• jse885

Tetralemmic Polarity

I have found that, once one gets past belief in independent material existence, many of the remaining metaphysical questions can be dealt with through what Coleridge called 'polarity'. Coleridge borrowed the term from magnetism, with its feature that the north and south poles of a magnet existed in mutual dependence and mutual opposition. The metaphysical issues are more restrictive, however. While in magnetism one could just switch the labels "north" and "south" with nothing changing, one cannot do that with the polarities of interest here. The main example I will be discussing is the polarity of formlessness with form, though I think that other polarities like unity/multiplicity or permanence/change are in a sense equivalent to formlessness/form. One might call such polarities 'tetralemmic' in that one establishes the reality of such a polarity by going through the four horns of what is called the 'tetralemma'. The horns are, given the possibilities X and not-X: to affirm X alone as fundamental, to affirm not-X alone, to affirm both X and not-X, and to affirm neither X nor not-X. It is by running through the tetralemma that one recognizes such a polarity as being, on the one hand, not categorizable in any ordinary way (like "is" or "isn't"), while on the other hand, one finds it is necessary to make sense of our experience.

One gets a tetralemmic polarity when one of the poles is not an object. By "object" I mean whatever can be observed or thought about. So a tree, a hallucination, a concept, a process are all objects. All objects have form. A form is a set of distinctions that allows one to identify an object as a particular object, distinct from all other objects. However, this raises the question of whether an object is a form, or is it that it has a form, and its form is not all there is to it. If the latter, then that "extra" must be formless. I will argue that formlessness is indeed a reality in all objects, and that formlessness and form are a tetralemmic polarity.

Let us go through the tetralemma, considering the possibilities:

1) There is ultimately only formlessness (and form is somehow derived from formlessness).

2) There is ultimately only form (and formlessness is just vacuous word-mongering).

3) There is ultimately both form and formlessness.

4) The ultimate is neither form nor formlessness.

(1) can be dismissed by noting that, given only formlessness, there is no explanation, nor can there be any explanation of how form can be derived from it. One can only say "it just happens", which is of course no explanation.

(2) is considerably more difficult. One could imagine a universe consisting only of a bunch of objects, which could be distinguished if there were an observer, but nevertheless exist without an observer. Indeed, most people in modern societies think that just such a universe existed for billions of years. Now being without an observer, there is no distinguishing, so in this imagined universe, a form just is an object, and we would say it is made out of parts, not a set of distinctions. This would mean that an observer, when they finally come into existence, is just another such object. This raises the question of how one object can be aware of another object. An observing object must somehow connect each element of the observed form into a whole. But if the observing object is itself nothing but a set of parts, where can it "put", so to speak, these connections? If we say that some elemental parts of the observing object are changed in an observation (like cells in the retina are changed when struck by photons, causing changes in neurons), then either each of those elemental parts are observing, or other parts of the observing object observe the changed parts of itself. The second possibility obviously just pushes the problem back, so the elemental parts must themselves be observers, like Leibniz' monads. But this just repeats the initial problem on a smaller scale: how does this tiny observer make its connections? Where can it put the knowledge that it has changed, and what can connect these bits of knowledge? So this too is just regressing the question. It might be objected that a form need not be made up of discrete "elemental parts", but is, perhaps something like a continuous field (like an electromagnetic field). However, this doesn't change anything. There would still have to be differences -- different field strengths, perhaps -- and the observing form still needs to alter its continuous features as it observes, and we have the same infinite regress. Another possible objection is that awareness isn't a structure of parts, but of events. Again, this doesn't change anything. Simply substitute 'event' for 'part', and you get the same argument. The only way out is to acknowledge that awareness of form requires that which is other than form, and that can only be formlessness.

Note that there can only be one formlessness, since if there were two, there must be that which distinguishes one from the other, which means they would have form. [See Addendum]

What (3) asserts is that there is form, and then there is also formlessness. Now it would appear that in rebutting (1) and (2) we have just shown this, but what an assertion like (3) means is that there are two separable entities that co-exist. However, form and formlessness are not separable. That is, (3) asserts dualism, but the relation between form and formlessness is not dualistic. The way to see this is to consider our own thinking, for as it turns out, our thinking exemplifies this interplay of form and formlessness. A thought has a form, and if we consider what thinking is in addition to all thoughts -- one might call it the power to think, or something like that -- well, this power to think is formless. Without thoughts there is no thinking, and without the power to think there are no thoughts. It is the formless aspect of thinking that unites concepts (forms) into more complex forms, that allows awareness of them. Thoughts and the power to think completely depend on each other. Now if A depends on B and B depends on A, and A and B are not reducible to something else, then A and B must be one. But the non-reducibility to "something else" has still to be covered, which brings us to...

