On light, vision and knowledge

Konstantin Yuon, ‘A New Planet,’ 1921. Tempera on cardboard, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

There is light. Light enables vision of a world in flux and in perceiving the world we desire to know it, to move towards absolute knowledge of it. Yet whence that light and where does that world exist – are we in it or is it in us? What is the method for knowing it? How do we bring into play the full range of our capacities? As a materialist or as an ‘idealist’? As one who holds that objective reality or matter is primary or as one who holds that consciousness or ‘mind’ takes precedence? What is the difference between ‘X is idealistic’ and that X is philosophically committed thus? Can we not use the lesson in that distinction to overcome a crippling impediment to the development of our knowledge, thereby enhancing both our ability to know the world and the potential for greater harmony in our lives in relating with it?

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13 thoughts on “On light, vision and knowledge

    • Hello Phyllis, thank you for your question. In my belief, the question which underlies all others is ‘Which precedes or which is the product of the other – matter (the philosophical concept for objective reality) or consciousness?’ Materialism holds that matter is primary and that consciousness is its product. This is consistent with science. I define mysticism as the belief that one can attain unity with an ‘absolute’, however one defines it (Cusanus referred to God, the ‘absolute’ and the ‘Maximum’), or a form of knowledge not attainable otherwise, through contemplation (from the Latin ‘templum’). Mysticism has made and continues to make an immense contribution to all areas of Western culture – William Franke’s excellent two-volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said traverses the history and exemplifies the extent of this influence. Of particular interest to me is the intuitive form of thought employed in mysticism (and how this relates to materialism), its sensitivity to the unity of the world and its profoundly creative orientation. In earlier posts, I have applied a materialist analysis to cosmopolitanism and skepticism. You may find of interest the series I am posting from Lenin on matter, Engels on dialectics and a series of posts I will be making from Hegel on dialectics. Best regards, Phil

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      • Thanks for the decoding. I find it hard to wrap my mind around consciousness being the product of matter and how that is consistent with science. Does science really say anything about consciousness? Hope you like to dialogue. If not, I’ll just read your posts and see what I can glean. Regards, Phyllis

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      • Hello Phyllis, Thanks for your reply. The study of consciousness is a major area in scientific research – much of the most advanced work on the subject, with an instinctively materialist orientation, is being done in the United States. The English psychologist Susan Blackmore thinks that consciousness only exists when you look for it. She says ‘See how long you can remain conscious’. But this is not consciousness of the external world, it is the brain’s function of consciousness reflecting on itself (I am aware that I am aware – although Blackmore’s is an interesting and worthy experiment). The subject of consciousness is extremely important in mysticism. The Enneads of Plotinus are a study in the spiritual progress of consciousness – 1500 years before Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In mysticism, consciousness is concerned with the progress towards unity, in the process of ‘seeing’, of seer and seen (‘knowing’, ‘knower’ and ‘known’). With regard to dialogue – I set this blog up not only to get my views ‘out there’, but, and particularly, to dialogue. Since we all have different perspectives, dialogue is the way forward. We can all learn from each other, so thank you for having an interest in my views. What is your view on consciousness? Best wishes, Phil PS: To be intrigued is to be a philosopher!

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  1. Mysticism is so incredibly exciting I “hope that it is true”. Can unity with the absolute answer questions which science can not? Science tells us what light and electromagnetism seem to do but not what they “are” or where they come from. I have a strong perception that mysticism is “real” but can not claim that, so far at least, it has provided me with the answers. Try harder perhaps!

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    • My argument throughout my blog is that there is a continuum from Plotinus to Marx, from dialectical idealism to dialectical materialism, from god ‘in heaven’ to the wonders of science. This current is the greatest current in Western philosophy.

      It has not been acknowledged, explored and built upon (taken further) basically because its driver is negation – nothing lasts but change (‘bye ‘bye you, me…and capitalism). Marx noted this and the horrified response of the ideologues to it.

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      • I must confess I find you reply slightly elliptical but then I am a simple fellow. Can you give me a link to the one post which most clearly explains what mysticism is and what you believe we should do with it or about it. I feel, see, seek. I seem to have got to the stage when experience, actual experience of mysticism has taken on far more importance than any philosophical argument. Everything I do and think these days is done towards that end.

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      • Interesting Phil, and thank you. If you don’t mind my saying so you seem to imbue the material with the mystic. In a sense you seem to feel that mysticism is a part of material. In a sense that may sit somewhere alongside panpsychism and its ilk where consciousness may be a separate force of nature. This would surely count as materialism. I think you may be hinting that “material” may be something other or greater than we think it is. I am not suggesting anything other than a sense that the “material” universe may be a great deal stranger than we think it is. If so, then I am not at all averse to a materialistic point of view. My real concern is to see that reality, to witness it. Mysticism in this sense is far from absent from the thinking of some scientists. I believe that currently we barely begin to understand where we are, who we are, or what we are.

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      • It is not that I think mysticism is a part of the material world (it is a reflection in consciousness of the material world) but that I recognise that the processes set out and developed by Neoplatonists have been turned ‘right way up’ (stood on their material feet) and incorporated into materialism by Marx and the Marxists.

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      • The question is which is the “right way up”. That question was opined upon but by no means proved. Which way up is “right” remains, in my view a matter of belief not empirical truth. My only real point is we are no further along the path of discovering “Truth”. We are theory, we are competing ideas, we are ideology. For all we know we are living in a computer simulation. We have not disproved the logos nor have we proved it. My own personal belief is that neither Marx or Lenin advance our knowledge of consciouness let alone our origins or purpose one jot. Perhaps the only rational course is to keep an open mind. Rather like Pascal.

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      • There again I may just be following my own cognitative bias and am reading into what you write what I want to see. In any event I do have a strong conviction that we do not begin to have any real understanding of the full extent of what the “material” actually is.

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  2. I see in About that you are a materialist. By which I guess you mean matter is all and that from matter arose consciousness. Which I assume precludes the not unpopular doctrine of pansychism. Since science has made little if any inroads into the nature of consciousness I am not inclined to dismiss pansychism. I certianly do not dismiss science. Far from it. Without it our lives would have remained nasty l, brutish and short. But perhaps something is missing, perhaps something has been lost. If consciousness is not one of the fundamental forces of nature then it certainly seems the case that the sum is more than the parts. That from the material building blocks (energy according to string theory) something very non material has arisen. But then of course energy may not be material anyway. Let’s face it no one really knows what it is, we only know what it does or appears to do. Including coagulation into what we describe as matter. So if mysticism as traditionally thought of is not “real” then I am not so sure anything is “real”. Perhaps we exist in a giant delusion. I don’t think there are any absolutes in this field. And if course materialism is just a belief, the same as pansychism or any other belief. It is easier to believe in materialism because we can touch it of course. Or think we can. All this is simply to say I would not wish, personally, to discount anything at our present stage of knowledge. Mysticism may be something we currently see as magic – for which perhaps at some stage there will be an explanation. But that time seema rather distant from our current perspective. Excuse spelling and other mistakes. A mobile phone is not an ideal writing instrument.

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