I have had several conversations recently which I think bring up this interesting question. My background in a lifetime of interest in philosophy and physics has sometimes caused me to over-assume that others are aware to some degree of how 19th century metaphysics of mechanics is still very dominate in most folks thinking. The metaphysics of mechanics assume an absolute time and space dominated by Cartesian metaphysics in which Renes’ Descartes writing in the 17th century declares, “I think, therefore I am”. At the very beginning of the Scientific Revolution, time and space was thought through the metaphor of a machine. This was no ‘spooky action at a distance’ but with Newton there soon would be ‘action at a distance’ with gravity and later with electromagnetism. The notion of aether had been around for a very long time before Newton but Newton would attribute gravity to a Christian God. Therefore, it was reasonable that shortly before the birth of Newton, Descartes in keeping with Latin Christianity would think of reality as subject and object. The subject was the domain of aether, God, mind, spirit, etc. and the object was matter, substance, body, just dead stuff. This metaphysic of absolute dualism would make the Mechanical Revolution of the 18th and 19th century possible. I use metaphysic from the Latin as the Christianized transformation from Aristotle’s works on ‘first philosophy’ or being as such. This metaphysic became ‘reality’. It became a largely unquestioned assumption which underscores more the impact and vast significance of history as human than any such thing as the ‘real’.
In the 19th century Hegel’s dialectic shattered with great genius and logic this dominate metaphysic. His impact was so devastating that reactions to Hegel spun off Karl Marx and communism (long before the Russian Revolution). Marx vigorously opposed the bourgeois Hegel in favor of material dialecticism. Hegel also spun off the British Empiricists and Adam Smith which became the foundation of capitalism. What was so devastating about Hegel’s observations? Hegel pointed out clearly that the dominate metaphysic of his day was an abstraction. It was not a matter denying the ‘reality’ of Cartesian dualism but of showing how it was an abstraction. Kant tells us,
For human reason, impelled by its own need rather than moved by the mere vanity of gaining a lot of knowledge, proceeds irresistibly to such questions as cannot be answered by any experiential use of reason and any principles taken from such use. And thus all human beings, once their reason has expanded to [the point where it can] speculate, actually have always had in them, and always will have in them, some metaphysics.
—Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Isaac Topete writes,
Kant posits a two-fold constitution of knowledge by the two faculties of understanding and sensibility, and thereby, rejects the hypothesis of an intuitive understanding. With these two stances in mind, Hegel—within the Science of Logic—is critical of Kant insofar as he sees these above positions by Kant as detrimental to the project of idealism. Detrimental in the sense that Hegel thinks that Kant’s position is self-contradictory to the extent that concepts exist only in relation to appearance (i.e. illusory being) and, hence, concepts do not have any actual ‘truth’ to them insofar as they only apply haphazardly. So, from the perspective of Hegel, for Kant, concepts are derivative and hold no actual traction beyond that which appears. This, therefore, leads to Hegel’s attempt to critique and overcome these Kantian assumptions within the Science of Logic. (Topete)
Kant distinguished concepts from the ‘thing in itself’ or noumenon as opposed to phenomenon or manifestations – concepts. So, Kant was still to some extent working from Cartesian metaphysics. However, even Kant was already thinking clearly about the absolute abstractions of concepts and their inability to sustain any such thing as ‘reality’ without essentially being a metaphysic. Hegel shows through rigorous and extensive writings that Kant’s dualism resulting in the ‘thing in itself’ could not stand as Kant intended but even Kant’s unstated dualism was itself merely Concept. Hegel thinks Kant is still a victim of abstraction in that he could not break with some notion of reality which maintained the opposition of noumenon and phenomenon. This was the beginning of the end for Cartesian dualism over one hundred and fifty years ago.
Philosophy after Hegel broke into two main divisions: Continental and Analytic Philosophy. Continental meaning mainland Europe and Analytic meaning chiefly United States. However Analytic Philosophy grew out of the British Empiricist’s reaction to Hegel and the German Idealists. Both strains of philosophy have also traversed to widely varying degrees away from the mechanics of Cartesian reality.
Continental philosophy eloquently shows the break from the classical world to the modern world beginning with Existentialism and into phenomenology. Existentialism was focused on the matter of existing in a daily world and how to live without the metaphysics which made the classical world possible. Phenomenology was contemporaneous in the early 20th century with Einstein and Relativity. While not directly affecting each other they had some interesting parallels. Phenomenology started in earnest when Edmund Husserl began by focusing not on abstractions of metaphysics but how phenomenon shows itself from intentionality. As human we always encounter the world with intention which is not passive but active in determining what shows itself. His student Martin Heidegger also working from Husserl discusses two examples of how this works. Heidegger asks how do we experience spatiality? Do we encounter it as linear extension, as feet or inches from objects?
Actually, linear extension is an abstraction. It is a grid we impose on the world. Even Einstein tells us space is not linear but relative to time and frames of perspective. ‘Long’ and ‘short’ change relative to the speed of light. For Heidegger, we have lived-space. We bring close and distance ourselves from regions of contoured spatiality. While the glasses on our face may be much closer to us in linear extension our lived space is what our intentions are occupying in interests beyond and through our glasses. When we are in a class room there is a space between the teacher and the students which we experience as different regions where possibilities are delineated in advance. Lived space is not devoid of everything except dead extension. It is alive and has various qualities which inform us about ourselves, others and the world and how we act in various regionalities. Additionally, lived-time is not linear now moments. Lived time has a stretch of duration from a past through a present to a future. When we are happy ‘time flies’ and when we are bored or depressed time slows to a halt. Lived-time is a stretch of qualities and not just dead time. In terms of Einstein, time is relative to us, our frame of reference. Continental philosophy goes on to show how time and space are concretized by qualities of our experience of them.
Continental philosophy moved on in the mid to latter 20th century to structuralism and poststructuralism, modernism and post-modernism. These movement encompassed vast areas beyond philosophy including architecture, art, feminism, etc. These movements laid a foundation for a critique of abstractions from the classical and modern world and showed how their influences became occasions for violence and domination both to ourselves and our environment. Derrida showed through deconstruction how dominate, historic narratives must necessarily include their own antithesis and undoing. Fanaticism and terrorism result from their inevitable collapse. Furthermore, any form of structuralism is doomed to carry the seeds of its own demise. Derrida even goes so far as to say that “deconstruction deconstructs itself”. A case and point here is the interesting turns we find in Analytic Philosophy.
Analytic philosophy got its impetus from getting back to the senses in British Empiricism and not German Idealism. However, it quickly became entangled in linguistics, semantic and syntax. Once it emerged from the logic of language it took on the philosophy of language in a much more evasive role.
Those who use the term “philosophy of language” typically use it to refer to work within the field of Anglo-American analytical philosophy and its roots in German and Austrian philosophy of the early twentieth century. Many philosophers outside this tradition have views on the nature and use of language, and the border between “analytical” and “continental” philosophy is becoming more porous with time, but most who speak of this field are appealing to a specific set of traditions, canonical authors and methods. (PhiIn)
I am not as familiar with the Analytic tradition but I understand that sense perception has become inseparable from language games, context, intentions, intersubjectivity and histories. Rudolf Carnap even went so far as to substitute intention for sense. Contextuality is not something added on to reality but constituent of reality. The ‘Pittsburg Hegelians’ have even taken Analytic Philosophy back to Hegel in some important respects. Writing of Wilfred Sellars (an important advocate of the Pittsburg Hegelians) Willem A. deVries writes,
For both Hegel and Sellars, the sociality of thought entails also its historicity. We always operate with a less than ultimately satisfactory conceptual framework that is fated to be replaced by something more satisfactory, whether on the basis of conceptual or empirical considerations… Sellars denies both that there are ‘atoms’ of knowledge or meaning independent of their relation to other ‘pieces’ of knowledge or meaning, and that they are structured in a neat hierarchy rather than an interlocking (social) network. The determinate content of a thought or utterance is fixed by its position in the space of implications and employments available to the community in its language or conceptual framework. This kind of holism is congenial to Hegelian modes of thinking… Hegel is an epistemological realist: he rejects the idea that we do not (or are not even able to) know things as they are in themselves. Yet neither Hegel nor Sellars wants to reject altogether the distinction between phenomenal reality and things as they are in themselves. Sellars calls the distinction between the phenomenal and the real the distinction between the manifest and the scientific images of man in the world.
Hegel provides for numerous phenomenal realities related in ways that require a phenomenology to understand. It is not the distinction between phenomenon and reality itself that Hegel and Sellars attack, but the notion that it is absolute, establishing an unbridgeable divide.
McDowell, however, is concerned to defend our ‘openness to the layout of reality’ and seems not to take seriously the idea that we might have systematically false beliefs about the nature of things… The strategy, boiled down, is this: Kant’s critical philosophy is formulated in terms of basic dualisms, apriori/aposteriori, analytic/synthetic, receptivity/spontaneity, even empirical science/philosophy. Hegel insists that trapped in these dualisms Kant cannot satisfactorily explain human cognition or action. The gaps imposed by the assumed dualisms never get properly bridged. (deVries)
DeVries goes on to state that Sellars rejects the standard static interpretation given by Hegel in Hegel’s absolutisms. The important point here is that even the arch-typical school of sense empiricism has re-discovered, perhaps in some novel ways, the radical and complete loss of metaphysical ground which dominated the West from the Roman Empire to the 19th century.
Physics tells us of the absolute (if you will) relativity of ‘objects’ in which size and even temporal existence is contingent. In quantum mechanics it appears that even the notion of a particle is simply relative concentrations of energetic field densities more like micro and macro waves and currents in the ocean. Subatomic ‘particles’ with no mass (infinitesimal forces popping in and out of existence) energize these densities to create mass, gravity and their relative temporalities. This tells us that a ‘particle’ as a solid piece of matter is an abstraction which we have told ourselves through history based more on a quasi-scientific/theological notion of Newton’s absolute time and space. Newton told us gravity as action at a distance was God.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle even tells us that there are aspects of phenomena which are impossible to reconcile (position and momentum of the wave-particle). This hits at the very heart of logic as built upon the principle of non-contradiction.
Schrödinger’s cat in the box thought experiment tells us the cat in the box can both be alive and dead at the same time. This is really an observation about the mathematics of superposition which is the basis of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics tells us about infinite possibilities which are actualized, made real, by observation. The immediate reaction of many including myself years ago was, ‘Are we saying that everything is subjective?’ This jump to subjectivity was the only possibility given to us by our metaphysics when confronted with this observation.
Einstein referred to entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance’. Most quantum fields have a property called spin. These fields become constituents of many particles such as an electron. One characteristic of spin is called up and down. This is really how a magnetic field effects the orientation of the field. When particles such as an electron become entangled with each other they form a pair that can be separated by billions of light years and a magnetic field on one electron will instantly change the orientation of the other electron no matter what the distance between the two electrons. This seems to violate Einstein’s basic postulate which tells us nothing in the universe can move faster than the speed of light. This appears to violate a fundamental law of physics concerning locality. Einstein thought perhaps there were hidden variables which could explain this problem. One possibility could be that the universe is composed of more dimensions than four, three dimensions of space and one of time. Locality is intuitively thought as the ‘me’, the ‘I’ of ‘I think, therefore I am’. History has taught us that we are all absolute individuals. We have a certain sacred and protected domain which endows us with sacred, unalienable and unquestionable ‘rights’. We typically downplay the absolute of individuality with the equal and opposite other half of rights which is responsibility.
The notion of a multi-dimensional universe has contributed to many-worlds theory (which goes all the way back to the Greeks). String theory and parallel universes coupled with Schrödinger’s observation tell us that possibilities may be more than reality fictions but fundamentally comprise the ‘stuff’ of reality. What we thought as dead stuff, substance, may have much more to it that could make the boundaries of what is thought as living and dead a more complex problem.
Dark energy is thought to comprise 73% of all mass and energy in the universe. Additionally, dark matter is thought to comprise another 23% of the universe. The leaves 4% to comprise everything we see such as planets, stars and people. And, we really have no clue what it is. We know it must exist because we see its effects like wind in the trees. Dark matter and dark energy may solve a problem which resulted in perhaps Einstein’s greatest blunder, the cosmological constant. In short, Einstein inserted this ‘x’ factor into his equations to make relativity of time and space work with gravity. This made the universe static and kept the universe from flying apart. However, many subsequent discoveries have leads us to the dark halls of dark energy and matter as the reason why the universe does not fly apart. Without the gravitational effects of dark matter and energy we would have to accept the almost theological explanation of Einstein’s ‘x’ factor. The mystery of what dark matter and energy tell us is to buckle up, we really know very little about reality.
What is the real? It is neither subjective nor objective but those tired old metaphysics should tell us more about who we are that what reality is. We have inherited ‘filters’ which help us make sense of the world in language and history. Language and history are as much a part of our anatomy as our heart is. The ‘real’ is not some absolute, everlasting reality apart from us to which we are enslaved but essential to us in an ‘essentially’ indeterminate way. Philosophy and physics have come together to show us that our ability to abstract not only is the ‘real’ but somehow indeterminately determinate of what gets taken up as ‘real’.
To speak of the ‘real’ in this way is not to deny the ‘real’ but to put the ‘real’ in a more nuanced and less abstract way than historic embodiments which grossly oversimplify and distort ‘isness’. These distortions lead to the worst of human behavior as they champion the heroic ‘defender of the faith’ at any horrific cost. The threats to reality are manufactured inherent in ‘reality’ not imputed from the unrepentant. We do not really know to what extent our forceful expectations of ‘reality’ force the reality we ultimately find. It may be that the worlds we create become our tomb and not the occasion for an ‘other’, infinitely removed from our metaphysical prisons.
Creation did not happen from our reality but from a reality we never knew. Language was not our invention after birth but in some indeterminate and historic fashion constitutes who we are, what ‘reality’ is or isn’t. It constitutes a past that never was our personal past but somehow participates intimately in our moments and after-moments of creation, of birth. To think of ourselves as an absolute individual is perhaps the momentous sin of ‘reality’ which ignores the grace which makes us possible. We owe a debt to creation, the moment of birth, that gives gifts and makes possible language and meaning. It is up to us as to how we embody these gifts with wistful arrogance or humble gratitude. The other, the he or the she, is not diminished or captured by our petty judgements of them. They are as much the miracle of who we are as language, as ‘reality, as the indeterminate infinity which we choose together and apart. The possibility of ethics is a choice, perhaps the only choice we can make. Over one hundred and fifty years we have traversed from ‘I think, therefore I am’ to ‘We think, therefore we are’. We can welcome this transformation or die fighting it but who is to say if we meet our apocryphal demise, another unaccounted, unrecognized moment of creation will not create infinites of ‘realities’ which once again ask for gratitude, grace and ethical desire for what we know not.
(n.d.). Philosophy of Language. Retrieved from https://iep.utm.edu/lang-phi/
deVries, W. A. (n.d.). Hegel’s Revival in Analytic Philosophy. Retrieved from https://mypages.unh.edu/sites/default/files/wad/files/devries_hegels_revival_in_analytic_philosophy.pdf
Topete, I. (n.d.). Idealism from Kant to Hegel. Retrieved from https://www.csustan.edu/sites/default/files/groups/University%20Honors%20Program/Journals/isaac_topete.pdf