Issue #42 July 2021

Nineteenth Century Interpretations of Thought and the Claims of Twenty-First Century Science

John Frederick Kensett, "Eaton's Neck, Long Island", 1872

In The Grand Design, the late Stephen Hawking asks the following questions:

“How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from?…  …Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (Hawking 2011, 13)

In talking of philosophy, it is unlikely that Hawking had in mind the specialised academic output of much contemporary professional philosophy, but the bolder and more broadly educative narratives that humans had previously turned to, alongside those of religion, to try and understand themselves and the Universe they inhabit. FH Bradley’s Appearance and Reality: An Essay on Metaphysics [A&R] was the last metaphysical magnum opus of the nineteenth century to appear, published just 7 years before Planck proposed the quantum in 1900 thus initiating the revolution in the way in which we have come to conceive and the Universe, the particles that constitute it and the forces that govern them. A&R marks the final eclipse of explanatory power and analytical validity of traditional metaphysics which had been weakened internally by Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and then fatally undermined by the relentless progress of nineteenth-century science and technology. In spite of his introductory remarks that the metaphysical project is

“an attempt to know reality as against mere appearance, or the study of first principles or ultimate truths, or again the effort to comprehend the universe not simply piecemeal or by fragments, but somehow as a whole” (Bradley 1930, 1),

he goes on to explain how we can never comprehend the Universe as a whole through thought. Throughout, he deliberately makes no attempt to construct a satisfyingly harmonised and completed system because for him there is nothing beyond the human and it is the nature of human thought that, in spite of itself, it moves ever further away from the self-consistent, from the Whole that it strives to understand. Whilst there is nothing beyond human experience in his Absolute, it is, however, impossible for humans to understand its “concrete unity in detail” (Bradley 1930, 141). This is because we construct the entirety of our experience and our reality through the drawing of relations, but relation to some other immediately destroys the harmony and self-sufficiency of reality (see Bradley 1930, 143-162). In thought about anything, we conceive, conceptualise and describe through relation of that which it is with that which it is not. Thought about anything is always an activity of abstraction, an unpicking and dislocation of some fact or other from the thing thought of, and a placing of this in relation to that thing so as to illuminate it and to explicate it. Thought is always a moment of idealisation that distracts the what from the that. All attempt to take hold of the Real, the Whole, fragments it. Bradley’s A&R is a prolonged meditation on the impossibility of attaining knowledge of ultimate truth which thus radically restricts and limits the scope of human knowledge.

For Bradley, definition-through-self is the absolute criterion of the Real. The basic issue is that thought destroys the self-consistency, the self-identity, the self-definition of the thing by placing it into relation with other things in order to characterise it as a knowable and known object. Thought is disruptive of the self-consistent Whole, of the Bradleyan Absolute even though he maintains that the Absolute is nothing beyond experience, beyond the totality of its constituent appearances.

Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom [PoR] was published the year after A&R. Written before Steiner had converted to theosophy and become a devotee of the supernatural and the esoteric, its first book, the Theory of Freedom, is in part a critique of enquiry that Steiner defines as dualism, that is theories that posit two worlds and of which A&R is a notable specimen. Bradley’s variety of dualism pits Appearance against Reality, the world of human experience against the world that is the ineffable Absolute. On principle dualism excludes the possibility of knowing the Universe as a whole, as it truly is, by theorising a totalising Reality that is forever beyond human comprehension. Dualism sets crucial limits on what it is possible to know, to the reach of human knowledge. Characteristically, as in A&R, dualist thought then resorts to the knowable finitude of human experience to find an explanation for the unknowable world-principle that is the Absolute. In direct contrast Steiner’s Monism sets no limits whatsoever to human knowledge. Thought is not as in Bradley destructive but constructive. Following a Cartesian line of enquiry, the thinking subject is the paradigmatic self-defining and self-consistent object. The thinking object is defined precisely and entirely by its thinking:

“My inquiry touches firm ground only when I find an object, the reason of the existence of which I can gather from itself. Such an object I am myself in so far as I think, for I qualify my existence by the determinate and self-contained content of my thought-activity” (Steiner 1916, 39)

Further, and importantly for the possible reach of philosophy, thought is radically non-subjective:

“Subject and object are both concepts constructed by thought” (Steiner 1916, 43)

“It is only by means of thought that I am able to determine myself as subject and contrast myself with objects. Therefore thoughts must never be regarded as a merely subjective activity. Thinking transcends the distinction of subject and object. It produces these two concepts just as it produces all others… …the subject does not think because it is a subject, rather it conceives itself to be a subject because it can think. The activity of consciousness, in so far as it thinks, is thus not merely subjective. Rather it is neither subjective nor objective: it transcends both these concepts…  …I, as subject, exist myself by grace of thought” (ibid., 47)

Whilst the point at which the human disrupts the pre-relational Whole in Steiner appears subtly different to that point in Bradley, the difference is crucial and has profound implications for their respective meaning of thought and its ability to gain the truth of reality. Bradley places the point of disruption in thought itself but Steiner places it in perception. The World as it appears to the human percipient before thought starts to act on this perceptual data is:

“a mere chaotic aggregate of sense-data, colours, sounds, sensations pf pressure, of warmth, of taste, of smell, and lastly, feelings of pleasure and pain. This world constitutes the world of pure unthinking perception. Over and against it stands thought, ready to begin its activity” (Steiner 1916, 48)

“Man is a being with many limitations…  …owing to our limitations we perceive as an individual what, in truth, is not an individual object at all. Nowhere, e.g., is the particular quality “red” to be found by itself in abstraction. It is surrounded on all sides by other qualities to which it belongs, and without which it could not subsist. For us, however, it is necessary to isolate certain sections of the world and consider them by themselves… ..This isolation is a subjective act, which is due to the fact that we are not identical with the world-process, but are only things among other things” (Steiner 1916, 67)

What then does thought effect, what is the meaning of thought for Steiner? Thought is precisely that which effects the synthesis of the percept and the concept supplied through intuition. Thought is radically creative, harmonising, constitutive of the Real. Here we have a meaning of thought diametrically opposed to that of Bradley:

“in thinking beings the concept confronts the external thing. It is that part of the thing which we receive not from without, but from within. To assimilate, to unite, the two elements, the inner and the outer, that is the function of knowledge. The percept, thus, is not something finished and self-contained, but one side of the total reality. The other side is the concept. The act of cognition is the synthesis of percept and concept. And it is only the union of percept and concept which constitutes the whole thing” (Steiner 1916, 69)

“The objects which, in observation, appear to us as separate, become combined bit by bit, through the coherent, unified system of our intuitions. By thought we fuse again into one whole all that perception has separated. An object presents riddles to our understanding so long as it exists in isolation. But this is an abstraction of our own making and can be unmade again in the world of concepts” (Steiner 1916, 72)

The concept of thought as constructive, rather that destructive, of reality is perhaps most clearly enunciated in passages in which Steiner states that the concepts supplied by thought completes the object. Here, the human is not some subjective and abstractive interloper intent on destroying some postulated harmonised Reality thereby imposing its personal take on that Reality, but an agent that brings an indispensable element to the total reality of the Universe:

“What right have you to declare the world to be complete without thought? Does not the world cause thoughts in the minds of men with the same necessity as it causes the blossom on plants?…  …Set the plant before yourselves. It connects itself, in your minds, with a definite concept. Why should this concept belong any less to the whole plant than leaf and blossom?…  …the concept of a plant arises when a thinking being comes into contact with the plant. It is quite arbitrary to regard the sum of what we experience of a thing through bare perception, as a totality, a whole, while that which thought reveals is regarded as a mere accretion which has nothing to do with the thing itself…  …It would be a quite unscientific and arbitrary judgement which declared of any haphazard appearance of a thing, this is the thing” (Steiner 1916, 65-66)

Steiner’s Monism identifies the thinking subject (not the percipient) with every external object. In thought the forces which vivify our being are the same as those outside of our being. We do not passively sit outside of the “universal cosmic process” amazed that our ideas appear to correspond as well as they do to objects that sit outside of ourselves: we are fundamentally an active part of that cosmic process through our thought:

 “By means of thought we take an active part in the universal cosmic process. By means of feeling we withdraw ourselves into the narrow precincts of our own being” (Steiner 1916, 79).

