The Members of my Philosophy Club,
without whose encouragement and assistance
this book would not have been written.
Since the publication of the first edition of Consciencism in 1964, the African Revolution has decisively entered a new phase, the phase of armed struggle. In every part of our continent, African revolutionaries are either preparing for armed struggle, orare actively engaged in military operations against the forces of reaction and counter-revolution.
The issues are clearer than they have ever been. The succession of military coups which have in recent years taken place in Africa, have exposed the close links between the interests of neo-colonialism and the indigenous bourgeoisie. These coups have brought into sharp relief the nature of the class struggle in Africa. Foreign monopoly capitalists are in close association withlocal reactionaries, and have made use of officers among the armed forces and police in order to frustrate the purposes of the African Revolution.
It is in consideration of the new situation in Africa that some changes have become necessary in this edition. They occur principally in Chapter Three.
15th August 1969
Letter from Engels to J. Bloch, London, 21 September 1890:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase…. Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights. But when it was a case of presenting a section of history, that is, of a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was possible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think- they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent ‘Marxists’ from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too.
The lines of the partition of Africa naturally affected the education of the colonized Africans. Students from English-speaking territories went to Britain as a matter of course, just as those from French-speaking territories went to France as a matter of course. In this way, the yearning for formal education, which African students could only satisfy at great cost of effort, will, and sacrifice, was hemmed in within the confines of the colonial system.
Recoiling from this strait-jacketing, a number of us tried to study at centres outside the metropolis of our administering power. That is how America came to appeal to me as a Western country which stood refreshingly untainted by territorial colonialism in Africa. To America I therefore went; how and in what circumstances, I have already related in my autobiography, Ghana. I spent almost ten years in the United States of America, studying and working for a living; teaching and carrying out my own private researches.
The evaluation of one’s own social circumstance is part of the analysis of facts and events, and this kind of evaluation is, I feel, as good a starting point of the inquiry into the relations between philosophy and society as any other. Philosophy, in understanding human society, calls for an analysis of facts and events, and an attempt to see how they fit into human life, and so how they make up human experience. In this way, philosophy, like history, can come to enrich, indeed to define, the experience of man.
The ten years which I spent in the United States of America represents a crucial period in the development of my philosophical conscience. It was at the Universities of Lincoln and Pennsylvania that this conscience was first awakened. I was introduced to the great philosophical systems of the past to which the Western universities have given their blessing, arranging and classifying them with the delicate care lavished on museum pieces. When once these systems were so handled, it was natural that they should be regarded as monuments of human in intellection. And monuments, because they mark achievements at their particular point in history, soon become conservative in the impression which they make on posterity.
I was introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx and other immortals, to whom I should like to refer as the university philosophers. But these titans were expounded in such a way that a student from a colony could easily find his breast agitated by conflicting attitudes. These attitudes can have effects which spread out over a whole society, should such a student finally pursue a political life.
A colonial student does not by origin belong to the intellectual history in which the university philosophers are such impressive landmarks. The colonial student can be so seduced by these attempts to give a philosophical account of the universe, that he surrenders his whole personality to them. When he does this, he loses sight of the fundamental social fact that he is a colonial subject. in this way, he omits to draw from his education and from the concern displayed by the great philosophers for human problems, anything which he might relate to the very real problem of colonial domination, which, as it happens, conditions the immediate life of every colonized African.
With single-minded devotion, the colonial student meanders through the intricacies of the philosophical systems. And yet these systems did aim at providing a philosophical account of the world in the circumstances and conditions of their time. For even philosophical systems are facts of history. By the time, however, that they come to be accepted in the universities for exposition, they have lost the vital power which they had at their first statement ‘ they have shed their dynamism and polemic reference. This is a result of the academic treatment which they are given. The academic treatment is the result of an attitude to philosophical systems as though there was nothing to them but statements standing in logical relation to one another.
This defective approach to scholarship was suffered by different categories of colonial student. Many of them had been hand-picked and, so to say, carried certificates of worthiness with them. These were considered fit to become enlightened servants of the colonial administration. The process by which this category o student became fit usually started at an early age, for not infrequently they had lost contact early in life with their traditional background. By reason of their lack of contact with their own roots, they became prone to accept some theory of universalism, provided it was expressed in vague, mellifluous terms.
Armed with their universalism, they carried away from their university courses an attitude entirely at variance with the concrete reality of their people and their struggle. When they came across doctrines of a combative nature, like those of Marxism, they reduced them to and abstractions, to common-room subtleties. In this way through the good graces of their colonialist patrons, these students, now competent in the art of forming not a concrete environmental view of social political problems, but an abstract, ”liberal’ outlook, began to fulfil the hopes and expectations of their guides and guardians.
A few colonial students gained access to metropolitan universities almost as of right, on account of their social standing. Instead of considering culture as a gift and a pleasure, the intellectual who emerged therefrom now saw it as a personal distinction and privilege. He might have suffered mild persecution at the hands of the colonialists, but hardly ever really in the flesh. From his wobbly pedestal, he indulged in the history and sociology of his country, and thereby managed to preserve some measure of positive involvement with the national processes. It must however be obvious that the degree of national consciousness attained by him was not of such an order as to permit his full grasp of the laws of historical development or of the thorough-going nature of the struggle to be waged, if national independence was to be won.
Finally, there were the vast numbers of ordinary Africans, who, animated by a lively national consciousness, sought knowledge as an instrumentOf national emancipation and integrity. This is not to say that these Africans overlooked the purely cultural value of their studies. But in order that their cultural acquisition should be valuable, they needed to be capable of appreciating it as free men.
I was one of this number.
PHILOSOPHY IN RETROSPECT
THE CRITICAL study of the philosophies of the past should lead to the study of modern theories, for these latter, born of the fire of contemporary struggles, are militant and alive. It is not only the study of philosophy which can become perverted. The study of history too can become warped. The colonized African student, whose roots in his own society are systematically starved of sustenance, is introduced to Greek and Roman history, the cradle history of modern Europe, and he is encouraged to treat this portion of the story of man together with the subsequent history of Europe as the only worthwhile portion. This history is anointed with a universalist flavouring which titillates the palate of certain African intellectuals so agreeably that they become alienated from their own immediate society.
For the third category of colonial student it was especially impossible to read the works of Marx and Engels as desiccated abstract philosophies having no bearing on our colonial situation. During my stay in America the conviction was firmly created in me that a great deal in their thought could assist us in the fight against colonialism. I learnt to see philosophical systems in the context of the social milieu which produced them. I therefore learnt to look for social contention in philosophical systems. I am not saying, however, that this is the only way to look at philosophy.
It is of course possible to see the history of philosophy in diverse ways, each way of seeing it being in fact an illumination of the type of problem dealt with in this branch of human thought. It is possible, for instance, to look upon philosophy as a series of abstract systems. When philosophy is so seen, even moral philosophers, with regrettable coyness, say that their preoccupation has nothing to do with life. They say that their concern is not to name moral principles or to improve anybody’s character, but narrowly to elucidate the meaning of terms used in ethical discourse, and to determine the status of moral principles and rules, as regards the obligation which they impose upon us.
When philosophy is regarded in the light of a series of abstract systems, it can be said to concern itself with two fundaments questions: first, the question ‘what there is’; second, the question how ‘what there is’ may be explained.
The answer to the first question has a number of aspects. It lays down a minimum number of general ideas under which every item in the world can and must be brought. It does this without naming the items themselves, without furnishing us with a inventory, a roll-call of the items, the objects in the world. It specifies, not particular objects, but the basic types of object. The answer further implies a certain reductionism; for in naming only few basic types as exhausting all objects in the world, it brings every object directly under one of the basic types.
Let me illustrate my meaning with the following example Thales, the earliest known Western philosopher, held that eve thing was water. By this, he did not of course mean that everything was drinkable. That everything was directly water or constructible from water alone as raw material is in fact the heart of his epigram Thales recognized just one basic type of substance.
For another illustration let me use Berkeley, the man according to whose understanding the world consisted of spirits and their ideas. For Berkeley, every item in the world was either itself a spirit or some idea possessed by some spirit. It must be said in mitigation that neither Berkeley nor Thales robbed the world of a single item or object. The world was still full of athletes and grapes, bishops and apples. But, in both cases, minimal basic types were selected, and everything in the world was said to come under them either directly or by an analysis which reduced them to the basic types. That is, for Thales, everything was water or could be reduced to water; for Berkeley, everything was a spirit or idea or was reducible to spirit and ideas.
By appeal to both venerable philosophers, I have sought to illustrate the character of answers to the first question of philosophy, the question ‘what there is’. Thales’s answer was water, Berkeley’s answer was spirits and their ideas.
In this first answer, philosophers in fact tackle the question of the origin of things. Thales traces this origin to water, Berkeley to spirits and their ideas. In effect, however, they both seek the origins of the varieties of object of the world in something which itself forms part of the world. There thus arises a supervening need to discourse about the possible -origins of the cosmic raw material.
It is thus that the requirement to explain the cosmic raw material comes to raise the second question of philosophy. There are two aspects to its answer. In its first aspect, the explanation offers an account of the origin of the cosmic raw material. If, as according to Thales, water was all that God needed when, on the eve of creation, he girded up his loins, then first of all, the answer to the second question offers an account of the origin of the cosmic raw material, in the present case, water.
In its second aspect, it is an account of the extent of the cosmic raw material. It lets us know whether God, addressing himself to the task on the day of creation, can find that there is an economic shortage, that is to say, a shortage of raw material; it lets us know whether an error of costing can come to frustrate God’s plan for universe-building.
In the urgency of the second question of philosophy can be detected a certain anxiety about the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to this principle, everything has an explanation why it is as it is, and not otherwise. Has the cosmic raw material a cause or explanation, or has it not? To deem it not to have one is to enter a plea of exception against the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Now the pressure to withhold a cause from the cosmic raw material – that which is the matrix of the universe, and from which springs everything else which there is or can be – takes its beginning from the fact that whatever cause is proposed for it must be vexed by persistent problems.
According to the hypothesis that what we seek to explain is the basic raw material, any proposed cause for it can only itself arise from the basic raw material. Therefore, it must either be part of the basic raw material or be a product of it. If it is part of it, then the basic raw material is being said to be a cause of itself. If the cause is a product of the basic raw material, then an effect is being said paradoxically to cause its own cause! A circle of a very vicious kind is thus described. Furthermore, to say that ‘what there is’ is self-caused is, speaking without bias, to deny that it has a cause at all.
In this, there is as broad a hint as one can desire that the question of the origin of ‘what there is’ has no affirmative answer. Nor indeed is the vicious circle the only tribulation which awaits an affirmative answer. If a cause is suggested for the cosmic raw material, this neurotic insistence on a cause will open up an infinite regress about the cause of the cause of the cosmic material, and so on.
