The Real, the One and the Many in Ecological Thought

This article was originally published in Joy Palmer and David Cooper (eds),The Spirit of the Environment, Routledge, London, 1998, pp57-72. See; many Taylor & Francis and Routledge books are now available as eBooks at eBookstore



Part 1

One evening a couple of years ago I was driving home through city traffic into the sunset. With all the objects around me so finely and blackly etched against the orange light, the differences between trees and telegraph poles, birds and distant aeroplanes, no longer registered. I was filled with a sense of one of those semi-ineffables: that every object, every instance of matter, is not merely manifest and visible, but actuallythere, present to itself. It 'feels' itself, not in the sense that we feel heat or sharpness or pain, but in the sense that there is an innerness to its reality as well as an outerness. Such a sense of the innerness of matter normally eludes us. Its elusiveness is what gave rise to the appearance/reality distinction in traditional philosophical thought: how to distinguish the 'appearance' of an object from the 'reality' of it? How to make any sense of the claim that the world as I perceive it is real as opposed to a mere dream or hallucination? The traditional answer to this question was that the world is real to the extent that it is concrete or substantial, and it is concrete or substantial if its properties are grounded in, or 'inhere' in, some kind of substrate. However, if we try to give content to this notion of substrate, we find that we cannot do so - it is simply understood, in circular fashion, as that which makes an object real as opposed to merely phenomenal. As Berkeley showed, no empirical account can be given of the real world that would distinguish it from an order of mere appearance.

The difficulty of providing an account of the reality or concreteness of the world is echoed in the classical problem of solidity. Solidity was traditionally seen as the - primary - property that distinguished a material body from an unoccupied stretch of space with the same appearance ie the same shape and size and perhaps colour. It was the solidity of the body that assured us that it was not a mere phantasm or illusion. However, unlike other primary qualities, such as size and shape, solidity could not be characterized in intrinsic terms: there was nothing in the body itself that was in any way describable by us that rendered that body solid. Its solidity could only be defined extrinsically or relationally, in terms of impenetrability - as the capacity of the body to keep other bodies out. But as an account of the concreteness of a body, of its actual occupation of space as opposed to its mere appearance of doing so, this is clearly question-begging: the body in question will only qualify as solid if the bodies it keeps out are themselves already solid. There is in principle no reason why an order of illusory bodies should not be such that those bodies appear to keep eachother out; their doing so however will not render them solid. (Think of the cinema.) In other words, the definition of solidity in terms of impenetrability only works if the body to which impenetrability is ascribed is assumed to belong to an order of already solid bodies.

Neither classical nor post-classical physics has solved either the problem of solidity in particular or the appearance/reality problem in general. Solidity itself of course never appeared as a variable in physics, but analogous properties which did, such as mass and charge, are dispositionally defined, and as such they too may be question-begging as accounts of what it is for a body to be really there - what it is for a body to be real as opposed to apparent or illusory. For when the inertial mass, for instance, of a particle, p, is defined as the disposition of p to resist acceleration when a force is applied to it, the notion of disposition is in this context generally nothing but a reification of the empirical conditional that particles with the empirical properties of p will in fact resist acceleration to a particular degree when forces are applied to them. In other words, the notion of disposition is in this context vacuous: it in no way lifts the notion of mass out of the realm of appearances - it provides no idea of a concrete something which causes or produces or underpins the behaviour in question.

So it seems that - as philosophy has tirelessly attested - our senses can never reveal to us that which gives a body its concreteness. We can see its colour, feel its impenetrability, and so on, but there is a sense in which these are surface qualities only - mere appearances. The inner reality of body - the 'thing-in-itself' - is never revealed. The acknowledgment of this has left a sceptical legacy in philosophy: the world is conceived as facade only, as a parade of appearances. Belief in its evident reality is suspended. Matter becomes ideal, or phenomenal, or socially constructed (depending on the philosophical era in which you happen to find yourself). The idea that it may be present-to-itself, independently of whether it appears to us, barely arises, for it is assumed that such presence-to-itself is unrepresentable, and hence beyond the horizons of our imagination.

But that night a couple of years ago, driving into the sunset in the peak hour traffic, I had a sense of the world from within, a sense that everything that exists in the realm of extension - telegraph poles, overhead wires, factories, roads, billboards, tyres - is present-to-itself. What might such self-presence consist in? Perhaps it could best be characterized via an extension of, or analogy with, the notion of subjectivity. But then what is subjectivity? Subjectivity is in us of course associated with consciousness, and in other beings with sentience. However it is not identical with thoughts, feelings or sensations, but rather subtends them. Subjectivity is that deeper level or field of self-presence out of which thoughts and feelings arise. We are - contra Descartes - alive to our own corporeality even when we are not thinking at all: our flesh is present to itself whether we are conscious or unconscious, awake or asleep . That is to say, our bodies go on existing for themselves even when they are not existing for us - when they are not being registered by our conscious minds. It is perhaps by analogy with this unconscious subjectivity of living flesh that we might understand the subjectivity of matter in general. For by imagining the way that our sleeping bodies are present to themselves, we can perhaps imagine the way that matter generally is present to itself: just as the sleeping body is not a purely externalized object, but occupies space from within as well as from the point of view of an observer, so all bodies may be imagined as occupying space from within in this way. By saying that objects occupy space from within, I do not of course mean merely that objects have internal parts, for these parts are themselves normally imagined or conceived as externalised, which is to say, as they would appear were they exposed to the view of an external observer. For an object to occupy space from within in the present sense is for it to possess a dimension which is, like subjectivity in our own case, in principle invisible or otherwise insensible. And just as it is our subjectivity - the innerness or presence-to-itself of our own bodies - that assures us that we are really here, that we really do occupy the space that our bodies appear to occupy, so, I want to say, it is this innerness, this presence-to-itself, of matter generally that renders the world at large real as opposed to mere externalized husk or insubstantial phantom. From this point of view, 'subjectivity', in an extended or analogical sense, is the elusive property that distinguishes the thing itself from the mere appearance of it: it is the fact that bodies are present-to-themselves - that they occupy space from within as well as from without - which ensures that they are really there.

However, does this idea of unconscious subjectivity really stand up? For one classical line of elucidation, let's turn to Leibniz, who appeals to such an idea in characterizing his 'simple substances' or monads. Monads, which manifest (indirectly, via the pre-established harmony) to other monads as material things, are characterized by Leibniz in The Monadology in terms of pure activity, where mind provides the model for such activity - thoughts, or in his term, 'perceptions', flow imperceptibly one from another, without need of external cause or stimulus. That is, although these 'perceptions' are, in the case of any particular monad, of bodies, particularly the body associated with the monad in question, they are not directly caused by any external or extensional order of reality, since for Leibniz no such order exists; rather they are implanted in each monad, and fortuitously synchronized with the 'perceptions' of other monads, by God. Leibniz states, '...there is nothing besides perceptions and their changes to be found in the simple substance. And it is in these alone that all the internal activities of the simple substance can consist' (Leibniz, 1973: 254-255). To ascribe 'perceptions' to monads generally is not however to imply that they are necessarily capable of the kind of sensory experiences that we enjoy. As Leibniz elaborates: 'We experience in ourselves a state where we remember nothing and where we have no distinct perception, as in periods of fainting, or when we are overcome by a profound, dreamless sleep. In such a state the soul does not sensibly differ at all from a simple monad....Nevertheless it does not follow at all that the simple substance is in such a state without perception...When, however, there are a great number of weak perceptions where nothing stands out distinctively, we are stunned; as when one turns around and around in the same direction, a dizziness comes on, which makes him swoon and makes him able to distinguish nothing.' In other words, in the simple substances, perception is so confused as to amount to nothing more than a grey fog, and in this sense simple substances may be said to be pre-conscious and pre-sentient, even though endowed with subjectivity.

Leibniz then posits an unconscious form of subjectivity, and attributes it to simple substances. I am far from wanting to advocate a Leibnizian metaphysic here , nor do I even want to suggest that the 'subjectivity' of matter should be understood as a dull or confused form of perception. The theory of unconscious subjectivity that I shall be developing in the rest of this paper turns on a notion of conatus rather than perception. But Leibniz helps us to gain some imaginative purchase on the notion of an unconscious form of subjectivity associated not only with animate but with inanimate things.

I should also point out that to explain the reality or concreteness of the world in terms of an extended or analogical notion of subjectivity, as I am doing here, is not to commit to the idealist position that the real is merely a locus of subjectivity, and not in fact material at all, as Leibniz held. Nor is it of course to espouse idealism in the Berkeleian or phenomenalist sense - the kind of idealism that postulates that 'to be is to be perceived'. It is rather to suggest that matter cannot be characterized exclusively in terms of extension, as empiricists have traditionally supposed, but must be attributed with interiority as well, where interiority is conceived as analogous to subjectivity.

However, this is a conditional hypothesis, for I am arguing only that if the world is real, then it must have a 'subjective' dimension. In other words, this is a point about the conceivability of the real, rather than its knowability: if there is indeed a distinction between appearance and reality - if things can exist mind-independently, as well as merely appearing to perceivers - then the only way of making sense of this distinction, or giving conceptual content to it, is, I claim, to impute 'subjectivity', in something like the present sense, to matter. To qualify existence as 'mind-independent' is not in itself significant - cannot in itself stand as an adequate characterisation of 'reality' - as long as the only notion of existence available to us is one that can be exhausted in terms of mind-dependent appearances. Hence physical realism cannot be explicated simply in terms of mind-independence: some way of making conceptual sense of mind-independence itself is required as well. My reason for claiming that the only way of making sense of physical realism, or mind-independent existence, is in terms of the interiority or 'subjectivity' of matter, is that the limits of conceivability are of course a function of the limits of our experience, and our experience is exhausted by the empirical (the realm of appearance) on the one hand, and the introspective (the realm of interiority, subjectivity) on the other. Since, as we have already seen, and as is in any case virtually self-evident, empirical experience can provide no conceptual means for distinguishing appearance from reality, only introspective experience holds the potential for doing so, by suggesting that if material things are real, they must be present-to-themselves in a way analogous to that in which we are present-to-ourselves.

This is not, as I said, to claim that the attribution of a 'subjective' dimension to matter in any way helps us to know whether the world is real or merely apparent. Since the purported 'subjectivity' of things would not be empirically accessible to us, we could be no more certain that material objects possessed it than we are currently certain that other persons do. It is rather that unless we appeal to such a 'subjective' dimension, or something analogous to it, we do not have the means even to conceive of the distinction between appearance and reality, at least in metaphysical terms: this is not a meaningful distinction.

However although this hypothesis that the material world is 'subject' as well as object cannot, by its very nature, be empirically verified, when we do approach the world as 'subject', especially as a 'subject' potentially responsive to our overtures, then that world may begin to manifest itself to us in entirely new and surprising ways. In this sense - a sense ruled out by the presuppositions of classical science - the hypothesis may indeed be 'testable', though 'testing' it will, if it is true, no longer be the point, since the point will now be, as I explain in Part 111, to relate to the world, mutualistically, rather than to know it in the traditional, unilateral way.

Part 11

The problem that immediately confronts the argument that I have presented in Part 1 - the argument that imputes a 'subjective' dimension to matter on the strength of the appearance/reality problem - is that matter is no longer, in contemporary physics, a theoretical primitive. That is to say, physical reality is no longer conceived as coextensive with matter. The appearance/reality question can thus be posed in relation to non-material as well as material aspects of physical reality: how are we conceptually to distinguish between real and merely apparent light, for instance? Can we say of the non-material aspects of physical reality that they too have a 'subjective' dimension? And if we can say this, does it alter our notion of the 'subjectivity' attributable to physical reality?

If the argument from the appearance/reality problem is to succeed, I think that we do have to extend it to physical reality generally, rather than restricting it to matter. But this step forces us to consider an issue that was not addressed in the previous section. This is the question of the relation of subjectivity to the subject. Subjective experience, whether conscious or unconscious, is, after all, the province of a subject: there is presumably no such thing as free-floating subjectivity. However a subject, understood in this way as a centre of subjectivity, is necessarily an indivisible unity: there are no scattered subjects, and I think I can say, without being too controversial, that the boundaries between subjects are not nominal (ie it is not a matter merely of choice or convention whether a particular set of experiences is ascribed to you or to me; those experiences are already either yours or mine). The individuation of subjects, or centres of subjectivity, is thus an objective matter, an ontological given. Since matter is not on the face of it externally objectively individuated in this way however - which is to say, since material things are not themselves indivisible unities - we have to ask how the material realm is to be externally divided up so as to correspond with its purported internal differentiation into subjects, or centres of subjectivity.

This question has not been squarely faced so far because we intuitively think of matter as parcelled up into spatiotemporally bounded particles or objects. When we do think of matter in this way, and then ascribe 'subjectivity' to it, it is natural to picture each object as also a subject, or centre of subjectivity, to which the materiality of the object is subjectively present. However although it may be intuitively obvious to think of matter in this way, it is mistaken: matter is not really parcelled up in convenient packages, and many of our individuations in this connection have purely nominal status. Thus the question of how to divide reality up into subjects, or centres of subjectivity, to which materiality is subjectively present, has not yet been dealt with, and this question becomes acute when the argument is extended to the physical realm generally. For there is not even any intuitive presumption that the non-material dimensions of the physical realm - field or wave-like processes, for instance - can be carved up into individual units. Yet if these non-material dimensions cannot be so carved up, how, again, can physical reality be externally differentiated consistently with its purported interior differentiation into a manifold of subjects, or centres of subjectivity; in other words, how can 'subjectivity' be imputed to physical reality?

One effective way of reconciling the ontological unity and indivisibility of subjects, or centres of subjectivity, with the generally nominal unity of physical objects is to adopt a holistic approach to physical reality. If physical reality as a whole, under both its material and non-material aspects, is seen as constituting a genuine, indivisible unity, then it could itself justifiably be regarded as the subject, or centre of subjectivity, to which the entire differentiated physical manifold is subjectively present.

I have argued elsewhere that physical reality as a whole can indeed be regarded as an indivisible unity (Mathews, 1991: chapters 2,3. I lack the space to recapitulate those arguments here. Suffice it to say that if we adopt a substantival view of space, and a geometrodynamic view of physical process, then the universe may be conceived as a unified, though internally differentiated and dynamic, expanding plenum. Since such a plenum is necessarily self-actualizing, and since it is holistically rather than aggregatively structured, it also, according to my arguments, qualifies as what I call a 'self' ,or self-realizing system. A self-realising system is, in this context, defined in systems-theoretic terms, as a system with a very special kind of goal, namely its own maintenance and self-perpetuation. On the strength of its dedication to this goal, such a system may be attributed with a drive or impulse describable as its conatus, where 'conatus' is here understood in Spinoza's sense as that 'endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being' (Mathews, 1991: 109).

As an indivisible unity, the plenum can serve as a subject, or centre of subjectivity, to which the materiality or physicality of the universe as a whole is subjectively present. In other words, the difference between the world as real and the world as mere appearance can be explicated via an attribution of subject status to the world as a whole. Such an attribution is not only rendered possible by the fact that the plenum is an indivisible unity; it is also rendered highly plausible by the fact that the universe, according to the present view, is already a self, animated with a principle of agency, and imbued with something like a will and purpose of its own. In other words, the 'subjectivity' of such a universe is already implicit in its conative nature .

When our candidate for subject status turns out, in this way, to be a cosmic self, an active, global, conative entity, then our conception of the 'subjective' dimension of physical reality ie our conception of how that reality 'feels' to itself from within, also undergoes a certain shift. This 'subjective' side of things can no longer be imagined in terms of a passive or static self-presence, but must now be conceptualised as active impulsion. The primal conatus is presumably a vast field of felt impulse, of intrinsic activity, of internal expansions, swellings, dwindlings, contractions, surges, urges, and so on. Qua 'subjective' experience, such activity is not to be thought of as occurring in space. Rather space, or the order of extension - the plenum - is how this field of inner activity appears externally to observers. In this respect, the 'subjective' or conative field is logically prior to space or extension, since the latter is an order of appearance only. This is not to say that the order of extension is merely illusory. Rather it has something like the status of secondary qualities in Locke's theory of primary and secondary qualities: secondary qualities, such as colour, are, for Locke, grounded in the primary nature of external objects, but there would be no seen-colour if perceivers did not exist. Similarly, in the present case, the order of extension is grounded in the nature of the primal conative field, but there would nevertheless be no seen-extension if perceivers did not exist. What exists, in itself, is this great internally differentiated field of felt impulse. To say this is, again, not to espouse an idealism that, like Leibniz', renders reality exclusively mind-like. The primal field is certainly fundamentally mind-like in nature, inasmuch as it is a felt field, a field of 'subjectivity'; but in other respects it is much less clearly mind-like. This less mind-like character of the primal field is most clearly exemplified in the determinacy, or lawlikeness, of the patterns of its impulses, where such lawlikeness is correlative with physics: an external observer, investigating the order of extension, will indirectly discover laws or patterns pertaining to the nature of the primal field. Thus while quantum mechanical principles such as wave/particle duality, complementarity and non-locality are descriptive of physical reality, they seem in many respects more applicable to mental than to physical processes, on any traditional account of the latter (Zohar, 1990). This ambiguity is less perplexing when such principles are understood as the external manifestation of the mind-like but nevertheless relatively (if only statistically) lawlike nature of the primal conatus.

