It is only our repeated observations of the constant conjunctions of events of type ‘first ball hits second ball’ with events of the type ‘second ball moves’ that makes us think that there is something in the properties of the objects themselves that makes this a necessary connection. As Hume later comments,

“there […] is nothing in any object, consider’d in itself, which can afford us a reason for drawing a conclusion beyond it”


However, it is not the case that we are really justified in using our experience to make this argument. As Reid points out,

“Necessary connection, he concludes, is a mental association that we project onto objects, rather than something that we discover through our experience of them”


“Our experience of constant conjunction leads our imagination to associate events of the conjoined kinds, and to expect one when presented with the other” .

Again this is in good harmony with Hume’s general scepticism as to what we can achieve with limited human intellects, and what is perforce inappropriately but unavoidably foisted on us.

See Also:

Husserl’s Phenomenological Reduction: What Is It And Why Does Husserl Believe It To Be Necessary?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Anscombe: Modern Moral Philosophy — Summary

Nozick’s Claim That Knowledge Is Truth-tracking: A Critical Evaluation


D Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Eds. L A Selby-Bigge and P H Nidditch, Oxford University Press 1978 (hearafter “THN”)
H W Noonan, Hume on Knowledge, Routledge Philosophy Guidebooks 1999


Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology

What Is It And How Cogent Is It?

Merleau Ponty appears most sympathetic to Husserl: like him, he wishes to dispense with alternate causal explanations available via history, science and sociology, and return to the things themselves as they are directly given. Also, he sees the reduction as being central to phenomenological method. Further, phenomenology should be descriptive and not analytical. One understanding of this is that if a picture has consequences matching our intuitions, then that can be evidence for its validity.

However, he had his own position in respect of the Other: “For Husserl, on the contrary, it is well known that there is a problem of other people, and the alter ego is a paradox.” This relates to the difficulty of intersubjectivity whereby there must be a representation of myself in the perspective of others and that this representation cannot be identical with myself. Merleau Ponty solves this problem by the radical step of appealing to the common lived world and denying the self: “we are all one light and participate in the One without destroying its unity”.

This also implies a distinction between the position of Sartre and Merleau Ponty. Moran reminds us how Sartre sums this up in what might be a type of embodiment of philosophy: “Alone, each of us was too easily persuaded of having understood the idea of phenomenology. Together, we were, for each other, the incarnation of its ambiguity” . This rather tart remark is somewhat reminiscent of Derrida’s criticism of the Platonic reluctance of Levinas to write; Levinas is accused of thereby missing an opportunity to highlight his central concept of alterity: the absence of the author is implied in writing but not in speech.

Merleau Ponty was critical of Sartre’s sharp distinctions between the self and others. Merleau Ponty subliminally invokes Hegel: “The paradox and the dialectic of the Ego and the Alter Ego are possible only provided that the Ego and the Alter Ego are defined by their situation and are not freed from all inherence”; “the Alter and the Ego are one and the same in the true world which is the unifier of minds”. This implies two possible related approaches, both tending in the same direction. Paradox, Sartre’s embrace notwithstanding, is presumably to be avoided, perhaps by freeing ourselves of the illusion of separate selves housing isolated egos. Or, we could regard the Ego and the Alter Ego as the thesis and antithesis to be synthesised in the Hegelian sense. Either approach leaves us without clearly defined human individuals.

Merleau Ponty defends this position by recasting the Cartesian project. The cogito must “reveal me in a situation” and can no longer “define the subject’s existence in terms of the thought he has of existing” . This now seems reminiscent of a Heideggerian line whereby the split between consciousness and the world is illusory; what is given from a phenomenological perspective is just being-in-the-world.

How plausible is this? We can certainly accept that people are social animals, we can agree that we have much in common including common structures underlying perception and which are automatic; language and communication are arguably crucial to any fulfilled human existence. So to take the argument on its own terms, we must ask whether after a phenomenological reduction we are left with a unique perspective that outlines us an individual. Why can Descartes not say that even phenomenologists must agree that he feels pains only in his one body?

Gardner also brings out the link between the two central concepts for Merleau Ponty of perception and the body: “Merleau-Ponty differs from his predecessors in holding that there is in perceptual consciousness an indissoluble unity of subject and object […] and that consciousness is necessarily embodied and that its bodily incarnation determines its total nature” . While other phenomenologists did in fact see a close unity between subject and object, for example Heidegger: “Self and world belong together in the single entity Dasein” , embodiment does seem key for Merleau Ponty. As Moran puts it, “Our whole understanding of the world is grounded in our corporeal nature” .

Further support is given to this line via Husserl’s reduction, which reflection “slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice”, but “The most important lesson which the reduction teaches us is the impossibility of a complete reduction”. By this, Merleau Ponty means to re-emphasise the indissoluble union of ‘self’ and ‘world’ and the links between them. In fact, this forms in sum his view of the main aim of his work: “Probably the chief gain from phenomenology is to have united extreme subjectivity and extreme objectivity in its notion of the world” . This may also be expressed as the denial of both of the views that the world is all that exists and that the self is all that exists. Phenomenology thus opposes itself to any objective stance that would be essential to the complete success of reductionist science and also to an immoderate reading of Kant that “makes the world immanent in the subject” .

A further distinction with Sartre comes in the recasting of the slogan to read ‘we are condemned to meaning’, in Moran’s paraphrase . An interest in psychological results gained from studying subjects with brain damage was an innovative feature of Merleau Ponty’s work. Also, as Flynn reminds us, he “undercuts […] the opposition between subject and object” in that “I never, at the same instance, experience my hand as touching and as touched” . For all these reasons, he would have been interested in the phenomenon of Anton’s blindness whereby subjects become blind but deny it and confabulate stories to explain why they have walked into a wall. Further: “A patient presenting with an Anton-Babinski syndrome accompanied by a delusional conviction recognised her left upper limb with the aid of her right hand, but immediately denied its existence when she viewed it directly” which lends empirical support to Merleau Ponty’s ideas that embodiment is central to perception and also that where no meaning exists, we will create it.

Given Merleau Ponty’s interest in perception, it is unsurprising that he takes a close interest in art. In fact, he sees painting as analogous to his idea of the reduction, in that it can record what is seen before interpretation and thus allows a return to the things themselves. He drafts Cezanne to the phenomenological cause; this choice of painter is instructive in light of his iconoclastic role in art history.

“In such still lifes as Dish of Apples Cézanne ignores the laws of classical perspective, allowing each object to be independent within the space of a picture while the relationship of one object to another takes precedence over traditional single-point perspective”

This denial of the existence of the unique privileged observer even within a single self, because the possession of two eyes already means that one individual has two ‘outlooks’, has a close parallel to what the reduction is supposed to achieve. The picture is flat; it lacks depth – we are forced to confront the absence of Husserl’s ‘adumbrations’ in the given. Thus Cezanne, by ignoring the conventions, has ‘reduced’ his vision in the same way as we are required to reduce ours: also a reduction can only happen in relation to a world it is supposed to put in brackets. This is why a complete reduction is impossible – the intentional threads can only be slackened. And this lack of a unique perspective is another problem for an objective approach to the world.

See Also:

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I

O’Keefe On Action And Responsibility In Epicurus

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”


Sartre’s Ontology

What Ontological Conclusions Does Sartre Present In His ‘Pursuit Of Being’ And With What Justification?

Understanding what defines and delimits consciousness for Sartre is the key to his ontology, because it defines two realms of being by reference to consciousness.

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Sartre’s ontology flows from his phenomenological heritage, within which he is more sympathetic to Husserl than to Heidegger. He begins from the standard phenomenological position of insisting that we can only consider appearances so that “we can say of the phenomenon that it is as it appears”. He then considers the implications of this in relation to Berkeley’s idealism (in the form of the claim ‘to be is to be perceived’) which would seem to be the natural next step, but which he does not wish to accept. One way he attacks this idealism is to claim that we lack capacity to constitute the world so that objects cannot be in consciousness (p. 7):

“The existence of the table is in fact a center of opacity for consciousness; it would require an infinite process to inventory the total contents of a thing.”

This has various interpretations: the idea may be that the table may be broken up into conceptual parts in an infinite number of ways, but more plausibly it may be understood via Husserl’s conception. Here, consciousness permits unification into a concept of a single object from the myriad ways or directions from which the table may be seen.

However, this argument fails in a similar way to the way Zeno’s paradoxes are defeated by Aristotle because both Zeno and Sartre rely on the false assumption that the finite cannot be in contact with the infinite. We know that material objects can be in contact with infinity in the mode of division, and it can be argued also that consciousness can be in contact with the infinite via the mode of belief generation. Some beliefs are generated not stored and the generative mechanism has infinite capacity. For example, if someone is aware that no prime number other than two is even, they will have a correct response if I ask whether 3,456,642 is prime which will not be an expression of a stored belief; they will be able to answer an infinite number of similar questions. So we know that consciousness has unlimited capacity in this way and there is no reason to believe it could not also have analogous unlimited capacity in respect of the table on either reading of Sartre’s meaning here for infinity.

The argument seems to be on much safer ground when he considers what consciousness of consciousness might be. He appeals elsewhere in the phenomenological style of argument (“Do you recognize in this description your own circumstances and your own impressions? You certainly knew that the tree was not you […]” which is suggestive of the ontological dualism he will espouse – although Barnes reminds us that Sartre considered himself a materialist monist.

Here he reminds us that to perceive itself, consciousness would have to stand outside itself. This appears to be a strong argument, but is perhaps somewhat mischievous in the light of his later definition of consciousness, and given also the Heideggerian influence which is present although less significantly than that of Husserl.

He also appeals to a regress argument, in opposition to both the Cartesian subject-object split and the formula of Alain, that to know is to know that we know (p. 8):

“ […] if we accept the law of the knower-known dyad, then a third term will be necessary in order for the knower to become known in turn”.

This has unfortunate consequences of requiring either a final term or an infinite regression; thus Sartre will claim that in order to avoid this, there must be “an immediate non-cognitive relation of the self to itself”.

Sartre accepts Brentano’s thesis, which holds that all consciousness is consciousness of something. This must be some transcendent being outside consciousness and “consciousness arises oriented towards a being which is not itself” (p.17). This line gives us our first clue as to the way in which Sartre will divide existence. Pure subjectivity is impossible on this analysis; so this line may be seen as a second attack on Berkeley. Sartre redefines subjectivity as self-awareness (p. 17):

“What can properly be called subjectivity is consciousness of consciousness. But this consciousness (of being) consciousness must be qualified in some way, and it can be qualified only as revealing intuition or it is nothing. Now a revealing intuition implies something revealed. Absolute subjectivity can be established only in the face of something revealed; immanence can be defined only within the apprehension of a transcendent.”

This gives us our second clue to how consciousness will be defined paradoxically as that which it is not. We start from subjectivity, an appealing beginning for those espousing a phenomenological perspective or confident in their own existence. We then note that consciousness must be real if it can be the subject of a revealing intuition of itself, and then we recall the Spinozistic line that all definition is negation, and so there must be items that are not in consciousness if we are to have consciousness. These two separate realms of being must be given together.

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This section is somewhat misleadingly entitled The Ontological Proof. This is generally used in Descartes and by the Scholastics to refer to an argument purporting to establish the existence of a deity. Nothing to surpass a perfect being can be imagined; existence is a property; lacking existence would mean lacking an aspect of perfection therefore the perfect being must possess the property of existence. This argues from the existence of one realm of being to another and this is the analogy Sartre wishes to pursue, with the difference that he goes from consciousness to not-consciousness and says that the former requires the latter: he will also say that the former is the latter.

This proof is also termed the “pre-reflective cogito” by Sartre. He means to contrast it with Descartes’ cogito, which is necessarily reflective in that it involves the argument that if something is reflecting it must exist. He wishes to appeal to our immediate intuitions that we are here and that we are not the world: “consciousness and the world are given at one stroke: essentially external to consciousness, the world is nevertheless essentially relative to consciousness”. There is perhaps an echo of Heidegger here. We can attempt to identify being-for-itself with Dasein; Sartre appears to collapse Heidegger’s other two categories of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand into being-in-itself – perhaps indicating that he sees the entire world as closer to Heidegger’s concept of ready-to-hand.

Sartre names his two domains (p. 19): “Since the being of consciousness is radically different, its meaning will necessitate a particular elucidation, in terms of the revealed-revelation of another type of being, being-for-itself, which we will define later and which is opposed to the being-in-itself of the phenomenon”.

In the introduction, these two realms of being are not fully described, but there is a suggestive passage:

“[…] being is what it is. This statement is in appearance strictly analytical. Actually it is far from being reduced to that principle of identity which is the unconditioned principle of all analytical judgments. First the formula designates a particular region of being, that of “being-in-itself”. We shall see that the being of for-itself is defined, on the contrary as being what it is not and not being what it is.”

This is an echo of what Heidegger terms ‘ek-stasis’ which is the familiar-feeling idea that part of who we are is what we are not, being thrown into the world from a past which has informed our abilities, knowledge and desires and projecting ourselves into a future which is the arena in which we will realize or fail to realize our aspirations and in the interests of which we make some of our decisions. The future and the past do not exist now, and yet we could not understand our own consciousnesses without including as an element within it that includes them both: thus being-for-itself is what it is not. As Spade puts it: “he explicitly describes the Law of Identity as what he calls a “regional principle.” That is, it applies to only one region of reality — to being-in-itself. It does not apply to the for-itself.” This is the fundamental division of the two realms of being in Sartre’s ontology.

See Also:

Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology: What Is It And How Cogent Is It?

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Does Heidegger Establish That The Ready-to-hand Enjoys ‘Priority’ Over The Present-at-hand?

The Importance Of Forgetfulness For Nietzsche


  • J P Sartre, “Being and Nothingness”, trans. H Barnes, Routledge Classics 2003
  • J P Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”, trans. J P Fell, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 1970, Vol.1, No. 2, p. 4-5.
  • H Barnes, “Sartre’s Ontology: The Revealing and Making of Being”, Cambridge Companion to Sartre, Cambridge University Press, 1992 (p. 14)
  • J P Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental Idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”, trans. J P Fell, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 1970, Vol.1, No. 2, p 4-5.
  • P V Spade, Class Lecture Notes, Fall 1995, University of Indiana