Lenin: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism – Part Eight

The Criterion of Practice in the Theory of Knowledge

We have seen that Marx in 1845 and Engels in 1888 and 1892 placed the criterion of practice at the basis of the materialist theory of knowledge. “The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question,” says Marx in his second Thesis on Feuerbach. The best refutation of Kantian and Humean agnosticism as well as of other philosophical crotchets (Schrullen) is practice, repeats Engels. “The success of our action proves the conformity (Uebereinstimmung) of our perceptions with the objective nature of the things perceived,” he says in reply to the agnostics.

Compare this with Mach’s argument about the criterion of practice: “In the common way of thinking and speaking appearance, illusion, is usually contrasted with reality. A pencil held in front of us in the air is seen as straight; when we dip it slantwise into water we see it as crooked. In the latter case we say that the pencil appears crooked but in reality it is straight. But what entitles us to declare one fact to be the reality, and to degrade the other to an appearance?…Our expectation, of course, is deceived when we fall into the natural error of expecting what we are accustomed to although the case is unusual. The facts are not to blame for that. In these cases, to speak of appearance may have a practical significance, but not a scientific significance. Similarly, the question which is often asked, whether the world is real or whether we merely dream it, is devoid of all scientific significance. Even the wildest dream is a fact as much as any other” (Analysis of Sensations, pp. 18-19).

It is true that not only is the wildest dream a fact, but also the wildest philosophy. It is impossible to doubt this after an acquaintance with the philosophy of Ernst Mach. As the very latest sophist, he confounds the scientific-historical and psychological investigation of human errors, of every “wild dream” of humanity, such as belief in sprites, hobgoblins, and so forth, with the epistemological distinction between truth and “wildness”. It is as if an economist were to say that Senior’s theory that the whole profit of the capitalist is obtained from the “last hour” of the worker’s labour and Marx’s theory are both facts, and that from the standpoint of science there is no point in asking which theory expresses objective truth and which – the prejudice of the bourgeoisie and the venality of its professors. The tanner Joseph Dietzgen regarded the scientific, i.e., the materialist, theory of knowledge as a “universal weapon against religious belief” (Kleinere philosophische Schriften [Smaller Philosophical Essays], S. 55), but for the professor-in-ordinary Ernst Mach the distinction between the materialist and the subjective-idealist theories of knowledge “is devoid of all scientific significance”! That science is non-partisan in the struggle of materialism against idealism and religion is a favourite idea not only of Mach but of all modern bourgeois professors, who are, as Dietzgen justly expresses it, “graduated flunkeys who stupefy the people by a twisted idealism” (op. cit., S. 53).

And a twisted professorial idealism it is, indeed, when the criterion of practice, which for every one of us distinguishes illusion from reality, is removed by Mach from the realm of science, from the realm of the theory of knowledge. Human practice proves the correctness of the materialist theory of knowledge, said Marx and Engels, who dubbed attempts to solve the fundamental question of epistemology without the aid of practice “scholastic” and “philosophical crotchets”. But for Mach practice is one thing and the theory of knowledge something quite different; they can be placed side by side without making the latter conditional on the former. In his last work, Knowledge and Error, Mach says: “Knowledge is always a biologically useful (förderndes) mental experience” (2nd German edition, p. 115). “Only success can separate knowledge from error” (116). “The concept is a physical working hypothesis” (143). With astonishing naïveté our Russian Machist would-be Marxists regard such phrases of Mach’s as proof that he comes close to Marxism. But Mach here comes just as close to Marxism as Bismarck to the labour movement, or Bishop Eulogius to democracy. With Mach such propositions stand side by side with his idealist theory of knowledge and do not determine the choice of one or another definite line of epistemology. Knowledge can be useful biologically, useful in human practice, useful for the preservation of  life, for the preservation of the species, only when it reflects objective truth, truth which is independent of man. For the materialist the “success” of human practice proves the correspondence between our ideas and the objective nature of the things we perceive. For the solipsist “success” is everything needed by me in practice, which can be regarded separately from the theory of knowledge. If we include the criterion of practice in the foundation of the theory of knowledge we inevitably arrive at materialism, says the Marxist. Let practice be materialist, says Mach, but theory is another matter.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 122-123


Part eight/to be continued…

Lenin: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism – Part Seven

Absolute and Relative Truth

From the standpoint of modern materialism, i.e., Marxism, the limits of approximation of our knowledge to objective, absolute truth are historically conditional, but the existence of such truth is unconditional, and the fact that we are approaching nearer to it is also unconditional. The contours of the picture are historically conditional, but the fact that this picture depicts an objectively existing model is unconditional. When and under what circumstances we reached, in our knowledge of the essential nature of things, the discovery of alizarin in coal tar or the discovery of electrons in the atom is historically conditional; but that every such discovery is an advance of “absolutely objective knowledge” is unconditional. In a word, every ideology is historically conditional, but it is unconditionally true that to every scientific ideology (as distinct, for instance, from religious ideology) there corresponds an objective truth, absolute nature. You will say that this distinction between relative and absolute truth is indefinite. And I shall reply: it is sufficiently “indefinite” to prevent science from becoming a dogma in the bad sense of the term, from becoming something dead, frozen, ossified; but at the same time it is sufficiently “definite” to enable us to dissociate ourselves in the most emphatic and irrevocable manner from fideism and agnosticism, from philosophical idealism and the sophistry of the followers of Hume and Kant. Here is a boundary which you have not noticed, and not having noticed it, you have fallen into the swamp of reactionary philosophy. It is the boundary between dialectical materialism and relativism.

