Posts Tagged ‘Schopenhauer’


moss1I’m struggling with my reading at the moment – a couple of difficult books on the go. One of them is Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness. The other is Bernado Kastrup’s Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics. The Neumann is from 1949, a distillation of Jungian thinking on the nature of the unconscious. The Kastrup is a recently published book that revisits the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading books like this, way beyond my intellect, I accept I’ll only grasp them dimly and in the hope the effort goes some way towards expanding the mind, even a bit. But their greater impact is on the imagination, where even imperfectly grasped imagery can take on a life of its own, dance with images gleaned from elsewhere, and in ways the authors never intended. And there are some startling images in those books.

It’s thus, stumbling through other books, I’ve gleaned bits of metaphysical ideas over the years, and begun assembling a story that’s making sense in layman’s terms – if not in its details, then in its broad generalities. But sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaken, not so much in the truth of these matters – though there is always that of course. It’s more the question of embarking upon such a quest in the first place. Is my head, in fact, pointing in the wrong direction?

When we speak of metaphysics we’re talking about the origins and the inner workings of the universe, also its reflection in the structure and the flow of the human mind. It’s unlikely you’ll get any of this if you’re a materialist, and view the universe as comprising purely material stuff that was big-banged out of nothing. There is another view though – the idealist view – that there is no material, that what we experience in the world is a result of our being conscious within a greater consciousness, a consciousness that sets the stage, and the rules we play by.

If materialism is true, then fair enough, the game is up, life is absurdly pointless, and we’re all doomed. But with idealism, everything is still to play for, and the possibilities worth exploring. I used to be a materialist – as an engineer you more or less have to be – but that stopped making sense for me a while ago. Idealism may be wrong but it’s much more fertile ground for the imagination.

It was once intimated to me that we already know the true nature of things, but we’ve forgotten them as a precondition of being born. At some point though, when we fall asleep for good, we’ll go: “Oh yea, I remember now!” I say it was “intimated”, and the realization did feel very real at the time, but of course I’ve forgotten it all again now. However, the point is, why spend decades of your life banging away at this stuff, when you’ll be gifted it all back in crystal clarity anyway? And if such talk is nonsense – as it may well be – then it doesn’t matter either way, does it? So why the imperative to probe the metaphysical? And if it was so terribly important for us to know – I mean to help us all get along in the world – we’d be born with a greater sense of it than we have, wouldn’t we?

I don’t know. Would we? Do we, actually? Are those haunting aspects of existence, things like love and beauty, not metaphysical intimations? And what about dreams?

Are you still with me?

What I mean is, pursuing the metaphysical can be like scaling a waterfall when it’s in spate. The general flow of being is in the other direction, and perhaps we’d do better to flow with it. Maybe it’s a reaction to the chaos of a world gone mad that we’d even bother trying. Maybe it’s one’s apparent inability to effect much change or understanding of things that we want to escape from the madness. So we seek to resist the flow of life, which seems permanently bound for disaster, and swim back upstream to rest in the formless, as far away from ground zero as we can manage.

But then the chaos we see in the human world is a result of those same intrinsic energies that give vent to life. Left to itself, the natural world will thrive on those energies. It will be red in tooth and claw, and endlessly self consuming, but it will not be self-reflective. It will be ignorant of its own beauty, and that strikes me as a gap worth filling.

Self reflection is an imperfect instrument though, and comes with risks. It can distort how we see the world. Sit that on top of largely simian instincts and you can see how easily we land ourselves in trouble. If we are not to destroy ourselves, we need to wise up! But what can one do if the route to wisdom is so difficult, and only the Neumanns and the Kastrups can attempt an understanding of it, for are they not too few to form a critical mass? Must the rest of us wait for a divine transformation to enlighten us?

Imagine, jealousy, greed, hate and the evil that is lifestyle blogging, all gone in an instant. Imagine, enlightenment as instinctive as the knowledge never to wear brown shoes with blue trousers, enlightenment that we can look back upon our history with equanimity and wonder how there could once ever have been a people so benighted.

