The change of myth versus the change of objective reality, reflected in reason


Plotinus (204/5-270), Anonymous, white marble, Ostiense Museum, Ostia Antica, Rome

Plotinus and the philosophical current he initiated continue to be denied the recognition they deserve by Western ideologues. As I wrote in my thesis ‘The heyday of those stages of capitalist ideology known as ‘Modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’ (equally aimed at undermining our trust in our senses and in our knowledge of the world through their engagement in praxis) have passed and the ideologues of the bourgeoisie have been forced, under the very pressure of change that produced Hegel and saw the absorption of his philosophy into materialism, now dialectical, to address mysticism. Hermeticism and other similar ‘esoteric’ belief systems offer them yet another way out – philosophy as myth, as account, as subjectivity, as sacred, ancient authority – philosophy still suffused with ‘God’, still focussing on consciousness, on what is secondary.’

Below I quote an excerpt from Paul S. MacDonald’s book Nature Loves to Hide – An Alternative History of Philosophy. His position is consistent with that of Magee, against whom I argued in my thesis – a defence of Western esotericism. But the text argues that the history of Western philosophy can be understood in ways very different from what is generally accepted.


Nature Loves to Hide – An Alternative History of Philosophy

Paul S. MacDonald

Alternative Books, 2018

1. The Alternative Tradition in Western Philosophy

In what way is this book an alternative history of philosophy, compared to an ordinary or standard history? For that matter, in what way can any account of something be an alternative to another account? One point to notice straight away is that this is not an alternate history of philosophy, since an alternate to x substitutes or replaces x by eliminating or cancelling x, whereas an alternative to x is another option for x, one which can coexist or stand along with it. For example, black and white squares alternate on a chessboard, whereas a backgammon board is (part of) an alternative game. Several candidates can stand for political office as alternatives, but once one of them is elected they are no longer alternatives; if the winner is disqualified for some reason then there may be an alternate who can take his or her place. Both words are derived from the same root word in Latin, alter (other), but alternative is mediately from alternativus, itself the participle of alternare, one thing after another, each thing taking turns. So, what about all the titles that would show up under the heading “History of (Western) Philosophy”? Frankly, at least within the last half-century, they are all alternate versions (for the most part) of the same story, each one displacing the others preceding it, nudging them towards the end of the shelf.

Every year, students of philosophy embark on the study of the history of their subject on a well-laid path, with well-marked high points. This “standard” history starts with Plato and Aristotle, then the Stoics, Epicureans, and other early adopters, then there’s a large blank, until the mainline reemerges in the Middle Ages with Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and other middle thinkers, followed (maybe) by some Renaissance characters, and then hitting the highway in the Early Modern Period with Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Berkeley, and Kant – the travellers are cruising now, things look more familiar, they recognise these names. From this point, the forward path diverges into more than one principal route, but, in any case, they’ve arrived where they expected when they started – the present. Every few years there are a few new books, in a major European language, on the history of western philosophy, especially “Modern Philosophy” or “The Enlightenment”, from Descartes to Kant or Nietzsche. Although they may address different topics or follow a variety of themes, these new books always feature the same main characters in the same sequence.

In contrast, an alternative history of western philosophy constitutes its own tradition and estate. Alongside philosophy, theology, and natural science, this history has its own principal figures, themes and texts, passed on from one generation to the next, often directly from teacher to pupil. It existed as a shadowy parallel or doppelganger, sometimes closer, sometimes farther from orthodox lines of thought, about God, about humans, and about the natural world. Its principal texts are not strictly religious, like the New Testament, the Koran, the Talmud, Buddha’s Sutras, and so on; nor are they strictly philosophical. Where western philosophy has its founding texts in Plato and Aristotle, the alternative, heterodox tradition has its own founding texts, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Gnostic Scriptures, and the Chaldean Oracles. In the centuries before the 17th century scientific revolution, three broad streams of heterodox thought – alchemy, astrology, and magic (and sometimes the Kabbalah) – were closely allied to speculation, experiments, and practice in natural science, sometimes through the work of the same thinker. Three outstanding recent scholarly studies of the beginnings of natural science in the Middle Ages (David Lindberg, Edward Grant, and James Hannam) devote lengthy chapters to the significance and impact of alchemy, astrology and magic.

One might argue that the standard history of philosophy began with and developed questions about the relation between how things appear to us and how they really are; then the question how it is that the real world came to be the way it appears, who or what made it that way; and then further, how it is that we can know about the way things really are. In contrast, alternative or heterodox philosophy has always been more concerned with questions about the nature and powers of the human soul, how to train and discipline this inner power, how to manipulate ‘secret’ words and objects to assist in this quest, and methods to achieve higher stages of knowledge in order for the soul to return to its source. However, this book is not a survey of esoteric doctrines (alchemy, astrology and magic), an ambition that has already been achieved several times in recent studies. This book, then, is not a history of something different than philosophy; it is a different history of philosophy.

Another way to think of this project is to compare it with Susan Neiman’s excellent, best-selling book, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton, 2002), organised around concepts of and responses to the problem of evil in the modern period, and not around the issue of appearance vs. reality or the problem of knowledge. So, this present book, one could say, is organised around ideas about the mastery of nature’s secrets and the soul’s ascent. This alternative history is like a shadow line, another range of mountain peaks beyond the well-known range, dimly discerned in the distance but now coming more clearly into view. Despite the wide variety and scope of well-respected, scholarly books on individual thinkers and topics, there is no single book that offers an overview of the historical development of alternative philosophy. This book is an impartial, cautious examination of these thinkers’ principal contributions and influences, their associations with one another as well as their antagonisms. Their metaphysics made constant reference to the hidden correspondences between the great world and the small world, the visible and the invisible, an inner nature and its “signature”; their theory of language is one centred on decoding these sacred signs; their theory of mind is one centred on training the human soul to ascend to higher states. 

The great political theorist Leo Strauss argued that all major philosophers from Plato the present held public, exoteric doctrines as well as esoteric doctrines, designed for the few, which could be read “between the lines.” According to Arthur Melzer, in his recent book Philosophy Between the Lines, there are four primary kinds of esotericism, either to avoid some evil or to attain some good. In the defensive version, there is some harm to be avoided that society might do to the author or, in the protective version, there is some harm to be avoided that the writer might do to society. If philosophers choose to publish despite considerable dangers then it is for the sake of some good: either, in the political version, for the political (cultural, intellectual or religious) reform of society in general or, in the pedagogical version, for the philosophical education of rare and gifted individuals. In any of these versions the thinker might adopt one of several forms: he might write nothing at all and confine his “secret” doctrines to oral reaching alone; he might produce two different sets of writings for different audiences, one public and open, the other secret and closed to the select few. Or his writings might contain multiple levels, with an exoteric teaching on the surface and an esoteric one “between the lines”, i.e. through hints, codes, special terms, and so forth. Some writers may declare some of the truth of their doctrine and keep other parts hidden, still others will resort to noble lies to keep the general public away from what they really want to say.

Melzer declares that esoteric doctrines are ubiquitous amongst the great names of western philosophy from the very beginning. “To repeat, the real phenomenon, the idea that was once well-known and now forgotten, is this: through most of history, philosophical esotericism has not been a curious exception – it has been the rule. It has been a near constant accompaniment to the philosophic life, following it like a shadow. Furthermore, it has had such relative universality precisely because it derives not from occasional or eccentric circumstances but somehow from the inherent and enduring character of philosophy itself in its relationship to the practical world – from the issue of ‘theory and praxis’.” Melzer has gone to great lengths to trawl through an enormous range of philosophical writings, and presents (in an online appendix) 75 pages of passages from almost every thinker between Homer and Nietzsche where there is an outright declaration of some form of commitment to an esoteric doctrine(s); in the book’s introduction he restricts his testimonies to thirty passages from representative writers from every century – the results are overwhelming. “The single most striking thing about the testimonial evidence is in fact not its quantity but its universality: it just shows up everywhere. It is there in fifth century (BC) Athens and first century Rome, in fourth century Hippo (Algeria), 12th century Cordoba, 13th century Paris, 16th century Florence, and so forth.”

In sum, Melzer finds, “the testimonial evidence for esotericism … turns out to be far more solid than one might initially be inclined to think. Three striking features make the testimony peculiarly powerful: It is massive in extent, universal in distribution, and virtually uncontradicted.” Our project here, in An Alternative History of Philosophy, is much different than Melzer’s project, for the simple reason that Melzer has shown that virtually all philosophers from Plato onwards, over 2400 years, admitted to some form of esoteric teaching, hidden from the many, disclosed to the few. Thus, there is nothing alternative, nothing other than the standard history to be found in what they all kept hidden or undisclosed. The mere fact that, despite how massive and pervasive it is, some doctrines, ideas or theories were kept in the shadows does not by itself constitute a shadowy tradition or traditions.

