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A review of Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter by Christian de Quincey This book might have been more accurately titled, The Mind-Body Question: Once More with Feeling!, because – to skip right to the end as if it were a mystery novel – de Quincey concludes that we can solve the mind-body problem […]

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Posted September 4, 2005 by thomasr

 
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A review of Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter by Christian de Quincey

This book might have been more accurately titled, The Mind-Body Question: Once More with Feeling!, because – to skip right to the end as if it were a mystery novel – de Quincey concludes that we can solve the mind-body problem only through an understanding that incorporates feeling and intuition as well with the reasoning intellect. But the journey is more than half the fun in this book.

Radical Nature is excellent in two respects. First, it is a masterfully written and highly readable exploration of the mind-body problem by an author who has a complete grasp of both analytic and metaphysical philosophy. In these pages he follows the trail of the mind-body problem historically, starting with pre-Socratic ideas such This is one of the best reviews of the topic to date as Thales’ concept of the cosmos as water, Anaximander’s idea of apeiron as the root of all that exists, Anaximenenes’ notion of the world as air, Pythagoras’ emphasis on geometry and harmonies, and Anaxagoras’ grand organizing principle, nous; then moves forward to the philosophies of the Enlightenment, including Descartes’ interactive dualism, Leibniz’s monadology, as well as Spinoza’s pantheism; and finally to modern philosophical notions such as the Churchlands’ materialism, Dennett’s analytic deconstruction of consciousness, and Chalmers’ new dualism and emphasis on information at the root of conscious experience.

This thoughtful review of the mind-body problem in the history of philosophy is alone worth the price of the book and then some. It is, to my way of thinking, one of the best reviews of the topic to date, and certainly the most accessible. It offers an excellent and thoughtful introduction to the topic for graduate courses, and because of its readability, undergraduate courses as well.

But this is more than a standard re-iteration of what is perhaps the oldest and most troublesome problem in philosophy. Where de Quincey shines is in his exploration of important holistic and process ideas, usually given short shrift in today’s post-structuralist and post-analytic era. His lucid treatment of the intellectual contributions of Heraclites, Giordano Bruno, Henri Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead make for fascinating reading.

Now, most of us are familiar with the name “Giordano Bruno,” and know that he was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for his ideas about cosmology a few decades before the great figures of the Enlightenment profoundly changed the Western view of the universe. We probably also know that his persecution put the scare into later figures such as Galileo and Descartes, leading, at least in part, to the Few of us really understand the ideas in Whitehead’s Process and Reality radical split between mind and matter proposed by the latter as a kind of political negotiation with the Church, and leading to the shift of science away from consciousness and the spirit, toward an entirely reductionistic and materialistic worldview. What many of us don’t know – I certainly did not – is that Bruno argued for an understanding of the nature of matter that incorporated a living, creative, dynamic, so the idea of dualism would have been unnecessary if Enlightenment philosophers, scientists, and clergy, had accepted his thinking. Thus, Bruno belongs to a tradition dating back to Aristotle, and even further to the pre-Socratic philosophers, just as Descartes, with his dualism, belongs to a tradition dating back to Plato’s dualistic notions about idealism and the soul. Bruno’s ideas were later to be reflected in the writings of Henri Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin, and were developed to remarkable richness in the work of American process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

But let’s face it; few of us really understand the ideas in Whitehead’s Process and Reality. While most readers will agree that Whitehead possessed one of the great minds of the 20th century, it must be admitted that his writing is thickly abstruse. Reading Whitehead is like reading Heidegger, and the fact that the original text is in English does not help much. To understand it we would need a two-year sabbatical committed to its study. In the meantime, many of those who claim to have mastered Whitehead have a way of disappearing into obscure corners of philosophy or theology The entire book is rich with complex and difficult ideas presented in clear and understandable terms departments. But here is where de Quincey does his best work. He explains Whiteheadian process philosophy in accessible language that does not trivialize or “dumb down” Whitehead’s basic insights. Indeed, the entire book is rich with complex and difficult ideas presented in clear understandable terms, without compromising the clarity or subtlety of the original thought. But the treatment of Whitehead is of special value, not only for its own sake, but also because in the final chapters de Quincey argues, in Whiteheadian style, that the solution to the mind-body problem is not to be found in the usual intellectual games of philosophers, but rather in a full-bodied understanding of our own place in nature, one that honors emotion and feeling as well as the intellect, and arises form our very bodies.

Ultimately the goal de Quincey calls for is a robust understanding of consciousness and the material world, or in his own terms, a story of the cosmos that includes the teller; a story grounded in process rather than substance, and not indebted to the Cartesian intellect, but in Whiteheadian tradition, embraces the subtler dimensions of empathy and feeling.

Copyright © 2005 A.Combs

Radical Nature: Rediscovering the Soul of Matter. By Christian de Quincey. Invisible Cities Press; 2002. 330 pages.

Radical Nature by Christian de Quincey has won the Scientific & Medical Network 2003 book-of-the-year award

De Quincey homepage

Reviewer Information

Allan Combs
The Graduate Institute
Saybrook Graduate School
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thomasr

 


One Comment


  1.  

    One member of the committee formulated to discuss an M.A thesis , asked, to the astonishment and surprise of the other members and chairman:”What scientific contribution have you provided?” while he was throwing the thesis copy allocated for his review. Others carried on their work and the student was granted his M.A with:Very Good. I always tried not to attempt high studies because I used to “tell myself”: What are you going to say more than others; everything is known; books abound with information and all thew sciences (from the most trivial to most imnportant); you won’t be able to stand a couple of hours lying before a committee then clapped for by a stupid audience and its success congratulations; your “soul” won’t bear staying in your “body” due to affectation that is already filling in the world. My comment is envoked from “The solution to mind-body problem is not to be found in the usual intellectual games of … and arises (from) our very bodies” (Refer- sentence above). It happened when I gained my M.A it was to my satisfaction that the novel “The English Patient” I was writing about as well as the film were new(a virgin study); the novelist is contemporary, and therefore no references available. I always felt sad when the supervisor helped by providing me with an article that I may use. That was spoiling my ideas,yet I had to thank her, but could not tell her to stop feeding me and killing my talents. Okay, I now wish to be invited to a confernce on consciousness to talk depending on my own notions, yet reading about the subject to avoid repetition on the one hand and for comparison purposes or building up/ improving others’ work. I hope they won’t ignore my abstract for its being original and dealing with consciousness, arising from where it should.





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