What follows touches widely on a number of disparate topics, but it has as its aim an analysis of certain problems in the history of philosophy and of scientific thought.
Its fundamental aim is to question the currently existing lines between “culture” and “nature” and to posit a possible unitary theory encompassing both. (1979)
When this essay was first written, its main polemical target was the kind of positivism posing as Marxism represented by a Coletti or the endless late 1970’s debates over the “transformation problem”. No one had yet heard of the “culture wars”, still less of the “science wars”. In editing it for publication today, I have mainly added footnotes to later works, and a passing reference to “post-modernism”, which arose in part in reaction to the sterility of the positivism and empiricism attacked in this piece. (2001)
On the Origins of Modern Science in Neo-Platonism, the Kabbala and the Works of Hermes Trismegistes, and the Implications of these Origins for the Development of a Self-Reflexive Theory of Global Praxis
The history of modern science is conventionally dated from the innovations in astronomy, optics and physics made in early modern Europe from the 15th to through the 17th century, innovations which were synthesized and transformed by the ambiguous figure of Newton. If Newton is not to be wholly blamed for Newtonianism (1-footnotes at end of text), it can hardly be denied that the ideology of mechanism which issued from his works was the predominant “paradigm” for what constituted science in the West (and not merely in the sciences of nature) until at least the 19th century. If mechanism, empiricism and atomism, the three major modes of thought which drew sustenance from official glosses of Newton’s work, have happily been laid to rest in physics itself, they do not cease to assert themselves, to this day, as models for “scientific rigor” in most areas of human endeavour, and particularly in those areas (such as the so-called “social sciences”) farthest removed from the actual cutting edge of modern research in the natural sciences. The modern physicist is perfectly aware that science has nothing to do with a plebiscite of “observable facts”, but a parody of the same epistemology–one vastly inferior to the works of Newton or Descartes–continues to linger on, even in areas, such as contemporary Marxism, where it is least expected.
The Newtonian revolution in physics (one whose true dimensions, in the mind of its protagonist, remain unknown because of reluctance to publish Newton’s massive works, estimated at one million words for alchemy (2) alone, in the esoteric sciences– primarily alchemy, astrology and the Kabbala–of the Renaissance) closed another development, that of the origins of modern empirical science in three mystical or semi- mystical currents of antiquity: the neo-Platonic tradition developed by Plotinus, Philo, the Pseudo-Dionysos, Augustine and John Scotus Erigena (3); the Jewish Kabbala (4), a veritable Jewish neo-Platonism which investigators date from the second century A.D.; but which received its decisive formulation in the Hispano-Provencal region in the 12th and 13th centuries (5); and finally, the works of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great), believed during the Renaissance to be an Egyptian (6) but later discovered to be a thinker (or group of thinkers) of Hellenistic antiquity, also of the second century A.D.
Neo-Platonism, the Kabbala and Hermetic science were the centers of concern of the 15th-century Florentine Academy, most notably in the works of Pico della Mirandola and Marcelo Ficino. The Academy, in turn, was decisive for Giordano Bruno and the astronomers Johannes Kepler (7) and Tycho Brahe, and to a lesser extent for Copernicus. It was this “world view” which made possible the break with non-experimental scholastic science and the neo-Aristotelianism of the schoolmen (8). It was “paradoxically” an other- worldy philosophy which made possible a revolutionary breakthrough to the natural world itself.
Such influences necessarily evoke discomfort among the theoreticians of modern empiricism and science, who long have explained the co-existence of the “pre-scientific” concerns of these astronomers with substantive empirical science as a sign of a “transition”. It was indeed a transition, completed by Bacon, Newton, Descartes and their progeny, and one which achieved a complete break with such “metaphysical dross” and clarified the complete severance between the observations of the conscious mind and the nature which it contemplated. Res cogitans, res extensa.
We necessarily see things in a different light. The late 19th and early 20th century revolution in physics has essentially closed the era of mechanistic science, and placed the “constitutive” role of the “observer” at the center of at least quantum physics. Modern thought is now compelled to turn back to the “pre-scientific” phase of the origins of modern science, and there to discover some startling anticipations of the problematic with which the 20th century revolution in physics confronts empiricism and atomism. The fundamental tenets of the new scientific world view are the following:
- that there is no knowledge of the material universe separate from the active constitution of human praxis; mathematical theories made it possible for Einstein to re-value the conception of light inherited from Newtonian physics, itself refuted by the Morley-Michaelson experiment of 1887. The abandonment of the theory of the “ether”, corpuscles which were previously thought to bend light, and its replacement by a geometric theory of space curvature, was one blow to mechanism in physics.
- further, Einstein’s fundamental insights were formalizations of pre-formal, poetic conceptualizations about time and space. Einstein’s question, at age 16: “What would the universe look like if I sat on a beam of light?” was the pre-formal poetic imagination of a conceptual revolution (9). This fundamentally poetic quality of creative scientific work, in its early conceptual stages, the pre-formal “scaffolding” that is later knocked away from the formalized final structure, is a key aspect of the convergences which we are trying to illuminate here.
