PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 158 20th December 2010
I. 'Objective Idealism and the teleological structure of reality' by Thomas P. Walsh
II. 'Does Metaphysics deal with something or nothing?' by Adebayo A. Ogungbure
III. 'Africa and India: the materialist challenge' by Burton Sankeralli
I would first like to take this opportunity to wish subscribers to Philosophy Pathways as well as all my colleagues and Pathways students around the world, health, happiness and fulfilment in 2011!
This issue is dedicated to the question of metaphysics -- its nature and possibility, as well as the prospects for metaphysical inquiry in a secular and materialist age.
Thomas Walsh is a retired teacher from Ireland who recently completed a Pathways program in Metaphysics. I found his essay in response to a question about objective idealism and the teleological structure of reality to be informative and indeed inspiring, showing evidence of his deep engagement with the subject and wide reading over many years prior to joining Pathways.
Adebayo Ogungbure teaches teaches philosophy at the University of Ibidan, Nigeria. His carefully argued response to the question, 'Is metaphysics the study of nothing or something?' follows broadly along the lines of the answer I would give: that insofar as the impulse towards metaphysics is real and cannot be denied, its conclusions whatever they may be cannot merely be 'about nothing'. The proper subject of debate is over how we should view those impulses -- their true significance -- even if that involves negative critique.
Burton Sankeralli is a member and convener of the Trinidad and Tobago Philosophical Society. He has previously contributed articles to Philosophy Pathways and to Philosophy for Business. Here, with references to the Bhagavad Gita as well as the African philosophical tradition, he argues for an idealist inspired philosophy which seeks to heal the split between the spiritual and the material. His argument nicely dovetails with a point made by Thomas Walsh, that there ought to be no inconsistency between idealism, properly understood, and the recognition that we are physical agents in a world, not merely disembodied consciousnesses.
I. 'OBJECTIVE IDEALISM AND THE TELEOLOGICAL STRUCTURE OF REALITY' BY THOMAS P. WALSH
This essay presents at bottom a type of ethico-epistemological justification for acknowledging the existence of an Absolute. It makes the claim that a certain type of poetic cum-analogical use of language is required if this case is to be made persuasively.
And, the claim is also made that the existence of such an Absolute must make room for a genuine notion of time and for the recognition of the existence of real individual persons. And, because of the dynamic set up by these realities that therefore there exists in ultimate reality a real teleological structure. A picture of the Absolute described in this way might be described as Objective Idealism.
And as such it differs from other forms of Idealism because it persuasively makes room for and accommodates the view that ultimate reality has a true teleological structure.
The Idealist philosopher may be the one who above all others takes the issue of Metaphysics most seriously. As a seeker after truth, a fundamental question facing him is to enquire into the nature of reality. In a sense, this question concerning what is the 'really' real poses itself to the enquirer at the very beginning of his intellectual journey and quest when and where he is moved by awe and wonder at the basic fact of existence itself. The question remains with him as he poses a myriad of more individual and particular questions while he traverses the various sciences. It seems to 'haunt' his mind. We are reminded of Aristotle's dictum at the beginning of the Metaphysics: all men by nature desire to know. And what the Metaphysician seeks to know above all is the truth. And the truth is what is real: reality.
If, as some 'materialists' maintain, man is his body, or is to be identified with his 'material' body; then he feels (if he is pursuing the philosophical quest) impelled to ask: what is this 'body'? What is this 'material' body? Prompted by this question, he must ask further: what is 'matter'? What ultimately constitutes 'matter'? What is its ontological status? His enquiry then actually is not strictly a scientific question, but has to do with the deepest philosophy; has to do with Metaphysics.
Even by the very act of asking such a question (or, for that matter, asking 'any' questions) he must become aware that, somehow, 'he' as a thinking being is relatively 'unique' in the world given to him in experience. He must have some inkling that as a thinking being his is a privileged ontological state. The difference between him and other non-thinking beings is more than a difference of degree. 'Consciousness' itself seems to bear witness to the very special ontological status that this 'self' enjoys within the world of non-conscious beings. Or, if there are degrees by which this 'person' (or self-aware and conscious 'self') is related to a mountain, a tree, a horse or a chimpanzee -- then the 'quality' of his consciousness and awareness seems to imply or bear witness to some kind of qualitative or transformative 'leap' along the evolutionary road by which he is related to such beings.
One significant basis for the judgement that he ('person') is qualitatively distinct and different in 'kind' (not merely by degree) is the radical 'foundation' within his psyche of a range of capacities (dynamic potentialities) possessed by him.
Indeed, on the physiological level he has bodily movements such as digestion, respiration and growth. Even more on the psychological level, he can sense, feel, desire and act on his environment. But, more especially and most particularly related to his humanity he has language. And, language draws on and nourishes a whole range of abilities or capacities that, when he thinks about it, are wonderfully exceptional. Language is intimately related to consciousness and consciousness itself is intimately related to the deep well of ability and capacity inherent within his nature.
The abilities or capacities are not just objects for reflection or wonder, which may be admired passively. They have an active existence and emerge dramatically as it were within man. Their essence is to 'be expressed' as if they were being drawn out of him by some great magnetic or attractive force outside and beyond himself. Man can 'do, feel, think and love'. This range of capacities is the well-spring that has been drawn on by man to express himself over aeons -- to imprint on his environment a portrait of his inner 'soul'. By means of this range of abilities man is capable of creatively shaping and fashioning inanimate nature.
Hence, we have witnessed in history a mushrooming of the arts and sciences as well as spectacular and unbelievable building and construction projects. Cumulatively we call this eruption of spiritual or 'human' expression civilisation or culture. Some commentators have attempted to define or describe the nature of the motivating forces underlying all this breathtaking expression.
Some see in it nothing particularly remarkable unusual, or noteworthy -- in the context of all the rest of nature's evolutionary outflowing. For such observers, the driving force is entirely predictable and explicable in purely 'naturalistic' terms meaning by 'naturalistic': non-mental/non-spiritual. For them, the motivating force might be reductively expressed as the urge to propagate the species or the lust for power and control or some other 'naturalistic' force which explains adequately, according to their satisfactions at least, the totality of economic, political and cultural accomplishments of man. For them such 'spiritual' or cultural realities have a mere epiphenomenal existence. They are mere sublimations of instinctual feelings or appendages to more 'real' material forces.
Other commentators disagree. They point out that even the totality of achievements actually 'realised' at any stage in history (including the present age) leave the 'well' of ability and capacity virtually un-touched and un-explored. This 'gap' between actual historic 'achievement' and the 'potentiality' still lying buried within the human psyche, may find poignant and painful expression in and through the work of certain sensitive spirits of a poetic disposition who despair of 'civilisation' and its so-called achievements. They feel the need personally and tragically to explore the depths of the human spirit's capacity to express itself, or to 'respond' to the call/ 'vocation' of some great other calling from the great 'beyond', beyond the self.
Arising from this need certain such spirits have (impatiently as it were) rushed ahead of historic development with its relatively slow tempo and gradualist pace and the manner by which such change typically inches its evolutionary way forward, in time. One result of the thinking of such sensitive yet impatient thinking individuals has been the articulation of an ambitious Metaphysical view of reality that is comprehensively over-arching and all inclusive in the account it gives of reality.
The general term given to indicate and describe such (overly) ambitious Metaphysical statements is 'Idealism'. Meaning by Idealism, i.e. that the essence of the ultimately real is non-material; it is what might be called 'mental' or spiritual, i.e. it is founded on the belief that if knowledge is possible, then the real 'object' of knowledge must be 'idea'-like. This is in sharp contrast to the rather 'hard-nosed' no-nonsense and common-sense view that 'things' just are as they appear to be. And they appear to be individual concrete, material objects entirely accessible to the senses. The philosophical position of many scientists appears to be in continuity with this layman's common-sense view. A descriptive-term which might cover this anti-Idealist view would possible be scientific-materialism (or realism with a small 'r').
The 'language' of the materialist could be described as 'prosaic' (small-minded), that of the Idealist as 'poetic' (great-minded). The language of the material-realist (being 'prosaic') tends to be flat; one-dimensional; rather rigid, closed, concrete and 'univocal', meaning that great emphasis is placed on concreteness and clarity, where if possible there is a distinct relationship between one definite word-term and one particular concrete object: and both the words and objects are more or less conceived as isolated and unrelated atomic entities. Such a philosophy of language is embraced out of an anxious desire to avoid ambiguity and obscurity. For example a report which gives an account of some scientific experiment or procedure with its cold, clinical and rather technical terminology may be held up by its proponent as exemplifying the ultimate bench-mark or gold standard in the correct/ meaningful use of language, and as being the criterion with which to measure the meaningfulness of any linguistic utterance that purports to make sense.
In contrast to this, the form of language preferred by Idealism tends to be essentially poetic. It rejects the threat of a straight-jacket of univocalism. And it rebuffs the claim that there must always be a direct concrete relationship between a world employed and the object referred to. It also tends to be sceptical of the belief that there can be a pure, clinically-objective form of language that is emotionally neutral and that is free from ambiguity. This is to say that the language preferred by the Idealist tends to lean towards the metaphorical. It employs metaphor and the use of analogical reference liberally and often to good effect in order to establish a web of relationships between the objects of perception. It implies that this web-pattern is not merely a product of knowledge but may also be ontologically real. According to the mode of expression favoured by the Idealist philosopher then, words are not really singular atomic entities but rather are intimately inter-related within an organic linguistic cosmos that (as it were) 'breathes' consciousness. Consciousness 'emerges' within the grid-pattern or poetic-form; and reality may be said, as it were, to 'inhere' in the language-complex.
In other words, it may be true to say that within the Idealist frame of reference the distinction between what is known and what is ontologically real is not articulated in sharply defined or clear black and white terms. There is a creative tension perceived to exist between these two polarities that borders on asserting that: 'what is known is real' and 'what is real is known'.
Also, the poetic thought of Idealist Metaphysics may be described as essentially religio-philosophic. Its tone is not particularly 'secular' or 'scientific'. Such poetic thought articulates a linguistic-conceptual 'context' from which the big questions concerning the nature of reality may arise spontaneously and naturally in an unforced and unselfconscious and unembarrassed way.
Such big questions rise up, so to speak, within the Idealist system as sap may be said to rise within a plant. That is, Idealist Metaphysics poses the great questions and addresses the reader not necessarily perhaps as a philosopher or literary critic only; but, more specifically it addresses him as a human being. This is to say that Metaphysics in its Idealist mode or guise is perceived by the reader not to be a mere trivial game or some such idle pursuit; or to be reducible to a mere set of logical puzzles. But, Metaphysics of this calibre consciously provokes the reader into thinking that what is at stake is something quite serious; that what it is about is significantly important and meaningful. Such a brand of Metaphysics seeks to require of the reader an urgent response; a response that goes beyond the mere cognitive or notional acknowledgement of what is being said. The response required is one that practically engages the whole person as a human being, i.e. that such a philosophic-linguistic context, as the Idealist Metaphysics is, constitutes a framework that facilitates understanding of the big theoretical questions as to what is real and what is meaningful. But also, that it may be a context and framework that provides and facilitates guidance on such important practical questions as to how one is to live and what one is to do.
A practical and life-oriented function of philosophy and Metaphysics such as is being intimated here, is part of a long and venerable tradition within the history of philosophy. Although it must be admitted that the modern professional or academic practice of philosophy has largely turned its back on, or lost interest in this way of viewing philosophy as a life-change experience.
What is being contended for here is that the poetic language of Idealist Metaphysics sharpens our awareness and opens our eyes as to how we are to engage effectively with our perhaps rather opaque and semi-mysterious capacity or potentiality which resides within the depths of our human nature and personhood. The employment of such language and the mode of approach associated with it enables us to 'see' with fresh eyes the possibilities waiting to be fruitfully exploited in the world; in life; and in reality. In this way, such language appears to be inherently enabling and facilitates us in realising our full potential as seekers after truth and lovers of wisdom. Just like it has been said that beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; so too, in like manner, reality could be said to reside in the 'eye' of the beholder. In other words, reality -- far from being pictured as some great inert and impenetrable 'block' so to speak -- might rather be viewed a soft, penetrable, elastically pliable and porous and capable so to speak of taking on the imprint of our world-view.
Empowered by the inherent potency of such poetic language and the world vision associated with it a further task might be said to await the philosophic investigator and pursuer of truth concerning the nature of reality. The task awaiting him could be said to be the clarification of the object, purpose or function of poetic language when articulated in the mode of Metaphysics. It would seem that such language when allied to a philosophical outlook of this nature is capable of being transformative in so far as it employs a performative use of language. It would seem that it does not merely describe a pre-existing reality as if it were some given state of affairs but is in a sense constitutive of reality. We are hardly pushing the metaphor too far when we say, while borrowing term from religious philosophy, that such use of language when allied to such a world-view is ultimately 'salvific' -- i.e. it saves. I believe such a description of its function is appropriate and in order and is not an unduly extravagant or immoderate use of language.
