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On the Fundamental View of Idealism
In endless space countless luminous spheres, round each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones revolve, hot at the core and covered over with a hard cold crust; on this crust a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings: this is empirical truth, the real, the world. Yet for a being who thinks, it is a precarious position to stand on one of those numberless spheres freely floating in boundless space, without knowing whence or whither, and to be only one of innumerable similar beings that throng, press, and toil, restlessly and rapidly arising and passing away in beginningless and endless time. Here there is nothing permanent but matter alone, and the recurrence of the same varied organic forms by means of certain ways and channels that inevitably exist as they do. All that empirical science can teach is only the more precise nature and rule of these events. But at last the philosophy of modem times, especially through Berkeley and Kant, has called to mind that all this in the first instance is only phenomenon of the brain, and is encumbered by so many great and different subjective conditions that its supposed absolute reality vanishes, and leaves room for an entirely different world-order that lies at the root of that phenomenon, in other words, is related to it as is the thing-in-itself to the mere appearance.
"The world is my representation" is, like the axioms of Euclid, a proposition which everyone must recognize as true as soon as he understands it, although it is not a proposition that everyone understands as soon as he hears it. To have brought this proposition to consciousness and to have connected it with the problem of the relation of the ideal to the real, in other words, of the world in the head to the world outside the head, constitutes, together with the problem of moral freedom, the distinctive characteristic of the philosophy of the modems. For only after men had tried their hand for thousands of years at merely objective philosophizing did they discover that, among the many things that make the world so puzzling and precarious, the first and foremost is that, however immeasurable and massive it may be, its existence hangs nevertheless on a single thread; and this thread is the actual consciousness in which it exists. This condition, with which the existence of the world is irrevocably encumbered, marks it with the stamp of ideality, in spite of all empirical reality, and consequently with the stamp of the mere phenomenon. Thus the world must be recognized, from one aspect at least, as akin to a dream, indeed as capable of being put in the same class with a dream. For the same brain-function that conjures up during sleep a perfectly objective, perceptible, and indeed palpable world must have just as large a share in the presentation of the objective world of wakefulness. Though different as regards their matter, the two worlds are nevertheless obviously moulded from one form. This form is the intellect, the brain-function. Descartes was probably the first to attain the degree of reflection demanded by that fundamental truth; consequently, he made that truth the starting-point of his philosophy, although provisionally only in the form of sceptical doubt. By his taking cogito ergo sum as the only thing certain, and provisionally regarding the existence of the world as problematical, the essential and only correct starting-point, and at the same time the true point of support, of all philosophy was really found. This point, indeed, is essentially and of necessity the subjective, our own consciousness. For this alone is and remains that which is immediate; everything else, be it what it may, is first mediated and conditioned by consciousness, and therefore dependent on it. It is thus rightly considered that the philosophy of the modems starts from Descartes as its father. Not long afterwards, Berkeley went farther along this path, and arrived at idealism proper; in other words, at the knowledge that what is extended in space, and hence the objective, material world in general, exists as such simply and solely in our representation, and that it is false and indeed absurd to attribute to it, as such, an existence outside all representation and independent of the knowing subject, and so to assume a matter positively and absolutely existing in itself. But this very correct and deep insight really constitutes the whole of Berkeley's philosophy; in it he had exhausted himself.
Accordingly, true philosophy must at all costs be idealistic; indeed, it must be so merely to be honest. For nothing is more certain than that no one ever came out of himself in order to identify himself immediately with things different from him; but everything of which he has certain, sure, and hence immediate knowledge, lies within his consciousness. Beyond this consciousness, therefore, there can be no immediate certainty; but the first principles of a science must have such a certainty. It is quite appropriate to the empirical standpoint of all the other sciences to assume the objective world as positively and actually existing; it is not appropriate to the standpoint of philosophy, which has to go back to what is primary and original. Consciousness alone is immediately given, hence the basis of philosophy is limited to the facts of consciousness; in other words, philosophy is essentially idealistic. Realism, which commends itself to the crude understanding by appearing to be founded on fact, starts precisely from an arbitrary assumption, and is in consequence an empty castle in the air, since it skips or denies the first fact of all, namely that all that we know lies within consciousness. For that the objective existence of things is conditioned by a representer of them, and that consequently the objective world exists only as representation, is no hypothesis, still less a peremptory pronouncement, or even a paradox put forward for the sake of debate or argument. On the contrary, it is the surest and simplest truth, and a knowledge of it is rendered more difficult only by the fact that it is indeed too simple, and that not everyone has sufficient power of reflection to go back to the first elements of his consciousness of things. There can never be an existence that is objective absolutely and in itself; such an existence, indeed, is positively inconceivable. For the objective, as such, always and essentially has its existence in the consciousness of a subject; it is therefore the representation of this subject, and consequently is conditioned by the subject, and moreover by the subject's forms of representation, which belong to the subject and not to the object.
That the objective world would exist even if there existed no knowing being at all, naturally seems at the first onset to be sure and certain, because it can be thought in the abstract, without the contradiction that it carries within itself coming to light. But if we try to realize this abstract thought, in other words, to reduce it to representations of perception, from which alone (like everything abstract) it can have content and truth; and if accordingly we attempt to imagine an objective world without a knowing subject, then we become aware that what we are imagining at that moment is in truth the opposite of what we intended, namely nothing but just the process in the intellect of a knowing being who perceives an objective world, that is to say, precisely that which we had sought to exclude. For this perceptible and real world is obviously a phenomenon of the brain; and so in the assumption that the world as such might exist independently of all brains there lies a contradiction.
The principal objection to the inevitable and essential ideality of every object, the objection which arises distinctly or indistinctly in everyone, is certainly as follows: Even my own person is object for another, and is therefore that other's representation, and yet I know certainly that I should exist even without that other representing me in his mind. But all other objects also stand in the same relation to his intellect as I stand; consequently, they too would exist without his representing them in his mind. The answer to this is as follows: That other being, whose object I am now considering my person to be, is not absolutely the subject, but is in the first instance a knowing individual. Therefore, if he too did not exist, in fact, even if there existed in general no other knowing being except myself, this would still by no means be the elimination of the subject in whose representation alone all objects exist. For I myself am in fact that subject, just as is every knowing being. Consequently, in the case here assumed, my person would certainly still exist, but again as representation, namely in my own knowledge. For even by myself it is always known only indirectly, never directly, since all existence as representation is an indirect existence. Thus as object, in other words as extended, filling space, and acting, I know my body only in the perception of my brain. This perception is brought about through the senses, and on their data the perceiving understanding carries out its function of passing from the effect to the cause. In this way, by the eye seeing the body, or the hands touching it, the understanding constructs the spatial figure that presents itself in space as my body. In no way, however, are there given to me directly, in some general feeling of the body or in inner self-consciousness, any extension, shape, and activity that would coincide with my inner being itself, and that inner being accordingly requires no other being in whose knowledge it would manifest itself, in order so to exist. On the contrary, that general feeling, just like self-consciousness, exists directly only in relation to the will, namely as comfortable or uncomfortable, and as active in the acts of will, which exhibit themselves for external perception as actions of the body. It follows from this that the existence of my person or of my body as an extended and acting thing always presupposes a knowing being different from it, since it is essentially an existence in the apprehension, in the representation, and hence an existence for another being. In fact, it is a phenomenon of the brain, no matter whether the brain in which it exhibits itself belongs to my own person or to another's. In the first case, one's own person is then split up into the knowing and the known, into object and subject, and here, as everywhere, these two face each other inseparable and irreconcilable. Therefore, if my own person, in order to exist as such, always requires a knower, this will apply at any rate just as much to all other objects; and to vindicate for these an existence independent of knowledge and of the subject of knowledge was the aim of the above objection.
However, it is evident that the existence conditioned through a knowing being is simply and solely existence in space, and hence that of a thing extended and acting. This alone is always a known thing, and consequently an existence for another being. At the same time, everything that exists in this way may still have an existence for itself, for which it requires no subject. This existence by itself, however, cannot be extension and activity (together space-occupation), but is necessarily another kind of being, namely that of a thing-in-itself, which, purely as such, can never be object. This, therefore, is the answer to the principal objection stated above, and accordingly this objection does not overthrow the fundamental truth that the objectively present and existing world can exist only in the representation, and so only for a subject.
It is also to be noted here that even Kant, at any rate so long as he remained consistent, cannot have thought of any objects among his things-in-themselves. For this follows already from the fact that he proved space as well as time to be a mere form of our intuition or perception, which in consequence does not belong to the things-in-themselves. What is not in space or in time cannot be object; therefore the being or existence of things-in-themselves can no longer be objective, but only of quite a different kind, namely a metaphysical being or existence. Consequently, there is already to be found in that Kantian principle also the proposition that the objective world exists only as representation.
In spite of all that may be said, nothing is so persistently and constantly misunderstood as idealism, since it is interpreted as meaning that the empirical reality of the external world is denied. On this rests the constant return of the appeal to common sense, which appears in many different turns and guises, for example, as "fundamental conviction" in the Scottish school, or as Jacobi's faith or belief in the reality of the external world. The external world by no means gives itself, as Jacobi explains, merely on credit; nor is it accepted by us on faith and trust. It gives itself as what it is, and performs directly what it promises. It must be remembered that Jacobi set up such a credit system of the world, and was lucky enough to impose it on a few professors of philosophy, who for thirty years went on philosophizing about it extensively and at their ease; and that it was this same Jacobi who once denounced Lessing as a Spinozist, and later Schelling as an atheist, and received from the latter the well-known and well-merited reprimand. In accordance with such zeal, by reducing the external world to a matter of faith, he wanted merely to open a little door for faith in general, and to prepare the credit for that which was afterwards actually to be offered on credit; just as if, to introduce paper money, we tried to appeal to the fact that the value of the ringing coin depended merely on the stamp the State put on it. In his philosopheme on the reality of the external world assumed on faith, Jacobi is precisely the "transcendental realist playing the part of the empirical idealist," whom Kant censured in the Critique of Pure Reason, first edition, p. 369.
Excerpted from The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer, E. F. J. Payne. Copyright © 1958 The Falcon's Wing Press. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted December 30, 1999
This work has influenced many great authors and philosophers and even great monks such as Ven Nyanatiloka. It is the flower of western thought and the closest thing we have to eastern philosophy. Payne has written an outstanding translation.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 12, 2009
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