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?
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
The Letter of Lord Chandos
This is the letter Philip, Lord Chandos, younger son of the Earl of Bath, wrote to Francis Bacon, later Baron Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, apologising for his complete abandonment of literary activity.
…To sum up: In those days I, in a state of continuous intoxication, conceived the whole of existence as one great unit: the spiritual and physical worlds seemed to form no contrast, as little as did courtly and bestial conduct, art and barbarism, solitude and society; in everything I felt the presence of Nature, in the aberrations of insanity as much as in the utmost refinement of the Spanish ceremonial; in the boorishness of young peasants no less than in the most delicate of allegories; and in all expressions of Nature I felt myself. …
…For what had it to do with pity, or with any comprehensible concatenation of human thought when, on another evening, on finding beneath a nut-tree a half-filled pitcher which a gardener boy had left there, and the pitcher and the water in it, darkened by the shadow of the tree, and a beetle swimming on the surface from shore to shore, when this combination of trifles sent through me such a shudder at the presence of the Infinite, a shudder running from the roots of my hair to the marrow of my heels? What was it that made me want to break into words which, I know, were I to find them, would force to their knees those cherubim in whom I do not believe? What made me turn silently away from this place?
Even now, after weeks, catching sight of that nut-tree, I pass it by with a shy sidelong glance, for I am loath to dispel the memory of the miracle hovering there round the trunk, loath to drive away the unearthly tremors that still pulse around the nearby foliage. In these moments an insignificant creature – a dog, a rat, a beetle, a crippled apple tree, a lane winding over the hill, a moss-covered stone, mean more to me than the most beautiful, abandoned mistress of the happiest night.
These mute and, on occasion, inanimate creatures rise toward me with such an abundance, such a presence of love, that my enchanted eye can find nothing in sight void of life. Everything that exists, everything I can remember, everything touched upon by my confused thoughts, has a meaning. Even my own heaviness, the general torpor of my brain, seems to acquire a meaning; I experience in and around me a blissful, never-ending interplay, and among the objects playing against one another there is not one into which I cannot flow.
To me, then, it is as though my body consists of nought but ciphers which give me the key to everything; or as if we could enter into a new and hopeful relationship with the whole of existence if only we begin to think with the heart. As soon, however, as this strange enchantment falls from me, I find myself confused; wherein this harmony transcending me and the entire world consisted, and how it made itself known to me, I could present in sensible words as little as I could say anything precise about the inner movements of my intestines or a congestion of my blood. …
…For my unnamed blissful feeling is sooner brought about by a distant lonely shepherd’s fire than by the vision of a starry sky, sooner by the chirping of the last dying cricket when the autumn wind chases wintry clouds across the deserted fields than by the majestic booming of an organ. And in my mind I compare myself from time to time with the orator Crassus, of whom it is reported that he grew so excessively enamoured of a tame lamprey – a dumb, apathetic, red-eyed fish in his ornamental pond – that it became the talk of the town; and when one day in the Senate Domitius reproached him for having shed tears over the death of this fish, attempting thereby to make him appear a fool, Crassus answered, “Thus have I done over the death of my fish as you have over the death of neither your first nor your second wife.”
I know not how oft this Crassus with his lamprey enters my mind as a mirrored image of my Self, reflected across the abyss of centuries. But not on account of the answer he gave Domitius. The answer brought the laughs on his side, and the whole affair turned into a jest. I, however, am deeply affected by the affair, which would have remained the same even had Domitius shed bitter tears of sorrow over his wives. For there would still have been Crassus, shedding tears over his lamprey. And about this figure, utterly ridiculous and contemptible in the midst of a world-governing senate discussing the most serious subjects, I feel compelled by a mysterious power to reflect in a manner which, the moment I attempt to express it in words, strikes me as supremely foolish.
Now and then at night the image of this Crassus is in my brain, like a splinter round which everything festers, throbs, and boils. It is then that I feel as though I myself were about to ferment, to effervesce, to foam and to sparkle. And the whole thing is a kind of feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more immediate, more liquid, more glowing than words. It, too, forms whirlpools, but of a sort that do not seem to lead, as the whirlpools of language, into the abyss, but into myself and into the deepest womb of peace.
I have troubled you excessively, my dear friend, with this extended description of an inexplicable condition which is wont, as a rule, to remain locked up in me.
