What Is Onion?

Reality is ultimately mysterious, a mystery that is everywhere you look — because it is that which is looking. That doesn’t mean that unmysterious thought is useless, or that the unmysterious facts that it handles are illusions. It means that such thought, such facts, reach a limit beyond which they cannot pass. Something else has to cross over, a something else which, obviously enough, cannot be expressed with the thought and the facts it had to leave behind. If it does think, or reason, or attempt to express itself, it has to do it in another way; through the means of expression we call metaphor.

Metaphor is one of a few ways human beings have of expressing the inexpressible or, more precisely, the non-literal. The problem with most philosophies is that they are all, foundationally, literal.

By literal I mean founded on the two fundamental laws of what we understand as ordinary experience, or time and space, namely facticity and causality. Facticity means x = x. A thing cannot be another thing. This is an onion, and it’s only an onion.

And causality means x was caused by y. Every thing has a reason for being. Something made or caused this onion.

Before Immanual Kant a group of philosophers called idealists had shown that the secondary properties of objects are created in the mind. Hardness, colour, smell, sound. This is now pretty uncontroversial. Although a tree falling in the woods makes something sound-like, it cannot make what we experience as sound unless there is an ear to hear it.

Kant demonstrated that the self also creates the primary property of literality (what I’m calling literality; he used different words), meaning facticity and causality. Just as with the sound of a tree, that doesn’t mean the mind invents literality — there must be something ‘spacey and timey’ in existence or nothing would make sense. Language would be meaningless. We couldn’t ask where things are and be understood. The fact that you even approximately understand these is almost indisputable proof that space and time literally exist.

What Kant showed was that we cannot learn facticity and causality. It’s hardwired into the self.

What this means is that the self — the mind, the body, the emotions, the will — can only experience a literal representation of what something else. Anything else beyond or prior to the self is unreachable.

Kant called this unreachable beyond or prior to, what something what really is, the thing-in-itself. That is, what the onion is, in itself. What there is, in the onion that is not self-generated.

And, here’s the interesting part, we can get some vague idea of what it is without secondary properties, without smell, without taste, without colour, without hardness, etc, etc. But we cannot even imagine what it it is without primary properties, without literality. We cannot imagine a non-factual onion.

Try it. Try closing your eyes and imagining an onion that is both an onion and, at the same time, not an onion (an x = y or paradoxical onion). Or an onion that goes on forever (an x causes x, or eternal onion). It cannot be done because facticity and selfhood are one and the same thing.

This means that if there is something paradoxical or eternal about the onion, self can never, ever reach it.

Now there is the possibility — this is called the ‘neglected alternative’ — that the onion-in-itself is still, somehow 100% literal; that it just so happens that everything we primarily experience about the onion is, actually, all there really is to it. And, because there is no way to literally prove there is anything else, prior to our beyond the normal, literal onion, and because our common-or-garden experience of the literal onion is obviously good enough, and normal and sane, why worry about what appear to be strange, useless abstractions like paradox and eternity?

The reason is, or the first reason is, that such a view, such an entirely literal experience of our onion life, consigns us to lonely misery. If we are, essentially, trapped in literal me-shaped prisons then there’s no way to ever tell what anything really is, no way to tell where anything ultimately comes from — including the universe — no way to tell what consciousness is, or what knowledge is, or what love is, or what anyone else is beyond the literal facts of them. In essence, there is no way to experience, with quantitative facticity and causality, what the non-literal quality of anything is — the beauty of the onion, the life of it, the truth of it; that which is literally elusive.

And the sad truth is that many people cannot. They aren’t merely blind to light, they are blind to quality. All they see are things.

The second problem with the literal life is that it condemns us to appalling ignorance. It is not just difficult for the self answer the perennial human problems of human existence, it is impossible. How, for example, can the mind explain the origins of space and time? How can causal reasoning explain the origins of causality? It’s not merely amazing that causality came to be — the so-called ‘argument from incredulity’ — it is totally, inherently, impossible.

Or, how can we ever know if what we are experiencing of reality is reality? We can know well enough, but we can never, ever be certain, because to be certain we’d have to step outside of ourselves. This is called the ‘no independent access’ problem. There is no way, even in principle, to be sure that the rational mind is reporting the truth without being able to take a position outside of rationality.

The truth is that reasoning cannot, ever, arrive at meaning. Meaning or quality has to already be present. If I reason that all men are wonderful, or that the Queen is literally Satan, there must be something missing in the premises. This is how mad people think. And when I say ‘mad’, I don’t just mean people who think they’re Jesus, I mean ordinary people. Try reasoning with most people about matters of importance. Try to get to their assumptions. It’s just not allowed. It’s not allowed in ordinary discussion. It’s not allowed at work. It’s not allowed in the media. And it’s not allowed in academic, particularly scientific, discourse.

