Metaphysical Idealism

Updated: Sep 18

Pp. 122-128 Barrett, Clifford L. Contemporary Idealism in America. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1932.


Any philosophy, we said, written in the tradition of historic idealism is in its totality a philosophy of spirit. It gives a privileged position to mind or spirit in its interpretation of the world. If the world is to be viewed as a totality at all and classical idealism has always believed that there are reasons for so viewing it that totality must be conceived as organic rather than as a mechanical aggregate, as mental rather than as merely vital, and as concretely spiritual rather than as a system of abstract ideas or essences.


The classical way of stating this has always been from Aristotle to Hegel in principle the same. Life is the entelechy of matter, mind of life and spirit of mind. Or, as stated by Hegel, life is the " truth" of matter, mind the "truth" of life, and of mind, in its subjective sense, the "truth" is mind objective and absolute. A philosophy of mind then, in the narrower sense above defined, has as its problem the " place of mind in nature" or more broadly stated, the place of mind in reality. I am inclined to think that our present thought on the problem is bringing us to conceptions not unlike those that I have called classical.


There can be no question, I think, that negatively at least, the emerging conceptions of the place of mind in nature are approaching what was earlier described as the idealistic minimum. The point of departure most congenial to the modern mind in this matter is its thinking about meaning and value. There are few thinkers, of any philosophical sect whatsoever, who would not be decidedly wary of reducing meaning and value, which belong to the level of mind and spirit, to any lower levels of being. The wide acceptance of the negative aspect of the doctrine of Emergent Evolution registers this wariness. In interpreting the significance of this theory, Professor R. B. Perry has wisely said that "by employing this notion it has been thought possible to reconcile the essentially realistic insistence on the priority, from a genetic and explanatory point of view, of processes of the elementary type such as those of physics and chemistry, with the essentially idealistic insistence on the genuine uniqueness and, in a sense, privileged character of the cultural processes of a higher and more complex type." In saying this much, one has said a great deal indeed something which has all along been one at least of the major contentions of an idealistic philosophy of mind. The next step and one not so far off is to say that in the process of understanding we can move very much more easily from meaning and value to mind, and from mind to life and matter than in the reverse direction. In face of the alternative whether the lower levels are the "truth" of the higher, or the higher the "truth" of the lower the choice, although one we are perhaps loath to make, is nevertheless ultimately forced upon us, and when the option is thus forced, the answer cannot be long in doubt.


So much for the negative side of our present-day tion of the place of mind in nature. Let us turn to the more positive side. Here the important thing is our changing conception of nature.


When used in contrast to mind, nature is the name we give to those levels of reality designated as matter and life. There can be little doubt that our conceptions here have been changing in significant ways, significant in the sense of altering in notable fashion the manner in which we envisage the place of mind. The general situation may be summed up in this way. It is becoming increasingly difficult to pass from matter to life and mind. It is becoming increasingly easy to pass from mind to life and matter.


So far as the relation of life to matter is concerned certain definite tendencies may be discerned which may perhaps be summed up in a statement of the biologist, G. H. Parker, quoted with approval by Professor Julian S. Huxley. He suggests that "had some accident permitted us to make the fundamental biological discoveries of the later nineteenth century before the fundamental discoveries of physicochemical science, the term matter would have had a different connotation, for it would have connoted mental properties in addition to the matter of present-day physicists." One could scarcely have a more clear-cut expression of the principle that life is the truth of matter, that we do not understand matter in all its depth and breadth until life supervenes upon it. But this is not all. In physical science the concept of nature, and with it the concept of matter, is undergoing a far-reaching change at the hands of the physicists themselves.


This may be defined as a change towards an organic and ultimately, perhaps, a "mental" conception of matter itself.


What has been aptly called the growing elusiveness of modern matter is an oft-told tale which need not be repeated here. It is enough to remark that the effects have been of so striking a character that our present outlook would have been a scandal to the tight little island of nineteenth century scientific mentality. We have lost completely the awe of the inorganic, and there are not wanting physicists who tell us in their own words, that the truth of the inorganic is found in the organic and mental.


The organic conception of physical nature, proposed for example by Whitehead, rests in the first place upon what he conceives to be the complete breakdown of mechanism in physics. But it involves something much more fundamental than this, namely a veritable revolution in the conceptual foundations of science. In place of the substantial material entities persisting through time and moving in space, he would substitute as the ultimate components of reality a very different kind of entities and these he would call events. In the language of science it is the displacement of the notion of static stuff by that of fluent energy, but in the language of philosophy it is a great deal more than this. To hold, as he does, that " biology can not be considered a chapter in physics, but physics may be considered a chapter in generalized biology," and that "if you have established the general categories of life, you find that you have already by implication established the categories of your physics/' involves a real revolution in our conceptions of the place of life in nature. Moreover, when one adds that in his development of the category of organism mental terms become more and more prominent in his descriptions, it becomes obvious that he finds it not only easier to pass from life to matter than the reverse, but from mind to life than from life to mind.


Professor Whitehead seems to remain "realistic" in the sense that he makes the organic character ultimate, although in view of later developments and pronouncements this is at least doubtful. There are other physical thinkers, however, for whom to stop at the organic category is not possible. A recent statement of Sir James Jeans may perhaps be taken as typical: "I incline to the idealistic theory that consciousness is fundamental and that the material universe is derivative from consciousness, not consciousness from the material universe. My inclination towards idealism is the outcome largely of modern scientific theories for instance the principle of indeterminancy. ... In the modern scientific view, the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine. It may well be, it seems to me, that each individual consciousness is a brain cell in a universal mind." By this may well be placed a statement of Schroedinger: "Consciousness can not be accounted for in physical terms, for consciousness is absolutely fundamental."


It goes without saying that such quotations are not meant to be of the nature of argument, but merely a suggestion of a tendency. That tendency, I repeat, is in the direction of a change in our conception of nature such as involves an equally fundamental change in our conception of its relation to mind and of mind's place in it. That change is expressed negatively in the proposition, implied in Emergent Evolution, that the "truth" of mind and spirit (value) cannot be found in life and matter. It is expressed positively in the idea that the truth of matter must be found in the organic, and finally in the notion of mind without which it seems impossible ultimately to make the organic intelligible.


In speaking again of Emergent Evolution, we may refer finally to what may be described as a revision of our notions regarding the intelligibility of the evolution process. Many thoughtful men have been pointing out a certain paradoxical element in the notion of evolution as it is ordinarily conceived. If it is interpreted merely in terms of survival through adaptation to environment, we are forced to recognize that such adaptation, or at least a greater measure of it than exists among men, was achieved long ago among beings whom we are accustomed to regard as inferior to man. Considered from the physical point of view, man is ridiculously unfitted for his environment and may even be said to be more destructive of himself and of his environment than are the lower animals. Why, then, if the motive force and driving power behind evolution is the need to secure adaptation to the environment, did evolution not stop at the lower forms so completely adapted? Why did it go on at all to produce man?


The situation becomes infinitely more puzzling and impressive when we take into account the "mind" and "spirit" of man, his intelligence and his sense of values. The same nature that made the sense organs of living creatures merely selective organs that transmit only biologically important stimuli and which, like the organs of movement, serve necessary life functions, this same nature has made possible the acquiring of knowledge in a wholly different sense of the word. The same nature that made instincts and mores merely to serve life functions has again made possible the acquiring of a moral and aesthetic sense often independent of this purpose and often in opposition to it.


We seem to be faced here with a curious dilemma. Either the turning of life and nature to ideal ends, at least in man, is an accident, a superfluous luxury; or else it contains in some way the key to a truer knowledge and understanding of the evolutionary process. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that evolution is the expression of some force which is not content with achieving merely survival and adaptation for its creatures, but is even ready to complicate itself ever more dangerously in the endeavor to evolve ever higher forms of life which have their own intrinsic ends. More and more thoughtful men are no longer trying to resist that conclusion even in the interests of preconceived theory. Mr. Shaw's Don Juan cries to the "perverse devil," "Life was driving at brains." More and more it becomes clear that that which life was driving at is not describable merely as "brains," but rather as spirit, in other words at those values, and consciousness and acknowledgment of values, which we mean when we use this ancient and honorable word.


From the foregoing it becomes then quite clear that the philosophy of spirit in the broader sense is bound up with the question of the cosmic status of values. Professor Kemp Smith seems to be justified in finding the cardinal principle of idealism not in so naive and primitive a notion as that the world is my idea, but rather in the notion that my values constitute a key to the nature of the world that values have cosmic significance. Against the background of modern thought, as we have sketched it, this seems to be the minimum of metaphysical idealism.


Of these values most modern thinkers are quite ready to say that they are there in some sense. With the exception of a few whose notions of being and existence still move within the circle of the ideas of scientific positivism, there are none for whom values are merely subjective states. They may be thought of as entities or relations, as existences or essences, but some sort of objectivity or being they have. It is not, I repeat, a question of whether they are there; it is rather a question of how they are there, what sort of being they have. Many men are trying to find an intelligible answer to that question to-day to find a form of sound words in which the relation of value to being can be adequately expressed. The idealist can afford to welcome these attempts, for he feels sure that in the last resort some notion of mind will inevitably emerge.

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