Spirit and Matter: A Philosophical Tradition

John Frederick Dashiell

IF the tendency of the day be, as some have said, an attempt to .bring philosophy into closer touch with human life, one of the most characteristic methods in this general movement is the preliminary query addressed to any philosophical problem. Is problem x relevant to our present situation?— is it an issue the solution of which is vital for the times? does it find root in some difficulty not yet solved in our social or economic or religious or intellectual life? Or is x merely a survival by tradition, a legacy from our fathers that can liquidate no present debt? Or again, is it a problem antiquated and strikingly barren to-day in form, but to be found relevant enough to the present if given radically different statement and interpretation ?

This weapon of what looks like philosophical renovation has been turned most sharply against the problem usually mentioned in the text-books as central in the history of modern philosophy. I refer to the distinction and opposition of spirit and matter, or, more broadly, of spirituality and materiality. Taken as x, the object of the above query, this distinction in the form of an unsolved dualism is becoming. discredited as being no longer more than an obstinate puzzle, based_ on certain premises that must be granted as preliminaries to the game. On the psychological plane, the choice between interactionism, parallelism, automatism as our epistemological theory presupposes and necessitates the preliminary acceptance of the Cartesian or the Lockeian conception of the mind; while on the metaphysical plane, the choice between materialism, idealism, or dualism as our ontological theory presupposes a distinction no less venerable.. And such distinctions being no longer true to the character of our social, moral, and religious life, further thinking upon the former is work of supererogation. But a suspicion is aroused : are we condemning really the whole antithesis and its problem to the scrap-heap or do we have in mind what is only a certain phase of it?

Looking at the distinction again, I think we `may feel at least two different interpretations of it, a narrower and a broader. If by mind versus matter we are thinking of consciousness versus body, we are probably right in treating this as a relic of the past, as a mere puzzle. The change to the instrumental and functional viewpoint that has recently come over psychology and its effect upon latter-day philosophic work has been convincing enough. Whether or not we go the full lengths of the "behaviorist," the tendency now is certainly in some such general direction, and "mind" is coming to refer to overt attitudes, conative at bottom, toward the object. The roots. of this new position, as they run deep into the social study of men as interactions and associations of objective elements, into the ethics of human

( 67) efficiency (however else it be stated), or into the religion that preaches the blessedness of human fellowship in a heavenly enterprise on earth —these roots run too far for treatment here. But now if mind versus matter, spirituality versus materiality, be taken in the sense not of a distinction between ultimate existences, but as indicating a distinction between attitudes—put plainly, between the interest in ideals and the interest in data—then our whole antithesis has become not a puzzle, but a problem. It is not old-fashioned, but persistent, not academic, but spontaneous. And it is persistent because it is spontaneous.

The movement of thinking inevitably shows different phases, resolvable in the last analysis, I believe, into two fairly distinguishable kinds. First of all, it is obvious enough that the thinking must have some animus, something in the whole setting to start it a-going. If we adopt the old biological phrase of a "lack of equilibrium" this should be freely interpreted to include the subtlest as well as the grossest lack. More important to us than this lack, now, is the desire (tendency, conation, purpose—what you will) to be rid of the lack. But thinking isn't merely set a-going; it isn't an activity maintaining itself in a vacuum. The thinking person must act upon and with something, including the disturbing elements that irritated him into this particular thinking phase. In addition to this direct or indirect objective he must find his fulcrum, he must make use of his other materials as his data and instruments. No advance can be made until he has discovered some tools that will be instrumental in attaining the end. Finally, there must be some sort of an aim or end toward which the enterprise is directed and by which its measure of success may be ascertained. This need not be a conscious end set by the person for himself ; it may be no more than the fact of a vague purposiveness evidenced in the persistence of and variation upon unsuccessful behavior and the termination of successful. (It surely need not be emphasized here that this analysis of thinking applies also to organic action or behavior in general—what difference there is is most essentially a difference only of degree.)

Of course, in a given act of thinking there may be, and usually are, other phases beside these; yet these should be sufficient to indicate the two most characteristic elements in the whole movement. There is the element of data (the characteristics and make-up of the specific problem as well as the constitution and behavior of whatever other elements may serve as instruments in reaching the solution), and there is the element of ends (the onward push that has found the obstacle an obstacle and that has urged its circumvention, as well as the gradually articulated ideal that takes form and is the final criterion of success).

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To what extent the data are contributed by the extra-organic parts of the situation and to what extent the ends are contributed by the organic, are questions that need not delay us just here. That we experience every day the resistances and caprices of a somewhat alien-seeming environment and contrasted with this, the hopes and ideals that spring eternal in the human breast, is of course well known. But the distinction between environment and human breast is a loose one; the resistances and caprices may not in every case be clue to extra-organic sources; even the hopes and ideals are often created and nourished by an objective world that is suggestive and friendly.

The distinction of attitudes I have pointed out may be a little clearer if we hold up in comparison two of the Ancients. Democritus and his atomism, with the analysis of the familiar; but difficult wholes into the unfamiliar but easily calculated parts—this man is surely the type of the species of thinkers that ever since has been devoted to analyzing as impersonally and disinterestedly as possible the structure and behavior of the world we live in as well as of ourselves. He was in primarily in description, in discovering the what characters. His contemporary, Plato, typifies well the interest in the ideal. It was not for his poetic soul to calculate what an object was composed of, but to wonder what it meant, what it was for, what end it served. And this interest in the ideal is shown the better just in that he did not inquire only after the immediate and every-day practical ends of the object concerned, but also after the higher ends that could be discerned through the object and its connections and relations to the rest of experience. A fair form was not a superlative degree of anatomical perfection, not a complex of eminently correct surface, lines, and colors, but a blessed thing which by its very nature shadowed forth something of that Beauty which remains for us ever a goal and end, never a completely adequate realization.

For the consideration of these two Greeks and their contrasted interests the corollary would not seem too bold that the philosophy of a man, school, period, or people, is colored fundamentally according as it emphasizes either of the two interests. Galileo's physics, Hobbes's psychology, Descartes's natural philosophy, all show attention to data and material. Here the interest is in learning the definite constitutions and modes of activity of the surrounding world. From the objects of more immediate use and more pressing need, the field of scientific attention has gradually widened to include the minute study of things strangely remote from bread-and-butter considerations. Everything has" been standardized, codified, formulated, until the symbolic shorthand expressions for their behavior have for some assumed an appearance of deadness and meaninglessness. On the other hand, the Church Fathers, the Scholastics, Berkeley, Kant,

( 69) Fichte, Hegel—all these are more interested in the direction and portent of the data already found than in the finding of the data. The Schoolmen were primarily and almost exclusively concerned in the heavenly world as a world of future aims for present endeavor or of future standards for present behavior : heaven they acted for, earth they acted with. The other men named show how romantic tendencies are ever irrepressible. There have always been spirits pulsating with the overflow of life and with a vivid sense for movements and directions in human action and thinking. But sometimes the exaggerated individualism in the air has given the romantic thinker a strikingly ego-centric perspective, and the world is interpreted then as a part of his own purposive life; sometimes his historian's sense has led him to read his idealism in larger terms, and the world of nature becomes the physical expression of a great onward-moving Spirit or Purpose. Ever and anon we find this tendency to read nature in terms of human ends. In contrast are put often the Nineteenth Century Americans: not that they were the opposite of the "holy" in being the "wicked," but that they were the opposite of the "spiritualistic" in being the "materialistic," engrossed as they were in exploitations of their yet, unfathomed natural resources and in considerations of the primary needs of the economic man.

It seems inevitable that the values found in human life get classified into either the "material" or the "spiritual." Let nie take Plato again for an illustration. How far he personally was responsible and how far his historian-interpreters is unimportant now; but we may say certainly that the Platonic tradition shows an exaggerated distinction between the material and the ideal, and an hypostatization and apotheosis of the latter at the expense of the former. The purposive aspects were abstracted from the non-purposive in immediate experience and given new organization as a separate realm. The result was an ontological dualism, a world that merely is and a world that ought to be. (Now, even if we were to grant the validity of drawing the distinction this way in terms of existence, we should still want to ask, is there a single world that ought to be? Is it not rather a matter of manifold different details that ought to be, but not grouped into a single system and not susceptible of such grouping?)

It would seem that such a distinction in terms of existence was simply following the psychological truth that any object of great interest and attention tends to objectify itself in a more hardened and immobile form than as first conceived. Paranoia is only an extreme form of a common human tendency. If you hold fast to some all-sufficing aim, shaping all actions in the direction of its realiza-

( 70) -tion, and making all else fall into that one perspective, it is not long before that ideal somehow seems able to stand alone without the pedestal that your personal life has really formed for it.