In Giordano Bruno’s title De Umbris Idearum, ideas were Plato’s archetypes, pure ideal forms, and their shadows were sensible, material things; shadows could also be symbols or signs of these sensible things. But, more importantly from our point-of-view, the principal thinkers in the orthodox, standard history were (or became) so dominate that their ideas cast shadows on other heterodox, alternative thinkers. Hence, one history, one narrative of the development of these ideas (or theories) was clearly shone in the light, the other history in shadow or even darkness. By changing the position of the light source those shadowy figures and their penumbral ideas come more fully into view. In his most recent book, Wouter Hanegraaff captures in a nice image this notion of another domain coming into view. The “continent” of western esotericism “has always been considered the domain of the Other. It has been imagined as a strange country, whose inhabitants think differently from us and live by different laws; whether one felt that it should be conquered and civilised, avoided and ignored, or emulated as a source of inspiration, it has always presented a challenge to our very identity, for better or worse.” Our very identity is as custodians of a standard history or tradition of serious philosophical inquiry. “We seldom realise it, but in trying to explain who ‘we’ are and what we stand for, we have been at pains to point out that we are not like them. In fact, we still do.”

The eminent American philosopher Richard Rorty had a mad idea, one he held strongly until his death in 2007, an idea which he never had the chance to pursue. In his memoir of his friend, Raymond Geuss recalls that Rorty once described to him a new course which he hoped to give one day. It was to be called “An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy” and would sketch “a continuous conversation from the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century without once naming any of the standard, canonical figures. It was to start with Petrus Ramus [and] some of the high points were to be Paracelsus, the Cambridge Platonists, Thomas Reid, Fichte, and Hegel.” Rorty held that “there is no such thing as a universal set of philosophical questions or issues; Paracelsus wasn’t remotely interested in asking or answering questions like those we find in ‘philosophy’; still, lots of people at the time thought his work a paradigm of what a philosopher should be doing.” Rorty thought that philosophy “at different times and places referred to different clusters of intellectual activities, none of which formed a natural kind and none of which had any ‘inherent’ claim to a monopoly in the ‘proper’ use of the term ‘philosophy’. Doing a history in which Paracelsus figured centrally, but not Descartes, could be seen as a part of trying to give a history, not so much of philosophy, as of historically differing conceptions of what philosophy was.”

Rorty had already broached the idea of an alternative history in his paper for the collection Philosophy in History. Here he said that an intellectual history would include “those enormously influential people who do not get into the canon of great dead philosophers, but who are often called ‘philosophers’ either because they held a chair so described, or for lack of any better idea – people like Erigena, Bruno, Ramus, Mersenne, Wolff, Diderot, Cousin, Schopenhauer, Hamilton, McCosh, Bergson and Austin.” Names in this list undoubtedly reflect, to some degree, Rorty’s own view of what counts as “a better idea” for inclusion – but the underlying insight remains. “Discussion of these ‘minor figures’ often coalesces with thick description of institutional arrangements and disciplinary matrices, since part of the historical problem they pose is to explain why these non-great philosophers or quasi-philosophers should have been taken so much more seriously than the certifiably great philosophers of their day.” This issue will come up again when we consider Collins’ Network Paradox (below): the most famous thinkers were accorded the highest canonical status and their fame rested on the density of their connections with other famous thinkers. Rorty also wants to include ‘borderline’ cases of the species of philosopher, para-philosophers who impelled social reform, supplied new moral vocabularies and deflected scientific or literary disciplines into new channels. These would include: Paracelsus, Montaigne, Grotius, Bayle, Lessing, Paine, Coleridge, von Humboldt, R. W. Emerson, T. H. Huxley, and others.

Rorty carried on in the same vein: “Once we drop below the skipping-from-peak-to-peak level of Geistesgeschichte to the nitty-gritty of intellectual history, the distinctions between great and non-great dead philosophers, between clear and borderline cases of ‘philosophy’ … are of less and less importance.” For example, the question of whether one includes Francis Bacon and excludes Robert Fludd is an issue that to be settled after an intellectual history has been written and not before. “Interesting filiations which connect these borderline cases with clearer cases of ‘philosophy’ will or will not appear, and on the basis of such filiations we shall adjust our taxonomies.” New paradigm cases of philosophy will produce new nodes within these networks (as we shall call them) and hence the networks will be reformed. “Like the history of anything else, history of philosophy is written by the victors. Victors get to choose their ancestors, in the sense that they decide which among their all too various ancestors to mention, write biographies of, and commend to their descendants.” The version of canonical history that Rorty deplores is “the genre which pretends to find a continuous streak of philosophical ore running through all the space-time chunks which the intellectual historians describe; [it is] relatively independent of current developments in intellectual history. Its roots are in the past – in the forgotten combination of transcended cultural needs and outdated intellectual history which produced the canon it enshrines.”

Historical reconstructions which work with thick, rich descriptions remind us of “those quaint little controversies the big-name philosophers worried about, the ones which distracted them from the ‘real’ and ‘enduring’ problems which we moderns have managed to get in clearer focus. By so reminding us, they induce a healthy skepticism about whether we are all that clear and whether our problems are all that real.” Recent scholarly studies of non-great thinkers – heterodox, esoteric, marginal philosophers – show that the thinkers we often take to be the most important were often less influential than others whose names have faded. “They also make us see the people in our current canon as less original, less distinctive, than they had seemed before. They come to look like specimens reiterating an extinct type rather than mountain peaks.”

In his recent book The Occult Mind (2007), Chris Lehrich situates this alternative tradition in the historical development of occult, magical and esoteric traditions, despite the fact that “modern academe does not recognise a discipline devoted to the analytic study” of these traditions. “Work in these areas”, he states at the outset, “though on the increase, remains hampered by various methodological and political blinders. The primary difficulty is simply explained: work on magic is tightly constrained by the conventions of the disciplines in which it is locally formulated.” Magic in the early modern period, for example, “receives treatment within the narrow limits of intellectual history and the history of science. Most books advert to normative modes of evidence, analysis, and interpretation in those historical fields.” Other academic disciplines when they treat these alternative domains present their studies according to their own disciplinary models. However, “some important potential contributors, notably philosophers, have not as yet seen a reason to join the conversation.” Academic scholars working with texts in these traditions “have often been strikingly anxious to situate themselves indisputably within a conventional disciplinary framework, as though thereby to ward off the lingering taint of an object of study still thought disreputable if not outright mad. Many have encountered hostility, or amused disdain, from colleagues in more accepted fields. Thus, it is no surprise that scholars of magic bend over backward to demonstrate just how ‘straight’ they are.” Lehrich declares that it is no longer necessary – given the outstanding contributions of scholars in the last fifty years – to defend the legitimacy of scholarly studies of occult, magical and esoteric traditions.

It is important however, to distinguish this alternative history of philosophy from history of esoteric doctrines, i.e. from a comparative history of alchemy, astrology, magic, and Kabbalah. Further, to adumbrate such an alternative history is not an endorsement of any kind of perennial philosophy or pristine wisdom tradition. Charles Schmitt has carefully separated these two streams: “The concept of prisca theologia indicates that the true knowledge would be anterior to Greek philosophy and would actually be found, although perhaps in an enigmatic and esoteric form, among the pre-Classical sage such as Zoroaster, [Hermes] Trismegistus, and Orpheus. Usually it is thought that, directly or indirectly, they derived their wisdom from Moses, and therefore they assumed a high level of authority within the Jewish-Christian tradition.” The prisca sapientia passed from Orpheus to Pythagoras to Plato. Hanegraaff comments that the rediscovery and translation of the lost writings of Zoroaster, Hermes and Orpheus in the later 15th century was a momentous event with millenarian overtones. “For the first time in history … Christians had been granted access to the most ancient and therefore most authoritative sources of true religion and philosophy; surely the hand of providence was at work here, showing humanity a way towards the needed reformation of Christian faith by means of a return to the very sources of divine revelation.”

Schmitt further distinguished prisca theologia from philosophia perennis; the latter, he said, “makes wisdom originate in a very ancient time, often applying the same genealogy of the transmission of sapientia like the prisca theologica, but it also puts emphasis on the continuity of valid knowledge through all periods of history. It does not believe that knowledge … has ever been lost for centuries, but believes that it can surely be found in each period, albeit sometimes in attenuated form.” This second perspective strongly underscores the unity and universality of wisdom rather than its decline, and thus lacks the millenarian implications of the first view’s outlook. Hanegraaff comments that between these two viewpoints there is “a strong tension between two opposed tendencies: on the one hand, a historically oriented narrative of ancient wisdom which held considerable revolutionary potential, and, on the other, an essentially conservative doctrine which preaches the futility of change and development by emphasising the trans-historical continuity and universality of absolute truth.” Hanegraaff claims that he discerns a third tendency; “the one that claims that, due to divine inspiration, the ancient philosophers before Christ had been granted prophetic glimpses into the superior religion of Christianity. Such a third option, which might be conveniently referred to as pia philosophia, introduces an element of ‘progress’; whereas the prisca theologia combines a narrative of decline with hopes of imminent revival, and philosophia perennis emphasizes continuity, pia philosophia thinks in terms of growth and development, imagining a gradual ‘education of humanity’ to prepare it for the final revelation.” This third tendency’s actual relevance to Renaissance culture remains somewhat limited, contrary to the other two tendencies; “it concerned a period that had ended with the birth of Christ, and therefore had little social or political relevance for the present: neither revolutionary nor conservative in its implications, it amounted to little more than a historical opinion concerning a time that now belonged to the remote past.”

In Hanegraaff’s conclusion, there are three mutually exclusive macro-historical schemes: evolution, degeneration, and continuity. “The evolutionary or educational perspective, which appreciated ancient wisdom only as praeparatio evangelica, was most obviously orthodox but implicitly minimised the relevance of studying the newly discovered sources; as a matter of principle, anything of value that they might contain was believed to be expressed more fully and clearly by Christian theology, and anything not included in it had to be pagan error by definition. Starting from a very similar assumption of Christian doctrine as the self-evident truth, the perspective of philosophia perennis emphasized its universality, sometimes to the point of embracing a perspective of ‘everyone is right’, but the implication was again that the study of the new sources could not possibly yield any new insights, but could only ever provide more confirmation of truths already known.” Critics had good reason to fear that the new sources might contain the seeds of the Christian religion’s destruction and its replacement by a revived universal pagan religion.

Since we are here attempting to distinguish what we have chosen to call the alternative philosophical project from the history of esoteric doctrines, it is important to clarify the ways in which “esoteric” (hidden or secret) has been distinguished from “exoteric” (public or overt). The French scholar Antoine Faivre, in numerous important works from the 1960s onwards, began by employing this distinction in an entirely conventional way. To begin with he emphasised the notions of an Inner Church, initiation into mysteries, the myth of fall and return, and the centrality of nature as a web of correspondences. In his first general overview of “Christian esotericism” from the 16th to the 20th century, “one sees him struggling with the various connotations of the word and the difficulties of demarcating the field. His proposal … was to define as ‘esotericist’ any thinker, ‘Christian or not’, who emphasised three main points: analogical thinking, theosophy, and the Inner Church. Faivre made a point of demarcating esotericism not only from witchcraft, but also from magic, astrology, and the mantic arts: these ‘occult’ arts qualified as esotericism only insofar as they appeared in a theosophical context.” He viewed the field marked out as one dominated by an “illuminist” context, with its immediate roots in Paracelsus, Christian Kabbalah, and Jacob Böhme. At the end of his article he stated that, “comprehending the spiritual events of esotericism is not possible without a hermeneutics that always leads back to the archetypal plane, for a meaning has its own proper value, independently from all the explications that one can – and must – give it; as such, this meaning should neither be reduced to one fixed literal interpretation, nor enclosed in a history that is seen as belonging to the past.”

Faivre discussed alchemical texts as reflections of an underlying worldview, and applauded Mircea Eliade for having demonstrated that “the historical perspective alone, although absolutely indispensable in any serious study, is powerless to give an account of certain spiritual facts.” To truly understand alchemy “which imagines always in space, almost never in time, one needed a non- Aristotelian and non-Cartesian logic.” In his major work Esotericism in the 18th Century (1973), Faivre confidently stated that “esoteric thought appears to be of an essentially contradictory type, that is to say, it is made up of symbolic mechanisms that belong to the logic of contradiction.” He claimed that esotericism must be understood in terms of the analogical thinking proper to myth and symbolism, not the Aristotelian logic proper to philosophy and doctrinal theology. In Hanegraaff’s summary, “The theosophers or esotericists tended to be badly understood because they either speak their own language, which is understood only by their peers and by poets, or try to make themselves understood in the inadequate language of the philosophers and theologians. Faivre tried to demarcate his own approach from two types of dogmatic either/or thinking, those of traditionalist esotericism and rationalist reductionism; and presented ‘esotericism’ as a kind of mental space mediating between the radical homogenising extremes of dualism, ecstatic mysticism, and the established churches.” 

Faivre argued that the logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle had come to be applied to metaphysics as well as natural science. This logic has turned into “an intolerant master” that excluded any other approach to reality as deficient apriori, and as a result what is now called “esotericism” emerged as a category of exclusion. These forms of thinking coalesced into a strange mass of textual material called esotericism about a century ago and “is still seen by many as just a cabinet of curiosities where the best rubs shoulders with the worst. Sometimes without any transition, next to the low magic or the delirious divination of a sorcery inherited by last century’s occultism, one discovers there the summits of human thinking, intuitions on man and the universe that are capable of bursting open the deadlocks in which our modern philosophers have indifferently allowed themselves to get imprisoned.”

The repression of analogical thinking, and its allied methods, “resulted in an artificial opposition that left room only for two extremes: either an abstract idealism focused only on pure divine essences or a concrete visible universe cut off from any spiritual reality (finally leading to materialism). … The destruction of an organic harmony uniting God, man, and the world resulted in a continuing situation of existential malaise that remains characteristic of the ‘idealist… intellectualism of modernity’.” Faivre’s article culminated in an appeal for remythologisation and revaluation of the ‘creative and participatory imagination’, against such contemporary trends as existentialist pessimism, the abstract formalism of structuralism, the superstition of materialism, and the nihilism of an ‘archaeology of knowledge’ that tries to convince us that ‘knowledge sounds hollow, man is dead, nature is meaningless, and no philosophy has any sense.” Faivre’s strong criticisms were directed at “the desacralisation of the world, the reversal of values that made ‘above’ a reflection of ‘below’ instead of the reverse, historical concepts of linear causality, the blind faith in secular evolution and progress, and so on; against all forms of ‘reductionism’, he was affirming that myth should have precedence over history, metaphysics over physics, correspondences over causality, analogical thinking over Aristotelian logic and images over concepts.”

When it comes to major thinkers in Renaissance philosophy it quickly becomes clear that the usual distinctions, those embedded in post-Enlightenment histories, no longer hold: between orthodox and heterodox, between standard and alternative, exoteric and esoteric. It seems like an entirely artificial, post-hoc rationalisation to separate out one side from another in Ficino or Pico or van Helmont. In their recent book on Heterodoxy in Early Modern Science and Religion (Oxford, 2006) the editors John Brooke and Ian Maclean are quite clear about this in their Preface. “Most early modern writers who venture into areas in which it is important to determine where they stand on contentious scientific and religious issues set down or imply their own relationship to the orthodoxies of their day.” The topics that thinkers from all over Europe discussed “concerned the soul and the nature of matter… cosmology, eschatology, and the question of human destiny… and the confrontation of the new philosophers of the later 17th and 18th century with Christian beliefs and writings…. These issues are related to others which occur in many of the writings discussed, notably the nature of God and his ways of intervening in his creation, and the meaning to be attributed to statements found in Holy Writings about the universe (Mosaic physics).” It should be obvious that most, if not all the “hot topics” mentioned are just as well situated in “standard” themes of philosophical discourse as they are in these heterodox domains.

Brooke and Maclean tell us that the supposed discord or mismatch between an orthodox and heterodox point-of-view on one of these topics has sometimes been called ‘paradox’. But the very idea of paradox, an opinion or belief ‘around’ two views, “did not only denote departure from established doctrine; it also referred to the new knowledge that was emerging in the course of the 16th century in the works of ‘neoterici’ [“newbies”] who cited new data, or produced new theory, or did both …. In the sphere of natural philosophy new knowledge could take various forms; it could be the recovery of ancient doctrines which had been lost, discarded, neglected, or forgotten (such as atomism); it could be the logical extension of the work of the ancients (mathematics and mechanics); it could be radical revision of Aristotle’s physics and cosmology, as in the work of Copernicus, Brahe, and Kepler.” In the early 17th century, “it seems here that ‘heterodox’ designates either an existing alternative version of a doctrine, or a deviant view which is different from, but not radically contrary to, an existing dogma, or an opinion expressed by someone else on a subject on which no doctrine of an authoritative kind is on record.” (Note “alternative”)

One has to go back nearly a hundred years to find a more inclusive history of western philosophy: Heinz Heimsoeth’s The Six Great Themes of Western Metaphysics (first German edition 1922). Heimsoeth begins by declaring how amazed he is that the history of philosophy has been so little concerned with reviewing traditional classifications; how much it has simply taken over from textbooks of general intellectual and cultural history. “How seldom are the great arteries of development here really chiseled out from proper material, the philosophical problems themselves.” This history began in the ancient world as worldly wisdom, free science about the essence of natural things; but in the Middle Ages philosophy as the handmaid of theology elaborated dogmatic religious truths. The Renaissance changed all that, ushering in a freer age in which science knew nothing of coercion and obfuscation. Ancient philosophy came to life again, mediated by Greek scholars who migrated from Byzantium to the West, bringing with them the triumph of Plato and inspiring the rebirth of classical ideas in Italy. And from the Italian Renaissance sprang the English Renaissance, and then the French Enlightenment, and from Descartes “issued everything decisive: Hobbes and Locke, Spinoza and Leibniz.” But sadly, for this story, “Germany arrived altogether last on the scene. Torn by religious strife, it was unable for a long time to enjoy the freedom of the new ancient thinking.” It was not for another two hundred years that the ground was cleared for the German system of Leibniz. “But there are extremely serious objections to this construction if one investigates the ultimate contents and themes of the systems themselves with respect to their tendency, origin, and importance.”

If one examines the Italian Renaissance in terms of its own achievements the picture changes: “Speculative power and true metaphysical talent lag strikingly behind nimbleness of creative imagination, fiery impetus of expression, and dazzling abundance of material picked up from everywhere.” Few periods in the history of philosophy are “so fragmented, so inwardly insecure in simultaneous adherence to the most diverse traditions, so indiscriminate and without a proper estimation of magnitudes, even in comprehending the legacy of the ancients.” Everything in this period of any worthy or lasting value points to something else as its source. Heimsoeth offers Giordano Bruno as an outstanding example of his thesis: Bruno did not acknowledge as his inspiration or source the Italian humanists or the ancients, but rather three German thinkers – Copernicus, Paracelsus, and Nicholas of Cusa. It is well known that Bruno had a decisive influence on Leibniz’s thought – the monad, vital force, infinite space, plurality of worlds, etc. – so Leibniz can be thought of as “the carrier and shaper of an indigenous German tradition”, one descended from Bruno. And what about the origins of the dominant ideas in Bruno, Paracelsus and Nicholas of Cusa? Heimsoeth declares that it is German mysticism, especially that of Meister Eckhart, which was the German philosophy of the late medieval period. The continuer of this indigenous mysticism in the Reformation period was Jacob Böhme, “compared to whom all contemporary philosophy of the Humanists sinks into nothingness, [he] was called simply the philosophus teutonicus.”

Those centuries in German thought prior to Leibniz “were not poor and constricted, dependent on foreign achievement, and without any native power; on the contrary, they were rich and free and great, perhaps more original in the directions of their thought than the high-sounding proclamations of the Renaissance and Humanism.” Having brought into the foreground many significant German thinkers, Heimsoeth is confident that an informed, internally consistent history of modern philosophy is not just “a chain of finished systems and isolated peaks”. He declares that, “What it is that cogently determines a period’s or a people’s attitude toward life – at a level below the obvious tradition of books and theories that have matured into systematic concepts – is something the importance of which one can subsequently easily underestimate when compared with the strident words of those who assume the role of speaker for something that has grown up quietly.”

And this brings us to the tricky question of how the standard philosophical history is formed and how any alternative history can be constructed. In his enormous, exhaustive book The Sociology of Philosophies (2000) Randall Collins identifies and defines the crucial notion of focal point or centre of attention. “The social structure of the intellectual world … is an ongoing struggle among chains of persons, charged up with emotional energy and cultural capital, to fill a small number of centres of attention. Those focal points, which make up the cores of the intellectual world, are periodically rearranged; there is a limited amount of attention that can be distributed through the total intellectual network, but who and what is in those nodes fluctuates as old intellectual movements fade out and news ones begin.” Collins visualises these nodes in an intellectual “space” or frame articulated by lines of affinity, descent or conflict. “These nodes in the attention space are crescive, emergent; starting with small advantages among the first movers, they accelerate past thresholds, cumulatively monopolising attention at the same time that attention is drained away from alternative nodes. The identities that we call intellectual personalities are great thinkers if they are energised by the crescive moment of dominant nodes of attention, lesser thinkers or indeed no one of note if they are not so energised, are not fixed.”

This criterial definition is the one upon which the Network Connection Paradox depends; minor figures are defined by lack of this energy; and “energy” as such is another name for shared interests, themes and problems. “It is precisely because the social structure of intellectual attention is fluidly emergent that we cannot reify individuals, heroising the agent as if each one were a fixed point of will power and conscious insight who enters the fray but is no more than dusted by it at the edge of one’s psychic skin. The reified individuality can be seen only in the retrospective mode, starting from the personalities defined by known ending points and projecting them backwards as if the end point had caused the career. My sociological task is just the opposite: to see through intellectual history to the network of links and energies that shaped its emergence in time.”

Collins provides 56 detailed charts of networks of philosophers, epoch by epoch (or century by century): Greek and Roman, Islamic, European, Chinese, Indian, and (later) American figures. In each chart, major or dominant thinkers’ names are in all-capitals, secondary thinkers in lower case, and minor thinkers (usually) identified with numbers (whose names and occupations are given in an appendix). Collins states that, “the most notable philosophers are not organisational isolates but members of chains of teachers and students who are themselves known philosophers, and/or of circles of significant contemporary intellectuals. The most notable philosophers are likely to be students of other highly notable philosophers.” As well as across generations, “creative intellectuals tend to belong to groups of intellectual peers, both circles of allies and sometimes also of rivals and debaters.” One important point to emphasise here is the use of the word “notable” – an epithet assigned to those who have the greatest number of connections. Collins identifies or even defines “major” as those who have the greatest number of “links” with other philosophers, but especially with other major figures, both “upstream” (predecessors) and “downstream” (successors). This picture leads to what could be called the Network Connection Paradox.

Let’s focus our attention on Figure 10.1: “European Network: The Cascade of Circles 1600-1735”. It is an intricate nest-like diagram of names connected by lines, where different types of line indicate different relations: acquaintance, master-pupil relation, probable relation, or conflictual relation. In some places, the diagram shows a nest of smaller nests; over 200 individuals are indicated: 12 names are in all-capitals for influential first-rank philosophers, with names in round brackets for equivalent first-rank non-philosophers (scientists); about 40 names are in lower case, with some names in round brackets, as before; and the remainder (163) indicated by number only, with their names and affiliations listed in an Appendix. Around the primary and secondary names clusters of lines converge from other thinkers, primary and/or secondary, the line-clusters denser around the primary thinkers; from minor thinkers only one or two lines lead in or out.

It quickly becomes apparent that the standard history of western philosophy is outlined or diagramed by the linkages amongst major philosophers whose names are in all-capitals, sometimes by way of secondary figures. But it’s here that the problem or paradox emerges: major thinkers are defined by the number of links with other major or secondary thinkers – links of affiliation, influence or opposition, but at least links that show direct engagement. These notable thinkers are those “energised by the crescive moment of dominant nodes of attention”. The content of these links is formed from sharing similar topics, points-of-view, methods, backgrounds, etc. Minor thinkers are minor because they have fewer links, and they have fewer links because they are outliers, mavericks, rebels, etc. who do not share some or all of these dominant concerns. In a word, they are called minor because they are heterodox thinkers in an alternative tradition. Thus, the process of formulating a chronological, multi-stage picture of the main figures is circular to some degree: major figures are defined as those with the most links upstream and downstream, where the links are made due to these thinkers’ compatibility or shared allegiance on those topics, themes, and concerns. It’s not that links are made to thinkers who are “notable” for other independent reasons, but rather that the number of links made to notable thinkers constitutes their notability. Thus, the Network Connection Paradox is that what permits any given thinker to count as a major figure (i.e., his eligibility criterion) is the high density of links up and down; the standard history is the overall “picture” of these dense linkages epoch by epoch; but the density of links is itself the result of the shared themes, concerns, and points-of-view and these are not independently established or justified.

According to Antoine Faivre, Western Esotericism can be identified by the presence of six basic factors: the first four factors are intrinsic, together comprising necessary and sufficient conditions; the last two factors are relative to social-cultural conditions. First, the esoteric stream posits systems of symbolic correspondence among all parts of the visible and invisible universe; they are not obvious at first glance but instead are veiled; they need to be read or deciphered. “The universe is a theatre of mirrors, a mosaic of hieroglyphs to be decoded; everything is a sign, the least object is hiding a secret.” Second, according to the idea of living nature, “the cosmos is not merely complex, plural and hierarchical, it cannot be reduced to a network of correspondences [since] it is also alive.” The concept of nature is one that is thought to be living (or dynamic) in all its parts; it is pervaded by a light or fire which circulates through all natural forms. Natural magic is closely attached to this living nature, since it operates through hidden forces by means of the manipulation of seals, talismans, stones, metals and plants. Third, the idea of symbolic correspondence implies that humans have an imaginative faculty capable of deciphering these hieroglyphs, i.e. seeing the true signatures of things. 

