Feliks Mikhailov 1976
The Riddle of the Self

1. What Is Knowledge

Philosophical problems are not generated in the quiet and cosy studies of thinkers who shun all contact with the world. Strange though it may seem, the question of what knowledge is and how it is acquired is a most practical question, which constantly arises in every concrete experiment, every step forward in scientific knowledge.

But could man always ask himself, how is it that I know? Not simply see, but know that this is a stone, and this is an apple-tree? I know that I am a human being and that we are all human beings, and not bears or kangaroos?

Such a question implies the ability to look at one’s own activity from the side, to consider the object before one and what it will become when one does this or that with it. And only when my Self and my ability to do something are not one and the same thing, that is, when I can treat my activity as something ahead of me, as a future process that can be adjusted or changed in accordance with a prearranged and not yet executed (therefore still existing outside me in nature) ideal plan of an action, only then can I and should I consider the question of the ability to know, to be aware of nature in its most hidden essence, to know what it is capable of, but has not yet performed and never will perform without my .intervention.

Aristotle would, of course, have been unemployed in the age of the primitive-communal system, when consciousness, is Marx put it, was still directly interwoven with practice, with the language of real life, when the “word” was as yet not objectively contrasted with the act.” In those days people were not worried by the “accursed” problems concerning the relation between knowledge comprising the “pure” essence of things and knowledge of sensuous individual images that seem to directly reflect the passing, transitory phenomena of being. But with the emergence of theoretical activity as such, there also emerges the problem of consciousness (soul), the problem of cognition, and of the role that the senses and reason play in the process. On this point Aristotle had every reason to write, “... The knowledge of the soul admittedly contributed greatly to the advance of truth in general, and, above all, to our understanding of Nature.”

But even in the field of theory the question did not arise at once so directly. We did not immediately become aware of the need to understand ourselves, our ability to conceive and cognise the world, the means and methods of cognition and of testing knowledge. According to legend, the early philosophers were mainly interested in the causes of the flooding of the Nile and the solar eclipses, the height of the pyramids, and ways of calculating area. But the very diversity of their specific interests presupposed a certain relationship to the world as a whole. What did all this – the pyramids, rivers, stars, and so on – add up to?

And the interesting point is this, when trying to define the single essence of the whole diversity of things, objects and phenomena the first philosophers, without actually intending to, immediately posed all the questions of cognition that were later to be studied for thousands of years. It is a fact that the Milesians – Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes – proposed hypotheses about the nature of the material of which all the visible diversity of world is composed that triggered off the long argument about cognition and consciousness.

Take the “water” theory of Thales. The first Milesian saw the primary element of being in that which was most widespread, in the world ocean surrounding the earth, in the moistness of the air, the moisture that saturates the earth, and its being necessarily connected with the very source of life – the seeds of plants and animals.

However, it was not the omnipresence of water, but its role as an all-uniting stream that made Thales look upon it as the common root of the diversity of individual things. Water, however, is still water, something separate and apart, one of many things that can be sensed and perceived by man. And at the same time, as Hegel noted, the “water” of Thales, when treated as a universal essence, becomes something formless and different from the specific sensation that we have when we are in contact with real water. “Water”, as the fundamental principle, is something “purely general”, which simultaneously remains individual.

Evidently this contradiction was sensed by Anaximander. Realising that “primordial matter” could be only something that was not reducible to one of its definite states, Anaximander speaks of the arche as matter that has no limits and cannot be defined, as matter that has no special features because everything special about it would be one of its states, its individual, particular phenomena which are not eternal but disappear. According to Anaximander, “primordial matter” is the essence that inheres in all objects and its fundamental significance lies only in the fact of its being the basis of all individual objects and irreducible to any one of them. This philosopher, who lived 2,500 years ago, stated that the foundation of everything is unlimited, undefinable matter having no qualities that can be perceived by the senses – the apeiron (the unlimited).

The search for arche – the one primordial essence of the universe – was carried on by the Milesians in nature itself, almost “naturalistically.” Traditionally these philosophers from the city of Miletus are regarded as the pre-Socratic school of ancient natural philosophers. It is said that Thales was able to calculate the dates of solar eclipses (astronomer), the height of the pyramids by the lengths of their shadows (geometrician), predicted a good harvest of olives and correctly determined the causes of the flooding of the river Nile (naturalist and geographer), and so on. Anaximander’s cosmological notions are far closer to those of modern times than the later Ptolemaic theories. Why then do we usually refer to them as philosophers and not geometricians, astronomers, physicists, and so on?

