Are Fictional People Real?

Are Fictional People Real: Introduction

I will answer the question “are fictional people real?” by choosing an example. The question becomes: how can we reconcile the following apparent truths: ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ and ‘Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes’?

In other words, if Sherlock is not real, then did Conan Doyle create anything?



I will argue that the two statements are reconcilable. We can do this on Parsons’s view. It is inspired by a Meinongian ontology. I will assume these views together with Parsons’s classification of fictional properties as ‘nuclear’ and ‘extra-nuclear’. This division of properties into types eliminates the requirement for the view to associate an object with a set of properties {goldenness, mountain-hood, existence} which isimportant as there is no existent golden mountain. I will throughout use italics for the names of properties and braces for sets. The titular question is a well-known problem for views of ficta (fictional objects )since it appears that we believe both claims are true but they seem to be inconsistent. I understand ‘ficta’ to be any object or person described in fiction. I will argue that we can resolve the tension by adopting Parsons’s view of ficta.

Are Fictional People Real: The Problem

The problem with the two statements about Sherlock Holmes is that we want to say that both of them are true but it looks like they cannot both be true at the same time. If it is true that Sherlock does not exist, then we would have to accept that Conan Doyle cre- ated something that does not exist. If so, did he really create something? Some possible responses here seem to lead us into deep waters. In particular, those responses admit- ting that there are ‘different types of truth’ generate a large number of extremely diffi- cult problems which I lack space to discuss here. Other responses consider whether there might be different sorts of existence, and this is the type of response I will be examining. In particular, I will argue that ficta – all fictional entities including characters such as Sherlock Holmes – are non-existent concrete objects.

I consider the case of Sherlock Holmes partly because he is traditionally chosen in the literature. Also, it is partly because he is one of the most well-known fictional characters. In general, I think the argument I make should apply to all fictional characters. A benefit of using the character Holmes is that he is richly and vivaciously specified which would not be true of all characters.

Barg the Dragon

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Imagine that I make up a story about Barg the dragon, and the entire story is: ‘Barg was a dragon. The End.’ The character Barg is woefully under- specified. It is likely that you will make up properties that Barg has that I, the author have not given him. You will probably think that he can fly and breathe fire, for example.

What this brings out is that Barg has impossible properties, which provides an initial indication that fictional characters may just be possible sets of properties, rather than sets of possible properties, as I will set out below. The other relevant questions of interest, which I can only raise and not answer here, is what do we say about the properties that you as reader ascribe to Barg? Are you now the author? Are those properties on the same footing as the ones I gave him?

The Unreliable Narrator

We might also consider in this vein the questions arising from Booth’s concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’ (Booth 1983: 339 et seq). What are we to say about properties ascribed to characters by a narrator who is known to sometimes make false ascriptions? Further, flirting with oxymoron, can we allow that the author may not be authoritative? Irony in fiction also raises questions like this. Currie argues for a pretence theory of irony, wherein fictional characters are pretending to do one thing while actually doing the opposite (Currie 2010).

For example, if Holmes says something to Watson – as he frequently does – like ‘I am once more amazed by the brilliance of your powers of deduction!’ it looks very much like Watson now has the property of “did not exhibit brilliant powers of deduction” even though the text appears to do the exact opposite, before interpretation by us. I will call all of these sorts of question ‘Booth questions’; they will become relevant when we consider the properties characters have. These questions make it plausible that it may not be precisely specified what proper- ties characters have.

Ontologies of Ficta

Returning to the central question, we may examine the ontologies available to us. Both Parsons (1975, 1979) and Meinong (1904) admit non-existent concrete objects to their ontology. These non-existent objects associate with sets of properties. According to Parsons’s view, which I will defend, ficta associate with sets of properties with which no existent object need associate.

Ficta and Sets

The ficta are non-existent concrete objects while the sets, as with all sets, are abstracta. I will assume without argument that abstracta-like sets exist – they are real – but they are not concrete. The term ‘concrete’ refers to all objects that have a determinate location in space-time. I will assume that the division is exhaustive – anything not concrete is abstract.

