Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Three

Bergson distinguished between the ‘everyday’, ‘positive’ sciences which are characteristic of the intellect, remain ‘external’ to the object with the use of symbols, are restricted to separate moments, giving us a relative, convenient knowledge, and ‘true’ science which is obtained by the ascension to Ideas. This science is metaphysics which supposedly dispenses with symbols, is ‘preformulated’ in nature and is capable of attaining the absolute.

‘Science is not then, a human construction. It is prior to our intellect, independent of it, veritably the generator of Things.’1

Bergson acknowledged his profound obligation to Plotinus2 and gave a course of lectures on him at the College de France in 1897-98. The metaphysical vision of Creative Evolution has been compared with that of Plotinus.3 In this book Bergson suggested the possibility of applying the term ‘God’ to the source from which all things flow. In ‘The Two Sources of Morality and Religion’, the primal energy at the heart of the universe is stated to be love.

Creative Evolution is based on élan vital which for Bergson is the actualisation of memory in duration. This élan vital drives life to ‘overcome’ matter. Bergson believed there is a ‘tremendous push’ in nature which unites all nature and carries it along.4

‘As the smallest grain of dust is bound up with our entire solar system, drawn along with it in that undivided movement of descent which is materiality itself, so all organised beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion, the inverse of the movement of matter, and in itself indivisible.’5

As in his theorising about science, Bergson’s dualism is again evident in his treatment of the concepts ‘time’ and ‘duration’ (durée) which are fundamental to his philosophy. There is ‘intellectual’ time – that which can be subject to analysis, and ‘real’ time – the time of psychological experience. There is ‘mere’ duration – the general flow in time of all things (‘the phantom of duration’6) and ‘pure’ duration, the non-material basis and origin of all things. It is dynamic, creative and irreversible – ‘Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances’.7

Knowledge of duration can only be obtained by intuition – a direct, non-conceptual perception in which the act of knowing coincides with the person, experience or object in duration. Duration cannot be ‘spatialised’ i.e. divided into units. According to Bergson we do break movement and change it into simultaneous moments (‘simultaneity’) in order to act upon change. It is in our ‘inner’ life that the reality of change is revealed as indivisible, and it is this indivisible continuity of change which constitutes true duration. ‘Real’ time and ‘true’ duration are the same.

Bergson criticised Plato and Plotinus for turning away from practical life, for ‘escaping’ change and raising themselves above time, but this is precisely what Bergson did when he distinguished between time of the intellect and time of the immaterial ‘mind’. This ‘succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines’ (my emphasis)8 is the site of Platonic (i.e. Neoplatonic) reality.

Bergson wrote ’(Plato) in his magnificent language…says that God, unable to make the world eternal, gave it Time, “a moving image of eternity.”’9 The Time referred to here is ‘intellectual’ time (that of Plotinus’ second hypostasis, Intellect), the ‘eternity’ is Bergson’s ‘pure’ duration. He regarded duration and consciousness as inseparable. Inner duration is perceived by consciousness and ‘is nothing else but the melting of states of consciousness into one another.’ (my emphasis) 10

‘these distinct states of the external world give rise to states of consciousness which permeate one another, imperceptibly organise themselves into a whole, and bind the past to the present by this very process of connection.’11

Part three/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 321.

2. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., xiii.

3. ‘And, faithful to the spirit of Plato, he (Plotinus) thought that the discovery of truth demanded a conversion of the mind, which breaks away from the appearances here below and attaches itself to the realities above: “Let us flee to our beloved homeland!” ’, H. Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans., M. Andison, New York, 1946, 163.

4. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270. Bergson’s vitalism was popular in literary circles, but was not accepted by many philosophers and scientists. Antliff quoted R. Grogin in noting that the greatest intellectual assault on the rationalist bases of French democracy before World War One came from Bergsonian vitalism. Antliff argued that Bergson’s theories bore comparison with precepts underpinning fascism. Inventing Bergson op. cit., 11.

5. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 270.

6. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 34.

7. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 4.

8. H. Bergson, Time and Free Will, An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans., F. Pogson, London, 1910, reprint., 1950, 104.

9. In G. Beck, ‘Movement and Reality: Bergson and Cubism’, The Structurist, 15/16, 1975/1976, 112. Cf. Plotinus – he also quoted Plato on this.

10. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 107.

11. Ibid., 121.

A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism: Part Two

Further, cosmopolitan morality is bound to an ideal.10 Couture and Nielsen wrote:

‘A cosmopolitan is a world citizen, but “world citizenship” should not be taken literally for it is basically the expression of a moral ideal. We, as the Stoics thought, should give our first allegiance to the moral community made up of the humanity of all human beings. We should always behave so as to treat with respect every human being, no matter where that person was born, no matter what the person’s class, rank, gender, or status may be. At the core of the cosmopolitan ideal is the idea that the life of everyone matters, and matters equally. This, in broad strokes, is the cosmopolitan moral ideal.’11

The orientation to and around the concept ‘ideal’ recurs throughout cosmopolitan theorising: Kok-Chor Tan writes of ‘the cosmopolitan egalitarian ideal that the terms of distributive justice ought to be defined independently of people’s national commitments’,12 Pogge writes that he is ‘guided by the cosmopolitan ideal of democracy’13 and of ‘an ideal world of reasonably just and well-ordered societies’ – although our world is ‘non-ideal’.14

