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

The philosophy of Plotinus: part six


Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

Plotinus called the grasp by Intellect of the immaterial object – their  immediate identity and unity – ‘intuitive thought’.

‘(Intellect)…is the level of intuitive thought which grasps its object immediately and is always perfectly united to it, and does not have to seek it outside itself by discursive reasoning: and we at our highest are Intellect, or Soul perfectly formed to the likeness of Intellect …’1

As with every aspect in his distinction between the universe of matter and the senses and the universe in Intellect, Plotinus made the logic of discursive reasoning (which he equated with sense perception) the deficient copy of intuition (dialectic) in Intellect.2

In order to use language, discursive thought has to consider things sequentially, it passes from one point to another, it endlessly divides.3 This is the method of description. Such reasoning is utterly inadequate to address the relationship between soul and the One – it is a hindrance to the love which desires beyond Form. Discursive thought is inseparable from the burden of sensory life. The need to reason thus results in a diminution of the independence of ‘thought’:

‘Does the soul use discursive reasoning before it comes and again after it goes out of the body? No, discursive reasoning comes into it here below, when it is already in perplexity and full of care, and in a state of greater weakness; for feeling the need of reasoning is a lessening of the intellect in respect of its self-sufficiency…’4

Dialectic is the method of Intellect. Dealing with the truths of the higher cosmos, it involves a surrendering to the illumination of God’s light in which Intellect ceases a

‘wandering about the world of sense and settles down in the world of intellect, and there it occupies itself, casting off falsehood and feeding the soul in what Plato calls “the plain of truth,” using his method of division to distinguish the Forms, and to determine the essential nature of each thing, and to find the primary kinds…and then, keeping quiet…it busies itself no more, but contemplates, having arrived at unity. It leaves what is called logical activity, about propositions and syllogisms, to another art, as it might leave knowing how to write…whatever is submitted to it it perceives by directing intuition…’5

Intuitive reasoning ‘is a static activity and a kind of reflection of Intellect…’.6 It is practised separate from the body, because the body would only impede its inquiry.7 It is an activity of our true self in which it moves with a motion which is not bodily but of its own life.8

The desire for a unifying intuition underlies Plotinus’ doctrine. Not only can we intuit being, Plotinus theorised on the direct intuition of the Good:

‘…our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity (the First Existent or The Good) transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?’9

He answered:

‘But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in yourself, seek to grasp it more and more – understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power.’10

He believed that any intuition, particularly that of the Good, depends on how much of what is being intuited we have within ourselves. An intuition is a ‘direct intellectual act’, an intellection of self. In being known, the subject is excluded.11 Soul therefore holds that act not as a memory in time, dependent on an external source, which memory can be easily lost, but as a possession of its eternal essence.12

In its intuition in Intellect, Soul looks first to what is a unity and then to what is multiple, to all that is.13 It possesses and becomes the totality of things, but imperfectly. It grasps not a pure unity, but

‘all the intellectual facts of a many that constitutes a unity. For since the object of vision has variety (distinction within its essential oneness) the intuition must be multiple and the intuitions various, just as in a face we see at the one glance eyes and nose and all the rest.
But is not this impossible when the object to be thus divided and treated as a thing of grades is a pure unity?
No: there has already been discrimination within the Intellectual-Principle; the Act of the Soul is little more than a reading of this.
First and last is in the Ideas not a matter of time, and so does not bring time into the Soul’s intuition of earlier and later among them. There is a grading by order as well: the ordered disposition of some growing thing begins with root and reaches to topmost point, but, to one seeing the plant as a whole, there is no other first and last than simply that of the order.’14

Plotinus defined ‘intuition’ as ‘knowledge with identity’.15 It is by such a method that Soul might attain the highest, and a complete unity with the One – in which it cannot distinguish itself.16 He made the greatest possible distinction between Soul’s intellection and the body’s sensory perception:

‘…the Soul is unfailingly intent upon intellection; only when it acts upon this image-making faculty does its intellection become a human perception: intellection is one thing, the perception of an intellection is another: we are continuously intuitive but we are not unbrokenly aware: the reason is that the recipient in us receives from both sides, absorbing not merely intellections but also sense-perceptions.’17

Consciousness is the reflection of the life of Intellect, through the soul’s engagement with body. Plotinus criticised conscious awareness as being

‘likely to enfeeble the very activities of which there is consciousness; only when they are alone are they pure and more genuinely active and living; and when good men are in this state their life is increased, when it is not spilt out into perception, but gathered together in one in itself.’18

Not all outside Intellect seek to attain it because the requisite motives are ‘reasoned’, but all look to the Good because it is before all ‘reason’.



