The Philosophical Consensus

Keith Ward on Materialism, 4     1  2  3

“That is”, Ward continues, “they have held that ultimate reality has the nature of mind or consciousness, and that the material universe is the appearance or creation of the ultimate mind.” Ward here says that this is what is meant by ”a basically spiritual view of the world”, the view on which there is a broad consensus among classical philosophers.

This is important in itself, being that for which the positive case is made. But it is also necessary for the definition of materialism, in which the decisive thing is the negation of these positions in the name of a different principle, matter. It should be noted that it is possible to define materialism and matter in a different way. All affirmation of the existence of matter does not negate these positions, i.e., is not reductionist. And, with the help of a different concept of matter, materialism too could in fact be defined in an altogether different way, a way that does not contradict idealism, not even the kind of idealism that denies the existence of matter in the ordinary sense(s).

It should also be said that the case against materialism and for the spiritual view of the world” does not imply that the experience of what materialists account for with their concept of matter is not real. Nor is there necessarily anything “wrong” with that experience as such, apart from the kind of practical and moral dimensions which Ward will discuss later. It is just that matter is not what they think it is. Or, perhaps more precisely: what they think is matter is not what they think matter is.

But we mean here by the terms materialism and matter what the philosophers Ward refers to meant by them, and also what philosophers who have regarded and today regard themselves as materialists mean by them. Inasmuch as they do not all mean precisely the same, these are broad concepts. But this does not make any difference for the basic case, as long as the definition includes the negation of the central positions here formulated by Ward.

With regard to the question of the existence and nature of a ”material universe”, Ward includes philosophers who and forms of idealism in the broad sense which accept the existence of a universe which is really material in the sense accepted here. I.e., they accept the existence of matter without being materialists. Only they do not regard it as ”ultlimate reality”. Other forms of idealism do not accept the existence of such a universe, the existence of matter.

”Appearance” is an important word in this connection and in many forms of idealism; it is appropriate also for accounts of some central Eastern traditions. But it too can mean different things. It can mean simply non-creational causality, manifestation, emanation. But in addition to this and sometimes even instead of this it can also mean – and Ward certainly has this in mind too, having used the formulation ”ultimate reality” of that which is not appearance – that which is not real or fully real, not as real as that of which it is an appearance, and in which there is an element of illusion.

“Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and many others all shared this general view”, Ward reminds us. And it can of course be noticed how many the ”many others” are: some of the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plotinus, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, the late medieval Franciscans, the Renaissance Platonists (not just the Italian but also the Cambridge ones), the rest of the German Idealists and the nineteenth-century idealists in France, Britain, America and elsewhere. Ward soon notes how few the materialists really are.

Even Hume, “a philosopher opposed to religious belief, who denied the existence of ultimate mind, did not suppose that matter could be ultimately real. Indeed, he thought that the material universe was a construct out of ‘impressions’ or ‘ideas’, and had no objective reality, or at least not a reality that could be rationally established.” This is of course only an argument against materialism. It could perhaps be clarified that it is ”the material universe”, i.e. a universe of matter as conceived by materialists, lumps of matter, like atoms, floating about out there in objective, absolute time and space, that has ”no objective reality, or at least not a reality that could be rationally established” – not what Hume regards as ”a construct out of ’impressions’ or ’ideas’”. The latter might be a valid expression of what the universe that materialists hold to be material actually is, but contrary to the purportedly material universe it does have objective reality of a different kind, a reality which can be rationally established. This, after all, is part of what is meant when Ward says with the classical, in a broad sense idealist tradition, as he does elsewhere, that the world is intelligible.

1 Response to “The Philosophical Consensus”

  1. 1 Constance V. Walden December 5, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Men make things complicated when God has made it svery simple: Jesus died for our sins on the cross; He was buried, and He was raised the third day. Believe it, be baptized, and be saved. That’s it. It’s simple. Even the least intelligent of us can understand it. It’s man who makes it difficult with him many philosophical musings.

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi