What does materialism have to do with mysticism?

Michelangelo, ‘The Awakening Slave’, marble, c. 1520-23, Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Florence. A profound feeling for the dynamic physical world, informed by Neoplatonism.

Not only is materialism indebted to mysticism – as Marx implicitly acknowledged when he correctly described Hegel’s philosophy as mystical1 – mysticism and its influence pervade Western culture.

The contribution of mysticism in all areas has been profound – to literature, the visual arts, religion, particularly to and through philosophy with its concealed priesthood (which priesthood was identified by the Dionysian priest Nietzsche), to science – it inspired Copernicus to the greatest scientific hypothesis (the Divine Light not the earth is at the centre of the world), and Kepler (in a wonderful yet imperfect world the planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular).

In the West its primarily Neoplatonic form, in reflecting the contradictory, poetic dynamism of the world and having been ‘stood on its feet’ by Marx became the philosophical engine of dialectical materialism itself.2

We in the West, on the back of all that has been achieved, believe a monumental lie, a monumental arrogance, a monumental delusion – that while others worship idols, stare at their navels, are committed to ‘failed’ or ‘backward’ ideologies or are obsessed with filial piety, we have risen above this to become the triumphal bearers of (linguistic, conceptual) ‘Reason’.

We wear this self-awarded badge as a cultural definition. It is the belief we have relied on to most distinguish the West from the rest.

The impact of mysticism argues against this. Linguistic reason, bounded, manipulable and governed by rules and a core tool of all authoritarians and ideologues from Plato onwards is not the only form of reason. At the heart of mysticism is another – powerful and fluid, complex, subtle and evanescent. And in the inspiration of its ‘connectedness’, immensely creative.

Linguistic reason draws on this ‘connectedness’ as its proponents seek to contain and deny it. The artist and theologian Plato is a prime example. I refer you to the lyrical power of the Ion

For a Poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged, and sacred…

When we wake in the middle of the night with the solution to a long-standing problem, had we been dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’, or might trotting chairs and fluttering wings have borne fruit in creative ‘space’?3

Or when you round a corner and bump into a stranger – no time for considered words and structured sentences – think of the richness, at multiple levels, of what has taken place in your brain – in a moment’s silence. Such a cognitive experience (that of ‘first impressions’) is so intense it merges seamlessly with the physical. This thinking is the ever-present underlay of what is done linguistically.

Intuitive thought draws most directly on our connectedness – to all that comprises us, to what we remember, and to the world. It provides us with perhaps our deepest cognitive experience of the world. That this has been given mystical meaning does not detract from its objective nature and potential.

In considering what comprises ‘reason’, the materialist must begin with how the brain functions in totality, recognising that its functions bear on the whole dialectically, that they are inseparable and plastic, and not focus only on the brain’s capacity for linguistic expression.



1. Marx wrote: ‘I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker…The mystification which the dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.‘ Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, p. 103.

2. See William Franke’s two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2007

3. Hegel himself wrote ‘it is also inadequate to…(say) vaguely that it is only in the waking state that man thinks. For thought in general is so much inherent in the nature of man that he is always thinking, even in sleep. In every form of mind, in feeling, intuition, as in picture-thinking, thought remains the basis.’
G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Trans., William Wallace, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, 69

One gave priority to matter, another to its product: on the (theoretical) absolute

Friedrich Engels in 1860

Friedrich Engels in 1860

‘It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of beings conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation; a cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes. But however often, and however relentlessly, this cycle is completed in time and space; however many millions of suns and earths may arise and pass away; however long it may last before, in one solar system and only on one planet, the conditions for organic life develop; however innumerable the organic beings, too, that have to arise and to pass away before animals with a brain capable of thought are developed from their midst, and for a short span of time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy – we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it.’

 Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 39

Michel de Montaigne n.d.

Michel de Montaigne n.d.

 ‘…if you should determine to try and grasp what Man’s being is, it would be exactly like trying to hold a fistful of water: the more tightly you squeeze anything the nature of which is always to flow, the more you will lose what you try to retain in your grasp. So, because all things are subject to pass from change to change, Reason is baffled if it looks for a substantial existence in them, since it cannot apprehend a single thing which subsists permanently, because everything is either coming into existence (and so not fully existing yet) or beginning to die before it is born.’ Plato said that bodies never have existence, though they certainly have birth, believing that Homer made Oceanus Father of the Gods and Thetis their Mother, to show that all things are in a state of never-ending inconstancy, change and flux…we must conclude that God alone IS: not according to any measure known to Time, but according to an unchanging and immortal eternity…’

 Michel de Montaigne, ‘An Apology for Raymond Sebond’, The Complete Essays, Trans., Ed., M.A.Screech, Penguin, London, 2003, 680-682


Images: top/bottom

Marx: Is there objective truth?

