Philosophy on a Circle, by Eric Meece, M.A. (E. Alan Meece)

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Presented at San Jose State University Alumni Conference, April 2001; revised. This paper is based on my MA paper from 1979 and forms the core of a possible book called The Philosopher's Wheel (click for more)

Take the questionnaire based on this paper and find out where you are on the map of the mind or philosophy circle (click on link to see a diagram of the circle).

LINKS to other chapters and articles related to The Philosophers Wheel

There seems to be two basic ways in which philosophers make sense of things. The first way is to debunk stereotypes. Generalities are suspicious, runs this attitude, and through thorough analysis, we can show that these stereotypes do not apply. The second approach, of which this paragraph and this paper is an example, is to create stereotypes and generalities. This approach says, we can understand the basic nature of reality and what's happening by boiling everything down into a few categories and formulas.

The first attitude was all the rage in the 20th Century. I'm hoping the second attitude may make a comeback in the 21st. But truth be told, there's room for both approaches. And of course, if these stereotypes are wrong, there's room for many more approaches than these two.

In my study of the history of philosophy and culture, I have noticed two polarities. If you set politics aside, and do not get caught up in the particular details of this or that religious doctrine or scientific theory, you can see that philosophy (and other fields too) have always ranged on one side or the other of these two polarities, or of some mixture of them.

Philosophers have been at odds over the first polarity throughout history at least since the time of the Greeks. Every period of history and culture since then shows this conflict. One side of this polarity claims that reality can be figured out with our minds. Reason leads us to the truth, and reality can be understood by arranging it in proper order and sequence. There are definite qualities and distinctions to be made, and these distinct qualities are everywhere present and unchanging. These essential categories of being allow us to understand and control the world. We can know right from wrong, beauty from ugliness, good from bad, truth from falsehood, he from she, apples from oranges, cats from dogs; because universal realities make these concepts meaningful. Ideas help us to develop fruitful theories that lead to important discoveries, and give us the ability to follow an ethical life.

The other side of this polarity says that reality is too fluid and changeable to be figured out. To know the truth one must be the truth; it cannot be grasped through concepts, but only verified through experience. This is not a world of order, but of freedom or chaos, they say. Our knowledge is limited to what we can feel or perceive. Categories and sequences are abstractions under which we group the flux of being in order to control the world. But to live effectively we must release this obsessive urge to control things with our minds, and go with the flow. Generalities and stereotypes distort reality by lumping things together which don't fit. Reality is flux and change, and distinctions or boundaries can't be fixed. Right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly are relative concepts, not universal truths. Our ideas may be useful for language and for getting along in society with its maps and schedules, but they get in the way of our experience of reality.

To reason, or just to be; that seems to be the question. We saw the battle joined when Parmenides invoked the eternal principle of non-contradiction, while Heraclitus countered that nothing can be known because everything is always changing. You can't step into the same stream twice, he said. Plato, expanding on his predecessor Pythagoras, who showed how the world displays the essential properties of numbers, defined the rational side of this polarity for all time with his proposal that all the things we see are reflections of eternal forms and ideas. The Sophists dissented, claiming that man himself is the measure of all things. In the Middle Ages, the realists stood by the Platonic view that names represent eternal realities, as Plotinus and Augustine had done before them. But the nominalists countered that, no; names are just names, and there are no universal realities behind them.

