Singular, Dual and Plural Progress

It has occurred to me that I need to relate my view on progress to other people’s for the sake of clarity. So, I’m gonna phrase this as singular, dual and plural. This is not to be confused with the dualism of a physical and metaphysical world though, as that is an issue on a separate axis relative to this categorization. Anyway, a singular view of progress is expressed by Carlyle. A dual view of progress is expressed by Hegel and Marx. These point to a goal, a forward progress and betterment. My pluralistic view is one of emergence, with no specific orientation, but just wild and uncertain growth and decline.


“For Carlyle, chaotic events demanded what he called ‘heroes’ to take control over the competing forces erupting within society. While not denying the importance of economic and practical explanations for events, he saw these forces as ‘spiritual’ – the hopes and aspirations of people that took the form of ideas, and were often ossified into ideologies (‘formulas’ or ‘isms’, as he called them). In Carlyle’s view, only dynamic individuals could master events and direct these spiritual energies effectively: as soon as ideological ‘formulas’ replaced heroic human action, society became dehumanised.”


“Modern philosophy, culture, and society seemed to Hegel fraught with contradictions and tensions, such as those between the subject and object of knowledge, mind and nature, self and Other, freedom and authority, knowledge and faith, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Hegel’s main philosophical project was to take these contradictions and tensions and interpret them as part of a comprehensive, evolving, rational unity that, in different contexts, he called ‘the absolute idea’ or ‘absolute knowledge’.

According to Hegel, the main characteristic of this unity was that it evolved through and manifested itself in contradiction and negation. Contradiction and negation have a dynamic quality that at every point in each domain of reality—consciousness, history, philosophy, art, nature, society—leads to further development until a rational unity is reached that preserves the contradictions as phases and sub-parts by lifting them up (Aufhebung) to a higher unity. This whole is mental because it is mind that can comprehend all of these phases and sub-parts as steps in its own process of comprehension.

According to Hegel, ‘Heraclitus is the one who first declared the nature of the infinite and first grasped nature as in itself infinite, that is, its essence as process.’

For Hegel, the inner movement of reality is the process of God thinking, as manifested in the evolution of the universe of nature and thought; that is, Hegel argued that, when fully and properly understood, reality is being thought by God as manifested in a person’s comprehension of this process in and through philosophy. Since human thought is the image and fulfillment of God’s thought, God is not ineffable (so incomprehensible as to be unutterable) but can be understood by an analysis of thought and reality. Just as humans continually correct their concepts of reality through a dialectical process, so God himself becomes more fully manifested through the dialectical process of becoming.

For his god Hegel does not take the logos of Heraclitus but refers rather to the nous of Anaxagoras, although he may well have regarded them the same, as he continues to refer to god’s plan, which is identical to God. Whatever the nous thinks at any time is actual substance and is identical to limited being, but more remains to be thought in the substrate of non-being, which is identical to pure or unlimited thought.

The universe as becoming is therefore a combination of being and non-being. The particular is never complete in itself but to find completion is continually transformed into more comprehensive, complex, self-relating particulars. The essential nature of being-for-itself is that it is free ‘in itself’; that is, it does not depend on anything else, such as matter, for its being. The limitations represent fetters, which it must constantly be casting off as it becomes freer and more self-determining.”

“The concept of dialectical materialism emerges from statements by Marx in the preface to his magnum opus, Capital. There Marx says he intends to use Hegelian dialectics but in revised form. He defends Hegel against those who view him as a ‘dead dog’ and then says, ‘I openly avowed myself as the pupil of that mighty thinker [Hegel].’ Marx credits Hegel with ‘being the first to present its [dialectic’s] form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner’. But he then criticizes Hegel for turning dialectics upside down: ‘With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’

Marx’s criticism of Hegel asserts that Hegel’s dialectics go astray by dealing with ideas, with the human mind. Hegel’s dialectic, Marx says, inappropriately concerns ‘the process of the human brain’; it focuses on ideas. Hegel’s thought is in fact sometimes called ‘dialectical idealism’. Marx believed that dialectics should deal not with the mental world of ideas but with ‘the material world,’ the world of production and other economic activity.

The main idea of dialectical materialism lies in the concept of the evolution of the natural world and the emergence of new qualities of being at new stages of evolution. As Z. A. Jordan notes, ‘Engels made constant use of the metaphysical insight that the higher level of existence emerges from and has its roots in the lower; that the higher level constitutes a new order of being with its irreducible laws; and that this process of evolutionary advance is governed by laws of development which reflect basic properties of ‘matter in motion as a whole’.'”


“The distinction between ‘acts of thought’ (noesis) and ‘intentional objects of thought’ (noema) does not seem, therefore, to constitute an irreducible ground. It appears rather at a higher level of analysis. Thus, Merleau-Ponty does not postulate that ‘all consciousness is consciousness of something’, which supposes at the outset a noetic-noematic ground. Instead, he develops the thesis according to which ‘all consciousness is perceptual consciousness’. In doing so, he establishes a significant turn in the development of phenomenology, indicating that its conceptualisations should be re-examined in the light of the primacy of perception, in weighing up the philosophical consequences of this thesis.

In his Phenomenology of Perception (first published in French in 1945), Merleau-Ponty developed the concept of the body-subject as an alternative to the Cartesian ‘cogito.’ This distinction is especially important in that Merleau-Ponty perceives the essences of the world existentially. Consciousness, the world, and the human body as a perceiving thing are intricately intertwined and mutually ‘engaged.’ The phenomenal thing is not the unchanging object of the natural sciences, but a correlate of our body and its sensory-motor functions. Taking up and ‘communing with’ (Merleau-Ponty’s phrase) the sensible qualities it encounters, the body as incarnated subjectivity intentionally elaborates things within an ever-present world frame, through use of its pre-conscious, prepredicative understanding of the world’s makeup. The elaboration, however, is ‘inexhaustible’ (the hallmark of any perception according to Merleau-Ponty). Things are that upon which our body has a ‘grip’ (prise), while the grip itself is a function of our connaturality with the world’s things. The world and the sense of self are emergent phenomena in an ongoing ‘becoming.’

The essential partiality of our view of things, their being given only in a certain perspective and at a certain moment in time does not diminish their reality, but on the contrary establishes it, as there is no other way for things to be copresent with us and with other things than through such ‘Abschattungen’ (sketches, faint outlines, adumbrations). The thing transcends our view, but is manifest precisely by presenting itself to a range of possible views. The object of perception is immanently tied to its background—to the nexus of meaningful relations among objects within the world. Because the object is inextricably within the world of meaningful relations, each object reflects the other (much in the style of Leibniz’s monads). Through involvement in the world – being-in-the-world – the perceiver tacitly experiences all the perspectives upon that object coming from all the surrounding things of its environment, as well as the potential perspectives that that object has upon the beings around it. Each object is a ‘mirror of all others.’ Our perception of the object through all perspectives is not that of a propositional, or clearly delineated, perception. Rather, it is an ambiguous perception founded upon the body’s primordial involvement and understanding of the world and of the meanings that constitute the landscape’s perceptual gestalt. Only after we have been integrated within the environment so as to perceive objects as such can we turn our attention toward particular objects within the landscape so as to define them more clearly. (This attention, however, does not operate by clarifying what is already seen, but by constructing a new gestalt oriented toward a particular object.) Because our bodily involvement with things is always provisional and indeterminate, we encounter meaningful things in a unified though ever open-ended world.”

“Nāgārjuna equates emptiness with dependent origination in Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24:18. In his analysis, any enduring essential nature (svabhāva) would prevent the process of dependent origination, would prevent any kind of origination at all, for things would simply always have been and will always continue to be, i.e. as existents (bhāva). Madhyamaka suggests that impermanent collections of causes and conditions are designated by mere conceptual labels, which also applies to the causes and conditions themselves and even the principle of causality itself since everything is dependently originated (i.e. empty). If unaware of this, things may seem to arise as existents, remain for a time and then subsequently perish.”

