The Role of Self and Subject in H. H�ffding’s Approach to Knowledge and Being

The Role of Self and Subject in H. H�ffding’s Approach to Knowledge and Being

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The complex relationships between our understanding of self and subject, the problem of knowledge (epistemology), and the problem of Being (metaphysics) have long been an important focus of inquiry in philosophy, with equally important ramifications for both science and religion. An extraordinarily interesting and lucid contribution to the analysis of these relationships was made by the Danish philosopher Harald Høffding (1843-1931). Although Høffding is not well known today, he was highly respected in his day as an historian of philosophy, expositor of Kierkegarde, and an important thinker in epistemology and the philosophy of religion. William James was a friend and admirer of Høffding, and Høffding was also the philosophical mentor of Niels Bohr. Bohr was initially Høffding’s student, but they maintained a warm and collegial relationship throughout the rest of Høffding’s life and there is good evidence that Bohr’s approach to the interpretation of quantum theory was substantially influenced by Høffding’s philosophical orientation.

Høffding’s general approach to the issues, which he referred to as “critical monism,” was influenced both by positivism and by the Kantian tradition, but was not restricted to either. He was likewise influenced by the scientific advances of his day while still being able to critically evaluate and delimit these advances, especially in psychology. A deeply fundamental idea at the root of his thinking was the role of continuity and discontinuity in exploring the major problems of philosophy. Indeed, Høffding argues that the problem of consciousness, the problem of knowledge, and the problem of Being can all be related to each other systematically by examining the effects of continuity and discontinuity on each of these problems in turn.

After identifying these three philosophical problems (along with a fourth, the problem of values) as fundamental threads running through the history of philosophy, and discussing the order in which they should logically be considered, Høffding says

“In this treatise my task is to point out the inner connection between these problems. At bottom, they are one and the same problem, appearing in different forms and applications….More important than the question as to the order of the problems, is the question whether or not they can be reduced to one underlying problem. Such a possibility seems to me to lie in the significance which the relation between continuity and discontinuity bears to each one of these problems. This relationship involves the deepest interests of personality as well as of science.” [Høffding, 5-8]

Even today, it is difficult to see how we can better understand self and subject in isolation from these broader concerns, and for this reason I believe that Høffding’s thinking can still provide valuable guidance to us. In this paper, I will explore his thinking in some detail, following his own exposition by making continuity and discontinuity a central organizing principle but focusing our attention more directly on the topic of self and subject.

A focus on this topic is in fact entirely natural, because Høffding’s own choice for the starting point of his analysis turns out to be what he calls the problem of consciousness, because any understanding of Being must presuppose a theory of knowledge, and knowledge itself presupposes a knower. Knowledge has no meaning in the absence of consciousness, so Høffding begins his discourse there. Much of the scientific psychology of his time consisted of an attempt to reduce the totality of consciousness to a set of discrete elements, but Høffding argues that such a program cannot succeed based on very general considerations. The essence of his argument is that the sought-for psychical atoms do not, by their very nature, exist in isolation; instead, they are defined only by their relationships to each other and to greater wholes. Better methodology cannot help find things that don’t exist by virtue of their defining characteristics. In his words,

“But it is a fact of more decisive significance that the so-called psychical elements are always determined by the relations in which we find them, and that it is a pure abstraction to attribute to them, apart from these relations, an individuality which they only possess when thus related. This is the fundamental idea on which my own account of Psychology is built.” [Høffding, 16]