We are relativists, proclaim Mach, Avenarius, Petzoldt. We are relativists, echo Mr. Chernov and certain Russian Machists, would-be Marxists. Yes, Mr. Chernov and Machist comrades – and therein lies your error. For to make relativism the basis of the theory of knowledge is inevitably to condemn oneself either to absolute scepticism, agnosticism and sophistry, or to subjectivism. Relativism as a basis of the theory of knowledge is not only recognition of the relativity of our knowledge, but also a denial of any objective measure or model existing independently of mankind to which our relative knowledge approximates. From the standpoint of naked relativism one can justify any sophistry; one may regard it as “conditional” whether Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, or not; one may declare the admission, alongside scientific ideology (“convenient” in one respect), of religious ideology (very “convenient” in another respect) to be a mere “convenience” for man or mankind, and so forth.

Dialectics – as Hegel in his time explained – contains an element of relativism, of negation, of scepticism, but is not reducible to relativism. The materialist dialectics of Marx and Engels certainly does contain relativism, but is not reducible to relativism, that is, it recognises the relativity of all our knowledge, not in the sense of denying objective truth, but in the sense that the limits of approximation of our knowledge to this truth are historically conditional.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 120-121


Part seven/to be continued…

Lenin: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism – Part Six

Does Objective Truth Exist?

The Machists contemptuously shrug their shoulders at the “antiquated” views of the “dogmatists”, the materialists, who still cling to the concept matter, which supposedly has been refuted by “recent science” and “recent positivism”. We shall speak separately of the new theories of physics on the structure of matter. But it is absolutely unpardonable to confuse, as the Machists do, any particular theory of the structure of matter with the epistemological category, to confuse the problem of the new properties of new aspects of matter (electrons, for example) with the old problem of the theory of knowledge, with the problem of the sources of our knowledge, the existence of objective truth, etc. Mach “discovered the world-elements”: red, green, hard, soft, loud, long, etc. We ask, is a man given objective reality when he sees something red or feels something hard, etc., or not? This hoary philosophical question is confused by Mach. If you hold that it is not given, you, together with Mach, inevitably sink to subjectivism and agnosticism and deservedly fall into the embrace of the immanentists, i.e., the philosophical Menshikovs. If you hold that it is given, a philosophical concept is needed for this objective reality, and this concept has been worked out long, long ago. This concept is matter. Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them. Therefore, to say that such a concept can become “antiquated” is childish talk, a senseless repetition of the arguments of fashionable reactionary philosophy. Could the struggle between materialism and idealism, the struggle between the tendencies or lines of Plato and Democritus in philosophy, the struggle between religion and science, the denial of objective truth and its assertion, the struggle between the adherents of supersensible knowledge and its adversaries have become antiquated during the two thousand years of the development of philosophy?

Acceptance or rejection of the concept matter is a question of the confidence man places in the evidence of his sense-organs, a question of the source of our knowledge, a question which has been asked and debated from the very inception of philosophy, which may be disguised in a thousand different garbs by professorial clowns, but which can no more become antiquated than the question whether the source of human knowledge is sight and touch, hearing and smell. To regard our sensations as images of the external world, to recognise objective truth, to hold the materialist theory of knowledge – these are all one and the same thing. To illustrate this, I shall only quote from Feuerbach and from two textbooks of philosophy, in order that the reader may judge how elementary this question is.

“How banal,” wrote Feuerbach, “to deny that sensation is the evangel, the gospel (Verkündung) of an objective saviour.” (Feuerbach, Sämtliche Werke, X. Band, 1866, S. 194-95) A strange, a preposterous terminology, as you see, but a perfectly clear philosophical line: sensation reveals objective truth to man. “My sensation is subjective, but its foundation or cause (Grund) is objective” (S. 195). Compare this with the quotation given above where Feuerbach says that materialism starts from the sensuous world as an ultimate (ausgemachte) objective truth.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 113-115


Part six/to be continued…

Lenin: The Theory of Knowledge of Dialectical Materialism – Part Five


And how does the materialist Engels – at the beginning of the article Engels explicitly and emphatically contrasts his materialism to agnosticism – refute the foregoing arguments?