Wallace Brown wrote ‘Kant’s theory of justice is an a priori ideal…Kantian justice is…meant to provide an ideal standard from which all existing civil legislation is to be judged. …As Kant argues, “such is the requirement of pure reason, which legislates a priori, regardless of all empirical ends.” ’15

Beitz wrote ‘We might begin by asking, in general, what relevance social ideals have for politics in the real world. Their most obvious function is to describe a goal toward which efforts at political change should aim. …Ideal theory…supplies a set of criteria for the formulation and criticism of strategies of political action in the non-ideal world, at least when the consequences of political action can be predicted with sufficient confidence to establish their relationship to the social ideal’16

O’Neill, critical of idealisation, argued that it can easily lead to error. ‘An assumption, and derivatively a theory, idealises when it ascribes predicates – often seen as enhanced, “ideal” predicates – that are false of the case in hand, and so denies predicates that are true of that case.’17

She adds that ‘ordinary processes of confirmation and testing are likely to detect and reject (idealisations). Idealisations are far more dangerous in practical reasoning, because it aims at guidance’18 Further, ‘A convincing conception of practical reasoning…must start from the gritty realities of human life’.19

She wrote that conceptions of practical reasoning may be divided into two broad types – teleological (Platonist) or action-oriented (which embody types or principles of action and are Kantian).

But there is a ‘third’ type of ‘practical reasoning’ – materialist. Both of the types O’Neill identified give priority to consciousness (as perfectionism) over that which is independent of it – ‘matter’.20 O’Neill puts her constructive approach forward as practical, yet she shies away metaphysically from a materialist theoretical basis – which lies not in the considered observation of ‘gritty reality’ but in the recognition and understanding of the necessary relationship between theory and practice – i.e. how theory arises from the abstraction of perception and is tested through practice in the material world.

Besch wrote: ‘The fact (if it is a fact) that I tend to accurately represent my environment does not supply me with a guideline by which I can avoid misrepresenting it, but supposes that I have some such guideline.’21 That guideline, the vehicle for ever deepening truth is praxis.

Lenin summarised the process: ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’22 The truth of knowledge is practically verified.

Part two/to be continued…


10. Any uncritical use of the concept ‘ideal’ or its derivatives is to place consciousness prior to matter – with one exception: ‘X is idealistic’ implies an emotional response to the world, not a linguistically reasoned position. Marx never theorised about communism because he knew that to do so would be to prioritise consciousness over the objective world. However ‘communism’ itself is an ideal which fails to cater for contingency and the profundity of contradiction which drives the world (which the theory of evolution does do). It is most noteworthy that two of the greatest dialecticians – Hegel and Marx – believed there was an ‘end point’ – either in the Prussian state or communism.

11. Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the compatriot priority principle’, in Gillian Brock and Harry Brighouse, Eds., The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 180-195, 183. They continue ‘To be committed to such an ideal involves understanding that we are part of and committed to the universal community of humanity whether there is anything actually answering to the idea of there being such a community or not. If we are at all tough-minded, we will realise there is no world community and that the actual world is more like a swinerai (pigsty).’ 184. A little further on they wrote ‘it is unfortunately only in ideal theory that we can find a global order that is just.’ Ibid., 189.

12. Kok-Chor Tan, ‘The demands of justice and national allegiances’, in The Political Philosophy of Cosmopolitanism, op. cit., Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 164-179, 167.

13. Thomas, W. Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’ Ethics Vol. 103 No. 1 (Oct., 1992), pp. 48-75, 70.

14. Thomas W. Pogge, ‘An Egalitarian Law of Peoples’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Summer, 1994), pp. 195-224. pp. 201-202.

15. Garrett Wallace Brown ‘Kant’s Cosmopolitanism’, The Cosmopolitan Reader, op, cit., pp. 45-60, 49. Rawls, though not a cosmopolitan, was consistent with this, writing that Utopian requires the use of political/moral ideals, principles and concepts. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, 14.

16. Charles R. Beitz ‘Justice and International Relations’, The Cosmopolitan Reader, op. cit., pp. 85-99,  97.

17. Onora O’Neill, Towards Justice and Virtue, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, 41.

18. Ibid., 42.

19. Ibid., 61.

20. ‘We have reconstructed O’Neill’s attempt to ground a Kantian constructivist conception of practical reasoning on a fundamental requirement of all reasoned thought, and we have seen that this attempt fails. …O’Neill’s case for Kantian constructivism…is self-defeating.’ Thomas M. Besch, ‘Constructing Practical Reason: O’Neill on the Grounds of Kantian Constructivism’, The Journal of Value Inquiry, vol. 42, no. 1, 2008, 74. Also, in failing, O’Neill’s ‘case about the scope of practical reasoning (shows that) there are perfectionist value judgements at the normative core of Kantian constructivism.’, Thomas M. Besch, ‘Kantian Constructivism, the Issue of Scope, and Perfectionism: O’Neill on Ethical Standing’, European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2011, pp. 1-20, 2.