This wholeness in consciousness might then be taken as one of the primary continuities involved in the problem. And yet, this fundamental continuity of consciousness is far from absolute. Sleep, coma, and lapse of memory are a few of the obvious discontinuities. Another example is the disjuncture between conscious and unconscious mental processes. Even the transition from one experiential state to another can illustrate the point. These discontinuities are as fundamental as the continuities in fixing our sense of self. Høffding contrasts such psychical discontinuity with the continuities associated with matter, an idea that dominated the scientific thinking of his time. The implications of this contrast are crucially important, because they set limits on the possible accomplishments of a program already laid out in Høffding’s time and still dominating the ideas of many people today: namely, that consciousness is merely the manifestation of some underlying physiological brain state, and that we will understand both when we understand the physiology. For Høffding, this program is doomed by the fundamental incommensurability of the continuity characterizing physiological brain functions and the discontinuity inherent in consciousness, which he also relates to the incommensurability between the qualitative and quantitative. He does not thereby wish to close off research. To the contrary, Høffding believes that the continuities in psychical phenomena are what give rise to a sense of self, and that tracing out these continuities must be one of the goals of worthwhile psychology. Relating the results of this endeavor to brain physiology would then improve our understanding, which is always Høffding’s aim. He does, however, caution us about the fundamental limits of what such a program can ever attain.

“If, on the psychological as well as on the physiological side, we emphasize the quest for continuity in the highest possible degree, then the hypothesis of identity becomes the real working hypothesis of both the psychical and the physiological problem. Like every other hypothesis that means anything practical, this is only an expression for a method. In psychical and physiological phenomena we have two serial forms of states….Scientifically considered, the task now is, to conceive each of the two series by itself as completely and continuously as possible and to show which definite members of the one series correspond to certain members of the other series….it becomes entirely natural to conceive them as different manifestations of one and the same ‘being.’….It is, essentially, as a working hypothesis, not as a positive solution, that the hypothesis of identity […] gets its significance.” [Høffding, 46-54]

Broaching these topics inevitably leads beyond them, however, because to engage in either psychological or physiological investigations requires us to consider the theory of knowledge. To know or to understand something means that we can relate it to the rest of our knowledge and understanding. A new experience must be connected to the sum total of our previous experience in order to be intelligible. In this fashion, we proceed to make classifications, create categories and concepts, make judgments, and form logical inferences. When the connections formed relate experiences that occur in a time sequence, then a new concept, causality, enters our thinking. In all of this activity, at various levels of abstraction, the urge to bring continuity to our experiences and thoughts is paramount.

“It is, however, not only the intellectual necessity of finding a connection between experiences that has led to giving such prominence to the concept of causality, but also the necessity of distinguishing sharply between subjective ideas and objective reality. And this rests on the fact that the criterion of reality in doubtful cases is always, in the last analysis, the firm, inseparable connection of phenomena. The world of dreams and of thoughts is greater than that of reality…” [Høffding, 65]

A theory of knowledge must seek to justify the validity of these continuous connections between experiences that are forged in the process of our thinking. Høffding identifies four different historical approaches to this task, which he terms the “speculative” (e.g. Plato), the “arbitrary” (e.g. Hobbes), the “empirical” (e.g. Mill), and the “economic” (e.g. Mach). In the speculative tradition, the unity that ties our perceptual world together is grounded in an underlying unity in Being, which we are able to tap into by means of our experiences but which exists in and of itself outside any relationship to us or our knowledge. In contrast, the arbitrary school views our principles as mere constructions and our experience as forcibly coerced into agreement with them. In both of these cases, the experiences are molded by the postulates; in the empirical school, we have the reverse of this situation and the experiences (the empirical data) give rise gradually to the postulates. The economic approach (which is essentially logical positivism) also makes experience central to our thinking, but in addition concedes the important role of constructive thought in shaping the experiences into coherent formulations. Høffding emphasizes that all four of these approaches share in common the idea that our way of understanding phenomena (indeed our ability to understand at all) depends on our forms of consciousness, on how our minds are organized and operate. Without endorsing any particular principles or categories to specify this organization (a project he regards as a dynamic process rather than a static conclusion), Høffding argues that the demand for continuity underlies any such principles (e.g. logic or causality) that might be formulated. In this way, the problem of knowledge becomes intimately related to the problem of consciousness. Hence, we find that self and subject are not foreign to scientific investigation but on the contrary are unavoidable in it.

