Wednesday, 1 February 2017


A Defence of the Monistic Philosopher

A letter from Wallace Nelson:— "The Sunday Times" of November 12 contains the following paragraph:—

"Haeckel, the great prophet of Monism, the Archbishop of Materialism, is hesitating in his ripe old age. He has hesitated so far as to write a very interesting article on 'Psyche and the Soul,' which was published in a recent number of the New York 'Independent.' Nor does he smash the idea of a soul with lumps of old red sandstone of reasoning. He plays with it gently as if he had evolved a fond regard for it, and after asserting that if 'Pure Reason' (Kant) 'remains free from all seductions of Eros, it will remain, in proud self-sufficiency, encased in its unworldly speculative case or cocoon.' He goes on:—"But we are of opinion, that not only the enjoyment but also the deeper knowledge of life is far greater in an intellectual hero like Wolfgang Goethe, who looks with open eyes into all 'the depths of the world, and who penetrates like a winged butterfly not only into the perfumed heart of the flower, but also into many secrets of life.' That is getting pretty close to the intuitive philosophy of Bergson. Soon Wallace Nelson will be left solitary on the barren sandpatch of monistic dogma."

* * * * * *

Will you permit me to say that there is not the slightest justification for asserting that Haeckel is hesitating in his ripe old age, or that he is any nearer the intuitive philosophy of Bergson to-day than he was when he wrote his "Riddle of the Universe ?" And, strangely enough, he expressly says so in the very article which is cited as proof, of his change or modification of opinion. The article entitled "Psyche" was originally contributed to the September issue of the "Literary Guide," the organ of the Rationalist movement in England. In the course of the article the great biologist thus finely sums up the fundamental difference between the dualistic and monistic view of the soul or mind :—

"If we set aside all secondary distinctions, the manifold ideas regarding the human soul may be brought into two large fundamentally antagonistic groups—namely, a dualistic and a monistic group. According to the older dualistic or two-fold view—which is still held by the great majority of mankind—the human organism is a double entity, consisting of a mortal body with an immortal soul, which inhabits it during life and leaves it at death. Thus teach most of the philosophers and theologians since Plato proclaimed in profound dialogues his dualistic metaphysics, and Christ, in the Gospels, his world-conquering religion.

"The newer monistic or unific view of the psychic life, on the contrary, contends that man, like every other vertebrate animal, is a unific being in which body and soul are inseparably bound together. Our 'psyche,' therefore, is not an independent being, but the collective idea of the sum-total of life activity which, like all other functions, of our organism, are regulated by the structure of the organs, and, further, by the work of the millions of microscopic cells which constitute these organs. This natural conception of the human soul, however, could not obtain widespread scientific acceptance until after the tremendous progress of natural science in the nineteenth century had placed at the disposal of investigators a mass of hitherto unknown empirical evidence."

Haeckel then, proceeded to say : — "My views on the subject are presented in the second volume of my 'Riddle of the Universe,' chapters vi-ix." If we turn to these chapters we find Haeckel summing up his position in the following words:—"If we take a comprehensive glance at all that modern anthropology, psychology and cosmology teach with regard to athanatism we are forced to this definite conclusion: The belief in the immortality of the human soul is a doctrine which is in hopeless contradiction with the most empirical truths of modern science."

Haeckel declares in his "Psyche" article that that is his view of the soul. And yet that very article is cited as evidence that he is hesitating in his old age and going over to the intuitive philosophy of Bergson! As a matter of fact, the article is written for the express purpose of showing, by an illustration taken from the insect world, the superiority of science over metaphysics. The following quotation from the article places that beyond all rational question:—

"Since the mythology of the old Greeks compared the psyche to a butterfly, it is now permitted to modern biology to use the above remarkable facts in the history of the development of Psychinæ as symbols of psychology. It sees in the two sexes of the Psychinæ an ingenious allegory upon the two antagonistic camps of soul knowledge. The winged males fly about far and wide, look at the beautiful world with open eyes and gather in experiences. They follow the ways of psycho-physics (in its broadest sense), according to the empirical and monistic philosophy. The wingless females, on the contrary, seclude themselves from the outer world, lose the organs for its contemplation, and meditate, entombed in their case of wisdom, only about themselves and their inner existence. They remain captive to the introspective method of psycho-mysticism, the speculative and dualistic philosophy. They become fruitful only when they pair with the more highly developed mate."

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Haeckel cites Goethe, who was a scientist as well as a poet, for the express purpose of showing the superiority of the open-eyed poet philosopher who contemplates all the facts, physical and psychical, objective and subjective, over the theologian, who shuts out one half of the truth and vainly hopes to discover the facts of the infinite universe, not by searching for them everywhere, but by spinning them out of his own imagination as spiders spin cobwebs out of their own bodies.

* * * * *

Permit me, in conclusion, to say that it is absurd to refer to Haeckel as the "Archbishop of Materialism." Haeckel is not a materialist; he is a monist. There are three fundamental theories of ontology. They are as follow:—

(1) Spiritualism: The doctrine that mind is the cause of matter.

(2) Materialism: The doctrine that matter is the cause of mind.

(3) Monism: The doctrine that mind and matter are not casually related, but are different aspects of one fundamental reality.

The latter is, in essence, the view of Haeckel. And it is the view which, in some shape or form, is accepted by an overwhelming majority of modern thinkers. It is not a dogma; it is merely a view of the universe, accepted because of its apparent reasonableness and harmony with all the discoveries of science, which seem to confirm Diderot's great dictum that "the universe is one fact." Far from being dogmatic, those who accept the monistic position are generally the readiest to recognise the mobility of the infinite intellect, to comprehend the infinite universe and to agree with the profound agnosticism of the man who wrote—

"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our
little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
. . . . .

Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954), Sunday 19 November 1911, page 9

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