by Marvin Bram
The question is this: how might the material things of the world answer us?
It may be necessary to take an unfortunately condescending remark seriously: Schopenhauer says that our normal position toward reality is “that natural and childlike realism in which we are all born, and which qualifies one for every possible thing except philosophy.” [Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E. F.J. Payne, NY, Dover Publications, Inc., 1969; xxiv]
Then what does Schopenhauer think distinguishes someone who can philosophize from everyone else? That person must believe Kant, whom Schopenhauer reveres and will correct: “Kant’s greatest merit is the distinction of the phenomenon from the thing-in-itself, based on the proof that between things and us there always stands the intellect, and that on this account they cannot be known according to what they may be in themselves.” [WWR, 417-18] Few of us accept Kant’s distinction, but if the distinction is correct for reality as a whole – that reality is bifurcated as Schopenhauer describes – then Schopenhauer must be right; few of us can think philosophically. Let’s at least be agnostic on Kant’s distinction and proceed to Schopenhauer’s correction.
Schopenhauer provides another way to characterize the bifurcation. The “objective world, the world as representation, is not the only side of the world, but merely its external side, so to speak, and…the world has an entirely different side which is its innermost being, its kernel, the thing-in-itself.” [WWR, 30] Notice the singular: “thing-in-itself.” Kant had posited the plural “things-in-themselves.” For every objective, phenomenal thing, Kant says, there exists its own noumenal thing-in-itself: many phenomena, many noumena, in one-to-one correspondence.
But for Schopenhauer the noumenal realm is “free from all plurality.” [WWR, 113] Many phenomena, one noumenon, the selfsame noumenal component in every phenomenon. That’s Schopenauer’s correction of Kant. We can call Schopenhauer’s world-view a “weak consubstantialism,” which is to say that the world is plurisubstantial in its phenomena and consubstantial in each phenomenon being noumenal in Schopenhauer’s rather than Kant’s sense.
Schopenhauer aims to state facts, philosophical facts about the world and minds. Merleau-Ponty offers us connective metaphors about the world and minds. “I am able to touch effectively only if the phenomenon finds an echo within me, if it accords with a certain nature of my consciousness, and if the organ which goes out to meet it is synchronized with it.” [Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith, London, Routledge &Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962; 316] Things, phenomena, “summon” me; they’re in a “symbiosis” with my body. [PP, 317-18] “[What] I call experience of the thing…is my full coexistence with [it].” [PP, 318] A step farther and we have Schopenhauer: “…the subject, by passing entirely into the perceived object, has also become that object itself….” [WWR, 180]
The “inscrutable forces that manifest themselves in all the bodies of nature [are] identical in kind with what in me is [the noumenon],” Schopenhauer says in expression of his weak consubstantialism. [WWR , 126] Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) progresses to a “strong consubstantialism” – with no condescension toward everyman. All the entities in Wang Yang-ming’s world seem to me to be condensations of different shapes and sizes of the same un-named stuff. That view supplies him a moral order as well as an ontological order.
That the great man can regard heaven, earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to do so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he should form a unity with heaven, earth, and the myriad things. This is true not only of the great man. Even the mind of the small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small. When he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humanity forms one body with the child. It may be objected that the child belongs to the same species as he. Yet when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot help feeling an inability to bear their suffering. This shows that his humanity forms one body with birds and animals. It may be objected that birds and animals are sentient beings as he is. But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humanity forms one body with plants. It may be said that plants are living things as he is. Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humanity forms one body with tiles and stones. This means that even the mind of the small man necessarily has the humanity that forms one body with all. [W. T. De Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, B. Watson, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, NY, Columbia University Press, 1960; 516-17]
Schopenhauer’s weak consubstantialism also grounds a moral order: a “just man…shows by his way of acting that he again recognizes his own inner being…in the phenomenon of another…,” so “he does not injure it.” [WWR, 370] Both consubstantialisms give us whole worlds and they fit minds into distinctive intellectual and moral relations to their worlds.
I would only follow Merleau-Ponty and give reciprocity in particular to Wang Yang- ming’s astonishing formulation: that child, the birds and animals and plants, even the tiles and stones acknowledging our concern would thank us for it, giving coherence to our lives as no entirely plurisubstantial world can.