The Non-Materialism of Contemporary Philosophy

Keith Ward on Materialism, 7     1  2  3  4  5  6

But it should not be overlooked that philosophy is still a very diverse discipline.

Ward proceeds to give an overview of the academic discipline of philosophy today, in order to show how very few the materialist philosophers actually are.

Idealism, the view that mind or Spirit is the only ultimate reality, is far from dead, and many American university philosophy departments have a representative Process philosopher or Personalist – both variant forms of Idealism.

It can be added that European university philosophy departments also have representative idealist philosophers. They include Oxford’s, where my second D.Phil. supervisor was one – even, as a Bradleyan, in the specific, Victorian Oxford tradition of idealism, focusing, like most contemporary idealists both of necessity and by inclination, on the history of philosophy. Idealists are also found on the European continent, and not least idealists working with the historical tradition of German idealism.

Ward here establishes that idealism and personalism are living philosophical positions and traditions, represented in academic philosophy today.

Phenomenology, the general view that analysis of existential, lived experience should be the basis of an analysis of relaity, remains strong in European philosophy.

Phenomenology was from the beginning (in Husserl) opposed to the nineteenth-century tradition of idealism, yet its approach is not only in some central respects congruent with it, but something similar was part of idealism in some forms, as a point of departure. The very term phenomenology was of course introduced and frequently used precisely by the idealists. Phenomenology’s rejection of idealism in the broad sense is untenable, although it may have limited valid points about some aspects of some forms of nineteenth-century idealism. Although those forms of nineteenth-century idealism are superior to non-idealism and materialism in particular, and should be defended in that respect, I, after all, defend a specific form of the broad nineteenth-century tradition of idealism. There are general, common truths of idealism, but there are also differences and many particular versions of it.

Positivists also make experience primary, though they aparently have few feelings or existential crises, and prefer to have clear, distinct and unemotional experiences (which they call sense-data). Positivists have tended to think that their sense-observations are the basic data of rigorous science, and so they place a premium on sense-verification and the provision of sense-based evidence for all assertions. But Positivism actually undermines the possibility of public verification (since we cannot even verify that other minds exist), and it also undermines the claim of much modern physics that the ultimate structure of matter lies in unobservable but mathematically postulated entities.

This is rather a comment on the primacy of experience à propos of phenomenology, not part of the overview of contemporary philosophy, where there are no positivists of this kind. But the positivists’ theory of sense-data, phenomenalism, is, like parts of the approach of the phenomenologists, in some respects and with a certain interpretation compatible with idealism, if only, of course, with much further development and not least supplementation. Sense-data are not all the data and they certainly do not have the significance in philosophy that positivists ascribed to them (“evidence for all assertions”). Yet Ward’s main point is that logical positivism was not materialism.

Common-sense pragmatism, often in a Wittgensteinian guise, sceptical of all grand general statements about ultimate reality, and refusing to accept that philosophers are in any better position to say what reality is like than anyone else, is widespread. Such philosophers are fond of saying, “Reality is in order as it is”, without the help of philosophy. So their arguments are often devoted to proving that philosophical arguments in general are superfluous and misleading. The problem is that, when readers begin to believe them, they stop reading philosophy any more. This has regrettably caused a number of philosophy departments in Britain to close.

Common-sense pragmatism is also regrettable in itself, on many counts, and, I think, refutable (like materialism), in the sense in which things are at all refutable by philosophy. But again, Ward’s main point is that it is not materialism.

Scepticism, too, is far from dead, and resembles common-sense, except that it even doubts whether common-sense can be trusted. Some forms of post-modernism are sceptical views, insofar as they doubt whether there is any objective truth to be found.

Ward adds that sceptics tend to get very depressed and that they too tend to give up philosophy. This position too is thus bad for philosophy. Although it is not materialism, I find it is (like materialism and common-sense pragmatism) philosophically refutable.

Critical realism is quite popular. An intellectual descendent of John Locke, such realism maintains that perception and intellect do give us knowledge of objective reality, but show reality to be rather different from how things appear to the senses. Proponents disagree on just how different. For Locke a set of primary qualities – roughly, mass, position and velocity – are objectively real, while secondary qualities like smell, colour and taste are contributed by the mind. In modern physics those primary qualities have disappeared, and we have to talk of force-fields and wave-functions in curved multi-dimensional space-time. So sometimes critical realists are reduced to saying that there is definitely some objective reality which the mathematics of quantum theory describes. But exactly what it is we cannot be sure. It is what quantum theorist Bernard d’Espagnat calls a “veiled reality”, since we cannot know exactly what concepts like “imaginary time” or “waves of probability” correspond to, if correspondence is even an appropriate term any more. As one critical realist has said, “I cannot be sure just what objective reality is. But whatever it is, I most certainly believe in it.”

