First published in June 2022.
What is reality? This question is of great importance for all areas of life — including three I take great interest in: philosophy, history, and politics. I’d like to consider each area of study in turn, considering how what we consider to be ‘real’ is influenced by our vantage point, before bringing these perspectives together. I suggest that philosophy, the study of what ought to be, and history, the study of what has been, might be fruitfully synthesised in politics, the study of what could be — or, to coin a cliche, the art of the possible. The social character of politics, perhaps, lies between concrete history and abstract philosophy. Political realism, I suggest, can mediate between historical materialism and philosophical idealism. Reality is not really knowable through philosophical understanding, or historical observation, but political judgment. Perhaps a fuller knowledge of reality will put all three approaches together, allowing us to grasp reality as it has been, as it ought to be, as it is, and — vitally — as it could be. Reality, at the end of the day, is life. Live it.
Reality, first, must be understood. Philosophers often gravitate to a position called ‘idealism’, which says that reality consists in ideas in people’s heads. Bishop George Berkeley argued that all material objects are, in fact, ideas, observed either by people alone or, furthermore, by God. For Berkeley, we all participate in the mind of God when we make observations — since we are not really observing external objects but ideas in God’s divine intelligence. Berkeley’s reason for taking this position was that ‘nothing can be like an idea but an idea’. Therefore, it makes no sense to say our ideas ‘represent’ objects in the world ‘out there’. Ideas cannot represent anything but other ideas. Nothing can be like an idea but an idea. Therefore, Berkeley concluded, to be is to be perceived — or to perceive (in Latin: Esse est percipi — aut percipere). There are not three kinds of being — minds, objects, and thoughts — but two: minds, and thoughts. More specifically, there is God’s mind, our minds, ideas in our minds and God’s mind, and ideas which only exist in God’s mind.
Why assume the existence of God? Because without God, when we look away from an object, it would cease to exist. The power of divine intellect explains the relative permanence of objects — or ideas in the mind of God — and the enduring stability of the laws of physics. Ideas and minds are lively; they have an influence on us. What is not mental cannot affect us; therefore, insofar as the physical world has an effect on us when we’re not looking, it’s because what we call physical and external is in fact mental and internal to the mind of God. Causation comes from us — or, when we’re not looking, God.
Reality must also be constructed. It must be made. How? When people make history, they first do so by trying to use tools to fashion nature to meet human needs — for instance, by ploughing fields to feed themselves and their families. Over time, ‘people’ have been taken increasingly out of the picture as machines do more and more work for us — but the fact people still have to go to work for a wage is evidence that the economy isn’t fully automated. People still have to work, so people are still needed to use tools to make stuff to keep themselves, and those around them, alive. The root cause of all this is the human need to eat and sleep and have shelter. The root cause of that is Darwinian evolution — a process of spontaneous variation in traits which are sorted through by the selective pressure of competition over scarce resources, leading to only those traits surviving which are best adapted to the environment (or, at least, most of the time). Darwinian evolution is harder to explain, but it seems to have emerged from a physical universe with physical laws, and biology in general seems to be constructed on top of a substructure of physics. History involves people reflecting on their condition — in other words, another layer of causation, on top of physics and biology: sociology.
Social evolution involves not just organisms but whole political states and economic classes of people competing over scarce resources. But at the root of all of this is the drive to survive in a world of material scarcity. This is the reason why philosopher and political economist Karl Marx develops a view called ‘historical materialism’, which claims that history is about economic classes competing over scarce resources so that their members can secure the means of material survival (resources like food, water, shelter) through developing the means of production (technology). Arguably, states also compete over resources — though, tragically, through military rather than merely economic competition, quite often. Trade competition between classes is war-like, because some classes are victorious over others and take the vast majority of the resources — as Marx argues is the case under capitalism. But in both cases, material forces (resources and technology) drive the social relations (states and classes) to adapt to changing physical environments. If idealism is true in philosophy, materialism is true in history — in part because ideas are private to the perceiver, while objects are public, shared, and social.
Of course, if Berkeley is right, then what we call matter is merely public thoughts. There’s nothing ‘physical’ beyond thought — everything exists in the mind of God; or at least in some mind (‘God’ being the name for the regulative principle of the cosmos, which sustains everything through a kind of cosmic intelligence). There are private thoughts, internal to individuals, and public thoughts, external to them. Historical materialism is just a public form of philosophical idealism. Perhaps the two positions could be reconciled — if we admit that reality is basically mental, then we can define matter as the public, shared ideas which participate in a (perhaps subconscious) cosmic intelligence (Deus sive Nature, as the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza put it — ‘God, or Nature’). Still, though they’re clearly compatible, we’ve ended up with two positions — historical materialism, which explains how things change (in human society), and philosophical idealism, which explains how things stay the same (in divine psyche). How can these positions be balanced, or reconciled?
In politics, public matter and private mind — which, for Berkeley, participate in the universal mind of God — can be reconciled. Politics, as Aristotle argued, starts off with the needs of bare life through satisfying the body’s physical needs, but progresses to satisfy the needs of the good life through nurturing the mind’s psychological needs. Because the state has to start with satisfying citizen’s material needs before it provides the space for other needs to be satisfied, the state has to bridge the artificial gap between historical materialism and philosophical idealism. For this reason, philosopher G.W.F. Hegel argues, ‘the State is the march of God in the world’. The state, in other words, does what God does in the cosmos but on Earth: the state bridges the gap between what we do and what we think — but helping us to realise that these are, in the end, the same thing.
Political realism, then, mediates between the philosophical idealism of Berkeley and the historical materialism of Marx. Political realism prioritises our material needs, but then progresses to satisfy our other needs. Ideally, the state, in satisfying our needs, provides us with the time and resources for art, music, sport, and other kinds of philosophy or virtuous living — which participate in our mind and, more generally, all our minds (and, perhaps, the divine or cosmic mind). Matter may not be mind, because matter as we know it is mind asleep — this is why the universe is not so much divided between consciousness and unconsciousness but between what is conscious and what is subconscious. We are awake but the universe is asleep.
Perhaps the ultimate task of politics is not merely to balance matter and mind but to unite them — to wake up the universe from its material slumber, towards mental light. But before we awaken ourselves and the rest of creation, we must satisfy our needs as we sleep. We must satisfy our material, or subconscious, needs in order to satisfy our mental, conscious needs. We must eat, drink, and sleep before we can enjoy the full benefits of being awake. Political realism must prioritise historical materialism — but in the light of philosophical idealism. Materialism may be where realism begins, but idealism is where it ends. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, a self-proclaimed ‘sceptical idealist’, claimed that ‘judgment’ is knowing the difference between theory and practice. Perhaps political judgment can tie the theory of philosophy and the practice of history together. Being realistic, perhaps, is knowing how to do both. That may be the most realistic manifesto.