Epistemology and Cosmology in Neoplatonism: Is Cognition a Mind-Body-Problem?

Epistemology and Cosmology in Neoplatonism: Is Cognition a Mind-Body-Problem?

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One philosophical approach to tell the “whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person” requires finding an epistemology that is able to locate humanity within the world as a seamless transition between cognition, existence, and the outer world. In this paper I will present the Renaissance Platonic approach as suggesting this kind of epistemology that, admittedly, seems to be at odds with modern philosophy.

The Historic Situation

Present-day theories of mind and body are basically materialistic: Mind is explained either as a realization of the physical conditions of the brain, or as ‘supervenient’ in relation to the body, i.e. as parallel with body in all properties, or as ’emergent’ from body.1 What all these theories in all their subtleties and variations fail to take seriously and to explain is the ontological status of thought. Even the question whether there is an ontology of thought is commonly not addressed. The reason for that is the myth of the dual substances, mind and matter, which Descartes allegedly introduced into philosophy. Lamettrie had popularized the notion of “Man as Machine” so that Gilbert Ryle coined the expression of the “ghost in the machine” intended to dispel any metaphysical approach to thinking. He described the so-called myth of the ghost in the machine as follows: “Material objects are situated in a common field, known as ‘space’, and what happens to one body in one part of space is mechanically connected with what happens on the bodies in other parts of space. But mental happenings occur in insulated fields, known as ‘mind’, and there is, apart may be from telepathy, no direct causal connection between what happens in one mind and what happens in another … The mind is its own place and in his inner life each of us lives the life of a ghostly Robinson Crusoe.”2 In order to liberate Robinson Crusoe from his solitude Ryle and his followers opted for materialism or, rather, materialist monism. One presupposition was that mind as such is isolated and that this isolation distinguishes it from matter. Therefore, the mind-body dualism is also a dualism of connectivity versus insulation. To present-day philosophy anti-metaphysical materialism appears to be the only way to overcome dualism, but it notably and paradoxically cannot account for communication — a feature of intellects, one would think.

On the other hand, Descartes’ theory of “ideas” was much closer to Neoplatonism than is commonly known. The very concept and term “idea” stems from the Platonic tradition, as can be clearly seen in the epistemology of the Cartesian tradition as represented by the “Logic of Port Royal” by Arnaud and Nicole. 3 The rationalism, on which modern materialists are dependent, while criticizing it, is based on the Neoplatonic notion that concepts are formed by reason when it is triggered by sense perception without undergoing any physical impact. Therefore, Descartes’ doctrine of matter and mind in the formula of “extended thing” vs. “thinking thing” was clearly inspired by Renaissance Platonism, especially Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499). Platonism maintains, as rationalism does, that cognition is an activity of the mind and is essential to mind. Thinking is what the mind is and not only what it does. Neoplatonic idealism, i.e., the epistemology of ideas is therefore a gateway to a new approach to any metaphysics of thought that is concerned with cognition without precluding ontology, thus truly overcoming the mind-body-divide.

In order to prove my point I will focus on Marsilio Ficino because he introduced Platonism into the Latin West. His works that include commented translations of all the works of Plato and Plotinus and his own Platonic Theology defended a spiritual metaphysics that described the World as emanated from the One (to be read as the Christian God). But he also offered a well-structured epistemology in order to tell the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person. My particular source is his Summary or Introduction into Plato’s Phaedo.4 This ancient dialogue is best known as proving the immortality of the soul, but it is noteworthy that Marsilio Ficino in his summary does not emphasize the question of immortality, but rather the ontology and operation of the soul.

Ficino’s Main Arguments:

  1. Spirituality is defined as self-movement. Hence thinking as the specifically human feature is essentially self-referential.