The universal nature of thought not only embeds us in the universal world-process but importantly means that are concepts are not private, a conclusion completely in keeping his conception of the non-subjective nature of thought:

“There is only one single concept of “triangle”…  …the naïve man believes himself to be the creator of his concepts. He believes each person to have his private concepts…  …The one single concept of “triangle” does not split up into many concepts because it is thought by many minds. For the thought of the many is itself a unity. In thought, we have the element which welds each man’s special individuality into one whole with the cosmos. I so far as we sense and feel (perceive), we are isolated individuals: in so far as we think, we are the All-One Being which pervades everything” (Steiner 1916, 68)

This conceptualisation of thought is not in any way mystical. It is deeply humanistic eschewing anything that transcends us, the ineffable second world beyond the apparent we inhabit and that for dualism we can never truly know. Steiner’s version of thought has no place for another world which forever escapes the thinker. Thinking is a manifestation in the human mind of the very process that is creative of total universal identification. This all has profound implications for our knowledge which dualism forever limits but which for Monism has no limits:

“It follows that the concept of knowledge, as defined by us, there can be no talk of any limits of knowledge…  …external things demand no explanation. They exist and act on one another according to laws which thought can discover. They exist in indivisible unity with these laws…  …Only when the Self has combined for itself the two elements of reality which are indivisibly bound up with one another in the world is out thirst for knowledge stilled. (Steiner 1916, 83 and 90)

This is an important text. It was the last work of European philosophy to be published in the nineteenth century and is not only the perfect antidote to the resigned pessimism of dualist philosophy that has its swan-song in A&R but also, in a few brief chapters sets out a passionate case for the ability of the human mind to know the Universe as it truly is and as a whole.

John Frederick Kensett, "Sunset Sky", 1872

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit was published in 1807 and like PoF is in part a critique of a dualism, this time Kantian, which Steiner describes as the “distinction between the object of perception and the thing-in-itself”. Hegel’s initial task is demonstrate the invalidity of a philosophy that:

“Takes for granted certain ideas about cognition as an instrument and as a medium, and assumes that there is a difference between ourselves and this cognition. Above all it presupposes that the Absolute stands on one side and cognition on the other, independent and separated from it, and yet is something real; or in other words, it presupposes that cognition which, since it is excluded from the Absolute, is surely outside of the truth as well, is nevertheless true…  …the Absolute is true, or the truth alone is absolute” (Hegel 1977, 47).

The text explores how humanly-enunciated Laws of Nature and Matter can be anything more than highly sophisticated mechanisms to collate, organise and synthesise, in some pseudo-Kantian appropriation, the phenomena of Nature and Matter so as to render them humanly conceivable and explicable and susceptible for manipulation, even if they are wildly successful. In what way are our conceptions of the laws that govern the Universe the very laws that truly govern the Universe? How can we know that what we say about the Universe aligns with what the Universe is? Can our interpretations of its workings however incredibly accurate be anything more than interpretations? Specifically, is there any source of legitimation for Science’s claim to Truth beyond the self-legitimating claims of Science itself? A little later in the Introduction Hegel puts it thus:

“But Science, just because it comes on the scene, is itself an appearance: in coming on the scene it is not yet Science in its developed and unfolded truth…  … Science would be declaring its power to lie simply in its being; but the untrue knowledge likewise appeals to the fact that it is, and assures us that for it Science is of no account. One bare assurance is worth just as much as another” (Hegel, 1977, 48-49).

