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Lecture VII: Further Antinomies of Bodies

In my last lecture I explored a deep antinomy in the idea of body which is connected with the relation of bodies to space and time. It seems part of the idea of body, on the one hand, to demand a space and a time that are quite void and neutral, and this from a point of view that is truly and purely bodily, one which states the central claims that the idea of body involves rather than its half-heard reservations and implications. Space and time are from this point of view merely loose containers of bodies, which leave all states and changes open without dictating their course, which bring things together and make mutual influence possible without necessitating it at any point. But, when deeply reflected on, void, neutral space and time show themselves up as not being truly self-sustaining, as being no more than a foil to bodies and to bodiliness, as organically related to body and as shown only in bodily behaviour and pattern and inseparable from these last. To enter into this new point of view is to view body in a manner which demotes it from its independence, its pure bodiliness: it becomes as dependent upon its foil, and as moulded by its foil's permanent structure, as that foil depends on it. We are introduced to the possibility of queer spaces which are as positive in their nature as the bodies which occupy them, which in a sense decide what forms bodies may take and where they may go, though it is in bodily manifestation that their deciding influence is made known. We are introduced to the possibility of times geared to particular bodies and regions and to what can be brought to bear on them, and in a sense determining bodies and their states, though revealed only in the latter. And we gave a reluctant certificate of coherence to the strange modern doctrine of a ‘space-time’ cut by varying axes of simultaneity which is upheld in the ‘special theory of relativity’, a theory in which bodies, instead of being explanatory sources which, with varying conditions, ‘save’ the appearances, become themselves variable appearances of an epicene, paper something which, whatever it may be, certainly has none of the properties of a body, and in whose construction all is subordinated to saving the categorially paradoxical behaviour of light. The precise significance of all this, the question as to why all things should thus conspire to keep constant one unimportant, contingent measurement, revealed only in a few recondite physical experiments, has certainly not been plainly made out by the physicists nor by their philosophical yes-men, and we shall not pretend that we know the answer to the question. What is plain, however, is that the rational explanatory idea of a body has gone by the board, and has been replaced by systematically varying phenomena, on the one hand, and by empty paper constancies, on the other. To those who can find light and appeasement in neither, the situation is one of discomfort, of unresolved absurdity. Yet the absurdity has not been engineered by the physicists nor even by the author of nature: it has arisen owing to inherent weaknesses in the idea of body, which points beyond itself to something more coherent. What we have in all this are the operations of dialectic: bodily appearances have a prima facie, first blush form which dissolves as we dwell on them into something far more complex and qualified. We have not, as with Husserl, a single unmodifiable phenomenology or setting forth of the appearances, but a whole series of such phenomenologies, linked by appropriate Hegelian shifts and transitions.

In the present lecture we propose to carry this dialectic, or rather to let it carry us, much further. We propose to examine a whole series of bodily traits which are essentially self-negating, which-ffer us an initial face of the plausible and the obvious, only to dissolve forthwith into the implausible and absurd. This antinomic character confronts us throughout the bodily realm, as it does wherever first outlines are firm and hard: what it would at first never occur to anyone to find tortuous and obscure soon reveals itself as abundantly so. In realms like that of the mind, where all is tortuous from the start, the operations of dialectic are much less volcanic. The bodily realm, we may say, offers us nothing, on reflection, but differing forms of intellectual absurdity, which are all in differing degrees absurd, though ultimately we may come to regard some of these forms as less absurd than others, since they approach nearer to certain not purely bodily limits or exemplars. It will be the bodies most blatant in their bodiliness that will in the end show up as most absurd.

In the present lecture we shall range widely and freely over the bodily realm, following what we think are the methods of the Hegelian dialectic, but not following them serially. The Hegelian dialectic is, in our view, essentially a method of higher-order comment and discernment, in which first notions are perpetually revised in the light of more comprehensive, further ranging reflections: if it tends, as it does tend, to a final outcome, it need not do so by one royal or privileged route. Our task in this chapter will be to expose the multiform absurdities of body, rather than to go beyond these to something less absurd: this last will be our task in later lectures. It may here be restressed, if it is necessary to do so at all, that we do not mean by ‘absurdities’ the necessary presence in bodies, or in talk about bodies, of flat, formal contradictions. The absurdities which we hope to discover in bodies are real tensions in its idea, suggestions that this or that is or must be the case, which are confounded or nullified by suggestions working in a contrary direction. They are absurdities only from the point of view of other more deeply reflective notions which it is desirable we should adopt, but which it is not certain or necessary that we will. It is quite possible to refuse to widen or deepen our notions, to patch them up with various surd distinctions and connections, to coin a sufficiency of special principles to avoid overt contradictions. It is characteristic of all those philosophies which are said, pejoratively, to be ‘scholastic’, to do just this. They are the philosophies which invent mediations which do not mediate, links which do not connect, faculties that do not facilitate and ultimates that do not end enquiry. If we are sufficiently hidebound and sufficiently inventive we can be as absurd as we like without formal self-contradiction. The voice of the absurd, as of the plausible and the necessary, is never thunderous, but still and small: it indicates and suggests, rather than compels, the pattern of our discourse. It is possible to erect a formally consistent barrage of words in which utter absurdities pass unmentioned. It is a fine thing that has been put up, we grant, but what does it really say?

The antinomies we shall explore are mainly connected with the spatio-temporality of bodily existence, and with the queer blend of the divisive and the connective which such spatio-temporality entails. Space and time divide things, give them mutual remoteness and irrelevance, but they also connect them, and so intimately that there can be unbroken continuity and even deeper-lying identity among them. The first antinomy I propose to consider is a classical antinomy which agitated the ancient atomists, and also Descartes, Locke, Leibniz and many others. We may call it the antinomy of quality. Bodily existence, we may say, demands quality in order to set itself off against its foil, empty space and time, and to give meaning to its occupancy, its motion, its division, its deformation and the like. Quality, on the other hand, is irrelevant to bodily existence, it has nothing to do with bodiliness, it is an interesting distinction for us observers rather than for body itself, and it is impossible to understand how bodies could be kept from invading each other's preserves or could exercise on each other the influences they do exercise in virtue of those essentially undynamic, shop-window, surface features that we call ‘qualitative’. In the absence of something more, which constitutes effective occupancy as opposed to mere void, it is impossible to see how such qualities guarantee impenetrability and other basic bodily properties—bodies cannot, qua bodies, be sensitive to the mere qualities of other bodies—and yet it is impossible to see in what such further occupancy could consist. Body is only emptily distinguishable from void, as Descartes plainly realized, and yet such a conclusion blots out bodies and void alike. Hence the endless effort to reduce the qualitative to the merely spatio-temporal in which much of the history of science consists, and the equally clear realization that such a reduction is ruinous. Hence Hegel's interesting attempt at a synthesis in the idea that the qualitative necessarily points back to a network of purely quantitative relations, while quantitative relations are only possible if qualitative differences supervene upon them, and change in a notable fashion when quantities vary beyond a critical point. The famous passages to which orthodox Marxism has given so scriptural a position are, in my view, the recognition of an antimony in which two terms demand a union which they can never satisfactorily achieve. The antinomy we are dealing with can of course be by-passed in a number of emptily consistent ways: we can, like Descartes, reduce body and void to a common greyness, and yet refuse to admit any loss of bodily demarcation, we can reduce bodies to mere centres of attractive and repulsive force as in the theories of Wolff and Kant, without asking how forces can do anything if they are all there is, etc. What it is best to admit is that plenitude, occupancy, for ever eludes our understanding as long as we remain at the merely bodily level. What we have said of course applies to the particles of atomic physics if they are to be credited with anything genuinely bodily.

Our next familiar antinomy may be called the antinomy of Partialism versus Holism: that the nature of body seems to demand that we understand the character and behaviour of each bodily whole in terms of the character and behaviour of its parts, and yet also that this is wholly impossible, that bodies must at some level of division be unities that genuinely hold together and are capable of functioning as wholes, and if at any one level of division, why not at any other? There is a deep tension in the idea of body which at one moment makes us feel that, if at any time a body seems to move and act as a whole, this must be the ‘resultant’ of the movements and acts of its constituent parts, whereas at another time we feel that this involves a denial of the genuine continuity and unity of body, as of the space which it occupies, a denial which assumes a peculiar absurdity when it leads to a regress in infinitum. And this tension in thought seems to have a reflection in reality, larger bodies being also the more fragile and unstable and more readily resoluble into their elements.

With this antinomy of Holism versus Partialism goes the attendant antinomy of Mechanism versus Chemism and Vitalism, a tension in which we (or rather the idea of body) seem to hesitate between accepting bodily wholes whose organization and mode of behaviour is not at all that of their isolated constituents, nor derivable therefrom, and finding something absurd, repugnant to the idea of body in such an emergence, a sensitiveness to a far-flung field-pattern that an observer may very well enjoy but that body as such cannot transcend itself to contain. What it is important to realize is that the absurd confronts us in either direction: a bodily whole whose performance does not spring from that of its constituent bodily parts, is absurd, haunted, held in its strange course by a bodiless entelechy or whatnot, but a bodily whole that, on the other hand, refers the explanation of its total behaviour and pattern to that of its bodily parts without end, is equally absurd and unbodily, without a final core of cohesive, hard, spatial occupancy.

The holistic type of absurdity rises to further heights when a body is conceived of as having some sort of immanent teleology, a tendency to maintain a certain equilibrium in varied circumstances, to grow towards a certain mature pattern, to maintain itself by incorporating environmental matter as nourishment, to maintain its kind in reproduction, etc. It is, on the one hand, totally absurd and unbodily that these performances, involving, as they seem to involve, direction by something ideal, unrealized, pertaining to the body's future, should be quite the performances they appear to be, in which the normal behaviour of a body is diverted, distorted, pushed into new channels: the idea of body seems to demand that such anomalies of behaviour should be capable of being seen to grow out of a precedent situation in a perfectly normal manner, only the abnormalities of that situation being responsible for the strange outcome. But on the other hand we feel that, since the characteristic unity of a body and the characteristic manner in which its states grow out of prior states, is not capable of being understood by reference to the unity and behaviour of its parts without end, there is no reason why bodies of certain degrees of complexity should not be capable of a teleology which neither requires nor permits of further explanation.

The antinomy is more emphatic, but not fundamentally changed, when we suppose bodies to have a kind of alternative causality, the capacity to realize either A or B or C, etc., without advance commitment to either. This kind of disjunctive causality is precisely what in naïve thought we often use to distinguish the living from the lifeless. Lifeless bodies are given as such that they never move themselves, but require something external to prod them, or if in motion proceed some way dully in a certain course until they flag or are stopped by some external obstacle. As opposed to such inertia, a living body seems to be capable of unprovoked motion; it is, as the Greeks held, self-moving. It is hard for us to recapture the whole notion of spontaneous causality which is as basic as that of non-spontaneous determinism: the notion of causality has become so much engaged with that of regularity, largely owing to the broodings of Hume, that spontaneous causation seems a case of chance or of mere causelessness. We have passed from the natural conception of the causality of things, agents, concrete existences, to the unnatural conception of the causality of circumstances, abstract features and relationships, which, having nothing to them beyond their surface content or character, can be connected with what they are misleadingly said to produce only by the external tie of some general proposition or rule. Whereas if the causes of happenings are always basically the things, the abiding identities, to which accidents, manifestations, happenings necessarily pertain, and they cause results in virtue of being the sorts of things they are—a sort given in a set of propositions but not consisting of any such mere set—then it is not at all obscure that there should be some sorts of things whose natures or general futures have an advance definiteness for every definite circumstance, while there are other sorts of things whose natures or general futures have an advance disjunctiveness or indefiniteness—no doubt limited in scope—which makes them the spontaneous, the genuinely developing, the in the full sense self-determining things. Such things may by a metaphor be said to ‘decide’ their behaviour from moment to moment, a decision no more requiring choice or consciousness than the ‘decisions’ which occur in logical or mathematical systems. An event or state which has such a spontaneous origin will of course in no sense be uncaused: it will be completely explained as springing from the sort of agent from which it does spring. And its origin will have nothing to do with chance. A chance event has no adequate explanation in the natures of any one of the agents which enter into it, whereas a case of spontaneous self-determination has a completely adequate explanation in the nature of one such agent.

What we have said has been necessary to clear the tracks from deterministic overgrowths, but does not, however, remove the antinomy we are facing: that while we can attribute self-determination, spontaneous decision to body, it is neither natural nor comfortable to do so. Body, with its being centred in sheer spatial occupancy, seems unfriendly to performances unconnected with such occupancy: if it offers no clear purchase for such things as differentiation by quality, actio in distans and guidance by unrealized ends, it emphatically offers no purchase to anything like a decision among alternatives. The rational, thinking person, who combines innumerable, incommensurable considerations in the span of his deliberations, and who is subject to blind impulses as well, must cut the Gordian knot and come to a spontaneous decision among them if he is to decide at all. But a body offers no forum for spontaneity: it is not in its unconscious state open to remote, varied considerations, but only to such influences as are part and parcel of its bodilessness, and, being such that it does not even effectively combine its scattered parts and give them any overall integrity, it is certainly incapable of combining reasons and pressures differing not only in provenance but even in category. The idea of body is in short to be inert in its occupancy of space and in its movement from space to space, as in ail its communication and reception of motions, and Newton's laws of motion are only an early, intuitive exploration of the idea of body. Determinism as believed in by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is likewise merely a generalized, sophisticated version of bodily inertia: if it allows us to credit bodies with certain remarkable, unbodily powers, it at least does not allow them to violate the hideboundness, the essential law-abidingness of bodily existence.

The admission, therefore, into material reality of imperfectly deterministic changes at once introduces a note of the absurd, does violence to the notion of body. This absurdity may have to be swallowed, since the contrary alternative of pure mechanism is equally absurd, but it remains deeply indigestible. That electrons should exercise something like choice in regard to their orbits is inordinately absurd, and so it is that matter should ooze spontaneously out of void space with a certain statistical regularity: in whatever context such things could be legitimately entertained, it is not a context of bodies and the purely bodily. That modern physical science has seen fit to admit all such possibilities into its actual theorizing shows how far it has gone towards dissolving the notion of body, not caring that it is thereby dissolving the whole framework of its investigations. What emerges, in fine, is that the whole idea of body is being slowly crushed in a vice: admitting types of wholeness that do not depend on any constitution of parts, and qualitative distinctions that are mysterious and unbodily, it cannot readily be kept from going beyond the inertia, the determinism which accords best with the notion of body. It is not the sort of logic which compels, but the sort of logic expressed in the phrase Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute. Having abandoned its first strict ways, body becomes, like Habakkuk, capable de tout. You will have to pardon my seeming frivolity, but the sense that something is deeply unfit or highly fit is our ultimate ground for saying anything, our sense of the hidden propriety, the Logos which governs the world.

From the antinomy of determinism versus indeterminism the way is short to the antinomy of physicalism versus intentionalism. It appears both reasonable and inevitable that we should, on the one hand, stretch the idea of body, so that a body can take account of bodies remote from it in space, and of circumstances and relationships not only remote but even ideal, and involving the possible and the non-existent, but yet, on the other hand, it seems totally absurd that we should credit the merely bodily with such powers. How can parts abutting on neighbouring parts have anything in them that points to what exists beyond them, or which perhaps exists nowhere at all? We are led to something like the axiom of Brentano, that intentional inexistence, reference to what is objective, is a distinguishing peculiarity of the mental, that could never pertain to anything bodily or physical. But this axiom, with its blinding evidence, everywhere meets with empirical counter-examples. Bodies may not be able to refer to objects in the way in which we intend them inwardly, but they can certainly behave as if they so referred to them: what they do displays a sensitiveness to existences and relations of which we feel forbidden to credit them with the smallest awareness. We have already gone far in admitting cases of such purely physical intentionality. The existence of bodies in time means that their pasts in all their specificity enter, qua past, into their present state—they are given as having been this or that—and are in fact all but the vanishing limit of their definite content, whereas their futures in all their indefiniteness and openness to alternatives are, qua futures, part and parcel of their existence. This is plainly something akin to memory and anticipation which we cannot, with all deference to Augustine, refuse to accord to what is purely bodily. Bodies respond likewise to the configurations and characters of other bodies in their environment or even further off, and such field phenomena show something akin to intentionality. It was not unreasonable for Thales to see gods everywhere when he witnessed the remote attraction of the lodestone.

The most salient exhibition of this quasi-intentionality is, however, indubitably the remarkable performance of that important material organ, the brain. Even if we attribute some of its performances to the intrusions of an accompanying psyche, it is plain that we cannot do so in all cases. The cerebellum's exquisite government of balance, dependent on a fine sensitiveness to the slope of various surfaces, the iris's marvellous expansion and retractation according to light present, are but two cases in which it is certainly as if there were full consciousness of a complex situation though only superstition would lead us to admit such consciousness. Just as remarkable, perhaps, are all those ‘unconscious inferences’ which are built into our percepts, but which only a determined mythology could regard as in any sense genuinely conscious: the retinal mechanism of ‘corresponding points’ responsible for stereoscopic vision, the binaural disparities which underlie our sense of the direction of sounds, the rubs in the semicircular canals which give rise to our sense of movement in different planes, etc. These cases are all cases where the brain acts as if conscious of a curious stimulus-situation in the body's receptors, as if conscious, too, of the remote physical situation behind such stimuli, and as concerned to lay before the inert, parasitic mind the fruits of its marvellous, almost instantaneous work. Other instances of such unconscious work are remarkable feats of selecting such stimuli as might have interest for consciousness, and letting the corresponding percepts assail the mind, of bringing forth such data of memory as are necessary for an illustration or for the solution of a problem, as well as, lastly, the cases of unconscious ‘incubation’ which are readily treated as cases of ‘unconscious thinking’, but which could, with less paradox, especially in view of the cases that lead up to them, be treated as cases of pure cerebration. In all these cases we find the brain acting as if finely conscious of abstract and concrete distinctions which are certainly not present to conscious mind, and which are far too complex and numerous ever to be so. Intentionality is thus very far from being an obvious hall-mark of the internally mental: an indefinite number of cases seem to reveal it as a property characteristic of certain sorts of matter. The notions which made Whitehead's later writings so obnoxious at Cambridge, and which relegated him to American appreciation, notions such as ‘prehension,’ ‘objective immortality’, etc., which attribute something like conscious reference to events in nature, are notions, it seems, which nature obdurately illustrates and which only determined prejudice can discount. The determined prejudice of Cambridge, unamiable as its roots doubtless were, was, however, so far right that, in the phenomena indicated, body itself gives the lie to its own idea, exposes its own ‘untruth’, if an Hegelian expression may be tolerated. The point simply is that, while it is wholly understandable how a state of mind can be of things different from itself, and which perhaps do not exist at all, and while, in fact, this forms the central core of what we understand by mind and the mental, it is not at all understandable how a body can thus be of things that are not part of itself and that need not exist, nor how, in fact, it can be more than long and broad and thick and enduring and mobile and so on. The point is that it is only by a grave absurdity that a body can violate the axiom of Brentano, and the brain's patent violation of this axiom makes it the most absurd of organs. This absurd organ exists, but its existence constitutes a scandal which only the most extraordinary supplementation and interpretation can hope to remove.

I need not say that these difficulties are not removed if we bring in an immaterial mind which interferes with and directs the body and the brain. A matter capable of being influenced by an intentional, purposive, immaterial agent is as untrue to its bodiliness as is a matter governed by its own inward purposes and intentional directednesses. Body gives as little purchase to one sort of distortion as the other, and, if one is to be preferred, it is rather the distortion which credits matter, in the tradition of Schelling and Hegel, with many ‘petrified’ externalized prefigurements of mind and spirit, than the one which only allows it to be moved out of character by something which must act out of character in order to move it. It is the fashion nowadays to deny that there is a problem in mind-body interaction, and to say that causation can obtain between anything and anything whatsoever, that experience demonstrates psycho-physical connection as it demonstrates a connection between draughts and sneezes, etc. This fashion rests, however, upon that Humean empiricism which, in the end, makes learning by experience impossible. If the nature of body is seen as such as to exclude a taking account of things remote and abstract and non-existent, and the nature of mind such as to exclude gross intrusion into the sphere of matter and motion, then no regular concomitances can create rational expectations regarding such connections unless they also force us to revise our notions of mind and of body. Just as the notion of a truly shuffled pack excludes any inferences from one deal to the next, which only become possible where certain remarkable concomitances force us to apply the notion of fraud or imperfect shuffling, so such bodily performances can prove nothing as to the regular powers of body unless they lead to a revision of the idea of body itself. Such a revision we do not indeed condemn: we are not opposed to the ‘body-mind’ or the ‘embodied mind’ or the ‘minded body’, etc. All that we ask is that it be recognized that body qua body has dialectically vanished in the process. And the alternative to such a vanishing is that forlorn, brave reductionism which holds that, despite all cases of apparent bewitchment of so-called mind-like or minded bodies, we really have only an incredible complication of agencies and circumstances that are orthodoxly bodily. The idea of body involves all these tensions: it is ready to be stretched to include the cases of quasi-intentionality we have mentioned, but it is always ready to rebound to a narrower interpretation of bodiliness. Nowhere in all this is there anything formally necessary or impossible, but everywhere there are varying grades and kinds of logical embarrassment, under the joint strain of which, rather than from any single damning flaw, the notion of body will at length sink into discredit.

It is here probably the place to insert a brief reference to so-called ‘psychic’ or supernormal phenomena, which are all cases where bodies behave, for brief intervals, in a thoroughly unbodily manner. In older religious settings, such phenomena are dubbed miraculous, and are thought to attest the sensitiveness of matter to values and disvalues that lie far beyond its scope: trees blossom unseasonably to do homage to a holy one's passing, or wither in response to his curse, sacred limbs pass through walls, or tread on water, or are raised in the air, or are present in two places at once, even graven images, those perpetual seats of miracle, do acts proper to their originals. In our scientifically minded age miracles seem to occur detached from high purpose in a random but statistically reliable fashion. Such violations of bodiliness, though uncommon, are often spectacular and open to small question: men walk out of upper-floor windows and return by other upper-floor windows, change their height before many observers, put live coals on their heads and drape their unsinged hair over them, etc. I am merely citing some of the well-attested wonders which surrounded that Victorian Apollonius of Tyana, the medium D. D. Home.

The idea of body, rather than the uniform experience to which David Hume question-beggingly appeals, certainly renders all these phenomena absurd and therefore doubtful: many would have recourse to any combination of deceit, delusion, madness, etc., on the part of the performers or witnesses of such marvels rather than suspect the integrity of the bodies in the situation. But, on the other hand, the violations of bodiliness involved in these phenomena are no more vast than those involved in the mere existence of the brain, and certainly less than the violations of pure bodiliness involved in much modern physics. Beside the unprincipled jumps of electrons or the oozing of matter from empty space the feats of D. D. Home pale into insignificance, and the Michelson-Morley experiment did more to shatter the hard world of bodies in space and time than all the antics of Katy King. Besides, the miraculous has its own deep plausibility which the unprejudiced philosopher cannot but respect. It was absurd for the Sala trees at Kusinara, being mere bodies, to do homage to the passing of the Buddha by bursting into flower, but it would from another point of view have been absurd for them in their lowliness not to have recognized virtues so transcendent. It was absurd and a little comic for St Teresa's body to have emulated her soaring raptures by rising unsupported into the air and having to be held down by her companions, but, from another point of view, a mere body could scarcely have done less. Values and disvalues are as much an indefeasible part of the phenomena, of the world we live in, as are the cold objects that assault our senses, and the insensibility of most bodies to the darkly ignoble or glorious things that take place among them, is itself an incredible, even a nonsensical phenomenon, one that forces us to locate our world in a wider setting. What I am saying will doubtless sound superstitious to many, but I am only refusing to subordinate one source of plausibility to another.

What weight is to be given to the actual testimony of psychical research, or to detailed enquiries into marvellous happenings, is an empirical question into which I do not here wish to enter. Whether or not many wonders of healing take place at Lourdes, whether or not Katy King was a genuine phantasm or a byproduct of an irregular connection between William Crookes and Florence Cook, are questions to which I do not know the answers. What I do think is that there is sufficient reason to hold that phenomena of a truly marvellous kind, in which the characters of body in general, or of specific bodies, are set aside, and in which there is more reason to think that we shall never bring such happenings under normal bodily principles than that we shall some day do so—induction being as much a process which discourages us from looking for certain sorts of explanation in certain cases as it encourages us to do so in others—occur from time to time in our world, though distributed with randomness and not producible to order. It is as if there were some collusive purpose in things to shake any deep, blind, unswerving faith in bodies without allowing any other faith to triumph over it: psychic phenomena, like a migraine vision seen from the corner of our eye, seldom remain when we train our eyes upon them. No greater stretching of the idea of body occurs in such phenomena than in many other bodily appearances, and the ambivalent dismay they occasion is only what we are always encountering in the cave.

From the antinomies which concern bodies intrinsically we now turn to another ancient group which concerns them in relation to our knowledge. It is, as we saw, part of the idea of bodies that they should be independent of our knowledge of them and encounter with them, and that the characters in which they come before us should likewise be characters that they sometimes would have even though they had never come before us at all. And with this independence of our knowledge implicitly goes the assumption that the characters in which bodies come before us will often be surprising: they will not conform to our expectations, they will impress themselves with shock and compulsion on the mind. What we come to know about bodies in general will be the fruit of countless particular encounters: we shall not be able to construct more than trivial blue-prints that will fit them in advance. All this is plainly in the idea of ‘experience’, of encounter by the senses, and it is in the idea of bodies that they reveal themselves in this manner. In all this, however, we find ourselves in a thoroughly dialectical situation. For when we look on all this aloof independence from a detached, outside point of view there is something strangely protesting about it. For the independence that bodies have in relation to our encounters with them is a role that we ourselves require of them: it is a sort of independence that we expect them to show if they are to constitute a realm of bodies, of ‘objects’, ‘for us’, and so, in a sense, not an independence at all. This is the point brought out by Kant when, in the Transcendental Deduction, he connects experienced objectivity with necessity: the object that is to be independent of ourselves must be subject to unalterable but discoverable laws, must fulfil the general expectation of behaving in a manner that we can learn to expect. Matter, bodies, have, in short, the sort of independence of our minds that two quarrelsome lovers have with one another: each feels bound to go against the other, and so in a sense to fulfil the expectations and ultimately the profound needs of the other. Matter would be truly independent of the mind only if its ways were so utterly confusing that we could never make head or tail of them. Whereas its role seems to be to tease, frustrate and ultimately to satisfy.

All this can be shown in more detail if we consider how the notion of independence functions in our actual finding out about bodies. What bodies are ‘in themselves’ is never some surd which serves no purpose in explaining their varied appearances: it is always what is relatively simple and constant in character and so more intelligible to us, and is also always what binds varying appearances together in that it can, with attendant circumstances, permit their deduction. The body I see before me is in itself, I confidently believe, a rectangular solid 12 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches in size: the measurements which establish these dimensions I trust only because they are almost wholly invariant. This unchanging solid sometimes looms large in my field of sight, sometimes small, sometimes appears distorted or tilted in this or that manner, sometimes appears dimly through some surrounding medium and sometimes perspicuously, sometimes undergoes strange doublings and displacements and breaches which I do not take to be representative of what it intrinsically is. All this variety I not only ignore in my normal approach to the solid but also when my attention has been specially drawn to it: it is not as the object really is, or is in itself, but as it appears to me. And it is not as the object really is, simply because it is so vastly complex, so immensely various: an object, a body must have a severely simple independent nature characterized by spatial occupancy and little else. What lies outside of this and what depends on varying relations to other things, cannot be part of what a body is in itself, and can only be drawn back into the body by being given a derivative, an explained status.

What I have been saying has nothing to do with the constructions of scientific understanding: it enters into our direct sense-encounters with the bodies around us, whose simplicity and constancy we feel, even when we cannot precisely circumscribe it, under their variety of guises. The scientific conception of bodies merely carries these same normal proceedings further, holds on to simplicities and constancies and invariances even when not they themselves, but their mere outer showing, are all we hope to encounter grossly. But in all this our conception of the independent, the intrinsic nature of bodies has plainly no genuine independence of the grasping mind: simplicity and constancy and invariance are nothing if not desiderata for understanding, rational ‘values’, the precise form and scale of which must be adjusted to our minds if their presence is to count for anything. That bodies should have permanent, natures which, in Machian phrase, economize thought, plainly is the very reverse of the proud independence that we would claim for them or that they seem to claim for themselves. So mysterious is it all, that we are tempted to embrace the romantic German legend, hinted at by Kant but explicit in Fichte and Schelling—though never taught by Hegel—according to which a faculty called the ‘productive imagination’ has as it were salted the mine of nature with its own patterns, but has done so quite unbeknown to itself, so that it can elaborately discover in the world the order that it has itself put into it. The legend is absurd, but the situation it covers is fundamental to cave life.

The paradox of the nice adjustment of mind-independent bodies to the narrow limits of our understanding meets us in yet another form in the paradox of natural kinds. We have seen that a body comes before us as representative of a kind, as having a nature, only partly illustrated in what we have before us, that might be shared by an indefinite number of bodies all over the physical universe. What we have before us is always a so-and-so, and we expect to encounter countless other so-and-sos exactly or closely resembling this one. This claim is not only wildly audacious in view of the presumed independence of bodies of any advance expectations on our part: it is also wildly audacious in view of the idea of body itself. For why in the world should bodies having nothing beyond the slight link involved in a common spatial occupancy and consequent possibilities of interference and influence, also manifest a far-flung repetitiousness of structure which has nothing to do with interference or influence? Parcels of hydrogen in remote, disconnected situations are presumed, in being called ‘hydrogen’, to exemplify the same genus, a genus stark in its simplicity as it is rigidly invariant. Nothing short of a theory in which all space arose by the swelling of a single bubble, and all hydrogen atoms by the fission of one proto-ancestor, could rationally cover such generality. Only those who have been hypnotized by the notion of a ‘law’, and by the clear formulae that express laws, can fail to see how difficult all this is.

The antinomy we are considering has, of course, been mainly considered under the rubric of the ‘problem of induction’, and we need not here specify all the labyrinthine windings in which it has involved us. It is not removed by simple reassertions of the obvious, that the world does exhibit a limited number of fairly simple sorts, and that we not only know this in general but also know some of the specific sorts into which it falls. For this obvious assertion meets the equally obvious rejoinder that bodies are given as being independent of one another and of our knowledge, and that such independence does not accord well with such generality. There is an affinity of mind and the world involved in all our understanding, and of this affinity we can only say, in tortured vacillation, that it ought and ought not to exist. The situation is not met by desperate heuristic or postulational devices, proofs that, though knowing nothing whatever, we must act on this or that assumption if we are to construct theories about nature or use them to make valid predictions. For we are not in the supposed desperate situation, but in one that inexplicably combines confidence with despair, and if the situation could conceivably be as suggested, all our wonted apparatus of theory, method, prediction, etc., would become empty and inapplicable. One cannot frame hypotheses regarding situations—if situations they can be called—in which hypothesis-making would be impossible. It seems plain that what is here wanted is not some routine trimming and adjustment of our ordinary concepts, but some profound revision and reorientation of then, perhaps bringing to light things on or beyond the fringes of our normal experience. Plato may not have been so absurd in holding that the science of nature can only be justified in terms of the science of some sort of ‘supernature’.

From the worries we have been considering, I turn to yet another family of worries associated with Bishop Berkeley. These are the worries connected with the difficulty of extruding from our own personal sensitivity, or from someone or other's personal sensitivity, the various characters, including those that enter into the make-up of space and time, which are used to characterize and determine bodies. This is no general, largely verbal difficulty arising out of the misleading associations of phrases like ‘in the mind’: such confusedly general difficulties can be removed by employing other locutions which impute a self-transcendent role to thought, and by stressing the plain fact that every theory, even a purely mentalistic one, must permit our thoughts and words to be in some sense of states and things that are not parts of their present actual existence. Such general difficulties are not Berkeley's really poignant trouble, which we may characterize as the difficulty of making any sort of clean cut between the properties we attribute to bodies and the personal modifications or sensations that bring them home to us. Verbally, of course, we can make such a cut without difficulty. We can, with some philosophers, distinguish between the colourless act of sensing, that pure specification of being conscious, and the quality sensed, which may then be attributed to unsensed objects. Or we may with more subtlety follow Meinong and Husserl and distinguish between a ‘content’ or ‘hyle’ that we ‘live through’, and a corresponding objective sense-quality that is apprehended ‘by its means’, between a redwiseness or an extensity or a protensity that we can inwardly experience, and a redness or extension or duration that we can attribute to external objects. The only question that arises is whether the aspects divorced in either diremption really make sense apart, are truly capable of independent life, whether we have not here a genuine case of the false abstraction condemned by Berkeley, in which we pass from considering X only in respect of its being Y and begin to treat Y, or being Y, as something that could exist in its own right.

We are here in an immense quandary, tormented by contrary intuitions, neither of which has authority to silence the other. On the one hand, we certainly live through frames of mind in which there seems nothing of mind or personal experience in the notions of extended, solid bodily being, even of such being as qualified by the colours, hardnesses and effluent smells and noises that we perceive around us. It is not by some artful abstraction that a realist philosopher can say that he sees nothing unthinkable in the existence of a totally unperceived blue circle on a red ground. He is not disregarding any modifications of personal sensitivity through which such an object is brought home to him nor from any general conscious illumination which falls upon it. In a sense conscious experience performs its own abstraction: it presents its object while remaining obscure and perhaps uninteresting to itself. It is only by a switch that we can look upon and pay heed to the various degrees and manners of our own conscious heeding. Personal experience and consciousness are so far from being part of what is set before us in consciousness, that it is with some difficulty that they can be brought into the conscious picture at all, a difficulty so great, in fact, that some philosophers have doubted whether they ‘really existed’. Nothing is more instructive and fascinating than a self-belying mind, absorbed largely in bodily things, whose brilliant development of some materialistic thesis in a series of flashing sentences, betrays an obvious series of inner illuminations which find no place in the redoubtable theory. It is not, therefore, as Berkeley held, by some forced vein of abstraction that we distinguish the acts and experiences by which bodies are given to us from bodies themselves, but it is none the less true, that, once acts and experiences have entered the conscious picture, we are strongly impelled to hold, not only that such acts and experiences are essential to the existence of the conscious picture (which is only a veiled tautology) but also to the being of the purely bodily realities which the picture sets before us. We experience a new, strange sense of what Whitehead called the ‘vacuous actuality’ of a world deprived of all sensitiveness and conscious reference, the sense that, in the absence of any mind to be made alive to it, it must all ‘vanish into nothing’. We have only to try to perform some such simple imaginative experiment as picturing what it would be for there to be a stone on a lonely hillside pelted by the rain to realize that we cannot give concrete fulfilment to our meaning without introducing, and not irrelevantly, the personal sensitivity of observers or, more strange still, a personal sensitivity projected into the stone and feeling the rain on its naked surfaces. The point seems to be that a proposition which makes the esse of bodies percipi or percipi posse, or some other mode of conscious ‘inexistence’, has an authority not based on its analytic character nor one rooted in ordinary grammar. It represents a new insight forced on us by our deep inability to carry out or illustrate what seems at first entirely intelligible and significant. It is a principle on which, on reflection, we feel that we ought to base our language, rather than one which our language already recognizes. There may be comparable difficulties regarding the existence of other minds and their experiences, which are in a sense also ‘nothing to us’, a nothingness which is, however, readily regarded as reflecting some sort of personal predicament, whereas the other seems to be a predicament for bodies themselves. This is why a deeply reflective thinker like Husserl, whose whole training in the thought of Brentano made him wary of all the more facile snares of idealism, none the less veered towards idealism in his later phenomenology.

I may say that I am far from giving conclusive authority to the idealistic appeals just mentioned. I only dwell on them because I think of them as profound and beyond simple exorcism: they involve an insight into essence which unfortunately, in the dialectical realm, need not always prevail against counter-insights. What we shall in the end hold will be the fruit of all insights and all absurdities. That the notion of matter is hedged about with absurdities is obvious, but these absurdities will only give it the coup de grâce if the absurdity of other notions proves to be less. At the present point, however, matter or body seems to be dialectically dying from a variety of wounds: it can certainly be bandaged up and carried about in a wheel chair, though it might be better to give our pains to a more curable patient.

It is perhaps fit at this point for me to express my own personal regret at this demise of matter, of whose immense theoretical, and even moral and religious merits I am only too clearly conscious. Matter in its more mechanical forms attracts by its forthright integrity, its power to hold a pose without doubling on itself reflectively and being forced to go one further: one also admires it for its immense indifference to our approaches and our purposes, which it neither assists nor resists. It is above all the believable, the trustworthy element in our experience, which we always know where to have. It attracts too by its admirable manipulability and malleability, its power to be wholly subordinated to human purposes because it is without purposes of its own. And one must value its lack of treachery or malice: while it may destroy one accidentally, it has no inherent tendency to do so. One experiences in its presence the calm relief of Lucretius, the rational transports of Helvétius, the peace of mind of those heroines of Turgenev who mingle love-making with the study of German treatises on chemistry. Even if matter is made a little ‘dialectical’, it is still engaging. The matter that can pursue ends, adjust contradictions and take account of abstractions is no doubt absurd, but is it more absurd than some of its cloudier alternatives? But if one pursues matter further, one becomes aware that there is something deeply deceptive, collusive about it: it is not really the simple, self-sufficient reality that it gives itself out to be, but the rational foil to conscious mind and adjusted to all its requirements. It accordingly dissolves like Helen in the arms of Faust, and leaves only its veil, its pleasing idea in one's hands. From this idea I now turn to what may, I hope, afford more solid philosophical satisfaction.