21. Ibid., 9.

22. V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.

A Materialist Critique of Skepticism


*   *   *

‘…all the early philosophers (said) that nothing could be cognised, apprehended, or known, because the senses were limited, our minds weak, and the course of our lives brief, while the truth had been submerged in an abyss’1

Philosophical skepticism, though derived from skepsis – ‘enquiry’, is a doubting – not of the world, that it exists, but of us – of the faculties that bind us to the world, of our abilities to sense and reason with regard to it. Skeptical self-doubting ranges from a perceived unreliability of sensation and reason to whether one can know anything about the world on the basis of them.

Rather than focusing on one period or philosopher, I will critique elements of skepticism which function throughout its history – elements often shared by both its proponents and those who believed they had a counter to it, in their arguing against it. My critique will be dialectical materialist, holding that ‘matter’ or objective reality is prior to its product consciousness and that objective reality functions according to laws of motion and change cognised scientifically.

The core of my argument will be that philosophical skepticism is a failure to understand our relationship with the world, which was summarised by Lenin: ‘From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, – such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality.’2 I aim to bring out the meaning of this sentence through my critique of skepticism.

Two concepts which profoundly orient and limit skeptical debate, as with philosophy generally, are ‘mind’ and ‘truth.’ In Annas and Barnes’s translation of Empiricus’s Outlines of Skepticism, for ‘mind’ they use the word ‘intellect.’3 For Cicero the ‘mind’ is the source of and identical to the senses.4 Montaigne wrote of ‘our minds.’5 Descartes wrote of his.6

Not only are there no ‘minds,’ only brains in bodies, the concept ‘mind’ is burdened with a history of separation and patriarchy with its associated dualisms7 and its use prevents philosophical discussion from fully engaging with and absorbing scientific developments. ‘Mind’ directs away from the world. Of our brains, of what we do not know or understand, it is appropriate to say that we do not know or understand now, thereby leaving future research open.8

Part one/to be continued…


1. Cicero, On Academic Scepticism, Trans., Charles Brittain, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2006, 106

2. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171

3. For example ‘Suspension of judgement is a standstill of the intellect…’ Sextus Empiricus, Sextus Empiricus: Outlines of Scepticism, Trans., Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, 5.

4. ‘For the mind, which is the source of the senses and is even itself identical to the senses, has a natural power it directs at the things by which it is moved.’ On Academic Scepticism, op. cit., 19-20.

5. Michel de Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’ The Complete Essays, Trans., M.A. Screech, Penguin, London, 2003, 667

6. ‘it is certain that I, that is to say my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it.’ ‘For it is, it seems to me, the function of the mind alone, and not of the composition of mind and body, to know the truth of these things.’ René Descartes, Discourse on Method and The Meditations, Trans., F.E. Sutcliffe, Penguin, London, 1968, pp. 156, 161. Also ‘I never asked “Am I a mind?” I begin with the discovery of myself as a thinking thing, which then provides a content for the concept of ‘mind’. …Nor have I assumed that mind is incorporeal. I demonstrate that it is, in the Sixth Meditation.’ Réne Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Trans., Michael Moriarty, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, 222.

7. Anaxagoras believed that nous put motion into the world but remained apart; there is the obvious Christian history of the ‘Mind’ of ‘our Father’ God; the dualisms, including reason/emotion, nature/nurture are all a denigration of the female.

8. That Helios drove the chariot of the sun was at least poetic.


A Materialist Critique of Cosmopolitanism

Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome

*   *   *

‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. …consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.’1

The question which underlies all others is ‘Which is prior to or which the product of the other – consciousness or that which exists independently of it – “matter”?’ My position, consistent with science, is that matter is prior and consciousness its product. Matter – ‘objective reality’ – is inseparable from motion and manifests in uninterrupted self-development.

Consciousness (the sum total of our brain’s processes) is the supreme form of reflection of the external world and asserts the knowability of the world. Dialectical materialism, developed from Neoplatonism (dynamism, motion, negation/contradiction, inter-relatedness, imperfection), holds theory and practice to be inseparably bound, that testing in the practice is essential to knowledge.2

Marx and Engels considered cosmopolitanism as an ideological reflection of capitalism. Although they used the word ‘cosmopolitan’, it was in relation to the world the bourgeoisie had brought into being.3 In relation to socialism, they were internationalists.

The core of Marx’s theory of ideology is that in any society, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class and that those ideas are embodied in its institutions and general ideology. In its history, cosmopolitanism has not only focused on the individual as bearer of moral concern but – under the influence of Stoicism – on the individual as ethical, self-controlled, ‘reasoned’ and dutiful.4

Cosmopolitanism has been aligned with patria, empire, ‘just’ imperialistic wars and, of late, ‘humanitarian’ interventions. As the cosmos for the Stoics was a polis, ordered by right reason embodied in law, for the Roman Stoics their patria extended citizenship to all, on the basis of rationality.

But this ‘rationality’ entailed obligations to Rome.5 Beck,6 Kaldor7 and Benhabib8 have ‘worried’ over the use of ‘humanitarian’ actions by capitalism to justify military ‘interventions’ – from Africa to Central Europe, from Iraq to Afghanistan and to add another, specifically relevant to Australia – East Timor.9

Marx, who never described capitalism as unjust, rejected morality from his analysis. He regarded any appeal to morality as a theoretically backward step.

