My master's thesis: theories of representation

I recently completed my degree at the University of Oxford. My undergraduate and masters were combined, so I’m only getting one degree, instead of a BA and a Masters separately. The degree title is Master of Computer Science and Philosophy.

The fourth year of the course was split into three parts. One third was a 20,000 word thesis; I wrote it comparing an aspect of Advaita Vedanta (maya or avidya) in the writings of Adi Sankaracharya, with a very similar idea in the philosophy of a German 18th century philosopher called Schopenhauer.

I have included an extract of my thesis below. If you want to read the full thing, please don’t hesitate to message me!

The other two thirds were two modules. For each, I had to sit a 3h45m exam and submit a 5,000 word extended essay. My exams ended up being on the same day (🙁), so a few weeks ago I sat 7h30m of exams in one day, with a small break in the middle for lunch. Below are some photos of me finishing those exams.

End of exams End of a long day of exams

Photo with Peter My tutor, Peter, who was the reason I made it through my degree

Thesis Introduction

In this thesis, I compare two philosophers: the 19th century, post-Kantian philosopher Schopenhauer, and Sankara, an ancient Indian philosopher from the 8th century. I examine their respective theories of representation and the arguments that they each give in defence. Sankara’s theory is that the world which we experience is illusory in nature, resulting from an individual’s ignorance (avidya) of their true nature. Schopenhauer’s theory is a type of idealism, labelled by him as the ‘representation’ aspect of the world, or the ‘world as representation.’

Examining the relationship between two philosophies can proceed in different ways. The first is by questioning whether one developed under the influence of the other. This is done by examining historical and textual evidence. The second is a comparative approach. This is done through a critical analysis of the arguments used to defend each philosophy; the strategies or flaws of each is used to strengthen or attack the other. Such a comparison can be undertaken without historical consideration. Much has been written on the influence of Indian philosophy on Schopenhauer’s writings; this thesis instead proceeds using a comparative approach.1

I aim to analytically discuss and evaluate arguments given by Schopenhauer and Sankara. Their respective styles of writing present a challenge: they write in different contexts and are guided by different motives. Here I aim to bring out the essence of their philosophical works in a way which allows them to be dissected and to be compared with each other: in the first part, I do this by enumerating the key tenets of their theories; in the second part, I do this by syllogising their arguments into premises, allowing for an examination of validity and assumptions made.

Schopenhauer had a lot in common with Indian philosophy. Magee writes that “[t]here is nothing controversial in saying that of the major figures in Western philosophy, Schopenhauer is the one who has most in common with Eastern thought.”2 Choosing Sankara to compare him to is due to his influence and reputation. He is credited with establishing and unifying large sections Hindu philosophy,3 and is labelled as one of the founding fathers of Advaita Vedanta.4 His writings attempt to systematise early Hindu ideas; he also defends these ideas using methods of reasoning found in the earlier Buddhist Mādhyamika philosophy.5 Furthermore, a comparative study of schools of philosophy can only be done meaningfully when working within a limited scope. There exists a huge range of Indian thought, and so by focussing specifically on Sankara’s writings and the Advaita Vedanta school, this discussion can take place.

I choose to focus on theories of representation due to their continuing relevance in philosophy. A theory of representation explains all experience of the empirical world by positing that we perceive one thing which is merely a representation of something else.6 Both Sankara and Schopenhauer claim that all we ever do perceive are representations; the underlying ultimate reality is something else entirely. Questioning whether our world of everyday objects could be unreal is something that challenges philosophers even now. Moreover, it is a question that has a relevance beyond philosophy: it inspires and challenges poets, artists and authors.

The Indian philosophical texts which Schopenhauer read were only available to him in a double-translation: from the original Sanskrit into Persian, and then into Latin. These translations are considered to be outdated and inaccurate.7 Thus, to facilitate the most accurate comparison, the primary sources I refer to are contemporary translations into English of both Sankara’s and Schopenhauer’s writings.8

Translations given will prioritise philosophical clarity over accuracy of translation. Key Sanskrit terms will be transliterated and provided alongside their translation into English.9 After their first use, I use English translations. The exception to this is my use of the term avidya; as I explain in Section 4, it does not have a direct translation. Many Sanskrit terms have different meanings depending on context, and hence warrant different translations depending on the school of philosophy they are used in; in what follows I give the translation appropriate to their use in Advaita Vedanta.

This thesis proceeds in two parts: the first part examines the two theories, and the second part examines the arguments given to defend the theories. In the first part, Sections 2 and 3 cover the backgrounds of Sankara and Schopenhauer in detail, providing a context for each of their theories. Sections 4 and 5 then explain each of their respective theories of representation, and Section 6 notes similarities and differences between the theories when examined in themselves. In the second part, Section 7 enumerates the arguments given by each to argue in favour of the theories; from this list, I choose five arguments to examine. Section 8 examines one of the arguments used by Schopenhauer, namely the dream argument, and Section 9 examines two similar arguments made by Sankara. Then, Section 10 examines another one of the arguments that Schopenhauer uses, namely the argument from causality, and Section 11 examines a similar argument from Sankara. Section 12 concludes with a summary of my findings.

My examination reveals that, as Schopenhauer himself claimed, the two positions really are very close, to the extent that they even make use of structurally similar arguments. My conclusion lists a number of similarities and differences.

Concerning the theories when examined in themselves, I argue that they are, in essence, identical, and that the main differences are about the knowability of the ultimate reality and Schopenhauer’s pessimism.

Concerning the arguments given to defend their theories, I list certain structural similarities in their styles of arguing, as well as uncovering one fundamental difference: Schopenhauer’s arguments start from examining the limits of one’s experience of the empirical world; from this, he draws conclusions about the thing-in-itself. Sankara, however, starts from assumptions about the nature of ultimate reality, and uses these to draw conclusions about our experiences of the empirical world.

1 See Berger (2004) and App (2006 and 2014) for more on the question of influence.

2 Magee, 1987: 316. By ‘Eastern thought,’ Magee is referring specifically to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. 3 Kruijf and Sahoo, 2014: 105

4 Bartley, 2015: 180

5 Alston, 2004: 1, 23-26

6 A theory of representation could also propose that we perceive through representations instead of perceiving representations. In both cases, the point is that we don’t directly perceive an underlying thing as it is in itself.

7 Here I am primarily referring to Anquetil-Duperron’s Oupnek’hat, a Latin translation of the Persian Sirr-i Akbar, which in turn was a translation of fifty of the Upaniṣads. App (2006) argues that Schopenhauer’s first encounter with Indian philosophy was actually with a translation of the Bhagavad Gītā by Majer. For more, see Cross, 2013: 9-36 and App, 2006.

8 Primarily, I use the 6-volume Sankara Source Book by A. J. Alston, and the translation of both volumes of The World as Will and Representation by E. F. J. Payne. In the List of References, I provide a note on abbreviations used for primary sources.

9 A pronunciation guide for transliterated Sanskrit can be found in Bartley, 2005: 303.

‘The Garden’ and other cool things at Future Fest 2018

Last weekend, I went to the first day of FutureFest with a friend. FutureFest is a conference organised by Nesta about what the future will be like. It had loads of talks and panel sessions, filled with academics, politicians, artists and musicians, as well as interactive art installations and other exhibits. I wanted to write a brief summary of some of the cool things I saw in order to remember them.

The Garden

The Garden was an installation by London Glades (a pair of ‘ecological landscape designers’) about re-imagining humanity’s relationship with nature, and redefining the idea of ‘rewilding.’. And oh what a cool installation it was. Especially considering they’d built the whole thing indoors at Tobacco Docks for the weekend.

The Garden

The installation was divided into four sections: detached, unresolved, inspired and balanced. Visitors could amble through, and throughout the day, tours of the garden as well as short talks were being given in the garden. (One talk was by Åsmund Asdal, the co-ordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault! If you haven’t heard of the Seed Vault then you gotta listen to this podcast about it).

The first section, ‘detached,’ had remnants of man-made constructions, like concrete motorway barriers and lopsided bus stops, that were slowly decaying away. It had ‘pioneer species,’ which is the name given to the first plants on the scene. These are annuals, and are what in a garden we think of as weeds, but are actually the plants all around us. They are the plants that start getting some compost going.

The next section was full of tension. Nature in the UK if left alone wants to become a forest, so here we saw pioneer species continuing to build towards that. But the relationship between people and nature was unresolved. There is a tension, coming from humanity’s need to control things. ‘Rewilding’ in terms of removing all human elements and replacing them solely with ‘natural’ elements is not the future. Some kind of balance is needed.

The third section was nature’s newly emerged forest; nature had reclaimed this area. The floor was damp, the soundscape had no human sounds in it. All 7 layers of the forest were present. Was this the future we wanted?

The last layer was harmony. It looked similar to the previous layer, in that it was totally wild. But there was an aesthetic quality to it, a warmth. It had been designed by humans and was very much a part of the urban landscape, rather than part of the ‘wild’. The abundance of trees and layered canopies held a secret: every plant was edible in some form and permaculture. There was a wealth of biodiversity; perennials were growing rather than annuals. The soundscape featured all the sounds from nature, paired with children laughing. This section embraced the fact that we as humans are nature. This was the vision of an ecologically-centred city.

