Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

I’m down with using representations/maps/models to do/guide neuroscience research but as for actual “representations” in the brain, not so much…


In a recent post on the project of neuroscience philosopher William Bechtel I discovered from dmf and R. Scott Bakker that Bechtel is an Idealist, that he affirms representations as real entities or mental entities that exist in the mind. Being a materialist I’ve fought such notions for a while now, but something that Bakker said intrigued me:

This really is the mystery in his[Bechtel’s] work. Both he and Craver like to steer clear the ‘traditionally philosophical’ issues to better prosecute what they see as their superior ‘low altitude philosophy of science,’ where you begin with what scientists actually say and do and build from there rather than philosophical definitions and principles (as per the old covering law model).

So I pressed him after this very talk on this very subject, and I assure you he thinks representations are real entities, and that the ‘mental’ is more than a metaphor. He told me that anti-realism about content, if confirmed, would be ‘disastrous.’ I agreed, but asked what that had to do with science!

The last part of this statement that anti-realism about the existence of real entities in the brain not existing would be ‘disastrous’ spurred this post. Also I wonder, too, what this has to do with science?

In their book on the history of Idealism Iain Hamilton Grant defines Idealism as the “realism of the Idea”. By this Grant and his team explicate Idealism as:

The concrete universal, or the whole determined by the particular it generates and that differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization. When idealism is therefore presented as realism concerning the Idea, this means: first, that the Idea is causal in terms of organization; second, that this is an organization that is not formal or abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relates part to whole as the whole; and third, therefore that such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly take nature seriously.1

This notion of the Idea as causal in terms of organization, of the concrete relation of part/whole as whole, and the notion of naturalism as Idealism is the baseline of this philosophical perspective.

On the other side of this equation we have Materialism to which I cannot point to any good history of its own notions worthy or exemplary of this powerful history of Idealism. When I did a cursory search for philosophical materialism on what I found instead were a myriad of books opposing it rather than any defenders of it:

  • The Waning of Materialism by Koons, Robert C. and Bealer, George (Mar 25, 2010)
  • The End of Materialism by Tart, Charles T. (Sep 3, 2012)
  • Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Nagel, Thomas (Aug 29, 2012)

What I did find is the older standby of the now classic work of Friedrich Lange’s The History of Materialism which first appeared in the 1860’s. Yet, it portrays the older materialisms from Democritus up to and before the 19th Century. But Lange himself was more of a neo-Kantian. Lange thought that materialism faced serious philosophical problems; however, he also thought that Hegelian Idealism was bankrupt. What was needed was a philosophical approach that would be compatible with the recent successes of materialistic explanations as deployed by the natural sciences but not simply be a form of materialism. Lange was one of the first in this period to argue that the appropriate response to the philosophical situation in Germany at the middle of the nineteenth century was to return to Kant.

In our own time we’ve seen both a revival in the Continental Philosophies of a variant of materialism supposedly espoused by the likes of Lacan, Badiou, Meisllassoux, and Johnston deriving from the traditional Hegelian Idealism traditions of its reversal in Marx and his progeny; in America you have materialism as physicalism growing out of both the Analytic/Positivist and Naturalist perspectives in sciences. Do either of these hold the keys to some form of definition? We also have something that purports to term itself New Materialisms or Neomaterialism which brings in man of the current scienctific, gender-studies, cultural materialsm, et. al. (see New Materialsm wiki).

As a thumbnail the global wiki defines materialism as: “the theory of materialism holds that all things are composed of material, and that all emergent phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material properties and interactions. In other words, the theory claims that our reality consists entirely of physical matter that is the sole cause of every possible occurrence, including human thought, feeling, and action”.

In the sciences a variant or subset of materialism – or, as some believe it to be synonymous to it, is physicalism defined as: “the ontological thesis that “everything is physical”, or that there is “nothing over and above”the physical. Physicalism, therefore, is a form of ontological monism—a “one stuff” view of the nature of reality as opposed to a “two-stuff” (dualism) or “many-stuff” (pluralism) view. Two questions immediately arise. First, what is meant by “the physical”? Second, what is it for non-physical properties to be “nothing over and above” the physical?”

On the continent we have another variant which is typified by the likes of Adrian Johnston who in his convoluted hyperlinguistic semantic continental engine is calling for a return of Idealism through the back door of materialism:

…the second and third volumes (A Weak Nature Alone and Substance Also as Subject) will delineate the necessary/metatranscendental and sufficient/transcendental conditions respectively for an uncompromisingly materialist but vehemently antireductive (as well as antimechanical and antieliminative) theory of dematerialized subjectivity as thoroughly internal to material being in and of itself (204). 3

A dematerialized subjectivity internal to material being? Does this not sound a lot like a return of those substantial forms through the backdoor of materialism? Is this not a way of destroying the foundations of materialism by bringing the very foundations of the realism of the Idea in by immanent fiat? This new immanence of the Idea of a dematerialized subject as causal agent in and of itself is an Idealist ploy not a materialist notion. Strange that to me someone purporting to be materialist would have any truck with such notions. That would be like saying: “Oh, yes we know very well that everything is physical, but there are exceptions and subjectivity is one of those exceptions – it emerges out of the very real  substrate of the physical universe, but is not in itself physical but immaterial or a dematerialized materiality. Hmm… how much more convoluted can this get? If this is materialism I’ll tip my hat and be on my way, because its not the kind of materialism I’ve come to know or understand.

So where do we turn for an answer? Do the other New Materialisms have some answer? Philosophers such as Quine, Smart, Lewis, Armstrong, Fodor, and many others are all materialists. Some philosophers, such as Jaegwon Kim, were materialists and have since changed their minds; while others, such as Frank Jackson, were anti-materialists and have since relented. But as we will see as we proceed, even the anti-physicalism espoused by (then) Jackson and (now) Kim is deeply inflected by physicalism, sharing large parts of its content and philosophical context. (Stoljar, ibid.)

Others see this new turn toward materialism as a reaction to constructivist philosophies over the latter part of the twentieth-century. As the editors of a volume of New Materialisms tells us while  “we recognize that radical constructivism has contributed considerable insight into the workings of power over recent years, we are also aware that an allergy to “the real” that is characteristic of its more linguistic or discursive forms -whereby overtures to material reality are dismissed as an insidious foundationalism-has had the consequence of dissuading critical inquirers from the more empirical kinds of investigation that material processes and structures require”(6).4

These new materialist scholars see three major themes working themselves out in many of the practioners of new materialisms.

First among them is an ontological reorientation that is resonant with, and to some extent informed by, developments in natural science: an orientation that is posthumanist in the sense that it conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency. The second theme entails consideration of a raft of biopolitical and bioethical issues concerning the status of life and of the human. Third, new materialist scholarship testifies to a critical and nondogmatic reengagement with political economy, where the nature of, and relationship between, the material details of everyday life and broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures is being explored afresh. An important characteristic shared by all three components is their emphasis on materialization as a complex, pluralistic, relatively open process and their insistence that humans, including theorists themselves, be recognized as thoroughly immersed within materiality’s productive contingencies. In distinction from some recent examples of constructivism, new materialists emphasize the productivity and resilience of matter. Their wager is to give materiality its due, alert to the myriad ways in which matter is both self-constituting and invested with-and reconfigured by- intersubjective interventions that have their own quotient of materiality.(6-7)

What I find odd about this so to speak materialism is how much is sounds like vitalism in such statements as “conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency”; as well as concentrating on the return of the life sciences ” raft of biopolitical and bioethical issues concerning the status of life and of the human”; and, finally, this turn toward the political as a “complex, pluralistic, relatively open process” with this emphasis on the “productivity and resilience of matter”. I think Karen Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning) and Jane Bennett  (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things) are fairly representative of this new trend. As Bennett declares her new materialism revitalizes vitalism of matter from her studies of Deleuze/Guattari:

In the “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Felix Guattari experiment with the idea of a “material vitalism,” according to which vitality is immanent in matter-energy.’ That project has helped inspire mine. Like Deleuze and Guattari, I draw selectively from Epicurean, Spinozist, Nietzschean, and vitalist traditions, as well as from an assortment of contemporary writers in science and literature.5

For Barad on the other hand there is according to her agential realism an understanding of causality as neither a matter of strict determinism nor one of free will. As she tells us:

Intra-actions always entail particular exclusions, and exclusions foreclose the possibility of determinism, providing the condition of an open future. But neither are anything and everything possible at any given moment. Indeed, intra-actions iteratively reconfigure what is possible and what is impossible-possibilities do not sit still. One way to mark this might be to say that intra-actions are constraining but not determining. But this way of putting it doesn’t do justice to the nature of “constraints” or the dynamics of possibility. Possibilities aren’t narrowed in their realization; new possibilities open up as others that might have been possible are now excluded: possibilities are reconfigured and reconfiguring. There is a vitality to intra-activity, a liveliness, not in the sense of a new form of vitalism, but rather in terms of a new sense of aliveness.” The world’s effervescence, its exuberant creativeness can never be contained or suspended. Agency never ends; it can never “run out.” The notion of intra-actions reformulates the traditional notions of causality and agency in an ongoing reconfiguring of both the real and the possible.6

That little blip which obtrudes or juts out of her text is a tale-tale sign: “There is a vitality to intra-activity, a liveliness, not in the sense of a new form of vitalism, but rather in terms of a new sense of aliveness.” Pansychism?

In David Skrbina’s excellent study, Panpsychism in the West, tells us:

The mechanistic world-view is deeply imbedded in our collective psyche. For several hundred years the dominant orthodoxy has implicitly assumed that inanimate things are fundamentally devoid of mental qualities. … The mechanistic world-view once liberated humanity from religious dogma. The mechanistic framework has three main pillars: first, all nonliving things, and most living things, are utterly devoid of sentience and mind; second, there is an objective aspect to things, such that a physical and mathematical description is possible for the whole of the visible universe; and, three, [ I paraphrase: the human psyche or soul which for early thinkers existed in its own right and separate from the body was replaced by the mechanists with ‘Mind’ as the central repository of those physical processes once determined as soul.7

The panpsychic world-view that the mechanistic sciences replaced during the battles of the Seveenth-Century culminating in the sciences of mechanism was once defined simply as the notion that all things have mind or a mind-like quality (Srkrbina, 2). In some ways it is pansychism that is the true enemy of all materialism and during the seventeenth century we see this played out in the works of Hobbes, Descartes, and Newton. And, somehow this very program of a variant of pansychism is being touted within non other that certain of our New Materialism, which on closer look are neither new nor particularly materialist philosophies.

As Skrbina reminds us even the most hardcore mechanists and materialists of the early and late eras saw a variant of pansychism as viable. As he tells it Epicurus whose atomistic philosophy of ontology brought us the atomic swerve as the basis for human will, and hence for the very possibility of virtuous action (Skrbina, 267). Saint Francis and Campanella saw spirit in the world, and found a basis for moral action (ibid.). Leibniz with his monadic philosophy as mind-like entities (ibid.). Newton pondering the notion that “matter was alive” (ibid.). LaMettrie the philosophe developed the notion of a vitalistic mechanism(ibid.). Fechner, James and Bateson  all supplying their own versions of this pansychic or vitalist connection (ibid.). As well as Bergson, and in our time Deleuze/Guattari along with their progeny.

I, too, stand perplexed and at a crossroads in this debate between old and new materialisms wondering what is actually going on under the hood of all these trends. Where are we going with all this? Is there some new framework about to emerge that will do away with these old questions of Idealism/Materialism/Pansychism etc.? What’s on the horizon? For the moment I do not have a sure answer to that problem, only a multitude of open ended questions….

1. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. editors: Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, Sean Watson. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001)
2. Stoljar, Daniel (2010-02-18). Physicalism (New Problems of Philosophy) (Kindle Locations 269-270). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
3.  Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)
4. Diana Coole;Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics Kindle Edition.
5. Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Kindle Locations 46-48). Kindle Edition.
6. Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning <BR> (Kindle Locations 3187-3194). Kindle Edition.
7. David Skrbina. Pansychism in the West (Firs MIT Press, 2005)

8 thoughts on “Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

  1. Bechtel is a naturalist, which is to say, a physicalist insofar as phusis is explained by science. He’s just not an eliminativist about content the way I am, say. But the thing to remember in these debates about what is the ‘ultimate substrate,’ subject or object, spirit or matter, is more a philosophical game of ‘Calling Shotgun’ than anything – which is to say, a game of *who (or what) is more important.* For me Idealism is noocentrism radicalized, the ancient human conceit to be the centre raised, on the basis of metacognitive intuition, to a metaphysical principle.

    Physicalism, understood as a commitment to nature as described by the hard sciences, short circuits this (comical, if you think about it) arrogance, renders us another interstice, another product, with no special claim on anything. This is what makes life difficult for those, like Bechtel, want to have it both ways, to appease certain intuitions regarding human exceptionality (as creatures possessing logical (that is, representational) relations to the world), while at the same time acknowledging the utter indifference of nature. Thus the supermarket of views you find among analytic philosophers of mind, some clinging to this special thing, others to that, most all of them acknowledging that when all is said and done, science has the only credible voice in Theorytown.

    For me, given the mere fact that BBT offers a *plausible* way to explain away what remains of intentionality, I can see no reason to think that the scientific decentering of the human will not continue apace. If these ‘little idealisms’ can be explained away, then it seems pretty reasonable to assume they will be.


    • Yet, he is not a strict physicalist in that narrow sense of the word. What you’ve described about his notions of representations as real entities in the mind is Idealism pure and simple. One can pull the threads of this out of a whole panoply of traditions, but I want since Grant and his crew have already done that quite well. Let’s not try to make him into something he isn’t. Either he affirms a realism of these representations in the mind or he doesn’t? Whether we call them representations or Ideas is a matter of conceptual tongue-twisting, either way its the same bent: he sees these as causal agents…

      For me what is important is not the substrate but the terminological framework that we all assume in this debate. It’s all a language game whether one is using mathematical theory like Badiou, or some naturalist perspective in the life sciences, etc. Its about our explanatory framework not the actual ontology that underpins it that is whacked out in our time.