These signatures always present themselves more or less as mediators between the perceptible datum and the invisible or hidden thing to which it refers. Rituals, images, and symbols are mediators since they allow the various levels of reality to be reconnected to one another through the operator’s actions. Human imagination is a cognitive power that allows intermediaries to be used for “Gnostic ends”; it is “a sort of organ of the soul” through which a human can establish an intellectual relation with the mesocosm, “an imaginal world”. Faivre comments that it is only after the rediscovery of the Hermetic corpus at the end of the 15th century that memory and imagination are privileged in the cognitive discipline of the adept. Fourth, in addition to the idea of visionary insight coupled with living nature is the personal experience of something like initiation, the experience of transmutation. What is called “gnosis” is often this illuminated knowledge that favours a second birth through a process of substantial change. An interior transmutation follows the path marked out in alchemical terms: nigredo (blackening = death), albedo (whitening = change), and rubedo (reddening = new life). Faivre says that one is tempted to compare these three phases with the three stages of mystical knowledge: purgation, illumination, and unification.

The fifth factor pertains to the practice of concordance; closely akin to the basic idea of philosophia perennis, this notion posits the existence of common denominators amongst several traditions, then studies them in the hope of bringing out the forgotten or hidden trunk of which each manifest tradition would be a branch. The sixth factor pertains to the practice of transmission: by means of various channels, the basic ideas of the hidden tradition are passed from one initiate to another, either from master to disciple or amongst members of a secret society. The idea is that one cannot be initiated by oneself alone and that a second birth requires training. This may lead to the idea of authenticating, giving credentials for, specific channels of affiliation. “The mystic – in the very classical sense – aspires to a more or less complete suppression of images and intermediaries (mediations) because they quickly become obstacles for him to union with God. This, in contrast to the esotericist, who seems more interested in the intermediaries revealed to his inner vision by virtue of his creative imagination than in tending above all to a union with his God. He prefers to sojourn, to travel, on Jacob’s ladder, where the angels – the symbols, the mediations – are ascending and descending, rather than venture beyond.”

One of Faivre’s more intriguing conjectures concerns the origin of the main figures in theosophy (such as Paracelsus) from Lutheran soil, a thesis for which he elicits several contributive conditions. (1) Lutheranism allows free inquiry, an openness which in certain inspired souls can take the form of prophecy. (2) It embodies a paradoxical blend of mysticism and rationalism, whence the need to bring inner experience into discussion, and conversely to listen to discussions and transform them into inner experience. (3) Less than a century after the Reformation, the spiritual poverty of Protestant preaching and the dryness of its theology were sorely resented and this also spurred the need for revitalisation. (4) In the milieus where Lutheran theosophy was born there was some freedom of expression and observance for its ministers, but at the same time prophetic activity as such was not well tolerated. In the 17th century the ideal of solidarity among thinkers began to be realised; a community of effort amongst philosophers made the very notion of a total science seem feasible. “Theosophy is globalising in its essence; its vocation demonstrates an impetus to integrate everything within a general harmonious whole.” This epoch also witnessed new theories about the nature of language and the meaning of signs; knowledge of divine things was gained by investigation of the concrete world where God’s plan could be read in signatures and hieroglyphs, provided one had the proper natural scientific training. In sharp contrast with the material-mechanical model of explanation in Descartes and Galileo, theosophy continued the long Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition of explanation in terms of a dynamic model of reality.

Faivre has touched upon one of the most significant features of what we propose to call an alternative or heterodox history of ideas, viz. the commitment to an imaginal world, midway between the sensible and the intellectual, or between the material and the spiritual. The most detailed and influential research in the history and theory of this idea is from the work of the French scholar Henri Corbin who argued for its appearance in Shia Islamic mystical writings of the 12th century. In one his most famous papers on this idea, Corbin said that between the empirical world of things and the abstract world of ideas “there is a world that is both intermediary and intermediate, described by our authors as the ‘alam al-mithal, the world of the image, the mundus imaginalis: a world that is ontologically as real as the world of the senses and that of the intellect. This world requires its own faculty of perception, namely, imaginative power, a faculty with a cognitive function, a noetic value which is as real as that of sense perception or intellectual intuition. We must be careful not to confuse it with the imagination identified by so-called modern man with ‘fantasy’, and which, according to him, is nothing but an outpour of ‘imaginings’.” In the original Arabic this world is called the “eighth clime”, i.e. beyond the spheres of the seven planets; it signifies a clime outside all climes, a place outside all places, and hence might be called utopia. The Islamic mystics’ approach to the creative imagination, “which had always been of prime importance for our mystical theosophers, provided them with a basis for demonstrating the validity of dreams and of the visionary reports describing and relating “events in Heaven” as well as the validity of symbolic rites. It offered proof of the reality of the places that occur during intense meditation, the validity of inspired imaginative visions, of cosmogonies and theogonies and above all of the veracity of the spiritual meaning perceived in the imaginative information supplied by prophetic revelations.”

In the Introduction to his 1969 work Alone with the Alone (based on his Eranos Lectures from 1955-56), Corbin expresses his thesis this way: “between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of idea-images, of archetypal figures, or subtle substances, of ‘immaterial’ matter. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual’, a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtle and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear in their true reality.” The interpretive level or layer of this imaginal world “is essential symbolic understanding, the transmutation of everything visible into symbols, the intuition of essence or person in an image which partakes neither of universal logic nor of sense perception, and which is the only means of signifying what is to be signified.”

According to Eric Voegelin the imaginal world figures largely in Hegel’s attempts to found philosophy as a religion beyond Catholic and Protestant ideologies. Hegel had diagnosed his present age as one of both diremption and boredom: “the Sabbath of the world has disappeared and life has become a common, unholy workday.” In discerning the ways in which human life has been desacralised Hegel had to exempt himself from its boredom. As a philosopher, he had to be spiritually healthy enough to diagnose the spiritual state of society as diseased. He also had to reconcile and embody in himself the pneumatism of the inner man and the inner light. The third factor in Hegel’s overcoming of the present age is “the imaginative construction of ages that will permit the imaginator to anticipate the future course of history. By means of this construction, the imaginator can shift the meaning of existence from life in the presence under God, with its personal and social duties of the day, to the role of functionary of history; the reality of existence will be eclipsed and replaced by the Second Reality of the imaginative project. In order to fulfil this purpose the project must first of all eclipse the unknown future by the image of a known future; it must further endow the construction of the ages with the certainty of a science… and it must, finally, conceive the future age in such a manner that the present imaginator becomes its inaugurator and master. The purpose of securing a meaning of existence, with certainty in a masterly role betrays the motives of the construction in the imaginator’s existential insecurity, anxiety, and libido dominandi. This is megalomania on the grand scale.”

If one highlights alternative thinkers such as Ramon Llull, Roger Bacon, the Picatrix, Paracelsus, Agrippa, John Dee, Abbot Trithemius, and Jacob Böhme their commitment to the powerful force of the active, creative imagination is obvious; their imaginal world is peopled by a vast array of spiritual entities, animate and animate, halfway between material and immaterial, concrete and abstract. The ‘objective correlate’ of creative imaginings are the visible signs or symbols which express the ‘objects’ of these intense trance-like or meditative states. Alternative thinkers are much more likely than others to make use of diagrams, charts, and illustrations to represent these imaginal entities and their structural relations, to express in a pictorial manner what they have said in the text. In The Alchemy of Light (2000) Urzula Szulakowska links the Renaissance idea of alchemical illustration to C.S. Peirce’s concept of the index: “a sign or representation which refers to its object not so much because of any similarity or analogy with it, nor because it is associated with general characters which that object happens to possess, as because it is in dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object … and with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign.” An index then is “not a simulacrum ‘more real than real’, for it’s intended to be an uninterrupted continuation of the real, a deliberately composed ambiguity concealing the distinction between reality and artifice.” 

Szulakowska singles out John Dee’s cipher for the Monas Hieroglyphica as the epitome of the “visual index”, as also are Robert Fludd’s cosmological diagrams. “At first glance, Fludd’s diagrams appear to be symbolic (merely illustrating his text) but, in fact, they also have an iconic aspect, since they can be isolated from their textual context while retaining most of their meaning. In addition, as indexical generators of a contemplative type of alchemy, some of Fludd’s pictures were meant to integrate the viewer into their imaginary world, causing a spiritual and intellectual alchemy to occur in the moment of viewing the image.” Szulakowska selects an obscure Augsburg imprint from 1615 to show how this graphic trend could reach remarkable heights; “where the ever-increasing complexity of structure was designed for lengthy perusal [it] eventually eliminated the physical aspects of alchemy altogether.” The Augsburg book is “one of the earliest of these imaginative alchemies, luring the viewer through the glass of his four fiery and jewel-like ‘mirrors’ into the higher intellectual and spiritual realms of the alchemical discourse. When the viewer emerged from the trace-like state induced by participation in [his] visions, he was (perhaps) transformed, like base matter, into spiritual gold. Effectively, alchemical illustration in the 17th century was usurping the transmutatory function of the philosopher’s stone. The sophisticated graphic repertoire of Renaissance artists enabled them to manipulate the semantics of their pictorial elements, producing imagery which could induce meditative or visionary states in their viewers, uniting them with the depicted visions.”

Another outstanding exemplar of alchemical illustrative power would be Paracelsus and his disciples and imitators. Szulakowska points out that Renaissance artists’ increased sensitivity to “the topography of the picture-plane enabled him to weave together naturalistic and geometrical elements into a visually and conceptually coherent field.” By splitting the two-dimensional picture-plane into layers of realistic and abstract from the artist was able to unite them by means of perspectival geometry. This meant that the picture could be read at the same time at both the representative and the abstract level, “as if the viewer was being presented with a vision of the numinous being implicated within the gross fabric of the natural world.” And this function expressed the essence of Paracelsian theosophy in which the physical world was the emanation of the celestial spheres. “Paracelsian alchemical engravings were intended to be theosophies, i.e. they were meant to promote prolonged contemplation leading to ‘gnosis’, a wisdom inspired by the heavens.” 

In contrast, earlier alchemical imagery was a shorthand symbolic system, designed to clarify and deliver information as quickly and simply as possible. Paracelsus, on the other hand, had given the human imagination “a structural role in his theurgy and thereby in his cosmology.” He had taught that human being, as a mirror of the cosmic order, had two bodies, one physical the other astral; the active imagination was a faculty of the astral body. “It was only due to the existence of the celestial spheres within the human body as its innate ‘astra’ that the human being could understand the stars. … Paracelsus conceived of human intelligence as merging with its object of study, so that it gained knowledge, not by rational logic, but through an empathetic union with the world, that is, through ‘gnosis’.” In Paracelsian theosophy, empathetic imagination was not a subjective or negligible factor in human affairs, but a powerful astral force that provided the basis for theurgy, prophecy, and mystical inspiration. Paracelsus stated that through the astral body’s imaginative faculties a human could attain beatific union with God.

Szulakowska claims that Heinrich Khunrath in his Amphitheatrum of 1595 also offers landmark examples of this form of illustration. “His engravings are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystical alchemy can take place through the art of visual contemplation.”  His amphitheatrum is a kind of spectaculum and a spectacle is a mirror of sorts. She says that in contrast with illustration in the Middle Ages, by the late Renaissance, “the picture could be read simultaneously at both the representational and the abstract level, as if the viewer was being presented with a vision of the numinous being implicated within the gross fabric of the natural world.” Pictorial imagery could stand independent of the text; imagery of this type was able to communicate in either an iconic or an indexical format. She also says that alchemical geometry in the Renaissance can be described as passive or operative, either using geometrical structures to organize information into tabulations, circular formats, or tree-like structures or, as in the case of pseudo-Llullian alchemy, employing a mobile computation system. Another more complex type of alchemical geometry emerged in the late 16th century based on optical and perspectival diagrams which interrelated Pythagorean geometry, optical science, Paracelsian alchemy and Cabbalism.

Another way of seeing the exoteric-esoteric distinction is at work in the Gnostic Scriptures. In Hidden Wisdom, G. G. Stroumsa offers us a way to understand the baffling profusion of characters, speeches and ideas in at least one dimension of Gnostic scriptures. He points out that the esoteric character of Gnostic mythology has so far elicited little scholarly attention, but reveals something quite distinct about the Gnostics’ approach to knowledge and truth. The Gnostics carried forward pagan ideas about hidden, secret teachings, but transformed them into mythic stories – concepts dressed up as narratives. Where myths about the gods and mortals were exoteric and accessible to all, the core rituals of mystery cults were esoteric and accessible only to initiates. With the emergence and establishment of the Christian religion, however, myths and riddles disappeared, replaced by the Christian mystery. The practice of interpretation of myths was replaced by Biblical exegesis of texts; Holy Scriptures were revealed teachings, perfect expressions of the whole truth. For the Gnostics, however, students were adepts who had to learn step by step the message underlying these baffling stories. And that, to some extent, is what we as readers have to do from the start of our investigation.



Beatrice guides Dante in his ascent to contemplation


Comet 12P Between Rosette and Cone Nebulas


Sandro Botticelli, Dante and Beatrice, n.d., The University of Texas, Austin

Light I beheld which as a river flowed,

Fulgid with splendour; and on either shore

The colours of a wondrous springtime showed.

And from the stream arose a glittering store

Of living sparks which, winging mid the blooms,

To rubies set in gold resemblance bore.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradise, Canto XXX


Images: top/bottom

Astronomy, formal and dialectical reason


Formal reason:

‘Since fire is the rapid acquisition of oxygen, and since oxygen is a key indicator of life, fire on any planet would be an indicator of life on that planet.’

Dialectical reason:

To consider this statement dialectically, one would think creatively – of the relationship between destruction and creation. Hegel did this from the idealist perspective –

‘Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic. We are aware that everything finite, instead of being stable and ultimate, is rather changeable and transient; and this is exactly what we mean by that Dialectic of the finite, by which the finite, as implicitly other than what it is, is forced beyond its own immediate or natural being to turn suddenly into its opposite. We have before this (§80) identified Understanding with what is implied in the popular idea of the goodness of God; we may now remark of Dialectic, in the same objective signification, that its principle answers to the idea of his power. All things, we say – that is, the finite world as such – are doomed; and in saying so, we have a vision of Dialectic as the universal and irresistible power before which nothing can stay, however secure and stable it may deem itself.’

G.W.F.Hegel, Hegel’s Logic, Trans., William Wallace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975, Remark to §81, 118



I know which view of the Empyrean I think more spiritual


Gustave Doré’s 1855 illustration for The Divine Comedy: ‘Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean’.


Neutrino associated with distant blazar jet

There is nothing in the world but matter in motion, and matter in motion cannot move otherwise than in space and time. Human conceptions of space and time are relative, but these relative conceptions go to compound absolute truth. These relative conceptions, in their development, move towards absolute truth and approach nearer and nearer to it. The mutability of human conceptions of space and time no more refutes the objective reality of space and time than the mutability of scientific knowledge of the structure and forms of matter in motion refutes the objective reality of the external world.

V.I.Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, 158


Images: top/bottom

As nature, so knowledge


The Extraordinary Spiral in LL Pegasi

‘Human knowledge is not (or does not follow) a straight line, but a curve, which endlessly approximates a series of circles, a spiral. Any fragment, segment, section of this curve can be transformed (transformed one-sidedly) into an independent, complete, straight line, which then (if one does not see the wood for the trees) leads into the quagmire, into clerical obscurantism (where it is anchored by the class interests of the ruling classes).’ 

Lenin, ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, 1915, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, 355-363, 363

‘Spiral in Development: a figurative description of the process of development employed by Engels and Lenin in elucidating the law of the negation of the negation. Development produces in phenomena an apparent return to the old in the course of change: some features of a lower level are repeated at a higher level. This may be depicted graphically as a spiral in which each new coil repeats the preceding one, but at a higher level. Development in a spiral forms a contrast to the typically metaphysical idea of development as being motion along a closed circle without any new elements.’

Dictionary of Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1984, 398-99



From my thesis ‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’: ‘there is no evidence that Hegel ever read Cusa’ (Magee, quoting Walsh)


In his Introduction in Volume I of his Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-1826 (Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009), Hegel named nine of his sources (pp. 99-101).

In that order (I use the details from the Bibliography), I exemplify references to Cusanus below the title:

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie für den akademischen Unterricht, 3rd edn., ed. Amadeus Wendt (Leipzig, 1820) 


From Contents

Thomas Stanley, Historia philosophiae vitas opiniones resque gestas et dicta philosophorum sectae cuiusuis complexa… (Leipzig, 1711) (Latin translation from English)

Hegel wrote ‘Its dominant viewpoint is that there are only ancient philosophies, and the era of philosophy was cut short by Christianity. So this treatise only contains the ancient schools…’

Jacob Brucker, Historia critica philosophiae, 4 vols. (Leipzig, 1742-4). (Hegel owned the 1756 edn.)


From page 360 of vol. 4.1

Dieterich Tiedemann Geist der spekulativen Philosophie  6 vols. (Marburg, 1791-7). (Hegel owned vols. i-iii)


Page 321 of vol. 5

Dieterich Tiedemann Dialogorum Platonis argumenta, expounded and illustrated 12. vols. (Zweibrücken, 1786)

This text, as its title indicates, is a study of the Platonic dialogues.

Johann Gottlieb Buhle, Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie und einer kritischen Literatur derselben, 8 pts. in 9 vols. (Göttingen, 1796-1804)


From page 101 of vol. 6.1

Wilhelm Gottlieb Tennemann, Geschichte der Philosophie, 11 vols. (Leipzig, 1798-1819)


Contents of vol. 9

Friedrich Ast, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie (Landshut, 1807)



From page 315

Thaddä Anselm Rixner, Handbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie zum Gebrauche seiner Vorlesungen, 3  vols. (Sulzbach, 1822-3)

Hegel wrote ‘Most worth recommending is Rixner’s Handbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie in 3 volumes (Sulzbach, 1822-3)…he is a man of intelligence who provides a particularly useful selection of key passages…the accuracy of the citations and the other features make it highly commendable.’


From page 164 of vol. 2

Most importantly, Hegel did not name the other history by Buhle that he usedGeschichte der neuern Philosophie seit der Epoche der Wiederherstellung der Wissenschaften, 6 vols. (Göttingen, 1800-4). Brown, the editor, showed in his Notes that Hegel paid close attention to it with regard to his writing on Bruno (see vol. III, The Second Period: Medieval Philosophy, Notes 102, 104, 126, 129).

The most thorough discussion of Cusanus’ philosophy in comparison to Hegel’s sources above is in volume 2.1 of this history by Buhle, between pp. 341-353 (the Notes refer to both 2.1 and 2.2).


From page 342 of vol. 2.1

Cusanus’ texts referred to in volume 2 of Buhle’s History

De concordantia catholica (On Catholic Concordance, 1434)

De docta ignorantia (On Learned Ignorance, 1440 – Buhle discusses)

De coniecturis (On Surmises, 1441-2 – Buhle discusses)

De Ignota Litteratura (On Unknown Learning, 1442-3 – Johannes Wenck)

De quaerendo Deum (On Seeking God, 1445)

De dato patris luminum (On the Gift of the Father of Lights, 1446)

Apologia doctae ignorantiae discipuli ad discipulum (A Defence of Learned Ignorance from One Disciple to Another, 1449)

(Idiota) de sapientia (The Layman of Wisdom, 1450 – Buhle discusses)

Epistolae contra Bohemos (Epistles Against the Bohemians/Hussites, 1452)

De visione Dei (On the Vision of God, 1453)

De mathematica perfectione (On Mathematical Perfection, 1458)

Cribrationes Alchorani (Cribratio Alkorani, A Scrutiny of the Koran, 1461)

De venatione sapientiae (On the Pursuit of Wisdom, 1463)

De apice theoriae (On the Summit of Contemplation, 1464 – Cusanus’ last work)


From the Index, vol. 6

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ A

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ B


Second email to the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Sydney

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 5.24.02 pm

Bust of Socrates. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC. From the Quintili Villa on the Via Appia.


Hello Professor Smith,

On 21.04.15 I sent an email to Professor Benitez who was then the Chair of Philosophy to explain why I failed to submit my Honours thesis. I also made the strongest criticism of the Department and of academic philosophers with regard to your failure over a very long period to teach mysticism and its profound impact on Western culture – even as it is now, with the decline of postmodernism, finally and increasingly taught in other sections of your University and at other universities in Australia.

I processed of my experience of Kerry Sanders who teaches at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, who now not only teaches mysticism, and in a range of areas, having described in class a person who questioned Derrida about the possibility of Neoplatonism’s influence on him as a ‘complete fuckwit’, but also friendship and truth. I copied that email to others in your Department and in the University, including the Vice-Chancellor, and received no reply from any, other than an acknowledgement of receipt on behalf of the latter.

As the current Chair of Philosophy, I want you to know that I have not only kept my word – to complete my thesis (in which I argue that Hegel was the consummate Neoplatonist) and make it available on the web (I have attached copies of it, with two versions of the title page, below) – but I have far exceeded that promise, having processed one of not 12,000 words but 125,000.

I completed my thesis both because my criticisms, while they would have been in no way invalidated, would have rung exceedingly hypocritical if I had not done so and because of what I believe so well exemplifies a key aspect of the significance of Neoplatonism – the contrast between the reason of Plotinus and the claims for it used to justify Western patriarchy and supremacism, both regarding and in the philosophy of the ‘master of conceptual reason’, Hegel.


Philip Stanfield

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ A

‘Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist’ B




Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 15d


15. Conclusion (continued)

Engels, failing to recognise Hegel’s Neoplatonism, wrote

(Hegel) was compelled to make a system and, in accordance with traditional requirements, a system of philosophy must conclude with some sort of absolute truth. Therefore, however much Hegel, especially in his Logic, emphasised that this eternal truth is nothing but the logical or the historical process itself, he nevertheless finds himself compelled to supply this process with an end, just because he has to bring his system to a termination at some point or other.1

Yet he pointed to a profound contradiction in that system

the whole dogmatic content of the Hegelian system is declared to be absolute truth, in contradiction to his dialectical method, which dissolves all dogmatism. Thus the revolutionary side is smothered beneath the overgrowth of the conservative side.2

This contradiction is sourced in the tension between Plotinus’ first and second hypostases, between the greatest activity and stillness of the One Absolute and the dialectical unity-in-multiplicity of Intellectual-Principle. Hegel’s conflation of the first and second hypostases and use of Proclus’ triad Being-Life-Intelligence as his ‘reason-world’, in a superficially Christian model, both compounded and concentrated the problem. Being, the first element of the triad of triads now became One, God and Absolute.

This Absolute entails ‘the end of history’, an expression which, contrary to Magee’s claim,3 Hegel used three times in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History,4 and ‘the end of philosophy’.5

With all philosophers it is precisely the ‘system’ which is perishable; and for the simple reason that it springs from an imperishable desire of the human mind — the desire to overcome all contradictions. But if all contradictions are once and for all disposed of, we shall have arrived at so-called absolute truth — world history will be at an end. And yet it has to continue, although there is nothing left for it to do — hence, a new, insoluble contradiction. As soon as we have once realised — and in the long run no one has helped us to realise it more than Hegel himself — that the task of philosophy thus stated means nothing but the task that a single philosopher should accomplish that which can only be accomplished by the entire human race in its progressive development — as soon as we realise that, there is an end to all philosophy in the hitherto accepted sense of the word. One leaves alone ‘absolute truth’, which is unattainable along this path or by any single individual; instead, one pursues attainable relative truths along the path of the positive sciences, and the summation of their results by means of dialectical thinking. At any rate, with Hegel philosophy comes to an end; on the one hand, because in his system he summed up its whole development in the most splendid fashion; and on the other hand, because, even though unconsciously, he showed us the way out of the labyrinth of systems to real positive knowledge of the world.6

Hegel, Marx and Engels all used dialectics with regard to the future – Hegel by implication, wrote of the present in relation to it (that self-knowledge had been attained in his time),7 Marx and Engels of the future in relation to the present (socialist revolution and communism) – on this, too, I disagree with Magee.8

Plant, pointing to the fundamental contradiction in Hegel’s system, argued that it is impossible to give an ‘absolute’ characterisation – one which would be closed to future analysis – of any period of history

If Hegel’s philosophy is supposed to embody an Absolute standpoint in which Geist comes to full self-consciousness this would seem to require the claim to be true that nothing which happens in the future will fall outside the conceptual structure which Hegel has developed. Everything which happens subsequently can be rendered fully intelligible in terms of the concepts articulated in Hegel’s philosophical system. This claim, to be true, must require in some sense the foreclosure of the future. As such it embodies a particular judgement about the nature of the future which many would regard as absurd9


such a view of history is incompatible with the freedom and self-transcendence with which Hegel credits human nature10

As Hegel used the Neoplatonic Absolute to justify ‘the end of history’, so he did with ‘the end of philosophy’ – an ‘end’ on which he, Marx and Engels were in agreement, for different reasons. Where Magee wrote that Hegel aimed to end philosophy by capturing all reality in a circular speech11 (claiming this ‘speech’ is Hermetic), Marx wrote that ‘philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought’ and to be condemned.12

Plant wrote

Unless dialectical change comes to an end the achievement of Reason will always be a mere ought to be13

The contextualisation and clearest understanding of the contradictions and problems of Hegel’s philosophy are impossible without recognising both that it is the consummate expression of Neoplatonism and that those contradictions and problems were bound with Neoplatonism’s potential through the long history of its development. Again, since this is the philosophy Marx and Engels used to make materialism dialectical, that contextualisation and clearest understanding are also necessary to the further development of materialism.