Other cool things, in brief:

  • Akala spoke about Britain’s identity crisis, the lessons we can learn from history, and why he is optimistic
  • There was a powerful, frightening and kind of really cool exhibit called the Black Box Bellagio, where you could trade in your personal data for casino chips (more about this here)
  • Guerilla Science and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science had an interactive exhibit called Escape to Reality about consciousness and neuroscience
  • Lydia Nicholas did a great comedy set, where she pointed out that obviously insects are going to taste gross when cooked by rich white men
  • CrimeForce: LoveTeam used audience decisions about the future of pop music and political unrest to envision an episode of a police procedural, in which a member of hit boyband LoveTeam was murdered
  • Bec Hill did her thing, she’s great, you should watch her videos here
  • We went to panels and talks about gig economy in the near-future (i.e. when Deliveroo and Uber models for jobs are ruining lives, before universal basic income takes over), robots, humanity 2.0 / transhumanism and more

The Third Rule of Magic

While working at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, where I taught magic to 8 - 16 year old kids for two and a half months, I wrote out five rules of magic for the kids.

These were by no means objective rules; instead were just ones I’d written myself. I wrote these specifically for helping 8 - 16 year olds learn how to perform magic well, and to match the tricks I was teaching.

The Rules

Most wanted to learn card tricks, presumably due to my background in card magic and the prevalence of card magic in the media. As much as possible I tried to avoid mathematical tricks — while often self-working and therefore easy for children to learn, they have the tendency to be quite dry.

Tricks where cards were treated less as cards (i.e. where the suit / value of the card was important) and were treated more like ordinary objects were ideal. The main thing I was pushing was telling good stories, and giving reasons for doing the things that had to be done for the magic. Hence, avoiding dealing three piles of 7 cards and all that bs.

As a side note, a trick which was great for this was David Jade’s Static. It ticks all the boxes; it:

  • required some basic sleight of hand (namely learning a swing cut)
  • involved creating a simple gimmick
  • gave the kids a special prop to look after (responsibility + also exciting to have a secret prop!)
  • was open-ended enough so that they could come up for their own story as to why the deck moves
  • was a crazy powerful trick, that still used just a deck of cards, but looks miraculous when done right

If you’re a magician and don’t do a haunted deck trick, I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s so much less fiddly than the ‘classic’ way of doing a haunted deck and is totally hands-off when done on a table; you can even do it as a rising card in your own hand (like Eoin O’Hare’s Sleeper). A really, really great trick.

Anyway, back to the rules. They were:

  1. Don’t tell anyone the secrets!

  2. Practice lots! Knowing how a trick works doesn’t mean you can do it.

  3. Magic isn’t really real! It’s all about acting well.

  4. Give a reason for why you do your tricks.

  5. Center your tricks around a magical focal point. (If you can’t think of one, try snapping your fingers or blowing!)

I hope it’s clear how these tried to encourage the kids to give their magic performance a motivation or justification. We had lots of fun stories about Dr Strange and Himalayan monks and Matilda for the haunted deck plot.

Here I want to focus on rule 3.

Real Magic

“Magic isn’t real” isn’t something you’d normally think to teach children. But we had a lot of fun with it. Like all the above rules, it made them think more about why they were performing, and how to act as if it were real. Walking around the camp we also had some fun: we’d show people my hands were empty, cup them together, get someone to put their hands on my hands, get more people to join in, eventually gathering a big crowd. Then do a big, loud dramatic countdown, and then, at zero, shout ‘magic isn’t real!’ and run off.

Sometimes the kids were gutted by rule 3. I think everyone is when they find out that magic isn’t real. But it was important to have it in there, so that they realised they needed to act instead of just doing-the-moves. They came to realise that they themselves had to believe in the magic they did, in order for their audiences to believe in it.

But since coming home I’ve been reading some of my notes and books, and found an essay in a pamphlet by Benjamin Earl about real magic.

Earl advocates a paradigm shift. He suggests making

an even deeper commitment, not just presentation or ‘patter’ but a comprehensive understanding and identification with the real nature of magic and allowing it to inform your work.

He defines real magic by the following assumptions. We must assume that:

  • magic is real: it is a dimension of subjective experience

  • magic performances are comprised of real skills and real abilities

He also advocates developing language that is compatible with these assumptions.

His full post can be found here. I find this really interesting. It challenges the commonly held view that we, as magicians, have to be liars or have to deceive people. We can be genuine: not only in creating a genuine sense of wonder in our spectators, but in having the genuine belief that what the sense of wonder stems from is something really real.