I will consider some implications of Parsons’s view and some objections to it. Since Parsons’s view opposes Creationism, it will be important to consider arguments for Creationism. That is since to the extent they are successful, they are pro tanto objections to Parsons’s view.

Creationism in relation to ficta holds that authors create them. (We should note, for the avoidance of doubt, that we are not discussing the type of Creationism that opposes evolutionary theories.) Against this, Parsons’s view holds that the sets that associate with ficta are not brought into existence by an act of creation. That is because they do not have existence in the same way that objects in the real world do.

The Mode of Existence of Ficta

The mode of existence that ficta do have is timeless. So authors do not give them that mode of existence. Other sets or abstracta in general also have a timeless mode of existence. Rather, authors specify an abstract object by listing some of its properties.

Are Fictional People Real: Sherlock’s Properties

What Conan Doyle does when he writes about Sherlock Holmes is to specify him. More precisely, Conan Doyle determines some of the properties that Holmes has as a fictional object. This means to determine the properties that are in the set that associates with the term ‘Holmes’.

One of the properties that Holmes has is that he plays the violin. This means that “plays the violin” is one of the properties that is a member of the set that associates with the term ‘Holmes’. Holmes does not play the cello. There is a very similar entity to Holmes – let us call him Cholmes – who shares all of Holmes’s properties with the exception that Cholmes does not play the violin and does play the cello.

According to Parsons’s view of ficta, both are non-existent concrete objects.  One – Holmes – was specified by Conan Doyle and the other – Cholmes – was not1. In the ontology of Parsons’s view, being described by a set of properties is sufficient to be an object. But it is not sufficient to exist. Thus, some items in the world possess the properties blackness and cat-hood, and so there are existent objects in the world which are black cats.

The Golden Mountain

On the other hand, no item in the world possesses the properties of goldenness and mountain-hood. While golden mountains are objects, because that set can be specified, there is no existing golden mountain. Both Cholmes and Holmes also fall into that latter category. They are non-existent objects because there is no object in the world which has all the properties of Holmes or Cholmes.

The Nature of Sets

The sets associated with ficta exist but are not concrete, as are sets in general. This division of the real into the domains of concreta and abstracta together with the observation that we allow of entities in both domains that they exist has a major benefit. The division allows us to reconcile the truth of the two statements in the title. They are both true but in different domains of truth.

When we say that ‘Sherlock Holmes does not exist’, we mean ‘Sherlock Holmes is not a concrete object.’ This is true in the domain of concreta. There is no existent human with all of the specified properties. When we say ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’, we mean that ‘the set that associates with ‘Sherlock Holmes’ was specified by Conan Doyle.” This is also true, but has application in the domain of abstracta2. In the form of a set, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is as real as other sets are3.

Are Fictional People Real: Parsons’s view is not Creationism

We may establish that Parsons’s view is not Creationism by considering the following definition of the latter term.

Creationism: fictional entities ‘are created […] by the authors of the novels in which they first appear’ (Brock 2010: 338).

By this definition, Parsons’s view is not Creationism. Authorial acts do not change ontology and nothing abstract changes its status in terms of existence, lack of existence or mode of existence. A fictional character is a man-made artefact. Parson’s view is anti-Creationist. Several objections have been made generally against all anti-Creationist views. I will seek to show though that Parson’s view is not only distinct from Creationism but superior to it. For this reason, I challenge several of the objections to anti-Creationism below4.


The ‘man-made artefact’ that Parsons’s view recognises is a term whose association was introduced by convention. This term is then like a name. It associates with a set of properties. Thus, Conan Doyle does not create Holmes. Instead, Conan Doyle arranges that ‘Holmes’ associates with a set and determines some of the properties in that set. If it is possible for authors to introduce characters without properties, then they associate a term with an empty set.

Are Fictional People Real: Objections

Property objections

It may be that there is some lack of clarity in the specification of properties. Parsons acknowledges this. This is the basis of a challenge by van Inwagen (1977). The ‘Booth questions’ I listed above would also become relevant here. They seem to allow for exactly this lack of clarity. We can address this by understanding the question as whether a set of properties must contain either a property F or its negation not-F as one of its members.