- in modern physics, the foundations of a unified theory of the self-development of energy (negentropy) (10) the unification of cosmology, biological evolution and history into a single science, are made manifest. In the Newtonian world, space and time were abstract dimensions for atomized objects and their interractions (11). Concerning time, the evolution of post-Newtonian thought was captured by Schopenhauer: “Before Kant, we were in time; after Kant, time is in us”. Human history is effectively a great game with time, a triumph of creativity over linear time. In Heraclitus’s conception: “Time is a child-king playing with pawns, the royalty of a child”. Or, for Marx: “Time is the dimension of human freedom”. Duiksterhuis wrote of the “mechanization of the world picture”; contemporary science could refer to the “temporalization of the world event”.
- the revolution in modern physics was made possible by the 19th century German revolution in mathematics, itself a counterpart of the German philosophical critique of British empiricism. From Gauss and Weierstrass, to Riemann and Cantor, the fundamental question of German mathematics in this period is the question of infinity. And infinity– a question posed for Western thought in its modern form since Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno– is the mathematical expression of totality, or, in Marxian terms, of species-existence. The Hegelian revolution in philosophy was the theorization of an internally-differentiated time continuum of infinity, an actual infinity, (the transfinite, in Cantor’s terminology) realized within history: the concrete universal. In Marx’s notion of the self-subsisting positive and the “individuality as all-sided in its consumption as in its production” (Grundrisse) this theory is given its practical expression as the programmatic basis for the transformation of the world. The 19th-century transformation of geometry from Gauss to Riemann pointed at least implicitly to universe expansion, in their break with Euclidean geometry and potential “temporalization” of space.
- Modern physics thereby shows an historically-evolving universe (12), a continuum (replacing the old “atoms and the void” of every atomism and empiricism), a universe which is internally differentiated through time. It is an evolution of energy states to ever-higher organizations of complexity. A material object accelerated to the speed of light is space-time, and all apparently-discrete “matter” is a space-time event.
- 20th-century physics essentially revealed the universe to be activity, or more precisely, self-activity. The universe is (potentially) self-reflexive; the biosphere certainly is. The fundamental movement of the universe may in fact be a systolic-diastolic movement of expansion and contraction of energy, an empirical question still to be solved by modern research. Nevertheless, Einstein’s world is a world in which there are no absolute time or space. In contrast to the contemplative view of time of even the most advanced philosophy, the thought of Hegel in which Absolute Spirit looks back post festum over the configurations (Bilder, or images) of its past stages, this thought is the thought of an activity in which linear time collapses into a helix, a Riemannian nested manifold. Humanity acting consciously to transform necessity in a new historical manifold, in revolution, abolishes linear time, and all previous moments are “recaptured” within the internally-differentiated time continuum (13).
- It can be no accident that the basic critique of Newtonian physics, and of empiricism generally, happened precisely in Germany, and precisely in a dialogue as it was carried out by philosophy (14). Leibniz had already rejected absolute space and time, just as Spinoza had posited a notion of infinity in the present (actuality, or actual infinity). Germany, and German thought, was the location of history and historical thought par excellence, the country which more than any other was compelled to realize and assert the qualitative aspect of time (15). The fundamental breakdown of the Newtonian universe begins with the critique of the primacy of the Euclidean geometry which was its indispensable counterpart, in the revolution in geometry carried out in Germany and in Russia in the wake of the French Revolution (16). There is a tempting and uncanny parallel between the universal event which destroyed forever the unitary, semi-cyclical and absolute space and time of Enlightened absolutism, and the mathematics, centered in geometry, which attempted to formulate a new, qualitative notion of space, one which at least implicitly made the first breach between space and time as qualitatively distinct dimensions. This geometry developed, beginning in the early 19th century, in Germany and Russia, the two countries most acutely subjected to “combined and uneven development”. Lobachevsky’s development of a negative non-Euclidean geometry, in which the sum of a triangle’s angles is less than 180 degrees, is followed by Riemann’s positive non-Euclidean geometry, in which the sum of the angles of a triangle’s angles is greater than 180 degrees. This formulation of a positive non-Euclidean space is the later foundation of a physics based on space-curvature, an expanding universe, and a general theory of the self-development of energy. It is space entered into time, the historical time generalized and made conscious by the French Revolution, and ultimately demonstrated to be indistinguishable from time, and from energy.
We begin to see the significance of pre-Newtonian, pre-Cartesian science from the fact that it as well was preoccupied with an earlier version of actual infinity. Perhaps the greatest revolution of 17th century science was the revival and further development of the Zeno-Parmenides “asymptotic” infinitismal, the idea of infinity as something “at tne end” of time. That this was by no means the case for pre-Cartesian philosophy is demonstrated by the theories of Nicholas of Cusa, who already in the 15th century had posited a geometry in which two parallel lines extended infinitely into space ultimately converged. A curved space is a self-reflexive space, a space-time in which infinity is present in self- development. For pre-Cartesian science, with its ideas of macrocosm and microcosm, the universe was not only alive, but the mind of the scientist did not stand outside the “objective” world it apprehended (17). It was not, in Marx’s phrase, vulgarly squatting outside the universe. Neo-platonic science posited man, and man’s scientific activity, as part of the universe.
What was at stake in the struggle between neo-Platonic (Hermetic- Kabbalistic) science and nascent empiricism in the 17th century was fundamentally the question of the creativity of the intellect (18). (The neo-Platonists of course often interpreted this creativity as the creativity of God.) At the heart of these currents was a preoccupation with the creation of the world, drawn in different ways from the “emanationist” views elaborated by Plato in the Timaeus. These traditions all posit the creation of differentiation (material forms) as emanations of an original, single unity of energy. In the classic neo-Platonic formulation, God– who is absolute, non-determined and perfect– is discontent with this “in itself” perfection, and “disperses” himself (the Kabbalistic stage of the “broken vessel” (19) only to reconstitute himself on a higher, non-alienated level of greater perfection, or perfection in-and-for-itself, as it were. It is not difficult to see in this triadic movement of unity/ externalization and alienation/ higher unity the foundation of the Hegelian dialectic (20), and also the methodology of the three volumes of Capital: capital- in- itself, or the immediate production process; capital-for-itself, or the reproduction of the total social capital, understood naturally not as a sum but as a totality distinct from its individual capital parts; and capital-in-and-for-itself, vol. 3, where the interaction of these two moments with the world of capitalist production produces the real movement of the Kreislauf des Kapitals, the (helical) circle of capital, itself nothing more than the real- world movement of Hegel’s alienated Kreislauf of the spirit described in the final pages of the Phenomenology , wherein the Spirit looks back on the configurations (Bilder) of its own previous stages. Capital is Hegel’s Spirit: totality apparently moving by itself. Marx’s Capital is is nothing other than the phenomenology of labor-power coming to its concept, discovering itself as the unconscious mover of an apparently autonomous world. The world of Capital is the inverted world (verkehrte Welt) described by Hegel, and earlier by Plato in the Timaeus; it is a world in which
“…In capital-profit, or better still in capital-interest, land-ground rent, labor-wage, in this economic trinity as the congruence of the components of value and wealth in general with its sources, the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relations, the immediate convergence of the material relations of production with their social-historical determinacy is completed: the enchanted, inverted world set on its head, where Monsieur-le-Capital and Madame la Terre, as social characters and simultaneously as mere things, carry on their macabre dance. It is the great merit of classical political economy to have dissolved this false appearance and deception, this autonomization and fossilization of the various social elements of wealth in relation to each other, the personification of things and the reification of production relations, this religion of everyday life … ” (my translation and emphasis- LG) Capital, (New York, 1967), vol. 3, p. 830.
In the German original, those words whereby Marx “plays around” with Hegelian vocabulary, as he puts it in the introduction to vol. 1, are underlined:
“…Im Kapital-Profit, oder noch besser Kapital-Zins, Boden-Grundrente, Arbeit-Arbeitslohn, in dieser oekonomischen Trinitaet als der Zusammenhang der Bestandteile des Werts und des Reichtums ueberhaupt mit seinen Quellen ist die Mystifikation der kapitalistischen Produktionweise, die Verdinglichung der gesellschaftlichen Verhaeltnisse, das unmittelbar Zusammenwachsen der stofflichen Produktions mit ihrer geschichtlich-sozialen Bestimmtheit vollendet: die verzauberte, verkehrte und auf den Kopf gestellte Welt, wo Monsieur le Capital und Madame la Terre als soziale Charaktere und zugleich als blosse Dingen ihren Spuk treiben. Es ist das grosse Verdienst der klassischen Oekonomie, diesen falschen Schein und Trug, diese Verselbstaendigung und Verknoecherung der verschiedenen gesellschaftlichen Elemente des Reichtums gegeneinander, die Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Produktionsverhaeltnisse, diese Religion des Alltagslebens aufgeloest zu haben
(Das Kapital, Bd. 3, MEGA, Berlin 1975, pp. 838-39)(21)
In this summary paragraph from vol. III, Marx discovers, behind three false moments, a fourth, previously unknown term: the self-development of labor power. That Marx explicitly links this trinitarian conception to religion, the “religion of everyday life”, and to a fourth term which does not appear on the surface of capitalist life, but which is in fact the motive force of the entire “inverted world”, namely, labor power, makes him a direct heir to the neo-Platonic tradition.
Reason has always existed, but not in its rational form.
The revolution of neo-Platonism, which begins in roughly the second century A.D. (simultaneously with Hermeticism and the Kabbala), was the fusion of the Aristotelian notion of development with the static Platonic notion of the World-Idea. This fusion resulted in the theory of the creation of the world through the triadic movement of unity- dispersion- higher unity.
It was fundamentally this dynamic view of creativity which attracted the Renaissance scientists. At one level or another, neo-Platonism has discussed, through the creativity of God, the creative activity of man. (Kepler comes most immediately to mind; for him, scientific investigation was the royal road to the “mind of God”.) For most of these philosophies, consciousness is a series of stages of upward movement, at the highest level of which consciousness becomes a God-consciousness. In the ninth- century theologian John Scotus Erigena, for example, this fourth, highest stage of nature is called natura naturans, nature which creates but which is not created. Although not self- reflexive (Erigena places nature which both creates and is created on a lower level) we see in theological form an anticipation of Hegel’s world spirit, an in-and-for-itself subject which is the object of its own activity (22).
Thus for Kepler or Tycho Brahe, the discovery of the Platonic (or Pythagorean) unity of the physical world was the structure of the divinity, and moreover, a structure of the divinity which corresponded to the mind of man (23). The belief in the geometric structure of nature, as a manifestation of the forms of the World-Idea, prompted neo-Platonic astronomers to seek out these mathematical structures in nature itself; it was thus a belief that the forms of the mind (or at least the “mind of God”) and the forms of nature were the same, based on a mystical emanationist philosophy of the creation of the world, which led to actual empirical breakthroughs which the apparently more “empiricist” neo-Aristotelian scholasticism, by itself, would never have made. We see here, as with the 19th century and 20th century revolutions in mathematics and physics, that conceptual leaps in science are made not through empirical investigation of “facts” by themselves, but by new conceptualizations which create and account for new “facts”. As Newton put it succinctly: “I could not understand it from the phenomena”. And as Einstein summarized: “It is the theory which decides what we can observe”(24).
Microcosm-macrocosm: that what is true for the laws of the creativity of the mind must be true for nature as a whole. In discovering within the natural world structures anticipated by pre-cognitive, pre-formal and pre-empirical conceptualizations, the neo- Platonic astronomers were proving what we can call the “negentropic” quality of human thought: thought not as the “parallel” or “reflection” of energy but, when understood as a concrete moment of the practical creativity of the universe, as the higher organization of energy itself. It is this view which returns with post-Newtonian science, wherein figures such as Einstein place poetizing conceptualizations at the center of scientific creativity.
The pre-mechanist, Renaissance idea of actual infinity entered mathematics per se with Cantor’s transfinite. Cantor was steeped in the philosophical discussions of the infinite, and explicitly discusses the views of Spinoza, Leibniz and Nicholas of Cusa in his paper on the transfinite (Foundations of a General Theory of Manifolds, 1883)(25).
Another substantive question at issue here is that of determination (Bestimmung) as it has been treated by philosophy since the beginning, and posed mythically in the Old Testament. The task of philosophy from Heraclitus to Hegel, and of theory since Marx, has always been to concretely situate– to determine– particulars in relationship to the whole, or totality. A stand on the question of particulars– of concrete Being– is itself a metaphysics or philosophy, and the answer to this question, whether as in-and-for-itself self-reflexive development (Hegel and Marx) or as the overt anti- universality of medieval nominalism or its 20th- century counterparts, logical positivism and existentialism (and most recently “post-modernism”) is the basis for fundamentally opposed world outlooks. An answer to the question of particular- universal determination which locates universals as real within particulars is the hallmark of every current of thought we are examining. In fact, the very foundation of Judeo-Christian civilization, the idea that at a specific moment, eternity entered time and the infinite and the finite were mediated in the person of a living individual already posed the question of the “transfinite” for Western thought. But it was present, even earlier, in Moses’ encounter with Yahwe in the Old Testament, where the divinity appears as a burning bush and answers the question of identity as: “I am that I am”.(26)
The question of determination is moreover linked, in the early phases of neo- Platonism and Kabbalism, to the questions, touched on above, of creativity and inversion. In its alienated state, after leaving the in-itself perfection of its beginnings, consciousness is confronted with dispersion; sense-certainty, or the apparently self-evident discreteness of the objects of the senses. In the reintegrated unity of a consciousness in- and- for – itself (to use Hegel’s term) the neo-Platonic view of truth discovers the immediate contents of consciousness to be false until re-located on a kind of “wheel” or ascending helix in time (which is time); no specific content or determination is true; the truth is the process of the continuous self-development of consciousness through the specific determinations. Truth is process, the process of self-development: self-development of the universe (cosmology), self-development of the biosphere, self- development of the human species. Or, in Marx’s formulation, the communized individual is a “hunter by morning, fisherman by afternoon, critical critic by night”, without for all that “being” (predication) hunter, fisherman or critical critic. The communist individual will not be any specific determined content, but will be a process or relationship to a nested manifold of socially-mediated activity.
Hegel expresses this idea in the following passages:
“Die Sache selbst verliert dadurch das Verhaeltnis des Predikats und die Bestimmtheit lebloser absktraker Allgemeinheit, sie ist vielmehr von der Individualitaet durchdrungene Substanz; das Subjekt, worin die Individualitaet ebenso als sie selbst oder als diese wie als alle Individuen ist, und das Allgemeine, das nur als dies Tun aller und Jeder ein Sein ist, eine Wirklichkeit darin, dass dieses Bewusstsein sie als seine einzelne Wirklichkeit und als Wirklichkeit Aller weiss…” (Phen.des.Geistes, 1970, p. 310)
“The thing itself thus loses the relationship of predicate and the determination of lifeless, abstract generality, and becomes much more a substance full with individuality; the subject, wherein individuality is to all individuals as it is to itself or to another; and the general, which only as this activity of all and of each individual is a being; and finally, a reality, insofar as this consciousness knows it as its individual reality and as the reality of all…”
“sie sind Predikaete, die noch nicht selbst Subjekte sind…”
(P.d.G., p. 373)
“they are predicates, which are not yet subjects…”
Marx places the same idea in its practical-social form when he says:
“…it is only when objective actuality generally becomes for man in society the actuality of essential human capacities, human actuality, and thus the actuality of his own capacities that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realize his individuality as his objects, that is, he himself becomes the object…”
(Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in Easton and Guddat, eds. Writings of the Young Marx, p. 309)
Or again, where the link is made explicit between the inverted world and alien determination s, creations of men which appear to men to create them:
“…Man makes religion, religion does not make man…But man is not an abstract being squatting outside the world…This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world because they are an inverted world…(Religion)…is the fantastic realization of human essence inasmuch as human essence possesses no true reality.” (“Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” in Easton and Guddat, op. cit. p. 250.)
For the reader who might be inclined to counterpose the “young” Marx who wrote the above passage to the “mature, scientific” Marx of Capital, and for whom the articulation of the same idea in the “Trinity” passage of the final pages of vol. III, (as quoted earlier), is not ultimately convincing, the following passage is worth considering:
“At the level of material production, the real process of social life…we find the same relationship as at the level of ideology, in religion: the subject is transformed into object, and vice versa. (From the “Unpublished Sixth Chapter” of vol. 1 of Capital. The quote is translated from the 1971 French edition, p. 142. This unpublished chapter was translated into English as an Appendix “Results of the Immediate Process of Production” in the 1976 Penguin edition.)
This veritable Phenomenology of the Material Reproduction Process continues:
“…this money and these commodities, these means of production and these means
of subsistence rise up as autonomous powers, personified by their owners in opposition to labor power, stripped of all material wealth…the material conditions, indispensable to the realization of labor, are estranged (entfremdet) from the worker and, moreover, appear as fetishes endowed with a will and soul of their own…commodities, finally, appear as buyers of people…” (p. 165
Our purpose here is not to multiply quotations stating the same fundamental idea of the inversion of subject and object from other sections of Capital, the Grundrisse, or Theories of Surplus Value. It is merely to establish that for Marx, and in a still-mystified form for Hegel, inversion(27) and determination are the same, i.e. the domination of human activity by apparently autonomous creations, or predications, or determinations, constitute the essence of alienation for Hegel and for Marx. And this view in turn is nothing but a non- mystified version of the phase of “dispersion”, externalization and “broken vessels” (Kabbala) described in the neo-Platonic theories of creation which we have discussed. Marxism is the reason in its rational form of the mystifications of neo-Platonism, which still located creativity in God and not in socialized man. The concrete, demystified articulation of this creativity is as follows:
“…(Capital)…thus creates the material conditions for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labor also no longer appears as labor, but as the full development of activity itself…”
(Grundrisse, New York 1973, p. 325)
on, in anticipation, Hegel:
“the spirit is activity…” (P.d.G.)
We therefore submit that if anyone wishes to speak of “science” without an understanding of these elementary truths of the history of science, thought and social practice, without posing science as the self-comprehension of self-reflexive global labor power, without recognizing the truth of Marx’s assertion that
“…the chief defect of all previous materialism (including Feuerbach’s) is that the object, actuality, sensuousness is conceived only in the form of the object or perception, but not as sensuous human activity, as praxis, subjectively…Feuerbach wants sensuous objects actually different from thought objects, but he does not comprehend human activity itself as objective…” (First “Thesis on Feuerbach”),
such an individual can only be considered beneath the demands, and the most advanced theory of our time.
To return again to our discussion of neo-Platonism and the origins of modern scientific thought, we note that the problem of determination and predication existed for these early modes of thought as the problem of the attributes of God (as in Maimonides and Spinoza): God was Ab-solute, Undetermined. Determinatio est negatio, limitation. The revolution of modern thought is the discovery of a solution to the relationship between the infinite and the finite relocated in man’s self-activity, man’s universal or species-activity having as its goal the transformation of himself: Hegel’s concrete universal, Marx’s species-individual, and entering mathematics as Cantor’s transfinite.
What is the relationship between this “history of philosophy” and pre-philosophical myth, on one hand, and modern thought on the other? Between the end of classical Hellenic philosophy, culminating in Plato and Aristotle, and the revival of Renaissance science and thought, there occurred a new, and often-neglected stage in philosophy, which was reintroduced into Europe after 1100 through Moslem and Jewish sources. The thought of antiquity returned, but it returned on a higher level. The Arabic-Judaic culture which developed from the 9th through the 12th centuries from Bagdad to Cordoba, which was in turn deeply marked by the Hellenistic philosophy and science of late antiquity(28), was a qualitatively higher development of antiquity, and when Hellenic antiquity in the work of Aristotle and then Plato was rediscovered in the West from the 12th to the 15th centuries, it was with the incorporated revolution in thought, expressed in the works of figures such as Ibn Sina, of Hellenistic neo-Platonism synthesized and moved to a higher levels.
The significance of this idea can be seen if we recall the role of mathematical theory in the two scientific revolutions which created modern physics, those of the 15th-17th centuries and of the 19th-20th centuries. While it is in fact the case that the Renaissance neo-Platonists, (and first of all Kepler), or later Einstein, came along to discover material which had been around for millions of years, that is not the full story. The rise of early modern astronomy and the appearance of relatively are two moments of historically-determined manifold changes which are constituent parts of broader transformations of man’s self-activity “in” nature, i.e. of conscious nature’s self- activity. New manifolds of human praxis in nature had to come into existence for Kepler or Einstein to “see” elliptical orbits, or space-curvature (respectively).
It is not that the earth began to circulate around the sun because Copernicus conceptualized its necessity; it is not that space became curved because Einstein’s theory explained the precession of the perihelion of Mercury in a way incompatible with Newtonian gravitational theory; it is that each of these theoretical revolutions created theoretical structures for apprehending these specific, “given” phenomena as part of a moment of a general, active transformation of humanity’s relationship to the biosphere.
Every society creates the cosmology and the physics it requires to express that relationship, and every stage of social development requires its own cosmology and physics. It is not that certain phenomena, such as the acceleration of a falling body in the earth’s field of gravity, are different in different manifolds(29); it is, on the contrary, that such given particulars are located as truth only within different theoretical frameworks which make them visible in the first place. (As Einstein said, “It is theory which decides what we can observe”, though he did not go on to say that such theories evolve as as part of new phases of human biosphere praxis.)
Thus human reconceptualizations, such as those of Copernicus, Kepler or Einstein, effectively transform the laws of the universe insofar as they are active practical constitutions(30) of the universe at new, determinate manifolds. Newtonian physics remain true within Einsteinian physics, as a subset located within new general laws. Einstein’s overturning of Newton is a classic case of the unmasking of a fallacy of composition, in which laws which are locally true (for observable phenomena of the earth’s framework) are emphatically false at the level of the universe as a whole(31), in replication of the Marxian distinction between truths for individual capitals and the total social capital.
In physics as in the critique of political economy, the totality is not a sum.
Through the evolution of human praxis, the biosphere itself has evolved, and has even extended beyond the earth itself. There is today no nature which can be understood in isolation from global social praxis; nature is that praxis. To discuss the laws of that nature without a discussion of the evolution of the laws of human praxis, the highest mode of conscious nature-praxis, is a futile enterprise. A science of the evolution of the biosphere which excludes the transformation of the laws of activity of the highest organization of energy within that biosphere is an incomplete science.
A similar example can be drawn from modern physics. Certain of the newer (trans-uranian) elements, such as Berkelium or Californium, do not exist “in nature”; they are human creations from the beginning. To be accessible to observation, they must be pushed to speeds approaching the speed of light in linear accelerators to leave traces from which meaningful constructs about them can be formulated. The laws of the creation and nature of such elements are praxis-governed from the outset. Not only do they not exist separately from the observer; they do not exist separately from the activity of the observer.
Finally, it is necessary to respond in advance to the possible objection from a partisan of the Kuhnian “paradigm”, who will agree with the assertion that theory decides what can be observed, and that therefore there are no visible “facts” whatever without theory, but will go on to assert that the succession of these paradigm theories is not determined by any necessity, and that because reality for science is a theoretical construct there can be no progress in science. To posit such progress, for a Kuhnian, is to once again posit the existence of an nature to which science is a greater and greater approximation of external truth.
The reader will see, from the previous discussion, the fallacy of such an objection. It agrees with vulgar empiricism in positing a nature in which human activity is not a qualitative transforming presence. For empiricism, nature exists independently of observation, operating according to laws which a passive scientific observers deciphers.
For the Kuhnians, nature is admitted to be visible only to the extent that it is theoretically illuminated, but it is conceived as independent of any necessary determinacy for the specific theory and without any recognition that it is the activity of the theoretician, and the side of theory as on the side of nature, which is in question.
In short, Kuhn’s theory is beneath the truth of Marx’s First Thesis on Feuerbach, in which Marx points out Feuerbach’s inability to see that human activity is objective. When we assert that the poetic conceptualizing powers of the human mind-in-act, or active intellect, are higher forms of the organization of energy, are conscious energy apprehending its own practice, we necessarily reject the notion that such conceptualization does not proceed according to laws and that its theoretical constructs are in any way arbitrary. They are, on the contrary, specific responses to theoretical- practical crises in human self-activity in the biosphere, and they conceptualize new advances in that practice. They are determined (in the sense of our earlier discussion of determination: given content) by the practical problems posed by necessity, and as solutions to those problems. They are assertions of freedom in the context of transforming necessity at any specific stage. A scientific theory which revolutionizes the view of nature is by definition a theory which poses a revolution in human reproductive activity “within” nature. It is, finally, “natura naturans”, nature which creates.
This transformation of laws by transformation of conceptualization is the meaning of the “active intellect” as elaborated by such Arab neo-Platonists as Ibn Sina. Restated in more appropriate modern form, it is the power of the human intellect to transform and move the laws of the universe themselves to higher stages as it moves human praxis to higher stages. It means that, because there is nothing whatever which is arbitrary about conceptualization and poetizing thought, but that on the contrary the poeti c imagination itself develops lawfully, that poetizing activity is an energy state. What runs through the highest levels of philosophy from the neo-Platonism of late antiquity onward is the idea of self- creating energy, non-imagistic (irreducible to discrete objects) and non-determined, not reified.
Thus the origins of modern science, far from being an ill-conceived and arbitrary eclecticism containing pre-scientific and empirical investigation simultaneously, turn out to be a qualitatively different method of investigation, one whose fundamental ideas place the constitutive imagination-intellect of the scientist at the “center” of creation. The quantivative superiority of the mechanistic world view which triumphed in the 17th century (although as Leibniz and William Blake were aware, in their very different critiques of Newton, only relatively) swept aside the fundamental truths of Renaissance science for three centuries until its underlying assumptions began to reach their limits
in the overall crisis in which the “addition” of micro-rationalities led to “sum” which was in fact a totality of absurdities.
A modern scientific outlook thereby rejoins pre-Newtonian theories at a higher level. It asserts that the world is activity, and that there is no contemplative truth outside of activity. It further discovers pre-formal poetizing thought to be, not merely an “anticipation” of formal mathematical truth, but the direct activity of energy itself, moving lawfully to higher levels of organization. The poetic faculty of man is negative entropy, i.e. negentropy, i.e. matter evolving to higher states and transforming the laws of its activity. It is no mere parallel to or approximation of such a process, the process of humanity constituted as a collective praxis of conscious nature (hylozoic, or living matter).
The conceptual counter-revolution of Cartesianism and Newtonianism was the division of the world, the placing of thought outside the universe. From this division comes the classical separation of imagination and reality; “it’s only imagination” is the battle cry of all literalism and empiricism, which do not see the condensation(32) (poetizing) activity of the imagination as the basis of scientific creativity. In Hegel’s Phenomenology, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and in Marx’s Capital, discreet imagistic entities are revealed, in different ways, to be “lower moments” of higher energy states, of process.
In the neo-Platonic origins of Marxism(33), in the critique and practical struggle against the inverted world, we move toward a completely new conception of imagination.
It is the literal realization of Rimbaud’s prophecy: “Poetry will no longer mark the rhythm of reality; it will go ahead…” (“La poesie ne rhythmera plus la realite; elle ira en avant”). It will be a world of the realization of the powers of the imagination, the end of the separation in which it will be possible to say “that’s only imagination”. In the development of neo-Platonism and other “mystical” currents, into the modern philosophical conceptions of infinity from Cusa and Bruno to Spinoza and Hegel, in the species-individual of Marx and in the transfinite of Cantor are posed such energy states, beyond any specific determination, a turning spiral of creativity, of time renewed and renewing. We are the infants of a world in which the conceptual and practical problems (and they are vast) of these currents will converge into a new, unified self-reflexive theory of the universe, the biosphere and history, a world in which the material imagination will be the ends and means of its own self-reproduction, in which its exercise “for its own sake” will be the means and the goal:
“…When the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive powers, etc. of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature–those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature”? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which makes the totality of this evolution–i.e. the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick, an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not produce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does notseek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”
Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations
1-The ideologization of Newton’s work in a political context is explored in M. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689-1720 (1976); a complementary work on the ideology of atomism in the same context is J.R. Jacob, Robert Boyle and the English Revolution (1977
2-Cf. above all the two books of B.J.T. Dobbs, Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy (1975) and Janus Face of Genius. The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought (1991)
3-The importance of this current for the origins of Marxism is presented in L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, vol. 1, ch. 1. (1978)
4-On the possible influence on Jewish mysticism on Newton, cf. Brian Copenhaver, “Jewish Theologies of Space in the Scientific Revolution”, in Annals of Science (37), 1980. More generally, the interpenetration of theology, philosophy and science up to the 17th century is presented in A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination, 1987.
5-Obviously the works of Gerschom Scholem are a basic starting point for this tradition.
6-Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 1964.
7-On Kepler, cf. J.V. Field, Kepler’s Geometrical Cosmology, 1988; also G. Simon, Kepler astronome astrologue, 1974.
8-The classic presentation is E.A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, New York 1954.
9-This side of Einstein, as well as his later break with the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle who tried to claim him as one of their own, is explored in Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought. (1973). See also Einstein’s letter to Jacques Hadamard on his own non-verbal creative thought processes in the collection of B. Ghiselin, ed. The Creative Process, 1952.
