On the Living Construct 4: The Phenomenal Relationship and the Case of the Signum Animum

In the previous parts, we have established that the phenomenon seemed to be dependent on the inert, while at the same time rejecting the inert to create itself. However, one question still lingers: how do we know that the phenomenon is capable of existing on its own without a conscious observer? How do we know that the phenomenon is not the result of the totalising movement of consciousness itself, rendering the phenomenon the invention of something it is supposed to shed some light on. After all, a phenomenon usually entails a relationship between an object and an observer. And yet, since we have to start from a world in which there is no conscious observer, and since we classified consciousness as the phenomenon of the body, and thus claiming that the phenomenon is prior to the existence of any conscious observer, how are we to establish the existence of the phenomenon that is without any conscious observer? Will a painting remain to be a painting if there is no consciousness to see it?

Before we continue, we need to realize that no totalization can come from the world itself. The world is without any activity; it is neither passive nor active (Sartre, 1991). The world is just there; it is, without reason, without meaning. It is the limit of the world as it is, and thus, the limit of activity as well (Sartre, 2004). And thus, it is true that the phenomenon cannot be judged as belonging to being-in-itself, as I have repeated so many times before. And yet, for it to have its own existence that is independent of the observer, or perhaps to be more precise, for it to be the observer, it has to have its own being with its own form of relationship; a being that is independent of any observer, a being capable of sustaining itself not in the eyes of an observer which totalises the phenomenon for it, but in the absence of such exterior beings. 

Nevertheless, I do not think that this should be construed as a reason to postulate something from beyond this world. After all, every phenomenon is dependent on the inert, and thus, in a sense, just like being-for-itself is dependent on being in so far as it is, the phenomenon is dependent on the inert so that it may exist. And thus, there are grounds to suggest that, following the theme of the last section of the essay, as long as the construct functions as intended, the phenomenon will naturally come into existence. For instance, as long as the machine functions properly, it will still produce the right product, even without any supervision. However, we now hit a roadblock. A product is an inert thing; therefore, it is without a doubt capable of sustaining its own existence. However, even if we think of the phenomenon as a product (this we are yet to see), it is different from other kinds of products because of its incapability of sustaining its own existence, as we have seen. 

How, then, should we establish the independence of the phenomenon? Is a painting still a painting without a totalising observer, or will it dissolve into relations of exteriorities between its pigments? But even if it does dissolve, can we really say that it has dissolved into nothing at all? Is there nothing left that might suggest that it is different from, let us say, a rock beside it? Of course not. Even if there is no observer to establish that the painting and the stone are two different things, they still remain to be the same, with or without any totalising observer (after all, it is the “nature” of wood not just to sublimate suddenly when there is no one looking at it). Thus, while maybe we cannot say that it is a painting (since we can say that the term “painting” only makes sense if it is submerged in a human world), at the very least, we can say that, from a scientific point of view, at least it is “its own thing”. Its unity is petrified in exteriority. Thus, even if no one is there to confirm that it is a “painting”, at least by sheer inertness, it easily lends itself to be recognised as such. 

Nevertheless, this is still far from establishing the independence of the phenomenon from a conscious observer. We are even yet to be able to say, “this is a phenomenon,” at all. All we can say here is that the inertness of things lets us say that there is “this” instead of “that. This much is true, but at least we can now say that the phenomenon is not truly a lost cause: what makes it possible maintains its shape, if only through inertness. Based on this unity in exteriority, we can build the phenomenon on top of it. Earlier I have said that the phenomenon is dependent on inertness, and therefore, its unity is also in part dependent on what inertness allows it to reach. For instance, the reason why this painting is “this” painting is because it is separated in exteriority from something else. This remains to be the case even if we are to say that, without assuming the existence of any conscious observers. 

Imagine that you are standing in front of a painting. It is true that a painting will just be a painting without an observer. Since a phenomenon is an “appearance-to”, it is necessary that we find an observer for it to “appearance-to”. However, there are two things which we must take into account. Firstly, the act of observing should be distinguished from a mere mechanical interaction between two things, or at least it should be a special breed of that interaction. If we see a falling rock nudging another rock, we will not say that the rock has made an “appearance-to” to the rock it nudged. We will see it as just a falling rock nudging the other rock in a mechanical interaction (it pushing the other thing). Secondly, for there to be a phenomenon, we have to conceive of a “state-of-affair”, a situation which is to be seen, or that which is to be the phenomenon. 

