1 November 1997
Thank you for your letter of 22 October, with your essay on units 10 — 12 of 'The Ultimate Nature of Things', and your response to unit 13.
On Tuesday, I gave a talk to the philosophy research seminar at Hull on 'The (Partial) Vindication of Solipsism'. I spent a very enjoyable afternoon and evening, which included an excellent pub meal with the head of department, Professor Brenda Almond. Afterwards, she wrote in a letter, 'Your paper will have provoked some very non-linear thoughts'! In fact, I read half a paper, then extemporised the rest with the aid of a hastily written hand out. As a result of a mix-up (not mine!) I had been given to understand that the talk was to be on Wednesday, and only found out the awful truth on Tuesday morning when I phoned for directions!
I was glad in the end that I did not have to burn the midnight oil, as I had originally intended, though I will always wonder whether some new idea might not have emerged in the struggle to complete the paper on time. Anyway, just out of interest I enclose the fragment that I did succeed in finishing, together with a copy of the handout.
First, in response to your comments on unit 13, I have to say I am not impressed by the implied suggestion that, because the perception of simple monads is 'unconscious', the theory is somehow made more palatable. In the present century, A.N. Whitehead (Russell's collaborator on 'Principia Mathematica') in his great metaphysical work 'Process and Reality' elaborated a theory which, though radically different in certain respects from Leibniz's monadology, nevertheless committed him to the view that feeling of some sort (to use the most neutral term) is spread throughout the universe. Reality is ultimately made up of 'actual occasions' — individual atomic events — and every actual occasion has a mental as well as a physical aspect or 'pole'.
To me, talk of 'mentality' or 'feeling' or 'perception' is stretching an analogy to breaking point. It does not help to be told that the feelings of a simple monad or an actual occasion are very different in character from the thoughts and perceptions I am now having as I write this. I simply don't see the justification for using the same terms — whichever one's you choose — in the two cases.
'What was the Absolute like before self-conscious subjects existed?' is a good question. I think that, putting myself into the shoes of an Absolute Idealist, I would be pulled two ways. One way is simply to distinguish empirical statements regarding the passage of time from the metaphysical. Statements such as, 'The dinosaurs existed between thirty and fifty million years ago' will be empirically true, even though, from a metaphysical standpoint, nothing can exist in the absence of conscious subjects. (In a similar way, the egocentrist or solipsist can talk of 'the time before I was born'.) The other way is to take the Leibnizian/ Whiteheadian route of insisting that consciousness has always existed everywhere in some form.
So far as I understand Hegel's metaphysics of nature, the universe prior to the appearance of conscious beings exhibits a teleology which is neither the teleology of a work of 'creation' (the idea of God as 'first cause'), nor that associated with possession of feeling or consciousness. Rather, this teleology is the seed of what will become consciousness and self-consciousness once animal and human life appear on the scene.
Regarding your essay, though Locke scorns the 'under-propping' conception of substance, there is clear indication in his 'Essay' that he identified corpuscules with 'material substance'. That is to say, in Quinian terms, what substances ultimately exist is a question of the basic ontology of physical science. Man, tree, dog, horse are everyday examples of substances. Our 'idea', i.e. concept of a substance is different from our idea or concept of a quality or attribute, the key difference being that substance concepts are sortal: you can count the number of dogs in a room but not the 'number' of reds.
However, philosophers have fallen into the fatal trap, as Locke observes, of looking for something 'behind' or 'underneath' the qualities of a dog. In other words, the logical/grammatical notion of substance is perfectly OK. It is also acceptable to ask, 'Which are the ultimate substances?' i.e. the things we would have to count in giving a complete description of physical reality. (Having counted the dog's corpuscules you don't also have to count the dog.) What is not OK is the notion of substance put forward to 'solve' the pseudo-problem of what supports a collection of qualities.
Though Hume denies that we have the idea of a material object as something that 'continues' in the absence of perception and is 'distinct' from the act of perception, he lets matter and material objects in through the back door as 'fictions'. As commentators have observed, there is not a great distance separating Hume's theory of fictions and Kant's account of the notions of substance and cause as a priori categories that render experience of a unified world possible.
The mathematical paradigm led Descartes to attempt to deduce a physics from a priori analysis of the geometrical notion of 'extended substance'. However, as Leibniz pointed out, and as Newtonian physics effectively demonstrated, there is essentially more to material stuff than can be deduced from the idea of extension alone. However, the mathematical paradigm survives in philosophy in the form of the demand for rigorous standards of proof. 'Perhaps chemistry as a paradigm would promote the ideas of reactivity and combining; art, notions of beauty and expression.' — Hmm. I'll have to think about that one.