In 17th and 18th Century Europe, Descartes inaugurated a new school of rational philosophy by showing how our reason alone could lay out the workings of the universe through clear and distinct ideas, which we know innately and through our own certain knowledge. Spinoza proceeded to describe how rational philosophy creates an ethical life through knowledge of principles from which our feelings and wayward impulses distract us, and Leibniz showed further how everything fits into the universal rational purpose. But in pragmatic Britain, the empiricists Locke, Berkeley and Hume claimed to disprove the existence of these innate ideas, showing that our minds are a tabula rasa formed by experience. Our own perceptions, not the abstract ideas of quality, matter or mind, lead us to knowledge-- however little we may have. Kant tried to reconcile the two sides, but his successors continued the debate. Hegel and his followers like Bradley and Croce believed that reason is reality, and that history reveals reason unfolding in action. But Bergson and the existentialists like Kierkegaard, Sartre and Heidegger clearly defined for all time the other side, by saying that existence preceeds essence, and that our being itself comes before the concepts and philosophical systems we use to describe it. Great theorists like Bertrand Russell showed how the principles of mathematics underlie the world, while on the other hand ordinary language analysts and general semanticists became the modern-day nominalists by demonstrating how words confused as general truths cause problems such as prejudice by distorting our experience of reality.

Meanwhile the great conflict has ranged through art history as well, as classic alternates with romantic, Apollonian with Dionesian. Even in 20th Century physics the battle was joined when Einstein asserted that God does not play dice with the universe, and Bohr shot back "don't tell God what to do," touting instead the quantum world governed by uncertainty. In psychology, personality theorists like Freud and Jung, who offer the talking cure and explain the mind with archetypal ideas, vie for acceptance with experimentalists who believe we can understand human behavior by studying rats, and with existentialists like Carl Rogers who advise their clients to trust their feelings. In the Orient the same conflict was seen, as in Confucianism versus Taoism, but more often the existential, experiential side predominated, asserting that to liberate ourselves we must still the compulsion to capture the world with our concepts. The apotheosis of this view is found in Zen Buddhism, perhaps the ultimate expression of the philosophy first proclaimed in the West by Heraclitus.

The second polarity may be even more basic and irreconcilable than the first. The two sides of this battle have also clashed throughout history, though in this case there have also been times of relative agreement. This is the polarity of the spiritual and the material, of mind and body, of idealism and realism.

The first side of this polarity says that reality is spiritual. Divine consciousness is the first cause of all things, and their ultimate destination, because any other explanation leads to infinite regress. Everything exists within someone's mind, for we have knowledge of nothing else. There are no objects without subjects to perceive them. There is a higher purpose and intelligent design to life, say many spiritualists; for otherwise it makes no sense. To say that the universe came about through the mere chance movement of atoms, is to say that monkeys sitting at a typewriter could have typed out the works of Shakespeare. We are conscious, free beings, not an epiphenomenon of nerve impulses and muscle spasms responding to necessary causes. To hold that living beings are specks of dust in a random, meaningless universe leaves us in despair and alienation and encourages destructive and immoral acts. Reducing ourselves and others to objects allows us to use each other and nature for our own purposes, rather than respecting them as ends in themselves.

On the other side of this polarity are the materialists. To them the notions of soul or spirit are mere ghosts within the machine, and philosophy must purge itself of these empty notions. To postulate spirit or a divine being to explain events is to depend on unverifiable speculations. In this view there are rational explanations for everything, and we should stick to these rather than engage in wishful thinking. These philosophers hold with common sense realism that objects continue to exist, even if no mind is observing them, and that no two objects can occupy the same space. If a tree falls in the forest, and noone hears it, it makes a sound, and the light is still there when we close the refrigerator door. To assert that an event has no necessary cause, is to fail to provide any explanation that can be useful or illuminating. To believe in the existence of a spiritual life or a higher purpose beyond this material world, is to devalue this world and distract us with false promises from the urgent needs of suffering humanity on an endangered planet.

