The Thinking Poet


More Thoughts 2002


Ronald R.Cretchley


The mind-body problem, or the hard-problem as it has come to be called in the philosophical vernacular, has been with us since Plato’s Phaedo. In this, man was thought to be made up of two parts: physical and psychical, body and soul. Essentially, the problem is how these two parts interact.

Two millennia later, Descartes recast the problem in terms of an incommensurate duality; an idea against which Spinoza reacted. He re-introduced the earlier concept of ‘substance’ which can be conceived and expressed in two modes: the physical and mental.

In our time the problem is receiving unparalleled attention, not only from philosophers, but from physicists, brain researchers, and workers in the field of artificial intelligence.

Largely unnoticed is the attempt by a few to reassess the ideas of Spinoza. In this essay the thinking of Philip Leon specifically is considered. The tradition he follows is a corrective to the two extreme positions that are adopted, namely that body subsumes mind, or that ‘universal mind’ swallows up the physical.

Leon adopts the concept ‘spirit’ as the mind-body unifier. As an introduction to his thinking mention is made of some thinkers at the beginning of the last century who were attempting to give to ‘mind’ the role of unifier.


The hard-problem is still with us after centuries of hard thought. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that never before have so many minds been preoccupied with the problem. This is probably due to the enormous developments in computer science and information technology coupled with a similar expansion in brain research and the biological sciences. For many, recent work in artificial intelligence, neural networks, and human brain-cell investigations offer exciting prospects for an early resolution. Yet it has to be remembered that all of this endeavour just cited is focused upon brain. Psychologists purport to study mind, but so far there are few signs of a meeting of minds between them and workers on the ‘hardware’ side. The reason for this is evident: there is no common conceptual ground, no common language that might marry body and mind. As Sherrington1 allowed:

‘That is no fault of those who study the mind or of those who study the brain. It constitutes a disability common to both of them. A liaison between them is what each has been asking for".’

Sherrington surmises that the materialist believes:-

‘Thoughts, feelings, and so on are not amenable to the energy-matter concept. They lie outside it. Therefore they lie outside Natural Science. If as you say thoughts are the outcome of the brain we as students using the energy-concept know nothing of it; as followers of natural science we know nothing of any relation between thoughts and the brain, except as a gross correlation in time and space.’

The crux of the matter seems to rest on the correctness of the assumption that ‘thoughts are an outcome of the brain’. This assumption is questionable. The hard-problem may not be solved by taking this causal relationship as given. To do so pre-empts the solution being sought.


We speak of thoughts and feelings on the one hand, matter and energy on the other. The hard-problem results from a fundamental incompatibility between these two conceptual frameworks. Matter and energy may both be measured by a detached observer; i.e. by someone with suitable skills and instruments who stands outside the event being observed.

Thoughts and feelings may not be measured, neither are they amenable to a detached observer. They are the possession of an individual as part of that person’s subjectivity. They may be conjectured by a participating observer, i.e. by someone who shares another’s subjectivity in a relationship of empathy.

Schrˆdinger2, writing about the detached observer, points out the self-contradiction implicit in the concept:

‘The show (the phenomena in nature being observed) that is going on obviously acquires a meaning only with regard to the mind that contemplates it. But what science tells us about this relationship is patently absurd: as if mind had only been produced by that very display that it is now watching.’

And indeed there does appear to be absurdity in the notion of a mind that deduces from the display of a cerebral cortex that it is its neural activity that produces this observing and speculating mind.

‘I’ exist in the world I perceive, or in Schrˆdinger’s words:-

‘The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one.’

No barrier exists between the two. Our identity, the ‘I’ that thinks and feels, has found intellectual satisfaction and pragmatic advantage in creating a ‘world picture’ which is amenable to logical manipulation within a conceptual framework. The scientific ‘world picture’ is but one expression of the ‘I's’ awareness, and as such it is just one symbolic representation of the total awareness.