10-The idea of negentropy, or entropy reversal through higher complexity, is developed by (among others)
O. Costa de Beauregard, Second Principe de la Science du Temps (1963), and La Notion du Temps (1963).
11-Again, on the theological dimensions of Newton’s work, particularly as it concerns the notions of absolute space, cf. J. Zafiropulo, Sensorium dei dans l’hermetisme et la science (1976), and X. Renou, l’Infini aux limites du calcul (1978).
12-The expansion of the universe was derived from Einstein’s general theory of relativity by the Russian Friedmann in 1922 and experimentally confirmed by the astronomer Hubbell in 1930. Einstein called his attempts to oppose this implication of the “cosmological constant” the greatest mistake of his life. A further historicization of the universe was the Wilson-Penzias discovery in 1965 of the “cosmic microwave background”, which confirmed (for most physicists) the “Big Bang” theory of universe origins, and settled the ongoing debate between the “steady state” school of James Jeans and the school of Fred Hoyle in favor of the latter. By 1980, physics, which had marginalized the cosmological problematics of general relativity since 1930, was deeply involed with theories of “the very early history of the universe” (cf. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes,1977).
13-While not at all in the Hegel-Marx tradition, the understanding of time in Jean Gebser, Ursprung und Gegenwart (1949; English translation The Ever-Present Origin, 1986) has a similar idea of a “primitive”
phase returning on a higher level. One classic statement in the Marxian tradition is Engels’ Origin of the Family, wherein he calls communism “the Stone Age returned on a higher level”.
14-This critique is documented by L. Pearce Williams, Origin of Field Theory, 1966.
15-This is expressed in Marx ‘s (and later Trotsky’s) theory of “permanent revolution”.
16-Again, Gebser (op. cit.) has one of the rare discussions of the appearance of non-Euclidean geometry in an historical context.
17-The German word for “object”, Gegenstand, captures the external, contemplative aspect of objectivity; an object is something which “stands against”, “over and against”, the observer (gegenüberstehen).
18-Already in late antiquity Plato-influenced Christian philosophers had polemicized against Aristotle’s
idea of the eternity of the world because it denied creation. This, in theological form, was an expression of the creativity of the intellect that later resurfaced in the Renaissance. Cf. Sorabji, R. ed.Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science.
19-Fundamental in particular to Lurianic Kabbala. Cf. H. Bloom, The Breaking of the Vessels (1982).
20-It also has deeper historical roots in the Egyptian myth of Osiris, and the latter’s death, dismemberment and resurrection. Cf. Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art
21-For further elaboration of the concept of the inverted world as the core concept of Marx’s Capital, see R. Rosdolsky’s Development of Marx’s Capital; R. Reichelt’s Struktur des
“Kapital”-Begriffs bei Marx, I.I. Rubin’s Studies in Marx’s Law of Value, and J. Seigel’s Marx’s Fate, 1978); for Hegel’s discussion of the inverted world (verkehrte Welt) see
Phaenomenologie des Geistes, Frankfurt 1970, pp. 128-131.
22-Erigena’s major work is On the Fourfold Division of Nature.
23-This “microcosm-macrocosm” world of “correspondances” obviously had its flaws, but the distancing of all of nature into a representation was not one of them.
24-Again, on Einstein and his repudiation of Machian sensationalism, cf. G. Holton, op. cit.
25-It is curious, and possibly noteworthy, that in 1883 as well Friedrich Nietzsche first formulated his theory of the “eternal recurrence” (ewige Wiederkehr des Gleichen), turning bourgeois thought in a completely different direction, and (at the very least) repudiating any idea of progress, linear, non-linear or otherwise.
26-For an excellent discussion of the emergence of Greek philosophy, and particularly the early thought of Heraclitus and of the Eleatics (Parmenides) out of the mythopoeic thought of ancient Egypt and Hebrew monotheism, cf. Henri Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man. The “I am that I am” of the Old Testament anticipates in theological form the actual infinite idea, most thoroughly elaborated by Hegel, that in every “particular” “sense-certainty” phenomena there is ALREADY presupposed the world historical totality, i.e that such discreet “facts” do not exist except on the basis of world history.
28-The Arab appropriation of Hellenistic philosophy and science after the 7th century is elaborated in the early volumes of P. Duhem, Le Systeme du monde. 10 vols. 1910-
29-Nevertheless, Dirac posited an evolution of the gravitational constant, and the Russian geochemist
Vernadsky showed how life, including human life, was modifying even the earth’s crust.
30-One need only think of the practical applications of Einstein’s general relativity, such as the calculation of satellite orbits, or the photon-cell technologies spun off of his early paper on photons, to see how “theory becomes a practical force”.
31-The discussion of black holes in John Wheeler’s book Gravitation (1973) posits a “singularity” at which
the known laws of physics go out the window.
32-The German language captures this connection more directly. The root word “dicht”, or dense, gives
the word “Dichtung”, poetry; poetry is the imagination’s “work of condensation”, as are dreams in Freud’s conception.
33-The development of the neo-Platonic dialectic from Plotinus through Erigena,
Eckhart, and Boehme to Hegel is only one source of Marx, but fundamental in the development of the
concept of the “inverted world”. Cf. L. Kolakowski, op.cit.