Whilst the concepts of Thought, Spirit and Absolute Knowing as they are unpacked in the Phenomenology, Hegel’s foundational groundwork text, are a validation in thought of Science’s claim to Truth, this is not a conclusion many of his commentators would share.  Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge explicitly counterpoises the aim and result of Hegel’s work with that of Modern Science: Hegel’s view of the place of science in the world is the exact antithesis of his own vision of an independent and effective postmodern science. The Hegelian dialectic of Spirit is a metanarrative that legitimates all human activity (see Lyotard 1984, 32-35). Those that practice science, the panoply of scientific methodologies, the manifold discoveries of science are, alongside their corollaries in Art, Religion and Philosophy itself, mere moments in the becoming of Spirit, components of the totality of the Spirit’s self-comprehension, fragments of the Spirit’s manifestation in the world. Whilst human actors and human actions have a role to play in the Hegelian dialectic as necessary manifestations of the Spirit, they have no meaning in and of themselves beyond such manifestation. There would be no particular actors or actions unless the Spirit decided to manifest itself as those actors or actions in order to perfect, complete and comprehend itself.  In his analyses of the myths of modernity, Lyotard lays waste to the explicatory power of the great hero on their great journey to some ultimate goal. In diametrical contrast, Lyotard sees scientific discovery as an end in itself, legitimated through its own language game consisting of the logical consistency and coherence of its semantic field and with access to the canon via adherence to the normative rules of the discipline enforced through peer review and through its susceptibility to proof or disproof via experimental validation (see Lyotard 1984, 53-60).

Hegel’s linguistic style is not as refreshingly self-explanatory as Steiner’s and often requires resort to a lay summary for the non-professional: one such introductory text is the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Hegel by Peter Singer. Like Lyotard, Singer also sees Hegel’s version of the arc of history as a supernatural teleology culminating in the self-comprehension of some transcendent being:

“It is of the essence of the absolute idea to manifest itself in distinct, limited forms, and then to return to itself. Self-comprehension is the form in which it returns to itself… …the self-comprehension of the absolute is the dominant theme of all of Hegel’s philosophy” (Singer, 2001, 105).

So what is the absolute idea for Singer? Almost against his better judgement he identifies it with God: “the onward movement of history is the path that God must take to achieve perfection” (Singer, 2001, 108). Lyotard privileges a reading of Geist as Spirit succumbing to the easy temptation to interpret the Spirit as God, some transcendent being, and indeed amongst the metanarratives that Lyotard claims that the Hegelian dialectic totalises is that of the Christian salvation epic (see Lyotard 1992, 29). These are commonplace interpretations but are misrepresentative. The Sprit is not some transcendental Being but the mode of consciousness of the spiritual being that is a self-conscious human being.

Spirit first appears in Miller’s translation at 435 where it supersedes the preceding forms, the last two modes of Reason which are the proclamation of universal laws (law-giving reason) and the use of the principle of universality to test the content of laws to assess their legitimacy as law (law-testing reason). These two forms of the universal are determined by individual human beings. In their place, experience realizes that the universal is not a question of human pronouncement or human validation but is “authoritative in its own right” (Houlgate, 2013, 144).

Reason is superseded by Spirit because it is the “universal that is no longer the object of reason is thus one that is not first actualized by the individual” (Houlgate, 2013, 144). The spiritual being is the human in which the shape of consciousness takes as its object universal laws without any content that is humanly derived or humanly validated: “the spiritual being thus exists first of all for a self-consciousness as law which has an intrinsic being” (Hegel, 1977, 260). This law is “equally an eternal law which is grounded not in the will of a particular individual, but is valid in and for itself” (Hegel, 1977, 260). The law of which Hegel talks is ethical law, the golden rule being an example. However, this concept can equally apply to scientific laws, the Laws of Nature and the Universe, laws that are authoritative in their own right. In his treatment of absolute knowledge Singer states, however, that “at the level of self-consciousness, consciousness became aware of the laws of science as laws of its own creation” (Singer, 2001, 91).

For Singer, absolute knowledge is not, in line with Hegel, knowledge of the Absolute or of absolutely everything but it is the understanding that comes when we come to know beyond all possibility of doubt that all human knowledge is always only a creation of the human mind. Here scientific discoveries are not nuggets prised from a recalcitrant Universe from hidden seams awaiting discovery but devices necessary to human comprehension, enabling control and praxis, productions by the human for the human and these productions clearly include scientific laws. This view of Hegel’s conception is, however, untenable, and the closing sections of Reason are not susceptible to misinterpretation:

 “Sophocles Antigone acknowledges them as unwritten and infallible laws of the gods.

They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting,
Though where they came from, none of us can tell.

They are. If I inquire after their origin and confine them to the point whence they arose, then I have transcended them:…  …If they are supposed to be validated by my insight, then I have already denied their unshakeable, intrinsic being, and regard them as something which, for me, is perhaps true, but is also perhaps not true” (Hegel, 1977, 261-262).