“….those forms through which our intellectual demands are satisfied must be in keeping with the general nature of our consciousness. What we understand, and that we understand anything, depends not only on the constitution of phenomena, but also on our intellectual organization, just as the colors which we see depend as much on the constitution of our visual organs as on the external objects There is a certain type for all principles and hypotheses, which finally refers back to the innermost nature of consciousness, and here, once more, one comes back to the necessity of unity and continuity.” [Høffding, 74-75]

In this passage, Høffding emphasizes the inextricable link between the problem of knowledge and the problem of consciousness. This link, as we’ll see, plays a key role in the limits that he believes are inherent in our ability to know the world. In part, these limits are imposed by our inability to determine unambiguously (and in a final form) the details of this “intellectual organization.” But there is also, of course, another important part of the problem to consider.

Høffding goes on to point out that our fundamental principles by which we organize experience are constrained by Being as much as by our forms of thought. These forms of thought allow a much wider array of creative results than are countenanced by a scientific investigation of the world. To achieve genuine understanding, we require these forms and principles to conform to the actual results of our experience, and any such experience will in part be shaped by Being. In this way, the third major philosophical problem enters into consideration inevitably, and is clearly related to the first two. Høffding elegantly brings these strands together in the following passage:

The idea of a working hypothesis points in two directions: on the one hand, as already demonstrated, back to the nature of the thinking consciousness, since our consciousness can perform no function, however economical, which is entirely foreign to its own nature; on the other, to the reality to which the phenomena to be understood belong. A tool must be adapted both to the hand that is to use it and to the object to be worked on. The thing, therefore, must in itself present aspects which correspond to the formal tendencies of our knowledge, however much these latter may also be conditioned by the circumstances under which, or perhaps by means of which, the knowledge works. This is the case with all valid knowledge, from its most elementary to its highest forms. So it holds with sensations, in spite of their ‘subjectivity,’ and it holds with the highest principles of abstract unified thought.” [Høffding, 79-80]

Thus far, we have focused on the role of continuity in approaching the theory of knowledge. In our encounters with Being, anything that we might recognize as understanding emerges from our efforts to impose continuity on the flow and detail of experience. The interesting question that Høffding then asks is: are there limits to this process? His answer is affirmative, because continuity is never complete or absolute. Discontinuity is always a necessary consideration, and in Høffding’s approach to the theory of knowledge it arises in at least three forms, namely in the relation of quality to quantity, of time to causality, and of subject to object. Let us first focus on the third case, which is closest to our concerns here. A simple way to conceive of the issue is to make a clean split between the knowing subject and the known object. Discontinuity is then attributed to the properties of the subject, and we can enact a systematic program of discerning the properties of the object itself whose essential nature partakes of continuity. In this scenario, there appears to be no limit to the process, and we have some hope of ultimately converging to an objective final understanding wherein the continuities have achieved perfection. Høffding’s critique of this scenario is both fascinating and devastating.

“In every cognition we can distinguish between a subjective and an objective element, between the knower and the thing known; both terms, however, are only given in mutual relation [….] In reality, we nowhere and at no time possess the pure Subject, with its forms, as an antithesis to a pure object, or rather ‘thing-in-itself,’ from which the plurality of the content of knowledge comes.” [Høffding, 107-110]

He points out that the distinction between the subject and the object is never clean and sharp. On the contrary, the subject is only known within the context of the perceived objects, never as a disembodied abstract pure subject. Likewise, every object is only known by a knowing subject, having no purely objective (i.e. subject-free) existence as a known thing. For these reasons, to describe an objectively defined subject or vice versa entails grave difficulties, because the description of an object (for example) is created by a subject that is itself conditioned by the object, which is in turn conditioned by the subject in an infinite regress. This situation, which we may symbolize as S1{O1{S2{O2∙∙∙∙, is unavoidable, and in consequence so are the discontinuities in our apprehension of Being.

