research papers for graduate courses on Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser, and Christianity and Ecology

I’m enrolled in two courses this semester here at CIIS. The first is taught by Prof. Eric Weiss; the second by Prof. Jacob Sherman. We’re well into the second week of November already, so its time to start fleshing out my term papers.

Weiss’ course is on the evolutionary schemes of the 20th century cultural philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser. Alfred North Whitehead has also been a near constant companion in our class discussion. Cassirer is famous for articulating the notion of symbolic forms, which could be defined as the various shapes of consciousness that have held sway over human society during the long course of its development, from early magico-mythic to late techno-scientific forms. Cassirer distinguishes mythic, artistic, linguistic, historical, religious, and scientific symbolic forms, among others. Each has its own characteristic way of interacting with the world and of making meaning of it. Cassirer does not suppose that we pass through each form, leaving the prior forms behind as we ascend to more scientific–that is, truer–modes of apprehending reality. Rather, he is quite aware of the extent to which even science remains a cultural activity, embedded in and dependent upon the symbolic webs of meaning that have accumulated and complexified since human beings first began to dance in ritual celebration beneath the stars.

Gebser, whose only translated work The Ever-Present Origin is perhaps the most profound text I’ve yet to read, lays out a scheme not unlike Cassirer’s. His picture of the evolution of human beings distinguishes 4 mutations connecting 5 structures of consciousness: the archaic, the magic, the mythic, the mental, and the integral. What is different about Gebser is the unabashedly spiritual and cosmological scope of his project. While Cassirer only claims to be speaking about the evolution of human culture, Gebser is explicit about the ontological reach of consciousness into the very structure of space-time itself. In other words, like any good Kantian, Cassirer limits himself to speaking about human access to reality, while Gebser explodes the cognitive limits of transcendentalism in order to bring forth an entirely new way of knowing, namely, integral-aperspectival consciousness. Integral consciousness is “aperspectival” in that it is not limited to the partial perspective of spatially-oriented mental consciousness, a consciousness unable to perceive the whole because of its deficient apprehension of concrete time as mere abstract succession. Gebser refers to this deficiency as the false spatialization of time, which turns what is in fact a spiritual intensity into a material extensity (i.e., lived time becomes clock-time). This is where Whitehead comes in. Gebser mentions his process philosophy as a possible inception of the new integral structure. In his critiques of Humean and Kantian accounts of experience, Whitehead unpacks his doctrine of causal efficacy. Experience in the mode of causal efficacy has been entirely overshadowed by modern philosophy’s obsession with another, more abstract and alienated mode of experience: presentational immediacy.

In my essay for this course, I want to explore the possibility that presentational immediacy, a mode of experience Whitehead suggests is only available to especially complex organisms, is in fact a capacity that developed quite late even in human beings. I think the deficient form of mental-rational consciousness currently reigning (though it is increasingly fragmented and in an obvious state of decay) only became possible as presentational immediacy took on an increasingly dominant role in human experience. Gebser’s other structures (archaic, magic, and mythic) can be characterized by their instinctuality and lack of reflective capacity, and by the absence of a distinction between “appearance” and “reality” so characteristic of the mental structure. I will attempt, in this essay, to unpack the changing relationship between presentational immediacy, causal efficacy, and the hybrid mode of experience, symbolic reference, as human beings move through each of the structures articulated by Gebser and Cassirer. In the course of this analysis, I hope to both integrate Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness with Whitehead’s cosmology, and further draw out the differences between Cassirer’s Kantianism and Gebser and Whitehead’s participatory realism.

Sherman’s course is focused both on why the ecological crisis emerged out of the Christian cultural matrix and on how this same matrix may enable Western humanity to respond to it. We’ve been reading quite widely in the field of religion and ecology. My favorites thus far are Thomas Berry’s New Story, Matthew Fox’s creation spirituality, Wendell Berry‘s and Norman Wirzba’s agrarian Christianity, and Leo Boff’s liberation theology. I’ve also read Robert N. Bellah‘s new book Religion in Human Evolution to help me write a paper for this course, as I think the ecological crisis forces us to ask a larger question concerning not just the role of Christianity, but religion more generally. A religious response to the ecological crisis requires that we first unpack the relationship between science and religion, and between mythic and secular reality. I think ecology, on its own, has much to teach us all, Christian or not. But the combination of Christianity and ecology changes everything, since in the Christian context we are dealing with a Creation and not simply a haphazardly existing cosmos. Ecology is the study of our home; unless our home is hallowed, how can we live in it peacefully and joyously? In my paper, I hope to use Bellah’s thesis regarding the role of play in human evolution to critique modern industrial society’s anxiety driven obsession with work. The role of religion in our ecologically troubled time is to re-imagine not only what’s worth living for, but what’s worth working for. What we need now is a renewed sense of how to play with seriousness. What ought we to be doing with our time here on earth together? Industrial civilization has its answer. Christianity has another. The two are not compatible in the least. My task in the essay for this class will be to articulate what a consciousness of Creation brings to ecology and to respond to the challenges presented by scientific cosmology to “Creationism.” In short, I think authentic science (i.e., the gentle empiricism of Goethe, or the naturphilosophie of Schelling) is fully compatible with cosmotheandric accounts of the creative universe. When scientists like Hawking and Dawkins say that science has made it all but impossible (or at the very least unnecessary) to believe in a Creator, I think they are expressing the industrial values of late capitalism more so than that of science, in its pure, disinterested form. Industrial capitalism has a vested interest in maintaining a cosmological picture in which owners hire workers to remake an otherwise dead and purposeless world in their own image. If the world is God’s Creation, “private property” becomes a pragmatic shorthand at best, blasphemous at worst.

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One thought on “research papers for graduate courses on Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser, and Christianity and Ecology

  1. Pingback: Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture « Footnotes to Plato

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