Once again we can trace the debate back at least to the early Greek philosophers. Thales and his successors sought to reduce the world to material elements, eventually settling on four of them: fire, earth, air and water. Empedocles described how they all interact in a perfectly determined system. It was mainly the great trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and their followers who stood against this dominant materialist tendency, reminding them that we need to take care of our souls and respect the gods. Socrates rebuked Anaxagoras for thinking he sat in prison to endure his sentence because of the contraction and relaxation of his muscles and bones, rather than his choice, and explained why he did not fear death because there was a greater life beyond the body. Plato laid out the basic tenets of spiritualism for all time by explaining that soul must be the first cause since it has its source of movement within. Aristotle named this first cause the unmoved mover, and moderated the views of his teacher by allowing for the material as well as the final cause. But Democritus and Lucretius firmly established the opposite theory that everything is reducible to atoms in the void as ultimate constituents. The Roman Stoics upheld the spiritual view of Socrates that although the body may be in prison, in our souls we are free, while the Epicureans made materialism attractive by saying that pleasure is the only goal we can rely on.

In the Middle Ages from Plotinus and Augustine to the Scholastics, the Christian view that the spiritual world of heaven was superior to the material world held sway within the monasteries and cathedrals that protected the philosophers from the chaos outside the walls. But later the Black Death persuaded them that God could not save them from the world's plagues. So Renaissance Humanists turned increasingly away from the spiritual life toward the pursuit of fame and fortune in this world. Descartes sought to give each realm its due, calling them spiritual substance and extended substance, and his successor Spinoza showed how each was an aspect of the other depending on your viewpoint. Leibniz described the world as made up of spiritual monads. But Hobbes declared that nature and human beings were reducible to matter in motion, as Newton showed, and therefore have to be tightly controlled by the state. While Locke, his democratic opponent, accepted the material substance, saying he did not know what it is, Berkeley showed that noone has ever perceived it, and that therefore everything exists in the mind. The sound of the tree falling in the forest does not exist if noone hears it, he said.

The German idealists elaborated the spiritualist view for modern times. Hegel described the unfolding of the spirit through a dialectical process in a living, organic universe. But Marx turned Hegel on his head and offered a dialectical materialism of economic class struggle instead. While Darwin refuted Christian creationism by making the very mechanistic theory of evolution that Plato had scorned seem scientifically valid, Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin showed how evolution unfolds from a creative vital impetus or a divine attraction. But in the 20th Century materialism proved most attractive to philosophers, since scientific verification seemed to validate its explanations and make spiritual ones appear meaningless. Besides a few hybrids like Whitehead, it largely fell to the existentialists and phenomenologists to protest that, as Sartre said, a human being is not a stone; or as Doestoevsky had put it, an organ stop. For some interpreters, quantum theory has brought back the idealistic view by proving that our own observations affect the outcome of our experiments. In psychology spiritualists like Jung and existentialists or modern-day Stoics like Victor Frankl ask their patients to look within toward their search for meaning. Arrayed against them are those predominant in psychiatry today who look to the brain and genetics to explain behavior and prescribe drugs to alter it.

Who's right? Which side of each argument is correct? I have my views; we all do. All philosophers, indeed all thinking people, find themselves at some position or another along these two polarities. But my purpose here is not to decide, but to map out the disagreements. There seem to be two alternate opinions to my proposition that philosophy is arrayed along two polarities. One says that there are no particular polarities at all, or too many to describe, and therefore philosophers are arranged hither and thither and helter skelter. The other scopes the two great polarities down to only one and cannot distinguish between them.

As I continued my investigation, at first I saw a triangle of three basic views emerge. Plato and the rationalists, and Bergson and the existentialists, largely agreed that spirit or consciousness is the first cause of our lives, standing in passionate opposition to the materialists who offered mechanical explanations. But these two spiritualist camps were themselves in dire disagreement along the other polarity, the first claiming that the changing world is a reflection of the eternal order of ideas, while the second countered that these ideas are merely the reflected images in our minds of the changing and temporal reality. In fact, Plato and Bergson emerged as exact, archetypal reflections of one another, turning the same terms on their head, even though they both were agreed that spirit is prior to matter. Then I noticed the rationalists and the empiricists were arrayed along the same polarity, but mostly further down the scale toward materialism. So then there were four basic philosophies; or perhaps six if you counted those who are thoroughgoing in their allegiance toward the spiritual or the material, but somewhere in the middle on the question of reason versus experience. Eventually, my own prior studies in other fields naturally gravitated me toward plotting the various views on a circle, drawn around the triangle or around the four or the six directions. Using the circle as a basis for drawing a map of the mind has great advantages. The circle is a symbol of infinity which encompasses all possibilities, and it shows how everything relates. In fact, putting all views on a circle implies they all have a measure of truth, that they shade into one other, and that, although they are completely polarized, there is a concealed conspiracy of agreement between the opposites.

