A Thing Like No Other Thing

David Proud
15 min readAug 24, 2020

‘He would of curse melissciously, by his fore feelhers, flexors, contractors, depressors and extensors, lamely, harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me, till she was puce for shame and allso fourmish her in Spinner’s housery at the earthsbest schoppinhour so summery as his cottage, which was cald fourmillierly Tingsomingenting, groped up’.

- James Joyce, (1882–1941), ‘Finnegans Wake’.

Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788–1860), is the philosopher referenced in this passage; author of ‘The World as Will and Representation’, 1818. Whereas previous philosophers, most notably Plato, (428/27 BC — 424/23 BC), and Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), considered the world as being susceptible to rationality, Schopenhauer on the contrary professed that at its foundation the universe is indeed irrational; though he did expand upon the philosophies of Plato and Kant to arrive at an outlook that recognized instinct and was somewhat ascetic; that is to say, he stressed that while confronted with a world full of strife that is without end, we should reduce to a minimum our natural desires in order that we may attain a more restful and undisturbed frame of mind and an habitual inclination towards universal active kindness and charitability. Not quite the ultimate in pessimism, however, for he did expound upon the means, whether through aesthetic, ethical or ascetic forms of awareness, to overcome the condition of being human that is full of pain and frustration. For those who like to ponder upon the meaning of life, together with those who love to immerse themselves in music, literature, and the visual arts, his philosophy has a special appeal. Richard Wagner, (1813–1883), certainly took it very seriously.

Salvador Dali, ‘L’oeil fleuri, décor pour le ballet Tristan fou’, 1944.

James Joyce, however, apparently didn’t, at least not while a young artist. Poet and friend of Joyce, Padraic Colum, (1881 -1972), has provided us with this reminiscence of an occurrence from sometime at the beginning of the 20th century:

‘Another time Joyce was among those in the National Library when I was; readers were departing. Timing my exit to be with Joyce’s, who was at the turnstile with a friend, ready to leave, I left some volumes on the counter. They were ‘The World as Will and Idea’. When the three of us were on the stairway, Joyce said with the raillery he often used when addressing me in those days, ‘You see before you two frightful examples of the will to live’. Which meant that Joyce and his companion were out to pick up girls. … As we went along Joyce talked in a way that was supposed to be a revelation to me of the uncloistered life. In those days he would have relished playing Mephistopheles to Faust … [nevertheless] … his mind mustn’t have been totally preoccupied with prospects [the girls] on the South Circular Road, for after we had cups of tea in a confectioner’s in Harcourt Street and went strolling again, we shifted to the World as Idea’.

‘Moment of Transition’, 1934, Salvador Dali.

At the very least we do know that Schopenhauer was not as important to Joyce as Giambattisto Vico, (1668–1744), or Thomas Aquinas, (1224–1274). When philosopher Boris Furlan, (1894–1957), to whom Joyce gave English lessons in 1914, expressed an intensity of interest for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Joyce endeavoured to stifle it by insisting that Thomas Aquinas was the greatest philosopher because his reasoning was ‘like a sharp sword.’ And further, the only reference to Schopenhauer in ‘Finnegans Wake’ we can be certain of is in the passage quoted above; ‘schoppinhour’, shopping hour, and even then we may suppose that here he is parodying the overblown and affected style of Wyndham Lewis, (1882–1957), a Joyce critic, (never a good idea to insult a great writer while they are still alive and productive). That is to say, ‘schoppinhour’ may be there merely as a reference to the adjective ‘shoppy’ that Wyndham Lewis employed to describe Joyce somewhat disparagingly as essentially a ‘craftsman’. Lewis wrote, in ‘Time and Western Man’, 1927:

‘There is not very much reflection going on at any time inside the head of Mr James Joyce. That is indeed the characteristic condition of the craftsman, pure and simple. And that is what Joyce is above all things, essentially the crafsman. … I do not mean by this that he works harder or more thoroughly than other people, but that he is not so much an inventive intelligence as an executant. He is certainly very ‘shoppy’ … ‘.