And this is true not only for private life, but for the collective thinking of social aggregates. Professor Cooley has called attention to the effect of institutionalizing, private ideals. "human-nature values, seeking realization through a complex social system, are led to take on organization and an institutional character which carries them far away from human-nature and in time calls for a reassertion of the latter." "An idea, in becoming institutional, merges itself with the whole traditional structure of society, taking the past upon its shoulders, and loses much of the breadth and spontaneity of our more immediate life. "[1]

As a consequence of the natural tendency of man to generalize his occasional and incidental distinctions and then to hypostatize the resulting generalizations, we see running through the history of European thought varying conceptions of an "Ontological dualism. Whether we take the Stoic division of existence into the world and its pneuma, the Scholastic division of the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit, the Cartesian disparateness of thought and extension, the Kantian anal Romanticist re-reading of the phenomenal world in terms of a deeper spiritual, the Hegelian and neo-Hegelian interpretation of world history as the manifestation of spirit's selfdevelopment, the tendency observable in certain quarters to-day to discount the external world in favor of "true inwardness"—in all these dualisms we may discover not uncommon starting-points. Their divergences are due to accidents of social situation, intellectual heritage or individual temperament. That they spring from much the same generic kind of personal life may be seen by careful consideration. Aside from the accidents just named, which go in to color largely the specific experience of a given individual, general characters both of crude human experience and of human reactions thereupon are discernible.

Now, what I want to point out here particularly is that universal character of experience that is best called, I suppose, by the term values, and also the universal form in which value-situations are organized.

Were it possible to make a cross-section of daily experience, taken anywhere you choose, examination of this upon the slide would reveal at once a dual nature. Any moment of life is a moment of life just in so far as it holds within its complex web a warp of meaning for the woof of bare fact. No bare existence per se really ever attained unto

( 71) existence in any intelligible sense of the word; to be part and parcel of a world of any kind, from the most indisputable set of facts to the idlest fancy, there must be a core of active concern and indeed a face with some sort of character. We are not born into a world of indifference; whatever in it is completely indifferent is not in any sense in, that world. The horizon of any child circumscribes only those elements that present themselves to his senses and imagination in relevant shapes, be they importunate or casual, immediate or distant, vividly exciting or refreshingly soothing. The moon, far from being an absurd 210,000 miles away and with influences upon human life of only minor importance, is an object than which nothing can be more entrancing and desirable. The pencil point between the lips may be quite lacking in nutritious capacity in the adult way of judging, but it suffices to awaken that rapport between life and its other that carries its own sufficient justification and only by grownup psychologists is to be labeled a reflex action. Then, as the individual ages, as he comes into fuller shares of mankind's cumulative experience, constancies of meaning come to be established. The moon more and more definitely takes unto itself a certain aloofness, a certain unimportance, that increases in varying degrees and in varying periods; reversed substantially only in the adolescent period and thereafter lapsing again, unless given new content and meaning by being worked into a, system of knowledge like astronomy which on new accounts serves to keep its reality and presence duly impressive. Experience, being a teacher, teaches one to discriminate more and more accurately and effectively. The pencil point, too, gradually is uncovered in its treachery, and if it persists as an object at all, persists as a nuisance.

Closer analysis of this natural history of man's "existential universe of discourse" reveals a continuous blooming out of each other of situations apparently dual in content, as I have brought out on preceding pages; or, if you prefer to indicate and emphasize the experiencer as an element, triangular in pattern, the angles of which represent the three factors, agent, data, and end. Any personal situation may be thus schematized.

Not only a life as a whole, but every incident in that life is given its phrasing by intent and purpose, by striving and seeking. And this general organization when analyzed betrays three separate factors. The subject of the experience, the "mind" involved, may be taken as the central agent, furnishing the ground of connection between the other two. But the central agent must have his materials, his fulcrum or lever, his more or less raw "givens," with which he is to operate and out of which he is to fashion if possible the full embodiment of the end. In the third place, the end itself must after

( 72) some fashion be envisaged, and, however schematic in outline, must serve as the goal of the 'remaking process. The experiencer, then, is confronted constantly by conditions of the, present that call for reshaping and manipulation to accomplish a more favorable state. Daily life is a continuous story of our' seeking a more satisfactory state of affairs by doing something with what we already possess.

But I fear the figure of the triangle I have suggested is not altogether apt, and the dangers into which it may lead the unwary may well be pointed out, especially since their statement serves at the same time to reemphasize important features. In the first place, there is lacking the sense of movement so essential. If the end or ideal is to function as such at all we must have a tendency or impulsion in its direction, an 'active desire not so much perhaps to make the ideal actual as to bring the actual to the ideal. Again, three corners of a geometrical figure are as such so spatially disposed that one is led to expect in them and their relations an immutable fixedness; whereas the interchangeability of the rôles of data and end, the capacity of a million dollars, for example, to be treated either as, the immediate object of seeking or as the means for obtaining some further good, is actually fundamental not only to the character of a single cross-section of life, but to its consistent self-evolving. In. the third place, the figure is likely to be inapt unless we imagine it in the very crude form of a triangular raft on rough water that often shows all three corners above the surface, but on many occasions suffers different ones to vanish from sight. Which is by way of saying that to have a genuine manifestation of purposive life the three indicated factors need not be clear and explicit. If the building of air castles, for example, is supposed to be purposeless, it is simply because the factor of ideal being exaggerated and that of present conditions suppressed, the dream gets nowhere appreciably. On the other hand, those innumerable things we do daily with conscious knowledge, but without knowing just why, exhibit recognition of the minimum of end with moderate degree of present conditions. And again, the pursuit of the end in view may become so absorbing that the relationship of the whole dynamic experience to the organic agent may be all but lost sight of; and the present conditions seem almost to be evolving to their proper goal just of themselves and without needing us to pose as their engineer.

These are the, essential and characteristic factors present in the world we live and act in. When we speak of experience, we must recognize the presence and interaction, in some sense, first, of a set of conditions that are never quite satisfactory' secondly, of an end or ideal set of conditions in term# of which the improvement of the former is to be brought about; and thirdly, a central agent, organic

( 73) in type, whether in the form of "individual," family, club; profession, sect, race, or nation. Without any one of the three the whole is rendered meaningless.

In criticizing my own. figure of the triangle above I have touched on the relativity of the distinction between data and ends, by indicating the frequent interchangeability of their rôles. A further point may be added in this connection to the effect that the relativity of the distinction would and does argue for a basis in common. In fact, this is the bond of relation between them; it is the bond of import or leading, which is espied or felt in some particular details or some general aspects of the given and which suggest in some more or less forceful way the possibilities that go in to constitute the ideal now outlined. Those environmental details that possess the pregnant character of suggestiveness come naturally to claim the focus of attention; and the other details are content either to announce themselves as in or out of harmony with the suggested plan (i. C., as helpful materials or as hindrances) or to hide their unimportance by dropping out of sight and consideration.

Thus we may say that among the dynamic and vacillating details and their interrelations that constitute the wealth of an immediately or naïvely experienced environment, there are to be discerned many features that are weighty with human significance, while the others are (comparatively) dead, cold, hard.

And now we are back again at the beginning of this paper! To the discriminating mind—and every mind is in very nature discriminative—the content of life yields something of a double character, the spiritual and the material. In so far as we stress the elements of value and purpose, of ideal and end, we are emphasizing the spiritual phases; but when we limit consideration more strictly to the less attractive and exciting, but more calculable and tractable, we are attending to the material phases. To put it again in terms of attitude, we have here distinguished the interest in ideals (or the standards and guides to our endeavors) and the interest in data (the starting points and the raw materials' of our efforts). Plato and Democritus I have used as examples of the two emphases.

If, perchance, any readers regard some of the foregoing as a fable, let me then at least recommend its moral. The well-known tendency of human thinking to petrify its objects is nowhere shown more clearly or sadly than here. In the fields of religion particularly we may often witness the emotion-impelled thinker piecing together the spiritual aspects of life as they are naturally manifested on occasions, to form a coherent one-piece structure. The relative, changeable, fluid, dynamic values of life are torn from their normal connections and ascribed an absolute, stable, static character. And bad as this

( 74) appears to intellect and theory, it is especially unfortunate for practise. When extracted from their natural setting these spiritual phases of experience are deprived of their proper functions; or better, when hot enthusiasm and incidental imagery have fashioned out an independent realm of the Spirit, there is an inevitable backward discrediting of the more prosaic, but less fictitious values in every-day living.

Instead of keeping ourselves attentive and ready to work out and appreciate to the full all the suggestions of a better living that run through daily experience, we find ourselves committed to an ontological dualism. The need, then, hardly calls for restatement; it is not so much for an injection of a foreign spiritual something into the material, nor a justification of this immediate world by contorting it into line with an other-world perspective, but ,a rediscovery of the beautifuls and goods and desirables within the present, given existence. And this is only to rediscover what was always felt, but what has been so frequently symbolized and resymbolized that form has hidden gist, that imaginative and poetic incrustations have hidden the original living essence. Thinking man with his playful fancy and his ponderous intellect needs constantly to keep alive a sense for the vital in his values.

And now in a nutshell: The traditional problem of spirit versus matter may be given vitality by being taken in a larger sense as the spiritual versus the material, for this distinction is found rooted in a natural, but relative distinction within the growth of any human experience, whether taken in, terms of interplay of thinking processes or of the interrelations of experienced content. It is the distinction between the data of immediate and imperfect environments and the ends of remote and desirable conditions yet to be effected. how it easily becomes exaggerated is shown in the history of philosophy and even to-day in many philosophic and religious conceptions. To' be vital, however, the category of the "spiritual" must be kept elastic and applicable directly to the absorbing, but changing values of purposive living.



  1. C. H. Cooley, "Valuation as a Social Process," Psychological Bulletin, Vol. IX., pp. 444, 445.

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