State University of New York Press, 2003.

ISBN: 978-0-7914-5808-2

Reviewed by Christine Avery


‘All things are interconnected.’ I am always surprised that this highly abstract, therefore potentially dry statement can set off a tidal wave of joyful emotion in the depths of the psyche. For Freya Mathews it expresses a basic intuition, the essential starting point for a careful philosophical analysis which leads to Panpsychism, in a modern form of this ancient idea. She is clear that “One is likely to become a panpsychist only as a result of direct experience of a responsive world” and her ample and engaging examples of such experience include her own and other people’s. On an ordinary, daily car journey: “With all the objects around me finely and blackly etched against the orange light, the differences between trees and telegraph poles, birds and distant airplanes, no longer registered. I was filled with a sense of one of those semi–ineffables: that every instance of matter is not merely manifest and visible, but actually there, present to itself…there is an innerness to its reality as well as an outerness.”

From here we need to follow her through some subtle and often difficult philosophical argument which can only be appreciated by reading the book. The hard thinking is essential because “Reason is the grave guardian of our fullest humanity and we rebuke and disown it at our peril.” Equally unavoidable is the hypothetical, exploratory nature of her thinking which can at times thin down to a gauzy tenuousness. (I was interested to notice that her next book will be about the place of Reason.) With some temerity, I will attempt to sum up a few of the ideas which were most interesting to me, drawing on her earlier book The Ecological Self as well as the present one.

According to Newtonian ‘substance pluralism’ the universe consists of many different things which are logically independent of each other – the nature of each is within itself, without reference to any other thing. By contrast, for modern physics, the nature or identity of everything is implicated in the nature or identity of everything else, and this is ‘substance monism’. As now perceived, the universe is not just a bag of different things accidentally banging into each other, but a structured whole. This structure or pattern invents itself − varying, complexifying, serving its own ends and containing its own justification for being, unlike a machine which only serves ends outside of itself. Hence, as a whole, it has the qualities normally attributed to life and to mind. The universe is “a gigantic act of self- affirmation,” and it is “a psychophysical unity.” Freya Mathews uses the medieval term ‘conatus’ as a shorthand for this self-perpetuation and self-realization. It is the wholeness of the universe “within the eddies and currents of whose dynamics we and other finite creatures stake out our relative identities.” Individual beings are small reflections of the whole cosmos and ‘The conatus of the individual, by helping to shape the wider system, helps to sustain the conatus of that system…” Self-love is natural and right, and it leads to love of nature and love of the cosmos.

At this point those with a tragic view of existence will probably get off the bus, declaring that this landscape is far too sunny and that individual self-love does not lead straight to love of Everything. Personally, I stay on the bus, as a fundamental act of faith. All you need is wholeness – integration. (Please note irony which is all part of the ecstatic richness of things.)

As a side note, however, I would want to say that Freya Mathews’ ideas could easily be misinterpreted by people who are minimally self-aware and that history is full of examples of people with power catastrophically misinterpreting even the best ideas. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ which, he claimed, shaped the common good out of individual greed is also inconveniently haunting me. Is it an answer to these problems to say that the ideas in For Love of Matter demand both depth of attention and a precision of expression which fight against misunderstanding? There is an affinity with the relatively better known ideas of Joseph Campbell and his maxim ‘Follow your joy’ where the expression (one hopes) contains its own safeguards. In Freya Matthew’s own highly qualified terms: ‘The self need only follow its appetitive promptings, adapted in the light of panpsychist awareness, to give its desire fullest expression, and incidentally to achieve maximal self-realization. In reaching out to the world…and seeking to participate as deeply as possible in it, the self will necessarily seek to connect not merely with the materiality of things but with their subjectivity.” (p. 60)

This is the rationale for the One and the Many. Freya Mathews compares two stories which offer contrasting explanations of this relationship. The first is the Fall myth in Genesis which registers the human person’s discovery that she/he is an individual centre of consciousness and as such is aware of, and terrifyingly vulnerable to, pain and destruction. According to the Genesis myth-maker, this discovery is a forbidden one and leads to retribution from an affronted, hierarchical God. In answer to this, the story of Jesus has potentially panpsychist meaning since the One suffers with and for the Many. But it is seen as falling short because it demands that ‘God’ is seen as logically distinct from ‘Creation’ and therefore the ‘guilt’ of separation remains unless the sinner is ‘redeemed’ by absorption into the perfect, transcendent Creator. This negates the plurality of the whole enterprise in which individuals become separate in order to meet and communicate: “The impact of collision, the fizz and crackle of contact, is what charges our being and renews our sense of being alive.” And this applies to the whole realm of living things, and beyond that to the ‘inanimate’: everything exists for relationship.

Instead of the Christian myth, Freya Matthews recommends the story of Eros and Psyche, which she argues has a much stronger philosophical and psychological truth. Her extensive analysis of this story is a sequence of revelations (despite occasional dips into the idiosyncratic and far-fetched). But this unfolding of meaning serves the affirmation that “The point is not to explain the world, but to sing it.” Story, poetry, song – and presumably all the arts, with their holistic modes of experience – bring us home to ourselves as part of the interconnected universe.

This is an exciting book. I felt that assent that comes when deep intuitions are affirmed and clarified, and a freeing up to participate (uniquely – as every being is unique) in the creative work going on at every point in the universe.