Critical realists of this kind are of course not far from idealism. One problem here is that few of them understand what idealism is, and what it means, and that it is possible, to enter upon the intellectual path that takes them there. Critical realism is certainly not materialism.

The dogmatism of materialism is very apparent when placed alongside these other more or less widely held philosophical theses. Materialists are metaphycisians in the grand manner. They claim to know what reality is, and that their description of it is, they think, obvious, accurate and rationally undeniable. Since that claim is doubted by most of their colleagues, it can hardly be quite as obvious as they say.

Some idealists too would probably be described by many as metaphysicians in the grand manner. But I do not think their claim to know what reality is and their description of reality have to be set forth in a particularly dogmatic manner, or, for that matter, an arrogant or aggressive manner.

Organized theistic religion, as sharing the idealist worldview in the broad sense, and certainly understood as such by Ward, of course sometimes does present it in this way, since it, or at least much of it, articulates its beliefs and teachings in the form of dogma. But not even the way in which idealism in this broade sense is taught in the partly extra-philosophical traditions, like the esoteric tradition in the West or the Vedantic tradition, need to be dogmatic in its modality, in the sense Ward has in mind here when speaking of the materialists. It can be polemical and sometimes perhaps has to, but this is not at all primary. It just sets forth the traditional truths and principles in its own modality of utterance, sometimes adjusted to time and circumstance.

And within philosophy, the traditional intellectual and discursive practices of that specific Western discipline in themselves counteract and discourage dogmatism (I am not talking here about dogmatism in the specifically Kantian sense, which can be non-dogmatic in the in which I here use the term).

Idealists are well aware of the fact that their position is doubted by many of their philosophical colleagues. I know very well, for instance, that many will simply not accept the the arguments of the refutation of materialism or the claim that materialism (and some of the other positions mentioned above) are philosophically refutable. But despite this refusal, the reasons for it as well as the counterarguments remain subjects of highly meaningful discussion. Many idealists of course have a clear analysis and understanding of why these philosophers doubt idealism and its claims.

It is significant that the materialists that most influence the popular debate are not philosophers, but modern scientists writing for the general reading public. As modern scientists, they are products of the historical separation of science from philosophy, they do not have a philosophical education, and they do not understand philosophy and what philosophy really is. This is what produces much of their dogmatism, and lands them in hopeless contradictions and other intellectual absurdities when they try to defend their materialism against philosophers. It turns out that, without the proper perspective on what they themselves are doing, they also do not quite understand what science is.

In reviewing contemporary philosophy, Ward also, in the paragraphs cited, anticipates some main parts of the contemporary case for idealism. He has spoken of “the claim of much modern physics that the ultimate structure of matter lies in unobservable but mathematically postulated entities.” He has said that “In modern physics [Locke’s] primary qualities have disappeared, and we have to talk of force-fields and wave-functions in curved multi-dimensional space-time.”  He has mentioned “some objective reality which the mathematics of quantum theory describes”. These parts of the case are what he will next focus on in this summary statement.

6 Responses to “The Non-Materialism of Contemporary Philosophy”


  1. 1 Benjamin, a.k.a. Bhāva December 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Jan-jī,

    I am wondering if you are familiar with Heidegger’s account of materialism and idealism as postulated in Sein Und Zeit. He takes pains to discuss their relative merits and demerits, mug as yourself, and does seem to favor idealism as being the stronger position.

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson December 8, 2011 at 11:46 pm

      Thanks for this and other comments, dear Bhava-ji. What is it in Heidegger’s account that you want to draw my attention to?

  2. 3 John Anngeister December 10, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Philosophy’s role of ancilla in my working definition of personalism is better seen NOT as arbitrator between (impersonal) science and religion but as guide to (personal) scientists and religionists – a tool of thought by which each might achieve the highest possible human destiny in a fully integrated approach to spirit and to matter both.

    So in my ideal, one and the same person must have this ancillary of philosophy which enables him to negotiate the principles required to be both a scientific reasoner and a faithful believer without living in self-contradiction.