“…Now, this line of reasoning seems undoubtedly hard to beat by mere argumentation. But before there was argumentation there was action. Im Anfang war die That. And human action had solved the difficulty long before human ingenuity invented it. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. From the moment we turn to our own use these objects, according to the qualities we perceive in them, we put to an infallible test the correctness or otherwise of our sense-perceptions. If these perceptions have been wrong, then our estimate of the use to which an object can be turned must also be wrong, and our attempt must fail. But if we succeed in accomplishing our aim, if we find that the object does agree with our idea of it, and does answer the purpose we intended it for, then that is positive proof that our perceptions of it and of its qualities, so far, agree with reality outside ourselves…”

Thus, the materialist theory, the theory of the reflection of objects by our mind, is here presented with absolute clarity: things exist outside us. Our perceptions and ideas are their images. Verification of these images, differentiation between true and false images, is given by practice. But let us listen to a little more of Engels (Bazarov at this point ends his quotation from Engels, or rather from Plekhanov, for he deems it unnecessary to deal with Engels himself):

“…And whenever we find ourselves face to face with a failure, then we generally are not long in making out the cause that made us fail; we find that the perception upon which we acted was either incomplete and superficial, or combined with the results of other perceptions in a way not warranted by them” (the Russian translation in On Historical Materialism is incorrect). “So long as we take care to train and to use our senses properly, and to keep our action within the limits prescribed by perceptions properly made and properly used, so long we shall find that the result of our action proves the conformity (Uebereinstimmung) of our perceptions with the objective (gegenständlich) nature of the things perceived. Not in one single instance, so far, have we been led to the conclusion that our sense-perceptions, scientifically controlled, induce in our minds ideas respecting the outer world that are, by their very nature, at variance with reality, or that there is an inherent incompatibility between the outer world and our sense-perceptions of it. …”

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 94-95


Part five/to be continued…

Hegel, Mystic: Part Three

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Edited transcript of my presentation at the Department of Philosophy ‘mini-conference’, the University of Sydney 12.09.14. Part three

I believe that Hegel could never even mention Cusanus for two reasons – the second following from the first:

  • he was so indebted to him
  • if that debt were ever exposed, he could never escape the charge, made correctly of him during his lifetime, that his philosophy is mystical.

This opens out into the far broader question regarding mysticism being treated as the pornography of academic philosophy (assiduously studied by many and its principles absorbed, but that influence claimed to be other, dissembled about or denied).

In denying through his utter silence the significance of Cusanus and the foresight of his genius, Hegel was emblematic not only of the German intellectuals of his time (with regard to Spinoza then Swedenborg and Oetinger and later, Nietzsche with regard to ‘Saint Max’ Stirner) but of Western culture as a whole – suppressing key elements of our history, of what has made us, so that we may perceive ourselves, as Hegel did, the bearers and masters of ‘Reason.’

We of the West believe it has been our ‘reason’ – primarily understood as linguistic, conceptual and particularly propositional – that has enabled us to achieve so much and attain global domination. Mysticism, the myth goes, was only a stage that was shed long ago.

What if ‘reason’ were understood to function not only linguistically, conceptually and propositionally (the reason of patriarchy) but in a manner that has been relegated to and powerfully utilised in the mystical, in ‘the feminine’?

As a materialist I state that mysticism has contributed and contributes profoundly to all aspects of our culture as William Franke’s two volume anthology On What Cannot be Said – Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts (Classic Formulations and Modern and Contemporary Transformations) well exemplifies – it inspired Copernicus to the greatest scientific hypothesis, it inspired Kepler to his theory of elliptical orbits in a wonderful yet imperfect world, it informed the pivotal moment of modernist art (Cubism) through the philosophy of Bergson – and I believe its not being taught (distinct from advocated) academically is the most gross failure of intellectual and social responsibility.

Marx correctly took Hegel’s philosophy and stood it on its feet but failed, as did Hegel, to overcome the Neoplatonic teleology  – which for Hegel concluded in the Prussian state and for Marx, in ‘communism’. There will never be an end to the engine of contradiction, in nature or in that aspect of it called ‘society’.

I would like to merely touch on one point with regard to Hegel as I believe he was, a prose poet. Donald Phillip Verene wrote of our having lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language:

‘we have so little experience in taking metaphorical speech seriously as a carrier of philosophical meaning that we read right past it. …we have become so accustomed to the monotone hum of the abstract concept and the category, the fluorescent buzz of the argument, that we have lost track of the dimensions of philosophical language. We have forgotten its secrets and cannot recollect its manner of eating bread and drinking wine.’1

I will finish with a quotation from Magee: ‘an appreciation of the role of mystical ideas in the thought of Hegel and other modern thinkers opens new vistas, new paradigms for the history of modern philosophy and for the philosophy of history.’2



1. Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1985, 34-35

2. Glenn Alexander Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’, pp. 253-280 in Frederick C. Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, 280

Official insignia of the Rosicrucian Order

Official insignia of the Rosicrucian Order

 Image sources: Plotinus/Cusanus/Hegel/Böhme/Rose-Cross

Hegel, Mystic: Part Two

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Edited transcript of my presentation at the Department of Philosophy ‘mini-conference’ at the University of Sydney 12.09.14 Part two

For the Hermeticist, we too require diremption: ‘Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.’1 Redding wrote ‘Each recognises himself not simply in the other but in the recognition/acknowledgement of the other – that is, in the other’s act.2

Hegel’s philosophy functions on the armature of the Christian Trinity (he was obsessed with the triune and its dialectical potential) clothed in Neoplatonic Hermeticism. Hegel scoured Western philosophy for those currents which best suited his purpose – to capture in philosophy the contradictory dynamism and processes of the world as consciousness. Just as he wove into the dense tapestry of his philosophy the dialectical potential of the Trinity together with the Neoplatonic process of emanation and return, so he also wove in the Hermetic notion of ‘othering’ and its potential.

Cusanus is of greatest interest to me – not only because I believe that Hegel was indebted to him in so many ways but, and more particularly, because of what I think Hegel’s silence regarding him indicates about Western self-perceptions and how this silence – replicated over and again since (by others with regard to the impact of mysticism on their work and on Western culture generally) – and these cultural perceptions profoundly detract from the potential of philosophy.

Cusanus was more widely known about and read than is recognised. He was discussed in a 1652 Dutch study of skepticism, being referred to as a ‘modern skeptic.’3 Buhle cites three editions of his works, one from Basel in 1565 in three volumes.4 Jasper Hopkins wrote that Kepler, Descartes and Leibniz mention Cusanus.5 Magee wrote that Schelling, whose ‘use of “Absolute” is remarkably similar to Cusa’s’6 read him. (Inwood wrote that the concept ‘Absolute’ was first used as a noun by Cusanus).

Both Cusanus and Hegel sought to develop a new method for doing philosophy and theology – Cusanus in reaction against scholasticism, Hegel in reaction against the mere ‘understanding’ of the Enlightenment and religious belief that held that God cannot be cognised.

As Böhme gave Hegel the spiritual potential for knowledge through ‘othering’, Cusanus, of all that he gave Hegel, particularly gave him the means of ‘cognising‘ God non-predicatively – coincidentia oppositorum. It is through this concept that Hegel’s philosophy can be appreciated. Just as God is known through the process of contradiction (God is this process) so Hegel (as Magee wrote) ‘talked around’ his concepts – their meaning being found in that dialectical process of a unity of opposites. Cusanus wrote ‘when we look by way of a mirroring symbolism, as the Apostle says – we can have knowledge-of-God’.7 For Hegel, when we know the science of logic, we know God. Another way of putting this is that for Hegel, the science of logic is God. For Proclus, that which is divine (but not the First Principle) can be apprehended and known from the existents which participate it(The Elements of Theology Prop. 123)

Buhle wrote of Cusanus:

‘In my opinion his idea of the human cognitive faculty can be best grasped from the following passage, which I quote here in his own words ‘It must be the case that speculations originate from our minds, even as the real world originates from Infinite Divine Reason. For when, as best it can, the human mind [which is a lofty likeness of God] partakes of the fruitfulness of the Creating Nature, it produces from itself, qua image of the Omnipotent Form, rational entities, which are made in the likeness of real entities. Consequently, the human mind is the form of a speculated rational world, just as the Divine Mind is the Form of the real world. …In order that you may recognise that the mind is the beginning of speculations, take note of the following: just as the First Beginning of all things, including our minds, is shown to be triune (so that of the multitude, the inequality, and the division of things there is one Beginning, from whose Absolute Oneness multitude flows forth, from whose Absolute Equality inequality flows forth, and from whose Absolute Union division flows forth), so our mind (which conceives only an intellectual nature to be creative) makes itself to be a triune beginning of its own rational products. (mw: thus, for Hegel, being, nothing, becoming) For only reason is the measure of multitude, of magnitude, and of composition. Thus, if reason is removed, none of these will remain. …Therefore, the mind’s oneness enfolds within itself all multitude, and its equality enfolds all magnitude, even as its union enfolds all composition. Therefore, mind, which is a triune beginning, first of all unfolds multitude from the power of its enfolding-oneness. …’8

I will quote from two of Cusanus’ most important treatises to give a sense of what I think Hegel drew on:

1) De Deo abscondito (‘On the Hidden God’)

On the relation between being and not-being:

‘He (God) makes not-being pass into being and makes being pass into not-being.’

‘God is not the foundation of contradiction but is Simplicity, which is prior to every foundation.’

Christian: He is the Source and Origin of all the beginnings of being and of not-being.

Pagan: God is the Source of the beginnings of being and of not-being?

Christian: No.

Pagan: But you just said this.

Christian: When I said it, I spoke the truth; and I am speaking the truth now, when I deny it. For if there are any beginnings of being and of not-being, God precedes them. However, not-being does not have a beginning of its not being but has only a beginning of its being. For not-being needs a beginning in order to be. In this way, then, He is the Beginning of not-being, because without Him there would not be not-being.’9

2) De li non aliud (‘On [God As] Not-Other’)

‘ABBOT: You have led me, Father, unto a Spirit which I see to be the Creator of all – just as was seen by the prophet who said to the Creator: “Send forth Your Spirit, and they will be created.”  … And you have led me to see that the mental spirit is an image of this Spirit.  For, indeed, this mental spirit – which of its own power goes forth unto all things – examines all things and creates the concepts and likenesses of all things. I say “creates” inasmuch as this spirit makes the conceptual likenesses of things from no other thing – even as the Spirit which is God makes the quiddities of things not from another but from itself, i.e, from Not-other. And so, just as the Divine Spirit is not other than any creatable thing, so neither is the mind other than anything which is understandable by it. And in the case of a mind which is more free of a body, I clearly see a spirit shining forth more perfectly as creator and creating more precise concepts.’10

Part two/to be continued…



1. G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 111 (#178). Hegel continued ‘The Notion of this its unity in its duplication embraces many and varied meanings.’

2. Paul Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, 112

3. Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, 162. Also ‘Prior to the period I shall deal with, there are some indications of a sceptical motif, principally among the antirational theologians, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian. This theological movement, culminating in the West in the work of Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century, employed many of the sceptical arguments in order to undermine confidence in the rational approach to religious knowledge and truth.’ xix.

4. In her 1935 essay on Montaigne and Melville, Camille La Bossière stated that Montaigne owned a copy of the 1576 edition of Cusanus’s single most important treatise De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance). Camille R. La Bossière, ‘The World Revolves Upon an I: Montaigne’s Unknown God and Melville’s Confidence-Man’

5. Jasper Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 26 (2002), pp. 13-29, 28 (‘Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel never mention him, although Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz do.’)

6. Glenn Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, Continuum, London, 2010, 18

7. Nicholas of Cusa, De Beryllo (‘On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses’), Nicholas of Cusa: Metaphysical Speculations: Six Latin Texts Translated into English, Trans., Jasper Hopkins, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1998, pp. 792-827, 798

8. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, in 6 vols., Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, vol. 2, 341-353

9. In Jasper Hopkins, A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1994, 303-304

10. In Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa on God as Not-Other: A Translation and an Appraisal of De Li Non Aliud, The Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1999, 1160-1161

Image sources: Plotinus/Cusanus/Hegel/Böhme

Hegel, Mystic

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) From a painting by Meister des Marienlebens (Master of the Life of the Virgin), located in the hospital at Kues (Germany)

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

G.W.F.Hegel (1770-1831), Anonymous

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Anonymous, Museum der Westlausitz, Kamenz

Edited transcript of my presentation at the Department of Philosophy ‘mini-conference’, the University of Sydney 12.09.14

My thesis explores the relationship between Hegel’s philosophy and Neoplatonism. In it, I will argue that Hegel’s philosophy is not only mystical – Christian Neoplatonic – but Hermetic.1

A common understanding of ‘mysticism’ is that it is a belief that one can attain union with or absorption into a deity or an absolute, or spiritually apprehend knowledge – through the ‘abandonment’ of self or through contemplation.

Clearly, Hegel did not claim this of his philosophy – rather, the opposite – that God can be cognised through ‘reason’, that knowledge comes not from the abandonment of self but the application of ‘reason’ to the intricacies of speculative thought.

How am I to go from the common understanding of ‘mysticism’ to the argument that Hegel’s philosophy is mystical? My answer is that consistent with the dynamism of its beliefs, mysticism (and here my focus is particularly on the dominant form of Western mysticism, Neoplatonism) has undergone continual development. With regard to Hegel, Cusanus and Böhme are key figures.

Hegel acknowledged Böhme. In volume III of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy he discussed him – ‘the first German philosopher’ the reading of whose works was ‘wondrous,’ – over eleven pages, giving five pages in the same volume to Bruno, yet he never even mentioned Cusanus – a figure in the German mystical tradition between Eckhart (whom Hegel also referred to and quoted in the first volume of his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion from one of his sermons – ‘The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him.’)2 and Böhme.

In the same volume of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel wrote simply of Bruno ‘The fullest information about him is to be found in Buhle’s history of philosophy.’ In that extremely interesting work (and reinforcing Magee’s reading of Hegel – Buhle discusses the impact of Neoplatonism, Kabbalism and Hermeticism in general on German philosophy) Buhle wrote on Cusanus.