Høffding refers to this as an eruption of the irrational, by which he means the unavoidable confrontation with discontinuity in the midst of our program to understand the world by ever-enlarging the regions of continuity we discover. Another unavoidable source of discontinuity, in addition to the subject-object relationship just discussed, is the incommensurability of quality to quantity. Notice that once again the role of the knowing subject is central here because it is precisely the stubborn existence of qualitative experiences that cannot be exorcised by any kind of appeal to a mechanical worldview in which such qualities don’t exist. While Høffding is filled with admiration for the great successes of the mechanical worldview’s program, it’s clear from his general approach to the theory of knowledge why the program faces limits that can’t be overcome by any such successes. We will analyze these issues in more detail below, in connection with our examination of Høffding’s thinking compared to modern scientific results and the epistemological claims sometimes made on their behalf. For now, the major idea to note is that any theory of knowledge that takes seriously a knowing subject entails at least two major sources of discontinuity and hence limits our possible knowledge of Being.

Høffding does not see this as a cause for pessimism, however. He does not view knowledge and understanding as finished (or potentially finished) products, a goal toward which we move until we arrive, and then remain static. Rather, they are a journey that goes on, and truth must perforce be a dynamic truth. For Høffding, Being is vast and inexhaustible. We must always return to the roots of our understanding and reexamine our most fundamental ways of thinking, and by doing so we will continue to increase clarity and understanding. The value of incursions by the irrational is to inject creativity and novelty into this process.

“Here, again, we run up against the irrational, and here perhaps we see most clearly how inexhaustible Being is in comparison with our knowledge. [….] The ideal would be reached if we could establish a complete harmonization of all our experiences—a continuous totality, with which all particular empirical realms, each according to its own laws, would connect themselves. But the discussion of the problem of knowledge must already have taught us that such a finished world-view is impossible and, to a certain degree, would be self-contradictory. None of the particular empirical fields lies before us all complete and closed; there are always new experiences and new riddles; our coordinating thought constantly has to undertake new tasks. Since our knowledge always works by means of combination and comparison, every totality—if it is to be the object of complete knowledge—must be placed or held alongside of something different from itself: only thus can it be given complete determination; but if there were anything different from itself, it would not be a totality!” [Høffding, 112, 118-119]

Summarizing, we see that Høffding has engaged in a critical reexamination of consciousness, knowledge, and metaphysics (also values, though we have not included this in our treatment) in order to demonstrate the deep and fundamental interconnections between these philosophical problems stemming from their relationships to the unifying general problem of continuity and discontinuity. The main emphasis in our treatment here has been on the centrally important role played by the concept of self in this philosophical analysis. His very choice of the psychological problem as a starting point speaks to the significance of self in the unified discourse he goes on to present. Equal emphasis is given both to the valuable contributions that a scientific study of consciousness can yield and to the irreducible limits to these contributions, the latter due in essence to the integrity of the self as a real and whole existent in the world. But the role of the self in Høffding’s thought then becomes doubly important when his treatment of the epistemological problem turns largely on the crucial part played by a knowing subject. The self considered in the problem of consciousness and the subject considered in the problem of knowledge are not identical, but they are clearly interrelated in deep and fundamental ways. Høffding does not explore all of these interconnections in a thorough or systematic fashion, but his work does set a context for such an exploration. Moreover, even the brief comments he does make are enough to demonstrate that much modern discourse on the problem of consciousness is fatally flawed by a lack of recognition of the epistemological issues involved. We’ll return to this point later. For now, observe that Høffding’s unified treatment of consciousness, knowledge, and Being also makes the self an essential consideration in what he refers to as the cosmological problem too. Epistemology links self and Being in the sense that our knowledge of Being and Being itself cannot be separated, and we’ve already discussed the central role of the knowing subject/self in the epistemological problem. Høffding, however, makes the linkage more directly when he says

“So long as the thought, as knowledge, is not completed but still becoming, just so long Being as a whole cannot be complete. Thought and knowledge are themselves a very part of Being!….It is a strange contradiction in the grand rationalistic systems, that, although they may be able to explain everything else, yet they are powerless to explain the striving, laboring nature of the thought which produces them.” [Høffding, 136]