You were kind enough to express your dissatisfaction that no book written by me reaches you any more, “to compensate for the loss of our relationship.” Reading that, I felt, with a certainty not entirely bereft of a feeling of sorrow, that neither in the coming year nor in the following nor in all the years of this my life shall I write a book, whether in English or in Latin: and this for an odd and embarrassing reason which I must leave to the boundless superiority of your mind to place in the realm of physical and spiritual values spread out harmoniously before your unprejudiced eye: to wit, because the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge.
Fain had I the power to compress in this, presumably my last, letter to Francis Bacon all the love and gratitude, all the unmeasured admiration, which I harbour in my heart for the greatest benefactor of my mind, for the foremost Englishman of my day, and which I shall harbour therein until death break it asunder.
This 22 August, A.D. 1603
With many thanks to Steven Baird for his permission to use his images
15. Conclusion (continued)
In Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German Philosophy Engels wrote that just as idealism went through development, major discoveries in science necessitate the development of materialism – he discussed its progress from mechanical to dialectical1 – and that those developments in turn open up new areas of knowledge
idealism underwent a series of stages of development, so also did materialism. With each epoch-making discovery even in the sphere of natural science, it has to change its form; and after history was also subjected to materialistic treatment, a new avenue of development has opened here, too.2
Just as Marx and Engels applied the achievements of Hegel’s Neoplatonic study of consciousness to an understanding of the universe as a dialectical process, so the work being done in the knowledge of our brains (the organ that devised this method) – particularly of consciousness, of what it is to reason, of our emotions and of the brain’s wholistic functioning – now warrant a further review of the materialist theory of knowledge. The dialectical method should be used to guide science and structure its discoveries, and those ever deepening, more complex and contradictory discoveries require that this method reflect them.
In the Philosophy of Mind Hegel wrote that we are always thinking3 yet he believed that ‘thought proper’ can only be done consciously, with words.4 Marx (who, in his dissertation, described mysticism – the philosophical source of his epistemology – as ‘unfree’5) and Engels retained this same patriarchal commitment to the relationship between reason and words. Both Neoplatonism and modern research expose the inadequacy of this position.
Firstly, Neoplatonism has shown the necessity of the perspectival. No word or concept – however apparently tightly defined – can be divorced from it. To use a word or concept is to have a perspective on it – we have chosen that word or concept rather than any other. The personal is the silent aspect of a definition that completes that definition.
Secondly and related to this, the thinking that we are always engaged in subconsciously is the ground in our brains’ functioning on which our reason using words and concepts is based. What finds expression in words and concepts has usually undergone a long, subconscious process of non-linguistic thought. One can deliberately use this process to better inform that done consciously.6
Philosophising conceptually is at the heart of Hegel’s claim to the mastery of ‘reason’. His belief that this be done ‘speculatively’, which, as noted previously, he equated with ‘mystically’,7 rather than undermining that claim, carries the worth of his philosophy beyond his conceptually-based justification for it – Magee has pointed to Hegel’s mytho-poetic circumscription, which I have discussed throughout this thesis. Inseparable from this are both intuition which I have also discussed (see 9.4), pointing out the parallels between Plotinus and Hegel on the subject8 and to Hegel’s understanding of its application, leading to ‘a completely developed cognition’9 and the ineffable, the felt awareness of the unity of all things, of which Hegel wrote
what is ineffable is, in truth, only something obscure, fermenting, something which gains clarity only when it is able to put itself into words. Accordingly, the word gives to thoughts their highest and truest existence. …Just as the true thought is the very thing itself, so too is the word when it is employed by genuine thinking.10
Hofmannsthal addressed the relationship between the ‘mere fermentation’ of the obscure ineffable and words in ‘The Letter of Lord Chandos’
You were kind enough to express your dissatisfaction that no book written by me reaches you any more, ‘to compensate for the loss of our relationship.’ Reading that, I felt, with a certainty not entirely bereft of a feeling of sorrow, that neither in the coming year nor in the following nor in all the years of this my life shall I write a book, whether in English or in Latin: and this for an odd and embarrassing reason which I must leave to the boundless superiority of your mind to place in the realm of physical and spiritual values spread out harmoniously before your unprejudiced eye: to wit, because the language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, neither Italian nor Spanish, but a language none of whose words is known to me, a language in which inanimate things speak to me and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge.11
as did Hegel, no less, in the concluding words of his Phenomenology – his adaptation from Schiller’s Die Freundschaft,
from the chalice of this realm of spirits
foams forth for Him his own infinitude.12
1. ‘The materialism of the last century was predominantly mechanical, because at that time, of all natural sciences, only mechanics, and indeed only the mechanics of solid bodies — celestial and terrestrial — in short, the mechanics of gravity, had come to any definite close. Chemistry at that time existed only in its infantile, phlogistic form. Biology still lay in swaddling clothes; vegetable and animal organisms had been only roughly examined and were explained by purely mechanical causes. What the animal was to Descartes, man was to the materialists of the 18th century — a machine. This exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes of a chemical and organic nature — in which processes the laws of mechanics are, indeed, also valid, but are pushed into the backgrounds by other, higher laws — constitutes the first specific but at that time inevitable limitations of classical French materialism.
