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?


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

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


Engels on the elimination of inequality

A propaganda poster from 1793 representing the French First Republic with the slogan ‘Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death,’ together with symbols such as tricolour flags, Phrygian cap and the Gallic rooster.

“The elimination of all social and political inequality” is also a very questionable phrase in place of “the abolition of all class distinctions”. Between one country and another, one province and another and even one locality and another there will always exist a certain inequality in the conditions of life, which it will be possible to reduce to a minimum but never entirely eliminate. Alpine dwellers will always have different conditions of life from those of people living on plains. The idea of socialist society as the realm of equality is a one-sided French idea modelled upon the old “liberty, equality, fraternity” – a concept which was justified as a stage of development in its own time and place but which, like all the one-sided ideas of the earlier socialist schools, should have been overcome by now, for it only produces confusion in people’s heads and more precise modes of presentation of the matter have been found.

Friedrich Engels to August Bebel in Zwickau; London, March 18-28, 1875, Marx Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1982, 276


These words foretell the passing of capitalism with the certainty of my own death


M16 and the Eagle Nebula

Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction do they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity. …when the difference of reality is taken into account, it develops from difference into opposition, and from this into contradiction, so that in the end the sum total of all realities simply becomes absolute contradiction within itself.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, p. 442



Hegel on contradiction (on the engine and poetry of the world): in conclusion

If the contradiction in motion, instinctive urge, and the like, is masked for ordinary thinking, in the simplicity of these determinations, contradiction is, on the other hand, immediately represented in the determinations of relationship. The most trivial examples of above and below, right and left, father and son, and so on ad infinitum, all contain opposition in each term. That is above, which is not below; ‘above’ is specifically just this, not to be ‘below’, and only is, in so far as there is a ‘below’; and conversely, each determination implies its opposite. Father is the other of son, and son the other of father, and each only is as this other of the other; and at the same time, the one determination only is, in relation to the other; their being is a single subsistence. The father also has an existence of his own apart from the son-relationship; but then he is not father but simply man; just as above and below, right and left, are each also a reflection-into-self and are something apart from their relationship, but then only places in general. Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. Ordinary thinking when it passes over to the moment of the indifference of the determinations, forgets their negative unity and so retains them merely as ‘differents’ in general, in which determination right is no longer right, nor left left, etc. But since it has, in fact, right and left before it, these determinations are before it as self-negating, the one being in the other, and each in this unity being not self-negating but indifferently for itself.

Therefore though ordinary thinking everywhere has contradiction for its content, it does not become aware of it, but remains an external reflection which passes from likeness to unlikeness, or from the negative relation to the reflection-into-self, of the distinct sides. It holds these two determinations over against one another and has in mind only them, but not their transition, which is the essential point and which contains the contradiction. Intelligent reflection, to mention this here, consists, on the contrary, in grasping and asserting contradiction. …Only when the manifold terms have been driven to the point of contradiction do they become active and lively towards one another, receiving in contradiction the negativity which is the indwelling pulsation of self-movement and spontaneous activity. …when the difference of reality is taken into account, it develops from difference into opposition, and from this into contradiction…Ordinary…thinking, which abhors contradiction, as nature abhors a vacuum, rejects this conclusion…

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, pp. 441-442


Marx and Engels: on the relationship between the ruling class and the ruling ideas


The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness, and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance, in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where, therefore, domination is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘eternal law’.

The division of labour, which we already saw above as one of the chief forces of history up till now, manifests itself also in the ruling class as the division of mental and material labour, so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the formation of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood), while the others’ attitude to these ideas and illusions is more passive and receptive, because they are in reality the active members of this class and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves. Within this class this cleavage can even develop into a certain opposition and hostility between the two parts, but whenever a practical collision occurs in which the class itself is endangered they automatically vanish, in which case there also vanishes the appearance of the ruling ideas being not the ideas of the ruling class and having a power distinct from the power of this class. …