If one simply projects modern thinking on to ancient times and treats the culture of those days and of the Middle Ages as stages leading up to “us” (the point of view of the bourgeois enlighteners), then the ancient natural philosophers were also mathematicians, although they knew only the rudiments of mathematical science, and also naturalists, although their observations and generalisations never went further than the elementary, and astronomers, but without telescopes, computers, Einstein’s theory, and so on.

Taking this “single-channel” approach to the development of civilisation with its forms arranged by centuries and millennia according to the amount of useful knowledge produced, the ancient natural philosophers do indeed appear to be highly versatile specialists capable of embracing tinny professions because the amount of activity required in each one was still extremely small.

But Greek antiquity implies a special way of life on the part of the peoples who lived in the city states.

The history of the millennia of culture of this small people follows a special, rather unusual, pattern. At the crossroads of the trade routes and military routes connecting and confronting the great Asiatic despotisms of ancient times and the Egyptian kingdom of the Pharaohs there grew up small settlements inhabited by artisans and traders who were often highly farmers, versatile because their main concern was political and commercial mediation, which in turn demanded the preservation of their political independence and sovereignty. These were the free cities in which the Greek tribes acquired and developed the features of a new community, and grew into a people united by language, identity of their political and economic interests, and culture, and who absorbed and digested on their own basis the ancient cultures of their great neighbours. In other words, the ways of development of the Greek people were very different from those of the huge agrarian despotisms of those days.

In the Greek settlements slavery had not yet emerged beyond the limits of the patriarchal, family forms of exploiting the labour of a “captive tribe” and may be regarded rather as a borrowing from the despotic neighbouring regimes than the result of the disintegration of the original Greek tribes. The free citizen of the Greek city state was part of a harmoniously organised whole. His personal aims, needs and abilities were still directly connected with the common interests of his fellow citizens. The class stratification of the Greek people, which was most evident in the fierce struggle between the aristocracy and the demos for full political power, was to come later and in an ideological form that was foreshadowed by the history of the city states. The Greeks themselves would view it as a struggle for the common good, for unity and integrity of the city state.

Their ideological consciousness comprised all the forms that later developed more or less independently. Their perception of the world, fed and moulded by mythology, also came to maturity in the integrated political thinking of the founders (demiurges) of their city. A harmoniously integrated world surrounded them in its plastically perfect, sensuously corporeal forms. It was a world of harmony and order – the Cosmos that had emerged from primeval Chaos. When he admires the splendour of the world, the Greek does not break it down into separate parts, does not investigate its individual properties. He is not a scientific experimenter, but a wise observer, a man of imagination and a poet. In his awareness of the origin of this perfect whole he exalts even himself as a harmonious body, a splendid instrument in the hands of the demiurges of cosmic harmony. He is a microcosm in whose flesh live all the forces of the great Cosmos. If he spends nearly all his time in affairs of state, it is because his aim is to create at home, in his city state, the same order that, according to his view, reigns as the supreme good throughout the Cosmos. When looking for the causes of certain diseases he seeks them in the violation of cosmic harmony.

What is he then? A physician? An astronomer? A philosopher? No, he is mainly a theoretician and, because of his liking for practical activities, an empiricist. Some writers, who are carried away by the standards of our own age and reduce all history to a succession of forms which, however underdeveloped, are nevertheless our own forms, say, for example, that the medical men of the past understood the need for an alliance with the philosophers. But the ancient “medicine” of the Greeks had no need of any such alliance with philosophy because it was itself a part of the undivided world-view, the non-derivative theoretical mythology of the living body, which philosophically generalised the habitual remedies that had been in use for thousands of years. The very title of “physician” had an empirical ring (for example the physician Sextus was nicknamed Empiricus).

No, the ancient natural philosophers did not become astronomers and physicists by combining their professions. It was they who pioneered the integrated theoretical form of comprehension of the world and tried to understand how to express all the endless diversity of the Cosmos in integrated one thought, one word.

The “water” of Thales and Anaximander’s apeiron are integrated, essential definitions of this diversity. It is difficult to say what made the third Milesian – Anaximenes – reject such an indefinite universal principle of all things as the apeiron. He could have conceded that the apeiron was at least a reasonable conjecture because no one has any direct awareness of “the unlimited” and therefore knowledge of it is not real knowledge. But no, the arche must be a single root, the source of all the diversity of the universe and should explain its existence in the infinite diversity of its states and phenomena. For example, why does a human being live? Why does an animal live? They breathe. They absorb something without which they could not exist for five minutes. So what they absorb, what they inhale is the basis of breathing and life. It is in breathing that life (real active being) realises itself and its strength. The provider of this life is air, the vivifying principle of being. But the Cosmos itself is an integrated and living being. All Greeks believed that. So would it not be reasonable to assume that air is the life-giving integrated principle of all that exists. It is almost bodiless, a breath of air is present in all places at all times, the Cosmos breathes and lives by air, and this is what brings being into existence out of not-being.

So according to Anaximenes the arche is air.

We have now summarised the teaching of the three first philosophers of ancient Greece. And although no direct statements by them about consciousness and cognition have come down to us their very positing of the problem of arche and materia prima (primordial matter) foreshadows the problem. I know what I see, what I hear, and so on, that is, I perceive with the help of my sense organs. This is what Thales seems to say in choosing water as the arche. And Anaximander’s apeiron implies the objection that the visible, the sensually perceived can never be anything but some specific state of the universal principle of being, while only the eternal, never ageing and integrated principle of all principles, which is inaccessible to the senses and known by the reason only in the process of reasoning, is the sole essence of the universe. Nothing that is determined, limited can be such a principle. And finally, what can reason know about something that has never been perceived by the sense organs, exclaims Anaximenes, who substitutes air for the apeiron.

I hope no one will imagine that I am trying to present Thales and Anaximenes as the founders of the famous school of the sensualist-empiricists [Empiricism is a school of philosophy that regards experience as having all the elements necessary for cognition while consciousness, reason is capable only of evaluating and processing that which is given by experience. The empiricists held that man can grasp the essence of things, general and essential knowledge, from the individual impressions of sensuous experience. Sensualism stresses the notion that all human knowledge springs basically from sensation.], and Anaximander as the first of the no less famous school of rationalists. [Rationalism is a philosophical school which views the process of cognition as activity by reason. Thanks to its special qualities reason can penetrate the essence of things despite the fact that the senses give an often deceptive and always subjective definition of the world.] Incidentally, we should remember that in speaking of the ancient philosophers whose works contain all the later types of philosophical schools “in embryo, in the nascent state” one should not apply the rigid definitions of the various “isms” that became established only in later times.

The purpose of our digression about the Milesian philosophers was to show that the solution of the problem of the relationship between consciousness and being has always been concerned with both aspects of this relationship and the problem of being is at the same time the problem of consciousness. The Milesians did not pose epistemological problems in the manner of Kant. But we can see that even a purely ontological statement presupposes a certain appraisal of man’s place in the world, of the ways and means of understanding existence. The ancient natural philosophers with their superb gift of clarity immediately took the bull by the horns and in the very definition of primordial matter contrasted the diversity of the particular, perceived by the sense organs, with the universal that was to be understood as a unique concept only by reason.

After the Milesians came their Ionian fellow countryman, Heraclitus, the Ephesian, who showed that it was possible to take yet another approach to the same contradiction. The transient nature, the inconstancy, the disappearance and birth of the countless individual objects that are brought to our notice by the sense organs is only a form of the one measure of the one law (Logos). Arche, the primordial essence of the universe, lies in the constant passing from being to not-being, and from not-being into being, in the constant transition of opposites into each other. In Heraclitian dialectics the unity of the world is the unity of opposites, and its motion is a “single flow” containing the essence of being which although beyond the bounds of our immediate perception, at the same time exists and appears in diversified forms in the sensuously concrete universe which “always was and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.” This brilliant notion was the abstract universal beginning of dialectics and it contains, in embryo, all the further incursions of theoretical research into the human consciousness.

Heraclitus declared that motion itself, the struggle and replacement of opposites, is truth and essence. “It is impossible to step twice into the same river,” he stated, because he had noticed that the person who washed a second time in one river was washed by different waters. Here Solomon’s “everything passes” is caught at the moment when that which becomes is that which has already passed. Heraclitus sees the basis of the diverse phenomena of the universe in the constant and eternal passing of “what is” into “what is not”, in the unity of opposites. For him the river is always the same and yet not the same. This is its essence, its measure, its limit and definition. You always enter it and yet never enter it because it is a stream that cannot be entered twice as something unchanged and immutable. But whereas this universal definition of the one contains diversity itself – waves, splashes, gleams of light on the surface (this is what we see), the very definition itself is the fruit of reason, the speculatively discovered word (logos), rule, law, measure.