In a direct and simple way Schrˆdinger gives an answer to the hard problem:-

‘The reason why our sentient, percipient and thinking ego is met nowhere within the scientific world-picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is itself that world picture.’

Amongst the conceptual toolkit of the detached observer is the prime conjoint concept of space-time. It is amenable to quantification so that we order our lives in terms of the present ‘here and now’, the past ‘then and there’, and a projected ‘tomorrow and elsewhere’.

Schrˆdinger, an eminent man of science, was at times given to expressing himself almost mystically:

‘Mind is by its very nature a singulare tantum. I should say: the overall number of minds is just one. I venture to call it indestructible since it has a peculiar timetable, namely mind is always now. There is really no before and after for mind. But I grant that our language is not adequate to express this.’


Poets are conscious of our duality of expression, and of the paradox presented by the clash between factual statement and that of which the mind informs us intuitively. They frequently despair of the inadequacy of language.

In ‘The Four Quartets’, T.S.Eliot tells us how: ‘words strain, crack, and sometimes break under the burden’, so that the poet is left: ‘still with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’.

Yet he makes a poetic attempt to make Schrˆdinger’s meaning explicit - the truth of the oneness of the mind in the ever-present now. When Eliot writes:

‘history is a pattern of timeless moments - history is now and England’, he is not attempting a definition of history. He is not in the role of a detached observer of a country and its recorded events, of a mind, in other words, that is conceptualizing a ‘show’. Instead he is a mind contemplating the "voice of mind" and trying to translate the ecstasy of the timeless moment, only half-heard and always elusive, into words.

The poet, metaphorically, is like a hunter after adroit prey. He has every intuitive sense sharpened in order to seize a truth: ‘Quick now, here, now, always - a condition of complete simplicity’.

This is as near as we can hope to get to an expression of mind that is uncluttered of conceptual baggage, and which allows itself to be seen in its essential simplicity and oneness.

Then almost like producing a smoke-screen in which to hide, mind (or ‘self’, a product of mind) opens a Pandora’s box and releases a cloud of conceptual ideas for it to work on. It is from these very fragments of meaning that a conviction crystallizes; namely that a ‘whole meaning’ may be achieved which appears to dispense with its provider.


Every aspect of subjective awareness, of that which is ‘inner’, has been ascribed to ‘mind’ by Sherrington and Schrˆdinger. But to do so is to gloss over the notion of the whole person or "individual", that which constitutes our identity. We not only experience our sensory awareness, our fears, desires and passions, all of that miscellany of mental-events that constitutes our subjectivity. There is also the sense in which the individual arbitrates over these impressions.

It is interesting to turn to the Phaedo of Plato in which Socrates invokes the idea of ‘soul’. After developing the concept of ‘absolute forms’, Socrates leads his argument to a conjecture of the immortality of the soul. The soul he sees clearly as that which directs and controls what is felt. The soul: ‘Directs all the elements of which it is said to consist, opposing them in almost everything all through life, and exercising every form of control -and conversing with the desires and passions and fears as though it were quite separate and distinct from them’.

It is this element of control that is exercised over mental events which is so often ignored. Yet the very essence of our identity, that which defines us as persons, is that which exerts restraint, sometimes encouragement, but always some sort of monitoring and direction over both our bodily and mental events.


Sir Russell Brain3, the eminent neurologist, records in his book Tea with Walter de la Mare, a comment the poet once made in conversation: ‘He thought that the body-mind terminology was artificial: we are not bodies or minds, but persons’.

Socrates knew about body and mind, but felt compelled to focus his attention upon soul or the personhood of man. Walter de la Mare’s intuition conveys this truth. We are concerned not with the abstractions, ‘body’ and ‘mind’, but with experienced bodily events and mental events which are integrated into a whole we recognise as an identity.

