Online course this Fall: “Mind and Nature in German Idealism”

Below is the introductory lecture of a 10-week undergraduate course called “Mind and Nature in German Idealism” that I’m hoping will run this coming Fall (2014) for the University of Philosophical Research. If you’re an undergrad looking for an independent study, let me know.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophiy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

I welcome suggestions, critiques, sources, and/or extensions.

Basically, I’m doing a comparative study of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the esotericist Rudolf Steiner, and the mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead. In particular, I want to interpret their respective “etheric” ontologies (Schelling’s “world-soul/universal organizing principle,” Steiner’s “etheric formative forces,” and Whitehead’s “evental ether/Creativity”) as typical of the process-relational imagination.
solis6The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.

Michael Marder’s Vegetal Philosophy as an Example of Etheric Imagination

The following is excerpted from my dissertation proposal, which is tentatively titled “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling to Whitehead.” I’ll be posting more selections in the coming days. 


To become rooted in the etheric forces of imagination, the process philosopher must learn to think like a plant. Michael Marder’s “vegetal metaphysics”80 provides a contemporary example of the power of plant-thinking to (re)turn modern philosophy to its etheric senses. Marder’s critical account of the history of Western metaphysics exhaustively details philosophy’s theoretical incoherences and practical inadequacies as regards the vegetal dimension of reality. He shames Aristotle for the “violence” his formal logic of identity and non-contradiction “unleashed against plants,”81 diagnoses Hegel’s negative dialectic as a mere symptom of his “[allergy] to vegetal existence,”82 and regrets Husserl’s essentializing “failure to think the tree” itself.83

To be fair to these philosophers, Steiner’s four-fold ontology is an evolutionarily re-formulated version of Aristotle’s psychological anthropology as described in De Anima, wherein “physical…,vegetative, sensitive and intellectual souls” are each set to work within the whole human being.84 Husserl, like Steiner, was initiated into the intentional structure of consciousness by Franz Brentano, but ultimately both Steiner’s and Husserl’s etheric imaginations hearken to a form of post-Copernican geocentrism (“the original ark, earth, does not move”85). As for Hegel, Schickler points to Steiner’s mediating conception of a living ether circulating between mind and nature as a cure for his allergic reaction to the supposed linearity of plants (by which he understood them to be closer to crystals than to animals).86 Hegel’s dialectical logic forces him to leave the blind growth of plant-life outside the autopoietic circle of the Concept, thereby alienating a self-conscious mind from a dead, petrified nature.87 Unlike Hegel and the idealist tradition, who “[retreated] from the world of the senses” and so failed “to consider an ontology intrinsic to life,” Steiner “[cultivated] organs of cognition which [enabled] him to enter ever more deeply into” the etheric sub-dimension of the sensory world.88 In Marder’s terms, Steiner learned to think like a plant. “The plant sets free the entire realm of petrified nature, including mineral elements, if not the earth itself,” writes Marder.89

David Hume, though not mentioned in Marder’s historical account, had his own bout of vegetal thinking in the midst of composing his Dialogues on Natural Religion, dialogues in which Cleanthes at one point is made to deploy an ontophytological critique of Philo’s over-determined analogization of the universe to an animal. Unlike an animal, argues Cleanthes, the universe we experience has “no organs of sense; no seat of thought or reason; no one precise origin of motion and action.” “In short,” Cleanthes jests, “[the universe] seems to bear a stronger resemblance to a vegetable than to an animal.”90 Cleanthes’ does not really believe the universe is a self-generating plant, he only suggests as much in order to undermine the credibility of Philo’s animal analogy.91 Philo responds by accepting the critique of the animal analogy, but then opportunistically turns the relative credibility of the vegetable analogy against Cleanthes’ own argument for design: “The world plainly resembles more…a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom,” says Philo. “Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles…generation or vegetation…In like manner as a tree sheds its seed into the neighboring fields, and produces other trees; so the great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which, being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds.”92 Philo, of course, is no more sincere in his vegetal speculations than Cleanthes was in his. He doubts whether philosophy will ever have enough data to determine the true nature and cause of the universe. In the intervening two centuries since Hume published his Dialogues, mathematical and technological advances have allowed scientific cosmology to drastically expanded and complexify the range of data available to assist the natural philosopher’s speculative imagination. Modern scientific cosmology, especially when interpreted in light of the organic process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead, with their emphasis on self-organization and evolutionary emergence, only seems to have made the reality of Hume’s giant vegetable more probable.

Marder’s “plant-nature synecdoche,” which posits that plants are “the miniature mirror of phusis,” has only become more scientifically plausible in the intervening centuries since Hume’s vegetal conjecture.93 Why, despite the breadth of his “ontophytological” deconstruction of Western metaphysics, Marder makes no mention of Hume’s imaginatively generative double gesturing toward plants, I do not know.

Hume, of course, was not the first to philosophize about the vegetal life of the universe. That honor belongs to Plato, who wrote in Timaeus that the philosopher is a “heavenly plant” or “heavenly flower.” “We declare,” Plato has Timaeus say, “that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us–seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant–up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the divine power keeps upright our whole body.”94

The next to carry forward Plato’s plant-thinking was Plotinus, into whose philosophy Marder writes that “there is no better point of entry…than the allegory of the world–permeated by what he calls ‘the Soul of All’–as a single plant, one gigantic tree, on which we alongside all other living beings (and even inorganic entities, such as stones) are offshoots, branches, twigs, and leaves.”95 Plotinus’ World-Tree grows from a single inverted root. The inverted root of the World-Tree is an image of the ever-living One that, though it “gives to the plant its whole life in its multiplicity,”96 itself remains forever “unaffected by the dispersion of the living.”97 Neither Marder, Whitehead, or Schelling accepts Plotinus’ emanational monism. Marder calls for an “anarchic radical pluralism,”98 a title which could just as well describe Whitehead and Schelling’s process ontology. Nonetheless, though they reject monism in favor of pluralism, all three carry forward Plotinus’ root image of an organic, vegetal universe.

Marder, like Schelling and Whitehead, conceives of nature “as suffused with subjectivity.”99 He likens the life of the plant (phutō) to the whole of nature (phusis), arguing that plant-life “replicates the activity of phusis itself.”100 “Phusis,” continues Marder, “with its pendular movement of dis-closure, revelation and concealment, is yet another…name for being.”101 Hume had Philo argue against the plausibility of divining the nature of the whole based on an acquaintance with its parts,102 but in daring to ontologize the vegetal life of the whole of nature (making its “life” more than a “mere” metaphor), Marder displays his allegiance to the ancient hermetic principle of correspondence: “as it is above, so it is below; as it is below, so it is above.”103

The hermetic principle of circular correspondence between the one above and the many below is not simply an abstract mental concept. It is a magical symbol whose power is enacted not only in the ideal meanings of the mind, but in the living movements of nature. These movements are made most obviously apparent by the mystery of the seasonal life-cycle of the plant realm. Though Hume clearly recognized that plant-life presented a definite limit to traditional metaphysical speculation, he remained uninitiated into the death/rebirth mystery esoterically encrypted in this vegetal threshold. Whitehead also invoked the hermetic principle by balancing Plato and Plotinus’ preferential treatment of the One with his own more Heraclitian “Category of the Ultimate.” Creativity is an ultimate category that dissolves the classical metaphysical dichotomy separating the single supreme Creator from its many subsidiary creatures. “Creativity,” writes Whitehead, “is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”104 Through this process of creative advance from disjunction to conjunction, a novel entity is created not present in the prior dispersion. “The novel entity,” continues Whitehead, “is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one.”105 The many down below thereby enter into and pass through the one up above, just as the one up above enters into and passes through the many down below. Schelling also creatively inherits the hermetic principle of correspondence by analogizing the metaphysical polarity of the many below and the one above to the physical pulsation–the “systole” and “diastole” rhythm–of living nature. “The antithesis eternally produces itself,” writes Schelling, “in order always again to be consumed by the unity, and the antithesis is eternally consumed by the unity in order always to revive itself anew. This is the sanctuary, the hearth of the life that continually incinerates itself and again rejuvenates itself from the ash. This is the tireless fire through whose quenching, as Heraclitus claimed, the cosmos was created.”106 Schelling offers the telling example of a tree to show how this cosmogenetic rhythm resonates through the whole to the parts and back again: “Visible nature, in particular and as a whole, is an allegory of this perpetually advancing and retreating movement. The tree, for example, constantly drives from the root to the fruit, and when it has arrived at the pinnacle, it again sheds everything and retreats to the state of fruitlessness, and makes itself back into a root, only in order again to ascend. The entire activity of plants concerns the production of seed, only in order again to start over from the beginning and through a new developmental process to produce again only seed and to begin again. Yet all of visible nature appears unable to attain settledness and seems to transmute tirelessly in a similar circle.”107

Schelling is not only one of a handful of philosophers to escape deconstruction by Marder’s vegetal anti-metaphysics, he even earns Marder’s praise for defending the continuity between life and thought.108 Schelling suggests that “every plant is a symbol of the intelligence,”109 and that this symbolic intelligence finds expression precisely in the plant’s power of “sensibility,” which–even when the pendulum of organic nature has swung toward its opposite but complimentary pole of “irritability”–remains the “universal cause of life.”110 The whole of nature being organic, its supposedly inorganic material dimension is therefore described by Schelling as only one half of the universal polarity between gravity and light, where light as the formal/ideal force exists in dynamic tension with gravity as the material/real force. What appears at first to be inorganic matter, when considered in its full concreteness as always already conditioned by the universal communicability of light, is really just the germ of organic life.111 As an illustration of the life-producing relationship between gravity and light, Schelling offers the example of the electromagnetic connection between earth and the sun responsible for calling forth plant-life out of the planet.112 Steiner similarly remarks that any attempt to understand the inorganic, mineral dimension of earth independently of the plant-life it supports will remain hopelessly abstract: “Just as our skeleton first separates itself out of the organism,” says Steiner, “so we have to look at the earth’s rock formations as the great skeleton of the earth organism.”113 Steiner further argues that the cultivation of etheric imagination will allow the philosopher to come to see “the plant covering of our earth [as] the sense organ through which earth spirit and sun spirit behold each other.”114 The mineral and plant realms are to earth what the skeletal and sensorial organs are to the human body. As Plotinus wrote, “earth is ensouled, as our flesh is, and any generative power possessed by the plant world is of its bestowing.”115

A process philosophy rooted in the power of etheric imagination requires an inversion or reversal of our commonsense experience of the universe. It is as if the world were turned inside out, or as if we were walking upside down upon the earth, with our head rooted in the ethereal soil of formative forces streaming in from the cosmos above, our limbs yearning for the living ground below, and our heart circulating between the two in rhythmic harmony. Rather than stretching for the abstract heights of the intelligible as if to steal a glimpse of heaven, the force of etheric imagination returns philosophy’s attention to earth, and to the roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds of plants, earth’s most generous life forms, and indeed the generative source of life itself. Thinking with etheric imagination is thinking with a plant-soul. Plant-souls, according to Marder, partake of a “kind of primordial generosity that gives itself to all other creatures, animates them with this gift,…allows them to surge into being, to be what they are.”116

Heraclitus’ oft cited fragment 123–“nature loves to hide” (phusis kryptesthai philei)–should not be understood as a negation of the generous growth of the plant realm described by Marder.117 As with the natural world, there is more to Heraclitus’ paradoxical statement than first meets the eye. The earliest recorded use of phusis in ancient Greek literature is in Homer’s Odyssey, where it refers specifically to the “magic” and “holy force” of the molü plant given by Hermes to Odysseus to keep his “mind and senses clear” of Circe’s sorcery. The molü plant grows duplicitously into “black root and milky flower” and can be safely uprooted only by the gods.118 As we’ve seen, then, phusis suggests not only a tendency toward concealment in the darkness of the soil, but also a tendency toward revelation in the light of the sun. As is typical both of the plant-life of nature and of the semantic structure of his sentences, there is an underlying duplicity to Heraclitus’ fragment. Understanding the poetic meaning of his occult philosophy, or of a plant’s process of growth, is impossible without cultivating a logic of etheric imagination. The logics of techno-scientific manipulation and abstract conceptual analysis, in attempting to uproot and expose the etheric dimension of mind and nature to total illumination, succeed only in making it perish.119 Instead of objectifying nature, etheric imagination approaches it hermeneutically (i.e., with Hermes’s help), not by “[shying] away from darkness and obscurity,” but by letting plants “appear in their own light…emanating from their own kind of being.”120 Marder’s plant-thinking approaches a logic of imagination, in that he aims to begin his vegetal philosophizing, not from the purified perspective of disembodied rationality, but in media res, always in the middle of things: “To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and of darkness…is to…refashion oneself–one’s thought and one’s existence–into a bridge between divergent elements: to become a place where the sky communes with the earth and light encounters but does not dispel darkness.”121

Only by finding its vegetal roots can philosophy become planetary, true to the earth and to the plant-like, etheric forces of imagination. But because the etheric imagination is in fact ungrounded, its plant-like growth becomes inverted: it has “underground stems” and “aerial roots,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it.122 Or, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, the properly rooted philosopher imagines “a tree growing upside down, whose roots, like a delicate foliage, tremble in the subterranean winds while its branches take root firmly in the blue sky.”123 For Bachelard, the plant is the root image of all life: “The imagination [must take] possession of all the powers of plant life,” he writes. “It lives between earth and sky…[it] becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes a universe, which makes a universe.”124

Marder argues that “plants are resistant to idealization,”125 which is just another way of saying that the plant-realm is the etheric receptacle of Ideas, the resistance providing matrix that, in the course of evolutionary history, gradually raises unconscious nature to consciousness of itself as spirit. Etheric imagination is the esemplastic power through which eternal Ideas become incarnate in the concrescing occasions of the world, like seeds taking root in the ground, growing skyward through branch, leaf, flower, and fruit, only to fall again into the soil to be born again, and again… Marder’s “post-metaphysical task of de-idealization” makes him especially attentive to the association between the aesthetic power of plant-life (particularly flowers) and the pathos of death: flowers–“the free beauties of nature,”126 as Kant called them–have since the beginning of history been customarily “discarded along the path of Spirit’s glorious march through the world,” “abandoned” and thereby “freed from dialectical totality.”127 “In contrast to the death borne by Geist,” continues Marder, plant-life can become “neither mediated nor internalized.”128 Idealist philosophy is therefore always in a rush to “[unchain] the flower from its organic connection to the soil and [put] it on the edge of culture as a symbol of love, religious devotion, mourning, friendship, or whatever else might motivate the culling.”129 The end result of modern idealist rationality’s “thorough cultivation” and “biotechnological transformation” of plant-life is “a field of ruins.”130

The “economic-teleological” principle guiding modern rationality–whereby, for example, “trees in and of themselves have no worth save when turned into furniture”131–is largely the result of Kant’s failure to grasp the life of nature as more than a merely regulative judgment of the understanding: while he found it acceptable for human subjects to think the internal possibility of nature as organic, he refused to grant that life could be understood as constitutive of nature itself. “It is absurd,” Kant writes, “to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who would explain to us how even a mere blade of grass is produced.”132 It followed that the only avenue open to reason in its untamable desire to know nature was by way of the “economic-teleological” principle, whereby the philosopher of nature, in order to know his object, “must first manufacture it.”133 In order to avoid the deleterious ecological effects of modern rationality, which in its techno-capitalist phase has succeeded in turning the entire planet into mere raw material awaiting consumption, it is necessary to return to and to heal the simultaneously vegetal and sensorial repression from which this rationality stems.134

The repression of vegetal existence, according to Marder, began as early as Aristotle, who was willing to grant of plants, due to their lack of both locomotion and perception, only that they “seem to live.”135 This seeming life of plants, which from the perspective of the formal logic of Aristotle presented a taxonomic problem (i.e., are plants ensouled, or not?), from the perspective of a logic of imagination (no longer subject to the principle of non-contradiction) reveals precisely what has been repressed by so much of Western metaphysics: that it is towards the ambiguous ontology of plant-life that philosophy must turn if it hopes to discover the aesthetic ground of sensory experience. Aristotle does finally grant a kind of life to plants by pointing to their nutritive capacity (to threptikon), which in animal life is homologous to the haptic sense (i.e., touch).136 Touch is the basis of all aesthesis, only subsequently becoming differentiated into the other specialized senses.137 In light of the vegetal origins of sensation, Marder is lead to wonder “whether the sensory and cognitive capacities of the psyche, which in human beings have been superadded to the vegetal soul, are anything but an outgrowth, an excrescence, or a variation of the latter. The sensitivity of the roots seeking moisture in the dark of the soil [or leaves seeking light in the brightness of the sky]…and human ideas or representations we project, casting them in front of ourselves, are not as dissimilar from one another as we tend to think.”138

Whereas Kant argued that “real metaphysics” must be “devoid of all mixture with the sensual,”139 Marder suggests that the idealist reduction of plant-life to dead linear crystals140 “[survives] in human thought in the shape of Kantian immutable categories and forms of intuition to which all novel experiences must in one way or another conform.”141 Instead of forcing lived experience to obey the crystalline categories of thought, Marder’s plant-thinking, akin to the logic of etheric imagination guiding my dissertation, “destroys the Procrustean bed of formal logic and transcendental a priori structures–those ideal standards to which no living being can measure up fully.”142

The plant-thinking of etheric imagination breaks through the crystalline molds of “dead thought”–what Bergson called “the logic of solids”143–to bring forth instead a plastic logic, a way of thinking-with the creative life of nature, rather than against it.144 Whereas in a crystalline logic of solids, thought “has only to follow its natural [intrinsic] movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably,”145 in a fluid logic of plastics, thought becomes etheric, overflowing the sense-inhered intellect’s a priori categorical antinomies and pre-determined forms of intuition to participate in the imaginal life of cosmogenesis itself. “A theory of life that is not accompanied by a criticism of knowledge,” according to Bergson, “is obliged to accept, as they stand, the concepts which the understanding puts at its disposal: it can but enclose the facts, willing or not, in preexisting frames which it regards as ultimate.”146 The plasticity of etheric imagination, on the other hand, preserves the unprethinkability of the creative advance of nature by remaining “faithful to the obscurity of vegetal life,” protecting it from the searing clarity of crystallized rationality.147

Like Marder and Bergson, Schelling refuses to accept modern rationality’s inability to know the life of nature. For Schelling, after the Kantian revolution, philosophy began to deal “with the world of lived experience just as a surgeon who promises to cure your ailing leg by amputating it.”148 Instead of amputating the life of nature, Schelling attempted to reform philosophy’s bias toward abstraction by returning it to its senses. He strove to root philosophy in “that which precedes the logos of thinking,” namely, “an aesthetic act of poesis” paralleling the creative naturans that underlies the dead naturata of the natural world.149 Schellingian philosopher Bruce Matthews likens the imaginative act at the generative root of Schelling’s philosophy to “the explosive power of the sublime.” “This initial moment of aesthetic production,” continues Matthews, “provides us with the very real, but very volatile stuff of our intellectual world, since as aesthetic, this subsoil of discursivity remains beyond the oppositional predicates of all thought that otherwise calms and comforts the knowing mind.”150

Marder’s plant-thinking, like Schelling’s logic of etheric imagination, “rejects the principle of non-contradiction in its content and its form.”151 “The human who thinks like a plant,” continues Marder, “literally becomes a plant, since the destruction of classical logos annihilates the thing that distinguishes us from other living beings.”152 Unlike modern rationality, which is said to be self-grounding, plant-life is open to otherness, dependent on something other than itself (i.e., earth, water, air, and light). In the same way, etheric imagination receives its power from the elemental life of nature. It is no longer “I” who thinks nature; rather, “it thinks in me.” Or as Schelling put it, the philosopher who is properly attuned to nature becomes “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia).”153


80 Michael Marder’s blog posts entitled “The Philosopher’s Plant”:, as well as Deleuze and Guattari on “tree” (ATP, 12, 18)

81 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 21.

