Monday, February 17, 2014

133. Substance and appearance

 A deeply rooted idea that appears almost universally in Western philosophy is that the world is constituted by unperceivable, unalterable substance that carries a form of particular features perceived in reality. Change is the change not of substance but of the particulars it carries. In Platonic philosophy, the lure of substance yields the idea of universal, immutable ideas in a world beyond reality, which may be grasped by exceptional, trained minds. In Christianity, God is a transcendent entity about which theology can infer properties, either positively, about what God is, along the via positiva, or negatively, along the via negativa, about what God is not. In the Neo-platonic view, Platonic ideas lie in the mind of God. For mystics, God is ineffable.

The self also is seen in substantial terms, as a more or less unitary, enduring carrier of characteristics. Under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, David Hume deviated from this, as I will discuss in a later item.

In Hindu, Vedic philosophy there is substance in the form of a transcendent being (Brahman), which is the source of all value, and is ineffable and accessible only to the initiated, in wordless contemplation. Language creates illusions and is not fit to capture the transcendent, the thing in itself. 

Buddhism renounces all substance, and sees the world as impermanent, conditioned, a whirl of particulars, and a source of sorrow. The self is an illusion, caught in suffering, but by lengthy, proper training and discipline, enlightenment can be reached in Nirwana, in life, where the illusory self with its thirsts and cravings can be renounced, to achieve a life of peace and serenity. Here also, language creates illusions, and is to be superseded by wordless contemplation.

How difficult it was, in Western philosophy, to shed the notion of substance, is highlighted in the development of Schopenhauers philosophy. To recall: Kant proposed that man construes perceived reality on the basis of categories of space, time and causality, and cannot know the underlying thing in itself. For Schopenhauer, the thing in itself is not outside us, but inside us, in an insatiable will to life, as the source of all sorrow, and can, according to his early work, be grasped by introspection, in self-consciousness. The sorrow sown by an insatiable will is comparable to the Buddhist notion of suffering due to an illusion of self, with its thirsts and cravings.

Moira Nichols[1] argued that under the influence of Eastern philosophy, Schopenhauer began to shift his ideas. The thing in itself now becomes accessible only to the initiated, the sage and ascetic, and it is more than will to life. Escape from the suffering of the will to life is achieved in transcendence that is available only to the initiated. As in Buddhist Nirwana, it goes together with the transcendence of the egotistic self in compassion for humanity as a whole. But unlike Buddhism, for Schopenhauer the thing in itself still appears to remain substantial, an entity beyond the world, and in that it is more Vedantic than Buddhist. As the Brahman of Vedic Hinduism, it constitutes the world and is the source of all value, not only of sorrow. If all this is correct, it amounts to a fairly radical shift, or even negation, of Schopenhauers earlier views. 

[1] ‘Influences of Eastern thought on Schopenhauer’, in Mcfie, Alexander Lyon (ed.), 2003, Eastern influences on Western philosophy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 187-219..

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