Singer invites us to subscribe to that view that:

“it is ideas, or more broadly our minds, our thoughts, our consciousness, that constitute ultimate reality…   …so-called material objects turned out to be not things existing quite independently of consciousness, but constructs of consciousness…  …at the end of the road we find that we have been watching mind as it constructs reality…  …Reality is constituted by mind…  …Only when mind awakens to the fact that reality is its own creation can it give up this reaching after the ‘beyond’” (Singer, 2001, 91-93).

We have here that popular characterisation of Idealism as a body of thought based on the premiss that there is nothing beyond human conception, that the entire structure of the Universe and Reality, is in our minds. Clearly, if Hegelian Reality appears to exist purely in the mind of the beholder it is certainly not a reality susceptible to any variety of scientific theorization, analysis and investigation.

However, let us again return to Hegel to see if he really believed that Reality was all in the mind. His characterization of the Stoic is an important stage in the evolution of the modes of human consciousness given that the “freedom of self-consciousness when it appeared as a manifestation in the history of Spirit has, as we know, been called Stoicism” (Hegel, 1977, 121).

The Stoic is the first instantiation of the mode of consciousness Hegel entitles thought:

“in thinking I am free, because I am not in another, but remain simply solely in communion with myself, and the object, which is for me the essential being, is in undivided unity my being-for-myself” (Hegel, 1977, 120).

How does Hegel give the lie to the easy acceptance of the Hegelian real as being all in the mind through his analysis of Stoic thought? Hegel explicitly states that the Stoic, in order to be free from the exigencies of life, to be free to think whether “on the throne or in chains” (Hegel, 1977, 121), withdraws from Life, from Reality. However, it is clear that for Hegel Reality and Being are real and indubitably exist outside of the thought of the stoic that is radically counterpoised against them. In 199 we read of:

“the manifold-self-differentiating expanse of life” (Hegel, 1977, 121): the Stoic “in the utter dependence of its individual existence, its aim to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from that bustle of existence, alike from being active as passive into the simple essentiality of thought” (Hegel, 1977, 121).

The essence of the freedom of the Stoic is “thought which has turned away from the independence of things and returned into itself” (Hegel, 1977, 122). Fundamentally, Hegel states that “the freedom of self-consciousness is indifferent to natural existence…  …the essence of that freedom…  …has turned away from the independence of things and returned into itself” (Hegel, 1977, 122).

As with the closing sections of Reason these statements are not susceptible to misinterpretation. Why does the stoic withdraw into the “simple essentiality of thought”? The Stoic sees no essential difference between consciousness and the object, between its thought and being, and thus can find their reality and truth in consciousness alone. This brings us naturally to the characterization of critical concept of thought as it first appears in 197. Thought supersedes the mode of consciousness of the slave where the object is expressive of self-consciousness through the object having the same form and substance as self-consciousness: “the moment of intrinsic being or thinghood which received its form in being fashioned is no other substance than consciousness” (Hegel, 1977, 120).

What legitimates this identification of self and the object of thought, of being? It is Begriffe which Miller translates as Notion, although Concept is perhaps preferable:

“in thinking the objects…  …present(s) itself…  …in Notions i.e. in a distinct being-in-itself or intrinsic being, consciousness being immediately aware that this is not anything distinct from itself” and a Notion “in so far as is present in consciousness itself as its determinate content: but since this content is at the same time a content grasped in thought, consciousness remains immediately aware of its unity with this determinate and distinct being” (Hegel, 1977, 120).

“thought understands the object to be structured by concepts…  …When it understands something through concepts…  … consciousness takes the thing to have the same form as its own thought” (Houlgate, 2013, 104).

