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.


Will Capitalist Nations go to War with China?

SHANE MCLEOD: China’s role in Australia’s economy continues to grow – it’s now our biggest trading partner and vies with Japan as our biggest export destination.

But there are some who believe that China’s growing economic power will bring with it rising military power and conflict with the West.

That’s the theory of Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago.

He says China will want to become the region’s dominant power and it won’t want to have the United States continuing to play a role in military defence in the region in countries like Japan and South Korea.

Professor Mearsheimer is in Australia this week as a guest of the University of Sydney, and in coming days he’ll be giving a lecture about China’s rise.

I caught up with him earlier today and asked him why he thinks that rise won’t be peaceful.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that as China gets economically more powerful than it is today, it will translate that economic might into military might and it will try to dominate the Asia Pacific region just the way the United States dominates the western hemisphere.

Great powers like to be all powerful in their own neighbourhood. They don’t like neighbours that can threaten them and they don’t like distant great powers coming into their backyard just the way the United States has this Monroe-doctrine which effectively tells the European and Asian great powers to stay out of the western hemisphere.

I believe that as China gets more powerful it will do everything it can to push the United States away from its borders and ultimately out of the Asia Pacific region.

SHANE MCLEOD: Is there not a benefit for China though in the status quo as it currently stands? That the US is a major balancing power, it is a defence ally of countries like Japan, South Korea that could be potential threats to Chinese power in the region. Isn’t there a benefit for China in keeping the US involved?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I don’t think that the Chinese is to get more powerful and even now view the United States as quite the benevolent force that you describe them to be. (sic) We have just had a controversy where the United States and the South Koreans decided that they were going to run naval exercises in the Yellow Sea to protest North Korean sinking of a South Korean ship.

This made the Chinese very upset because they view the American navy as threatening just as the United States would view a Chinese navy or a German navy or a Soviet navy on its doorstep as threatening.

So from a Chinese point of view, the best of all possible worlds would to have the Americans far away and for China, not the United States to provide the stabilising factor in the region.

SHANE MCLEOD: But if you take say the United States out of Japan then you have a country that has a constitution imposed by the US after World War II limiting its defence build up, its defence capability. Wouldn’t a country like Japan for example, in a region without the United States there ramp up its own capabilities?

It wouldn’t take much for Japan to become a nuclear power for example.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think that is true but if you look at the balance of power over time between China and Japan, the gap which is now quite large is going to increase significantly, in large part for demographic reasons.

Japan has the most rapidly aging population in the world. It is going to get smaller and weaker over time.

China is going to get more powerful over time. In an ideal situation from China’s point of view is one where the power gap between it and Japan is large and China has the ability to dominate Japan because that is the best way to ensure your security in a dangerous world.

SHANE MCLEOD: Does this happen by force or could China become the regional power through soft power, through coercion by showing itself to be the leader in the region? Would it be such a problem for countries like Japan, Korea, Vietnam, to look to China as the natural power in the region?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think one can make an argument that China, if it continues to grow at the spectacular pace that it has been growing at over the past 30 years for the next 30 years then it will become so big and so powerful that it won’t have to even countenance using force to dominate the region.

It will just be so powerful that countries like South Korea and Japan will have no choice but to in effect dance to China’s tune. But there is a serious possibility along the way of conflict.

If you read the Australian White Paper from last year, it is quite clear from that White Paper that the Australian Government is nervous about the possibility and I want to underline the word possibility of conflict between China and other powers in the region as China continues to rise.

SHANE MCLEOD: How do you see Australia’s role evolving in the region alongside a powerful China and what about the relationship with Australia’s traditional allies, the United States?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think that as China continues to rise that a balancing coalition will form in this region. It will be aimed at containing China much the way we had balancing coalitions in Europe and Asia during the Cold War.

SHANE MCLEOD: They could never say that though could they?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: No, no it is very hard to say that but I think behind closed doors that is how people are talking and I think that you see all sorts of evidence that the balancing coalition is beginning to form.

If you look at the close relations that now exist between India and the United States, if you look at relations between Vietnam and the United States, Singapore’s approach to dealing with the United States these days.

It is just all sorts of evidence that countries in the region are worried about China as is the United States and this will cause them to eventually come together and form a balancing coalition and I would be shocked if Australia is not part of that balancing coalition as it was part of the balancing coalition against Japan in the 1940s.

SHANE MCLEOD: You made reference to it but the economic ties, will they have a calming effect do you think? If countries in this region like Australia are so strongly tied to China economically, will that offset the potential tensions in the strategic relationship?

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: Well, first of all it is possible that those economic ties could cause trouble. If you had a serious recession or a depression, it could be the case that those ties didn’t work to cause peace – they in fact work to cause conflict between the relevant powers. So economic ties don’t always produce peaceful outcomes.

But let’s assume that they do. The historical record shows very clearly that before World War I, you had economic ties in Europe that should have produced peace yet you had World War I so I don’t think it is impossible that in a world where you have a great deal of economic interdependence and where all the players are doing quite well economically, to still have a conflict between the opposing powers and that is a large part because when push comes to shove, politics dominates economics.

SHANE MCLEOD: That is Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago and there will be a longer version of that interview available on our website later today.

ABC Radio National/The World Today/02.08.10


Plato, the Poet and Change

Plato believed that art is essentially mimetic and used ‘mimesis’ in different ways to express what the product of a craftsman is on a scale of diminishing degrees of reality and knowledge (from knowledge [pure thought and reason] to opinion [belief and illusion]), in relation to the true objects of knowledge – the Forms. Using the example of a bed: the eidos of Bed, made by the god is a unique, eternal and unchanging and therefore fully real essence, embodied in all beds.

A bed made by a carpenter participates in the essence of Bed, but because it is in the world of change, is less real. An artist’s painting of the bed is a mere image or illusion because it is only of the appearance of the bed – the bed painted from one perspective, as though seen in a mirror – so the painting is thrice removed from true reality and knowledge. Similarly, the mimesis produced by the poet (who creates pictures with words) is the re-presentation of life – mere imitation.

While an artist can paint a bit and bridle he does not understand the form that is proper to these objects, he has neither knowledge nor correct belief of what he depicts because he has no experience of them. The smith and leather-worker can make them – but even they don’t have the understanding of them that the horseman has. As with the soul, the tripartite Platonic divisions apply in the arts: here – the art of use, the art of making and the art of representation. The implied equation between ‘art of use’ and (knowledge of) eternal reality is on the basis of ‘complete engagement with’ – developed in Neoplatonism. The poet is the counterpart of the painter – their work too is thrice removed from reality, for the same reasons. The poet knows nothing more than their own craft – how to re-present appearances. They have no knowledge on the basis of experience of what they write about but employ their mere imagination.

Plato held that the only poetry that should be allowed in the commonwealth is that which praises the gods and ‘good’ men. He had particular hostility to ‘imitative’ poetry because it was to this that the Greeks had traditionally looked for moral and intellectual guidance (his prime target was Homer). He wanted to establish philosophy as that sole source, denying not only the parallels between poetry and philosophy – that they were both art forms that could be literary and pedagogical, but also the cognitive potential of poetry and the arts. He believed that ‘wisdom’ could be gained not through the study of the poet’s portraits of heroes but only through rigorous dialectic.

He argued that whereas (his) philosophy had as its summum bonum true knowledge on the basis of reason’s engagement with what was most real through strict training, the poet’s (particularly tragic) aim was to appeal to the ‘non-rational’ part of the soul and the arousal of emotion in their audience, on the basis of the poet’s imitation of appearances. The experience of the emotions aroused would then carry over into the daily lives of the citizens, to their detriment.

What was particularly threatening to Plato (because of his sensitivity to and capacity for inspiration and his determination to deny lived emotions and change with his controlled, rationalist system, and whom Guthrie correctly described as a philosophical theologian) was that the poet is ‘divinely inspired’. Poets work from inspiration not (linguistic) reason, they don’t understand the meaning of their language, they present a semblance of life with no grasp of reality. Such poetry, like all art, is play and not to be taken seriously. Thus Plato argued that the poet should be not allowed into a just commonwealth ‘because he stimulates and strengthens an element which threatens to undermine the reason.’

Driven by his antipathy to change and his incapacity to accept its necessity and by the manifestation of this in his division and opposition between ‘reason’ and ‘emotions’, Plato banished from his republic (from what was in effect his model for the perfection of self) that which, as evidenced by his own writing, he had the deepest appreciation of – poetry – and those whose business it was – including, by implication and most particularly, himself.


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.


On the Mystical Shaping of Self

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Pygmalion and Galatea, oil on canvas, 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ‘Take an example from love: so long as the attention is upon the visible form, love has not entered: when from that outward form the lover elaborates within himself, in his own partless soul, an immaterial image, then it is that love is born, then the lover longs for the sight of the beloved to make that fading image live again. If he could but learn to look elsewhere, to the more nearly formless, his longing would be for that: his first experience was loving a great luminary by way of some thin gleam from it.’ Enneads VI.7.33

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Pygmalion and Galatea, oil on canvas, 1890. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ‘Take an example from love: so long as the attention is upon the visible form, love has not entered: when from that outward form the lover elaborates within himself, in his own partless soul, an immaterial image, then it is that love is born, then the lover longs for the sight of the beloved to make that fading image live again. If he could but learn to look elsewhere, to the more nearly formless, his longing would be for that: his first experience was loving a great luminary by way of some thin gleam from it.’ Enneads VI.7.33

One of the greatest, most fruitful and resonant metaphors in Western culture

From Plotinus:

‘But how are you to see into a virtuous Soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.’

The Enneads, Trans., Stephen MacKenna, Penguin, London, 1991, 54, 1.6.9

through Christianity:

‘A sculptor who wishes to carve a figure out of a block uses his chisel, first cutting away great chunks of marble, then smaller pieces, until he finally reaches a point where only a brush of hand is needed to reveal the figure. In the same way, the soul has to undergo tremendous mortifications at first, and then more refined detachments, until finally its Divine image is revealed.’

through Catholicism

through Cusanus:

‘For the wise thought as if [along the following line]: a craftsman [who] wants to chisel a statue in stone and [who] has in himself the form of the statue, as an idea, produces – through certain instruments which he moves – the form of the statue in imitation of the idea’

De Docta Ignorantia II.10, in Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia, 1440), The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1985, 112

through Nietzsche:

‘Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: the artistic power of the whole of nature reveals itself to the supreme gratification of the primal Oneness amidst the paroxysms of intoxication. The noblest clay, the most precious marble, man, is kneaded and hewn here, and to the chisel-blows of the Dionysiac world-artist there echoes the cry of the Eleusinian mysteries, “Do you bow low, multitudes? Do you sense the Creator, world?”‘

Friedrich Nietzsche The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872) Penguin, Trans., Shaun Whiteside, Ed., Michael Tanner 1993, 18

through Foucault:

‘This transformation of one’s self by one’s own knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience. Why should a painter work if he is not transformed by his own painting?’

in Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984,  Ed., Lawrence D. Kritzman, Routledge, London, 1990, 14

And what does the concealed priesthood in academic philosophy, who have failed so profoundly in their social and intellectual responsibility have to say about all this mysticism in their and our midst?

The mystic Wittgenstein spoke for them: ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Trans., D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, Routledge, New York, 2005



How do we know the world?

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…

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


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