It is however not the case that a set of properties must contain F or not-F; a set of properties may be incomplete in this way. The purported violation of the laws of logic draws on the intuition that everything is either F or not F. This may be true for all real objects. Even then, that says nothing about what properties must be in a set of properties. The set of properties {mountainhood, goldenness} is a well-constructed set. It does not have either silverness or not-silverness as a member.

The Round Square

Another objection to Parsons’s view is that objects have properties that cannot be instantiated together. As Salmon (1998: 293) writes ‘the Object […], as in the case of the round square, may even have inconsistent properties.’ However, this is to confuse a powerful objection with reference to the actual world with an objection that has no force with reference to the world of sets.

It would indeed be an objection to the existence of an object in the real world to note that it has non-compossible properties. We could for example ask whether the round square has corners or not. Since it is round, it does not. Since it is square, it does. The round square would generate many contradictions, were it to exist. However, this is not what the proponent of Parsons’s view means.

Parsons does not believe that there is a round square in the world. In exactly the same way, he does not believe that the golden mountain has the property of existence. What he does hold is that a non-existent object associates with the set including the properties of roundness and squareness. Since that set exists in the way that sets exist and does not exist in the way that concreta exist, Salmon’s objection fails.

Indeterminacy of identity objection

Parsons’s view is a realist view because the sets associated with ficta are real. Some authors have objected that any realist account of ficta will suffer from a possible situation where it is indeterminate whether two fictional characters are identical. For example, Everett (2005) believes it is indeterminate whether the Faust of Marlowe is identical to that of Goethe. The realist is especially exposed to the problem because indeterminacy of identity cannot apply in the real world.

This objection has no force against Parsons’s view, because it is clear when two characters are identical. In the very unlikely circumstance that two authors specified the

same set by giving their characters exactly the same set of properties, then they are identical characters. Otherwise, they are not.  There is no indeterminacy here at least on the surface.

A Sharper Challenge

The opponent may sharpen their objection here. They may ask whether two characters are identical if all of their specified properties are the same but one of the unspecified ones is not. But bringing this challenge would require a coherent exposition of what it means for a character to have a property that is at once specified and unspecified.

Indeterminate Identity

A similar response is available to the proponent of Parsons’s view if it is urged that a difficulty exists with two characters where within the story it is indeterminate whether they are identical. Again, they are not identical unless they have all the same properties. In the example of Frackworld given by Everett (2005: 629 et seq), there are some ‘striking differences’ between two allegedly indeterminately identical characters.

If we accept Parsons’s view, these differences are sufficient to distinguish the characters. Similarly, there is no indeterminacy about whether a Slynx exists. That is so even in circumstances where it is deliberately left indeterminate as to whether the Slynx exists within that story. According to Parsons’s view, it does exist, as a set.

It could be indeterminate which set associates with the term “Slynx” by the author of a story in which it is indeterminate whether the Slynx exists. Such indeterminacy however is not problematic for Parsons’s view. The indeterminacy is harmless. An indeterminacy with which a set is associated does not involve indeterminacy of identity.

Creativity denial objection

Many defend Creationism by noting our intuition that a great deal of ‘creativity’ is involved in writing fiction. One is highly creative in being the ‘creator’ of a vibrant fictional character. The charge is that Parsons does not give this creativity sufficient weight. If no-one creates the set of properties, there is not enough room for creativity.

Parsons’s view can avoid this charge though. The view does not in any way devalue the ‘creativity’ involved in authoring a novel or other work of art. There can be a great deal of skill and talent involved in specifying the properties of a set. The associated character must be arresting or entertaining.

The author has indeed created something – an association of a term with a pre-existing set. He has in addition exercised artistic skill in selecting which set it shall be. The author does this in virtue of deciding which proper- ties the fictional entity will have.

Creation or Reuse of Terms

One objection here may be to note that according to Parsons’s view, an author may create a term or use a pre-existing term. This frequently happens; authors often write new stories containing ficta from previously written stories. In Parsons’s view, this just means that the term ‘Holmes’ alters its association. It now associates with a new set with some new properties.

The obvious counter supporting Parsons’s view is a ‘first use’ response. Then, an author first associates a term with a set the first time he names a character. Moreover, the set with which a term associates changes every time we give a character a property. It does not occur just the first time. This avoids an asymmetry between first and other uses of a term.

Rigidity mismatch objection

Defenders of Creationism have argued that fictional objects cannot be sets. They say there is a temporal and modal rigidity mismatch between sets and fictions. Walters argues:

[l]iterary fictions […] cannot be identified with any number of concrete instances of the fiction, since no particular instance or instances of a fiction are required for the continued existence of the fiction. This fact also rules out identifying fictions with pluralities [or] sets […] concrete given the temporal and modal rigidity of […] set membership.

Lee Walters (2012: 92)

The objection notes that set membership conditions are temporally and modally rigid. Temporal rigidity means that the identity of a set supervenes on its members at all times. Modal rigidity means that a set has the same elements in any worlds in which it exists. That’s true irrespective of how anything else is or could be. So the two claims amount to the view that in discussing sets, once we have identified a particular set by specifying its members, nothing else affects which set it is.

Rigidity of Sherlock

The mismatch objection then becomes the claim that Sherlock Holmes is not temporally and modally rigid while sets are. If so, then if Conan Doyle had counterfactually specified that Holmes played the cello, then he would still have been talking about the same fictional character.

Yet to say this is to beg the question against Parsons’s view. For the proponent of that view, Sherlock Holmes in one sense is a set, and Conan Doyle would in those circumstances have been talking about Cholmes not Holmes. It is likely that those who are mereological essentialists in relation to concrete objects will also be essentialists in relation to ficta. Holmes could not have been Cholmes. One set could not have been another set.

Holmes and Cholmes

An objector might say it is counterintuitive to argue that Holmes could not have been Cholmes. This objection is a mistake however. It is certainly true that Conan Doyle could have decided that his character could have been a cello player, and he could have named that character ‘Holmes’. What he could not have done though, is change the members of the set originally associated with the term ‘Holmes.’ He could only have associated the term ‘Holmes’ with the set we are now associating with ‘Cholmes’.

Are Fictional People Real: Creationist Claims

Creationists claim correctly that a particular novel could have first been instantiated in a different format. A Study in Scarlet – that very work – could have first been written on a different piece of paper. Parsons’s view can go along with this. But that is not to allow that A Study in Scarlet could have been different. Certainly we can imagine a story with different characteristics. And certainly it could have the name A Study in Scarlet. But the set now associated with that term could only ever have the members it currently has.

This shows how Parsons’s view avoids a cost that the Creationist must pay. Creationists must allow that once created, ficta exist forever. This is the same as saying that time-less objects can come into existence, which is a strange asymmetry. If we can create something, then surely we can destroy it as well.

Is This Strange?

One counter here is to say that this is not so strange. Asymmetries arise in relation to facts about the past, after all. Until a particular event occurred, there was no fact; but once it has, it is always a fact that it has, and nothing could then destroy that fact. However, there is not a close analogy between the actions in the two cases.

Fact Creation

If I create a fact now by acting in a certain way, then perhaps it will be a fact forever that I did so. On the Creationist view, if I create a character now by conducting whatever acts the Creationist specifies as sufficient, that character exists forever. In the former case, I act but I do not act in order to create a fact.

If I create a character on the Creationist view, then I act specifically to create something which is then eternal. This seems quite a potent act of creation for a person to be able to perform: to be able to create deliberately the eternal. On balance, it is more useful to take Parsons’s view, by which ficta are indeed timeless objects and are so at all times, as is appropriate.

Revision of abstract individuals objection

Defenders of Creationism also note that we commonly talk about changes in abstracta. This would be a problem for Parsons’s view. No one creates or changes any abstract items. One purported example of change in abstracta is that we revise the laws of cricket from time to time.