Does this mean going so far as to be honest about methodology? Earl discusses Chan Canasta, and a contemporary example comes from how Penn and Teller present. Apparently

Chan would state that any questions could be asked about his methods and he would explain everything

Food for thought.

I’ve got more to say on this, linking it to notions of ‘real’ with a capital ‘R,’ i.e. a metaphysical thing-in-itself, and one of my favourite passages of philosophy, ‘How the true world finally became an error.’ But will save all that for another time.

Thanks for reading!


The Lottery Illusion

I recently returned to the UK having spent the summer working as the magic instructor (or ‘Director of Magic’ I suppose) at Long Lake Camp for the Arts. I spent my days teaching magic to 8 - 16 year olds, most of whom were total beginners. It was a blast and I have a lot of great stories and great memories from the past three months.

Over that time we put together three short magic shows, on the last weekend of each session of camp, for parents and guardians of the children to watch when they came to collect them. Camp was awesome because we had a huge scope to try out lots of things, so I had the opportunity to cobble together a version of my favourite trick, the lottery illusion. (This is the best way I’ve seen it done before. I’ve also seen a different version performed live in Oxford by Dynamo!) I thought I’d share my version:

The Effect:

There is a large potted plant awkwardly placed in the middle of the audience.

Six people in the audience are randomly chosen. They each stand where they are, and are given the following rules: think of a number between 1 and 50, everyone’s number must be different, if someone chooses the number you wanted before your turn you’ve gotta quickly think of a new one and change it.

We end up with six numbers. After faffing around with a barstool which has a little slot in it covered by a silk handkerchief we produce a wallet which has a lottery ticket strapped into it. A lottery ticket from the local corner shop, bought earlier that day. And the six numbers on that lottery ticket…

…don’t match.

Crap. Try to laugh it off. Shrug your shoulders and conceal your disappointment. Make a joke about none of your plants being in the audience tonight, so that’s why the trick didn’t work…

Oh wait! There is a plant in the audience. Venture off the stage into the audience, lift up this super heavy potted plant, and, underneath, show there is a lottery ticket which has the correct six numbers.

(I’m so so sorry.)


Powerball ticket

Quotes on Magic

A week or so ago I made a super simple site. I made the majority of it in a day but have been constantly tweaking it (mainly the CSS!) and adding content. It’s a site that displays a random quote about magic / a quote by a magician.

The site is now live at

The idea comes from this challenge on freeCodeCamp, a really cool online course for learning to code. The challenge said to host on Codepen, but I’ve hosted on Github Pages (and the whole thing is here on GitHub if you want to take a look).

The challenge had these requirements:

  • click a button to show a random quote
  • click a button to tweet the quote, trimming characters as appropriate

This site has both those things. I’ve also set it so it will tag the person whose quote it is on Twitter if they’re on Twitter, by adding an extra field to the (json) list of quotes.

The whole thing is really light-weight. Just vanilla JavaScript (that great framework by that dude Brendan ;)) in one JS file, most of it being a huge object with the content. Even has space for an easter egg if you’re not on mobile. Also a reset plus a 275 line CSS file, most of which is for the cool link hover effects (from Lots of hacky CSS to get it to look nice cross-device, but it seems like it’s all working fine glitch-free. Definitely wasn’t made mobile first though. Just the old school developer style of adding more and more rules to fix things you previously broke. (Two CSS properties walk into a bar. A barstool in a totally different bar falls over.) And submit page is done all static / frontend only by using Formspree.

Some things that could be added are:

  • a permalink to each quote (right now this happens on the /all page, as when that generates each quote it gives it an id=”#”. but would be cool to do something to solve this with address bar hashing)
  • a better random (or rather, a less random) algorithm so we don’t get same quote twice in a row when cycling through
  • a better way of storing all the content instead of just in that JS file (anyone got any ideas?)
  • a better way of submitting quotes (though no idea how to do this without a backend)

Also, the big white circle was meant to have a little reload icon in it, but I quite like how it looks as is. Supe minimal. Also also, I was going to use a random background image of fixed size using Unsplash Source, but I didn’t like the load times and I didn’t like how often it gave images I didn’t like. However, might use this idea (it’s just a single line that’s commented out at the mo) if this ever becomes a Chrome extension new tab page. (That might be a fun thing to code up? Never made a Chrome extension before).

Domain will stay up for a year or so, so if you’re reading this in 2018 and the above link doesn’t work try hitting up this link instead.

Lastly, if you have more suggestions for quotes to add please send them my way!