Part one/to be continued…


1. Karl Marx, from the Preface, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, pp. 20-21.

2. It is interesting that Kant who took the ‘free individual’ as the starting point of his inquiry into politics, wrote that reason ‘requires trial, practice and instruction to enable it to progress gradually from one stage of insight to the next’ and that he believed that close trade relations and therefore dependency between states will also ‘indirectly prepare the way for a great political body of the future’. Second and Eighth Propositions, ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose’ (1784) in Hans Reiss, Ed., Kant, Political Writings, Trans., H.B. Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp. 41-53, pp. 42, 51.

3. ‘As money develops into international money, so the commodity-owner becomes a cosmopolitan. The cosmopolitan relations of men to one another originally comprise only their relations as commodity-owners. Commodities as such are indifferent to all religious, political, national and linguistic barriers. Their universal language is price and their common bond is money. But together with the development of international money as against national coins, there develops the commodity-owner’s cosmopolitanism, a cult of practical reason, in opposition to the traditional religious, national and other prejudices which impede the metabolic process of mankind. The commodity-owner realises that nationality “is but the guinea’s stamp,” since the same amount of gold that arrives in England in the shape of American eagles is turned into sovereigns, three days later circulates as napoleons in Paris and may be encountered as ducats in Venice a few weeks later. The sublime idea in which for him the whole world merges is that of a market, the world market.’ Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy op. cit., pp. 152-153.

4. ‘The Stoics held up a paradigm or ideal of the philosopher in complete, autonomous, and godlike control of himself.’ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Trans., Martin Hammond, Penguin, London, 2006, xxxv.

5. ‘There is no doubt that the Stoicism of Cicero’s De Officiis or of Seneca’s varied corpus explicitly acknowledges obligations to Rome. …empire made the doctrine very easy for many Romans by identifying the Roman patria with the cosmopolis itself.’ Pauline Kleingeld and Eric Brown, ‘Cosmopolitanism’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy; ‘In this book, Cicero presents an ideal of social conduct.’ Cicero, De Officiis/On Duties, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, xxiv; ‘It would not seriously misrepresent De Officiis to describe it as a handbook for members of the governing class on their duties to their peers in private life and to their fellow-citizens in public life.’, xxv; ‘In place of his enemies’ schemes for redistributing existing wealth, (Cicero) suggests the acquisition of new wealth through imperialism. How was this to be reconciled with his demand for just wars and the equitable treatment of Rome’s subjects?’ Ibid., xxviii. Of Aurelius: ‘His Meditations…are devoted to power and submission to power’, Aurelius, Meditations, op. cit., xv; ‘The concept of duty…underlies Marcus’ whole philosophy of human behaviour…the duty is both to man and to god. … Marcus sees his duty primarily as that incumbent on ‘a rational and social being’, generalised into the ‘duty to be a good man’, Ibid., 161; ‘For Marcus, social responsibility is a direct consequence of man’s rational nature (‘rational directly implies social’)’, Ibid., 162.

6. ‘the greater the success of neoliberal politics on a global level – that is, the greater the erosion of state structures – the more likely it is that a “cosmopolitan facade” will emerge to legitimise Western military intervention. The striking feature here is that imperial power-play can coexist harmoniously with a cosmopolitan mission. …power strategies disguised as humane intervention.’, Ulrich Beck, ‘The Cosmopolitan Manifesto’ in Garrett Wallace Brown, David Held, Eds., The Cosmopolitan Reader, Polity, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 217-228, 225.

7. ‘the term humanitarian intervention has been used to justify wars, as in Kosovo, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, giving rise to scepticism about the whole concept; hence the phrase “military humanism” coined by Noam Chomsky.’ Mary Kaldor, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: Towards a Cosmopolitan Approach’, The Cosmopolitan Reader op. cit., pp. 334-350, 334.

8. ‘this doctrine can be used inconsistently—why Bosnia alone? Why not Rwanda and Darfur as well?—and hypocritically—was the Iraq war of 2003 really a case of humanitarian intervention? ‘Seyla BenHabib, Another Cosmopolitanism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, 72.

9. ‘1943 January-February: Australia withdraws from East Timor and drops leaflets titled, ‘Your friends do not forget you’, urging the Timorese to fight on alone.’ and ‘1952: An Australian defence white paper declares that Portuguese Timor is of immense strategic interest to Australia. Australia proposes defence co-operation, but this is rejected by Portugal.’ x, ‘Under international law most, if not all, of the known resources would belong to East Timor.’ and ‘Just two months before the independence of East Timor, Australia withdrew from international arbitration for maritime disputes, thereby deliberately denying justice to this new country.’ xxvi, ‘Australia was the only Western nation to recognise the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.’ xxviii etc. …Paul Cleary, Shakedown – Australia’s grab for Timor oil, Allen and Unwin, 2007. Scheuerman wrote ‘cosmopolitanism obscures the fundamentally pluralistic, dynamic, and conflictual nature of political life on our divided planet. Notwithstanding its pacific self-understanding, cosmopolitan democracy inadvertently opens the door to new and even more horrible forms of political violence. Cosmopolitanism’s universalistic moral discourse not only ignores the harsh and unavoidably agonistic character of political life, but it also tends to serve as a convenient ideological cloak for terrible wars waged by political blocs no less self-interested than the traditional nation state’ (Zolo 1997, 24). William Scheuerman, ‘Globalisation’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.