In sum, then, the denial that ‘what there is’ has a cause is a claim of an exception to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, or in tones of moderation, it is a caveat that this principle is only applicable inside the world, and not, from the outside, to the world. It applies only to transformations of the cosmic raw material, only to its products. To apply the law to the cosmic raw material is to fall into the maw of contradiction; even to say that it is its own cause, is to make a merely formal salutation to the principle, for there can be no scientific or significant difference between a thing being self-caused and its being uncaused.
However, it is worthy of note how this second question of philosophy in its first aspect stands vis-a-vis theological beliefs. In this aspect, the question relates to the possible origin of the cosmic raw material; it relates, if you like, to its possible excuse from the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If this principle is thought to apply to it, if, that is to say, the cosmic raw material is conceived to have an origin, then one adopts a theist or a deist position. In either case one posits a force transcendent to the cosmic raw material, and which occasions it. One is a theist if one supposes that this transcendent force is nevertheless immanent after some fashion in what there is, continuing to affect it one way or another. If, on the other hand, one holds the force to be strictly transcendental, and excludes it from the world once made, then one is a deist.
If, however, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is thought not to apply to what there is, and the world is thereby denied an outside, then one is an atheist. For this purpose, pantheism is but a kind of atheism. It is atheism using theological language.
In the other aspect of philosophy’s second question, the extent of the cosmic raw material is determined. The basic consideration is whether this raw material is finite or infinite. Here the driving interest is that the world should be permanent.
There are various ways in which this driving interest is satisfied. For example, some people say that it is impossible that nothing should exist, that the statement that nothing exists cannot be conceived as true. (And this, by the way, is one case in which the truth of a proposition determines reality, and not vice versa.) In this way, many come to be satisfied that at any given time there must be something. In this way, also, the desire for permanence comes to be more than satisfied. But it cannot be inferred from this non-vacuity of the universe that some given object will always exist. It is therefore impossible to infer the existence of God from the fact that something must always exist.
Other persons, displaying more passion for controversy than for philosophical cogency, say that the world is periodic, that the universe repeats itself ad infinitum in cycles of time. But, for this, it is unnecessary that the initial basic raw material should be infinite in extent, for however meagre it may be, it has been infused with the phoenix power of self-regeneration, in its being said to-repeat itself.
Unfortunately, the problem of time is a stumbling-block to this cyclic theory. Whatever is multiple can be ordered in a series. It is evident that the cycles of the universe must, by reason of being multiple, admit of order in a series. Accordingly, these cycles can be associated with a linear time-dimension which extends infinitely beyond any one of the cycles themselves. Indeed, this time-dimension must order the cycles themselves, because some of them must come before others. Now it is possible to conceive this time-dimension as itself spanning a universe, in which the alleged cycles, instead of being universes, merely spell out seasonal changes inside a super-universe. When this is done, one starts from a series of universes and strings them together into a super-universe. Thus the cyclic nature of the universe pales away like a bad dream.
Several persons who reject the cyclic theory acclaim the universe as an infinite presence, and seek in this way to make it permanent. But an infinite universe is no more a permanent universe than is a finite one. Even a universe which is infinite may come to an end, irrespective of whether it is infinite in time, in space, or both. A universe which is infinite in time can end in the same way as the negative integers, for it is sufficient that it should have existed infinitely backwards. A universe which has existed infinitely backwards can cease at any time without its infinitude suffering decrease. Its cessation would be comparable to a cut at any point in the series of negative integers. Given any negative integer, there is always an infinity of negative integers which lie behind it. As to a universe which is infinite in space, it can cease to exist at any time without prejudice to its size.
In order that a universe should be permanent, it must have neither beginning nor end, like the continuity of the negative with the positive integers.
Nearly all who consider the question of the permanence of the world seek to anchor the world in a foundation of a permanent cause which they identify with God. In this way, they hope that the universe will duly be protected. But all postulate something as abiding throughout the extent of time, be it the universe itself, cycles of it, or God. Indeed, the reluctance to conceive time as empty of all content is another manifestation of the desire permanence. For the historical process is here accepted as a everlasting one, in order that time should not be disembowelled. In this way, permanence is secured.
And yet, at first blush, an infinite existence seems to be no less miraculous than a spontaneous, uncaused existence. It is at least clear that the world cannot come to be known as infinite or finite. It can only be by the provision of a theoretical conception that it is said to be finite or infinite. If the world is finite, it must be because it is so conceived; if it is infinite, it must be because it is so conceived. The finitude or infinitude of the world is logically incapable of experimental exposure. Nor is it even possible to construct a model of the universe, for any model is itself a constituent of the universe, whereas it is a logical characteristic of any model that it must stand apart from that which it seeks to illumine; it cannot form a part of it.
But especially if the universe is infinite, it is impossible to construct a model of it. The construction of a model implies achievement, a finish. And to start and complete a model of the infinite is of the same order of piquancy as the performance of a man, who, to use Wittgenstein’s example, should breathlessly burst into a room panting ‘. . . minus four, minus three, minus two and minus one: I’ve done it! I’ve recited the negative numbers!’
In order that a situation could be coherently described as the causing or the causelessness of the world, it would have to be a situation in which the world could be placed. But any situation can only be a situation which is part of the world. The world can have no outside; and as it can have no outside it can have no cause. There can, therefore, be no material grounds on which the adjectives, ’caused’, ‘uncaused’, or ‘finite’, ‘infinite’, can be descriptively applied to the universe. No empirical discourse can logically constitute the material ground of any of the epithets. it is only left that they should be postulates.
If, however, one postulates a cause for ‘what there is’, one is thereby committed to the conception of an ‘outside’ and an ‘inside’ of the world. This need not lead to any irreducible contradiction, for whether the world is finite or infinite depends, as suggested earlier, upon the mode of conceiving the world. Hence the opposition is strictly dialectical.
Beyond mere formal dialectics, however, one significance of the cosmic contrast of the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the world is that it implies an acknowledgment that there is a conversion of a process which commences ‘outside’ the world into the world and its contents. It is therefore hardly surprising that in the Christian Bible precisely this is held. There, God is first converted to Adam through his living breath, and second to Jesus Christ through a mystic incarnation. Appropriately, therefore, Christianity holds that we have our being in God in whom we live.
But especially when this conversion is thought to be reversible, a definite contradiction is created in society, the contradiction between interests inside the world and interests outside the world. This kind of contradiction is made articulate in Christianity, for example, we are enjoined to lay up treasures in heaven where moths do not corrupt. We are also assured by St. Augustine that though we are in the world, we are not of it, being wayfarers.
The contradiction takes effect when with the gaze steadfastly fixed upon things ‘outside’ the world, the requirements of earthly life, which in fact condition the existence of every human being suffer neglect. This opposition of interests, this social opposition between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ is dialectical in nature and can be used to explain the course of many societies, including African societies. The course of such societies is determined by a see-saw, a contest between the inside and the outside, between the terms of the contradiction described above. It is the recognition of this kind of contradiction and the use to which it might be put in the exploitation of the workers that impelled Marx to criticize religion as an instrument of exploitation, because religion was used to divert the workers’ attention from the value which they had created by their labour to ‘outside’ concerns.
Many African societies in fact forestalled this kind of perversion. The dialectical contradiction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ was reduced by making the visible world continuous with the invisible world. For them heaven was not outside the world but inside it. These African societies did not accept transcendentalism, and may indeed be regarded as having attempted to synthesize opposites ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ by making them continuous, that is, by abolishing them. In present-day Africa, however, a recognition of -the dialectical contradiction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has a great deal to contribute to the process of decolonization and development, for it helps us to anticipate colonialist and imperialist devices for furthering exploitation by diverting our energies from secular concerns. The recognition of the dialectical opposition is universally necessary. Religion is an instrument of bourgeois social reaction. But its social use is not always confined to colonialists and imperialists. Its success in their hands can exercise a certain fascination on the minds of Africans who begin by being revolutionary, but are bewitched by any passing opportunist chance to use religion to make political gains. Seizing the slightest of these chances, they in fact take two steps backward for the one step forward in order to enjoy a transitory consolidation based on a common religious belief and practice. This idiosyncratic tactic can only create more problems than it promises to solve. For certain, it will check the advancing social consciousness of the people. Besides, in the long run a dialectical opposition between church and state will be re-created through what begins by being a tactical move becoming entrenched. This idiosyncratic tactic actively encourages religious forms and practices, as well as a religious ideology. When the relative political consolidation aimed at is achieved, the tactic is dropped, but the religious revivalism which it has fomented and exploited cannot be so easily checked. It is essential to emphasize in the historical condition of Africa that the state must be secular.
Insistence on the secular nature of the state is not to be interpreted as a political declaration of war on religion, for religion is also a social fact, and must be understood before it can be tackled. To declare a political war on religion is to treat it as an ideal phenomenon, to suppose that it might be wished away, or at the worst scared out of existence. The indispensable starting point is to appreciate the sociological connection between religious belief and practice on the one hand, and poverty on the other. People who are most aggressively religious are the poorer people; for, in accordance with the Marxist analysis, religion is social, and contemporary religious forms and practices have their main root in the social depression of workers. Quick confirmation can be found in Africa, Asia, Latin America and among the people of African descent in America and the Caribbean. Terrifying pauperism, arising from the pre-technical nature of most contemporary societies, combined with the encroachments of world capitalism, a combination which can mete out prostitution, destruction, ruin and death from starvation and exploitation to its victims, quickly reinforces the religious feeling. Fear created the gods, an preserves them: fear in bygone ages of wars, pestilences, earth-quakes and nature gone berserk, fear of ‘acts of God’; fear today of the equally blind forces of backwardness and rapacious capital.
Answers to the question ‘what there is’ can be said to be idealist or materialist. Inasmuch, however, as an empiricist philosophy can be said to be idealist, even though a materialist philosophy cannot be rationalist, the opposition between idealism and materialism cannot be made identical with the opposition between rationalism and empiricism.
Rationalism is a philosophical breed imbued with certain distinctive characters. In it, an explanation is conceived in such a way that the explanation must create a logical inference to that which is explained. Empiricism, on the other hand, has no such inference to offer. If one kind of event is regularly and invariably followed by another kind, empiricism accepts the first kind of event as explaining the second kind. But rationalism cannot, because this succession of events is not a necessary one; there is no logical inference from the occurrence of one kind of event to the occurrence of another kind of event. David Hume is celebrated mainly for establishing the empiricist position, and it is for this reason that rationalists are convinced that Hume was ignorant of the real nature of an explanation.
Rationalism and empiricism also vary over the avenues to knowledge. According to the former, a set of procedures or tasks can constitute a method of obtaining knowledge only if, provided the tasks have been correctly performed, the desired knowledge must infallibly be obtained. Here a fruitful comparison can be with the method of addition. The method of addition imposes certain tasks upon us. These tasks require that digits be added up from the units column through the tens column to the final column. And if these tasks are correctly performed the correctness of the emergent total is guaranteed. The method of addition is thus seen to fulfil rationalism’s specifications for method.
According to empiricism, however, a method need not guarantee its own infallible success. And one finds John Stuart Mill saying that induction, notwithstanding its being a valid method of obtaining truth, is still fallible. For rationalism, a valid but fallible procedure is a logical howler.
Finally, rationalism holds that there are some ideas in the human mind which are innate to it. That is to say, these ideas have not entered the mind from outside, and moreover could not do so. In practice, rationalists do not agree over the precise catalogue of such ideas, though they tend to agree that the idea of God is a shining example. But empiricism cannot countenance innate ideas. For it, all ideas without exception come to the mind from the external world, or are composed exclusively from ideas which come into the mind from the external world through the senses.
As to idealism, it is a species of philosophy in which spiritual factors are recognized as being primary, and matter held to be dependent for its existence on spirit. In Leibniz’s idealist philosophy, for the sake of an example, matter is even said to be really unconscious spirit. And in Berkeley’s idealist philosophy, though matter is not said to be spirit, but an idea possessed by spirit, its existence and continuance is said to consist in its being possessed by spirit. For Leibniz the world was nothing but spirit; for Berkeley it was nothing but spirits and their knowledge. Since, however, the central tenet of idealism is the withdrawal from matter of an existence independent of spirit, materialism in its opposition to idealism must as a minimum assert the independent existence of matter.
But, now, to the extent that idealism makes the existence of matter dependent on perception, or on the possession of ideas by the mind, I am sure that it can be refuted. Of the normal sources of idealism, two can be discerned. On the one hand, idealism comes of solipsism, whether complete or incipient; on the other, it comes from some theory or other of perception.
In complete solipsism the individual is identified with the universe. The universe comes to consist of the individual and his experience. And when we seek to inquire a little of what this gigantic individual who fills the universe is compounded, we are confronted with diverse degrees of incoherence. In solipsism, the individual starts from a depressing scepticism about the existence of other people and other things. While in the grip of this pessimism, he pleasantly ignores the fact that his own body is part of the external world, that he sees and touches his own body in exactly the same sense that he sees and touches any other body. If other bodies are only portions of the individual’s experience, then by the same magic he must disincarnate himself. In this way, the individual’s role as the centre of solipsism begins to wobble seriously, he is no longer the peg on which the universe hangs, the hub around which it revolves. Solipsism begins to shed its focal point for the universe. The individual begins to coalesce with his own experience. The individual as a subject, the sufferer and enjoyer of experience, melts away, and we are left with unattached experience.
In incipient solipsism, like that which afflicted Descartes, one encounters a form of argument which is in its essence sincerely fallacious. Descartes says that he can think of himself as being without eyes, or as being without arms, etc. In short, he claims that he can think of himself as been deprived of any of his physical features which anyone might care to name. Whatever be the truth-value of this, he sets it up as a reason for saying that he can think of himself as being without a body. Though one may not wish to deny that Descartes could indeed have been physically deformed, indeed even hideously deformed, one must I think, resolutely maintain that disincarnation is not a physical deformity! There still remains a distinction between mere deformity and disincarnation. Descartes’ reasoning is of the same level of speciousness as the notion that because one can think of a cow without a tail or horns, etc., one can think of a cow without a body. Thinking of a cow without a body is as different from the thought of a cow without a tail, as thinking of Descartes without a body is different from his thought of himself without arms.
My reason for referring to Cartesianism as incipient solipsism is that Descartes’ alleged first principle is the admission of his own existence. On this sole first principle, he proposed, quite unsoberly, to hang the whole universe as well as God. I say that Cartesianism is incipient solipsism because it contains inside itself the seeds of a fully-fledged solipsism. These seeds can be seen to grow in the following way: Descartes proposes to doubt everything which might be known through the senses or through the reason. He sets out to doubt everything which might be known through the senses because the senses sometimes suffer from illusions and delusions, not to mention the fact that anything which is said to form part of waking experience can equally well form part of dream experience. After all, the objects and situations which dreams represent are not qualitatively different from the representation of sense. Since the senses can be affected by illusions and delusions, he proposes to treat them as unreliable witnesses to truth. And as to the reason, though at the best of times he wishes to hold it to be essentially infallible, he points at the well-known paralogisms of his predecessors in philosophy and geometry. If reason could so badly have misled them, it, too, must for the time being be regarded as untrustworthy.
Descartes notes just in time that he who is so anxious about the truth and doubts everything, has been thinking, and must exist if he thinks. Hobbes was misguided when he thought that it was equally open to Descartes to say that because he walked he existed. Descartes, having doubted away his body, could not suppose himself to walk. But even if he doubted that he thought, he would still be thinking, as doubting was a form of thinking. It was necessary for Descartes to single out what he could not coherently doubt in order to peg his existence on it. And that is why he says that he thinks, therefore he exists.
But it is at this point that Descartes runs the gauntlet of a creeping solipsism. Though Descartes is entitled to say: Cogito: ergo sum ‘I think: therefore I exist’ – he would clearly be understanding too much if he understood from this that some object existed, let alone that Monsieur Descartes existed. All that is indubitable in the first section of Descartes’ statement is that there is thinking. The first person is in that statement no more than the subject of a verb, with no more connotation of an object than there is in the anticipatory ‘it’ of the sentence ‘it is raining’. The pronoun in this sentence is a mere subject of a sentence, and does not refer to any object or group of objects which is raining. ‘It’ in that sentence does not stand for anything. It is a quack pronoun.
And so once again we have unattached experience, thinking without an object which thinks. And as the subject is merely grammatical, it cannot serve as a genuine principle of collection of thoughts which will mark one batch of thoughts as belonging to one person rather than another. The universe thus becomes a plurality of thoughts which are unattached.
