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

References

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

References

  • 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?

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

The purpose of the epoche or phenomenological reduction in Husserl’s philosophy is examined, and considered along with whether it can be actually achieved. This is linked to challenges to skepticism but modified with concerns that we should not go to any lengths to combat skepticism.

The concept of the phenomenological reduction is central to the thought of Husserl and can be argued to have a long philosophical pedigree via the epoché (εποχη) of the Greeks and importantly via the program of Descartes. Husserl entitles his work “Cartesian Meditations”, because essentially his project is to revive and renovate Descartes’ foundationalism.

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Among the Greeks, Pyrrho is described by Diogenes Laertius as using the term epoché to mean “introducing the form [of philosophy] consisting of non-cognition and suspension of judgment.”

Descartes sought to use a method of radical disbelief to establish secure foundations for knowledge; the attempt being to find indubitable facts that in turn could support a natural science of the world. Husserl moves on however, as described by Kuspit: “Husserl begins where Descartes ends: with consciousness suspended without its own sanctions for objectivity, purified and thereby certain. The essence of this suspension is epoché; and the beginning of epoché is, as, Husserl makes clear in Ideas, the predication of the possibility ‘to doubt everything’ ”

Husserl’s aim is to arrive at apodictic certainty. This is a level of certitude beyond what one might routinely term certainty; it is possible to be certain in a particular belief and yet be mistaken. Apodictic certainty is superior to this because the concept included the idea that the contradictory is unimaginable. Husserl appears to believe himself to be following Descartes in equating absolute apodictic certainty with indubitability.

The process to be followed in arriving at such apodictic certainty is the phenomenological reduction, which seeks to eliminate all that is not directly given. This is surely necessary to such a process, though being necessary does not make it necessarily possible. We can see why the reduction is necessary by considering with Quine the gross asymmetry between a “meager input and torrential output”, by which he means the significant amount of internal encrustation that appears to be added to the two dimensional visual field.

That field is all we can observe using the visual sense, and yet we seem to be able to produce a vast array of additional ‘commentary’ including statements about the third dimension and the likely history. Surely we can agree with Husserl that the attempt to eliminate these additions, which may be artifacts of our consciousness, is necessary to finding any apodictic truth. In Husserl’s own terms, “It is necessary to say that the reduction has apodictic significance, since it shows apodictically that the being of the transcendental Ego is antecedent to the being of the world.” This means that because some element of the Ego forms part of the phenomenological residuum that remains, after the reduction has taken the world ‘out of play’, it is prior to the world since that is in its entirety no longer in consideration.

We can picture the reduction in its visual incarnation as being like an attempt to see only colors and perhaps shapes without the immediately attendant and apparently automatic resolution by, as we know now, our visual cortices into objects at range with volume and a slew of attendant ‘assumptions’. It is immediately clear that there is a serious question as to whether this is actually possible or whether it can only be considered as a thought experiment.

The reduction achieves the remarkable feat of being simultaneously banally obvious and deeply shocking. We are to take what we see as it is and not as something else. This is obvious in one sense because surely any other course of action would involve the smuggling in of potentially unwarranted non-perceived items. It is shocking once we realize the vast amount of what we commonly take for granted is thus eliminated.

One forerunner of the frequently used slogan for the reduction as being equivalent to ‘putting the world in brackets’ can be seen when Husserl writes of “this universal depriving of acceptance” as being equivalent to the “‘parenthesizing’ of the Objective world”. This is a substantial departure from the line taken by Descartes. It is possible to accept at face value Descartes’ claim that he will resolve to doubt everything. Alternatively, it can be viewed more as a method than a fact; it is after all, unclear to what extent if any we are in control of our beliefs. Schmitt refers back to Husserls’ background to explain this bracketing terminology: “Husserl draws his metaphor from mathematics where we place an expression in brackets and put a + or – sign in front of it. By thus bracketing the objective world we “give it a different value”. Schmitt could continue that by use of brackets, we could also multiply an entire series of combined terms by zero.

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Hume famously speaks of the skeptical doubts engendered in him by philosophical study as being dispelled by ordinary life including billiards, wine and friends. So both of those philosophers may be regarded, along with other members of their pre-Husserlian traditions, as being oscillatory in their belief status. Husserl on the other hand maintains a stable agnosticism; he seeks to remove the world from consideration rather than doubt it in order to cease doubting it. There seems much less scope to claim that Husserl is not able to restrict his focus in this way than to argue that Descartes does not really exercise a universal doubt.

Perhaps another useful approach to the reduction is to see it as an attempt to find a precise demarcation of the contours of the subjective and isolate the boundary thereof with the objective. Only in this way can one hope to achieve a scientific view by understanding what is true for everyone and what our consciousness, and theirs, has added, this latter being for Husserl suspect and to be removed from consideration.

Two significant elements of Husserl as an individual can be introduced that may provide useful background to his philosophy and the reduction which is at its heart as the first methodological principle. Firstly, he made a decision as a mature adult to convert to Christianity. Secondly, he had a strong scientific background, studying astronomy and mathematics at university and later wrestling with the decision as to whether to continue in mathematics or devote himself to philosophy.

This first factor can suggest a desire to attack skepticism and the corrosive effects that it could have on human behavior. For Husserl, it seems that skepticism represented an actual quasi-moral danger rather than an interesting intellectual exercise. He also compared the decision to undergo or undertake the reduction as akin to a religious upheaval, which can indicate its difficulty, its importance, its consequences and perhaps a certain evangelical inspiration on its behalf.

The second factor can suggest that Husserl would have liked to take a line redolent of Spinoza, starting with the reduction as a (producer of a) fundamental axiom and proceeding thence in impeccable Euclidian format to all the knowledge of natural science. There is a link here back to the reduction. As D Moran puts it, “nothing factual need exist at all for the geometer who is concerned only with essential possibilities”; likewise the phenomenologist does not need the world.

A D Smith claims that Husserl distinguishes the epoché from the transcendental reduction; with the former being the aim of the latter. In the epoché, we bracket the world, while in the reduction, we restrict our attention to that which is phenomenologically given. Clearly the epoché is closely linked to the reduction and necessary to it on this reading.

One common understanding of the process of the reduction relies on Husserl’s concept of noema, in which he revived a Greek term meaning the content of an intentional act, and wherein intentional is used in its technical sense to mean referring to or pointing at. A noema refers in some way to an object in the world. We could then see the reduction as being a dissociation of the intentional act or thought from its noema; it is important to note that this dissociation is not the same as one that would sever a noema from an external object. Hintikka makes the contrary point however, that we cannot imagine a relation without having an idea of both of its relata, in the way that drawing a line on a map from London to another place [x] is a process which makes no sense and cannot be begun unless we know the name and location of [x]. Again, this argument can be seen as part of a line-drawing exercise being conducted by Husserl, albeit an exercise of some importance, since a correct placement of the boundary will result in a method of approaching objective truth, if successful.

One of Husserl’s own slogans, which is relevant in the context of trying to understand the reduction, was ‘to the things themselves’. This however can be highly misleading and needs to be appreciated with a substantial measure of Kantian transcendent sensibility. It is worth noting that Husserl saw attaining a ‘transcendent’ perspective as central to his endeavor; this very Kantian term should serve to suggest that the things in question may not be what they seem and in fact may not be there at all. A D Smith believes that Husserl’s view is that the transcendental perspective is one in which we understand fully the constituting role consciousness plays in creating our perceptions and in fact the world. Kant holds that the noumenal world of things in themselves is forever and in toto inaccessible to us, yet he still claims they exist. For Kant, we can only have access to the phenomenal world, that of how things seem to us: this is what Husserl seeks to examine, to this he calls our attention in the slogan and for this reason he is the founder of phenomenology.

See Also:

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

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

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

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

References

  • Richard Bett, ‘What Did Pyrrho Think about “The Nature of the Divine and the Good”?’ Phronesis, Vol. 39, No. 3 (1994), pp. 303-337
  • Donald B. Kuspit, ‘Epoché and Fable in Descartes’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Sep., 1964), pp. 30-51
  • W V Quine, ‘Naturalized Epistemology’, in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, New York, Columbia University Press, 1969
  • E Husserl, ‘Cartesian Meditations’, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, p. 18
  • E Husserl, ‘Cartesian Meditations’, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999, p. 20
  • R Schmitt, ‘Husserl’s Transcendental-Phenomenological Reduction’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Dec., 1959), pp. 238-245
  • D Hume, ‘Treatise of Human Nature’, http://pge.rastko.net/, Volume One, p. 457
  • B Smith and D W Smith, eds, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Husserl’, Introduction
  • D Moran, ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, Routledge 2000, p. 135
  • A D Smith, ‘Husserl and the Cartesian Meditations, Routledge 2003, p. 27
  • B Smith and D W Smith, eds, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Husserl’, Cambridge University Press, 1999, Chapter Two

 

Links Between Schopenhauer And Apocalypse Now

The link is Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. The movie is inspired by the book. Schopenhauer was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland while Conrad was from a Polish family in Ukraine. The German philosopher was an influence, along with Nietzsche, on Conrad’s writing, with the inevitability and futility of struggle being prominent in the writings of all three.

Heart of Darkness

The story is told in flashback by Marlow, an English sea dog currently moored on the Thames. He is first shown to us in a Buddha-like pose. Schopenhauer cited his three major influences as being Plato, Kant and the Upanishads. The latter are Hindu scriptures which I understand have some common elements with Buddhism including the beliefs that the world is an illusion, and hence not particularly worth getting involved with, and a generally non-theistic approach.

Marlow retails the story of how he was dispatched to the Belgian Congo by an ivory trading company. His mission is to find an apparently rogue ivory agent, Mr Kurtz, who has ‘gone native’ and is no longer to be counted a member of civilized society. The irony of this maintenance of a moral hierarchy in a world in which slavery, death and exploitation are normal, is stark. Kurtz has become more effective than normal ivory agents, dispatching more than all the rest of them combined, but is doing so by using ‘unacceptable’ methods. This despite the Company, which is sinister and unnamed beyond that, engaging in random shelling of the bush.

A long, slow and extremely difficult journey up the river begins. More and more of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ are dispensed with as the journey progresses, with human activity being restricted to the essential. Marlow finally arrives to be greeted by a motley figure in harlequin patches. This is a Russian trader who has come completely under the spell of Kurtz.

Kurtz is some type of ‘universal genius’ with a talent for poetry. He is deeply charismatic and is worshiped as a god by the natives. Conrad describes this mostly through listing its effects and the deepening fascination of Marlow for the agent as he learns more both about his exploits and the complete moral bankruptcy and ineffectual nature of the Company’s operations. Everything about Kurtz is a lie – even his name. We are reminded that this is the German for ‘Short’, and yet the man himself is seven feet tall – not least in impact.

Apocalypse Now

The movie also takes place entirely in flashback, although this is less explicit here than in the book. The protagonist Capt. Willard has been dispatched upriver in Vietnam to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the command of Col. Kurtz. The problem that senior officers and the CIA – known as ‘the Company’ – have with Kurtz is that he has become too effective by using unorthodox methods. He is no longer taking orders, because he has realized that this is not the most effective way forward.

Willard also spends an immense amount of time moving slowly up the river into the Heart of Darkness accompanied by a crew of lost souls and misfits. He finally reaches Col. Kurtz’s station and is greeted by Dennis Hopper, who is a photographer analogous to the Russian trader acolyte of Mr Kurtz the ivory agent. It is true of both characters that they are half crazed, obsessed by Kurtz and both talk much to much. This is because they have no one else to talk to – one doesn’t talk with Kurtz, one listens – and so they fill the silence with babble.

“He could have gone for General, but he went for himself instead.” Col. Kurtz has turned his back on the military hierarchy despite being a third generation graduate of West Point with possibilities of much greater further promotion. Kurtz has realized that the purity and futility of the struggle means that victory is meaningless but in any case will only be reached by those having the most pure accommodation with evil.
When Willard finally reaches Kurtz, the latter illustrates the point with the story of an inoculation trip into a Vietnamese village. They complete the mission but come back after the Vietcong have also been to the village, and they find a neat pile of severed five-year old right arms. This is the purity Kurtz means.

We learn from IMDB the following: “The photojournalist quotes two T.S. Eliot poems. In a late scene in the film, a slow pan over a table in Kurtz’s room shows a copy of “From Ritual to Romance”, a book by Jessie Weston that inspired Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland”. Indeed, Eliot’s epigraph to The Hollow Men begins “Mistah Kurtz – he dead”. And here is Kurtz reciting the poem. Kurtz is the archetypal hollow man, bereft of faith and morality. But can we judge that, without ourselves assuming a moral standpoint? Is it not true that Kurtz is just more clearly sighted than the rest of us?

Schopenhauer

The central theme of Schopenhauer, explored initially in his masterwork The World as Will and Representation, is that the world presents itself in two aspects, only one of which, The Will, is real. It is an endless pointless striving, with some comparability to the concept of energy. So a stone or a tree are both manifestations of The Will – but it is important to understand that Schopenhauer does not mean that the stone decides in some way to fly through the air or roll over in a stream.

The Will exists in the noumenal realm and is Schopenhauer’s characterization of the thing-in-itself of Kant. The extrusions of The Will into the phenomenal realm are the objects and persons to be seen there. The application of space and time to experience allow for individuation; in the noumenal realm The Will is undivided. Thus we ourselves create the individuation that makes conflict possible and inevitable. Different elements of The Will feed on each other without knowing that they attack different aspects of themselves. We are also therefore the source of evil. This must be true, because in the absence of moral facts, we create all values. The contact here with the film is with the story of the severed arms. Within one value system, that of the Americans, this is abhorrent. Within that of the Vietcong, the loss of the arms is a necessary sacrifice to the greater goal of expelling the Americans. While our sympathies may lie on one side or the other of this question, it is important to understand that no correct answer can be derived from logic or anywhere else. The struggle and the apparent evil cannot be avoided, but are without meaning. Col. Kurtz comes closest to realizing this.

The musician Wagner never met Schopenhauer, but idolized him. According to Bryan Magee, Wagner and Cosima would read Schopenhauer most nights. Some elements of Wagner’s librettos play on darkness in a Schopenhauerean sense which is confusing because it will be the opposite of the normal connotations of darkness as being related to ignorance and danger. The ‘enlightenment’ is a byword for increased knowledge. Whereas for Schopenhauer, following Plato and the Upanishads, studying the world of appearance is the opposite of enlightening because it is illusory. We are to seek redemption and truth and The Will in the darkness. Thus the doomed lovers in Tristan and Isolde seek to be united forever in the darkness, which makes little sense without noting the Schopenhauerean subtext. Wagner is a central motif in perhaps the most famous sequence of the film: The Ride of the Valkyries. Music was of the first importance for Schopenhauer. He believed that it represented a direct copy of The Will, but this is confusing since he adored music but saw The Will as the source of all the world’s suffering.

Schopenhauer’s advocated solution to the problems presented by the inevitable conflict brought about by the extrusion of The Will into the phenomenal realm is somewhat self-contradictory, in that he suggests a Zen-like suppression of desire. This seems to involve The Will deciding to will no more. What would this leave behind, if not an unmotivated Hollow Man?

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

#Narcissism and #Unexpected Behaviour

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

Spinoza’s Style Of Argument In Ethics I

Kerviel: The SocGen Rogue Trader And What Is Surprising About How He Got Away With It

Jerome Kerviel, accused of being a rogue trader, is now on trial. SocGen lost $7bn in the incident which heads the list of major trading losses.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_trading_losses

How did he do it?

This is actually a very similar situation to Nick Leeson at Barings – number 11 in the top list. They were both involved in forms of arbitrage, which exploits tiny differences in price which ‘shouldn’t’ really be there. In fact, pricing theory fairly obviously requires that there can’t be a price difference between two identical items. If that were false – say if one loaf of bread had a different price to an identical one – then I could make a risk free profit by buying at the low price and selling at the high price. And there can’t be a risk free profit because everyone would pile in. You can see that what would happen would be that the prices would equalise.

Now this is what the arbitrageurs exploit. It all hinges on what ‘identical’ means. Not quite identical introduces some risk. Leeson was buying one product in Osaka and selling the same product in Singapore. Clearly if the product is the same, exactly, there is no risk. You might ask what might cause a price difference – there might be transient local factors such as someone big in Osaka decides to buy something. And then there could be a delay before Singapore catches up. And that catch-up process is exactly what the arbs do.

Kerviel was involved in arbing equity index futures and underlying equities. Equities are stocks, indices are groups of stocks like the FTSE-100 and equity index futures is just a bet on where the FTSE-100 will be in six months from now. Clearly you can do that on a risk free basis if you, say, sell the index and buy all the stocks in it. [Incidentally, if you want to be an insider trader but don’t want to go to prison, maybe you could buy an index in which the stock you can’t trade figures and then sell everything in the index except the one you aren’t allowed to trade…but I don’t recommend it…]

Why is it dangerous?

There are two common factors between this case and Leeson. In both, the alleged misdeeds were possible because the trader and the back office person were effectively the same person. Leeson actually did his own monitoring, an extraordinary failure which rightly cost the jobs of many at Barings. I could go further and say it was so remarkable that everyone involved in the company deserved to lose all their cash, but I know there were lots of Barings debentures held by grannies and I suspect we can’t expect them to have known what they were doing. While Kerviel came from back office himself and knew the control systems and would have known how to defeat them. I also will claim that back office types are rather easy for front office traders to browbeat and this history will have played a part in Kerviel’s psychology and the desire to get somewhere fast.

Secondly, because you are exploiting tiny price differences, you need to trade in vast amounts. And all the time. The control problem comes when you do not have offsetting equal and opposite trades but wind up taking huge uncovered positions. Leeson sorted this out with a fax purportedly evidencing a large receivable from a hedge fund. Towards the end, he was drawing in funding from all over Asia, which should have alerted someone.

What is odd about this case?

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You can’t make large amounts of money from arbitrage. You just can’t, because risk and reward are closely linked. You can see from the loaf of bread example that that has to be true. So if you are a manager in an I-bank, you need to get very concerned if your arbitrage desk is making large profits.

Now this leads to the strange consequence that Kerviel must have been concealing large profits. And this is what you see.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100608/ts_nm/us_socgen_kerviel

“During the largely procedural first day of the trial, Kerviel’s lawyer said Societe Generale would have been clearly able to see data showing Kerviel’s extraordinary profits of 1.4 billion euros at the end of 2007”

Note that this is profit not revenue, and that SocGen as a whole might typically make a net profit around EUR600m in a quarter. Do you think you could spot Kerviel in there?

“Seated on a plastic chair in front of rows of lawyers in black garb, the ex-trader said his annual salary at Societe Generale was 48,000 euros in 2006 with an annual bonus of 60,000 euros”

Now that is not a lot of money for traders. They might typically expect to make 5% to 10% of what they produce, or more in some cases where they are reliably producing large returns. Apparently Kerviel was expecting to make EUR300,000 for 08, on a declared profit of EUR60m. That’s a 0.5% return. You can see that this is not enough. Someone with that type of track record could just set up on their own, use the track record to raise funds, and trade themselves for maybe 50%. There is another type of arb there.

The GBPEUR exchange rate in 07 was 0.67, so we are talking about someone earning a salary of £32k. This is not far north of what we used to pay graduate trainees in London. So what we have here is someone being paid back office amounts, a French I-bank culture in which you shouldn’t really pay very much or have high quality people, and back office resentment of the flash and the furious.

“Lawyers also read a transcript of a conversation between Kerviel and SocGen’s ex-investment bank chief Jean-Pierre Mustier when the scandal broke, in which Mustier reportedly said: “If you won 1.4 billion euros, that means you’re very good. What you did was a pain, but it’s not a big deal.”

If Kerviel can make that out, then Mustier has failed in a stunning way to understand what arbitrage is. It is a French word, after all. It may be difficult to see how Kerviel can avoid jail, but he cannot have been on his own in this one.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

The Late Evaluation Effect And Financial Markets

The Psychology of Successful Trading: see clip below of me explaining my new book!

The RMT Is Right, Just This Once

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