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23 July 2011

Schopenhauer’s Key Concepts 1: Representation (Vorstellung)

Part 0: Transcendental Idealism

The meaning of the title of Schopenhauer’s great work, The World as Will and Representation, is that there are two ways of looking at reality: on the one hand the world is will, the ultimate thing-in-itself (I’ll cover just why he thinks that the thing-in-itself is “will” in a later post, but for now all that’s important is that there is a thing-in-itself, independent of our minds); and on the other hand the world is representation, which is how the world appears to us in certain forms imposed by our brains.

Objects ↔ Subjects

A representation is any object that appears to a subject, i.e., any object appearing in consciousness, such as things seen, heard, or imagined. Crucially, it is only as subjective representations that these objects even are objects, that is to say, there is no object without a subject. There is no sense in which an object is thinkable except as being apprehended from a point of view. Objects are mind-dependent, and whatever independent world lies behind them – the thing-in-itself or world as will – is a mystery (yet, as we shall see, not completely unknowable). Representations, then, are products of the mind or brain, and this fits well with the alternative translation of Vorstellung as idea. It might also help to bear in mind yet another translation, presentation, which suggests something that is placed before the mind’s eye (homunculus alert!). This presenting takes place in the various mental faculties of perceiving, imagining, deducing, and so on, because there are different categories of representation, namely the perceived objects of experience, the images of the imagination, the universal forms depicted in art, and concepts.

So what we think of as the real world is, as Schopenhauer says on more than one occasion, mere representation.

Empirical Reality Really is Real

Even so, this “real world” is real enough. Schopenhauer is not saying that empirical reality is an illusion or that there are no such things as physical objects. Rather he asks to reconsider just what the status of the real actually is, by seeing that it is not mind-independent. There are physical objects all right – it’s just that they are not the ultimate, independent reality that we naively tend to think they are. Of course, this amounts to saying that while empirical reality is real, the thing-in-itself is even realer. But the important points are, first, that he is not a mere subjective idealist, saying that it’s all in the mind, for representations are by definition representations of something, and there simply can be nothing experienceable or thinkable except that which is conditioned by the mind anyway. Now this is also admitted by most realists, but they don’t see how it leads inexorably to an inescapable correlation between things and the way we see them, that all we can talk about will concern only this correlation, and not independent objects “in themselves”. And second, neither is he saying that our senses deceive us, leading to a mismatch between real objects and sense-data. This would presuppose mind-independent objects roughly corresponding to our perceptions, indeed it would presuppose a relation of correspondence and sensory causation – but this is simply not justified. Those who hold such a view are always left wondering just what objects are really like, but Schopenhauer would say that, basically, what you see is what you get: representations. The problem disappears when you realize that realist presuppositions of an independent world only succeed in indulging a fantasy point of view, i.e., in going for objectivity they simply imagine another subjectivity. A mind-independent world is simply not thinkable: any talk of discrepancy between objects and sense-data is revealed as senseless when all is seen as representation, grasped directly.

He is saying that experience is conditioned by the way we are, in particular by how our brains work, and that it is impossible to escape from this standpoint to find a “view from nowhere”. If we want to think of an underlying reality (as he will invite us to do), this can only be thought as mysteriously manifesting itself through our understanding, but not causing our perceptions. (Note that for Schopenhauer understanding is not meant as a rational faculty, but something far more fundamental, a completely non-deliberative process of the brain whereby objects appear before us in relations with each other – those of space, time and causality).

These points are rather slippery and subtle, yet very important. Aware of this, Schopenhauer is emphatic:

[...] the perceived world in space and time, proclaiming itself as nothing but causality, is perfectly real, and is absolutely what it appears to be; it appears wholly and without reserve as representation, hanging together according to the law of causality. This is its empirical reality.

The whole world of objects is and remains representation, and is for this reason wholly and for ever conditioned by the subject; in other words, it has transcendental ideality. But it is not on that account falsehood or illusion; it presents itself as what it is, as representation [...] [Vol I §5]

Moreover, space, time and causality are the universally valid and a priori conditions for experience; there is no experience without them. They and the objects they make possible are thereby established as much more than the arbitrary and unreliable distortions that some sceptical empiricists might describe. They lie at the foundation of our knowledge of empirical reality and are intrinsic to all possible experience. No more direct access is possible, which to my mind means that to characterize perception as indirect is meaningless: indirect compared to what?

In the same section Schopenhauer dismisses the question of the existence of the external world:

Here [in perception] there is neither error nor truth, for these are confined to the province of the abstract, of reflection. But here the world lies open to the senses and to the understanding; it presents itself with naive truth as that which it is, as representation of perception [...] [Vol I §5]

Incidentally it’s interesting that in this passage, having first confined truth to reason, that is, to the propositional kind, he then brings in the notion of “naive truth”, which looks a lot like Heidegger’s use of aletheia, meaning the disclosure or unconcealment of things in the world.

Representations as Subject to The Principle of Sufficient Reason

Representations are constructed by the mind according to its conditioning forms of space, time and causality; they are the objects which are individuated, or picked out, by the mind. As objects they are part of empirical reality and therein relate to each other according to natural laws (and this effectively means that our minds are the source of these laws). Thus, they also become subject to certain modes of explanation by means of our faculty of reason. In other words, objects become subject to the principle of sufficient reason, which for Schopenhauer is a catch-all principle that, loosely speaking, asserts the explainability of things in terms of four different modes of reasoning, in which we give grounds for things in terms of causality, logic, mathematics and ethics.

