James Hillman on Metaphysics and Cosmology

Back in 1983, Claremont Graduate School invited Whiteheadian philosophers and Jungian psychoanalysts to a dialogue concerning possible cross-fertilizations between process metaphysics and archetypal psychology (published as Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman in 1989). James Hillman gave the keynote, wherein he admitted that “something further [was] needed” than his typical psychologizing via negativa. His endless criticism, perspectivalism, and “seeing through” came to seem like “merely another strand of Western skepticism and nihilism” (216). He reports that it was in 1979, during a lecture by David Bohm at a conference in Córdoba, Spain, that he first recognized “the terrible need for metaphysics”:

“Bohm admitted frankly and sadly that physics had released the world into its perishing, and that physicists had neither learning nor ability to think the world out of its peril…we saw that our plight was way beyond the discipline of the men who had advanced this plight…The physical threat of the end of the world results from a metaphysical catastrophe” (215).

Hillman’s skepticism regarding traditional Western metaphysics is well-founded, of course. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth neglects the ambiguity of our world-in-process. The problem for the metaphysician, it seems to me, is not that Truth is “merely” a fiction–that the real world is forever beyond our grasp–but that that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! It is for this reason that metaphysics has so often failed the polyphonic psyche and short-circuited its soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men–from Plotinus through all the Catholic Schoolmen, through Hobbes, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Wittgenstein and Santayana–men, furthermore, who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem’” (218).

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the Real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia. Like the Jamesian pragmatism that Whitehead’s cosmology emerged out of, Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions. What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?” Metaphysics must situate itself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is a story. Where literalisms (scientific, religious, or otherwise) would replace–or paste over–the given with its favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown’” (220).

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. When called to make his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit a poetic basis of the universe. He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos” (225); but he asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence. Modernity has de-souled and disenchanted the world, as the story goes. We no longer have the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world, or world to soul.

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived” (225).

Hillman blames the empiricist tradition dating back to Locke for the death of such a living organ. He wishes Whitehead

“were still around to take down structuralism and the deconstruction that follows it, because they continue this indifference to the actual occasions of the phenomenal world” (225).

The seemingly outdated dichotomy between primary (“real”) and secondary (“illusory”) qualities continues to hold sway over the popular imagination, beholden as it is to the priesthood of physical scientists. At the cutting edge of continental philosophy, thinkers like Badiou and Meillassoux are even calling for an explicit return to such thinking, though now in an even more radical form where anything not reducible to mathematical notation is unreal. All of this is overcome by Whitehead’s illuminating analysis of the empiricists, Locke and Hume, in terms of their mistaken reversal of the two basic modes of perception (causal efficacy and presentational immediacy). I’ve explored his constructive critiques elsewhere.

For further links between OOO/SR and Hillman, see this conversation between Adam Robbert and I last year, as well as Graham Harman’s response.

William James on the Philosophy of Religious Experience

William James was the first psychologist to de...

I must begin by quoting that “adorable genius” (as Whitehead called him in Science and the Modern World), William James. This from The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless [...] Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy…In the religious sphere, in particular, belief that formulas are true can never wholly take the place of personal experience” (p. 457, Penguin Classics version).

James’ reference to that “something” in each living act of perception that shines forth and yet cannot finally be seen is, I want to suggest, the inscendent. This is Thomas Berry‘s word meant to convey the way in which divine transcendence is woven throughout the world of daily life. Berry’s experience of the ultimate nature of the universe is similar to Whitehead’s: It is a universe in which Creator and Creation are always already caught up in the infinite process of creativity, each mutually conditioning the other through endless epochs of time.

Our experience of the reality of things (and for James, reality is the flowing together of drops of experience) is haunted by a sense of excess, of open-endedness, of numinosity. Reality cannot be contained, measured, or defined. Total immanence is an illusion, for what could the world be sealed off from but something transcendent? To speak of immanence is already to implicate oneself in a discourse of transcendence.

We do no live on a flat plane: the universe has depth.

Depth is the fertile tension that emerges between spirit and matter, between the beyond and the here and now. It is the metaxy, that which holds together the infinite and the finite, the transcendent and the immanent, in an irrevocable way. The taking place of actual life–our concerete personal experience–is deep in the sense that, precisely because it often seems to take place within a limited horizon, it makes us all the more aware of our really being sublimely swallowed up within an encompassing Beyond.

Like Plato before him, who wrote often of the importance of divine madness, James the philosopher and psychologist took religious experience of That which encompasses us seriously as the source of many of life’s most valuable truths:

“The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those of other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in” (p. 519).

Exactly how this filtering works is difficult if not impossible to express in clear terms. Such descriptions are usually beyond the pay grade of philosophers, too slippery for even the most sophisticated conceptual nets to catch. Perhaps this is why some philosophers, like Coleridge, are lead to leave prose behind in search of the songs of angels:

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where—
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

And thus, my Love! as on the midway slope
Of yonder hill I stretch my limbs at noon,
Whilst through my half-clos’d eye-lids I behold
The sunbeams dance, like diamonds, on the main.
And tranquil muse upon tranquillity;
Full many a thought uncall’d and undetain’d,
And many idle flitting phantasies,
Traverse my indolent and passive brain,
As wild and various as the random gales
That swell and flutter on this subject Lute!
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

(excerpt from The Eolian Harp)

James was not as ready to give up philosophical prose, through he wrote evocatively and for the common ear. His pragmatic response to religious events and experiences–that is, to religious facts–is an attempt to give the human psyche room to breathe again in an increasingly disenchanted, caved in world, where the elevating winds of spirit have been nearly sealed out by systematic materialism.

Nearly, I say, for transcendence haunts the unacknowledged shadows of even the most atheistic philosophies. The mind cannot think truly but while immersed in the deep, pulled taut by the transcendental tension binding the here and now to the beyond. Every conceptual system, no matter how snug the logic of its arguments, will show cracks.

“There is a crack in everything,” say Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.”

Hermeticism and the Anthropic Principle of Evolution

In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Karl Popper famously (or infamously, as far as Hegelians are concerned) attacked Hegel for his bewitching apriorism and supposed distain for empirical science, going so far as to blame his Platonically inspired “mystery method” for the rise of fascism in Germany. Walter Kaufmann offered an appropriate response back in 1959, pointing out that Popper’s poorly researched, largely ad hominem attack on Hegel’s supposed motivations is strikingly similar to the approach of many totalitarian “scholars.”

Hegel’s is undoubtedly a philosophy that takes mystical insight and religious revelation seriously, and for that reason will always remain vulnerable to the critique of those of a more positivistic bent. I’ve attempted to unpack the place of natural science in Hegel’s system before, and I’d like to revisit some of the same themes again in what follows. As my dissertation topic continues to gestate, I find myself growing increasingly curious about what our contemporary Anglo-American understanding of Darwinian evolution might still stand to learn from the Naturphilosophie of thinkers like Goethe, Schelling, and Hegel. Following Glenn Magee (see Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, 2001), I believe a strong case can be made that these three thinkers carried forward what has traditionally been known as Hermeticism. The 16th century alchemist Paracelsus offers the Hermetic cosmological perspective quite succinctly (as summarized by R. Steiner): “If we survey nature we simply see separate letters and the word they form is the human being.” In other words, as Hegel makes explicit in his philosophy of nature, the universe in its essence must be such that human consciousness is a necessary stage of its self-development. Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis. Here is the great bardic philosopher and psychedelic Hermeticist Terence McKenna making the same point:

As McKenna suggests, at the present moment in earth history, the human adventure has indeed taken center stage. As Hegel argued, the human spirit has always been at the center of cosmogenesis: the Anthropos was always enfolded, implicit in the sheer externality of space, which is the minimal form of nature as necessitated by the self-disclosure of the Idea as worked out in Hegel’s Logic. Space, for Hegel, is the contraction of the Idea, the Idea become paradoxically other to itself while still remaining self-identical. Nature is not the result or product of this contraction, but the contraction itself (meaning the Idea is fully immanent in and as nature, not its transcendent cause existing apart from or outside of it). The contraction of the Idea to make room for nature is drawn straight from the Cabalist notion of “tzimtzum” first articulated by Isaac Luria in the 16th century. The notion is an attempt to account for an infinite God’s act of creation, where the finite space and time of creation remains fully internal to and yet paradoxically apart from that which created it. Tzimtzum makes room for an independent world to develop without at first possessing any direct knowledge of its own divine ground. In the end, though, nature is nothing other than God incarnate, and in the self-conscious human, it comes to recognize this.

To recap, nature, in its logical rather than temporal unfolding, begins in the sheer externality of space. Space itself always already implies time, which implies motion, which implies matter, gravitation, light, electromagnetism, chemistry, geology, plant life, animal life, etc., culminating in the self-conscious human spirit. All this sounds very anthropocentric, but the point is not to enshrine the empirical species, Homo sapiens, as the crowning glory of all the universe. Rather, the Anthropos here in question is an archetypal ideal, rather than an empirical creature. Giordano Bruno, another 16th century Hermeticist, was burnt at the stake by the Church for, among other things, claiming that the universe was almost certainly full of other earths populated by intelligent species like ourselves. That cosmogenesis is essentially anthropogenesis is not to say the whole process leads inevitably to our particular species, but that the in built logic of the universe necessitates an evolutionary movement toward self-consciousness of some kind. The specific vehicle it achieves this self-consciousness through, whether in the familiar sort known to us as the Homo genus or an as yet undiscovered alien genus, remains a contingent matter. Homo sapiens are one example of an anthropic principle governing the development of the universe. To the extent that we realize ourselves as an incarnation of this principle, we participate in the Idea–the Divine–which grounds the whole process.

All this stands in stark contrast to the Darwinian conception of evolution as an undirected, entirely contingent process of transformation. To call Darwin’s conception of nature evolution is already to overshoot the picture he sought to paint, since to “evolve” means to unfold, as though the later stages of nature were already enfolded in the prior (much as Hermetic thinkers like Goethe, Schelling, and Hegel suggest). Transformism, as his theory was first named, is also inappropriate, since there must at least be something that is transformed, if not also something to do the transforming, some agent underlying the process. Otherwise there is only the substitution of one form for another with no substantial connection between the forms. If we say, as Darwin did, that Life is that which is transformed, we are left with an irresolvable dualism between the mechanics of the material and the organics of the living. Darwin humbly suggested that the original Lifeform must have been created by God out of otherwise lifeless matter, since his theory could only account for subsequent speciation given this one miracle. The systematic philosopher cannot settle for dualisms or miracles, of course. Hegel would certainly agree that life reflects a different moment in the logical unfolding of the universe than does matter, that organism cannot be understood according to the same laws that govern mechanism; but he would see both organism and mechanism as equally necessary moments in the self-disclosure of the Idea as nature.

Much research remains ahead of me, and while I haven’t at all given up my desire to unpack the role of imagination in speculative philosophy, I am most excited now by the prospect of delving into the Hermetic and esoteric influences on the evolutionary thinking of early 19th century German philosophy. Tentative title: “The Imagination of Evolution in Hermeticism: Towards a Cosmotheandric Re-Visioning of Philosophy.”

The Imaginal Universe

Continuing this discussion with Archive Fire, and joining Knowledge Ecology here:

It seems like what we all want to say is that imagination is generated by the universe, but what we can’t seem to agree upon is whether the universe is therefore also imaginal.

We are seeking understanding of the nature of causality, and of the roots of animal perception and imagination in a supposedly pre-perceivable, pre-imaginable electro-magneto-physio-chemical process.

I myself would not want to suppose that anything precedes experience–no matter how proto-perceptual or proto-imaginal some forms of causality may seem from our evolved anthropic perspective. Electrons are the neurons of our cosmic brane. They are intimately involved in the cognitive activity of our brains. Human thinking appears in the world as chemically mediated electrical activity, which is also to say that the physical world appears to think. Panpsychism? No, this isn’t smearing mind all over everything indiscriminately. The thinking universe has a more differentiated form than that. Mind individualizes, drawing itself together into organized bodies of ever increasing complexity. Rocks are made of highly organized bodies, like crystals, and even smaller and more highly organized beings, like carbon, and gold. But the rock itself cannot properly be considered an individual organism; it is not an organized, self-organizing being. Its identity as that particular rock is far, far more accidental than the identity of an individual atom of gold or an individual bacterial cell or human person. These latter bodies have a deeper causal memory, and a more intense experiential relationship with their own identity than does the rock. Given the mineral structure of certain elements, and the plate tectonics of earth, rocks just happen. They don’t display purposive or organized behavior. They are the accidental result of more individualized, mentalized organic/organized activity taking place on a different scale. And they are only really individualized by cognitively proficient animals such as ourselves, who define that rock as distinct from this rock.

This is Teilhard’s law of complexity/consciousness, which lead him not to pantheism, but to a vision of the cosmos as the still gestating Body of Christ.

As Teilhard put it, “We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe … True physics is that which will someday succeed in integrating the totality of the human being into a coherent image of the world” (The Human Phenomenon, Preface).

Robert N. Bellah: The Big History of Religion in Human Evolution.

I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. Bellah’s lecture might be best characterized as a “biological sermon” (as one attendee suggested). He began by establishing the common ground of evolution. Most educated people, he said, can agree on the basic scientific story of evolution. We human beings all descend from a common ancestor. At one time, tens of thousands of years ago, we were an endangered species.  A few thousand of us inhabited the African sub-continent. A few million years before that, we were primates, swinging in the trees of a pangean jungle. Before that, we were reptiles; before that amphibians; before that fish, and before that plants, photosynthesizing bacteria, cells, amino acids, molecules, elements, particles, photons.  If we trace our genealogy back far enough, we come to the beginning of the universe itself. Everything that exists now was implied in the initial moment of creation. All of it enfolded.

Our human existence–and the human, I think Bellah would say, is that being who knows it exists–is no less significant than the big bang. Cosmos and Anthropos are metaphysically basic. The universe, as we know it, cannot but be human; of course, the human with all of its religion and culture, is no less natural than the seagull or the stellar nebula. Anthropos (and Logos) is written into the universe from the beginning. That which is most human in us is most cosmic in the universe. Stars, carbon atoms, and cells are intelligent actors in and producers of this world, alike in kind to Christ, even if not alike in power.

Religion and Philosophy: Thinking, Feeling, and Willing the Absolute

“The object of religion is the same as that of philosophy; it is the eternal verity itself in its objective existence; it is God. Nothing but God and the unfolding of God… [P]hilosophy in unfolding religion merely unfolds itself, and in unfolding itself it unfolds religion.” -Hegel

“Philosophy is the intellectual search for the fundamental truth of things; religion is the attempt to make the truth dynamic in the soul of man.” -Sri Aurobindo

“Religion, whatever it is, is man’s total reaction upon life.” -William James

What is the relationship between religion and philosophy? Some philosophers, like Bertrand Russell, believe it is philosophy’s job to lift the human intellect above the childishness of religion. Reason and science alone are supposed to guide our species into its adulthood. Levi Bryant’s recent post complicates this picture:

…the choice of philosophy over religion…cannot be completed by demonstrating that philosophy is the “rational” choice over religion, nor that the claims of religion are inadequate as descriptions of reality. Rather, philosophy only surmounts religion in completing its project of thinking being…

Bryant’s post is a challenge to philosophy to think not only the eternality of being (noun: “is” or “I”), but the contingency of existence, of being (verb: “to be” or “am”). Until philosophy is able to absolutize itself in this way, says Bryant, the mind (philosophy) inevitably leaves itself vulnerable to possession by the heart (religion). (Kantian) Philosophy tends to bracket the flesh and blood of existence from its metaphysical inquiry into pure possibility, and in so doing forfeits any challenge the mind might make to the heart’s will to believe. But we need not oppose religion and philosophy. Their object, as Hegel says, is the same. Philosophy, to remain relevant to actual life, must itself become religious. Without the madness of the heart’s longing, there is no such thing as philosophy, anyway.

Spirituality claims knowledge of something immediately (perceptually) that it has not (“yet”?) succeeded in thinking mediately (conceptually). The philosopher’s task, if it is the Absolute she seeks, is to think herself thinking being, and so to come to know who it is that she is in the world. She is pressed for time, death potentially waiting around every corner. “Who am I?” “What is this?” — these are not neutral or optional questions for her. The meaning of human life depends on these questions. If she cannot think the answer, the All, for herself before the sun sets on another day, she has no other choice but to believe being exists. If she is able to say “I am,” it is because she believes, she knows existence intuitively, without the mediation of any concept other than her “own” being. To believe being exists is not to march in step with the masses, to buy into the dogmatisms of traditional religion despite the challenges of modern science and philosophy. Faith in God need not be faith despite knowledge, but faith in order to know what/who the mind cannot (“the heart has reasons reason doesn’t know”). Faith is a movement of the heart, a love seeking the highest knowledge: knowledge of the Good. It is the kind of knowledge that requires our heartfelt participation in order to be known. Goodness is not an abstract idea, it has no essence outside its existence; it is always discovered in the act of loving.

The reality of God is not just a postulation made by morality; rather, only he who recognizes God — in whatever way — is a truly moral person. Moral laws ought to be obeyed not because they are related to God as the lawmaker (or whatever other relationship the finite mind is able to conceive) but because the essence of God and that of morality are one and the same and because by acting morally we are revealing the essence of God. A moral world exists only if God exists, and to postulate His existence in order for a moral world to exist is a complete reversal of the true and necessary relations.

-Schelling, Philosophy and Religion (1804).

Religion, as James put it, is the human being’s “total reaction upon life”; it is the soul’s response to the actual time and place of its incarnation. If God exists, and it is possible not only to think, but to feel and to will the Absolute, it is because the human soul has made room within itself for God to be born into the world.

When Love said that word, my soul melted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)

After Finitude and Fideism comes Speculative Christianity?

Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,

“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”

Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.

In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.

Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature's] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.