The rebuttal of (4) lies first of all in noting that to posit a somewhat that is neither formlessness nor form (a prior unity, say) adds nothing that is helpful in accounting for our experience. In that sense, it is metaphysically useless. Furthermore, it creates a new problem, namely how this somewhat relates to formlessness and form. If what is posited is a prior unity, one is left with no explanation of how it unites formlessness and form, and without an explanation of how formlessness and form are derived from it (this latter being the same problem with (1)).

Having seen all four horns of the tetralemma fail, what next? The way forward, as I see it, is to treat the unresolvability of the polarity from being a problem to being the solution. That is, to describe fundamental reality as this never-resolving opposition of the two poles. The way to do this is to think of the two poles as forces (what makes things happen) rather than states of being, or as partial descriptions of reality. Reality is not fundamentally just formless, or form, or both, or neither, rather it is formlessness and form in action, constituting each other as they work against each other. To say that experiencing is the tetralemmic polarity of formlessness and form provides a basis for developing a complete and coherent metaphysics -- given the idealist stance that there is nothing outside of experiencing. No more is needed, and any less cannot produce an explanation of awareness of forms.

Some observations

The first observation to make is that there is no denying that tetralemmic polarity cannot be understood, in the usual meaning of the term "understand". But the reason it cannot be understood can be understood, and that is that one pole of the polarity -- formlessness -- is not an object. When we say we understand X, X must be an object. Hence we should not expect that the act of understanding, which is a kind of thinking, can understand itself, much as "seeing" cannot see itself. But we can, so to speak, get used to tetralemmic polarity. It is the stance from which everything else can be understood.

A second observation follows from the first, namely that a metaphysics that tries to establish an understandable Absolute is doomed to fail. One should note that this notion (that the Absolute is beyond understanding) has a long history, called in the West "negative theology". However, the value of the notion of tetralemmic polarity is that it turns what was negative into a positive. By identifying that which is not understandable as 'formlessness', and noting that it plays an essential part in all experiencing, then the "mystery" of the Absolute turns out to be no more mysterious than our own experiencing. God is not an object, and neither are we. This does not, to be sure, equate God and human. It just indicates that the same principle -- tetralemmic polarity -- is operating.

A third observation is that to describe reality as the tetralemmic polarity of formlessness and form leaves something out that must not be overlooked, and that is awareness. It should be noted that the rebuttal of (2) depended on acknowledging that there is awareness of form. While the reality of awareness was used to show that formlessness and form are a tetralemmic polarity, one can also note that awareness itself is a tetralemmic polarity. That is, awareness "works" by being the interplay of formlessness and form, just as does thinking -- indeed, thinking is a type of awareness, in that one cannot think a thought without being aware of it. But this gives us a problem: if reality is just the tetralemmic polarity of formlessness and form, then where does awareness enter the picture?

One possibility is to equate the concept of 'awareness' with 'formlessness'. (One cannot try this with 'form', as awareness of form is not a form, as we saw above in the rebuttal to (2)). However, if we just say that awareness is formlessness, then how do we get "awareness of", that is, awareness of objects? We can't. Awareness depends on there being form. That is, the idea of "formlessness being aware of itself" is insufficiently explanatory. It is the mutual dependence (see rebuttal of (3)) of formlessness and form that is awareness.

Another reason to not just equate the concept of awareness with formlessness is not a philosophical argument, but a mystical one. Normally, we are only aware of form. But the mystical experience of Nirvana can be called an awareness of formlessness. One could say that the polarity of awareness has shifted from form to formlessness. This wouldn't happen if awareness just is formlessness.

What I would say is that the interplay of formlessness and form results in that polarity being self-aware, and since that self-awareness is "always already" there in that interplay, I would describe fundamental reality as a triunity of formlessness, form, and self-awareness. One very important explanatory consequence of this is that there is now a place for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in this characterization of fundamental reality. That is, self-awareness provides a judgmental feedback to the interplay. Why are some forms produced, but not others? Presumably because there is a sense of value in the production of forms.

Given that fundamental reality is self-aware, and given that Its Self is the interplay of formlessness and form, leads to a very important conclusion about human beings. It is that we are not fully self-aware. Our awareness is only of forms. What we regard as self-awareness is simply that we distinguish between forms we produce (our thoughts and feelings) and those that seem to happen to us (sense perceptions). While these are different types, they are nevertheless all forms. We are not aware of the formlessness that makes awareness of form possible. We can infer it (as we did in the rebuttal of (2)), but we are not directly aware of it. We are not fully self-aware individuals unless and until we do become directly aware of the formless aspect of our awareness.

