On The Non-Difference Between Idealism and Materialism

Rather than being a genuine alternative to metaphysical materialism (the general notion that thinking is derivative of being), metaphysical idealism (the general notion that thinking and being are identical) is the fruition of a seed implicit in the original naïve realist assumption that the world actually exists “out there” independently of the observer, which itself is an operating assumption of the metaphysical materialist.

This seed is the bifurcation of experience into a subject of experience and the objects experienced by that subject, which frames our experience in terms of a distinction between a “unified,” “internal,” “subjective” vantage point and “differentiated,” “external,” “objective” focal points. Idealism and Materialism are just different philosophical views deploying the same subject-object frame, with the major distinguishing factor being which side of the subject-object divide is given ontological and causal precedence over the other. Neither view actually fundamentally questions this operating assumption, or if they do, they fail to be consistent and resurrect it in the last instance as with absolute idealism where Spirit/Brahman is the conceived of as a transcendent hyper-subject from which all subject-object interactions emanate, or as with dialectical materialism where nature is the conceived of as a hyper-object immanently unfolding all subject-object interactions.

Arguably Indo-Tibetan Madhyamaka Buddhism and Anglo-American Process Philosophy are the only traditions to have truly grappled with the problem of bifurcating subject and object, taking the implications of denying this duality to their absolute limits, albeit starting from different contexts and guided by different motivations: Madhyamikas take the route of bi-negation, denying both the identity and the difference of subject and object in order to disclose their non-inherent, interdependent, open-empty nature. Processists alternatively take the route of creative synthesis in which subject and object are seen as partial moments of a greater process of concrescence of a unified, inclusively transcendent subject-superject.

Coming close is the Marxist tradition, which has always had strong contradictory tensions within itself between those aspects of the movement committed to a more metaphysical, mechanical, “vulgar” materialism and those aspects striving to think and practice the examples set by Marx and Engels in their affirmation of sensuous life-activity between persons, rather than “matter” or “mind,” as the mediating principle of (social) reality.

So while Madhyamikas may have disclosed the gnoseological basis of subject-object duality and Processists have envisioned its resultant overcoming in communion with deity, the Marxist tradition may be a key element of the path from basis to result because it is composed of an ongoing development in the theory and praxis of communization, which is a movement committed to the abolition of every order which may pose as an obstruction to our real communion — including itself.

3 Replies to “On The Non-Difference Between Idealism and Materialism”

  1. Can I recommend Thomas Nails’s “Being in Motion” as an extremely erudite contribution to Materialism, not limited to deploying the notion of “sensuous life-activity” as exclusively a mode of the human, but extending it to all sentient life and even to so called non-sentient entities (mode being a term better able to convey the centrality of the concept of motion in Nail’s tome).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m aware of Nails’ work but have not taken the time to look at it, so thanks for increasing my interest! I do think this sort of extension of sensuous activity beyond the merely human is important, given the ecological crisis and the persistence of anthropocentric forms of thinking and being.


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