The Material and the Ideal are Mutually Implicated

Critical materialism seems to have an ideal: the real apprehension of existence in terms of causes and conditions, rather than in terms of concepts and ideas.

But there’s an extent to which some self-professed “materialists” only proceed with their investigations of reality through a kind of fetish for materialism, which makes them ignorant as to the degree with which their ideas about materiality are just that: ideas. It is incredibly naive to think that critical materialism of the true sort pertains to the apprehension of sensuous existence in its pure, unadulterated immediacy. Such an immediacy from a critical investigation is just not possible, because our comprehension of what we apprehend is mediated by our concepts and ideas. In their passionate enthusiasm to overcome the “idealism” of the opponents who they are aggressive with, these materialists become deluded as to the real nature of existence.

From a critical method, it is not possible to get to the concrete in its sheer concreteness. For the concrete, in as much as it is held in thought, is always mediated by the abstract. This is because any given thing is always understood in terms of its designated name. The thing is particular, because the thing being referred to is uniquely “this” thing but not “that”. The designated name is universal, because the same name can be used to identify different things. But it would be foolish to think that the thing exists independently of the designated name. For the name is the very reason for why we can distinguish this particular thing from other things, by drawing a boundary within the manifold totality of sense-experience.

Without a thing to give name to, the name cannot exist. Without the name, it cannot be said that the thing exists. If one forgets or is ignorant of this relational nature between name and thing, one may end up mistaking the abstract for the concrete. By mistaking the abstract for the concrete, we end up in a world of illusions, mistaking phantom representations for the presentation of the real. This ignorant state is bound to cause suffering, whether in the form of logical incoherence in thought or emotional unease in practice.

So the material and the ideal are always mutually implicated, and as such there is no possibility of holding on to one independently of the other. We can only orient ourselves to the material through our ideas about it, and our ideas only have grounding in their dependence on material conditions.

Ultimate truth can be understood as truth which is independent of historically contingent and geographically situated contexts, and independent of the social conventions specific to those contexts. But in as much as reality is engaged through critical thought, the immediate apprehension of reality in its ultimate truth is not possible. This is because for critical thought to be critical, it must be able to discriminate and differentiate, and in order to discriminate and differentiate, we must use nominal designations (names), and names only make sense in terms of the historically contingent and geographically situated contexts which give them meaning. Thus critical thought cannot give us ultimate truth, but it is useful in that it can produce provisional or conventional truths that can assist in the initiation, unfolding and success of forms of social practice.

Since the concrete is always already mediated by the abstract, the only way out is through: working through our abstractions with concern for the concrete. Only by taking abstraction seriously, and by understanding its role in conditioning, influencing or determining our reception of the concrete, can we develop the means to successfully descend from the lofty heights of celestial ideality towards the mundane planes of terrestrial materiality.

It is important to remember that no abstraction will ever give real access to reality. Keeping this reminder in mind, and never forgetting, we will be sufficiently equipped to adequately refine the resolution of our image of totality. This resulting image, this dialectical thought-matrix, would serve as the platform from which you can engage with reality. Through this, the function of theory fulfills itself, as the derivative of and the supplement for practice. The insight then gained from practice, would be reintroduced to the system of thought, which further refines the image, which provides further precision as to how to continue on the path to success. This cycle continues endlessly, with every iteration of the circuit producing a more truthful sense of reality.

Practice, grounded in sensuous experience and not in a notion of the material or ideal, is the only way to ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is not like the truth of one who, as subject, stands above and against the world, as object. Ultimate truth would be more like what the artist does when making her work: deeply involved in her engagement with sensuous existence, her doing and knowing coincide harmoniously, driving her labor to realize forms of aesthesis hitherto unrealized.

2 thoughts on “The Material and the Ideal are Mutually Implicated

  1. This is brilliant and goes a long way to solving a particularly knotty problem in the philosophy of Buddhism, which struggles with an idealism, aka ’emptiness,’ that tries to eclipse materiality. Materiality, substance, cannot be magically disappeared by an idea. Conversely, as you say of critical materialism, the material cannot be experienced or understood without cognitive engagement of some sort, even if it is no more than a sensory impression processed in the brain. That cognitive process, whether it has a name or not, is still conceptual, and not actual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s why you have to understand that Madhyamaka philosophy critically posits the emptiness of emptiness as a notion. One of the points of the notion of emptiness is that conceptuality itself cannot fully grasp the fundamental nature of reality. One also has to keep in mind that materiality doesn’t “not exist” according to the doctrine of emptiness, it merely does not exist inherently, “from its own side”. There is also a large difference in opinion among various Buddhist philosophical schools, some of whom are more idealist than others. It is generally accepted the Yogachara school is more idealist than the Madhyamaka school, but there have been various attempts to synthesize the two positions.


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