No direct connection has ever been established between Nicholas of Cusa and Hegel. It has been accepted that Hegel did not know of him.3 In fact, Buhle’s History is clear evidence that Hegel did know of Cusanus, and in detail. Not only did Bruno twice specifically refer to him, and with the highest praise,4 Buhle wrote on Cusanus at length, citing fourteen of his works, including his most important – three of which he discusses.5

Why did Hegel never even name Cusanus, in any of his writing – a man who was far more philosophical, and in the ‘Hegelian manner,’ than either Eckhart and particularly Böhme, of whom Hegel also wrote that his articulation was ‘unmistakably barbarous’ and that he ‘grasps the antitheses in the harshest, crudest fashion’?

My contention in my thesis will be that Hegel never named Cusanus, not only because he was so indebted to one who was known to be a Christian mystic/Neoplatonist (I have identified more than thirty points in the philosophy of Cusanus which occur in that of Hegel), but because to do so would immediately open to question the nature of Hegel’s vaunted concepts (several of which, I will contend, came directly from Cusanus), the apparent intellectual rigour of his philosophy, and particularly, the meaning of his ‘reason’ – his claims to and for it.

Magee wrote excellently on Böhme’s influence on Hegel – he concludes that we cannot understand Hegel unless we recognise his philosophy as not only mystical, but Hermeticist. He wrote ‘Hermeticists typically reject the mysticism that stops short at “mystery,” and, like Böhme and Hegel, hold that actual, discursive knowledge of the nature of God is possible’. Böhme believed that for God to develop, for God to be fully God, He had to dirempt himself from himself through the act of creation so that another was opposed to him. Through the opposition and conflict of that relationship, God could progress towards self-consciousness as man. In attaining the nature of God, man attains that of reality as a system of thought.

Part one/to be continued…



1. Hermeticism is ‘a grab bag of loosely-related subjects, including alchemy, extrasensory perception, dowsing, Kabbalism, Masonry, Mesmerism, Rosicrucianism, Paracelcism, prisca theologia, philosophia perennis, “correspondences,” “cosmic sympathies,” and vitalism.’ Glenn Alexander Magee, ‘Hegel and Mysticism’ in Frederick C. Beiser, Ed., The Cambridge Companion to Hegel and Nineteenth-Century Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, 253-280, 278

2. The editor wrote that Hegel was familiar with the writing of Eckhart from 1794. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion vol. I, Ed. Peter C. Hodgson, Trans., R.F.Brown, P.C.Hodgson, J.M.Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007, 347

3. ‘…Nicholas of Cusa (whom Hegel surprisingly never mentions)…’ Michael Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 140. Magee, citing Beck, wrote ‘we know that Schelling was influenced by reading Nicholas (Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and his Predecessors, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, 71)…However, Hegel never mentions Cusa anywhere in his published writings or in his lectures.’ In the footnote to this Magee (who otherwise writes excellently on the relationship between Hegel, mysticism and Hermeticism, arguing that Hegel was an Hermetic mystic) expressed a standard view ‘David Walsh notes that although there is no evidence that Hegel ever read Cusa, he was indirectly influenced by him through J.G.Hamann and Giordano Bruno.’ Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2001, 28. Redding wrote ‘In Hegel’s case, Spinozistic and Cusan elements (were) reflected through the speculative thought of Schelling,’ Paul Redding, Hegel’s Hermeneutics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1996, 31, also ‘Jacobi had not only introduced the German reading public to Spinoza but also to Giordano Bruno, and thereby, indirectly to Nicholas of Cusa.’ Paul Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, Routledge, London, 2009, 126. Hodgson wrote ‘Hegel was familiar with Bruno through Schelling’s work as well as that of J.G.Buhle and F.H.Jacobi,’ Peter C. Hodgson, Ed., G.W.F. Hegel, Theologian of the Spirit, Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007, 274. Jasper Hopkins wrote ‘Nicholas does not anticipate, prefigure, foreshadow, etc., Kant, so also he does not anticipate Copernicus or Spinoza or Leibniz or Berkeley or Hegel. …In retrospect, Nicholas must be regarded as a transitional figure some of whose ideas (1) were suggestive of new ways of thinking but (2) were not such as to conduct him far enough away from the medieval outlook for him truly to be called a Modern thinker. Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel never mention him, although Kepler, Descartes, and Leibniz do. …Nicholas’s intellectual influence on his own generation and on subsequent generations remained meager.’ Jasper Hopkins, ‘Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464): First Modern Philosopher?’, Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 26 (2002), pp. 13-29, 28-29.

4. The ‘divine’ Cusanus, ‘the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets,’ is Bruno’s guide in Cause, Principle and Unity, in which he referred to key aspects of Cusanus’ philosophy. Bruno again named and referred to Cusanus as ‘divine’ in The Ash Wednesday Supper, citing his single most important treatise, De docta ignorantia.

5. Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Widerherstellung der Wissenschaften (History of Modern Philosophy Since the Time of the Restoration of Sciences), vol. 2, Johann Georg Rosenbusch, Göttingen, 1800, p. 81 and p. 342ff. Buhle discusses De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance, 1440), De coniecturis (On Surmises, 1441-2) and (Idiota) de sapientia (The Layman of Wisdom, 1450).