In my view, dependent-arising is true for epistemological concepts, meaning knowledge is relative. However, just like being-in-the-world, knowledge is knowledge-in-the-world, ontologically existing in a physical universe as an emergent property of local clusters of physical self-observation. Neither conventional matter nor these emergent material minds have any purpose, they just expanded apparently randomly. There is no dual conflict force driving development and no metaphysical purpose laying out a path to a goal. Things simply pop up every here and there every now and then and merge, split, recombine and ebb away like gusts of wind. Therefore it is necessary to create a goal or a path and decisions must be made that are unique for each instance. This leads to what superficially seems to be contradictory support and/or lack of support for the same actors under the same/different conditions and/or for opposing and/or allied actors in the same/a different conflict and so on. This is also the realization that progress relies on incomplete historical and ideological trends and an undetermined complex of different trends. It also means that it all might crumble.

Objects are not absolute, not atomic, not even subjects are; we don’t exist, then exist, gradually becoming more aware, constantly falling asleep, then gone from life again. Objects, and subjects, are continuous, without fixed borders. It makes no sense that an idea could be stripped down to its essence, combined with its antithesis and reformed as a new essence, simply because that essence was not absolute to begin with, but made from bits and pieces and held together with the glue of generalization. Imagine a revolution, not as the implementation of a single idea or an act of a single mind or a single self-conscious class, but as a few pamphlets here, a few angry students there, an accidentally trigger happy undercover agent, an insensitive remark by a politician. Small things, some not even enough to be named things, in themselves ultimately irrelevant, but together shaping an unwieldy lump of events that roll across history flattening buildings, bumping into people, sucking up furniture as it goes and breaking a part even while it grows. Nobody is steering the crazy blob either and all the spectators are at a loss for words as to how to describe the entity which is too complex to categorize.

Who is the enemy? It is not a hero, nor an idea, nor the opposite of that idea or the synthesis of those two ideas. If the path is complex, the enemy is also complex. So, we shouldn’t simply target the rich or simply target the fascists, instead we should try to shave off the capitalism and fascism off of these individuals, reveal their other aspects and nurture their good qualities. They might point a gun at your face (in the case of a fascist directly, in the case of the rich, via a police officer) but still, the enemy is more complex than that. The gun is part of the problem, the capital as well, the racism, the patriotism, the male chauvinism, the social environment, the political corruption, oppression of minorities, an alcoholic teacher and so on. It is not enough to fire or kill the teacher, it is not even enough to change political system; the universe plays all its strings simultaneously, we can’t stop the sound waves, only channel and enjoy them in harmony with each other and the rest of nature.

I’ll try to describe the different types of progress geometrically now. If God exists, then singular progress is constant, as it starts anew with each soul born into the worldly test. That would correspond to the straight and narrow path of Christian narrative. If God does not exist, but Nietzsche’s will to power drives progress, then the path would still be straight and narrow, but each new hero would pick up the march where the previous one left off, presumably shouting “Forward!” while waving a stick in the air. The path would grow, each hero being represented by a circle, each bigger than the one preceding it, at the head of a wake in the endless sea of time.

Hegel’s dualism would be like a room full of balls. If at any time two balls fuse, they become a giant ball that is somehow bigger than the original two balls combined. Two giant balls can then fuse and so on. This happens in a pyramid fashion where the size of the pyramid determines the level of progress. Marx’ dualism is a similar pyramid of balls, but the balls are material as opposed to representing immaterial ideas. The same inevitableness is present and the goal is still the biggest possible pyramid.

My pluralism is more like galaxy filaments. The bright circles would represent either heroes, ideas, ideologies, identities, labels; or even, at a more local level, a gun. My view is also compatible with the concept of cognitive distribution, but not with Jung’s collective unconscious or any other absolute collective/class mind/idea. It’s not compatible with any holistic views on either matter, immatter (yes, it’s a word from now on) or history and progress.



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