Thus the primal field, though fundamentally 'subjective', cannot be characterised in traditional dualistic terms, inasmuch as it enjoys aspects of both the mental and the physical. In this respect it is perhaps not so different from the notion of energy, which is now arguably the fundamental variable in physics. Energy is pure activity, which exists, or occurs, non-locally, indivisibly and in potentia, in field form, as well as locally, divisibly, and in actuality, in material and other manifest particle forms. Energy is mysterious to physicists precisely in that its many non-classical aspects seem more evocative of mentality than of physicality, as physicality was classically conceived. This mysteriousness dissipates, however, when energy is equated with a primal conatus which is indeed in some sense subjective in nature, though lawlike and manifest as physicality for all that.

If the expression 'Great Impulse' is substituted for 'Great Thought' in Eddington's remark earlier this century, that the universe was starting to look more like a Great Thought than a Great Machine, then that remark might be seen as anticipating the present theory. According to this theory, the universe is a great, infinitely modulated impulse, and physics is the study of this field of impulsion from the outside - from the vantage point of an observer.

However, to speak of an external observer in the present connection appears, on the face of it, to be self-contradictory. When the object of observation is the universe in its entirety, how can an external observer be posited? More to the point, how can we, as embodied components of the order of extension, qualify as such observers?

While there can of course be no observers external to the primal field, or reality as a whole, this does not in itself entail that there can be no observers. For the universe itself, under its exterior aspect, is differentiated into local modes, some of which may be capable of experiencing themselves as distinct unities, or centres of subjectivity, separated out from the greater whole. Such secondary subjects, or centres of subjectivity, would then be capable of functioning as observers of the universe.

To explain what I mean by this, let us consider what would enable a (non-discrete) part of the primal field to become differentiated out into something which might justifiably be described as a distinct (though relative) individual. This is a question which I have posed, and answered, elsewhere (Mathews, 1991: chapter 3), and my answer was foreshadowed in this paper by my earlier remarks about self-realising systems. While I do not have space to detail the relevant argument here, it is, in briefest outline, that wherever the primal field assumes the configurations characteristic of a self-realising system, it is justifiable to speak of a distinct individual, even while it is understood that such an individual is still ultimately continuous with the primal, indivisible whole. Self-realising systems, or 'selves', are, as I have explained, systems which, while having the features characteristic of ordinary cybernetic systems - homeostasis, self-regulation, goal-directedness and equifinality - are dedicated to a very special end, namely their own maintenance and self-perpetuation. They are, in other words, reflexive systems . A self-realising system may thus be thought of as a causal process which, instead of following the usual linear or branching path, loops back on itself to become self-perpetuating. It sets up an enduring, stable unity where before there was only contingent flux. This unity is defined by function rather than by spatiotemporal boundaries or geometric form, the form itself being mapped by the function. Since such systems are self-realising, they may, as I also mentioned earlier, be attributed with conatus, the impulse towards self-maintenance and self-increase.

The paradigm instances of selfhood, in this sense, are of course organisms, but ecosystems, and other higher order systems, could also in principle qualify. Individuation is not, in the case of such systems, precise, and questions of demarcation will certainly arise: there will not necessarily be a clear boundary line between two adjoining ecosystems, for instance. A question also arises as to the status of sub-systems within a self-realising system: do cells, or the kidneys, or the circulatory system, in mammals, for instance, constitute distinct self-realising systems (Thompson,1990). This question can largely be answered by pointing to the requirement of self-realising systems that they be proactive in maintaining their own existence, where this entails procuring their own energy supply: although mammals depend on their native ecosystems for their sustenance, they do actively seek out food and water for themselves, whereas kidneys rely passively on the body as a whole for their nourishment. In general however, we cannot expect the individuation of self-realising systems to be absolutely precise. This in no way detracts from the objective though relative functional unity and integrity of such systems.

With their relative individuality, and their conative nature, it seems plausible to assign subject status to these systems - albeit subject status of a secondary or derivative order: in them the 'subjectivity' of the primal field turns in on itself, and becomes locally self-referential. Such systems, or selves, need not be conscious, but if, like us, they happen to be so, they can indeed function as observers. To such observers the primal field will appear as an order of extension, and the excitations within it as physical entities.

The primal Oneness of the world then need not preclude the emergence of the relative, self-realising Many. As members of the Many, we might well wonder how we are to negotiate our own relation to the world in light of this general dialectic between Oneness and Manyness: as conative beings, we are essentially self-interested, but as parts of an indivisible whole, our individual self-interest appears to make little sense. We might also wonder how we, as individuals, are appropriately to relate to a world which is itself a great conative being, a being which is a centre of subjectivity in its own right, as well as a field of secondary subjects. It is to these fundamentally ethical - or perhaps spiritual - questions that I shall turn in the final section.

Part 111

Taking up the former of these two questions first, how are we to negotiate the seeming contradiction between the requirements of our individual conatus and the implications of our recognition of the subjective unity of reality as a whole? Should we, in light of our recognition of Oneness, give up our own relative individuality as illusory? Should we resist the imperious promptings of our conatus, and opt instead for a policy of 'no-self'? This is the path generally taken by Buddhists, some of whom - in parts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions (Reynolds,1989; Dowman, 1994; Rinpoche, 1992) - describe the fundamental nature of reality in terms comparable to those I have used here. Such Buddhists speak of primal mind as the ground of being, and such mind as having a 'sky-like' or spacelike character. Individual phenomena arise and pass away in this primal field, while the field itself remains unaffected by their passage (primal mind is the 'mirror'; phenomena are mere reflections in the mirror). Individual phenomena arise or originate co-dependently, after the fashion of waves in a field. There are thus no individual essences, no truly discrete things, with a nature of their very own. To perceive things as having such a nature, as we ordinarily do, is to succumb to illusion. Enlightenment consists in the casting off of this illusion, the illusion of selfhood - both one's own and that of others. The enlightened being gives up the strivings and resistances that accompany individual conatus. The Many are relinquished in favour of an ineffable underlying One . In giving up one's own individual struggle, and allowing one's self-seeking impulses to arise and pass away harmlessly, 'liberating' themselves at their moment of origin,, one is purportedly filled with compassion for all those still caught in the mirage of the Many, still straining to further their own fictitious causes.

Is this how we should resolve the tension between the One and the Many in the present connection? Is the stance of no-self, and the attitude of compassion, the appropriate response to the conundrum? While such a stance does follow with a certain logical from the recognition of Oneness, it is, in my view, weighted too heavily in the unitive direction. To focus exclusively on the Oneness of reality is to ignore the fact that the infinite One also differentiates itself into the finite Many. Why does it do so? Buddhists seem to lack an answer to this question, or at any rate to place no value on the cosmic act or fact of self-differentiation.

The present theory does provide at least the glimmerings of an answer, and this answer derives from the conative nature of the primal field. From the Buddhist point of view - or at least that version of it under consideration here - primal mind is not a self, or entity of any kind, but an unconditioned ground or underlying state; thus it is not really a 'one', though it does indeed possess the unity and indivisibility characteristic of subjectivity, a unity and indivisibility captured in the metaphor of skylikeness or spaciousness. Since unconditioned mind in this sense lacks any informing ends or purposes, we cannot ask why it gives rise to conditioned individual phenomena: such mind has no 'reasons'; it is simply in its 'mirror-like' nature to give rise to 'reflections' as it does. From the viewpoint of the present theory however, the primal field does constitute a 'one', a being which is not only an indivisible unity, but which is endowed with a project of its own, namely its own self-realisation. As a conative being, the universe is, from this point of view, pre-eminently creative: conatus is the impulse towards self-creation, and self-creation is surely, logically, the original creative act

This creativity offers clues to the question of why the One differentiates itself into the Many, and hence too to the further question of what value the Many might possess in the larger scheme of things. Perhaps, in order to create itself, the primal One has also to differentiate itself - perhaps its self-actualisation hinges on the intrinsic dynamism which is expressed in its differentiation into the Many. Or perhaps, by bringing forth the Many out of its Oneness, the primal subject is serving its own impulse towards self-increase through self-iteration: it conjures a whole new dimension of itself - the world of finite things - out of its pre-existing identity. Such self-differentiation might even be seen as an expression of something like cosmic 'generosity' (indeed 'love'): the primal One creates out of the fabric of its own being the gift of individual existence to bestow upon its resultant creatures . This giving of the self on the part of the One may confer benefits on the One itself as well as blessings upon the Many. For by bringing relatively independent beings to life, the Creator generates possibilities of relationship or interaction for itself, where its interactions with its creatures and their responses to it may in fact expand, or intensify, or renew, primal being.