    Here you write (above):

    “It is significant that the materialists that most influence the popular debate are not philosophers, but modern scientists writing for the general reading public. As modern scientists, they are products of the historical separation of science from philosophy, they do not have a philosophical education, and they do not understand philosophy and what philosophy really is.”

    I think Dawkins and others like him are represented here, and they are perfect examples of what I’m talking about. Such a ‘scientist’ does not seem to realize that he very unconsciously holds an impersonal philosophy that, when extended outside his professional activity, must return a value of ‘thing’ or ‘object’ to every reality – including himself. I know he is a person, and he knows it, but he is too careless a thinker to understand that his tacit philosophy, carried out consistently, makes him out to be not a person but a thing. He may say, “Well, I know I am a person,” but he fails to see that this is proof that he needs more philosophy – instead he continues to take as granted key elements of spirit which are left unrecognized by him.

  3. 4 Johnny Gorry March 9, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    ” I think Dawkins and others like him are represented here, and they are perfect examples of what I’m talking about. Such a ‘scientist’ does not seem to realize that he very unconsciously holds an impersonal philosophy that, when extended outside his professional activity, must return a value of ‘thing’ or ‘object’ to every reality – including himself. I know he is a person, and he knows it, but he is too careless a thinker to understand that his tacit philosophy, carried out consistently, makes him out to be not a person but a thing. He may say, “Well, I know I am a person,” but he fails to see that this is proof that he needs more philosophy – instead he continues to take as granted key elements of spirit which are left unrecognized by him.”

    Dawkins and others posit that their hard-science “philosophy” of life ultimately reveals that truth of origins and meaning of existence, yet they maintain that the cosmos ultimately has no instinsic meaning. If the cosmos is fundamentally without meaning, and Richard Dawkins is part of the universe, then he (and his science and philosophy) are, as a logical necessity, also without meaning. Yet he and other materialists contend that their theories do present the truth. So does he consider “truth” to be an epiphenomenon of thought, much like consciousness is viewed as an epiphenomenon of the material structure of the brain? And if so,wouldn’t this render this “scientific truth” that he labors so dilliently to discover and elucidate ultimately as superfluous and illusory as he states that his very own consciousness is?

    The philosophy of materialism is ultimately self-refuting. Material philosophy posits, as do all others, the “truths” of its own discovery. Dawkins tells us that he, and those of such a school of thought, are positing the truth in regards to existence, and others positing a metaphysical view are dabbling in wishful thinking gobligook. But, the “truth” of the totality of his philosophy and its implications, is wholly dependent upon the existence of truth. But herein lies the problem: truth is conceptual, ultimately revealed by mental thought. The materialists contend that only matter is real and therefore mental thought is ultimately illusory (see, Consciousness explained by Daniel Dennett). Thus, this would invalidate the existence of truth. There is the rub- materialist science persues truth, yet maintain that truth, being conceptual in nature and thus immaterial, does not exist. The entire discipline of materialist science is seeking the immaterial. If the overwhelming irony of that doesn’t make you chuckle, then I’m not sure what will.

    More on this later…

    • 5 John Anngeister March 10, 2012 at 1:56 am

      Good comment Johnny. These yeasty acolytes of science who try to stand pat with inadequate views that absolutely fly in the face of the very fact of their freedom and creativity are exposed as false philosophers, in my view.

      They must seek the truth – – – again. For this problem they must ‘go back to school’ because they need to acquire real minds to inhabit their brains. Minds that will not take their self-consciousness and pure freedom and power so much for granted. That is, they need to prove that they are capable of more and better philosophy, not more and better science.

    • 6 Jan Olof Bengtsson March 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

      Thanks. This reminds me of the debate between C.S. Lewis and Elizabeth Anscombe in the Socratic Club at Oxford. I look forward to hearing more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s




Categories

Archives

Recent Comments

Jan Olof Bengtsson on The Significance of Franklin…
AS on The Significance of Franklin…
Bas on The Significance of Franklin…
Bas on The Significance of Franklin…
Jan Olof Bengtsson on Salvini, SD och EU-reformismen…
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
RB on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
axelwkarlsson on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on 10 år
sui generis on 10 år
Victor on 10 år
Jan Olof Bengtsson on Moderat omprövning
Irminsul on Salvini, SD och EU-reformismen…
Jan Olof Bengtsson on Salvini, SD och EU-reformismen…
All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi