February 16, 2008

Quote of the Day: Schopenhauer on the Absurdity of Materialism

The objective method [i.e. the method of philosophy which starts from the object and proceeds to the subject] can be developed most consistently and carried farthest when it appears as materialism proper. It regards matter, and with it time and space, as existing absolutely, and passes over the relation to the subject in which alone all this exists. Further, it lays hold of the law of causality as the guiding line on which it tries to progress, taking it to be a self-existing order or arrangement of things, veritas aeterna, and consequently passing over the understanding, in which and for which alone causality is. It tries to find the first and simplest state of matter, and then to develop all others from it, ascending from mere mechanisms to chemistry, to polarity, to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Supposing this were successful, the last link of the chain would be animal sensibility, that is to say knowledge; which, in consequence, would then appear as a mere modification of matter, a state of matter produced by causality. Now if we had followed materialism thus far with clear notions, then, having reached its highest point, we should experience a sudden fit of inexhaustible laughter of the Olympians. As though waking from a dream, we should all at once become aware that its final result, produced so laboriously, namely knowledge, was already presupposed as the indispensable condition at the very first starting-point, at mere matter. With this we imagined that we thought of matter, but in fact we had thought of nothing but the subject that represents matter, the eye that sees it, the hand the feels it, the understanding that knows it. Thus the tremendous petitio principii disclosed itself unexpectedly, for suddenly the last link showed itself as the fixed point, the chain as a circle, and the materialist was like Baron von Munchhausen who, when swimming in water on horseback, drew his horse up by his legs, and himself by his upturned pigtail. Accordingly, the fundamental absurdity of materialism consists in the fact that it starts from the objective; it takes an objective something as the ultimate ground of explanation, whether this be matter in the abstract simply as it is thought, of after it has entered into the form empirically given, and hence substance, perhaps the chemical elements together with their primary combinations. Some such thing it takes as existing absolutely and in itself, in order to let organic nature and finally the knowing subject emerge from it, and completely to explain these; whereas in truth everything objective is already conditioned in such manifold ways by the knowing subject with the forms of its knowing, and presupposes these forms; consequently it wholly disappears when the subject is thought away. Materialism is therefore the attempt to explain what is directly given to us from what is given indirectly. Everything objective, extended, active, and hence everything material, is regarded by materialism as so solid a basis for its explanations that a reduction to this (especially if it should ultimately result in thrust and counter-thrust) can leave nothing to be desired. All this is something that is given only very indirectly and conditionally, and is therefore only relatively present, for it has passed through the machinery and fabrication of the brain, and hence has entered the forms of time, space, and causality, by virtue of which it is first of all presented as extended in space and operating in time. From such an indirectly given thing, materialism tries to explain even the directly given, the representation (in which all this exists), and finally the will, from which rather are actually to be explained all those fundamental forces which manifest themselves on the guiding line of causes, and hence according to law. To the assertion that knowledge is a modification of matter there is always opposed with equal justice the contrary assertion that all matter is only modification of the subject's knowing, as the subject's representation. Yet at bottom, the aim and ideal of all natural science is a materialism wholly carried into effect. That we here recognize this as obviously impossible confirms another truth that will result from our further consideration, namely the truth that all science in the real sense, by which I understand systematic knowledge under the guidance of the principle of sufficient reason, can never reach a final goal or give an entirely satisfactory explanation. It never aims at the inmost nature of the world; it can never get beyond the representation; on the contrary, it really tells us nothing more than the relation of one representation to another.

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

Compare my post on "The Ontological Economy of Idealism".

Posted by Kenny at February 16, 2008 10:22 AM
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Schopenhauer was amazingly clear. I love his aphorisms, such as "On Thinking for Oneself.

Posted by: Philip Sumpter at February 17, 2008 5:19 AM

It's unfortunate that scientists today don't read philosophy, as did Einstein, Schr´┐Żdinger, Heisenberg, etc. If they did, they might not have so many paradoxes, like the Twin Paradox and the velocity of light as an absolute. If they read Kant, they might be convinced that they can't know things in themselves but only appearances. By the way, can you change the beginning of fourth sentence from the end? It should be "To the" instead of "The the."

Posted by: Bongo Chumunga at May 24, 2008 10:54 AM

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