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Do Philosophers Disagree?
To say that various philosophical schools contradict one another is not a valid argument.
But, it will be said, can one really deny that Materialism and Spiritualism, for example, are contradictory opposites? Is it not a very loose way of speaking to maintain that all possible philosophical interpretations of the world can be true? (We need not call them ‘equally true’). Let us pursue the example of Materialism and Spiritualism. The Materialist holds that psychic phenomena are ‘a mere product of matter’, while the Idealist maintains that matter is ‘a mere product of the mind’. Is this not a perfect instance of a logical contradiction? If it is assumed that, in both theses, the word ‘matter’ stands for the same thing and that, in both theses, the word ‘mind’ stands for the same thing, then, of course, it is a logical contradiction. Can these words stand for the same thing in both theses? Obviously not. The word ‘matter’, for example, if used in a philosophical sentence, takes on a very different meaning from the one it has when used in the context of science or of every day life; it even has a different meaning in different philosophical sentences. ‘Matter’, of which mental phenomena are a product, or at any rate an attribute, is not matter in the sense of a piece of wood, or even in the sense of a living brain cell. It is matter taken in its totality, one of the world’s constituents, intimately interconnected with the whole of all other world-constituents. There is, therefore, the same difficulty in forming a clear idea of matter as there is in knowing the nature of space, time, energy, etc. All these can be conceived only very imperfectly, owing to the unsolved problem of their finiteness or unlimitedness. Second, to these completely unfamiliar aspects of matter must be added the internal differentiations of matter discovered by science, such as gravity, atomic properties, etc. These need to be conceived of as one single coherent consequence, one system, following from and connected with the meaning of matter as a constituent of the world.
This (entirely abstract) idea of matter has to be presupposed, even though we have not yet achieved any insight into such coherence – say, between the ‘amount’ of the world’s matter, the law of gravity, the qualities of the elements and the relation of all of these qualifications of matter to life and conscious phenomena. Now, even a living brain cell is only a product and a consequence of all that can be said about matter in the cosmic sense, which is nothing less than what can be said about the world in general. The psychic phenomena that are an ‘attribute’ or a ‘product’ of the living brain cells ( or of their cooperation) cannot therefore be properly attributed to the living brain cell as such, but to matter in its totality as the originator of that brain cell, i.e., to the constitution of the world. Matter, in short, in the philosophical sense, denotes not a known and given entity that can be analysed like the properties of a chemical compound, but an entity to be constructed. Its ‘analysis’ is hardly different from its ‘construction’. Its construction, however, requires taking into account the constitution of the whole world. Matter, as a world constituent, is very much ‘dematerialised’, as compared with any piece of matter, living or not. It has become wholly unfamiliar and, with that, the appealing simplicity of Materialism vanishes. If world-matter is capable of producing psychic phenomena, and if that capability is thought of as ‘the essence of matter’, and if its working is really understood (not just proclaimed), Materialism loses its facile simplicity and apparent meaning. It has that meaning only when it is taken in its popularly provocative sense, the sense that seems to underlie the everyday aspect in ‘a piece of matter (living or dead) producing mental phenomena’ – which it clearly does not.
And so it is with Spiritualism. The ‘mind’, in the empirical sense, obviously does not generate ‘matter’ in the empirical sense. ‘Mind’, extended to a universal principle, is completely different from ‘mind’ in a scientific or everyday sense. It is a construct, just as much as world matter is. The construct termed ‘world mind’, able to ‘produce’ matter in the same way that an empirical mind produces hallucinations constitutes the end, the outcome of a series of transformations of the concept ‘mind’ in which the empirical concept of mind forms only the beginning. The construct termed world matter, able to produce psychic phenomena, likewise constitutes the end of a series of transformations of the concept ‘matter’, in which the empirical concept of matter forms the beginning. The two end phases are far from being contradictory or incompatible and this applies equally to the initial terms of the two series. They may meet at some constructed point, either directly or indirectly by means of some intermediary construct.
Taken as a hugely incomplete assertion, Materialism contains truth, as does Spiritualism, Where their best relationship lies is an open question, What is certain is that they are not mutually contrary, except when each claims to exhaust all that can be said about the world and unless, in addition, they claim that the world is an object having a one-dimensional, unambiguous meaning. The vast background of reality that remains unspoken about in every philosophical conception, excludes logical contradiction between concepts; so much so that contradiction is almost entirely confined to their claim to absolutism and to the logical framework relating to this claim. Understood as incomplete statements, they can all exhibit elements of truth.