82 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

83 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 75-78.

84 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 162.

85 Edmund Husserl, “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” trans. Fred Kersten, in Husserl, Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 222-33.

86 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 124-126.

87 See Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy by Alison Stone (New York: SUNY, 2005).

88 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 143.

89 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 127.

90 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), VI.

91 Cleanthes really believes the universe to be a law-abiding machine designed, built, and maintained by a perfect God.

92 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779), VII.

93 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 120.

94 Plato, Timaeus, 90a-b.

95 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant’” (2013),–plotinus–anonymous–great-plant (accessed 4/24/2013).

96 Plotinus, Ennead III.8.10, 5-15.

97 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant.”

98 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 58.

99 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 35.

100 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28; Both “plant” and “nature” derive from the same Greek prefix (phuo-) and verb (phuein), meaning “to generate,” or “to bring forth.”

101 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28-29.

102 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion, VI.

103 The Emerald Tablet. 

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

105 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

106 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 20-21.

107 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 21.

108 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 157.

109 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 122.

110 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, 146.

111 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 186.

112 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 185-186.

113 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); (accessed 4/23/2013).

114 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); (accessed 4/23/2013).

115 Plotinus, Ennead IV.2.27.

116 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 46.

117 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28.

118 Odyssey, Book 10, lines 328-342.

119 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

120 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

121 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 178.

122 A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15

123 Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 85

124 Poetic Reverie, 85

125 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 13.

126 Kant, Critique of Judgment.

127 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

128 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

129 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 123.

130 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 128.

131 Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom, 4; Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/7, 18.

132 Kant, Critique of Judgment, §75.

133 Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Echkart Förster, 240.

134 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 22.

135 Emphasis added. Aristotle, De anima, 410b23.

136 Aristotle, De anima, 413b1-10.

137 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 38.

138 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 27.

139 Kant, De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis; AK II, 394, transl. Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 4.

140 Hegel considered plant growth to be linear, like crystals, whereas proper animals are elliptical in their movements (see pages 32-33 above).

141 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 163.

142 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

143 Bergson, Creative Evolution, transl. by Arthur Mitchell (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), xvii.

144 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 166.

145 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xviii.

146 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xx.

147 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 173; For more on Schelling’s concept of “the unprethinkable,” see page 51 below.

148 Schelling, System der Weltalter: Münchener Vorlesung 1827/28 in einer Nachschrift von Ernst von Lasaulux, ed. by Siegbert Peetz (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1990), 92.

149 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5.

150 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5

151 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

152 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

153 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11:258.


Schellingian Reflections on Latour’s 2nd Gifford Lecture – “A Shift in Agency, With Apologies to Hume”

Latour is introduced by professor of physics Wilson Poon, who publicly confesses to being a great admirer of Latour’s work. Latour, thinly veiling how tired he is of the “Science Wars,” thanks him for the “rare confession”: “I don’t have many friends among physicists.” Poon contributes to a course at the University of Edinburgh on the relationship between Science and Religion, a favorite inter-disciplinary topic of my own. A quick google search turned up a sermon by Poon, titled “Giving Voice to Creation: A Christian Vocation in Science,” delivered at his local Episcopal Church in 2008. He speaks humbly on behalf of sand granules for their role in God’s creation (his scientific research specializes on fluid dynamics). Strange what can happen to natural scientists after they embrace a politics of nature…

In his second Gifford lecture, Latour rehearses David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Practicing the art of philosophical fiction, Latour re-constructs the history of philosophy (in much the same way that he helped reconstruct the Bergson-Einstein debate), wondering if Hume’s reflection on natural theology was really enough to stir the sage of Könisburg from his dogmatic dreaming, or if, in fact, he and all other Enlightened moderns are still sleeping, still spellbound by the pleonasm of natural religion, still stuck within the paradigm of design (by mechanistic de-animation or deistic over-animation), still paralyzed by the false split between science and religion, matter and spirit, fact and value, etc.

