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Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Written between 1944 and 1946
Vor mir keine Zeit, nach mir wird keine seyn.
Mit mir gebiert sie sich, mit mir geht sie auch ein.
(Before me there was no time, after me there will be none.
With me it is born, with me it will also die.)
— Daniel von Czepko, Sexcenta Monidisticha Sapientum III, II (1655)
Had this refutation (or its title) been published in the middle of the eighteenth century, it would be included in a bibliography by Hume, or at least mentioned by Huxley or Kemp Smith. But published in 1947 (after Bergson) it is the anachronistic reductio ad absurdum of an obsolete system, or even worse, the feeble artifice of an Argentine adrift on a sea of metaphysics. Both conjectures are plausible and perhaps even true, but I cannot promise some startling new conclusion on the basis of my rudimentary dialectics. The thesis I shall expound is as old as Zeno’s arrow or the chariot of the Greek king in the Milinda Pañha; its novelty, if any, consists in applying to my ends the classic instrument of Berkeley. Both he and his successor David Hume abound in paragraphs that contradict or exclude my thesis; nonetheless, I believe I have deduced the inevitable consequence of their doctrine.1
The first article (A) was written in 1944 and appeared in number 115 of Sur; the second, from 1946, is a revision of the first. I have deliberately refrained from making the two into one, deciding that two similar texts could enhance the reader’s comprehension of such an unwieldy subject. A word on the title: I am not unaware that it is an example of that monster called a contradictio in adjecto by logicians, for to say that a refutation of time is new (or old, for that matter) is to recognize a temporal predicate that restores the very notion the subject intends to destroy. But I shall let this fleeting joke stand to prove, at least, that I do not exaggerate the importance of wordplay. In any case, language is so saturated and animated by time that, quite possibly, not a single line in all these pages fails to require or invoke it. (more…)
Musing: Spinoza and Feminism Question the Structures of Domination… Is the Mind-Body Problem a Gender Problem?
Eva Perez de Vega
The New School for Social Research
Traditional theory on the mind-body problem has been mostly conceptualized by men. The historical debate found its most heated moment in the seventeenth century between René Descartes and Benedict de Spinoza, the first advocating for the superiority of the mind over body and the latter with his characteristically monist view framing the mind and body as one same substance. While it seemed that Descartes had won the debate, developments in neuroscience have been weighing towards the Spinozistic conception, and the feminine perspective had been largely ignored until Simone de Beauvoir published her seminal book in 1949. Feminists since then have had a conflicting relationship with the earlier debates, yet Spinoza’s work, with its materialist framework, seems to be holding steady ground within the contemporary feminist movement. Spinoza’s ontology is, for instance, used as framework to discuss feminism (anarcha-feminism) in Chiara Bottici’s text, “Bodies in Plural: Towards an anarcha-feminist manifesto.” But this reliance on ‘the dead white man’ as a means of passing through feminist issues poses some interesting questions, chief among them whether a white male from the seventeenth century can provide any openings to thinking about women’s issues in the twenty-first century.
In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes explicitly about the female body, about the physical cycles it undergoes: menstruation, pain, blood, etc. De Beauvoir’s body is intentionally physical. Her depiction exacerbates the materiality of female bodies, and in so doing brings into relief the dualistic conceptions of men and women. The intensity of the writing illustrates her view that women have been thought of as the non-male—the other—associated with the body, nature and instinct, as opposed to men who were deemed rational, intellectual beings of culture and mind: the creators from which woman is made as a sub-entity. Spinoza’s body challenges this dualism. His is not the same body, or rather, it is not solely a body; it is a body in a broader materialist conception. It is an “eccentric materialism” that exceeds but nonetheless encompasses the physical body (see the work of neuroscientist Antonio Demasio, on Spinoza and on Descartes). For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing, a single substance, looked at from different points of view—extension and thought. As he writes in his Ethics, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.” (more…)
University of Denver
The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.
Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.
Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c. 99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe. (more…)
University of Edinburgh
This paper examines three approaches to the concept of death: an existential approach by Heidegger, a pragmatic evaluation by Nagel, and an experiential account by Philip Gould (who was not a professional philosopher but who wrote a detailed description of the time before his death). I compare and contrast these different approaches and use Gould’s account as a ‘real-life check’ on the two philosophical analyses.
Heidegger’s evaluation of death comes from his main work, Being and Time (Division II, Chapter 1, §46-53).
People in general—Heidegger calls them ‘The They’—do not want to talk about death. It is the last obscenity. Death ‘cannot be outstripped’ and is beyond the scope of experience or phenomenological investigation. What can be experienced is being-alongside-death (i.e. other people’s death) and the ‘respectful solicitude’ of the dying, which is the mode of behaviour called for on such occasions. More usefully, we can experience our own being-towards-death. This is not just in the last years of life: from our birth, our being is directed towards death; but the process of it is not, for example, like the ripening of fruit. A person may die with unfulfilled potential of all sorts, in both their own view and in the view of others. When Heidegger seeks to investigate death, he concludes that only investigations of our being-towards-death is possible.
At this point in Being and Time, Heidegger is starting to examine how one grasps one’s human nature as a whole. He wants to know if death can in some way permit us to view our existence in its totality. Studies of one person dying by another living person are of limited use here. We are addressing the subjective experience, so we must look at our own being-towards-death. We can see death as certain at some time, and always possible at any time. We live in the face of the end; death is part of our being. Rather than treating it as an event to be ignored, Heidegger says that a more thoughtful, honest and logical approach (he calls it ‘authentic’) would be for a human being to use death as a means of concentrating on his own existence. Death puts our existence into perspective.
We need to look at Heidegger’s argument in more detail:
He looks at our finitude, or the way in which we see ourselves as having boundaries to our experiences. Death, like birth, sets a boundary on our lives, and this setting is a major factor by which death affects our attitude to life. We know that the holiday will come to an end but we do not know when; only that it can happen at any time. We therefore feel finite, limited in what we can do or will get done before we die. Whatever we think will happen to us in the future, death is the only thing that is certain. In Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, when Ivan realises he is mortally ill, he becomes obsessed with the way he has lived his life, and what he can do to make amends for what he sees as his mistakes. Ivan leaves this reckoning until the very end of his lifetime. But Heidegger asks for a much earlier ‘anticipation of death,’ a realistic inclusion of the death-factor in our projects and the way we evaluate them. We must be aware of the boundaries of our existence. Then, at the hypothetical point of death, we will have known of death’s possibility all our lives. It will have affected our projects and what we have done throughout our lives. Indeed, all of the time, in the present, we are aware of death’s possibility. We can try to forget it; we succeed most of the time; but overall, Heidegger sees death as an ‘integrating factor’ in what he terms an ‘authentic existence.’
Heidegger is not gloomy about death: it is only in relation to being-towards-death that one becomes passionately aware of one’s freedom.
Thomas Nagel’s analysis forms Chapter 1 of his book Mortal Questions.
Nagel takes a view of death somewhat different to that of Heidegger. He is concerned with axiology, that is, the evaluation of death. Essentially, he is asking whether or not death is a ‘bad thing.’ He believes that the valuation of death as bad comes about only because of that which death deprives us. More life, says Nagel, like most goods, is better than less. But it is the loss of life rather than the state of being dead that is objectionable. Being dead is no worse than suspended animation, or that period of time before we were born. So why do we regard the state of death as objectionable? We cannot mind what is going on in the situation; we can suffer no misfortunes when dead; and there is a symmetry between posthumous and pre-natal non-existence.
Time is a factor in all questions regarding death. Here Nagel and Heidegger are on common ground: good or ill fortune is associated with our history and possibilities rather than the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the moment. According to Nagel, if we lose our minds (but do not die) we lose our sense of history and possibility; we enter a state of reverse childhood. Is such a state to be pitied? It may not be. It is may be loved ones and carers who are the main sufferers. Hopes and possibilities are as important as pain and suffering. We do not wish to lose the former time-acquired attributes any more than we want to suffer in the moment. But if we are in a state in which we can appreciate neither, then it is of no consequence. An embryo, an unborn child, a dead person: all are in such a state.
We nonetheless cling to life and the prospect of advantages and enjoyment to come. These anticipations carry a heavy weight in our evaluations. We may endure great suffering but not want to end our lives because of these possibilities. It takes great age—when hopes and possibilities may be almost non-existent—or great suffering to make us wish for death, or in extremes to commit suicide. In that sense death is a ‘bad thing,’ even though, as argued above, so far as our awareness is concerned its status is identical with the period before we were born.
Towards the end of this chapter Nagel makes the following (somewhat cryptic) observation: ‘[…] death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of infinitely extensible goods. Normality has nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer […] If there is no limit to the amount of life it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all.’
An Interim Assessment of Heidegger and Nagel’s Approaches
Heidegger and Nagel seem both to agree that the problem of philosophical investigation into death stems from death’s having no empirical reports. It is simply the end of life: we shall know nothing of death, especially when we are dead.
What we do know of death is that it is inevitable. We approach death via life. Sometimes, such as in the event of terminal illness, we have an idea of when it is likely to come; at others, such as in sudden accidents, we do not. Normally, given good health and no fatal accidents, we might now expect to live for eighty to 100 years in the West. We can only contemplate death from the standpoint of being alive, approaching its possibility, and what we can glean from observing the lives and deaths of others.
Both Heidegger and Nagel assume the finality of death—with no afterlife—and that the only possibility for investigation is to approach death from the standpoint of life. Heidegger sees death as the culmination of the process by which we live our lives, particularly our attitude to our own finitude. His chief concern is death in relation to time on the adoption of what he calls an authentic view of life, particularly how we go about our various projects in the light of death’s aforementioned inevitability.
Nagel’s approach is axiological. Does death have a value? It is ‘evil,’ according to him: it ends our aspirations. Unlike Heidegger, he seems to see death as only a ‘bad thing,’ not as an ultimate destination by which we steer a course through life.
So Heidegger wants us to live and approach death authentically; Nagel sees it that as ending our aspirations. They both agree on the importance of time; but their accounts of how we view the approach of death through time are at variance. Heidegger sees death as a marker in our approach to our own finitude and how we live our life in light of that; Nagel refers rather to our valuation of our hopes and potential, and what we lose when we die.
The Experiential Approach: Philip Gould
Philip Gould, a.k.a Lord Gould of Brookwood, was not a philosopher. His career was spent as a political analyst, and he was instrumental in the conduct of focus-group research for the Labour party, which contributed substantially to Tony Blair’s landslide win in the UK 1997 General Election.