The second specific limitation of this materialism lay in its inability to comprehend the universe as a process, as matter undergoing uninterrupted historical development. This was in accordance with the level of the natural science of that time, and with the metaphysical, that is, anti-dialectical manner of philosophising connected with it.’, Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit., Part 2: Materialism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1886/ludwig-feuerbach/ch02.htm ↩
2. Ibid. ↩
3. ‘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.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 69 ↩
4. ‘Intellect and Reason, the modes of thought proper, are active only in the waking state.’, Ibid., ‘To want to think without words as Mesmer once attempted is…a manifestly irrational procedure’, Ibid., 221 ↩
5. ‘everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind. On the other hand, if that self-consciousness which knows itself only in the form of abstract universality is raised to an absolute principle, then the door is opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism.’, Karl Marx, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.’, 1841, Part II, Chapter 5, http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1841/dr-theses/ch08.htm ↩
6. I was asked to explain my use of ‘contemplation’. After I gave a reply that I was not happy with, I decided to think about my response non-linguistically by consigning the issue to my subconsciousness, by giving up control of the process (through language) and just ‘sitting with it’, letting it run its course. Several times my thoughts on the subject ‘rose’ into my consciousness (as shards and snippets, very likely due to my conditioned desire to control the process) but I stopped them from forming beyond single words, immediately sending those shards and snippets back into the workings of my subconscious brain. I simply got on with my day. I focused on other matters. I knew that the process was developing and could feel it was so – intellectually (I knew, by the briefest glimpses, as though quickly opening an oven door the slightest amount, that my thoughts were taking shape) and, inseparable from this, emotionally (I felt good that I could deliberately initiate and be conscious of this subconscious process). I left the process to itself. The next night I sat down at my computer, brought to my consciousness what had developed in my subconsciousness by considering in language how to explain my use of ‘contemplation’, composed and again posted my reply. My response which a day before had seemed so difficult to express and inadequate, came easily. ‘Sitting with it’ in one’s subconsciousness is no less a form of thought, of reason than is conscious reason using language – the reason of patriarchy and control (‘Here-comes-a-sentence-that-can-be-written-down-now.’). Yet the former is far more fluid and creative, in which the impossible is possible – to draw from Zamyatin, it is a process in which trotting chairs and fluttering wings can freely mingle. It is a form of reason (delicate, dynamic, intuitive, sensitive, poetic, profoundly rich and complex – historically, in the West, consigned to ‘the feminine’) that is active all the time. This is the ‘thinking all the time’ that Hegel referred to, which linguistic reason can easily dominate, drown out but never silence, precisely because the latter has to be defined, measured, structured – limited. It is most probably the same as what we employ when we have a problem and ‘sleep on it’, waking at 4am at the ‘Eureka!’ moment – ‘I have spent ages thinking about this problem (linguistically) and couldn’t solve it – but now, in my sleep, I have!’. Lucid dreaming also has this potential for non-linguistic reason in sleep. The test of any form of reason is praxis. ↩
7. ‘Speculative truth, it may also be noted, means very much the same as what, in special connection with religious experience and doctrines, used to be called Mysticism. …the reason-world may be equally styled mystical’, Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, op. cit., 121 ↩
8. Both made the same distinction between ‘mindless’ (sensuous consciousness) and ‘mindful’ (thinking religiously) intuition, both referred to the latter as ‘mental vision’, both wrote of thinking’s ‘pure unity with itself…(which) can also be called pure intuition…such that between the subject and object there is no [difference]…Thinking is simply knowing.’, Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, op. cit., vol. III, 190 ↩
9. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind, op. cit., 200; ‘Dialectical materialism regards intuition as immediate knowledge, as living contemplation in its dialectical connection with the mediated knowledge and rejects any attempts to treat it as a super-rational, mystical cognitive ability. Intuition must not be considered as a kind of fundamental deviation from the usual ways of knowing the truth; it is a natural form of their manifestation based on logical thinking and practice. Behind the ability “suddenly” to grasp the truth, are, in reality, accumulated experience and knowledge acquired before. The psychological mechanism of intuition is not studied enough’, Dictionary of Philosophy, Ed., I. Frolov, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1984, 201. ↩
10. Ibid., 221 ↩
11. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ein Brief, (‘The Letter of Lord Chandos’), 1902, http://depts.washington.edu/vienna/documents/Hofmannsthal/Hofmannsthal_Chandos.htm ↩
12. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 493 ↩
‘My own belief is that apophatic or negative theology holds in its keeping a key to the perennial vitality of philosophical reflection that does not simply define and then exhaust arbitrarily laid down, heuristic limits for its thinking. The willingness to let go of all definitions, to negate all its own formulations, opens thought to what is moving within it, beyond or beneath the definitive grasp of words and concepts. Philosophy at this level is not merely cognitive but also shades into and merges with other dimensions of human experience and being, such as the affective and conative (or wilful). In the ancient world, notably among the Neoplatonists, philosophy was so understood as a spiritual exercise involving all the human faculties of intellection and sensibility and praxis.’
William Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014, 200-201
Originally posted 21.03.14
Emails sent to ABC Radio National – I did not receive a reply to either.
To Alan Saunders, ‘The Philosopher’s Zone’ ABC Radio National, 03.09.09: ‘Knowledge or “god” ’
On 18.10.08 Graham Priest said on your program:
‘I mean one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century had a definite mystical overtone to what he was doing. So you may or you may not have heard of Wittgenstein, certainly one of the greatest twentieth century’s philosophers. If you read the only book that he published in his lifetime, the Tractatus, that ends by saying “I’ve shown you all I can show; there’s more but you can’t say it.” So it’s a direct appeal to the ineffable. Ineffability and direct experience is not alien to the Western philosophical tradition. So to say that these things have religious aspects or some mystical aspects, therefore they’re not philosophy, is just a non-sequitur.’
On 01.03.09, in reply to a question from you, Stephen Gaukroger said:
‘I think a lot of the motivation for developments in science in the seventeenth century, particularly the late seventeenth century, are driven by developments in natural theology, that’s to say particularly in England for example, and this is a view to which Newton was very sympathetic, the idea is that you have these two sources of knowledge, still unreconciled from the beginning of the thirteenth century, namely religion and science, and the thing to do is to triangulate them so that you can sort out the wheat from the chaff, and the idea is that there is just a single truth: both these discourses aim at truth, so let’s triangulate them, get them fixed on the same thing so that we can work out what’s true and what’s false in each of them, and in the process, build up something that’s much stronger than either of them taken individually.’
Your program on 04.04.09 was on Hypatia of Alexandria and Neoplatonism. The blurb stated:
‘This week, we look at the woman and the heritage of what is probably the longest-standing philosophical tradition in Western civilisation: that rational yet mystical, sometimes Pagan, sometimes Christian, body of doctrines known as Neo-Platonism.’
On 11.07.09 Moira Gatens said of George Eliot:
‘I think at the time that she’s writing and Feuerbach are writing, the relationship between theology…and philosophy was much stronger than it came to be in the twentieth century.’ A week later Clive Hamilton argued for a mystical view of the world.
Just as Gatens gave the standard and profoundly incorrect assessment of the current relationship between theology and philosophy, Priest, Deakin and Wildberg addressed elements of a theological current that suffuses Western philosophy and arts – that of apophatic or negative theology – mysticism. It is one of the two great pathways to ‘god’ in our culture (‘great’ because of their impact and because of the contributions to the arts done on their basis). The other, from which it is inseparable, is the distorted and limiting understanding and application of ‘reason’ (or as the Christians believe – ‘Reason’) which in the twentieth century was revealed in academic philosophy as ‘the linguistic turn’, divorced from a basis both in materiality and practice.
