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Thursday, January 12, 2006

haunting schopenhauer

Schopenhauer’s essay on spirit seeing begins like this

“Ghosts, which in the recently elapsed, superclever century, in spite of tradition, were not so much banned as despised, have been rehabilitated in the last 25 years in Germany, much like magic was before them. Perhaps not unjustly. Because the proofs against their existence were in part metaphysical (which stood on shaky ground) and in part empirical, which only proved, that in those cases where no accidental or intentionally designed delusion was discovered, nothing was present which could have had an effect by means of the reflection of lightrays on the retina or vibrations in the air on the eardrum. But this speaks merely of the presence of bodies, whose presence nobody had observed, and whose manifestation on the aforesaid physical manner would have negated the truth of the spirit phenomenon; since the concept of a spirit actually lies in the fact that its presence is announced in a wholly other way than that of a body. A spiritseer who understood his business and knew how to express it would observe that this is simply the presence of an image in the apperceiving intellect, completely undistinguishable from that which, under the medium of light and the eyes would be left behind by bodies themselves, and yet without the real presence of such bodies. The same thing, in regard to present audible phenomena, noises, tones and sounds in the subject’s ear being brought forth, without the presence or movements of such phenomena. Here lies the source of the misunderstanding which goes through everything that is said for and against the reality of spirit phenomena: that the spirit phenomena presents itself as a bodily phenomena. Yet it is none, and must be none. This difference is perhaps difficult to illustrate and demands technical knowledge of the philosophical and physiological kind. Because it requires that we conceive that an effect from a body doesn’t necessarily presuppose the presence of a body.”

Someone once called mesmerism the materialism of anti-materialists. Something is going on in this essay that has the same pattern. In Schopenhauer’s case, the idealism for which he is known, in the dictionaries of philosophy, doesn’t predict the way in which he deals with these phenomena which simulate the body as to effects upon a subject's body without themselves being a body – in fact, which are necessarily disembodied. The thought intrigued him because, by means of the possibility of the “spirits” he was able to advance to the mechanism, as he thought of it, of dreams, and from there to sleepwalking, and from there to the phenomena of premonition, or second sight.

LI thinks this is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least those having to do with the first half of the nineteenth century’s way of dealing with the super-clever materialism of the eighteenth. The eighteenth century killed a certain kind of argument. This is the argument that supernatural stuff happens. Arguments die for a lot of reasons, only one of which is that they are refuted. I would say that the supernatural argument died from shame. And, indeed, Schopenhauer was so famously an atheist that one imagines that he could not but be scornful of the mass of “paranormal” phenomena thrown out by folk belief and treasured, for various strategic reasons, by the Romantics. So I found this beginning a little unsettling.
More on this tomorrow, I think.

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