Max Weber and Agnes Heller on Disenchantment and Dissatisfaction

Max Weber’s position on science as a vocation encapsulates his core ideas on modernity, central to which are rationalisation and a resultant disenchantment. He used ‘rationalisation’ with a range of meanings that can be brought under that of ‘what is accessible to and can be organised by reason and calculation, the belief that everything can be understood’. This process, particularly since the rise of science and the coming together of disparate currents has resulted in disenchantment – ‘de-magification’, the loss of mystery in the world and of a cohering religious world view and collective meaning. Together with the rise of science, that of bureaucracy also meant the loss of freedom.

Yet contrary to this bleak perception, Weber claimed a commitment to science and considered rationalisation and bureaucracy as necessary and the vast machine of modernity as having liberating potential for those who are willing to engage with the challenge of creating a meaningful life for themselves. He advocated that those who make a career of science should do so on the basis of it being their ‘calling’. In a world of ‘warring’ autonomous value spheres stripped of meaning by rationalisation, resulting in tension and fragmentation, they must bring an exemplary and religious devotion to their work. In order to even have the chance of doing something great, they must specialise, since what is new knowledge today will be gone beyond in only a short time. Science cannot give meaning – that can only be found by ‘worshipping at one shrine’, by engagement with a sphere of value (for example science, politics, art) – but it can extend the technological control of life, it can provide a method of thought to enable clarity. It is the optimal tool for those heroic and strong enough to face ‘inconvenient’ facts.

Agnes Heller equated modernity with dissatisfaction from the perspective of needs and wants. Rather than thinking of dissatisfaction as something to be overcome or, as Weber did through ‘disenchantment’, mourned, she sees it as the fundamental motivational force in modernity. She argues that Marx and Weber were partially correct in their analyses, attributing dissatisfaction in turn to commodity production and rationalisation. She believes that modernity is a pendulum swinging between its dynamic and tension-related ‘logics’ of capitalism, industrialisation and democracy, each of which impact on, contradict and can subordinate the others.

A dissatisfied modernity is dynamic, accumulating and searching. The dynamism results from the generation of more needs than can be satisfied. The developmental ‘logics’ of Western modernity are embedded in the social systems. Where the motivational forces for the three are wants, and capitalism and industrialisation can satisfy endless wants, only the ‘logic’ of democracy can satisfy the needs that contribute to a person’s exercise of their autonomy. Heller positions subjectivity at the centre of modernity and believes our existential and ethical ‘task’ is to transform our contingency into our destiny by achieving satisfaction through determining our lives and building on our talents, to which choosing our democratic freedom is fundamental. Even though democracy contributes to dissatisfaction by advancing the values of freedom, human rights and equality as universal ideas and the other ‘logics’ have contributed to social emancipation and the scientific worldview, Heller hopes that democracy will triumph and contain the growth of the other two ‘logics’.

While her writing is after Weber’s, it is still a better attempt to theorise the contradictory dynamism of Western capitalism. Where Weber’s writing, standing in the shadow of Nietzschean asceticsim – with its heroes, prophets and gods – has a kernel of backward-longing to a romantic never-existent, Heller’s writing can be much more humane and understanding of self and others, and much more democratic. She wrote that as Weber observed, we cannot die satiated with life but, she added, we can ‘make a difference’ saying that in the light of the possibilities, we have achieved what we could. Yet Weber’s demands on his man of the ‘calling’ echo in her focus on ‘strategic moments’ and ‘key decisions’ and her failure to recognise indecision. The writing of both Weber and Heller has a romantic aura privileging the creativity of the highly-principled individual as they progress towards their personal destiny.

Heller wrote that to be satisfied in a dissatisfied society ‘we can be satisfied with our lives to the extent that we are able to transform our contingency into our destiny by choosing to satisfy our needs for self-determination directly and not indirectly. To be satisfied with our lives does not mean being generally satisfied.’1 The realistic attractiveness of the last sentence slumps limply against the brassy move from contingency to destiny in the first. Again, she wrote that since the modern western state has no organising centre (a contradiction in terms) greater possibilities for democratisation can be pursued in all spheres of society. To theorise democracy, one must first be clear on what comprises a state.

With regard to Weber – magic, disenchantment, gods, prophets and heroes play no part in a ‘hard-headed’ analysis of the current (capitalist) manifestation of ‘modernity’. Again, even though she recognises and explores their inter-relatedness, Heller’s ‘logics’ of capitalism, industrialisation and democracy cannot be pulled apart in the manner she does. Industrialisation is a manifestation of capitalism as is capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracy (not the only form of democracy) has developed both as a requisite of capitalism (we are all ‘free and equal’) and a concession to the struggles and assertions of both the middle and working classes – against the ‘craze for profits’ (which Weber denied).2 Trade unionism is another example of this – bitterly fought for but then become necessary and used to control the working class through its compromised leadership (the Accord is a prime instance).

Both Weber and Heller put subjectivity at the centre of modernity and politics yet for Heller the self-choice is the result of a series of intentional actions while for Weber it is a value-choice to which one remains committed. For Heller the existential choice is open to all (she has made these decisions, so can others), for Weber it is only open to those with shoulders to bear the challenge. There is an elitism in the writing of both – Weber’s ‘aristocratic’, ‘charismatic’, Heller’s more intersubjective, more understanding. Weber’s ‘disenchantment’ is incorporated in a romantic analysis – grandiose and unrelenting but with colour, passion and brilliance in the character of ‘hero’, the man of ‘calling’. Weber placed the emancipatory potential on the individual, ‘above’ the everyday. Heller placed the empowering potential on the individual as an integrated member of an everyday community.