Other Greek philosophers also treated the everyday notion of knowledge (“To see is to know”) with some suspicion. The great atomist Democritus clearly divides the cognition of the world into two types: the dark (sensuous) and the true (knowledge gained with the help of reason). This theoretical-cognitive guideline, as we should call it today, is directly connected with the atomic theory of being.

The world is infinite in its diversity. It is visibly discrete. Its knowable essence is assumed to be primary and basic. It is not perceived by the senses but it is equally natural, and corporeal, like water, air, fire, therefore in principle it is an eternal state. But the teaching of Anaxagoras and Empedocles paved the way for a turn in Greek thought towards acknowledging the diversity of even primary states. And this also involved an attempt to explain the unity of the diversity of discrete images by the discreteness of the initial principles themselves. However great the diversity, that which was eternal and immutable would explain this diversity that rose and disappeared, changed and passed away, existed and did not exist. The logic of discreteness was most apparent in the theories of Leucippus and his follower Democritus.

Being and not-being ... Visible being is a mere fluttering of transitory images. There is nothing stable about it. Eternal and immobile being is only a speculative supposition that in no way explains the nature of visible being. And all the more so, if we deny not-being. No, we cannot associate all that surrounds us with one kind of being (one notion, one word embracing the essence of all diversity). Not-being, must also exist. Without it there would be no motion. It exists and it is a vacuum, emptiness, a real “physical” emptiness. And there is also eternal, immutable being. But it does not exist alone. Primordial being is also discrete, “broken down” into immutable and eternal pieces which, when put together, make up all that exists. These pieces are also the apeiron but they are indefinable in depth, so to speak. They are indivisible (atoms).

This idea of Leucippus and Democritus – everything that exists consists of atoms constantly moving in a vacuum – gets them into difficulties. After all, it must be perfectly clear that human beings have never been directly aware either of atoms or of a vacuum. We can acquire our knowledge of atoms only by means of purely logical reasoning and reasoning based on such an abstract property of things as divisibility: all things are divisible but things cannot be divided to infinity; therefore things consist of particles that cannot be divided any further. But in that case the true and universal essence will be the indivisible particles themselves the atoms. And their properties, such as weight (they must weigh something, however small), shape (there is no such thing as a shapeless quantity), order and arrangement (also quite natural: since we have assumed the existence of particles they must be arranged together in some sort of order and definite position), cannot be perceived by the senses! Reason comes independently to the conclusion that atoms have these properties. As for the properties perceived by the Sense Organs, Democritus says that it is only the general opinion that decides what is sweet, what is bitter, what is warm, what is cold, what is colour, while in reality the only thing that exists is atoms and vacuum.

The pure existence of the atoms is discovered by reason, which gives us a clear and definite knowledge of the very essence of things. But although he was far from being a sceptic in relation to the authenticity of knowledge, Democritus also regarded the dark (sensuous) knowledge as an extremely important element providing the reason with all its arguments. In fact he even described reason that believed itself to be capable of understanding the essence of things without the help of the sense organs as a wretched thing. Nevertheless, Democritus was unable to explain how the sensations help the reason to discover the essence of things, and the philosophers of ancient times who describe his philosophy from a good knowledge of his works either note the contradictoriness of his theories or give contradictory estimations of his views of knowledge. According to Democritus, the properties of things perceived by the senses exist “only in opinion”, and yet reason that relies on their evidence (that is, on perceptions that ultimately depend on the condition of our body) is capable of understanding what exists in reality and is not perceived by the sense organs. Of course, it is rather difficult to judge the views of a philosopher after a lapse of 2,000 years, especially as we have only a few fragments of his opinions and he is often expounded by his later critics. But it is important for us to note that Democritus not only did not believe that “seeing is knowing” but was actually compelled to treat the sensuously perceived diversity of properties as something secondary, as a result of a “clash” between human corporeality and the images that came from other bodies.

The name of Socrates marks a new era in the development of Greek theoretical thought. Here it seems that the problem of the primordial essence of all things has been left aside. Man and his place and role in the human world, his merits and moral qualities occupy the mind of the philosopher whom Marx called the “demiurge of philosophy” and “philosophy personified.” But it is Socrates who first poses the problem of the universal as a direct question concerning the nature of human knowledge, as a question of the meaning of words, in which in some marvellous way truth is revealed. Let us turn to one of the fundamental works of Plato (Socrates’s pupil) – Theaetetus. Virtually the first question that Socrates asks the young man Theaetetus, the main character in Plato’s dialogues, is our own fundamental question: What is knowledge?