John Frederick Kensett, "Sunset on the Sea", 1872

Thus the workings of thought do not determine how the object is structured in order to be thought about but the structure of thought and of objects, of being, are both conceptual and as such thought and being are of the exact same form and substance. It is in this that their identity is established. Steiner’s claim that “in so far as we think, we are the All-One Being which pervades everything” is pure Hegelian. For Hegel, conceptualization does not force the object to adopt humanly conceptualizable form, but the form of the object is the very form of the conscious subject and precedes and elides all human conceptualization. Indeed it is this which makes all thought on being possible and meaningful. It is also this complete identification of thought with being that makes the Stoic withdraw. Faced with a world that is beyond human understanding to control, the Stoic withdraws into thought to control that world through understanding, a retreat legitimated by the strict identity between the form and substance of thought and being. The eruption of thought into the odyssey of human consciousness is a pivotal moment in the Phenomenology but it is immediately clear that the mode of consciousness represented by Stoical thought must at some point be superseded through the synthesis of thought with an external reality, with thought that acknowledges Being as real and the Real as being. This synthesis occurs at the apotheosis of the Phenomenology – the mode of human consciousness that is Absolute Knowing.

Absolute knowing supersedes the preceding phase of manifest religion, in which absolute being is pictured as God: the self-consciousness of the believer does not see itself in the absolute because the absolute is radically other than its self. Absolute knowing overcomes this separation of consciousness and absolute being by resorting to thought, that identity between being and consciousness, object and subject, through their identity of form and substance, that of the concept: “in this self-like form in which existence is immediately thought, the content is the Notion” (Hegel, 1977, 491).

However, here consciousness does not retreat into itself to find the truth about being but acknowledges an external reality that it differentiates itself from but that it is not different from: “It has a content which it differentiates from itself…  …it is only when the ‘I’ communes with itself in its otherness that the content is comprehended [ie in terms of the Notion]” (Hegel, 1977, 486).

More explicitly:

“Spirit, however, has shown itself to us to be neither merely the withdrawal of self-consciousness into its pure inwardness, nor the mere submergence of self-consciousness into substance, and the non-being of its [moment of] difference: but Spirit is this movement of the Self which empties itself of itself and sinks itself into its substance, and also as Subject, has gone out of that substance into itself, making the substance into an object and content at the same time as it cancels this difference between objectivity and content” (Hegel, 1977, 490).

There is one further crucial aspect to Absolute Knowing. It understands that it is the consciousness that being comes to have of itself. This sounds like the grossest anthropomorphic hubris but again is driven by the fundamental principle of thought, that identification of substance and form of human consciousness and being, of human thought and existence. The human can enunciate and explain the concepts of its consciousness and thus the human becomes the voice of Reality, through its ability to enunciate and explain those self-like concepts that are the substance and form of external reality: “For this Notion is, as we see, the knowledge of the Self’s act within itself as all essentiality and existence, the knowledge of this subject as substance and of the substance as this knowledge of its act” (Hegel, 1977, 485). As Houlgate puts it:“To know absolutely is…  …to understand oneself to be the self-consciousness that absolute being comes to have of itself” (Houlgate, 2013, 187).

Let us summarize at this point with three conclusions:

  1. Being, things and objects are structured by concepts in identically the same way as thought is structured. The object is structured like a consciousness. In absolute knowing this identification becomes explicit and whilst it sees no difference in form and substance between itself and its object, it differentiates itself from it and does not subsume it and negate it in some interiority as the Stoic does.
  2. There are laws that have intrinsic being, that are valid and authoritative in their own right. They exist prior to human production and their universal authority eschews all attempts to humanly validate them. Whilst Hegel has ethical laws in mind, they include Laws of Nature and Laws of the Universe. Whilst not of human fabrication, imposed to categorize and make comprehensible for humans their world, they can be bought to consciousness and enunciated and explained by humans.
  3. In absolute knowing, human understanding comes to be the self-consciousness that absolute being has of itself. Through the identity of form and substance of human consciousness and being, that of concepts, the human voice is uniquely placed to not only enunciate its concepts of itself but the concepts of the other which is of the same form and substance as its self.