The 'salvation' it effects or accomplishes is 'philosophic' in nature, in so far as it assists us in realising or actualising the capacity or potentiality inherent in our nature or personhood. This transformation involves not only our own limited and individual 'self', but is part of a process of change within reality itself. When one adopts such a Metaphysical (Idealist) view he is involved intimately in a process of change and development by means of which reality itself may be said to be involved in a process of coming to full realisation and actualisation. In this way, reality may be said to be oriented towards some 'telos'.
Such a 'telos' cannot merely be 'cognitive'. It cannot merely be a question of theoretical knowledge. If it is enlightenment; then it is spiritual enlightenment having a real effect; not only on how we 'view' reality but also on reality itself as it is constituted, has the effect of transforming that reality. However, what is the objective correlative of this global complex of dynamic self-understanding and self-transformation expressed as it is in poetic language? The use of such poetic language is not an arbitrary luxury. Although it may appear to border on ambiguity and obscurity, it does so not in order to obfuscate the reader. It feels required to speak in this manner because of the genuinely obscure and mysterious nature of the reality which it seriously attempts to engage with and to make clear to the extent that the subject-matter lends itself to clarity.
Some use the term Absolute to refer to the reality involved. The term Absolute is used to mean either the whole of complex of 'things'; or, to mean the ground of all being.
But there is a danger in employing a term such as 'Absolute' that we will conjure up an image of some fixed, permanent and perfect state of being -- in which there is no real place for any notion of change and development and in which the notion of time is a mere delusion. But what about the 'person' (such as 'I' believe myself to be)?, e.g. The 'subject' behind this present 'enquiry' and this writing exercise? Whereas 'materialism' may tend to 'reduce' him (person) 'down' so to speak, into 'matter' and explain him in the reductive terms of physical forces -- material processes, (i.e. to rob him of his individuality/ personality within the flux of some/ impersonal process). Alternatively, 'Idealism' with the correlative notion of 'Absolute' may be in danger of absorbing him 'up' into the Absolute as a 'drop' of water is 'lost' within the ocean. Either way: the essence of the person is in danger of being lost --- in some perpetual motion of change and flux --- or in some permanent state of frozen stillness and simplicity.
Perhaps one way of asserting the radical reality of the individual person is to look more closely at the phenomenon of agency: my ability to act on and react to my environment. This phenomenon may provide a clue towards resolving the tension between the notion of the Absolute and that of the individual person. It may also provide a glimpse into the reality of my own individual personhood. From an individually psychological or phenomenological point of view my 'action' in and on the world provides me with an intimation of the reality of change and through this to an awareness of duration and process. Such an awareness may well be the bedrock from which I can rise to an appreciation of the reality of time itself. In this way, I appreciate biographical time: my own individual trajectory or itinerary. This may lead on to an appreciation of historical time: the great sequential chain of interconnected and interrelated similar 'selves'. And, by extension and through the study of the natural sciences we may appreciate the dimensions of cosmological time (incorporating geological and astronomical changes over time). By means of this intensive and cumulative awareness of time we may gain a notion of the meaning of the end of time.
In so far as we accept the reality of time then reality or being itself may well be viewed as a process of change and of coming-to-be. That is; we may view being as finitude and as being imperfect in some way. Thinking analogically and in mathematical terms we may be aided by a notion of the dimensionless point in its discreteness and yet of the emergence, in a way through a sequence of points, of continuous line. An alternative view of being, when we have possess a weak notion of time's reality, may be of being conceived as perfect 'form' possessing such characteristics as permanence and stability. Thinking analogically in mathematical terms we may visualise a geometric form: for example of an area that is dimension-full and perfectly complete. So, we may see, there is a dual aspect to the concept of being; a radical tension between two opposed polarities: reality of flux-change is opposed to permanent stability. Now, it is hard to see how we are to reconcile this duality into some single unitary and comprehensive notion of being. It may be felt that the concept of being-in-itself suggests the notion of perfection. The question arising is: are there degrees by which reality 'grows' as it were and becomes more 'real'; either extensively and quantitatively or intensively and qualitatively?
At the level of my own individual consciousness and at the level of my personhood, time seems to constitute an essential ingredient of the reality I encounter. In this way reality or being seem to me to be in process of development; becoming more intensively 'real'. This awareness is partly brought about through the endurance quality of my existence. Because while realising my experience of self-hood I become acutely aware of hindrances and obstacles. Therefore, essentially, my experience is one of perpetual striving (making an effort and encountering difficulty). One might say that by means of this oblique awareness: a quasi-tactile and kinetic awareness of a self striving to overcome obstacles, I gain an insight into the nature of process, duration and into the nature of time itself. On one hand, I may experience the reality which resists my striving as so to speak 'closed': a set of deterministic forces which constrain and hem in my action so that 'I' am reduced as it were to being an active automation or puppet on-a-string. Now, if this is the case, then it would be hard to credit reality with anything resembling genuine value. And, my person-hood would thus be deprived of real ontological significance.
My Metaphysical view could then be described as bordering on the nihilistic or pessimistic; and the despair inevitably experienced would undermine any orientation of the (self) persona towards the Absolute. In a sense the Absolute would as it were cease to exist as a reality for me and would cease to exist as a meaningful 'telos' for my striving. The striving would continue, but only as a meaningless absurdity -- an unexplained evil.
On the other hand, I may experience the reality and striving as an open process and my persona as being that of a free agent. Such an experience of openness would inspire a veritable sense of control of and responsibility for the direction of my life's endeavour. Now, if this were the case, then it would not be difficult to credit reality with genuine and authentic value. And, my personhood would be validated as having real ontological meaning and significance. My Metaphysical view could then be described as one of optimistic hope, a hope that would positively underline and corroborate the orientation of the self-persona towards the self-Absolute. The Absolute, in this way, would exist 'really' for me: both as a 'telos' for my striving and as a ground of being that could explain in meaningful terms the 'fact' of my existence.
That is, if my 'striving' is perceived as having the character of being open and free (rather than being closed and determined) then this must provide positive ground for hope. This being the case 'persona' (self) then may be perceived as like a congeries of energy, or potency or capacity. In this way I would experience the essence of personhood as 'intelligent will' -- will, because it is oriented towards the Absolute as the good -- and intelligent, because it is orientated towards the Absolute as truth. The Absolute, then, within itself, so to speak, would contain a dynamic orientation towards its own perfection as goodness, truth (and beauty). In this way it would be genuinely 'teleological' in nature.
Perhaps a word may be said here concerning the mode of approach adopted in this essay. And (more generally) of the poetic style of writing favoured by Idealist philosophers. For many centuries, there existed a traditional Metaphysical framework that typically supported elevated levels of civilised moral and social behaviour as well as a 'high' estimate of the value ontological work of each individual person. It is disturbing for us to be aware in the present age how far this framework (once thought to be rock-solid) has been in steady decline -- especially over the last hundred years or so. For example, contemporary philosophers almost never mention god or the Absolute in their writings. Many analytic philosophers in particular subscribe to what may be called the 'naturalistic revolution' -- which models the methods and goals of philosophy on those of the natural sciences.
They seem to have an austere conception of philosophy and of philosophical enquiry which is purely 'rational' in a manner that imposes a kind of straitjacket on man's capacity for intuitive and imaginative thinking; and believe themselves obliged to steer clear of convictions that may depend on 'faith'. It must be noted here that 'faith' involves certain constitutive presuppositions by which we are, as it were, committed to a form of life that is entailed by the content (intellectual) of our faith propositions. In this way, our moral stature as persons may predetermine the intellectual outlook we opt for. By 'faith' here more particularly may be understood the radical capacity to 'respond' to reality in the deepest and broadest sense possible. In a way that draws deeply on man's internal capacity for a full emotional-cum-imaginative as well as cognitive appreciation of what reality might mean. And, a response of this type seems most at home with articulations that are couched in religio-poetic form rather than by employing more prosaic and 'secular' or 'scientific' form of expression.
The theory of the 'Absolute' has been a perennial topic in Metaphysics from the time of Plato and Parmenides right up to the modern era. Our sense of subjective individuality as an essential element of what goes to make up being a 'person' is sometimes supposed to have had more recent and localised historical origins, stemming from the rise of possessive individualism in the early-modern period.
It may be possible, however, to propose a historical counter-narrative, according to which the inherent sense of subjective individualism and the theory of the Absolute are not mutually exclusive and opposed to one another but inextricably 'intertwined', i.e. that they are as it were correlative concepts: two sides of the one coin. One possible thesis that could be proposed is that without the fundamental sense of our own individuality -- and an awareness of its intrinsic value -- then the framework for formulating a theory of the 'Absolute' would simply not have been available to us ever. According to this way of thinking the notion of the 'Absolute' is simply the notion of one's own individual personhood 'writ large' and magnified. It is, as it were a projection onto the frame of reality although it may be misleading to state it in those terms.
The dominant ethical-theory of antiquity was eudaemonism -- the view that the ultimate good is the well-lived human life in which our capacity for excellence is developed to the full (the quest for perfection). Some thinkers attack a notion such that the self-sufficiency of the well-lived life is enough to ensure happiness. They insist that the stranglehold of self-centred eudaemonism must be broken by 'opening' the individual-self to such ego-challenging emotions as 'compassion' for the suffering of the other. So, according to them, we open up a space within ourselves and draw on the deep reserves of imagination for the full range of emotions. Such a notion involves a kind of 'sea-change' or transformation in our thinking. This 'ethical' copernican-revolution provides us with a foundation and basis for an equally radical 'revolution' in our Metaphysical thinking, i.e. the love we have for the other is the facilitating condition which enables us to 'know' the other, i.e. ethics is the key that opens the door to epistemology, i.e. we must not merely have an 'open mind'; but, more importantly we ought to have an open heart.
If we open up to the other compassionately in the guise of a fellow-suffering individual person, then, by doing this, we validate or endorse his dignity ontologically. We confer on him, as it were, the dignity of being a 'person'. So by engaging in this copernican revolution of an ethico-epistemological kind we are then empowered, enabled and intellectually justified to open up to the idea of some ultimate 'other': the transcendent other. Which other, as Absolute other, grounds and justifies the 'value' we place on our 'fellows' (and on ourselves).
The original key which opens us to this other is based on emotions, e.g. compassion but fulfilled in love. However, this 'love of the Absolute-one other' urges us to make sense of and justify the impulses which drive us. And, the intellectual effort to provide ourselves with the necessary justification gives rise to the enterprise of 'Metaphysics' -- particularly that 'brand' of Metaphysics which is normally described as 'Idealism' -- 'Idealist-Metaphysics'.
Ultimately we require the Absolute both as conceptual notion and as ontological reality. Because only the 'love' of the Absolute for each individual person; the love of the Absolute as a creative love only such love 'constitutes' the other in being. In virtue of this original love by the Absolute, ontological 'worth and dignity' is conferred on that person and so makes him such (a valuable entity) that I in turn must 'respect' him and grant him all the basic rights I claim for myself.
If we distinguish in the Absolute then an Absolute-'natura' (which is impersonal and makes no moral claims on us) then we may envisage an Absolute that appears to be static and closed to development, i.e. its existence is almost irrelevant to us and it is as if it did not exist at all. But, in so far, as we envisage each individual 'persona' as a real ontological value and entity and, as we envisage a plurality of such personas (within the persona of the Absolute) then it becomes possible to envisage dynamic progression and real 'time' as persona relates to persona in compassion, love and knowledge and so sets up a 'chain reaction' so to speak within the Absolute. And we may envisage how this energy, this potential tension may ultimately be resolved within history in real time.
And so the life or reality of the Absolute would be teleological and purposive; in so far as the logic of love is to seek reconciliation, communion and harmony between all the elements or parts. Meaning by elements/ parts all the individual 'persona' 'within' (so to speak) the Absolute.
It is in some such terms, that we may see that Objective Idealism (however we define it) may be distinguished from previous Idealist theories in so far as such a perception of Idealism makes the claims that ultimate- reality possesses a dynamic character and a teleological structure with a clear notion both of the reality of time and the genuine existence of individual 'persons'. Were this the case then it would be distinct from other theories which, by comparison, seem to depict an ultimate reality (Absolute) that enjoys the perfection of permanence and stability -- but a permanence that appears static. And in which 'change', 'time' and even the ontology reality of the individual 'persona' have no real existence.
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(c) Thomas Walsh 2010
II. 'DOES METAPHYSICS DEAL WITH SOMETHING OR NOTHING?' BY ADEBAYO A. OGUNGBURE
The main objective of this paper is to raise certain skeptical questions about the subject matter of metaphysics. Metaphysics is often defined as an aspect of philosophy that seeks to determine the real nature of things -- to determine the fundamental structure, principles and meaning of whatever is insofar as it is. It also attempts to give an account of reality as a whole, both physical and non-physical. In the process of achieving this primary task, highly theoretical assumptions as regards transcendental realities are made; and this has elicited severe criticisms about the discourse on various fronts. The logical positivists, for instance, are famous for their attack on metaphysics as something which deals with nothing but empty concepts that leads to the production of factually empty statements -- it is referred to here as nothingism.
An examination of the grounds proffered for the possible existence of immaterial realities like Hegel's Absolute Spirit, Descartes Cogito, and Spinoza's Substance and other general categories suggested by these, and other metaphysical idealists, seems to confirm the fact that metaphysics is a highly speculative field of study. Invariably, the quest to ascertain the veracity of such transphysical speculations is a major reason why philosophers have differed greatly concerning the subject matter of metaphysics. However, our preoccupation here is not only to raise rhetorical question as regards the thematic significance of metaphysics; this paper also attempts to answer the question by concluding that even if we think that metaphysics is about nothing, even that nothing, by its very definition, and in the final analysis, would amount to something.
We begin our discussion by asking this important question about the study of metaphysics: does metaphysics deal with something or nothing? To put it more clearly, does the study of metaphysics afford us knowledge of something worthwhile about the nature of reality and the fundamental principles of human life? Or is it merely an abstractive discourse whose main aim is to formulate theories about nothing, nothingness, or no thing and focus on non-existent qualities whose representation is nothing but the absence of anything? An attempt to answer this question immediately poses two sets of problems. First, if we say that metaphysics, by virtue of its imprecision and uncertainty about transcendental generalities, deals with nothing of serious intellectual concern, then it would be pointless studying it. This point of view will be in line with Hume's skeptical attack which holds that all metaphysical treaties devoid of matters of facts and relation of ideas should be committed to the flames because it contains nothing except illusion and sophistry. Second, if it is maintained that metaphysics deals with something rather than nothing then reasons for holding such conclusions must be proffered; and in the explication of this 'something' there must be a clear-cut analytical distinction between what is, what seems and what could be so that 'something' would not theoretically speaking, metamorphose into 'nothing'.
In actual fact, the central issues examined by metaphysicians like ontology of being, the fundamental structure of reality, nature of man, the existence of God, immortality, eschatology, and so on, have a way of generating innumerable controversies and debates about their factual content. When these controversies and debates are pursued beyond certain limits, they may lead to nothingism, a production of trivial utterances. Suppose a certain Professor of Philosophy who had only last night delivered an important lecture was reported dead this morning after suffering a heart attack; then we may raise questions on why he had to die and whether his soul survives death or even if there is an after life. If it is taken for granted that there is an after life, then we may further inquire to know about the form in which survivals are existent in such a transphysical world. But how tenable is it to assert that there is a world of existence that transcends the physical world occupied by incorporeal beings like Plato's forms and Leibniz's monads?
Now, in so far as metaphysics examines immaterial existence and concepts like God, being, substance, transcendence, essence etc., then the issue of whether the human soul can exist without the body, like the case of the hypothetical Professor, immediately becomes of great concern to the metaphysician. In this regard, it is pertinent to state that abstract conceptions about the possibility of an after life and disembodied existence are general notions which, in most cases, lead to the formulation of conjectures and unfounded speculations (nothing) about the ultimate goal of human life and the nature of reality because one cannot make claims about an existent world of transcendence in which he has not existed. This is perhaps why Jim I.Unah observes that 'transcendence is the projection of the mind into nothingness'. If this is the case, then does it suffice to say that metaphysics is a discipline that deals with nothing? Undoubtedly, the kinds of questions that metaphysics attempts to answer are difficult ones and the method of investigation of reality tilt towards the a priori path of knowledge more than the a posteriori. Suppose one is seeking to understand the purpose of life, why people have to die and be unable to return to earth to tell the story of what happens after life. It may be difficult to give any form of explanation on these issues based on observable facts or scientific reasoning. But most people have come to settle for mere emotive beliefs habitually premised on religious doctrines and dogmas without developing any attitude for critical reflection.
Thus, our aim herein is not to blindly follow in the traditions of the logical positivists who rejected the meaningfulness of metaphysics based on the principle of verification. Rather, we shall look at the nature of metaphysics and how it obstinately plunges one into the realm of 'nothing' or vagueness in an attempt to understand the complex nature of reality. Although 'philosophers have disagreed about the nature of metaphysics' this paper goes a step beyond this to assess the objective behind the study of metaphysics seeking for its relevance as a viable field of intellectual brainstorming. Now, to claim that metaphysics is a study of a priori categories of no significant value because it attempts a comprehensive assessment of the fundamental structure of reality as a whole, as well as immaterial concepts like causality, time, space, essence, etc. would be to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. In order to avoid this, it is expedient to pursue a conceptual clarification of core issues forthwith.
The Nature of Metaphysics
One major scepticism about the nature of metaphysics centers on the dialectical question of being and non-being. This explains why metaphysics is said to be a discipline that studies reality as a whole rather than piecemeal. Metaphysics, a core aspect of philosophical enquiry which concerns itself with the fundamental principles, and the nature of ultimate reality, ontology of being, and ultimate universals involves a great deal of abstraction and speculative analyses. But the kind of speculation the metaphysician engages in is not aimless -- it is an attempt to understand the form of reality which encompasses existence. The term metaphysics is believed to have evolved when Andronicus of Rodes was editing Aristotle's works; he separated those that were beyond the physica treatise and referred to them as Meta ta physica or treatise after the physical originally referred to by Aristotle as First Philosophy. Metaphysics is the most comprehensive of all human enquiries because it is concerned not just with the nature of things that exist in space and time, but also with those things that transcends spatio-temporal existence. However, metaphysics has been defined from various perspectives as deemed fit by their authors. In the opinion of Brian Carr, metaphysics is a more fundamental branch of philosophy than epistemology. To substantiate facts for his position he writes thus:
Metaphysics, in its minimal form, is the activity of
categorical description. Its subject matter is the most
fundamental aspects of the way we think about reality, the
most fundamental feature of reality as it presents itself
In a similar manner, Tim Black defines metaphysics as 'an enterprise whose central concern is the fundamental structure of reality as a whole, and whose investigations are constrained only by the shape of reality as a whole and not by the shape of any particular reality'. This implies that metaphysics deals with something after all -- an investigation about the shape of reality as a whole. But what does the phrase 'the shape of reality' connote? Can the fundamental structure of reality as a whole be defined with any form of precision without delving into conceptual errors and ambiguities? Take for instance Leibniz's conception of the monad as the fundamental substance out of which all forms of reality emanate. He believes, as a matter of logical necessity, that there must be some ultimate irreducible elements out of which all compound substances are formed. The monad in Leibniz's metaphysics signifies an indubitable universal presence that stands for what is. Ultimate reality for Leibniz consists in the composite structure of the monad. But how real is this form of reality? Historically, philosophers from the classical age to the modern period have contemplated variously on the nature of reality; some came up with a number of ideas or something about what constitutes the ultimate nature of reality.
The early Greek philosophers were struck by two factors as they observed the universe; first they noted that although there were changes everywhere, as things changed from one form to another, there was continuity in the midst of the changes, that is, there was always something which did not change but remained permanent and persisted through the changes. This led them to postulate something about the basic elements that makes up reality or being. Thales conceived this primary stuff as water which permeates all things; Anaximander says it is made up of neutral elements which was different from Anaximenes' air. Invariably, Heraclitus viewed existence as something in a perpetual state of flux -- always changing, while Parmenides maintains the opposite position that change is simply an illusion of the senses because it does not exist; in his view, reality is one, unchanging, indivisible and universal. The foregoing defines the ageless struggle of philosophers against nothingness; it also corroborates the fact that reality is a very difficult term to define even though metaphysicians attempt to study it. Martin Heidegger in Being and Time clearly described this initial dogmatic attempt by the Greek philosophers to understand and conceptualize reality as an effort that amounts to nothing. He writes thus:
On the basis of the Greek's initial contributions towards
an interpretation of Being, a dogma has been developed
which not only declares the question about the meaning of
being to be superfluous, but sanctions its complete
neglect. It is said that 'Being' is the most universal and
emptiest of concepts. As such it resists every attempt at
Most criticisms leveled against the study of metaphysics often stem from the fact that 'reality is an ambiguous term, i.e. to say that anything is real is to say nothing definite'. This implies that to speak of metaphysics as a discipline whose primary concern is the shape of reality as a whole, is to say nothing. Given this fact, how then do we represent the form of reality the metaphysician claims to study and not result into empty abstractions, taking into consideration the notion which holds that:
Reality is indefinable. The proposition 'whatever is, is
real,' although true, does not help us to define reality,
or to determine it in any other way, because in 'whatever
is' the 'is' involves being, and being is the same as
reality. But the proposition, though tautologous, is
not.. useless, since it brings before us the wide
denotation of reality.
Now, if reality is regarded as something indefinable then the metaphysician is in a big dilemma of explaining the nature of reality he claims to investigate. We may claim that metaphysical investigations are not confined to the realm of physical existence in the same way the physicist considers matter and things that exist in space and time; so precision should not be sought. Or we may even refer to metaphysics as the study of the principles that govern concrete physical reality. No matter how we decide to argue, all of these would amount, in the final analysis, to nothing. For all of the above definitions would amount to saying that metaphysics is the study of imprecise, indeterminate, and vague generalities. This would appear to confirm the depressing statement that metaphysics deals with nothing. Although we cannot rule out the fact that man is constantly in awe of the phenomenal existence and he is fixated with the wonder of how there seems to be order in the middle of chaos; the starry sky and the orbit of the earth, the air we breathe, the arrangement of planets, death and the essence of existence, the nature of the human soul and so on. So in the process of communicating one's intuitive revelations as regards these phenomena, the lure of linguistic vacuity must be avoided. It is this temptation that is referred to as nothingism -- making insignificant remarks and conceptually empty submissions as regards the nature of metaphysical realities.
Nothingism and the Nature of Metaphysics
Nothingism has to do with the conception of nothing. In this regard, when one makes empty assertions about the state of being then it is assumed that nothing has been said. Take for instance, Kant's noumena or 'things in themselves': the notion of a reality that exists but lies beyond the powers of human comprehension. If this is indeed true, it follows that reality or absolute forms transcend human description. This explains why metaphysicians have been mostly described by the skeptics as thinkers who continually fall into the conundrum of nothingism. If we follow others who define metaphysics as the science of the most abstract conceptions about being in its universality or as the study of being qua being in Aristotelian terms, then nothing in particular would have been said. The nature of metaphysics is such that it treats general notions such as immaterial substance as its subject matter. And this sort of relationship between the discipline and its subject matter gives metaphysics an intriguing status. Unlike the other disciplines, it does not simply assume that the existence of its subject matter is real; it must actually prove that there is an immaterial substance for it to be about. However, it is on this note that the logical positivists rejected 'metaphysical assertions at their face value and show how extraordinary their implications were' for reality and common sense.
The logical positivist attack on metaphysics is based on the verification principle which holds that the meaning of a statement lies in its method of verification; whereby expressions about non-observable things and general abstraction are considered as nothing at all. Then does this presuppose that metaphysics deals with nothing? This question seems to be answered in the affirmative by Rudolf Carnap when he concludes that metaphysical assertions are 'no assertions at all because they do not speak about anything. They are nothing but a series of empty words -- expressions with no sense'. On the part of A.J. Ayer, 'metaphysical utterances are due to the commission of logical errors, rather than to a conscious desire on the part of their authors to go beyond the limits of experience'.
Thus, for the positivists only those statements that could be verified by the method of empirical analysis or translated to verifiable statements were thought to have meaning. Although, we know that the logical positivists are guilty of certain shortcomings because the method of verification narrows the question of reality to linguistic significance and empirical observation. All that there is, cannot be reduced to purely analytic and synthetic statements. For instance, the nature of what goes on in the human mind and whether there are other minds in existence independent of our own minds cannot be analytically examined by constructing tautological statements, neither can it be verified by observational means because the mind is probably not a material substance. This presupposes the fact that metaphysics considers serious fundamental questions about life and why certain phenomena occur. One reason why the challenge of nothingism confronts the metaphysician is that most of the investigations carried out about what is, rather than what appears, are complex in nature.
The metaphysician is obstinately confronted by nothingness upon his investigation of the possibility of the existence of immaterial substance and the nature and constitution of the world itself. But whichever way, the search for ultimate truth must begin from the known to unknown rather than from the unknown to the known so that we do not produce theories from ignorance or illusion without providing any cognitive base for their meaning. More so, the argument that metaphysics deals with nothing, stems from the very fact of the nature of metaphysics as a science of human reasoning which deals with things that surpasses the material world of science. The object of metaphysical investigation includes immaterial beings quoad esse such as the human soul and God and immaterial conceptions quoad conceptum such as substance, cause, essence, which are all believed to be in existence without any scientific considerations.
A good example is the argument for the existence of God provided by St. Anselm. He argues that God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. This statement when looked at critically amounts to nothing -- a being than which nothing greater can be thought, logically cannot be known because a limitation has been placed on human reason by Anselm's statement. If Anselm was proposing a perfect state of being for God's existence, then we cannot definitely know if God exists because a perfect state of being is relatively problematic to conceptualize. This is the type of problem many metaphysical assertions encounter; the problem of nothingism -- where metaphysics is often regarded as a thing of no value because it does not speak of reality in a significant way.
It is pertinent to state that philosophers are at a conceptual polarity as regards the nature of metaphysics. Some are drawn to the views of Aristotle and the medieval scholars who see the discipline as an attempt to identify first causes like the uncaused cause, the absolute being, the unmoved mover and the science of being as being. Others are sympathetic to the Kantian empirical conception of metaphysics which stood at par with those of the rationalist. Kant believes that there can be a legitimate kind of metaphysical pursuit which does not transcend the limits of human knowledge. This Kantian conception of metaphysics seems appealing and popular among contemporary philosophers, who insist that metaphysics has as its aim the characterization of our conceptual scheme or conceptual framework with respect to the nature of reality. This view has its own implications for the study of metaphysics; that is, to reduce metaphysics to the level of conceptual schemes would make the quest for the nature of reality extremely subjective such that our claims would be to give an account of the general structures in our thought about the world. This could inadvertently lead to solipsism -- that what exists is nothing but the self. But another question that this contemporary trend would raise is that of the relation between thought and reality. In this regard, one might say that the legitimacy of metaphysics as an authentic field of human enquiry rests on a controversy -- that is why we raised the question about whether metaphysics deals with something or nothing in the first place.
Now, let us try to answer the question of whether metaphysics studies something or nothing. If indeed metaphysics raises fundamental questions about the nature of reality, man, existence, and about what goes on in the supra-empirical world, then it does study something -- even though this something is often critiqued to be nothing. But it should be clearly stated that for the metaphysician, even nothing is something because nothingness is the domain from which things come into being and unto which they become extinct. The truth however, is that what is, is partly nothing and nothing is partly something. That is why the question of what is, is inseparable from the question of what is not. So it would be abstruse to say that metaphysics is a worthless intellectual enterprise. Beyond the displeasure of the logical positivist, we must note that it is not the aim of metaphysicians to produce empty statements and fall into the trap of nothingism -- but if certain seemingly empty statements are made, then such 'emptiness is emptiness of something'.
The challenge of nothingism is a problem which stems from the desire to communicate one's conception of reality as a whole rather than piecemeal; it is a difficulty that arises from the attempt by metaphysicians to explain the nature of their findings about all that exists. We must however, be wary of the claims of the naturalized epistemologist that metaphysical knowledge must be compatible with our status as natural creatures -- this sort of empirical reductionism will reduce metaphysics to nothing. In such a way that it would seem that all that exists lies within the precinct of the material world but we know by experience that there are immaterial qualities like space, time, and death. That one can raise serious questions concerning these notions shows that metaphysics studies something after all even though this something is hotly debated by philosophers. In addition, man keenly wants to know about his existence, his identity and how he evolved; these are purely metaphysical speculations. Metaphysics attempts to know why there is what is and the nature of what is just as Heidegger's ontological question stipulates: 'why is there something rather than nothing?' Thus, the quest to seek for what is is one in which all human beings must persist -- in so far as this is the case, then metaphysics studies something rather than nothing.
Abel, R., (1976), Man is the measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy, London: Collier Macmillan Publishers,
Ayer, A.J., (1994), Metaphysics and Common Sense, Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.
______ (1971), Language, Truth and Logic, London: Penguin Books
Carr, Brian, (1987), Metaphysics: An Introduction, London: Macmillan Education Ltd.
Edwards, Paul, (1967), The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, New York: Macmillan Publishers.
Heidegger, M., (1962), Being and Time, Trans. by J. Macquarie & E. Robinson; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Johansen, K. F., (1998), A History of Ancient Philosophy, London: Routledge Books.
Loux, M.J., (1998), Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, London: Routledge Books.
McTaggart, J.Mc.T.E., (1988), The Nature of Reality, Vol.1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nagel, T., (1987), What does it all mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press.
O'Hear, A., (1985), What Philosophy is: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, London: Penguin Books.
Omoregbe, J.I., Knowing Philosophy, Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers.
Sartre, J.P., (1969), Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, London: Routledge Books.
Schacht, R., (1984), Classical Modern Philosophers: Descartes to Kant, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
1. Transcendence is used to describe the activity of the human mind, in the domain of nothingness in a bid to establish facts about what is. See. Jim I. Unah, 'Even Nothing is Something'; An Inaugural lecture Delivered at the University of Lagos, 2006,p.13.
2. Disagreements about the nature of metaphysics are certainly tied to its long history. Philosophers have been doing or trying to do something they have called metaphysics for more than 2,000 years; and the results of their efforts have been accounts with a wide variety of subject matter and approaches. See. Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, London: Routledge, 1998, pp., 3, 4.
3. Brian Carr, Metaphysics: An Introduction, London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1987, p.2.
4. Tim Black, Lecture on Introduction to Metaphysics, California State University, Northridge, Spring, 2004, p.1.
5. Richard Schacht, Classical Modern Philosophers: Descartes to Kant, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p.62.
6. Joseph I. Omoregbe, Knowing Philosophy, Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers, 2002, p.71.
7. Metaphysics is indeed the center of philosophy. The center of philosophy, according to Thomas Nagel, lies in certain questions which the reflective human mind finds naturally puzzling. See. Thomas Nagel, What does it all mean? A very Short Introduction to Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 4.
8. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1962, p. 2.
9. C.D. Broad (ed.), The Nature of Reality, Vol.1, J.Mc.T.E. McTaggart, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.4.
10. Ibid. p.3.
11. Jim I. Unah, Op. Cit., p.2.
12. Michael J. Loux, Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, London: Routledge Books, 1998, P.4.
13. A.J. Ayer, Metaphysics and Common Sense, Boston: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 1994, p. 64.
14. To elucidate his criticisms, Carnap holds that when logical analysis is applied to metaphysical propositions they are not verifiable, or if an attempt at verification is made, the results are always negative. If one takes, for example, the proposition propounded by Thales that 'the principle of the world is water,'one cannot deduce any propositions asserting any perceptions whatever which may be expected in the future. Such a proposition therefore asserts nothing at all. See. Samuel E. Stumpf, Philosophy, History & Problems, New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994, p.453.
15. A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, London: Penguin Books, 1971, p.13.
16. Michael J. Loux, Op.Cit, p. 2.
17. In this sense, a cerebral analysis of any entity would raise the question of nothing, and conversely, any clear-sighted analysis of nothing would result into something. See. Jim I. Unah, Op. Cit, p. 16.
18. Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, London: Routledge Books, 1969, p.15.
(c) Adebayo A. Ogungbure 2010
Department of Philosophy Faculty of Arts University of Ibidan Nigeria
III. 'AFRICA AND INDIA: THE MATERIALIST CHALLENGE' BY BURTON SANKERALLI
I exist in all creatures
so the disciplined man devoted to me
grasps the oneness of life;
wherever he is, he is in me.
(Bhagavad Gita 6:31)
There are many Indias and many Africas.
But having said this we may delicately tug at threads of continuity. Internally in terms of what we may recognize as authentically African and Indian and also externally in terms of radical continuity of Africa and India and beyond. Indeed as Shri Krishna suggests there can be no real separation of what is external and internal.
There are many Africas and many Indias. But both have been subject to stereotyping. The Indian is spiritual and mystic while the African is material and sensuous. While there may be legitimate insight in such statements they are far to limiting. Indian spirituality reveals a profound engagement with matter. African materiality is profoundly metaphysical. I see in both a unitive vision of the spiritual as radically embodied and textured as living cultural patterns. Such insight defines our vibrant Caribbean community ethos that is rooted in these traditions.
However as we engage these threads as they come alive in our space here in the Caribbean set in the dominant hegemony of the modern West we may note certain defining features. It is in this context I wish to pose an African challenge not only to India not only to the modern world not only to Africa itself but to all of us on this journey of 'Self' discovery through encounter of the supposed 'other' who is no 'other' at all but with whom (as Krishna teaches) we are really one.
In the process of the present engagement I appear to have stumbled upon a happy balance. My point of departure is grounded in what I view as an African philosophical insight yet I seek to spell it out by engaging (in a very limited way I hasten to add) one of my very favorite texts -- the Bhagavad Gita.
Krishna speaks of the oneness of 'life'. A potent concept. One that conveys all the vitality texture and embodiment of material existence that is radically rooted in a metaphysical order. There is a philosophical strand in Western philosophy -- and praxis -- (and again we note there are many 'Wests') that places matter and spirit in some manner of dualistic opposition. But at the risk of lapsing into the very oversimplification we have warned against, this is not so. For the Indian matter is spiritual. For the African spirit is material.
No one exists for even an instant
without performing action;
however unwilling, every being is forced
to act by the qualities of nature.
(Bhagavad Gita 3:5)
Karl Marx could not have put this better.
The very materiality of our existence engages us in action. Matter is always structured as praxis. Here is the unfolding of our very lives in a living web of relation that is society, nature indeed the entire Cosmos.
At the vital centre of this material living cosmos is the metaphysical foundation that is the Lord Krishna Himself. To cite this in the text we would have to quote the entire Gita.
Yet to come to knowledge of this can never be a barren abstract exercise. Such knowledge is discipline, it is action, it is a praxis, this is to say that it is a living material embodiment: 'the totality of all action culminates in knowledge' (4:33). Material action then is the very essence of knowledge, its 'discipline is skill in actions' (2:50). This is to say that it is material structured craft, the living metaphysical pattern that is and sustains society itself. Indeed our action participates in and flows from the action of the Lord Himself:
These worlds would collapse
if I did not perform action;
I would create disorder in society,
living beings would be destroyed.
(Bhagavad Gita 3:24)
It is this metaphysical source that constitutes the basis of material articulation itself, it 'unfolds into existence' (5:14).
But what of 'matter'? There are streams of spirituality that view matter as 'second rate' existence. As subservient to spirit. So how are we understand it?
The very word 'matter' in Latin mater-ia, and in Sanskrit mata, actually means 'Mother'. It is articulation of the female constitutive principle of the cosmos. In Indian philosophy this principle is understood as vitality, energy, power, life-force: shakti or prakriti. Here we may note that long before Einstein this tradition clearly saw that matter and energy were identical.
Matter... mata... mai-a... maya in the Gita is the vital principle by which Krishna Himself -- the metaphysical source or Absolute -- is disclosed as experienced reality. However in certain strands of the philosophical tradition 'maya' is rendered as delusion (mis-translated into English as 'illusion').
There is a deep correlation between such a philosophical trajectory involving this the subjugation of matter to spirit (not only in India) and the establishing of patriarchal, male-dominated society.
Perhaps it is here that we ought to engage a key African insight of the essentially metaphysical nature of matter.
African spirituality articulates the material elemental vitality and texture of life. Here is the centrality of the drum as the very voice of the cosmos. The Yoruba believe that song and dance are mandatory in the worship of God.
In African spirituality -- and here one may point to the Yoruba tradition which is so prominent in the Caribbean -- a great deal of attention is paid to ritual and ritual protocols. The performing of ritual embodies the very living material patterns that constitute life/ nature/ cosmos. This insight is shared by Indian and African and deeply defines our space.
Of course African drumming, singing, dancing, ritual has often been misunderstood, trivialized and indeed demonized in the West. Moreover we ourselves have often internalized such attitudes.
Yet this pure fluid living material continuity is the first womb -- Ye Maya.
Here is to be located the vital core philosophical insight into the nature of the universe and indeed of God Her/ Him-self. It is precisely these living textural vibrations that at their metaphysical source constitute the very creative language of the Godhead. God is Music. Hinduism of course possesses the identical insight.
The Yoruba call this Divine language 'Ifa'.
The spiritual then is its radical material embodiment. It is the discipline/ craft/ pattern that is human society itself. To engage in such spirituality is to engage in such material action for the good of society: 'Seeing the way to preserve the world, you should act' (3:20).
Our African and Indian traditions have such deep insight into materially embodied action. In our people's religiosity it is articulated in the very efficacy of our religious ritual that so characterizes both Hinduism and African traditional practice. Hence both traditions provide us with such a metaphysical foundation for embodied textured action, action that is capable of transforming our society and bringing into being a new world.
This is what the Gita is itself about.
What then is the nature of such transformative action? Sacrifice. Transformative action is the very purpose of vital ritual which is sacrifice. But such action cannot remain confined to neatly defined religious spaces. Rather the action that ritual itself structures must unfold as a living praxis in society for its radical transformation.
Such action is a radical sacrifice of 'Self' for the transformation of our own lives and of society, for the good of the world, for the sustaining of cosmos -- dharma. Our traditions have termed such action 'sacrifice'. But perhaps we should term it 'revolution'.
Krishna indeed says that He Himself -- the Absolute, the metaphysical centre -- is in essence, 'inner divinity and inner sacrifice' (7:30). It is precisely this which unfolds in our material action.
This 'Self' that is sacrifice is not the alienated 'self' that is the modern individual. Rather the 'Self' that we offer is alive in society, in all creatures in the universe (5:7, 6:29), in cosmos. At its centre is the Absolute, the Godhead.
This leads us to realize that there is no 'other' only cosmos. Only the pure fluid continuity that is the oneness of love -- Mata.
Know that through lucid knowledge
one sees in all creatures
a single, unchanging existence,
undivided within its divisions.
(Bhagavad Gita 18:20)
(c) Burton Sankeralli 2009