Responding to Michael about Root Images in the Philosophy of Nature

Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.

I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.

Michael writes:

I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?

My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolvebeyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.

In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.


The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.

These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.

So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts into physical expression. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly realities. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in this mundis imaginalis we may discover new forms of embodied praxis in congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.

I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).

Tolkien’s Imagination: A Talk at Esalen

Matthew David Segall:

A talk a few months ago by my partner Becca.

Originally posted on Becca Psyche Tarnas:


The essay “The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-Creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth,” which is the foundation of this presentation, is available here.

View original

The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32


1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

[Rough Draft] “The Re-Emergence of Schelling” – Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences

For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.

Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences 

Schelling’s almost complete absence in Anglophone natural philosophy for more than 150 years (aside from his powerful effects on Coleridge,168 Peirce,169 and Emerson,170 and through the intermediary of Naturphilosoph Alexander von Humboldt, his influence on Darwin171) cannot be accounted for based solely on the popular reception of Hegel’s philosophical caricature of intellectual intuition as “the night in which all cows are black.” The more probable reason for his absence, as Bowie suggests, is that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie “was effectively killed off…as part of the overt praxis of the natural sciences” beginning in the 1840s as these sciences “[began] to fall under the spell of materialism and positivism.”172 Prior to the current resurgence in interest, historians of science tended to dismiss Naturphilosophie as a “strange and nearly impenetrable offshoot of the Romantic movement,” an offshoot that is “safely ignored.”173 So long as postkantian positivism (of the sort that refuses to make organism rather than mechanism constitutive of nature) holds sway over the scientific imagination, Schelling’s thought will continue to languish on the fringes of philosophical activity. Fortunately, “the dangers of a scientistic approach to nature” are becoming increasingly well recognized,174 and alternative histories are being told that challenge the standard Enlightenment account of the dominance of mechanistic physics and biology.175 The fundamental incoherence of the postkantian positivist approach is such that, despite itself resting upon an implicitly postulated speculative dualism between mind and matter, it at the same time denies that there can be any scientific validity to philosophical speculation. “It is only then,” says Arran Gare,

when the original practical engagement as an active force within the world is forgotten, that the illusions of dualism…appear.176

Many natural scientists unpracticed in the methods of philosophy are quick to dismiss Schelling’s speculative physics for what they perceive to be a lack of respect for the empirical facts. Several scholars, including Gare,177 Robert Richards,178 Joseph Esposito,179 Frederick Beiser,180 and Iain Hamilton Grant181 have convincingly argued that Schelling painstakingly studied and significantly contributed to the natural sciences of his day. Richards characterizes Schelling’s natural philosophical works not as the wild frenzy of mystical analogizing that its positivist critics saw, but as “[groaning] with the weight of citations of the most recent, up-to-date experimental work in the sciences.”182 Grant, while he acknowledges Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a precursor of the new natural sciences of self-organization and complexity, warns us not to

positivistically reduce [Schelling’s] philosophical interventions into nature to a theoretical resource to be raided as and when the natural sciences deem it necessary.183

Keeping Grant’s desire to protect Naturphilosophie from such a positivistic reduction in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Schelling shared the “aether hypothesis” with most of his scientific contemporaries.184 The aether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetism until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.185 The quantum revolution of the early 20th century, with its hypothesis of a non-local field or immaterial quantum vacuum underlying the extended universe, began to raise doubts about Einstein’s dismissal.186 After the recent tentative discovery of the related notion of a Higgs field, it would appear that “a new aether” is front and center again in physical science.187 Where this discovery will lead contemporary physicists remains to be seen, but for Schelling, the elastic properties of the aether were identified with the original duplicity of forces animating the common soul of nature, or World-Soul.188

The two conflicting forces conceived at the same time in conflict and unity, lead to the idea of an organizing principle, forming the world into a system. Perhaps the ancients wished to intimate this with the world-soul.189

In the context of the aether hypothesis, it is important to remember that the main intent of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was not merely the “application of abstract principles to an already existing empirical science”:

My object, rather, is first to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically, and my philosophy is itself nothing else than natural science. It is true that chemistry teaches us to read the letters, physics the syllables, mathematics Nature; but it ought not to be forgotten that it remains for philosophy to interpret what is read.190

In other words, Schelling’s aim was never to produce hypothetical models of how the hidden mechanisms of phenomenal nature may or may not work. His philosophy of nature is an attempt to re-imagine the metaphysical foundations of natural science, such that the theorizing subject, as part of nature, is understood to be an active factor in the organic construction of the objective facts. For Schelling, the aether was less a scientific hypothesis than it was an organizational principle justifying scientific activity in the first place, since, following the ancient epistemic principle that “like is known by like” (Plato’s “syggeneity”), it granted the human soul participatory knowledge of the invisible substructure of the universe.191 Or, as Schelling put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”192

When Schelling says that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature,”193 it should not be collapsed into the prima facie quite similar statement by Kant, that “He who would know the world must first manufacture it–in his own self, indeed.”194 Kant’s approach to the study of nature is grounded in subjective voluntarism, wherein the philosopher fabricates “nature” as his own object according to the transcendentally deduced categories delimiting his experience.195 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, on the contrary, re-interprets the epistemic position of the natural scientist: where the postkantian scientist can only grasp himself as thinking about nature from beyond nature, Schelling’s scientific method involves awakening to oneself as “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia)”196 As Grant describes it, “What thinks in me is what is outside me.”197 If the Naturphilosoph is able to think as nature, she becomes “a new species equipped with new organs of thought.”198 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to know nature unconditionally, i.e., not as the sum total of its created products, but as the creative activity giving rise to them.199 The question is no longer, as it was for Kant, “how do I make finite nature appear?”, but “what is the essence of nature’s infinite activity?”

Schelling’s philosophy of unthinged (Unbedingten) nature is the necessary counter postulate to Fichte’s absolutely free ego, the next logical turn on the dialectical wheel that makes known the presence of an unthought background, a dark abyss (Ungrund) before which the conscious ego can at first only mumble as it meets its long forgotten maker. Schelling’s discovery is that absolute spirit and absolute nature dependently co-arise as the polarized personalities of a natural divinity. The finite human ego is not a priori; rather Absolute nature is prioritized,200 since

Everything that surrounds us refers back to an incredibly deep past. The Earth itself and its mass of images must be ascribed an indeterminably greater age than the species of plants and animals, and these in turn greater than the race of men.201

“Philosophy,” according to Schelling, “is nothing other than a natural history of our mind.”202 The philosopher of nature “treats nature as the transcendental philosopher treats the self”203 by coming to see how

the activity whereby the objective world is produced is originally identical with that which is expressed in volition.204

Schelling’s is akin to an enactive, rather than representational account of scientific cognition. According to Evan Thompson, from an enactive perspective,

a natural cognitive agent–an organism, animal, or person–does not…operate on the basis of internal representations in the subjectivist/objectivist sense. Instead of internally representing an external world in some Cartesian sense, [it] enact[s] an environment inseparable from [its] own structure and actions.205

Schelling’s enactive account of natural science thereby recursively grounds the production of scientific knowledge in the living bodies, funded laboratories, invented technologies, and specialized communities through which it emerges. What science knows is not a passively reflected copy of objective nature as it appears before an aloof subject; rather, the scientist’s experiential facts co-emerge with his experimental acts:

Every experiment is a question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to give a reply. But every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy.206

That every experimental design contains implicit a priori synthetic judgments (e.g., “every event has a cause,” “nature is an organized system”) is not to say that Schelling believed the natural scientist should try to deduce the structure of nature from a priori principles alone. He maintained that we know nothing except through and by means of experience,207 and therefore that synthetic a priori knowledge, though dialectically constructed, is subject to experimental falsification, theoretical revision, and replacement.208 Whereas for Kant, there exists an unreconcilable opposition between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for Schelling, acts of cognition and facts of experience recursively condition one another in the endlessly spiraling pursuit of the unconditioned.209

Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is more relevant to contemporary natural science’s vision of a creative cosmos than ever before. The classical mechanistic, entropic paradigm is being replaced by the new sciences of self-organization, which depict the universe as a progressive unfolding of kaleidoscopic activity; given this new context, Schelling’s dynamic evolutionary philosophy of nature can go a long way toward philosophically generating the underlying organizing principles “needed to supplement the laws of physics.”210 Contemporary natural science demands a firmer foundation for its theoretical and empirical discoveries than that given it by 17th century Cartesian metaphysics. Paradoxically, Schelling’s contribution to a more adequate metaphysical foundation for science involves destroying the long held belief that reality has any necessary foundation at all. Schelling’s is a process metaphysics that grounds the visible universe in infinite freedom and creativity.211

Unlike the mechanistic paradigm, which assumes the necessary existence of inert corporeal matter and so cannot explain how creative activity and the emergence of organized form are possible,212 for Schelling, such creative organization is the driving force of nature, inert matter being one of its later products. The source and common medium of nature’s creative activity according to Schelling is universal “sensibility,” making his Naturphilosophie a variety of panexperientialism.213 The ability to feel is what makes all apparently mechanical motion possible, since without such a universal experiential aether, no force could be felt and so exchanged between or across material bodies.214

By making sensibility the ultimate condition of nature’s dynamic organization, Schelling reverses the Kantian and Newtonian prioritization of external relations (i.e., linear mechanism, where causes are always external to effects) and instead understands nature as a holistic system of internal relations (i.e., reciprocal organism, where cause and effect are circular).215 The former externalist approach is unable to account for the origin of motion and activity in nature, since it deals only with secondary mechanical effects.216 Schelling’s dynamical approach does not assume the existence of corporeal bodies that exchange mechanical forces, but describes the construction of these bodies as a side-effect the originally infinite activity of nature’s fundamental forces of organization.217 Viewed from the height of nature’s fundamental organization, according to Schelling,

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.218

What needs explaining from the perspective of Schelling’s self-organizing aether is not creative activity, but the appearance of inhibition, habit, and permanence.219 Schelling accounts for inhibitions in the cosmic flow by positing an “original duplicity in nature” as two infinitely active forces striving in opposition to one another.220 Nature is, in itself, infinite, and so only it can inhibit itself. Were there no such polarized self-inhibition in nature, space would have immediately expanded into emptiness and all time would have passed in the flash of an instantaneous point.221 The natural products of gradual cosmic evolution–whether atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, cells, animals, or humans–are the visible expressions of a determinate proportion of these polarized forces, each one a temporary configuration of nature’s infinite process of formation.222 That is, each product is really a recapitulation of one and the same archetypal organism, only inhibited at a different stage of development and made to appear as a finite approximation of the infinite original.223 Nature’s rich variety of organic products only appear to be finite entities, when in reality, they contain within themselves, as though in a mirror image, the infinite whole of living nature’s creative activity:

…a stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance–a whirlpool forms. Every original product of nature is such a whirlpool, every organism. The whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming–but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of nature entire.224

Schelling’s attempt to ground the emergence of the physical universe in an unstable abyss (Abgrund) of dynamic forces and to re-conceive nature in terms of becoming rather than being makes it a philosophical precursor to Ilya Prigogine’s work on the physics of non-equilibrium processes.225 Prigogine’s Nobel Prize winning discoveries lead him to announce the birth of a new science,

a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.226

Like Prigogine, who called for “the end of certainty” and of the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, Schelling sought to give an account of the physical universe that does not irrevocably separate the human observer from the nature observed. Scientific objectivity, as a merely reflective method, can prove useful; but there is no coherent metaphysical justification for treating the subject-object split as a reality. “I absolutely do not acknowledge two different worlds,” says Schelling,

but rather insist on only one and the same, in which everything, even what common consciousness opposes as nature and mind, is comprehended.227

The natural scientific consequence of insisting on a polar unity between subject and object is that nature can no longer be conceived of as a heap of objects or a giant machine, but becomes rather a universal organism in whose life all finite creatures participate.228 Cartesian science, which searched for objective matters of fact independent of the values of life and society, comes to be replaced by cosmopolitical science, which foregrounds what the Whiteheadian philosopher Bruno Latour has called “matters of concern.”229 Such a replacement re-knits the frayed edges of cosmos and anthropos back together, allowing for the composition of a new planetary constitution more inclusive of the diverse community of species that call earth home. In the next section, the anthropological and political consequences of re-situating the human being within such a universe are unpacked.