Albrecht Dürer, study of hands, chalk drawing on blue paper, n.d.

The question whether objective [gegenständliche] truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness [Diesseitigkeit] of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

Second thesis on Feuerbach, 1845


Lenin: Is there objective truth? Part three

The prince thanking the Water sprite (artist: Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle), from The Princess Nobody: A Tale of Fairyland (1884) by Andrew Lang

The Machists love to declaim that they are philosophers who completely trust the evidence of our sense-organs, who regard the world as actually being what it seems to us to be, full of sounds, colours, etc., whereas to the materialists, they say, the world is dead, devoid of sound and colour, and in its reality different from what it seems to be, and so forth. Such declamations, for example, are indulged in by J. Petzoldt, both in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Pure Experience and in his World Problem from the Positivist Standpoint (Weltproblem von positivistischen Standpunkte aus), 1906. Petzoldt is parroted by Mr. Victor Chernov, who waxes enthusiastic over the “new” idea. But, in fact, the Machists are subjectivists and agnostics, for they do not sufficiently trust the evidence of our sense-organs and are inconsistent in their sensationalism. They do not recognise objective reality, independent of man, as the source of our sensations. They do not regard sensations as a true copy of this objective reality, thereby coming into direct conflict with natural science and throwing the door open for fideism. On the contrary, for the materialist the world is richer, livelier, more varied than it seems, for with each step in the development of science new aspects are discovered. For the materialist, our sensations are images of the sole and ultimate objective reality, ultimate not in the sense that it has already been cognised to the end, but in the sense that there is not and cannot be any other. This view irrevocably closes the door not only to every species of fideism, but also to that professorial scholasticism which, while not recognising an objective reality as the source of our sensations, “deduces” the concept of the objective by means of such artificial verbal constructions as universal significance, socially-organised, and so on and so forth, and which is unable, and frequently unwilling, to separate objective truth from belief in sprites and hobgoblins.

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 query 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?

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, 1908, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, pp. 107-115


Full text at Marxists Internet Archive


Part three/to be continued…

Hegel: cognition and the observer effect

It is a natural assumption that in philosophy, before we start to deal with its proper subject-matter, viz. the actual cognition of what truly is, one must first of all come to an understanding about cognition, which is regarded either as the instrument to get hold of the Absolute, or as the medium through which one discovers it. A certain uneasiness seems justified, partly because there are different types of cognition, and one of them might be more appropriate than another for the attainment of this goal, so that we could make a bad choice of means; and partly because cognition is a faculty of a definite kind and scope, and thus, without a more precise definition of its nature and limits, we might grasp clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth. This feeling of uneasiness is surely bound to be transformed into the conviction that the whole project of securing for consciousness through cognition what exists in itself is absurd, and that there is a boundary between cognition and the Absolute that completely separates them. For, if cognition is the instrument for getting hold of absolute being, it is obvious that the use of an instrument on a thing certainly does not let it be what it is for itself, but rather sets out to reshape and alter it. If, on the other hand, cognition is not an instrument of our activity but a more or less passive medium through which the light of truth reaches us, then again we do not receive the truth as it is in itself, but only as it exists through and in this medium. Either way we employ a means which immediately brings about the opposite of its own end; or rather, what is really absurd is that we should make use of a means at all.

It would seem, to be sure, that this evil could be remedied through an acquaintance with the way in which the instrument works; for this would enable us to eliminate from the representation of the Absolute which we have gained through it whatever is due to the instrument, and thus get the truth in its purity. But this ‘improvement’ would in fact only bring us back to where we were before. If we remove from a reshaped thing what the instrument has done to it, then the thing – here the Absolute – becomes for us exactly what it was before this [accordingly] superfluous effort. On the other hand, if the Absolute is supposed merely to be brought nearer to us through this instrument, without anything in it being altered, like a bird caught by a lime-twig, it would surely laugh our little ruse to scorn, if it were not with us, in and for itself, all along, and of its own volition. For a ruse is just what cognition would be in such a case, since it would, with its manifold exertions, be giving itself the air of doing something quite different from creating a merely immediate and therefore effortless relationship. Or, if by testing cognition, which we conceive of as a medium, we get to know the law of its refraction, it is again useless to subtract this from the end result. For it is not the refraction of the ray, but the ray itself whereby truth reaches us, that is cognition; and if this were removed, all that would be indicated would be a pure direction or a blank space.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Trans., A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977, 46-47