Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Muddle of Mind and Matter

The philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which we’ve been discussing for the last two weeks, has a feature that reliably irritates most people when they encounter it for the first time: it doesn’t divide up the world the way people in modern western societies habitually do. To say, as Schopenhauer does, that the world we experience is a world of subjective representations, and that we encounter the reality behind those representations in will, is to map out the world in a way so unfamiliar that it grates on the nerves. Thus it came as no surprise that last week’s post fielded a flurry of responses trying to push the discussion back onto the more familiar ground of mind and matter.

That was inevitable. Every society has what I suppose could be called its folk metaphysics, a set of beliefs about the basic nature of existence that are taken for granted by most people in that society, and the habit of dividing the world of our experience into mind and matter is among the core elements of the folk metaphysics of the modern western world. Most of us think of it, on those occasions when we think of it at all, as simply the way the world is. It rarely occurs to most of us that there’s any other way to think of things—and when one shows up, a great many of us back away from it as fast as possible.

Yet dividing the world into mind and matter is really rather problematic, all things considered. The most obvious difficulty is the relation between the two sides of the division. This is usually called the mind-body problem, after the place where each of us encounters that difficulty most directly. Grant for the sake of argument that each of us really does consist of a mind contained in a material body, how do these two connect? It’s far from easy to come up with an answer that works.

Several approaches have been tried in the attempt to solve the mind-body problem. There’s dualism, which is the claim that there are two entirely different and independent kinds of things in the world—minds and bodies—and requires proponents to comes up with various ways to justify the connection between them. First place for philosophical brashness in this connection goes to Rene Descartes, who argued that the link was directly and miraculously caused by the will of God. Plenty of less blatant methods of handwaving have been used to accomplish the same trick, but all of them require question-begging maneuvers of various kinds, and none has yet managed to present any kind of convincing evidence for itself.

Then there are the reductionistic monisms, which attempt to account for the relationship of mind and matter by reducing one of them to the other. The most popular reductionistic monism these days is reductionistic materialism, which claims that what we call “mind” is simply the electrochemical activity of those lumps of matter we call human brains. Though it’s a good deal less popular these days, there’s also reductionistic idealism, which claims that what we call “matter” is the brought into being by the activity of minds, or of Mind.

Further out still, you get the eliminative monisms, which deal with the relationship between mind and matter by insisting that one of them doesn’t exist. There are eliminative materialists, for example, who insist that mental experiences don’t exist, and our conviction that we think, feel, experience pain and pleasure, etc. is an “introspective illusion.” (I’ve often thought that one good response to such a claim would be to ask, “Do you really think so?” The consistent eliminative materialist would have to answer “No.”) There are also eliminative idealists, who insist that matter doesn’t exist and that all is mind.

There’s probably been as much effort expended in attempting to solve the mind-body problem as any other single philosophical issue has gotten in modern times, and yet it remains the focus of endless debates even today. That sort of intellectual merry-go-round is usually a pretty good sign that the basic assumptions at the root of the question have some kind of lethal flaw. That’s particularly true when this sort of ongoing donnybrook isn’t the only persistent difficulty surrounding the same set of ideas—and that’s very much the case here.

After all, there’s a far more personal sense in which the phrase “mind-body problem” can be taken. To speak in the terms usual for our culture, this thing we’re calling “mind” includes only a certain portion of what we think of as our inner lives. What, after all, counts as “mind”? In the folk metaphysics of our culture, and in most of the more formal systems of thought based on it, “mind” is consciousness plus the thinking and reasoning functions, perhaps with intuition (however defined) tied on like a squirrel’s  tail to the antenna of an old-fashioned jalopy. The emotions aren’t part of mind, and neither are such very active parts of our lives as sexual desire and the other passions; it sounds absurd, in fact, to talk about “the emotion-body problem” or the “passion-body problem.” Why does it sound absurd? Because, consciously or unconsciously, we assign the emotions and the passions to the category of “body,” along with the senses.

This is where we get the second form of the mind-body problem, which is that we’re taught implicitly and explicitly that the mind governs the body, and yet the functions we label “body” show a distinct lack of interest in obeying the functions we call “mind.” Sexual desire is of course the most obvious example. What people actually desire and what they think they ought to desire are quite often two very different things, and when the “mind” tries to bully the “body” into desiring what the “mind” thinks it ought to desire, the results are predictably bad. Add enough moral panic to the mix, in fact, and you end up with sexual hysteria of the classic Victorian type, in which the body ends up being experienced as a sinister Other responding solely to its own evil propensities, the seductive wiles of other persons, or the machinations of Satan himself despite all the efforts of the mind to rein it in.

Notice the implicit hierarchy woven into the folk metaphysics just sketched out, too. Mind is supposed to rule matter, not the other way around; mind is active, while matter is passive or, at most, subject to purely mechanical pressures that make it lurch around in predictable ways. When things don’t behave that way, you tend to see people melt down in one way or another—and the universe being what it is, things don’t actually behave that way very often, so the meltdowns come at regular intervals.

They also arrive in an impressive range of contexts, because the way of thinking about things that divides them into mind and matter is remarkably pervasive in western societies, and pops up in the most extraordinary places.  Think of the way that our mainstream religions portray God as the divine Mind ruling omnipotently over a universe of passive matter; that’s the ideal toward which our notions of mind and body strive, and predictably never reach. Think of the way that our entertainment media can always evoke a shudder of horror by imagining something we assign to the category of lifeless matter—a corpse in the case of zombie flicks, a machine in such tales as Stephen King’s Christine, or what have you—suddenly starts acting as though it possesses a mind.

For that matter, listen to the more frantic end of the rhetoric on the American left following the recent presidential election and you’ll hear the same theme echoing off the hills. The left likes to think of itself as the smart people, the educated people, the sensitive and thoughtful and reasonable people—in effect, the people of Mind. The hate speech that many of them direct toward their political opponents leans just as heavily on the notion that these latter are stupid, uneducated, insensitive, irrational, and so on—that is to say, the people of Matter. Part of the hysteria that followed Trump’s election, in turn, might best be described as the political equivalent of the instinctive reaction to a zombie flick: the walking dead have suddenly lurched out of their graves and stalked toward the ballot box, the body politic has rebelled against its self-proclaimed mind!

Let’s go deeper, though. The habit of dividing the universe of human experience into mind and matter isn’t hardwired into the world, or for that matter into human consciousness; there have been, and are still, societies in which people simply don’t experience themselves and the world that way. The mind-body problem and the habits of thought that give rise to it have a history, and it’s by understanding that history that it becomes possible to see past the problem toward a solution.

That history takes its rise from an interesting disparity among the world’s great philosophical traditions. The three that arose independently—the Chinese, the Indian, and the Greek—focused on different aspects of humanity’s existence in the world. Chinese philosophy from earliest times directed its efforts to understanding the relationship between the individual and society; that’s why the Confucian mainstream of Chinese philosophy is resolutely political and social in its focus, exploring ways that the individual can find a viable place within society, and the alternative Taoist tradition in its oldest forms (before it absorbed mysticism from Indian sources) focused on ways that the individual can find a viable place outside society. Indian philosophy, by contrast, directed its efforts to understanding the nature of individual existence itself; that’s why the great Indian philosophical schools all got deeply into epistemology and ended up with a strong mystical bent.

The Greek philosophical tradition, in turn, went to work on a different set of problems. Greek philosophy, once it got past its initial fumblings, fixed its attention on the world of thought. That’s what led Greek thinkers to transform mathematics from a unsorted heap of practical techniques to the kind of ordered system of axioms and theorems best exemplified by Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, and it’s also what led Greek thinkers in the same generation as Euclid to create logic, one of the half dozen or so greatest creations of the human mind. Yet it also led to something considerably more problematic: the breathtaking leap of faith by which some of the greatest intellects of the ancient world convinced themselves that the structure of their thoughts was the true structure of the universe, and that thoughts about things were therefore more real than the things themselves.

The roots of that conviction go back all the way to the beginnings of Greek philosophy, but it really came into its own with Parmenides, an important philosopher of the generation immediately before Plato. Parmenides argued that there were two ways of understanding the world, the way of truth and the way of opinion; the way of opinion consisted of understanding the world as it appears to the senses, which according to Parmenides means it’s false, while the way of truth consisted of understanding the world the way that reason proved it had to be, even when this contradicted the testimony of the senses. To be sure, there are times and places where the testimony of the senses does indeed need to be corrected by logic, but it’s at least questionable whether this should be taken anything like as far as Parmenides took it—he argued, for example, that motion was logically impossible, and so nothing ever actually moves, even though it seems that way to our deceiving senses.

The idea that thoughts about things are more real than things settled into what would be its classic form in the writings of Plato, who took Parmenides’ distinction and set to work to explain the relationship between the worlds of truth and opinion. To Plato, the world of truth became a world of forms or ideas, on which everything in the world of sensory experience is modeled. The chair we see, in other words, is a projection or reflection downwards into the world of matter of the timeless, pure, and perfect form or idea of chair-ness. The senses show us the projections or reflections; the reasoning mind shows us the eternal form from which they descend.

That was the promise of classic Platonism—that the mind could know the truth about the universe directly, without the intervention of the senses, the same way it could know the truth of a mathematical demonstration. The difficulty with this enticing claim, though, was that when people tried to find the truth about the universe by examining their thinking processes, no two of them discovered exactly the same truth, and the wider the cultural and intellectual differences between them, the more different the truths turned out to be. It was for this reason among others that Aristotle, whose life’s work was basically that of cleaning up the mess that Plato and his predecessors left behind, made such a point of claiming that nothing enters the mind except through the medium of the senses. It’s also why the Academy, the school founded by Plato, in the generations immediately after his time took a hard skeptical turn, and focused relentlessly on the limits of human knowledge and reasoning.

Later on, Greek philosophy and its Roman foster-child headed off in other directions—on the one hand, into ethics, and the question of how to live the good life in a world where certainty isn’t available; on the other, into mysticism, and the question of whether the human mind can experience the truth of things directly through religious experience. A great deal of Plato’s thinking, however, got absorbed by the Christian religion after the latter clawed its way to respectability in the fourth century CE.

Augustine of Hippo, the theologian who basically set the tone of Christianity in the west for the next fifteen centuries, had been a Neoplatonist before he returned to his Christian roots, and he was far from the only Christian of that time to drink deeply from Plato's well. In his wake, Platonism became the standard philosophy of the western church until it was displaced by a modified version of Aristotle’s philosophy in the high Middle Ages. Thinkers divided the human organism into two portions, body and soul, and began the process by which such things as sexuality and the less angelic emotions got exiled from the soul into the body.

Even after Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle popular again, the basic Parmenidean-Platonic notion of truth had been so thoroughly bolted into Christian theology that it rode right over any remaining worries about the limitations of human reason. The soul trained in the use of reason could see straight to the core of things, and recognize by its own operations such basic religious doctrines as the existence of God:  that was the faith with which generations of scholars pursued the scholastic philosophy of medieval times, and those who disagreed with them rarely quarreled over their basic conception—rather, the point at issue was whether the Fall had left the human mind so vulnerable to the machinations of Satan that it couldn’t count on its own conclusions, and the extent to which divine grace would override Satan’s malicious tinkerings anywhere this side of heaven.

If you happen to be a devout Christian, such questions make sense, and they matter. It’s harder to see how they still made sense and mattered as the western world began moving into its post-Christian era in the eighteenth century, and yet the Parmenidean-Platonic faith in the omnipotence of reason gained ground as Christianity ebbed among the educated classes. People stopped talking about soul and body and started talking about mind and body instead.

Since mind, mens in Latin, was already in common use as a term for the faculty of the soul that handled its thinking and could be trained to follow the rules of reason, that shift was of vast importance. It marked the point at which the passions and the emotions were shoved out of the basic self-concept of the individual in western culture, and exiled to the body, that unruly and rebellious lump of matter in which the mind is somehow caged.

That’s one of the core things that Schopenhauer rejected. As he saw it, the mind isn’t the be-all and end-all of the self, stuck somehow into the prison house of the body. Rather, the mind is a frail and unstable set of functions that surface now and then on top of other functions that are much older, stronger, and more enduring. What expresses itself through all these functions, in turn, is will:  at the most basic primary level, as the will to exist; on a secondary level, as the will to live, with all the instincts and drives that unfold from that will; on a tertiary level, as the will to experience, with all the sensory and cognitive apparatus that unfolds from that will; and on a quaternary level, as the will to understand, with all the abstract concepts and relationships that unfold from that will.

Notice that from this point of view, the structure of thought isn't the structure of the cosmos, just a set of convenient models, and thoughts about things are emphatically not more real than the things themselves.  The things themselves are wills, expressing themselves through their several modes.  The things as we know them are representations, and our thoughts about the things are abstract patterns we create out of memories of representations, and thus at two removes from reality.

Notice also that from this point of view, the self is simply a representation—the ur-representation, the first representation each of us makes in infancy as it gradually sinks in that there’s a part of the kaleidoscope of our experience that we can move at will, and a lot more that we can’t, but still just a representation, not a reality. Of course that’s what we see when we first try to pay attention to ourselves, just as we see the coffee cup discussed in the first post in this series. It takes exacting logical analysis, scientific experimentation, or prolonged introspection to get past the representation of the self (or the coffee cup), realize that it’s a subjective construct rather than an objective reality, and grasp the way that it’s assembled out of disparate stimuli according to preexisting frameworks that are partly hardwired into our species and partly assembled over the course of our lives.

Notice, finally, that those functions we like to call “mind”—in the folk metaphysics of our culture, again, these are consciousness and the capacity to think, with a few other tag-ends of other functions dangling here and there—aren’t the essence of who we are, the ghost in the machine, the Mini-Me perched inside the skull that pushes and pulls levers to control the passive mass of the body and gets distracted by the jabs and lurches of the emotions and passions. The functions we call “mind,” rather, are a set of delicate, tentative, and fragile functions of will, less robust and stable than most of the others, and with no inherent right to rule the other functions. The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy, and if what we call “mind” sits at the top of the food chain like a fox in a meadow, that simply means that the fox has to spend much of its time figuring out where mice like to go, and even more of its time sleeping in its den, while the mice scamper busily about and the grass goes quietly about turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the nutrients that support the whole system.

Accepting this view of the self requires sweeping revisions of the ways we like to think about ourselves and the world, which is an important reason why so many people react with acute discomfort when it’s suggested. Nonetheless those revisions are of crucial importance, and as this discussion continues, we’ll see how they offer crucial insights into the problems we face in this age of the world—and into their potential solutions.


John Michael Greer said...

I'm going to be on the road for the next several days, and due to recent "improvements" to Blogger, I'll have no way to respond to comments until I get back. My backup moderator will be able to put comments through, though, so by all means comment, and I'll respond once Blogger lets me access my account again.

I'd like to ask one thing, though. This week's post, like the last two and others still to come, is trying to sketch out a way of thinking about the world that's very unfamiliar to most people in modern industrial society. That's fielded me a lot of pushback, as noted toward the top of this week's post, and a great deal of that has amounted to an insistence that I ought to use familiar terms such as "mind" (or "consciousness") and "matter," with their familiar implications, rather than the jarring terms "will" and "representation," with their sharply unfamiliar implications. Um, folks, I'm trying to suggest that there's another way of looking at the world. Yes, I know it's not the one you're used to; that's the whole point of the discussion. Can we please get past that, and spend the time exploring an unfamiliar landscape of ideas and perceptions, instead of trying to push things back onto familiar ground? Thanks...

Marcu said...

There will be no meeting of the Green Wizard's Association of Melbourne this week. We are closing for renovations and invite everybody to keep their eyes peeled for news about our March meeting.

Send queries and comments to limitstogrowth1972[at]

P.S. I have created a webpage where I will post the details of the next meeting and any further details for those who don't frequent the comments here. The webpage can be found at

Glenn said...

Reductionist materialism seems fine to me, and fits well with my experience of the world. It seems to me that the difference between it and what you're discussing is a matter of labeling more than anything else. Then, I regard "mind" or "will" as a subset of various brain functions that include emotions, fears and desires. That I am not conscious of how a particular feeling is created does not mean it is subservient to or separate from my mind's will. (if you will)


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

C.M. Mayo said...

Thank you for this crunchy and most fascinating read. I very much look forward to the next installment.

Allen Nelson said...

The mind-body problem is further complicated by the fact the body has minds of its own. Quite aside from the unconscious, there is a "gut brain", said to contain as many neurons as a cat's brain, to which our conscious mind has no access whatever. Beyond that, our intestinal flora, trillions of bacteria, are believed to exhibit a kind of hive mind.

drhooves said...

Each week I learn something new, and this week I discovered I'm a "reductionistic materialist", I guess - though I would describe it more in terms of being a "pragmatic scientist".

Since I have virtually no education in philosophy, and no interest in religion, these essays are falling on a blank slate of opinion (and hopefully not blank-mindedness). The overall picture is slowly taking shape, and I'm beginning to connect more dots on how this fits into the picture of our age. Emphasis on "slowly"....

redoak said...

Without a doubt, your presentation of Platonism and its influence on western thought is accurate and correctly points out the absurd conclusions that follow from the theory of ideas or forms. However, Plato's dialogues very poorly align with that vision of Platonism. In fact, I'd say it would be easier to align Plato with Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than with Augustine. A few examples to bring forward the recent ideas of will and representation. For starters the philosophical soul is dominated by eros (cf Symposium) and Socrates proudly declares that wisdom of all things erotic is his only knowledge. Eros is the seat of desire, willing, and ambition, not far from the role assigned to will by Schopenhauer. The paradoxes of representation are well presented in the Theatetus and Parmenides, in the latter a young Socrates is disabused of his naive theory of ideal forms, in the former, just prior to his execution, Socrates can give no coherent logos for knowledge. Often commentators will single out the Republic as representative of the whole tragic tyrannical culmination of this idealism, never wondering what argumentative purpose the city in speech serves (cf 368d) and how ironic the failure to calculate the "nuptial number" really is (eroticism ends the utopia... of course!, cf 546a-c). Finally, given the form of his writing it is about as meaningful to talk about Plato's Philosophy as it is to talk about Shakespeare's Philosophy. Just because Macbeth says life is a tale told by an idiot does not mean Shakespeare thinks so. There's a lot more to a Platonic dialogue than Platonism. Ok, that axe is sharp enough now!

chrisroy said...

Hmmm...I was wondering earlier today if all this (last two weeks and today, it turns out) explains the success of "The Secret"...I am also reminded of The Power of The Subconscious Mind- for the life o' me, I cannot remember the author's name...otherwise made an impression on me though...hope you had a good trip

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...


I think a lot of your readers may benefit from this 9 minute clip on Schopenhauer from a 1984 BBC documentary:

And if anyone thinks they are ready for the "advanced course":


My donkey said...

Speaking of unfamiliar ways of thinking, what kind of mental processes could have prompted scientists to propose the construction of 10 million wind-powered pumps (at a cost of $500 billion) to re-freeze arctic ice that has melted due to global warming?

It sounds like trying to cool an overheated kitchen (whose oven is going full blast) by opening the fridge and freezer doors.

Eric S. said...

Hmm... one other set of dichotomies this brings to mind is the nature of beings versus Being, or if being is simply a representation of the will to be, wills versus Will. The fact that this thing we understand and experience as the self represents a distinct and finite portion of the cosmos... and that our will extends within a very particular reach... that we can know our own will and through introspection pick apart our own representations shows that there does exist some sort of distinction between individual beings. Of course, things like emotion, sexual desire, or physical sickness show that even within that individual there are multiple wills in relationship to each other that are usually, but not always in accordance as a whole. What that suggests then, is that Will is not a singular cosmic force that we are all doing the bidding of, and even if we are it would work much like our own individual selves (in which an immune cell turn on an allergen, a skin cell may become cancerous or some other event in which a part of the system defies the whole of the system), since not everything individual will does seems to be a direct expression of universal Will. As you mentioned last week, it's the conflict between wills that allows awareness to exist at all. Which means that there are multiple sources of will at work... So, once again I ask: who or what is doing the willing? And how does one distinguish between that which is part of an individual will and that which is part of some other, larger, universal will? (I have a feeling that a part of the approach to the question resides within an essay about a certain seafood dinner from the other blog). Ultimately, though, are these questions it's possible to ask and address without another flight to abstraction?

My donkey said...

Sorry, the $500 billion price tag is PER YEAR, and it's a 10-year project, so total cost would be $5 trillion – to temporarily freeze water that will melt again later.

Scotlyn said...

Thanks for this.

I am not among those pushing back from a "mind/matter" perspective, and all of that part of this week's post certainly rings true for me. No difficulty there.

Also, I am not aware of having any difficulty grasping or accepting your exposition of Schopenhauer's concept of "representations" -including the conclusion that the self is a representation (or more likely a whole collection of them). Again, straightforward enough, I think.

But it is definitely fair to say that the Schopenhauerian concept of "will" is unfamiliar ground to me and is therefore going to takes some time and effort to explore. I don't have much fluency in philosophical language to do it with, either, so, I will do my best with the words that I find in the grab bag of my personal lexicon.

So, bear with me while I explore this unfamiliar ground - and maybe stub my toe on a tree root, or fall into a puddle on the way.

By your account, the will is first encountered through direct experience from the "inside", as it were, of the phenemenon of "my" agency willing "my" fingers into motion. But although at that moment, "I" am simultaneously agent-who-is-aware, agent-who-wills and agent-who-moves and although those are the precise circumstances (and no others) under which "I" COULD conceivably directly experience will, it is then asserted that will can exist apart from consciousness (and implicitly apart from agent-who-wills - though this may be a failure in my understanding).

To this end, an example is given of a sleeper, unconscious, moving a limb in sleep. Note, this example is not directly experienced from "inside" but is seen, like any other representation, from the "outside". The observation that "agent-who-wills/agent-who-moves" the leg is not necessarily identical to agent-who-now-sleeps does not entail that will exists apart from consciousness (or possibly apart from agents), only that when seen from "outside" it may be difficult to determine the identity of the agent-who-wills any particular observed movement.

Now here you have thrown me a bone when you say "The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem" because I can certainly understand an ecosystem as a composite agent composed of a multitude of independent and autonomous agents in busy pursuit of their purposes, sometimes acting in concert, sometimes at cross-purposes with each other, and the self certainly seems to me to work exactly that way.

But when you/Schopenhauer depart from examples that can be directly appreciated from the "inside" perspective, a reification (appears to me to) occur whereby will is definitely split off from the agent-who-wills to become a "thing" or a force - that is to say, an abstraction.

As if one had danced, experienced oneself as she-who-dances, and then said the world is made of Costumes and Dance (but where are the dancers?).

In this exploration, I find that the path from the will I experience from the "inside" when I am the agent-who-wills to the will that is the "thing itself" is not straightforward. There seem to be ravines across it that I cannot cross without a guide. I'd be grateful for any that's going. Thanks.

Sven Eriksen said...

Well done. I would argue that the perhaps most valuable lesson you keep hammering in - regardless of what topic is at hand - is that our (mostly unconscious) belief structures actually have a history. As for the pushback you've gotten, remember that most people operate on the level of content, while you are taking things a notch below into the realm of structure and pattern. As a result those who can't (or won't) go there will seek to haul things back to the level of content (I've long suspected that the validation of unconscious belief structures through the encouragement of endless debating of the content based upon them is the main motivation behind the frankly absurd amount of intellectual noise our civilization produces, but that is perhaps a discussion best kept for another time). Annoying? You bet. Though a certain amount of it is probably unavoidable.

I've fallen in love with the Schopenhauerian self, simply because it makes sense. The idea of self as a bubble of abstract intellect confined within a "solid" structure has always struck me as one of industrial civilization's supreme absurdities, right up there with electric can openers and the religion of progress.

Enjoy your speaking gig. I'm sure it'll be lively in here while you're away ;-)

NomadicBeer said...

I had trouble digesting the previous two post but this one just makes so much sense! Maybe I am ready to understand philosophy.

Thanks and good travels!

Repent said...

The point being is that we really don't know how to solve the mind-body problem, or any of its implications. That not knowing is a problem in a modern world of push button solutions. Put your car in drive and it goes forward, flick the switch and the light goes on, turn off the circuit breaker and the power stops. There really is no 'off' button for either the mind or body other than death; and many would argue that death isn't 'off' either.

This 4 part meditation helped me 'feel' what the alternative is like. Without forms to perceive, awareness still exists and it is aware of itself:

llmaiwi said...

The recent media coverage of Julius Evola, plus your discussion on the other blog, finally prodded me to give Evola a read. The section in Introduction to Magic called "Knowledge of the Waters" begins:

The life of all beings, without exception, is ruled by a primordial Force deep inside them. The nature of this force is craving: an appetite that is never satisfied, an endless restlessness, an irresistible need, and a blind, wild yearning.

The passage goes on to connect this force with quintessence, first substance, etc. I'm guessing the concept of astral light would fit right in here as well. (Please correct me if that doesn't seem right.)

I mention this because last night I picked up my copy of the Tao Te Ching and was reminded that the Tao is described as a thing that exists underneath our representations (to paraphrase). And yet its character seems very different from that of both Schopenhauer's will and Evola's waters.

So, assuming that I'm not making a misstep in equating these things, any thoughts on what accounts for the profound differences in the way they're described?

Brian Burgess said...

A Cosmos of Wills brings us full circle to a Universe of capricious gods and spirits, rather than the Cosmos as Logos. Interesting.

Patricia Mathews said...

I think part of people's trouble is the difficulty in understanding a new framework without some way of linking it to the one already known. Very similar to learning a foreign language. Let's take Spanish 101. Picture me staring blankly at the paragraph defining the difference between "para" and "por", both translated as "for." Until during the homework, a sentence clicks a memory of old ballads, and "para" suddenly becomes "for to" as in "Juan went to town for to buy a car."

Likewise, "representation" came more easily than "will" because I already had the concept of "all we know comes to us through our senses "as through a glass, darkly," and hits a second filter constructed by language and culture. But "Will" has a pretty well defined set of connotations in English, which confuses everyone and leads right into the "Free Will Yes or No" trap." As I said last week, I got that one through Pete Seeger via Malvina Reynolds in a song about grass, "it's will is to grow." What are the connotations of "will" in German?"

Or am I just revealing my own intellectual and educational limitations?

Peter Wilson said...

Fascinating. This makes sense to me. Another way of describing it would be to think about the dream environment. Within a dream consciousness or thought creates the world, there's none of the solidity that we experience whilst awake. But yet, and this is revealed with lucid or partially lucid dreams, behind that unfolding dream world created by consciousness, there's still a more primal driver. Usually, that's simply constant movement, but there seems to be a will to make that movement. Perhaps that's another example of the will at work.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla said...

In his confessions St Augustine ultimately rejects the Platonic notion of the teachability of the soul. No matter how well educated a human is in ethics and morality, they will still intentionally sin. Thus the only recourse for salvation can't be taught only felt or experienced on an irrational level ie as faith.

Tower 440 said...

Hi John
Here is a list of the best (imho) ideas from the suggestion box opened two weeks ago, when I asked about opening and closing ceremonies for GWB&PA meetings.
1. Make the opening and closing short. More time for the business of shining the green light.
2. The proposal of entering the Tower from the west at dusk and leaving from the east at dawn carrying green lamps were well received. Expansions on these ideas are welcome.
3. The Tower Guard should be a clown.
4. The Ruinman could function as a scary other or shaman with a foot in both worlds.
5. The Ruinman’s Window looks into the meeting hall and is framed to look like a TV set.
6. Every Tower needs a Priestess. (I don’t know why. It sounds good, though.)
7. Proposals for mottoes include “Ecotechnica!” and “Towards an Ecotechnic Future!” (Thank you, Melbourne Tower.) Suggestions welcome.
8. A lighting ceremony for new Towers has been proposed. Ideas welcome.
9. Proposals for a mission statement include, “To gather, preserve, and disseminate the knowledge and wisdom of appropriate technology.” Suggestions welcome.
10. The first officer elected in a new Tower should be the Historian.
Of course, nothing is official yet. Refinements, new proposals, and lively debate are welcome.
Best Regards
Rusty at Tower 440

Tower 440 said...

Greetings to the assembled Wizardren!
The Spring joint meeting of the Green Wizards’ Benevolent and Protective Association, Tower Number 440, and Ruinmen’s Guild, Local 440 will be held at 12:30 PM on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Our location is Ruko’s Family Restaurant, 9385 Mentor Avenue, Mentor, Ohio 44060, (440) 974-1914. Shining the Green Light! Public Welcome! Tables for Failed Scholars. Look for the table topper with the Green Wizard Hat. Contact us at
Our speaker will be Green Wizard Gene Ainsworth, the first member of Tower 440 to travel with a GWB&PA issued “passport.” (Email us for the template.) Gene will report on his People to People trip to Cuba, particularly his research and interviews with the Cuban People to learn about how they have coped with the difficulties, of the electrical grid, lack of utilities and refrigeration.
Many thanks to John for the posting space on his blog.

sgage said...


"The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy, and if what we call “mind” sits at the top of the food chain like a fox in a meadow, that simply means that the fox has to spend much of its time figuring out where mice like to go, and even more of its time sleeping in its den, while the mice scamper busily about and the grass goes quietly about turning sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into the nutrients that support the whole system. "

That, my friend, was beautiful.

patriciaormsby said...

Announcing the Kanto Green Wizards meet up on Sunday, March 5, starting at noon, at the Asakawa Kompira shrine near Takao-san. For more details on the location and how to reach us, please see the Green Wizards site:

If the three-and-a-half day weather cycle applies this year (looks more highly irregular to this seasoned forecaster), it ought to be good weather. It's a lovely mountain, almost tower-like, standing sentry over western Tokyo. Besides which, we always have fun, and you are likely to meet other who "get it."

Graeme Bushell said...

I found last week's post pretty challenging, I think, yes, because that way of thinking is so different to my habitual way of thinking about things. In particular, the idea of the universe not being fundamentally rational. Although, if you let go of that idea you can also give up requiring cause and effect, and it becomes easier (at least, for me) to accept the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. That is, that quantum events only have probabilities and truly don't have causes (not even unobservable ones). If you like, pure manifestations of will.

Isn't Schopenhauer's vision an eliminative idealist one? (with will in place of mind in your explanation).


Matthias Gralle said...

The perfect book-length treatment of the development of the modern sense of an "interior" mind is Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self. He shows how even for Plato it would have made no sense at all to speak of something "inside" himself, and in fact to consider that he had a unified self. In Taylor's opinion, Augustine marks an important point towards the development of an "interior" self, and he then traces this concept through Descartes, Hume and many others.

By the way, he ends up with Robinson Jeffers!

Michael Robles said...

Dear tocayito:

I enjoyed your post. And it got me thinking of a book I read by Thomas Nagel, "Mind & Cosmos: why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false."

You might enjoy the read. It basically says that science has to be rewritten to encompass consciousness, that a plain materialistic viewpoint of the world, understood as principles that can be expressed in math formulas has to some how, take into account consciousness in order to be a complete body of knowledge that explains the universe. It is interesting to notice that he is an atheist, one by choice rather than one that was forced by science to atheism and that he is a lawyer. His ink is a heavy read, but you might enjoy his Daedalus style.

I hope you are getting more sunshine to color you up, and are able to enjoy mouthfuls of fresh air and water (they are probably the best thing in life!).

S Folley said...

Thank you for this.

Justin said...

First off, the idea of my existence as an ecosystem of different creatures and plants, with the 'baser' parts (grass, animals who eat the grass) as the important baseline functions is fascinating. I've heard arguments that the Norse idea of Yggdrasil (and the associated gods and creatures like Ratatoskr and of course the Jörmungandr) actually represents human consciousness rather than the structure of the universe (but there's quite a semantic issue there about separating human consciousness from the nature of the universe as understood by humans!).

fudoshindotcom said...

The fly in the ointment here seems to be a pervasive belief that the human intellect is capable of thoroughly understanding the mind body relationship, without considering that it may very well, in part at least, function according to principles entirely beyond our conception. I would venture that it's also possible that our perceptions are limited so that the relationship doesn't exist independently in any form which we can understand. Suppose for a moment that the mind body problem doesn't exist at all outside of our perceptions, that the mind-body is singular and there is no separation.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another intriguing excursion down philosophy lane - 40 years ago, I did a lot of this, but it's faded and unfamiliar. I am waiting to see what your conclusion is before I decide if the arguments work. I have always seen emotions as part of the motivation/mind of this "self" of mine, rather than body. But then, for decades I've been aware of the unconscious part of myself, that has motivations other than my conscious (I would call my ego) has. The idea of ecosystem rather than hierarchy sounds good, because it's clear that there are often warring motivations in mine (and others') actions. Looking forward to next post!

aslja said...

I have always found the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy a great resource for exploring philosophical ideas and their context. May be helpful to other reader.

Thanks JMG for your work!

brett rasmussen said...

I mainly come here for the peak oil related topics, and to be honest this subject you are currently discussing makes my brain hurt, but I am going to stick with it in the hope that there will be a benefit. Thank you JMG for pushing me past my normal limits.

Fred the First said...

The question I ponder daily "who am I that reality is?". Snaps me back to consciousness about who I am being and what I am causing to occur around me.

Mark said...

JMG ~ I have no idea where you are going (so exciting!) and what I am doing is (this refers to the comment I made last week) looking back at how I understood or mis-understood the Vajra-yana, and the basic part of that, the Mahayana. This past week, I had this thought: the sanskrit word "Bodhicitta" is translated as "the desire to attain enlightened consciousness", which is itself beyond desire, and beyond words. If I replace the word "desire", with the word "will", then the little matter of using desire to become desire-less becomes moot. Will does not need to be modified in that way, it just continues on the path of the bodhisattva. It has a function, which may in fact be useful to bodhisattvas, perhaps even to Buddhas.

You may be right about woodworking itself being a sort of ritual. It has this to recommend it: mindfullness and focus are rewarded moment to moment with fewer splinters, cuts, and time wasting mistakes that cut into the very small margin of profit one aims at. So far, I have all ten digits - somewhat scared, gnarled, and calloused, yet mine own. Then too, one senses the fellowship with the men of old.

I wonder if using will to change consciousness doesn't inevitably become using consciousness to change will, in a way similar to working wood becoming: wood, changing the workers will, which it does, if one respects the integrity of the wood.

Does "will" have some cultural baggage, like "faith"? I remember being a bit cool on books about "will power" from the middle of last century. Atlas Shrugged, what? Well, who wouldn't?

Ozark Chinquapin said...

There's an inconsistency that I've noticed in the normal reductionist materialist argument, in that they seem to borrow ways of thinking from dualism. It's the way that most of them consider only our brains and maybe animals to have any mind or inner experience, and consigning the world at large to the category of dead or inert matter.

Lets say for the sake of this argument that the reductionist materialist is right about matter being all their is, and that everything we experience is the result of interactions of matter and energy. If that's the case, why would it stop at the bounds of our (and possibly other creatures') bodies? Couldn't the interactions of matter and energy that come from water in a stream flowing down a mountainside give rise to a form of internal experience, even if it's on a completely different scale than in a human or animal? Most would reply that it's only the complexity that our brains contain that make experience arise there, but that leads to the question of at what point of complexity does "inert matter" suddenly end up with an internal experience? It would make more sense to me that there would be a form of experience in everything, just with widely varying levels of complexity. And, whole ecosystems, the whole planet, and even the whole universe could be having their own forms of experience, Hardly any reductionist materialists see it that way, though. I would think that dividing the world neatly into "inert matter" and matter that has mind isn't compatible with monism. I should say that I've always thought of mind more as the capacity to experience, more like the will you've referred to, rather than the much more limited definition of mind you've talked about in this post.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

RE:The Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy

I like this quite a bit. I've described my thought process before as building consensus when I'm working on some thing I'm thinking about doing or changing. The phrase "I'm of two minds about..." or the personal experience of being conflicted about something or knowledge of different psychological models with multiple concurrent systems operating on different levels has lead me to stop thinking of myself as a unitary actor. I like the notion of an ecosystem of me. I'm going to have to think about that.


Thijs Goverde said...

Well, that's funny - I've always thought that emotion and passion are functions of the mind, not of the body, and I see no absurdity in talking about en 'emotion-body' problem. If I heard someone talking about 'the emotion-body problem' my only reaction would be a vague surprise at the pars pro toto.
Maybe getting a masters degree in philosophy has rendered me unfit for folk metaphysics. Or maybe it's my decidedly un-christian upbringing.

chrisroy said...

That is the crux: who's doing the willing?! Universal Will could be God in other words...although I still prefer The Force...

Robin Datta said...

In the Vedantic tradition, unconditioned reality is that which cannot be negated in the three phases of time; negation being akin to the process of what happens to the snake when a dimly lit rope misperceived as a snake is recognised to be a rope. That reality is the “is-ness” wherever the descriptor “is” is applicable. It is also the only consciousness.

Body belongs to the gross world and mind belongs to the subtle world; both have conditional reality, borrowing their “is-ness” from the absolute reality as the snake borrows its reality from the rope. Neither body nor mind are sentient.

A bucket containing water reflects sunlight from its surface; so too the body containing a brain reflects consciousness from the mind. The reflection is modified by the surface, the ripples or thoughts affecting the reflected sunlight or consciousness. As there may be many buckets with many water surfaces, so to there can be many bodies and many minds, with one sun or one consciousness.

In the absence of an appropriate reflecting medium, the consciousness remains unmanifest.

mgalimba said...

Well you do talk a lot of rot and I say that affectionately and even respectfully 'cause who doesn't and if you want to toss me off the board that's OK, but I'm trying to read what you are reading in Schopenhauer. What I'm getting is that you find his permutation of the mind/body problem as representation/will rather more subtle and I'd have to agree with you there. Also that the concept of will allows for a bridging of the mind/body problem in a manner that is both subtle and rooted in a kind direct experience accessible to anyone. Finally that this concept of will, as derived from the functioning of the body and bodies in general allows for the existence of a kind of organic force or spirit in the world that is not overly identified with the human mind and the tradition of extreme self-regard of the human mind towards itself that seems to be characteristic of the Western tradition, especially post-Christian orthodoxy. All of the above is probably as clear as mud.
But I share, I think, some of Scotlyn's hesitations over the concept of the will, simply in that it really doesn't quite give a satisfying account of the body as existing pre- and post- and entirely entangled with what would be considered will by your account. To put it another way, to experience one's own body as representation, although occasionally valid, is essentially absurd (though an improvement on looking at is as a tool of Satan). On the other hand to posit the body as a working out of so insubstantial a force as the will is equally unsatisfying. Still, I'd have to agree overall, within the tradition of Western thought, representation/will certainly seems better deal than some of the other options.
Anyway, tally-ho, you're on a merry hunt!

Karl Brantz said...

You're a rare entity JMG. I feel fortunate to have encountered you n the miasmic blog soup.

patriciaormsby said...

Don't think you have to reply to this, JMG. Just let me rave a minute. I took two hours to read through this week's post, and added about two pages of material to my file with definitions of philosophical terms and which philosopher said what. In particular, you really helped me get a basic grasp of where oriental philosophies (Indian + Chinese) differ from western ones, and how that arose. I can see where I am apt to disagree with the Catholics, for example, no matter how I admire what they have become, and that way I can avoid land mines. It will also help me touch up what I've written in my novel.

Confucianism was presented to me from the start as a philosophical guide on how to organize a decent society. It was one of the biggest culture shocks for me in Japan, and an area in which it is much much harder for women to assimilate than men. But just as with Buddhism, which I grew up seeing as non-discriminatory, Confucianism isn't as rigid as it first comes across. Older books on Japanese Buddhism are shockingly negative toward women: They both picked up quite a bit of cultural baggage on their way through war-torn regions and histories. When warring is prolonged, women wind up cowering the the back of the house with the children in multiple senses. A more updated version of Confucianism basically rephrases JFK in saying, "Ask not what your society can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your society." People are brought up from kindergarten here thinking in those terms. It takes practice, and I'll never be as good as they are at this, but what counts most is recognizing the value of it and trying.

Scotlyn said...

PS hat tip to Patricia for the comment on new language learning.

Robert Honeybourne said...

Very nice summary! It all went wrong with Descartes... and that is the basic idea we are brought up with and on which western society is supposed to work. A 'rational mind' and a person 'falling short' all the time

Regarding the Democrats and what appeared at first as an aside in your piece - a dig. I still cannot recommend highly enough a book called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

He explains, with lots of evidence from experiment and observation, how the left base more of their thinking on two specific moral principles. Conservatives use more principles. Many more basic emotional ones calling to tribe, community and purity

I was very persuaded, as I had often seen truth in some right wing thinking but could not understand other elements of it

What is clear is that the Republican party, as with the UK Conservatives fall very short of 'conservative' morals and standards. Which is partly where the dilemma arises of feeling you are conservative and embrace more than simply certain moral imperatives, but feel you have to vote for a party that while appealing to these does not uphold them for 'the few' (i.e. Themselves)

I consider it at least a possibility that Druid thinking may represent the home of true conservatism...

KL Cooke said...

Philosophy may be coming back into vogue, and this series has the makings of an excellent book.

"Part of the hysteria that followed Trump’s election, in turn, might best be described as the political equivalent of the instinctive reaction to a zombie flick: the walking dead have suddenly lurched out of their graves and stalked toward the ballot box, the body politic has rebelled against its self-proclaimed mind!"

Man, you kill me.

Tony f. whelKs said...

A fascinating series of posts recently - makes me regret never having formally studied philosophy. It's one thing dibbing in and out of random philosophers' works, quite another to take the broad historical view of the development of ideas. To analogise a bit - I may have picked up a few pithy quotes along the way, but I haven't witnessed the entire conversation.

Today's episode has explained to me just why Plato's concept of Ideal Forms so repelled my thinking. It always struck me that 'chairness' (to use the example given) was simply a category created by us and imposed on our sensory representation of the universe, and not an over-riding reality which is transmitted down into the universe which our senses apprehend. My mind also has a similar reaction to the concept of deity.

Anyway, it's left me with much to think about this this week, thank you!

Cherokee Organics said...


Perhaps it may be that as a child I had very little supervision placed on me, but it never even occurred to me that people considered that there was some sort of divide between the mind and the body. I did understand the concept of the soul and the body though. However from my point of view the mind and the body look reasonably inseparable!

And the mind as it appears to me is some sort of makeshift thing that has had numerous patches (dare I suggest the word upgrades?) placed on it. No wonder last week’s essay made little sense to me. Thanks for taking the time to explain the history of the why the beliefs are the way they are.

The thing that I'm left wondering about is why would people seek to divide such a thing when accepting that we are a whole and at the same time part of a larger ecosystem seems much more adaptive to me. What is the benefit that they sought to do with such an understanding? We're just animals after all, clever ones, but we exist moment to moment courtesy of the environment around us. It is not lost on me that 65 million years ago the dinosaurs walked the planet and don’t nowadays although the chickens here can look as if they would enjoy snacking on my corpse. Why would we believe that we are any different or perhaps special than the dinosaurs? It all seems a bit sordid and narcissistic really to imagine otherwise. Mind you, I'm probably going to get hate mail for saying that.

Oh, I hadn't mentioned it previously but the powers that be have somehow managed to reduce Sunday penalty rates for employees. Well done them, however, this is not a good thing. Do they not realise that consumer economies require consumers? And I'm just waiting for the first article written by an economist spruiking the advantages of the increased labour productivity (that is my first prediction) that will result from this policy disaster. Heads will roll eventually and perhaps that will be when they discover that the mind and body are inseparable? No?

Oh yeah, and someone from NASA was making claims on the radio this afternoon that there is an Earth like planet 40 light years away. Now you may think that it is a long way to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts compared to space! ;-)!



Brian Kaller said...


I’m told that Schopenhauer was a major influence on Freud, and I can certainly see that based on your description of the former and my reading of the latter. Freud, if I remember him correctly, seemed to think that “we” are a veneer of rationality over a bubbling stew of impulses and subconscious memories, and that those are also “us,” similar to what Schopenhauer said about will.

I find it interesting that, while Freud’s ideas have mostly been abandoned in psychology, they still hold sway in pop psychology – think of all the times in movies or television that characters talk about their inner child, having a breakthrough or tapping into a repressed memory. Yet our same media pop culture still holds to the mind-body separation we get from medieval Catholicism – think of all the times that fantasy or science fiction characters see their mind separated from their body, or “upload” their mind to a computer, or some such thing. Those two philosophies never seemed to co-exist comfortably, yet I never put my finger on why until now.

Marvin Mots said...

Thank you for another stimulating writing.
I have considered the so-called mind-body problem for many years, particularly during study for advanced degrees in biology and have settled this for myself this way:

Mind occurs within (as part of) the body.
Resonant brain activities are self conscious thoughts of the mind (the mind perceives itself, note that this includes resonant activities such as music and dance wherein the resonance cooperates with that of other minds: interestingly the Japanese share resonance in more forms, such as by breathing in unison spontaneously).
Non resonant brain activities are mental acts of will.
best regards

William Day said...

Thank you to all who participate in the discussion, and thank you Mr. Greer for this wonderful forum.

Just for a moment let us the consider the philosopher as cartographer. The skilled hand that produces the distinct line weights and hatches is able to give a spatial, wink, representation of a territory. Perhaps we should view modern physicists in the same light. We must remember "The map is not the territory".

Mr. Greer seems to have asked us to get out our maps and see what we can distill about the territory. No matter how the lines and hatches of your map resonate within you let's have a look at everyone's map. Yes I want to hear your understanding of the territory gained from your map.
Thank you to everyone for opening new vistas to my view.

Mister Roboto said...

As a "witchy woo", as I frequently describe myself, I believe that the psychic realm of existence has just as much reality as the realm of physical matter that our society literally worships as the be-all and end-all. And anyone who has studied the occult to any degree can tell you it is emotions that drive this psychic level of existence far more than the intellect. It is my contention that a big part of the reason our society is having the convulsive collective nervous breakdown it is currently experiencing is simply emotional and intellectual cognitive dissonance resulting from believing that matter and its behavior according to certain laws is the sum total of all existence.

In typical American fashion, we are of course responding to this cognitive dissonance by simply doubling down on the mistaken belief in the hope that more of what isn't working will somehow solve the problem. This really is quite tragic, because all this doubling down is succeeding in doing is creating a positive feedback loop on the psychic level that just keeps growing and growing. The election of a personality-disordered charlatan such as Donald Trump is but one outward manifestation of this existential crisis. Another manifestation is the severe and unprecedented social and political backlash that what passes for the left in this country is cultivating for itself with its banshee-shrieking sore-loserism and its redoubled fixation on The Rescue Game. A third very possible manifestation may very well be a new economic dislocation brought about by papering-over economic contraction with gargantuan wads of printed money, one that will make the recession of 2009 seem like "the good old days" in comparison. I fear that it may take something very drastic such as a very close brush with a global thermonuclear war to cause a critical mass of people to start taking a deeper look at reality (and kudos to you for giving people who want to do that some mental tools with this series of posts).

Macando said...

Thanks, JMG. A survey course of Mind/Body metaphysics in one blog.
It is appreciated and very useful. Looking forward to the rest


Scotlyn said...

Thinking some more on this, I think part of my difficulty is a language one. I think of "will" as one of a class of nouns (things) that in our particularly thing-oriented language we've derived from verbs (ie moves made by agents). We can use "speech" "dance" "act" "word" "sale" "punch" grammatically as if they were things - the objects of action in a parsed sentence. And yet none of these nouns IS a thing. Each is more like a trace left by a purposive agent moving in some way.

Our language trips us up in this way making it too easier to ask "what is the world made of?" rather than we might, in a different language, ask, "WHO is the world made of?"

In this context, both "mind" and "body" are "whats" and therefore neither can speak to the "who-ness" of me which I directly experience from the "inside". That is to say no " side" of mind-body dichotomy works.

Representation and will, as expounded, get closer - because representation can map onto the "outsides" of a world made of "who's" as well as it can map onto the "outsides" of a world made of "what's".

However the word "will" seems to me to be too easy to use in that thing-derivative abstract way - which obscures, hides or loses the "who".

And if it does that, it becomes unmoored from the "who" I can directly experience and stops being able to account for my experience.

David Smith in St Louis said...

Reading your post has gotten into reading Heidegger and now I am all confused. Is the will a being? It would seem that it is because it can enter into causal relationship s with other beings and because the will does have determinate properties, such as in its being a source of striving and suffering, etc. But if the will is a being, then it belongs to the realm of representations and is thus just another thing. And I guess I am assuming that whatever it is that gives unity to the field of representations cannot be a being given in that manifold.

Matthias Gralle said...


Thank you very much for the point you make about our perceiving the sleeper moving his/her limb from the outside, so that we don't actually know much about who/what is moving the limb. Thomas Fuchs, whom I mentioned last week in the comments, coined a useful distinction which seems to apply here: When we see the sleeper, we see a "living body" (in German, "Körper"), i.e. we deduce that there is life in that body. When we cut our (or somebody else's) finger nails, or when we plan a healthy diet for ourselves or somebody else (my examples), we treat ourselves as a "living body", a body just like many others. However, most of the time we feel part of a "lived body" (in German, "Leib"), which is very close to JMG's description of our "feeling" the will moving our body. Fuchs arguments very strongly that there is no privileged role for the brain in this "lived body", that the whole body, and even pens or prosthetic limbs, is special in this way.

The point where I feel unsure about following Schopenhauer, JMG (and apparently Lovecraft) is exactly the same as the one you point out: who says that all the particular wills/agents are part of a single, impersonal Will?

By the way, I always enjoy your comments very much. My family background is similar to yours, since my parents worked in West Africa with the local churches when I was a child.

DaShui said...

Greetings ADJMG!

Could Schopenhauer's theories be an explanation of "Meme Magic"?
Also from what I understand 19th century occultism was a practical exploration of "will and representation". As far as you know, dis Schopenhauer steal his ideas from occultism? Or maybe both Schopenhauer and occultism are drawing from the same well?

Matthias Gralle said...

In order to understand how the division will/representation cuts differently than the division mind/matter, I have tried to visualize the distinct approaches. Since I won't inflict my drawings on you, please imagine the following.

The "folk metaphysical" dualism would be an ocean of matter, and each individual mind is a boat floating on top of it, outside matter, but somehow(!) in touch with a specific part of matter and able to manipulate the immediate surroundings of the contact point. Both the water and the boats are real, each as important as the other one and each, in principle, capable of existing without the other.

In materialism, each "mind" would be more like a sound wave or a ripple in the water. The water is the primary fact and not to be doubted. The ripples are simply a particular arrangement of the water molecules, in a way an abstraction of the particular arrangement, and one can discuss (among materialists) if the ripples are useful abstractions. On a calm day, there might be no ripples at all, and the ocean would still exist.

(I won't try to imagine idealism since I haven't been exposed to it.)

The way I understand Schopenhauer and JMG, each of us is like a sun, sustaining ourselves by fusion, rotating, pulling on the world out there and "perceiving" that there is stuff outside us because it pulls on us. Everything that pulls on us must in some way be similar to ourselves, but (being a sun) we can't really perceive what it is that pulls on us. We might come to the conclusion that some of the pulls we feel are due to other suns just like us, while the rest is less "active" (e.g. it doesn't do fusion).

Graeme said the Will was just like mind. If I understand JMG correctly, the important point is that sustaining ourselves by fusion and pulling on others is inextricably bound up with one another. There is no perceptive "mind" separate from the base "body". On the other hand, there is (in this metaphor) no continuum of matter which we are a part of; each sun is self-contained.

I realize the metaphor isn't ideal and will probably suffer changes as JMG continues his series (or if I manage to read Schopenhauer directly).

None said...

I'm not a religious person but my belief system tends towards animism. As such I like the direction of this discussion. Very interesting!!!

As always you're one of the more interesting writers I follow and this discussion is why.

David, by the lake said...


Your point about thinking in a fundamentally different way, using different categories that cut across our usual ones, was eye-opening. Being able to, in some vague way, "see" the lens through which we view the world (and alter that lens, if need be) is a useful skill.

OT in specifics, but relevant as an example, I offer the following:

I'm still not participating in the forum anymore, but I do occasionally view relevant stories and comment feeds to get a pulse of what is going on. The comment discussions for this story illustrate your point quite well, I believe, as folks try to shove emerging movements into the standard political categories. There was a fairly well-known sage who once made a comment re new wine and old wineskins. It is interesting to watch, particularly as I am more aware now as to the underlying dynamics driving the situation.

Thank you for these discussions!

Dammerung said...

The power to stop using this word comes from within. It is up to you, me, and all of us to put it back into the grave from which it so horrifyingly and unexpectedly arose.

Lady H said...

JMG, thank you so very much for this exciting and exhilerating line of inquiry! I am fervently hoping that this will result in a book at some point....?

Gerald Smith said...

Last week you wrote that "you are conscious of something when, and only when, it resists your will"; and this week, that "the will ... at the most basic primary level ... (is) the will the exist". Putting these two insights together explains, I think, why so many religious traditions include a belief in an afterlife. Our will to exist is so strong, and so tightly bound to our conscious awareness, that the one thing above all that we are unwilling to contemplate is the cessation of our own consciousness.

Iuval Clejan said...

It seems to me that Schopenhauer replaces the mind or matter monisms with a Will monism. What happens to this Will when a person dies? And where was the Will before life existed anywhere in the universe? Is there one Will, and/or many small individual wills? Is the Will a universal consciousness (like some religions see God)? Can you make any non-trivial prediction that follows from this worldview that is different than the alternatives?

I am sympathetic to Schopenhauer partially because Erwin Schrodinger was a fan and I am a fan of Schrodinger and they both have that endearing german Sch starting their name. But I want to see the practical implications of Schopenhauer's worldview.

RogerCO said...

I like the will//representation model and find it quite a good fit. At the most basic level the will to exist allows energy to become matter (wave/particle) and gives us the inanimate building blocks for everything I create as representations by my will to consciousness or self-awareness.
The modes of will (or levels of being if you prefer) - to exist, to live, to be conscious, to be self-aware - indeed give rise to a rich ecosystem of representations.
I love the fox in the meadow analogy, very good. In this interpretation Schopenhauer provides a natural basis for an ecological view of (reality)(the world)(stuff)

unfrozencavemanguitarplayer said...

I enjoy your collection of words here, as always. But aren't words also just representations? So there will always be a disconnect between words and the "thing in itself." This is why the concept of right and wrong seems impossible with regard to religion and even philosophy. Perhaps the only way to judge such things is by their utilitarian value to our psyches, emotions, and health. Two philosophies or religions can directly contradict each other, and yet both be useful for different personalities or in different circumstances.

Or perhaps we can "know" the "thing in itself" through direct mystical experience. Even so, to someone outside that experience, it just looks like a trick of the "mind." But people who have these mystical experiences seem to feel pretty sure about what they mean. But of course once they try to share this "knowledge" with anyone or even ponder it themselves, they begin distancing themselves from it with representations and would be left with a mere memory of "knowing." Although that would still be an enviable situation for most of us.

Regardless, I am enjoying this series of posts and can't wait until next week to see where you are going with it.

Robert Carran said...

When you first mentioned the mind/body issue, I had a bodily reaction, remembering my experience in college philosophy. I took a course called "Philosophical Psychology" as an elective. It felt like a bait and switch. I didn't look into what it was actually about and just assumed it dealt with figures, such as Frued, Jung, Nietche and so forth, who straddled the two disciplines. Turns out, the entire course was about answering the question of whether the mind and body are separate or not. Maddening! I think it's like so many philosophical debates - free will, good and evil, particle or wave, subject/object: the question is fundamentally misguided because the terms used in asking the question are abstractions that feign accuracy/concrete definition when accuracy is neither possible nor a desirable goal.
I'd like to get your take on something: I see a red ball. Let's say you could scientifically describe everything that happens when I'm seeing the red ball. That still doesn't address the actual experience I have of seeng the red ball. It seems absolutely beyond any of the "parts" of the experience, beyond logic. WTF is that? Will? Consciousness? Spirit?

Bruce Turton said...

Some time ago I came up with the notion that there is no such thing as the "self", if understood as something that any "I" can claim. We are amalgams of where and who created us. As Anais Nin said “We do not see things as they are but as we are”. Our limits are not different than the limits of our culture, society, and 'planet' And this is, of course, something that advertisers and marketers do not wish us to succumb to - as "unique individuals" we are encouraged to buy all the pieces 'needed' rather than share those pieces, or learn that many are not even needed, useful, or indeed, maybe especially, harmful.
Time to feed the birds and bunnies whose habitat ('planet') has been reduced so much without their having any say in the destruction.

LifeSMyth said...

Thank you JMG for bring to light for me this new point of view. I have not realized the trap of Mind/Matter until you started these writings. I am aware of the idea that there are different ways to think about the world. And even then I still think only of new ways to think from my existing way of thinking.

I was already finding that I could no longer continue to read the back-and-forth's in social media. Reading your last three blog posts has show me the futility of even trying to participate or point out a new way to most of those people.

Again much gratitude for what you are doing.

SandWyrm said...

Thank you for introducing me to a philosophical structure that lends a better consistency to how I've already (in pieces and parts) come to view the world. Kudos!

James Hick said...

Just wanted to say I'm really enjoying this series of posts.

SandWyrm said...

@My Donkey

To clarify a bit... The water would re-melt almost immediately. Because refrigeration doesn't create "cold". It simply moves heat energy from one place to another. If the thing to be chilled is not insulated from the expelled heat, the heat will simply recirculate back into the place that was just chilled.

So a geo-chiller that freezes whatever is in front of it, yet dumps its accumulated heat into the ocean, air, or any other part of the open ecosystem, is going to be about as effective at ice-cap preservation as leaving your freezer door open and expecting your ice cream not to melt. The heat removed from the freezer space will simply be dumped out the back of the machine and heat up the enclosing room by precisely the same amount that it has removed heat from the freezer. Without the barrier of the insulated freezer door to block the heat's return, you will only achieve equilibrium with the normal temperature of the room. Melting your ice cream.

Thomas Mazanec said...

logic, one of the half dozen or so greatest creations of the human mind

I'm curious...what would you nominate for the other five?

andrewmarkmusic said...

Hi JMG! The Nag Hammadi Library may have affected Schopenhauer had it existed in his time. It certainly aligns with his general mood!

beetleswamp said...

The past two posts were very difficult for me. The first one I kept falling asleep and this one my mind kept wandering off. Both of them I had to re-read several paragraphs up to 10-15 times just because I found myself skimming the words.

Just like physical therapy for the body, it seems like consciousness (right word?) needs a workout now and then. Apparently mine has atrophied quite a bit, despite what I'd like to believe.

The image I had painted myself to help understand last week was blind ducks floating on the ocean, bumping into each other, and trying to explain to each other (through quacking) what wind, rain, waves, and fish are. Useful but kind of pathetic.

But the fox and the meadow metaphor? Man that was beautiful. Not only did it help me understand, but it's a great place to hang out as well.

Vicky K said...

Very interesting series of musings. I have a distinct recollection that a few years ago you were of the opinion that consciousness was the ultimate foundation. I recall this because I disagreed then as now. Will as the force underlying it all is a bit more interesting, if it is a generalization about motion towards or away. For instance, instincts as the predilection towards certain behaviors.

I enjoyed Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary:The divided brain and the making of the Western world. I wasn't too thrilled with his teleological conclusions, but agreed with the conclusion that Western thought hijacked the old way of mental functioning. There does seem to be some parallels with your history of ideas in these recent lectures.

Phil Harris said...

So we have Schopenhauer’s concept of ‘matter’ as the basic grade of will. Non-living matter seems to be very ‘deterministic’, and scientific use of intellectual tools seems to endorse that description.

According to Roger Penrose The Emperor’s New Mind (a book quoted by JMG), even quantum mechanics having a random element does not alter the argument much. Even if the future is not ‘fixed’ by the past, as in many forms it appears to be, my own view is that matter can be identified usefully as essentially deterministic, and this squares with it being the ground of ‘will’. (Will is ‘determined’ sounds about right! Smile) Which as Penrose speculates could bring us back to Plato and the logical structures of the world – or at least in the non-living basic grade of the world.

I personally have seen ‘stuff’ in such a light, eyes-open and in plain sight with no conflict with usual sensory perception, which caused me to speculate that a ‘real’ experience lies at the origin of Platonic thought. I have speculated that this kind of ‘seeing’ might have some similarity with ‘religious experience’.

I like the differentiation of opinion from truth. That seems to continue the history along the right lines. Smile. And ‘life’ lives along both fixed and moveable lines – a different kind of future - perhaps forming a language of some kind. Which might open up the possibility both of ‘reading’ and ‘discussing’ the world at every level of ‘will’?

I wish it were either under voluntary control or a place I can easily find, but for me the ideal experience has been full-spectrum observation of my surroundings, with nothing else apparent in my mind but the world I was observing. An absence of ‘me’ perhaps of the kind JMG and others experience sometimes in Tai Chi. A world, perhaps 'the' world, is just ‘there’ and I am alert. The world will happen as it will. I am of the same kind and can respond when needed, at will. Happy smile!

Phil H

Daddy Hardup said...

Thank you for this. Your series is getting better and better. I can see I am going to have to read Schopenhauer, preferably in German, and reflect deeply on what he says. When I was younger I would have resisted him, but of late I have come to feel less and less like a being with a rational mind and more and more like an unstable coalition of more or less rational entities. Mostly less, I have to say. I'm in Germany at the moment on a course of study with some sightseeing thrown in (no need to fly there from the UK these days - the rail connections from London are amazing) and thought of your blog today as I climbed through the woods to the Wartburg castle - not quite the right shape and orientation for your mantelpiece castle but all the right associations, including Wagner of course...


. said...


"who says that all the particular wills/agents are part of a single, impersonal Will?"

I don't know that that's what JMG or Schopenhauer argued. But it seems to me that Schopenhauer just started from what we can experience directly and then he went on to posit a broader theory about what exists from there using the tools of logic. He wasn't saying that a human can directly experience the universe itself as being made up of will and representation. That was the theory he built up from the starting point of what we can directly experience.

But if you think about the ecosystem of a meadow and work for a moment on the assumption that everything in it is will and representation, then you can look at the impulse that drives the fox to chase the mouse and the impulse that drives the mouse to run away. Those wills are certainly 'personal' to each of them - so much so that they conflict with each other.

But from another perspective, say that of the meadow as a whole system, they're both expressions of the same will to live that's also shared by other creatures within the system. And from that same perspective, you could describe the will of the ecosystem of the whole meadow as a unity - the sum of the wills to live of every individual thing within it. Their personal wills - in the form of instincts here maybe - are both personal and impersonal at the same time.

There's a big problem with the concept of an Agent in these discussions I think. Because no one is just an agent. We're all also simultaneously subjects of the agency of others. Just like the fox and the mouse. The word agent seems to me to come from ethics - moral agents, patients and subjects. But ethics has to come after sorting out epistemology. Here in epistemology, the word agent is just another word for Self. And the question in epistemology is how you can know what your Self is.


Scotlyn said...


You said:
"Couldn't the interactions of matter and energy that come from water in a stream flowing down a mountainside give rise to a form of internal experience, even if it's on a completely different scale than in a human or animal? ... It would make more sense to me that there would be a form of experience in everything, just with widely varying levels of complexity. And, whole ecosystems, the whole planet, and even the whole universe could be having their own forms of experience"

Oh, yes. Beautiful.

In fact this seems the most parsimonious way to understand the world!

Rational materialism emerged from the prior mechanistic theology of Descartes, featuring a God that fabricates a perfect machine and more or less winds it up, then leaves it to tick. (Paleys watch). Materialists have attempted to keep the watch while dismissing the watchmaker. But they can't handwave away the fact that the world they believe in, is still basically a watch... That somehow produces... experience? How?

In any case, neither Descartes nor Dawkins can account for the part of reality which I experience "from inside". Yet the "outside" which I know to belong to *my* "inside" is no different to all the other "outsides" I can see, and I can think of no reason, other than basic chauvinism, to deny the possibility (indeed, the likelihood) that the other "outsides" than I can see are like the one that corresponds to my "inside" and therefore possess an "inside" of their own.

In that case, instead of being an alien, unexplainable who, drifting alone in a sea of what's, I'd be a who at home in an ecosystem chock full of who's.

And one of the normal goings and doings of a who is "willing".

Scotlyn said...

@Mgalimba - thanks! I wouldn't agree it us absurd to see my body as a representation. The fact is both of the terms "body" and "mind" refer to complex, nested entities (ecosystems, if you will) that are partly "opaque" to *me* -that is to say, parts of these systems I can only observe from "outside" and not from "inside" - for example the rumbling of my tummy and my sudden focussed mental attention on anything that looks lime food.

Scotlyn said...

@Matthias - hello! Another MK on here!

Thanks for the distinction between living body and lived body. I will take a look at Fuchs.

Scotlyn said...

Hi Chris.

Why materialism, and from there mind/body dualism? I have a wee theory.

If everything (with a couple of exceptions) is matter, well then God - or humans when tbey step up to that plate and push him off - can do what they like to it. They can own it, play with it, consume it, use it up, blow it up, destroy, spindle and mutilate it without any need to consult, negotiate, or consider it might have a different viewpoint or purposes of its own.

From following your comments week aftef week, what I know is that you know exactly the folly of that way of thinking!

Matthias Gralle said...

Off-topic for this week's post, but I think JMG is working under a pseudonym for the Atlantic!

Hi-tech toilets working worse than their primitive intercessors...

Unknown said...

The next to last paragraph is wonderful! I will need to copy and paste it on a wall.

I read some Schopenhauer when I was younger... I want to get back at it. Any recommendations?

mike k said...

Well JMG, being a former Archdruid you must have encountered out of body experience.
What does that tell you about the mind/body relationship? And what of the formula "I am That, Thou art That, All of this is That, and there is nothing other than That"? Does this not imply that mind or body, or indeed all things are merely manifestations of the One Reality? There is no mind/body problem at this ultimate level of integration.

This supposed problem is a reflection of the insoluble relation of Prakriti and Purusha. As in the Tai Chi, they always exist together. That they are in any way fundamentally seperate is simply an illusion of the dividing mind.

Degringolade said...

John Michael:

I like all that you write, but I so much prefer this to politics. Thank you. While you need to write about all, I am allowed my preference, I will reread this many more times that the others.

Anyway. For some reason, this post made me think about a fine piece of television from the 80's. I just began re-watching the series and I very much suggest that folks re-watch this piece.

James Burke was the first person to take me out of the surety conferred by my graduate work.

nati said...

So much was i impressed with Schopenahuer's philosophy as you described, that i search for more information about it.
I discover his ethical philosophy and dislike it very much. Not just disagree but really dislike it.
I have no previous knowledge of philosophy. Now i feel a little dissapointed.
I think his theory of representation and will can lead you to two opposite sites. One, of modesty and acceptance the fact that your kwnoledge and untherstanding is limited, the other, of omnipotentiality with power to invent all at your wish.

Avery said...

I sympathize with people struggling with the concept of will, as it's a very hard one for English speakers to get their heads around. At a Swedenborg reading group, a woman once related to me something a German had told her: "Modern English has no word for will." This is paradoxical, but I think it's pretty accurate than we might assume at first!

To really bring out the puzzle, here's another way of considering this problem. Harvard University was founded in 1636, and throughout the 17th century it put thousands of Bostonian boys to work studying philosophy. (Maybe a more useful pursuit than what it makes them do today!) The most popular topic of debate in those early days was between intellectualism and voluntarism. What is voluntarism, you ask? It's the doctrine that the basic force that moves the world is the will, as opposed to the intellect.

What does that even mean? That is a good question to ask, and you would be wise to ask it! Look in a modern encyclopedia and you might not even see voluntarism at all. The English Wikipedia editors have devoted many more words to a dialect of American libertarianism called "voluntaryism" (a completely different thing). Voluntarism has fallen out of favor since roughly 1900, as intellectualism came to enjoy an undeserved monopoly on philosophical and later political discussions.

Voluntarism holds that rather than a conscious self choosing its behaviors based on scientific evidence, the will moves in people and causes them to invent justifications for things they want to do. This is clearly a politically dangerous type of thought, which is probably why Richard Hofstader, the biggest know-nothing intellectual of all time, mislabeled voluntarism as "anti-intellectualism". But it is also a jumping off point for serious, meaningful discussion. Those 17th century Harvard kids would have held that love is a movement of the will which informs the intellect, rather than the other way around.

We have many loves in this world: love of God, love of pleasure, patriotism, romantic love. Our love, i.e. our will is not merely a force that can overpower obstacles, it is also a direction. It can point us in any way. A poem written from romantic love is qualitatively different from a poem written out of vanity, even if the words are mostly the same.

Consider this in the context of what we Americans have been pondering for months, our last election. Bernie Sanders represented the will seeking moral purity and bullied into weakness by the intellect: his character is reputable, but he also accepted the status quo of the DNC and refused to rise up against it. Trump employs the untamed and wild will, full of vicious self-love to be sure, but with a strength that refuses any domination by the intellect of others. It's definitely not his own intellect that provides this strength. It can only be said to be the will, which generations of intellectualists thought they were totally successful at repressing.

In this sense, I think it is true what I was told in that reading group: English no longer has a word for the will. Maybe with these examples I helped show a few people why it's so important, but we still do not have comfortable language for talking coherently about how to solve problems relating to the will, to consider whether we possess it or whether it possesses us, and how we might push it in directions that move closer to our dreams. That's why we need something like this "Schopenhauerian ecosystem."

James M. Jensen II said...


I had a similar reaction at first, but JMG is using the word correctly, in the "This point of view has several outstanding problems" sense rather than the "This view is oppressive to [insert group here]" sense.

zerowastemillennial said...

Hi JMG, not sure if I'm missing something, but is the ink and paper edition of The Archdruid Report still available?

Josh Floyd said...

Thanks JMG, it's a delight to see you taking the inquiry in this direction. One question regarding your discussion of Parmenides (though it's perhaps peripheral to the main thesis you're exploring here): have you ever come across Peter Kingsley's heterodox take on Parmenides and Empedocles, explored in depth in his 2003 book "Reality"? It's well over a decade since I read it, and I'm a bit rusty on the details. But in reading over Kingsley's wikipedia entry just now (, it seems to line up well enough with my recollection. His characterisation of Parmenides as a practitioner of magic struck me as particularly noteworthy. It occurs to me that Kingsley's interpretation, if accepted, might situate Parmenides quite differently with respect to the direction I sense you may be taking us in. But then again, I don't want to jump to any premature conclusions on that front.
All the best,

Crow Hill said...

Dear JMG,

A great many thanks for this excellent post which serves both as a digest of the history of our folk metaphysics and as a "self-help" tool to deal with painful aspects of mind resulting from it.

Scotlyn said...

Hi Mallow,
You say:
"There's a big problem with the concept of an Agent in these discussions I think.'

And why is that?

"Because no one is just an agent. We're all also simultaneously subjects of the agency of others. Just like the fox and the mouse."

But exactly. That's exactly what agency looks like. The mouse and the fox bring themselves to their encounters with each other. They don't require drives, instincts or blind forces, for this to happen. Just agency. I'm not sure how that's a problem.

Kevin Warner said...

JMG - Safe travels and may the road rise up to meet you.

I think that I am beginning to realise from this week's essay another great disservice that Greek philosophy embedded into our culture and that was the idea of what I would call linked dualism. They must have seen opposites like male/female, day/night, rational/emotional, civilised/barbarian and said ahah! That is how the world is. It's all a world of duality - and we have never shaken off this idea in the past two millennium of philosophical thought. This whole mind-body is yet another manifestation of this idea. Here's an idea. What if they stuffed it up and I mean big-time? What if things did not have to neatly divide into two separate entities? We were quite ready to say that particles and waves were totally different until quantum mechanics grabbed us by the sleeve and said not so fast! Maybe duality is a misleading concept and just maybe our universe has all the fuzziness of those particle-waves in quantum mechanics.

Duality is an easy thought and it could be that there was an element of 1980's style Masters of the Universe hubris in the all these philosophers over time. The Chinese have this idea of Yin and yang too which is a form of dualism and even the Buddhist appear to have the same with their divisions of states of consciousness and Buddhist atoms. You see this sort of idea at work as when people insist on knowing who the bad guys are and who are the good guys as a way of understanding a situation. In fact, there are all sorts of shades of grey areas at work and no, there are not fifty. It gets worse. Once you accept the idea of linked dualisms, the next step is take on the concept of dominant/subordinate in which one is superior to the other. Examples of how this has come down to us in use are the ideas of masters and slaves, dominate patriarchs and subordinate wives, lord and peasant, upper and lower classes. Different but equal is a concept that is still make itself heard because of this.

Even here when we talk of 'will' and 'representations' that itself is a duality and should be more accurately described as several billion human 'wills' and 'representations' as the sentence 'will' and 'representations' has an implication of solipsism embedded into it. How they relate and interact with another is a bucket of worms for someone braver than myself to go delving into. Certainly 'will' itself is not a static thing but is constantly changing. If you doubt this, reflect that we are not the same people at 17 as we are at 57 for example (thank God). For that matter 'representations' is also constantly changing. Think how much in your own lives things have changed or gone away. For those who would argue that the laws of physics never change I would have agreed in the past. However, there are several laws of physics that I was brought up on that are now up for revision as exceptions have been found for these laws. In short no, we have not worked the Universe all out yet. Maybe by next Thursday.

And now for something completely different. Something JMG said in his essay made me have a laugh unintentionally. When he talked of how the Left "likes to think of itself as the smart people, the educated people, the sensitive and thoughtful and reasonable people" I suddenly wondered if he was subtly saying that the Left is from Mars and that the Deplorables are from Venus. Hah! Now that is a thought.

mr. no said...

I think it is important to put causality into this "organic" mix of will and representation. After all, a representation, as described, follows some kind of perception and processing. But, being our perception of reality what it is, it can be said that our perception of time is as inaccurate as our perception of the "probability fields" that populate the so-called space.
Said another way: just as we see ("represent") the sun as a yellow ball (or disk :-) in the "blue sky", our perception of time doesn't have to be even "real". Just "subjectively flowing" or something like that...: another representation to support the appearance of perception and the "processes" that bring about the representations themselves. See, if we make some "will" to operate through a "time" that is only subjectively flowing, and we somehow feel comfortable with the idea of causality, then we can vindicate Parmenides:
All movement is only appearance.
His final set of conclusions are also vindicated with the above premises (let me translate with my own words; apologies for that as I am not native english speaker):
Only what can exist do exist.
All that can exist do exist.

I would elaborate further: everything that "makes sense" not to us but to existance itself (whatever it is) may in fact be there, all of it, all at the "same time" (so to speak). Our universe, or our conscience, or the will... all may be just particular "stories", subsets or "instances" fixed eternally into the whole mess that is "all that can exist".

I know this is not useful within our conscience, but I think Parmenides didn't intend this to be useful; in a way, in HIS way, he gives a lot of insight in what I think you are trying to convey in this series.

Thanks for your articles, by the way.

Ekkar said...

Perhaps mind and body distinction is just as blurry as the line between hot and cold up and down back a and forth...perhaps that which we call mind just happens. Just happens similar to becoming wet from touching water, or becoming hot near fire. The complexity if nural networks (the actual structure) sets the flavours of the concious experiance. Just as water poured into a round countainer takes on the shape of that countainer automatically. Give billions, trillions, google plex's, infinate (depending in ones arbitrary point if begining) years and shake.
I feel it's pretty certain to hit the limitations of abilities for "our" ("my" own) congnative abilities to see the "whole picture" so we are better off looking around at the actual world around us to recognize patterns. It woul also seem that much patterns are throughout.
Staring at moving water I often have a sort of trance like knowing that this is how the whole cosmos is. Twirling and tumbling, coming together and moving apart. The pressures and exertions of every part effecting everything else. Galaxies and black holes twirl and dance by with no effort..
I also have a notion that it is similar to a radio being tuned. Have the right geometric structures (medal and wires and so forth)tune accordingly and the music just starts happening.
Thanks again!
Have a peaceful insightful trip.

Ekkar said...

...I also wanted to toss out the distinction between rural folks and city folks as arbitrary. Just as there is no definable edge between hot and cold up down onward and so forth.

mgalimba said...

When we get to the point where "everything" has to be bracketed by quotation marks that's exactly the point of the philosophical project, so we're right where we need to be!
I'll elaborate on that comment that theorizing bodies as representation is essentially absurd. On an everyday level, yes, we work with representations of our body quite often as a matter of practicality and of sharing experiences through language. But there are things that we do or participate in, and they tend to be "primitive," for which the representational content is non-essential. Using your example of hunger/food - what is essential to that complex of relations is something we call digestion which we do not experience as representational (at least I don't.)
We could theorize digestion as a relationship of will and gradients of resistance or levels of predation in an ecosystem, but I find the metaphor overly bellicose, and such metaphors as Lynn Margulis' bacterial cooperations or Emma Restall Orr's wakefulness (The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature) to be rather more simpatico.

Matthias Gralle said...

@ nati:
Where in Schopenhauer do you find the power to invent all at your wish? And what do you dislike about his ethics?

I am no Schopenhauer expert, so I would just like to know what sparked your negative reaction.

Glenn said...

SandWyrm said...
@My Donkey

"To clarify a bit... The water would re-melt almost immediately. Because refrigeration doesn't create "cold". It simply moves heat energy from one place to another. If the thing to be chilled is not insulated from the expelled heat, the heat will simply recirculate back into the place that was just chilled."

I thought that too until I read the article. Did you read it? They weren't proposing a normal heat pump such as you describe. Rather, they were proposing pumping water from some as yet unspecified depth up to the surface where, most of the year, ambient air temperature would accomplish the freezing.

That being said, (and the article did _not_ say, as My Donkey did, whether the cost was total or per year for a sum of years) it is an obviously very large expense. I don't believe the authors were making a serious proposal; rather, it seems they were trying to point up the immense costs of trying to geo-engineer a solution to a problem that should have been avoided up front.

I think it's too late to prevent the melt off myself, no matter what, and we're going to have to mitigate the consequences; but that's another story, previously discussed in depth here.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Matthias Gralle said...

@ .said ...
Thank you for your comment. It is indeed helpful to think in this ecological metaphor.

What itches me about Schopenhauer's vision, and especially the way it seems to be expressed in the Lovecraft sonnetJMG drew attention to, is to imagine the impersonal, amoral Will as something unitary and separate from the individual wills. From what I read, it is this that grated on Scotlyn as well, and not the ecological metaphor. I think Schopenhauer even compares the different manifestations of the Will to Platonic ideas, ontologically prior and more fundamental than the individuals. I will much appreciate JMG's exposition of his understanding, since I wonder if JMG agrees with Schopenhauer on this.

Newton Finn said...

Perhaps the following quote from Schweitzer's "Philosophy of Civilization" might further illuminate the use of reason to explore the will/mind/body problem, which The Archdruid is effectively and accessibly inviting us to engage with him in. Please forgive the length and complexity of the quote, pregnant nevertheless with insight gleaned in part from Schopenhauer.

"It is in reason that intellect and will, which in our nature are mysteriously bound up together, seek to come to a mutual understanding. The ultimate knowledge that we strive to acquire is knowledge of life, which intellect looks at from without, will from within. Since life is the ultimate object of knowledge, our ultimate knowledge is necessarily our thinking experience of life. But this does not lie outside the sphere of reason, but within reason itself. Only when the will has thought out its relation to the intellect--has come, as far as it can, into line with it, has penetrated it, and in it become logical--is it in a position to comprehend itself, so far as its nature allows this, as a part of the universal will-to-live and a part of being in general. If it merely leaves the intellect on one side, it loses itself in confused imaginings, while the intellect--which, like the rationalism of the past, will not allow that in order to understand life it must finally lose itself in thinking experience--renounces all hope of constructing a deep and firmly based worldview. Thus reflection, when pursued to the end, leads somewhere and somehow to a living mysticism, which is for all men everywhere a necessary element of thought."

Unknown said...

Jay here. From your description, Schoepenhauer seems to be describing the human nervous system, and doing so in a manner analogous to a computer system (a century early, no less). Sensory representations are its inputs. Wills are its outputs. Abstract representations fill the roles of data in memory and programs.

I don't think it makes much sense to view the inanimate world this way; we have an adequate description of the physical forces, and calling them "wills" doesn't change anything.

psiphi23 said...

as for the cosmos which I inhabit intimately, which isn't in-habitation at all, but for the mindview that I exist spatially, which is not simply a reflection of reality, but a simple construction of vision and hearing modality...

this 'sense' feeling awareness is habituated to identify with the referent that others address (g.h. mead)

hence the perception of self is in essence a social construct

but the production of self is rooted and stratified

rooted: as in the santiago theory of cognition ... metabolism is cognition, embodied cognition

stratified: as in functional operations with intentionality organized as emergent fields from evolutionary successions of central nervous system phylogeny;

intentionality: maybe husserl has more to offer, otherwise schopenauer might just abandon the concept of wills altogether

thus, my 'self' is not my Self -- to wit: (if the neuroscientists are to be believed) serial, voluntary, conscious, intentional, effortful information processing averages at a rate if 40 bits/second ... parallel, involuntary, unconscious, 'unintentional' (there's the rub), effortless processing at 11,000,000 bits/sec.

and the window reduces or expands contingent on felt presence, flow -- not analysis

new theories of consciousness call it "information integration"

expanded consciousness, or moments of intuition, integrate the flow at the heart, root, trunk, branch, thorn, and leaf of the knower

indeed the fox sleeps. (the fox doesn't even know the bacteria that digest its food.) but at least the fox dreams...

one take on the bodhi-mind problem

Rad said...

The problem with the mind and matter division is that is not interpreted as an interconnected division like Yin and Yang, but is always seen as a hierarchy. Mind over Matter. This is unfortunate, because this train of thought leads to: human over nature, science and technology above human, westernized cultures over traditional cultures, man above woman (since women are seen as closer to nature), logic over intuition, the justification of slavery, pillaging of the earth, and so on. I frequently get the impression that people think computers are (or will soon be) smarter than humans. If there must be a hierarchy, it's the other way around. Nature is beyond our comprehension, we are one small part of it. And computers will never be smarter than us.

I have had a few experiences that lead me to think about the mind body division. 1. During sleep paralysis I can will my body to move and I feel it move, but I simultaneously feel my body lying still. I felt my physical body and my dream body separately and simultaneously. 2. I have had a glimpse on two occasions of a parallel world or maybe a deeper world where our bodies are glowing golden beings. They would do something in their world that was different (but in essence the same) as what was happening in the real world, they were more playful, joyful. I don't know how to think about those experiences while also believing the mind and body are one.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Scotlyn,

Nice one - yeah, you called me correctly. :-)!

I was hoping for another less crass explanation than the obvious one. You know, it didn't work so well for the Ancient Greeks or Romans as they both strip mined their soils. Oh well.



chrisroy said...


chrisroy said...

Thanks, that sums up just what I was thinking; if trees and rocks and cows etc are people, too, it becomes very hard to just
Consume through life...

Jeanne Labonte said...

It may be eye-opening to look at those individuals suffering from hemineglect, which usually occurs as the result of a stroke causing damage to the right parietal lobe of the brain. Individuals afflicted lose their ability to perceive the left side of their bodies and are completely unaware of this loss. When pressed to try to attend to anything towards the left they will, particularly in severe cases, completely deny that their left leg or arm belongs to them or refuse to acknowledge the existence of objects in their left field of vision. One patient insisted that the ‘third arm’ he was seeing actually belonged to the doctor and not to himself!

No amount of logic could correct the testimony of their senses and get them to recognize that ‘third arm’ really belonged to themselves and not to the physician.
Individuals with this deficit often suffer injuries as they no longer make any effort to account for the left side of their world (how could they since they are no longer aware that there is a left), so the mismatch between what they think they are perceiving and what is actually there becomes glaring apparent (at least for us if not for them).

If nothing else, it helps us realize how utterly dependent we are on a functional brain to construct any sort of useful representation for our minds to work with when navigating our way through the outside world.

My donkey said...

@Glenn: The 14 scientists (all from Arizona State University) who came up with the scheme are not only _serious_ about artificially restoring sea ice, they say it is _imperative_ in the Abstract of their publication. The estimated cost is quoted:
"To deploy such devices over the entire Arctic in 10 years would require about $5 trillion, or about $500 billion per year."
(I forgot to include the above link in my second comment)

They further state: "this money, largely spent on manufacturing, would stimulate the economy and encourage economic growth". Translation: it would make a few corporations ridiculously rich, and make taxpayers poorer – as usual. I wonder whether this could be the most idiotic make-work project in human history.

Scotlyn said...

Hi @Psiphi23

"to wit: (if the neuroscientists are to be believed) serial, voluntary, conscious, intentional, effortful information processing averages at a rate if 40 bits/second ... parallel, involuntary, unconscious, 'unintentional' (there's the rub), effortless processing at 11,000,000 bits/sec."

What if parallel processing is not involuntary, unconscious or unintentionally happening at 11,000,000 bits per second, but the product of conscious, voluntary, intentional and effortful peocessing distributed among 2,750,000 agents individually doing so at around 40 bits/sec?

Crow Hill said...

JMG: “the Schopenhauerian self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy, and if what we call “mind” sits at the top of the food chain like a fox in a meadow”.
Although I prefer your fox and meadow image, wouldn’t the biological representation of our actual body be just as fitting: “mind” sitting atop the body as the cells and metabolism go about their business, keeping themselves and mind alive.

Ozark Chinquapin said... “Couldn't the interactions of matter and energy that come from water in a stream flowing down a mountainside give rise to a form of internal experience, even if it's on a completely different scale than in a human or animal?”
What you write reminds me of a book I’m presently rereading, Greg Sams “Sun of gOd”. It has your animistic approach regarding the activities of the Sun and stars and is based on the findings of science.

patricia ormsby said... "Ask not what your society can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your society."
I’m very much concerned about this question, but the answer I hear is “consume, consume, consume ” to increase GDP and therefore social welfare, the hypothesis of neoclassical economic theory. Of course I don’t believe this and am just being cynical.

Brian Kaller said...think of all the times that fantasy or science fiction characters see their mind separated from their body, or “upload” their mind to a computer, or some such thing.
Isn’t that what Ray Kurzweil is planning to inflict on the “real” world with his Singularity?

Scotlyn said...

Yes, quotation marks and word choice. They get torturous when you want to convey with precision the concepts that seem so plain to the mind's eye. I am gaining more sympathy for philosophers' habit of using strange words or using familiar words strangely. Almost every comment I've made so far has led to a feeling, hmmm, I didn't aay that right, did I.

But, for example, if you are familiar with Margulis's work (and I'm not familiar with the other work you cite, but it looks interesting) then you know that "digestive system" is a representation. It is a low-resolution concept/experience box into which the extraordinarily complex ecological relationships between my own epithelial cells, immune cells, sensory nerve cells, endocrine cells, and the bacterial, fungal and other denizens of my gut and how each pursues its own purposes both in concert with and at cross-purposes with each other can be perceived by me. Therein, if you looked, you could find warfare, alliances, drama, adventure, love, hate, friendship. revenge, talent, stupidity, gain, loss, all represented, for me, as a tummy rumble or a nudge of my attention towards the fridge.

Scotlyn said...

Avery, a very interesting note on a lost topic of debate "voluntarism" (and its political implications) - although it is still posed as "what force drives the world"...

To me it seems like there is a more dangerous political idea, though. That agents, including the world, move themselves.

. said...


That describes a kind of linear system of input, processing, output. But will shapes what happens in the gap between what the senses perceive and what we become conscious of as representations. If you view will as a goal-setting mechanism, a way that focus is directed, you can see how it shapes which sense perceptions reach awareness and which don't. Will is, in a way, the programmer and the programme - within a circular system which is networked with other systems.


Maybe the better explanation is that agency is just another word for self. So the question remains how we can know what the thing we call self is. For which you have to get back to the question of what you perceive with the senses and what you don't.


Is it the idea of will being amoral that bothers you? Ontology is part of metaphysics though so isn't it kind of skipping ahead to feel grated by what might be the consequences of Schopenhauer's epistemology once applied to metaphysics and work back from there to objecting to his epistemology?


Shane W said...

Reading the comments, I'm kinda puzzled as to the difficulty people are having w/will and representation. I've been just taking it at face value, and it makes sense to me. Kinda like an, "Aha! that makes sense to me" reaction. I'm wondering sometimes if when I've been talking past people on here, if it's just b/c our brains are wired differently...

Sharon Vile said...

I immediately found Schoepenhauer's thinking very appealing when you first presented it. It confirmed something I experienced once in meditation--the type of meditation where you put aside verbal thought and simply observe "the thing in itself," by looking around at the setting in which you find yourself. I was sitting in my car in the Home Depot parking lot at the time. (You can meditate anywhere.) It happened to occur to me to reflect on "who" or "what" was doing the looking--not the physical apparatus of the physical eye, but of the "mind." I felt I perceived a kind of abstract "self," and inner "observer." The feelings that arose from this were extraordinary.

I also had a sense of all the inanimate objects around me having a kind of sentience of their own. I could perceive it. It did seem like kind of a travesty that these sentient objects should have been shaped by the human will into things like steering wheels and hood ornaments, pavements and parking-lot stripes, though I could not discern that they had a problem with this.

Since reading your piece on this, I got to thinking a little more about this experience, and this division of the "inwardness" who is the "observer" into a will to exist (the sentience of the inanimate), a will to life, and a will to experience.

So it would seem like the human body itself is composed of an aggregation of both inanimate and animate "wills to exist" and "wills to life" oraganized into the human organism (the body) by that human's "will to life." The "will to life" seems to me to be pretty much the same as the "will to experience," since the purpose of willing so many other wills into a organization like the human body is a purposeful expression of will of the "inwardness" or "observer" to construct a sensory apparatus to observe with.

I tend to think of the mind as simply the activity of the physical brain as "processor" of sense data. The mind is for what I would call "operative" knowledge. The mind is what shapes "the thing in itself" into the image we project onto it, and it does so for pure "operative" purposes, related to maintaining the body's desired organization (keeping it alive). It's interesting, too, that, the "will to life," having organized a biological organism, has also organized a will to create more life through reproduction--at least equal to the "will to life" itself, and sometimes superseding it. So you would suppose that the "will to life" requires an aggregation of many "wills to life" operating as a kind of social communion.

You could suppose that the inanimate "stuff" also exists in a sort of social communion with us, in the sense of its being "willing" to be aggregated into life forms by our wills, or shaped by our wills into objects that support these aggregates' (our bodies') persistence as life forms. They are fine with being shaped into quilts or steering wheels--though the animate forms are perhaps resistant to becoming food in many cases.

Shaun Warkentin said...

My first thought upon reading this week's essay was a passage from an essay by Gary Snyder called "The Etiquette of Freedom":

“The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination than “you” can keep track of – thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream. The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of what goes in and out (and sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild. ”

Seems a passable correlate of JMG's ecological description of mind. And what does "ecological" mean in this context other than that existence is deeply--one might say radically-- contextual?

As the Tiantai Buddhists (and some neo-Tiantai tricksters) teach, to grasp the true nature of oneself, do not look within-- look without. We are defined by our relationships. This radical ambiguity and radical dependence can be deeply troubling, as anyone whose lived with even another human being for any length of time soon discovers. We must learn to get along with those upon whom we depend, even as they annoy us. In order to move on from the nihilistic torpidty that can accompany the realization of such radical ambiguity, we have the opportunity to learn certain skillful ways of orienting our thinking and perceiving (through meditation, ritual)-- soas to fulfill this hackneyed, yet perspicacious prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

patriciaormsby said...

@Crow Hill, there is a lot of "consume, consume, consume" going on in Japan, so I can understand your concern. This is not what Confucianism is talking about, however. At most, it would be a neo-Confucian experimental blend with capitalism, but anyone aside from a blind ideologue can look down the road and see that rampant consumerism has no future. In Japan, even those who believe in progress are critical of people driving extinctions worldwide. To them, that is not how progress was supposed to unfold. Excessive consumerism is seen as mere selfishness: the antithesis of desirable behavior. In the Edo period, where Confucianism was more highly esteemed than currently, they created a sustainable society, with Confucian ethics playing a big role in it. Stability and harmony are two of its highest ideals.

The focus is very local (with notable exceptions such as the World War II nationalized "Shinto" ideology, which was rightly discredited), on the household and community level. Thus, if "consume, consume, consume" within your community would help cement it, then by all means. Usually, it doesn't. In Japan, however, I have long noticed a tendency to focus so strongly on local relationships that even national impacts, not to mention global, go ignored. That is a valid criticism of Confucianism as it exists. Each community needs a sage or two who can point out larger-scale impacts of local behavior. The highly mobile modern age has resulted in a breakdown of such communities, with the Internet age adding even more damage, as you see everywhere now.

Glenn said...

My donkey said..{Snip!}

Ah, thank you for the second link. That does clarify things a bit. I agree with you, it ain't gonna happen. I don't think it would be effective, due to scale. And siphoning enough real wealth in terms of materials, energy and labor out of the rest of the economy would be less effective than mitigation efforts, such as moving ports upstream, changing crop regimes and the like.

And they are serious. That's only slightly less likely than NASA starting a settlement on Trappist-1, e.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Scotlyn said...

Hi Mallow, OK I see where your difficulty is.

But IF "agency is just another word for self" then I wouldn't need both those words, would I?

What I am trying to figure out is if "will" in Schopenhauer's understanding can be likened in any way to a blind force - if so, then that would be an abstraction, a representation. And, as such, not at all something we directly experience.

In my opinion, you need to invoke blind forces when all you think you have to work with is inert matter, which can do nothing of itself. But if that is all you believe you have to work with, then your world is still a materialist one - and such a world model cannot account for ANYTHING I experience - will, representation, mind, body - any of it. As soon as I have AN experience, inert matter worked upon by blind force fails to be the model that explains me. It fails to describe the universe that contains me. (This works so long as you can sustain the materialist trick of discounting "subjective" experience, though).

I do not think "agent" and "self" are interchangeable terms. By agent I simply mean any entity which moves itself. (As JMG said in a tongue in cheek aside - "they do it themselves (interact) without doing the math" [comment on the three-body problem].

As I understand it, my "self" may comprise many different agents, nested inside one another in different ways, at different scales, sometimes working in concert, sometimes at cross-purposes - an ecosystem of agents.

In theory, agents could include every entity that there is - electrons and other particles, though the nature of their "selfhood" would lie far outside the reach of our understanding.

Perhaps people who get the math would be interested in seeing (or critiquing Hoffman's calculations on how physics *could be* derived entirely from agents (he says "conscious agents" I say wilful agents" - but anyway, agents).

It goes without saying that a world made entirely of agents at every scale, can certainly account for "me" - and for all the representations I experience!

"Deriving Physics From Conscious Agents: Transforming View-Look..."

Stuart Jeffery said...


Thank you for these posts - Schopenhauer notion of will is one that I find fascinating. The question for me is whether matter can exist independently of will and perhaps more importantly whether will can exist independently of matter.

If at its primary level 'will to exist' applies to matter (matter as we perceive it) then I can only assume that will is a requirement of matter and integral to its existence. This naturally leads to a possibility that matter is a combination of energy and will or that energy and will are the same.

If this is the case, can will exist outside of matter? Energy seems to be able to radiate in waves that we don't perceive as matter. Maybe will can? Can different levels of will exist in different states? It would seem so but can they do it without matter? How does memory fit into this (I'm thinking of Sheldrake's work in particular)?

I've just re-read Emma Restall Orr's book The Wakeful World which covers very similar ground in her exploration of Animism and what she refers to as mind but is clearly semantically aligned to Shopenhauer's will. Her book and your blog posts leave questions of what happens when our bodies die and whether there are non-physical spirits that we can somehow communicate with, unanswered.

On a related note, I see that the existence of ghosts has been disproven by science. They are not detectable by the Large Hadron Collider which can detect all forms of energy apparently (but maybe it can't detect will...)

Gottfried Wilhelm Melvin Hicks-Leibniz said...


Thank you very much for sharing the Burke series!!!

This should be mandatory viewing ;-)

Matthias Gralle said...

@ mallow
You wrote: "Is it the idea of will being amoral that bothers you? Ontology is part of metaphysics though so isn't it kind of skipping ahead to feel grated by what might be the consequences of Schopenhauer's epistemology once applied to metaphysics and work back from there to objecting to his epistemology? "

I follow JMG's (and Schopenhauer's) argument about our perceiving ourselves as will and representation. I don't think we have yet clearly discussed the epistemology of
a) supposing there are other wills behind the representation of human beings and animals we perceive (though I think nobody posting on this board will dispute there are :-)
b) proposing that plants and rocks also possess/partake of will
c) supposing that there is some "platonic idea of a Will" behind all the individual wills, as Schopenhauer did (and I wonder if "post-platonistic" JMG agrees with that)

When I wrote "amoral" I was referring especially to the Lovecraft sonnet JMG cited last week as a good analogy of Schopenhauer's vision (again, I am not sure how far JMG agrees with it). could also have said "unconscious" or "dreaming", as Lovecraft himself did. I know Schopenhauer considered human beings very much capable of moral reasoning, and the issue we are discussing is (in my opinion) especially the relation between what we perceive about our own will and what may be said about a universal will.

Phil Harris said...

Let us relax our minds a bit, as well as occasionally blow them! There is a very big cognitive world out there: ecological space if you like. Maybe we grow into those spaces or we can find them when we need them? I like the generalised idea of ‘reading’ and ‘discussing’ and using ‘intellectual tools’.

Quote from a recent paper in the journal Science:- “One hallmark of cognitive complexity is the ability to manipulate objects with a specific goal in mind. Such “tool use” at one time was ascribed to humans alone, but then to primates, next to marine mammals, and later to birds..... Previous works also trained [bumble] bees on tasks that relied on local and stimulus enhancement to solve the task [roll the ball for a reward] ... In our current work, on most successful trials, bees used the closest ball instead of the furthest ball (which they had seen the demonstrator moving) and in the generalization test used a differently colored ball than previously encountered, suggesting that bees did not simply copy the behavior of the demonstrator but rather improved on the observed behavior by using a more optimal route. That bees solved this novel, complex goal-directed problem—and solved it via observation and using a better strategy than originally demonstrated—shows an unprecedented degree of behavioral flexibility in an insect.”

Phil H

Nancy Sutton said...

Buddha doesn't hold a candle to Schopenhauer, I guess..."All that we are is the result of what we have thought."

nati said...

1. Since representations are a kind of inventions of our mind (or maybe brain or spirit or who knows? dealing with this stuff you should be cautious using your vocabulary).
Of course, they are not arbitrary inventions. They should serve your existence, your life and some other things, and in my opinion, also obey some rules.
I think people can disregard this limitations, and unlike the natural and spontaneous way our conceptions were created since ever, suddenly you can invent at your wish and it will work.
As a matter of fact, i think this is what's happening now in the world.
The reason i disliked Schopenhouer ethics, and i did not read his writtings but a summary by others so maybe i received a wrong impresion, is because it seemed to me too ideologic, as when ideology was there first and explanations came to justify it.
Also did'nt help that i disaprove of his ideology, which is far away of my worldview.

. said...


"I don't think we have yet clearly discussed the epistemology of
a) supposing there are other wills behind the representation of human beings and animals we perceive (though I think nobody posting on this board will dispute there are :-)
b) proposing that plants and rocks also possess/partake of will
c) supposing that there is some "platonic idea of a Will" behind all the individual wills, as Schopenhauer did (and I wonder if "post-platonistic" JMG agrees with that)"

I think this from last week covers a and b at least. Schopenhauer moved on from his epistemology to propose that will and representation are all there is. Other humans, plants, rocks, animals come under 'everything in the world'. It's not that there are wills 'behind them' or that they 'possess/partake of will' exactly. He proposes that they are will and representations. He reached that conclusion through the use of logic so there's no missing piece of epistemology left:

"What if that’s all there is—if the thing we call "matter" is simply the most basic grade of the will, and everything in the world thus amounts to will on the one hand, and representations experienced by that mode of will we call consciousness on the other, and the thing that representations are representing are various expressions of this one energy that, by way of its distinctive manifestations in our own experience, we call the will?

That’s Schopenhauer’s vision....Follow his arguments out to their logical conclusion and you get a close enough equivalent of the universe of modern physics that it’s not at all implausible that they’re one and the same. Of course plausibility isn’t proof—but given the fragile, dependent, and derivative nature of the human intellect, it may be as close as we can get."


Birdie said...

JMG and all- I'm struggling with the Schaupenhauerbwill/ representation stuff. But I am hanging on and reading it more than once. I'm looking forward to seeing how this ties into Burkean conservatism so I can try to understand the current place we find ourselves in the historical cycle.

. said...


There are a lot of representations and abstract concepts in what you're discussing. If you directly encounter this thing you call agency, rather than consciousness and the impulse of the will, when you do the finger wiggling exercise, then I guess we just have different experiences.


tokyo damage said...

Another great column! Science, philosophy, and blurring the arbitrary lines between our conscious minds, our bodies, and our environments? Hmm! Do you have any thoughts on Donna Haraway? (I'm not very pro- or anti-Haraway; I'm asking because I imagine you'd have a very unique and unpredictable take on a fellow iconoclast)

Crow Hill said...

Phil Harris said... Quote from a recent paper in the journal Science on cognitive tests with bees:” In our current work, on most successful trials, bees used the closest ball instead of the furthest ball (which they had seen the demonstrator moving) and in the generalization test used a differently colored ball than previously encountered...”

I’m happy that animals are gaining some human respect and therefore right to exist by proving they have some cognitive skills comparable to human ones but at the same time poor things, what tedious exercises they have to go through to prove this!

Scotlyn said...

". If you directly encounter this thing you call agency, rather than consciousness and the impulse of the will, when you do the finger wiggling exercise, then I guess we just have different experiences."

It is possible, indeed likely, that we have different experiences.

Yet, I find agency embedded within the sentence you just wrote:
"when YOU do the finger wiggling exercise"...
when "who" does the finger wriggling exercise?

"Who" is "conscious" in that experience? "Who" wills that exercise in that experience?

If there IS a "who" there is an agent. The agent is right there in the middle of the hand wriggling experiment. Trying to slip the agent out of sight mid-experiment is, well, handwaving. Except you can't handwave away the "who" that waves the hand... Not really.

. said...


You, and others, might well find this series of posts from 2013 helpful:

Those posts are really about the same thing that JMG is discussing here - just from a historian's perspective rather than a philosopher's. In the cyclical theory of history, the educated classes of western civilization (and most people reading this blog form part of that class one way or another) have reached the point where reflection runs off the rails into nihilism. It expresses itself in relativism and post-modernism, among other things, in our civilization. That's the cause of the current psychological and social chaos. That's why Schopenhauer's emphasis on getting back to epistemology could be a good antidote.

I think the way it links in with Burke is that once you embrace epistemological modesty, the idea of organizing human societies based on the precautionary principle rather than abstract ideas makes perfect sense.

That means the end of the left insofar as it's based on the 'scientific' rationality of Marx etc. It also means the end of liberalism in the sense of a principle of organizing society based on abstract concepts like Equality, Justice, Liberty, Solidarity etc. And the end of conservatism in the sense of organizing the world based on ideas like Americanism, Spreading Democracy, Capitalism/Free Enterprise, Libertarianism etc. They're all going to dissolve just as the political disputes within Roman civilization meant nothing to a 7th century inhabitant of Britain.

If you take Schopenhauer seriously, and follow his logic, he offers a potentially sane ending to the Age of Reason that our civilization has been in since the Enlightenment. If anyone is to succeed in conserving the best parts of western civilization through the Dark Age we're currently entering then they need to get ahead of the curve philosophically.

This is what's happening under the hood of 21st century western politics:

"Shatter the shared figurations and abstractions that provide a complex literate society with its basis for collective thought and action, and you’re left with a society in fragments, where biological drives and idiosyncratic personal agendas are the only motives left, and communication between divergent subcultures becomes impossible because there aren’t enough common meanings left to make that an option. The plunge into nihilism becomes almost impossible to avoid once abstraction runs into trouble on a collective scale, furthermore, because reflection is the automatic response to the failure of a society’s abstract representations of the cosmos. As it becomes painfully clear that the beliefs of the civil religion central to a society’s age of reason no longer correspond to the world of everyday experience, the obvious next step is to reflect on what went wrong and why, and away you go."


Phitio said...

NDE reports suggest that the self (counsciousness of self) remains after death of the body. So no ecosystem.

Consciousness can not be said that shut off when we sleep. Simply we do not recall it, but nonetheless nobody can tell that it disappears. Neither can be said it dissolves when we plunge in a coma. Consciousness seems to be not a bodily function, nor a collective function, because there are report of the contrary.

I agree that this is a very slippery ground to discuss, but, concerning consciousness (soul ?) first you have to answer a question: what is the level of proof you would consider sufficient to accept the existence of disincarnate consciousness?

Myriad said...

Brilliant insight into the sociopolitical implications of mind-body dualism as the prevalent view. "The body politic has rebelled against its self-proclaimed mind!"

The predominantly reductionistic materialists I hang out with (and number myself among) also contend mostly against the prevailing dualistic view, though we do occasionally get idealist monists and various philosophical extremists (such as mereological nihilists) to challenge us. We frequently refer to the legs-running problem as a metaphor for the body-mind problem (e.g. "If you dissect the legs where do you find the running?" and "where does running go when the legs stop moving?")

But, I find that most materialists, however vehemently they claim to disagree with the dualists, tend to veer toward conclusions congruent (even if by negation) with those of dualism. For instance, they overwhelmingly maintain that without a traditional afterlife, our experiencing selves must instead cease to exist utterly after death. This might be justified if they also held that those selves originated out of nothing (or out of brain functioning alone) to begin with, but materialism cannot make any such claim. The misleading notion that there is a sharp divide between what we experience as self and everything else in the world carries over from dualism, in the form of viewing the self as resulting solely from "neural activity" rather than, more reasonably, from the interaction of neural activity with a complex world that is already vastly enriched by, among other important things, effects and products of eons of previous neural activity. For me, the logical conclusion from monist materialist premises, and from what we think we know so far of how brains and bodies actually work, is that the separation between the perceived self and the world is largely or entirely illusory—much like certain other traditions have long claimed.

That's if there is even such a thing as "after" death. I'm reasonably confident that the nature of most things I perceive, those representations, have some resemblance to some actual thing. When I see and feel a tree, there's something tree-shaped and tree-functioning out there, even if it's actually made of energy fields or quantum probabilities or god dreams or whatever. But I have no such confidence when it comes to the nature of time.

Not that I think time isn't real. Our perception of time probably has some cause; for example, evolution seems to have equipped us to attempt to survive by anticipating and avoiding adverse events in the future rather than by altering adverse events already suffered in the past. That strongly suggests the former works and the latter, for whatever mysterious reason, doesn't. But it doesn't mean time necessarily takes the form we perceive it as, a steady flow of events from one moment to the next.

I note that the occasions at which I'm aware of will, I'm also aware of time, and wherever I perceive Schopehauerian will in action, that is to say when I see movement or change, I also perceive separation in time, a "before" and "after" the change. Could they be different names for the same thing?

John Michael Greer said...

Okay, I'm back, and will be responding to as many comments as time permits. A thank you to everyone who did their best to try to fit their heads around the challenging way of looking at the world I'm discussing here.

Glenn, that's not surprising, since reductionist materialism is the default option offered by contemporary pop culture. May I point out that there are other ways of looking at the world that do just as good a job of explaining the world we experience, once you take the time to get past habitual patterns of thought and representation?

C.M., thank you.

Allen, were you going to address the point I made in this essay, or do you just want to share an unrelated sound bite?

Drhooves, slowly is fine. If you're starting to see the broader picture, I'm glad to hear that.

Redoak, Plato didn't actually have that much to do with Platonism. (Do you recall Jung's famous remark that he thanked God he wasn't a Jungian? I suspect Plato must have said the same sort of thing at least once.) It's the Platonic tradition as it evolved in history, rather than Plato himself, that had an enduring influence on the way we think.

Chrisroy, good. It explains both the successes and the failures -- but we'll get to that.

Gottfried, thanks for the links.

My Donkey, excellent. You get Wednesday's belated gold star for noticing that something has to power those pumps, and that something is going to emit carbon...

Eric, once people start capitalizing abstractions (e.g., Being) you've plunged way too deep into abstraction. As for "who or what does the willing," do you know for a fact that there must be someone doing so? Or are you simply, as I suggested in the post, allowing a representation ("myself") to slip into your analysis? Pay close attention to your experience and there is no agent -- there is simply will -- and at that point you no longer have to debate how many agents can dance on the head of a single act of will...

Scotlyn, I addressed this directly in the post. The agent -- that is, "yourself" -- is the ur-representation, and close logical analysis, introspection, or scientific experimentation allows you to get past that to impersonal will. To borrow your metaphor, the will is the dancer, the agent is the clothing. Again, I quite understand that this is an unfamiliar and even a troubling perspective, and it's very natural to insist on not thinking about the world that way, but I'd like to encourage you to make the effort; you can, of course, continue refusing to do so, but how much will you learn that way?

John Michael Greer said...

Sven, oh, I know. It's partly that most people operate on the level of content rather than structure, but it's also that the mind-body duality, with the mind as the Mini-Me perched inside the head manipulating the machinery, is the only kind of self most people in contemporary western cultures can imagine, and a challenge to that makes them feel that they're losing the only self they have. That letting go of the Mini-Me might enable them to attain a sense of self that isn't utterly isolated from the rest of the cosmos is not something they grasp easily...

NomadicBeer, delighted to hear it. After you've reflected on this post, try glancing back over the other two and see if they make more sense.

Repent, no, that's not the point -- or more precisely, it's not my point. The mind-body problem doesn't have to be solved, because it's based on an arbitrary and incoherent understanding of the self. Get rid of that and it goes away instantly, like all the problems trying to make the solar system work with Earth in the middle...

Llmaiwi, Evola's "Knowledge of the Waters" essay is heavily influenced by Schopenhauer, so it's not surprising you noticed a similarity! The difference in tone between those and the Tao Te Ching is quite simple, but it's going to take some further discussion to get there. Stay tuned!

Brian, good. You're getting warm.

Patricia, you're quite right that the English word "will" does tend to get tangled up in questions of free will. In German Wille (will) and Willkuer (free will) are sufficiently distinct that confusion is less easy. That said, "will" remains the best translation in English for what Schopenhauer was trying to say.

Peter, good. Dreams are useful models, since the sense of agency or selfhood in dreams can be very mutable; the will-to-dream continues, while a sense of identity comes and goes.

Lucius, Augustine rejects the idea of the moral teachability of the soul, but that rejection is based on his belief that an outside factor -- the Fall and its consequences -- interferes with the soul's moral teachability. Thus it's an accidental disability rather than an inherent one, and this prevents broader conclusions from being drawn from it.

Rusty, interesting. Why a clown?

Sgage, thank you.

Graeme, it's not eliminative, because it discards the concept of matter as unnecessary, but it cheerfully admits that all the sensory properties we experience are actual experiences, and that there is actually something "out there" being experienced. An eliminative idealism would insist that there's nothing "out there" at all.

Matthias, thanks for the recommendation.

Eric S. said...

"once people start capitalizing abstractions (e.g., Being) you've plunged way too deep into abstraction. As for "who or what does the willing," do you know for a fact that there must be someone doing so? Or are you simply, as I suggested in the post, allowing a representation ("myself") to slip into your analysis? Pay close attention to your experience and there is no agent -- there is simply will -- and at that point you no longer have to debate how many agents can dance on the head of a single act of will..."

So basically, what we're coming down to here is that the very concept of agents and distinct individuals is itself a representation. One place that reflection leads me in terms of looking at will in its purest form is the movement of air and water. In that situation there are no agents... just the movement itself, which is a result of will. You mentioned that we become aware of will only when it pushes against our own in some way... in the situation of air, we become aware of it when it pushes against us in the form of wind, waves, and currents.

Another concept that I am reminded of is your aliens in Stars Reach, for whom the concept of individual agents was as abstract, distant, and advanced concept, since their representations of reality were based around flows and continua.

There is another, further question that emerges from that reflection:

In all of this, there do seem to be different types of will. Going back to the finger exercise, there's a distinct difference in the direct experience of what is happening between someone else taking hold of my finger and wiggling it for me, my finger twitching on its own as a reflex response due to being pricked with a needle, moving my finger as a fluid, thoughtless part of some other action such as gripping an object or typing on a keyboard, and me consciously thinking about the act of moving my finger and then doing it. These are all various functions of will, but seem to be different (and, going back to your ecosystem metaphor, would be different parts of that ecosystem of will that informs the representation of the self.) So... is the apparent difference between those above listed types of finger movement a direct function of will, or a representation that emerges as the experience of will is processed? Since classification is definitely representation and saying "these two things are different" is a type of classification it seems like the latter would be the case... but I also can't seem to make the reflexive finger twitch and the intentional finger movement come down to the same basic experience. Is there a level of introspection at which the differences between those two experiences flatten out into a basic experience of pure will and that representation fades away? Or is that particular representation "the experience of a finger twitch is different from a finger movement" so basic that all other experiences are going to be colored and shaped by it?

Brother Guthlac said...

"self is an ecosystem rather than a hierarchy,"

Interesting idea. Might there be "keystone species" in such an ecosystem?

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, thanks for the recommendation!

S Folley, thank you.

Justin, if human beings are part of the universe, then their fundamental structure will echo that of the universe. Equally, since the only universe we can experience is one framed by our senses and minds, the structure of the universe we experience will necessarily echo our own structure. Either way Yggdrasil represents both the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Fudoshin, excellent! You're getting *really* warm.

Cathy, good. What psychologists and mystics call the ego is a very important concept to keep in mind here, because it's not the self -- it's a representation of the self. You're familiar with Jung, right? His distinction between ego and self is highly relevant here -- and the self in his sense is not a person but a force. More on this as we proceed!

Aslja, thanks for the reference.

Brett, I know. This is really heavy lifting for the neurons, but the exercise is good for them. ;-)

Fred, you know, I think Schopenhauer would approve of that. Another way of phrasing the same thing I got from an old book of hippie philosophy: "Why am I in a headspace where this is real?"

Mark, good. The will to enlightenment is also a manifestation of will. As for the distortion of will you got in books on willpower and the like, why, yes, we'll be getting to that also in good time.

Ozark, that's really a solid argument. Given that the complexity and interconnectedness of a single cubic yard of fertile soil is many orders of magnitude greater than the complexity and interconnectedness of a human brain, if consciousness is the product of complexity and interconnectedness in matter, then the soil should be thinking, too...

Tim, glad to hear it. Yes, the experience of internal conflict, of passions pulling one way and thoughts another way, of drives and motives competing with one another, is a constant human experience, and doesn't support the hierarchical model at all. More as we proceed!

Thijs, it may also be a cultural difference -- I keep on reminding myself that I can really only speak about the conventional wisdom on this side of the pond, north of the Rio Grande and south of the Canadian border.

Chrisroy, no, that's not the crux. As long as you're imposing a "who" on the will, you're missing my point.

Robin, a nice summary! As we'll see, though, Schopenhauer took things in a different direction.

John Michael Greer said...

Mgalimba, to the devotee of the conventional wisdom, any deviation from it looks absurd. It's absurd to suppose that the earth circles around the sun, for example -- despite which, that happens to be the case. Thus you're going to have to do better than that if you want to make an argument for the habitual!

Karl, thank you.

Patricia, Confucian philosophy is the logical outgrowth of the whole Chinese philosophical tradition, with its focus on the relation between the individual and society. I tend to prefer the Taoist approach of standing apart from society, but then I'm a weirdo. ;-)

Robert, I'd say that all the political parties in both countries fall very, very far from the morality they claim to uphold. As for the Druids -- well, we're as human as everybody else, you know.

KL Cooke, I have a book in mind, for what it's worth.

Tony, there's an interesting distinction between deity-as-noun and deity-as-verb that we'll be exploring in due time.

Cherokee, the advantage to thinking that you're separate from the environment is that then you can convince yourself that you can have power over it. That's a drug a lot of people love to abuse...

Brian, got it in one. Freud was riffing off of a different aspect of Schopenhauer, one we haven't really discussed yet -- and yes, his thinking and the Mini-Me theory of mind and body don't really work together at all.

Marvin, that is to say, you're staying strictly within the conventional wisdom of our culture. That's fine, but you're going to miss a lot of interesting scenery -- and some even more interesting possibilities.

William, close. What I'm asking is for people to set aside their familiar maps for a while and take a close look at the landscape around them, to see if things might appear in a different light if approached from the perspective of a different map. I'm glad that some are willing to do so.

Mr. (witchy woo) R., keep in mind that from the Schopenhauerian perspective, "matter" and "mind" are both representations, and neither one is more real than the other. It can really be a challenge to stay with that insight!

Macando, you're most welcome.

Caryn said...

Thank You, JMG: I hope your trip was a success.This is a difficult, (for me) discussion, but very interesting. I look forward to seeing the ways it ties into the more concrete ideas this blog is aimed at.

BTW: The use of metaphors like 'eco-system instead of hierarchy' and "The will is the dancer, the agent is the clothing" are very helpful for some of us, (me at least) who are hanging onto this discussion, this new way of seeing the world by our fingernails. Please feel free to use them liberally as we continue!

Vesta said...

For one, I don't feel there is a mind-body problem, since I don't really feel a clean mind-body separation. The division is an often convenient representation, but I think it's not real. I bet I am not unusual in having done my best 'mind work' unconsciously and without thought while doing something physical, and to have enjoyed my most exquisite and extreme physical (body) experiences from a distinctly out-of-body perspective.

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, that is to say, you're not willing to explore the set of ideas I'm trying to discuss. Okay, I get that. So?

David, once you get into Heidegger, you're basically lost in a fog with no road signs showing the way out. "Being" is an abstract category -- that is, a conceptual model come up with by human beings to try to sort out the blooming, buzzing confusion of existence. It's inaccurate to say that will is a being, and just as inaccurate to say that will isn't a being -- the question is simply whether the abstract category "being" helps you make sense of will more than it hinders, or vice versa.

DaShui, it's the other way around. The occultists -- Eliphas Levi foremost among them -- borrowed his ideas from Schopenhauer.

Gralle, hmm. Your metaphor suggests more isolation than I think the facts merit. As we proceed, you might consider other options.

None, thank you.

David, exactly. We'll be talking at some length as we proceed about the way that people get imprisoned by their own abstractions.

Dammerung, funny. It's a perfectly valid and useful English word.

Lady H., that's the plan!

Gerald, and yet people in many spiritual traditions are taught to contemplate their own deaths. I think you may be overgeneralizing from a limited sample.

Iuval, you haven't yet grasped the implications of Schopenhauer's argument that everything other than the will is simply a representation. Time, space, and matter are representations (more precisely, abstract categories built out of representations). The universe is a representation. Will is the one reality -- and we'll get further into the question of one will vs. many wills as we proceed.

RogerCO, exactly. Thank you for getting it.

Unfrozen, of course words are representations. If you experience it, it's a representation -- that was Schopenhauer's point.

Robert, Schopenhauer is all about the experience of the red ball. You have the experience; that is, a representation of the kind we can label with words such as "red" and "ball" appears in your awareness. That experience is a reality. Everything else -- matter, light, all the stuff that physicists and physiologists talk about -- has to be inferred from that experience, and is simply a matter of piling up models to try to make sense of the fact of experience.

John Michael Greer said...

Bruce, good. That's another way of approaching the same insight.

LifeSMyth, SandWyrm, and James, you're welcome and thank you.

Andrew, there I'd disagree. Schopenhauer is elegaic; much of the Nag Hammadi library to me reads like paranoid conspiracy theory, reinterpreting the events of the Book of Genesis the way that conspiracists reinterpret the events of 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination.

Beetleswamp, yes, this gives your brain a good hard workout! Glad to hear you're still in the gym pumping representations... ;-)

Vicky, nope -- I did think that once, but it was quite a bit more than a few years back. As for instincts, those would be particular expressions of will.

Phil, that sort of experience -- which Schopenhauer also had -- is one of the many things that feeds into his theory.

Daddy, oh my. That must be quite the experience.

Matthias, nah, it's just that awkward facts are beginning to seep through the mythology of progress...

Unknown, you pretty much have to buckle down and read the first volume of The World as Will and Representation. Take it a bit at a time.

Mike K, so-called "out of body experience" simply shows that representations don't have to involve the material senses, a point that could also be gotten from dreams. You're not thinking through the implications of the ideas I'm discussing.

Degringolade, thank you.

Nati, we'll be challenging his ethical theory as we proceed, since it's only one of many (not just two) options that can unfold from his philosophy.

Avery, thank you. It seems to me that the word "will" is still the closest we've got, and can be returned to its older meanings with a little, er, good will...

Zerowaste, not at the moment. Stay tuned.

John Michael Greer said...

Josh, I've read Kingsley and mulled over his argument. "Magic" is a complicated word to apply to that stage of Greek culture, since the ritual practices involved hadn't really distinguished themselves from certain phases of religion and philosophy. It's entirely possible, mind you, that Parmenides didn't intend his teachings the way that they were taken by later thinkers -- but of course it's the latter that matters in the long run.

Crow Hill, you're welcome and thank you.

Kevin, here again, you're assuming that the individual comes first and the will comes out of it, and Schopenhauer is saying exactly the opposite. Will is a blind force differentiating itself, and these things we call "individuals" -- who are in fact not in-dividual, that is, indivisible, at all -- are produced out of it. More as we proceed...

Mr. No, Schopenhauer deals extensively with causality. It's a mode of interaction among representations.

Ekkar, good. Again, though, I'd encourage to have a look at the argument I've made about the dubious nature of the mind/body distinction in the first place.

Newton, that's a very thoughtful reflection on one of Schopenhauer's themes.

Unknown Jay, nope. "The human nervous system" is an abstraction built out of representations in our minds, following the pattern Schopenhauer finds in the structure of reality itself.

Psiphi23, good. Analyze every phenomenon down to its root and you get representation.

Crow Hill said...

@patriciaormsby: Thank you for the further information about Japanese culture. This can be a source of inspiration for a localized community-based society and a sustainable future where we can live and let live the rest of the biosphere by remaining within the local carrying capacity.

I’m aware that every nation on Earth, including Japan, has had to bend to the Western economic model and the culture that goes with it to survive politically.

Scotlyn said...

OK, I'm actually weeping here. Ozark, who is approaching this from almost exactly the same direction as I am has made a "solid argument" while I'm simply "unwilling to explore the ideas you're trying to discuss".

I'm putting this down to Ozard's fluid and graceful facility of expression, while I am struggling so hard with words and concepts that feel like 5-tonne weights.

If I were not so engaged with getting to the bottom of what we are talking about here, I'd probably give up, right now.

Well, I'm not going to, not yet. But still... Dang!

Scotlyn said...

OK, I have drawn a map, positioning the 5-tonne blocks of difficult words and ideas in ways most strongly suggested to me by Schopenhauer's mapping tool applied by your good self.

On this map I've marked the place where I'm having most difficulty. It is the demarcation boundary between "experiencer" and "experience" in the finger-wriggling experiment.

This is how the map looks to me just now.

Second post - discussing will...

Experiencer:experience::representation: will

First post - discussing representation...


In the first post, the nature of experiencer is left to one side while laying out the stall that all experience is representation.

In the second post experiencer is brought back in, but in order to turn the stall around. Now experience falls on the side of will, while experiencer stays on the side of representation.

Have I arrived anywhere that resembles a place on the Schopenhauerian map? At all?

Johnny said...


Great to see you turn the focus on society at large here. One thing that learning about Peak Oil has done for me is to put a spotlight on the "will" in society and how it responds relatively predictably to it's environment at a much simpler level than our explanations tend to allow.

I think there is much in Spinoza that you would not like, his whole solution was reached via a very mind heavy effort, but I thought his interpretation to some aspects of reality (such as the mind/body problem) were elegant. For him God is the totality of nature (therefore infinite and all powerful - he seems to take these basic concepts of monotheism literally and then logically derives conclusions from this point that verge wildly with people before him), and God has infinite attributes, which are ways he can be known, we have access to two of these attributes, thought and extension. For Spinoza our knowledge of God must be incomplete but he felt our job was to try to know him better through the use of logic and reason.

Both Schopenhauer (of what I've read) and Spinoza solve the free will problem in similar ways (not sure if I agree entirely with either of them, but their insight is helpful certainly), that is to say that free will just means you will do what you most want to at any given time, so you ARE free to do that, but since you don't get to choose what you want that freedom is much more limited than it seems.

Spinoza's conclusions here were interesting to me also, his ethics is very close to a kind of stoicism, or maybe the writings of Lao Tzu, seemingly suggesting that people find simple ways to satisfy their desires. I found him worth reading even though so much of his writing is quite arrogant in it's dismissal of things I think are perfectly valid approaches to the same problems (it's very much "Reason or get the heck out!")

Probably my message here will get in too late for comment but I only just got to check this week's post as we've got a newborn over here now disrupting just about everything - among other things he's a great study so far in seeing human will at it's core.

Johnny said...

My own personal take on the consciousness is that it seems to be a way of exercising judgment over a diverse array of demands, almost like a government that tries it's best to appease most of it's constituents. As such it would suggest it probably emerges as a product of complexity in systems.

I should say - in addition to my Spinoza ramble above, that Spinoza believed there was some degree of thought in everything, which struck me as similar to the way Schopenhauer sees the Will in everything, although I think Schopenhauer's removal of the mind makes for a much more convincing argument. It's much easier, for instance, for me to see the Will in a rock (often the geological forces of it's formation are apparent within it's very structure) than for me to see it as a thinking agent. Schopenhauer would probably point out "what is thinking?" here though.

I think Spinoza's insight that thought and extension are two attributes of God, therefore two ways of coming to know Him (or reality), therefore two ways of knowing the same thing, is very valuable, but the insistence that these are the only two we can access seems like something he locks down definitively for no real reason (probably just accepting Decartes baggage) - Spinoza wanted to write philosophy that was as mathematically perfect as Euclid's work (so relevant again to your post) but for me that means that most of his basic steps I found rigid, dogmatic and unfounded, (and a bit frustrating to read honestly), even if I think those tools eventually get him to great places.

Phil Harris said...

@Crow Hill wrote (cognitive tasks and bumble bees)
"I’m happy that animals are gaining some human respect and therefore right to exist by proving they have some cognitive skills comparable to human ones but at the same time poor things, what tedious exercises they have to go through to prove this!"

Well ... marginally better than my unreconstructed British primary school. Remember the industrious fellows get the equivalent of a bickie ('cookie')at break time! Yes, of course personally I value a wild time outside with soccer or flowers.


Allen Nelson said...

It was indeed my response to the essay. When I posted it, no other responses had yet appeared. So, I was responding to the essay itself, not other people's responses.

To spare you the scrolling, here it is again

The mind-body problem is further complicated by the fact the body has minds of its own. Quite aside from the unconscious, there is a "gut brain", said to contain as many neurons as a cat's brain, to which our conscious mind has no access whatever. Beyond that, our intestinal flora, trillions of bacteria, are believed to exhibit a kind of hive mind.

Ruben said...

@Allan Nelson

I think it is a bit too strong to say our conscious mind has no access to our gut brain. After all, we have gut feelings, of which we can be conscious, and which we can consciously incorporate into our decision making.

John Michael Greer said...

Rad, the hierarchical thing is a major issue, of course, but I'm also trying to take issue with the entire notion that you can divide the whole of the human being into two and only two parts corresponding to our folk-metaphysics category of "mind" and "body." That doesn't mean that the human being consists of "mind" plus "body" without a line between them; it means that there may be other lines drawn in other places, and that there can be whole realms of human experience that aren't included in either of these two too-narrow categories.

Chrisroy, and if "matter" isn't on the far side of a wall raised by "mind," it becomes hard to justify treating, say, topsoil the way we do...

Jeanne, that's intriguing. Have you read Oliver Sacks' A Leg to Stand On? He discusses a psychological equivalent.

Crow Hill, the difference is that it's easy to slide into the notion of the mind ruling the body, and from there you're right back into the mind-body muddle I'm trying to break down. I prefer the fox and the mice.

Shane, good question. This one's getting a lot of pushback, and I'm more than a little puzzled about that.

Sharon, excellent. As I said, you can get there by sheer introspection, and you've just demonstrated that. Exactly; the wills-to-exist don't seem to care much about how they exist, and don't resist changes of form, while the wills-to-live are rather particular about not being changed into, say, dinners.

Shaun, thanks for this. I may have gotten some of this perspective from my Japanese stepfamily, who are Shingon Buddhists -- if I understand correctly, the Shingon-shu is tolerably closely related to Tendai/Tientai.

Stuart, what is this "matter" that you keep on talking about? All we have to go on are representations, and the abstractions we extract from them. "Matter" is such an abstraction. You seem to be arguing that this abstraction is somehow more basic to existence than the representations from which our minds derive it, which is odd from a Schopenhauerian perspective.

Phil, by all means relax. This is hard work.

Nancy, why do you insist that they're in competition? I'm suggesting that we try an alternative way of looking at the world, to see what we can see from that perspective.

Nati, as I noted early on, we don't make representations consciously -- not once we're past infancy, outside of a very few situations. As for Schopenhauer's ethics, again, we'll get to that.

John Michael Greer said...

Birdie, thank you. It does connect, but we're going to have to cover a lot more ground before the connections become apparent.

Tokyo, I haven't read enough of her to have an educated opinion. No doubt I should remedy that soon.

Phitio, where did you get the idea that I'm dismissing the idea of disembodied consciousness?

Myriad, hmm! I'll want to dip deep into The World as Will and Representation before I try to answer that.

Eric, thank you. Exactly. The self is a representation. The insistence that there must be a real agent behind every action is an attempt to force a representation onto the world outside of representations. As for the different grades of will, yes, they're different. Will manifests itself in a variety of grades. They're not better or worse, higher or lower, just different. Of course we experience their effects in the form of representations, but it's central to Schopenhauer's vision -- and supported by his logic and a great deal of evidence -- that the will is not a representation, it's the reality that representations represent.

Brother G., of course. In most human ecosystems, the keystone species seems to be sexual desire. ;-)

Caryn, thank you; yes, the trip was very successful. I'll try to keep the metaphors coming!

John Michael Greer said...

Scotlyn, no, your argument isn't at all the same as Ozark's. For the last two weeks, from my perspective, you've been trying every twist and turn you can think of to shove the real existence of personal agents down Schopenhauer's throat. In his philosophy they do not exist except as representations. You don't have to believe that; I'm not asking for belief. I'm asking my readers to consider looking at the cosmos that way for a little while, in order to see certain features that are obscured by our belief in conscious personal agents (and in "mind" and "matter," among other hippogriffs).

From a Schopenhauerian perspective, persons do not exist in reality. You do not exist. I do not exist. Donald Trump does not exist, except in the realm of representations. In the real world there is only blind pressure -- and if you try to twist that around yet again to find some way to insist that there have to be persons down there somewhere, so help me, I'm simply going to delete your comment. I'm trying to explain a way of looking at the world that's counterintuitive to most people in the modern western world. If you're not willing to try seeing the world that way, that's fine, but insisting on your intuitive take on what words like "will" mean isn't at all helpful in that context, you know. Again, you don't have to believe Schopenhauer's vision -- but please stop trying to browbeat me and the other commenters into turning it into something that it's not!

If you'd like to understand, let go of your map and pick up the one I'm trying to offer you. There is no experiencer. There are no persons. There is nothing but will, described tentatively by representations such as "blind pressure," and its modifications. Since it's blind, it collides with itself constantly, and the various grades of will are reactions to those collisions. As complexity mounts, you get loose tangles of will that act to preserve themselves: the will to live. Further up the same scale, you get tangles of will complex enough that they represent their surroundings to themselves, at first very simply, then with increasing intricacy: the will to experience. Still further, representations break loose from strict correspondence with the environment and become abstract concepts; the will to understand. Conscious personal agents are representations that a few really complex tangles of will use to try to make sense of other really complex tangles of will, and that's all they are. They aren't realities. The only reality is the one we represent by such abstractions as "blind pressure."

That's Schopenhauer's map. Again, you don't have to believe it; you don't have to like it; it doesn't have to make sense to you -- but that's his vision, and that's what I'm talking about. You've already made it clear that you disagree with it; so noted. Are you going to keep on hammering on a point already addressed, or can you set that aside for a bit and see if maybe, just maybe, there's a point to looking at the world from Schopenhauer's angle?

Johnny, congrats on the new arrival! We'll be talking about the profound muddle over free will a little later, but yes, Schopenhauer's approach is like Spinoza's, and cuts straight down the middle, avoiding the errors on either side. Your take on consciousness is very close to Schopenhauer's, and also to that of systems theorists such as Ervin Laszlo; more on this as we proceed.

Allen, then why didn't you respond to the actual point of the essay, which was that the entire division of the universe of human experience into the categories "mind" and "matter" is fundamentally flawed?

Vesta said...

JMG, your passionate answer to Scotlyn regarding personal agents was a really helpful distillation for me. One more reason why your loose moderation is so great. *Especially* when it frustrates. Thanks to both of you.

. said...

JMG, I've been sticking my nose in trying to understand how other people are seeing this and I guess grasping it better for myself by trying to 'help' them. But I know how much my own understanding of it is limited at this point and I don't want to unintentionally hinder and confuse rather than help. Would it be better if I just shush and listen along or is it ok to go about offering my unasked-for assistance?!


Scotlyn said...


And many apologies. Browbeating is of course not welcome anywhere, and I thank you for electing not to put through my more tired and emotional comments, which I regret writing and subjecting you to.

I have been struggling, it's true, the words and concepts simply will not readily flow for me.

In almost everything I've said I've been searching for, and failing to find the right words, but using the responses to try again (and usually fail again).

I'm not at all aware that the agent I've been looking for is a "personal" one, though, or a self, or anything like that (if it were I'd have used words like "person" or "self" - and not had to pen so many tortured passages to explain why it wasn't either of those).

I've been trying to locate the path that links the wriggling finger experience of will within me and will as force "out there". (And granted, I don't much like the thought of blind forces that want to "wear me").

Still, I couldn't shake the thought that, wherever the path got to this it would gave to start here or make no sense - with an Experiencer experiencing... Will.

In fact, I have now found exactly where the missing agent is, by doing what I should have done at the start. Reading (listening to) Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, Book 1. I've spent most of afternoon and evening listening to sections 1-9. (Some of them twice).

And I found the agent I've been looking for. Only he calls it "the subject".

And I now understand the world as representation can have no existence without the perceiver, the subject (as I've intuited so strongly). That, moreover, subject and object are its two indissoluble halves.

And it seems that discovering the world as will can start neither from subject alone nor from object alone, but somewhere else. (I haven't read far enough though to see what).

Agent. Subject. Semantics. Phew!

And now, I promise, I will hold my wheesht for a goodly spell.

John Roth said...

The four grades of will seem intuitively plausible. I'm trying to match them up to the four elements (earth, water, air and fire) and not getting very far. Unless it's will to exist: earth; will to live: water, will to experience: air; will to understand: fire. Does this make sense, or am I trying to smash two Procrustean beds together?

Matthias Gralle said...

@ JMG and mallow:

The "map" for Scotlyn about tangles has untangled the whole system a bit for me, too. I must say, though, that, not having read more than a few pages of "World as Will and Representation", I can't say I consider the extension of the concept of will from the finger-moving experience to rocks and water a logical deduction following from epistemology; I can consider it as a proposition, a self-consistent system of axioms, if you will, based on concepts like elegance and simplicity ("why introduce a third thing besides will and representation?", as JMG said earlier). In that spirit, I will wait for further instalments, especially with regard to the demarcations between separate pieces or tangles of the will and a possible overall Will.

Allen Nelson said...

Why should I respond to that, when I totally agree with it? Humans love to invent dichotomies where none exist. Maybe it's built into us. If so, the Christian invention of a counterintuitive Trinity is genius.

Years ago, you wrote an essay "Mentats Wanted, Will Train". I'm still waiting.

Sylvia Rissell said...

JMG, I am finding this whole subject annoying. I'm going to try to figure out why and see if I can explain it.

I spend a lot of my "unpaid work" time doing activities like "cooking" and "laundry", and trying to motivate a 12 year old to pick up the dirty socks so I
can wash them, and hang up the clean shirts so I don't end up washing
them all over again.

From the point of view of Shopenhauer, the 12 year old is a representation, and I
cannot logically assume a separatewill, as the I/will experiences only a representation of the 12 year old, and a representation of the socks. I like to
think of the 12 year old as a person/will of similar level and quality as the I/will, and would be disappointed to discover(hypothetically) that I'm only imagining the representation of a person, or that the representation is actually a robot.

I also spend a fair amount of time trying to explain to the child/representations around here that doing things in reality is more useful than doing things in Minecraft. "If you were hungry, would you want me to play a video game
about cooking?" From this philisophical point of view, I am trying to make a distinction between two different types of representation that differ in priority, but are both still representations.

So, if it is all will and representations, and the I/will is the only one I experience, why do I even bother doing all this caretaking work for a bunch of representations? (I suppose the fact that philosphers still eat is a hint that thereis some level of representation that can't be ignored.)

I'm looking forward to a discussion of one will vs multiple wills, and also the explanation for why I should engage with a representation of "reality" if I can't ever be sure I'm understanding it correctly.

David Smith in St Louis said...

This is David the Heidegger guy. Thank you for replying to my comment. I am an avid reader of your blog, and I want to thank you for leading me back into philosophy. But I'm not so sure about Schoepenaur. I have some very general criticisms, but I will save most of them for until after I have read your next post. (I can hardly wait!) For now I will say that I do wonder if S really understood the German Idealism he was criticizing.

A red flag for me was your claim above that causality is ". . . a mode of interaction among representations." To this Old Kant would probably reply that causality is a mode of interaction among representations insofar as our experience of the world is intelligible. This is an important distinction.

How are categories such such as Time and Space abstracted from the field of representations if they aren't already given? (Are we back to David Hume?)

Then there is this metaphor of the window as a medium, which is used to introduce the concept of representation. How are we able to distinguish between the window and what is really going on outside if we don't already believe many other things? Most generally we must have already have made the epistemological distinction between appearance and reality. This epistemological distinction seems to require a (non-epistemic) understanding that there is a world and this world is present as an intelligible unity.

As for Heidegger, I will take your advice and be careful not to get lost. But I think that H would reply to your comment above by denying (with Kant)that that Being is a concept at all. He would wonder how Being could ever be abstracted from ". . . the blooming, buzzing confusion of existence" if it wasn't already there.

Again, I want to reiterate that I have learned a lot from you and respect you greatly.

Matt Heins said...

"My Donkey, excellent. You get Wednesday's belated gold star for noticing that something has to power those pumps, and that something is going to emit carbon..."

As a tried and convicted "engineer type" I don't often comment (soberly) anymore here, and certainly wasn't planning to comment on this essay on philosophy.

Though My Donkey's extremely mistaken analogy in their comment nearly drew me out, I resisted.

But now, I read you not only award a gold star to them for such poor effort, but significantly up the ante in mistakenness and I must respond! ;-)

As the linked article clearly states, the pumps would be wind-powered. So no carbon emissions. Now, I know we are all about whole systems thinking here, but the increased albedo of the more persistent ice sheet would massively - massively, massively - outweigh the carbon emissions even if the generators were made in the most polluting way feasible. To use a fitting analogy: adding a nanometer of plastic to my greenhouse frame will not counteract lining the inside of the glass with reflective material.

The plan is grandiose, not ridiculous. The expense seems large only if we neglect to compare it next to global spending on much less worthy things, from military-industrial largesse and high-speed, inter-urban automobile infrastructure, to fast food meals and poorly made plastic toys for children already drowning in them. Last and best, unlike many geoengineering schemes, this one has a quick and ready off switch.

I would vote for this plan AND much of the Lakeland Republic's policies. Where the contradiction is in that I can't see, though I admit everyone else seems to.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...


I hear your pain - What you are needing I believe is an epiphany
Annoying little beasts... :)

Johnny said...

Thanks JMG!

In the hospital I read a good bit of Star's Reach (which I'm really enjoying) and continued reading War & Peace. I'm about 800 pages in (I'm kind of assuming you've read it here, haha) but I was struck how much Tolstoy's writing seems to reflect these ideas of Schopenhauer's. There are all these moments where you are given hints that what a character is feeling is simply nature, or other social forces (others exerting their will) and that all their rationalizations about their intentions don't amount to a hill of beans, not that he isn't completely dedicated to them as a writer, just that the subtext is obviously so much more important to what is going on - my suspicion is that it is this aspect that makes the book difficult for some people to get through, not just it's length. At the opening of the third book he makes this more explicit:

"Every man lives for himself, using his freedom to attain his own ends, and feels in his whole being that he can at any moment perform or abstain from performing this or that action, but as soon as he has performed it, that action executed at a given moment in time becomes irrevocable and belongs to history, in which it has not a free but predetermined significance.

There are two sides to the life of every man: the personal life, which is free to the degree that its interests are abstract, and the elemental life of the swarm, in which he ineluctably follows the laws decreed for him."

I'll look into Ervin Laszlo, thanks!

Nano said...

@Brother G. Ethos et Thanatos seem to drive our hairless monkey wills the most. I once read that Culture is for bacteria, it makes more sense every day.

@JMG: my 8 year old and I have started talking about life, religions, gods and goddesses. We do not follow any of the mainstream religions and we try to give her small bits of perspectives that include Shinto ideas and magical and mythical thinking. It's been an interesting mental exercise if you will to present her with just enough information as to not confuse her or overwhelm her. Would love any type of suggestions from your perspective to introduce more ideas for her brain to digest.

Nano said...

@all: thought this could be helpful. From an interview of A. Jodorowsky

There was a Tibetan master who said, "Nothing is real, everything is an illusion." One day, his disciples come to him and tell him that his son, his only son, is dying, and he begins to scream. The disciples ask: "Master, why are you screaming like that? Your son is an illusion." And the master says, "Yes, but he was the most beautiful of all the illusions."

Thomas said...

Thank you Mr. Greer. Very stimulating series of articles for me. The comments are stimulating too. I'm trying to map Schopenhauer's will and representation onto models I have arrived at myself through various sources/experiences/thought including Lao Tzu. The fit seems not bad so far though I am aware I do not know enough Schopenhauer be certain and am eager to read and learn more.

Thoughts: will as a monism - maybe you said this but I can't find it. Logically since the only real thing (=not a representation) I can directly experience is will (of various grades) and I experience representations then representations are a grade/form of will. I don't really trust syllogisms like this but it expresses the thought concisely. Would Schopenhauer agree (more or less) with this?

I am really curious to hear Schopenhauer's take on 'free will' and determinism and how it fits into his model of will and representation - and especially curious to hear your take. This seems critical to me and may be where Schopenhauer's model and mine part ways.

Also curious what Schopenhauer opines on the possibility/existence of immaterial 'beings'. It's one of those things hard to explain in theory but which reported observations say we shouldn't be quick to exclude. Does will offer a way?

Thanks again for this fantastic series.

Moneybags99 said...

Great reading. To get into more detail on our subconscious and other factors that really drive how we make decisions, Dave Cohen has written a few essays (the "Flatland" essays, his blog is here that get into it pretty well I feel, and is supported by some of the science that shows in some cases we truly only are responsible for 2% or less of the actual 'decisions' we make every moment.

mgalimba said...

oh come now, JMG, if it were not absurd, there would be no necessity for the concept of the will

Patricia Mathews said...

Unlike Descartes - "I have trouble getting a handle on this; therefore, I lurk and listen."

Fred the First said...

Didn't want to clog the comments with current news so I'll stick this at the end. I was really disappointed to see that Trump is increasing military spending 10%. Not surprised, but was really hoping that after coming into office and declaring the F-35 out of control and over budget and saying we need to be smarter about spending, there would be a pull back of troops and a decrease in spending. It feels like he is doing what Hillary would have done in terms of spending. Once again it looks like there is no real choice between the two political parties. Even an out-spoken outsider get co-opted by the bureaucratic monster of DC and does its bidding.

Murdoch Matthew said...


My long rambling posting stayed up during your absence but drew no comment. Understandable that you seem to have deleted it upon your return. I'd hoped that the subtext would justify it -- my appreciation for your placing Jung in a more scientific context. I retain my interest in Jung and the Church, but I can't accept their mythologies, the church's received, Jung's created. Neither of their road maps to the psyche applied to the terrain I've traveled.

Chastened, I'll grapple farther with your ideas. Thank you.