It could be argued that knowing and being stand analogous to space and time. The advent (or discovery) of spacetime in modern physics provided a “singularity” that radically altered the baseline paradigms of physics from classical Newtonian concepts to what crystallized as quantum physics. Philosophy remains on the waiting side of such a singularity. Theories of ontology and epistemology continue to multiply as do modes of understanding in linguistics and perceptual psychology. Despite these gains, the central dichotomy between the perceiver and the perceived remains more or less intact. Spacetime remains “space and time.” This split is typified by the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Russel, with Schopenhauer’s emphasis on will and Russel’s positing of an objective physical world outside of human sensory perception represent the dichotomy of being and knowing in stark contrast.
A reconciling may be latent in both approaches, which is the inclusion of the human unconscious as an element of both being and knowing. A full explanation of this idea would, of course, require a book or a series of books. The current examination will simply posit the idea that if the idea of the unconscious, as posited by psychologists such as Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, is included, Russel’s idea of “universals” can be reconciled with Schopenhauer’s idea of will and also his treatment of “nothingness.”
In fact, the best point of departure for the conversation may well be the concept of “nothingness.” For Russel, such an idea quite obviously falls into the category of a universal. However, it is a very unusual universal, perhaps even unique because it does not derive from sensory experience. This would appear to fly in the face of Russel’s assertion that universals derive from lived experience. We see a white flower or a patch of white sand and from that we can abstract the idea of “whiteness.” For Russel, “A similar process will make us acquainted with any other universal of the same sort. Universals of this sort may be called “sensible qualities'”1 . It is, obviously, not possible to experience “nothing” so we have in this concept an abstraction, or universal, that is clearly based on something other than sensory experience. The reason that this is so important in regard to making a step toward reconciling the dichotomy between Schopenhauer and Russel’s vision of existence is because it shows a point at which their visions meet, if unintentionally.
Just as Russel’s idea of universals is based on sensory perception, Schopenhuer’s concept of “will” is also based on sensory perception. This is evident when he writes: “for those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this our so very real world with all its suns and galaxies – is nothing.”2 One of the highest powers of the will in Schopenhauer’s estimation is to connect the world of objects with the faculty of consciousness. This stipulation is crucial in understanding Schopenhauer’s ideas. It is also fundamentally based on the division between being and knowing.
For Schopenhauer, knowing is a mode of being and being is a representation of will. He notes that: “As will, beyond presentation and all its forms, it is one and the same in the object contemplated and in the individual who, soaring high in this contemplation, becomes conscious of itself as pure subject... For in themselves they are will” 3. The concept of will for Schopenhauer is much more than a degree of determination or self-actualization; it is both an ontological and epistemological mode. For Schopenhauer, it is possible to combine being and knowing and this is accomplished through a concept of will that accounts for actions and cognition.
The problem with this approach is that it leaves room for speculation about error in reason. If it is possible for reason and perception to commit errors, then this means that there is a mode of being that is not predicated on the expression, contemplation, or exertion of will but may instead be based on a phenomenology more aligned with Russel’s concept of objective physical reality. If, as Schopenhauer insists, consciousness is “a mirror [that] has risen for will in which it is cognizant of itself with increasing degrees of distinctness and completeness, the highest of which is the human being”4 then it is still entirely possible that a phenomenological world exists outside of this process of “reason, which always permits it to survey the whole in abstracto”5. One way of looking at the world “outside of reason” might be to consider it as objective reality, that which underlies our world of “universals” and abstractions.
As Russel points out, sense-data is the source of our understanding of the objective world, but our reliance on a priori knowledge is actually based, not on specific experiences of the objective world, but on a set of abstractions and universals derived from sense data. As previously mentioned, the idea of “nothing” is an exception to the general type of universal in Russel’s theory, and this indicates an interesting point of connection between his and Schopenhauer’s approaches. The component that is needed to connect them is, as asserted above, the idea of the unconscious. If the concept of the human unconscious is added to the theoretical model, it is possible to connect both philosopher’s viewpoints through the idea of “nothing.”
This is done by accepting the most straightforward and obvious criticism to what has already been posited: that suggesting there are modes of being beyond sense perception is a form of mysticism, rather than philosophy. This argument seems perfectly sound, but actually fails when the idea of the unconscious is substituted for the idea of a Platonic ideal, or mystic transcendence. Modern psychology teaches that the human unconscious is able to absorb and use much more information about the sensory world than is available to the rational mind. The unconscious, though unknowable directly, manifests in a wide number of effects ranging from dreams to artistic and even scientific inspiration.
Jung connected this creative process to the abyss where all distinctions and individual modes cease to be. In this place there are no things, but the potential for all things. So, by viewing “nothing” as “no-things” is it possible to preserve both Schopenhauer’s idea that without will, the world of sensory perception is reduced to “nothing” and Russel’s claim that all universals are based on sense experiences. The human mind contains the unconscious capacity to engage with the world as-it-is outside of Schopenhauer’s restrictions of will and Russel’s restriction of sense-data. “Nothing” is not the absence of things, but the total aggregate being of things without a distinction between knowing and being. This is a faculty unavailable directly to the conscious mind, but it is the a priori state of the unconscious, which gives rise to universal archetypes.
The concept often unconscious points a path forward for reconciling the division being “being” and “knowing” that pervades much of philosophical discourse. It is a useful means through which to “reconcile” the world views of philosophers as divergent as Schopenhauer and Russel. However, the true significance of including the unconscious as a component of study for philosophy certainly does open the door to what traditionally has been part of religious and mystical systems. Development is perceptual psychology, linguistics, as well as continued breakthroughs in physics seem to challenge the notion that philosophy can remain unmoved in its central schism between being and knowing.
1. Russel, 46.
2. Schopenhauer, 74.
3. Ibid., 42.
4. Ibid., 57.
Russel, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st Edition, 2016.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Presentation. Dover Publications. 1966.