In his conversation with Socrates the young man advances the proposition that to know is to perceive something with the senses. Knowledge is sensuous perception. And the interesting thing is that, at least 2,000 years before Johannes Müller, Plato in his detailed investigation of this thesis utterly explodes the conclusions reached by the 19th-century physiologist on the basis of his experiment. Now listen to what Plato’s hero Socrates says to his young friend.

Socrates. Then now apply this doctrine to perception, my good friend, and first of all to vision; that which you call white colour is not in your eyes, and is not a distinct thing which exists out of them. And you must not assign any place to it: for if it had position it would be, and be at rest, and there would be no process of becoming.

Theaetetus. Then what is colour?

Socrates. Let us carry out a principle which has just been affirmed, that nothing is self-existent, and then we shall see that white, black and every other colour, arises out of the eye meeting the appropriate motion, and that what we call a colour is in each case neither the active nor passive element, but something which passes between them, and is peculiar to each percipient; are you quite certain that the several colours appear to a dog or to any animal whatever as they appear to you?

Theaetetus. Far from it.

Müller regards sensation as being produced by the specific “energy of the given sense organ”, that is, to use the words of Plato, “being at rest and not becoming.” A property of the eye. Admittedly, as Plato has just noted, it is no better to consider it a property of the object itself.

A person who did not know the history of philosophy (or knew it only from hearsay) but wanted to popularise the ideas of modern physiology might decide that the question of the correspondence between subjective sensation and the object perceived was posed on the basis of experiments pioneered by Müller. He would then consider himself justified in reproaching modern philosophers for “divorcing themselves” from real science and floating about in the empyrean instead of generalising the results of the specific research of the present day. And all the time he would be quite unaware that the logic of many modern experiments in the given field (which he believed should be generalised in order to achieve new philosophical thought) had not even gone as far as that of the ancient philosophers. Nor would he be aware that this logic, having fallen victim to the primitive, one-sided idea of the interaction of bodies (structures), encourages the researcher to take an absolutely abstract line in his research and at best merely illustrates the abstract conjecture that the external object is imprinted in the brain by means of the sense-organs. But let us return to Plato.

The conclusions drawn from Müller’s experiments, experiments guided by the logic of the interaction of ready-made structures, were splendidly formulated by Plato, who then proposed, as a counterblast to this logic, the idea of becoming. For Plato, as we have seen, sensation is a process in which the percipient reproduces the motion of the object by his own “means.” This is a purely logical solution to the problem. But it still does not allow us to regard knowledge as equivalent to sensation. Plato’s Socrates in his dialogue with Theaetetus considers this proposition in scrupulous detail.

It is soon made clear to us that, despite Theaetetus’s assumption, knowledge is by no means equivalent to sensory perception. The repository of knowledge is our souls. The soul that sees with the help of the eyes, and hears with the help of the ears, etc. But what can be sensed by means of one organ is not necessarily perceived by another. The soul, however, sees colour and shape with the eyes, hears sounds with the ears, finds out whether something is salted or not with the tongue, and so on. But with what organs does the soul have the sensation of being and not-being, of similarity and dissimilarity, of identity and difference? In other words, has the soul any specific organs for knowing the properties of things that are common to them all and are not perceived by the eyes, the ears, or any other organ of the senses?

It is quite clear that the soul (consciousness) has knowledge of the universal, essential, and necessary, that this knowledge contains ideas (concepts, categories) such as the beautiful and the ugly, good and evil, quality and quantity, relation, cause, consequence and so on. And it is equally clear that by means of the sense organs we can apprehend shape, sound, the salty, the sour and so on, but cannot apprehend good, quality, cause, etc. And so for perceiving general ideas the soul has no helpers. “... The soul, so it seems to me, contemplates the universal in all things.” And it is the essence of things that the soul perceives by itself, abstracting it from the immediate specific things that it learns from the sense organs.

So to know an object means knowing its essence. Essence is a general feature that must be inherent in objects that may outwardly be dissimilar from one another. For example, kindness (as essence) inheres in a kind man, a kind woman and a kind child. The beautiful is common to a beautiful landscape, a handsome young man, a beautiful thought, and so on. In exactly the same way we know that all that exists must have a cause, but no matter how long we examine by experiment the separate properties of the Moon, which does not exist without a cause, not one of these properties would be its cause or show us the necessity of the consequences that the Moon itself may bring about. At every step man is concerned with the concepts of cause and effect. Then how does man’s consciousness acquire the categories, the ideas of reason, which contain knowledge of the general and the necessary, but are not given to the reason by the organs of sense?

Plato was not the only philosopher who proved unable to answer this question. It remained a riddle for all the philosophers of the New Age and it is still a riddle for many of our contemporaries. For the contemporary “philosopher of science” the “contradictions of cognition” that Plato revealed in his time still remain insoluble. “... Plato’s doctrine of ideas contains a number of obvious errors .... Something remains of what Plato had to say, even after all necessary corrections have been made. The absolute minimum of what remains, even in the view of those most hostile to Plato, is this: that we cannot express ourselves in a language composed wholly of proper names. But must have also general words such as ‘man’, ‘dog’, ‘cat’; or, if not these then relational words such as ‘similar’, ‘before’, and so on. Such words are not meaningless noises, but it is difficult to see how they can have meaning if the world consists entirely of particular things, such as are designated by proper names.” [History of Western Philosophy] This was the opinion of our contemporary, Bertrand Russell. And he is right about one thing: yes, it was Plato who first stated this problem.

The fact that there is in the meaning of a word something not given directly to his through observation, something that distinguishes the knowledge expressed in a word from perception, and the fact that this something expresses the very essence of the object led Plato himself to the conclusion that knowledge of the universal essence of many individual things is not merely different from sense impressions. It is nearer to their objective essence than to their external features. Knowledge of a thing is its unique idea, but this idea is not the sum total of the various properties that the sense organs tell us about. It is the idea of their essence that is not perceived by the eyes, ears and so on. What then is this essence that exists externally to human beings? How does it exist in the things themselves?

Remember the question: “Does the soul contemplate this by itself?” Democritus would have said that this is light, true knowledge, and not opinion. So there is something to contemplate. What is it then? Like Democritus, Plato is helped by the logic of representing the object as something discrete. The essence of diverse objects that are moreover related to diverse forms (images) cannot be explained on the basis of one principle. The soul (by itself) cannot “see” something (a horse or the sea, for instance) and know at the same time why the horse is a horse, or the sea is the sea. All horses, all leaves, and so on, however different, have their own unique archetype, or pattern, according to which all the countless individual, transitory copies are made. Before all the separate leaves that appear on trees, turn green, yellow, fall and disappear forever, there exists in the “centre of the mind” an archetype leaf. It is imperishable, it is eternal, it is the actually existing truth of all untrue, temporary, disappearing leaves. And for Plato this archetype acquires independent, separate existence, and any human word (“horse”, for example) therefore carries knowledge of necessity, universality, essence, because it signifies not so much the separate objects (not the animals that we meet here on earth) as their imperishable, eternal essence (the idea of “horsiness”). Our word, our understanding of the horse relates to the numerous terrestrial animals of this species in that they themselves are the transitory, ephemeral embodiment of the archetype of “horsiness”, miserable copies of it that remind us of their one unique original.

The world existing outside us is thus doubled: the multiplicity of the objects we perceived has been supplemented by the multiplicity of their archetypes, their ideas. The first world is still unstable and liable to disappear. The second is eternal, true. The second, the world of ideas is proportionate and harmonious in contrast to the world of objects that we perceive. A strict hierarchy reigns in that “centre of the mind” where the ideas are concentrated. The idea of the horse (idea of all terrestrial horses) is dependent on, derives from the idea of the ani al, the idea of the leaf from the idea of plant, and both from the idea of existence, and this latter, like all other ideas, from the idea of good. In Plato’s philosophy the discrete “principles” of the various ultimate objects merge together in the primeval idea of being, which is good.

But the basic distinction between Plato’s conception and the conception of the Greek atomists lies in the duplication of the world that we mentioned earlier. Democritus sometimes called his atoms ideas because they had an eternal immutable form that was peculiar to themselves; Plato does not strip his ideas of flesh and they are therefore also indestructible, eternal “particles” of true being that cannot be further divided. For Democritus, however, the world around us is made up of combinations of atoms; essentially it is nothing but atoms and vacuum. A man’s soul may primarily be concerned with knowledge of temporary combinations of atoms (dark knowledge), but he may also penetrate to the true essence and come to understand that everything is ultimately reducible to combinations of forms, to the patterns and positions of indivisible particles. However, the “world of opinion” and the “world of truth” are only two levels of knowledge of the world. The world itself is one and possesses in itself its own cause and essence. This is why Democritus is generally regarded as the herald of the materialist line in philosophy.

Plato’s two worlds, on the other hand, are two objectively existing worlds, one of which is the explanation, the cause and essence of the other. The world of objects that surrounds us is derivative, secondary in relation to the world of ideas, the world of imperishable archetypes of all things and phenomena, properties and qualities. According to Plato, this knowable and comprehensible world of ideas exists objectively, but it can be nothing else than the pure essence of things. This eternal and imperishable idea of the object detached from the object itself and bearing its “pure” essence is, in fact, the objectivisation of knowledge about that object.

So it was that not only knowledge of the world but the world itself and even man himself became divided into two. The human body belonging to the world of objects and possessing sense organs is, indeed, like everything else in the world, perishable and temporary. And it detects in the infinity of objective qualities that which only outwardly and transiently denotes the essence, but not the essence itself. The soul is quite a different matter! The soul is associated with the imperishable essences (ideas) and is itself the primary idea of our personal existence. The scalpel of Plato’s thought, dividing everything that exists in the world into the world of ideas and the world of objects, also dissected man and placed the soul in one half and the body in the other. (Compare this with Democritus’s monistic understanding of the soul: globular atoms of the soul permeating all the pores and serving as the source of self-motion).

Plato with his Greek love for the beauty of bodily forms, the harmony of the sensuously perceptible world, endowed his ideas (and soul!) with a special imperishable flesh. The contradiction between the incorporeality of the soul and corporeality of the organism would not arise as a problem very soon. And the inevitable had happened. A philosophical conception diametrically opposed to that of Democritus had come into being. Knowledge (or rather its objectivised content) had acquired the status not only of independent existence but of primordial existence determining the existence of the whole diversity of objects in which human beings lived and moved. In Plato it is not the world of objects that figures as knowledge. On the contrary, ideas, that is the objective content of our knowledge about objects, are credited with real existence.

Plato thus became the harbinger and founder of the idealist line in philosophy.

But even this treatment of the question “What is knowledge?”, which makes knowledge of the essence of things synonymous with their objectively existing essence did not help to solve the question.

A fresh search for a solution to the riddle of knowledge and consciousness was launched by Plato’s pupil, the great Aristotle. In his titanic work that embraced and reconsidered everything that had been begun by Greek thought Aristotle was unable to accept Plato’s fairy-tale world of ideas. His criticism of “Plato’s ideas” is devastating, and, as Lenin stressed, it “... is a criticism of idealism as idealism in general: for whence concepts, abstractions, are derived, thence come also ‘law’ and ‘necessity’, etc.”

So as not to turn my freely ranging review into a series of lectures on the history of philosophy, I shall not quote Aristotle’s criticism in detail. Any systematic course on the history of philosophy will provide the reader with appropriate extracts from his “Metaphysics.” But the characteristic thing is that in his argument against Plato Aristotle himself ultimately doubled the world because along with that “from which it is formed” (according to Aristotle, this is at the same time the passive possibility of being something), along with matter, he saw that which actively forms, that which realises the material possibility of being something, thus turning it into the reality of that “something.” In other words he arrived at form.

How did this come about? For the same reasons as in Plato’s philosophy, which he criticised. In a society in which thought and work, word and deed are divided, the constant dependence of every step forward in theory on practice is hidden from everyone, including the philosophers. And Aristotle, like his predecessor and teacher, sharply delimits knowledge as understanding (inherent only in creators, in the free “inventors” and “discoverers of art”) and as sense perceptions (that is, the knowledge of individual things possessed by people engaged in practical affairs). And once again we hear the familiar theme, “... we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the ‘why’ of anything.”

So our problem crops up again on the pages of the “Metaphysics.” Sense perceptions and reason, the general and the individual, phenomenon and essence fell apart and were frozen at opposite poles under the sway of social forces. The great Aristotle, whom Engels called, “the most universal brain of the ancient world” and Marx, “the Alexander the Great of Greek philosophy”, and all he could to find ways of uniting the two poles, bridging the gap between them. And we are not surprised to find Lenin remarking, “Highly characteristic in general, throughout the whole book, passim, are the living germs of dialectics and inquiries about it ... There is a naive faith in the power of reason, in the force, power, objective truth of cognition.” But at this point he has to add, “And a naive confusion, a helplessly pitiful confusion in the dialectics of the universal and the particular – of the concept and the sensuously perceptible reality of individual objects, things, phenomena.”

The result of cognition is knowledge of the universal, the necessary. There must be universals in the world and in things, they must appear as their definition, their essence, what makes them what they are and not something else. The essence of things is not reducible to their tangibility, to the mere repetition of certain external features and certainly not just to one of them. Only the passive materiality of the world acts directly, like an imprint on wax, on our sense organs. But why then does man’s soul recognise in this imprint the features of the universal? Why does essence show through phenomena?

