Friday, November 6, 2009

On trying to read Schopenhauer

Earlier this year Klaus Rohde made a number of posts about the ideas of Schopenhauer, the famous philosopher. I read one of the essays Klaus recommended on Schopenhauer’s thought and wrote a response to it.

I also read a book of extracts from Schopenhauer's ‘Parerga and Paralipomena’ in English and wrote two documents outlining some of the places where I agreed with what Schopenhauer said in the extracts, and some of the places where I disagreed with him.

But Schopenhauer wrote a magnum opus- practically the archetype of the magnum opus- outlining his mature thought, ‘The World as Will and Appearance’, which takes up three volumes in our library, and to argue about what he thought without reading it is really very lazy. So I thought I would have a go. I got out volume one, skipped the preface, and started wading in.

Unfortunately I did not get very far. And oddly enough I got hung up at the same point that a friend of mine got hung up on at the onset of ‘Mere Christianity’, by C. S. Lewis, when I lent it to him as an undergraduate. I rejected Schopenhauer’s initial argument, the foundation of the whole three volumes. The ‘oddly enough’ is because it was the identical initial argument of ‘Mere Christianity’- the assertion that consciousness is inexplicable by materialism. Lewis argues that consciousness is an irruption of the supernatural other into the natural universe, and from that goes on the derive Christianity; Schopenhauer argues that consciousness is the fundamental fact of the universe, the ultimate reality that generates the world of appearances around us, and that data from that world of appearances cannot explain consciousness.

I reject solipsism- the argument that the only data point I have is my own consciousness, therefore only I exist- because it is fruitless; you can’t do anything with it. It is an idea that leads nowhere and achieves nothing.

The idea that consciousness in general, as opposed to ‘my consciousness’ is the fundamental fact of the universe requires the existence of other minds.

How do we know these other minds exist? By observations we make of the world of appearances. So we must base our understanding of mind in general not only on the one data point we truly have access to, inside our own heads, but on how we observe mind to be manifested in space and time within this world of appearances. I think we cannot do this and fail to observe that mind is an emergent property. There is no sudden transition from things that are conscious to things that are not. We see insects displaying apparently conscious behaviour that we can model with a simple circuit. As we traverse the angora shawl of being*, more and more complex organisms display more and more complex behaviours, which we can explain more and more tentatively in terms of mechanistic inputs producing certain outputs. Eventually we get to us. Made out of the same kind of stuff, with a nervous system obviously just a more complicated version of the same nervous system the bugs have.

I think consciousness is just what a system of registering and reacting to sense impressions looks like from inside. A simple system, where we can see and understand that it is completely deterministic, might still feel like something from the inside. It might feel, to the moth, as if it chooses to dive toward the light.

It feels to me that I am composed of sense impressions and memories of sense impressions, and that there is nothing else. This no longer bothers me. (Of course you can come back and say: ‘Who is this ‘me’ who is feeling, Chris? Who is this ‘me’ who is no longer bothered?’ But this I will reject as mere semantic gymnastics, arguing about words rather than things.)

So I reject Schopenhauer’s fundamental division of the world into Mind and Matter. Solipsism is not rendered less vacuous and fruitless if Will, some fundamental thing underlying all consciousness, replaces my individual consciousness.

I went back some months later and had another go at ‘The World as Will and Appearance’. This time, I tried to do things properly and started with the preface. It reminded my strongly of the pretentious author’s note quoted in ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief’”:


Author's note: It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The intellectual content of these stories, taken without break, may cause brain damage. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

ARTHUR BYRON COVER, The Platypus of Doom and Other Nihilists



Really. Schopenhauer says that the entire book of ‘The World as Will and Appearance’ was the shortest way he could find to write what he wanted to say, that it was impossible to summarise, and that I would have to read the whole thing to grasp his idea. Now, I am not of the opinion that every idea can be squeezed into a thirty-second soundbite, but this seems to me just a teensy bit ridiculous. All the really big ideas that really are ideas can be squeezed down into something small enough for us to get our heads around. This does not mean that there are not lifetimes of work in unpacking everything that is involved with and implied by

‘It is impossible to convert heat completely into work in a cyclic process.’

Or

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’

Or

‘The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides’

…but all these really big ideas can be expressed in a few little words. Claiming that your idea is bigger than all these ideas is up there on the angora shawl of pretentiousness with Mr Cover and his Platypus of Doom.

The other thing Schopenhauer told me in the preface was that ‘The World as Will and Appearance’ was intended as an extended gloss on his earlier essay, ‘On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason’, and should be read in conjunction with it, and that it was useless- Useless, I tell you! – to read his magnum opus without having first read ‘On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason’. I dutifully went back to the library to find it. But it was not there.

Right next to the works of Schopenhauer that were on the shelf was a slim book by Schrödinger, ‘My View of the World’. I took it home as a consolation prize.

Curiously, I found that it was not only next to Schopenhauer in alphabetical space, but in idea space. It contained what appeared to me to be practically the same Vedic philosophy of the primacy of mind.

He says, in a fine and honest way in his opening remarks, that there is very little about physics in his book, and that is because he came to his ideas about the nature of reality before he ever got into quantum mechanics: he was already marinated in the same ancient Hindu ideas that Schopenhauer had discovered and embraced so enthusiastically. I have taken the book back to the library already, so I can’t quote you the quote I wanted to quote you,*** but Wikipedia tells me: ‘At an early age, Schrödinger was strongly influenced by Schopenhauer. As a result of his extensive reading of Schopenhauer's works, he became deeply interested throughout his life in color theory, philosophy, perception, and eastern religion, especially Vedanta.’

Schrödinger did not ‘discover’ all the New Agey hippy-dippiness in Quantum Mechanics; he brought it with him. It was part of his worldview while he was figuring things out about the world of appearances, and he fit them in where they fit in his personal philosophy - and there we have one root of the muddle we are in now.

So I still have not read Schopenhauer’s Magnum Opus. Which is sad, since as Schrödinger says in a possibly apocryphal quote I found on the web just now: ‘If you cannot - in the long run - tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing has been worthless.’ I have not given up. But I have gathered enough, I think, to sum up my disagreement with Schopenhauer in a table contrasting him with the most useful and clear-headed philosopher since Aristotle and my personal favourite, 'the one American philosopher that could sing outdoors', Charles Sanders Peirce**:


*: This is my ad hoc replacement for the ‘chain’ or ‘ladder’ of being, which is what I really want to say, but which I am too conditioned by my reading of Stephen Jay Gould to dream of saying.


**: I have doctored this Hilaire Belloc poem to show you how to pronounce his name, in case you don't know:

***: Actually, I didn't take it back to the library, I lost it on my own bookshelves! Here is the quote: Not a word here is said of acausality, wave mechanics, indeterminacy relations, complementarity, an expanding universe, continuous creation, etc. ... On this I can cheerfully justify myself: because I do not think that these things have as much connection as is currently supposed with a philosophical view of the world. ... In 1918, when I was thirty-one, I had good reason to expect a chair of theoretical physics at Czernowitz ... I was prepared to do a good job lecturing on theoretical physics ... but for the rest, to devote myself to philosophy, being deeply imbued at the time with the writings of Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Mach, Richard Semon and Richard Avenarius.

12 comments:

Klaus Rohde said...

"I think consciousness is just what a system of registering and reacting to sense impressions looks like from inside."

Exactly, and that is what Schopenhauer says.

Chris Fellows said...

I don't think that is what Schopenhauer says. What I have said is materialist, starting with an objective material world as the only useful working hypothesis, and dispenses with the 'subject' as an unimportant epiphenomenon: while Schopenhauer is all about the primacy of the subject.

Here is a big long quote, "Schopenhauer on the Absurdity of Materialism":

"The objective method [i.e. the method of philosophy which starts from the object and proceeds to the subject] can be developed most consistently and carried farthest when it appears as materialism proper. It regards matter, and with it time and space, as existing absolutely, and passes over the relation to the subject in which alone all this exists. Further, it lays hold of the law of causality as the guiding line on which it tries to progress, taking it to be a self-existing order or arrangement of things, veritas aeterna, and consequently passing over the understanding, in which and for which alone causality is. It tries to find the first and simplest state of matter, and then to develop all others from it, ascending from mere mechanisms to chemistry, to polarity, to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Supposing this were successful, the last link of the chain would be animal sensibility, that is to say knowledge; which, in consequence, would then appear as a mere modification of matter, a state of matter produced by causality. Now if we had followed materialism thus far with clear notions, then, having reached its highest point, we should experience a sudden fit of inexhaustible laughter of the Olympians. As though waking from a dream, we should all at once become aware that its final result, produced so laboriously, namely knowledge, was already presupposed as the indispensable condition at the very first starting-point, at mere matter. ... Thus the tremendous petitio principii disclosed itself unexpectedly, for suddenly the last link showed itself as the fixed point, the chain as a circle, and the materialist was like Baron von Munchhausen who, when swimming in water on horseback, drew his horse up by his legs, and himself by his upturned pigtail. Accordingly, the fundamental absurdity of materialism consists in the fact that it starts from the objective; it takes an objective something as the ultimate ground of explanation, whether this be matter in the abstract simply as it is thought, of after it has entered into the form empirically given, and hence substance, perhaps the chemical elements together with their primary combinations. Some such thing it takes as existing absolutely and in itself, in order to let organic nature and finally the knowing subject emerge from it, and completely to explain these; whereas in truth everything objective is already conditioned in such manifold ways by the knowing subject with the forms of its knowing, and presupposes these forms; consequently it wholly disappears when the subject is thought away."

- Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, sect. 7 (tr. E.F. J. Payne)

n.a.m. said...

Prior to your argument from objectivity is a necessary filtration of gathered sense data into the consciousness, in order to parse, abstract from and assimilate it, so therefore primacy of the subject is a warranted conclusion. Actually, I think your chosen quote of Schopenhauer's qualifies what Klaus suggests, rather than what you suggest. How would you be able to assimilate sense data in the first place? Every "thing" is expressed as a relation to another "thing"; we become more proficient in this as we present more "things" and "combinations of things" to our consciousness. Further, one should understand that reality is simply *presented* to us piecemeally, this is just our necessary mode of data assimilation, and this process also informs our concepts of time, space and causality, which themselves are mechanisms for expressing quantifiable relationships in the domain of phenomena such as: relative movement, relative position and outcomes of proximally significant interactions (causality). It is a grave error to assume that these necessary "mental divisions" are a reflection of reality objectified. Your cursory "understanding" of Schopenhauer's work betrays how deep human obliviousness runs with particular regard to the anthropocentrically-skewed underpinnings of scientific paradigms in general.

Chris Fellows said...

Thank you for your comments, n.a.m! I shall overlook your scare quotes.

The primacy of the subject is not an unwarranted conclusion; but it is a fruitless and sterile conclusion, because the only subject whose primacy is warranted is 'I', which leads to solipsism. The existence of other minds, and hence 'mind' in general, cannot be concluded without allowing that our sense perceptions give us some indication of something that is out there, whether 'I' exists to perceive it or not.

You say: Further, one should understand that reality is simply *presented* to us piecemeally, this is just our necessary mode of data assimilation, and this process also informs our concepts of time, space and causality, which themselves are mechanisms for expressing quantifiable relationships in the domain of phenomena such as: relative movement, relative position and outcomes of proximally significant interactions (causality). It is a grave error to assume that these necessary "mental divisions" are a reflection of reality objectified.

I don't know; is it not no less a grave error to assume that these 'necessary' mental divisions do not reflect (if through a glass, darkly) an objective reality? You seem to be making a dogmatic assertion about something in which we must of necessity be agnostic, and with reference to which we can therefore only judge ideas on the grounds of whether they are useful or not. I make no explicit assertions about the fundamental nature of objective reality, nor of how closely our perceptions of it reveal its nature; only that presuming it to exist is a much more fertile presumption than presuming the primacy of the subject. For some millennia great nations have followed Schopenhauer's philosophy; and they have prospered and achieved to the extent that they have not followed it- to the extent that they have, they are still a gaggle of naked fakirs squatting on the muddy shores of the Ganga.

Once we allow that our sense perceptions to some extent (though it be through a glass, darkly) reflect a reality that is really there, then it seems to me inescapable that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of no great importance.

n.a.m. said...

Chris -

Sorry for my lack of clarity. "Primacy of subject", which was actually cribbed from you, is not what I actually meant, nor do I take Schopenhauer to have held that belief. I meant to draw attention back to the importance of the subject. I meant that subjective consciousness is necessarily prior to forming even the most basic thoughts and comparisons from data presented to our senses. This data is first parsed and mapped, based on our 3 innate tools of intellect (time, space and causality, themselves subconscious abstractions based on observations of prior syntheses of various phenomenal manifestations of reality-in-itself), then "re-presented" to our consciousness as the seemingly continuous image of the world as we know to be. As a result of this interplay, we cannot disentangle the subjective interference from our observations of the apparent manifestations of the singular object-in-itself. Let me ask you this: what do you think happens with the sense data immediately after you absorb it from your environment? Does it bypass the observer's biological defects, biases and handicaps and insert itself directly and objectively into the mind as a complete facsimile of reality? Of course it doesn't, as evidenced by various tools that push the limits of our sensory experience; we are constantly discovering manifestations of reality existing at magnitudes that would otherwise be unreachable to our unaided senses, thereby forcing an alteration of the materialist worldview on a regular basis.

Further, Schopenhauer never claims that object is actually subordinated to subject, because his prior and more central claim is of reality as a unity: the thing-in-itself. With this unity as a backdrop, it makes sense to speak of the collective subjectivity as referring back to a unity, albeit chaotically and indirectly, and perhaps most importantly, blindly. Only in this strained sense could this be considered solipsism.

You: "...is it not no less a grave error to assume that these 'necessary' mental divisions do not reflect (if through a glass, darkly) an objective reality? You seem to be making a dogmatic assertion about something in which we must of necessity be agnostic..."

On the contrary, I am trying to undo the dogmatic assertions of working scientists the world over, by supporting a concept about reality that is more logically cohesive, and more conducive to free thought by virtue of its recognition of these anthropocentric defects that are casually allowed to exist, unchecked, unprodded and unchallenged within the philosophical bowels of science proper. Your parenthetical: (if through a glass, darkly) means a lot more than you may realize, with regard to this discussion.

I think the real problem here is that you are commenting on Schopenhauer's concepts without having familiarized yourself with them, otherwise you would realize that you are missing the mark.

Half-baked rhetoric like:
"For some millennia great nations have followed Schopenhauer's philosophy; and they have prospered and achieved to the extent that they have not followed it- to the extent that they have, they are still a gaggle of naked fakirs squatting on the muddy shores of the Ganga..."

is not as pragmatic as a working scientist might like to believe. When you don't or can't know, you resort to rhetoric, which is a symptom of an argument from ignorance.

Besides, all of the paradigm-shifting scientists were philosophers first.

I wonder what Einstein would have thought about the nature of subjective interference with the phenomena of reality... Maybe he would have rubbed his bust of Schopenhauer, while it sat, alone on his desk.

n.a.m. said...

And thank you for taking the time to respond to me in the first place, brother. I enjoy fruitful engagement, and hopefully you do as well.

Chris Fellows said...

I think the real problem here is that you are commenting on Schopenhauer's concepts without having familiarized yourself with them, otherwise you would realize that you are missing the mark.

That is quite possibly true; but I have spent a great deal of time *trying* to familiarise myself with Schopenhauer's concepts, much more time than I spent familiarising myself with Peirce's ideas, and it seems to me that Schopenhauer does not perhaps make his ideas as clear as would be ideal. The fact that he spent fifty years beetling away at the same idea trying to make it clear, and couldn't achieve any more clarity, makes me leery.

Does it bypass the observer's biological defects, biases and handicaps and insert itself directly and objectively into the mind as a complete facsimile of reality?

No- rather it inserts itself, if allowed, into the observer's biological machinery and allows it to respond to reality. When I am driving, when I am typing now, when I am pressing the buttons on the pretend guitar to play 'Band Hero', sense impressions are largely bypassing whatever part of me is a conscious observer and my body is carrying out certain actions. This is how I see sense impressions acting in insects, lizards, sheep, etc. every day without the necessity for consciousness, and hence my assertion of the unity of the universe - as matter.

I am trying to undo the dogmatic assertions of working scientists the world over, by supporting a concept about reality that is more logically cohesive, and more conducive to free thought by virtue of its recognition of these anthropocentric defects that are casually allowed to exist, unchecked, unprodded and unchallenged within the philosophical bowels of science proper. Your parenthetical: (if through a glass, darkly) means a lot more than you may realize, with regard to this discussion.

Perhaps I share this vision more than you realise. Have you read the documents I link to that also came out of my discussions with Klaus?

Half-baked rhetoric...

That rhetoric was prepared according to the instructions on the packet and is fully baked!

(Note that by attacking the form of what I said, rather than the nugget of perfectly decent content in the middle - viz., that Schopenhauer considered his philosophy to be an embodiment of a Vedic worldview that has made a negligible contribution to the world's moral or material progress - you too are resorting to an ad hominem argument from ignorance.)

Dialogue is very much more interesting than monologue. If no-one ever disagreed with me I should believe the same things today as I did when I was 21, which would be a terrible tragedy. I hope you will read some more of my back catalogue and find some more things to disagree with... :)

Chris Fellows said...

I should note parenthetically that the reference to 'Band Hero' in the above comment is an example of my half-baked rhetoric; as anyone who knows me knows, I am apocalyptically bad at all things musical. I have observed this phenomenon with 'Band Hero' as played by *other people*, however. I have adduced the existence of these other people from sensory inputs and value them as unique and irreplaceable emergent properties of dynamic collections of matter, not as outpouchings of some homogeneous porridgey world-mind.

Ryan said...

you do not understand schopenhauer if you think hes trying to say that consciousness is the thing in itself.

Chris Fellows said...

I know he thinks his 'thing in itself' is an unconscious subject. But by my core axioms it is absurd to talk about an unconscious subject or a 'collective subjectivity'.

I don't claim to have understood Schopenhauer, but I have spent a good deal of time trying, and have taken his clearer statements at face value and reacted to them. If what he is saying is different from what I understand him to be saying, then he and his commentators are singularly poor at expressing themselves.

Anonymous said...

You ought to read Kant's critique of pure reason, or at least have a basic understanding of it before attempting Schopenhauer. His philosophy builds upon Kant. Also as I think someone else mentioned Schopenhauer is not a solipsist. He mere distinguishes the thing-in-itself from its representation.

Anonymous said...

He mereLY distinguishes the thing-in-itself from its representation.
pffft. I hate forgetting letters when typing.