Philosophy and its Opposite

“All philosophy begins in wonder (θαυμάζειν, thaumazein).” This phrase, resounding from the earliest philosophers of Ancient Greece, describes the original conditions of soul that gave birth to the discipline of philosophy. With the enunciation that all philosophy begins in wonder, these “lovers of wisdom” gave voice to the spirit with which they approached their work. The spirit of philosophy was consubstantial with the spirit of the universe—“quod est superius est sicut quod est inferius:” as chaos gives birth to cosmos, so wonder gives birth to wisdom.

If wonder begets philosophy, the obverse must also hold. Indeed, calculability yields antisophy, for of what is calculable, one need not wonder. Wonder being the womb of wisdom, a worldview that rejects the former can expect no philosophical generation to speak of. The term “scientific materialism” captures the obversion of the spirit of philosophy in the most precise manner. Scientific materialism conceives of the whole universe in terms of infinitesimal pellets of inert substance. To conceive of the universe in this way, the proponents of such a view find themselves forced to rend reality into a measurable and an immeasurable aspects, and subsequently to discard the latter into the dustbin of subjectivity under the label of “secondary qualities.”* This rejection is tantamount to the elimination of wonder. Simultaneously, to posit such a substratum called “matter” that is the bearer of the remaining “primary qualities” like number, measure, and weight, is an utter capitulation to antisophy for the straightforward reason that this material substratum is posited outside of experience. For a thing to become an object of knowledge, it must first become an object of experience: otherwise it would be a non-thing that would not be spoken of. For this reason, the materialistic world-conception does not merely happen to be antisophical, but it is rather antisophical in principle. Indeed, matter, as the modern scientist conceives of it, is removed from actual experience not by one, but by two orders of abstraction. First, (1) primary qualities are abstracted from immediate sensations like force and colour. For instance, the weight of a flat-iron enters my experience as a downward force that communicates itself to me if I attempt to wield it, while colour gradients in my visual field inform my conception of its shape and volume. Then, (2) from the inferences of weight and measure, I further conceive of a substance called “matter” that bears these abstract qualities but which itself can never be an object of my experience because, by definition, I have posited it to be outside of it.

Indeed, already in 1880, the physician Emil du Bois-Reymond recognised the antisophical nature of scientific materialism. In a famous speech before the Berlin Academy of Sciences, du Bois-Reymond identified “seven world riddles” for science to solve. Of these riddles, du Bois-Reymond concluded three of them to be insoluble, first among which was the fundamental nature of matter and energy—the nature of that very substance which scientific materialism takes to be the basis of the entire universe. Du Bois-Reymond concluded his inquiry into the nature of matter and energy with the declaration:
ignoramus et ignorabimus:” “we do not know, and we will never know.” He explains:

It is altogether incomprehensible that it should not be a matter of perfect indifference to a number of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc., what their position is and how they move, how this has been and how it will be.

Du Bois-Reymond recognised that the ability to calculate the position of these atoms is not the same as knowing what they are.

Given the manifest success of science, especially in application to technology (as exemplified by the fact that this very consideration is being encoded in a silicone micro-processor chip, etc…the degree of technological advancement is almost unbelievable!), one might expect that scientists of today had overcome the limits of knowledge that du Bois-Reymond identified. On the contrary, the peculiar discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics in the first part of the twentieth century have only corroborated du Bois-Reymond’s suggestion that scientists indeed do not know the fundamental nature of the very substance that they posit as the basis of the universe. Theorising ever more infinitesimal divisions of matter, like bosons and neutrinos, is no substitute for understanding what matter is. In fact, such theorising generally only contributes to the confusion by the same principle that renders a text unintelligible when one begins to pull apart and dissect the letters of which it is composed: “we murder to dissect,” as William Wordsworth famously wrote. Not only does the substance of matter remain as much a mystery as in du Bois-Reymond’s day, but in our time, likewise does its behaviour. Werner Heisenberg formulated his Uncertainty Principle, for instance, with the discovery that it is impossible to determine two complementary variables of a single particle, like its position and its momentum, or its velocity and its spin: measurement of one precludes knowledge of the other. In this way, for one to know that matter is fundamental is not to know at all.

“We know what matter is; it’s energy: E=mc^2.” This would not be an uncommon response to the conclusion above. Such a response, however, would only corroborate the very point that the latter is attempting to contest. The reason for this is that wonder is the only impulse that can overcome nescience: one cannot learn what one (thinks) one already knows. A true scientist would continually sow the seeds of wonder in the soil of experience. Unfortunately, conventional science sows seeds that are not seeds at all, but rather mathematical simulacra, and it furthermore sets them in a ground that is utterly abstract, since there is no such thing in reality that is sheer quantity. Ergo, the entire operation is twice infertile: the more confidently a scientist asserts that he knows what matter is because he can calculate it, the more fully will he condemn himself to the winter of antisophy. In Apologia, Plato famously recorded a story in which Socrates recognised his own wisdom precisely through his capacity to wonder: “I know of what I do not know, and in this way am wiser than the one without this awareness.” The latter does not know that he does not know and therefore presents a barren case, philosophically speaking, since he cannot wonder.

That physicists today are constantly searching for new subatomic mysteries of nature might seem to contradict the assertion that modern science is without wonder. Furthermore, scientists do appear continually rewarded by successful discovery of the very particles that they first hypothesised. The decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in particular have been rife with laudatory announcements of novel, hyper-complicated discoveries that appear to confirm theoretical expectations. Already this fact should invite some degree of skepticism according to the symptoms of confirmation bias. Indeed, a thoughtful consideration of recent scientific discoveries in the realm of physics like leptons, bosons, and quarks reveals that such discoveries fall into the same fundamental errors that have plagued scientific materialism from its very inception: the confusion of calculability with understanding, and the mistaking of methodology for ontology. This is understandable since the complexity of our descriptive models increases in direct proportion to remembering what we are actually talking about. The fundamental fact remains that matter, in principle, is an abstraction of an abstraction, irrespective of how many particles and forces one may theorise. To hypostasise methodological placeholders into reality is to succumb to an idolatry of one’s own icons, from which the same spirit that brought the situation about can offer no deliverance.

We stand today, therefore, in the collective condition of ignoramus et ignorabimus, rendered all the more severe by the fact that we suppose our present knowledge to represent the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement.Knowledge, however, for modern consciousness, is only nominally so. In fact, what our materialistic world conception mistakes for knowledge actually controverts the impulse for understanding. What scientific materialism calls knowledge is really “meaningless comprehension,” or “comprehension of meaninglessness,” either of which is obviously no comprehension at all. The world-conception that our consensual science offers us is one of pure extrapolation and extension with no regard for the world’s intensive dimension, without which the former could not for a moment exist since, as we indicate above, matter is an organising idea (i.e. a theory in the scientific sense) that is not recognised as such. Any idea that is not recognised for what it is becomes an ideology. In this respect, we could call materialism an ideology. By definition, no ideologue will consider alternatives to his own standpoint. By contrast, the one who allows herself to be moved by the spirit of wonder will find herself inspired to set out on a pilgrimage in search of ever-wider vantages, discovering a new standpoint with every footfall. The ideological materialist pitches camp in the trench of calculability, which is also the trench of nescience since such an one can scarcely peer over the edges of his own furrow. The lover of wisdom, by contrast, is the perennial peripatetic, the eternal pilgrim in the country of Sophia.

Our philosophical sense unsatisfied with the world of mathematical ghosts called “matter,” we intend to set out, inspired by wonder, in search of wisdom. As Dante enlisted the guidance of Virgil for his poetical peregrination, we must likewise select a thinker who can make our paths straight as we traverse these more philosophic spheres. In what more fitting figure might we place our faith than Aristotle, “the master of those who know,”, or “Ille Philosophus” as Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas referred to this thinker of thinkers, respectively? One may trust in Aristotle to lead us through the watches of the night, out of the spectral labyrinth of self-satisfied perplexity. Then, upon the threshold of a new dawn, the inspired reader must become a disciple of Sophia herself if he wishes to behold the sunrise of divine illumination. In truth, an half of our traverse is already a fait accompli. While Dante began his theopoetical journey in a dark wood, we actually begin ours already in the deepest pits of antisophical inferno. As the morning retraces the eventide but in reverse, so we may attempt to discern the course of our descent and thereby discover our pathway of salvation.

In the beginning of this consideration we identified the mutual implication of calculability and antisophy. We also revealed scientific materialism to present itself as the preëminent bearer of this double-standard. The same science of nature that tacitly sets itself against the philosophical impulse of wonder, however, also hails Aristotle as one of its intellectual progenitors. This connection is understandable. Aristotle, for instance, famously disputed his teacher’s assertion that pure ideas were self-subsistent, arguing instead that no idea was without a material instantiation. The Dominican Scholastics usefully distinguished between these teachings by designating the Platonic conception of universalia ante res (“ideas before things”) and the Aristotelian one of universalia in rebus (“ideas in things”). A cursory reading of Aristotle in light of modern science would seem, indeed, to reveal Aristotle as the original scientific materialist. But any light will illumine according to its own nature. Shakespeare famously articulated this phenomenon in The Merchant of Venice with the line “the Devil can cite Scripture for his purposes.” For this reason, we must proceed with caution lest we tendentiously interpolate our own views into our reading of others’ work. Even to expect that the same word has the same meaning in two different situations can be an unwarranted presumption. “Nice,” for instance, would have meant “ignorant” to an English-speaker of Shakespeare’s time, since the former is an elision of the word “nescient.” The possibility of error becomes especially volatile when a gulf not of four, but of twenty-four centuries separates inception and reception. For this reason, we must not hastily conclude that we have grasped Aristotle’s meaning with concepts that are already familiar to us. Instead we must allow the latter to evolve according to what we discover in the letters. When Aristotle describes matter, he makes use of the Greek word for “wood,” ὕλη, “hyle.” In Latin translation, hyle appears as “materia,” and directly from which English derived the word “matter.” Conscientious reading will reveal that it is by no means self-evident that The Philosopher’s matter is the same as the modern scientist’s. In fact, given the mutual implication of matter, calculability, and antisophy, it is very unlikely that Aristotelian matter is the same as the materialist’s: one can conclude that The Philosopher was not an antisopher, one can conclude this a priori.

If we would seek to understand matter in the Aristotelian sense, we must first consider how Aristotle himself used the term and only then form our own conceptions of the subject. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to turn this sequence on its head, and rather to interpolate one’s own foregone idea of matter into Aristotle’s writing. In Book II of Physics, Aristotle introduces the concept of matter and explicitly describes it as “that from which a thing is made.” He contrasts this to form, or μορφή, morphē, which he defines as “that which a things is.” He then offers the following examples of matter and form, respectively: letters as the matter of syllables, premises as the matter of conclusions, and bronze as the matter of a statue. Aristotle develops his picture of matter in further discussion in both Physics and Metaphysics. Very startling, though familiar to our consideration, is when Aristotle in Book XI of Metaphysics, describes matter as “unknowable in itself.” With this assertion, Aristotle would indeed seem to place himself in the company of modern scientific materialists. Du Bois-Reymond might even have been glossing Metaphysics in the former’s famous ignoramus etignorabimus speech some two-thousand years after Aristotle’s day. Modern materialistic scientists would certainly conclude that the Aristotelian doctrine supports their standpoint. To draw such a conclusion, however, would be premature, since only the most flagrant hermeneutic looseness could assert that Aristotle is talking about the same matter as modern physicists when he describes letters as the matter of syllables. Furthermore, to ascribe such a profoundly antisophical position to The Philosopher would be an act of the grotesquest irony.

Indeed, Aristotle immediately dispels any relation to modern scientific materialism when he explicitly states that matter eo ipso, does not exist in actuality (energeia). Instead it only potentially exists (dynamis). He goes on to present form, in contrast to matter, as the principle that supplies actuality to a being which otherwise has no being except as potential to eventually become that being. Taken together, Aristotle’s explanation of form (hyle) and matter (morphē) constitute his doctrine of hylomorphism. The latter, provided it is understood on its own terms and not interpreted according to a foregone world-conception, offers a resolution to all of the contradictory and antisophical implications of the scientific materialism that supposes him to be its forebearer. Essentially stated, everything has two aspects: “what it is” and “what it is made of.” One could simplify these aspects of any given being, entity, object, or event, etc… into its “what” and its “how.” One could also conceive of the dual nature of existence in terms of “whole” and “part.” Parts do not exist from their own side because “part,” like matter, is a relative term—relative to its predication on the respective whole to which it pertains. For instance, a syllable is an whole relative to a letter but a part relative to a word. Thus, no form is without matter since everything exists in a certain manner and is constituted by various parts. And, conversely, no matter is without form, since for something to exist presupposes some thing that it is, which is to say, its whole.

A thoughtful reading of Aristotle, therefore, offers a rejuvenation to the modern scientific soul, which has dried itself up by compulsively reducing living reality to calculable abstractions, and which has brought itself to epistemological despair by expecting to discover these methodological chimeras in outer reality and continually failing in this task that it set for itself. Because a thing may be calculated does not ensure that that thing is real, and not everything that is real can be calculated: insistence to the contrary has brought modern science, and the souls that seek edification from it, to a tacit crisis. The latter is an implicit antisophy whose cause is the insistence on the very calculability that it expects will deliver it from this condition. To rediscover Aristotle’s teaching is to reconnect with the germinal spirit of the earliest lovers of wisdom: the impulse of wonder, which is the matter of true philosophy.

*John Locke was the first to use this formulation, though Galileo and Descartes had both described primary and secondary qualities before Locke gave them those names.

With special thanks to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Rudolf Steiner.

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