Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 11

(Read Part 10 of the series.)


Kant’s noumenal consisted of the reality of mental things – plural – though we could never be objectively aware of them in any sense, and effectively acknowledged the existence of many minds as well as that of God himself. Kant was very influential, thought by many to have been the greatest of modern thinkers, and a number of philosophers attempted to build upon or revise his ideas, in particular to do away with his unknowable reality.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte was the first of these and he conceived of an absolute mind or ego, divided up into the relative egos of human personalities, which together were evolving. Objects or ‘things in themselves’ became redundant. History is explained, and our sense of meaning is gained, by reference to this absolute ego. Even supposedly straightforward explanatory accounts of his philosophy, however, are incomprehensible without attempting to read any of the original material (and possibly with, too, but I have no direct knowledge of this).

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling preferred not to eliminate the world completely, though he acknowledged that it could not be considered independent from the witnessing self. He thought that subject and object were one in a universal Nature and that reality is effectively the Absolute contemplating itself. ‘Nature reflects Consciousness’, he said. Such ideas influenced contemporary poets such as Goethe in Germany and Coleridge in England. Pantheism – God in everything – and Nature as a living unity appealed to their romantic sentiments. He is remembered particularly for asking the question as to why there is something rather than nothing.

In the continuing attempt to simplify the view of things, his more prominent contemporary Hegel thought that reality must consist of only one thing, a single mind or ‘Absolute’. Beginningless and endless, this contains all of the infinite possibilities but is continually changing and realising its potentialities. We ourselves are a part or form of this as are the rest of the apparently separate things in the universe.

History, said Hegel, is effectively a record of this process of the universal mind or spirit moving towards ultimate perfection. What happens is that any given state of society is less than perfect, containing within itself certain contradictions. Some changes are needed in order to resolve these and this brings about a new state that provides solutions for the faults of the former. Now there are problems by having moved too far in the other direction and there is a need to resolve the situation by combining the positive aspects of the former two states. The overall process was called ‘dialectic’ after the technique of question and answer used by Socrates to elicit the truth. Hegel used this procedure to arrive at his belief in the Absolute.

The classical view of what is meant by ‘freedom’ for an individual is the ability to make choices in one’s own life without being influenced by society. Hegel thought this naïve, recognising that peoples’ attitudes are constantly being influenced by others so that, often, what we choose is what the influential people of the time want us to choose, which is no freedom at all. Of course they didn’t have TV and other advertising media telling us that we could not be happy unless we smoked Hamlet cigars in those days but Hegel was fully aware of the principle. He believed that this effect had been in existence throughout history and that the only way out was for us to take control of these forces ourselves.

We should stop thinking of others as competitors and potential enemies and recognise that we are all reasoning beings with essentially similar aims. Unlike Kant, however, he did not think that there needed to be a conflict between what we ought to do and what we want to do. He believed that a society based on reason could function such that each person could seek his or her own fulfilment whilst still dutifully acting for the good of all. We could reach a compromise between what we want for ourselves as part of our society at this particular time and what reason tells us is our duty. There need be no conflict, as Kant had said would always be the case. Though this all sounds very well, his philosophy was taken up by Marx and led directly to Lenin and Communism, though all of this came about by a wilful misinterpreting of what Hegel had said (perhaps not so surprising, since his books are reported to be notoriously difficult to understand!)

Arthur Schopenhauer was perhaps the most well known thinker to continue the line of thought initiated by Kant. His first enhancement was to suggest that the ‘noumenal’ realm of ‘things in themselves’ could not in fact consist of plural things. One ‘thing’ must be separate from another ‘thing’, either in time or in space, in order for us to be aware of two ‘things’. If there were not this separation, we would only be aware of one thing. Accordingly, since time and space do not exist in reality, number cannot have any relevance. In fact, since causality is also just our way of explaining happenings in the world of appearances, the noumenal could not in any sense cause the phenomenal.

In fact, the phenomenal world must just be another way of looking at the noumenal. Everything that we see is just a manifestation of this undifferentiated reality, including ourselves of course. There can be no such thing therefore as meaning or purpose, whether of our own lives or of the universe. In a sense, it is all an illusion. This may sound familiar of course, and there is much in common with other Eastern religions here too as well as Advaita, including some branches of Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism etc. and Schopenhauer did in fact have some exposure to these, though supposedly after he had developed his own ideas.

His outlook was notoriously pessimistic and he appeared to be obsessed with the miseries of life and the unpleasantness of its inhabitants, with each striving to survive at the expense of everyone else. Our moral aim, he said, should be to minimise the suffering of others by feeling compassion for them. This could not be an imperative, as Kant had suggested, since we had to act from our own nature; moral goodness cannot be taught or commanded.

There has to be a reason for everything that exists or happens, he said in his earliest work, contradicting people such as Hume, who said that some things simply are and we can never say why. In the case of happenings in the world, these have physical explanations; logical explanations exist for truths prior to our experience or mathematical ones for such things as geometrical demonstrations. Our own actions have moral reasons. Although we cannot perceive the noumenal in the usual sense, he claimed that we were effectively aware of it through our ‘will to live’, which is the noumenal aspect of our activities in the phenomenal world. The universe itself in its merely apparent diversity is in fact the outward manifestation of the cosmic ‘will to exist’.

The only reasonable place to go to simplify things even further is solipsism. I could try to go further and claim that even I do not exist but then who would be making the denial? But whilst this has been discussed by philosophers, none seems to have seriously maintained it as an outlook. Apart from a few post-Shankara, Advaita philosophers of course… 🙂

(Read Part 12 of the series.)