      That was the point of my short post is that Idealists use naturalist notions, while Materialists use Idealist and Pansychic notions within an ill-defined framework in search of a new terminological framework. Some are moving toward speculative realism, etc. while others are withdrawing into other exits: math, life-sciences, the neurobiological puzzle, etc.

      It is the substrate that actually gets lost in the shadows of all this terminological infighting and transformations… we just don’t actually deal with reality any more, we seem lost in the maze of interpretations: a hermeneutic nihilism of the first order. His inability to understand you question about localization spelled it all out. Scientist seem to have a narrowly defined set of terminological tools and that’s where they stay put. Once that move out of their narrow field of practice they are like ignorant babes in the woods lost in the terminological forest of concepts. And, yet, for them this is no problem because of their elitist stance of superiority about their particular expertise. They see us as the ignorant ones for not having a grasp of their technical jargon.

      When I read that expert on your blog ochlocrat I was reminded of this scientific elitism that dismisses philosophy and all other forms of thought because it is irrelevant to the actual practices of the scientists themselves. This form of nihilism goes unregistered on most radars….

      Yet, there are other scientists form Newton to Niels Bohrs and in our time Lee Smolin and others who see the need for an influx of philosophical thought in the sciences. How many biographies of famed scientists I’ve read whose essential breakthroughs came from philosophical studies as well as imaginative literature: poetry, novels, painting, etc.

      I guess I’ll need to reread his current works and see what the implications for this are….


  2. “a hermeneutic nihilism of the first order. His inability to understand you question about localization spelled it all out.”

    I made the mistake of mistaking ochlo’s philosophical chops before, that is, until he opened a can of whup-ass on me! I guess, my argument would be that you don’t understand the shape of the dilemma until you understand *how little reason* people like ochlo have to take our word on *anything*…

    That’s the way the nihilism cuts sharpest: because *we’re* the one’s assuming authority in *matters meaningful.* His is a technical expertise, he’s someone actually engaged in turning up the dimmer on the black box.

    The problem really is the problem you would think it would be were something like brain blindness the case. First order application of heuristic routines becoming ever more optimized, along with an near absolute inability to arbitrate second order rationalizations of those routines. So ochlo looks to our claims and has a choice to make. He knows all the contemporary cognitive psychology research (a great many in the lay scientific community do as well), so he sees the practices and the institutions of science as a rather remarkable, even miraculous, arbitrator of the true. Any idiot can spout an endless string of hypotheses.

    So when someone like Johnston starts talking about the conditions of possibility of his domain and practice, they might as well be a witchdoctor.

    The natural tendency – the one I fall into all the time – is to assume that you’re somehow arguing downhill. (That’s just a profound side-effect of being a walking talking yardstick, an illusory self-interpreting rule). So you never ‘feel’ the degree to which your discourse has been discredited.

    The discreditation is bad enough, insofar as science is far and away the engine of socio-structural transformation. But the fact of the matter is that ochlo has far and away the better argument. Humans are theoretically incompetent, often with science, let alone without. We have no bona fides, just conviction and long-winded arguments in a world where everything and anything can be argued.

    This is basis for the ‘functional nihilism’ of Neuropath, btw.

    Human beings are efficacy machines, imperfect to be sure, but bent on maximizing bangs for bucks. Ochlo is part of the efficacy program. We are not.


    • not so sure that there is much efficacy to our kluged together ways of being but I more than take your point about the “division” of labor for the most part one side isn’t even really geared in to the machine, back to the rough ground of affordances and resistances mangling our ways thru…


  3. Hello, I’m curious if you read Ray Brassier’s Concepts and Objects, and his interview in Realism Materialism Art: Reason is inconsolable and non-conciliatory (where he identifies himself as a materialist idealist/idealist materialist) and if you have any thoughts about what he has to say there in relation to this post.


    • I’ve read his Nihil Unbound, but have to admit I haven’t read the article you mention… a link? I know he aligns a cosmic nihl which takes nihilism to its final conclusion, but what he’s done since is something I have not kept up with. At that time the transcendental materialism he espoused still kept with the concept as the central mediator between inner sense and outward. Obviously materialism either in its non-dialectical (Deleuze, etc.) or dialectical (Badiou/Zizek) is still bound to the Idealist universe even as antagonists.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for your response. Here’s a link for Concepts and Objects

    Click to access ray-brassier-concepts-and-objects.pdf

    I’m actually still grappling with all sorts of materialisms, but it’s very obvious that no account of classical idealism is enough now if it doesn’t account for ‘matter thinking itself’
    A lot of recent materialist critiques has been fueled by “evidence” from Quantum Mechanics, however, it seems that a lot of people when using QM are not being aware of the philosophical presumptions on which the theory is built, the theory presupposes idealism more than proves it. And it’s often the case that physicists can be very bad philosophers. I’ll be back when I know more.


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