In any case, there seems to be good reason, from the present point of view, for construing and celebrating the differentiation of the One into the relative Many as an ongoing process of cosmic creativity, rather than spurning it either as a meaningless contingency or as a kind of tragic accident or mistake. Instead of repudiating our selfhood, we might accept both it, and the entire order of Creation, as an expression of cosmic magnanimity, while also remembering its merely relative or derivative status, and at the same time taking refuge from the undeniable burdens of individual existence in the fact of primal oneness.

If the relative legitimacy of the path of individual self is accepted, then the second question I set out to explore in the present section presents itself: how can I follow the promptings of my own conatus while acknowledging that the world is a field of both primal 'subjectivity' and secondary subjects? How can I heed my own elbowing, self-seeking drives in such a world of morally significant others? Can I reconcile the designs I need to make on them for my own conative ends with the consideration that is due to them as subjects, as moral ends-in-themselves?

Perhaps this apparent tension between self and others dissolves when we recall to mind how in the present context selfhood is constituted, and what is required for its realisation. On the present account, selves, being self-realising systems, maintain themselves through continuous exchange with things external to them. They are thus essentially relational entities: their ongoing identity and integrity are a function of incessant give and take with elements of their environment. This is so not merely at a material, but at a logical, level: the identity of a self-realising system is a function of the identities of those with whom it is inter-related. When selfhood is understood in this way, conatus is served, not by competition, at least in any absolute sense , let alone by a will to stifle and destroy others, but rather by mutually sustaining interaction with them: it is by mutualistic relations - relations which promote the flourishing of those who contribute to my own flourishing - that I assert and consolidate my selfhood.

The image of self evoked by this account of self-realisation is not one of a triumphant, solipsistic ego, with its boot on a pile of fallen others. The image is rather one of a self propelled by desire, reaching out to touch and taste others, to contact their inner reality or subjectivity, for the sake of the potentiating, enlivening, transformative effects that this moment of contact, of the sharing of selves, has on its own sense of self. This is thus a portrait not of arrogant domination, dualistic opposition or imperialistic exploitation, but rather of irrepressible eros: eros is the appropriate modality for selves which are constituted through mutualistic relations with others who are themselves subjects. It is through eros that such selves nourish their essence as self-realising beings, that they faithfully serve their conatus. Respect for conatus then does not imply the kind of disregard for others that egoism is taken, in traditional moral philosophies, to imply, where egoism in the latter sense is contrasted with some altruistic notion such as compassion, which subordinates self to others.

So while egoism is the corollory of a view of the Many that negates the One (and is hence the path of the separate, oppositional, 'atomistic' self), and compassion is the corollory of a view of the One that negates the Many (and is hence the path of no-self), eros is, according to the present argument, the path of the relational self, the self constituted in an inter-subjective world in which the One and the Many are in dialectical tension. The 'erotic attitude to reality'(Dinnerstein, 1987) is an attitude of open-ness to the 'subjectivity' of the world, and playful, life-giving engagement with its intelligence.

But can eros carry the required ethical load in this connection? Does it entrain the kind of regard for the world that the present theory, with its broadscale restoration of 'mentality' to 'physicality', demands? Would not the ideal of compassion provide a surer foundation for our ethical relation to such a reanimated or re-enchanted world?

I think not. While compassion, in its Buddhist and other senses, will surely remain an important thread in our moral attitude to a re-enchanted world, I have reservations about its overall appropriateness in this connection. Compassion involves 'feeling or suffering with' others, but in practice we tend to suffer with others only when we ourselves are not suffering, or not suffering as much as they are. The oppressed themselves are generally too burdened by their own sufferings to take upon themselves the sufferings of others. Thus in practice compassion tends to connote pity: we feel compassion for those whom we perceive as in some way worse off than ourselves. In the scenario of spiritual enlightenment, the enlightened one experiences compassion for those who, unlike herself, are still in the thralls of illusion. So, although she has surrendered self, she has also, in another sense, transcended others: she looks down on them from a higher place of detachment, security, invulnerability. For ordinary, fallible mortals, this is a morally perilous pose, proximate to postures of patronisation and condescension which are anything but selfless. It is better and morally safer, in my view, to admit the claims of self from the start, and reconcile those claims with a genuine appreciation of others through eros. Eros involves encounter without patronisation; it induces a sharing of self or subjectivity with others, with the result that one cannot remain benignly aloof, as one who assumes the attitude of compassion can. In eros, one 'gets down', gets messy, risks loss of dignity. Compassion is bestowed from a position of self-containment and self-sufficiency; eros seeks and shares from a position of wanting. In short, eros, in acknowledging the needs and desires of self, remains humble, while compassion (paradoxically, given its association with the path of no-self) runs the hidden moral risk of arrogance.

There are other ways in which eros, without being pious, without aspiring to be good, or pursuing the Good itself, nevertheless gets the moral job done. My erotic contact with the subjectivity of other creatures ensures that they become real to me, that I can henceforth never represent them to myself as mere object. Although I will not necessarily sacrifice my own interests to theirs, their interests are now visible and salient to me, and find their way imperceptibly into the muddle of my own. So while I may not, in the name of eros, shoulder the other as a burden, in a spirit of duty or obligation, nor will I ever be able to escape completely the implications of our moment of contact; through intersubjectivity the other and I have become, however minimally, wedded.

Finally, eros is a uniquely affirmative attitude to the world. Provided the other is desired not for the contingencies of their identity (their looks, for instance), but for their subjectivity, their very self, then that desire, that sheer wanting of the other, is surely the highest compliment one self can pay another. The attentions of compassion, on the other hand, are not necessarily flattering, but may be subtly demeaning, implying as they do some lack or condition of disadvantage on the part of the object.

Before closing I would like briefly to consider the question of whether those things which I have here identified as subjects, or centres of subjectivity - where these include self-realising systems ranging from organisms to the universe at large - are in fact the only loci of subjectivity in the world, and hence whether they are the only things with which we can engage in relations of mutuality, call-and-response, erotic communion. What about non-living parts of Nature? Does it make any sense to invoke the 'spirit' of a place, such as a mountain or a desert spring, or to greet one's native land and expect to be 'recognised' by it , or to harbour a special affinity with a particular object or building, such as the house in which one grew up? The difficulty in all such cases is that there are, in inanimate matter, no natural unities to which one can point as the outward manifestations of inner unities or (secondary) subjects. Places lack determinate spatiotemporal boundaries, and even in the case of objects which do appear to be clearly spatiotemporally defined, such as houses or cars, their boundaries are still ultimately nominal - it is we who choose to regard the material aggregate in question as a whole, or single object; other ways of 'carving [the relevant portion of] reality at the joints' are always conceivable. So, if there are no naturally appointed subjects in the inanimate world, can selected parts of that world be responsive to us?

To answer this question would require an examination of the way the One is present in its subjectively undifferentiated parts. I think that there is a sense in which we may 'call up' the One in its inanimate modes, which is to say, in particulars such as places or landforms or even, perhaps, in certain familiar and time-worn artefacts. But explanation of such calling up will have to await another occasion.


Chang, Garma (1977), Six Yogas of Naropa, Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications

Dinnerstein, Dorothy (1987), The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World, London: The Women's Press

Dowman, Keith (1994), The Flight of the Garuda, Boston: Wisdom Publications

Leibniz, G. (1973), Discourse on Metaphysics/Correspondence with Arnaud/Monadology, translated by George Montgomery, La Salle: Open Court

Mathews, Freya (1991), The Ecological Self, London: Routledge

Reynolds, John (1989), Self-Liberation Through Seeing With Naked Awareness, New York: Station Hill Press

Rinpoche, Sogyal (1992), The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, San Francisco: Harpe

Rose, Deborah Bird (1992), Dingo Makes Us Human, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Thompson, Janna (1990), 'A Refutation of Environmental Ethics', Environmental Ethics (12), 1990, pp 147-160

Zohar, Dana (1990), The Quantum Self, London: Flamingo


© 2023 Freya Mathews | Loudbox media: Web Design Brisbane