Because in philosophy we think rationally about problems, we naturally here want to equate the domain of representation with the domain amenable to the principle of sufficient reason. We don’t go too far wrong in doing that, but two things should be borne in mind. Firstly, it must be remembered that this reasoning is secondary to the intuitive understanding of the brain in which sensations are non-reflectively interpreted; a reason is not to be confused with a cause. And secondly, there are representations which cannot be captured by the principle of sufficient reason at all, namely the Platonic Ideas. The status of the Ideas in Schopenhauer’s philosophy is quite tricky, though, so I’ll leave that to a later post.

Other Kinds of Representation

But the world of pineapples, clouds, sounds, explosions and evaporations is not the only domain of representation. These empirical representations are grasped intuitively in perception by the understanding. On the other hand, our minds also build representations using our faculty of reason – namely concepts. The two mental faculties, understanding and reason, together make up the intellect, which for Schopenhauer just means the general faculties of the brain, those which produce representations of any kind. Animals have intellect but not reason, and thus Schopenhauer sticks to the classical definition of man as the rational animal.

So what about concepts? Schopenhauer goes against the philosophical habit of placing reason at the centre of human being; for him it is confined to a very small sphere and is secondary to experience. Concepts are abstract representations which are derivative of the intuitive, perceptual kind produced by the understanding. They always have the objects of experience – or the memories and imaginings of them – as their basic content, and are mere elaborations of this content. Furthermore, the adequacy of these rational elaborations – which might be things like deciding whether to buy a cat or a dog or calculating the surface area of a wall to determine how much paint you need to buy – are ultimately tested against experience.

There are also representations which, though obviously dependent on minds, are independent of the principle of sufficient reason. These are the Platonic Ideas, which are very important for Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. As I say, I’ll cover them in another post.

Representations of What?

Schopenhauer is not talking, in the manner of Locke and most scientific realists, about representations of corresponding real objects that lie behind appearances. For it is only in appearances that objects are even objects at all, and what is represented is the thing-in-itself, which is itself not an object, and contains none. So we have the thing-in-itself on one side, and representation on the other, and given this picture it’s natural to think that the thing-in-itself causes our representations, that whatever it is that is out there is connected deterministically to our perceptions. This is wrong, however, because causality is entirely restricted to the domain of representation. The representational realist way of thinking about our relation to the world, in which an external reality supplies stimuli which are processed and presented to us as sense-data, is not what Schopenhauer has in mind at all. It is much deeper than that. Not only can there be no causal link between the thing-in-itself and our representations, but there can be no plurality of objects. A representational object such as a table does not correspond to a table-in-itself, but is a non-causal individuated manifestation of the thing-in-itself.

But there is a difficulty here in talking about “the thing-in-itself” or “the will”, because such terms assert unity, which gains sense only in contrast with plurality; beyond our representations there is no one, and no many. Schopenhauer admits this difficulty, but says that there is no other way we can possibly talk about it. We simply cannot hope to transcend the forms of our understanding. The unindividuated will is part of his central insight and does not stand on an edifice of routine logic as does his empiricism. He must use the concepts and language he has to invite us to see what he has seen.

But there is an even bigger problem, a problem with the whole doctrine. If the thing-in-itself is undifferentiated, spaceless, timeless and causeless, then surely it cannot have any intelligible relation to our representations? The only relations which exist conform to the principle of sufficient reason, which, conditioning our experience of the world and our thinking, must only apply to representations. Therefore in doing philosophy, which itself proceeds according to the principle of sufficient reason to find explanations for things in the world, the thing-in-itself seems to be factored out of the equation completely, and it is then mere idle speculation to wonder what it might be. A more parsimonious theory would do away with it entirely. I happen to think this is a clue to a deep problem with Kantian philosophy – a problem with the underlying conception of subject and object, internal and external, indeed with the whole tradition of epistemology as first philosophy — but Schopenhauer forges ahead from his traditional Kantian starting point towards his key innovation, which is his characterization of the thing-in-itself as will. But more of that in a later post.

Ancestrality: Millions of Years Before Time

Schopenhauer’s philosophy can be seen as a brand of what Meillassoux calls correlationism, which has it that subject and object cannot each be considered independently. We have access only to the correlation between them, and can never step outside of this relation to see how things “really” are. In introducing his argument against correlationism Meillassoux brings up ancestrality. If space, time and causality are mind-dependent, then what can it mean to say that the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, before the advent of life? Before any knowing consciousness existed, what do “years” and “the Earth” refer to, and what does “formed” mean, without space, time, objects and causality?

Schopenhauer sees the problem:

Thus we see, on the one hand, the existence of the whole world necessarily dependent on the first knowing being [...]; on the other hand, this first perceiving animal just as necessarily wholly dependent on a long chain of causes and effects which has preceded it [...] These two contradictory views, to each of which we are led with equal necessity, might certainly be called an antinomy in our faculty of knowledge [...] [Vol I §7]

His answer is that the past exists now, for us, and came to exist for the first knowing consciousness. When it made this first appearance, it already had the character of endlessness in both directions, past and future. So, oddly enough, time had a beginning but was and is inherently beginningless. The same goes for the world as representation in general. Objects of the past are objects for us just as much as present objects are. This does rather make it seem as if ancestral objects are nothing but fictions. At least with objects which exist among conscious beings in the present we can say that they are manifesting the will, but now it seems that the ancient Earth and its objects and events are nothing but convenient stories. However this is not quite right. We say that the moon is about 400,000 kilometres from the Earth, yet neither the Moon nor this distance have any reality beyond our representations. The ancient Earth, separated from us by time rather than space, is no less real than this – which is still as real as can be – though it can obviously never be an object of perception for us. It is “less real” only insofar as we ordinarily think of ancient objects as somehow less real.

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