Image sources: Plotinus/Cusanus/Hegel/Böhme

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

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, oil on canvas, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, oil on canvas, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Antliff wrote that the Symbolist poet Tancrède de Visan (who had begun attending Bergson’s lectures before 1904 and who wrote the first extended discussion of the theoretical parallels between Bergson’s philosophy and Symbolism) was the primary Bergsonian theorist within Cubist circles.1 Green thought the Cubists became familiar with Bergson’s theories through the writing of Jules Romains.2 Antliff dates Romains’ familiarity with Bergson to 1906 or earlier.

Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du “Cubisme”, Eugène Figuière Editeurs, 1912

Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du “Cubisme”, Eugène Figuière Editeurs, 1912

In 1911 Alexandre Mercereau affirmed Bergson’s support for Cubism (Vers et Prose, no. 27, October-December, 1913, 39). At the same time André Salmon wrote on Bergson and the Cubists (Paris-Journal, November 29, 1911). Émile Blanche wrote that Bergson was interested in Cubism in 1912 and that the Cubists encouraged that interest, at least Gleizes and Metzinger in the period they wrote Du Cubisme.3 Salmon wrote that Bergson tentatively agreed to write a preface for the catalogue to the Section d’Or exhibition in 1912 (‘La Section d’Or’, Gil Blas, June 22, 1912).

Yet the Cubists appear to have been much more aware of Bergson than he of them, although this too is most probably more complex than it seems.4 For example, Bergson’s difficulty in accepting the Cubists’ radical application of his philosophy to art could have to do with a possible reticence in acknowledging awareness of their work. In an interview published in L’Intransigeant (Paris, November 26, 1911) Bergson stated he had never seen Cubist art. In 1913 he criticised the Cubists for analysing artistic practice instead of intuitively performing it.5 In the same year he said he could not understand a word of Gleizes’ and Metzinger’s writing on Cubism and that he had never seen a Cubist painting before that year.6 Fry wrote that Mercereau was only one of the first among many defenders of Cubism to declare that Bergson had given his approval to it and that Bergson did not agree to write the preface Salmon claimed he did.7

A connection between Picasso, Braque and Bergson was, to my knowledge so far, not admitted by the artists, but on their behalf by fellow artists and critics. Yet there is very strong circumstantial evidence to support the connection, in addition to an analysis of their work and the consciousness with which they marketed it. Picasso from his youth had a fascination for Nietzsche (like so many artists and writers of the time) and there was much in common between the theories of Nietzsche and Bergson. Picasso’s admiration for Jarry and his friendship with Apollinaire would have been two more direct connections with Bergson’s philosophy. Again, Salmon was photographed in Picasso’s studio with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Three Women in 1908.8

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil and oilcloth on canvas with rope frame, Musée Picasso, Paris

Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, oil and oilcloth on canvas with rope frame, Musée Picasso, Paris


1. ‘Bergson and Cubism: A  Reassessment’, op. cit., 342

2. Ibid.

3. J. Blanche, Portraits of a Lifetime, New York, 1938, 244-45 in The Relevance of Bergson op. cit., 8

4. For my subject, the interest of the former in the latter is of far greater importance.

5. ‘The Relevance of Bergson’, op. cit., 1

6. G. Beck, ‘Movement and Reality: Bergson and Cubism’, The Structurist, op. cit., 110

7. Cubism, op. cit., 67

8. Reproduced in Cubism, op. cit., facing p. 17


This essay was written during my enrolment at the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW Art & Design), the University of New South Wales, towards a thesis on the impact of Neoplatonism on Cubism. I did not complete my thesis which, in effect, addressed the basis for an entire cultural re-reading and a turn to intellectual honesty in Western culture with regard to the profound and continuing influence of mysticism on it, terminating my enrolment after years of commitment in 1999 in disgust at the time-serving ignorance, hypocrisy, hostility and abuse I experienced at the College.

*   *   *

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd

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

Bergson’s view of man as a creator, above the approval of fellow humanity, reads as Nietzschean. In Mind – Energy he wrote ‘the joy he feels is the joy of a god.’1 He equated this person with ‘superman’2 – in Nietzsche’s philosophy the higher state of Übermensch embodies the ‘will to power’ and creation.

Another parallel between these two philosophies is that just as creative intuition entails a willed effort to transcend logical patterns of thought, Bergson’s élan vital and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ both represent a struggle to gain freedom from the social and material environment. Bergson also distinguished between the artist or poet and ‘the common herd.’3 He wrote that the aim of art is to lay bare the secret and tragic element in our character,4 and that ‘True  pity consists  not  so much in fearing suffering as in desiring it.’5

Bergson wrote that the ‘inward states’ of creative emotion are the most intense as well as the most violent.6 His words ‘for what interests us in the work of the poet is the glimpse we get of certain profound moods or inner struggles’7 are closely echoed in those Picasso used with regard to Cézanne and Van Gogh.