It is more normal to found idealism upon some theory of perception. Here, the idealist holds that we only know of the external world through perception; and, if matter be held to be constitutive of the external world, then we only know of matter through perception. Quite gratuitously, the conclusion is drawn that matter owes its existence to perception. Granted that perception is a function of the mind or spirit, matter ends up depending on spirit for its existence.
I am at this stage compelled to emphasize once more that our own bodies are elements in the external world. If, therefore, matter were dependent on knowledge for its existence, so would our own bodies be. In that case, however, perception would require an altogether new conception. For perception only takes place by agency of the senses, and the senses are capacities of the living and organic body. If, therefore, body, being matter, wins its existence from perceptual knowledge, it could not at the same time be the means to that knowledge; it could not itself be the avenue to perception. The idea of perception through physical senses therefore becomes incoherent in idealism. And with this one step, idealism collapses in our hands; indeed, idealism itself stands revealed as the self-devouring cormorant of philosophy.
The eighteenth-century African philosopher from Ghana, Anthony William Amo, who taught in the German Universities of Halle, and Wittenberg, pointed out in his De Humanae Mentis Apatheia that idealism was enmeshed in contradictions. The mind, he said, was conceived by idealism as a pure, active, unextended substance. Ideas, the alleged constituents of physical objects, were held to be only in the mind, and to be incapable of existence outside it. Amo’s question here was how the ideas, largely those of physical objects, many of which were ideas of extension, could subsist in the mind; since physical objects were actually extended, if they were really ideas, some ideas must be actually extended. And if all ideas must be in the mind, it became hard to resist the conclusion that the mind itself was extended, in order to be a spatial receptacle for its extended ideas. The contradiction is in the denial of the spatial nature of mind and the compulsion to harbour spatial objects in it. For in idealism it is not only our bodies which are in our minds, instead of our minds being in our bodies; the whole universe, to the extent that we can perceive or be aware of it, is neatly tucked away in our minds.
Idealism suffers from what I might call the God-complex; it is what Marx called ‘intoxicated speculation’; it is what may be called the ecstasy of intellectualism. The concept of an object, let alone the concept of the same object, cannot be properly formulated in idealism. Having once dismantled the world, idealists are unable to put it together again, and Berkeley has to say that his apple is only a simultaneity of sweetness, roundness, smoothness, etc. It is as if one could not have soup any more, but only its ingredients. The distinction between reality and appearance slips between the spectral fingers of idealism, for in idealism reality becomes merely a persistent appearance. In this way, idealism makes itself incompatible with science.
That matter can exist unperceived, that it has a continuance independent of mind, should really be axiomatic. Idealists themselves hanker after this independent reality when they strive so hard to reconcile their theoretical ebullience with the sobriety of ordinary language. Ordinary language is not just a vocabulary and a grammar. It also comprises a conceptual framework which is largely realist and objectivist. The idealist attempt to reconcile its theory-spinning with ordinary language must therefore be regarded as a deep-seated desire to anchor idealism in a certain measure of objectivity.
Now, materialism is a serious, objective, almost descriptive kind of metaphysics. As a minimum, it affirms the existence of matter independent of knowledge by mind. This minimal conception is obviously grossly inadequate. It is open to a materialist philosophy, but not compulsory, to assert for its second thesis the primary reality of matter. Here, matter would be whatever has mass and is perpetually active; and, in its manifestation, matter would be co-extensive with the universe.
If, however, the sole or primary reality of matter is asserted, one is brought up sharply against certain hard facts, notably those centring around the phenomenon of consciousness an of self-consciousness. If consciousness is to be explained in terms of overt response to stimuli, then it must be distinguished from self-consciousness, and perception from apperception. Of self-consciousness we only have an internal experience. Another hard fact is the distinction between qualities and quantities, while a third is the distinction between energy and matter.
One might unwarily think that the assertion of the sole or even primary reality of matter in the face of the above hard facts betrays an unwarranted intrepidity in face of paradox and categorial absurdity. The key to the solution of the problem, the key to the accommodation of these hard facts, lies in categorial convertibility. But it is not the task of philosophy to trace the details of such categorial conversion; that is one of the tasks of science. Philosophy is only called upon to show the possibility of the conversion. By categorial conversion, I mean such a thing as the emergence of self-consciousness from that which is not self-conscious; such a thing as the emergence of mind from matter, of quality from quantity.
Philosophy can demonstrate the possibility of the conversion in one or other of two ways: either by means of a conceptual analysis or by pointing at a model. As it happens, philosophy is in position to do both. Philosophy prepares itself for the accommodation of the hard facts by asserting not the crude sole reality of matter, but its primary reality. Other categories must then be shown to be able to arise from matter through process. It is at this point that philosophical materialism becomes dialectical.
Problems of categorial conversion have haunted philosophy at least since early Greek times. The Greek monists, beginning, as far as we know, with Thales, were all confronted with such problems. Thinking that opposites were irreducible to each other, Thales’ successor, Anaximander, postulated a neutral monism in his ‘Boundless’, an amorphous, undifferentiated, undetermined source, capable of begetting opposite properties, the womb of the differentiated world. It seems to me, however, that neutral monism is merely crypto-dualism or crypto-pluralism. For even if they are only in a stifled state, all the elements of dualist and pluralist positions swim in neutral monism.