This completes our brief synopsis of Høffding’s thinking, in which we have featured particularly the key role played by the self. In the remainder of the paper, we will examine how this thinking relates to some more modern developments. Høffding wrote more than a century ago, and since then there have been a number of revolutionary intellectual movements as well as an astounding amount of scientific progress. How does this later work compare with the program and framework laid out above? Høffding strove to incorporate the latest scientific and philosophical work into his thinking, yet he also subjected to critical analysis traditions stretching back millennia. I’d like to speculate a little on how he might react to some prominent intellectual trends of the twentieth century. While there are many fascinating candidates for such an exercise, we’ll keep the scope of this paper manageable by focusing our attention on just two. First, we’ll look at some of the progress in neurophysiology and the philosophical claims based thereon, considered in the light of Høffding’s analysis. Second, we’ll consider some insights of continental existential phenomenology and compare these with the approach taken by Høffding.

At the time that Høffding was grappling with the psychological problem, scientific knowledge of the nervous system and how it operated was extremely primitive. It was known that electrical activity is somehow involved, and microscopy had begun to reveal the anatomical structure of neurons, but even the question of whether the neurons were independent cells or all parts of a common structure was still controversial at that time. About half a century would pass before the synapse was observed by electron microscopy, and a few more decades before the role of neurotransmitters began to become established. Within the last few decades, there has been an explosion of new neurophysiological knowledge and understanding. We now have detailed mechanisms for neural processes such as signal transmission along axons and the excitation or inhibition of a neuron firing by synaptic activity. Memory formation processes, for example, can now be at least partially understood in some detail by means of alterations in synaptic mechanisms. Localization of various cognitive and perceptual functions has been accomplished, as well as networks for higher-order functions such as attention being identified and primitive emotional responses such as fear being associated with specific structures like the amygdala. Much of the structure and information processing in the visual perception pathways connecting retinal light-sensing cells with the higher-order visual areas of the cortex (through the bipolar cells, the ganglion cells, the lateral geniculate nucleus, and cortical area V1) has now been mapped out and studied. To put it briefly, we now have an understanding of the mechanisms of brain functioning that Høffding could not have dreamed of. Does all of this fantastic new knowledge radically alter the point of view he expressed at a time when knowledge concerning brain functioning was so very primitive?

Many modern thinkers have answered in the affirmative. For example, a strong proponent of eliminative reductionism, in which only physiological brain states are real and the psychological phenomena associated with them are merely epiphenomenal, has been P. Churchland. She writes

The common theme uniting the objections to intertheoretic reduction…has been that mental states are not physical states, either because they are states of a nonphysical substance or because they are emergent nonphysical states of the brain in the sense that they cannot be explained in terms of neuronal states and processes. None of these objections seems to me compelling. [Churchland, 346-347]

Churchland’s argument against the property dualists’ objections is based on her contention that they have not shown logically that mental states such as intentionality or internal representation are incompatible with a description based solely on neural processes. She cites well-known arguments by Popper, Nagel, and Jackson that are largely based on the premise that

There is something special about having an introspective capacity—a capacity to know one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations from the inside, as it were. One’s experiences have a certain unmistakable phenomenological character, such as the felt quality of pain or the perceived character of red. One therefore has a subjective point of view…..These mental states resist reduction because introspective access to them has an essentially different character, yielding essentially different information, than does external access via neuroscience. [Churchland, 327]

The three flaws in this argument that she identifies are two logical flaws and a misunderstanding about the goals of reductionism. The first logical flaw is that if we assume identity theory (i.e. the equivalence of neural and mental states) is correct, then our introspections are simply a particular manifestation of a neural state; to deny this begs the question. The second logical flaw she identifies is the equation of being-thought-something with being-something (which she terms the “intentional fallacy”). Concerning reductionism, she points out that a successful reduction merely needs to explain the subjective state, not actually to reproduce it. Although they certainly do not decide the issue unambiguously, Churchland’s arguments are a powerful counter to many of the most modern antireductionist positions. How might Høffding respond to these arguments?

First of all, we should note that Høffding would surely agree with Churchland that we ought to continue to make the attempt to understand mental states in terms of brain physiology with unflagging zeal. But he would likewise caution us to do so very carefully by understanding both of these states well before attempting the reduction.

For my part, in any case, I have always championed [identity theory] as ‘an empirical formula’ which may so lead us in our investigations that neither the rights of physiology nor the rights of psychology will be violated by too early a cessation of our investigation in either of the two realms. Physiology may be tempted to give up the search prematurely if it expects to run into the ‘soul’ at some point as the cause of the change of state of the brain; and psychology is subject to the same temptation if it expects at some point to confront a psychical phenomenon which has its causes in a ‘nerve process’ or ‘nerve energy.’” [Høffding, 54]

Churchland very explicitly urges psychology to yield to this temptation as soon as possible, though she excoriates those who urge physiology to prematurely give up its search. She doesn’t seem to consider our inner lives to have any more reality than they have value.

Folk psychology is commonsense psychology—the psychological lore in virtue of which we explain behavior as the outcome of beliefs, desires, perceptions, expectations, goals, sensations, and so forth. It is a theory whose generalizations connect mental states to other mental states, to perceptions, and to actions. These homey generalizations are what provide the characterization of the mental states.….future historians of science will see folk psychology as having been largely displaced rather than smoothly reduced to neurobiology. [Churchland, 299, 312]

But the more important contribution that Høffding makes concerns the logic of the arguments in favor of a reductionist identity theory. Høffding does not simply cite the existence of the qualitative in our mental lives as a priori evidence of emergent properties, which is the premise criticized by Churchland. Instead, he points to the incommensurability of the qualitative and the quantitative as a fundamental discontinuity that will serve to limit what a reductionist agenda might achieve. No doubt Churchland would be unconvinced by this argument, but in order to rebut it she would need to attack the entire structure of his analysis, which extends to epistemology and metaphysics. I believe that Høffding’s argument here extends well beyond the more recent arguments based on our introspective states because it is embedded in this larger structure. As he phrases the matter,

“How can physiological states have psychical symptoms? How can qualitative differences correspond to quantitative, and how can discontinuous phenomena be united with continuous processes? The fact is that if such questions are thought to be snuffed out by the reduction of psychology to physiology, they will only blaze up again hotter and brighter than before.” [Høffding, 36-37]

To reiterate, the power of Høffding’s critique here stems from the fact that it is not an isolated argument depending on the acceptance of particular premises. This critique of an inherently scientific issue is grounded in a larger epistemological structure. Høffding’s ideas on the self both ground and are grounded by his ideas on the subject, so any counterarguments need to account for all of this. Churchland and her adversaries are all starting from a rather simpler epistemology and metaphysics, which strengthens her arguments and correspondingly weakens her adversaries. Høffding’s more thoughtful and systematic reanalysis of the entire suite of issues within which the debate is set offers a much stronger position against the ultimate success of a reductionist identity theory that basically banishes the self from consideration (even as he champions such a program as a pragmatic research agenda). To banish the self as some modern commentators advocate will require them to perform an equally systematic consideration of the entire theory of knowledge on which so far, without much reflection, they have based their arguments.

We now turn to a much different topic. Existential phenomenology, though rooted in an intellectual tradition contemporary with Høffding, developed during the twentieth century in ways that make for an interesting comparison with his ideas. We will look here at some of the writings of M. Merleau-Ponty as an exemplar of continental phenomenology. For example, one problem that Merleau-Ponty and Høffding both consider is how an object may be said to have stable properties amidst the changing flux of our perceptions. Merleau-Ponty notes that the apparent size and shape of an object changes as we alter our distance and look at it from various different angles. How can we know what the real size and shape are, or even whether it can be said to have one? But for the phenomenologist, this question is an entryway to deeper issues.

“The question is not only how one size or shape, among all apparent sizes or shapes, is regarded as a constant; it is a more searching one. It is a matter of understanding how one determinate shape or size—true or even apparent—can come to light before me, become crystallized in the flux of my experience and, in short, be given to me. Or, more concisely still, how can there be objectivity?” [Merleau-Ponty, 300]

In many ways, this is quite similar to the question that underlies much of Høffding’s analysis, and Merleau-Ponty answers it with a strikingly similar observation.