I haven’t read Hume’s dialogue since college, but Latour has made it seem like necessary re-reading. I’m particularly fascinated to expand Philo and Cleanthes’ discussion concerning the scope of analogical reasoning in cosmology. Is the universe more like an animal (a world-soul), or a plant (a giant vegetable)? Hume leaves the matter undecided, all the worse for the supposed speculative power of analogical reasoning. The Naturphilosoph is left wondering whether his imaginal methods of conversing with nature, namely correspondance and analogy, have any basis in reality. Hume argues that they cannot be justified. Poetic metaphors cast too wide a net to catch the certainties sought by calculative mathesis. This is no refutation of the power of imaginal methods; it is only to say that, if analogical reason and speculative philosophy are to be productive of knowledge, they can only achieve this result through a cognitive magic still too occult for conscious reasoning to dispassionately reflect upon (see Hume’s Treatise, i. Sec. 7). The possibility of reasoning about the cosmos analogically in a scientific way depends upon the possibility of scientific genius. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant defines genius as “the inborn predisposition of the mind through which nature gives the rule to art.” He grants genius to the artist, but denies it to the scientist, since for the latter, “rules that are distinctly cognized must come first and determine the procedure in it.” So whereas in artistic creation, the soul of the genius rises to a state of infinite free play that links it directly with the naturans of nature, in scientific research, the finite soul must work to mechanically imitate nature according to the limits of its own merely reflective organs of knowledge. The possibility of a Naturphilosophie capable of determining the animality or vegetality of the universe depends upon the possibility of scientific genius, on the possibility of what Gaston Bachelard has called the “material imagination.”

The material imagination is alchemical. Christian alchemists are both the agents and patients of the incarnation of Imagination. They seek not to understand the Trinity abstractly, in merely theological terms, but concretely, physically. They search for it, summon it, in plants and animals, in human communities, because they are called by it (this is Latour’s dynamic of co-relative construction between a people and an entity). They pay as much attention to the close at hand (their many neighbors) as to the far away (the one globe).

I’m reminded here of what Schelling has one of his own conceptual personae say in his non-modern dialogue concerning natural religion, Clara, Or on Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Here is a speech by the Naturphilosophic doctor to Clara about how modern philosophers have neglected the concrete elements of the cosmos in favor of the abstract forms of the spirit:

How much happier most people would be, how much pointless longing would come to an end, how much easier would life be borne and relinquished, if everyone continually kept in mind that here anything divine is only appearance and not reality, that even whatever is most spiritual isn’t free, but arises only conditionally—that it is the blossom and here and there even the fruit, but not the trunk and the roots…[Instead,] they start with what is most general and spiritual and are thereby never able to come down to reality or particulars. They are ashamed to start from the earth, to climb up from the creature as if from a rung on a ladder, to draw those thoughts that are beyond the senses first from earth, fire, water, and air. And so they don’t get anywhere, either: their webs of thought are plants without roots, they don’t hang onto anything, like spiders’ webs do on shrubs or walls; instead, they float in the air and the sky like these delicate threads here in front of us. And yet they believe they can strengthen man thereby, even help advance the age that nevertheless suffers by the very fact that while one part has indeed sunk completely into the mud, the other has presumed to climb so high that it can no longer find the ground beneath it. (28)

Schelling sought, much like Latour, to bring the natural sciences back down to earth. Also like Latour, he engaged natural philosophy (what has since become ecology) as a work of political theology. As Latour mentioned in his first lecture, political theology is articulated in the trinitarian terms of theos, demos, and nomos, or God, people, and land. In his preface to Clara, Schelling composes his own work of philosophical fiction concerning how the moderns had set apart ancient (Aristotlean) metaphysics from their own transcendental epistemology (a veiled metaphysics founded on bifurcation):