Yet this means not that the abstract object associated with the term ‘the Laws of Cricket’ has changed any of its characteristics. It means that we changed the association of the term. The term now links to a set different from the original set in that the new set includes some new properties reflecting the rule changes. No abstract objects have changed.

(It is no objection here that the term is an abstract object which has changed because it is now associated with a different set. That is because this relational property alteration is merely Cambridge change. It is relational only.)

Analogy to Ficta

This situation is analogous in relation to ficta. No new properties are instantiated nor are any new abstracta created, when Conan Doyle introduces a new property for Holmes. What he does is alter the set associated with the term “Holmes.” This is as opposed to creating or modifying a set. If it is specified in a certain work that Holmes likes cricket, what this means is that the association of the term ‘Holmes’ shifts to a set slightly different set from the previous one. The new set is the one composed of all the properties in the previous set plus the property of “likes cricket.”

Late Revisions

Some people object that Parsons’s view cannot handle a situation where Conan Doyle subsequently revises this property. We could not say which set is associated with the term ‘Holmes’, and in particular, whether it contains the property of “likes cricket.” However, this would again be to confuse the timeless nature of the sets associated with and the changeable nature of the relations of the terms associated with them.

Parsons’s view has a defence in each of the situations mentioned. We explain the process by saying that one set is associated with before the change and a different one afterwards5. Parsons’s view avoids some difficult questions for Creationists; viz., when and how do we create ficta? After all, Brock (2010) founds his challenge to Creationism on the difficulty of these questions. What suffices to create a character? Would a character that just had a name be created? These questions all have straightforward answers in Parsons’s view. No one creates any abstracta at any point. An occurrence of a term associates it with a set. If no properties are specified, then the term is associated with an empty set. As we add properties, the term associates with different sets.

Are Fictional People Real: Further Benefits of the Parsons View

Further benefits abound. There is no indeterminacy about the number of fictional characters, since the proponent of Parsons’s view does not look to actual works of fiction to determine that number. There is no dif- ficulty for Parsons’s view in analysing claims such as ‘the Odysseus of The Odyssey and the Ulysses of Tennyson’s Ulysses are the same fictional character’.

It will be unlikely that they are in fact identical. A necessary condition would be that both authors have arranged that their terms shall refer to the same set i.e. the fictional characters will have the same properties. However, Parsons’s view has no difficulty accommodating the possible truth of claims such as ‘Tennyson’s character was based on the character in The Odyssey’. All such claims reduce to claims about the sets involved. They mean that the two sets associated with the terms by the two authors contain many identical properties.

Are Fictional People Real: Collapse

Finally, Creationism may collapse into something like Parsons’s view under some circumstances. Imagine a computer programme populated with all conceivable properties, and arranged to name an extremely large number of sets of combinations of those properties and print out the results. Presumably then the Creationist universe of abstracta would resemble the Meinongian. It would admittedly not be infinite, but only for contingent reasons relating to the time available to run the programme. That would scarcely suffice for the Creationist to charge the Meinongian with ontological profligacy.

Are Fictional People Real: Conclusion

We can reconcile the two statements in the title may be reconciled by understanding them as follows. ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ means that there are no existent objects with all of the properties in the set of properties associated with the term ‘Sherlock Holmes’. This is true. ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’ means that Conan Doyle through his work specified the set of properties associated with the term ‘Sherlock Holmes’. This is also true. The disambiguation we need of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is between Sherlock Holmes (1) the fictional man in the story, and Sherlock Holmes (2) the set of properties associated with ‘Sherlock Holmes’.

It is true that Sherlock Holmes (1) does not exist because there is no such man in the real world. It is also true though that Sherlock Holmes (2) does exist because Sherlock Hol- mes (2) is a set which has had its elements specified; the set is real. Sherlock Holmes (2) associates with a set specified by Conan Doyle. So there is no conflict between the statements because they refer to different entities: Sherlock Holmes (1) is not identical to Sherlock Holmes (2).