“Reality is not a crucial appearance underlying the rest, it is the framework of relations with which all appearances tally….Our perception in its entirety is animated by a logic which assigns to each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest, and which ‘cancels out’ as unreal all stray data.” [Merleau-Ponty, 300, 313]

We see here the same idea of continuity, as the basis for what we take to be real, that is the foundation of Høffding’s analysis. But there are also important differences between Høffding and Merleau-Ponty turning on the question of how we relate to the world during this process of constructing reality. For Høffding, this process takes many forms depending on the context, and much of his discourse is concerned with a fairly abstract process of theoretical construction. In this form, the effort to forge continuities is closely related to the philosophy of science. At the other end of the spectrum, he also considers the role of forging continuities in our most primitive perceptions, and here he is on ground more closely akin to the problems being addressed by Merleau-Ponty. But even here, where their concerns have the most overlap, there is a crucial difference between their respective approaches. Even in this case, where there is little rational cognition at work, the self envisioned by Høffding is still basically a center of thought, a knowing subject who is (though admittedly endowed with a nervous system and constrained by particular modes of perception) in some sense disembodied. Early in his discourse, after specifying the first three philosophical problems he will deal with (consciousness, knowledge, and cosmology), Høffding goes on to say

“The three problems thus far named would be set for us if man were only a purely intellectual, cognitive being. The fourth problem arises on account of the relation in which man, as a feeling and willing creature, stands to Being.” [Høffding, 7]

Thus, only the introduction of ethics, values, and religion entail any issues with genuine existential import; the construction of meaning at all levels is just something we do, and would do as discarnate entities if not for practical barriers. For Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the situation is radically different.

“The fact is that if we want to describe it, we must say that my experience breaks forth into things and transcends itself in them, because it always comes into being within the framework of a certain setting in relation to the world which is the definition of my body.….any perception of a thing, a shape or a size as real, any perceptual constancy refers back to the positing of a world and of a system of experience in which my body is inescapably linked with phenomena. But the system of experience is not arrayed before me as if I were God, it is lived by me from a certain point of view; I am not the spectator, I am involved, and it is my involvement in a point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception.” [Merleau-Ponty, 303-304]

This being-in-the-world is crucially important to Merleau-Ponty in a way that is not so for Høffding. Moreover, the difference has important implications for how they construe the problems of perception and cognition more generally. Høffding’s is an analytic method, making distinctions while searching for the continuities in the distinct elements. Synthesis is a constructive and creative process, employing logical comparisons and ideal types at the abstract end but implying some sort of construction of wholes from parts at all levels, even those that precede reflection. In contrast to Høffding’s inherently logical examination of the problems involved in perception, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes a wholeness that is inseparable from the experience of the world, and further emphasizes its importance.

“Not being really dissectable, the complex tactile phenomenon is, for the same reasons, not theoretically so either, and if we tried to define hardness or softness, roughness or smoothness, sand or honey as so many laws or rules governing the development of tactile experience, it would still be necessary to include in the latter knowledge of the elements which the law coordinates. The person who touches and who recognizes the rough and the smooth does not posit either their elements or the relations between those elements, nor does he think of them in any thoroughgoing way. It is not consciousness which touches and feels, but the hand….” [Merleau-Ponty, 316]

While Høffding might or might not agree with this premise, the analytical functions are still of prime importance to him, and he perhaps would concede Merleau-Ponty’s point here only as a necessary limitation, one of the sources of discontinuity that limit our ability to understand. But for Merleau-Ponty, this aspect of our situation in the world has a far deeper significance than this. For him, this issue involves how we are to exist in the world, how we are to know ourselves in the world as well as the world itself.