In January 2008 a diagnosis revealed that Gould was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus. By 2011 it was clear that surgery and other treatments had failed, and that Gould was, as he said, entering the ‘death zone.’ He was quoted thus:
‘This time it was clear…I was in a different place, a death zone, where there was such an intensity, such a power. And apparently this is normal. And so, even though obviously I’d…rather not be in this position, it is the most extraordinary time of my life, certainly the most important time of my life’ (Independent, 19 Sept 2011).
He proceeded to turn this late period of being-towards-death into a project by writing about his situation. His memoirs were published in 2012 in a book entitled When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone.
One of the things that happened to him in the earlier stages of his cancer was his beginning to take more interest in religion and philosophy. In 2010, after initial treatment, it was found that his cancer had returned. He recalls a conversation with Tony Blair in which the former Prime Minister inspired him with the words, ‘You have to use this recurrence to find out your real purpose in life.’ Gould took his advice: in those early stages of his cancer he quite naturally wanted to cling to life; but eventually it was clear that his sickness was terminal and at that point he observed that ‘in truth, having an idea of the likely timescale of your life is a privilege not available to many.’ He also reported feeling confused, however; the need for a purpose, the feeling of a new reality together with a loss of influence on events, but still the determination to continue treatment with no thoughts of suicide. This mood develops. Later, he observes that death is regarded as ‘decline, of growing irrelevance, ending of growth, cessation of contribution. But for the dying it is a time of assessment, a pre-death moment of judgement.’ He speaks to David Sturgeon, a consultant psychiatrist, who told him that for a good death there is a need for acceptance of death and to see the dying process as the most important time of one’s life. Gould speaks of ‘reckoning’: he talks at length and in detail to his wife, children and sister. He makes sure of his family’s security after his death. He speculates on the different attitudes available to someone faced with imminent death. Both acceptance or denial are natural reactions. Gould opts for acceptance. As time goes on and the point of death nears he says he has found a courage that he did not know he had. He comments that the possibility of human error causing his death (bad decisions about his surgery, for example) have to be lived with in the run-up to death. Eventually he enters a period of ecstasy, and intense enjoyment of life, the arts, and what he comes across in everyday life. He has closer relations with his loved ones, and an intensity of feeling that he did not have in his earlier life. He observes that life is about change, becoming a different person. Life is your actions, what you do, and that is all it consists of. Towards the end, he also speaks of losing a sense of a linear time.
At the end of the book, after his death, comments were added by his daughters and his wife. His daughter Georgia in particular comments on his singular drive and purpose, and his desire to give meaning to the experience of dying.
Philip Gould’s candid observations and reportage give us an experiential check on the speculations of Heidegger and Nagel: in many ways his is a richer account of the relevance of death to life.
Nonetheless, we need to be aware of category confusion. Gould is reporting on the last stages of his life, and how in his particular case he reacted to it. Heidegger and Nagel are writing of the ordinary everyday view of death. Our attitude to death at the age of, say, fifty—when we feel unlikely to die before we are eighty—may not seem to have much in common with Gould’s sense of imminent demise. But it could be that Gould feels more intensely the kind of emotions associated with such an event and engages in a logic we cannot grasp when we are far from death.
This is not to say that Gould’s experiences are necessarily typical of every human being; they are subjective reportage, though honest and candid. As he himself says, he eventually accepted death. Others may not. Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, mentioned above, tells of a man who takes an attitude to death very different from Gould’s. He bewails his shortcomings, he panics, screaming and crying for several days in the face of death until that very last minute. Death for Ivan Ilych is nonetheless a reckoning, as it was for Philip Gould, but their reactions to that reckoning are dissimilar.
With those two caveats, what useful conclusions can be drawn from this collection of speculation and evidence?
Heidegger’s advice to live authentically—that is, thoughtfully and with the finitude of life—is surely a good place to start. Here, death at the very least gives life the concept timescale. Attitudes to death will vary the closer we are to it, but our attitude to life would be much different if we lived much longer or much shorter. If for example our expected lifespan were fifty years, we would arrange our activities, hopes and aspirations, and our life in general would be arranged differently compared to a situation in which our expected span was 150 years.
Nagel may be correct in his view that death is objectionable because it takes away our hopes and aspirations. On the one hand, as Jacoby Carter points out, these aspirations and hopes have no present ontological value. That is, they are not real in the present. We only imagine that we have the advantages to come: they have not yet happened. Notwithstanding, we place a great deal of weight on these hopes. We are unwilling to give them up, even in the face of great adversity. But in some lives there may come a time—particularly in old age, or in cases of terminal illness (with an individual less driven than Philip Gould)—where a quick and painless ending of life seems a better option.
It could be argued that Gould is an exemplar for Heidegger. This is an idea that is not capable of too much extension, but there is some evidence from his account that Gould has led an authentic life in Heidegger’s meaning of the term. The philosopher’s concept of life and death being one process by which death focuses us on the authenticity of life and the way it is lived is the point of most importance in all this. Gould illustrates this magnificently. Consider some of his observations as a guide to authentic living in the Heideggerian sense, even when we are far from death: we need to think of our finitude; we have projects and plan with this in mind; we need to find a purpose in life; we need to realise that as death (or advancing age) approaches, our relevance, our need to grow, and our contributions need not necessarily diminish; to realise, as Gould says, ‘dying is a time of assessment, pre-death a moment of judgment,’ and that death must be accepted, and not regarded as an obscenity not to be talked about.
As regards Nagel, because his approach is so much confined to evaluating death, the only common ground he seems to have with Heidegger is the notion that time is important in how we value life. Time, he argues, allows us to build up aspirations, which we are unwilling to give up, and which make us want to cling to life. But it could be argued that Gould also reached a conclusion which supports Nagel’s thesis: Gould, because of the person he had become, was keen to cling on to life, had hopes and aspirations, and was motivated to the very end. Heidegger and Nagel, while not mutually supporting, offer views that are not contradictory and which together can extend our philosophical view of death.
While death ends our aspirations, the run up to death—even from far out—is an important time for assessment. Death has an influence on the way we live our life far beyond being the mere ending of it.
- Being and Time by Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), published by Blackwell, 1962.
- The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louse and Aylmer Maude), http://www.tc.umn.edu/~awalzer/3302/readings/tolstoy_death.pdf.
- Mortal Questions by Thomas Nagel, published by Cambridge University Press, 1979.
- When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone by Philip Gould, published by Abacus, 2012.
- The comment by Jacoby Carter is from his paper On the Value of Death https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/.
University of Toronto
In this paper I would like to answer four questions:
- How (and more importantly where) does politics arise in Being and Time?
- How can we trace the roots of Heidegger’s Nazism, from the author of Being and Time to his ‘Nazi’ works of the 1930s?
- How does the concept of the Event, considered to be the central concept of Heidegger’s later philosophy, relate to questions (1) and (2)?
- To what extent is Heidegger’s philosophy tied to 1930s Fascism?
How is Heidegger a Political Thinker?
One of the things about Heidegger’s thought that has been the source of extensive critical comment is its (supposed) lack of an ethical/political core. Many of his ‘Children’  have made just such a claim, ranging from Jean-Paul Sartre , who claimed to provide an existential basis for political engagement; Emmanuel Levinas , who argued that Heidegger could not (in any real sense) have had an ethics, as an ethical orientation was necessarily prior to Heideggerian phenomenology into the ‘political’; and even Michel Foucault , whose implicit Heideggerianism led to A reimagining of Heideggerian Being-in-the-world in terms of phenomenology of power and discourse. All of these thinkers considered themselves (explicitly and implicitly) to be providing an ethics Heidegger himself failed to propound.
Notably, for many in this camp, the philosophical source of Heidegger’s Nazism is not his explicitly avowed commitments to Hitler and Mussolini , nor the connections he draws between their Fascist movements and his own philosophical opposition to Western metaphysics, but the lack of explicit political philosophy (in the fullest sense of the term). This gap was filled by Nazism, something Heidegger got ‘carried away with’ because of his own social and historical context, and which can be distinguished from his fundamental ontology .
While I disagree with the view adumbrated above, any reasonable reader of Heidegger must acknowledge that, at the very least, it is not prima facie clear that there is a necessary connection between (i) the desire to renew the question of the meaning of Being through existential phenomenology and (ii) a concrete programme for political action (never mind Fascism). Those of us raised in the analytic tradition tend to see metaphysics and politics as two distinct enterprises , where the latter is concerned with what ought to be the case and the former with what is the case.
Now, it is obviously true that a complete description of the world must do justice to both the political and the ethical, but it certainly does not seem that the normative is a distinct realm from the natural such that they cannot be accounted for in the same way. Any project which attempts to unite them has to do some argumentative heavy-lifting in order to demonstrate how one might flow from the other (or at least that they have a common root).
In order to demonstrate the heavy-lifting Heidegger undertakes in Being and Time (his first major work ), we must begin from the author’s own starting-point and reconstruct a politics from there. He opens the work with the claim that, ‘Our aim, in this treatise, is to work out the question of the meaning of Being and to do so concretely’ (§1). The starting-point that we are looking for is thus this very question.
Why is Heidegger interested in this? He thinks the tradition of Western metaphysics suffers from Seinsvergessenheit, the forgetting of Being. This is not to say it has not claimed to undertake an ontology, for most metaphysicians before Heidegger would have claimed to be doing just that: even since Plato, the West has desired to seek the Being of Beings: it has investigated ordinary objects in attempt to discover what grounds them. Thus, one goes from the least fundamental (the ordinary objects we encounter in our everyday lives) to the most fundamental (Epicurean atoms, Cartesian substance, Plato’s forms, and so on). Heidegger sees this enterprise as fundamentally flawed, and the way to understand this claim is to read it as a criticism of an assumption at the level of metaontology, in that the problem is not the failure to possess an understanding of the meaning of Being , but that the employed understanding of Being is not fit for purpose.
This ‘restrictive understanding’ is, at bottom, the claim that to be is to be an object, or, to use Heidegger’s terminology, an entity which is present-at-hand. Secondly, this restrictive understanding of Being leads to an inability to understand the distinctive structure of human subjectivity, except as a kind of object. So human beings are thus understood as zoon politikon in Aristotle’s politics, or res cogitans, a Cartesian thinking thing.
The restrictive conception of mind leads to what Heidegger terms ‘homelessness’ in the modern age. Activities that are distinctively human—e.g. aesthetics, ethics, human sciences—have only questionable validity relative to the sciences which investigate the world of entities, i.e. the natural sciences. Furthermore, the disembodied view of human subjectivity presented above leads to ‘homelessness’ in a deeper, metaphysical sense: one where the mind can only really be said to be part of the world if (i) it exists in a realm which is ontologically distinct (as per Cartesian dualism) or (ii) the world is the mere projection of the mind (as per Berkeleyian idealism). Due to these failures of traditional metaphysical thinking, Heidegger wants to reframe the question such that the metaphysical split between subject and object, or between mind and world, can be healed. We have to reformulate the question of the meaning of Being so that the problems of its metaphysical conception do not arise again. Heidegger thinks that this method of existential phenomenology will allow us to tackle the question of Being in a better way.
