Primacy of Existence vs. Primacy of Consciousness

The basic metaphysical issue that lies at the root of any system of philosophy [is] the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.

The primacy of existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists, i.e., that the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity. The epistemological corollary is the axiom that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists—and that man gains knowledge of reality by looking outward. The rejection of these axioms represents a reversal: the primacy of consciousness—the notion that the universe has no independent existence, that it is the product of a consciousness (either human or divine or both). The epistemological corollary is the notion that man gains knowledge of reality by looking inward (either at his own consciousness or at the revelations it receives from another, superior consciousness).

The source of this reversal is the inability or unwillingness fully to grasp the difference between one’s inner state and the outer world, i.e., between the perceiver and the perceived (thus blending consciousness and existence into one indeterminate package-deal). This crucial distinction is not given to man automatically; it has to be learned. It is implicit in any awareness, but it has to be grasped conceptually and held as an absolute.

Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable and disposable. Ask yourself why.

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated. What they achieve is the opposite of their desire. They want an omnipotent power over existence; instead, they lose the power of their consciousness. By refusing to know, they condemn themselves to the horror of a perpetual unknown.

It is important to observe the interrelation of these three axioms [existence, consciousness, and identity]. Existence is the first axiom. The universe exists independent of consciousness. Man is able to adapt his background to his own requirements, but “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” (Francis Bacon). There is no mental process that can change the laws of nature or erase facts. The function of consciousness is not to create reality, but to apprehend it. “Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”

The philosophic source of this viewpoint and its major advocate in the history of philosophy is Aristotle. Its opponents are all the other major traditions, including Platonism, Christianity, and German idealism. Directly or indirectly, these traditions uphold the notion that consciousness is the creator of reality. The essence of this notion is the denial of the axiom that existence exists.

Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.


Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.