Self-movement, according to Marsilio Ficino, is the essential character of anything spiritual. It is obvious that in present day mind-body philosophy self-movement is not an issue. The soul or psyche in modern discourse is nothing but an aggregate of states and indicator or symptom of states; and the whole debate is about the question whether those states are identical with their meaning (for instance, pain or joy) and consequently, whether there are psychic states that are separate form physiological states. The contrary option, as pursued in the Platonic tradition, is to assume that the psyche itself is the originator of such psychic states. In that case it is not responsive or symptomatic but creative. Self-movement, ever since Plato, has the twofold meaning of ‘something having an internal source of its own movement’ and ‘something instigating its own movement’. (Imagine that as the difference between an automobile that has a built in motor and one that even makes itself start without the need of someone in the driver’s seat.) The difference is that in the second case movement — insofar as it is not externally caused — is self-referential as much as it is self-motivated. As an aside, to acknowledge freedom amounts to acknowledging self-motivation. It should be emphasized that for Ficino self-movement is true of every spiritual being, from the most basic living beings up to angels and God. Self-movement is not limited to humans. Therefore thinking as a specific human capacity has self-motivation in common with everything living, but the specific traits of thinking that differentiate it from other spiritual operations need yet to be established. But that much is obvious: thinking is not an add-on but the essence of the human soul. For every movement of living beings is internal and hence founded in its being. The being of the soul or anything spiritual is movement. The movement of the human mind is thinking. “The soul is the principle of movement, hence follows that she is in motion of herself and perpetually, and thus alive.”5

  1. Thinking is purification: morally from passions, epistemologically from contingency; thinking is the conscious act of diverting thoughts from the ephemeral to the persistent.

Ficino presents the notion of purification in the context of philosophy as such, namely as the advancement from the ephemeral and contingent to the persistent and eternal. Since all epistemology is about what ‘holds true’ the material body and everything corporeal is deemed to be nonscientific. Consequently philosophy, actually any knowledge, is supposed to consist in liberating us from what is changeable. This has a moral ring to it because the clearing of knowledge from what is unknowable is aesthetically pure and morally clean. “The philosopher can clean his soul in two ways. First, by cleaning from the disturbances with the help of morals. Second, through cleaning from the senses and even from the imagination through directing the intent of contemplation.”6 It is important for our purposes that Ficino takes it to be a fact that it is possible for a philosopher, and for every human being as such, to guide the focus of attention willingly and actively. To refer to oneself and to make one’s own thinking the object of thinking is not only possible but a requirement for correct thinking. The ethical implication is obvious, although it is based on the scrutiny of the workings of the mind. The Neoplatonist is not preaching asceticism and dull sobriety; he expects joy from thinking the thinking as immaterial.

  1. Thinking is the search for concepts that by definition are non-physical.

The process of liberating thinking from the contingent and material goes along with the approach to the immaterial because concepts as such are immaterial. The question that needs to be raised — as mentioned at the beginning — is whether concepts have any ontological status. From the Platonic point of view it is obvious that if they have an ontological status it must be that of immateriality. In Ficino’s imagery all concepts and thoughts or ‘ideas’ are out there, they are what thinking is aiming at while moving. The act of thinking, since it is about truth, is the act of connecting the individual mind with the objective forms.7

  1. Epistemology requires a theory of error: Erroneous cognition consists in insufficient abstraction from the material.

To modern scientific methodology it is not surprising that erroneous results help improve research and confirm the correctness of the method that has been used. Therefore it is not enough to describe or explain intense sensations or surprising achievements of the mind, what is equally needed is a theory of how errors come about. Erroneous thoughts and false opinions can only be described by dismantling the elements that composed them. Those elements are logic and facts. For instance, it is impossible to claim “you don’t have pain” without adding an explanation of the function of phantom pain.8 It may well be that the other person does not ‘have’ pain but nevertheless feels it. Therefore, what needs to be explained is what is going on in the mind of the person who erroneously feels something. What does a human being think who experiences any kind of phobia? Does that person think, and if so: what?  What is the difference between feeling something that is not warranted by reality (like phantom pain or a phobia) and believing that 27 is a prime number? What is happening when a person thinks that a machine could think? There are many traditional answers to that: occult qualities9, enthusiasm10, reification11, misplaced concreteness (A. N. Whitehead), category shift: they all have one commonality, namely, they underestimate the lack of materiality in thoughts and therefore surmise that thoughts have bodily properties. To return to one of the examples, a person who has phantom pains supposes that this pain is matched by a physical given. At the same time who flatly denies that pain mistakes a psychic state for a physical condition.12 Consequently the call for separating the corporeal from the spiritual allows shifting attention from moral shortcomings to the epistemological conditions of thinking.  It’s all about getting rid of bodily conditions.  “It’s a frequent fallacy that imagination – while the mind is trying to elevate itself to the incorporeal – distracts the mind towards some images of bodies so that the mind is forced to think in some bodily manner.”13 In traditional language, mere feelings, phobias, logical errors etc. are “beings of reason” (entia rationis), things that exist in the mind only, regardless of the question whether there is any reality to them. The fact that they do exist testifies, paradoxically, that thoughts can exist without material reality.  This must hold true, of course, for abstract ideas like Platonic Forms.  In other words: the ontology of thoughts is epistemic.  Thoughts do exist because they are thought. Empiricism and logical validity are secondary to that.

  1. Plato’s theory of recollection is a metaphor: it signifies that not all thought depends upon (sensual) experience.

Ficino clearly assumes that Plato’s theory of recollection, much debated ever since Aristotle, is nothing but a metaphor for an epistemological problem. It only proves that some cognition is independent of sense input.  “First, appropriately questioned, we often respond correctly even about things about which we have nothing learned.”  So far, this proves that thoughts are not dependent on previous information, including sensual and bodily experience. Furthermore sense impressions lead to contemplating ideas, however not in the sense of checking out templates for empirical stuff, but rather, by way of abstraction to a level where things are not anymore compared with things but ideas with ideas, specifically, with the very concept of comparability.  “Second, from the cognition of what has been perceived we ascend after some abstraction to the contemplation of the ideas, that is, from knowing what is equal to the knowledge of equality as such.”14

  1. Sense impressions trigger the mind to search for concepts (ideas).

Again, this follows immediately from the previous statement. This part of the Neoplatonic doctrine has entered the Cartesian notion of ideas.  According to Cartesianism (as in the Logic of Port Royal, cited above) sense perception does not enter the mind but in some miraculous way occasions the mind to form concepts.  This is the origin of the decried dualism: why should there be two separate worlds, the one we see and the other that sees?  The Platonic tradition assumed that the mind, once prodded by the senses, roams around in search of ideas, namely the truth beyond the object and the thought.  The abstract reign of ideas has to be the foundation of both reality and thought-of-reality.  Therefore the Platonic Forms are the truth.  In that vein there is no dualism but the force of truth that unifies subject and object (in modern parlance).  The mind-body divide does not exist before Cartesianism, because only Cartesianism severed the ideas from their ontological status in their metaphysical realm. Gilbert Ryle’s ghost in the machine is a solitary islander only because it has lost track towards transcendence.

  1. Ideas are not – as frequently misunderstood – lofty templates of the real things; rather, ideas are the very structure and power of the mind to actively search and create concepts.

“Ideas are our essence,” supposing that thinking is what humans do. “When our mind relates particular things to ideas then it shows that it is by their nature as perpetual as the ideas and appreciates that nature as its own.”15 This approach to cognition has the great advantage that there is no question left concerning the identity or difference between thought and thinking, because thinking is what it thinks.  Therefore the human mind has to be conceived of as identical with its so-called ‘objects’.  However, this does not lead to any kind of dualism between matter and mind after the dualism of subject and object has been overcome.  This is due to the structure of movement.  Thinking is movement and its ‘objects’, platonically speaking: ideas, are all objects in motion, although they are all idealized as stable and immobile. Platonic ideas like Truth and Goodness are ingrained in human minds as the means to judge about particulars.16  This kind of transcendental judgment (as a Kantian would say) again is the activity of the mind.  Finally, the human mind is the essence of man (in Scholastic language: anima rationalis est forma corporis); and due to the common mobility of everything living it is also the driving force of human life.  Whatever we can know about the life of the body it is known through the mind, and whatever the body does it does it in the service of human life.17 For human life, too, is motion. Consequently, the human mind/soul is the link that connects all parts of the cosmos; therefore cosmology and epistemology converge in human reason.

Those are some theses which I distilled from Ficino’s Platonic approach to cosmology and thought. They are not just some historic interpretation of Platonism but offer a way out of materialist and dualist philosophy of cognition of our days. For present day versions of monism, dualism, and materialism are misrepresentations of the original attempt at locating humanity in the cosmos. I hope to have shown that present-day epistemological approaches do have the potential to salvage a cosmological and metaphysical understanding of human being, but only under the condition that epistemology does not blind itself against its essence, which necessarily is metaphysical.  Cosmology, understood as the encompassing reality that includes human beings and their inner life, must appreciate thinking as a self-referential and spontaneous activity of the human mind that is part of the same cosmos and has its ‘reason of being’ within it. A proper ontology of thought is apt to overcome the misplaced dualism of mind and body.



1 Jaegwon Kim, “The Mind-Body Problem: Taking Stock After Forty Years”, in Nous 31, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives 11: Mind, Causation, and World, 1997, 185-207.

2 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. 13.

3 Antoine Arnauld und Pierre Nicole, La logique ou L’art de penser, ed. by Pierre Clair und FranÁois Girbal (Paris: Vrin, 1993), I 1, pp. 39 ff. Further details in a paper on Francisco Su·rez (forthcoming).

4 Marsilio Ficino, Opera, Basel 1576, vol. 2, pp. 1390-1395. The specific heading of this text is either Epitome or Argumentum,depending on the edition.

5  Ficino, p. 1390: “animam scilicet esse principium motionis, unde sequatur eam per se perpetuoque moveri, semperque vivere.”

6 Ibid. pp. 1390 f.: “a perturbationibus per moralis disciplinae purgationem … a sensibus atque ipsa imaginatione per contemplationis ipsius intentionem.”

7 Ibid. pp. 1391: „incorporeis rationibus ideisque coniungere”.

8 Cf. Hilary Putnam in Sidney Hook, ed., Dimensions of Mind. A Symposium. New York: Collier Books 1961.

9 Paul Natorp, Allgmeine Psychologie nach kritischer Methode. Erstes Buch: Objekt und Methode der Psychologie. T¸bingen: Mohr, 1912, pp. 175 and 178. Cf. Paul Richard Blum, “Qualitates occultae: Zur philosophischen Vorgeschichte eines Schl¸sselbegriffs zwischen Okkultismus und Wissenschaft”, in Die okkulten Wissenschaften in der Renaissance, ed. August Buck, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1992, pp. 45-64.

10 Salomon Maimon, “Ueber die Schw‰rmerei”: in Gnothi sautÛn oder Magazin zur Erfahrungsseelenkunde, 10. Bd., 2. St., 1793, 43-84; p. 45: “Die Schw‰rmerei ist ein Trieb der produktiven Einbildungskraft … Gegenst‰nde die der Verstand, nach Erfahrungsgesetzen f¸r unbestimmt erkl‰rt, zu bestimmen.”

11 Ernst Hohmann, Plato ein Vorg‰nger Kants? Kritische Bemerkungen zu P. Natorps “Platos Ideenlehre. Eine Einf¸hrung in den Idealismus.” Programm Gymnasium Rˆssel, 1906. The German term is „Hypostasierung“

12 J. O. Wisdom, “The Concept of ‘Phantom Body’, in Proceedings of the XIth International Congress of Philosophy, Brussels, August 20-26, 1953, vol. 7: Philosophical Psychology, Amsterdam/Louvain: North-Holland/Nauwelaerts 1953, p. 175-179. Franz Brentano: Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. Ed. Oskar Kraus, vol. 1.  Leipzig: Meiner, 1924, p. 120.

13 Ficino, p 1391: “fallaciam illam, qua imaginatio mentem ad incorporea se elevantem, interim ad imagines quasdam corporum saepissime distrahit, cogiturque ipsa modo quodam corporeo cogitare.”

14 Ibid. “Primo, quia recte interroganti, saepe vera de his quae nunquam didicimus, respondemus. Deinde quoniam ex notitia eorum, quae sentiuntur, subita quadam abstractione ad notitiam ascendimus idearum, ceu cognoscendo haec aequalia in ipsius aequalitatis cognitionem.”

15 Ibid.  p. 1391-139[2]: “idearum essentiam esse nostram … Atque cum animus noster singula refert ad ideas, ipsum ostendere se una cum idearum essentia sempiternum esse, atque eam agnoscere tanquam suam. “

16 Ibid.  p. [1393]: „formulas idearum inesse mentibus nostris ad quarum congruitatem, vel […] singula vera esse, vel contra censentur.”

17 Ibid.:  “quasi quaedam vitae corporalis idea.”