Duncan McGibbon, Poet



Portrait of an Unknown Philosopher: Maurice Blondel and the Problem of Faith and Reason.

I want to attempt four tasks in this talk. Firstly, I want to introduce you to the French philosopher, Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) Secondly, I want to outline the foundation of his ideas. Thirdly I want to bring a critical analysis to bear on his work and finally I want to conclude by estimating the importance of Blondel to contemporary thought.

1. Blondel, the Man.

In pursuit of the first, let me tell you Blondel was born in the city of Dijon in 1861, the youngest son of a wealthy notary. Blondel belonged to the brilliant generation of Gide, Proust, Péguy, Claudel, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Matisse, Bonnard, Rouault, Bergson, Duchêsne and Loisy.

He attended a Catholic primary school until the age of nine and then went to the secular Lycée de Dijon, taking his Baccalaureate in 1878. He proved a good scholar and also a devout Catholic. The following year he went to the Collège de Dijon where Alexis Bertrand (1840-1926) introduced Blondel to the growing philosophical movement known as Spiritualisme.

The movement had nothing to do with talking to dead people. Broadly speaking, it rejected the determinism and materialism of the Positivists and similar tenets among the Idealists such as Charles Renouvier and Octave Hamelin. It held to what Victor Cousin referred to as the “ontological priority of spirit to matter.” It recognised philosophers such as the Idéologiste, Maine de Biran, as a founder. The movement wanted to identify de Biran’s emphasis on the will’s reflexion on its spontaneous activity to the nature of reality. Each of the school’s philosophers emphasised a different feature to link the will and reality. For Ravaisson, like de Biran, it was habit: for Lachelier it was induction: for Fouillée it was the thought-force (idée –force); for Guyau, it was creative consciousness, f or Bergson [1]it was reflective intuition. All members of this school were influenced by German idealism and some used scientific concepts such as evolution, or the subconscious, as a medium for investigation. The movement was sometimes called spiritual eclecticism, because of its tendency to raid the history of philosophy for persuasive arguments. The defence of human freedom was a common tenet, though not in all cases. It remained the mainstream approach to French metaphysics until the 1950s. Some would argue that aspects of Existentialism and Structuralism also owe a debt to it.

According to Spiritualistes such as Bertrand, Blondel’s teacher, the link between the will and reality lay in introspection on personal effort with an exterior account of universal dynamism. Bertrand’s influence on Blondel lay in familiarising him with the movement. His other teacher, Henri Joly[2], used a little-known doctrine of Leibniz, called the vinculum substantiale which argued that the harmony of the monads could be changeless even though change could be brought about by God’s choosing to unify certain monads to the exclusion of others. For Joly, this doctrine was his link between “perfect action without movement and action entailing effort in the natural world.”  

Another important feature of Henri Joly’s link between reality and consciousness can be found in Joly’s insistence that natural talents, or dispositions could contribute to the vocation to which God is calling humanity. This was in implacable opposition to the prevailing view in what we now know to be a distorted manual theology that claimed the authority of Aquinas while re-interpreting its text to erect a dry and rationalistic boundary between nature and grace. It held that our natural abilities were simply too weak to bear the burden of the supernatural. Even before going through the rigours of his exam for the Sorbonne, the fundamental problematic of Blondel’s career can be found in miniature in the work of Henri Joly.

In 1881 Blondel entered the Sorbonne. Historical markers for the relatively unknown Blondel, would be that Bergson and Durkheim had both matriculated the year before. Marcel Proust who studied philosophy under the Eclectic, Edmé Caro, was a distant contemporary.

Blondel had two key teachers at the Sorbonne, Léon Ollé Laprune and Henri Boutroux.  Ollé-Laprune, true to the movement, held that the role of the will preceded and conditioned the nature of thought.  However Ollé-Laprune’s account of personal certainty implied a fideism, or dependence upon sheer belief that Blondel could not share. Boutroux criticised Jules Lachelier’s determinism by arguing that a disproportion between cause and effect lay bare a heterogeneity in nature. Blondel took from Boutroux the dichotomy between identity as absolute and identity as relative, but he rejected the older philosopher’s self-authenticating creativity of the spirit, as a form of pantheism.

In 1886, he passed his Agrégation only at the third attempt, having taught as a substitute in a Lycee in Chaumont and went on to teach in Montaubon and Aix en Provence.  During this time his friendship with Lucien Herr alerted him to the false accusations against Dreyfus and he became one of the very first to speak out against it. Much Catholic opinion at that time sided with the anti-Dreyfusards.

The thesis that established his reputation was written on the subject of human action. Much has been made in the literature of the originality of this choice, yet the concept is implicit to much Spiritualiste interpretations of the will and had been the subject of Hazlitt’s first essay in 1805 on The Principles of Human Action[3], which like Blondel, drew heavily on the German idealists. In the rarified atmosphere of the Sorbonne, the subject was completely new. Blondel’s thesis went through seven tortuous versions, before being presented for its defence in 1893, along with his Latin thesis on the vinculum substantiale.

In Blondel’s own words the work sought to lay bare “The natural necessity of the supernatural and the supernatural reality of the natural.[4]” Its stylistic brilliance and obscurity were evident at once. Blondel conditionalises his dialectic: “Yes or no, has human life a meaning and has man a destiny?[5]” This is a question that can only be lived by living it and can only be questioned by questioning life itself. We cannot but act, even in not wanting to. Once we act, something can be affirmed. The aesthete may try to escape it, but finds the dreams he craves only affirms a purpose. The pessimist may seek suicide, but finds the will to do so contradicts his will not to will further. Thus a phenomenon is proposed.  A scientist brings his subjectivity to bear on an objective world in which he too is a subject. A particle in a field expresses a force. A motive seeks mobility.

In five closely-argued stages, the phenomenon of the will is first laid bare as the willing will that drives the willed will, then drives individual action, as freedom, to drive social action and then to drive for moral universality and for a horizon of certainty beyond that. This leads to the phenomenon of superstition, which can only to be overcome in the necessity and yet the impracticability of the supernatural. For Blondel, the inadequation affirms an exigency, that whether affirmed or denied cannot be walked away from. We must die yet we want to live. Our choice is either to have our wills supplanted by God’s, or supplant his will for God’s. To will immortality is to willingly resign the will to a divine transcendent. To deny the transcendent is unwillingly to lose the will. Unprompted by man, this transcendent is offered in Christianity. Christian practice acts out a divine reality. For Blondel, the acceptance, or rejection of the unique necessity of God’s existence is irrevocable. It issues in privation as ultimate divorce from, or privation as ultimate invitation to the uniquely necessary being. Finally thought, being and action are united in faith and reason lived sacramentally under Christ as vinculum.[6]

The work broke the mould of religious relativism in the Spiritualiste movement by arguing for a religious truth as well as annoying the politically dominant positivists.  It argued that as action mediated thought and reality, then a hidden spiritual reality could be actively uncovered even if only as a dispossession.  

While the thesis was accepted, Blondel was denied a professorship on the grounds that the work was “not properly philosophical”, though he was given a Chargé de Cours at Lille where he liaised with the physicist Paul Duhem.  Boutroux eventually appealed to Raymond Poincaré, then Education secretary, who as well as being less radical than the cabinet, saw at once the value of the work and gave Blondel the chair of Philosophy at Aix en Provence, which he kept until his early retirement brought on by poor eyesight in 1927.

Blondel’s early writings show his determination to extend the approach of  to faith and reason in L’Action to other areas of Catholic thought. His Letter on Apologetics (1896[7]) clearly outlined an account of man’s natural desire for God, expressing itself in an indeclinable necessity of choice that leads from nature to grace as the recognition of a revelation proposed from outside nature. Blondel refutes six positions in the apologetics of his time, naïve subjectivity, narrow ontologies of fact and dogma, using history to demonstrate faith, the use of miracle to demonstrate faith, the appeal to moral necessity, the identification of laws of life and supposing the supernatural as present in them.

Blondel then expresses the abiding principles of his thought that it is more important to propose the supernatural as absent from one’s life in order to show how it is reflected in thought and action. The certainty of the dispossession of being is one of the distinctive features in Blondel. This view ran counter to the prevailing view of the relationship between nature and grace in his day. Blondel then goes on to argue firstly that to be of value to religion, philosophy must be independent of it, and secondly that only Christianity can ensure that independence of thought. The reception of the Letter brought about a huge turbulence of controversy among conservative Catholic opinion.

By this time, Blondel had married Rose Royer and had had his first child, Charles. After his move to Aix en Provence, he had another child, Elizabeth, and finally, André. In 1905, Blondel brought out an account of History and Dogma[8] which, like the Letter on Apologetics was vast in its ambitions and devastating in its controversy. Blondel sought to argue against the view that scripture should be understood as a function of historical contingency on man’s personal relationship to God. He also wanted to counter the opposed view that scripture was a miraculous intervention into nature which was completely indifferent to human history. For Blondel, the mediation of thought and reality through action led to the ability of human beings to act out in their lives the reality which they had made their thoughts obedient to.

The same doctrine can be seen in a third extension of the doctrines of L’Action came out in 1909. La Semaine Sociale de Bordeaux et le Monophorisme [9]was an attack on the view among traditionalist theologians that society was a closed and historically limited condition and that the miraculously-given sign of God’s presence in the church was there to be defended whatever thin structure existed to barricade it. Blondel used the same argument as in his thesis to attack this dangerous adherence of authoritarianism. 

Blondel argues that the end human beings pursue is intrinsic to their lives, to their particular reality.  The meaning of social life lies in the ability of people to perceive that finality in their actions. Such a view presupposes that society is an organic unity. “The lower levels of society are pregnant with a higher co-operation.” Blondel advocates a society of plural lives united in a higher unity. This unity is the unity Blondel speaks of in his vinculum thesis whereby the elements of existence are united by a power outside existence. Yet Blondel is beginning to depart from his early position. He seems less sure of the immanent awareness of reality that human action reveals. One consequence of this was Blondel’s opposition to Maurras and the right-wing Action Française.

In his account of the Miracle Play of Oberammergau of 1910, Blondel [10]stresses the apologetic purpose of the play and uses this as an argument against those who criticised its lack of objectivity on one hand and those who condemned it as a secularisation. He also saw the play as contrary to the usual opposition between Art and reality. Because the play is a “drama of the man-God, the redemptive action... surpasses or precedes all distinction between the ideal and the real, all deformation of the one  to the profit of the other, is life, life itself, revealing itself in its profundities.” He then goes on to say that the disproportion between the roles and the actors who fill them “does not mean fiction becomes reality, except in the sense that the actors seek to participate substantially in that which they represent.”(p41)

Substantial participation means nothing more or less than participation in the reality of Christ. Blondel’s aesthetics is centred on the idea of beauty as an expression of an invisible reality. He had nothing but contempt for an aesthetics that sought to escape the destiny of human beings. To be a genuine expression of reality, a work of art has to strive to be as truthfully concrete as any other human activity. Later he rejected the aesthetics of Péguy, with its concessions to historicism, but he also rejected the pure poetry of Claudel, and  its conspiracy with authoritarianism. He was also critical of the theory of intelligence in Paul Valèry that diminished the role of intentionality. For Blondel, the invisible reality that the work of art sought to express was one of a concrete insufficiency. Again Blondel begins to depart from the account of how Christ as vinculum substantiale can bring about a change in creation without interfering in its autonomy. He clearly wants a more immediate and direct relationship between thought and reality as mediated by action than that of his earlier philosophy.


In 1907, Blondel wrote in his diary. “The fault of my thesis … was  to have propounded certain solutions taken directly from specifically Catholic doctrines without any prior justification.[11]  Yet the reasons for the shift in Blondel’s opinions lay in theology rather than philosophy.  It is fashionable to imply that the shift in Blondel’s thought can be attributed to the condemnation of Modernism in 1907. Pius Xth had issued a decree, Lamentabili, [12]Section 22 of which read that the view was false that “The dogmas the Church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort”. This had been held by Blondel’s political enemies to apply to him.  Yet Blondel had actually argued against the use of dogmas as facts. He also supported the subsequent encyclical, Pascendi[13] , which had been drafted by Joseph, the brother of Blondel’s friend, Fr Jean-Baptiste Lemius.

The issue that concerned Blondel was properly theological. If Christ was the vinculum substantiale, then creation depended on its unity, yet according to Christian teaching, the incarnation was a gratuitous and unmerited event. The pre-existence of the Word does not imply some determinate relationship between creation and incarnation. Yet in order for the Vinculum to unite reality as actively encountered by man, in the early Blondel, creation and incarnation can only be one determined event.[14]

He continued to live in Aix, despite his efforts to obtain a chair in his home town of Dijon. His wife died in 1919, leaving his youngest son, André, for Blondel to bring up. As his eyesight failed him he came to rely on his family and on secretaries to record his thoughts.

In 1920 and 1921, he began to re-shape his thought by turning to the problem of intelligence, a debate forced on him by the assertion of Jacques Maritain  and the Action Française movement that to know a thing is for its ‘essence’ to exist immaterially in the mind. Through the properties apprehended, it ‘becomes’ the things it knows. Maritain held that our knowledge of reality was through the ‘concept’ — the esse intentionale — which was immaterial and universal, though the concept itself was something known only by reflection. Granting  this interpretation, but not conceding to either that this was the thought of St Thomas, Blondel argued, in  The Trial of Intelligence[15] against Maritain that a distinction could be made between  real knowledge and  notional knowledge. In the first, we seek a living presence, in the second we create a world of representations that is limited. Blondel then opens up an argument based on Hegel’s dialectic in the Phenomenology of the Spirit [16]to introduce a third stage of thought: that of knowledge through compassion which decentres the subject. Blondel now also rejected the Leibnizian account of the vinculum substantiale  as determined gratuity, as an intellectualisation of the divine. This laid the foundations of his final philosophy.

Between 1934 and 1948 Blondel submitted to his publisher one of the longest philosophical works in European history. It is called the Tetralogy and consists of philosophical triad and a two-part apologetics. This triad parts from the earlier philosophy in two ways. Firstly, it no longer conditionalises the question of reality. There is no hypothetical suspension of being. Secondly, it allows for the use of universals, albeit as normatively dispossessed by the subject. The thinking thought and being in itself are united in a vinculum of pure actuality, yet each can be studied separately as an ideogenesis, an ontogenesis and an orthogenesis. Thirdly it distinguishes more exactly between philosophical reason and belief. Theologically the Tetralogie [17]solved the problem of how Christ could renew and unite creation while still come into human life as an entirely gratuitous gift. The inability of human beings to equal the demands of perfect thought, being and action creates an openness to the supernatural that seeks, but does not depend on the higher unity of faith.

Blondel sets out to discover the state of created intelligibility. He seeks to lay bare the identity of concrete thought with the conditional reality that his analysis of action had exposed. The identity between specific knowledge as thought-thought which seeks thinking-thought, the identity of reality as contingent creation seeking absolute being and of action as natural act seeking the spiritual act is essential but ineluctable. An absolutely basic inadequacy between thought reality and action is inescapable, despite being unreachable. Thus all the struggle for truth shows that everything natural and human is incomplete in itself and must be open to the transcendent to receive gratuitously from the supernatural that which it cannot receive on its own.

After the publication of the Trilogie, the philosophical section of the Tetralogy, Blondel brought out Struggle for the Philosophy and Civilisation of Peace[18] which quoted directly from Meine Kampf and exposed the pathology of Nazism. He was due to send copies to an international group of politicians, but they were not sent out in time and they fell into the hands of the invading German troops who arrested many of the dedicatees. Blondel spent the Second World War living in seclusion in Aix under the Vichy regime. He sheltered Leon Braunschweig, a philosopher of Jewish descent, in his home and his eldest son, Charles, worked for the resistance.

Two volumes of apologetics, Philosophy and the Christian Spirit followed in 1942 and 1946. They outlined how the enigmas of reason and action could be answered by the mysteries of faith. He was unable to complete the third volume. Before he died on June 4, 1949, he published Exigences Philosophiques du Christianisme[19]

, two succinct essays in apologetics written twenty years earlier, but kept back while he worked on the Trilogie.


The Foundation of Blondelian Thought.

Both the early and the late thought of Maurice Blondel is dialectic in its technique. Blondel wrote three essays on logic. Each was written at an important juncture in the development of his thought. The first in 1894, just after the writing of his thesis, the second was in 1903, when Blondel was shifting the emphasis of his thought and finally in 1947, at the  end of his career in an article that argued against Sartre’s use of dialectics.

They state the only meaningful role that can be given to logic is that of dialectic. In his 1894 Sketch of a General Logic[20], he typifies the ordinary transfer of meaning from proposition to proposition as being an empiricism. By “empiricism” he means the passive observation of exterior facts. Blondel shows his Hegelian presupposition in the use of both words “exterior” and “facts.” One assumes an interiority; the other the schemas of logic are signs in the way traffic signs are facts to be interpreted. He claims to bridge the interval between Aristotle and the scholastics and Hegel. Both formal and applied logic are pseudologics, or logologies, unless they can build a logic of the real. Blondel claims Aristotle reacted against Parmenides’doctrine  that the real world is only comprehensible through logic and that thought and reality are mediated by abstract objects. Aristotle was forced to create an equilibrium that quantified reality. This was the logic that Prantl following Kant, called a “finished science.” Instead of the syllogism, a living species emerges whose inclusion, attribution and consequence need to be united in a new organon of antecedent, immanent and subsequent action.

According to Blondel, logic before Kant and Hegel was merely the form of reality not its matter. Blondel refers to George Noel’s La Logique de Hege[21] which he was bringing out in instalments during this time when Blondel was drafting his thesis. Noel held that Hegel believed “philosophy as a whole is a syllogism and in this syllogism, logic is the universal, nature the particular, and spirit the individual” (p. 123.)[22] More specifically in Hegel, logic is God’s knowledge before the creation. Blondel objected that the idealist illusion opposed  thought to reality without considering whether or not thought could be out of joint with reality or whether reality could be no more than an expression of thought.

Blondel wanted a dynamic whereby a process “regressive from the point of view of reality, progressive from the point of view of understanding” generated an inventive synthesis. He agreed with Hegel that that the sheer heterogeneity of existence was denied by the principle of contradiction as limit.  

Most of this earlier sketch was incorporated in his paper of 1900, Elementary Principle of a Logic of the Modern Life[23]. Blondel had already emphasised the synthesis between Spinoza[24]’s concept of conatus  as the human will to perpetuate existence as a dialectic between the natura naturata (or natured creation) and the natura naturans (or naturing creation) with Kant’s distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge in which the abstract totality of experience was distinguished from the immediate content of experience. This was the basis of the willed and willing will dialectic of the earlier Action. 

Blondel geneticises both approaches and claims that all logical concepts such as contradiction arise from experience. For example, the experience that an act committed in the past cannot now be changed and cease to be. This allows him to use Fichte’s ternaries[25] as an account of how experience is represented to action. He also downloads Schelling[26]’s merging of knowledge and ethics and aesthetics to characterise pure being as not nothing, as in Hegel, but something lacking being but promising a potential for being.

For Blondel even errors are still living thoughts. In a manner that anticipates Piaget, Blondel outlines how the developmental laws of such a moral logic could be outlined. All life procedes from an exis, or arrival, and moves on through steresis, or privation. The mechanism whereby this is brought about is taken from Aristotle’s Peri Hermeion known as the De Interpretatione. An affirmation, or kataphasis can be contradicted by an antiphasis, yet resolved as an apophantic denial. This apophantic denial is a steresis or possession by privation. What Aristotle means is that if one aspect of an assertion is true then its denial is false, yet both aspects are asserted in the same statement. [27]

Whether applied to the early or the late philosophy the logic remains the same.

but does this logic hold? This is the issue we must turn to.


A Critique of Blondel’s Logic


I am not concerned with the issue of whether logic itself is too abstract to cope with belief, as I simply concede to Blondel that if his kind of logic should prevail, then to prevail it must be logical. In a Latin tag somewhere out of St Dominic, or Blondel himself, Non adjutrix nisi libera, non libera nisi adjutrix philosophia. Philosophy to be relevant must be free, but to be free it must be relevant. In my interpretation, three fundamental logical issues need to be clarified. The first is the question of representation, the second is that of whether the mind’s inner intentions result in external relations and finally the basic issue of whether identity needs to be fixed, or absolute, to be logically meaningful.

These issues are vital to Blondel and the Blondelians. For the Spiritualist and the Blondelian dialectic to work, a man’s thoughts as an independent existence from reality must be related to reality. Mental existence must seek existence through a representation which is a developing intentionality. Blondel does not use the concept of intentionality very directly in his works, but at every stage he assumes it. Jeffery Walkey[28] is correct to judge this, though I do not accept the validity of his conclusions about Blondel’s so-called existential role. The upshot is it does not do for Blondel to argue that mental existence does not succeed in achieving reality, except against a background of knowing what that reality is in the first case. This issue haunts European phenomenology from Spinoza to the Post-Structuralists.

We owe it to Wittgenstein, in his later debate on his own Tractatus 4.023[29] and his later discussion of it in the Philosophical Investigations[30] that the philosophical problem has been so clearly isolated from metaphysical rhetoric. Blondel’s logic depends on an inner thought process being represented imperfectly in action. Now according to the Tractatus this way of accounting for a thought can be expressed as a proposition being a picture that completely describes the reality being thought. For Wittgenstein dropping the picture theory of meaning from his own Tractatus entailed having to find an alternative to any pictorial account of representation. A sentence represents a thought in the Tractatus by agreeing in form with a picture which a proposition shows. Yet when it comes to accounting for that form then the concept of a picture seems to have been misapplied by the early Wittgenstein and the theory of representation that lies behind it could be wrong. The picture does not represent the form unambiguously. There are many ways in which a picture can represent reality. Thus there can be no fixed form of reality in the mind such as can be represented in a proposition. A picture cannot be formally a representation and contingently so as well. Blondel might argue that the contingent picture is precisely the picture in action. However, Wittgenstein, who knew nothing of Blondel and probably vice versa, seems to have read this kind of response in William James[31], who is common to both. James and Blondel agreed over the origins of consciousness, but not over pragmatism and the role of human destiny.

For Blondel to demand the proposition in action is tantamount to saying the pictured thought can only be represented together with the instructions or rules for executing its representation. Ther has to be an action which the thought represents.Yet when we get to this position the pictured thought ceases to be relevant and is drowned under the contingencies of its realisation. Blondel cannot say this thought is the misrepresentation of the form without being able to say what representing the form of that fact would be. This picture and that fact still have to have some form in common even to be a successively erroneous one. To quote the American philosopher, Robert L. Arrington, “In this case, the picture theory must be accused of mistaking what is really an identity condition for something's being a picture for an explanation of how the picture does its job.” [32]


In Blondel’s case, the world we think we see pictured must have some identity with a formal picture and at the same time be an account of how the picture succeeds in failing to picture. The danger in Blondel would be that something failed to fail. Either there is no certain form in a pictured thought, or there is form, but no effective picturing of it. Blondel and William James[33] for example would agree that we intend reality to be ascertainable by an internal specifiable process. The mind seeks to grasp reality, yet in doing so comes up against a contradiction. This is provisionally resolved in action, yet again to quote Arrington; “It is at this point that we are likely to convert an act of thought or intention, a perfectly intelligible psychological phenomenon, into an occult spiritual act, one which just does, mysteriously, have the property we want to assert of it, the property of connecting a picture or proposition and an existent or non-existent state of affairs.”[34]


Blondel wants us to be conscious of our radical erroneousness. However if there is error then that error too is a representation. So for Blondel to claim there is an inescapably erroneous application of a mental representation in our grasp of reality, he must accept that there is a picture, albeit a wrong picture. The point about wrong pictures being that only a correct picture can define what it is for a picture to be wrong. Whether presented as a contradiction or a dilemma or an opposition, an error is an alternative picture. It cannot be a distorted picture. Otherwise I would have to know the picture to know this picture, y is a distortion of another picture, x. Even if an erroneous picture turns out not to be a distortion of another, I would still need to know picture y. Blondel claims we cannot know this. Then the issue lies in what it claims to represent. If the mental picture cannot yield a determinate interpretation, but points to plural paths of interpretation, then there is no solid point of departure on which Blondel can base his dialectic of inadequation.

Blondel may well appeal to some concept of “coming to be” or expectation in his account of exis and steresis in which our knowledge is inescapably a dispossession. In this he still cannot evade the criticism that for something to turn out to be the case we must still have a clear criterion of what that case should be.

This is an issue widely debated in contemporary philosophy since it cropped up in a disagreement between Russell and Wittgenstein. In The Analysis of Mind (1921)[35], Russell claims expectation can be a useful criterion for arguing for a mental picture theory of thought. If a person does not know that something is going to happen then he or she must wait. Russell calls this structural incompletion. If I had the expected thing I would not be waiting for it. Yet I do not have it therefore there must be some picture of what I was waiting for that allows me to have it and yet not have it. You see how close this is to Blondel’s view. Blondel merely converts Russell’s picture into a movie.

Russell asks himself the question: how can I know what I was waiting for was what I awaited? Russell’s response to this is that I know what I was waiting for was what I awaited because I feel satisfaction at its coming. As Jocelyn Benoist [36]puts it, “So, in our normal use of the verb ‘to wait’, we seem to presuppose that it entails a constitutive reference to its object, an object that is not at all indeterminate, but whose determination is a part of the expectation itself. The object is not externally added to the expectation, but an internal feature of it…”


Against this, Wittgenstein argues Russell has made a grammatical mistake.

“A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it: a proposition, a thought, what makes it true-even when that thing is not there at all. Whence this determining of what is not yet there? This despotic demand? ”[37]


In other words if I expect something I can only do so if I know exactly what I expect. This does not mean I can’t just have Macawber moments, or expect something to surprise me. However these are not Blondelian uses of expectation. For me to have certainty that I cannot know God based on natural knowledge and not revelation, means I have a natural criterion to be certain I do know God and that it has failed in some way. This is not the Blondelian path which affirms that I can only have this certainty because all criteria have been exhausted. Yet if I have no criterion for what it is to fail to know God then I cannot even know when I don’t know him. This is not a conclusion Blondel intended. Expecting is an issue of belief not reason.


To defend Blondel one could add that in the later philosophy, especially he is concerned about the ineluctability of absolute identity. Yet is this treatment of identity secure? According to Peter Geach, identity as a logical concept is not absolute, but relative. Following Harry Deutsch “Geach begins by urging that a plain identity statement ‘x and y are the same’ is in need of a completing predicate: ‘x and y are the same F.’ Frege [38] had argued that statements of number such as ‘this is one’ require a completing predicate: ‘this is one F’, and so it is, Geach claims, with identity statements.” Applied to Blondel the ideogenesis whereby humanity seeks to equal its own thought with absolute thinking needs to be qualified with the phrase “in the sense of x.” In a mathematical argument, say


(1) X2-Y2=(X+Y)(X-Y)


                                      the functions, X, Y stand for values determined by the algebraic argument that negative numbers multiplied by positive numbers  equal negatives. The value depends on what argument is entered for X or Y. Again from Harry Deutsch, though applied to (1). The complex terms in (1)”are formed with the help of ‘incomplete expressions’ which signify functions, such as the unary squaring function ‘( ) 2’ and the binary addition function ‘( )+( )’. In these functional expressions, ‘( )’ is used as a placeholder for what Frege called the arguments of the function.[39]  This is known as Frege’s thesis of cardinality. Geach extends this to argue for relative identity.


In Geach’s  words “Frege sees clearly that ‘one’ cannot significantly stand as a predicate of objects unless it is (at least understood as) attached to a general term; I am surprised he did not see that the like holds for the closely allied expression ‘the same’[40].


Elsewhere Geach says “Frege emphasized that ‘x is one’ is an incomplete way of saying ‘x is one A, a single A’, or else has no clear sense; since the connection of the concepts one and identity comes out just as much in the German ‘ein and dasselbe’ as in the English ‘one and the same’,  it has always surprised me that Frege did not similarly maintain the parallel doctrine of relativised identity . . .[41]For Frege there must be an argument that allows for predication in terms of some generality. Otherwise the phrase “Xis one”is meaningless.

Identity is often defined in terms of some elliptical phrase such as in Wittgenstein, “Identity is often said to be a relation each thing bears to itself and to no other thing.” This recalls Wittgenstein’s saying “It is as if in imagination we put a thing into its own shape and saw that it fitted.[42]”For Blondel it is important to emphasise that the effort for each thing to be itself is frustrated by the discovery that nothing can ever be itself without being absolutely itself. Yet humanity is never absolutely itself unless possessed gratuitously by God. Thus, Blondel wants to fit nature into God and have us encounter the hollow left by His distance as a radical insufficiency.

Yet I feel justified to ask just in terms of what generality does humanity fail to equal itself? Is it in terms of some complete evolution, some possession of happiness, some span of history, or some domination of the planet? The point is all these generalities, development, happiness, historical awareness, ecological control can be seen as identifying humanity and they are relative to each other. They do not depend on one ultimate identity. Blondel holds, as I do, that man desires God, but that too is only a relative identity. No matter how complete a man’s salvation might be it is not a logical absolute, but only a completeness in terms of salvation.


Blondel of course would say this was precisely the kind of abstract logic-chopping that his philosophy was opposed to. Yet this three-fold critique is aimed at the idea of a thought existing somehow in the mind and its representation being justified by the satisfaction one feels on having an expectation fulfilled, even though this might be undermined by some successive dissatisfaction. As accounts of representation, expectation and identity they are not coherent. This is central to Blondel’s metaphysics of indeclinable insufficiency.


To summarise, Blondel’s philosophical argument from man’s radical insufficiency fails to establish that thought can be accounted an intentional object, cannot account for its inadequate representation and fails to establish how the need for absolute identity can be reconciled with the view that logical identity can be relative.

In 1947[43], two years before he died, Blondel modified his earlier criticism of idealist logic to level it at Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness[44] had been published in 1943. He made it clear that any conception of human beings that was based on a static definition of human nature was logically inconsistent, as it was in the nature of any existence to be openly enigmatic. Only an open dialectic could approach the problem. This leaves Blondel open to the criticism that his starting point of human action already presupposed an ideal humanity. Enter Sartre’s “mauvaise foi” stage left. Blondel has a fixed picture of man from the start. His metaphysics is constantly being distorted by contrary humanisms. Blondel’s logic is inconsistent to the point of arbitrariness. 

However it gives no excuse to some current followers of Blondel to fuse his thought with Heideggerian or any other form of phenomenology that lead to the definition of being. A long perspective on Blondel allows us to see how he has reversed the translation of God into a metaphysical absolute in Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz Kant and the Idealists. Instead he has brought their conception back into theology. For Blondel, Christian belief is the fulfilment of philosophy.


Blondel’s Importance

In many ways I would have liked this to have been the most detailed section of my talk. As Blondel hints himself in one of the footnotes to La Philosophie et L’Esprit Chrétienne he is a Moses-like figure, leading the Church to the Second Vatican Council, yet not living long enough to participate in it. Blondel’s metaphysics is a théologie manqué. It was through his unique synthesis of European philosophy that he was able to challenge the dominant rationalistic theology of the time. This view held that nature was in incapable of any intelligible contact with the supernatural. This meant that human beings were only capable of understanding an entirely illusory natural theology of faith and hope, sustained only by the miraculous intervention of the divine. By showing the need for the natural desire for God, Blondel challenged the establishment from the safety of academic metaphysics. In so doing his thought undoubtedly led to the thinking of the Second Vatican Council that nature and grace were not separate from each other, but his vision was translated and emended in the theological vision of his followers, Henri de Lubac[45], Hans Urs von Balthasar[46], Pierre Teilhard de Chardin[47] and Erich Pryzwara [48] along with a host of minor theologians, all coping stones of modern Christian theology, most of whom ignore, or are critical of, the idea of ultimate option. Their concern is with the role of reason within theology as an aspect of God’s grace in creation. They do not argue for that role within philosophy. Theirs is a theology of philosophy, of what it is to know God not a philosophy of theology.

His influence on Karl Barth[49] is clear. Blondel has been able to re-establish both the distance aand the dialogue between man and God. Those who follow him diverge radically from Karl Rahner[50] and Bernard Lonergan[51] and still influence the interpretation of the Council. In his Post-Synodal document, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984)[52] Blessed Pope Paul the Great denied that human beings have a fundamental option whereby they could renounce God. I think he had the early Blondel as well as Rahner[53] in mind. His argument was that even a casual sin against our neighbour was an offence against God.

I am opposed to the wholesale use of Blondel’s thought as a frozen metaphysical theology. None of his major followers were philosophers. His influence on philosophy was seldom direct except among Catholic philosophers where even now it proves very resistant to interpretive consistency.


Yet for all this I am a Blondelian. It is as if, like a sculptor, Blondel took a maquette of his own spirituality and covered it in metaphysical clay and then cast it theological bronze. A way needs to found that goes from faith to theology without wronging reason. One possible way forward would be to re-cast his thought by returning to the Eastern theological tradition.


The terms kataphasis and apophasis are not exclusive to Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, they were also used widely in rhetoric[54]. Kata phasis and anti phasis were legal terms for “for and against” in a court of law. Apophasis was a technique of emphasising an aspect in a case by omitting it. E.g. Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony “I come to bury Caesar, not to honour him.”


In the theology of the Eastern tradition, Apophatic theology these simple phrases are taken directly into theology. George Martzelos gives a good account of this; “the distinction between the uncreated God (apophasis) and the created world (kataphasis) does not constitute for the Fathers merely just an ontological distinction, which they accept without realizing the direct and deeper consequence …that, although the uncreated God is truly related to the created world through His energies and becomes known by them during their manifestation in the Creation and in History, however, in His essence, in the nature and the way of His energies, as well as in the way of His existence as a Trinity of Persons, He remains completely transcendental and unapproachable.[55]


The barrier between East and West lies in the definition of “energies.” [56] The eastern tradition denies that human thought can be in dialogue with God. The aim of Blondelianism is to see God’s thoughts and human thoughts as sharing the same language, truly related. An apophantic theology that allows for access to God through reason and for God’s radical unapproachability as being could find a useful basis in Blondelian theology.


[1] For all these figures see Coplestone, History of Philosophy  Vol IX (1975)pp 155-178

[2] For a good introduction to Joly’s thought see The Psychology of the Saints, London: Duckworth 1902 2nd Edition

[3]  William Hazlitt, The Principles of Human Action London J Johnson, 1805 passim

[4] Carnets Intimes Vol1

[5] L’Action  (1893) 1973 vii

[6] Op cit passim

[7]Tr Dru and Trethowan London Collins, 1984 pp 119-210

[8] Tr. Dru and Trethowan 1984 London, Collins ,pp211-290

[9] Bloud et Gray  Paris 1910

[10] Bloud  et Cie  Paris,1910

[11] Carnets Intimes  (1961)

[12] Available from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm  Accesssed 6/02/12

[13] Available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm  Accesssed 6/02/12

[14] According to Athanasius, “It is, then, proper for us to begin the treatment of this subject [the Incarnation of the Word] by speaking of the creation of the universe, and of God its Artificer, so that it may be duly perceived that the renewal of creation has been the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning. For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in Him by Whose means He made it” St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi, 1: PG 25, 98;

Augustine; On the Predestination of the Saints Chapter 34 [XVII.]; “For the Lord Himself also sufficiently explains this calling when He says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” For if they had been elected because they had believed, they themselves would certainly have first chosen Him by believing in Him, so that they should deserve to be elected. But He takes away this supposition altogether when He says “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”… Therefore God elected believers; but He chose them that they might be so, not because they were already so. …the same Spirit of which he is born, man is re-born.”  

On this theme cf. also John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, 7. If, in fact, the reality of the Redemption, in its human dimension, reveals the unheard - of greatness of man, qui talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem, that merited to possess such and so great a Redeemer! at the same time the divine dimension of the redemption enables us, I would say, in the most empirical and "historical" way, to uncover the depth of that love which does not recoil before the extraordinary sacrifice of the Son, in order to satisfy the fidelity of the Creator and Father towards human beings, created in His image and chosen from "the beginning," in this Son, for grace and glory.


[15] Bloud et Gay, Paris 1921

[16]  Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) ISBN 0-19-824597-1

[17] La Pensee I , II.(1934) L’Etre et les Etres(1935 ) L’Action I, II(1936-7) La Philosophie et L’Esprit Chétienne  (1944-6)  Paris Librerie  Felix Alcan

[18] Paris, Flammarion 1939

[19] Paris 1950 Alcan

[20] Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale (1960) 7-28

[21] F. Alcan, 1897 (book form)

[22] Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale; Paris 1897 (serial form)

[23] Paris  Colin 1907

[24]  Baruch Spinoza Tractatus, Theologico Politicus available from http://www.yesselman.com/ttpelws1.htm down loaded  07/02/12

[25] Gottlob Fichte, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation. Trans. Garrett Green. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978 (Translation of Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung, 1st ed. 1792, 2nd ed. 1793).

[26]  Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling  System des transcendentalen Idealismus (1800) System of Transcendental Idealism (1978) translated by P. Heath, introduction M. Vater, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

[27] Aristotle On Interpretation “This is the case with regard to that which is not always existent or not always nonexistent. One of the two propositions in such instances must be true and the other false, but we cannot say determinately that this or that is false, but must leave the alternative undecided. One may indeed be more likely to be true than the other, but it cannot be either actually true or actually false” 9. Available from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/interpretation/ accessed 07/02/12

[28] The Essential structure and Intentional Object of Action towards Understanding the Blondelian E Existential Phenomenology, in Phenomenology and Existentialism in the Twentieth Century (2009) Volume 1 CIII Heidelberg, Springer :edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka Analecta Husserliana, pp 95-110

[29]The proposition determines reality to this extent, that one only needs to say "Yes" or "No" to it to make it agree with reality.


Reality must therefore be completely described by the proposition.


A proposition is the description of a fact.


As the description of an object describes it by its external properties so propositions describe reality by its internal properties.


The proposition constructs a world with the help of a logical scaffolding, and therefore one can actually see in the proposition all the logical features possessed by reality if it is true. One can draw conclusions from a false proposition.”


[30] P 1..193-194,437-445,452-453,458-461 and 465 . See also  Philosophical Remarks11,16,21-35. The Blue Book 20ff and Zettel.53-63,68-70,284-290

[31] William James  (1890)The Principles of Psychology Vol 1 249-255 Available from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin10.htmAccessed 07/02/12

[32] ROBERT L. ARRINGTON; Representation in Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Middle Writings, (1983)Synthese, Volume 56, Number 2, 181-198, Springer DOI: 10.1007/BF00485324



[33] op cit pp249-255

[34] op cit p188

[35] Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind (1921)passim Available from http://www.literaturepage.com/read/russell-analysis-of-mind.htmlaccessed 07/02/12

[36] Jocelyn Benoist, Husserl and Wittgenstein on Intention and Fulfillment Phenomenology as Grammar (Ed. Jesús Padilla Gálvez), 77-96.Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt a. M.

[37] P.I.437

[38] Anon: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Relative Identity First published Mon Apr 22, 2002; substantive revision Mon Nov 5, 2007 Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-relative/ accessed 07/02/12


[39]  Op cit


[40] Peter Geach, Reference and Generality, p. 64.

[41] ‘Identity’, p. 3

[42] PI 216b

[43] The Inconsistency of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Logic The Thomist 19 1947 393-397

[44] Jean Paul Sartre L’Etre et Le Neant Paris 1943. translated by Hazel E. Barnes [1958] (2003). Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge. passim

[45] De Lubac, Henri, The Mystery of the Supernatural. London  tr.  R. Sheed: Sheed and Ward passim

[46] See the Chapter on Blondel in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope? (1988)tr Kipp , Krauth Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 114-124

[47]Teilhard de Chardin , Pierre  The Phenomenon of Man, tr B.Wall  London,Collins, Fontana, 1959  See the Appendix : Some remarks on the place and Part of Evil in A world in Evolution pp339-342                              

[48] Pryzwara,  Erich Analogia Entis, 83. The adage “Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it” was devised by Przywara from Aquinas De Veritate 14.10.9.

[49] Higton, Mike, McDowell, John C. Farnham (2004), Conversing with Barth  Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p93

[50]  Rahner, Karl, (tr. Ernst) 1961 (1950) Concerning the Relationship Between Nature and Grace In Theological Investigations 1 God, Mary and Grace : 297-317

[51] Lonergan, Bernard (1949),  The Natural Desire to See God in Collection 5 pp 84-95

[52]  Pope John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Post  Synodal Address London CTS, 1984 pp63 -64

[53] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations Vol VI pp181-88. Rahner cites Blondel and merges his thought with Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity.”

[54] See Otto Dieter (1950) Stasis, in Edward Schiappa ed. 1994Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric Davis,  Hermagoras Press: 211


[55]  Professor George D. Marzelos, Kataphasis And Apophasis In The Greek Orthodox Patristic Tradition Available from users.auth.gr/martzelo/index.files/docs/65.doc

[56] Cf Teilhard de Chardin, Paris 1962, L’ Energie Humaine Editions du Seuil  tr. J.M.Cohen Human Energy, London Collins 1969,  If a Christian can today say to his God that he loves Him with his whole body and soul and with the whole universe, he is not making a sudden and  individual discovery: his act is the manifestation of a new and general state…”p159


I am indebted to the work by Oliva Blaquette for the many biographical details in the first part of this study.

Aristotle; On Interpretation passim. Available from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/interpretation/ accessed 07/02/12

Arrington, Robert L (1983); Representation in Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Middle Writings, Synthese, Volume 56, Number 2, 181-198, Springer DOI: 10.1007/BF00485324

Athanasius, St. De Incarnatione Verbi, 1: PG 25, 98;

Augustine; On the Predestination of the Saints  Chapter 34 [XVII.] Available from  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15121.htm Accessed 07/02/12


Benoist, Jocelyn, Husserl and Wittgenstein on Intention and Fulfillment in Phenomenology as Grammar (Ed. Jesús Padilla Gálvez), 77-96. Frankfurt a. M.Ontos Verlag,


Blanchette, Oliva (2010) Maurice Blondel, A Philosophical Life  Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, passim


Blondel, Maurice  L’Action, Essai d’une Critique de la Vie et un Science de la Pratique(1893) Paris, Alcan 1893,  vii Tr  Blanquette , O. 1984  Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press.

Blondel, Maurice (1936-7) L’Action I, II, Paris Librerie Felix Alcan

Blondel, Maurice  (1961) Carnets Intimes Ed De Lubac Vol. 1 Paris Cerf

Blondel, Maurice (1947) The Inconsistency of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Logic in The Thomist 19 393-397

Blondel, Maurice  (1907) Principe Elémentaire d’une Logique de la Vie Morale Paris, Colin

Blondel, Maurice (1960) Esquisse d’une Logique Générale Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 7-28

Blondel, Maurice (1935)  L’Etre et les Etres Paris Librerie  Felix Alcan

Blondel, Maurice (1984) The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma Tr A.Dru and I.Trethowan London Collins, pp 119-210 and 211-290

Blondel, Maurice  (1939) Lutte pour la Philosophie et Civilisation de la Paix Paris, Flammarion

Blondel, Maurice .(1934) La Pensée I , II Paris Librerie  Felix Alcan

Blondel, Maurice  (1944-6)  La Philosophie et L’Esprit Chétienne Paris Librerie  Felix Alcan

Blondel, Maurice (1900), La Psychologie Dramatique de la Passion a Oberammargau in La Quinzaine 35:1-18

Blondel, Maurice (1910) La Semaine Sociale de Bordeaux et le Monophorisme Paris, Bloud et Gray 

Blondel, Maurice (1921) Le Procès De L’Intelligence Bloud et Gay, Paris

Coplestone, F A, S.J. (1975)History of Philosophy Volume IX Maine de Biran to Sartre London, Search Press Part II: 99-216

Deutsch, Harry, (Anon) (2007)Relative Identity Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy First published Mon Apr 22, 2002; substantive revision Mon Nov 5, Available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/identity-relative/ accessed 07/02/12

De Lubac, Henri S.J. Cardinal, (1967) tr Sheed, R.,The Mystery of the Supernatural, Wimbledon, Geoffrey Chapman

Dieter, Otto (1950) Stasis, in Edward Schiappa ed. (1994) Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric Davis,  Hermagoras Press: 211

Fichte, Gottlob: (1792, 2nd ed.1793).Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation. Trans.  Garrett Green. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978 (Translation of Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung, 1st ed.

Geach, P. T (1967-8), ‘Identity,’ Review of Metaphysics 21 p. 3.)


 (1957) Mental Acts (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,

p. 69.

(1980) Reference and Generality (third Edition (Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press,

pp. 63f.


Hazlitt, William The Principles of Human Action London, J. Johnson, 1805

Hegel, J.G, (1977) Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press,)


Higton, Mike, McDowell, John C. Farnham (2004), Conversing with Barth  Ashgate Publishing, Ltd


James,William  (1890) The Principles of Psychology Vol 1 249-255 Available from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/James/Principles/prin10.htmAccessed 07/02/12

John Paul II, Pope, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Post  Synodal Address London, CTS, 1984 pp63 -64

Dives in misericordia, Encyclical, 7 Available from ww.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30111980_dives-in-misericordia_en.html Accessed 08/02/12


Joly, Henri (1902) The Psychology of the Saints, London: Duckworth


Lonergan, Bernard (1949), The Natural Desire to See God in Collection London, Darton, Longman and Todd


Marzelos, Professor  George D. Kataphasis And Apophasis In The Greek Orthodox Patristic Tradition Available from users.auth.gr/martzelo/index.files/docs/65.docaccessed 07/02/12


Noël, George( 1897) Paris Vrin, Available from http://atwww.archive.org/stream/lalogiquedehege00no/lalogiquedehege00no_djvu.txt (articles originally in )Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale; Paris

Pius X ,Pope, Decree Lamentabili,Available from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm  Accesssed 6/02/12

Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Encyclical, Available from  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_x/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis_en.html http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm  Accesssed 6/02/12

Pryzwara, Erich S.J. (1962) Analogia Entis, Schriften Vol 3 Eisiedlen,Johannes Verlag

Rahner, Karl S.J.  (tr. Ernst) 1961 (1950) Theological Investigations 1: 297-317 Theological Investigations VI, London Darton Longman and Todd 


Russell, Bertrand The Analysis of Mind (1921)passim Available from http://www.literaturepage.com/read/russell-analysis-of-mind.html accessed 07/02/12


Sartre, Jean Paul L’Etre et Le Neant Paris 1943. translated by Hazel E. Barnes [1958] (2003). Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.


Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm System des transcendentalen Idealismus (1800) System of Transcendental Idealism (1978) translated by P. Heath, introduction M. Vater, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre S. (1959  1962). The Phenomenon of Man, tr B.Wall  London,Collins, Fontana,

(1969).L’ Energie Humaine Paris, Editions du Seuil  tr. J.M.Cohen Human Energy, London Collins      


Urs von Balthasar, Hans, Cardinal, (1988) Dare We Hope? tr. Kipp , Krauth Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 114-124

Walkey, Jeffery (2009) The Essential Structure and Intentional Object of Action, Towards Understanding the Blondelian Existential Phenomenology, in Phenomenology and Existentialism in the Twentieth Century Volume 1 CIII Heidelberg, Springer :edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka Analecta Husserliana, pp 95-110

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Philosophical Investigations (1963)  Oxford, Blackwells  1..193-194,437-445,452-453,458-461 and 465

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The Shrunken Repertoire.

The talk I’m going to give involves the borders of many disciplines. This is not surprising, as creativity, a word invented by Alfred North Whitehead[1] is my subject. In particular how imaginativeness invades the borders of language with analogy and metaphor. I hold this ability is essential and is shared across all the borders of knowledge.

Some dispute the objectivity of the imagination. Such people as Baroness Warnock[2], from the border of philosophy, speak of the imaginativeness of children as the embryo sac that nourishes a chick’s growth before disappearing.

Others issue sterner warnings. David Baltimore, a biologist at C I T has said DNA is "a reality beyond metaphor." According to Philip Ball[3], “…We ought to heed the warning of pioneering cyberneticists, Arturo Rosenblueth and Norbert Wiener that "the price of metaphor is eternal vigilance”[4]. Note that every source I have quoted on the unreliability of metaphor uses deftly-chosen metaphor to express his or her doubt.

Richard Dawkins seems to make a similar point; “I of course love poetic language, but there does come a time when you worry that people are going to misunderstand it.” [5]By “misunderstanding” Dawkins means to take any expression of metaphor as a fact.

Yet Sir Peter Medawar would also say.

“For a scientist must indeed be freely imaginative and yet sceptical, creative and yet a critic. There is a sense in which he must be free, but another in which his thought must be very precisely regimented; there is poetry in science, but also a lot of bookkeeping.[6]

Medawar overlooks the imaginative leap that led Leonardo da Vinci’s friend, Luca Pacioli to invent double-entry bookkeeping in the 15th Century. The conclusion for these scientists, whom I call substitutionalists, can only be that in science, emotional imaginativeness must be kept in check. A substitutionalist holds that anything metaphoric can eventually be replaced with a literal statement.

For others, such as Ruth Padel, following Auden “to doubt becomes a way of definition.” I call this point of view the metonymic. “The deepest thing science and poetry share, perhaps, is the way they can tolerate uncertainty.” [7]The ability of scientists not to be certain but to admit the shortcomings of knowledge is a vulnerability she claims is shared with the poet.

Thus the borders are blurred because the frame of learning cannot be trusted. This could be viewed as a Structuralist view, as it turns on the mistrust of metaphor. Ruth Padel’s account[8] of Greek images of the tragic self assumes the Greeks did not distinguish between metaphor and literality. The moral cosmos of the Greeks was to her, metaphor as primitive explanation, rather than metaphor instead of explanation. When they referred to body-parts as images of emotions (as in “my heart leaped) they were making a metonymic link that went proxy for explanation. The Greeks accordingly lived in a world mediated by metaphor to which we cannot relate. This is apparently because we have spent two thousand years explaining metaphor in order to explain the cosmos.

Others, such as Arthur Koestler, and his followers Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier[9], claim creativity to be universal, as it involves what they call “bisociation,” or conceptual blending. Universalists claim creativity and its associated tributaries, such as categorisation and impersonation and even humour, to depend on some basic law of thought whereby new meanings are generated from the mapping of two old ones on one another. Another term for this is the interactional view.

Scientific and poetic borders are not the only ones in dispute. Stephen Hawkins[10] declared philosophy to be dead last May and as he did so at a Google conference, it should be seen as a major border incident. The determinists are convinced science is heading for a breakthrough into laws of total explanation where what was previously explained by myth and conjecture will be laid bare by science, making the need for metaphor redundant

In a way all four opinions make the same assumption that metaphors contain truths that can be eventually explained. The substitutionist treats metaphor as a kind of decoration, to be planed off in the advent of scientific discipline. The metonymist evades metaphor, as it carries meanings which it is now only the business of science to deal with. Poetry, for them, is about linking concrete, unmediated unknowns. The interactionist claims we need metaphor even if the better ones will have to be explained in the end and the determinist claims science will find laws to explain everything and make truth the only poetry.

I speak to-night as a poet who loves science, follows maths as best he can, studies philosophy and would not claim any of these disciplines to be any more or less imaginative. Yet I also claim that metaphors cannot simply be unpacked. All forms of knowledge depend on being imaginative for their creativity, yet each has a different strategy of the imagination.

To cross these borders, and reply to these positions, I want to begin by setting a parable before you. I call it the parable of the theatre. In the 17th Century the metaphor of Theatrum Mundi was rife. According to William West[11] it had two distinct meanings, one was a turning towards the heavens in studious meditation; the other was an involvement in the world of illusion and human action.

I owe it again to the late Sir Peter B. Medawar to use the same metaphor and write:

“…scientific papers are simply the postures we choose to be seen in when the curtain goes up and the public sees us. The theatrical illusion is shattered if we ask what goes on behind the scenes. In real life discovery and justification are almost always different processes[12].”

Imagine the production of an opera. There is the stage itself. Then there is a place for an audience. To perform the opera, a term which means “works”, we need performers and we need musicians. We also need music and a libretto. Finally we need costumes and props. This is why my talk is about a shrunken repertory, as when an opera goes into repertory, its props and costumes are often stored. When the opera is performed again, the moth-balls are shaken off and the cast re-costumed.

In my account of scientific creativity, the stage is reality. It is the basis, the foundation that allows us to assert what is out there. The audience is the public. The performers are the scientists seeking to re-present reality. The music is mathematics, the libretto is scientific theory. Now we come to the important bit. The props express a model world, based on the theory which is the libretto and the costumes are metaphors generated by the model. I do not want to say which determines which, because I think this is a path away from imaginative science. I don’t want to say the music is a translation of scientific theory into mathematics, or that mathematics is a coding of theory, for neither science nor mathematics seems to work that way. This is why Tim Maudlin[13] claims Schrodinger and Bohr to have been simply wrong to confuse the maths of particle physics with descriptive reality.

Science is certainly a performance. As Pierre Duhem would say, science depends on what it does[14]. According to William West, science is an enactment. Discovery happens. Its theory, the libretto, is its justification.

To perform all this, science must use metaphor, as a technique of comparison that rides on an agreed fiction to make its message authentic. My claim as a poet is that, seen from the stalls, science has become too inflated with ambiguity to fit the costumes passed down in the repertoire cupboard. (Slide1)

In an opera there should be as few scene-shifts as possible. In the past history of science, philosophy and literature, large pictures were debated with minor, but often crucial changes. In the first part of this talk I want to present a series of closely related baffles, or repertoires that never changed for thousands of years.

The first production is the Myth of Er of about 380 BC. It can be found in one of the most influential books ever written, Plato’s Republic[15]. This is the out of body vision of a man, Er, who lay dead for ten days, then in the companionship of the disembodied he found himself in a fabulous landscape. He accounts for the passage of the dead back into life through a plane which is the whorl of a spindle by the necessity of which the dead are judged. The region had four huge arches from which two steps ascended to the sky and the other two descended into the earth. (slide 2) On the ground between these portals sat judges. They commanded the virtuous souls to ascend. Er was to observe.

All during this time rejuvenated souls were descending from the second portal on the sky full of wonder, beauty and cleanliness. Those who came back up from earth were dishevelled and faced a tenfold reprisal for every bad deed done on earth. Some remained in the vaults due to their iniquity. Seven days later, Er and his companions were bidden to journey. For four days further they travelled until they came upon a vast chain of light, brighter than ever seen, with the colours of the rainbow. They reached the light a day later. This revealed the spindle of necessity. It was attached to a huge arc in the sky and had a whorl on which the planets were spun in the following order Orbit 1 the Stars, Orbit 2, Saturn, Orbit 3, Jupiter Orbit 4, Mars, Orbit 5 Sol, Orbit 6 Venus, Orbit 7, Mercury and Orbit 8, the Moon and of course the fixed stars. (Slide 3 Drawing)

The descriptions of the rims accurately fit the relative distance, hue and revolution speed of the then known planets. The Goddess Necessity drove the spindle on her knees. Her daughter, Lachesis sang of the past, Clotho of the present, Atropos the future; Clotho from time to time assisting with a touch of her right hand the revolution of the outer circle of the whorl or spindle, and Atropos with her left hand touching and guiding the inner ones, in a contrary direction and Lachesis laying hold of either in turn, first with one hand and then with the other. The sirens made up the other five voices.(Slide 4)

The group was assembled before Lachesis and were guided by an interpreter who told the souls how to choose a new life from a lottery.(Slide5) Those who chose first, chose proudly and suffered the consequences whereas those who chose last when the lots were fewer, could lead satisfied lives. Thus experience tempered free judgement. Some chose to be animals and others chose to be men. Then each had a daimon attached to them which guided them. Clotho bound the soul to the relevant rim in the spindle to ratify it and sent it to Atropos who wove a web of irreversible fate sending the soul to the throne of necessity at the centre of the spindle. They then trod onwards to the Plane of Oblivion, where the stream of forgetfulness flowed, the River Lethe. Each soul drank enough to forget everything. Then they lay down to sleep and were raised to rebirth. Only Er finding himself lying on a funeral pyre, early in the morning was able to recall his journey through the afterlife.

Plato tells us that the myth has saved them, “the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken” The phrase is reminiscent of the philosopher of science, Pierre Duhem’s famous phrase about the nature of Science “to save the phenomenon.[16].”

The vision contains three elements which I would consider crucial to its role as a framework for the intellectual transmission of European civilisation. These big props help assemble answers to questions raised earlier; the first is the idea of a privileged witness to a universal vision

The second is an intimate relationship between the universe, as a macrosphere to the microsphere of individual life. The third is the link between individual action and cosmic eventuality seen as a pilgrimage, or journey. Metaphoric language far from being dangerous for scientific life is the only safe way through life. The question as to the truth or falsity of such a metaphoric backdrop is not affirmatively answered; an abstract imaginative frame is good for the scientist and inspires social responsibility, despite its uncertainty. It is emotional because it involves virtuous public behaviour. If the poets mislead us, then cast them out of the city.

Of course there much else in this narrative, but these are issues I want to concentrate on. They are rules in the strategy of imaginative thought.

The second backdrop to a production I want to consider is Cicero’s Scipio’s Dream, written around 51 B.C. This work is deliberately modelled on Plato’s Republic and forms the Sixth Book of Cicero’s De Re Publica[17]. Cicero translated Plato and gave the world that title to the book written by the Greek philosopher whose work was actually called “Politeia,” or “what citizens do in a city.” Instead of a theory of metempsychosis or reincarnation, Cicero substitutes a Stoic conception of familial and patriotic state morality and a dream for a near-death experience. Disembarked in Africa, Scipio Aemilianus receives a visitation from his dead grandfather, Scipio Africanus, who successfully waged the Second Punic War. In his dream he casts his eyes downwards on the city of Carthage from the firmament. His grandfather tells him he will defeat Carthage out of loyal duty. Scipio will be rewarded with a place in Milky Way Yet looking down on Rome, Scipio sees the limitations and insignificance of the earth, relative to the stars.

The planets orbits are seen as spheres each with its own interval of sound, save (slide 6) the silent earth and the chord produced by two planets of equal speed. Thus there are seven notes to his music of the spheres, the Pythagorean number. Scipio the Grandfather points out to his adoptive grandson the poles, the equator and the habitable zones. Scipio must guard his soul with his body on a frail earth in a small city until fate sees to it he is released to the heavens,’ Even there the revolutions of the stars will wipe away his memory, though his glory as God, a self-moved eternal being is confirmed by the figure of Virtue. The sensual are punished; the virtuous are rewarded.

Cicero too has saved the phenomenon as a fictional scaffold for the historical reception of ideas. The idea of a privileged witness to a universal vision, the intimate relationship between the macrosphere and the microsphere of individual life, and the pilgrimage of the moral life through the cosmos continues. He affirms the strategy of the imagination with Plato, yet defends the poet as being at heart a responsible person.

It was not Cicero, but a late classical writer of the Fourth and Fifth Century, Macrobius, who erected the longest lasting scenario in intellectual history (slide7.)

Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius unlike the earlier scene-setters, is not a great writer, but he is a successful populariser. We have two books of a Commentary on the The Dream of Scipio,[18]. Macrobius has inherited a vision and written a textbook. In a long introduction Macrobius follows Porphyry, the editor of Plotinus and Proclus, the last original classical philosopher, in arguing that fictional accounts of reality can aid the task of providing sure ground on the rights and wrongs a man should and should not perform in this life.

The rest of Macrobius’ book is devoted respectively to numerology and the Pythagorean decad, the mythic Scipio, the exercise of virtue, the immortality, origin and descent of human souls, a warning against suicide, the trinity of God, Mind and Soul, a description of the earth and the entire universe. He defends the Platonic order of the planets against the account in Cicero that alternates the positions of Mercury and Venus. He concludes with some very bad maths yielding a very inaccurate diameter for the sun and an extensive argument that the earth, though spherical, polar and divided into tropics, is the centre of the concrete Zodiac and of the universe.

Very little in Macrobius is original, but as he saw himself as the last representative of pagan civilisation,  he could be forgiven for filching just about all his work from Porphyry, a little Varro and possibly some Plotinus and Ptolemy. His style is clear and engaging. He seldom stoops to complications as, in the view of Stahl, his modern translator, he seldom understands them himself.

You may be asking yourselves why I should bring before you a hack, unoriginal and inaccurate writer. I would not bring him before you for any reason other than that his book seems to have been more influential over the just less than two thousand years since its publication than any comparative textbook, second only to Chalcidius[19] in philosophy third to Martianus Capella[20] in cosmology

You only have to consider the facts: despite the history of manuscript, codice and book burnings from Athanasius to Pinochet, manuscripts of Macrobius run into hundreds. The printed editions run into forty eight separate printings. The period of its influence runs from the Fifth Century AD to the last printed edition in 1788: over a thousand years of use. Modern academic editions take over in 1848. As yet, Macrobius is not on line, but no doubt the wily Neo-Platonist is working on it in the heavens. After all he does have a crater named after him.[21]This is an acknowledgement of his usefulness to science.

I cannot go through all the scientists who depend on him, but I will touch on three. The first are those who defended the sphericity of the world against the attacks on the idea by St Augustine and Lactantius[22], which exercised much influence from the Sixth to the Eleventh Centuries. Macrobius’ influence in re-establishing the classical conception of the world blossomed from the Twelfth Century renaissance onwards. The sphericity of the earth was defended, especially by William of Conches in the 12th Century[23]. After which it became the accepted opinion from the school of Chartres onwards. (slide 8)Macrobius directly influenced the formation of the modern map, with its zonal divisions of the northern, frigid zone, the northern temperate zone, the equatorial tropical zone, the southern temperate zone and the southern, frigid zone. Their dependence was not always good. The same school’s theory of tides rejected the lunar theory and followed Macrobius’ polar theory that the tides were caused by currents originating at the poles. Our own Adelard of Bath[24] disagreed only mildly. A much travelled man, he suggested the intervening land masses might make a contribution!

Another group were the Scholastics, especially St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas. Albert referred to him as a spiritual and scientific heretic but used him extensively, especially in Geography and Cosmology (slide9). Aquinas quotes Macrobius, 33 times, more often that Plato in the Summa.

I am not claiming that Macrobius contributed anything to scientific theory, but his frame inspired a certain path of thinking.(slide10) Osiander’s notorious preface to Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543)[25] (slide11)used a so-called Macrobian defence of allowing valid calculations to diverge from philosophical reality. As long as a hypothesis allows reliable computation, it does not have to match what a philosopher might seek as the truth. This was a misuse of the tradition. Macrobius’ doctrine of number was a potty superstition incapable of sustaining such a distinction. Copernicus’ physics, his libretto, did not allow for any compromise in the conflicting systems. The music fits the words and the words fit the heavens. Yet, Copernicus accepted the doctrine of uniform circular motion, albeit around the sun. Kepler attempting to defend Tycho Brahe and Copernicus argued that Macrobius anticipated the heliocentric theory by confusing Macrobius’ Platonic order with Heraclides’. This error was only corrected in recent times. On the other hand, Kepler accepted the Macrobian theory of number but revised his account of harmony. In the Harmonice Mundi, Kepler [26]denied the existence of planetary spheres and denied the circularity of the planet’s orbits, yet he quite determinedly sought to analyse the harmony of the planets.

He did this by showing how certain ratios bound up with the angular velocity of the planets, rather than the traditional ratios of the diameters of the heavenly spheres, gave rise to musical intervals. Kepler knew that this was not, to quote the poet John Hollander[27], “an actual music” but a set of relationships that had a consistency, or harmony.

Kepler deliberately devised a set of melodies and devised a conventional six-part counterpoint. The result, of course was the first mathematically sound theory of planetary motion without which the transition from Copernicus to Newton would have been more difficult. (slide12) Kepler himself did not understand the reason why there were such laws.(slde13)

Newton himself was completely taken with the Macrobian concept of the harmony of the universe. In the Classical Scholia on Principle VIII[28], he writes,

 “…on the evidence of Macrobius,.. the Philosophers loved so to mitigate their mystical discourses that in the presence of the vulgar they foolishly propounded vulgar matters for the sake of ridicule, and hid the truth beneath discourses of this kind. …Pythagoras beneath parables of this sort was hiding his own system and the true harmony of the heavens.”

These investigations belong to the latter part of Newton’s life when as a Natural Philosopher he sought to show the consistency of his physical theory of motion and gravity in the writings of Classical and other writers. Newton worked as a scientist or Natural Philosopher in the context of a big picture, one that he read as a parable with hidden meanings. Newton the mathematician and the observer perform against this back-drop, but he never confuses the back-drop with the music. Yet for all that the libretto which is his theory and the music which is his mathematics are not a decoding of one into the other.(slide14)

I will choose only one more example of the influence of Macrobius on scientific thought. At least until about ten years ago, my last example was considered a scientist. In his account of dreams Macrobius considers one aspect of dreaming as the soul partially liberated from the burden of the body “at times peers intently at the truth.”[29]

No other book seems to have had more of an impact on Twentieth Century thought than Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams[30] The book is a subtle and carefully argued account of the workings of the unconscious mind and its explanatory power over consciousness as mediated by the moral super-ego. Freud was a materialist and a determinist, which contrast with Macrobius’ Divine centred world. The integumentum that separated the soul from the truth in Freud was the repressive but necessary super-ego. (slide15)

For the Macrobian to know himself was to place him in the journey of the soul through the heavens, in its moral and physical sense. For the Twentieth Century dreamer there is no macrocosm only an inner set of partial parables that speak of repression, violation and guilt. Or should we say Lachesis who sang of the childhood past, Clotho of the neurotic present, Atropos the therapeutic future. The heavens become impersonal, mechanistic and abstract might still be reached in our dreams. As Deirdre Gentner claims, Freud’s analogies, like those of Alchemy, lack clarity and have resisted laboratory exploration, yet his book is astonishingly influential[31], like a fixed orrery of the mind. For Freud The Interpretation of Dreams was a deterministic explanation of metaphor. Necessity was no longer a Goddess but an interpretative judge.

Macrobius was a believer in God as an explanatory force in the world, but he was not a Christian, despite the fact that for a thousand years Christians respected his authority including Aquinas who quotes Macrobius even on the Divine essence. Freud perhaps was the first scientists, along with Marx, not only to be himself an atheist, but also to hold sway over an audience that has become increasingly post-Christian. This makes his dependence on the Medieval and Renaissance world picture even more curious. He also inherited the Christianised conscience of the Mediaeval Macrobius. When you consider the massive influence Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams has had on Modernist literature, there seems to be more continuity than discontinuity in literature, but a definite breach with science.

The broad evidence from history is that baffles or backdrops to scientific thought as a “fabulous narrative” has a awesome influence on Western scientific thought. Even more remarkable is the equally influential scope of Macrobius’ Commentary on poetry and literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. He is familiar to the Gawain poet and the poet of Pearl, if they are not one and the same. He is familiar to Petrarch, to Dante to Langland, to Gower, to Chaucer and to Rabelais[32], all of whom borrow his metaphors of the dream as intimate unconscious truth, the vision as privileged encounter and of the universe as intimate pilgrimage through the harmonic heavens. As Peter Brown writes, “The individual embraces self-awareness and reconstruction.[33]” Though there is great individuality and pluralism expressed within this scope. Of course there is also a Muse that sings on each sphere. Macrobius does not tell us which sings from which.[34]This came later with the Renaissance. (Slide 16)

I do not support the position of C.S. Lewis[35] that these discarded images signify the end of a culture which we cannot retrieve. To quote him;

“Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist… To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. [36]

Lewis assumes Mediaeval and the Renaissance scholars believed in the structure in the same way as some believe the relativistic universe of fundamental particle physics. On the contrary, they were faithful Macrobians, following the shared conventions of the “fabulous narrative.”

Fabulous narrative is the fictional recreation of scientific fact through compelling metaphor. Yet despite the continuity, modern science seems to present a fragmented rather than a unified whole. Where is the privileged viewpoint, the intimate belonging and the sense of a journey through harmonious world? Where is the fictional world that can inspire the music of mathematical deduction?

Lewis is right to argue that the Romantic concept of metaphor, a form of interactionism, as a release into language of hitherto unconscious or hidden truths deliberately undermined the Classical framework of the heavens. In the Sixteenth century Galileo could still share the heavens with Ariosto, or Milton. The Portuguese poet, Camoens[37] could still extend the spherical geography of Macrobius into an epic structure.

The view of science proposed by Spinoza and maintained by Hobbes, D’Holbach and Laplace[38] was that all nature follows fixed laws that would be completely predictable were they to be discovered. This seems to be the rift between the classical view and ours. It followed on the previous generation of scientific performance on the theatre: that of the fixed place-logic of Ramus and the mechanistic world of Descartes.[39] What Pierre Duhem referred to as the Newtonian and Cartesian Schools of Science[40]. The idea that mathematical rigour could translate the fixed unalterable laws of the universe ignores the essential flexibility and suppleness of the fabulous narrative.

A hundred years later, Goethe was notorious for his dislike of astronomy and love of alchemy[41].For him the theatre was the interior cosmos. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Lamartine deify the earth, as do the German Idealists. For them metaphor is a private dialogue that strikes the rock of the divine earth. The sense of civic sharing of a fictional structure for moral reasons has been lost. Displaced in the universe, the Romantic imagination turns to life itself as the last trophy of individual uniqueness.

This parting of the ways fired the later Romantic imagination. The icon of Blake’s Newton[42] (slide 17)in which the naked physiology of the thinker’s body and the almost organic rocks on which he sits, contrast powerfully with the physicists’ obsessive concentration on geometry. The reality of nature for some has to be felt not calculated. From the margins of literature, poets such as Keats[43] would toast to the confusion of Newtonic mathematics because it explained and did not get emotional enough about the rainbow. (As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the theory was not Newton’s.

The so-called unalterability of deterministic theories of evolution is as absurd as its stochastic or chance-based alternative. Is it surprising that the poets revolted against bad science? Almost at once in the Nineteenth Century the need for an intimate relationship with the universe was being provided by Science fiction in the hands of Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. The pilgrim narrative had become that of exploitative exploration, and the sense of unity replaced with moral panic and harmony with disaster. The audience no longer sees the scientist but stock characters of melodrama perform instead. Trekkies take the performance into their own homes. It is fashionable to argue with Habermas[44], or Brecht in The Life of Galileo[45], with its doctrine of technological determinism, that the public can only access science through technology and its revolutionary dangers, such as the tragedy of Hiroshima. The public who after all are the audience to whom the scientific performance is enacted, seem to distrust scientists, who are either pictured as distant Messiahs, such as Van Helsing[46], who save us from those who defy nature, or dangerous fanatical Frankensteins[47] who succeed in defying it. The popular view of science is that it performs experiments that challenge reality. The magician ascends the stage and the scenery vanishes into cosmic dust. The curtain closes and a voice shouts out discoveries as breakthroughs while the orderlies justify it through moral panics that clear the stalls. The reaction to recent experiments at Cern that attempting to find the particle that accounts for density could bring about a destructive recreation of the big bang is typical of

The popular mind has to cope with dead metaphors such as the selfish gene. “The 'selfish gene' props up the whole notion of a Darwinian world that is uncaring to the point of being positively nasty: an image that has sometimes provoked resistance to the sciences in general and natural selection in particular. As Denis Noble[48], a physiologist at the University of Oxford has argued,” the idea that genes are selfish is totally unnecessary to an understanding of how they work, and is in some ways misleading. But it is no better to talk instead of the 'cooperative gene', which is equally value-laden and misinformative. Genes are not selfish or cooperative any more than they are happy or short-tempered, as to be selfish or to be co-operative is the province of human morality which no machine can perform. It is the concept of scientific metaphor in general that is problematic.”

Similarly the moral panic of immunology with its with its famous surveillance, self/nonself discrimination, tolerance, repertoire, signal, proliferation architecture, and surveillance, its claim to engulf, protect, digest, release, secrete, trigger, drain, encounter, organise, migrate, recognise, bind, dispose, generate, initiate, destroy, recruit, kill, activate, repair, trap and carry, initiate, destroy, recruit, kill, activate, repair and trap are just a few.

Physicists seek the god-particle, measure red-shift, study black holes in the neutrino sea, stare at the cloud-chamber, pour heavy water and listen for whispers of the big bang.

Urban anthropologists talk of areas “afflicted” with “urban blight.” and “twilight zones”. Psychologists, of “mental distance,”“defence-mechanisms,”or “memory-circuits.”[49] Something is definitely wrong here. This is a theatre of the absurd. The substitution account of metaphor will always result in such poor metaphors because it denigrates metaphor to emotionality and encourages an irresponsible attitude to it. What seems to be a fault here is the understanding of metaphor itself.

Metaphor like creativity itself has been well defined by Aristotle when he referred to it as the making of comparisons[50]. It pre-supposes we think in habitually-ranged categories. If I were to ask you to think of a bird, just any bird, in.


          “ ‘Quick’, said the bird, find them, find them,

Round the corner. Through the first gate,

Into our first world?”[51]

                                    it is highly unlikely you would think of an ostrich. This is because the mind is more comfortable with the centre of a definition than its edges. The bigger the picture the mind can carry around with it, the greater the saliency. Its saliency depends on its use of comfortable categories. This is important as a good metaphor has two features. Firstly there should be considerable distance, or tension between the base and the target concepts. “Man is a wolf to man” is a brilliant metaphor because being a wolf and being a man are utterly distinct except in terms of savagery. Secondly there should be a good saliency. “A polecat is the ICBM of the animal kingdom” has good saliency as speed of response to a threat is common to both. This is the justification for metaphoric fiction to exploit the distance and the saliency of an inherited repertoire.

I hold there are three voices of metaphor: the first is analogy.

The simplest comparisons are similes which exhibit the pattern of analogies a:b::c:d. According to George Miller[52] and Dedre Gentner[53], the attributes of the matters to be compared are less important than the relationship that is being put together. For example the paths of fundamental particles around the atom is to the paths of planets around the sun. This is a very precise relationship but one that ignores most of the attributes of the solar system. To follow through such an analogy requires a faithfully abstract consistency. This is exactly the same as in the language of poetry. Poets often use metaphor to explain I owe it to Deirdre Gentner to see how the following in Romeo and Juliet [54]


But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief

That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

are in fact an analogy, involving a similar consistency to truth. Juliet is to the sun as the moon is to an inferior mistress as is appearance to beauty and disappearance to envy. It makes no sense to think of Juliet as a burning globe of heated gas, heading for dwarfism, or a magnetic force. These readings are not consistent with the analogy.

The sense also depends on the assumed attributes of light symbolising value and the window symbolising opportunity. These are nominative metaphors which depend on a contrived proportionality between light to darkness and window to an assumed shutter. It is here that poetic and scientific creativity differ. The scientist specifies a relationship that seeks to show the beauty of something truthful and ignores other attributes. The poet seeks to show the truth of something beautiful and maximises unforeseen attributes.

A typical scientific analogy can be found in Galileo’s Dialogue between Two World Systems[55]. The Scientist Salviati, who stands for Galileo holds for the rotation of the earth against Simplicius who holds with Macrobius that the earth is the still centre of the universe.Salviati, in a famous argumentum ad hominem offers Simplicius an analogy. A stone dropped from a tower falls directly instead of falling behind the tower as it should were the earth to move. Salviati then offers a further analogy that of an object being dropped from the mast of a ship. Yet Galileo turns the argument against Simplicius

The object falls straight from the mast to the deck even though the ship is moving and a stone falls straight from the tower even though the earth is moving. Thus the experiment cannot evince a motionless earth. The reader follows the argument even though it is analogical because Simplicius has to follow the argument. Here the same technique is being used in poetry and in science. Both poets and scientist can use metaphor to explain. Analogy seems to answer a basic need to identify the self intimately with the world

The second voice of metaphor is one that begins to emphasise attributes more than relations.

Both scientists and poets explain, but they do so for different reasons. Thorstein Veblen used the metaphor:“The rich perform leisure”(1899) [56]This is a typical scientific predicative metaphor in which two dissimilar concepts are united in a verbal, or verb phrase that through mapping an aspect of the unstated concept “work” creates a useful falsity. There are many attributes of the culture of the rich Veblen wants to explore with this metaphor. The poet John Donne uses a similar coupling metaphor in his Third Satire

"On a huge hill,

Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will.

 Reach her, about must, and about must go.[57]"

The concept of truth as a static personification is mapped onto the concept of a physically steep hill in terms of a gradual barely-accessible incline is a specific path of explanation. The concept of reaching couples a mountain and a person, a journey and a relationship. Again neither the Scientist nor the poet is doing anything separately. Each uses the technique to explore a discipline in which agreed judgements about the nature of task are assumed. The poem is fiction. The scientist uses in this case, social facts, yet the skill is the same. This seems to answer the human need for actively joining disunited parts of the cognitive world, a conceptual pilgrimage.

Finally there is a third voice of metaphor , the sentential. In the phrase “he has lost his marbles,” we do not know what is being referred to, but we understand what is meant within a context of convention within a language. We don’t know what Eliot is trying to stretch our imaginations to when he writes in the Hollow Men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats' feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar:[58]

map the familiar onto the unfamiliar and rely on convention to carry the meaning. What is familiar is a very precise cellar in which scarecrow men have been heaped while the wind and the rats blather over their inert forms. This is being mapped privatively onto an image of men leaning together, regretting speechlessness and spoken nonsense, shattered valuables and vanished ripeness. This is the world of the intellectual and moral failure of Europe. Yet the image is so rich in attributes that interpretation is only the beginning of debate.

Yet the scientist too can make such leaps from the very familiar to the unfamiliar. They are rational leaps ,not leaps of faith, as Thomas Kuhn[59] would claim them to be as the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard[60] puts it: “

“So, in the poetic the real and the unreal are joined together; the real, our past experiences 'resonate' within us, while the unreal, the possibilities of the future, the unknown, the Other, 'reverberate' at the surface of our being and expand its limits. In fact, so strong are the reverberations that a new being is created:”

The formulation of the theory of evolution in The Origins of the Species is such a mapping of detailed fact onto new being. Darwin had little conceptual complexity for his conclusion.[61] Just a mass of observations, some processes and the sudden mapping of life onto a time-scale, which is as astonishing now as it was then. It took the mathematics of genetics to reveal its immensity. The failure of Lamarck, Malthus and Wallace was the lack of that leap.

Von Kekulé’s dream of a snake lock-jawed on its own tail used to describe the structure of benzene is an example of such a stretch metaphor used in science. The difference between scientific creativity and poetic is not that the scientist excludes unpredictable attributes from his or her comparison, but that such comparison must lead to predictions otherwise they cannot be tested. Yet keeping an assembly of comparisons can generate further ones. The test of the poet is more rigorous: the richer the unpredictable diversity of attributes the more satisfying the effect. This seems to answer the need the mind has to risk privileged insight into the world.

Bad scientific metaphors in which it currently abounds are ones in which the known being mapped onto the unknown is not specific enough. In what sense is the gene selfish and the Higg’s Boson a God particle? In too many senses to make scientific sense. Bad poetic metaphors are too bare. The Simpsons scripts delight in them, such as Nelson Muntz’s ü(slide 18)[62] “Shoplifting is a victimless crime. Like punching someone in the dark,” or

Lisa Simpson: “You're quitting school?

Nelson Muntz: “Dropping it like a melon off an overpass.”

because to create a bad poetic metaphor, you have to know a good one.

The interactionist view can be dismissed. The point here is that unless you have a criterion for identifying what is not metaphorical then the idea that everything is metaphorical becomes a mindless mush of the mapped being remapped onto the already mapped. Can there be a science, or poetics without metaphor? No it would be impossible, but this does not mean that our language or thoughts depend on metaphor.

This counters the view expressed by poets, such as Ruth Padel, and critics such as Alan Wall that poets use metaphor to disguise, or defamiliarise and scientists use metaphor to explain.[63] The view seems contradictory. Metaphor is not an oscillation between two poles but an asymmetric mapping of the attributes on one concept onto the attributes of another. Vague contiguity as in the case of metonymy cannot admit the full richness of metaphor.

I have tried to show how the substitionalist attempt to reduce metaphor to what can be explained simply ignores the fact that neither poets nor scientists want to explain metaphors, nor use them as explanations. They have their uses as exciting inspiration and will continue to do so. So long as we have a model to explore.

The determinists forget that until they have ultimately explanatory laws, they have no explanation. The idea that a sublime mathematics will predict every occurrence on the basis of perfect laws and that this will show how everything had to happen in the way it did takes no account of what goes on in the theatre of science. The universe is neither moulded by chance nor determined. It simply happens.

This is the reason why we need a new epic dimension to the scientific imagination. We are living in a crisis of saliency. We no longer trust a fictional frame on which to map the new being that is our emerging understanding of the universe and of our intimate involvement with it in our pilgrimage as human creatures out of the physical and material to life and to the conscious life. It is as if we want to frighten ourselves in to an inferior position in an as- yet-to-be-proven hostile universe. We no longer trust the moral authority of nature. We fall back on redundant theories of metaphor which cause us to impose false teleologies[64] on the imagery of science. The genome is the sentence of life. The eye is the so-called camera of the mind which is the so-called computer of the human being. DNA is the bar-code of human reproduction. The immune system defends the body and the hair is its insulation. The heart is a pump. These are not metaphors. They are comparisons that do not allow for new knowledge but merely paste the known on top of the known.

Expressed in terms of the philosophy of science, we need to reconsider the current assumption that science proceeds by revolution rather than by a gradual emendation of a raft of assumptions. I think certain aspects of the Quine/Duhem thesis that “A field of force [exists] where “a conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field”[65] need to be studied. This is just what the Mediaevals and the Renaissance scientists did with their inherited system. The problem with fragmented science is that without a fabulous narrative, there is no centre and no periphery. Similarly the views of Imre Lakatos[66] are being heard with greater enthusiasm among philosophers of science, challenging Kuhn and Koyré’s revolutionary model.

Lakatos took the view that “if a research programme is progressive, then it is rational for scientists to keep changing the auxiliary hypotheses in order to hold on to it in the face of anomalies. However, if a research programme is degenerate, then it faces danger from its competitors: it can be 'falsified' by being superseded by a better (i.e. more progressive) research programme.” In short, if our models are too brittle then they risk being overthrown and quitting the theatre after a short run. Degenerate programmes have no base for hypotheses to be auxiliary to.

In my account of scientific creativity, the stage is reality. It is the basis, the foundation that allows us to assert what is out there. This natural authority needs to be trusted. The audience is the public. They are ill-served. They need to be fed more than dead metaphors and teleological analogies, otherwise they will become insensitive to the nature of both scientific and poetic creativity. The performers are the scientists seeking to explain reality. They are a huge community struggling with an alienation from their audience. The temptations to be hidebound and even to be biased are very high. The music is mathematics following a life of its own which the public cannot understand. Yet there are some good costumes and props: the analogy between sound waves and waves in air and light, the hydraulic analogy for electrical circuits and the analogy of a field induced with a weak uncharged electrical current for deep particle physics all sustain useful science. We still have a Macrobian vestige in the abstract celestial sphere.

The place of the poet is that of programme writer interfacing between the public explaining the libretto and leaving the public to enjoy the music. Since the Eighteenth Century the role of the poet as mediator between the performance of scientists and the public has almost disappeared. As Jo Shapcott rightly said, poets do not want to be handed out roles by the world of science that no longer allows them to be poets[67].

I look to the power of epic metaphor, a new philosophy of the cosmos, to re-design the repertoire of the great opera we begin each day as poet and scientist, makers of metaphor, to preserve the phenomenon of what we think we see. I want to journey in its vast scope, to feel an intimacy with its world and access my privilege to have insight. I want its objects, its processes and its delight to re-focus our understanding of the very limits of the universe, or universes, we find ourselves in.

[1] Whitehead, Alfred North (1978). Process and Reality : an essay in cosmology ; Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh during the session 1927-28  New York: Free Press

[2] Warnock, Baroness, Mary (1976) Imagination Berkeley, University of California Press,9

[3] Noble, D. (2006).The Music of Life,  Oxford, Oxford University Press,

[4]Lewontin, R. C (2001). Science 291, 1263-1264

[5] Dawkins, Richard: Interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams Available from http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/science-vs-poetry/ text accessed 04/04/12. Video not available in UK.

[6] Medawar, Sir Peter: (1996):The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science 63

[7] Quoted in Wall, Alan (2009) Myth, Metaphor and Science Chester, University of Chester:2 see also Padel, Ruth  The Science of Poetry ,the poetry of Science in The Guardian 9th Dec 1911. Available from; http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/09/ruth-padel-science-poetry Accessed 01/04/12

[8] Padel, Ruth (1993) In and Out of the Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self Princeton. Princeton University Press.33

[9] Mark Turner, Gilles Fauconnier (2002): The Way We Think. Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books p. 37

[10] Hawking, Sir Stephen and Mlodinow Leonard: 2010 The Grand Design London, Bantam, and  Zeitgeist Conference Available from http://www.zeitgeistminds.com/videos/unified-theory Accessed 03/04/12

[11] West, William N., Knowledge and Performance in the Early Modern Theatrum Mundi1 Chicago/Evanston Available from :w-west@northwestern.edu: accessed 01/04/12

[12] Medawar, (1969), Sir Peter B. Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought

[13] Maudlin, Tim Interview By Andersen Ross The Atlantic Home Friday, January 20, 2012 What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology

[14] Duhem, Pierre (1980) The Evolution of Mechanics: tr Cole, M. Alphen aan den Rijn Sijthoff and Noordhof : 277

[15] Plato, The Republic, tr. Sir Henry Desmond Pritchard Lee: Harmonsworth, Penguin 1955

[16] Duhem, Paul (1969) “To Save the Phenomenon” Tr Dolands, E. and Maschler, C. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

[17] Cicero De Re Publica:   Tr.Barham, Francis The Online Library of Liberty (available in HTML, PDF facsimile and PDF e-book) Available from http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=546&chapter=83314&layout=html&Itemid=27 accessed 04/04/12

[18] Macrobius, Ambrosius Theodosius (1952)Commentary on the Dream of Scipio Tr. Stahl. W.H. New Yoek, Columbia University Press

[19] Stahl(1952) 46,

[20] Stahl (1952) 51

[21] Available from: http://the-moon.wikispaces.com/Macrobius accessed 07/04/12

[22] Lactantius, (1979) The Divine Institutes, Book III, Chapter XXIV, ed. Roberts, Alexander, and Donaldson, James. Grand Rapids, W.B.Eerdmans Publishing Co. 94-95. Augustine The City of God 16.9  translated by, Calvin College Press, Ethereal Library

[23] Stahl (1952):Op Cit 44

[24] Stahl (1952) op cit 44,49

Copernicus, Nicolaus: (1543, 2004) On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres Ed. Hawking, S Running Press

[26] Kepler, Johannes (1997) The Harmony of the World. Tr.: Field, Juliet The American Philosophical Society,

[27] Hollander, John (1974) Musica Mundana and Twelfth Night in Literary Criticism: Idea and Act: Essays from The English Institute, 1939-1972  Ed.Wimsatt, Los Angeles and Berkeley University of California Press

[28] Newton, Sir Isaac, Gregory MS.247,Folios 11-12:the account of Pythagoras is from Stahl (1952)184-189

[29] Stahl (1952)op.cit.  92

[30] Freud, Sigmund( 1913). The Interpretation of Dreams, Third Edition. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: The Macmillan Company, Bartleby.com, 2010.available from  www.bartleby.com/285/. Accessed. 07/04/12

[31]Gentner, Dedre;  Are Scientific Analogies metaphors? in David S.Miall Metaphor, Problems and Perspectives New York, Harvester: 7

[32] Brown, Peter, (1999) On the Borders of Middle English Dream Visions  in Ed Brown, PeterThe Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Oxford, Clarendon Press

[33] Op cit (1999) 49

[34] The Sun is Melpomene, the Tragic

Calliope is Mercury, the Epic

Terpsichore: Venus as the Dance

Earth is Thalia, Comedy

Mars is Erato, the Erotic

The Moon is Clio, History

Jupiter is Euterpe, the Lyric

Saturn is Polyhymnia Religious



the Fixed Stars are Urania, astronomy

[35] Lewis, C.S. (1964) The Discarded Image, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

[36]Op cit. (1964) 99-100

[37] See the entry under “dreams” in Hamilton, A C (1990), The Spenser Encyclopaedia, Toronto and Buffalo, Unversity of Toronto Press  p595

[38] All much read by Shelley which shows the Romantic revolt against science was a counterpart to natural determinism. See Tinkler-Villani, Valery  (1999) Atheism and Belief in Shelley, Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, in Victorian Keats and Romantic Carlyle: The Fusions and Confusions of Literary Periods ed. Barfoot C. C Amsterdam Rodopi.:324

[39] See Ong, Walter J, Ramus. Rhetoric and the Pre-Newtonian Mind (1952) in Wimsatt (1974) Op Cit 128

[40] Duhem, Paul (1903)Les Origines de la Statistique Paris, Hermann  p352.

[41] Gray, R.W. (2010) passim Goethe the Alchemist. Cambridge, C.U.P.

[42] Blake ,William (1795/circa 1805) Newton. Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper,460 x 600 mm,Tate

[43] Haydon, Benjamin (1929). "Chapter XVII 1816-1817". In Alexander P. D. Penrose. The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon 1786-1846 Compiled from his "Autobiography and Journals" and "Correspondence and Table-Talk". Minton Balch & Company, New York. p. 635. "During an 'immortal dinner' 28th December 1817 hosted by Haydon and attended by Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Keats, and Keats' friend Monkhouse, Keats light-heartedly said Newton 'has destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours.' He then proposed a toast to 'Newton's health, and confusion to mathematics' to the amusement of all. The dull fetishist, sculpture by Paolozzi seems to miss Blake’s point.

[44] Habermas, Jurgen (1968)Technische Fortschritt und sociale Lebenswelt in Technik und Wissenschaft als Ideologie Frankfurt am Maine

[45] Brecht, Bertolt. (1952. 1966)Galileo. Tr. Laughton, Charles. Ed. Bentley, Eric. New York: Grove Press,

[46]  Stoker, Bram (1897)Dracula, London Archibald Constable and Co.

[47] Shelley, Mary (1818) Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus 3vols: London, Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor and Jones

[48] Noble, D. (2006) The Music of Life Oxford, Oxford University Press,.

[49] I owe these examples to Gentner(1982) and the blog Morphostasis,Available from http://www.morphostasis.org.uk/metaphors. Accesssed 04/04/12

[50] Aristotle (1963) The Poetics tr. Warrington, J. London: J. M. Dent and Sons


[51] Eliot, T.S. The Four Quartets Burnt Norton I Available from http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html uploaded 07/04/12

[52] Miller, George, (1979) Images and Models in Metaphor and Thought ed. Ortony, A :Cambridge C.U.P.202

[53]Gentner, Dedre (1982) Are Scientific Analogies metaphors? in David S.Miall Metaphor, Problems and Perspectives New York, Harvester: 7

[54]Shakespeare, William(1967): Romeo and Juliet  Harmondsworth, Penguin: Act 2, scene 2, 2–6

Galilei,.Galileo (1629, 1953 (revised 1967) Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, translated by Stillman Drake, University of California Press,

[56] Veblen, Thorstein (1973). The theory of the leisure class. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[57] Donne, John Third Satire available from  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/satire3.htmAccedssed 07/04/12

[58] Eliot, T.S.() The Hollow Men, Collected Poems London, Faber

[59] Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

[60] Bachelard, Gaston The Poetics of Space 10-12

[61] Ruse M(1979) The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw; Chicago; Univ Chicago Press,.and  http://www.pnas.org/content/106/suppl.1/10040.full

[62] "The Simpsons: Marge Be Not Proud (#7.11)" (1995)

[63] Padel, Ruth  quoted in a review by Victor Bers of Debra Hawhee, Bodily Arts. Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.08.38 p. 35.


[64] I am indebted to the anonymous blogger at http://www.morphostasis.org.uk/metaphors.htm

[65] Quine, Norbert "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," Philosophical Review LX (1951)

[66] Lakatos, Imre and Musgrave, Alan (1970) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 91-195

[67] Shapcott, Jo, Op Cit: Available from http://www.liv.ac.uk/poetryandscience/essays/jo-shapcott.htm accessed 02/04/12


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