Nature and Death

Thoughts on mortality and the evolution of the universe, occasioned by a funeral and by Collingwood’s Idea of Nature and Plato’s Phaedo

Cebeci, Ankara, 2016.05.17

When the husband of my second-grade teacher died, I wanted to pay my respects. My father took me to the funeral home, where I hid behind him as he greeted the family of the deceased. My teacher was not among them. When invited to view the body, I looked over and saw it, lying off to the side in an open casket. I had never seen the man when he was alive. I declined the opportunity to gaze at his lifeless form. Until I came to Turkey, this was my closest approach to the materiality of death—except for a visit to the medical school of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There, as part of the laboratory program at St John’s College in Santa Fe, students viewed dissected human cadavers.

As I understand the Turkish Muslim funeral, from the experience of several examples, a same-sex child of the deceased has washed and shrouded the body, then placed it in a reusable coffin. In the courtyard of the mosque, the coffin is set out alongside the coffins of any others in the neighborhood who have died. The time is one of the five daily prayer-times, probably either noon or mid-afternoon (as opposed to first light, or sundown, or last light). After the regular prayer in the mosque, devout men will form ranks before the coffin or coffins, to be led again in prayer by the imam. However, many men may not have entered the mosque, and they may not join the further prayers outside. Devout women may form ranks behind the devout men; but often there are no such women, at least in my experience, at funerals of secularists in Ankara and Istanbul. After the prayers, each coffin is taken to its grave-site in a municipal hearse. The male child steps into the open pit, to lay the shrouded body to rest. If they are so moved, other men may pick up shovels, in order to fill in the grave. Throughout the process, a robed man chants prayers in Arabic; he may be an imam, though not be the imam who led prayers at the mosque.

Cebeci, Ankara, 2016.05.17

In the lovely wooded cemetery of Ankara called Cebeci, where the physical remains of my spouse’s mother had been buried last year, the same ritual happened recently, on March 6, for the late husband of the surviving elder sister (and only sibling) of my mother-in-law. The morning temperature had been near freezing, but the midday sun made coats unnecessary. Before dawn that day, I had finished reading the second half of Collingwood’s Idea of Nature. The reading affected my experience of the funeral.

First published posthumously in 1945, The Idea of Nature is based on lectures given at Oxford in 1934 and again in 1937, and revised in 1939. The lectures were intended as an application of the method that Collingwood had described in An Essay on Philosophical Method, published in 1933. The paperback edition of The Idea of Nature has been in print since 1960. I am curious who reads it now. It seems like the kind of book of which every generation should have its own version; but the Academy in its current form may not select for the kind of wide-ranging thinker who can write such a book.

Collingwood, Idea of Nature, cover photo

The first half (by number of pages) of The Idea of Nature treats the Greek idea; the second, the Renaissance and modern ideas. In the Introduction, Collingwood explains that the term “Renaissance” is not quite accurate; but “post-Renaissance” would be clumsy, and the art-historical terms “baroque” and “gothic” would not work either:

The adjective ‘baroque’ … is borrowed from the technicalities of formal logic as a term of contempt for a certain kind of bad taste prevalent in the seventeenth century,


The word ‘gothic’, as applied to medieval architecture, succeeded in divesting itself of its original significance and becoming a term merely descriptive of a certain style; but no one, I think, ever proposed to call the work of Aquinas or Scotus ‘gothic philosophy’.

I wonder if Collingwood’s display of learnedness here is the kind of thing that annoys Simon Blackburn, who writes in a review of Collingwood’s 2009 biography by Fred Inglis,

It is difficult to pick up a page of Wittgenstein without being seduced: whether you understand it or not, the sense is over­whelming that something of the highest importance is being addressed with a rare detachment and intelligence. With Colling­wood, there is assertion and bravado instead of seduction. Wittgenstein shows that he is a wonderfully and originally reflective thinker; Collingwood cannot help telling you that he is. Wittgenstein is silent about his being capable of other things as well; Collingwood boasts of it. You can read all of Wittgenstein without knowing of his genuine heroism during World War I. One cannot help feeling that had Collingwood done anything like that, it would have cropped up on every other page. All this is off-putting, and Collingwood’s readers have to learn to shake their heads with a smile rather than toss the whole thing into the bin.

I suppose different people are seduced by different things. I find Blackburn’s attitude off-putting; but I shake my head with a smile. I figure he is the product of vicious competition in the British academy, where one way to rise is to denigrate others. According to Blackburn,

Collingwood tells us that he was naturally practical and dextrous, and all the painting and the sailing, together with his later archaeological digs in the many remains of Roman and Celtic Britain that dot the Lake District, gave him an entrenched admiration of muscular, working, problem-solving, practical affairs. He was touchingly, or annoyingly, vain of his capacity to identify a Roman shard, or fix a fouled anchor, or resurrect a dead engine. In a different environment, he might have become an engineer—as Wittgenstein, with similar gifts, did.

I have now read, usually several times, all of Collingwood’s books, with the exception of Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925), which was superseded by The Principles of Art (1938). I have never detected the vanity that Blackburn sees. I appreciate all of Collingwood’s examples from ordinary life. But perhaps Blackburn would think it vain to show off one’s knowledge of art history in an assessment of the best terminology for a period in the history of natural science. Me, I take it as the result of an intense awareness of the connectedness of things.

By Collingwood’s account,

Greek natural science was based on the principle that the world of nature is saturated or permeated by mind. Greek thinkers regarded the presence of mind in nature as the source of that regularity or orderliness in the natural world whose presence made a science of nature possible.

In opposition to this, Renaissance science treats nature as a machine—and fairly so, since, in Bacon’s view, interpreted by Collingwood,

when an Aristotelian scientist accounted for the production of a certain effect by a certain cause by saying that the cause had a natural tendency to produce that effect, he was really telling you nothing at all, and was only distracting your mind from the proper task of science, namely the discovery of the precise structure or nature of the cause in question.

There may be no mind in nature, but at least there are minds that observe nature. Socrates was intent on showing us this. As Collingwood observes,

Socrates in Plato’s dialogues over and over again expects to be met with incredulity and misunderstanding when he sets out to assert that rational soul or mind operates independently of the body.

The Phaedo provides the example that comes to my mind. The friends of Socrates are visiting him in prison, where he is soon to drink the hemlock that will kill him. Crito asks how to bury him, and Socrates says:

In any way that you like; but you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not run away from you. Then he turned to us, and added with a smile:—I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body—and he asks, How shall he bury me? And though I have spoken many words in the endeavour to show that when I have drunk the poison I shall leave you and go to the joys of the blessed,—these words of mine, with which I was comforting you and myself, have had, as I perceive, no effect upon Crito. And therefore I want you to be surety for me to him now, as at the trial he was surety to the judges for me: but let the promise be of another sort; for he was surety for me to the judges that I would remain, and you must be my surety to him that I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.

Socrates was trying to comfort those who would soon mourn him; but he was not very successful. I wonder if his teaching is more effective, if learned first at a more peaceful time. It may have been effective on me. At any rate, I find that my parents, and others who have died, do live on in my thoughts. The goodness of knowing them continues.

Cebeci, Ankara, 2016.05.17

I appreciate how a Muslim funeral is a community event. At city mosques, I have seen men line up to pray over the dead without knowing who has died. Like John Donne, they are “involved in Mankinde.” They need not ask for whom the imam chants; he chants for them.

For myself, I am happy for the private service that I arranged for my mother, on a wooded hilltop in West Virginia, months after her death. My sister had our mother’s ashes and kept half of them. We buried the other half. I agreed with the sense of a notice at the Zoroastrian fire temple in Yazd, Iran: the fire is a symbol of purity, but the ashes that remain are of no special value, and they are simply discarded. My mother was not her body. I remember her now through the gathering that a few of us made on that hilltop, where some of us had gathered in earlier years, to bury the remains of others of her generation. The function of the actual burial was of a shared activity in honor of the deceased.

Sedan, West Virginia, 2014.06.16

“Renaissance” science treated nature as a machine, but still there were minds, namely our own. Descartes knew that mind and body could not just be two different things. They had to be connected. Descartes could make the connection only through God.

Collingwood traces to modern times the recognition that yet a third thing must be accounted for: life and its evolution. The notion of evolution passes over from biology to physics. This idea threw me for a moment, but it makes sense. The inverse-square law of gravitation declared by Newton is not eternal or universal. It needed to be brought into existence with the Big Bang, or perhaps some time after the Big Bang. Gravitation depends on the scale at which one is working; at one extreme, there are relativistic effects; at the other extreme, other forces dominate.

The modern philosophers whom Collingwood considers at length are Bergson, Samuel Alexander, and Whitehead. I wonder if, in the early days, any of them were on the St John’s College New Program, founded in 1937. When I was a student on the Santa Fe campus, for some reason I happened to be present when an older student was talking with the Dean about Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality. The student found it tough going. So did Collingwood:

The main lines of Whitehead’s philosophy, I have said, are coherent and simple; but in trying to think them out one is confronted by several difficulties of a secondary but very important kind. I will try to state the most important of them, making it clear at the same time that I am not always sure whether Whitehead himself has confronted them or not; for he is always a very difficult writer to read, and even after long study one is often not sure how far he has solved by implication problems which he appears to have ignored.

In reviewing Collingwood’s Idea of History, Leo Strauss faults Collingwood for not observing that, despite his notions of universal history, some cultures do in fact evolve separately from one another. I am not sure that Strauss respects the subject of his review the way Collingwood himself respects Whitehead. Strauss should allow for the possibility that Collingwood thinks the reader can work out what is not said.