Today, however, philosophy has little need to resort to crypticisms. Speaking in general terms, I may say that philosophy has fashioned two branches of study which enable it to solve the problem of categorial conversion in a satisfying way. These tools are Logic and Science, both of which owe their origin and early development to the demands of philosophy. The conceptual tools which philosophy has fashioned in Logic, and by means of which it can cope with the formal problems of categorial conversion, are contained in nominalism, constructionism and reductionism. For philosophy’s model of categorial conversion, it turns to science. Matter and energy are two distinct, but, as science has shown, not unconnected or irreducible, categories. The inter-reducibility of matter and energy offers a model for categorial conversion. And another model is given in the distinction between physical change and chemical change, for in chemical change physical quantities give rise to emergent qualities.
In nominalism, constructionism and materialist reductionism, one holds some category to be a primary category of reality, and holds other real things to become real only in so far as they are ultimately derived from the primary category of reality. The derivation is such that for every true proposition about an item which falls under a derivative category, there are provided true propositions about items falling under the primary category, such that the former proposition could not be true unless the latter propositions were true; and, further, such that the former proposition could not even make sense unless there were items falling under the primary category.
For an explanatory comparison, one can take the average man. The average man belongs to a category derivative from the category of living men and women. For any true proposition about the average man, there must be true propositions about men and women, such that the propositions about the average man could not be true unless the propositions about men and women were true. Further, propositions about the average man could not even make sense unless there were items falling under of men and women. That is, propositions about the average man could not make sense unless there were actual men and.
In the same way, if one says that matter is the primary category, then spirit must, to the extent that it is recognized as a category be a derivative category. And in order that propositions about spirit should make sense, there must be matter. Secondly, even when propositions about spirit make sense, in order that they should be true, certain propositions about matter need to be true.
In constructionism, one has a picture how those concepts which are proper to derivative categories might be formed, using as raw materials concepts which are proper to the primary category. In reductionism one sees how concepts proper to a derivative category can be reduced completely to concepts which are proper to a primary category. When a certain reductionism holds matter to be primary, such a reduction has, for its product, concepts which are directly applicable only to matter. In nominalism, only concrete existences are held to be primary and real, all other existences being, as it were, surrogates of concrete existences on a higher logical plane.
Now it would of course be a mistake to seek to infer from the foregoing that according to philosophical dialectical materialism, mind is, say, brain; qualities are quantities; energy is mass. These locutions would commit what are referred to as category mistakes.
Dialectical materialism recognizes differences between mind and brain, between qualities and quantities, between energy and mass. It however gives a special account of the nature of the differences. Both in metaphysics and in theory of knowledge, it does not allow the differences to become fundamental and irreducible.
A sober philosophy cannot ignore categorial differences. But it has the right to give a valid account of these differences in such a way as to reveal them as facons de parler. From the standpoint of theory of knowledge, philosophical materialism treats the differences as belonging to logical grammar. This, if one may express an opinion, is the kind of difference also drawn by Frege between concepts and objects, when he said with truth that the concept ‘horse’ was not a concept but an object. The difference in question is a difference in the role or function of certain terms, and the difference is subject to logical parsing.
Let me illustrate this point in another way. Suppose a man were asked to provide an inventory of objects in a room, and he counted all the legs of tables and chairs, as well as flat tops and backs, then he could not in the same inventory count tables and chairs. True though it is that a table comprises a flat top and legs, there is nevertheless a difference between a table and a flat top and legs. The difference is said to be epistemological, not ontological. That is to say, tables do not exist on the one hand, while on the other, tops and legs exist alongside. In the same way one may admit epistemological differences between mind and brain, quality and quantity, energy and mass, without accepting any metaphysical differences between them, without, in other words, admitting that for mind one needs any more than a brain in a certain condition; for quality any more than a certain disposition of quantity; for energy any more than mass in a certain critical state.
From the standpoint of metaphysics, philosophical materialism accepts mind or conscience only as a derivative of matter. Now, nominalism, constructionism and reductionism indicate that categorial differences are differences of logical grammar and syntax. Such differences are, even so, objective, and neither arbitrary nor ideal. They are founded in the condition of matter and its objective laws. Quality is a surrogate of a quantitative disposition of matter: it can be altered by altering quantitative dispositions of matter.
Mind, according to philosophical materialism, is the result of a critical organization of matter. Nervous organization has to attain a certain minimum of complexity for the display of intelligent activity, or the presence of mind. The presence of mind and attainment of this critical minimum of organization of matter are one and the same thing. Energy, too, is a critical quantitative process of matter. Heat, for example, is a particular sort of process of atoms. Though none of the above equivalences is a formal equivalence, they are at least material equivalences. That is say, notwithstanding that the meaning of, say, ‘mind’, is not ‘critical organization of nervous matter’, as the meaning of ‘submarine’ is ‘a ship capable of moving under water’, mind is not but the upshot of matter with a critical nervous arrangement. The equivalence intended is a material one, not a defining or formal one; that is to say, the propositions about minds, qualities, energy, are reducible without residue to propositions about body, quantity and mass; the former propositions could not make sense unless latter propositions were sometimes true. As it were, mind, quality, energy are metaphysical adjectives.
I think the matter would be further clarified if philosophical materialism were distinguished from nominalism, construction and reductionism. The merit of the latter as a species of metaphysics arises from their demonstration of category reducibility. Their weakness as species of metaphysics rests in their lifelessness. They propose to tell us that x, strictly speaking, is, or really is, or at bottom is, nothing but yz. But they vouchsafe not the slightest hint about the condition under which yz is x.
Indeed, it is only in the philosophy of mathematics, in the generation of critical numbers, that conditions are given for a categorial leap in the generation of numbers.