Plato’s answer, as we have seen, did not satisfy Aristotle. He tries to take the matter further. Is not the essence of the thing discovered by reason precisely that which makes it different from other things and able to act in accordance with its own nature? What is it, for instance, that makes a dagger a dagger or a globe a globe? It is not the material from which they are made (they could be made of the same thing) and it is not their various accidental, sensuously perceptible properties. It is their form. That is the answer. But not their external form; it is the structure, the organisation that enables them to be either a dagger or a globe. The human soul knows the essence in the imprint perceived by the sense organs precisely because that imprint contains the eternal idea of the thing which has been specifically built for the purpose for which it exists. The imprint preserving the indication of form is only the beginning of knowledge. The work of the mind goes beyond the external qualities of a thing, which contain a mixture of the accidental and the necessary, the material and the formal (essential), and seeks to find the eternal, universal and necessary (form as such).

But form is essence only if it is the cause of all generation and destruction. “...However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or (for that matter) from more elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? (Here Aristotle is criticising the pre-Socratic natural philosophers for their attempt to limit whole existence to material causes – F.M.). For at least the substratum itself does not make itself change, e.g. neither the wood nor the bronze causes the change of either of them, nor does the wood manufacture a bed and the bronze, a statue, but something else is the cause of the change...” The logic here is rigorous. Since the form is the essence, principle and aim, since the passive corporeality of matter is subordinate to it, form cannot be an internal property of matter itself.

Once again the world is doubled, but how much better than Plato’s this new doubling is, let the specialists decide. The point I want to make is that the mysticism of the Aristotlian “form” sprang from what would seem to be the quite natural and ordinary contrasting of word and deed, and that it becomes established in the constant confronting of the particular (experience, sense impression, phenomena) and the general (reason, theory, essence).

Now Aristotle is able to answer the question put by Plato’s Socrates: knowledge is cognition of the form of things. But in that case, as with Plato, consciousness (the soul) must itself be the form: like is known by like. But what is it that the soul must be the form of? “... Hence the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of a body as above characterised.”

As a non-material form, the substance of body, the soul is concerned with the forms of things, with the universal that we seek and that exists “apart from individual things” but also “in them”, making them the things that they are. The soul “... must be either the things themselves or their forms. The former alternative is, of course, impossible: it is not the stone which is present in the soul, but its form. It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms, and sense, the form of sensible things...” This is a splendid passage. Take, for instance that “the hand is the tool of tools”! All tools are made by the hand, all tools are for the hand and the hand is for them. Here we are at one pole. Here there is no knowledge, theory, or intellect. Here there is experience based on sensation, on the impress of perceived qualities. At the other pole is the soul, the intellect. “Analogous to the hand”, the soul exists for forms, and all forms are embraced by it. Intellect, soul are the tool of cognition working with the forms of things, as the hand works with their matter. Everything has a dual nature: it is form-given matter. Thus the objects of the objective world contain two elements. They are, as it were, a combination of the universal (form) and the individual (the matter from which form moulds the object).

But if we take a closer look at this “fusion” of matter and form we find that there is still no dialectical identity of the general and the particular. Form simply “endows sensuous things with eternal qualities.” These words of Aristotle’s about Plato’s “ideas” may be used to characterise the doctrine of “forms.” Nearly all Aristotle’s arguments against Plato’s “doubling” of the world are applicable to Aristotle himself. But he does not notice this. It seems to him that by uniting matter and form in the object itself he gets rid of the dualism of essence and phenomenon, the general and the particular, necessity and accident, the rational and the sensuous. But when it has to do with the forms of things, the form of the human body, the soul objectively finds itself in the same difficult position as Plato’s “idea of man” recalling the “ideas” of things.

All that the soul can do now is strive to know the most general “forms”, and Aristotle regards this purely philosophical cognition as the “most enjoyable and the best.” It is just as difficult for the soul to sort out all infinite number of “concrete forms” defined by general “forms” as it is to deal with an infinite number of sensuously perceived qualities. And finally the existence of the “form” – the independent element driving and guiding matter – forces Aristotle to detach “form” from particular things, to turn the most general “form of forms” into the demiurge, the creator, the god, having an existence of its own, apart from matter. “And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s self-dependent actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God ...”

This is the point where Aristotle ceases to be a philosopher of ancient Greece and becomes the theological authority of the Middle Ages, created and supported for centuries by the fathers of the Christian church and the schoolmen.

Contents | Something About “Something”