Allan Ramsay, David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher Reality traditionally divides along mind-body lines — subject-object. The basic division, the traditional one within philosophy, is into res cogitans and res extensa, thinking thing and spatial thing, a duality expounded by Descartes in Meditations on First Philosophy. The duality parallels our experience of, on the one hand, an inside of subjectivity (thoughts, feelings, consciousness, psyche, mind, soul) and, on the other, an outside peopled with objects (the world out there, the other, the not me, quantifiable physical spatiotemporal mechanical reality). Within certain limits, the division seems justified. After all, we don’t experience our inner existence — our “selves” — in the same way in which we experience both each other and external objects. As a consequence of the first division, and of further ramification into ever more specialized branches of knowledge, the references we’ve been discussing as constituting the matrix that holds the world together specifically as world, as distinct from nature and the physical forces known to hold it together, become pigeonholed as psychological, as wholly inner. In opposition to what is “merely psychological,” the outside is taken to be a self-sufficient world, which, at its most basic, is understood to belong under the purview of the natural sciences. As we’ve seen, anything psychological is tacitly assumed to be inessential to the world and is therefore eliminated. The world is believed to survive, to still be there, even after the elimination. Neatly compartmentalized into fields of research like physics and psychology, into categories and subcategories, the initial belonging together of the unified phenomenon thus gets distorted. As a consequence of the first division, distortion arises as to which part of reality, which res, is contingent on the other. The existence of the mind is materially understood to depend on the existence of the world, but the existence of the world is not thought to depend on the mind. As the source of the sense data that enters our organs in perception, it is thought that the world is something self-sufficient that precedes all perception (not to mention all reflection). In other words, it is assumed that nature is already a world before anyone becomes aware of it. The existence of the world certainly does not depend on the existence of my mind or your mind. The question is whether it depends on the existence of any mind whatsoever. One way to remove the gap between mind and body is to make everything material. Physics invades psychology. Under this paradigm, the world gets internalized as physical data entering the body by means of our sense organs. But from a holistic vantage point materialism remains incomplete. It leaves something essential out of the picture. The narrowness of focus on pure physiology, on the mechanics of perception, distorts first person experience. In a conceptual scheme in which everything gets materialized, first person gets sublated into third person. From a phenomenological viewpoint, this change from first to third is not innocuous — far from it. Not only the self but the world is thereby falsified. By assuming that the world exists even in the absence of the phenomenon of encountering, science becomes blind to the world as world, and consequently regularly deploys the terms nature and world interchangeably. For argument’s sake, let’s submit that the references we discussed last time are, after all, “merely psychological.” The fact is that the world could still not exist without them. At the same time, wholeness can’t be pieced together out of parts. To derive the primordial phenomenon, we can’t just merge the physical and the psychological, and in any case we don’t need to. We already have access to it before the division. The wholeness we are trying to clarify here is a prescientific phenomenon and has to be grasped as such. It is true that the different fields of reality are outlined by the world itself. But it still possesses them as a unified world. To help clarify what the world is, consider this bit of dialog from one of Don DeLillo’s novels: 

A haircut has what. Associations. Calendar on the wall. Mirrors everywhere. There’s no barber chair here. Nothing swivels.

Contained in that statement is an intimation of the referential matrix, for without the existence of the significative phenomenon of association the world would not be possible. Associations are commonly defined as mental connections between ideas or things. On the one hand, the connection is mental. On the other hand, the connection can be between things. How are we to understand this difference? What is actually being connected, two things (mirror, barber chair) or two mental reproductions of the things? Especially since Locke, the things being connected by association are understood to be ideas, inner representations of external things, even though that is certainly not the way the connection is experienced. For Hume, association is an absolutely pivotal concept, but, because he lacks an adequate conception of the primordial phenomenon, he, like Locke, still understands association as a psychological phenomenon:

all simple ideas may be separated by the imagination, and may be united again in what form it pleases,” “two objects are connected together in the imagination,” “here is a kind of ATTRACTION [his caps], which in the mental world will be found to have as extraordinary effects as in the natural, and to show itself in as many and various forms.

Imagination connects ideas and impressions. However blind he was to the unitary phenomenon, we must nevertheless credit Hume for the great importance he placed on association. He concludes his Abstract with what is, in my opinion, one of the most important statements in all philosophy:

’Twill be easy to conceive of what vast consequences these principles must be in the science of human nature, if we consider, that as far as regards the mind, these are the only links that bind the parts of the universe together, or connect us with any person or object exterior to ourselves. For as it is by means of thought only that a thing operates upon our passions, and as these are the only ties of our thoughts, they are really to us the cement of the universe, and all the operations of the mind must, in a great measure, depend on them.

Association is “the cement of the universe.” He almost makes the leap from the merely mental to the world itself, but he failed to see the underlying unity. Consider a kitchen table and chair. The belonging of the chair to the table, this reference between them, is not a merely psychological phenomenon if by merely psychological we mean something on which the world does not depend. We have said that a world where nothing is encountered is not a world at all (a world where nothing is sensed is pure non-sense, so to speak). Given the importance of the encounter that turns nature into a world, we asked how the world, given its distinctive character, is held together. In his psychologically lopsided way, Hume already provides the answer: association (or something very much like it). Things in the world belong to one another, are referred and assigned to each other in a matrix of relations that cannot be directly mapped onto their physical connectedness. The reference of the table to the chair, the chair’s belonging to the table, is not some objective force that they exert on each other. Nor is it the result of physical proximity. If I placed the chair in a different room or even halfway around the world it would still belong to the table and still refer to it. It is an intelligible reference between two things in the world among countless other references. The darkness of the advancing cloud signals an approaching storm. Fallen leaves refer to the tree they fell from. A desk strewn with books and papers implies someone who works or studies there. Scissors refer to something that can be cut. This referential form of connectivity is not a physical bond but a kind of intelligibility, yet this doesn’t in the least prevent it from being the very thing that holds the world together as world, beyond the connectivity of nature by means of physical forces. To state something obvious: insensate things cannot refer to each other. The referrals require at least some degree of comprehension. Here we deploy the word in such a way that we emphasize its literal meaning: to comprehend is to grasp things together. It is the result of apperception. We can now state that, as opposed to the way the parts of nature are joined together by physical forces, the world is held together by comprehension. With some reservations, we may say that the world is formed out of substances and their material relations. But when we take into account the discarnate network of references, we also see that the world is really more than just the sum of its physical parts. Whenever physics takes nature up as a theme, however objectively it may do so, it’s always within a world-context in which referentiality is presupposed. Association has already played its part prior to and outside of the thematic concern of the scientist. The scientist implicitly reads references into the object — for instance, the reference between a whole tree and one of its parts. Without apperceptive comprehension, a leaf could never refer to the whole tree in a figure-ground relation of a single part against the whole, nor could the roots of the tree refer to the branches. They are all physically connected — in fact, parts of the same thing that nourishes itself throughout — but without comprehension they never yield a significative coherence, a gestalt. And the world is precisely this gestalt. Thanks to comprehension, we relate and distinguish part from whole, top from bottom, left from right, etc. These are the phenomena that in-form the world, and it does no use to call them merely psychological. No matter how strong the gravitational bond between them, a planet and its satellite, the sun and the objects that orbit it, could never refer to each other and form a unit, for example, a solar system. A solar system is something that has to be known, has to already be part of a world where things relate and refer to each other. A unit (the components of which, as we saw from the table and chair, do not have to be contiguous) is first and foremost an idea. The idea of a unit, so indispensable to the formation of the world, already conforms to an intelligibility possible only through comprehension, through an apperceptive taking together as a unit. This means that there is no such thing as an objective world; there are only objective determinations of things in the world. For the world is not an object but that within which objects, including the planet, and even the very universe, appear as phenomena. In one sense the world is in nature, but in a different sense nature is in the world.


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