When materialism becomes dialectical, the world is not regarded as a world of states, but as a world of processes; a world not of things, but of facts. The endurance of the world consists in process; and activity, or process, becomes the life-blood of reality. Constructionism, nominalism, reductionism, all stop at the logical basis of categorial conversion; they ascertain only that conversion is logically possible. But when materialism becomes dialectical, it ensures the material basis of categorial conversion.
Dialectical change in matter is that which serves as ground to the possibility of the evolution of kinds. The evolution of a kind is the loss of a set of old properties and the acquisition of a new set through the dialectical movement of matter. When it is said that an evolved kind arises from, or is reducible to, matter, the concern is with the dialectical source or origin of the evolved kind, not with its formal nature. To say, therefore, that mind, quality or energy arises from, or is reducible to matter, is neither to say that mind has mass, or quality has mass, nor to say that energy has mass. It is to say that given the basic matter of the universe with its objective laws, the universe is forthwith closed in the sense that nothing can become present in the universe if it is not entirely anchored in the initial matter.
Let me suggest a parallel with formal logic. An axiomatic formal system is said to be complete when its axioms suffice for the deduction, by means of admitted rules of inference, of all the propositions belonging to the system. If propositions belonging to the system are made parallel to items of the universe, if the admitted rules of inference are made parallel to the objective laws of matter, and if the initial set of axioms is made parallel to initial matter, then the completeness of the axiom system becomes parallel to the constructibility from matter, according to its objective laws, of all the supervening items of the universe. It is in a sense analogous to that in which an axiomatic formal system is, say, Gödel-complete and therefore closed, that the universe of matter is here said to be closed.
And when a system is said to be Gödel-complete, what is meant is that every non-initial truth in it is derivable from the initial truths alone by use of the rules of derivation. Hence in the analogy, every form or category in the universe which is not directly matter must be derivable from matter alone in accordance with the dialectical laws of the evolution of matter.
I have suggested that dialectic is that which makes the evolution of kinds possible, that, accordingly, which is the ground of the evolution of mind from matter, of quality from quantity, of energy from mass. This kind of emergence, since it depends on a critical organization of matter, truly represents a leap. When a crisis results in an advance, it is its nature to perpetrate a leap. The solution of a crisis always represents a discontinuity. And just as in the foundations of mathematics, critical numbers represent a break in continuity in the evolution of numbers, so in nature does the emergence of quality from quantity represent a break in the continuity of a quantitative process.
It is important that dialectical evolution be not conceived as being linear, continuous and monodirectional. Evolution, so conceived, has no explanation to offer, and, especially, it gives no explanation of the transformation of one kind into another, for it only represents an accumulation of phenomena of the same sort. Linear evolution is incompatible with the evolution of kinds, because the evolution of kinds represents a linear discontinuity. In dialectical evolution, progress is not linear; it is, so to say, from one plane to another. It is through a leap from one plane to another that new kinds are produced and the emergence of mind from matter attained.
The dialectical materialist position on mind must be distinguished from an epiphenomenalist one. For the former, mind is a development from matter; for the latter, it is merely something which accompanies the activity of matter.
It is impossible to conceal the fact that through the ages materialism has been the butt of numerous quips. The most fashionable criticism in antiquity was on the question of purpose and consciousness. It was felt by the critics of materialism that there were certain (usually undisclosed) conceptual difficulties to prevent the emergence of purpose and consciousness This kind of objection has been met in the discussion of categorial conversion. A more important objection to materialism is alleged to be provided by the Theory of Relativity. This objection is important because dialectical materialism itself upholds science.
According to this objection, Relativity’s merging of space-time constitutes an objection to materialism, whether dialectical or serene. There is a nagging feeling that with the merging of space and time, matter’s life in space and its movement in time are snuffed out. But this nagging feeling can be soothed by the reflection that the only independent reality which philosophical materialism allows is matter; and since absolute time and absolute space must be conceived as independent if they are absolute, in a way they are incompatible with philosophical materialism. The abandonment of both would therefore be so far from representing the disgrace of philosophical materialism, that it would be its triumph.
The mechanism of sensation, too, has sometimes been brandished in the face of philosophical materialism. This is in fact a species of scepticism. Sensation, it is said, is our primary avenue to knowledge. Mankind, it is alleged, has no road to knowledge save the highway of sensation. But sensation does not give us any direct knowledge of matter, hence there is no reason to suppose that there is any such thing as matter.
I believe that this adumbrated scepticism turns in upon itself. It is not possible to use the physics of perception to impugn the reality and independence of the external world, for the physics of perception itself presupposes and relies upon the reality and independence of the external world. It is only through some occult reasoning that physics can be used to locate the external world inside our mind.
It is further said that not all the processes in the physiology of perception are physical. It is said, by way of expansion, that if light did not strike the eye, an image form on the retina, etc., we could not see. But the travelling of light and the forming of an image on the retina could not either singly or collectively be the inwardness of that illumination which is seeing. These processes are accounted to be so far from explaining perception that they deepen the mystery.
And yet, to a certain extent, all this must be deemed to be correct. When it is made a basis for idealism, however, then an indulgence in fallacies occurs. We know that in normal physiological and physical conditions, we cannot choose whether to see or not. If spirit or consciousness were completely independent of matter for its arising, there should be the possibility of such breakdowns in perception as are not completely explicable in terms of physiology and physics. The doctor, one supposes, would then need to be aided occasionally by the priest, as indeed was supposed to be the case in the Dark Ages of Knowledge.
Our universe is a natural universe. And its basis is matter with its objective laws.