The passage from ‘Finnegans Wake’ occurs after Shaun (the sibling rivalry between brothers Shaun and Shem is one of the themes of the work) has been asked about what happened to his money; his response includes the fable of the ‘Ondt and the Gracehoper’, a story concerning the practical minded Ondt (Shaun) and the prodigal Gracehoper (Shem, the artist, Joyce in fact), and with this fable Joyce is in addition defending ‘Finnegans Wake’ (excerpts of which had appeared in print before the completed work) against its critics, in particular Lewis. However, alongside explicit references to Vico and Aquinas, ‘a world of differents’ is mentioned: ‘The Gracehoper … tossed himself in the vico … and the next time he makes the aquinatance of the Ondt … it shall be motylucky if he will beheld not a world of differents’, and this may well be an implicit reference to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of time, space and the principle of individuation (the latter being an ancient problem in philosophy, going at least as far back as Aristotle, (384 BC — 322 BC), concerning a criterion that individuates or numerically distinguishes the members of the kind for which it is given, that is to say, by which we can supposedly determine, regarding any kind of thing, when we have more than one of them or not). Schopenhauer wrote:

‘We have called time and space the principium individuationis, because only through them and in them is multiplicity of the homogeneous possible’. And: ‘Not time only but also space, and the whole content of both of them, i.e., all that proceeds from causes and motives, has a merely relative existence’.

‘The World as Will and Representation’ may be summarised as follows:

1. The world is my idea — this is a truth for every human being, since the world as it is known depends for its character and existence upon the mind that knows it.

2. By its understanding humankind forms the world of phenomena, and by its reason it achieves harmony in a world of suffering.

3. The entire world of phenomena, including the human body, is objectified will.

4. The will is a striving, yearning force which takes various forms according to its inclinations.

5. By losing oneself in objects, by knowing them as they are in themselves, one comes to know the will as Idea, as eternal form.

Alphonse Osbert, ‘Sous un Rayon de Lune’, 1895.

According to Schopenhauer: ‘If the whole world as idea is only the visibility of will, the work of art is to render this visibility more distinct. It is the camera obscura which shows the objects more purely, and enables us to survey them and comprehend them better. It is the play within the play, the stage upon the stage in ‘Hamlet’. The fable of the Ondt and the Gracehoper is also a play within in a play but may be read as a kind of dual narrative, one in which the Ondt and the Gracehoper are the protagonists, the other in which time and space may be considered so. The tale of the Ondt (ant, but also ondt, (Norwegian), meaning hard, ill, evil) and the Gracehoper (graeshoppe, (Norwegian), grasshopper, but also, of course, hoper for grace), is based upon Jean de La Fontaine’s, (1621–1695), ‘Fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper’, itself a retelling of the fable of Aesop, (620 BC — 564 BC).

The fable concerns a grasshopper that has spent the summer singing while the ant worked to store up food for winter; and once winter does arrive the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and begs the ant for food; but the ant admonishes the grasshopper for its idleness and tells it that it can dance the winter away as well. As it says in the ‘Book of Proverbs’ (6:6–8): ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest’. The moral of the tale has been presumed to be idleness brings want, we must learn of the value of hard work, improvidence brings danger in its wake, and so on. But may we not also represent the ant’s industry as quite mean and merely at the service its own interests, his turning away of the grasshopper as uncharitable? … (in the animated version that I direct you to in the link above you will notice that the ant’s character is considerably softened, but the outcome remains the same for the grasshopper … cold and hungry). La Fontaine’s somewhat ironical retelling of the fable suggests as much; and in Joyce’s hands one suspects the emphasis to be on presenting the gracehoper as the type of the artist; with a question arising over the place of culture in our society. So perhaps the hoper for grace, unlikely as it seems, suggests the arch-pessimist Schopenhauer also; because after all he does argue, at the end of ‘The World as Will and Representation’, that only those who can rise above their principle of individuation, above the world of cause and effect, who can see the world as one of woe and suffering, can triumph over it; and once one has seen the world for what it is, there is no longer a need to go on willing and striving, but instead to renounce the world of ideas and the will. Such a freedom found outside the world of necessity is akin to grace; and therein, believed Schopenhauer, one’s salvation is to be found.

‘Human Form’, 1931, Max Ernst.

So what is Schopenhauer’s take on the principle of individuation?

The principle of individuation is a criterion that individuates or numerically distinguishes the members of the kind for which it is given, that is by which we can supposedly determine, regarding any kind of thing, when we have more than one of them or not. For Schopenhauer the principium individuationis is constituted of time and space, being the ground of multiplicity. A simple difference in location suffices to make two systems different, with each of the two states having its own real physical state, independent of the state of the other. It is rather more complicated than that however. Kant had identified what he believed to be twelve categories of the human understanding, various categories through which we logically organize our field of sensations into comprehensible and interrelated individual objects; that is to say, unity, plurality, totality, reality, negation, limitation, substance, causality, reciprocity, possibility, actuality, and necessity. Schopenhauer reduced them all to a single category, causality, and this category, along with the forms of space and time, is sufficient in itself to explain the basic configuration of every human experience, that is to say, individual objects dispersed throughout space and time, and that are causally related to one another.

