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 Arguments For Monads: A Summary

‘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

David Hume’s Account Of Causation: Summary

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’ ” ; and:

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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” .

As Noonan points out; there are a number of immediate difficulties here, including that the two definitions do not appear to be coextensive, and 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, and 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.”

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, because it must lack some element of causal power. Thus a sole cause must act instantaneously if it can do so, and 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” .

This is highly suggestive of Kant’s later division of the world into phenomenal and noumenal aspects and 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. The final element of the first definition 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 and also that the impression of A leads to the idea of B. This is in accordance with Hume’s theory on the association of ideas.

It is important to note that 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, since 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 and 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 and an idea is a later memory or representation of such an impression.

Hume considers whether it may be proven that a cause is always necessary for any event. He examines four arguments for this and dismisses them all.

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” .

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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 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” and “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?”

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

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

This is the most famous painting by Magritte, entitled “La Trahison des Images” (“The Treachery of Images”), painted 1928-9. Except of course it isn’t. What it is really is an arrangement of ink dots printed in London that has the remarkable property of signifying a painting in oil currently hanging in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What is even more remarkable is that this strange and magical property of reference is completely invisible to us. The text means “this is not a pipe”, which is true. It is a picture of a pipe. You are currently reading this essay on paper; as I write I am looking at a picture on my LED-back-lit glossy wide-screen, which represents what the paper will eventually look like, which represents the painting in LA, which represents an idea of a pipe that Magritte had a year after the publication of Being and Time. But the first thing we see is something that someone could use for smoking, despite this lengthy and unwieldy chain of intermediates.

This illustrates the distinction between Heidegger’s concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. The multiplicity of levels in the above account shows how we as Dasein cut through an indefinite number of intervening levels of representation in order to see only what we need. The ready-to-hand is where we get to; the present-at-hand is what we ignore on the way.

Perfect translation is impossible, because of the way resonance and multiple meanings cannot easily be conveyed; there is no one-to-one mapping between single words in different languages. Poetry and Heidegger represent the sharpest form of these difficulties because both rely heavily on the multiple meanings to convey their messages. To understand Heidegger’s conception of ready-to-hand, we need to understand the idea of ‘equipment’ from which it derives.

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Equipment is the poor translation of das Zeug (p. 96, H. 68), which is something like the maddeningly versatile yet helpfully compendious ‘stuff’ in English. There is the compound das Werkzeug (tool) but there is also das Flugzeug (aeroplane). Heidegger deliberately chooses a term with a loose and wide application because he sees everything that we see as being seen in a way of being useful or usable by us. If I want to know the time, then only the clock becomes ‘lit-up’ for me of the objects in my immediate environment. It is important to note also his reference to the Greek term for things (pragmata), which is a further illustration of how all objects appear to us firstly and possibly solely in terms of how we can use them in order to achieve our objectives.

Further, this also gives us our first idea of what might be understood by priority: it could mean ‘what we see first’ about objects. A second sense could be ontological priority, which would mean that one category was less fundamental than, was dependent on or supervenes on a second category. This essay will examine both possibilities, and will argue that while Heidegger makes a good case in the first sense, the argument in the second sense only works if one has already accepted the phenomenological Weltanschauung.

The idea of significance (or reference, or ‘sign-ification’) is central: Heidegger’s two examples both rely on this. In a way, everything refers because everything is seen as ready-to-hand or referring to the use we can make of it.

The two examples are a hammer and an automobile turn indicator. The hammer exists in a workshop; we all carry around our own workshops in a kind of movable metaphor – (p. 98, H. 69):

“In dealings such as this, where something is put to use, our concern subordinates itself to the ‘in-order-to’ which is constitutive for the equipment we are employing at the time; the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment.”

This can lead us back to an understanding of present-at-hand by way of contrast to ready-to-hand – (p. 100, H. 71):

“ ‘Nature’ is not to be understood as that which is just present-at-hand […]. The wood is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is wind ‘in the sails’. […] If its kind of Being as ready-to-hand is disregarded, this ‘Nature’ itself can be discovered and defined simply in its pure presence-at-hand.”