‘It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is…What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety – that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.’8

Bergson held that the object of art is to put to sleep the resistance of the viewer’s personality (a spiritualised hypnosis), to bring the viewer ‘into a state of perfect responsiveness, in which we realise the idea that is suggested to us and sympathise with the feeling that is expressed.’9 To provoke an intuitive response, the elements of the canvas must first arouse the viewer’s emotions and sensitivity to the flow of true duration.10 This can be achieved in a number of ways. Devices include the rhythmical arrangement and effect of line and words

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

Juan Gris. Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth, 1915, Private collection

‘it is the emotion, the original mood, to which they (artists) attain in its undefiled essence. And then, to induce us to make the same effort ourselves they contrive to make us see something of what they have seen: by rhythmical arrangement of words.’11

Bergson also gave the example of letters (of words) which are parts of a poem which one knows, but randomly mixed. Because one knows the poem, one can immediately reconstitute the poem as a whole. This is an example of the reconstitution of the real parts of intuition (and metaphysics), distinct from the partial notations of analysis and the positive sciences, which cannot be reconstituted.

It was Bergson’s philosophy that the Cubists drew on in their use not only of material not previously associated with art (sand, wallpaper etc.) but also of part words and lettering.

‘Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris”. And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together.’12 Negation also affirms and suggests aspects of an object.13

Another device is the conveyance of the notion of passage. The technique of passage derives from Cézanne, but its stimulus may well lie in Bergson’s philosophy.14 Not only did Cubism develop on this, a similar treatment can be seen in art contemporary with it and which has established connections with Bergson’s philosophy – that of Gleizes, Metzinger, the Futurists and Delaunay.15 Bergson wrote of flexibility, mobility, ‘almost fluid representations, always ready to mould themselves on the fleeting forms of intuition.’16 Evocative of the refined and far more relaxed methods of so-called Synthetic Cubism are Bergson’s words ‘Intuition, bound up to a duration which is growth, perceives in it an uninterrupted continuity of unforeseeable novelty.’17

Pablo Picasso, 'Ma Jolie', 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis (Image, Wikipedia)

Pablo Picasso, ‘Ma Jolie’, 1913-14, oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

‘So art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself…realism is in the work when idealism is in the soul and…it is only through ideality that we can resume contact with reality.’18

Bergson’s entire philosophy, and the fundamental problem with it, lies in his distinction between the ‘mind’ (consciousness) and the brain, between subjective reality and objective reality. This is encapsulated in the following

‘That there is a close connection between a state of consciousness and the brain we do no dispute. But there is also a close connection between a coat and the nail on which it hangs, for if the nail is pulled out, the coat falls to the ground. Shall we say, then, that the shape of the nail gives us the shape of the coat, or in any way corresponds to it? No more are we entitled to conclude, because the physical fact is hung onto a cerebral state, that there is any parallelism between the two series psychical and physiological.’19

Georges Braque. Pitcher and Violin, 1910

Georges Braque, Violin and Pitcher, 1910

It is my contention that it was very likely to this most fundamental of philosophical issues than a play on illusion that the nail in Braque’s Pitcher and Violin 1909-10, referred. As Bergson and Braque would have been aware – a lot hangs on it.

Part thirteen/to be continued…


1. Selections from Bergson, op. cit., 114

2. Ibid., 101, from Creative Evolution, op. cit.

3. Laughter, op. cit., 151

4. Ibid., 160

5. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 19

6. Laughter, op. cit., 158

7. Ibid., 166

8. From an interview with M. de Zayas in Theories of Modern Art, op. cit., 272

9. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 14

10. Antliff wrote that for Bergson, the provocation of an intuition depends on the activation of the beholder’s subliminal ‘mind’.

11. Laughter, op. cit., 156

12. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 33

13. Creative Evolution, op. cit., 288

14. See G. Hamilton, ‘Cézanne, Bergson and the Image of Time’ Art Journal, xvi, Fall, 1956, 2-12

15. See Antliff on the use of passage to evoke the apprehension of the dynamism of form. Definition was not sought but suggestion ‘so that the mind of the spectator is the chosen place of their concrete birth.’ Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 52

16. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 198

17. Ibid., 39

18. Laughter, op. cit., 157

19. Matter and Memory, op. cit., 13

Image sources: 1st/2nd/3rd

Art and social life: the Russian Revolution and the creative power of idealism 14

Ignaty Nivinsky. Cover of the journal Tvorchestvo (Creative Work), 1920, Nos 5-6. The text states 'Journal of literature, art, science and life.'

Ignaty Nivinsky. Cover of the journal Tvorchestvo (Creative Work), 1920, Nos 5-6. The text states ‘Journal of literature, art, science and life.’