If now in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying that these or those ideas were dominant at a given time, without bothering ourselves about the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas, if we thus ignore the individuals and world conditions which are the source of the ideas, then we can say, for instance, that during the time the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc., were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc. The ruling class itself on the whole imagines this to be so. This conception of history, which is common to all historians, particularly since the eighteenth century, will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that ever more abstract ideas hold sway, i.e. ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality. For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to present its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and present them as the only rational, universally valid ones. The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start, if only because it is opposed to a class, not as a class but as the representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class. It can do this because initially its interest really is as yet mostly connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes, because under the pressure of hitherto existing conditions its interest has not yet been able to develop as the particular interest of a particular class. Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of the other classes which are not winning a dominant position, but only insofar as it now enables these individuals to raise themselves into the ruling class. When the French bourgeoisie overthrew the rule of the aristocracy, it thereby made it possible for many proletarians to raise themselves above the proletariat, but only insofar as they become bourgeois. Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously…

Once the ruling ideas have been separated from the ruling individuals and, above all, from the relations which result from a given stage of the mode of production, and in this way the conclusion has been reached that history is always under the sway of ideas, it is very easy to abstract from these various ideas ‘the Idea’, the thought, etc. as the dominant force in history, and thus to consider all these separate ideas and concepts as ‘forms of self-determination’ of the Concept developing in history. It follows then naturally, too, that all the relations of men can be derived from the concept of man, man as conceived, the essence of man, Man. This has been done by the speculative philosophy. Hegel himself confesses at the end of the Geschichtsphilosophie that he ‘has considered the progress of the concept only’ and has represented in history the ‘true theodicy’ (p. 446). Now one can go back again to the producers of the ‘concept’, to the theorists, ideologists and philosophers, and one comes then to the conclusion that the philosophers, the thinkers as such, have at all times been dominant in history: a conclusion, as we see, already expressed by Hegel.

The whole trick of proving the hegemony of the spirit in history (hierarchy Stirner calls it) is thus confined to the following three attempts.

No. 1. One must separate the ideas of those ruling for empirical reasons, under empirical conditions and as corporeal individuals, from these rulers, and thus recognise the rule of ideas or illusions in history.

No. 2. One must bring an order into this rule of ideas, prove a mystical connection among the successive ruling ideas, which is managed by regarding them as ‘forms of self-determination of the concept’ (this is possible because by virtue of their empirical basis these ideas are really connected with one another and because, conceived as mere ideas, they become self-distinctions, distinctions made by thought).

No. 3. To remove the mystical appearance of this ‘self-determining concept’ it is changed into a person – ‘self-consciousness’ – or, to appear thoroughly materialistic, into a series of persons who represent the ‘concept’ in history, into the ‘thinkers’, the ‘philosophers’, the ideologists, who again are understood as the manufacturers of history, as the ‘council of guardians’, as the rulers. Thus the whole body of materialistic elements has been eliminated from history and now full rein can be given to the speculative steed.

This historical method which reigned in Germany, and especially the reason why, must be explained from its connection with the illusion of ideologists in general, e.g., the illusions of the jurists, politicians (including the practical statesmen), from the dogmatic dreamings and distortions of these fellows; this is explained perfectly easily from their practical position in life, their job, and the division of labour.

Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historiography has not yet won this trivial insight. It takes every epoch at its word and believes that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 67-71


Hegel on contradiction: part three


the negative relation to self (is) the innermost source of all activity, of all animate and spiritual self-movement, the dialectical soul that everything true possesses and through which alone it is true; for on this subjectivity alone rests the sublating of the opposition between Notion and reality, and the unity that is truth. The second negative, the negative of the negative…is this sublating of the contradiction, but just as little as the contradiction is it an act of external reflection, but rather the innermost, most objective moment of life and spirit, through which a subject, a person, a free being, exists.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, pp. 835-836


Part three/to be continued…

Hegel on contradiction

NGC 7714: Starburst after Galaxy Collision. ‘Observations indicate that the golden ring pictured is composed of millions of older Sun-like stars that are likely co-moving with the interior bluer stars. In contrast, the bright centre of NGC 7714 appears to be undergoing a burst of new star formation.’

