The Distinction and the Priority of Philosophy

John Trevor Berger

A key element of Wolfgang Smith’s thought—failure of which to grasp will forever inhibit one from understanding what makes his work so groundbreaking and profound—is his ontological distinction between the physical and the corporeal domains. This distinction proceeds from the observation that there are two ways of knowing the objective world. The first and more manifest way is via sensory perception, by which we know the world in direct, unmediated experience. The second way is via the modus operandi of physics, which consists of an interplay between mathematical formalism and empirical measurement, theory and experiment.

What we know by sense perception is—in the nomenclature of Wolfgang Smith—the corporeal world, and what we know by way of physics is the physical universe. Now the implicit (or, in some cases, explicit) claim of physicists is that objective reality reduces to the physical order, and that the phenomena of the corporeal order are merely subjective.

In addition to the fact that the latter contradicts what from time immemorial has been held to be—from the commonest to the wisest of men—manifestly self-evident, it happens that this reductionism is a metaphysical judgment, not a scientific one. It is not a position that can be made on the basis of physics, nor can it be counted among the objects of scientific discovery. The reduction of the corporeal to the physical is, in fact, a category error: We mustn’t conflate, for example, the ‘corporeal baseball’ with the ‘physical baseball’. In this reckoning, it would be patently absurd to say that this worn, textured ball which I hold in my hand, pitch, catch, or hit with a bat is nothing but a rigid sphere of constant density or an aggregate of subatomic particles—to wit, a ‘physical’ baseball.

Let it be said forthwith, however, that despite its tremendous importance for an accurate understanding of physics, and indeed all of the sciences, my purpose here is not to discuss the scientific import of the distinction between the physical and the corporeal (hereafter, ‘the Distinction’). My purpose rather is to discuss the implications of the Distinction for philosophy—or, more accurately, for the philosopher.

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Contra Cartesianism

What led Wolfgang Smith to the Distinction was his investigation of the so called ‘quantum reality problem’. The issue was to understand what accounted for the paradoxes of quantum physics, and Dr. Smith’s achievement is to have discerned that it is of the very essence of the central conundrum of quantum mechanics—generally known as the ‘measurement problem’—that in fact cries out for the Distinction.

The solution to the problem only becomes possible upon the detection and rejection of what is perhaps the most basic epistemological assumption of modernity, namely the bifurcation of René Descartes—i.e., the division of reality into a dualism comprising Thought (res cogitans) and Extension (res extensa)—which has, since the 17th century, taken on the force of an indisputable axiom. Dr. Smith’s philosophy of physics rests squarely upon the rejection of Cartesian bifurcation, and indeed he has demonstrated that ‘quantum paradox’ is itself a byproduct of the bifurcationist assumption.

The upshot of this Cartesian partition is that objective reality is, fundamentally, quantitative in character. In light of the terms discussed above, this consists in the reduction of the corporeal to the physical: the ‘qualitative’ attributes of a thing—e.g., its color, taste, scent—are taken to be mere ‘ideas’ (res cogitantes), just ‘in our head’. The object’s ‘quantitative’, measurable attributes (res extensae), on the other hand, are taken to be the ‘really real’. Quantities, in other words, are held to have ontological priority over qualities. Under the bifurcation principle, the only indubitable certainties are those which can be accounted for in mathematical terms. The mind has been severed from that world which would be—in the absence of the bifurcationist presupposition—taken for granted as ‘real’ vis-à-vis sensory perception.

The ‘philosopher problem’

The notion that the ‘really real’ is described and discovered almost exclusively by mathematical physics has made the lion’s share of philosophers of the past hundred some odd years highly susceptible to what one might characterize as ‘math envy’. Regarding the condition of academic philosophy in the English-speaking world in the early decades of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot—who had himself been a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Harvard—remarked that

the philosopher was beginning to suffer from a feeling of inferiority to the exact scientist. It was felt that the mathematician was the man best qualified to philosophize. Those students of philosophy who had not come to philosophy from mathematics did their best . . . to try to become imitation mathematicians—at least to the extent of acquainting themselves with the paraphernalia of symbolic logic.

Certainly when I was a student—not so very long ago—one did not have to look very far to find university philosophy departments offering courses with titles like ‘Philosophical Thinking’ which were little more than excursions into selfsame symbolic logic, à la Russell, Whitehead, et al. Much of what passes for philosophy in such milieux amounts to a trite amalgam of puzzles, paradoxes, and logical ‘games’—something like an intellectual Rubik’s cube. And thus it remains in many philosophy departments to the present day, whilst others have begun to abandon logic altogether in favor of varying stripes of postmodernist ideology. Regardless, all of these orientations are a far cry from what Eliot identified as the “insight and wisdom” which characterized philosophy in the premodern West.

Now, whereas the Distinction provides the hidden key to resolving the measurement problem of quantum mechanics—a topic which admittedly I do not broach in this particular essay—my contention is that the Distinction also provides the hidden key to the ‘philosopher problem’ just outlined.

And perhaps the best way of introducing the implications of the Distinction for philosophy—more specifically, for the philosopher—is by a little autobiographical digression concerning my discovery of Wolfgang Smith and the role that his work has played in my own formation.

Modernity, philosophy, and Wolfgang Smith

Ever since the early days of my studies I was cognizant of the differences between modern and premodern thought. Modernity presented itself as problematic, and this in so many ways that to try to enumerate them here in summary fashion would be futile. Suffice it to say, as soon as I became aware of the modern qua modern, I immediately found myself in vehement opposition to it. The sciences, however, were never much of an active concern in this ‘opposition’. My own objections to modernity were rather metaphysical and epistemological, moral and political. To me the empiriological sciences held little interest, and consequently presented nothing especially problematic.

Furthermore, it had always been my expedient to dismiss the ‘math envy’ problem as a non sequitur. I evidently did not suffer from it; if anything I ridiculed it, diagnosing those who fell prey to it as having missed entirely what philosophy is really all about. What relevance, after all, did any of that ‘STEM’ business have for a student of the humanities?

It was not until I began to study the works of Wolfgang Smith that my scope of interest began to broaden into the domain of the sciences. And I was herein presented with an understanding of science—physics in particular—that positively called for, indeed insisted upon, those very same (premodern) ontological principles with which I was already so familiar. Dr. Smith’s philosophy thus filled a large gap in my own knowledge-base, and extended the areas of inquiry into which I was willing to venture.

In studying Wolfgang Smith one found a curious thing happening. Not only did he present modern science in the spirit of a true philosopher, but—perhaps ironically—he actually vindicated my initial position: for by demonstrating that the physical universe is ontologically inferior to the corporeal world, he showed that the philosopher is not—and indeed never was—the ‘second-class citizen’ the modern academy took him for. The corporeal world—Aristotle’s φύσις or Husserl’s Lebenswelt—is, in point of fact, the philosopher’s point of departure. The philosopher, then, is by no means ‘beholden’ to the physicist, and never was.

Aside, then, from the decisive role it plays in resolving the quantum reality problem, what primarily intrigued me was the philosophical gravity of the Distinction. For indeed what comes in tandem with the rejection of bifurcation and restoration of the primacy of the corporeal is the reclamation of that whole repository of wisdom and truth which has been forgotten, even eschewed, in the modern era under the hegemony of the physical.

Finally, in proper fashion for a ‘philosopher of science’—meaning one who shows where science is situated within the larger scheme of things—Wolfgang Smith’s hierarchical vision showed one how the ‘partial’ sciences fit into that ‘whole’ which comprehensive context is the purview of philosophy proper.

True philosophy and bad science

It is necessary to see and be able to account for the difference between the corporeal and the physical domains for the simple reason that the philosopher and the physicist ultimately address two very different ‘universes’, as it were. But in spite of this contrast the Distinction in fact validates the legitimacy of both: the physicist may go about his physics, the philosopher about his metaphysics, and neither will be the worse for it. In fact, they will be the better, understanding more clearly the nature and meaning of their own preoccupations. Granted, the physicist—at least qua physicist—cannot see this. To the extent that the physicist does see this, it is only insofar as he steps outside his professional purview and begins to think philosophically—which is, after all, his proper purview qua man.

That the latter is a fact—i.e., that philosophy is proper to man qua man—is betrayed even in the bizarre phenomena going on in ‘cutting edge’ physics these days. In their refusal to satiate that innate philosophic impulse through authentic philosophizing, physicists resort to what is at once amateur philosophy and perverse physics. Increasingly ignoring what were once the hallmarks of good science—such as verification by experiment and the principle of falsifiability—members of the physics community have begun not only to transgress the proper bounds of their discipline, but even to metamorphose physics into a kind of ‘mathematical metaphysics’. As Dr. Smith explains it:

A sampling of the contemporary literature in the journals of theoretical physics reveals an abundance of “universe-building” on a scale never heretofore realized. I have argued that eventually physics may cease to be a natural science and turn into what I term a “hyperphysics,” a science (or pseudo-science, as one may say) which has lost contact with empirical reality. I am thinking especially of the various “many-worlds” theories which seem to be cropping up these days like mushrooms, or of such a thing as superstring theory, with its object-concept universe of ten or more dimensions… Is this still science, or has it unwittingly turned into science fiction? An unbiased observer can hardly escape the impression that, somewhere along the line, the boundary has actually been crossed.


And so long as one abides by the standards of sound logic and ontological verity, it is not, after all, the philosopher who is endlessly prone to groundless speculations. It would appear that, in our time, that honor goes more often to the theoretical physicist.

In the end the priority always lay in the philosophic sphere. One may have a Philosophy of Physics, but there can be no Physics of Philosophy.

The philosopher’s distinction

Perhaps it would come to Wolfgang Smith as a surprise—hopefully a pleasant one—but I submit that what has been restored by the Distinction is nothing less than the primordial dignity of the true philosopher, who can once and for all jettison the inferiority complex which had been dogging him for over a century. The shackles of ideological mathematicism are off.

Given the ontological primacy of the corporeal, the philosopher need no longer suffer under the trompe-l’oeil that intimacy with ‘hard science’ stands before him as some exclusive prerequisite for any knowledge worthy of the name. The Distinction in fact provides us with a vital ‘check’ on the sciences, and reaffirms that philosophy is the science of the whole, whilst all these others are partial sciences—and, as such, are incapable of comprehending the nature and scope of their own methods. And if the partial sciences would remain sane, they need a ‘science of sciences’—a science which views the whole panorama of human inquiry—ordering all to the end of Wisdom.

John Trevor Berger is Editor of PSI Publishing. A writer and musician from Atlanta, he is a graduate of Georgia State University, where he studied Philosophy, English Literature, and Art History.


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Dr. Smith’s latest book, Physics: A Science in Quest of an Ontology, is now available, as is our feature documentary chronicling his life and work, The End of Quantum Reality.