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. 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.14


1. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit., Part 1: Hegel,
2. Ibid.
3. ‘Today, Kojève is most famous for his so-called “end of history” thesis, which he claimed to find in Hegel (a claim disputed by many Hegel scholars).’, Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 7, ‘as many Hegel scholars have pointed out, there is little basis for the idea that there is an “end of history” in Hegel’s texts’, Ibid., 107
4. ‘the true nature of the ultimate end of history, the concept of the spirit.’, G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, Trans., H.B.Nisbet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, 74, ‘From the point of view of religion, the aim of both natural existence and spiritual activity is the glorification of God. Indeed, this is the worthiest end of the spirit and of history.’, Ibid., 149-150, ‘World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia was the beginning.’, Ibid., 197
5. ‘Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is…the spontaneous becoming of itself.’, Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 11
6. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit., Part 1: Hegel,
7. ‘Hegel believes that he stands at a privileged point in history – able to look back at the course of human events and see that they were aiming at a goal which, to all intents and purposes, has been reached in his own time: self-knowledge’, Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 165.
8. ‘It is worth noting that one of the most important ways in which Marx departs from Hegel is in insisting that dialectic can be used as a tool to predict the next phase of history.’, Ibid.
9. Plant, Hegel, An Introduction, op. cit., 233; ‘To arrest the process of dialectical development in history…is itself undialectical in the sense that it is inconsistent with the absolute or infinite negativity of the dialectic. The whole tendency of the dialectic is to dissolve and negate every fixed content’, Ibid., 237. Hegel himself must have recognised what Plant referred to as ‘a deep inconsistency’ (239) when he described America as ‘the world of the future’, Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction: Reason in History, op. cit., 215
10. Ibid., 237
11. Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, op.cit., 13; ‘philosophy, for Hegel, is at one and the same time self-knowledge and knowledge of the whole. Thus it satisfies the two classical Greek definitions of wisdom. …The ultimate consummation of the love of wisdom occurs when, as discussed earlier, self-knowledge and knowledge of the whole become one and the same in a philosophy that demonstrates that self-knowledge is the purpose of existence itself. Of course, an implication of this claim is that Hegel’s system constitutes, in a real sense, the end of philosophy. Although Hegel does not say this outright, he makes remarks which come close to it, and such a claim is a clear implication of his thought.’, Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, op. cit., 177-178.
12. ‘Feuerbach’s great achievement is: (1) The proof that philosophy is nothing else but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of man; hence equally to be condemned…’, Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General,
13. Plant, Hegel, An Introduction, op. cit., 238; ‘But how can any thought be final? Is not the very life of thinking invested in constant displacements of every achieved formulation?’ William Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2014, 159; Verene shows that Hegel fundamentally contradicted himself at the ending of his Phenomenology ‘with an image, an image of the inability of the divine to bring its own creation and its own being to a point of rest.’, Verene, Hegel’s Recollection: A Study of Images in The Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 7
14. Franke, A Philosophy of the Unsayable, op. cit., 200

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Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 15c


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,
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,
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,
12. Hegel, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, op. cit., 493

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Hegel the consummate Neoplatonist 15b


15. Conclusion (continued)

Both Marx and Engels referred to Hegel’s philosophy as mystical. Because of their hostility to mysticism, neither had any interest in recognising that it was the consummate achievement of a long process of development within Neoplatonism.1 For them, it was simply Hegel’s mystical philosophy, the dialectic of which suffered because of its mysticism.

Marx acknowledged his great debt to Hegel – and thereby, to Neoplatonism. He also put his finger on why the ideologues of the bourgeoisie – particularly in philosophy – have been and are so fearful of acknowledging this current, now materialist, and of according it its rightful position as our method of knowing

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.

In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction; because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion, and therefore grasps its transient aspect as well; and because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its very essence critical and revolutionary.2

In his Dialectics of Nature Engels summarised what was involved in his and Marx’s inversion of Hegel’s philosophy

This mystical in Hegel himself, because the categories appear as pre-existing and the dialectics of the real world as their mere reflection. In reality it is the reverse: the dialectics of the mind is only the reflection of the forms of motion of the real world, both of nature and of history.3

Cyril Smith wrote importantly that Marx had demystified mysticism without rejecting it.4 In other words, Marx had demystified mysticism by retaining and using what had been developed within it.

In his eleven short Theses on Feuerbach of 1845, Marx discussed fundamental materialist precepts, distinguishing between them and idealism. In the first, he distinguished between contemplative activity and sensuous activity/practice. He wrote

the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was set forth by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.5

Neoplatonism, with its emphasis on creativity and dynamic, dialectical development was ‘perfectly’ suited to ‘set forth the active side’ within idealism.

In his second thesis, Marx wrote that the question of truth is a practical question

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-worldliness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which isolates itself from practice is a purely scholastic question.6

In his eighth thesis Marx wrote that the solution to questions of mystical theory is to be found in practice and in the comprehension of this practice.7

Materialist dialectics is a philosophical method for investigating nature and society.8 It holds practical activity to be the basis of our relations with the world and therefore of cognition. Praxis is thus a criterion of knowledge. Only when practical activity confirms the coincidence of ideas and hypotheses with reality can it be said that they are true. Since practical activity is relative to the level of technological development, truth can never be that absolute ardently sought and equally trembled before by the idealists, rather, it is a deepening relative in relation to an absolute which can only ever be theoretical. Lenin wrote

From living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice, such is the dialectical path of the cognition of truth, of the cognition of objective reality. Kant disparages knowledge in order to make way for faith: Hegel exalts knowledge, asserting that knowledge is knowledge of God. The materialist exalts the knowledge of matter, of nature’9

Contradiction is the chief category of materialist dialectics. It expresses the inner source of all motion and development and is the essence of objects, the basis of their self-development.

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) of dialectics. …The correctness of this aspect of the content of dialectics must be tested by the history of science.10

Every concept and category is historical by nature and therefore warrants investigation.

Engels put the excellent argument that scientists should know dialectics

Until the end of the last century, indeed until 1830, natural scientists could manage pretty well with the old metaphysics, because real science did not go beyond mechanics…Now, however, everything is quite different. Chemistry, the abstract divisibility of physical things, bad infinity – atomistics. …and finally the identity of the forces of nature and their mutual convertibility, which put an end to all fixity of categories. Nevertheless, the bulk of natural scientists are still held fast in the old metaphysical categories and helpless when these modern facts, which so to say prove the dialectics in nature, have to be rationally explained and brought into relation with one another. …Dialectics divested of mysticism becomes an absolute necessity for natural science11

In standing the philosophy of the consummate Neoplatonist on its material feet, Marx and Engels enabled the fruits of that current’s long development to flourish, not least those of its perspectival unity – a development from the unity-in-multiplicity of Plotinus’ ideal second hypostasis to the unity-in-multiplicity of Cusanus’ ideal Christian cultus to the unity-in-multiplicity of Hegel’s ideal philosophical cultus to the unity-in-multiplicity of the brains of an infinite number of finite individuals

Just as the infinity of knowable matter is composed of the purely finite things, so the infinity of the thought which knows the absolute is composed of an infinite number of finite human minds, working side by side and successively at this infinite knowledge, committing practical and theoretical blunders, setting out from erroneous, one-sided, and false premises, pursuing false, tortuous, and uncertain paths, and often not even finding what is right when they run their noses against it.12


1. ‘dialectics has so far been fairly closely investigated by only two thinkers, Aristotle and Hegel.’, Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 43
2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Postface to the Second Edition 1873, Penguin, London, 1982, 103. Redding wrote of Marx’s ‘inversion’ of Hegel’s mystical philosophy of history ‘(Hegel) is perhaps most well-known for his teleological account of history, an account that was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of an historical development culminating in communism.’, Redding, ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, op. cit.
3. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 203
4. ‘In demystifying mysticism without rejecting it, Marx shows how humanity can bring about its own emancipation.’, Cyril Smith, Karl Marx and Human Self-creation, 2002,
5. Karl Marx, First thesis, ’Theses on Feuerbach’, 1845 in The German Ideology, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 618
6. Ibid.
7. ‘Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory into mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.’, Ibid., 620
8. ‘dialectics…offers…the method of explaining, the evolutionary processes occurring in nature, inter-connections in general, and transitions from one field of investigation to another.’, Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 41
9. V.I.Lenin, Collected Works, Vol., 38 (Philosophical Notebooks), Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, 171.
10. Ibid., ‘On the Question of Dialectics’, 357-361, 357
11. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, op. cit., 203-204
12. Ibid., 234

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