168 According to Owen Barfield, “…as the law now stands, Schelling could have sued Coleridge in respect of one or two pages in the Biographia Literaria.” Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 6.

169 When asked about his influences by William James, Peirce pointed to “all stages of Schelling, but especially his Naturphilosophie.” See 2n2 above.

170 Emerson referred to Schelling as a “hero.” See 14n58 above.

171 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 134, 514.

172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.

173 Timothy Lenoir, “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie,” Journal of the History of Biology, 57; Barry Gower, “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 320; Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 67.

174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.

175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

176 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 58.

177 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics.”

178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

179 Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature.

180 Beiser, German Idealism.

181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.

183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.

184 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.

185 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.

186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.

187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.

188 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384.

189 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 74.

190 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 5.

191 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 126-127, 169.

192 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.

193 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Keith Peterson, 14.

194 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckhart Förster, 240.

195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.

196 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 11:258.

197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.

198 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, 57.

199 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

200 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

201 Schelling, Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schröter, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11-12.

202 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Harris and Heath, 30.

203 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

204 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath, 11-12.

205 Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 59.

206 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 197.

207 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

208 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 45.

209 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 20-21.

210 Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 2-5, 203.

211 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 28.

212 Usually, the emergence of life and consciousness are explained by mechanists as random chance occurrences–the opposite of a theoretical explanation, since they are said to emerge for no reason.

213 “Panexperientialism” is a term coined by Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin to refer to any philosophy of nature that affirms that every actual occasion in the universe enjoys some level of experience; see Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, 99.

214 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 137.

215 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 52.

216 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 195-196.

217 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 196.

218 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

219 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17.

220 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 11.

221 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17, 187.

222 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 35, 159.

223 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 48-50.

224 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 18.

225 See Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 175; Late in his life, Prigogine collaborated with the Whiteheadian philosopher Isabel Stengers regarding the philosophical implications of his work.

226 Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, 7.

227 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 4/102.

228 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 138.

229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology

I’m in the middle of writing a long essay on Schelling and the resurgence of interest in his work of late, at least in the Anglophone world. I’ll be posting the essay in installments as I finish each section. For now, here is Jerry Day, from his book on Schelling’s influence on Eric Voegelin, describing Schelling’s philosophy of mythology, including also how it was interpreted by Coleridge.  Incidentally, I’ve just confirmed a speaking engagement at the PCC Forum with Paul Caringella, a Voegelin scholar, in October. I’m hoping to record and post it here.

At one point in Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology, the work that Voegelin claims brought the “crash” to his History, one finds the following claim: “[I]t is not we who have placed mythology, but mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it. The content of this conference is henceforth no longer mythology explained by us; it is mythology as it explains itself [die sich selbst erklärende Mythologie].” This comment occurs after a lengthy discussion of deficient approaches to the interpretation of myth. Schelling begins to argue that mythological experience and the symbols it engenders are self-interpretive. Genuine mythic symbols do not arise as reflective signs that a clever person has intentionally fashioned in order to construct an arbitrary “reality” of his or her own making. They arise from the human soul’s prereflective immersion in the divine substance of the cosmos. Accordingly, Schelling continues, mythical symbols are not properly interpreted as merely “allegorical.” Such interpretation mistakenly assumes that symbols are best understood with reference to other symbols, perhaps even within an essentially closed system of meaning. Considered linguistically, allegorical interpretation suggests that words interpret only other words—a point, we might add, that makes allegorical interpretation closely related to the structuralist account of language. Schelling argues, to the contrary, that the origin of symbols cannot be understood with reference only to other symbols. His particular understanding of the self-establishing character of symbols leads him to contend that they are best interpreted as “tautegorical.” It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was first led to formulate the specific term tautegorical after reading one of Schelling’s previous works, Die Gottheiten von Samothrake, which dealt in part with the proper interpretation of myth. Schelling commends Coleridge as “the first of his English compatriots to have understood and put to intelligent use German poetry, scholarship [Wissenschaft], and especially philosophy.” Schelling defends Coleridge against being “too severely criticized” by his fellow countrymen for his “unacknowledged borrowings [Entlehnungen] ” from Schelling himself. He states: “Because of this excellent term that I borrow from him, I voluntarily pardon him for all of the borrowings which he himself has made from my works, without mentioning my name.” But Schelling also notes that his use of the term tautegorical may be more radical than that which he finds in Coleridge. For Coleridge, according to Schelling, the term appears to be synonymous with “philosopheme,” which may still convey the sense that mythic symbols are signs for other phenomena (natural or euhemeristic), thus leaving open the possibility of allegorical interpretations. In his use of the term tautegorical, Schelling wishes to suggest a most intimate connection between mythic symbols and the experiences that give rise to them. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that mythic symbols are what they symbolize. They arise beyond conscious control and are, in some sense, identical to the experiences that have engendered them. For example, he contends that the “Prometheus” of Æschylus is “not a human thought.” It is one of the “primordial thoughts which pushes itself into existence.” This point suggests that not all words simply interpret other words; some break loose from linguistic conventions and effectively call attention, at least, to what remain essentially inarticulate experiences of natural order, or what Schelling calls “primordial thoughts” (Urgedanken). What is more, when such thoughts arise in human consciousness, they are said to create a meaningful historical divide before and after the symbol came into existence. For Schelling, this divide has an objective quality about it, giving the history of symbolization a discernible order. Consequently, his Philosophy of Mythology and Philosophy of Revelation undertake an extraordinarily complex effort to interpret this general history of order as it emerges in the specific order of human experience. Precisely with this historical aspect of symbolization in mind, he is able to claim that “mythology has placed us in the perspective from which, at present, we shall consider it.” Voegelin’s tacit agreement with Schelling’s “tautegorical” interpretation of myth is found in the third volume of Order and History, only a few pages before Schelling’s philosophy of myth is explicitly dismissed for its allegedly “gnostic inclination to intellectualize the unconscious.” Voegelin says that “the ‘truth’ of the myth will arise from the unconscious, stratified in depth into the collective unconscious of the people, the generic unconscious of mankind, and the deepest level where it is in communication with the primordial forces of the cosmos.” Mythic truth is self-authenticating, Voegelin argues, “because the forces which animate its imagery are at the same time its subject matter.” The truth of mythic symbols is therefore tautegorical.  “A myth can never be ‘untrue,’” he continues, “because it would not exist unless it had its experiential basis in the movements of the soul which it symbolizes.” Clearly, Voegelin and Schelling agree that mythic symbols arise from the soul’s unconscious depth and break forth into the conscious articulation of experiences. But they also agree that what holds true for mythic symbols is true of linguistic symbolization in general. Consider Schelling’s remarks on the formation of language. He contends that the development of language cannot be understood in a “piecemeal or atomistic” way. An atomistic account of the origin of language could easily lead one to believe that the soul is fundamentally in conscious control of the symbols it makes. This notion is declared to be patently false when Schelling reflects on how nascent symbols come into existence. Language must have developed as a whole, he argues, in an “organic” (organisch) way. It must have originated, like mythic symbols in particular, from the soul’s unconscious depth. “Since neither philosophical nor even generally human consciousness is possible without language,” Schelling maintains, “it is inconceivable that consciousness can be the ground of language; and so the more we penetrate its nature, the more we acquire the certitude that it transcends by its profundity any conscious creation.” This realization leads Schelling to discern an objective (objectiv) quality in language itself (Sprache selbst), a point that allows him to argue, in effect, that nascent symbols must be understood as selfgenerating and self-interpretive, when properly traced back to their engendering experiences. (from p. 71-74 of Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence).

I’m curious what those who reject myth outright in favor of a sort of Enlightenment rationalism (see an exchange I had with Levi Bryant a while back HERE and HERE) would say to this sort of perspective. Schelling seems to fully ground his philosophy of myth and language in the material conditions of cultural genesis (i.e., there is no consciousness without language).  But precisely for this reason he would never argue that myth can be overcome and replaced by scientific literalism. We simply cannot step out of the mythocosmic forces that have constituted our language and consciousness in order to explain it from outside, as though objectively. We give accounts of ourselves in narrative form, which are not allegorical, since there is no outside referent for the story to attempt to represent. The story is self-interpreting, and so we, as self-conscious creatures, are also self-interpreting.

[final draft] Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead

Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, Whitehead

The Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden by Thomas Cole

“I am convinced that the supreme act of reason, because it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act; and that only in beauty are truth and goodness akin.–The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic force as the poet…Monotheism of reason and of the heart, polytheism of imagination and art, that is what we need!” -F.W.J. Schelling1

“[Philosophy has] to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear…we view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.” -A. N. Whitehead2


The aim of this essay is to sketch the striking similarities running through the thought of Plato (423-348 BCE), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), especially as they relate to the power of poetic imagination. At first glance, Schelling and Whitehead would seem to be representatives of disparate schools of philosophy: the former is normally considered an idealist, the latter, a realist. But this would be a superficial reading that misses the underlying unity of their reformed Platonism. As will become clear, the stated desire of each is to think the sensory manifold as a single universe; to wed Space and Time in the Thought of Eternity; to ground reality and ideality in one mediating power. Like Plato, Schelling and Whitehead crowned philosophy the science of sciences and the art of arts, the creative core of all civilization. What finally distinguishes the philosopher from the sophist, according to Whitehead (summarizing Plato), is the philosopher’s “resolute attempt to reconcile conflicting doctrines, each with its own solid ground of support.”3 But as will also become clear, both Schelling and Whitehead reformed Plato in imaginative ways, adding other voices to his corpus of dialogues as a goad to their spiritual renewal.

