On James Lawler’s View of Matter and Spirit

Review by Ralph Dumain

Lawler, James. Matter and Spirit: The Battle of Metaphysics in Modern Western Philosophy before Kant. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006. ix, 574 pp. Introduction, pp. 1-10.

Lawler commences his mammoth tome by quoting from a late work by Kant:

The Critique of Pure Reason can thus be seen as the genuine apology for Leibniz, even against his partisans whose eulogies scarcely do him any honor; just as it can be for many different past philosophers, to whom many historians of philosophy only attribute mere nonsense. Such historians cannot comprehend the purpose of these philosophers because they neglect the key to the interpretation of all products of pure reason from mere concepts, the critique of reason itself (as the common cause of all these concepts). They are thus incapable of recognizing beyond what the philosophers actually said, what they really meant to say. [1]

This appears to be counterintuitive as to how we think about both Leibniz and Kant. Leibniz, the arch-metaphysician, nonetheless maintained that his monadology was in full agreement with empirical science. Lawler says:

What is essential to Leibniz’s thought, as well as to the thought of certain central philosophers of the early modern period before Kant, is that the exercise of “pure reason” be brought into harmony with the procedures and findings of the latest sciences. Such an accord does not take place by the empiricist procedure of describing the world and reflecting on its appearances. It is only when reason takes the lead in its account of the world, by developing its concepts a priori, that the arrangement of thought accords with the information that, a posteriori, empirical research confirms. [p. 2]

All of this comes about from Galileo’s scientific revolution, which in actuality is not empiricist, emphasis on observation through the telescope notwithstanding. So here is the set-up:

Because of this complexity in which empirical observation and theoretical construction combine into a scientific whole, early modern philosophy divides into two streams of thought, one of which takes the movement of physical matter, in principle observable by sensory means, as the foundation of scientific knowledge, while the other places primacy on the thinking process itself, on reason or spirit. [3]

The first line is British materialism and empiricism, from Hobbes to Adam Smith. The continental tradition, the spiritualist tradition, begins with Descartes and moves through Leibniz and Rousseau. There is, however, a cross-pollination of these tendencies, even in spite of self-declared positions of the principals. Kant thinks of himself as a metaphysician who aims to transcend the “mock-combat”. All of early modern science is driven by the need to accommodate the scientific revolution. Kant saw his work as completion of the scientific revolution in philosophy. But Kant also challenges Adam Smith’s social philosophy.

The picture of this historical development is not just about competing trends.

Both trends attempt to compromise with the other, as Locke defends the spiritual nature and autonomy of individual reason on empirical grounds, and Descartes seeks to establish a mechanistic conception of the natural world that nevertheless supports the free human individual. [5]

On making philosophy scientific:

Understanding what it means to make philosophy scientific depends on what is understood by science itself—that is, it depends on the metaphysics of science. There is the subject side of science—the thinking process of the scientist—and the object side, the results of that thinking in one particular area or another. The battle of metaphysics in its classical period before Kant consists precisely in the struggle between those who would bring forward the power of the thinking human spirit as the foundation of science—the advocates of “spiritualism”—and those who seek to explain human consciousness from the objective physical and social world—the advocates of “materialism.” [5]

The two trends had different social orientations. The British trend essential subordinates the individual to social mechanisms, while the continental rationalist trend promotes a more cooperate social vision centered around the capabilities of the spirit.

Lawler rejects the commonplace notion of Kant’s complete break from the past. He does not see Leibniz and Kant as polar opposites.

The essential feature of Kant’s transcendentalism is that subjective categories of knowledge structure our experience of reality, but not reality in itself, not that which is truly transcendent of our limited experience and the sciences that build upon it. This transcendent reality includes not only God, but human freedom itself. Transcendental philosophy, no less than the sciences that it grounds, depends on the possibility and assumption of the spiritual independence of our consciousness from deterministic processes that characterize the phenomenal, so-called material world. This postulate of spiritual independence is a requirement of the Copernican revolution in science, which depends on the freedom of the mind to liberate itself from the standpoint of a passive observer whose basic ideas are allegedly founded on impressions deterministically imparted from the outside world. [7]


Beyond the categories of knowledge within which science operates is a reality that cannot be scientifically “known” but may, indeed must, be the object of “thought.” Beyond scientific knowledge, therefore, there is a kind of “thinking” that is not scientific, but is essential to understanding science itself. [8]

Kant stands on the side of spiritualism. And Lawler has something to say about the relevance for the postmodern age.

This book about the first stages of modern philosophy therefore offers background not just for Kant, but for all developments of “post-modern” thought. It provides us with the identity of “modern” philosophy: philosophy that attempts to incorporate the results of the early modern sciences and the scientific spirit into the diverse aspects of human life. The full intellectual history of this effort shows that such an enterprise by no means requires a rejection of spirituality. Materialism is only one possibility, and perhaps the less fruitful one. Our own twenty-first century metaphysical contest between materialist “Western” civilization and fundamentalist advocates of a return to traditional religion fails to come to terms with this middle position, which is as much about the transformation of traditional religion as it is about the critique of materialism. [8-9]

Lawler cites Einstein on Galileo, but also validates 20th century New Age thought on the basis of the 20th century revolutions in physics. Mechanicism is obsolete and persists due to global market capitalism.

The new trend for nonsectarian spirituality will be all the stronger for reappropriating the authentic spiritual heritage found in modern Western philosophy. Despite legends to the contrary, the Cartesian direction in modern philosophy provides from the very start an anti-mechanistic philosophical standpoint. After laying out the antithesis of spirituality and materiality, Descartes argues that the apparent mechanism of the universe can become subservient to the radical freedom of the human spirit. Subordinating matter to spirit, Descartes should not really be classified as a dualist. Scientific thinking, Descartes argues, must be linked to the transcendent originality of present being detached from conditioning by the past and sustained in the here and now by self-subsistent Being, which is Descartes’ basic definition of God. [10]

My experience of Lawler goes back to 1975, when he participated in a team taught course on intelligence testing and scientific racism. He published a book on the subject under the imprint of International Publishers. When I left Buffalo 30 years ago, Lawler was still a hard-core Marxist. He used the “classic” philosophical texts plus some of the Soviet literature, including the Soviet pack of lies about a “Leninist stage of philosophy.” What happened to him? He has been contributing heavily to the lucrative genre of philosophy and popular culture, and now this. Could it be that the fall of the Soviet bloc erased Marxism from the minds of a certain political tendency?

Judging from the index, there are two footnotes to Marx, and two page references to Diderot. What happened to French materialism in this picture? The dynamic Lawler outlines is quite interesting, but there’s something terribly incomplete and wrong about this picture. There is no dialectical synthesis proposed here, à la Kant or post-Kant. There is no accounting of how and why NO philosophy adequately addressed the actual nature of scientific theory and its formation, nor does there seem to be a resolution or adequate formulation of the mind-body problem that would go beyond the affirmation of spiritualism. The notion of Kant as the best synthesis of science and spirituality that agrees with or is even better than postmodern and New Age developments is not only NOT a philosophy for the 21st century, it’s not even a philosophy for the 20th.

(24 June 2014)

[1] Immanuel Kant, “On a Discovery According to Which Any New Critique of Pure Reason Has Been Made Superfluous by an Earlier One,” in The Kant-Eberhard Controversy, ed. Henry E. Allison (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 160.

Note also endnote 9 [p 514]:

Particularly missing in our presentation is the work of Spinoza. Spinoza’s thought seems to have been largely disregarded by his contemporaries. No doubt this is superficially explained by Spinoza’s Jewishness as well as the condemnation of Spinoza for reputed atheism by the Christian authorities. More fundamentally, however, Spinoza stands against the individualistic orientation of the other early modern thinkers. For both these reasons, Spinoza’s thought was respected but not directly confronted by the mainstream of European philosophy until Hegel placed the principle of totality at the heart of his thought. As we are emphasizing the logic of ideas over strict historicity, Spinoza’s thought seems therefore ahead of its time. It makes more sense to connect Spinoza with the later work of Hegel, than attempt to interject the exposition of his thought in the context of this book.

Hegel's Method of Doing Philosophy Historically: A Reply
by James Lawler & Vladimir Shtinov

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

American Philosophy Study Guide

Philosophy of History of Philosophy & Historiography of Philosophy

Philosophy for the 21st Century: A Provincial Bibliography


The King Must Die: Pataphysical Exegesis of an American Presidency
by James Lawler
(International Journal of Baudrillard Studies,
Volume 9, Number 3, October 2012)

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