The Greatest Philosopher You’ve Never Heard Of

Hans Coessens

Firstly published at Metaschematics


Forgetfulness tends to be a problem that has plagued philosophy, especially when the errors of ancient philosophers are repeated by contemporaries. It was a great mystery to the Brazilian philosopher Mário Ferreira dos Santos how it was that these same errors, once refuted by Plato and Aristotle could still reappear amongst contemporary ideologues. Philosophy in the 20th century became more and more of an academic endeavour, the tendency has been for philosophy departments to have professors working and specialising in different areas, say ethics and metaphysics with world-views which are diametrically opposed. This lack of consensus among philosophers working in the same department is a symptom of a greater problem that regards the inability of keeping up with work being done in other sub-domains of philosophy. The same department that has a famous professor, who advocates infanticide in his ethics classes, also has a professor who in his metaphysics course argues that we ought to be committed to the existence of immaterial objects such as numbers and immortal souls. In case you don’t realise a contradiction in advocating infanticide and also believing in immortal souls, let it be spelt out that if our souls are immortal, infanticide involves taking away the life of a child who has the same dignity as an adult.

This lack of consensus among academic philosophers and worse than all the lack of dialogue among philosophers of different specialities to key questions about our existence is arguably what levies this glaring oxymoron. It has been argued by philosophers like Jean-Luc Marion, and many others, that this is all a result of the dehumanising endeavour analytic philosophy has been. Since its very conception, analytic philosophy has been concerned with a scope of knowledge all too narrow. Analytic philosophy has been inspired by Kant’s conception of analysis whereby a proposition can be divided into two parts: A and B. A concerns the subject of a proposition and B concerns its predicate. If B is contained within the concept of A, such a proposition is said to be analytic, if it isn’t it is said to be synthetic. Examples of these would be of the type “all bachelors are unmarried men”. Here the predicate ‘are unmarried men’ is contained in the subject ‘bachelors’. An example of a synthetic statement would be “the cat is on the mat”. There is nothing to suggest that the predicate ‘is on the mat’ follows from the definition of ‘cat’. Ok, fine where is this going? Well, surprisingly, analytic philosophers have dedicated their whole lives to attempting to categorise and specify more and more the nature of analytic and synthetic propositions. From the early works of the logical empiricists like Carnap, Schlick, Neurath, all the way to more recent philosophers as Quine, Kripke, and Lewis, they have unanimously been concerned with reducing propositions into either of those two categories. You would have thought that this would be short of a bad joke, but sadly it isn’t. A great deal of the academic philosophical literature published in the last century concerned itself precisely with this.

This is where the title of the blogpost comes to mind. Mário Ferreira dos Santos is the greatest philosopher you’ve never heard of precisely because his work was entirely parallel to the narrow scope of analytic philosophy. In fact, like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, and Hegel, Mário Ferreira dos Santos realized the importance of having a unified system of thought. Philosophy wasn’t simply concerned with asking questions about how many possible worlds could admit of a certain synthetic statement, or how to best interpret quantum mechanics, but is ultimately concerned with the nature of the world and the structure of our thought in relation to it.

The Brazilian philosopher, born in 1907 to a humble family in Tietê, São Paulo, went on to publish within his career a monumental 63 volumes of philosophical treatises and works varying from rhetoric, to Marxism, and ontology. Perhaps his most famous work is called Filosofia Concreta (translated as Concrete Philosophy) whereby he outlines a philosophical system that is based on apodictic certainty and rigour. In it, he departs from what he calls the “Archimedean point”, a point of thought that no rational person could possibly doubt with truths such as ‘something exists’, and ‘absolute nothingness does not’, and from this he derives based on these foundations, proofs for the existence of God, the immateriality of the human intellect, the immortality of the soul and a basis for ethics. Much of the philosophical work is based on the same principles that inspired the great thinkers of the middle ages, also known as the scholastics. In this respect Mário Ferreira dos Santos is explicit about his inspirations.

Much of the quest for unifying principles was alien in the Vienna Circle and later analytic philosophers. This lack of unifying principles that cannot be doubted is ultimately what has lead to the current situation of disparaging views seemingly coexisting under one umbrella term known as Philosophy. Philosophy, from the time of Plato was meant to be for everyone, both theoretically and practically. Much of the work done by philosophers in the last century has undermined this and has lead to an even greater divide amongst academics between ‘what there is’ the ontological type claims, and ‘what ought to be’ the normative type of claims. For Mário Ferreira dos Santos, this dichotomy is essentially a false one and need not exist as philosophers today present it. The only reason such a dichotomy has been created is due to a lack of common foundations, foundations which can only be remedied by study in a Concrete Philosophy. It remains to be seen whether or not persons in the English-speaking world will pick up with intellectual honesty and seriousness the opera of Mário or whether or not, philosophers will behave in the same manner as his compatriots and ignore their cultural relevance.

