Tag Archives: philosophy

Quo Vadis, Materialism? Nowhere, It Seems…

I mentor a few young philosophers; which basically means young readers of philosophy pester me for answers, and I annoy them with corrective questions.  Occasionally, I do give them something like an answer, but it is mostly for the purposes of spiking their silly ideas into the sand, causing their thought process to begin again fresh, humbled.  Socrates’ modus operandi may have been likewise inspired.  The question I’m going to address has been posed to me in a variety of different ways, and I’m not quite sure how to best reformulate the question.  I think it would be approximately accurate to recast the question as follows:  Isn’t there an issue with the fact that “matter” seems to be a metaphysical concept, yet it is referred to as a physical entity?  Another way of asking the question might be: Why would a scientist hold a materialistic worldview in conjunction with their scientific perspective, if materialism is a philosophical presupposition that is grounded metaphysics?  The concern I’m faced with, in these young students, is that, in their philosophical reading from ancient times onward and their penchant for popular scientific literature, they are detecting that there is no necessary connection between scientific theories and practices, on the one hand, and a materialistic worldview, on the other.  I’m torn on the matter of expressing my thoughts when they are struggling with ideas, because they are vulnerable, perhaps even liable, to commit an argumentum ad verecundiam, as if I know what I’m talking about.


A short response is satisfactory for now, I think, and for good reason.  The reason is this: having discussed the concept of what “matter” is with philosophers and scientists over hundreds of hours, it is clear to me that none of them know what they mean by word.  Actually, I know what they want to mean, rather, but the problem is that, once brought to light that what they wish the concept to be can’t actually be reified in any meaningful way, there is endless ad hoc substitutions, vague ersatz definition supplements, and sometimes accusations that, “oh! You are just philosophizing [and annoying me by revealing my definitive cognitive dissonance and egregious lack of clarity of thought]!”  Scientists, especially physicists, like to give water-tube toy definitions of matter, once they struggle after just a couple of seconds.  (You know, those rubber, gel-filled toys in which you squeeze one side, and the gel squirts to the other end.)  The water-tube toy “definition” is that matter is a different form of energy.  There is a bit of irony in that, as I’ll end with some closing remarks on the Logical Positivists/Logical Empiricists and W.v.O. Quine –the latter being a product of the former in ways.  The upshot from those remarks will be clear.


The big problem with materialism, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what they mean by “matter,” is that there was a commonsense usage which did little to transform from ancient times.  The beginnings of the concept of matter in Greek philosophy begins with “hyle,” which can be swapped with “stuff,” or even as non-descript stuff (e.g., excrement, again, as used today in vulgar social contexts).  The non-descript and inert nature of this hyle is what defined it, entirely, as a phenomenal entity.  There was nothing metaphysical about, and it was present in givenness, plain and simple.  It seems to be that, as separation of materials (e.g., separation of clays from soil and ores, etc.) from one another came to conscious inquiry and foundationalist hierarchies of ontology came about, philosophers wanted to explore a newer concept, hypokeimenon.  It’s a bizarre, hard-to-explain shift in thinking that occurred: the Greeks wanted to know what gave rise to phenomena.  As you can read throughout Plato, especially in texts like the Theaetetus, Plato’s (and Socrates’) philosophy had at its heart the distinction of reality and appearance –hence, Bertrand Russell’s later title.  Obviously, the Greek philosophers became interested in the hyle under the hyle, and the underlying hyle was called the hypokeimenon: that’s the metaphysical stuff that underlies and gives rise to the stuff that is merely apparent, and not necessarily real in the fullest sense, known as hyle or matter.  The interest, from then on, was what gave rise to the appearance of matter.  On and off throughout history, philosophers had some rather forgetful bouts with the history of philosophy, wherein they proposed “matter” to be somehow fundamental, disregarding the plenitude of questions posed by philosophers before them.


Filling in the details of this history and the nature of philosophical inquiry might be a little blogging project I take up at some later point, but there are two major developments in the history of philosophy that are most relevant here.  The first is the coming of idealism, which was effectively the realization that the physical world is comprised of characteristics (e.g., extension, penetrability/impenetrability, etc.), rather than requiring a strange ancient folk-philosophical concept, namely, “matter,” which represented a time when metaphysics and ontology were naively compressed into a single, unconsidered existence, when the stuff of appearance was also what was underlying.  (As strange as that sounds, it will be relevant in a second, when the Logical Positivists come on the scene.)  Leibniz was perfectly capable of developing is theories of natural philosophy (now called “physics”), despite rejecting these strange ancient ideas about matter, and occupying an intellectual space of idealism.  Leibniz, being deeply metaphysical, discarded with the ancient folk-philosophical concept.  There was no need for it.  (And what the heck does anybody mean by “matter,” anyway?)  A great deal of the development of natural philosophy into later “hard science” was the pursuit for more metaphysical understanding of the stuff of givenness, such as in the work of Newton, Lemonosov, and Lavoisier; but no deeper metaphysical underlying cause of the world of appearance was understood.


At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of physicists, mathematicians, and a few philosophers, called the Vienna Circle, sounded the death knell of matter.  What was matter, anyways?  The Vienna Circle completely revamped the philosophy of science by putting everything into terms of phenomena and logical rules of behavior.  (An oversimplification, but fine for this discussion.)  Maybe no greater representative of the group of intellectuals was Rudolf Carnap, who sought at every turn to destroy and eliminate all traces of metaphysics from the sciences.  It often goes unnoticed, but all traces of any notion like matter was eliminated, save for the respect in which matter was meant to refer to a kind of phenomena.  Its existence was purely linguistic and referential to phenomena of types.  Were I an historian in 1930, I probably would have been writing about how the Vienna Circle had put an end to the vague antiquated folk-philosophical concept of matter.  Where is the need for it?  What conceptual work does the word do?  As I mentioned, nobody can really even say what they mean, especially when words from the ancient version, like “indefinite” and “inert,” are stripped away.  After the Vienna Circle, W.v.O. Quine would present a philosophy of science that was both influenced by the Vienna Circle, but one that also rejected it in a linguistic turn: his proposal was that science is a sort of network of linguistic statements that are revised, interconnected, and necessarily interdependent.  It’s for this reason that the definition of matter given by scientists today is ironic.


In large part, it is my opinion that the absurd philosophy and dogmatic views of Bertrand Russell have done a great deal to revive the folk-philosophical concept.  I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader, especially those who have read Appearance and Reality, to consider why Bertrand was so worried about matter.  What could he socially and politically gain?  I’ll give you two hints: 1) in history, what positions did people historically hold who made authoritative statements about metaphysics? and 2) what was Russell’s annoyance with George Berkeley in Appearance and Reality?  Understand these things, and you understand a great many things about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


To close, for those interested in shifting the definition of matter to be mass-bearing objects of spatial extension, then you have a big problem, which is quite sophisticated.  The nature of the problem is that mass is not a definite idea, in itself.  Not only does the meaning of the term change between times and contexts, but there are also some procedural experimental difficulties in distinguishing mass from other concepts.  The work highlighting all of these issues is Max Jammer’s work, Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics, which contains a discussion of experimental and theoretical physics related to the notion of mass, the concept’s historical transformations, and a philosophical examination of the concept throughout history.


Filed under Ancient Greek, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Metaphysics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy, Science

22nd Annual (2015) Kent State Philosophy Graduate Student Conference In Remembrance of May 4th (Part II)

The paper I presented at Kent State University’s Graduate Philosophy Conference can be found by clicking here.  The paper is a reworking of a paper I wrote during Jordi Cat’s philosophy of time seminar in the fall of 2013.  By “reworking,” I mean that the paper was truncated from its current monographic length of 68 pages, and then reorganized, many of the citations and resources extracted, and, finally, given an ad hoc introduction and conclusion.  I chose to eliminate many of the references to the literature because, like so many of the works a philosopher of science that are too technical and specialized for the general philosophical audience, I felt it would be too much for the randomly chosen philosopher —especially a graduate student— to get without extensive reading (or without more space to discuss the ideas).  Therefore, McTaggart, Sider, Craig Bourne, Earman, and other authors were not referenced in the presented version of the work.  Continue reading


Filed under History and Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics, Metaphysics, Philosophy

22nd Annual (2015) Kent State Philosophy Graduate Student Conference In Remembrance of May 4th (Part I)

Among all of the conferences that I have attended or presented at, Kent State’s Graduate Philosophy Conference was the most professionally done of the bunch.  I think the reputation of this conference is growing, based on the quality of the papers presented (and from the number I heard that were submitted) and representatives present from top school; this year there were two Harvard students and one Oxford student presenting, along with some of the most creative philosophers-in-training from the American West to East Coast, California to New York, as it were.  For anyone looking a good and productive venue to make intellectual progress, I strongly suggest submitting to this conference in the future.  Continue reading

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Developing a New History of Philosophy

An immediate response to the title is: Do we need yet another history of philosophy?  Anyone vaguely familiar with their local library’s selections and new arrivals will have seen half a dozen such histories, ostensibly, at least.  For example, Anthony Kenny has recently put out a set of volumes, and there has even been the instantiation of a very ambitious attempt at a “History of Philosophy without Any Gaps” by Adamson.  Go beyond that, and there are more or less scholarly compilations by Bertrand Russell (much less), Frederick Copleston (more), and Will Durant (less).  Smaller chunks of history have been, in some respects, very competently done.  I stress the qualifier “in some respects,” a great example being A History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages by Etienne Gilson, which beautifully ties together a number of the ideas with theirs sources (and the relation of the ideas) and philosophers to their intellectual forbearers and inspirations.  However, that work fails as a history qua history.  Continue reading

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A Reflection on the Introduction of Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” and the State of Academic Philosophy

the-art-of-learning-Josh-WaitzkinI was rereading Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning[1] the other day, and it resonated with me much more so than when I read it in 2007.  I suspect part of this has to do with the fact that I was studying physics at the time, and, by now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in philosophy departments and at workshops/conferences/get-togethers with graduate students in philosophy.  In the introduction, in addition to recounting some of his experiences as a young chess sensation —perpetually the highest rated chess player in his age group from the very beginning—, he talks about his experiences in Columbia University’s philosophy department from his days as an undergraduate student.  His discussion includes the frustration of having to deal with philosophers (i.e., philosophy professors) who constantly deride certain ideas, take on a smug countenance when presented with difficult to verbalize ideas, and switch to a mode of think that is anything like serious whenever faced with an idea that is not easily resolvable in focus, especially vague terms, terms that are moderately or extremely mystical, Eastern in philosophical disposition, and so on.  Waitzkin says, ‘Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions.  Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language— when I spoke of intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning’ (p. xvi).  This is the thing that bothers me about the circles I have roamed in, to this point, and maybe things are different in different departments, but I my experience corresponds to this.  The student of philosophy very quickly learns what cannot be said around the tenured professors.  Admirably, and no doubt partly due to his undergraduate naivety and partly due to his willfull nature, Waitzkin didn’t seem to go down without a fight when such instances arose.

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The Value of Ayn Rand in an Introductory Philosophy Course

The discipline of philosophy is something to be held inviolate; the classroom likewise.  One might be inclined to ask, what is the function of teaching provocative material to an introductory level philosophy class?  There wouldn’t be, if the material didn’t have philosophical import.  If the material does have philosophical import, then why chose, at the very least, something that is provocative?  One important quality that philosophy is supposed to instill in intellectual thought, itself, is a dispassionate nature, whether in judgment or analysis.  Continue reading

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Reflection on a First-Year Professorship: An Experiment in Allowing Students to Choose Texts

This is the first of a number of reflections I hope to do on my first year as a professor of philosophy.  As of right now, I am through the first semester.  It’s been an interesting experience, to say the absolute least.  I don’t mean that simply in terms of outcomes of pedagogical experiments or common experiences of student discontent with grades, but also political and administrative stuff in addition. Continue reading

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