1. Armstrong, op. cit., vol. I, xxi

2. In the analogy of the Divided Line in Bk VI of the Republic, illustrating the relation between the two orders of reality and states of ‘mind’, Plato allowed knowledge by the direct apprehension (vision) of truth through Intelligence (Dialectic) or by Mathematical Reason. Belief and illusion function in the physical realm, giving mere opinion.

3. Plotinus believed that the language of numbers may help us to a direct apprehension of the realities of the intelligible universe and the One.

4. IV,3.18. In a most interesting sentence, implying a relationship between intuition and ‘pre-reason’, Plotinus wrote: ‘And again the reasoning thing is not of that realm: here the reasoning. There the pre-reasoning.’ VI,7.9.

5. I,3.4

6. IV,3.18

7. ‘But what about reasoning and intellect? These no longer give themselves to the body; for their work is not done through the instrument of the body: for this gets in the way if one uses it in rational investigations.’ IV,3.19. Plotinus wrote of his experience of descending from Intellect to discursive reasoning. IV,8.1.

8. Plotinus referred to this as ‘…the superior life of reason…’ III,4.6. Reason functions above chance. Cf. Bergson.

9. III,8.9

10. III,8.10

11. See following note.

12. ‘(A self-intellection is not)…something entering from without, to be grasped and held in fear of an escape…’ IV,3.25. ‘When we seize anything in the direct intellectual act there is room for nothing else than to know and to contemplate the object; the subject is not included in the act of knowing, but asserts itself, if at all, later and is a sign of the altered; this means that, once purely in the Intellectual, no one of us can have any memory of our experience here. Further, if all intellection is timeless – as appears from the fact that the Intellectual beings are of eternity, not of time – there can be no memory in the intellectual world, not merely none of earthly things but none whatever: all is presence. There; for there is no discursive thought, no passing from one point to another.’ IV,4.1.

13. IV,4.1. ‘…the unity of the Soul’s faculty (of intuition) is not incompatible with multiplicity in the object; it does no possess all its content in a single act of thought; each act is incomplete in itself, but all are being constantly exercised; the faculty is permanently there and its effects are external. The object itself is no unity and can therefore harbour a multiplicity which previously it did not contain.’ Ibid.

14. IV,4.1

15. IV,4.3

16. ‘Soul must see in its own way; this is by coalescence, unification; but in seeking thus to know the Unity it is prevented by that very unification from recognising that it has found; it cannot distinguish itself from the object of this intuition. None the less, this is our one resource if our philosophy is to give us knowledge of The Unity.’ VI,9.3. Plotinus distinguished between Soul’s understanding given by contemplation and Intellect’s apprehension of presence: ‘Wisdom and understanding consist in the contemplation of all that exists in the Intellectual-Principle, and the Intellectual-Principle itself apprehends this all (not by contemplation but) as an immediate presence.’ I,2.6.

17. IV,3.30

18. I,4.10

I will soon begin a series on the philosophy of the Neoplatonist Henri Bergson.

The philosophy of Plotinus: part four

Movement and rest in ‘thought’, the most intense activity and stillness in unity

The One or The Good1 is the First hypostasis of the divine triad. It is logically the One, morally the Good. Plotinus also referred to it as The Formless Form, The Father, The Simple, The Absolute, The Infinite, The Transcendent, The Unconditioned, The Fountain and Principle of Beauty. Plotinus stressed its transcendence of that of which it is the source – existence, essence and life. It is the greatest of all, not in size, but in reality2 and power. Before all else, it is pure will,3 an undifferentiated power4 beyond comprehension, and is boiling with pure activity, the first of which is its goodness. Free from substance and being, it is the principle of substance and being in the intelligible world and ultimately of the becoming of the physical universe.5 It is everywhere, yet is beyond space, time, state, quantity, quality and extension – it is the source of all these.

Transcending the need for thought, the One is pure thought beyond knowledge. It can know neither itself nor anything else. Unthinking (since thinking is movement), but the cause of thinking, it exists before movement and rest, which pertain to being and make being multiple.6 Above all existence, it is not the Creator but is the source of life and generates that which creates in its image – Intellect or Divine Thought. To be precise, it is beyond even naming. Language and discursive reasoning are inadequate to it.7 Self centred, it is self-determined and self-sufficient because it is complete and has no parts. It is the goal to which all and everything aspires. Even those who have never entered the Good must acknowledge its existence because of the presence of its weak images in this world.

To find the One, we must turn inwards through silent contemplation, transcend morality, difference, and the form of intellect, and seek perfect unity with him, at the centre of our souls. Yet we are in Him and all souls find unity there. In reaching for the Good, Soul is reaching for its essence. On attaining its goal, it is beyond being and is truly (knows beyond knowing) itself. Since vision requires shape and desires its acquisition, unity with the One is the shedding of vision and a merging of seer, seeing and seen.

‘The First has no self-awareness; there is no need. It is no duality – or rather, no manifold consisting of itself, its intellective act distinct from itself, and the inevitable third, the object of intellection. No doubt since knower, knowing, and known are identical, all merges into a unity: but the distinction has existed and, once more, such a unity cannot be the First; we must put away all otherness from the Supreme which can need no such support; anything we add is so much lessening of what lacks nothing.’8

The attainment of this unity gives a unique experience higher than possible through the thought of Intellect. It is ‘an immediate intuition, self-directed.’9 Plotinus asked ‘But what if one be deceived?’ (regarding whether The Good has come to him). He answered: ‘In that case there must be some resemblance to account for the error: the good will be the original which the delusion counterfeited and whenever the true presents itself we turn from the spurious.’10

The Good is infinite productive power extending throughout creation. It is of eternal duration.

‘All derives from this: it (the Good) is the origin of the primal movement which it does not possess and of the repose which is but its absence of need; for neither rest nor movement can belong to that which has no place in which either could occur; centre, object, ground, all are alike unknown to it, for it is before all. Yet its being is not limited; what is there to set bounds to it? Nor, on the other hand, is it infinite in the sense of magnitude; what place can there be to which it must extend, or why should there be movement where there is no lacking? All its infinitude resides in its power: it does not change and will not fail; and in it all that is unfailing finds duration.’11

Like a sun before shape, it generates Intellect – its light12 and most perfect possible image.

Part four/to be continued…


1. Compare ‘“…the highest form of knowledge is knowledge of the form of the good, from which things that are just and so on derive their usefulness and value.’” Republic VI,505a, and ‘Knowing of The Good or contact with it is the all-important…’ VI,7.36. For Plato, the Good is a special Form synonymous with beauty and truth. “The truth of the matter is, after all, known only to God. But in my opinion, for what it is worth, the final thing to be perceived in the intelligible realm, and perceived only with difficulty, is the absolute form of Good; once seen, it is inferred to be responsible for everything right and good, producing in the visible realm light and the source of light, and being, in the intelligible realm itself, controlling source of reality and intelligence. And anyone who is going to act rationally either in public or private must perceive it.’” Republic Bk VII, 517b-c. Plotinus also drew on Aristotle’s definition of the Good as that ‘to which everything aspires’ (Nicomachean Ethics I.1094a3) and his Unmoved Mover, which moves all things as the object of desire (Metaphysics A7.1072a-b). Plotinus clearly parted from Aristotle on the latter’s rejection of a transcendent Good.

2. ‘…you may not hope to see it with mortal eyes, nor in any way that would be imagined by those who make sense the test of reality and so annul the supremely real. For what passes for the most truly existent is most truly non-existent – the thing of extension least real of all – while this unseen First is the source and principle of Being and sovran over Reality.
You must turn appearances about or you will be left void of God.’ V,5.11.

3. ‘So he was all will, and there is nothing in him which is not that which wills – nothing, then, before willing. So he himself is primarily his will. So then he is also as he willed and of the kind he willed, and what follows upon his will, what this kind of will generated – but it generated nothing further in himself, for he was this already.’ VI,8.21. ‘Neither can it have will to anything…’ VI,9.6.

4. ‘Power, There (in the Good), is no producer of opposites; it is that steadfast constant which is most decidedly power by inability to depart from unity: ability to produce opposites is inability to hold by the perfect good…’ VI,8.21.

5. ‘For the trace of the shapeless is shape; it is this which generates shape, not shape this, and it generates it when matter comes to it. But matter is necessarily furthest from it…If then what is loveable is not the matter, but what is formed by the form…one must assume that the first nature of beauty is formless.’ VI,7.33.

6. ‘The Unity is none of all; neither thing nor quantity nor quality nor intellect nor soul; not in motion, not at rest, not in place, not in time: it is the self-defined, unique in form or, better, formless, existing before Form was, or Movement or Rest, all of which are attachments of Being and make Being the manifold it is.’ VI,9.3. ‘That which can make all can have, itself, no extension; it must be limitless and so without magnitude…’ VI,7.32. Sources for these negations include the Parmenides 138b5-6 (on motion and rest), 139b3 (on place) and 141a5 (on time); also the Symposium 211b1.

7. ‘strictly speaking, we ought not to apply any terms at all to It; but we should, so to speak, run round the outside of It trying to interpret our own feelings about It, sometimes drawing near and sometimes falling away in our perplexities about It…’ VI,9.3.

8. VI,7.41

9. VI,7.38. Also ‘Since the Supreme has no interval, no self-differentiation, what can have this intuitional approach to it but itself? Therefore it quite naturally assumes difference at the point where Intellectual-Principle and Being are differentiated’ VI,7.39.

10. VI,7.26

11. V,5.10. Note that Plotinus associated movement with lack.

12. ‘The only reasonable explanation of act flowing from it lies in the analogy of light from a sun…the One shines eternally…’ V,3.12. ‘A circle related in its path to a centre must be admitted to owe its scope to that centre; it has something of the nature of that centre in that the radial lines converging on that one central point assimilate their impinging ends to that point of convergence and of departure, the dominant of radii and terminals: the terminals are of one nature with the centre, feeble reproductions of it, since the centre is, in a certain sense, the source of terminals and radii impinging at every point upon it; these lines reveal the centre; they are the development of that undeveloped.
In the same way we are to take Intellectual-Principle and Being. This combined power springs from the Supreme, an outflow and as it were development from That and remaining dependent upon that Intellective nature, showing forth that, so to speak, Intellect-in-Unity which is not Intellectual-Principle since it is no duality. No more than in the circle are the lines or circumference to be identified with that centre which is the source of both: radii and circle are images given forth by indwelling power and, as products of a certain vigour in it, not cut off from it.
Thus the Intellective power circles around the Supreme which stands to it as archetype to image…’ VI,8.18. Intellect cannot exist in the Good – to do so (adapting from Nietzsche on virgin birth) would make the One maculate.

Some thoughts on mysticism

M100: A Grand Design Spiral Galaxy

M100: A Grand Design Spiral Galaxy

Hello Moshe,

I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier. I wanted to sit with your question. And I could sit with it a great deal longer.

Mysticism for me is the deepest feeling for and orientation to the whole, yet sensitivity to the parts that comprise it (in each part is the whole), to the relationship between whole and parts, to their infinite complexity and unceasing motion – and that awareness is essentially ineffable, yet intuitively understood.

If you remove ‘feeling’, ‘the ineffable’ and ‘intuition’ from this statement you have the description of a relationship that bears comparison with the first words of Lenin’s ‘On the Question of Dialectics’ – ‘The splitting of a single whole and the cognition of its contradictory parts…is the essence (one of the ‘essentials,’ one of the principal, if not the principal, characteristics or features) or dialectics. That is precisely how Hegel, too, puts the matter (Aristotle in his Metaphysics continually grapples with it and combats Heraclitus and Heraclitean ideas).’

My comparison is appropriate, because mystical philosophy, as Marx acknowledged (particularly its Germanic current culminating in the philosophy of the ‘German Proclus’, Hegel), is the philosophical core, stood by Marx on its feet, of dialectical materialism.

Lenin went on: ‘the correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science.’ This can be simply demonstrated – if you hold a rock in your hand, you hold a unity. While it looks utterly still – in its composition, in its parts, it is in unceasing motion. The contradictory motion of those infinitely divisible parts is the very thing which results in the apparently stable unity you hold in your hand (I am reminded of Plotinus’ profound and profoundly poetic position regarding his One – that it is the greatest activity in the greatest stillness).

And the interaction of this rock, this material composition, with the greater, infinite material whole will one day result in the passing of the form and contents of that stone into other material structures.

Thus everything passes, and only matter (objective reality) driven by the (theoretical) absolute of change remains.

While capitalist ideologues treat mysticism like pornography as they secretly study and draw from it, claiming, as true patriarchs, that their appropriations are the result of the most rigorous conceptual ‘reason’, materialists should be proud of their philosophical heritage and continue to mine it for more philosophical gems.

Intuition’ is one such. I believe it is a form of reasoning far more holistic and connected to our ‘emotions’/our ‘feelings’, our ‘sense of self’ than is the reason of language and concept. The latter, while its benefits and the achievements made with it are obvious, comparative to intuition (which is always functioning in the background), is plodding.

An example: suppose you were to walk around a corner while another did the same thing walking towards you. You bump into each other. Your eyes meet. Without doubt you would both have an instantaneous wealth of thoughts and feelings so rich and complex that thinking linguistically in and of that moment would not only be an impediment, it would be an impossibility.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), ‘Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’, marble, 1647-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), ‘Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’, marble, 1647-1652, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Yet the thoughts and feelings you both have in those few seconds will be formative, evidence of a type of reason which I think is central to our sense of self.

When the monotheist prays to God – ‘God, give me guidance’, they are calling on that other form of reason which requires emotional ‘stillness’ to be heard and listened to. They speak of ‘stillness’ and ‘listening’ at such times.

It is a flux of reason that draws on their life’s experience, on their spiritual connection to the world, on all that comprises them.

‘Spirituality’ – a concept I rejected for many years – for me is the feeling for and knowledge of profound material connectedness.

Intuitive reason is like ‘another’ to that of our usual, linguistically conditioned self.

There is certainly nothing of the patriarch to it, yet if you fail to listen to that ‘voice’, you do so at your peril. You will be like the man in the toothpaste aisle at the supermarket – reading all the labels, unable to choose, looking for an impetus and answer only in words, his linguistic ‘self’ disconnected from that other, deeper, more holistic, intuitive ‘self’.

In this unity of self (both linguistic and intuitive) and the world is to be found the unity of both mystic and materialist – it is one, unwilled yet profoundly dialectical, profoundly ‘poetic’ world.

When I am presented with any problem, I first try to intuit a way forward or a solution, then I apply my ability to reason linguistically. And although the results are usually different (my intuition seems consistent with necessity – which supports my understanding of intuition), I play those two results against each other to arrive at my answer.

These are a few of my thoughts on the subject of mysticism.

What are some of your thoughts on the subject?

Best regards,



Images: 1st/2nd

On reason 1

Jane Goodall with chimpanzee Jou Jou, Brazzaville Zoo, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1990

Jane Goodall with chimpanzee Jou Jou, Brazzaville Zoo, Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1990

The very focus in Western culture not on a reason that is wholistic but on one that is only linguistic and conceptual, on ‘elegance’ and wit in language, the scholastic licking and sucking of every ‘ism’ (yet one more shade of philosophical idealism) or piece of jargon, a current which has sought to block out the spiritual, the emotional, the passionate, above all, the animal and material, has presented in its analysis only a twisted half of who we are.



A meditation on creative thought

*   *  *

I believe the brain plays a game – some parts providing the stimuli, the others the reactions, and so on…One is only consciously aware of something in the brain which acts as a summariser or totaliser of the process going on and that probably consists of many parts acting simultaneously on each other. Clearly only the one-dimensional chain of syllogisms which constitutes thinking can be communicated verbally or written down…If, on the other hand, I want to do something new or original, then it is no longer a question of syllogism chains. When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find the analogies…[which] are essential to the development of new ideas.

Stanislaw M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician, 1976, in Scientific American, October, 1994, 83



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.

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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

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

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Mona Lisa, oil on poplar wood, 1503-1506, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Mona Lisa, oil on poplar wood, 1503-1506, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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In ‘The Life and Work of Félix Ravaisson’ (1904) Bergson praised da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as an example of artistic intuition (da Vinci’s experience of his model) in which the line, form and colour lead us ‘toward a virtual centre located behind the image.’1 By entering into or identifying with a character

‘out of that indivisible feeling, as from a spring, all the words, gestures and actions of the man would appear to me to flow naturally…The character would be given to me all at once, in its entirety…Symbols and points of view…place me outside him; they give me only what he has in common with others and not what belongs to him and to him alone…his essence cannot be perceived from without…nor be expressed by symbols…Coincidence with the person himself would alone give me the absolute. It is in this sense and in this sense only, that absolute in synonymous with perfection.’2

 While an image cannot replace the intuition of duration, a mix of distinct but balanced images can work together to stimulate a viewer to make the necessary effort to achieve an intuition.

‘many different images, taken from quite different orders of things, will be able, through the convergence of their action, to direct consciousness to the precise point where this is a certain intuition to seize on. By choosing images as dissimilar as possible, any one of them will be prevented from usurping the place of the intuition it is instructed to call forth, since it would then be driven away at once by its rivals. By seeing that in spite of their differences in aspect they all demand of the mind the same kind of attention and, as it were, the same degree of tension, one will gradually accustom consciousness to a particular and definitely determined disposition, precisely the one it will have to adapt to…to produce the desired effort and, by itself, arrive at the intuition.’3

Georges Braque, 1910, La guitare (Mandora, La Mandore) oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London (Image, Wikipedia)

Georges Braque, 1910, La guitare (Mandora, La Mandore) oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London (Image, Wikipedia)

The ‘austere’ and subtle use of tonality by Picasso and Braque in their so-called Analytic Cubism (and less capably by other Cubists) may derive from Bergson’s philosophy in order to not only focus the viewer’s attention on geometric form and space but to convey interpenetration and the ‘greyness’ of duration.

‘philosophy consists precisely in this, that by an effort of intuition one places oneself within that concrete reality, of which the Critique (of Pure Reason) takes from without the two opposed views, thesis and antithesis. I could never imagine how black and white interpenetrate if I had never seen grey; but once I have seen grey I easily understand how it can be considered from two points of view, that of white and that of black.’4

 For Bergson, artistic practice ‘aims at impressing feelings on us rather than expressing them (my emphases), it suggests them to us, and willingly dispenses with the imitation of nature when it finds some more efficacious means.’5 The artist aims at sharing his emotion with the viewer ‘so rich, so personal, so novel and at enabling us to experience what he cannot make us understand.’6 Bergson regarded  emotion  as transcendent. As Deleuze wrote, it ‘is like the God in us.’7

‘emotion is creative (first because it expresses the “whole of creation, then because it creates the work in which it is expressed; and finally because it communicates a little of this creativity to spectators or hearers.’8

Consider the use of musical instruments and notation in Cubist art, in the light of Bergson’s words

‘When music cries, it is humanity, it is the whole of nature which cries with it. Truly speaking, it does not introduce these feelings in us; it introduces us rather into them, like the passers-by that might be nudged in a dance.’9

Georges Braque, 1912, The Violin (Mozart-kubelick), oil on canvas, private collection, Basel, Switzerland (Image, Wikipedia)

Georges Braque, 1912, The Violin (Mozart-kubelick), oil on canvas, private collection, Basel, Switzerland (Image, Wikipedia)

For Bergson, this creative emotion is precisely a cosmic Memory that liberates man from ‘mere’ duration in order to make him a creator, through whom flows the whole movement of creation.10

‘This liberation, this embodiment of cosmic memory in creative emotions, undoubtedly only takes place in privileged souls. It leaps from one soul to another…(and) it traces the design of an open society, a society of creators’11

Part twelve/to be continued…


1. In ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment’, op. cit., 345

2. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 22

3. From An Introduction to Metaphysics in ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment’, op. cit., 345. Cf. the use of lettering etc. by the Cubists.

4. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 60. A critic wrote less specifically, ‘The “gravity” of intuitive emotion caused them (the Cubists) to subordinate colour to form’ , in Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 31.

5. Time and Free Will, op. cit., 16. Very important to cf. Bergson on this point with Plotinus on the function of the emotions. Also, to impress feelings rather than to express them suggests the notion of the artist seeking to control the viewer’s response. Cf. Republic.

6. ‘Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment’, op. cit., 343.

7. Bergsonism, op. cit., 110.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. In The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Trans., Audra and Brereton, 1935. Bergson wrote ‘create creators’ 243.

11. Bergsonism, op. cit., 111

Mona Lisa

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

Pablo Picasso, ‘Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’, 1910, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (Image, Wikipedia)

Pablo Picasso, ‘Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’, 1910, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (Image, Wikipedia)

Creativity was a key concept for Bergson. He titled his major work Creative Evolution. In this book he discussed his notion of artistic intuition and claimed that the creative urge is at the heart of evolution. He began Time and Free Will with writing on aesthetic feeling. Bergson did not develop a systematic aesthetic. His thoughts in this area refer to ‘old-fashioned’ elements of grace, motion and rhythm as components of beauty. He did not champion a particular style of art. His ideas on art contain the same profound contradiction as did those of Plato, revolving around notions of art as ‘mere’ representation and art as an inspired and creative practice, around truth revealed in art and truth revealed through art.

On the former, Bergson held that all forms of representation are distorted refractions of the inner self, merely enriching our present, resulting in the inner self being ‘spatialised’.

‘A representation taken from a certain point of view, a translation made with certain symbols, will always remain imperfect in comparison with the object of which a view has been taken, or which the symbols seek to express. But the absolute, which is the object and not its representation, the original and not its translation, is perfect, by being perfectly what it is. It is doubtless for this reason that the absolute has often been identified with the infinite.’1

Georges Braque, 'Nature more', (Fruit Dish, Ace of Clubs) oil, gouache and charcoal on canvas, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Georges Braque, ‘Nature morte’, (Fruit Dish, Ace of Clubs) oil, gouache and charcoal on canvas, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (Image, Wikipedia)

While the inner life cannot be represented by either concepts or images, an intuition of duration can be evoked by an image. For this to happen the work of art must not be constructed analytically (since one can only pass from intuition to analysis but not vice versa) but must induce an alogical ‘state of mind’ in the viewer.2

For Bergson, the great souls are those of artists and mystics, true art is revelation and the artist is ‘this revealing agent.’3 This is because these artists are in harmony with the inner life of things, have greater sensitivity to colour and form and can draw us into their experience through their work.4

‘we live in a zone midway between things and ourselves, externally to things, externally also to ourselves. From time to time, however, in a fit of absent-mindedness, nature raises up souls that are  more detached from life’5

Bergson felt these artists should have a privileged position in society, followed by a public ‘whose perceptual capacities forever follow the artists’ lead.’6

‘For hundreds of years…there have been men whose function has been precisely to see and to make us see what we do not naturally perceive. They are the artists. What is the aim of art if not to show us, in nature and in the mind, outside of us and within us, things which did not explicitly strike our senses and our consciousness?’7

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 (Image, Wikipedia)

Bergson thought that every work of art is the result of a process whereby the inner self in its duration is made accessible to others through intuition. Art tells others about ourselves and always aims at what is individual. Artistic intuition embodies nature’s spiritual essence. Bergson argued for creative action rather than contemplation, yet in his philosophy the two are indistinguishable. He held that the artist’s vision is free of conceptual or utilitarian influence – it is disinterested.

‘The artist’s vision is essentially detached from the need to act; he perceives things for their own sake and not for what can be done with them.’8

The creative product of intuition hopefully persuades the viewer or reader to transcend their daily ‘mental’ habits and also experience intuition and these two intuitions co-mingle in inter-subjectivity.

Part eleven/to be continued…


1. An Introduction to Metaphysics, op. cit., 23

2. Compare  with Plato’s ‘For a poet is indeed a  thing ethereally light, winged and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired and, as it were, mad, or whilst any reason remains in him…(they compose) from the impulse of the divinity within them.’ ‘Ion’ in Five Dialogues of Plato Bearing on Poetic Inspiration. London,1929, 7. Deleuze wrote ‘Platonic inspiration makes itself profoundly felt in Bergson.’ Bergsonism, op. cit., 59.

3. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 159

4. This theme is developed in Le Rire.

5. H. Bergson, Laughter, An essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Trans. C. Brereton, F. Rothwell, London, 1911, 154

6. Quoted in Inventing Bergson, op. cit., 60. Cf. Kahnweiler on this and the above point.

7. The Creative Mind, op. cit., 159

8. Bergson and his Influence, op. cit., 13. Bergson’s philosophy drew together the two currents in art I have identified – movement and static contemplation  – both are contained in the visual art ‘isms’ of the first two decades of  the twentieth century. The above paragraph and quotation outline the function of Bergson’s philosophy and the art based on it in capitalist visual ideology.