Nothing Exists Independently

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 21 Comments

One of the foundational insights of Pragmatism is that reality only exists in relationship. Nothing that is absolutely independent is real. Absolute Oneness is identical with absolute nothingness. Any concept of oneness that exists can only exist in opposition to some other concept of nothingness. This definition of reality has profound implications that I want to explore a little in this and a few subsequent posts.

If we are going to attribute the insight that nothing exists independently to one of the founding Pragmatists we would have to assign it to Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce believed that something is real if it has necessary affects (on other real things) associated with it. That means that something can only be counted as a real thing if it forces other real things to act in particular ways in relationship to it. The reality of anything is therefore always defined in relationship to other things.

Let us start with the example of a table. We know that a table is a real thing because it has necessary affects associated with it when it comes in contact with other real things. For example sunlight that shines onto a table from above will not reach the ground below. Similarly raindrops that fall from the sky onto the table will have to roll off of the edge of the tabletop before continuing to the ground. And finally if I walk in a straight line up to a table I will be forced to move the table to one side before continuing. The reality of the table forces sunlight, raindrops and me to act in specific ways in relationship to it – therefore it is a real thing.  If we could imagine a table that sunlight, raindrops and I could pass straight through without the slightest alteration of our course then the table would not exist; it would not be a real table.

For Charles Sanders Peirce and all subsequent Pragmatists reality is defined by interaction, relationship and encounter. We do not perceive reality directly; we perceive the necessary effects of the encounter of one real thing with others. Those affects are “signs” that tell us that a real thing is present. One of the implications of this way of seeing reality is that it dissolves the distinction between subject and object. No objects exist independently from a perceiving subject. Whether the subject is sunlight, raindrops or human beings, the object of the table does not come into existence until there is an encounter with some subject. And in this encounter the object defines necessary effects that will be indicative of reality. At the same time the subject will also shape the nature of those effects. The table as “perceived” by raindrops will be different than the table as perceived by me. At the same time I am different when I percieve raindrops than I am when I listen to an orchestra. Reality is found not in the object or the subject alone, but in the mutual encounter of subject and object. The subject and object define the character of one another's existance. This insight made Pragmatism instrumental in the development of the physics of Quantum Mechanics and is also why this philosophy lends itself so well to an understanding of the self as part of the integral whole of society. A few posts ago I began a journey toward the development of a theory of social reality and these next few posts exploring the Pragmatic understanding of reality will create a deep foundation for us to continue the journey toward discovering how social reality is “really” real.

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Blake Anderson
10 years ago

Hey Jeff, Great post! I enjoyed what you said that: ‘reality is found not in the object or the subject alone, but in the mutual encounter of subject and object’ This led me to ponder up social holon encounters, and it seems this is what you are pointing to at the end of your post, that they are ‘really’ real. Now I wonder, does this mean, that the social is the only thing that is real, for we may have objects and subjects, but they are interdependent as you say. So the ‘mutual encounter’ is the only thing defined as… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Hi Blake, Over my next few posts I want to develop some of the themes that you are bringing up. In a sense only social holons are real, but social doesn’t have to mean collections of humans to the Pragmatists. The encounter between the raindrop and the tabletop is a social holon. Peirce had a word that he used for “suchness” which was “firstness”. By that he meant that which is absolutely first without any second. It is absolute oneness which means it is also absolute nothingness. Out of that nothingness evolution begins. There is an encounter which creates reality,… Read more »

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Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

James makes a difference between acquaintance-with, or knowledge about: ‘knowledge about a thing is knowledge of its relations‘; ‘acquaintance with it is limitation to the bare impression which it makes‘. He also makes a difference when it is about ‘words’ : there is a static meaning, which doesn’t make any associations and a dynamic meaning, when a word is placed in a context -a sentence- than relations are made about their function and meaning (thought) that leads to the goal of thought, that is a conclusion. We only notice parts of reality: ‘ the existence of an object outside the… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I just remembered that William James said himself that he writes about psychology and not philosophy. I was re-reading Jeff’s blog and other comments and it felt so different… James said he was talking about ‘the sense of sameness from the point of view of the mind’s structure alone and not from the point of view of the universe. Which means he did not care whether there is any REAL sameness in things or not, or whether the mind be true or false in its assumptions of it.

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Liesbeth

Yes, in the end this was Peirce’s complaint about James – he felt that James was too subjective in his oulook.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Hello Jeff, coming back from a trip in Amazonias (where I had a very strong fever), I find myself a bit perplexed by this text of the pragmatists. Do they want to tell us that everything that IS interacts ? Said like this I would certainly agree. But everything, or (every-being) that IS, certainly doesn’t interact with “everything”. So we cannot deny the possibility that some “beings” exist with whom we had insofar no interaction whatsoever. Same for ideas. Some ideas do exist with which we had no interaction whatsoever. If we already interact with everything, there is no real… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Hello Catherine, The conception of reality that Pragmatism is based on – to the extent that I understand it which is minimal to be sure -I am realizing to be quite original. There certainly are ideas that exist before we have them, but are there ideas that exist that exist before anybody has them? If they do exist where do they exist? But, before we get too far down this road, the question of ideas are already so far down the line that I want to back up to more fundemental notions. THe existance of an idea presupposes a being… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