Heller’s analysis of ‘dissatisfaction’ is of a concept the widespread presence of which is obvious in our society but it is not simply too abstract, it misunderstands the relationship between what she terms ‘logics’. Any analysis of ‘dissatisfaction’ on that basis must have serious flaws. Yet Heller wrote ‘It is this loss of relevance suffered by the redemptive paradigm that has led so many to despair. …Such despair, however, is misplaced, for if there is no social redemption, neither is there damnation.’3 The despair was misplaced because the cause was misunderstood. But her conclusion is sound and a most important truth to consider when thinking about ‘modernity’.



1. Agnes Heller and Ferenc Fehér, ‘On Being Satisfied in a Dissatisfied Society’ in The Postmodern Political Condition, Polity Press, 1988, 36

2. ‘categories such as “acquisitive drive” or “the craze for profit” are…by no means sufficient to account for the “capitalist spirit” – whatever we understand by this concept.’ Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings (1905), trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells, Penguin 2002, 278. Contra-Weber’s justification of capitalism on the basis of ascetic ethics, Marx wrote ‘ By counting the most meagre form of life (existence) as the standard, indeed, as the general standard – general because it is applicable to the mass of men. He turns the worker into an insensible being lacking all needs, just as he changes his activity into a pure abstraction from all activity. To him, therefore, every luxury of the worker seems to be reprehensible, and everything that goes beyond the most abstract need – be it in the realm of passive enjoyment, or a manifestation of activity – seems to him a luxury. Political economy, this science of wealth, is therefore simultaneously the science of renunciation, of want, of saving and it actually reaches the point where it spares man the need of either fresh air or physical exercise. This science of marvellous industry is simultaneously the science of asceticism, and its true ideal is the ascetic but extortionate miser and the ascetic but productive slave.’ Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977 (Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property), 111

3. Heller, op. cit., 32

À la recherche du temps perdu

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,

‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

And whether pigs have wings.’

From Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871

James Steele: America’s mystery man in Iraq – Full Documentary

Marx, Foucault and Panopticism


As Marx began his analysis of capitalism with that of what lay at its heart, of what suffuses it – the commodity, Foucault began his analysis of western society by describing that society in panoptic extremis – during a plague: ‘It is a segmented, immobile, frozen space. Each individual is fixed in his place…Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alert everywhere’.1 As the leper was cast out from society into a leprous community, nineteenth century society with its asylums, penitentiaries, schools and hospitals was a composite of outcasts – one built on binary divisions (mad/sane, dangerous/harmless, normal/abnormal) – and against these separated outcasts are ranged the mechanisms of power.

Foucault’s analysis moves from an abstract ideal of power – the Panopticon (designed by Bentham – proponent of the greatest happiness and felicific calculus and author of ‘If pains must come, let them extend to few’) – to its development in panoptic capitalist society. Foucault concludes ‘Is it surprising that the cellular prison…should have become the modern instrument of penalty?’2

Where Bentham’s Panopticon is comprised of a ring of seen packaged around a hub of seeing, Foucault’s panoptic society is a study in the most subtle and unrelenting pain of observation and containment, of a society in which the few masters who view are unknown, diffused amongst their subjects, and whose subjects themselves are their own impossibility of release.

The Panopticon as society is a naturalist – observing, assessing and classifying. It is a laboratory for punishment and experimentation. It supervises – its mechanisms, its personnel, its director. It functions – optimising efficiency, at the basis of society, developing the productive forces. It is institutionally enclosing while societally enforcing – from exceptional discipline to a discipline without bars, locks or chains. The permanently seen, like the chained elephant, are their own benign subjugators. We, as individuals, have become the panoptic machine state – Leviathan gazing down.

Discipline – ‘a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets…a technology’3 – developed in knowledge and power, has grown from quarantined and institutional to distributed and panoptic. Disciplines are now co-extensive with the state. They maximise their intensity and profitability at the lowest possible cost. They increase docility and utility. They are the ever-so-discrete techniques of capitalism.

Foucault’s entire argument is abstract and nebulous. In his discussion of panoptic capitalism he referred to class domination and the bourgeoisie once each and not once to the working class. Surplus value becomes ‘surplus power.’4 He wrote that the panopticon ‘represented the abstract formula of a very real technology, that of individuals,’5 of ‘anonymous instruments of power.’6 Observation itself is democratised – anyone can exercise the power of the gaze – ‘The seeing machine…has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole.’7 – it is a point that he repeats throughout the chapter. By so doing, he obscured, in effect denied class relations. ‘Disciplines’ and ‘power’ are intentional, not those who employ them, the agents of the dominant class. Foucault wrote ‘It (discipline) must also master all the forces that are formed from the very constitution of an organised multiplicity; it must neutralise the effects of counter-power…which form a resistance to the power that wishes to dominate it.‘8

Compare this with The Communist Manifesto in which the argument is materially anchored in production and the struggle of classes. Where Marx and Engels wrote of what the bourgeoisie do, Foucault wrote of what ‘discipline’ and ‘power’ do. Where the argument of Marx and Engels exposes materially, that of Foucault is autonomous, ominous and miasmic.