These three interdependent principles Schopenhauer takes to be expressions of a single principle, that is to say, the principle of sufficient reason, (the philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground), and he refers to a facet of the principle of sufficient reason as the principle of individuation, thereby connecting the idea of individuation explicitly with space and time, but also implicitly with rationality, necessity, systematicity and determinism. The principle of sufficient reason and the principle of individuation are in this manner expressions for what Kant had with added complication referred to as space, time and the twelve categories of the understanding.

The Gracehoper’s house is called ‘Tingsomingenting’, (Danish for ‘a thing like no thing’), and is also spelled ‘thingsumanything’, that is to say, the illusion of diversity of the ‘world of differents’; as opposed to the Ondt’s ‘windhame’, which is called ‘Nixnixundnix’, (nix = nothing; or nobody; and no; and nix (Latin) = snow); or ‘Nichtsnichtsundnichts’, (nichts (German) = nothing). Does this refer to the conclusion of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, that is to say, the denial of the will and a rising above the principle of individuation?

Kazimir Malevich ‘Black Square’ 1915.

Might there be an exception to the principle of sufficient reason/the principle of individuation (at least as understood by Schopenhauer)? Well, yes, perhaps. Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), in ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’, (1872–1900), introduced, in his discussion of the form of tragedy, a distinction between the Dionysian, (reality as disordered and undifferentiated by forms), and the Apollonian, (reality as ordered and differentiated by forms); indeed, life itself perpetually involves a struggle between these two elements, as they fight it out for control over the being of humankind. As Nietzsche puts it: ‘And thus, wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was routed and annihilated. But it is quite as certain that, where the first assault was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever’. And yet neither side will ever and forever triumph over the other, for each contains the other in an everlasting naturally occurring counterbalancing to ensure neither gains the upper hand. And at one point as he is defining the Apollonian Nietzsche presents us with this quote from Schopenhauer, his metaphor of the sailor sailing in a fragile vessel:

‘Just as in a stormy sea, unbounded in every direction, rising and falling with howling mountainous waves, a sailor sits in a boat and trusts in his frail barque: so in the midst of a world of sorrows the individual sits quietly supported by and trusting in his principium individuationis’.

‘The Drowning’, 1836, Leon Spilliaert.

Nietzsche then comments:

‘Indeed, we might say of Apollo, that in him the unshaken faith in this principium and the quiet sitting of the man wrapt therein have received their sublimest expression; and we might even designate Apollo as the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, from out of the gestures and looks of which all the joy and wisdom of appearance, together with its beauty, speak to us’.

Nietzsche thus helps himself to and modifies the manner by which suffering and tranquility happen to be conjoined in Schopenhauer’s conception of sublimity, the ennobling, the exalting, with the intention of formulating an adequate definition of the Dionysian. Nietzsche wrote:

‘Schopenhauer has described to us the stupendous awe which seizes upon man, when of a sudden he is at a loss to account for the cognitive forms of a phenomenon, in that the principle of reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to admit of an exception. Add to this awe the blissful ecstasy which rises from the innermost depths of man, ay, of nature, at this same collapse of the principium individuationis, and we shall gain an insight into the being of the Dionysian, which is brought within closest ken perhaps by the analogy of drunkenness’.

‘Große Sphinx von Gizeh’, 1896, Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach.

The Dionysian sublime. Schopenhauer defined the principle of sufficient reason very broadly and simply: ‘Nothing is without a reason why it is’, and all becomes unravelled in the experience of the aesthetically sublime. Having followed Kant in taking space and time to be the pure forms of intuition, and thereby constituting the very condition of the possibility of experience. that is, constituting the forms of perceived objects, of our representations, he then argues that all of our representations can be seen to ‘stand to one another in a natural and regular connexion that in form is determinable a priori. By virtue of this connexion nothing existing by itself and independent, and also nothing single and detached, can become an object for us’.

Just as space and time are the a priori condition of the possibility of experience, understood as the necessary division of the world into the discrete quanta of individuated objects, so there must exist a principle which explains the connection that necessarily exists between these objects. No object of experience can stand alone but must have a necessary connection to all other objects of experience and it is this connection which is expressed by the principle of sufficient reason in its universality. And this principle has a fourfold root as it divides explanations of occurrences in the world as representation into four types of law-like generalizations, including all logical, mathematical, causal and moral motivational phenomena.

1. Logical laws ‘satisfy the sufficient reason of knowing’, said Schopenhauer, which is to say, they explain the truth of any proposition through empirical truth, that is, of direct experience, the transcendental (the necessary condition for experience) truth of the necessary presupposition of the a priori (time and space), the logical truth; that the proposition must follow from the truth of another proposition or from the material truth of true empirical statement, and the metalogical truth of the law of logic, (the laws of identity, contradiction, the law of the excluded middle and correspondence theory).

2, Physical or causal laws state that the coming into being and passing away of objects of experience and their interrelations is determined by sequences of causally interconnected events, which, in their entirety, constitute the history of the natural world. These laws may be said to satisfy the sufficient reason of becoming as they explain the causal reasons for the object’s coming into being and passing away.

3. Mathematical laws cover the framework of the sufficient reason of being of space and time (the pure forms of intuition) and form the basis of geometry(see previous article) and arithmetic.

4. Moral laws satisfy the sufficient reason of acting and concern the empirical or will to life and its motivations. They represent causes as they are experienced from within.

Be all that as it may, what about the laws governing the sublime, the awesome? For Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, when a phenomenon appears to occupy a space too vast to comprehend, such as a vast stretch of desert or ocean; or evokes a feeling of eternity, such as is the case with ancient ruins, the phenomenon then appears to exceed the limits of space, time, and causality, and the principle of sufficient reason thus undergoes an exception; an exception that takes place, so to speak, in the exaltation of that which is already exalted.

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said — ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away’.

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, (1792–1822), ‘Ozymandias’.

Elihu Vedder, ‘The Questioner of the Sphinx’, 1836.

Notes to ‘Finnegans Wake’ quotation:

1. melissciously = maliciously, in a spirit of malice or ill-will; and melissa (Greek), bee.

2. feelhers = feeler, biology: one of the organs with which certain animals are furnished, for trying by the touch objects with which they come in contact, or for searching for food.

3. flexors = flexor, a muscle whose function it is to produce flexion in any part of the body.

4. contractors = contractor, one who or that which contracts, narrows, or shortens; used especially of muscles which contract or draw in some part of the body.

5. depressors = depressor, a muscle which depresses or pulls down the part to which it is attached.

6. extensors = extensor, a muscle which serves to extend or straighten out any part of the body; opposed to flexor.

7. lamely = in a lame manner; with halting steps or limbs; haltingly; imperfectly; and namely.

8. harry = to harass (persons) by hostile attacks, forced exactions, or rapacity; to ravish, violate; and the four stage Viconian cycle of history: thunder, marriage, burial, ricorso.

9. marry = to join in wedlock or matrimony.

10. bind = to tie fast, to put a bandage on (any part of the body); and to make (a person or estate) liable for the payment of a debt, or fulfilment of an obligation.

11. puce = purple brown, or brownish purple; and puce (French), flea.

12. fourmish = furnish, to provide or supply with (something necessary, useful, or desirable, either material or immaterial); and formica (Latin) = fourmi (French), and ant, fourmilière (French), ant hill.

13. spinner = one who spins cotton, wool, yarn, etc.; especially one whose occupation it is to do this; and Skinner, stocking manufacturers; and Spinne (German), spider; and Spanish.

14. housery = hosiery, hose collectively; extended to other frame-knitted articles of apparel, and hence to the whole class of goods in which a hosier deals.

15. schoppinhour = Schopenhauer, the name of the German philosopher (1788–1860), used allusively, especially for the pessimism and concept of will for which his philosophy is noted; and shopping hour.

16. summery = resembling or pertaining to summer ; and soon.

17. cottage = a small or humble dwelling-place; and the cell of a bee, etc.

18. fourmillierly = formerly; and fourmiliere (French), ant hill; and called familiarly.

19. Tingsomingenting = en ting som ingen ting (Danish), a thing like no thing, a mere nothing.

20. groped = grope, to attempt to find something by feeling about as in the dark or as a blind person; and crop up, to come up or turn up unexpectedly or incidentally, in the field of action, conversation, or thought.

‘La Cigale’, (‘The Grasshopper’), unknown artist.



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.