In order to ask the question of Being’s meaning correctly, we must inspect our experience without the fetters placed on us by Western metaphysics. This inspection is thus a phenomenological one in that it aims to gain a systematic (logos) understanding of the way the world is disclosed to us (the way that it appears, i.e. phenomenally) (§35). Phenomenology presupposes some notion of subjectivity as a being to whom Being is disclosed. Heidegger calls this being Dasein. Dasein, or being-there, must be the cornerstone for any investigation into the meaning of Being, as it is the only being for whom the question of the Being of beings is at issue. Indeed, as Heidegger will later demonstrate, Dasein’s understanding of the nature of Being is constitutive of being-there. It is thus a being which is intimately connecting to Being, in a way that a rock, for example, is not. Hence, ‘The investigation into the question of Being must be understood as an existential analytic of Dasein’ (§41).
Heidegger wants to stress in his re-investigation of the meaning of Being that Dasein’s Being has three characteristics, necessarily: being-in-the-world, being-in and being-with. Its necessary being-in-the-world reflects Heidegger’s claim that the primary relation between human beings and the world is not a cognitive one. Unlike the Western tradition—which sees the world as primarily composed of entities which are present-at-hand and whose nature is to be accessed by detached reflection—Heidegger thinks the world we are embedded in is a ‘totality of significances and references,’ the nature of which is structured by our interests and projects. We are already in the world, where the world is a context for practical action (or, as he puts it, a ‘site for the projection of possibilities’ (§149)). Heidegger calls the Being of Beings in this world of practical action ‘ready-to-hand’ Being. Secondly, he thinks Being is necessarily disclosed to Dasein in a context of mood (Bestimmung) (§134). Moods are not simply inward subjective drives, but act as ‘turning forks,’ illuminating the world as a context for practical action. In other words, the ready-to-hand world is ‘lit up’ by moods, which ensure that certain parts of the world are more salient than others. Heidegger also says the Being of Dasein is care, where care is a kind of primordial orientation to the world as world, a primitive desire to make sense of it, in the broadest sense of the term (§131).
Thirdly, Dasein’s Being is also Being-with (§114-5): its actions necessarily take place with respect to a social understanding of Being’s meaning. Here ‘the they,’ Heidegger’s term for a community, provide a certain basic understanding of what it is to be a human being, and an accompanying prescribed set of skills and practices which help orient members of that community. This is made explicit in phenomenological interrogation, where the conventions and rules we follow to survive are revealed as ‘just what one does.’ It is important to note that at this point Heidegger does not normatively judge as to the authenticity or inauthenticity of what he calls ‘Mitsein’; rather he claims that a socially mediated understanding of Being’s meaning is a necessary prerequisite of Dasein being what it is.
The above is a basic account of Division I of Being and Time, which articulates the Being of Dasein in spatial terms. The author sees the disclosure of the meaning of Being as necessarily temporal, however, and must thus give an account of this in Division II (§233-4). This lack of emphasis in temporality in Division I seems also to coincide with the lack of any normative framework, at least so far; this is not merely a coincidence, since many aspects of ‘the political’ are necessarily temporally structured, ranging from concerns about the durability of a political order to the possibility of a revolution. Division II does a lot more to sketch out Heidegger’s account of temporality. The first thing to note is that the distinction between the ready-to-hand and the present-at-hand is prerequisite for understanding Heidegger’s revised account of time. The way we traditionally think about time is as a linear, measurable, discrete set of temporal points; Heidegger wants to get us to think of time in phenomenological terms, however—in terms of our more immediate experience of time. This reconception can be understood with reference to three key Heideggerian concepts: thrownness, authenticity, and temporality.
I will begin with thrownness because it is most easily rendered intelligible given the extent of the discussion of Division I above. Thrownness, for Heidegger, is part of Dasein’s facticity: he speaks of ‘factically thrown Dasein’ (§135). Facticity and thrownness are both initially connected to Heidegger’s discussion of Das Man (or ‘the they’), where he claims that Dasein’s facticity is constituted by its absorption into certain conventions and traditions (which he describedsas ‘fallenness’ (§176)). Thrownness, meanwhile, has a more existential interpretation, where one recognizes one’s Being-in-the-world as radically contingent.
I am thrown into a world in which I am forced into my facticity, which is best understood not simply as the brute fact of my social embeddedness, but in terms of the ‘limits’ placed on me by my biology. However, one’s thrownness into one’s own facticity is not simply a natural condition which one has to resign oneself to: Heidegger speaks of ‘thrown projection’ (§145), where one’s capacity for free action, to break from the conventions and idle talk of Das Man is emphasized. His talk of Dasein’s ‘potentiality’ reflects this (almost Sartrean, but crucially not quite) emphasis on Dasein’s ontological freedom.
This freedom talk, and the talk about the need to break from Das Man suggests we have already made the break from fundamental ontology to normative valuation (insofar as the two are even separate). In order to flesh this out it is necessary to discuss Heidegger’s central normative concept, authenticity. He thinks that it has to do with ‘being able to understand one’s own and uttermost potentiality-for-Being’ (§..) What one is being authentic to, when one is being authentic in the Heideggerian sense, is Dasein’s ability to project itself beyond itself (be-ahead-of-itself in the world), to undertake projects which create new possibilities.
Authenticity is intimately connected to Heidegger’s notion of Being-toward-Death, too. As Heidegger puts it, ‘Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be actualized, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could be […] Being-toward-Death, as anticipation of possibility, is what first makes this possibility possible, and sets the basis for this possibility’ (§250-251). The way one reaches this state of existential Being-toward-Death is for Dasein to anticipatorily and resolutely confront the possibility of its non-Being, thus reaffirming its freedom ‘a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the they, and which is factical, certain of itself and anxious’ (§266).
Authentic existence is this existence in the full recognition of the possibility of non-existence, and is thus existence that is anxious. This anxiety is not negative, however. It is an anxiety which reveals a human being in full possession of his own finitude, and a recognition of his own freedom given this full possession. Another dimension of authenticity is a recognition of the nullity at the heart of thrown projection. As a human being undertaking projects, all of which are different from one other, one has to commit to certain projects and possibilities, and to let some others fall away into nothingness. The nothingness that is truly threatening is the nothingness which results from the inability to realize the myriad possibilities which are thrown away in the course of authentic action. In recognition of this fact, authentic Dasein must own its choices, and to own up completely to the fact that it has picked a certain path and certain other paths have fallen away. This is still a very formal account of authenticity, however, and one that will hopefully be clarified through the discussion of temporality below.
Inauthentic Dasein is the antithesis of the virtues relevant to authentic Dasein which Heidegger lays out. It flees from death, shocked by the freedom of Dasein to project its own possibilities into the future; it retreats into the ‘idle talk’ (§ 167-168) of the ‘they,’ which prevents it from thinking about this freedom (§167-8). It also abrogates any responsibility for its choices by claiming to be following the instructions laid down to it by some social authority.
I will end with temporality because it is most easily connected to where we left off in Division I. Heidegger begins his discussion of the existential-temporal analytic of Dasein with the following quotation:
Temporality has manifested itself as the basis of the meaning of Being as care. So that which our preparatory existential analytic of Dasein contributed before temporality was laid bare, now has been taken back into temporality as the Primordial structure of Dasein’s totality of Being (§436).
In other words, time, which was overlooked above, is now revealed to be a fundamental structure underlying the ‘meaningful, ready-to-hand’ world discussed above. How so? Recall the discussion of Dasein’s Being as care. This primordial orientation, a desire to make sense of the world and be connected to it in some way, is necessarily temporally structured. We care about the world because we want to make sense of it before we die . Time acts as a ‘horizon’ for the meaningful disclosure of Being; as Heidegger puts it, ‘The existential and temporal condition of the possibility of the world lies in the fact that temporality, as an ecstatic unity, has something like a horizon’ (§365).
Authenticity is also understood, for Heidegger, in terms of temporality—for it is done so in terms of Dasein’s ability to project itself into the future through the pursuit of projects. Time is understood, for authentic Dasein, not in terms of a linear sequence, but in those of a unity between past, present and future drawn together by Dasein’s projection of possibilities. It follows that inauthentic Being has a repetitive and ‘monotonous’ character, characterized not by its own projects, but through the blind repetition of social conventions. Its temporality is the linear time of the present-at-hand, where the even and homogenous character of temporality signifies the repetition and dull homogeneity at the core of inauthentic Dasein.
So far, what we have is the beginnings of a political philosophy. It does not yet have the reactionary character some would attribute to Heidegger. Indeed, its emphasis on freedom, the contingency of human existence, the ability of Being to reinvent itself through its projects, and the need to reject the stifling impacts of conformity bear a lot of resemblance to certain modern conceptions of the self. It can very easily be read as a critique of modernity from a modern standpoint.
It might be argued that Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they,’ and ‘publicness,’ with the ‘idle talk’ that characterizes it, is a critique of the polis or the ‘public sphere’ in liberal-democratic societies. This certainly appears to be the case, as he would disapprove of the ‘rational animal’ conception of human beings which underlies a lot of these concepts. It is not clear at this point that this should be read as a critique of deliberation as such or of liberalism as such, however. Heidegger’s problem with ‘the they’ is not uniquely a problem with ‘the political sphere,’ but one with any social structure that prevents the potentiality-for-Being essential to Dasein through the imposition of strict rules.
It might also be argued that Heidegger is opposing a certain kind of liberal universalism, with all his talk of ‘horizons’ and the importance of retreating from universal abstractions—such as those implicit in the Cartesian conception of the world—to particular meaningful activities. A retreat from liberal universalism can in turn be read as a carte blanche for any kind of oppression of people who are outside your immediate sphere of practical, meaningful action. Any appeal to ‘human rights’ can be criticized as merely present-at-hand (insofar as the concept of ‘the rational human subject’ which underpin human rights was founded in a metaphysics of entities which Heidegger calls ‘present-at-hand’), while the oppressive activities of one’s own community can allow Being to meaningfully disclose itself.
This charge is, again, unfair. While it is true that Heidegger opposes a certain kind of universality, it also seems like his theoretical framework might be used to criticize any appeal to the primacy of a ‘community to whom Being is meaningfully disclosed.’ Indeed, all we have now is an account of the possibility of Dasein’s living authentically; we do not even have an account of how a community might live authentically. Heidegger’s critique of ‘the they’ can be extended to any community, be it the public sphere of liberal democracy or the ecstatic crowds cheering Hitler on in the mid-1930s. And indeed his own critique of universality is only skin-deep. Heidegger frequently claims that he is revealing universal ontological structures for Dasein as such in Being and Time. This claim seems to suggest that anyone can be authentic, at least in principle.