Let us imagine a little story to answer these questions and give a more thorough explanation of how there can be a phenomenon without a conscious observer. Imagine that an incredibly talented artist, let us call him “Daedalus the doll-maker”, managed to create a very complex contraption that is unparalleled in complexity with any other device that anyone has ever seen in his time. This contraption takes the form of a doll that, through a series of mechanisms within it, is capable of walking around, climbing up the stairs, and exploring the world around it, among others. What is more, this doll is more than just a normal fancy doll. If we have to compare it with anything we have ever seen currently, its complexity makes it more similar to a primitive lifeform (like our modern day bacteria) compared to any other machine of his time. Like any other primitive lifeform, it is also capable of learning new things using its rudimentary systems, and even it is able to perpetuate itself just like our modern-day bacteria (find food if it requires to replenish its energy supply, avoid danger if possible, and so on). After the doll is finished, the doll is given the name “signum animum” by Daedalus. However, do not imagine the signum animum to be some kind of a thoroughly wondrous machine. The signum animum is, after all, a doll, and thus its “resources” are limited. Since the signum animum is more similar to a simple life form than to a complex mammal (like a cat), we can imagine that it has no consciousness of its own. It has no “awareness” to speak off, or at the very least, not the kind of “awareness” you would expect from a cat, for instance. And thus, it is the perfect platform for us to establish the existence of a phenomenon without a conscious observer. 

Now imagine that while Daedalus is currently away on an errand, the signum animum, having nothing to do (not that Daedalus told it to do anything anyway), randomly strolls around in Daedalus’s workshop. While it moves about, it suddenly stumbles upon something. In order to “check” on what it is, the signum animum uses the only apparatus it has to interact with the outside world. This is simple apparatus that is no more than a simple hand-like apparatus, being a rudimentary one, is only able to detect its surroundings through touch sensations (Daedalus is not yet capable enough to construct something more sophisticated), just like our skin, although I would imagine even this apparatus is less complex than our skin, for it is only able to detect the depression on the hand and not temperature, for instance. This apparatus we shall call the “manus signi animi”. After touching and inspecting this object with its hand-like apparatus, it realises that this “object” actually consists of two rocks (perhaps some leftover material from Daedalus’s other projects), one resting upon the other. With its hand, it can detect the texture of the rocks, their weight, and the fact that they are hard. However, since the signum animum does not have any consciousness, can we say that the signum is aware of the rocks as such? Is there a relationship involving a phenomenon between the signum animum and the rock? Is there a phenomenal relationship between them?

There are two criteria for the relationship between the signum animum and the rocks to be regarded as a phenomenal one. The first criterion in this relationship involves the clustering of relationships between the two rocks. It is true that, theoretically speaking, there are a countless number of relationships between the two rocks (spatial relations, the rocks relationships with other rocks away from it, atomic relations between the constituent parts of the rocks, etc), relationships that would be impossible to be separated from each other in abstraction. However, as we have realised it ourselves, any phenomenon only conveys a limited amount of information to an observer. For example, when we look at a painting, our eyes are incapable of registering the small atomic relations within the painting, nor are they capable of registering relationships between the painting and the wall behind it. In short, how we see things is, to an extent, dependent on our eyes as a machine. This gives us a clue of the first two processes in a phenomenal relationship (a relationship involving a phenomenon as an “appearance-to” something), and those are the transformations of data in terms of quantity and quality. First, suppose the manus signi animi is only possible to detect pressure. In that case, all other exterior relations the rocks have with all other things are nullified, and only certain information, such as the weight of the rock or its shape, is registered by the manus. And thus, for there to be a phenomenon, relationships between the objects beyond the manus are clustered together, and treated as there is only one object. It is the rock as a whole that affects the manus, not, strictly speaking, the individual atoms within the rock, just like it is a whole cupboard which I see, not their individual atomic particles.

The second criterion is the transformation of quality of the sensations received by the manus. This transformation of quality does not mean that a new foreign quality has been added to the mixture. It is just that now “weight” and “solid rock” takes on a new meaning as the signum animum holds the rock. This is not to say that the manus “invents” new sensations that are disjointed from the property of the rocks themselves. If we are to compare it with our eyes, no one really “knows” what the color “red” is really like, nor does it make sense to think of the color “red” in-itself. The sensation of “red” is possible precisely because the object reflects light in a certain frequency. It is just that this frequency is given a new clothing, as that which causes this sensation instead of the other. This is possible because, as I have stated earlier, “red” only made sense if the phenomenon was looked at from the inside. By this I mean it is only within the framework which gives rise to the phenomenon itself can the color “red” be perceived as such. This is not about whether “my red” is the same as “your red”, for the question does not make much sense. This is about the fact that the reason why we can differentiate “red” and “purple” is because the different frequencies are translated and then made sense in comparison with each other and also within the framework of our neural activity and our phenomenal experience as a conscious being. The stimulus from the manus signi animi, as long as the signum animum is capable of doing so, will not be treated as an abstract stimulus in itself but as something that has been “translated” so that it fits the “language” of the relationships that is within the signum animum. This is only possible if the signum animum reaches a certain level of complexity that allows it to posit itself for itself (so that it does not mistake its body as something that does not belong to it), and that it is capable of receiving multiple stimuli so that it can compare them so as to reach a form of primitive understanding of the objects at hand. Unfortunately, due to limitations in space, these two things, which will be clustered under the term “self-referentiality”, will be discussed at length in the next part of the series. 


Sartre, J. (1992). Being and nothingness (H. E. Barnes, Trans.). Washington: Washington

Sartre, J. (2004). Critique of Dialectical Reason (Vol. 1) (A. Sheridan-Smith, Trans.). London: Verso

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