To begin with, it is not at all obvious that Schelling’s philosophy, taken as a whole, deserves the title of “idealism.” Martin Heidegger, for example, suggests that Schelling “drives German idealism from within right past its own fundamental position.”4 More recently, Dalia Nassar,5 Iain Hamilton Grant,6 and Jason Wirth7 have all contended that, despite his early allegiance to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s transcendental idealism, Schelling remains, in Wirth’s words, “first and foremost a thinker of the question of Nature.”8

As for Whitehead, Grant mentions him alongside Schelling as a promising example of speculative thinking “beyond the epistemological concerns of the philosophy of science,”9 an issue to which I will return below.10 George R. Lucas further cements this speculative affinity by reading Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a historical precursor to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.11 Though Whitehead never read much of the German idealists directly,12 he was deeply influenced by the British idealists John McTaggart and F. H. Bradley, going so far as to suggest that his own cosmology might be considered “a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.”13 Furthermore, Antoon Braeckman has indirectly linked Whitehead’s philosophical scheme to Schelling’s through the intermediary of the Schellingian philosopher-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose role in the formation of William Wordsworth’s aesthetic vision of nature is well known.14 Though he was familiar with Coleridge,15 the deepest impact on Whitehead came through the poetry of Wordsworth, which he study throughout his life. According to his daughter’s testimony, he would read The Prelude almost daily “as if it were the Bible, pouring over the meaning of various passages.”16

The philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, then, seem to spiral around a common intuition, namely that the division between the real and the ideal can and should be overcome through an act of poetic imagination. Before further unpacking the commonalities of their imaginative schemes, I will briefly outline the role of imagination in speculative philosophy as over and against critical philosophy.


Cosmological and Transcendental Imagination

Speculative, or cosmological imagination has been clearly differentiated from critical, or transcendental imagination, by contemporary Whiteheadian philosopher Isabelle Stengers.17 For Stengers, there are two basic approaches open for the questioning postkantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”; the second, “What can I know?”18 Answering the former question requires the spark of imaginative speculation, which leaps across the gap in the circuit of perception between mind and matter in an attempt to see into the sea of relationships within which one swims. The philosopher-seer risks propositions regarding the reality of nature’s ideality, hedging her bets on the synechological19 affinity of mind and nature. Given the precursive trust20 of the speculative philosopher, these cosmological propositions are liable to infect common sense experience, allowing new worlds to take shape in the social imagination.

The latter question (“What can I know?) characterizes the critical approach. It separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective reflection upon an external world. Questions of epistemology take center stage, questions of the a priori conditions of conscious experience that shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the phenomenal manifold corresponding to the external world. These are important questions to ask, but in the modern period, they have been over-emphasized, resulting in the solipsistic positivism of scientific materialism.21 Because the positivist has lost all precursive trust, what the world is in itself, the realist’s question, is dismissed as a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos.

To further differentiate the cosmological from the transcendental imagination, it may be helpful to personify each mode by linking it with its foremost historical exemplar. Plato’s philosophy, as interpreted by Schelling and Whitehead, is rooted in a cosmological conception of imagination, while the philosophy of Immanuel Kant is rooted in a transcendental conception of imagination.

Although, in Republic, Plato explicitly places “imagination” (eikasia) below the line dividing the soul’s cognitive powers,22 the straightforward translation of eikasia as “imagination” can be misleading in light of Schelling and Whitehead’s use of the idea. Eikasia is etymologically related to eikon, usually translated as “icon” or “image” in the context of Greek culture, but can also be translated as “idol” in the Biblical context. Eikasia could then better be called the power of “imaging,” of seeing images, in either of two modes: as images of things or as things themselves. Plato’s placement of eikasia below the divided line is meant to be a critique of idolatrous imagination, that which has fallen into duality, mistaking opinions regarding appearances of “what comes to be and passes away, but never really is”23 for the truth of what really is. Schelling would call this fallen mode of eikasia the merely reflective understanding, perceptually isolated from reality and so only able to relate to abstract concepts and finite sensory particulars.24

However, when the “imaging” soul is wise to Plato’s teaching in Sophist concerning “non-being”–that non-being is a kind of being–25 philosophical imagination can express itself through the poetic art of iconography, what neoplatonists like Proclus and Iamblichus will later call theurgy. Theurgy is a ritual technology capable of re-shaping the soul though the power of magical symbols.

Whitehead refers to Plato’s teaching of the being of non-being as “at once an extreme instance of the breakdown of language, and the enunciation of a profound metaphysical truth.”26 The difficult phrase points to the way linguistic propositions generate meaning, not only through discontinuous antinomies, but through constructive contrasts: words are not things, but nevertheless, the symbolic assembly of a string of words can illuminate the relations between things in unforeseen ways. Plato is himself skilled in poetic ritual, as is evident in the many mythopoeic “likely stories” articulated in his dialogues. Each such story is an image meant to be transformative of the soul’s erotic commerce with eternal Ideas. They function as initiatory rites revealing the inner nature of the divine imagination. In Timaeus, for example, Plato narrates the genesis of the universe as “a moving image of eternity,” inviting the individual psyche to be reminded of its analogical participation in the ever-lasting life and motion of the world-soul.27 The speculative imagination sees the moving image of the visible heavens and knows it to be the mirror of an invisible source.28

Plato’s was also a cosmomorphic imagination, seeking to transform experience of the sensible world by actively bringing it into harmony with the intelligence of Ideas. Schelling identifies this speculative mode of imagination with reason rather than the understanding, since it participates freely in both the finite and the infinite, and indeed, discovers the infinite in the finite.29 Speculative imagination is neither above nor below the divided line, but is the very power responsible for making the division in the first place. Imagination draws the line, being both productivity and product, activity and artifact.30

Even from Kant’s transcendental perspective, imagination is the most indispensable of the soul’s cognitive powers, mysteriously generating both sensibility and understanding.31 But for him, imagination emerges from a depth unreachable by the light of conscious will. Ideas of imagination are therefore reduced to determinate concepts of the merely reflective (i.e., unproductive) understanding,32 leading to “those insoluble contradictions which Kant set forth under the name of the antinomies.”33 These antinomies forbid the soul real knowledge concerning God, the cosmos, or even its own freedom, since in each case, critical reflection alone leads only to an aporia inherent to sense-bound understanding. The understanding, says Kant, “stretches its wings in vain, if it tries to soar beyond the world of sense by the mere power of speculation.”34

Schelling understands this alienation of the critical soul from the world as a “necessary evil,” a means to an end, since only through such a trial by separation can the soul become conscious of its imaginative power.35 Only if sense-bound conceptuality is treated as an end in itself does it become an “intellectual sickness.”36 The transcendental imagination, then, is not simply to be rejected as a false mode of mentality, but passed through as the first phase in the advance toward genuine philosophical knowledge.

In the next section, I will continue to explore the reformed Platonism of Schelling and Whitehead as it relates to the cosmological imagination, focusing more explicitly on the affinity of their respective philosophical schemes.


The Platonic Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead

It should already be clear that Schelling and Whitehead each owe a huge intellectual debt to Plato. Whitehead characterizes the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and suggests that his own philosophy of organism is best understood as a contemporary rendering of Plato’s general point of view.37 Schelling studied Plato’s dialogues in the original Greek during his teenage years at seminary in Tübingen, dedicating many notebooks to their elucidation in which he creatively translated Plato’s words into his own. According to Bruce Matthews, these notebooks indicate “the determinative role this philosopher plays in the young Schelling’s intellectual world.”38

At other times, Schelling and Whitehead are also critical of Plato’s tendency to overplay the separation of the transcendent ideal from the immanent reality. Schelling tentatively agrees with Aristotle’s reproach of Plato’s merely logical formulation of the doctrine of participation,39 as if the doctrine could explain the actual coming into being of living things.40 Whitehead also admits that Plato tended to waver between the doctrine of participation by the persuasion of divine Eros and the doctrine of the imposition of “static, frozen, and lifeless” Ideas upon mute materiality according to the plan of an omnipotent divine Craftsman.41

Despite this wavering, Whitehead points to the genius of Plato’s definitive statement that “anything that affects or is affected by another has real existence.”42 Plato here sides with the doctrine of participation of Ideas as dynamically entertained by an immanent world-soul, a real medium, “connecting the eternality of being with the fluency of becoming.”43 This mediating principle is “the way in which Plato conceived the many actualities of the physical world as components in each other’s natures.”44 The medium is otherwise called the Receptacle, the “third kind” between universal Ideas and sensory particulars, the “wetnurse” providing a formless locus for Ideas to temporally incarnate.45 As Whitehead describes it, the Receptacle is “the matrix for all begetting… [transforming] the manifoldness of the many into the unity of the one.”46

This description suggests that Whitehead conceived of the ultimate notion of his own philosophy of organism, Creativity, as a result of dwelling upon Plato’s difficult but important notion of the Receptacle. Creativity is “that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”47

The one feature distinguishing Creativity from the Receptacle is that “it is divested of the notion of passive receptivity.”48 This distinction is due to Whitehead’s preference for the doctrine of Ideas as “lures of feeling,” rather than as molds forcibly stamped upon neutral and emotionless matter. In the jargon of his philosophical scheme, incarnate actual occasions, not abstract eternal objects, are ultimately responsible for deciding on the subjective form of their own concrescence.49

“It is to be noted,” says Whitehead,

that every actual entity, including God, is something individual for its own sake; and thereby transcends the rest of actuality. And also it is to be noted that every actual entity, including God, is a creature transcended by the creativity which it qualifies.50

The substance of each actual occasion, and of each individualizing society of occasions (i.e., each organism), is a creative power, a harmonization of a diversity of inherited forces seeking satisfaction in a definite ideal future. “The definition of being,” says Plato, “is simply power.”51 That being is essentially power implies that to be is to be in between.52 To be is to become together, to concresce. Nothing in the universe is external to anything else, since all occasions are internally related. Even the universal occasion, the world-soul or divine imagination, is not “a transcendent emanation,” but “a component in common” with the living bodies of the actual world.53

Creativity, like the Receptacle, provides “a unity [for] the events of Nature…by reason of their community of locus.”54 But unlike Plato’s Receptacle, which is essentially passive and formless, Whitehead’s Creativity contains its own forces of formation.

Schelling re-imagines the participatory moments of Plato’s dialogues for his own creative purposes, distilling them into what he calls Plato’s organic Urform. Like imagination’s mediation of the senses and the understanding, this Urform provides a “formula for thinking the productive relationship that holds between a unity and its parts.”55 The Urform is “not simply a form of our subjective understanding that we project onto the world, but…the productive structure of objective nature itself.”56 It could be likened to Goethe’s Urpflanze, raised from the botanical to the spiritual dimension. It is “the secret band” linking the individual soul’s imagination to the divine imagination of the world-soul.57 Schelling points to Plato’s articulation of the Urform in Philebus as “a gift of the Gods”58 granting human creatures participation in the divine intellectus archetypus.59 Schelling’s translation of Philebus 16c-e is as follows:

…the ancients (greater men and closer to the gods than us) have left the story behind, that everything which has ever [existed] emerged out of unity and multiplicity, in that it united within itself the unlimited and the limit: that thus we too in light of this arrangement of things should presuppose and search [in] every object [for] one idea.60

Schelling’s conception of the cosmos as the product of two dynamically polarized forces, one expansive and the other contractive, is the offspring of the Platonic Urform.61 These cosmogenic forces, the keystone of his entire Naturphilosophie, are alternatively characterized by Schelling in terms of the polarity between natura naturans (nature as subject, as productivity) and natura naturata (nature as object, as product).62 Whitehead marks an identical difference between “nature alive” and “nature lifeless.”63 The latter is nature viewed through a film of abstraction as mere extension lacking all quality and value. It is nature according to what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy,” a barren and solipsistic mode of sense-perception perfected by self-conscious human beings and mistaken by most philosophers for the most fundamental mode of perception. This mistake is Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”64 “Presentational immediacy” is the product of imagination in service of the reified “object-concepts” of the understanding.65 “Causal efficacy” is Whitehead’s term for the more fundamental mode of perception through directly bodily inheritance of nature’s emotional energies.66 Here imagination is productive and impossible to mistake for its finished products. Schelling would similarly see “nature lifeless” as nature filtered through the merely ideal concepts of the reflective understanding, with its limited perception by way of superficial sensation. For Schelling, “[nothing] is actual in the absence of imagination,” which is the power of productive intuition and absolute reason.67 “Nature lifeless” is then entirely deficient in actuality, an empty idol.

“Nature alive” is nature viewed with imaginative sympathy as permeated with emotional intensities and aesthetic aims. As a participant in living nature, the percipient occasion no longer simply experiences the universe’s beauty, but itself becomes an expression of this beauty. Natura naturans is nature before the Kantian epistemological bifurcation of its being into the mechanism of matter over and against the freedom of mind. At their generative core, each actual occasion, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”68 Mentality, in other words, is not the unique possession of human beings, but participates in all actual occasions (or “actants” as Schelling calls them), to greater or lesser degree depending on the complexity of each occasion’s form of individualized organization.69

In the next section of this essay, I will attempt to display the alchemical power of poetry in the process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead.


Towards a Poetic Form of Philosophy

Whitehead points to Percy Shelley and Wordsworth as the most emphatic witnesses of the Romantic reaction against the scientific materialism that divorced aesthetic values from nature. These values, “[arising] from…the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts,” were reduced by mechanistic natural philosophy to merely secondary qualities accidentally inhering in some more primary collection of material particles.70 Shelley’s and Wordsworth’s reaction was to apotheosize imagination and its poetic expressions.71

According to Shelley, poetry is

the center and circumference of knowledge, the root and blossom of all other systems of thought…that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.72

Contemporary speculative philosopher and scholar of Romanticism, Timothy Morton, was recently asked where poetry begins.73 In answering, he turned Shelley’s metaphor upside down by suggesting that “rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poem.” Poetry doesn’t begin with human art, but in nature (natura naturans) itself. Human poetry is the flowering of earth. Said otherwise, imagination is an “elemental power,” “not ‘mine’…but…an alien ‘force’ in me.”74

“What we speak of as nature,” says Schelling, continuing the alchemical metaphor,

is a poem lying pent in a mysterious script. Yet the riddle could reveal itself, were we to recognize in it the odyssey of the spirit, which marvelously deluded, seeks itself, and in seeking, flies from itself.75

The alchemical Magnum Opus involves precisely such a circulatory psychophysical movement between seeking and fleeing, fusing and separating, assimilation and differentiation, eventually culminating in the purified Philosopher’s Stone, the coincidentia oppositorum.76 The alchemist’s soul becomes the a mirror of material processes, “always [manifesting] itself indirectly, as something other than itself.”77 Schelling’s philosophical scheme, according to Matthews, is founded upon “a decentered Self” whose consciousness is rooted in the genetic history of the larger totality of geological strata.78 This totality represents an “unprethinkable”79 past of subterranean forces, whose structure, though it cannot be logically demonstrated, can be imaginatively (re)generated. Schelling’s approach to philosophy is not demonstrative, but generative, in that it abandons traditional philosophical pretensions to deductive proof and formulaic certainty. “To philosophize about nature,” says Schelling, “means to create nature,” that is, to create after the manner of nature as subject (natura naturans).80 Or as Grant puts it, when “I” think nature, “what thinks in me is what is outside me.”81

Whitehead also abandons the pursuit of the abstract demonstration of truth: “…philosophy, in any proper sense of the term, cannot be proved. For proof is based on abstraction.”82 The role of philosophy, instead, is “to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet,” and thereby to “increase our penetration” even where “we can never fully understand.”83 Ultimately, “the aim of philosophy is sheer disclosure” and the production of “self-evidence.”84 Philosophy, for Whitehead, as for Schelling, begins and ends in a wonder at “the fact of creation and existence itself,” a fact best expressed poetically.85

“There is the one all-embracing fact,” says Whitehead, “which is the advancing history of the one Universe.”86 The one advancing Universe is simultaneously a social fact concerning the novel togetherness of the community of actual occasions. In Schelling’s terms, “there is but one absolute work of art, which may indeed exist in altogether different versions, yet it is still only one, even though it should not yet exist in its most ultimate form.”87 It should not yet exist in its ultimate form because the universe as a whole is an ongoing creative process, a cosmopoiesis, rather than an already finished product. The Universe, itself a poem, “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”88

Schelling and Whitehead both forged their philosophical imaginations by reading the dialogues of Plato. Despite the “old quarrel between poetry and philosophy,”89 Plato’s infamous ban of Homeric poetry from his ideal republic was not based on a rejection of poetry as such, but on a distaste for lyric and epic poetry that depicted the Gods as immoral. Plato’s true desire was simply to replace traditional poetry with his own novel form of theoretical poetry, consisting of hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people.90 Shelley said of Plato the poet that “the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.”91 The aim of Plato’s poetry was to “kindle a harmony” in imagination by reminding the soul of the measured rhythms of reason asleep within in. “What is commonly called theoretical reason,” says Schelling, “is nothing else but imagination in the service of freedom.”92 Plato recognized that poetry is an indispensable element in the formation of a free society’s values. Similarly, Whitehead suggests that “both [philosophy and poetry] seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization.”93

In the context of his own age, Whitehead looked in particular to the nature poetry of the Romantics, which, like philosophy, functions primarily as a critic of specialized scientific abstractions on behalf of common sense and concrete experience:

Remembering the poetic rendering of our concrete experience, we see at once that the element of value…of being an end in itself…must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event. Value is an element which permeates through and through the poetic view of nature. We have only to transfer to the very texture of realization in itself that value which we recognize so readily in terms of human life. This is the secret of Wordsworth’s worship of nature.94

From Schelling’s perspective, poetry and philosophy are also akin, but they should not be simply identified. Like philosophers, poets and other creative artists may sometimes be “in possession of the idea of absolute truth and beauty,” but unlike philosophers, they remain unconscious of this fact “precisely because they are possessed by it.”95 Schelling refers to poets and creative artists as mouthpieces of the Gods, but suggests they only display Ideas in particular external things, like poems and paintings, while philosophers “exhibit the archetypes of things in and for themselves…in an inward way.”96

It would seem, then, that traditional poets, like the polytheistic myths they sung, were still largely embedded in an unconscious nature. Though this universe is undoubtedly vibrantly glimmering with the values of intrinsic reality, it has not yet become the conscious poetry of spirit. It has not yet attained philosophy, “the poetic gift…reiterated to its highest power.”97



For Schelling, “a system is completed when it is lead back to its starting point.”98 If, as Plato suggests, philosophy begins in wonder, then, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”99 Schelling called for a new philosophical mythology, a “likely story” capable of directing the aesthetic and moral aims of human civilization.100 Whitehead, too, recognized the need for myth, since “there is no escape” from the inherited societal customs which form the given facts of human experience.101 As Plato realized, human beings are capable of no more than likely stories, since we are “like” God, made in the divine image, and not Godself. This likeness still grants us a tremendous degree of imaginative freedom. Though “there is no such fact as absolute freedom,” since as both Whitehead and Schelling argue, freedom presupposes necessity,102 the self-consciousness of human beings nonetheless “rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified.”103 Every grade of actual occasion is both “in time” and “out of time” by virtue of its physical and mental poles, but self-conscious human occasions participate more fully in God’s primordial envisagement of the Eternal Ideas.104 “The importance of [the human] as the supreme example of a living organism is beyond question,” says Whitehead.105 But even so, the goal of philosophy is not to further alienate humanity from its earthly garden, but to heal the human soul’s self-inflicted wound. The redemption of the soul through the skilled application of the medicine of true poetry is the Romantic project for philosophy. By consciously enacting the magical power of poetry, the philosopher is, like the alchemical physician, able to “[operate] not only on his patients’ bodies but on their imaginations.”106

“Philosophy,” says Schelling, “was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge,” and upon rising to the heights of self-conscious spirit, will “flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which [it] took [its] source.”107 The only difference between the original and final forms of the philosophical imagination is that, after the long labour of its journey into alienation has ended, the final form carries with it the hard won knowledge of “The feeling of life endless, the great thought/By which we live, Infinity and God.”108 Along with its original innocence, the imagination has in the end what it did not possess in the beginning: self-knowledge and moral freedom. The evil of alienation–“of nature and history rent asunder”109–works as an athanor, or alchemical fire, upon the soul, transmuting the mercury of intellectuality into the gold of spiritual love,110 a love, according to Wordsworth,

Which acts, nor can exist/Without Imagination, which in truth,/Is but another name for absolute strength/And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,/And reason in her most exalted mood.111

In the imaginative philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, Plato’s speculative Urform of unity in multiplicity is rediscovered to again become the “eternal unchanging characteristic of every investigation.”112 This intuition of the unity of the real and the ideal, of the infinite in the finite, brought to fruition, not only redeems the human soul of its internal strife; the rekindled imagination becomes also the Redeemer113 of the external114 universe:

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope…that [it] will also be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God…the whole of creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.115


1 F.W.J. Schelling, “The Oldest Program toward a System in German Idealism,” qtd. and tranl. by David Krell, The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing of God (Bloomignton: Indiana University Press, 2005), 24-25.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933), 155.

3 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

4 Martin Heidegger, trans. Joan Stambaugh, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985), 4.

5 Dalia Nassar, “From a Philosophy of Self to a Philosophy of Nature: Goethe and the Development of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie,” in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92:3 (2010), 304-321. Nassar suggests that Schelling broke with Fichte largely as a result of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s influence.

6 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (New York: Continuum, 2008). Grant complains that contemporary scholarship on Schelling’s philosophy pays “scant attention…to the deep vein of naturephilosophy running through it” (3).

7 Jason Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” in Philosophy Compass 6/9 (2011), 585-598.

8 Wirth, “Resurgence,” 594n6.

9 Grant, After Schelling, vii, ix.

10 See p. 5.

11 George R. Lucas, Jr., The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 1989), 25-26.

12 Alfred North Whitehead, Essays in Science and Philosophy (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 116.

13 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1978), xiii.

14 Antoon Braeckman, “Whitehead and German Idealism: A Poetic Heritage,” in Process Studies 14:4 (1985), 265-286.

15 See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 79.

16 Mary A Wyman, “Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science in Light of Wordsworth’s Poetry,” in Philosophy of Science 23 (1956), 283.

17 Isabelle Stengers, “Serializing Realism,” a talk at the Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project, entitled “Metaphysics and Things: New Forms of Speculative Thought,” at Claremont Graduate University on 12/2/2010.

18 See also Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 224.

19 See C.S. Peirce, ed. Justin Buchler, Philosophical Writings of Peirce (Mineda: Dover, 2011), 354. “Synechism is that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in phillosophy.”

20 See William James, ed. by John J. McDermott, “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Radical Empiricism,” in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977), 740.

21 See Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 125-130

22 Ch. IV. Eikasia is below the divided line because it relates only to sensory appearances in the world of becoming, remaining ignorant of the ideal realm of eternal being.

23 Timaeus 28a.

24 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Peter Heath, System of Transcendental Idealism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 73.

25 Sophist 241d.

26 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

27 Timaeus 37c-e. See also the Hermetic analogy: “As above, so below.”

28 “Mirror,” in Latin, is speculum.

29 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

30 See Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 29, 145. “Geometry proceeds, in that it sets out, not from theorems, but from postulates…it demands that reflection itself bring forth [the line] in productive intuition, which it certainly would not do if the genesis of a line could be conveyed through concepts.”

31 See Critique of Pure Reason, in The Essential Kant (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1970), 96.

32 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York: Dover, 2005), 59, 142.

33 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

34 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 287.

35 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Bruce Matthews, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, transl. Bruce Matthews (New York: State University of New York, 2007), 17-18.

36 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, ed. K.F.A. Schelling (Stuttgart-Augsberg: J.G. Cotta, 1856-64), 14. Transl. by Bruce Matthews.

37 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.

38 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 2011), 21.

39 See Parmenides.

40 Schelling, Positive Philosophy, 159-160.

41 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147-148.

42 Sophist, 247. Quoted in Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 119.

43 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

44 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

45 Timaeus, 49a.

46 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

47 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

48 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

49 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

50 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

51 Sophist, 247e.

52 See Symposium 202 on metaxy and Eros.

53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

54 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 187.

55 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 22.

56 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 131.

57 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, 55.

58 Philebus 16c.

59 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

60 Quoted in Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 23.

61 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

62 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Keith R Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (New York: State University of New York, 2004), 202.

63 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 127-169.

64 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 51-55.

65 See Wolfgang Smith, Science and Myth: What We Are Never Told (San Rafael: Sophia Perennis, 2010), 58.

66 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 122.

67 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 72.

68 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.

69 Schelling, Philosophy of Nature, 5-6, 39-40.

70 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 81-84.

71 See Percy Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” and William Wordsworth, The Prelude. 

72 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

73 “Interview with Timothy Morton” on 2/25/12, (accessed 5/8/12).

74 Susanna Lindberg, “On the Night of the Elemental Imaginary,” in Research in Phenomenology 41 (2011), 157.

75 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 232.

76 See Patrick Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (London: Penguin, 2002), 135-154.

77 Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, 143.

78 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 28.

79 See F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Jason Wirth, The Ages of the World: (fragment) from the Handwritten Remains: Third Version (c. 1815) (New York: State University of New York, 2000), 12.

80 Quoted in Grant, After Schelling, 1.

81 Grant, After Nature, 158.

82 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

83 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 50-51.

84 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

85 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168 and Positive Philosophy, 73.

86 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

87 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

88 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

89 Republic, 607b.

90 See Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 389-395.

91 Shelly, “A Defense of Poetry.”

92 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 176.

93 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

94 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

95 F.W.J. Schelling, Bruno, or On the Natural and Divine Principle of Things (New York: State University of New York, 1984), 132. See also Plato’s Apology 22c-e.

96 Schelling, Bruno, 132.

97 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 230-231.

98 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

99 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168. See also Plato’s Theaeteus 155d.

100 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232-233.

101 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 63.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 133; Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 203-204.

103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 161.

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 248.

105 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 24.

106 Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964), 151.

107 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

108 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIII, quoted in M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 118.

109 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

110 Valentin Tomberg, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, transl. by Robert Powell (New York: Penguin, 2002), 194.

111 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIV, quoted in Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 118.

112 Philebus 15d.

113 See Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 119-122.

114 The redeemed universe is the universe understood according to Whitehead’s doctrine of internal relations (see p. 10 above).

115 Romans 8:19-22.

Fragments of a Romantic Theory of Evolution

Darwin is supposed to have discovered something nowadays called “evolution” and to have laid to rest something nowadays called “creationism.” But if this is so, what are we to make of the theories of Schelling and Goethe in Germany, and of Coleridge in England, articulated several decades earlier than he? Their Romantic conception of the transformation and morphogenesis of molecules, plants, and animals, is already fully evolutionary. Schelling spoke of evolution of plants and animals out of the earth by way of a chemical process (see, e.g., p. 168, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert Richards). Goethe and Coleridge agreed.

The reason Darwin is supposed to have discovered the “real” evolution is that his version is a-teleological, based on a conception of nature driven exclusively by efficient causes, while the Romantic theory of evolution is not only teleological, but theological. It breaks the rules of scientific explanation by attributing animation/agency to that which it theorizes. Modern science takes it as a matter of course that nature is without intelligence or intrinsic value. Romantics experience nature as full of complex feeling and archetypal intention. Even if, for Goethe, Nature is God and God is Nature, divinity is ingredient in any Romantic philosophy of nature. Goethe, were he interested in the abstract distinctions of philosophical logic, may also have articulated a panentheistic (like Coleridge and Schelling), rather than a pantheistic ontology. But cosmologically, these three Romantic Naturphilosophen conceive of nature alike as a creative, archetypal process of generation. They understood the universe to be an ensouled being living in the midst of itself, like a snake eating its own tail (following Plato in Timaeus). Schelling and Coleridge, whose soul’s were more Christian than Goethe’s, also perceived something fallen in nature (following Paul in Romans 8), and so also something–or rather, someone–in the process of being resurrected.

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. -Paul, Romans 8:20-25

Schelling, Coleridge, and Paul experience the fall originally taking place in the human heart. The human heart: the potential beacon of love and freedom in the cosmos, but also evil’s bridge into the world. Because of a fissure in our hearts, we perceive ourselves, and so nature, to be dead. Were our hearts whole, we’d perceive nature alive because we ourselves would be healed of death.
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.” -William Wordsworth

Coleridge and Scientific Realism

I’m continuing to read Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought (1971) with great excitement. Barfield includes two short chapters entitled “Ideas, Methods, Laws” and “Coleridge and the Cosmology of Science” wherein he attempts to say a bit about how Coleridge’s dynamic philosophy might be brought into conversation with contemporary natural science.

It would be helpful, before getting into Coleridge’s scientific method, to look at perhaps the two most influential philosophers of science in the last century. In their own ways, both Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper articulated anti-realist accounts of scientific knowledge. For Kuhn, what we know about the universe always depends upon the paradigm from within which experiments are designed and their data interpreted. There may appear to be something like progress within a given paradigm during periods of normal science. But once revolutionary science is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that there can be no epistemological basis for the assumption that “changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth” (p. 170, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996). Science is not about approaching some fancied total representation of nature, but about intersubjective coordination.*

For Popper, a scientific theory can never be proven true, but only falsified through experiment. In the end, all scientific knowledge remains hypothetical, a fancied construction of the world by a human mind in such a way that action in the world based upon it proves advantageous or at least more interesting. In this way, science “progresses” through something like Darwinian natural selection by finding some way to “fit” with the experimental reality of one’s socio-historical moment. He affirms a sort of creativity in the world and in human thought, but in the end finds no place where the two–cosmos and psyche, nature and history–ever fully meet up and connect.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), Popper writes:

“Science does not rest upon rock-bottom. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down into any natural or ‘given’ base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being” (quoted by Barfield on p. 247, n. 29.).

Popper argues that there can be no logic to the origination of new theories or paradigms in science; rather, some “irrational element” or “creative intuition” must come into play. It is here that he comes closest to Coleridge’s alchemical method by recognizing the coincidence of science, art, and nature in the creative discovery of truth:

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963).

Coleridge would agree with Popper on this point, that theories are like myths when they are first taken up by a thinker. They are stories whose tale the scientist cannot take for granted have already reached their end; they must continue to tell the story, and to tell it in an experientially verifiable way, for the theory to remain a live option. The student of science must learn the secrets of the scientific initiates by practicing their experimental arts for himself, testing them, improving them. Coleridge writes:

“Every physical theory is in some measure imperfect, because it is of necessity progressive; and because we can never be sure that we have exhausted the terms or that some new discovery may not effect the whole scheme of its relations…” (Treatise on Method).

But there the similarities end, since Coleridge defended a realist account of scientific knowledge by grounding it in an intuition of the real, while Popper limited knowledge to abstract hypothesis and model building. The difference between them, you could say, is that Popper never took the Shellingian leap across the Kantian regulative/constitutive divide announced in the Critique of Judgment. What Popper means by “rationality,” Coleridge identifies as “fancy” or “understanding.” These latter two modes of knowing are contrasted with “Reason” or “Imagination,” in that the former only passively rearranges the given facts of sense perception (à la Locke or Hume), while the latter actively reach into phenomena to poetically intuit their supersensory causes. Kant’s transcendentalism goes beyond the empiricists in that he recognizes the active role of the understanding in shaping sensory perception. He intuited Reason within himself, ordering and systematizing his and humanity’s ideas about reality into a regulative system, but he still could not finally bridge the gap between aesthesis and ontos, between logos and pathos, between what shows itself and what, hidden, shines. Kant, and after him Popper and Kuhn, could not find the place where conscious light and cosmic darkness meet up and coincide. The light shines in the darkness, but the dark does not see the source of the light. Light originates, if light it be (the Kantian can’t be sure theoretically that they are free, even if practically they are forced to affirm it), always from beyond the finite immanence enacted by a Kantian poetics, whereas for a Coleridgian poetics, light originates always from within and is pregnant in everything. Science is the conscious spirit in humanity knowing the secret spirit in the cosmos. As Coleridge says in chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, paraphrasing Schelling:

“…grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelllgences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.”

As a result of Kant’s influence, known or unknown, most contemporary philosophers of science believe human thought has access only to concepts derived from generalizations of sensory experience. Theories and laws are therefore considered to be abstract models of reality in the mind, rather than the mind’s participation in the ideal structure and formal power of reality itself. Some philosophically unsophisticated materialistic scientists have not even understood Kant’s injunction; they still do not know how to see through the transcendental telescope he invented, and so they cannot see their own influence on their observations of the world. They assert that their fancied model is in fact the reality, that the sun clearly rises and sets while the earth remains centered and still. In this way, they conceive of the unperceivable in terms of something perceivable; that is, they fancy that they can explain one phenomenon in terms of some other, unseen phenomenon. An “unseen phenomenon” is, of course, a contradiction in terms. As Barfield puts it, such scientists ignore the implications of post-Kantian epistemology, that “the ultimate explanation of phenomena cannot itself be phenomenal” (126). Such an explanation must be formal, or noumenal, which is not a contradiction for a philosophy of science aspiring to realism if the “real is the rational, and the rational the real,” as Hegel put it (whom Coleridge read, but not extensively). If reality is to be intelligible to us, it must itself already be intelligent. The causes and laws of the cosmos must be identifiable by powers and ideas in the mind as powers and ideas.
Coleridge defines Ideas, as opposed to concepts, in several ways. They are that which allows us to see the Universal in the Particular, and the Particular in the Universal. He also defines Ideas by way of an example:

“to the ideas of Kepler, the Correlates of the Law of the Planetary Orbits contrasted with the conception of Ptolemy–who began with the phaenomena, the apparent Motions, as data–and then sought to take them as that he might take the all together–i.e. concipere, capere haec cum illis–and the Conception or synopsis of a plurality of phaenomena so schematized as to shew the compatibility of their co-existence, is THEORY–a product of the Understanding in the absence or eclipse of IDEAS, or Contemplations of the Law, and hence necessarily conditioned by the Appearances, and changing with every new or newly discovered Phaenomenon, which Theory always follows never leads–while the law being constitutive of the phaenomena and in order of Thought necessarily antecedent, the Idea as the correlative and mental Counterpart of the Law, is necessarily prophetic and constructive–et Solem dicere falsum Audet, and turns the contradiction of the Senses into proofs and confirmations of its Truths” (a notebook quoted by Barfield on p. 238, n. 59).

Coleridge, in order to avoid the idolatry of much contemporary science, which presupposes some inanimate basis beneath all phenomena (e.g., Popper’s murky swamp water), carefully distinguishes between concepts of the understanding, on the one hand, and ideas of reason, on the other. Concepts are derived retroactively based on generalizations from particulars; they are rules derived from past events, from nature conceived of as already made (natura naturata). Ideas are Reason’s way of participating directly in the laws, or powers, of nature in the act of making itself (natura naturans). As a realist, Coleridge thinks the task of science is to seek

“that knowledge in which truth and reality are one and the same, that which in the ideas that are present to the mind recognizes the laws that govern in Nature if we may not say the laws that are Nature” (80, Treatise on Logic II, emphasis mine).


*As Latour will later suggest, Science is about building alliances with actors across increasingly global networks. Latour, of course, takes us beyond anthropocentric relativism in a way that Kuhn did not. Latour moves toward realism by arguing that, in order to perform and defend their facts, scientists have to build alliances not only with other scientists, and with military, civilian, or private funders, but also with autonomous and responsive lab mice, microscopes, particle colliders, satellites, solar flares, electrons, and ice bergs. Science is a cosmopolitical activity–something the cosmic community is co-directing with human beings.


Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

Continuing with Barfield’s (I think masterful) attempt (What Coleridge Thought, 1971) to give the definitive philosophical statement of a thinker who never seems to have gotten around to doing the same for himself, here are a few more reflections…

Barfield judges Coleridge a genius. Perhaps so, but the latter said of his own existant philosophical prose that it looks “like the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower” (Bibliographia Literaria, Ch. 13). With this image, Coleridge seems to admit that, whether he be an architectural genius or not, his readers will certainly have to be if they hope to ascend to the top of the tower to take in the sublime view of the world he was attempting to cook up (in the alchemical sense). In the margins of his library books, in letters to his friends, and in powerful but evasive aphorisms is buried a complete philosophical system. After Barfield’s house cleaning, we are provided with a 200 page book that doesn’t so much sum it all up, as though recounting it in a list, but organizes it in such a way that it begins where it ends and ends where it begins, turning it into a whole made out of parts which themselves are nothing less than the whole (“entire in each and one in all”). Beginning with the metaphysical trinity of Logic, Nature, and Power (Father, Son, and Spirit), he then moves on to Life. Philosophically, if not religiously speaking (i.e., according to reason rather than revelation), we can only aim to end at the realization of the Divine Triunity; we cannot begin there. We must begin, instead, with life, and its partner, death (what Barfield and Coleridge refer to as “outness”).

Coleridge’s theory of life stands not opposite Darwin’s theory but behind it. At first glance, it seems opposed, but this is impossible, since Darwin had no theory of life at all. His was a theory about speciation, leaving life itself to be explained otherwise: he speculates it was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one” on the last page of On the Origin of Species. Though he may ultimately have had other cosmological commitments than Coleridge (i.e., of the Newtonian-Cartesian sort), the validity of Darwin’s theory of speciation, so far as it goes, does not rule out the possibility that Coleridge was also right about life. In fact, Coleridge’s theory of life may indeed provide the ontological grounding for the very phenomenon described by Darwin, whereas that described by Newton (atoms in motion governed by fixed laws) does not. Only if we mistake Darwin’s model for how nature really is, rather than one way nature can be made to appeardo we commit the fatal sin of idol worship by fancying the world as essentially dead extended stuff “out there.” So long as we recognize that it is no theory at all, but a hypothesis regarding appearances–not an explanation for an appearance, but a predictive model about how certain appearances lead to other appearances–then Darwin’s remains a crucial insight into the general behavior of life. There is no doubt that inheritance with modification coupled with selection pressures resulting from sex and death can lead to the differentiation of life. But this is no explanation for life. The “how?” and the “what?” of the thing itself transforming through the generations into a variety of species is left unaccounted for. “How?” cannot be explained with a mechanical design, deistic or natural, since life is not built from the outside, but generated from within. Life cannot be put together out of merely external parts, but must be seen to grow from living seeds, each with the formative power of the whole solar system already inside them.

To explain life, Barfield argues, we require a dynamic and thoroughly evolutionary cosmology, since:

“we can never reach and recognize the idea of change [evolution] in nature, if our idea of nature itself is exclusively a picture of bodies already formed [natura naturata]. This very picture however is the one which the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and matter had been busy riveting on the mind of the Western world through the two hundred years before Coleridge’s birth. That it is a false picture; that elementary particles do not merely exist from eternity and keep on setting to partners; that the proposition ‘matter has no inward‘ is a false proposition, was accordingly not simply an interesting metaphysical speculation, but a vital and neglected, or ‘lost,’ verity which he felt he had to re-establish before he could usefully say anything else to his contemporaries upon almost any subject, whether religion, politics, history, imagination, or life” (p. 42, WCT).

To grasp Coleridge requires genius. To grasp the nature of life requires imagination. It is a totally contrary perspective to the one we are used to taking for granted as true, where “substance becomes shadow, and shadow substance”: Coleridge asks us to see imagination as reality. The one reality, the cause and origin of the self, the world, and all things, is nothing other than imagination. So, what is imagination? Creatively discovering its essence was the endless task Coleridge set himself from at least the moment he first read Plato, Plotinus, and Ficino as a teenager (p. 72, WCT), but certainly it began to occupy the bulk of his philosophical attention by the time he was exposed to Wordsworth’s poetry in 1795. By 1817, he had written his clearest and most definitive statement concerning the nature and genesis of imagination:

“Imagination, then, I consider as either primary or secondary. The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still identical with the former in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”

Modern, post-Cartesian common sense is to imagine that imagining happens somewhere inside the head, that it peeks through the inlets of the senses at an external world and more or less represents what is “out there.” Properly speaking, from Coleridge and Barfield’s perspective, we shouldn’t call this sort of idol worship “imagining” at all, but fancying. The difference between imagination and fancy was central to Coleridge’s philosophy (very similar to the distinction between understanding and reason). Imagination is an act of “separative projection” (p. 76, WCT), a will which, like self-conscious thinking, is one with the products of its own productivity. At the primary level, the level of the eternal creation of the macrocosm, this act of imagination takes place without our consciousness. Genius, however, grants some human beings (like Coleridge and Wordsworth) the power to approach self-consciousness of their participatory role in the co-creation of the microcosm at the secondary level: “they know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them” (Biographia Literaria, ch. 13). As Paracelsus put it,

“He who is born in imagination discovers the latent forces of Nature…Besides the stars that are established, there is yet another–Imagination–that begets a new star and a new heaven.”

Ordinary adult human beings are, through education, made entirely unconscious of the activity of secondary imagination, and so can rely only upon fancy to provide them with an understanding of the universe as made up of “fixities and definites” (ibid.). Fancy in the absence of imagination (i.e., understanding without reason) can only lead to the belief that the substance of things is made of inanimate matter, and that mind is but a display and a storehouse of impressions caused by this matter.

On the other hand, Barfield explains,

“for Coleridge, because man did not create himself, there is indeed an actual (I-Thou) relation subject and natural object; but, since man is to be free, it is also a genetic and a progressive one. Phylogenetically that progressive relation is nature. Ontogenetically it is imagination” (p. 77, WCT).

As Coleridge himself put it, drawing on Plotinus,

The first range of hills, that encircles the scanty vale of human life, is the horizon for the majority of its inhabitants. On its ridges the common sun is born and departs. From them the stars rise, and touching them they vanish. By the many, even this range, the natural limit and bulwark of the vale is but imperfectly known. Its higher ascents are too often hidden by mists and clouds from uncultivated swamps, which few have courage or curiosity to penetrate. To the multitude below these vapors appear, now as the dark haunts of terrific agents, on which none may intrude with impunity; and now all a-glow, with colours not their own, they are gazed at as the splendid palaces of happiness and power. But in all ages there have been a few, who measuring and sounding the rivers of the vale at the feet of their furthest inaccessible falls have learned, that the sources must be far higher and far inward; a few, who even in the level streams have detected elements, which neither the vale itself or the surrounding mountains contained or could supply. How and whence to these thoughts, these strong probabilities, the ascertaining vision, the intuitive knowledge may finally supervene, can be learnt only by the fact. I might oppose to the question the words with which Plotinus supposes NATURE to answer a similar difficulty. “Should any one interrogate her, how she works, if graciously she vouchsafe to listen and speak, she will reply, it behoves thee not to disquiet me with interrogatories, but to understand in silence even as I am silent, and work without words.” Likewise in the fifth book of the fifth Ennead, speaking of the highest and intuitive knowledge as distinguished from the discursive, or in the language of Wordsworth, “The vision and the faculty divine;” he says: “it is not lawful to enquire from whence it sprang, as if it were a thing subject to place and motion, for it neither approached hither, nor again departs from hence to some other place; but it either appears to us or it does not appear. So that we ought not to pursue it with a view of detecting its secret source, but to watch in quiet till it suddenly shines upon us; preparing ourselves for the blessed spectacle as the eye waits patiently for the rising sun.” They and they only can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennæ yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them! In short, all the organs of sense are framed for a corresponding world of sense; and we have it. All the organs of spirit are framed for a correspondent world of spirit:  though the latter organs are not developed in all alike.  But they exist in all, and their first appearance discloses itself in the moral being (Biographia Literaria, ch. 12).

What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought

I’m in the midst of another fantastic course this semester with Prof. Jake Sherman, this time on the creative imagination. We’re now reading Owen Barfield‘s masterful What Coleridge Thought (1971). It’s my second reading, though this time with a new copy (lacking my original marginalia in a more recent printing that I’ve since given away). The new copy was a gift from a friend and is signed on the inner side of the cover:

“Josephine Spence

with love from

Owen Barfield

February 1984″

I just googled her on a whim, and, as it turns out, Josephine Spence may have been the love of Barfield’s life, according to his biographer. Though they were never married, after Barfield’s wife Maud died and he took up his final residence in East Sussex in 1986, Spence lived less than a mile away and was his frequent companion until his death in 1997. I have a feeling the friend who gifted me this copy was unaware of what they were holding, but I will have to ask where they originally found it.

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The work of Coleridge the poet and the critic is well known and usually, well liked and well understood. The work of Coleridge the philosopher, on the other hand, was, according to his own testimony, “directly the reverse of all [most people] had ever been accustomed to consider as truth” (Biographia Literaria, Ch. 13). No doubt, part of the difficulty was circumstantial, deriving from his attempt to communicate transcendental philosophy “to his already empirically minded English contemporaries”:

“If the German thinkers [Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel] could count on at least a second class road of understanding into the minds of their readers, Coleridge tried to penetrate where there was no longer a road at all; to awaken to active thought minds for which ‘the conceivable’ had already been ‘reduced within the bounds of the picturable’ [Biographia Literaria]” (p. 43, WCT).

Barfield is well aware of the influence of these German philosophers on Coleridge, but his chief interest in What Coleridge Thought is, indeed, what Coleridge thought. Coleridge himself believed there were primarily two kinds of intellectuals: tanks, who simply borrow the ideas of others; and springs, who adopt ideas as their own after careful digestion and deliberate assimilation. Most of Coleridge’s English contemporaries had grown quite used to thinking of their thinking’s relationship to nature in degenerated Lockean terms, as a finite, passive mind shaped by its sensations of a mechanical nature designed by an omnipotent deity. Degenerated, I say, because Locke himself was a subtler thinker than Barfield often let’s on in his relentless attacks upon dualism of every stripe (Whitehead has more respect for Locke, especially for his concept of power).

Locke conceives of matter as essentially identical with space, and that God could have generated it only through a qualitative (i.e., accidental) change in the “thickness” of space, rather than an ex nihilo creation of it as though generating something from nothing. Though much of the time he conceives of the final real things as tiny material bodies, in the end Locke recognizes this could never be true of nature itself, since such separated particles “could never produce that order, harmony and beauty which are to be found in nature” (p. 17, “God and Matter in Locke,” by Bennett, 2005).

Barfield’s most important contribution to contemporary philosophy (later articulated in Saving the Appearances) is perhaps his critique of “idolatry.” One worships an idol, in Barfield’s sense, “whenever the unobservable in nature is converted, for handling, into supposed observables” (p. 87, WCT). To do so is to assume that one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon, when clearly, an appearance cannot be a real cause of anything. If phenomena are thought to have real causes at all, they must be noumenal (i.e., supersensible). And in that case, the final real things aren’t extended things or sensible bodies at all, but invisible generative forces. For Coleridge, following the polar logic of Boehme and Bruno, there are two such forces united in a single Power:

“The polar forces are the two forms, in which a one power works in the same act and instant” p. 203, n. 24, WCT);

and again, this time summarized by Coleridge’s student J. H. Green:

“A one power, which manifests itself in opposite and correlative forces, or in distinctive relations at once opposite and reciprocally complemented, and which therefore perpetuates itself in living reality and totality by distinction in unity” (ibid., n. 25).

The human mind is not set apart from nature in this scheme, but discovered in the very heart of it. That in nature which is generative is identical to that in the mind which is generative: the nous poetikos. That which makes visible nature is that which erupts as Muse in the poet’s imagination. The poetic genius does not copy an already completed nature; rather, the poet taps into and expresses the very spirit which is still creating nature, there creating it anew.

In the Bibliographia, Coleridge offers the following:

“Descartes, speaking as a naturalist, and in imitation of Archimedes, said, give me matter and motion and I will construct you the universe. We must of course understand him to have meant: I will render the construction of the universe intelligible. In the same sense the transcendental philosopher says: grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity” (ch. 13).

I hear Schelling and Hegel echoing in these lines. Hegel wrote in his essay “The difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy” that the chief challenge of post-Kantian philosophy is to

“…recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered…and set Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength…”

Kant was perhaps able to awaken the spirit of freedom in the human soul, but he did so only by severing any relation between it and the apparent mechanism of Nature. In Coleridgean terms, the desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of an expanding universe. I intend as it extends. The cosmos is incomplete in itself, but in thinking, I will its wholeness. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what is beyond the edge of time—the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. But an inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. I am able not only to intuit, but to participate in the creative movement of the universe toward wholeness because in my soul, matter finds its center, becoming the image of Spirit, the point of eternal stillness around which all else revolves.

“[In the Human] the whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself…a compendium of Nature–the Microcosm!” (Theory of Life).


Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Activity: Socrates, Jesus, and the Wisdom of Love

I’ve been asked to think about thinking, and to write about it. I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the middle of this kind of mess before, and so I’ll admit right off the bat that I cannot be sure which comes first, the thinking or the writing. Maybe my writing is just the trace of an ever-advancing spirit; or maybe my spirit–that in me which thinks–is just a character in a story, a name, given me by the people and the language into whose care I was thrown at birth. Heidegger spoke of being thrown, of waking up in the midst of the world in wonder of its historical depth, and of one’s own impending death. When and if my spirit advances, it does so thinking of such things.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, is learning to die. Not the loving metempsychosis of the Phaedrus, nor even the eros of the Symposium or the grand design of the Timaeus contains the secret of the Platonic teaching. The secret is in the Apology, where Socrates is sentenced to be executed and Plato first falls in love with Wisdom (and so begins to philosophize). The polis, it seems, will never understand the philosopher; to the extent that the people of the city do understand, they tend to take offense. Thinking is not taken kindly by ignorant people awash in gossip and stories. They cannot bear to look at what thinking reflects. It is a mirror too bright with the light of the Good. It blinds their sense-bound egos. They prefer the flat shadows of the cave wall to the eternal depths of the spirit. Socrates willingly accepted the verdict of the polis that he should die, and in so doing raised thinking forever above popular opinion regarding the meaning of ego death.

Death is always my own. I die alone, just as I think alone; though of course I leave loved ones behind after I die, and my thoughts, especially if spoken or written, become events in the world contributing to the new stories that spread in my wake. We can only tell stories, after all, even if we are thinkers, philosophers. Stories are the blood shared between souls, the sea that gives our spirit buoyancy during its passage through this life between birth and death. Though Socrates died to the stories of the city to be born a philosopher, he still believed Wisdom had a chance to enlighten the citizens of some future Athens. He did not give up on humankind. He became a teacher, a caretaker of souls awaiting the death of their bodies on earth and the birth of their spirits in heaven.

Socrates taught thinking, which is no easy task, since thinking is always one’s own. It cannot be taught like multiplication tables or proper spelling. To learn to think, I must remember how to do it for myself, to draw its power up out of my own soul-life. All that a teacher can offer are likely stories which might inspire a student to draw up wisdom from the as yet still waters at the bottom of their own soul. “Know thyself,” says Socrates. Look for the mirror within yourself, see the face beneath your persona reflected back at you: at first, it appears as the face of death, but in truth it is the Image of God.

There was another lover and teacher of Wisdom who walked the earth a few centuries after Socrates. His name was Jesus. He was born into the stories of Jerusalem instead of Athens, a Jew and not a Greek, but his teachings reach beyond any city. Jesus stood before a woman and asked for water out of the well (John 4):

Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” [...] The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

Jesus the Christ offered the drink of eternal water, the truth of the spirit, a Wisdom not bound by the laws of any city on earth. He offered the woman the gift and grace of God’s Love. I cannot think how such a gift should be possible with the sense-bound intellect. The reality of the Christ Event (as Rudolf Steiner called it) remains indecipherable to the abstract reflection of my ego. It requires faith, some say. But perhaps there is yet a way to know?

Steiner’s Anthroposophy is an attempt to bring the spiritual in the human to meet the spiritual in the universe. It is Christian in religious orientation, but also teaches a science of the spirit. It is not a gnostic path, per say, but it nonetheless seeks to overcome the limits imposed upon human cognition by the philosophy of Kant. Anthroposophy seeks knowledge of the spiritual world through direct experience in that world. The philosopher-poet S. T. Coleridge made much of the difference between “the Understanding” and “the Reason,” a distinction he said he learned from Kant. Steiner expands upon this difference, noting that the Understanding, and the abstract concepts through which it relates to the world, is supported also by another relation, the Reason, that:

“…does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary consciousness. But [this relation to Reason] does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a ‘concept.’ An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense-perception, but which does not became a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.” (from p. 55 of The Case for Anthroposophy (2010), ed. and transl. by Owen Barfield)

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of Socrates’ or of Jesus’ teachings. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me (and out the other side). Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.

The stories of modern cities are materialistic. Stale and deadening. We are taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. He calls it the etheric, or body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a door to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become the Word.

Aesethics: Loving the Beauty of Goodness

I’m still in the planning phase of my dissertation on the ontology of Imagination, and as such am working to ferret out the most interesting aspects of my chosen site of inquiry. My research is focused on the ontology of Imagination, since my guiding thesis is that any perception of or reflection upon reality depends upon the mediating function it [Imagination] provides and performs. Imagination mediates between the transcendence of the intelligible world and the immanence of the sensible world. It is an agency of soul, an angel relaying messages between the translucent light of spirit and the corporeal darkness of material surfaces. In describing the role of Imagination in such a way, I am following 20th century thinkers like Henry Corbin, Owen Barfield, and Carl Jung. Corbin built on the metaphysical works of Persian mystics, especially Ibn ‘Arabi. Barfield’s ideas emerge out of a careful study of Rudolf Steiner and the English Romantics, especially Coleridge, for whom the human imagination was an imitation of the Divine Imagination. Jung’s understanding of Imagination is perhaps the most experientially grounded of the three (even acknowledging Coleridge’s experiments with opium), both as a result of his own sanity-shaking descent into the imaginal matrix of what he called the “collective unconscious” during the composition of The Red Book (~1914), and owing to his diagnostic work with the dreams and visions of thousands of psychoanalytic patients during the course of his long career.

In this post, I want to zoom in on one aspect of Imagination in particular, namely its relation to ethics. I began to explore the ethical implications of Imagination in an earlier essay by contrasting an ethics of love based in moral imagination with Kant’s more austere, ascetic approach to morality based in laws of Reason and the denial of desire. Kant provides an apt example of what becomes of post-Cartesian moral philosophy (i.e., philosophy that ignores the reality of Imagination): it inevitably splits itself into the two equally matched and equally shortsighted  positions of rationalism and psychologism (Kant took the former route, while thinkers like Hume and Bentham took the latter). Without a means of mediating between the freedom of the thinking mind and its instantiation by a feeling body, ethicists can only remain logically self-consistent by adopting either one or the other of the extremes of the dichotomy “idealism vs. emotivism” (i.e., either rationalism or psychologism). Only a philosophy that appreciates the integrative role of Imagination in all its construction and critique can heal the spiritual wound responsible for so drastically dividing the ethical philosophies of modern humanity.

Though Kant certainly recognized the power of Imagination (calling it the most mysterious of the soul’s faculties), he finally assigned it a merely epistemological–rather than ontological, cosmological, or ethical–role as that which synthesizes the sensory manifold and connects percepts with their appropriate concepts. His morality was without Imagination, built upon a belief in an individual’s freedom to will that which Reason dictates. Only if the source of my actions transcends the images of my soul and the feelings of my body, be they pleasurable or painful, are they to be considered moral. An action is moral only if I am able, in good conscience, to consider it a universal law applicable to everyone, everywhere, every time. The subjective stake my embodied soul has in the world must be bracketed entirely, since disinterested duty based in abstract universalizability is the sole basis of Kant’s moral philosophy. This follows directly from the chasm his transcendentalism constructs between phenomena and things themselves. The Good is considered by Kant to be an Idea of Reason existing beyond all sensory perception and imaginal production, and so no feeling rooted in the passions of the body or image generated by the creativity of the soul, even if they be genuinely compassionate and love-imbued, can provide the conscience with moral guidance. Emotion-laded imagery, he believed, could only lead the soul astray from its divinely decreed duties.

In contrast to this, an ethical theory based in moral imagination defines moral action not as that which disinterestedly obeys universal law (nor, for that matter, as that which is ruled by a utilitarian calculus of psychological pleasure), but as that which is motivated by unselfish love of the beauty in others. If Imagination is given its proper place in moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics can become wedded as aesthethics. To be fair to Kant, in the Critique of Judgmenthe does at least approach a more integral account of the relationship between our judgment of the Beautiful and our conception of the Good. (It was this book that inspired Schelling’s attempt to overcome the duality between rational duty and sensual desire by transforming philosophical reflection into the poetry of Spirit.) Kant cautiously begins to suggest in this text that the apprehension of Beauty provides at least a symbol of Goodness, in that it reminds the self of that common sense (a.k.a., Imagination) actively harmonizing its own aesthetic judgments with those of others. Beauty points the soul to the profound sympathy hidden in the life of all things. Imagination, the sensus communis of the animate universehelps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Love holding all things together in Goodness (the ancients knew this Love as the World-Soul; following Corbin, I would call it the mundus imaginalis). Moral imagination allows the self to place itself in the position–body and soul–of others, and indeed of all others. In other words, a redeemed Imagination can identify with any part of the universe and also with the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.

Nonetheless, the nature of this mysterious power, and of its proper organ of perception-production, was in the end deemed unknowable by Kant. He was finally forced to construe the genius of his last critique as productive of merely regulative principles of judgment, rather than constitutive aspects of reality. (Unlike Schelling, he could not accept that “art is the only true and eternal organon and document of philosophy.”) Kantian philosophy remained enclosed within the circularity of self-consciousness and the dizzying dialectic of the transcendental deconstruction of all experience.

So long as Kant’s thoughts remain the limit of thought, I cannot fully Love another person because I cannot truly Know them (or better, because I cannot truly Know with them) by way of Imagination, our common sense. Aesthethics is a moral philosophy openly informed by the Truth of Imagination. It posits the Love of Beauty as the origin and shepherd of the Good. True knowledge is understood to be entirely dependent on the feeling of the Beautiful and the willing of the Good. Truth is enacted, not merely reflected. As Coleridge put it in Biographia Literaria (p. 76, speaking specifically of Jakob Böhme’s thought), only an imaginative philosophy succeeds in “[keeping] alive the heart in the head” (and, I might add, the art).

“All the products of the merely reflective faculty,” Coleridge goes on to say, “[partake] of death, and [are] as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which the sap [is] yet to be propelled from some root to which I [have] not penetrated.”

Ethical theory and practice must draw their sap from this root, or continue to suffer the downward spiral into nihilism of so much modern moral philosophy. The most philosophy can provide in regard to the Good Life without the rigorous cultivation of Imagination is but a system of consistent maxims or a series of laudable sentiments. Without full participation, body and soul, in the communis sensus, moral thought and moral action dissolve into the thin air of solipsism and aesethics remain impossible.

Research notes on the pragmatisms of James and Dewey

continuing research for my dissertation

I’ve been enjoying Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). With an insightful synopsis of American history from the Civil War until about WWI as the backdrop, Menand traces the intellectual development of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Recent conversations with Jason Hills about the intersections of philosophy and religion have left me hungering for a better understanding of the pragmatisms of Peirce, James, and Dewey. My interest in pragmatism is primarily a result of dissertation research into the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, whose process-relational ontology owes much to these three men, especially James.

In a handwritten letter to Charles Hartshorne, dated Jan. 2, 1936, Whitehead wrote:

“European philosophy has gone dry, and cannot make any worthwhile use of the results of nineteenth century scholarship. It is in chains to the sanctified presuppositions derived from later Greek thought…My belief is that the effective founders of the renaissance in American philosophy are Charles Peirce and William James. Of these men, James is the analogue to Plato, and Peirce to Aristotle, though the time-order does not correspond, and the analogy must not be pressed too far…James’ pragmatic descendants have been doing their best to trivialize his meanings in the notions of Radical Empiricism, Pragmatism, Rationalization. But I admit James was weak on Rationalization. Also he expressed himself by the dangerous method of overstatement.”

Whitehead wrote in Process and Reality that all of Western philosophy could be described as a series of footnotes to Plato, and so for him to refer to James as the American Plato is no small praise. Whitehead’s metaphysical project could be described as an attempt to generalize James’ somewhat unsystematic psychological insights. In Thinking With Whitehead, Isabelle Stengers suggests that James’ relation to religious belief was primarily emotional, while for Whitehead it was primarily conceptual. The former had a psychological need to believe, while the latter arrived at the necessary doctrine of a divine function in the world as a result of systematic reflection.

In my conversations with Hills, I’ve positioned myself as a philosopher seeking justification for religious faith. This places me somewhere in between James and Whitehead. I think faith has an underappreciated cognitive importance: it represents the exercise of an organ of perception that usually lies dormant in the philosophical soul. I follow poet-philosophers like William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in suggesting that this organ is the Imagination. Cultivating it opens the soul to an experience of supersensible realities the philosopher would otherwise remain blind to.

In The Metaphysical Club, Menand discusses the influence of Coleridge’s Christian philosophy on the young Dewey. In the late 1870s, Dewey took a course with the Transcendentalist Henry Torrey at the University of Vermont. Torrey, according to Menand, was, “academically speaking, the direct descendent of James Marsh,” who was the former chair of philosophy at Dartmouth College and a great admirer of Coleridge’s philosophy. In 1832, Marsh published an edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, adding a substantial introductory essay. The book essentially argues that Christianity (at least a poetico-mystical interpretation of it) is consistant with philosophical reflection. Dewey read Marsh’s edition in Torrey’s class, and reportedly was quite enthusiastic about the synthesis it pulled off. Many years later, Dewey remarked that it was “my first Bible” (Menand, p. 252). 

In 1882, Dewey began studying at Johns Hopkins University with George Sylvester Morris, another Transcendentalist. As a student, Morris had studied theology, but after reading Hume’s dialogues on religion, he had a crisis of faith and was unable to finish seminary. He studied philosophy in Germany for two years before returning to teach in the States. By the time Dewey began studying under him, he had overcome Humean empiricism and was “a full-fledged Hegelian” (Menand, p. 265).

Hegel is described by Menand as having “completed the revision of Kant that Fichte and Schelling had begun” (p. 263). This is the standard reading of most scholars, but I think Iain Hamilton Grant successfully brings Schelling out of Hegel’s shadow in Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008) by showing that, in fact, his was a distinct philosophical project. Menand elsewhere credits Schelling with having influenced the erroneous views of the creationist biologist Louis Agassiz, which doesn’t do much for Schelling’s reputation among contemporary scientists.

At any rate, Dewey took to Hegel for the same reasons he took to Coleridge (whose philosophy, it should be added, was largely lifted from Schelling). In 1930, Dewey wrote that Hegel answered

“a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy…[T]he sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression–or, rather, they were an inward laceration… Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was…no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me” (The Later Works, 1925-1953, vol. 5, p. 153).

I’m realizing that my desire to do background research on Whitehead may be more involved than I originally expected. Dewey is just as interesting as James, and Whitehead credits both as influences in the opening pages of Process and Reality. I’m encouraged by the links between Dewey and Coleridge, Schelling and Hegel, since I’d already planned to include them in my dissertation. I’ve ordered James Marsh’s edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and will be posting on it soon…

Imagining the Cosmos: notes on my dissertation…

In the past year or so, the blueprint of my dissertation topic has gone through multiple iterations. Last year, while applying for my PhD studies at CIIS, I wrote a goal statement that still reflects the general theme I am envisioning. Now that I’m entering the last term of course work, I wanted to take the opportunity to further articulate the aim of my research.

When I composed my goal statement, I was as yet unaware of the Speculative Realist movement. It turns out that two of the philosophers I’d planned to bring into conversation with one another, namely Whitehead and Schelling, are right at the center of this still emerging school of thought. Despite the resurgence of interest in process thought and metaphysics more generally that this movement represents, there seems to be a gap in scholarship bringing process ontology and naturphilosophy into constructive cross-fertilization with what I’ll for now refer to as Western Esotericism. This may be a good place to focus my dissertation.

I’ve written somewhat extensively on the esoteric cosmology of Rudolf Steiner, specifically his understanding of the Imagination. For Steiner, the Imagination is an organ of perception, a window into the world of otherwise supersensible realities. As a graduate student, Steiner edited Goethe’s scientific writings. He argued that Goethe’s was a more adequate form of empiricism than that of his mechanistic contemporaries, since it granted the Imagination is proper role in the perception of the deeper archetypal patterns, or ur-forms, at work beneath natural phenomena. Perhaps Steiner’s ablest English-speaking interpreter, Owen Barfield, conducted a similar case-study of imaginative cognition on the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose thought is closely linked with Schelling’s, to the point of verging on plagiarism!–a charge examined by Barfield in What Colerdige Thought).

More recently, I’ve begun reading some of Henry Corbin’s work on Active Imagination and the mundus imaginalis. Like Barfield and Steiner, Corbin argues that modern philosophy has all but forgotten the important role of the intermediate imaginal plane between matter/sensation and mind/intellection. The result is a superficial fissure within philosophy itself, wherein idealists battle with realists, and rationalists with empiricists, over whose ultimately one-sided conception of the universe is valid.

Articulating an ontology of the Imagination seems to me to be a prerequisite for any truly coherent speculation on the nature of the Universe. Whitehead characterized his adventure in cosmology as an “imaginative leap,” and Schelling often drew connections between the work of the artist and that of the philosopher, suggesting that philosophy is a generative, rather than demonstrative activity. I think this makes a study of their respective approaches to cosmology fertile ground for an explication of the role of Imagination in speculative philosophy.

Redeeming Imagination as an organ of cognitive import, thereby correcting the bias of much modern positivistic thought that it produces only fantasy and illusion, will allow for the development of a more textured ontology that does not simply reduce reality to the domain/s of the material-sensible and/or the mental-intelligible. Jonael Schickler, whose life was cut short in 2005, argued in his dissertation that Steiner’s four-fold ontology of material, ethereal, astral, and spiritual planes clarifies many outstanding aporias in contemporary philosophy, including the relationship of life and consciousness to matter.

The major hurtle, as Schickler saw it, standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of this more complex picture of reality are the epistemological limits placed on human thought by the critical philosophy of Kant. Kant did not believe that human consciousness could develop beyond its normal capacities of sensory intuition and categoreal understanding. For him, the human soul was forever denied access to its own conditions of possibility, whether they be ultimately spiritual or material. Schickler, following Steiner, believed that the contemporary human being is still in the process of awakening to its higher spiritual capacities. The human is more an idea struggling to be realized than a being fixed in its current form. How far into Steiner’s account of this evolution of consciousness I will delve into in my dissertation remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that I will have to find a way beyond Kant’s epistemic skepticism. Schelling and Whithead will be of great service in this respect. And luckily, there is in Kant already the germ of an understanding of the mysterious role of Imagination in cognition.

If anyone has any suggestions or sources that might be of assistance, I’d greatly appreciate it!