Denying the Obvious

I refer, of course, to substance.

Since the nineteenth century, it has become increasingly fashionable among philosophers to deny the “metaphysics of substance” and to prefer the position of Heraclitus, that the arche is Fire or (that of which fire is a symbol) Process.

It is interesting to try to reconcile the rise of this position with Aristotle’s assertion that the existence of substances is just obvious. Indeed, while Aristotle actually goes to the trouble to define what a substance is, neither he nor any of the scholastics to my knowledge offer a proof that they exist. In response to Heraclitus, Aristotle’s Physics simply states that his thesis is held “for the sake of argument” (185a ) — that it is a contentious position that no one, not even the Heraclitean, takes seriously.

On the other hand, we have Nietzsche who accuses substance metaphysics of “logocentrism” and Whitehead who accuses it of the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” These two accusations are really one, however. Nietzsche means to say that we only think about reality in terms of substances because our grammar is structured in a certain way; Whitehead means that substance is something abstracted from the constant flow of experience and therefore not a part of the final “brute facts” of the world. Both thinkers articulate the same point in different ways, namely, that if the most obvious fact of the world is “many changing things,” then whereas change belongs to our experience, “things” belong to our manner of speaking about it.

Actually, however, when we consider the data of the senses, we do evidently possess a common sense whereby we know when the diverse changing accidents in our field of experience belong to one and the same thing. A small child, or any other dumb animal, that I annoy with my hand, will instinctively know to express its annoyance to me, not merely my hand. No process of deliberation is required on the part of the child or the animal — which is a good thing, since they would be incapable of it — but because of the common sense of which I too am aware in my own experience, they know something to the effect that the hand is an accident of the man.

This common sense, however, is lost with Descartes. And it is against Descartes' understanding of substance that process philosophers generally direct their critiques. The dissociation of qualia from material substances in the Cartesian philosophy goes hand in hand with the new definition of substance as something autonomous and independent from its environment. In other words, to the extent that redness is a property not of the rose, but of the mind that contemplates it, the cause of the rose’s redness is not a legitimate question; all that exists beyond the mind is a number of mechanical bodies that apart from their very limited interactions, which can all be reduced to relations of quantity in space or time, remain completely independent of one another for their existence and nature.

Process philosophers generally express their intent to heal both of these rifts: in returning to realism by restoring qualia to the world beyond the mind, they hope also to revive the note of interdependence or organic unity that used to be included in the idea of the individual. In these respects — but not, of course, as regards their denial of substance — they are also returning to conformity with scholasticism.

However, observe the following parallel:

This similarity of expression might indicate that process philosophers have not escaped the influence of Descartes as completely as they had hoped. Rather, perhaps they have only shifted the line of bifurcation, from the boundary between primary and secondary qualities, to that between substance and accident.

In that case, we’re still dealing with a mind-body dualism here. “Out there,” there is the world of the body, which obeys the rules, as it were, of process philosophy; but “in here” is the world of the mind, which has independently generated the laws of substance and logos which we then na├»vely impose upon matter. The aim of philosophy, then, would be to disentangle these two confused realms, just as for Descartes philosophy was a therepeutic process of disentangling the confused scholastic notions that conflated res extensa with res cogitans. To anyone familiar with alchemy, of course, both processes sound much more like alchemy than philosophy in the ancient sense. Given the time period and the milieu in which Descartes was working, and, for example, the world of Swabian Pietism in which Hegel lived and thought for much of his life and in which alchemy figured prominently, this ought not to be surprising.


But a further question arises, as to why the process philosopher prefers to be a Heraclitean, when scholasticism accomplishes these same therapeutic ends, perhaps better, but certainly without the burden of justifying the denial of something so obvious to most people as the reality of things. The first possible answer is that some process philosophers simply haven’t been exposed to Aristotle — or they think they have, but really are conflating the Aristotelian and Cartesian notions of substance. The second has to do with the issue of fixed and immutable natures. And this really boils down to a preference that the proper form of a natural substance, such as a man, be something subject to change, so that natural law itself is ultimately conventional.

Now this brings us back to Renaissance Hermeticism, because it entails that novel disposition of the will to reform nature which was brought about with the ideal of Man as Magus. But the Process Philosopher as Magus operates on terrifying new vistas. We are no longer discussing the prospect of completing the world, restoring to it something that was lost with the Fall; rather, the process philosopher’s denial of substance on the metaphysical level entails that there is no original or ideal state to which to restore the world in the first place. Instead, we’re changing the world just for the sake of changing it, or possibly to escape the pangs of conscience, if the will is obstinately resolved to do something that the fixed order forbids.

This, evidently, would be the great philosophical “Non serviam,” the great rebellion against God’s order. In terms of demonology, we might expect to find something; and we do. The accounts of initiatory experiences of men who have made contact with demons tend to express some form of process cosmology, or what is the same thing, a holographic universe in which everything is actually in everything. The same view is espoused by UFO and New Age cults which in other respects bear the unmistakable hallmarks of satanic influence: denial of Christianity, promises of power to the adherent, promotion of immorality, calls for a world government, and above all, the justification of murder, especially abortion.

A secular philosopher with no respect for New Age mumbo-jumbo might not see the connection here. But there is such a thing as a healthy fear of superstition. We simply flatter ourselves if we think that the appeal of the occult is based on nothing.

It is easy to find superstition in others. It is hard to find it in oneself.

Every magician admits that there is bad or black magic, but every magician insists that he has nothing to do with such things, and his is the good kind.

Philosophers in particular are proud men who love to be flattered, and are therefore unguarded. In truth, philosophy is a very powerful thing. It might be said that all philosophers at least tacitly know and take advantage of this fact. But academics unfortunately often lack the practical sense to understand when they are being used, and they do not even consider the possibility that forces beyond their own “vast” comprehension could be manipulating them with their own ideas.

However, that is the beginning of another story for another time.

Arboretus