The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

In his lecture series become book, Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey defines imagination, not as a specific faculty alongside others, but as “that which holds all other elements in solution” (p. 275). Imagination, according to Dewey, is a uniquely human power, rendering experience conscious through the mutually transforming fusion of old meanings with new situations.

“For while the roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment, that experience becomes conscious, a matter of perception, only when meanings enter it that are derived from prior experiences. Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings can find their way into a present interaction; or rather,…the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination…There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring” (ibid.).

In preparation for a talk I’m giving at Burning Man in two weeks on “Platonic astrosophy,” I want to attempt to use Dewey’s understanding of the role of imagination in perception to make Plato’s vision of the Cosmos more accessible to the contemporary mind.

In the Republic, Plato ranks imagination quite low on his hierarchy of knowledge, since it is partially derived from sensory experience. For similar reasons, even though he praises astronomy for “[compelling] the soul to look upwards [leading it] from this world to another,” he nonetheless tells astronomers to “let the [visible] heavens alone” if they hope to “approach the subject in the right way” (book 8). This is because the Plato of the Republic chose to elevate the study of invisible geometrical harmonies known only by the intellect over and above the study of the motion of visible bodies through space. He recognized the same gap described by Dewey between direct perception and meaningful conception, or between sensing and thinking, but instead of calling upon imagination to bridge the gap, Plato often emphasized the difference. In the ancient world, a solution to the difficult problem of the planets had not yet been imagined. Plato was therefore skeptical of the merits of empirical observation in comparison to geometrical reasoning.

In Timaeus, he writes:

“That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.”

Despite his seeming desire to affirm an experiential gap, rather than an imaginal bridge, the Plato of Timaeus goes on to offer a “likely story,” or mythopoeic narrative, concerning the generation of the heavens. Given Plato’s doctrine of anemnesis, discussed at length in Meno and Phaedo, I want to suggest that Plato actually did articulate an imaginal function meant to bridge the cognitive gap between appearance and reality.

The soul, according to Plato, is “the oldest and most divine of all things” (Laws). It participates in the eternal, and so all the soul’s learning while incarnated in an earthly body is really a form of remembrance of knowledge that was already present in it from eternity.

The soul is said to forget its divine origins as a result of the trauma of physical birth. During birth, the soul descends from eternity to earth through the heavenly spheres of time. Once on earth, the now embodied and half-aware soul gazes back into the sky in awesome wonder. From childhood on, the soul dimly intuits its true birthplace in the stars, but only a lifelong dedication to the philosophical contemplation of the geometric motions of the stars and planets can finally cure the soul’s forgetfulness. This is why Plato praises the study of the stars as a divine science (let us call it “astrosophy”).

Just as Dewey suggests that the imagination unites the old with the new, the already experienced with present experience, Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis allows the embodied experience of the beauty of the present sky to act on the soul so as to remind it of the knowledge lying dormant in it from eternity.

Plato’s reasoning goes something like this: if the visible universe is intelligible, then it must be a work of art. Its beauty is thus the sensible sign of its creation by an invisible intelligence. In Timaeus, Plato seems to hold to two contradictory opinions on the nature of the creation and its creator. He suggests on the one hand that the universe is a “living thing” continually birthed out of a formless maternal Receptacle, or World Soul. On the other hand, he suggests that the universe is a “crafted thing,” the mere imitation or copy of an Idea, formed by a paternal demiurge into a “moving image of eternity.” The universe is conceived of as having both a mother and a father, both an immanent bearer who participates in its coming-to-life and a craftsman who orchestrates it from beyond; it remains unclear, however, how the two are to be married.

At this point, I’m forced to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that even “the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him” (journal entry, Oct. 1845).

Instead of looking to Plato for a further account of the maternal and paternal aspects of creation, let us turn to two early modern thinkers influenced, in the own way, by Plato: Descartes and Kepler. Their differences as regards the proper study of the Cosmos may provide us with a way forward. Both were Platonic in the sense that they believed in the transcendent origin of mathematics, but the similarity ends here. Descartes invented a way to translate geometric figures into algebraic equations, thereby enabling abstract measurement of the geometrically continuous by way of the numerically discrete. Kepler, on the other hand, did not think algebra was relevant to the study of cosmology:

“I do not treat these matters by numbers or by Algebra, but by the investigation of Spirit; my interest in these matters is not for keeping a ledger but for explaining the cause of things” (Harmonices mundi, 1619).

Descartes, aligning himself more with Plato’s paternal notion of creation, found evidence of a transcendent cause in his innate knowledge of geometric form. His own cognitive activity as a mathematician, in other words, was understood to be the effect of his having been created in the image of a divine craftsman. Kepler’s approach, in contrast, suggests a more maternal notion of creation, where participation in the archetypal pattern given expression by the heavens reminds the human soul of its embeddedness in the World Soul. For Kepler, the musical harmony of the spheres grounds geometry in the experience of beauty rather than in the intelligibility of abstract numbers.

In short, while Descartes thought the universe was an imitation of mathematical formalisms in the mind of an absent demiurge, Kepler saw it as the body of God, a living symbol of divinity. Philosophical contemplation of the heavens, for Descartes, leads to demonstrative knowledge of their eternal algebraic form; for Kepler, it leads to generative participation in the same life presently animating them…

I hope this admittedly oversimplified characterization of these thinkers was at least somewhat illustrative of the tension inherent in the Platonic worldview. I think a more developed account of the ontological role of imagination will help to marry the masculine and feminine poles of Plato’s cosmology.

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10 thoughts on “The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

  1. Matt,

    Throw me an email at Jason.Hills (at) lonestar.edu, and I’ll send you two of the foremost articles on Dewey’s theory of imagination that also briefly covers the history since Romanticism. It will make his view much clearer, and the best historic analogy to how Dewey means it as the Kantian synthetic function in the first Critique, although in a radically different context.

  2. “The soul is said to forget its divine origins as a result of the trauma of physical birth.”

    Indeed. Plato was very well informed. The trauma inflicted on western infants, in the form of male genital mutilation (circumcision), leaves a deep unconscious emotional scar which reinforces the birth trauma to this end. It’s quite evil. The practice is a control mechanism exploited by priests to further disconnect their followers from the truth of their divine origins.

    Truth in light, Matt.

    PS Good luck with your talk, I wish I had a ticket for Burning Man. :-/

  3. Of course, I want to know if Dewey is right about imagination being a “uniquely human power.” I suspect it is not, though that doesn’t necessarily change any of the above arguments, just makes the conversation richer and more interesting. I suspect a way into exploring the imagination of nonhumans might be through music (as in rhythm), or maybe math (as in proportionality). Both imply (require?), I think, the use of non-sensed based perception, and possibly, imagination.

    • “Interaction of a living being with an environment is found in vegetative and animal life. But the experience enacted is human and conscious only as that which is given here and now is extended by meanings and values drawn from what is absent in fact and present only imaginatively” (Art as Experience, p. 272).

      I’m looking forward to reading the articles that Jason recommended on this, but so far Dewey sounds similar on this issue to Steiner, who does not think non-human animals have an “I” or ego, and so do not have conscious personal memory in the sense that we do. In light of what I’ve tried to articulate concerning the Anthropos, I wouldn’t want to suggest that there is some sharp line separating the human from the non-human, or the imaginative from the non-imaginative. There does seem to be a marked increase in the capacity of Homo sapiens to ponder “nothing,” however (i.e., to think about what is not present, to consider pure possibility, etc.).

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