True Negative Existential Statements

We are also now in a position to deal with problems mentioned in the literature in relation to true negative existential statements. Note that one commentator writes that she will ignore true negative existential state- ments such as ‘Iago does not exist’ because theyare‘problematiconeverytheory’(Friend 2007: 143). The fact that Parsons’s view can handle true negative existentials very easily is therefore a major point in its favour. This advantage of course has carried through from the more widely applicable benefit of the Meinongian ontology – as Reicher (2010: 3.1) puts it: ‘[t]he appeal to nonexistent objects thus supplies an elegant solution to the problem of negative singular existentials’ – but is none the less valuable for that.

Empty Terms

The reason for the difficulties is that we seem to be referring to something when we discuss the purportedly ‘empty terms’ of ficta. Moreover, we seem to be referring to distinct objects when we say ‘Zeus is not identical to Pegasus’. The solution is that we are indeed referring to distinct non-existent objects that associate with different existent sets. ‘Zeus’ associates with one set and ‘Pegasus’ with another.

These are different ficta for many reasons including that the first set includes the property is divine and the second set does not. So in this view, we can retain the truth of the negative existen- tial statements. It is true that Zeus is not real, although the set associated with ‘Zeus’ is real – and also the distinction between different unreal objects6.

Parsons’s view is the correct view of ficta and it explains how the two statements in the title question can both be true.


I would like to acknowledge valuable comments from Opticon1826 staff, which considerably improved the set-up and motivation of the argument.


1 We might allow that authors ‘identify’ sets rather than specifying them if we accept that authors associate terms with exactly one set. Alternatively, they specify a group of sets if we include sets with properties not listed by the author as also associated. For example, we might allow the property renate to Holmes even if Conan Doyle makes no mention of this.

2  While it is indeed true that Conan Doyle’s act of specification takes place in the domain of concreta, we are not interested in that. We are interested only in what effects his acts have in terms of associating a term with a set in the domain of abstracta.

3  Even if this runs counter to appearances, that would not count against the view. As Thomasson ( 2003: 205) notes, ‘since there are apparent inconsistencies, any consistent theory must give up appear- ances somewhere’. Some might also object here that it is undesirable to regard ficta as associated with sets. The view commits to statements like “the null set is a subset of Sherlock Holmes.” This does indeed appear undesirable, but only because of our habit of regarding Holmes as a man, who cannot have subsets in any useful sense. When we regard the term ‘Holmes’ as associated with a set, there is no problem. Indeed, if an author names a character but gives him no properties, he associates a term with the null set.

Further Footnotes

4 As Brock (2010: 343) points out, some varieties of Creationism – those defended by Deutsch which hold that specification of a pre-existing character suffices for its creation – will be compatible with Parsons’s view. I will not consider this fur- ther because I agree with Brock that the absence of a new entity means no crea- tion has taken place. Some might deny that Deutsch qualifies as a Creationist because his view is too similar to the one I defend here.

5 A further objection here to Parsons’s view is that if characters associate with sets, and ‘Holmes’ associates with a different set at different times, how do we know that the two Holmes’s are the same character? For lack of space, I cannot go into detail here but authorial intention would play a role in the solution.

6 It might be objected here that an author could write a story about a number that does not exist. For example, an even prime not identical to two is one non-existent topic. What are we saying when we say this does not exist? This is simply dealt with by noting that no concrete or abstract item is an even prime not identical to two. What there is, in Parsons’s view, is a non-existent object which is associated with the set containing the properties is even, is prime and is identical to two.

See Also:

Sherlock Holmes as Enemy of Confirmation Bias

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

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

Nietzsche on Memory Thesis: Opening Material (MPhil)


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How to cite this article: Short, T L 2014 How can we reconcile the following apparent truths: ‘Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes was created by Conan Doyle’? Opticon1826,(16): 8, pp. 1-9, DOI:

Published: 17 April 2014

Copyright: © 2014 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY 3.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See

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Schopenhauer’s Ontology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

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

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

Is Evans’s Axiom On Referents and Sense Useful?


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


Sartre’s Ontology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also:

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

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

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

The Importance Of Forgetfulness For Nietzsche


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

Heidegger’s Ontology


I will answer the question:

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?