There are those in the human development movement who believe such a thing will happen, but this sounds more to me like the second coming of the Christians, a thing I suspect should be interpreted in terms rather less than literal. In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I’m reminded that in the Daoist way of thinking, mankind stands with one foot in the world, the other in the heavens. Some of us are more inclined one way or the other, but the important thing is to find a balance. Which means,…

It’s time to set the Neumann and the Kastrup aside for a bit. Instead, I’m picking up Le Carre’s “Agent running in the field“, and, delight of delights, I am to spend a week, holed up in tier three isolation, with no interruptions, and Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness.”

Let it rain!

[Unless you’ve got plans, then let it shine]

Graeme out.

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Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

Arthur Schopenhauer has been called the gloomiest of philosophers. He describes the world as comprising two things: there’s the way we see it – the representation – and then there’s the way it actually is – the will. The ‘will’, he says, is blind. It’s an instinctive energy, a universal imperative whose sole purpose is the creation of life. We witness it as a relentless turmoil for ‘being’ and survival.

There’s something beyond the will though, something transcendent and blissful, but it’s near impossible to get at, which is a pity because, taken at face value, ‘the will’ is not a pleasant thing at all. In the natural world it is red in tooth and claw, creatures devouring one another other, us devouring creatures, even when we don’t need to. Similarly, we are devouring the planet itself. And even when we’re not actually killing or pillaging, we still find ways to compete, to dominate and thrive at the expense of others. The striving is endless, and pointless. This is gloomy stuff indeed! But Schopenhauer found a way out.

Simply put, we are moved by beauty – well some of us are. Some of us are so enamoured of the pointless striving and posturing instead, beauty is lost on us, and we soon find ways of corrupting it. Yet beauty, the sense of it, stuns the will, and opens a door to something other, something transcendent, even divine – if that’s your thing. To cultivate an aesthetic sense then, according to Schopenhauer, is our only way of seeing through the veil of ceaseless toil and catching a glimpse of transcendent meaning. What it is, exactly, is hard to say, because we don’t actually see it. But we can feel it.

Beauty manifests itself in many ways, but for Schopenhauer at least, music is its highest form. Music is a question of taste of course, and I’m sure Schopenhauer would have struggled with Slowdive in concert, which brings us to the blue haired girl. If this clip is still up by the time you’re reading me, look out for her in the audience. If not you’ll just have to imagine her. She tells us how music feels, by showing us how she feels it. With tears. We can read Schopenhauer until he’s coming out of our ears, and not many do these days, but if we want to understand what he’s going on about, all we need do is follow the blue haired girl.


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materialism is baloney

Bernardo Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it is self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, and we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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Idealist thinking in a material world

I do not believe all there is to the universe is physical material. I do not believe consciousness is the product of biochemical and electrical processes in the brain, nor that the brain is simply a computer made of meat. That’s the materialist position, the one generally held to be true, at least for simplicity’s sake, but you can only go so far with it.

Materialism explains much of the universe as we see it, at least the universe we perceive through our senses. But it does not explain the universe as it is “in itself”. Indeed, as we probe¬† deeper into the nature of so-called matter, we find matter isn’t what we think it is.

Yet to question materialism goes against orthodoxy. It is to invite the scorn of debunkers and scientistic populists. Thus, scientism replaces religious dogma. And while people are no longer burned at the stake for espousing heretical views, we do have social media for the more metaphorical immolation of character and reputation. Fortunately I am not a career scientist. Nor am I concerned with overturning materialism. I seek only to understand our universe a little better, and my place within it.

The conclusion of centuries of materialistic analysis says there is no supreme being watching over us and life is essentially meaningless. It’s rather a bleak view, but I do have some sympathy with it – particularly the “God” bit. Indeed, it’s a challenge to hold to the idea of a supreme godly being when there is so much suffering in the world. But my own conclusion on that score is either there is no “God” or we have the wrong idea about what “God” is. So while I am repelled by materialists and their bleakness, I have no time for literalist religion either.