Thinkers from Socrates to Schrˆdinger have suggested that for man to know himself the analytical scrutiny should be reversed, i.e. he should start with the whole and then decide upon the role of the parts that go to make the whole.

When Sherrington pointed out that thoughts and feelings are not amenable to the energy-matter concept he was also emphasizing the limitation of any attempt to move forward, discursively, from conceptual parts. He illustrates the apparent clash between objective and subjective language when he says:- ‘Not the eye, but the “seeing” by the brain behind the eye is something upon which physics and chemistry remain silent’.

Schrˆdinger points away from the parts to a necessary integrating whole when he asserts that: ‘observed phenomena only acquire meaning with regard to the mind that contemplates them’, and in saying that ‘mind is always now’, he is conferring upon the integrating nature of that which gives meaning a non spatio-temporal quality.

And Eliot knows intuitively that history, in addition to being seen as a pattern of timeless moments, is also known to us as a whole entity, a now.

These, and many other intimation to be found in our literature, seem to cry out to be given, by a present-day Socrates, some sort of fresh philosophical expression.


Some interesting ideas come out of the work of Philip Leon4. He is the author of a book on Plato, and the Socratic method is clearly evident in a little book of his entitled Body Mind and Spirit. I have been impressed by the sustained momentum of his argument which offers a way out from the, so far, intractable ‘hard problem’.

‘The puzzle’, he writes, ‘arises largely from viewing matter, as did Descartes, as a thing extended in space (res cogitans). To try to establish a connection between them seems, then, like throwing a bridge between a thing which is somewhere and another which is nowhere’.

Leon contends that ‘there is no such thing as body and no such thing as mind. That is to say, there is no substance, body - no extended substance, or res extensa as Descartes called it - and no substance, mind. There are only bodily events and mental events, or bodily wholes or histories, and mental wholes or histories. All events are spatio-temporal and no substance is spatio-temporal.

Leon exposes the error of Descartes, namely that of endowing both matter and mind with the status of homogeneous substance.


Historically, it was Spinoza5 who reformulated the notion of substance. For him it is that which eternally and unchangeably is, and of which everything else must be a transient form or mode. The one substance can be known in two ways: the mind is a finite mode of the infinite substance conceived as thought: the body is a finite mode of the infinite substance conceived as extension. In Spinoza’s Part 2, Proposition 21, he postulates mind and body as one and the same thing, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension. So for Spinoza, every mode of the divine substance can be conceived in two incommensurate ways, as physical or mental; mind and body move in parallel, every bodily change is accompanied by a mental change.

Spinoza therefore escapes from the clutches of the hard-problem by looking beyond mind-body causality to the meaning and pattern of the whole.

Leon takes the basic thesis of Spinoza, and develops the argument in a contemporary setting. In the context of this essay it is only possible to present a ‘digest’ of his book. I hope to show that the thrust of his argument is indeed an extension of Spinoza's, and is part of a tradition of philosophical thought stretching back to Socrates.


(1) An event is the union of physical events and mental events. All events are spatio-temporal.

(2) Events are unified into a pattern or history.

A patterned whole of events implies an integrating agent, just as a pattern of notes requires a musician to realize the pattern.

(3) Of the universal occurrence in living organisms - of breathing, feeding, growing, propagating - introspection suggests that patterning of events does not primarily spring from conscious planning or designing. Mind is not an ultimate reality: it is derivative of something other than mind. It is better therefore to talk of mental events.

(4) The term adopted in this context is commonly that of ‘unconscious mind’, but this is ambiguous and self-negating. It suggests mind that is not really mind but which is called ‘mind’ - unconscious consciousness.

(5) A history is a multiplicity of events. How then does a human individual differ from his individual history? A person is said to have rather than to be a multiplicity of characteristics that serve to describe his personality. But the individual is more than these. He is immanent in his history, but he also transcends it.

(6) From the detached observer’s point of view a history is analyzable. This is the phenomenal reality of science, the ‘outer show’.

Subjectively, there is an inner unifying factor that makes a history, one history. The individual unifying factor is, as its name implies, indivisible and unanalyzable.

(7) The unifying factor is non spatio-temporal and acts as a bridge (a continuant) between past, present, and future. That which unifies a pattern of events to realize a history cannot itself change.

(8) The individual cannot be known logically as is a history, i.e. as something temporal and divisible into parts. It can only be grasped intuitively.

The individual can be partly known through analysis of its history. It can be completely known through intuition.

(9) In order to refer to the realization of the organic whole - the life history - we need a ‘whole-maker’ that is different from the parts.

The whole-maker or unitary being is neither the whole nor any of its parts.

(10) There is no extended substance: body. There is no substance: mind. There are only bodily (physical) events and mental events; bodily wholes or histories; mental wholes or histories. The only substance is spirit which is neither body nor mind. Bodily and mental histories are manifestations or languages of spirit.

(11) Over and above its special religious connotations, the word ‘spirit’ is familiar and understood as a ‘unitary power’ in such diverse contexts as: spirit of place, e.g. spirit of Britain, team spirit, party spirit, spirit of Dunkerque, etc.

(12) Science neglects spirit because it neglects the questions of ultimate origination and organisation. What science does not take into account it cannot account for.

(13) In the mental realm is great freedom of expression of spirit, so that mind is frequently identified with spirit. The identification of mind with spirit (mentalism) mitigates more against the recognition of spirit than even materialism.

(14) The phenomenal world is amenable to analysis. Spirit achieves a synthesis. Phenomena are expressions of spirit, and all expressions are veils – ‘semi-transparent envelopes’ as Virginia Woolf called them. Symbols veil reality. Spirit cannot be known directly, i.e. analytically. Plato’s cave analogy expresses this truth, i.e. that the ultimate explanation of the shadows is to be found outside the shadows themselves.

(15) Spirit is a unitary, non spatio-temporal "power" distinct from its phenomenal expressions.

Historically and culturally ‘God’ is the name given to the ultimate source of all expression. God is not expression, and therefore is not describable in terms of expression.


Socrates postulated soul as the directing and unifying agent active in our lives. Spinoza employed the concept of substance, and Leon, the word spirit.

Leon steers his argument ultimately to a correlation of spirit with God. The historical and religious connotations of these words leads one to anticipate such a conclusion.

Whatever word be adopted for that which expresses itself to give symbolic meaning -whether soul, substance, spirit or God - it is itself nameless and denies analysis.

In his selected letters (1927), Baron Friedrich von Hugel6 writes:

‘You see, all we do has double-relatedness. It is a link or links of a chain that stretches back to our birth and on to our death. It is part of a long train of cause and effect, of effect and cause, in your own chain of a life - this chain variously intertwisted with variously affecting, and affected by, numerous other chains and other lives.

Yes, but there is also, all the time, another, and far deeper, a most darling and inspiring relation. Here you have no slow succession, but you have each single act, and each single moment, joined directly to God - Himself not a chain, but one great Simultaneity".


The article ‘Consciousness and Nature’ by Alan Bailey which appeared in the Philosophical Society Review 2001, raises issues that relate directly to this essay. Relevant extracts from this article are listed below together with their section references.

Section (3) Property Dualism: this postulate is formulated by Galen Strawson as :- a single kind of substance with physical and (sometimes) mental properties.

The question then raised is ‘how to refer to the single kind of “stuff” if it is neither mental nor physical?’

Section (3.3) The idea of some ultimate stuff ‘has increasingly been replaced by the idea that the existence of anything worthy of the name “ultimate stuff” consists entirely in the existence of fields of energy’.

Section (4) Dualism suffers from the mystery (absence of explanation) of how two fundamentally different sorts of things can interact.

Section (3.1) Dual-aspect theory assumes a one-to-one correlation between kinds of mind-events and brain-events.

Section (4) Of causal versus ‘personalistic’ explanations, the heroic dualist line is :- both kinds of explanation are true, in their own terms applying to different ‘realms’ of reality.

Section (3.3) Frage’s thesis:- An experience is impossible without an experiencer.

Section (3.2) If this thesis be true, how can it be an ‘obvious fact that some reality is physical without being (apparently) mental; but not vice versa’.

Section (3.3) Any attempt to construct a subject out of a sequence or pattern, or ‘bundle’ or experiences is doomed to fail. (Hume)

Comments on the issues raised.

All that we know is that of which we are aware (an experience is impossible without an experiencer). We can be aware in two ways:

(a) Aware through sensory excitation; i.e. in receipt of the effect of colour, sound, smells, touch, and taste stimuli; or in receipt of internally derived stimuli, i.e. affects which include the emotions and other - aesthetic and intuitive - feelings.

(b) Conceptually aware. This includes the variety of thought which is allied to language and other symbolic systems, e.g. mathematics and music.

It is from category (b) awareness that we derive the notion of physical. We tend to designate category (a) - sensation, emotion etc. - as mental.

But since there can be no experience without an experiencer, both categories of awareness must be considered to be derived from the mental states of an experiencer. The fact that we project the notion of the physical ‘outside ourselves’ is of secondary consideration.

So already we have to consider a tripartite union, that which constitutes the sum total of our awareness; the experiencer, the mental (mind-events), and the physical (brain-events) which are the correlate of mental-events.

The notion of invoking a single ‘kind of stuff’ is surely suspect. That which we should be questioning is the nature of the ‘experiencer’ which has a dual mode of operating. There is no reason to assume that it, the experiencer, should be either mental or physical, or indeed that it should share the attributes of either.

Hume’s contention springs from a logically deduced conviction tacitly made by a thinker and an observer who is detached from the experience. This suggests a contradiction. First a wedge is driven between thinker and thought, and then the thinker is relegated to oblivion; the smile on the Cheshire Cat remains, the cat disappears.

Integration is only possible when the experiencer and the experience become one, and not two separate processes. There is a state in which thinker and the object of thought are known to be the same. This can only happen when there is no sense of ‘I’ trying to articulate and explain itself.

Martin Buber7 has made the distinction between these two separate states: the ‘I-it’, and the ‘I-thou’ relationship. In the former, the observer and the observed become two separate entities - the observer and the observed in isolation. In the ‘I-thou’ relationship the observed is embraced and made one with the observer.

‘Between you and it there is a mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it.’

When Hume talked about ‘bundles’ of experiences in an attempt to construct a ‘thinker’ - a subject - he was regarding the ‘bundle’ as an abstraction, an ‘it’ remote from himself. In this very act the ‘it’, the experiences, are necessarily exiled and rendered fatherless. This is the inevitable consequence of objectivity.

Dualism, it has been said, suffers from the mystery of how two fundamentally different sorts of thing (‘it’) can interact. The ‘I-thou’ state is, in a sense, a consequence of a "personal adventure", a letting-go of the questioning ‘I’. It is a state which, when once embraced, dispels the logical mystery, and no longer demands an explanation of interaction resulting from separation since there is none to explain.


(1) Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on his Nature, Cambridge University Press, 1940

(2) Erwin Schrˆdinger: Mind and Matter, Cambridge University Press, 1958

(3) Russell Brain: Tea with Walter De La Mare, Faber and Faber, 1957

(4) Philip Leon: "Body Mind and Spirit"; Viewpoints No.2 SCM Press Ltd., 1948

(5) Roger Scruton: ‘Spinoza’; The Great Philosophers, Phoenix Paperback, 1998

(6) Baron Friedrich Von Hugel: Selected Letters 1927 J.M.Dent and Sons Ltd.

(7) Martin Buber: I and Thou, T.& T.Clark, Edinburgh, 1937