A question: are there other tetralemmic polarities besides formlessness/form? I would say yes, though I can think of only one example that is different, which I will get to in a moment. However, the traditional metaphysical questions can be seen as the same formlessness/form polarity under different names. One and Many is an example. A particularly interesting one is that of permanence and change. One thing that makes it interesting is that one could say that Western philosophy had its origin in how Plato and Aristotle tried to deal with the conflicting claims of Heraclitus (there is only change) and Parmenides (there is no change). But the interesting thing I want to focus on here is that while one would equate permanence with formlessness and change with form, it is permanence which drives change (as in the "power to think"), while form seems to resist change. That is, an object strives to remain itself, to be permanent, while permanence (formlessness) strives to ever create new objects. What I am getting at is that this exemplifies the need to think of both formlessness and form as forces, not states of being. Fundamental reality is not a being that acts, but activity itself, which we call variously thinking, or creativity, or will, or by many other names.

The other tetralemmic polarity is that between the Absolute and the contingent, specifically between God and individual human beings. The reason it is not just a renaming of formlessness and form is that the formlessness/form polarity exists both in God and in the individual. The individual is not just a form, but itself a creator of form, and so must itself have the creative power, which is formless. Since there is only one formlessness, we are, then, God. However, we are restricted in our ability to create. What restricts our power are the forms within which our thinking is constrained. At present those are highly constrictive. One can imagine, though, that full autonomy might mean that we can choose our constraints, perhaps design our own, and in so doing create our own universe. What makes it tetralemmic? Well, one can't just say we are God, nor that we are not God, nor that we and God are separate, nor that there is some prior reality to both God and us.


I raised a question at the start, namely whether an object is a form, or does it have a form. The way to answer this is to compare a similar view of objects, namely Aristotle's. He said that a physical object is a composite of form and matter, and matter must then be formless. (Note that this is a different concept of 'matter' than the modern one. The modern concept of matter is that which is composed of molecules, which have form.) The idea is that form imposes itself on formless matter to become an object, like a potter imposing form on clay to make a pot. Clay, of course, has form, so in this case, it is called proximate matter, which has a proximate matter, until we bottom out at what came to called "prime matter", which is completely formless. This view is called 'hylomorphism' (matter-form-ism). Note that it only applies to physical objects. Non-physical objects (like thoughts) are, in this scheme, just forms, no matter. What actualizes non-physical objects is said to be an "act of existence".

Aside from being dualist, the main problem with the Aristotelian picture is that it posits this unobservable, inert prime matter. The need for it lies in Aristotle's distinction between actual and potential existence, which he considered necessary to explain the existence of change. Prime matter fills the role of absolute potential, which forms actualize into substances. What I propose instead is that the "actualizer" is formlessness, which turns a form (now considered a potential) into an object. For one thing, this removes the duality between physical and mental objects. In physical objects, the name we give to formlessness is 'energy', which in static objects is called mass. For thoughts, the name we give is, or so I suggest, the power to think. Hence, instead of hylomorphism, I would say that objects, physical or non-physical, dynamic or static, are all mumorphic, where the Japanese 'mu' is taken (with some liberty) to mean 'formlessness'. It should be noted that in replacing hylomorphism with mumorphism, one can no longer say that an object is a 'composite' (see rebuttal to (3)), nor that an object is a 'substance' in the Aristotelian sense. It exists only because it is being thought (or energized).


My purpose in this essay is not to say anything new about Reality. It is just to provide a couple of terms to encapsulate what is otherwise said in apparently paradoxical terms. As said, tetralemmic polarity is not understandable, but what I hope is that with this term (or something like it) one can get used to working with the non-understandable, and not have to struggle so much with it. The term 'tetralemmic polarity' refers to any situation in metaphysics where one otherwise has to say "is, yet is not". The term 'mumorphism' refers to that particular tetralemmic polarity which arises when trying to account for any awareness of form. What I like to think is that working through a tetralemma or two be a kind of prerequisite to a study of nondualist metaphysics. It is a way to break the habit of trying to objectify Reality.



I have crossed out the line saying "there can only be one formlessness" since, though it may hold logically for some absolute formlessness, experientially one must consider the possibility of "relative formlessness". That is, while one might experience a mystical "formlessness" state, there is no telling if one is not simply focused on some world of forms that one is unable to experience. To make an analogy, suppose one sees a blank piece of paper, but is unaware that it contains words written in invisible ink.