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West Meets East

Some Solid Ideas

Bharatwaj Iyer examines substance with the help of Hume & Vedantic philosophy.

In his 1738 classic A Treatise of Human Nature, the Scottish philosopher David Hume criticised a conception of substance held by many philosophers throughout the long history of Western thought. He rhetorically asks these philosophers how they know of the existence and nature of substances. Hume considers two possible answers: sense perception or sheer thought. If our senses are the source of our knowledge of substances, then substance would need to be observable through taste, smell, touch, and so on. No one, of course, considered substance to be a smell or a taste or a touch, nor even the combination of all these. Rather, the combination of all our sensations of an object, argues Hume, is imagined to belong to an unknown entity that acts as the locus of their manifestation; and that is precisely what the ‘substance’ is thought to be. Our conception of substance is a function, then, of our minds, not of our senses. The intellect conjures up the idea of ‘substance’ and then a relation is imagined between an unknowable something, the substance, and its knowable, sensible attributes or qualities.

This substance-attribute relation was instrumental in the conception of thing-hood and identity in Western thought. For instance in Plato’s dialogue Meno, when Meno asks what a solid is, Socrates answers that a solid (or we could substitute ‘thing’) is something that has contours (or edges) in which certain sensible qualities inhere. And to Aristotle, form confers thing-hood on a lump of matter by separating that form-impressed matter from the rest of the world in a specific way. Imagine Mount Rushmore were the matter. The monument would have thing-hood conferred upon it by the sculptor carving out the faces of the Presidents. The sculptor separates the monument from the remaining matter of the mountain. To call the unformed lump something in addition to what is defined by the faces of the Presidents would be to miss the whole point. In Aristotle’s view matter must combine with form to become a substance. In our example, the monument of sculpted faces is the substance formed by the rocks given shape by the sculptor. In Aristotle’s terminology, unformed matter is mere potentiality, and form is that which makes it actual. This actuated potentiality is what he calls substance. A mass of pure potentiality, a sea of undifferentiated matter, cannot be a thing or substance: a potentiality, by definition, is not (yet) a thing.

Hume thought that Aristotle’s argument did not hold water. Nevertheless, it’s a good starting point to critically consider some core aspects of Hume’s metaphysics.

Hume’s Substance Problem

The key term Hume uses in the Treatise in his criticism of the classical conception of substance is ‘inhere’. In his words, “the particular qualities, which form a substance, are commonly referred to an unknown something, in which they are supposed to inhere” (1.1.6). This unknown something seems to act as a bearer of a bunch of qualities the senses perceive. The problem with this thing is that it is unknowable to the senses and thus has to be conceived in an abstract form. But abstract ideas are problematic for any empiricist philosophical project, such as Hume’s. Empiricism says that all knowledge comes originally from the evidence of our senses, from which both simple and complex ideas follow. We cannot know with any certainty things we cannot perceive, such as substances. We can only have abstract ideas of them.

It’s not entirely surprising then that in his Treatise Hume places the section on ‘Abstract Ideas’ immediately after that on ‘Modes and Substances’. For Hume, as for Berkeley, a general idea is nothing but a label for a set of particular ideas with varying degrees of quantity and quality. An abstraction is but a confused and inaccurate particular idea. For instance, there is no universal ‘Man’ as such, but only a lot of particular men and women, whose particularities have been confused in the mind. A vague representative has been set up instead and given a name to call to memory the particular instances when the general word ‘Man’ is thought of or called up. Universals like Man, Justice, Goodness, and so forth, do not have concrete referents out there but are vague collections of particular instants. As Hume writes, “If ideas be particular in their nature, and at the same time finite in their number, it is only by custom they can become general in their representation, and contain an infinite number of other ideas under them.” (1.1.7)

The controversy over the connection between abstract generalities and particular instances can be traced as far back as the debate between Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux in the Twelfth Century. It makes its first appearance even further back, in Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s Forms. But for Hume abstract ideas are only vague collections of particular instances. Given this, the abstract idea of the inherence of qualities in a ‘something’ behind them is a problem. However, if the supposition of a thing that is somehow the bearer of sense qualities is unfounded, then there still arises the question of the packaging and bundling-together of qualities that separates one such bundle off from the rest as an apparent object. What does give rise to this tying together or parcelling together of sense qualities, without which we wouldn’t have individual objects in the world but just an incoherent sea of sensations?

Substance Is No Accident
Substance Is No Accident © Venantius J Pinto 2019. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Another Substance Problem

The fact that we can’t perceive substances is a problem on Hume’s account of knowledge. But why insist on the unifier of our sense impressions as existing beyond perception?

One problem is that if there is another, perceivable entity that parcels together the sense data, that entity itself must have sense qualities for it to be perceivable; and so it in turn would require a further perceivable ‘substance’ binding it to the other qualities, and so on ad infinitum: a sort of ‘third substance’ problem.

As it cannot be a sense quality, then, can the bundling principle holding our sense perceptions together be something innate, even prior to perception, but not a substance in the sense problematic to Hume?

If a kind of innate individuality is conceded in the person who perceives – he or she being intrinsically a discrete individual – then there is nothing inconceivable in also assigning innate individuality to things in the external world. So, given the plausible idea that individuals have individual experiences, it follows that intrinsically individual things (that is, substances) are at least possible. There could be an unknown something (to use Hume’s term) that bundles together a lump of sense qualities. But in Hume’s philosophy, the problem doesn’t lie in accepting the possible existence of something that ‘carries qualities on its back’, but in our capacity to know this something. The question is not ontological but epistemological: it’s not about what exists, but about what we can know about what exists.

Let’s go back for a moment to Aristotle. ‘Form’ seems an interesting candidate for an unknown something that could carry (or perhaps help contour) a set of properties, and thus establish thing-hood. But can form be observed in experience, and so be known to Hume; or is the idea of form merely abstracted from the objects experienced through the senses? I think clarity about this problem can be obtained by viewing it from the standpoint of Vedanta, one of the six traditional schools of Hindu philosophy.

Vedantic Metaphysic

Let me first restate the problem: all our knowledge of the world is received via perception of the qualities of objects by the senses, and as substance cannot be so perceived, one can never have knowledge of it. On close examination one finds here an interesting question-begging which provides fertile ground for thought. But first I wish to describe the Vedantic conception of substance as succinctly as I can. After this we shall look at the question-begging.

In the Vedantic conception (and also for Thomas Aquinas) two components make up an object: form and substance. Form is further divisible into ‘name’ and ‘shape’. The term ‘shape’ here does not only mean shape in the sense that the sculptor gives shape to a statue, but includes all of an object’s quantitative and qualitative attributes, including the arrangement of its component parts. Furthermore, the naming of something as a ‘statue’ happens to the substance ‘rock’, which has the form of a statue. Or we can say that a ‘pot’ is given that name when the constituent clay assumes the shape and form given it by the potter; or that the ‘lamp’ is called so when all its constituent parts – the base, the shade, the bulb, the stand, and so on – are arranged together by its maker.

This much is common sense; but the Vedanta takes this further. One might begin by trying to locate an object in the external world. Consider the clay pot. On one inspection we see that there is in fact nothing called a ‘pot’ apart from the clay that is its underlying stuff. There is only a pot-shaped lump of clay: there is nothing substantive or additional given by either the name or the shape of the pot. So the name and shape of the clay aren’t the substantives, the clay is. But the ‘clay’ isn’t substantive in its own right either. It too is but a name for a particular arrangement of its underlying molecules, and the clay is not an additional substantive element on top of the molecular arrangement. The ‘molecular arrangement’, in its turn, is but a label for the particular atomic arrangement that underlies it. There is no water molecule as an additional entity on top of the arrangement of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, for example. The same logic holds from the atomic to the subatomic particles, right down to quarks and even beyond. If something has a form, it must be an arrangement of something that underlies it as its substance, which in turn acts as the form of a substance underlying it, and so forth.

This sort of thinking is important in relation to Hume’s philosophy. In his arguments for the indivisibility of space, he says, “It is also obvious, that whatever is capable of being divided in infinitum must consist of an infinite number of parts, and that it is impossible to set any bounds to the number of parts, without setting bounds at the same time to the division” (1.2.2). If that conclusion can be the result of reasoning, a similar result of reasoning (as above) is that any entity that has a form must always be the form of something underlying it. The search for the most basic components of the universe shall go on without end, so long as those components (whether they be the primary particles of physics or the strings of string theory) have mass and form. For everything that is a form has to be the form of something underlying and composing it, as experiment and observation continues to make clear. What this implies for the study of Hume’s thought is that the bundle of qualities that constitute things can be further analysed into bundles of bundles of bundles.

At this point, I am tempted to quote from Blaise Pascal’s unforgettable 72nd Pensée: “Perhaps he will think here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of the abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world.”

Hume Begs The Question

As I mentioned, a final thing needs to be said with respect to the knowing of substances in which qualities supposedly inhere. While discussing causation, Hume criticises the type of metaphysician who argues that the very definition of an effect presupposes the existence of a cause, and thus any effect has a cause: “They are still more frivolous who say that every effect must have a cause, because it is implied in the very idea of effect. Every effect necessarily presupposes a cause; effect being a relative term, of which cause is the correlative. But this does not prove that every being must be preceded by a cause; no more than it follows because every husband must have a wife, that therefore every man must be married.” Though Hume is right in ridiculing these kinds of thinkers, I am going to temporarily risk becoming one of these frivolous ones (though not in the same sense) by looking briefly at the question-begging I mentioned earlier.

What would it mean to really know a substance? If a substance were to be known through sense impressions, wouldn’t the question arise, in what do these impressions, in their own turn, inhere? The alternative would be to follow Hume in denying the very existence of substance, on the basis of its not being amenable to sense experience. But here Hume begs the question, by assuming that everything that exists must be perceivable to sense experience. Why must it? Nor will it do to concede to its existence but deny knowledge of it. For if you concede the existence of something that you cannot perceive, you must also concede that you have knowledge of it in some way other than perception.

The Vedantic notion of substance is that substance by its very nature or by definition cannot be a form. Whether you view substance, as we have done, as that which underlies a form, or as that which acts as the locus for the inherence of sensible qualities, in the final analysis, it must itself be formless, and so not itself an object of perception. Therefore, to question the concept of substance from Hume’s standpoint of strict empiricism is to demand of substance what it logically cannot provide. The infinite regress that we were faced with in our Vedantic consideration of the problem, along with the circularity we presently saw, only proves the logical misplacement of this demand.

© Bharatwaj Iyer 2019

Bharatwaj Iyer is a graduate student of philosophy at the University of Mumbai. His interests include Vedanta philosophy, philosophy of religion, postmodernism and Islamic philosophy. A weakness for comparative philosophy led him to his current research focus, which involves looking at the difficulties involved in Comparative Studies in general.

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