What all this means is that all reasoning has to begin with unreasonable foundations — such as I exist, or pain hurts — assertions, the denial of which is just ridiculous. Literalist philosophy has no interest in investigating such unreasonable foundations, which is why it is, amongst other things, so unbearably boring.

Those who say meaningful things don‘t and can’t find meaning, ultimately, in reasoning. So where do they find them? Where do we find meaning? Where must we find it? Because this is not an academic mind game. The problem I’m outlining here is at the root of all our moral problems, all our creative problems, all our problems with each other, in relationships, in groups, in society, in the whole world. If we are all stuck in me-shaped prisons, what kind of world are we going to build?

We’re going to build this world, this non-stop horror show.

And what kind of relationships are we going have, if we have ultimately, no access to ‘the inside’ of the other?

We’re going to have the relationships we do have.

So where? Where can the truth be found. There is, as Kant vaguely guessed at, and as Schopenhaur more completely realised, and as our greatest artists and geniuses, to varying degrees, fully incarnate, one thing in itself which I have direct access to. There is one, and only one, thing in existence, in the entire universe, which I don’t have to go via myself to experience, and that is my own consciousness.

I am that which my representations are of.

So, the next question is, what is your consciousness minus your self, the literal self?

If there is something non-literal in consciousness, then anything you can literally say about consciousness cannot be consciousness. So how can you express the reality of it, or how can you explain how to find it, or stop it slipping away in the world? And how can what you say be understood by other selves?

Let’s say I have something non-literal to say about consciousness; which is to say, about the thing-in-itself that I am, which is to say about paradox and eternity… how can you understand me? Not the idea of paradox and eternity, which is literally graspable, but the reality of it.

How am I to do it? Well, to people who are not conscious, who have zero non-literal experience, I can just forget it. There is no point, whatsoever. No matter what I say, it will not be understood, because it cannot be understood.

To those with some kind of non-literal experience, I have a few options. One is that I can reason to the limits of the known. This is what Kant tried to do, with his outrageously complicated philosophy, what Schopenhauer did, with greater success, Wittgenstein also, and a few other thinkers. This is, generally hard work, and, in the end, of limited use.

Another option is that I can suggest you do something, rather than merely think about something. This is one of the standard approaches of Eastern thinkers, who tend to be more concerned with practice rather than knowledge. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness and so on. The problem with this is that it offers up a result that the self can achieve in time, instantly ruling out whatever selfless, timeless truth may exist.

There are a few other options, but the one I want to talk about here, is the one I started with, metaphor, the bedrock of artistic expression.

Metaphor means expressing paradox (a classic example being ‘Juliet in the sun’; she’s not literally the sun, that would be hideous) which kind of freezes the literal brain and allows something non-literal to pass in.

(This is why literalists are basically uncomfortable with metaphors and can very rarely make good ones; tell good stories, tell good jokes, write beautiful songs, etc, etc.).

Here, to conclude this brief introduction to mind and reality, is an example of a metaphor. Dream.

When you dream, you split yourself into causal facts — into subject and object. Then, when you wake up you realise that it had all happened inside your head. Me subjectively here and dream monkey and dream Tom Cruise and dream sandwich shop objectively there were all, really, panjectively you. This is the amazing thing about dreams. Not that anything amazing happens, but that you have split yourself into an illusory you and not you.

The reason you don’t realise in the dream the panjective unity of me subject here, and monkey object there — is because in the dream you exist as a causal fact, as a subject here experiencing objects over there. You’re in it.

Now, if the monkey had tried to convince you that you were dreaming he could do it by appealing to a certain kind of fact that you don’t have while dreaming, and that is a shared and consistent fact. Those are the facts that tell you that you are awake. He could say, ‘Do you remember being Tom Cruise’s friend? Have you ever spoken to a monkey before?’ Then you might be able to compare what is happening to the shared and consistent facts of waking and say ‘oh no, I must be dreaming.’

But what if you couldn’t remember ever having been awake? Then nothing the monkey could say could ever persuade you that you were dreaming. The only thing that could persuade you would be a non-factual quality, a non-literal sense of something else — not just a fact other than facts but an importance, something more important than facts. You would call this unreal.

Now consider the waking world. How do you know that the subject, here, and the object, there, are not somehow the same thing, that this is not a shared and consistent dream?

Because you can’t factually ‘wake up’ out of waking reality you cannot literally know. Literally you cannot know, ever. Even if you were to die, go to heaven, chat with God, who explained His entire plan, and then returned. The only way to reach such knowledge, if it exists, is through a qualitative inner sense of something else — again unreal — and the only way to express that qualitative sense is with metaphor, with parables, myths and stories.

Of course there are means of communication, more direct than language, but here, in this brief outline, I am using words and you are understanding them. The question is, is there something else here? Far more importantly, is there something else anywhere in your literal, literal living life? You — your self — can never know, which is why the most unselfish people tend to agree on things they cannot put into words.


You have been reading an adapted and simplified version of the much drier and chewier introduction to Self and Unself, my philosophy of all and everything.