The Root of Heidegger’s Nazism
It might seem from the above that I wish to remove any connection between Heidegger’s early philosophy and his later affiliation with Nazism. This is not the case; I merely wish to pinpoint the most direct source of Heidegger’s Nazi politics in Being and Time, that being his discussion of historicality  in the last sections of the book. For Heidegger Dasein is not embedded in history understood as an abstract progression of events detached from individual experience—as in the Hegelian account—but in time, by virtue of projecting possibilities into the future, and so on. Dasein’s ‘historicality’ has to be understood in terms of its facticity; it is a condition that Dasein is thrown into and has not chosen, but it is something with which it must deal. Historicality becomes important as the answer to this Heideggerian question, ‘Whence, in general, does Dasein draw the possibilities upon which it factically projects itself?’ (§383).
This question is possibly the most vital for any account of Heidegger’s political philosophy in Being and Time, for—on the account sketched out in the previous section—the projection of possibilities was articulated as though it were a spasm of pure creativity, a heroic wrenching away from ‘the they’ and into an unknown future.
It is this creative character which was implied in authenticity, and which allowed us to head off some early critiques of his early philosophy. If Heidegger makes a move to circumscribe the space of possibilities for what counts as authentic thrown projection, he will be less equipped to respond to those critiques laid out previously. Heidegger does just this: as he puts it, ‘The resoluteness with which Dasein comes back to itself, discloses current factical possibilities of authentic existing, and discloses them as that heritage which that resoluteness as thrown, takes over” (§383).
The concept of heritage completely changes the map. If heritage is to be understood as what allows for the possibility of authentic Being, we now conceive of authenticity not as a form of projection of possibilities upon nothing, but a form of projection where Dasein ‘historicizes,’ i.e. takes on certain aspects of traditions that it has received, and reconfigures them in order to found a new mode of Being. Heidegger calls this process ‘repetition’ and a ‘handing over,’ which constitutes the ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ of a Dasein (§ 386/387).
The historicality of Dasein is constituted by this process of repetitive reappropriation, which is thrown projection into the future conditioned by the appropriation of a particular historical tradition. Heidegger also suggests that this process of appropriation involves ‘choosing a hero’ (B&T §385), which also allows one to see the communal dimension of authenticity in a way that was less clear previously, as a community can be authentic insofar as it participates in this process of historical reappropriation. History as such cannot be the province of an individual person in the way that Heidegger’s abstract Time  can, as historical inheritance (or tradition) is more intersubjective than the previous, more individualistic conception of facticity previously mentioned. Not only is authenticity not more circumscribed relative to what it was previously: we now have a possible formulation of a certain kind of fascist politics in the language of Heideggerian authenticity. It is now all too easy to see how all the talk of ‘horizons’ can act as a justification for a heroic embrace of a politics which claims to embrace the ‘destiny’ of a particular people. It is also easy to see how such an analysis of historicality can lead a German to embrace a movement which selectively appropriates certain elements of German history—the German ‘traditional inheritance’—and claims to find a ‘unique destiny’ for its people .
Heidegger’s philosophical oeuvre is generally divided into two parts: the Early Heidegger, whose views are roughly demarcated in Being and Time, and the Late Heidegger, who believes the work failed to overcome Western metaphysics in the way he intended. For the latter, the account of Dasein’s Being only begins to overcome Western metaphysics; it still contains its vestiges , as it essentially results in a kind of Kantian Idealism (insofar as it aims to investigate the necessary conditions of possibility for how the world shows itself to us). Though Heidegger does not want to renounce his early work completely, he does want to claim that it displayed an anthropocentricism which conceded too much to traditional metaphysical thinking .
Heidegger’s later project is to eliminate this source of anthropocentrism, i.e. the implicit claim that Being is dependent on Dasein. Thus, he casts around for structures which transcend the anthropocentric focus on Dasein prevalent in Being and Time, such as the History of Being, God, Nature and the Event. The structure I will focus on here is Heidegger’s latter concept and its implications for his Nazism. The Event, first introduced in Heidegger’s work ‘Contributions to Philosophy’ , denotes a ‘radical rupture,’ which completely transforms the way Being is disclosed to Dasein. As such, it is best understood in the context of his history of Being. Heidegger’s later work chronicles the ways Being has been disclosed to Dasein in human history; the transition between modes of Being is an evental transition. There is no dialectical process where there is a predictable movement from one mode of Being to another; the Event is a rupture, which generates the precondition for the disclosure of the new mode of Being such that it establishes its own chronology .
There is no way to predict or anticipate it, for it is radically ungrounded. All we can do is attune ourselves, like a member of the faithful, to a new disclosure of Being to Dasein, in order to be ‘steadfast’ in our ‘preparedness for the disclosure of the truth of Being’ . The Event is significant to an analysis of Heidegger’s Nazism because his claim that the mode of Being which we (quite catastrophically) find ourselves in is called ‘modern technicity.’ This  is Heidegger’s term for the mode of Being which sees all beings as ‘standing reserve’ for the improvement of efficiency. Technicity is Heidegger’s pin-up for all that is negative (from his perspective) about modernity, from the machine-like logic of technology to the destruction of meaningful human community or the nihilism resulting from modern thinking. Though he did not have the concept of technicity, he had a critique of modernity as nihilistic: his engagement with Nazism was not solely due to his understanding of the uniqueness of the German people, as suggested above, but also the fact that the Nazis aimed to combat this nihilism at the very heart of modernity.
Insofar as Heidegger wants to transition from the mode of Being in late modernity (or modern technicity for Late Heidegger) to an era revealing the truth of it, his theory of the Event is the closest we might get to a philosophical account of how such a transition might occur. Though we have good retrospective evidence that Heidegger considered Nazism to be an Event, this Event might also provide a good blueprint for a Heideggerian politics as such.
How can the Event be read politically? The obvious analogy is that of political revolution; and indeed the most radical possible revolution, a revolution in the mode of Being. The Event can thus be read as a complete transformation of the rules of the game. It should not, however, be read as a change simply for the sake of change. Heidegger speaks of the ‘voice of Being,’ or the ‘call of Being,’ which suggests some people, or some groups of people, might be more receptive to Being than others (the talk of ‘destiny’ seems to confirm this, inasmuch as destiny is almost by definition an attribute of a particular person or community). The talk of ‘rules’ above can be taken quite literally, where those considered to be more receptive to Being can quite literally be the source of the law . This ‘politics of the Event’ seems to be the point at which Heidegger’s liberal critics are the most persuasive . The charge that there is no space for any kind of conception of universal humanity in Heidegger has some purchase in Being and Time—as I have attempted to outline—but this concept comes to the fore in his theory of the Event. Even if one does not accept Heidegger’s assertion that the German people are ideally placed to answer the call of Being, one cannot simply reject the problematic split between ‘people exalted by destiny’ and ‘people unable to appreciate the true nature of the Event.’ Not only is this conceptual distinction by definition a block to any possible universalistic politics—as its dual structure has the potential to etherize —it leaves open the possibility of excluding a particular out-group. This structure also bears a striking (and unsettling) resemblance to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s theory of the state in the Concept of the Political , which draws a strict distinction between friend and alien, where the vitality of a particular political community is guaranteed by virtue of continual reference to the ‘alien’ who is ‘existentially’ other to those within the community. In Heideggerian terms, the Event leading to the formation of a ‘horizon’ will also generate an ontological distinction between those who demonstrate ‘fidelity’ to the Event and those who do not. Neither of these elaborations of the Heideggerian Event do much to quieten his critics; indeed, the comparison made above ought to make the cries louder!
I have traced Heidegger’s political thinking from Being and Time to his later work (such as The Question concerning Technology and The Event). In doing so I have drawn systematic connections between Heidegger’s political concepts and his theory of time. I have also attempted to discern a philosophical basis for his engagement with Nazism, and attempted to evaluate his political theories. Though I have found this philosophical basis—contrary to the assertions of many Heideggerians—I have aimed to remain faithful to the deep philosophical questions with which Heidegger found himself wrestling.
- Wolin, Richard. Heidegger’s Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Herbert Marcuse. Princeton University Press, 2015.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and nothingness. Open Road Media, 2012.
- Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. Vol. 1. Springer Science & Business Media, 1979.
- Arendt, Hannah. The human condition. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
- Nichols, Robert. The world of freedom: Heidegger, Foucault, and the politics of historical ontology. Stanford University Press, 2014.
- Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. “Schelling’s treatise on the essence of human freedom.” (1989).
- Arendt, Hannah. The life of the mind. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981.
- Pigden, Charles. “Is–Ought Gap.” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics(2013).
- Heidegger, Martin. “Being and time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.” (1962).
- Indeed, Heidegger argues in the first section of Being and Time that Dasein necessarily possesses an understanding of the meaning of Being.
- My understanding of this point can reasonably be credited to the following article by Thomas Sheehan. Sheehan, Thomas. “A paradigm shift in Heidegger research.” Continental philosophy review 34, no. 2 (2001): 183-202.
- Karl Lowith confirms my point when he claims, ‘Heidegger agreed with me without reservation, and added that his concept of “historicity” was the basis of his political “engagement.”‘ (Lowith, Karl. ‘My last meeting with Heidegger in Rome, 1936.’ Wolin, Heidegger Controversy 142 (1986).)
- Indeed, Heidegger repeatedly insists that the Death which ends the ‘lived time’ which he chronicles is Dasein’s ‘ownmost,’ that is to say, Dasein necessarily experiences its death in a singular, individual fashion.
- Thomas Sheehan correctly points out that that Heidegger believed that the Germans had a special access to the Thought of Being, as their language has an ‘inner special kinship’ with Greek people. (Sheehan, Thomas. “Heidegger and the Nazis.” The New York Review of Books 35, no. 10 (1988): 38-47.)
- Heidegger himself claimed that Kant was the source of his fundamental ontology in Being and Time, and he referred to his fundamental ontology as ‘veritas transcendentalis’ (B&T p.38), a reference to Kant’s “transcendental philosophy” in the Critique of Pure Reason.
- Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on humanism.” Basic writings 204 (1977): 39.
- Heidegger, Martin. Contributions to Philosophy (of the Event). Indiana University Press, 2012.
- The Birth of Christ is a good example. Time is literally reorganized around that Event
- Heidegger, Martin. The event. Indiana University Press, 2013., sec. 20
- Heidegger, Martin. “The question concerning technology.” Technology and values: Essential readings (1954): 99-113.
- ‘Let not propositions and “ideas” be the rules of your being (Sein). The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn to know ever more deeply: that from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!’ (Rectoral Address Nov 1933, Heidegger, R. Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy (MIT Press, 1993), chapter 2.)
- I refer here primarily to Wolin (1992) and Farias (1991).
- Schmitt, Carl. The concept of the political: Expanded edition. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Antinomies of Temporal and Corporeal Affect: Interrogating Jamesonian Realism in Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’
University of West Sydney
‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’ (Barnes, 2011, p.17). Adrian, one of the characters in Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending (ibid.) attributes this indictment of historical veracity to a fictitious French historian, Patrick Lagrange. The false-citation marks the double-aporia in this already aporetic vision of history as a locus where truth can only remain in a state of suspension. What interests me here is a question of time, not space. As we shall see, the novel reiterates the modernist trope of unreliable memory in attempting to reconstitute the past in the light of the present. It begins with a catalogue of six random images thrown up by free-associative memory and immediately develops what the first-person narrator, Tony, calls ‘time’s malleability’ (p.3). The affective images of memory jettison chronological time by turning it into something as malleable as the affects themselves. Tony elaborates, ‘Some emotions speed it [time] up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing— until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return’ (ibid.). The novel takes its title from Frank Kermode’s eponymous book of literary criticism published in 1966. Barnes responds to Kermode’s central questions of time and literary realism: Barnes, much like Kermode, unsettles the temporal linearity of the Aristotelian beginning, middle and end by suggesting what the latter calls a ‘world without end or beginning’ (Kermode, 2000, p.67).
The time which abandons chronos is a time replete with what is lost forever. Instead of being able to recollect the past, the subjective history formed by the jigsaw pieces of memory can only arrive at a lacking point where time itself gets dissolved. There is no time in this eternity, and memory can only yield the emotions of the present in the present. As Tony states, ‘I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time’ (p.41). The past is dissolved as soon as it is invoked in this telling, and we are left with the present of this ‘now’ which can only fall back upon itself. There is a hesitation here regarding the time of reading: is Tony reading in the present of this ‘now’ alongside the reader or has he already done his reading in the past? Can his present alter or reconfigure the past or does the past remain dead and buried? These questions regarding narrative temporality are of great interest to Fredric Jameson’s 2013 book The Antinomies of Realism, which in my view is not simply a literary defence of the nineteenth-century realistic novel but a philosophical revitalization of literary and novelistic realism mediating through the dialectical conditions of modernity and postmodernity. I will read the complex and aporetic temporality of the Barnes novel in the light of Jameson’s thoughts on a new historical time of the present in the aforementioned book. Though I will problematize the neatness of Jameson’s identifications at various points before going beyond them to propose a Lacanian supplement, I consider this analysis to be in Jameson’s spirit in holding up the figure of antinomy as the auto-deconstructive hinge for his notion of realism.
Note: All references to Spinoza indicate Spinoza (1985).
The self has once again become a fashionable topic in philosophy, given a boost through recent advances in cognitive- and neuro-science which find it intriguing that an entity as familiar as the self continues to elude full scientific investigation. To put it in formal terms, the problem we face is how to account for the referent of the first-person pronoun: when we say, for example, that I am typing this paper, who is this ‘I’ that is being described? The problem of the self has intimate connections with that of personal identity and the mind and body’s relationship, but they are not the same: what makes the self distinctive is its first-personal character.
In this paper I will present a brief sketch of two philosophies on the topic of the self, namely Spinoza’s and the Buddhist’s. As this paper presents only a sketch of a very large project, I do not specify which tradition of Buddhism is presented for comparison with Spinoza. What I intend to do is present the core view from each school of Buddhism in order to proffer it as a single whole (inasmuch as this is possible). More nuanced interpretation of Buddhism, especially on the self, must await further studies. A search through the literature on Spinoza and Buddhism provides only very scanty result: one of the earliest works on the topic is Melamed (1933), where only a handful of others—Wienpahl (1971), Wienpahl (1972), and Ziporyn (2012)—explore it in a more contemporary vein. This is rather surprising given the fact that Spinoza aims to give an account of how the best possible life can be achieved, which appears to be Buddhism’s goal, too. For Spinoza, the key to this is achievable only through intellectual understanding, which compares to the Buddhist view that wisdom (or paññā) is necessary for realizing such life. The metaphysics are similar, too: all things are interconnected for Spinoza, since they are modes of either the attribute of body (if they are material things), or of the attribute of the mind (if they are mental entities). In any case, all are parts of the one substance: God. We might thus read Spinoza as claiming that things, whether physical or mental, do not possess independent existence in themselves because the only thing that possesses such an existence is God. In Buddhism, rather similarly, things are also interconnected; and though it is well-known that Buddhist philosophy entertains no conception of a personal God, the Buddhist must surely find some comfort in Spinoza’s conception. The fundamental laws of nature for the Buddhist, such as that of Karma or cause and effect (idappaccayatā), seem to fit nicely with Spinoza’s conception of things in nature, all of which must follow these laws to such an extent that nothing within it can happen accidentally (Proposition 28, Book I). Please note that I use the Pāli terminology in this paper as a matter of convenience; as said earlier, the Buddhism I present is a generic one which does not distinguish between Theravada or Mahayana, nor any other.
The dearth of studies comparing these philosophies aside, I would like to compare and contrast them with reference to the self. There is a clear reason for this, apart from the fact that the self has become fashionable: Buddhist philosophy, as is well known, is distinctly skeptical regarding it. It is, in fact, the hallmark of almost all schools of Buddhist philosophy that its inherent existence is denied. (By ‘inherent existence’ it is meant that the self could, theoretically, exist without any relation to other factors). Buddhism maintains that the self as we know it—that thing by which we to refer ourselves when we use the first-person pronoun—is but an illusion, albeit a very useful one. Spinoza does not talk much about the self in the Ethics , but he does discuss the human mind and body, and we can thus infer how he would conceive of the self as a referent of the first-person pronoun. The point I would like to make in this paper is that there are more similarities between Spinoza and Buddhism than there are differences. Analyses of how the Buddhist views the conception of the self could shed light on Spinoza’s own view on the union of the mind and body, which is notoriously difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, a close look at how Spinoza formulates his view concerning the mind and body could provide insight on how Buddhist philosophy might approach the issue in general. Hence, the benefits go both ways.
More specifically, I would like to contend that for Spinoza, as well as the Buddhist, the self does not strictly speaking exist. One cannot practically deny the reality of such a thing, but the apparent conflict and how it can be resolved will be discussed more extensively later. The merits of comparative studies are numerous: one not only discovers points of similarity and discrepancy between two systems, but also receives philosophical purchase from the comparison itself. In this sense Spinoza’s view of the self as a union of individual mind and individual body, and of bodies in general as objects of the mind, as well as his view of the mind as necessarily embodied, could function as a yardstick with which the Buddhist view can be compared. Marshall (2009), on the other hand, argues that Spinoza does not believe the mind and body are numerically identical. His view hinges on the ontological status of the Spinozistic attributes, which do not directly touch upon the argument presented in this paper. In the same vein, the Buddhist analysis of the self might also benefit our understanding of Spinoza, as we shall see in the following sections. All this has ultimately to do with Spinoza’s God and the Buddhist’s Dharma, or reality in the ultimate or absolute sense. I contend that an understanding of the nature of one can improve that of the other. Spinoza’s God possesses a number of interesting points of comparison with the Buddhist’s ultimate reality, and understanding these points is essential for grasping the notions of self in both traditions.
Spinoza’s Self as Mode of Union of Mind and Body
Spinoza discusses the mind and body in Book II of the Ethics. In Proposition 11 Spinoza says as follows: ‘The first thing that constitutes the actual being of a human Mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.’ He goes on to claim that the ‘particular thing’ that is ‘actually existing’ is the body. Proposition 13 says that ‘the object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.’ Thus, he seems to be saying that the mind is constituted by a thought, or an idea that one has of a particular physical thing. Without such a relation there can be no mind. To the extent that a mind has such a relation to an individual object, it must become an individual mind. Spinoza sees a parallel between mind and body, a view known as parallelism. His own unique view, however, is that both mind and body are attributes of God, such that there can be no body which is not accompanied by a mind, and vice versa. Every individual mind has to have a bodily object to which it is related, and every bodily object must be accompanied by a mind. In Proposition 3 of the same book Spinoza states, ‘In God there is necessarily an idea, both of his essence and of everything that necessarily follows from his essence.’ Given that every existing thing flows from God’s infinite essence in infinite ways, there is an idea of everything whatsoever. In other words, there is a one-to-one correspondence between every idea and every physical object, and this parallelism is established by the fact that all ideas and bodies are modes of the two attributes of God, each attribute being an essence of Him. To wit, both physical and mental objects are parts of one and the same God. When considered one way (under one attribute) God appears to be physical; but considered another way, under another attribute, God appears to be mental. As physical and mental objects are only modes of the two attributes, they are, collectively speaking, identical; and when considered as individual things, their physical and mental characters manifest themselves as such by constituting its very being. In other words, a physical object is also mental; a mental object is also physical. This absolute parallelism is thus the strongest of its kind, since two traditionally polarized elements are conflated.
As said earlier, Spinoza does not specifically discuss the self in the Ethics, but he does mention the human mind and body in Proposition 16: ‘The idea of any mode in which the human Body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human Body and at the same time the nature of the external body.’ For him, the human mind is the idea of the human body. This follows from the discussion above. Thus, it is not possible for the human mind to exist without its corresponding body. Spinoza also states that the idea of the mind and body are one and the same, viz. Proposition 20: ‘There is also in God an idea, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the idea, or knowledge, of the human Body;’ and Proposition 21: ‘This idea of the Mind is united to the Mind in the same way as the Mind is united to the Body.’ The latter proposition is particularly important in that it points to Spinoza’s view of self-consciousness, i.e. the act of the mind when directed to itself. Put simply, what Proposition 21 suggests is that when the mind is directed towards an object, the manner in which the direction takes place is the same whether it is directed outward, to an external object, or inward, to itself. Coupled with the above consideration, it might be said that the union of the mind and body—the parallelism discussed earlier—is of the same sort of idea as the relation between the mind and the mind itself. Thus, as there is a strong parallel between mind and body, there is also a parallel between the mind and the idea of the mind. Here is where we receive a glimpse of how Spinoza might view the self: when the mind is directed inward, it establishes a union between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object. The self, then, is this union between mind and body that is individual and limited only to a particular human being. The self is composed of both physical and mental elements, and belongs to the body.
Does the Self Absolutely Exist According to Spinoza?