Where to then? Well, the only other avenue of enquiry is the philosophy of Idealism. Idealism suggests the universe is a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. It’s a controversial claim, first formalized by Plato, then taken up by the seventeenth century British philosopher and theologian George Berkeley, then by Kant, Schopenhauer and the later German Idealists. But after a good run, along with God, it fell very much out of fashion in the twentieth century, and has languished under the burning scorn of materialism ever since.

I’ve been coming back to it slowly through my novels and various life-experiences. Idealism allows the imagination greater leeway in exploring speculative realities, but it also better explains one’s relationship with life – the fact I do not feel like a computer made of meat, that I can be moved to awe in wild places, or by beauty, or poetry, that I can feel love for another human being.

The Lavender and the Rose, The Last Guests of La Maison du Lac, By Fall of Night, and the Inn at the Edge of Light, all these stories take as their point of departure the idea that the world is more than the senses perceive it to be. And if we wish to understand the life we’re living, we do well to approach the mind of the dreamer – at least to the extent that such a thing is possible.

One of the criticisms levelled against idealism is that if the universe is a dream, if we are dreaming our reality, then who are all these other people? Our reality then collapses into a solipsism. This is the extreme egoic viewpoint, that we are the only ones truly alive and aware in the universe, that we are simply imagining everyone else. But nobody said the universe is our “personal” dream. The dreamer dreams it for us, and dreams us, in it.

So, again, who is the dreamer? You can insert God here if you want. Others prefer “Big Mind” or “All that is”. But these are just words after all. Personally, I find the eastern notion of Dao less offensive to my sensibilities, but it’s better not to get too hung up about it.

To describe reality as a dream is, of course, to over-simplify it, and to provide ample ammunition for materialists to barge in and heap scorn upon us. But if the dream contains all the rules of an apparently solid, material reality, all the hurt and the pain and the fragility, as well as the joys and the beauty, then there is no reason to dismiss the idea as nonsensical.

Just as the personal dream convinces us of its reality, because we have no reference beyond it to conclude otherwise, so the big dream convinces us of a material, spatial, time bound universe, and our existence within it. It also answers some puzzles like how big and how old the universe is, though the answers are shocking, and we need to be sitting down before we contemplate them.

In the idealist view, concepts of time and space come as part of our toolkit for perceiving the universe of appearances, the same as with our senses and intuitions. They allow us to relate objects in space relative to one another, and place one event in time relative to another. But they do not define the universe as it is in itself. In the mind of the dreamer of reality, there is no time, no space. Therefore, the universe is not located anywhere. Time does not pass, nor was time ever begun. No “thing” actually exists, nor has it ever.

It’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

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philosophersWe start with Nietzsche and a few pop quotes, like: “god is dead” and “I am dynamite”. I don’t understand him, so I go back to his influences, namely Schopenhauer. But I don’t understand him either – plus he’s deeply morose and repulsively nihilistic. So I go back to Kant. Kant’s a bit more optimistic, but he’s also a life-time’s study. Even the Kant scholars are still arguing over what he wrote, and you’d think they would have settled him by now. So I step back to Aristotle, but I’m in a bit of a muddle, so rather than stepping back in time even more to Plato, I take a breath. Maybe philosophy’s not my thing at all.

The philosophers are certainly a breed apart. They don’t seem to add much to the ordinary life, but if you’re at all interested in what life’s about you can’t avoid them. They’re about “epistemology”, which is the theory of knowledge, and how we know things. And they’re about “ontology” which is the theory being, or meaning. They use a lot of other unfamiliar words as well, and when they run out of actual words, they make words up. Then they all have their take on “ethics” – that’s to say, how should we behave towards one another, and what is “good”?

They approach all this through logic. The Kantians tell us the faculties we’re born with are linked to what is knowable, and this comes out in language. So, by a process that resembles a cross between a word game, and basic algebra, they arrive at a story about what it means to be alive. More than that they try to get a handle on what it is we are alive in. I mean the universe – the nature of it, the nature of space and time, and being – in other words a creation story.

So it’s a big subject, but to the layman it’s difficult, or at least to me it is. Or maybe I’m too set in my ways now to squish my calcifying brain into a new way of thinking. I’m just this old engineer, steeped in deterministic ideas. I’ve always known they’re an incomplete model of the universe, because my teachers told me so. But they work at a practical level, so we use them to do things. And I’ve really liked being an engineer. We put a man on the moon – well not me – I was only nine at the time, but you know what I mean? There’s something satisfying about doing things, making things. As for proving something you can neither see nor touch, like the philosophers do, nor use in the process of making things, or doing things,… what’s the point of that? Well, it’s interesting. And if I have to wait another lifetime to be a philosopher, then so be it, and for now I’ll just skim this stuff, pick up what bits I can and make do.

If we skim Kant, we get the idea we can’t grasp the true nature of reality at all. All we’ve got are our senses, and a mind that’s structured in a certain way to intuit the universe. We can see things as they appear to us, but not how those things are in themselves. But the most challenging idea of all is what Kant says about space and time. He plays his word-game and deduces that space and time drop out of the equation altogether. They’re part of the perceptual toolkit we’re born with, which means we can never get a handle on the way things are when we’re not looking. This is not to say the world is an illusion. It’s just that the way we see it is the only way we can see it, while its true nature is hidden and unknowable.

This sounds like the opening of Dao De Jing, written in China two thousand years before Kant. It says what we can see and touch and put names to is not the same as the essence of those things in themselves. Chinese ideas were floating around in Europe at the time Kant was writing. They’re sophisticated philosophies because the Chinese got themselves organized into a literate culture early on. But to the semi-theocratic west, these were pagan ideas and it was dangerous for philosophers to make too much of them.

Still, I think it’s an important thing to know, this link, that two cultures, isolated, and thousands of years apart could come up with the same basic idea. It suggests they might have been on to something. But its also frustrating I’ve not the nous to make any more headway with it than that. I did try reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” once. I wanted to understand it, word for word, like I once understood fluid dynamics. But I couldn’t follow it in any meaningful depth. I was probably in my late thirties then, and no point trying again now.

Carl Jung read it when he was seventeen. He’d read Schopenhauer’s “Will and Representation” too. He understood both well enough to think he’d spotted a flaw in Schopenhauer’s reasoning. It’s schoolboys of that calibre who grow to influence in the world of thought. All laymen like me can do is hold on to their coat-tails, hoping for a line or two of poetry that will stick and sum things up for us.

Most of us don’t bother of course, and are no more enlightened in the philosophical intricacies than mud. Or maybe the essence of life and living are so obvious anyway, we don’t need to learn it from the philosophers, or perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Or should we be content to leave it to those cleverer than we are to make a difference in the world? But when you look at the way the west is disintegrating – our leadership and our key institutions – and how China has undergone repeated convulsions down the centuries, finally to evolve into an authoritarian techno-surveillance state, you wonder if more of us, east and west, shouldn’t be making a better effort with those philosophers after all.

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lancashire plainIt’s a strange thing. Having loved the hills and mountains all my life, I’ve spent most of my life actually living on the flat, among the potatoes of the Lancashire plain. Here, the sky has a crushing quality that seems to laugh at the transcendence of spirit even the most modest of hills affords. On the mountain top, we are giants. On the plain we are small, and made to feel it.

Here the earth had become a factory for the intensive cultivation of vegetables, vast rectangles of land, tilled by machines and, when not under crop, the soil looks tired. It is puddled and bleak in winter and in summer it is dry and cracked and dusty, the whole of it is criss-crossed by stagnant sluices, and the high, strutting march of crackling power lines. For me, even during the most golden of golden hours, it lacks poetry.

So why am I still here?

Well, sometimes the practicalities of life leave us no choice. But it’s also one of life’s axioms that we are born within limits. And it is those limits that define us by providing the energy we need to live.


Arthur Schopenauer 1788-1860

I’m dipping in and out of the philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche at the moment. Their world-view is impressively bleak. I’m sure it’s only a mark of my own ignorance to say so, but I am reluctant to take such profoundly miserable men at their word. Life is pointless, says Schopenhauer. It is nothing but nature eating itself. True, says Nietzsche. If we can’t laugh at it, we should jump off a cliff and thereby deny it the satisfaction of our own suffering!

Not exactly promising, is it? Except, although there might not seem at first glance to be an inch of poetry anywhere here, the poetry comes anyway. And it’s not altogether bleak. Why not? Is there something wrong with me? Does it only betray my philosophical illiteracy that I am not more of an old sour-puss, like them?

Of course, when I do travel out a bit, get among the hills, the effect is more profound for my having been starved between-times of the sublime. I would like to think that if I lived among the hills, I would never tire of them, but I know that’s not so. I would always find something was in limited supply. A decent shop, a better Internet connection. And then the broad horizon and the humbling sky of the Lancashire Plain.


Friedrich Nietzsche 1844-1900

As the dam limits the progress of the river, it raises the water and gives a head of energy. This enables useful work, it fuels purpose. Even the gods understand this, and envy the limiting full-stop of our mortality. Why? For the intensity of experience it grants our lives. The secret is finding a balance. We seek a dynamic sweet-spot somewhere between that which crushes us, and that which bleeds us back into the hedonistic void.

To live, of course, is to suffer. Whether we turn that to positive use, or we just moan about, is up to us. The Buddhists are the experts at dealing with suffering, but their language is often times difficult. I fear we lay readers of Buddhism risk a simplistic interpretation of it – something about attaining a state of mind whereby we do not care about anything. But not to care is to lack energy for life. So why be alive?

“Living in the moment” is another lazy new-age trope, one I am also guilty of spouting from time to time. It suggests disregarding the future, including the bus that’s about to run us over. So before we settle into the present moment, we should take stock. We should change what is sensible to change, what can be changed, like avoiding that bus. As for what we cannot change, we seek a way of not minding it, for only then can we abide serenely in the ‘is’-ness of life.

Knowing what is sensible to change though is tricky, isn’t it? Do we change our car because it’s knackered, or because we’re bored with it? If the car is knackered but we have no money to change it, how do we not mind it? And what about my dilemma of living on the plain but craving the mountains?

I suppose if we want a thing, and cannot explain why, it’s wiser not to make an issue of it because change is unlikely to please us for very long. But if we need a thing, like we need a cat to keep away mice, and we can articulate that need without using the word “want”, then it has some utility, because one’s craving doesn’t come into it. Craving satisfaction rather suggests we are lacking a more useful purpose. In identifying craving, we can then choose to deny it, and pick up our purpose instead.

I understand “purpose” in creative terms as “the work”, the book, the poetry, the formulation of the idea. But without energy it doesn’t move. We become listless, becalmed like a sailboat without wind. We can lose our energy anywhere, whenever we succumb to craving what we think we lack. Similarly, we can find it anywhere – among the high places, or down among those potatoes of the Lancashire Plain. It’s just a question of knowing not so much where, but how to look.

So, Schopenhauer: austere, other worldly and profoundly pessimistic. And Nietzsche: bombastic, rude, and ready to have a pop at anything he doesn’t like, which is just about everything. I’m sure they have a point, and could easily embarrass me out of home-spun delusions, but I don’t suppose they were writing for me. And maybe that’s a good thing, that I’m not a philosopher, I mean. Otherwise, from time to time, I’d have nothing to smile, or write, about.


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