Foucault did not understand how nature works, that consciousness as manifest in ‘power’ and ‘discipline’ et cetera does not fundamentally determine the movement of matter, it is a manifestation of it. His account in this chapter is nihilistic – there is no hope, no redeeming truth or principle, no way forward. Foucault did not understand the nature of ‘panopticism’ in relation to capitalism. He argued the rise of panopticism is parallel to the rise of capitalism – that just as the economic take-off of the West began with the accumulation of capital, ‘the methods for administering the accumulation of men made possible a take-off in relation to power from traditional violent forms to subtle subjection.9

He added that these two processes cannot be separated, that the ‘problem’ of the accumulation of men required ‘the growth of an apparatus of production capable of both sustaining them and using them…the techniques that made the cumulative multiplicity of men useful accelerated the accumulation of capital.’10 Even here, where Foucault is at his most confusedly concrete, he thought that ‘each makes the other possible and necessary’11 rather than it being a single process whereby, on the basis of the objective development and refinement of the means of production there was a concomitant development and refinement in the processes of human relations, consciousness and domination.



1. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans., Alan Sheridan, Vintage, New York, 1995, 195

2. Ibid., 227-8

3. Ibid., 215

4. Ibid., 223

5. Ibid., 225

6. Ibid., 220

7. Ibid., 207

8. Ibid., 219

9. Ibid., 221

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.


The Ethics and the Enneads on Virtue: the Perfection of Self by a Self-focused Man – Part Two

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

Michelangelo, ‘David’, marble, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Florence)

Where contemplation is the culmination of the Ethics, it is the substance of The Enneads. For both Aristotle and Plotinus, contemplation is the highest and perfect form of activity.19 It is non-discursive and self-contained, but whereas for Aristotle it is an aesthetic and intellectual appreciation by the perfect man20 of knowledge already acquired – the full experience of what it is to be eudaimon, for Plotinus it is the means for the attainment of ‘knowledge’ in the hypostasis of Intellect21 and for the aesthetic perfection of self. For Aristotle, unlike practical activity, nothing is to be gained from contemplation except the pleasure of its own act,22 for Plotinus contemplation, which for him was creative, carries Soul to its source. For both, it is the manifestation of the divine within.23

Aristotle wrote about ‘good’, ‘virtue’, ‘moral’ and the less complete ‘eudaimonia’ in relation to practical life, but these concepts only find their meaning in Plotinus’ system in the shadow of his understanding of contemplation. In The Virtues (I.2) Plotinus equated virtue with attaining likeness to God24 – by ‘becoming just and holy, living by wisdom’. Any possible misunderstanding that this might be in reference to practical life is denied by the conclusion of the first sentence – ‘we must escape hence.’25 He wrote that there are civic and purificatory virtues. The civic virtues (prudence, fortitude, sophrosyny and rectitude) are a principle of beauty in us as long as we remain focused on this life but they are inferior to the purificatory virtues, those same virtues, when they are focused away from this life and on God. As purificatory virtues, they enable the paring away from the Soul of not only the body’s moods and passions but of the body itself.26 His thought on eudaimonia drew the same conclusion.27

In his definition of ‘virtue’ Aristotle used the term ‘rational principle’. Plotinus used the same term, mystically – Soul carries rational-principles (or reason-principles or Forms) from Intellect to the quasi-hypostasis of Nature. Again, production in Nature is the expression of contemplation.

On the subject of contemplation, intellect and reason – even when Aristotle wrote about contemplative intellect, about the contemplation of ‘those things whose first principles are invariable’,28 his use of ‘contemplation’ and ‘intellect’ were not intended to have mystical content. Similarly with his use of the term ‘reason’ – they were all applied to this world – but not so for Plotinus, whose philosophy was based on an antipathy to matter.29

Although the word ‘love’ occurs seven times in the quotation from the Ethics but only twice in that from The Enneads, Aristotle in the Ethics regarded as far superior a life ruled by reason than one ruled by feeling30 – the stronger the emotion, the more critical he was of it. Plotinus was at the other end of the spectrum on this matter – never have the emotions pressed more forcefully against the constraints of reason and rationalisation than in The Enneads.

But there are underlying connections between the person Aristotle and Plotinus most favoured in these books. Not only was the focus of each, in different ways, on the perfection of an individual self, those who could be most eudaimon were recognised as an elite31 who could not contribute to their community’s life with that activity. Further, Kathleen Wilkes wrote ‘The contemplative life is fully attainable only insofar as man (my italics) can become god-like, and the constant and irremovable block to this is that he is biologically an animal.’32

Both Aristotle and Plotinus believed that eudaimonia is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and that through virtue one can attain the highest good. That attainment for Aristotle was to be in this world, for Plotinus, in the world ‘beyond’.