As a materialist (those who describe themselves as ‘atheist’ require ‘god’ for their self-description no less than do theists, while those who describe themselves as ‘physicalist’ or ‘realist’ cause me to think of a mouse trembling before a trap, the cheese on which is ‘materialist’, the trap being ‘communism’…) I argue that the failure to even know about and understand this theological current let alone to teach it (the understanding of it, the analysis of it) as fundamental to our culture, as fundamental to moving forward in the most rounded way (distinct from Lloyd’s Man of Reason) is the most massive failure, the most massive display of determined ignorance, dishonesty and servility to the dominant ideology by generations of academics – those in philosophy and the arts hold the greatest responsibility.
Guthrie wrote that the strict meaning of ‘philosophy’ is ‘the search for knowledge’ and it is to knowledge not to a subject pervaded by a concealed priesthood (or in the case of Gaukroger – overt) that my allegiance lies. If you have a similar regard for knowledge and would like to contribute to the exposure of timeservers on a narrow goat-track leading from ivory towers behind cloistered walls, if you would like to use your program to contribute something truly new in this country to knowledge and philosophy, you might do your best to get Wiilliam Franke from Vanderbilt University on your program and interview him regarding his two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said. These two books clearly reveal the impact of ‘god’ and mysticism on our culture, on academic philosophy – right up to the present.
Franke, himself imbued with academicism, does not realise what he has done. Rather than, as he sees it, taking philosophy into ‘new areas’, he has laid bare the priesthood of an ancient current.
I urge you to interview him, and by so doing, contribute to doing likewise.
I have tried for twenty five years in this dozy and servile culture to get academic support towards my analysing and exposing the impact of this current on the visual arts – and to date have met with consistent ignorance and had very qualified success. I know of no university in this country where (in terms of an impact comparable with that of Plato and Aristotle) one of the greatest philosophers in the West – Plotinus – is taught. It is an outrage against intellect, an utter failure in social responsibility by time-serving academics.
Kant wrote in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason that he had found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith. I recall Wittgenstein, in an even more miserable tenor, writing in the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks that he would have dedicated it to God but people would not have understood. Is this acceptable to you?
In the Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion excerpted in the reader for this year’s ‘Christianity as a Global Religion’ course at the University of Sydney it states: ‘One cannot ‘study’ mystics, except to the extent that they are prepared to write or speak about their experiences. There was however no lack of such material…’ True. This study is done in philosophy and the arts at every university in this country where these mystics are taught, but they are called ‘great thinkers’ and their experience is bounded by the limits of language banished from the Word.
Just as Cato the Elder argued ‘Carthago delenda est‘, I argue that the concealed priesthood particularly in philosophy but also in the arts must be flushed into the open, to unshackle the potential of the most advanced organisation of matter yet known to us anywhere in the universe – what we all have between our ears.
The title of your last Philosopher’s Zone asks ‘What makes a world class philosophy department?’ You are in a position to contribute to that answer and thereby to those with a passion for knowledge and progress.
* * *
To Alan Saunders, ‘The Philosophers Zone’, copied to Phillip Adams, ‘Late Night Live’, ABC Radio National, 11.06.11: ‘Plotinus and what cannot (but must) be said’
Congratulations for having finally done a show on Plotinus. Now move from the safe and distant past to the present and do a show on the impact of Neoplatonsim and mysticism on modern and current Western philosophy and culture. You could take Kant and any of the German idealists, the ‘genius’ and mystic Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida etc. Take your pick. Contribute to exposing the concealed priesthood in philosophy – of which the Neoplatonic ‘priest’ Nietzsche wrote – and which is a massive impediment to the acceptance of our rapidly growing objective knowledge of the world.
Interview William Franke of Vanderbilt University who wrote a groundbreaking two volume anthology On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, exemplifying the impact of mysticism on our culture up to the near present. Or perhaps Mark Cheetham at the University of Toronto, who in 1991 published The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting – on the impact of Neoplatonism on Cubism – the pivotal moment of modernist art – both books met by thunderous silence in this dozy, servile and provincial culture.