This suggests that performing a kind of phenomenological reduction would allow us to derive the present-at-hand by stripping away the serviceability of objects from the ready-to-hand. ‘Serviceability’ should be understood as a spectrum of usefulness; an item is still ready-to-hand even if its primary purpose is defeated. A hammer, which is broken, could still be a paperweight. The power of Heidegger’s argument here lies in the fact that this is indeed how the world appears to us – and within phenomenology that is the only allowable line – but the central Kantian question as to the extent to which we make our world remains – (p. 101, H. 71):

“The kind of being which belongs to these entities is readiness-to-hand. But this characteristic is not to be understood as merely a way of taking them, as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective coloring’ in this way. Such an Interpretation would overlook the fact that in this case these entities would have to be understood and discovered beforehand as something purely present-at-hand, and must have priority and take the lead in the sequence of those dealings with the ‘world’ in which something is discovered and made one’s own. But this already runs counter to the ontological meaning of cognition, which we have exhibited as a founded mode of Being-in-the-world.”

The example of the automobile indicator relies on the common experience we all have as Dasein of continual motion towards, understood either as a geographical or a conceptual objective: “Dasein is somehow always directed and on its way” (p. 110, H. 79). We experience the indicator proximally as something that tells us something about how we should adjust our behavior. We do not first see it in its mechanical format (or electrical these days, though it is striking and suggestive how modern an example Heidegger chooses, though writing before even the Ford Model T ceased production). We see it ‘immediately’ in its ready-to-hand incarnation as telling us we should not now cross the road because the car will shortly be in a position rendering that course of action unwise. This is how we behave. We do think we know something about electricity and other properties and how (modern) automobile indicators work. But none of this is available to us in a phenomenological approach. But does it not equally validly seem to us to be the case that we do have these other understandings? So while we can accept that within phenomenology, the ready-to-hand is prior for perception (and use), we are not necessarily then committed to applying that line as constitutive for reality or definitive for ontology.

As I write, I have next to me a photocopy of the Brandom paper. A sentence in underlined, and a previous student has written ‘very important’ next to it. The sentence seems to me to be of no importance at all, which means that the other student was incompetent or had a different essay in mind. The readiness-to-hand of the sentence is immediately apparent to me in its lack of serviceability for my current purposes, but this lack does not direct me to its presence-at-hand: in normal circumstances I will simply never consider the different marks beyond noting that some appear to be photocopied type and others appear to be photocopied handwriting, manifesting another Dasein and its concentration on the readiness-to-hand it saw in the sentence. But I can consider things in this way: only the phenomenological approach prevents me – (p. 111, H. 80):

“What gets taken for a sign becomes accessible only through its readiness-to-hand. If, for instance, the south wind ‘is accepted’ by the farmer as a sign of rain, then this ‘acceptance’ […] is not a sort of bonus over and above which what is already present-at-hand in itself – viz. the flow of air in a definite geographical direction. […] But, one will protest, that which gets taken as a sign must first have become accessible in itself and been apprehended before the sign gets established.”

Here, Heidegger anticipates the key objection to his line. Within phenomenology, he can claim that this is indeed how it appears to us, and we can agree with this. Yet outside, where we can take account of neurological pictures, it seems difficult to support. It simply must be the case that the first event that triggers any kind of process or processing within us is the arrival of photons from external objects at our retinas. There may well be then an immense amount of internal interpretation before the object and what it means is presented to ‘us’, assuming that ‘we’ means the conscious part of our minds and the remainder are the processing elements.

Heidegger can claim that the world is such that the ready-to-hand is ontologically, and that it is not true either that we just have an instantaneous process that selects the ready-to-hand, or even that we have a process that does this in a measurable time but we only respond to the results of this process. It does not look to us as though we do any processing – but to paraphrase Wittgenstein in a different context – how would it look if this were not the case? It would look exactly the same. Heidegger makes his case only within phenomenology and only in the sense of perception – not reality.

See Also:

Equality And Partiality

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

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

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