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Chapter 1: From Nature to Mind


In the days before I became a teacher of philosophy, I was in business and for a time was responsible in London for the management of a group of plantations which I occasionally visited in West Africa. In that capacity I became convinced that the financial loss on one of the plantations was due to inefficient management. I recalled the manager to London and dismissed him. This experience forced me to rethink much that I had read and learnt about moral philosophy.

My difficulty did not arise from a conflict between reason and inclination; it was that of choosing between two duties, when to fulfil one was to fail in the other. What struck me most powerfully, however, was that the two duties were not on the same level, like those examples given in many text books on ethics, when the duty of keeping a promise to a friend conflicts with the duty of giving immediate aid to another. My problem was a conflict between two different levels of experience, the level of economic life and the level of personal relationships.

To become acutely conscious of different levels of moral experience was to realize that the conditions of human life are such that men simply cannot help doing wrong; circumstances force them to adopt, to act on, and, paradoxical though it may seem, to act conscientiously on, a moral standard lower than that of the ideal. I was quite clear that it was my duty, as a salaried employee whose job it was to make my plantations pay, to discharge the manager. And yet, I asked myself, can it be a duty to reduce a married man with a family to penury—for his chances of alternative suitable employment were slender at that date? The duty of loving my neighbour could not be fulfilled; involved in a large business organization, I had to act on its standards and, in this instance, impersonally. Only in the Kingdom of Heaven could the moral ideal be universally applicable. In the kingdoms of this world lower standards have to be accepted and this seems to be a moral failure. But the curious thing is that a failure to accept them is a moral failure too. To plunge a nation into the horrors of war must be wrong; and yet not to have gone to war with Hitler's Germany would have been wrong too. The conscientious objector forgets that he is living in this world, and not in Heaven. Young people are apt to see the whole realm of action in terms of black and white, evil and good; and the choice of the good seems simple and obvious. Unfortunately the choice is more often between evils, and in a moral conflict both parties may have right on their side. It is so easy to condemn another if you have not his responsibilities to carry.

It would not be difficult to proceed from these trite reflections to a sort of moral nihilism. If men cannot help doing wrong, and if different standards are applicable in different departments of life, perhaps the best thing to do would be to act conventionally and without reflection, or in any way that pleased ourselves. This would only be a sensible line to take if the varieties of moral experience were simply unrelated, a mere jumble of different standards, or if, for example, the pleasant, the useful, the right, and the dutiful were just different themes and not variations on the single theme of goodness.

I have spoken of levels of moral experience. The word ‘experience’ is important. Those who have not read Hegel accuse him of trying to deduce the world from pure thought alone; I have learnt from him more than from any other philosopher to base my philosophy on the solid rock of experience. By ‘experience’ here, I mean experience of life as it is lived and not experience of how men talk. ‘The logical study of the language of morals’ is Professor Hare's conception of ethics, not mine.

Experience is always compact of subject and object, and these both vary together. The sort of experiencing corresponds to the varying nature of the object. What are the hills? The answer depends on the subject's level of experiencing. To one man they are beautiful; to another (or to the same man at another time) they declare the glory of God; to another they are material for geological or botanical study.

Much the same is true of levels of moral experience. The moral consciousness does not come on the scene adult, as Athene did from the brain of Zeus. It develops from a primitive or childish level to its culmination in the notion of duty. It develops pari passu with the growth of self-consciousness and reflection. There is consciousness before there is self-consciousness, and reflection on a self-conscious experience is the means whereby the potentialities of self-consciousness are further developed. Reflection alters what was there before. A trivial example may illustrate the point. A child's frequent exhibition of bad temper may well be a conscious experience, but it is not yet the consciousness that ‘I am bad tempered’. Reflection on this self-consciousness when it is achieved discloses the possibility of choosing either to be bad-tempered or to cure this failing.

This advance in reflection, which at the same time is an advance in moral experience, is the beginning of self-transcendence, and this too I learnt from Hegel. It is perhaps unfortunate that his Phenomenology of Spirit has been less studied in this country than some of his later writings and that it is less difficult to understand in German than it is in the English translation.1

We begin our life as babies on the natural level but we are possessed of a capacity to transcend this level and to rise to the supra-natural or spiritual level. This is possible only because at the start we are more than natural. This is what those people forget who, having risen far above the natural level, still try to erect a moral system on a natural basis. They forget that any moral system is non-natural. Only if they fall below the moral level can human beings live the ordered life of ants or bees. There are those who would urge that our conduct is dictated by our physical frames or by heredity or by environment, or by some or all of these; and to these scientists we must come in due course. Instead of studying conduct they reduce it to behaviour, and so to something just as natural as the behaviour of the rats and cockroaches that enter so frequently into their experiments.


As I shall have to make frequent use of the distinction between the natural or material and the mental or spiritual, I must try to explain it at the outset. ‘Nature’, says John Stuart Mill at the start of his Three Essays on Religion,2 ‘is all that is. We all live according to nature, whether we do good or bad.’ This is materialism, but Mill's argument has not advanced far before we find him saying that man must strive to amend the course of nature and bring what he can control into accord with a high standard of justice and goodness (p. 65). There is then a standard of goodness by which nature, or what is, is to be judged, and so Mill joins hands with Plato whose form of good lies ̕επέ́κεινα τη̃ς ο̕υσίας, beyond being.

It may be a pity that we cannot avoid speaking of the ‘natural’ altogether. The different senses of the word may become clear if we consider with what it is contrasted. The natural which is the opposite of the artificial is not the same natural which is contrasted with the moral or the supernatural or the realm of grace. Natural philosophy means a theoretical, as distinct from an experimental, study of nature, although the meaning of nature in this context still evades definition. Natural religion is philosophical, as distinct from revealed, religion.

Further confusion arises from our meaning by ‘nature’ either the starting point of human development or its culmination. For example, the development of mind from babyhood to maturity may be called natural; but nothing could be more misleading. The development is possible only by rejecting the natural or animal level at which we start, by putting away childish things; much harm has been done by those psychologists who have ignored this essential negative moment in any process of mental development.

On the other hand, some will speak of the spiritual nature of man, but this obscures the truth. There is a sense in which man's true nature is what he can and ought to become, not what he is at the start. It would be less misleading to regard spirit as man's destiny rather than as his nature. ‘Live according to nature’ is a commonplace of Stoicism, but it could equally well (though in a different sense) be a slogan of Epicureans. The Stoic thinks of reason as man's true nature, while the Epicurean begins, wherever he ends, with the satisfaction of natural appetites.

It may be tempting to say that nature is the object of scientific study, i.e. that abstraction from the world of our experiences which can be measured or observed or inferred from measurements and observations. And this would be a useful definition if we did not also speak, for instance, of a sunset as a ‘natural’ phenomenon, though the scientist's account of it has to omit just what gives the sunset its value and significance for us, its glory or its beauty. There may be a place for a philosophy of nature, as well as for scientific study, but if so, the object of the philosophical study will be nature as experienced, as therefore a moment in experience, not any abstraction from it. For the philosopher, therefore, nature will be the matrix of mind, and questions will then arise about how far back in the evolutionary process we can discern the seeds which later are to burgeon into life, consciousness, and spirit. Nature exists for mind, in other words, it is mind which describes nature as nature, and it is only for mind, therefore, that nature exists as nature, i.e. nature is something that exists for mind alone.

To survey the evolutionary process is beyond my competence, but I am starting from the view that an evolutionary process has culminated in man's mind, for which alone indeed this process exists. It will be said that it is absurd to suppose that the whole process, with the immensities of intergalactic space, exists for the sake of producing mind on one tiny planet; but nature is prodigal—‘consider frog spawn’ as Collingwood once said. Let us remember our Hegel: ‘Man because he is mind should and must deem himself worthy of the highest; he cannot think too highly of the greatness and the power of his mind.’3 Let us not be bludgeoned by astronomical figures or persuaded to draw comparisons between the size of the universe and the littleness of man. The mind which explores the universe, and which, by probing the mysteries of nature, enables us to dominate it and subdue it to the purposes of human life, outsoars in worth the nature out of which it has arisen.

My fundamental distinction is between the natural level on which our life begins and the mental or spiritual level which it is possible for us to attain. Another way of putting the same distinction is that we begin life as animals but can rise above animalism to a moral life. I have said that these clear distinctions can be blurred by talking of morality as natural or of spirit as our true nature. But philosophy is a form of literature and it can never do justice to its subject matter if it substitutes symbols and mathematical formulae for the suppleness of language. I am not to be expected to use ‘natural’ in always the same sense; I expect the sense in which the word is used to be clear from the context, and if it is not, so much the poorer thinker I am, so much the more inadequate is my command of language. The same is true of my attitude to terminology generally.


I have referred to a development from nature to mind. Some may interpret this as implying a distinction between mind and body and as demanding, what other Gifford Lecturers have provided, an exposition of the relation between body and mind. This, however, is a misunderstanding of what I wish to maintain.

At birth, I have said, we are at the animal level. But that is not the whole truth. We are animals possessed with the potentiality of becoming moral beings and rising to the spiritual life. If nature is the matrix of mind, and if man emerges from an evolutionary process, it would be reasonable to expect to find in the animal kingdom some germs of the moral life, and these there may be in some animals domesticated by man. But so far as we know, the mental and moral development possible for man exceeds that of all other animals.

Furthermore, I have said that we rise above the natural or animal level to mind, morality, and spirit. But this is not the whole truth either. We can never leave nature or the animal completely behind. This is the truth which has been seized upon by behaviouristic psychologists. It is the glory of human life that mind and spirit can dominate it; the shame and shortcoming of human life that that domination can never be complete. We are therefore concerned not with a body and a mind and a relation between them, but with a human being, a synthesis of opposites, one of which, the animal, can be recessive and the other, the mental and moral or spiritual, can be progressive. It is a mistake to forget or to ignore the feet of clay. In this life we are not disembodied spirits. We should never forget, for example, the effect of drugs on the personality.

If this account of the rise from nature to mind is correct, then it follows that what is important for human beings is an understanding of their life and its goal. There can be no comprehension of it in terms of its origins. The study of nature is necessary in order that we may be enabled to change our natural environment to make it subserve the purposes of human life. But it lacks the importance of a study of human conduct. The scientist will insist that he pursues his investigations regardless of their utility, and there is no reason why he should not, although it is interesting to find that those psychologists who reject psychoanalysis on the ground that it is unscientific are themselves most interested in the cure of neurotics. When Bradshaw's Guide existed, there were enthusiastic students of that fascinating volume who could give you the times of trains on which they would never travel. They pursued the truth for its own sake, and there are those who pursue scientific investigation in the same spirit as that of those who try to solve a crossword puzzle. To identify the 135 species of midge or to study a collection of 10,000 snails, as a research worker supported by the Carnegie Trust did, is a harmless occupation, like that of the pure mathematician, described by G. H. Hardy, whose elegant proofs have a quality and an appeal similar to those of works of fine art. Let every man pursue his own intellectual interest, but in the last resort we must apply the test of utility, utility to human life. Scientific discovery is necessary for human life; that is its justification; but if it is argued that its justification is that it discovers truth about nature, then we have some reservations to make, because the truth of nature is mind. We are constantly told that research, pursued regardless of utility, may eventually produce something with a practical application. Rutherford is said to have regarded the splitting of the atom as a scientific achievement, but of no practical use to anyone. And others since his day have used this example as a justification for pursuing research disinterestedly, i.e. in order to discover the truth about nature. No doubt they discover many facts about nature, but if they forget the possibility of practical application, their work has no more justification than the activity of the man who satisfies curiosity by studying the railway time table without wishing to travel, or the salary lists in Whitaker's Almanack without being or intending to become a civil servant.

In any event, either science is necessary in order that life may be lived or it is a harmless gratification of curiosity. It is admitted that we can never know in advance into which of these categories a given piece of scientific research will fall. In neither case is this research of the first importance. What is important is a consideration of how we are to attain not life but the good life. What sort of life is worth living for a human being, as distinct from an animal, and how can we attain it? It is to a solution of this question that philosophy and religion have a contribution to make. Science can make none. Science cannot get further than what is. It cannot say what ought to be. Good and evil elude the telescope, let alone the microscope or the spectrophotometer.

Many problems of conduct arise for us, however, only because there flows in us a stream of biological life. Impulse, instinct, and appetite all arise from our animal nature; we may control them consciously or by drugs or by behaviour therapy and we may modify them; we may re-orientate them or sublimate them; but we cannot get rid of them. In the evolutionary process, the human mind is second to nature; a product of nature and not its precondition; to that extent even Marxists are right. But the product modifies not only our conception of its producer but the producer itself. Mind transforms our life from the natural life of plants into the spiritual life which it enables us to attain. This is what Marxists and some psychologists forget. They also forget that nature is the sphere of the finite; everything in nature is bounded by something else. The finite, however, implies its opposite; to describe something as finite is to presuppose an infinite, and it is against the background of the infinite alone that the finite is intelligible. Although mind develops through and out of nature, it is not itself natural. To the range and power of mind no limit can be set; its thoughts are not external to one another as the table and the chair are. In this sense mind is the infinite for which alone the finite sphere of nature becomes an intelligible whole.4

This demands some further explanation. As I have already hinted, speculation on the relation between body and mind is vain. Theories of interaction between body and mind or of psycho-physical parallelism all make mind external to body; they therefore apply to mind the category of externality; and this means reducing it to nature. Other theories make body the determinant of conduct and regard mind as irrelevant. This failure of a theorist to grant importance and independence to mind is odd, to say the least. So far from being external to mind, body is a name for an elementary stage in what we call mind. Mind is body becoming conscious of itself. We know from the history of modern medicine how dangerous it is to attempt a cure of physical symptoms without considering the mentality of the patient. When the patient thanks the surgeon for his skill after a very difficult operation which has been successful, and the surgeon replies: ‘You were a very good patient’, he is simply stating as a fact that the patient's mental attitude had contributed in an appreciable measure to the success of what the knife had done to the physical frame. Nevertheless if mind is body becoming conscious of itself, it never leaves body, or its past, behind.

Nature is intelligible and is mastered only in so far as it is known, i.e. in so far as we can discover its laws. But these are not themselves natural. To understand nature means seeing it as dependent on universals, on laws which are the expression of thought. These laws cannot be conceived as external to nature, or they become natural all over again and therefore unknowable because unobservable. It is useless to try to understand what nature is in itself apart from mind or before the emergence of mind; because to make the effort is of necessity to import mind into it. In fact we cannot keep mind out of it. If nature is intelligible by mind, this can only be because mind in some form is there already, namely as the universals or laws which unite what is otherwise dispersed in space and time. It is the emergence of mind from nature, and mind's reflection on nature, that makes nature intelligible for the first time. Nature is the matrix of mind, because underlying or penetrating the self-externality of nature the universals were present originally. If matter existed before mind, that was in the past; and the past does not exist; it exists only for the mind that reconstructs it by historical enquiry. And there is no understanding nature unless it be admitted that there is in it the potentiality of mind which in the fullness of time has been actualised.

Just as the inorganic world is a place for organisms to live in, so nature as a whole is a place which is to be known.5 The universals or laws of its being are not put into it by mind. We cannot say that man makes nature, for the evidence is that man arises from nature and can never wholly surmount his natural constituents. But if man did not impose universals on nature, but found them there, whence did they come? They are not there for observation; they are the object of thought and not of sight; if then they are there, the sole means of understanding nature and finding its dispersion in the self-externality of space and time intelligible, they must have been there at the creation, implicit therein and awaiting for their discovery the emergence of mind, their counterpart and knower. This is an argument from cosmology to deity, but my concern is with a moral argument based on a consideration of the forms of action, and to these I now turn.


If we accept a theory of evolutionary development, and consider its stages up to the emergence of man, we may begin with a space-time continuum, see developing within it electrons moving in rhythms, patterns, or clusters, and then, developing within these, chemical qualities, and, arising from all of them, life. Corresponding to these stages are the sciences that study them, beginning with mathematics, the most abstract of all, and proceeding by stages of increasing concreteness to physics, chemistry, and biology. Notice that the lower stages in this series still survive, in however modified a form, in the higher. Life as we know it is in space and time, and it has physical as well as chemical constituents. Biology cannot dispense with mathematics, or with physics and chemistry either. The higher, however, is always the truth of the lower; to take the reverse view is to substitute the abstract for the concrete and to ignore the negative moment intrinsic in any development, as distinct from any succession.

The stages in the development of life from the most primitive organisms up to man I need not describe; for if, as I have said, men are animals with minds, the possession of mind modifies their animalism. The lower stage is not present in the higher as a sort of unaltered kernel; nature, as Goethe said, has no shell or kernel—it is just externality. There is no getting to its heart, because there is no heart to get at. It is only by modification of a lower stage that the higher emerges. Nevertheless, the lower stage is not absent or abandoned; it is present, though modified.

Human beings, as the products of an evolutionary process, carry with them, however modified, the preceding stages from which they have emerged. We are bodies occupying space and time; we can be counted and our shape can be geometrically described; we have mass; the movements of our limbs are physical movements, highly complex, and bio-physics is a progressing science of increasing importance. We are also chemical; the processes of digestion, secretion, and so forth are subjects for bio-chemical investigation. Like plants or insects we are also organisms, and this fact provides more of the truth about us than any spatio-temporal coefficient can.


These facts all have their place in a comprehensive study of human action. But I propose to mention here only two primitive levels of action to which they are relevant. The first is the most rudimentary type of action,6 that of bodies in space; the second is the reflex action which occurs only at the level of organism.

As bodies, our first and most primitive form of action is passivity. This may appear to be something that a logician must reject because it is a contradiction in terms. We must, however, always keep in view the fact that when we are confronted with opposites or contradictions, each takes its meaning from the other and has no existence without the other. This confrontation is like the sun which makes indispensable to one another the original and its shadow. Passivity is to self-conscious decision or activity what body is to mind, the lowest and most primitive instantiation of the concrete and fully developed reality.

The body, as passive, occupies space; but it is doing something. No doubt the body must be of a certain size, and so far it is being something. But by occupying space it is keeping others out of it and therefore is doing something, however passive we could describe it as being. A body occupying a vantage point in a football crowd at a cup-final is keeping others out of it; the crowd may be so great that this body cannot move; it cannot help being where it is, and to that extent it is passive. But nevertheless it is doing something by keeping others out.

This doing is the most rudimentary form of action and therefore it involves the most rudimentary kind of freedom. To occupy space is something which no one can compel one to do or prevent one from doing, and to that slender extent occupancy of space is free. But it is also not free at all but determined because although bodies have the power to occupy space they have no power to refrain from doing so.

I pass over mechanical action which would involve time as well as space, in order to make brief mention of reflex action. I am not concerned here with the mechanical movements which occur when a doctor tests ‘your reflexes’, e.g. when he taps your knee and your leg rises; but rather with experiences like blinking, if a fly seems to be going to settle on your eye, or sneezing or yawning or warding off a blow. These are not mechanical actions, because what prompts them is not equal in energy to that behind the action itself. But they are actions; they do not happen to us, as when we are thrown off our balance by the lurching of the train. The energy comes from within, even if we do not release the energy consciously or deliberately. We may afterwards realize why we blinked or sneezed or yawned or resisted an assault, but at the time it was an unconscious and unpremeditated reflex. Such reflex action is the action of an organism; it cannot be ascribed to any lower evolutionary level.

I have tried to show how the preceding stages of evolution are recapitulated in the human being as the background to human conduct. These stages cannot explain that conduct, but it may well be that human conduct itself may cast some light on the significance or character of the earlier stages. In particular the germ or at least the presage of human conduct is found in animals, to go no further back; and this helps us to explain animal, not human conduct, despite what some investigators have supposed. Animals move from place to place and their movement is of a different kind from that of the planets or that of the iron filings irresistibly attracted to the magnet. The forces of attraction and repulsion which move the planets in their orbits operate ab extra. We no longer suppose that their motive force is their love of God. But the animal moves in quest of its food. Even if it receives some impulse ab extra, it is nevertheless self-moved on a quest of its own.

  • 1. There is a valuable account of some of its more important sections in A. MacIntyre: Short History of Ethics, London, 1967, ch. 15.
  • 2. London, 1874.
  • 3. Heidelberg inaugural address, October 28, 1816.
  • 4. These last four sentences are so obviously Hegelian and so fundamental to his thought that I need not multiply references, Hegel-Studien Bd.1, Bonn, 1961, p. 28, may serve as one.
  • 5. Or as St Augustine said of plants: ‘they cannot know, but they seem to wish to be known’. (De Civ. Dei, xi. 27. I owe the reference to Schopenhauer, World as Will and Representation, Eng. tr., Indian Hills, 1958, i, p. 201.)
  • 6. My account of this type of action is based on conversation with R. G. Collingwood.
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