“In so far as the perceiving subject synthesizes the percept, he has to dominate and grasp in thought a material of perception, to organize and himself link together, from the inside, all aspects of the thing, which means that perception ceases to be inherent in an individual subject and a point of view, and that the thing loses its transcendence and opacity. To ‘live’ a thing is not to coincide with it, nor fully to embrace it in thought. Our problem, therefore, becomes clear. The perceiving subject must, without relinquishing his place and his point of view, and in the opacity of sensation, reach out towards things to which he has, in advance, no key, and for which he nevertheless carries within himself the project, and open himself to an absolute Other which he is making ready in the depths of his being.” [Merleau-Ponty, 325-326]

The primal quality of this encounter thus carries for Merleau-Ponty a meaning that we don’t find in Høffding’s thought. The self/subject that we find there is basically a given, implied by the very fact that we are here to ask the question. Høffding does a thorough job of exploring the implications of the existence of the self/subject, and also does a close analysis of its relationships to knowledge and Being, but he does not question what maintains the existence of the self/subject. Moreover, his exploration of the relationships between the self/subject and being focus on what we can know, but not why it’s important to know. This is again simply presupposed as a given. But what is presupposed in Høffding’s thinking becomes for Merleau-Ponty the root problem that precedes all others and in some sense makes them even possible. These existential questions are not necessarily alien to Høffding’s thought, and might perhaps be considered natural questions to ask given the central role of the self. In his lifelong quest for greater understanding, though, such questions don’t seem to have become important to him. In contrast, though he shares much epistemological ground with Høffding, for Merleau-Ponty these questions must be confronted at the outset in order to make further progress meaningful. He writes

“In so far as, when I reflect on the essence of subjectivity, I find it bound up with that of the body and that of the world, this is because my existence as subjectivity is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparable from this body and this world. The ontological world and body which we find at the core of the subject are not the world or body as idea, but on the one hand the world itself contracted into a comprehensive grasp, and on the other the body itself as a knowing-body.” [Merleau-Ponty, 408]

Once again, we find here an emphasis on the vital importance of the body and our embodied condition in the world, and on the encounter of our embodied selves with the world as a formative event. The subject here is no abstraction but rather a real self struggling to exist. We do not meet this self too often in Høffding’s writing, but he does sometimes drop hints of an undisclosed depth, as when he says that

“Consciousness exists only on account of the uninterrupted work of collecting the single elements into a totality. Such a work of combination and concentration is evident in the simplest sensation as much as in every ideation, every feeling, every impulse, every determination. At every point an activity manifests itself, which is just as original a phase of conscious life as the elements (phases or attributes) which observation and analysis directly light upon. The real state of affairs is not that we first had sensations, ideas, and feelings, and that then through combination something came into being that we might call the will. Without an original combination, without a primary synthetic process, even the elements which determine the will in the narrower sense could not arise.” [Høffding, 56-57]

Høffding here comes close to Merleau-Ponty’s more vital and less abstract conceptualization of the self, an entity animated by a will, who creates its existence (in some form, at any rate) by virtue of its encounter with the world. Although Høffding still doesn’t say much about the embodied status of this self, there is at least some sense of the existential issues, usually left out entirely, lurking below the surface here and coming a little closer to Merleau-Ponty’s formulation of the issue. And yet, this self/subject still somehow precedes and presupposes the encounter. Høffding’s self, though intimately bound up with Being and with knowledge, doesn’t make the kind of direct contact required by Merleau-Ponty’s self.

“All thought of something is at the same time self-consciousness, failing which it could have no object. At the root of all our experiences and all our reflections, we find, then, a being which immediately recognizes itself, because it is its knowledge both of itself and of all things, and which knows its own existence, not by observation and as a given fact, nor by inference from any idea of itself, but through direct contact with that existence.” [Merleau-Ponty, 371]

In the end, Høffding’s problems of consciousness, knowledge, and cosmology are problems of understanding, not primarily existential problems. That these two brilliant writers share as much overlap as they do is perhaps all the more interesting given this essential difference in emphasis. Perhaps the fundamental discontinuity between Self and Other that Merleau-Ponty struggles with would have served for Høffding as yet another source of creative novelty in his own never-ending quest for understanding.



Churchland, P., Neurophilosophy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986.

Høffding, H., The Problems of Philosophy, translated by Galen Fisher, with a preface by William James, The MacMillan Company, New York, NY, 1905.

Merleau-Ponty, M, Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1962.