19. Ethics 1177a5-25

20. Ibid., 1176a10-29

21. Paul Henry suggested that the hypostases of One, Intellect and Soul should be considered less as entities than as spiritual attitudes. Paul Henry. ‘The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought’. In The Enneads, op. cit., li

22. Ethics 1177a25-b13

23. Ibid., 1177b13-33

24. Plotinus quoted Plato ‘Likeness to God is a flight from this world’s ways and things’, Theaetetus 176AB

25. The Enneads I.I.I

26. Ibid., 1.2.3 Also ‘the man will work for the final Disengagement; he will live, no longer, the human life of the good man – such as Civic Virtue commends – but, leaving this beneath him, will take up instead another life, that of the Gods.’ I.2.7

27. ‘a life of mingled good and ill…could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That.’ Ibid., 1.4.16

28. Ethics 1138b35-1139a16

29. Plotinus, like Plato, confusingly used the term ‘reason’ both in reference to an activity of the physical body and the activity of Soul. For the two, the former activity is concerned with the material world and the latter with contemplation of and in the spiritual. As with the two realms, the first reason is the inferior copy of the latter. Ficino’s contribution to this confusion of reason as a function of matter with (disembodied) spiritual contemplation is exemplary: ‘Reason by itself grasps the incorporeal Reasons of all things…reason investigates heavenly things, and does not have a seat of its own in any part of the body, just as divinity also does not have a particular seat in any part of the world…(followed immediately by) Reason…perceives not only those things which are in the world and the present, as sensation does, but also those which are above the heaven, and those which have been or will be.’ Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, trans. J. Sears. Dallas, Spring Publications, 1985, Speech V Chapter 2, 84-85.

30. Ethics 1168b32-1169a23, 1179b7-1180a15

31. Aristotle: Discourses on ethical theory ‘are incapable of impelling the masses towards human perfection.’ ibid., 1179b7-29, Plotinus: ‘to those of power to reach, it is present; to the inapt, absent.’ The Enneads VI,9,7. Barnes op. cit. referred to Aristotle’s ‘egoistic eudaimonism’. Ibid., 31

32. Wilkes op. cit., 352

Henri Bergson, Neoplatonist, and the Cubist Aesthetic: Part Two

Bergson asked how it is possible, having posited unchanging Ideas, to make change come from them, then argued ‘there is more in the motionless than in the moving’,1 that Ideas are contained in matter and that nothing, the source of becoming, moves between Ideas, creating ‘endless agitation’, which leads to the degradation of Ideas. Hence duration coexisted with Ideas. Forms are ‘snapshots’ of changing reality. ‘They are moments gathered along the course of time’:2

‘Beneath the changing phenomena will appear to us, by transparence, a closed system of concepts subordinated to and co-ordinated with each other…It will be prior to human knowledge…prior also to things, which awkwardly try to imitate it…Its immutability is therefore, indeed, the cause of the universal becoming.’3

He argued:

‘But when we put immutable Ideas at the base of the moving reality, a whole physics, a whole cosmology, a whole theology follows necessarily. We must insist on the point.’4

Bergson thought that we are all born Platonists5 and that there exists nothing positive outside Ideas.6 He gave the example of the Idea of a poem, how thousands of people write on an Idea and how our minds can leap from the words to the images and from these to the Idea:7

‘the philosopher, ascending again from the percept to the concept, sees condensed into the logical all the positive reality that the physical possesses. His intellect, doing away with the materiality that lessens being, grasps being itself in the immutable system of Ideas.’8

In view not only of form in art but of the highly philosophic nature of Cubism, Bergson’s treatment of form is very important, and is both Platonic:

‘the philosophy of Ideas…starts from the Form; it sees in the Form the very essence of reality…it posits Form in the eternal’9

and most productive in comparison. For example, the following:

‘Things re-enter into each other. What was extended in space is contracted into pure Form. And past, present and future shrink into a single moment, which is eternity.’10

compared with Picasso’s statement in 1923:

‘When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they are all the same images in different planes.’11

Again, on the limitation and unreality of appearance:

‘(Forms) tend to withdraw into their own definition, that is to say, into the artificial reconstruction and symbolical expression which is their intellectual equivalent. They enter into eternity, if you will; but what is eternal in them is just what is unreal.’12

Nietzsche wrote:
‘The more ‘Idea’ the more being. (Plato) reversed the concept ‘reality’ and said: ‘What you take for real is an error, and the nearer we approach the ‘Idea’, the nearer we approach ‘truth’ – Is this understood? It was the greatest of rebaptisms…Fundamentally, Plato, as the artist he was, preferred appearance to being! lie and invention to truth! the unreal to the actual! But he was so convinced of the value of appearance that he gave it the attributes ‘being’, ‘causality’ and ‘goodness’ and ‘truth’, in short everything men value.’13

Picasso who had read most of Nietzsche’s works by seventeen and who co-edited a magazine recommending The Birth of Tragedy in 1901 stated:

‘Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth…The artist must know how to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’14

Part two/to be continued…


1. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 316

2. Ibid., 317

3. Ibid., 328. This is what Cézanne sought to express in his late work

4. Ibid., 315

5. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 64

6. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 316

7. Ibid., 320

8. Ibid., 321

9. Ibid., 318

10. Ibid., 320

11. Picasso in a statement to M. de Zayas, ‘Picasso Speaks’, The Arts, New York, May 1923, reprint., in E. Fry, Cubism, London, 1966, reprint., 1978, 167

12. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 317

13. F. Nietzsche, The Will to Power, W. Kaufmann, ed., New York, 1968, 308

14. Picasso to M.de Zayas in Fry, op. cit., 165-166