…it is one of the fundamental prejudices of logic as hitherto understood and of ordinary thinking, that contradiction is not so characteristically essential and immanent a determination as identity; but in fact, if it were a question of grading the two determinations and they had to be kept separate, then contradiction would have to be taken as the profounder determination and more characteristic of essence. For as against contradiction, identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Trans., A.V.Miller, Humanities Press, New York, 1976, 439


Part one/to be continued…


The development of a philosophical current – from mysticism to materialism, from God to science

Nicholas_of_Cusa 2

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)

‘The German Idealists showed some interest in Nicholas of Cusa but the real revival of his thought was stimulated by…Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) who called him “the first modern thinker”…and by…Karl Jaspers.’

Dermot Moran, ‘Nicholas of Cusa and modern philosophy’, The Cambridge Companion in Renaissance Philosophy, Ed., James Hankins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007, 173


‘Who, then, can understand created being by conjoining, in created being, the absolute necessity from which it derives and the contingency without which it does not exist?’

Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia (‘On Learned Ignorance’, 1440), II, 2, 100

‘since God is Infinite Actuality, He is the cause only of actuality. But the possibility of being exists contingently. Therefore, if the possibility were absolute, on what would it be contingent? Now, the possibility results from the fact that being [which derives] from the First cannot be completely, unqualifiedly, and absolutely actuality. Therefore, the actuality is contracted through the possibility, so that it does not at all exist except in the possibility. And the possibility does not at all exist unless it is contracted through the actuality.’

Ibid.; II, 8, 137

‘since the contraction of possibility is from God and the contraction of actuality is the result of contingency, the world—which, necessarily, is contracted—is contingently finite.’

Ibid.; II, 8, 139

‘without possibility and actuality and the union of the two there is not, and cannot be, anything. For if [anything] lacked any of these, it would not exist. For how would it exist if it were not possible to exist? And how would it exist if it did not actually exist (since existence is actuality)? And if it were possible to exist but it did not exist, in what sense would it exist? (Therefore, it is necessary that there be the union of possibility and actuality.) The possibility-to-exist, actually existing, and the union of the two are not other than one another. Indeed, they are of the same essence, since they constitute only one and the same thing’

Nicholas of Cusa, De possest (‘On Actualised-Possibility’, 1460), 47

Georg_Wilhelm_Friedrich_Hegel00 2

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

‘Hegel came forward with the hitherto quite unheard-of propositions that the accidental has a cause because it is accidental, and just as much also has no cause because it is accidental; that the accidental is necessary, that necessity determines itself as chance, and, on the other hand, this chance is rather absolute necessity. (Logik, II, Book III, 2: Reality.) Natural science has simply ignored these propositions as paradoxical trifling, as self-contradictory nonsense, and, as regards theory, has persisted on the one hand in the barrenness of thought of Wolffian metaphysics, according to which a thing is either accidental or necessary, but not both at once; or, on the other hand, in the hardly less thoughtless mechanical determinism which in words denies chance in general only to recognise it in practice in each particular case.

While natural science continued to think in this way, what did it do in the person of Darwin?

Friedrich Engels 1860

Friedrich Engels in 1860

Darwin in his epoch-making work, set out from the widest existing basis of chance. Precisely the infinite, accidental differences between individuals within a single species, differences which become accentuated until they break through the character of the species, and whose immediate causes even can be demonstrated only in extremely few cases, compelled him to question the previous basis of all regularity in biology, viz., the concept of species in its previous metaphysical rigidity and unchangeability. Without the concept of species, however, all science was nothing. All its branches needed the concept of species as basis: human anatomy and comparative anatomy – embryology, zoology, palaeontology, botany, etc., what were they without the concept of species? All their results were not only put in question but directly set aside. Chance overthrows necessity, as conceived hitherto. The previous idea of necessity breaks down. To retain it means dictatorially to impose on nature as a law a human arbitrary determination that is in contradiction to itself and to reality, it means to deny thereby all inner necessity in living nature, it means generally to proclaim the chaotic kingdom of chance to be the sole law of living nature.’

Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 217-221