When I announced to my teachers that I was constructing a map of the mind, I was told to check out the library and see what other maps already existed. I found, much as I suspected, that in these so-called maps of the mind the various philosophies were strewn hither and yon, and the maps exhibited no internal relationship or systematic order between the different views. So I continued to place the map of philosophy on a circle, and it soon became apparent to me that inside every circle is a cross. The four directions of the cross, which meet in the center, can always be inscribed within a circle. As you travel the circumference, you come to four cardinal points, each perpendicular to the previous one. Thus, the archetype of the circle seems also to imply the archetype of the cross, with its four cardinal directions. It seemed natural to put the spiritualist camp at the top of the circle, since their heads are in the clouds, and the materialists at the bottom, since their feet are placed firmly on the ground. At the left are the essentialists and rationalists, and opposite to them on the right are the existentialists and empiricists.

Although it has not occured to philosophers to map out their field on a circle or four archetypes, thinkers in other fields have done so, showing some precedent for the circular model. In psychology, for example, much has been made of the contrast between the left brain and the right brain, and the descriptions we hear of the functions of each side of the brain mirror almost exactly the debate between the left and right in philosophy. It is as though we are hard wired for this great debate. On the other hand, Anodea Judith in her book on the esoteric doctrine of the chakras, Wheels of Life, shows how each of the 7 chakras is linked to the main nerve ganglia and gland centers in the body, moving up and down the spine. The chakras range from the practical, well-grounded and survival-oriented centers on the bottom of the spine up toward the centers of dreaming, imagination and spirituality at the top. Again, it seems we have the spiritualist-materialist polarity built in to our bodies. In nature itself, the circle of the year occurs in four seasons, and the day is marked by four cardinal stages: sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. Thus, the earth and sky maps out the same circle, and peoples worldwide have created ritual circular maps using these four corners of the world. In many of them, the sun is high in the sky in the South, thus the spiritual direction; while the sun is below the earth in the North, thus the material direction. The sun rises in the East, representing the assertive, controlling, clarifying side, while the sun sets in the West, representing renunciation and trust in the unknown. The Greek medicine wheel and its correlations has been very influential as well on western healing traditions. In some earth-based cultures, such as Native Americans who use the medicine wheel, the same archetypes and directions appear but may be aligned differently. I developed further this theme in my Summer Solstice Essay

Carl Jung's four functions of personality-- thinking, sensation, feeling, and intuition-- correspond to the four directions of philosophy or, more exactly, to the four quadrants located between the 4 arms of the cross. We recognize the four parts of the soul that correspond to these functions: mind, body, emotions and spirit. Also using two more of Jung's polarities, judgment and perception, and introvert and extrovert, which seem to correspond to the 4 arms of the cross themselves, the theorists Briggs and Myers constructed the MBTI personality test, the map of the mind most commonly used today. I observe here that judgment versus perception is also a left-right polarity, while introverts are spiritually or subjectively inclined and extroverts are materially or objectively inclined. Even before learning of the correlation with Jung and the MBTI test, I had constructed a questionnaire of my own, consisting of 33 questions that would ascertain where any person is placed on the philosophical map of the mind. The map itself became a grid placed within the circle.

Many other traditions and writers, especially recently, have been using the four archetypes. We mentioned that the Greeks discerned four elements in the world; fire, earth, air and water. We know today they are not elements, but the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and energy. In the Jewish tradition of the kaballah, the elements also represented the same four parts of the soul as Jung described, and in this meaning they came down to us through the alchemists to the occult traditions such as the magick circle described by Aleister Crowley in his voluminous works. We notice that tarot card decks used for divination have four symbols (wands, pentacles, swords and cups), which correspond to playing card suits of clubs, diamonds, spades and hearts, and these suits correspond in their meanings to the four directions and elements on the magick circle and the map of the mind. Wicca practitioners such as Starhawk also follow these traditions. Robert Moore has described the four archetypes as the Priest, the King, the Warrior and the Lover, while the earth-based approach of Angeles Arrien developed in The Four-Fold Way names them as Visionary, Teacher, Warrior and Healer. The writers Strauss and Howe in The Fourth Turning analyzed four repeating generational archetypes, Prophet, Hero, Nomad and Artist, linking them to the four Greek elements and the cycle of four seasons. See a detailed table of the 4 archetypes HERE

Below is an illustration of the map of the mind or philosophy circle

Placing the four philosophies on a circle raises the possibility of not only seeing their differences, but how to reconcile them or bring them into fruitful interaction. According to Taoism and Zen, all polarities have something in common and arise mutually. Placing philosophy on a circle means that each point of view has an exact polar opposite and a relationship to every other philosophy. On the circle we see that Sartre and Spinoza are both located just above the horizon, although opposite to each other on left and right. We saw how Spinoza reconciled mind and body, making each one the reflection of the other. So did Sartre in a way, by emphasizing that all consciousness is consciousness of something. The much-dismissed Bishop Berkeley paved the way for Kant, and thus for all modern philosophy, by showing that no object could be shown to exist except in a mind perceiving it. Noone can truly disprove his point; only show as Sartre did that the reverse is also true. Thus, one may assign priority to one or the other, yet it seems clear they are mutually dependent. As Alan Watts said, we see no light without the Sun, but the Sun is not light without the eyes to perceive it. As Heisenberg pointed out in Physics and Philosophy, an object is only potentially existing until someone is aware of it, and thus makes it actual. He thereby brought back from Aristotle the relation of potential and actual.

The conflict between left and right, or east and west is not so obviously resolved, but here too the two sides of the polarity are interdependent. Eternal Forms are dependent on Flux and vice-versa. Plato in the Timeaus used the movements and changes of the heavens to reveal a world created according to unchanging forms. Bergson in his analysis of the movement of time pronounced no difference between moving from one state of mind to another and persisting in the same state. Pythagoras and Plato described the world as formed by rational numbers, but we have seen how the number four is the cornerstone of the circle. Evidently an eternal form demonstrated everywhere in nature, things move continuously around a circle; and the boundaries between positions on it can't be pinned down.

We each find our position on the map of the mind somewhere inside the circle. Philosophy itself, and Life, is of course more variable and complex than any map (even a circular one), since the map is not the territory. In the center of the circle, all the polarities are resolved and there is peace. Each person must decide where they believe the true center lies; it is not necessarily the center of the map, which is merely the average or middle position between the philosophies as they have existed. For me the center is above the horizon and slightly to the right. Wherever it is for you, it is probably a bit tilted from the center of philosophy itself, and thus subject as it were to the pull of gravity. It is thus a moving, dynamic center, like the wheel of a locomotive, and philosophy too remains a wheel in motion, as we travel the pathway to truth.


More pages I wrote related to The Philosophers Wheel, my forthcoming book:

Pages by other authors
See wikipedia and use the search box in the upper right for articles on the philosophers named in this essay.
Medicine Wheel by wikipedia
Putting the types on the wheel, by Jack Falt (directions are different)
The Medicine Wheel by James Mannion
Medicine Wheel, by Ellie Crystal
Buddhist states of existence and Wheel of Life by Mark Schumacher