Perhaps Spinoza’s boldest claim regarding the self resides in his idea of the conatus in Propositions 6 and 7 of Book III. Proposition 6 states, ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.’ Proposition 7, meanwhile, claims that ‘the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.’ The basic idea here is that for each individual thing there exists a force that strives to preserve it. This does not sound traditionally Spinozistic, but rather quite mystical: how could it be that such a force exists in each individual thing? The content of Proposition 6 follows from that of Proposition 4, which reads, ‘No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause.’ Thus, for each thing to remain with itself, it must have a natural tendency to remain so unless an external force destroys it. Proposition 5 supports this in saying, ‘Things are of a contrary nature, i.e. cannot be in the same subject, insofar as they can destroy the other.’ Since a thing is an expression of God’s act and reason, and since contrary things destroy themselves, a thing persists within its own being because persistence is simply a consequence of having no contrary nature within itself. Thus the conatus happens as a logical result of there being a thing that persists in itself alone. Proposition 5’s claim is that if one thing can destroy another, then the two are contrary and cannot inhere within the same subject. For example, love and hate are contrary to each other; love is the force that preserves things, and hate the opposite. So love and hate are like contrary chemical compounds that destroy each other as soon as they come into contact. For Spinoza, the reason the world is still here is that the power of love is more than that of hate; and each thing, when left to itself, owes its being and persistence to that power, since love is ‘a Joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause,’ and Joy is ‘a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection’ (See Definitions 2 and 6 in Proposition 59, Book III). As perfection cannot be achieved without reality (sc. man’s ascent towards God), love is a means by which joy is achieved; it is through love that one ascends to God. In Spinoza’s terms this actually entails that one achieves full understanding of reality through becoming absolutely in tune with the causality and rationality of nature.
So the picture is this: each of us contains a conatus, a natural tendency to preserve our beings which are in fact our very essence. The conatus strives to preserve our beings and by doing so realizes that it can do more, i.e. achieve its essential nature through striving to surpass itself in order to attain union with God. In less mystical terms, this means that the conatus strives to achieve a full union of the individual with God, or the ultimate reality, thereby erasing any substantive boundary between the individual and reality itself.
All in all, then, can the conatus be considered the self? In one way it certainly can. As all things contain their conatus, so does an individual human being, whose essence is certainly her conatus. However, what is strange about the conatus of a human being is that it must always be absolutely the same: the conatus of each human being is nothing more than that striving force that exists within it. Here the supposed essence of human beings is no different from the essence of simple things like rocks and trees. But if this is the case, then all human beings must be identical, since they share the same type of essence. There can be no difference in conatus between one human being and another, because the conatus is only that striving perseverance present within each of us, and nothing more. Thus, it cannot be identical with the self because the self of each individual must by nature be unique. Nonetheless, the conatus appears to be the closest thing in Spinoza’s system to such an individual self. That the self is not the same as the conatus does not necessarily imply that the self does not exist in Spinoza’s system, however: individual and unique traits of a human being may still be found, but they are particular in the same way an individual object over there might be particular. The task of the human being is to achieve what he calls ‘the intellectual love of God’—the striving towards perfection which is achieved when one has full understanding and leads one’s life in accordance with reason. Here the uniqueness of this situation does not play a role; instead the idea is to forgo these traits of individuality by merging with the One, so to speak, through losing one’s unique individual traits.
The Buddhist Doctrine of the Non-Self
Let us look at how Buddhism views the self. The view of Buddhism is here a vast topic: unlike Spinoza’s philosophy, the view of the self is central to Buddhist thought and there is, as a result, a vast amount of relevant literature within all traditions of Buddhism. In this short paper I shall be able to focus on only one aspect of the argument that concerns itself with the division of the self into five khandhas, which are literally translated as ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates.’ A basic tenet in Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the self is regarded as being composed of form (rūpa), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), thought formations (sankhāra) and consciousness (viññāna). (For an introduction to Buddhist philosophy, see Siderits, 2007 and Gethin, 1998. The analysis of the self as consisting of five elements here is fundamental in all Buddhist schools.) These five elements can be grouped together into physical and mental entities whereby form belongs to the former and the other four aggregates to the latter. The argument is that, as the self is divisible into these five aggregates, it cannot be found as an inherently existing entity because the self dissolves itself by virtue of being so divisible. Any characteristic that is thought to belong to the self, such as having a certain personality, is not found to belong to any of these aggregates. The personality may be thought to belong to perceptions and memories, but these are fleeting and constituted by countless short episodes, so cannot be considered as a candidate for the self that is thought to endure as a source of personality. The same kind of analysis applies when the self is equated with the body. In short, the Buddhist takes up the usual way in which the self is conceived: as existing as a life-giving soul, and finds that it is nothing more than a collection of these five aggregates. As none of them possess the characteristic that is necessary for their being a substantial self, the latter cannot exist. Note, however, that for the Buddhist the self does exist: to categorically deny this would be insupportable since we all refer to ourselves as a basic mode of communication. The problem, then, is the exact nature of this thing to which I refer in using the word ‘I.’
One of the most important places in the canonical Scripture where the Buddha specifically discusses the Doctrine of the Non-Self is the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Non-Self Characteristics (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015). According to the standardized account, the Buddha, having just attained Nirvana, turned to his original five disciples and convinced them that he had attained Liberation. After giving his first teaching, one of these disciples began to understand the basics of his ideas, resulting ultimately in all five disciples attaining this Liberation. The topic of the second teaching, Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, is precisely the nature of the Non-Self. The Discourse begins as follows:
Thus it was heard by me. At one time the Blessed One was living in the deer park of Isipatana near Benares. There, indeed, the Blessed One addressed the group of five monks.
‘Form, O monks, is not-self; if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.’
Feeling, O monks, is not-self; if feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since feeling is not-self, therefore feeling leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus’ (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015).
The Buddha is referring to the five khandas mentioned earlier. The self is understood to be exhaustively divided into these five elements, and the Buddha’s strategy in the Sutta is to show that each of these five elements cannot validly function as the self of the person. ‘Form’ in the excerpt above is the traditional translation of Pali rūpa, meaning the body, i.e. whatever material form that makes up what is normally understood the self. The Buddha points out that this form cannot be identified with the self, because if it were, we must be able to control it with the will. We must, for example, be able to tell the body not to age; and the fact that this is not possible demonstrates that form and the self are not identical. When the body ages or otherwise follows its natural course in a way that we do not like, ‘suffering’ or ‘affliction’ is the result. The Pāli term for this is dukkha, which refers to things not according to our wishes and hence engendering dissatisfaction. The key point is that form does not follow our will, and that if form is to be identified with the self, it must do so. The Buddha then applies the same argument to all other components of the self, with the very same result. The overall conclusion is that we cannot find the self anywhere; the self, in other words, is an illusion. That our form or other khandas follow their own trajectory rather than submit to our will demonstrates that they are a part of the natural order and do not consult us in their doing so. Our aging hair will continue to turn white, for example, no matter how much we will it not to; but it turns white as a part of the natural order of which humans are already a part.
If the argument depends on the claim that form does not follow the will, then is the will itself to be identified with the self? Here the will is part of the mental components of the khandas: recall that there are four mental khandas (the body is identified with rūpa, the only one physical khanda), namely feeling, perception, thought formation, and consciousness. The idea is that any mental act falls under either of these four elements, and none other. The will must thus be a part of either one of these things. This entails that when we have a will or a desire—that I want my hair to be black, for example—it does not actually adhere to whatever we want it to be. The desire is like a thought and according to the Sutta we cannot control it. Sometimes we have a desire or a thought, but sometimes we do not. Many have experienced this difficulty in controlling their thoughts; it seem that they can be so unruly that we often have a hard time restraining them. It is possible that sometimes the thought or the desire that I want black hair arises, but some other times it does not. Those who practice meditation will always be familiar with such difficulties. We cannot focus upon a single thought for very long; and in this way our thoughts and desires follow the natural order in the way of our bodies. It is in this sense that the Buddha argues that the self cannot be found anywhere, since even our will can elude our control.
The point made by the Sutta, then, is that whenever we gaze inside, where we normally expect to find our enduring selves, we in fact find nothing. Instead we unearth mere parts of the natural order that follow their own logic and cause-and-effect relations, and which bear no significance to the self. Even our consciousness follows the natural order in this way. The only reasonable conclusion from this is that what we normally conceive to be the self is but an illusion which does not exist independently.
However, if the Buddha argues that there is no self, then what are we referring to when we use the first-person pronoun? When we flee from danger, for example, what exactly are we trying to preserve? The Buddha’s point is not that he wants to eliminate all discussion on the ego; instead he wants to point out that our normal conception of it is in fact inaccurate. It is somewhat similar to apprehending a rainbow, thinking that it is substantial and has enduring existence, while it is in fact only an mirage borne out of light and water particles. In the same way we could say that the five khandhas are more basic in that the existence of the self depends upon them, just as the existence of the rainbow depends upon the light and moisture in the air. However, saying that the rainbow is only an appearance does not mean that it does not exist at all, for we can ostensively perceive it. In the same manner, the self exists even though it is, in basic reality, only an appearance. Hence, when we are running from danger, what we want to preserve is precisely ourselves, which consist of the mind and body combined in such a way that gives rise to a unique personality. The Buddha’s central message is that it is one’s attachment to this union of mind and body that engenders that unique personality—the self—which is the source of all humanity’s afflictions. Once we fully realize that the self is nothing but an appearance caused by our own misconceptions, the root of suffering dissipates and we are liberated at last.
Self and Ultimate Reality
The key to seeing whether Spinoza’s view on the self agrees with that of the Buddhist thus lies in Spinoza’s constructed perspective. If he denies that it exists inherently, as something whose existence necessarily depends on that of others, then his view would on the whole agree with the Buddhist’s. Recall that, for Spinoza, modes are an attribute of substance considered as limited by their own kind (Definition 5 in Proposition 10 of Book I). That is, a physical object is a piece of extended matter whose outer limit is defined by other objects. If that is the case, then it can be seen that the very being of the object depends crucially upon others. Without the other objects to provide its outer limit, how could the object even exist as an object at all? In the same vein, a self (that is, a union of individual body and individual mind) is limited by its relations with other selves. It is certainly the case that its body is limited by other physical objects, and the mind is also delimited in the same way. And the self, seen from the first-person perspective as a union of mind and body pertaining to one particular person, is thus limited in the same way by other body-and-mind complexes. This points to rather a striking similarity between Spinoza and the Buddhist.
Another point of similarity lies in the emphasis on the presence of natural order in both traditions. We have seen that, for the Buddhist, the khandhas are not to be considered as constituting a self because they follow this natural order—the cosmic law of cause and effect—and not the will of the subject. Spinoza also pays a great deal of attention to this: in Proposition 28, Book I, he states unequivocally that everything that happens does so because of a cause, and this continues ad infinitum. Even the conatus, the force that preserves the integrity of a particular thing, is not to be identified with the self, as we have seen above. The reason for this is that, for Spinoza, every object has its own conatus, and not only a human being whose self we are concerned with in this study. The conatus should, in fact, be viewed more as the force that is inherent everywhere in cosmic reality, and not specifically something that is capable of thinking and desiring in the way that we normally take to be the qualities of the self.
What about the actual metaphysical status of the self? According to Spinoza, it is something that is both physical and mental at the same time—just as substance itself can be seen as constituted essentially by mind and matter—the difference being that while substance is only one, the selves are parts of the substance, just as modes are. This is clear from the fact that they cannot be divided. Furthermore, Propositions 11 and 12 of Book II confirm that there is a strict parallel between the mind and body: what goes on with these substances at a cosmic level also occurs on the more local level of the human being. There is, however, one difference between Spinoza and the Buddhist: for Spinoza the self is both mental and physical; but this is not necessarily the case within certain Buddhist traditions. According to the Abhidhamma, the mind and body are classified as two distinct and incompatible fundamental categories of basic reality, which consists of mind (citta), mental formations or mental states (cetasika), form (i.e., physical matter—rūpa), and Nirvana (Anuruddhācariya, 1979). The Mahayana tradition, following Nāgārjuna, claims instead that mind and matter are not in the end strictly separated, as both belong ultimately to emptiness itself, which is characterized as nature insofar as it is considered to be devoid of any inherently existent characteristics. For the Mahayana, all things are empty by nature; that is, they are what they are only to the extent that certain causes and conditions apply to them. They cannot exist beyond these causes and conditions. Nāgārjuna explains this thoroughly in Chapter IV of his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which argues that the five khandhas cannot be conceived as existing independently or objectively (Nāgārjuna, 1995). No assertion regarding the khandhas is tenable since no substantive statement can be made of them, since their existence depends upon other factors; and to make any substantive statement demands that each of the khandhas remain still, so to speak, so that assertions or theorizations can be made of them. This is a hugely complex matter, but suffice to say that, according to the Mahayana, mind and matter could be regarded as belonging to the same category of being, which is not unlike Spinoza’s view regarding the relation between God and individual modes. This results from everything being considered a part of emptiness: since all things lack inherent existence and cannot be separated—because separation presuppose some kind of objective substance—then to separate things as mental and physical would be to presuppose that there exists objective categories of ‘mental’ and ‘physical’—which contradicts the premise that all things lack inherent existence. Thus, to classify things in such a way, one must depend on one’s own conceptualization and convention (Nāgārjuna, 1995, Verse 18, Chapter 24, and also Verse 5, Chapter 5.) This claim is also dependent on whether it is possible to talk of emptiness as itself a category of being. If emptiness can be considered as being in some way, then there is a straightforward means by which it can be compared to Spinoza’s God. Another strand in Buddhist philosophy claims that ‘emptiness’ is only a word that designates a condition whereby all things are interdependent with other things, and since everything possesses this characteristic, the notion of emptiness as an entity is but a semantic device. Garfield argues that Nagarjuna subscribes to this view that emptiness is not to be equated with a kind of self-subsisting void that looms over conventional reality. On the contrary, emptiness and conventional reality are themselves one and the same. This is the case for Spinoza as well, as God, or Nature, is nothing but the collection or the totality of all things (Nāgārjuna, 1995, pp. 90-93). In any case, however, I would like only to show that there is at least one strand of Buddhist thought that appears to equate mind and matter, thus making it rather amenable to Spinoza’s thought. This point requires much further elaboration and analysis, however, and I will need to consider both emptiness in Mahayana thought and Spinoza’s God in order to discover points of comparison. A study of the conception of the self in both Spinoza and Buddhist philosophy cannot fail to look at how each view ultimate reality and how comparisons might thus be made.
A discussion of the conceptions of the self in either Buddhism or Spinoza would not be complete without a discussion of the ‘highest possible perfection’ from each perspective. If there is ultimately no self, as the Buddhist argues, then who is liberated when they reach Nirvana? And to Spinoza, who is it that possesses this intellectual love of God? Who achieves blessedness, which is for him the highest human perfection? The Buddhist’s rejoinder is that, ultimately speaking, the question is unsound because it presupposes that there is somebody who obtains the quality of ‘having attained Nirvana.’ To him, there is no such person to attain Nirvana in the first place. A standard source for this point is the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta (2015) where the Buddha argues that it cannot be claimed that the Tathāgata (the one thus gone, or the Buddha) either survives after death or does not survive, because either way the claim presupposes the existence of something (namely, the Tathāgata) whose confirmation or negation leads to the opposite view. Instead the Buddha claims that existence always depends on causes and conditions; thus it cannot be said of someone who has attained Nirvana that he either survives or does not survive, because in either case the existence is presupposed without the dependence upon causes and conditions. Without this presupposition, then, the question of whether he exists after death or not makes no sense. Nirvana is attained when there is a realization that there is in the last analysis no self as an inherently existing entity. The standard Buddhist understanding of this problem is that one is at this moment disabused from one’s own delusions. One has, in analogy, long mistaken a rope for a snake, and once this realization has dawned upon one’s mind, one is ‘liberated’ from the fear of a snake that was never there. One has mistaken the five khandhas as one’s own self, but after practising and traveling along the Buddhist path, one gains the realization that what has taken to be the self has all along been something else. As a result, one is ‘liberated’ from all the afflictions and problems that accompany the belief in the existence of oneself. By so realizing, one is said to have attained Nirvana.
For Spinoza, the highest possible human perfection is achieved through the ‘intellectual love of God’ (Proposition 33, Book V). Spinoza defines this very important concept in Proposition 33 of Book V: ‘The intellectual love of God, which arises from the third kind of knowledge, is eternal,’ and also, more substantively, in Proposition 36: ‘The Mind’s intellectual love of God is the very Love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human Mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; i.e., the Mind’s intellectual love of God is part of the infinite Love by which God loves himself.’ The idea is that blessedness is achieved through what Spinoza calls the ‘third kind of knowledge,’ that is, intuitive knowledge one has of God himself as opposed to conceptual or direct perceptual knowledge. The distinction here is based on what Spinoza calls ‘adequate ideas’ (Defition 4 of Book II). These are ideas which are absolutely true, as they are related directly to God and contrast with ‘inadequate ideas.’ In Proposition 36 of Book II, Spinoza clearly distinguishes between these notions when he claims that the inadequate or confused sort are connected with a ‘singular mind,’ where ideas directly connected to God are true. The singular mind that Spinoza speaks of has an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhist’s view of the self as a source of confusion. Here the main idea appears to be the same: perfection is achieved through the dissolution of the self and identification of oneself with the whole or the totality. Spinoza’s notion that ideas are essentially eternal also seems to support the Buddhist interpretation I am suggesting. Roughly, ideas are themselves eternal as parts of the eternal God; as bodies are parts of God ,or Nature (who is eternal and contains many of God’s qualities), so are ideas. The Buddhist would in principle agree with Spinoza here, because to realize eternality one must transcend one’s own egoistic perspective and realize that one has all along been a part of the eternal and the cosmic. Though I cannot offer a full account of this difficult aspect of Spinoza’s thought here, suffice to say that as far as parallelism between mind and body goes, the eternality of mind is mirrored by the eternality of the body; but it is not the body of an individual person, but body per se as a part of nature. The atoms of a corpse, for example, remain despite the fact the person is dead (See also Garrett, 2009). Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge involves the realization that all things are connected as necessary parts of a single God and that everything is interconnected through the necessary chain of cause and effect. This, to me, sounds very much like Buddhism.
To conclude, we might say there are a number of similarities between the conception of the self within Spinoza and Buddhism. First, they are both unions of mind and matter that are limited by their own kind. This is meant both literally and metaphorically: the self is limited physically by the existence of others; but also recognized as such to the effect of limiting what the self is. This is in line with the idea that selves are not merely inert object, but the seats of subjectivity and the source of thoughts and ideas. In Buddhism, this is supported by the tenet that everything is interconnected (idappaccayatā), such that a recognition of there being one thing necessarily requires the recognition of others. Secondly, though Spinoza’s view that mind is constituted by body does not seem to find a direct support in Buddhism, if we interpret the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness in such a way that it is to be equated with ultimate reality, then mind and matter each belong to it. In this sense emptiness can roughly be considered to possess two major characteristics: mental and physical. This would be much in line with Spinoza’s theory of the attributes; if it is possible that emptiness can be recognized as an entity (a view that some Buddhist schools have developed), then mind and matter do indeed appear to run alongside the Spinozistic line of thought. Alternatively, we might say that Spinoza’s view of substance and attributes appears to follow an interpretation of the Mahayana that looks at emptiness as equal to ultimate reality.
What about the Buddhist’s denial of the self’s inherent existence? Although Spinoza does not seem to specify his views here, he does to some extent discuss the human mind and body, which are obvious corollaries of this matter. Furthermore, the whole purpose of the Ethics is to achieve a blessed life, and it must be someone’s self who achieves this as a result of following the path suggested in Spinoza’s suggestions. Thus, it seems incongruent for one to conclude that Spinoza gives short shrift to the self simply because he does not discuss it directly in his Ethics. Since it is always the self that eventually achieves blessedness, it is implied that Spinoza in some way recognizes the self’s existence. But if we think along these lines, Buddhism also recognizes the existence of the self, because in the end it is the self of the practitioner who, after arduous labor, arrives at Nirvana’s shores. In the same vein, I think it equally possible to suggest that in the Ethics the existence of the individual self is similarly tenuous. For one thing, Spinoza acknowledges that in the end there is only one thing, namely God, or substance. All the selves out there are thus only modes of God’s attributes (Proposition 13, Book I). Modes have some level of existence, but they do not exist categorically as God does.
Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html 26 July 2015.
Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The discourse on the not-self characteristic (SN 22.59). 2010. N.K.G. Mendis, transl. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 13 June 2010. Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html 26 July 2015.
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George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University
The interpretive mayhem engendered by Immanuel Kant’s Critique has, in the space of two centuries, yet to provide a standard or altogether satisfactory exegesis of transcendental idealism, a theory which on all counts lies at the very heart of Kantian philosophy. This paper aims to delineate two of transcendental idealism’s most salient readings in hope of proffering a well-considered comparison and, ultimately, a proposal that neither interpretation provides an account which conforms unerringly to Kant’s own promulgations.
Part I: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
The Kantian doctrine of transcendental idealism concerns itself with the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, i.e.. objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in and of themselves. Kant’s finishing thesis on the matter posits the human mind as an active contributor to the objects of its perception and thus, in some way, a direct authority upon the nature of reality as we know it (McCormick, 2012, §4).
An exhaustive exposition of transcendental idealism demands a full consideration of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1998), an enterprise well beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ however, Kant assures us that his views on space and time are of particular relevance here, and it is upon these views that the present section will aim to focus (Janiak, 2012, §6). It may, for the sake of clarification, be useful to juxtapose the Kantian notion of space and time with that of Newton (see Newton, 1990, pp.85-109, 823-60), whose transcendental realism epitomises the notion of external reality Kant aimed to oppose. With an eye to Newtonianism he writes:
Those […] who assert the absolute reality of space and time, whether they be subsisting or only inhering, must themselves come into conflict with the principles of experience. For if they decide in favour of the first […], then they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsisting non-entities (space and time), which are there (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to comprehend everything actual within themselves (Kant, 1998, pp.166-7).
Here Kant presents the transcendental realist position as one which posits space and time as a pair of quasi-objects which exist independently of the human intuition. Without attending to Kant’s direct objections to this concept, it should suffice to say that he does not conceive of space and time as objects, quasi-objects, or indeed anything to be considered independent of human intuition. For him, they are to be conceived neither as things-in-themselves nor properties that can be perceived or verified empirically; they are rather ‘forms of intuition,’ that is, ‘a priori elements of sensible perception’ which would not ‘subsist in themselves’ if one were to contemplate them in abstraction from the minds of those to whose perception they are essential (Guyer, 2006, p.53). It is in this that Kant proffers the notion of the synthetic a priori proposition: observations on these necessary forms are synthetic, since ‘the predicate […] is not logically or analytically contained in the subject,’ but simultaneously a priori because they are ‘verifiable independently of experience,’ since they essentially constitute it (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015). These forms are not, in other words, borne out of the objects themselves but imposed upon them as necessary conditions of the mind’s ‘receiving’ the external world (Schulting and Verburgt, 2011, p.5). When we look at a tulip as it is situated within spatiotemporal reality, then, we are not seeing it as it is, but as it appears to us following the intuition’s attempt to sort it into forms more easily digested by the understanding (van Cleve, 1999, p.134).
But what is the nature of an object beyond the veil of the mind? What are objects like when we are not considering them? It is when we ask questions like these that we stumble into Kant’s controversial distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves or, more concisely, phenomena and noumena. While on the one hand we have the phenomenon, an object as we perceive it through the prism of our intuition and understanding, on the other we have the noumenon, an object ‘unembellished’ by the mind and thus in possession only of those properties that are intrinsic to it (Walsh, 1901, pp.464-5). Things-in-themselves are on all counts considered inscrutable: while Kant claims we are able to perceive phenomena and acquire empirical truths regarding their relations, he insists that we will never apprehend the ‘unknown somethings’ of which appearances are mere representations (Kant, 1998, pp.276-96). This, he says, is impossible from the perspective of the finite mind.
As noted in Braiche (2008), a great deal of tension exists among Kantian scholars where transcendental idealism is concerned. While some interpret it as a doctrine interested in making ontological claims, others read the Critique as propounding an epistemic thesis (pp.2-3). The question of whether Kant intends to suggest that reality consists in two ontologically distinct worlds (one phenomenal, the other noumenal) is pivotal here; and it is around this question that the following sections will work.
Part II: Strawson and the Noumenal World
Needless to say, it is usually the thing-in-itself that provokes interpretive issues. Even Jacobi, one of the Critique’s earliest commentators, famously claims that ‘the “thing-in-itself” is the kind of concept without which it is impossible to enter Kant’s system, but with which it is impossible to get out of the system’ (Jacobi, 1912, p.304). Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (1996) takes similar issue with Kant’s reliance on noumena and attempts to release transcendental idealism from its inconsistencies by attributing its metaphysical system to Berkeleyan idealism; that is, the notion that external reality is but a phenomenal illusion. ‘The only element in transcendental idealism which has any significant part to play in those structures,’ he writes, ‘is the phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions’ (p.246). Despite the extremity of this deduction, Strawson’s ‘sortings of wheat from chaff’ are broadly acknowledged to stand among transcendental idealism’s most canonical interpretations (Bennett, 1986, p.340).
In reaching these conclusions Strawson focuses on the troublesome relationship between phenomena, noumena, and our cognitive faculties. He begins from what has become known as the ‘two-worlds’ reading of transcendental idealism, a view from which things-in-themselves and their appearances occupy two distinct realities, only the latter of which being comprehensible from the human perspective. The former, that noumenal ‘sphere of supersensible reality,’ must on Kant’s view transcend our intuitive notions of space and time as well as those ‘pure concepts’ which follow from them (such as that of causation) (Strawson, 1996, p.236). This interpretation is not without textual evidence. In Kant’s own words:
We should consider that bodies are not objects in themselves that are present to us, but rather a mere appearance of who knows what unknown object; that motion is not the effect of this unknown cause, but merely the appearance of its influence on our sense (Kant, 1998, p.435).
On this reading, then, we are to consider phenomena and noumena as ontologically distinct objects, one inhering within space and time and the other in some sort of transcendental realm of aspatiotemporal things-in-themselves. This is not to say that these worlds do not interact, however. Strawson insists that human experience must be the result of some ‘complex quasi-causal relation’ between phenomena and noumena, a connection he terms the ‘A-relation’ (Strawson, 1996, p.236). It is by way of this ostensible quasi-causality that noumena and human minds are able to ‘collaborate’ in their formation of the phenomenal world (Braiche, 2008, p.9).
But Strawson does not believe this relationship comports with Kant’s earlier conception of things-in-themselves as unknowable objects that do not conform to the modes of experience central to phenomenal nature. In support of this thesis he questions two aspects of the transcendental-idealist system in hope of bringing the notion of the thing-in-itself into question (Matthews, 1969, pp.206-7).
First, if noumena are unknowable and cannot be cognised, how is that we are able to know that they cause phenomena, or that they are in fact there at all? On Strawson’s reading of Kantian epistemology, things-in-themselves do not fall within the category of ‘possible human experience’ and thus possess neither the capacity to be verified nor any significant meaning as theoretical concepts. To insist that noumena exist despite this would be to approach transcendental idealism as a rationalist, where to claim that they do not would be to fall worryingly close to the extreme idealism of Berkeley (Strawson, 1996, pp.237-40). Kant here faces a dilemma, for he fits comfortably into neither camp. Second, if such notions as space, time, and causation do not exist beyond the realm of appearances, how is it that the A-relation is possible? How is it, in other words, that noumena are able to provide us with the material from which our cognitive faculties are able to construct phenomena? This, too, is a problem for Kant since it is not clear how this might occur without presupposing concepts of causation and, by extension, the forms of space and time (ibid., pp.246-8). While his epistemology is challenged on the first confutation, his ontological account of things-in-themselves is undermined in the second.
The Critique provides no easy way out of these difficulties and this, for Strawson, ‘tolls the death knell’ for transcendental idealism (Braiche, 2008, p.2). If we recall his statement that the doctrine’s only remaining foothold is the ‘phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions,’ we see that Strawson chooses to equate Kant with Berkeley, both of whom deny the external existence of phenomena yet fail to affirm the things-in-themselves that would otherwise ground them in reality (Strawson, 1996, p.260). And thus Kant is, where his idealism is concerned, considered nothing more than an ‘inconsistent Berkeley’ (Allison, 2004, p.4).
Part III: Allison’s Two Aspects
How might transcendental idealism be navigated from Strawson’s impasse? According to the account proffered in the Bounds, Kant is describing two different classes of objects: the tulip as we see it, and the tulip as it is in and of itself. This is a metaphysical interpretation, and from this approach arises Strawson’s refutation. Allison does not read transcendental idealism this way; rather he views it as an appendage of Kant’s epistemic ideas. For him, the Critique does not intentionally discuss the ontologies of two distinct-yet-somehow-interactive tulips, but a single tulip considered in two different ways (Allison, 2004, pp.229-35). This, at least theoretically, diverts transcendental idealism away from the ambush Strawson prepares in his own exegesis.
Allison does not contend that there is nothing to be considered beyond phenomena: while he does not award things-in-themselves their own ontological status in the way of Strawson, he nonetheless acknowledges them as an important aspect to Kantian philosophy. On his view, sometimes linked with the ‘two-aspects’ position, what distinguishes a thing-in-itself from its appearance is not the domain of existence it occupies but the way in which the human mind considers it. Given that our cognitive faculties actively process and order the external world, thus giving rise to phenomena, it follows that an object of this reality may retain its own sort of existence where these devices are not present. This does not, however, entail the treatment of this existence as a separate, ontologically distinct entity, for it is simply an object of the phenomenal world considered in abstraction from the conditions under which we perceive it (Allison, 2004, pp.33-6). This interpretation is no more lacking in textual evidence than Strawson’s:
We can have cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance […] We [presume] the distinction between things as objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves (Kant, 1998, p.116).
As seen above, phenomena and noumena are ‘the very same things’ considered in different contexts. We cognise phenomena as they appear to us within space and time, adorned with all the concepts part and parcel to human experience; while noumena are these same manifestations considered (via transcendental reflection) in the notional absence of such conditions. In this they retain a sort of methodological or formal status, but by no means an ontological one. This kind of formal significance is in no way peculiar to human thought: in theoretical physics we often consider objects abstracted from their necessary properties, but we do not insodoing commit ourselves to the belief that these abstracted entities exist in any real sense of the word (Allison, 1978, pp.53-4).
To avoid Strawson’s critique, Allison emphasises noumena’s negative role as more a description of what phenomena are not than an account of what might exist beyond the realms of possible experience. This account gives things-in-themselves a viable position within Kantian epistemology without force-feeding them the unwieldy metaphysical significance found in two-worlds interpretations. It shifts, in other words, the axis of the phenomena-noumena distinction from the way things are to the way (or whether) our cognitive faculties respond to them (Braiche, 2008, p.14).
Part IV: A Hopeless Case?
It seems fair to say that the accounts of both Strawson and Allison more-or-less conform to Kant’s original proposition; they would not, otherwise, be so widely discussed as valid interpretations. It is worth considering, however, that throughout the Critique Kant himself appears to oscillate between a two-worlds and a two-aspects position. Transcendental idealism is by no means a straightforward discipline to comprehend, and it could be that our failure to reach a univocal reading of its postulations owes to the irresolution of its author (Matthews, 1969, p.204). To end on a quotation from Wood (2005):
I think much of the puzzlement about transcendental idealism arises from the fact that Kant himself formulates [it] in a variety of ways and it is not at all clear how, or whether, his statements […] can be reconciled or taken as statements of a single, self-consistent doctrine. I think Kant’s central formulations suggest two quite distinct and mutually incompatible doctrines (pp.63-4).
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