It has been thanks to another Brazilian philosopher, Olavo de Carvalho, that the work of Mário Ferreira dos Santos has finally been discussed among Portuguese speakers, it remains now to be seen whether or not these perennial ideas will catch attention elsewhere.


A brief note on Concrete Dialectics methodology

To Mário Ferreira dos Santos (1907- 1968), in memoriam

By Evandro Santos de Albuquerque

Brevity is the soul of wit” Hamlet, Act II, Scene II


Mário Ferreira dos Santos developed three methods to study all the vast fields of knowledge, based on the polarization of the diverse plans to approach any science. This perspective considers the fundamental dualism on all finite existence, never pure act or pure potentiality. The act of philosophizing becomes more affirmative once put above the perspectives within a dialectic process to reach an apodictic conclusion.

First, he called ontological or concrete dialectics the methodology that works on Theoretical Philosophy. The basis of this method covers all branches of the intelligible principles that are simultaneous and virtually associated with each other. From a particular judgment, Ferreira dos Santos absorbs all the other principles using the dialectical method of symbolic analysis that virtualizes them, making analogy with them all. Then, the great Brazilian philosopher puts those apodictic judgments into the series so far established. The concrete dialectical analysis depends on the multiplication of the judgments that are possible to endure a search towards any knowledge. It always has to start from an apodictic truth involved with others, virtualized and not yet certain on the matter. Then, as in a chess game, Ferreira dos Santos places the pieces: the apodictic, firm and unshakable judgments unveil the truth – that can be constantly revealed to life, like an epiphany – since the ontological coalesces with the empirical. He creates a concrete reasoning that argues for and demonstrates the matter with ontological rigidity.

The second method is called Decadialectics (Gr. deka, ten), structured in what is firmer in classical logic, without abandoning modern innovations. It is the dialectic reasoning of the ten fields. These fields combine and make the dialectical reasoning more complex, as existence itself. Therefore, it is suitable for the analysis of Practical Philosophy themes as well as formal logic is to the themes of Theoretical Philosophy. Thus, it is based on the law of alternation that always affirms a polarization. “All that is in actuality, is indeterminate as potentiality, and, actualizing, reveals new possibilities. Everything that is finite, to be, requires its opposite so to reach the being”, and so forth. Decadialetics begins as polarization between subject and object, as dualism between subjectivity and objectivity, between the Self and the non-Self, and vice versa. Then, the field of actuality and potentiality; third, the field of real and non-real possibilities; and so it goes into seven distinct fields that necessarily implies each other. The entire argument is exposed theoretically on Lógica e Dialética (São Paulo, Logos, 1954) and on the third volume of Métodos Lógicos e Dialéticos (São Paulo, Logos, 1959). He starts with particular pieces and arrives in the synthesis of the Whole. This is the great polarity of the whole dialectical process that takes place in ten fields penetrated a constant reciprocity.

Mário Ferreira dos Santos, concerning decadialectics, in his Teoria Geral das Tensões, argues:

“For many religious ideas, the psychological level should also be divided into soul and mental plan, which would lead to 9 plans. The cosmic plan also find a middle ground, the plan of immortality, so that would make the 10 plans, we can distinguish:

1) physical-chemical plan
2) biological level
3) psychic plane
4) soul plane
5) the spirit plan
6) sociological level
7) astral plane
8) cosmic plan
9) plan of immortality
10) the divine plan – Summary and final concretion of the Whole.
The decadialectical method teaches us that we need schemes to know the unknown. And these schemes need to be formed, structured. After what seemed the absurd is simple and clear. What should be first of all is to fight the spirit of caricaturing.”

The third method is called Pentadialectics (from Gr. penta, five). If we consider a subject or a fact as a whole, we can study it in five stages: a) Unity; b) Totality; c) Series; d) System; e) Universe. For instance, we can say that within a society, the individual can be considered: as a unity, in its individuality; as a totality, into the family; as series, in the group in which he belongs; as a system within the cultural cycle that includes such individual; and as universe, as humankind.

That’s how he crushed, for example, Marxism, on his Análise Dialética do Marxismo (Dialectical Analysis of Marxism). We can guess the spiritual struggle beneath that poorly written text and the numerous inter-references connected with these methods in his work. With this ontological methodology, that is, Concrete Dialectic with Decadialetics and Pentadialectics categories, he was able to analyse any discipline with great depth.

Mário Ferreira dos Santos refers to those three methods as analysis, synthesis and concretion of any object under study. This is the structure of Teoria Geral das Tensões, a masterpiece of his philosophy (yet an unpublished draft) that performs a sort of assumption toward a higher unity as the synthesis of his real Mathesis Magiste on Concrete Philosophy.

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