One may however call it a lack of respect to say that a philosopher is not correct. This is Collingwood’s conclusion about all of the philosophers that he considers. Their problem is “a certain relic of positivism,” whereby they consider nature only as it is given to them by natural science. They omit to consider what gives us natural science itself. Natural science relies on a knowledge of what has happened in nature; and this knowledge depends either on what other scientists tell us, or on what we ourselves have recorded in our laboratory notebooks.

This consultation and interpretation of records is the characteristic feature of historical work. Every scientist who says that Newton observed the effect of a prism on sunlight, or that Adams saw Neptune, or that Pasteur observed that grape-juice played upon by air raised to a certain temperature underwent no fermentation, is talking history.

This is where the reader should pass from The Idea of Nature to The Idea of History. Natural science cannot give a complete account of the world, since natural science does not give an account of how the science itself is carried out.

The general idea was of value on the day of a funeral. Philosophy has to explain things; it cannot just explain them away or pretend they don’t exist. Stoicism tries to explain problems away. According to my memory, I heard this from the same college dean I mentioned before: Stoicism is an attempt to mitigate the difficulties of life, but it ultimately fails, if only because some difficulties cannot be anything but difficult. If your child dies, you can try to say that you are only giving it back; but you will not believe your own words. Nonetheless, the dean was impressed by the image of somebody who I suppose was Marcus Aurelius, though I have not been able to confirm this: he woke up one morning in his tent in the army camp, while rain fell outside, and he wished he could sleep in; but the day’s battle must be fought, and so he got up.

Sedan, West Virginia, 2014.06.16

In the system of Samuel Alexander, our minds evolve from space-time itself; and since our minds can conceive of “a higher form of mentality,” this too can be expected to appear at a further “stage of the cosmic process”; but this higher mentality is what is called God. In short, God evolves from everything else. But the common view is the reverse: everything else comes from God. This is a problem. Since Alexander is supposedly working “empirically,” rather than logically, he cannot just reject the common view.

I am fascinated by Collingwood’s account of this philosopher who, as far as I know, is today more forgotten than Collingwood himself. Born in Australia in 1859, he moved to England and entered Oxford in 1877; ultimately he became “the first Jewish fellow of an Oxbridge college” (according to Wikipedia). Of Alexander’s exposition of the idea of God, Collingwood writes that it is

dazzling in its austere splendour; but this must not blind us to its paradoxical character. Our ordinary thoughts of God are no doubt childish; but, such as they are, they begin by thinking that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Alexander, on the contrary, says that in the end the heavens and the earth will create God … This conclusion would not be objectionable in a philosophy whose method claimed to be one of rigid deduction; for such a method, if it arrived at conclusions contrary to ordinary ideas, would be entitled to defend them by argument (as Spinoza defends his view that our ordinary idea of freedom is an illusion); but in a philosophy whose leading methodical conception is that of natural piety it is objectionable, for such a philosophy ought to take current ideas as it finds them, and nothing is more essential to the current idea of God than the belief that He created the world.

Thus in spite of the brilliant merits of Alexander’s work—one of the greatest triumphs of modern philosophy, and a book where no page fails to express truths illuminating and important—there is a certain gap between the logic of the system and the materials, derived from his general experience as a man, which he has tried to work into it. According to the logic of the system, Alexander ought at the beginning to deny logical necessity and fall into pure empiricism; at the end he ought to deny God and fall into pure atheism (except in so far as he would identify God with space-time). And both these steps might easily be taken by followers less richly endowed than himself with experience of life and thought; clever philosophers, unlike him in not being great men.

A philosophy like Alexander’s “ought to take current ideas as it finds them,” and I am trying to take current ideas of burial as I find them. To my cynical mind though, the chief use of burying the dead is to prevent a plot of land in the city from being covered over with apartment blocks. It is ridiculous to think that dead bodies need be saved up for Judgment Day. Nonetheless, the belief is common. At least its residual effects are common, and one of these is the ritual washing of the corpse that I mentioned.

Cebeci, Ankara, 2016.05.17

One may decline to participate in that ritual, leaving it to hospital staff. It is good to have the option to observe a tradition or not. This means it is good to have a tradition in the first place. In connection with my study of Collingwood’s New Leviathan, especially on the subject of rules as an explanation for what we do, I wonder if tradition should be considered separately from rules. When faced with a dilemma, I may not ask myself what rules govern my situation; but I ask what the tradition is. Then I can decide whether to follow the tradition or not. For now I shall just note that at the recent burial in Ankara, since the person being commemorated was not so close to me as some others had been, perhaps I could appreciate the ceremony more as a tradition. The affair did activate my tear ducts, unless I redirected my thoughts.

Sedan, West Virginia, 2014.06.15

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Effectiveness « Polytropy on May 17, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    […] “Nature and Death” I took some issue with Blackburn’s style of personal criticism, which I thought an […]

  2. By Narnia « Polytropy on May 23, 2020 at 6:32 am

    […] was part of a British academic tradition devoted to tearing down one’s colleagues. In “Nature and Death” I reported detecting this tradition in Simon Blackburn’s reading of Collingwood. However, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: