P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S 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.
III. 'Africa and India: the materialist challenge' by Burton
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
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
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
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
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
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
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' --
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)
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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Brown, Stuart (Ed.) The Dictionary of Twentieth Century British
(See also Dictionaries for 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.)
Craig, Edward (General Ed.) Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Edwards, Paul (Ed.) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967)
Parkinson, G.H.R. and Shanker, S.G. (Eds.) Routledge History of
Beckett, Lucy In the Light of Christ (2006)
Bradley, F.H. Appearance and Reality (1893)
Campbell, C.A. Scepticism and Construction (on Bradley's philosophy).
Foster, John The Case for Idealism (1982)
Foster, John A World For Us (the case for phenomenalistic idealism)
Guardini, Romano The End of the Modern World (1957)
Halevy, D. Peguy (1946)
Hawkins, D.B.J. Being and Becoming (1954)
Houser, N. and Kloesel, C. (Eds.) The Essential Peirce Vols I and II
James, William The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)
James, William The Will to Believe (1897)
Lewis, H.D. The Elusive Mind (1969)
Lundis, Roger Believing Again (2009)
Marcel, Gabriel Royce's Metaphysics. V.G. Runger (trans) (1956)
Maritain, Jacques The Person and the Common Good (1949)
Maritain, Jacques A Preface to Metaphysics (1940)
Matthews, Eric Two Religious Philosophers (1996)
Merrell-Wolff, Franklin Transformation in Consciousness (1995)
Misak, C. (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Peirce Vols I and II (1992)
Mournier, Emmanuel The Character of Man (1956)
Parini, Jay Why Poetry Matters (2008)
Pinkard, T. Hegel (2000)
Robinson, Marilynne Absence of Mind (2010)
Royce, Josiah The Spirit of Modern Philosophy (1892)
Servais, Y. Charles Peguy (1953)
Smith, Colin Contemporary French Philosophy (1964)
Speight, A. Hegel, Literature and the Problem of Agency (2001)
Sprigge, Timothy The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983)
Taylor, Charles Sources of the Self (1989)
Taylor, Charles Varieties of Religion Today (2002)
Taylor, Charles A Secular Age (2007)
Tillich, Paul The Courage to Be (1954)
Vendler, Helen Our Secret Discipline (on Yeats) (2007)
Waterfield, R. Rene Guenon (1987)
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Wollheim, Richard F.H. Bradley (1959)
(c) Thomas Walsh 2010
II. 'DOES METAPHYSICS DEAL WITH SOMETHING OR NOTHING?' BY ADEBAYO A.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 &
______ (1971), Language, Truth and Logic, London: Penguin Books
Carr, Brian, (1987), Metaphysics: An Introduction, London: Macmillan
Edwards, Paul, (1967), The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, New York:
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:
Loux, M.J., (1998), Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, London:
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
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,
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
III. 'AFRICA AND INDIA: THE MATERIALIST CHALLENGE' BY BURTON
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
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
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
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 --
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
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
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