Relative Phenomenalism

As it has just come up in a discussion here is an extract from a wonderful article by Edward Barkin discussing the relationship between Buddhist doctrine, Kant and the problem of consciousness, first published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

“The history of Western philosophy is filled with discussion, in one guise or another, of what is often called the ‘transcendental’ subject and object. The terms invoke the idea of a hidden self behind the phenomenal self and a hidden object behind the phenomenal object. Although Kant positioned the transcendental ‘things-in-themselves’ as methodological concepts rather than as metaphysical entities, the tendency since Kant has often been to reify them and then debate their objective existence. Idealists have typically wanted to exclude the transcendental object from philosophical discussion on the grounds of its alleged non-existence, while materialists have generally wanted to exclude the transcendental subject on the same grounds.

The idea behind modern phenomenalism would be that neither the transcendental object or subject exists in any concrete sense. Instead, one would postulate various possible combinations of phenomenal objects, the most coherent, complex and structured of which could be viewable as constituting emergent conceptual minds such as our own. In this case, the universe could be seen as fundamentally rooted in phenomena or mind.

As a result, there would be a tendency to reify mental phenomena, as in Berkeleian objective substance monism. However, I would argue that to do so would be as much of a mistake as to reify physical entities, since even the most basic mental properties can be shown to have a conceptual, and hence relative, non-objective aspect. In this idea’s original context, mainstream Buddhist philosophy, one would say that the reason to avoid endowing anything, including a qualitative state or a self, with the property of intrinsic, independent reality is that no object can be logically established without implicit or explicit reference to the causes and conditions which enable it to exist – including its parts and attributes and the very fact that a consciousness is required to mentally designate it a distinct entity in the first place. This principle is known as ‘dependent origination’ or ‘the interdependent nature of reality’.”

Edward Barkin
‘Relative Phenomenalism’
JCS Vol 10 No. 8 (2003)

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2 Responses to Relative Phenomenalism

  1. What a coincidence, I’ve been mulling over an article touching on similar themes, although going in a different direction. The question I’m grappling with is: if self is the subject of consciousness, then what does it mean to identify with the objects of consciousness, given that everything is in consciousness (ie: everything) including the identification, its consequences, and the inference that there is a subject self?

  2. guymax says:

    That’s a big ‘if’. Here’s the Dalai Lama – “We should not think that the self is something that was originally there and can be eliminated through meditation. In fact, the self is something that never existed in the first place.” I think perhaps the ordinary ‘self” would be more like another object of consciousness than a subject.

    By the way, I’m only just getting the hang of it but I’ve become a big fan of blogging thanks in no small part to your comments and posts. It is incredibly useful to be able to chat about these things.

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