· · ·

Hawking claims that:

“science allows us to understand the world in which we find ourselves, how the universe behaves and the nature of reality”

We now come to the question as first set. How can science purport to truly know this rather than gaining some Kantian handle on reality that makes it amenable to human comprehension and manipulation? From 1, the substance and form of the consciousness of those that practice science is identical with the reality that is their world, their Universe, that which they examine and explore. Science is not a work of translation from a non-human register to the human to render humanly interpretable: science works using the same language that the external reality outside of it is written in. From 3, again it speaks the same language. The material equivalence of the concept is that the human is composed of the same fundamental particles held together by the same forces as the rest of the (non-human) universe, is programmed using the same principles as the non-human but unlike the non-human can be conscious of that which patterns and determines it, can thus enunciate and explicate that and thus can with veracity talk of the reality of all being, organic and inorganic, beyond itself. This is what underlies the huge success of science’s theoretical predictions when put to experimental validation in physics and cosmology – the experimental proof of quantum entanglement, of anti-matter, of black holes, and the cosmic big bang. Perhaps most iconic was the discovery of the Higg’s particle in the Large Hadron Collider. Here, massive detectors recorded and analysed the collisions between protons moving at just under the speed of light. These collisions perturbed the Higg’s field and occasionally dislodged a particle of the field, the Higg’s particle, with behaviour exactly as the theory had predicted. The experimental proof of a theory proposing a field that extends uniformly throughout the Universe and which gives mass to all of its particles seems an experimental proof of the sheer identity of being and thought, of the identity of the form and substance, of human consciousness and objective reality. Objective reality is conceptual in the self-same way as human thought: the fabric of Space is of the same warp and weft as that of human consciousness. Our scientific advances do not arise from happy chance but because our consciousness is of the same substance and form of reality and further through that consciousness we are the consciousness, and can speak the truth, of that reality.

Science works with laws, the laws of the universe, the laws of nature, but again, what guarantee do we have that scientific laws are not simply devices necessary to human comprehension, enabling control and praxis, supported by apparent chains of cause and effect? How can we claim that the laws of science are not simply of the human and for the human? From 2, laws have intrinsic being, are valid and authoritative in their own right and precede human cognition, pronouncement, validation. These laws are laws of our being, functioning, structure, genesis as much as they are all that is non-human; but again the identity of our thought with being from 1 and our unique ability to voice our cognizance from 3 allows us to enunciate and explicate these laws that govern the universe and all of reality not simply a human version of that universe or reality which has been reduced for convenience to a set of laws that seem to fit adequately.

In the final mode of consciousness, which pulls together the three summary principles I have suggested are pertinent to the true meaning of the Phenomenology for modern science, the spirit attains to its ultimate stage of absolute knowing and it is then that Science is finally realized:

“Spirit, manifesting or appearing in consciousness in this element, or what is the same thing, produced in it by consciousness, is Science” (Hegel, 1977, 486)

“But as regards the existence of this Notion, Science does not appear in Time and in the actual world before Spirit has attained to this consciousness about itself” (ibid.)

“Science contains within itself this necessity of externalizing the form of the Notion, and it contains the passage of the Notion into consciousness” (ibid., 491)

Absolute knowing legitimates science’s claims to speak of the truth of the Universe as a whole. The Phenomenology traces the dialectical journey in thought that modern Science has taken in practice, one in which the human becomes the articulating consciousness of the Universe through its knowing absolutely that its fundamental building blocks and the forces that connect them and which animate us as conscious reflective beings are of the very same form and substance.

GW Middleton is Professor of Medical Oncology at the University of Birmingham, Clinical Director of the CR UK Cancer Centre Birmingham and Director of The Birmingham Experimental Cancer Centre. He runs a significant laboratory programme dedicated to cancer immunobiology, is a practicing clinician and has authored over 100 peer reviewed papers.

Works Cited

Bradley, FH. 1930. Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hawking, Stephen. 2011. The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life. London: Bantam.

Hegel, GWF. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by AV Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Houlgate, Stephen. 2013. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Bloomsbury.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester. Manchester University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1992. The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985. Translated by Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. London: Turnaround.

Singer, Peter. 2001. Hegel: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Steiner, Rudolf. 1916. The Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Prof. and Mrs. R.F Alfred Hornle.


July 2021


Alain Badiou – The Theory of Covering and the Ethics of the Idea

A translation by Timothy Lavenz

Nineteenth Century Interpretations of Thought and the Claims of Twenty-First Century Science

by GW Middleton

Views of Reality from Stagecraft, Science, and ‘Nowhere’

by Venkat Ramanan

Neo-Berkeleyan Meditations on Systems, Rules, Freedom, Death, and the Last of my Kind

by Raphael Chim