dear Jeff, yes maybe it was the rainforest fever, but I have lost sense of the degree of clarity of what I write. My point was looking simple though : to get anything “new” you must not have ben into contact with it before, if not it is not “new”. Now I am not saying that something which is new “existed before and we didn’t know it”. Maybe this didn’t exist “before” we come in contact with it. bUt for sure, anything which is new must pre-supposes that it is the first time that we enter in contact with it.… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Hello Catherine, You may have to bear with me – but please keep responding – for a few posts as I work through this for myself. I don’t think that the Pragmatists were saying that things don’t exist until we contact them, they were saying that things only exist in relation to other things. If there is absolutely only one thing, then that is exactly identical to nothing at all. One and nothing are the same. Only when their is two do both of them come into being. Let’s see if I can work this out more over a few… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I have been reading your conversation and there is something I am not sure about. Both of you have a background in physics. I think there is a big difference between the movement of matter (physics) and human beings (giving meaning to reality; pragmatism which connects meaning and action. The way human beings create meaning is not the same as laws of gravitation. What people think is true, that is where they act apon: this does not have to be true in the sense of truth. As far as I have seen something of Searle, it is also about ‘creating… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Dear Jeff and Liesbeth, first OK for the pragmatists. I would agree with them that if there is no relation ship at all, then well, what to say, indeed there is “nothing” at all. When I get uncomfortable is that I just realized ( see the anecdote about Newton) that I don’t really know what a “relationship” means. I seem to know this a priori but when I try to put words on it I get stuck. What does “to touch” mean ? This question of realtionship is quite fascinating. let’s take your example of the “two”. Let take just… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago

Catherine – now I must protest – you are giving away all the secrets. :) You will see in my next post that the way the pragmatists saw it is exactly what you say – anything that is real must emerge as a triad – this, that and void – or I, we, it – or object, sign, interpretant – or….on and on. The reason I enjoy your comments so much is because you are so perceptive. The first insight the Pragmatists worked with was that relationship is necessary for anything real to exist – this led them in the… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I just come home from a celebration with the Brama Kumaris where Dadi Janki would have been but instead sister Jayanti was there, she is also fabulous and speaks English which makes the transmission more direct. The theme was ‘feeling great, no matter what’. There had been a lot of talking about a book published with hundred scientists writing about happiness. And guess what: most important are relationships, worst is loneliness. Than sister Jayanti was asked about this, she said ‘ah, these scientists, they think they know everything…(I do not repeat this to offend, I was thinking about my own… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I read such an extremely interesting part in William James’ book; even though it seems far from what Jeff is talking about, it explains something more about relationships and why we only exist in relationship. James is talking about the strive towards the highest social self, a self that is worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion. This self is the true, intimate, ultimate, permanent me which I seek. And he writes: the judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the Great Companion. Than he writes that scientific enlightenment is taken over (this was 1914..). This causes a… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Liesbeth,

the last part for james is really interesting. Actually it is the type of questions I am asking myself at the moment : what is a contact, what is a worthy contact, what is the deepest contact ?

I don’t have a minute at the moment, but I find this is a very interesting line of inquiry.

Catherine

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I am totally fond of William James, it is so amazing to read. Jung points at him all the time. He writes real psychology, just how we function. And even though knowledge about the brain is much further now, thing he explains are still so accurate. What you point to is an example of his greatness. This is an item I always wonder about and what he says makes sense. It is quite clear that this lack op an higher order is what is missing in the post modern society. How important this can be I saw in AA, I… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
10 years ago
Reply to  Liesbeth

Dear Liesbeth,
I am also completely taken with James. I believe that James’ practice of psychology was inspired by his study of Goethe’s observational method of science. And so as you say he developed some strikingly original conceptions that still hold true today. Can you tell us more about some of the places where Jung mentions James.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

To say a little about worthy contact, I think Andrew is very right there: that we need three sorts of contacts. One as above, where creative energy is really at it’s highest; than the peer-contact, which is probably most alive, the best contact in that sense I have with the friend who studied Steiner, we both live totally different lives, but when we are together it is one flow of energy which always brings us further and it is never boring or the same; we also need contacts where we are responsible for others, I think that is really creating… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Jung points to him in notes, I love to makes notes about that, but it will take a while. Thank you.

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

I only have one book of Jung here, an Amsterdam, but I remember he mostly points at the Varieties of Religious Experiences. In the book ‘ Archetypes’ he is talking about the meaning of the unconsciousness for psychology (translated from Dutch) ‘ the hypothesis of the unknown places question marks with the concept of ‘ psyche’ ‘ . The soul could have unexpected characteristics. She was not longer the direct known; she was twofold now:: known and unknown. This was the end of the old psychology and it meant a big revolution, just like in physics the discovery of radioactivity.… Read more »