Through its name the old metaphysics declared itself to be a science that followed in accordance with, and that to some extent also followed from, our knowledge of nature and improved and progressed from that; thus in a certain competent and sound way that is of service only to those who have a desire for knowledge, metaphysics took the knowledge that it boasted in addition physics. Modern philosophy did away with its immediate reference to nature, or didn’t think to keep it, and proudly scorned any connection to physics. Continuing with its claims to a higher world, it was no longer metaphysics but hyperphysics. Only now did its complete incapacity for its proposed aim emerge. Because it wanted to spiritualize itself completely, it first of all threw away the material that was absolutely necessary to the process and right from the very beginning it kept only what was spiritual…In this state of affairs there was indeed no other means of restoring philosophy than by calling it back to earth—albeit not from heaven, which it had renounced, but from that empty space in which it was suspended between heaven and earth. This happened through the philosophy of nature. Nevertheless, it was only to be expected from the general order and run of things that the spiritualizers of this time would clamor that this beginning was bringing philosophy down, denying everything spiritual, even denying what was holy and divine…Just because of that we declare that however far we may care to drive the edifice of our thoughts in what follows, we will still only have achieved something if the temple whose last spire disappears into an inaccessible light is, at its very deepest foundation, wholly supported by nature. (3-5)

Schelling’s “nature,” of course, is not the unified, undisputed, externalized nature of the moderns. Schelling’s nature is a dynamically evolving pluriverse of potencies. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is perhaps the first “post-epistemological science,” as Latour calls it: it is the first science to be done with the modernist images of spirit “in here” and nature “out there.” For Schelling, the human is the turning point between the physical and the spiritual. I quote the doctor at length:

…shouldn’t we suppose that a divine law prescribed that nature should rise up first to man in order to find within him the point at which the two worlds are unified; that afterwards the one should immediately merge with the other through him, the growth of the external world continuing uninterrupted into the inner or spirit world?… Man would have lived both a spiritual and bodily life at the same time, even here; the whole of nature would have risen to heaven or to an enduring and eternal life in and with man. God did not want a lifeless or necessary tie (between the external and inner world), but a free and living one, and man bore the word of this link in his heart and on his lips. Thus the whole of nature’s elevation, too, depended on man’s freedom. It rested on whether he would forget what was behind him and reach toward what lay before him. Now, however, man reached back (how this happened and why God permitted it, I do not ask); man even called for and hankered back to this external world, and by stopping not only his own progress, but that of the whole of nature, he thereby lost the heavenly world. Whoever has seen with their own eyes what terrible consequences a constricted development has on the human body, a development that nature strongly desires; whoever has seen how a crisis in an illness remains, due to an inept treatment or to a weakness already present, making the crisis unmanageable, and how such a crisis immediately causes the body’s strength to relapse to a mortal frailty unfailingly resulting in death; whoever has seen this will be able to get a general idea of the destructive effects that the constriction of evolution suddenly entering in through man must have had on the whole of nature. The strength that had emerged fully and powerfully, ready to rise up into a higher world and to reach its point of transfiguration, withdrew back into the present world and consequently suffocated the inner drive toward life. This drive, though still like a fire enclosed within, now acted as a fire of pain and fear looking everywhere for an outlet because it was no longer possible for it to rise up. Any stage leading upward is delightful, but the one that has fallen is frightful. Doesn’t everything point to a life that has sunk downward? Have these hills grown just as they stand here? Has the ground that carries us come about by rising up or by sinking back? And, in addition, surely it’s not that a stable, constant order prevails here, but that chance, too, set in once the lawful development had been constricted? Or who will believe that the waters that so obviously have had an effect everywhere, that have severed these valleys and have left behind so many sea creatures in our hills, are the result of everything working in accordance with an inner law? Who will suppose that a divine hand has laid hard stone on top of slippery clay, so that the rocks would subsequently slide down and bury in terrible ruins not only the peaceful valleys dotted with people’s homes, but also the walkers happily going their way? Oh, the true ruins are not those of ancient human splendor that the curious seek out in the Persian or Indian deserts; the whole Earth is one great ruin, where animals live as ghosts and men as spirits and where many hidden powers and treasures are locked away as if by an invisible strength or by a magician’s spell. And we wanted to blame these powers that are locked up rather than thinking about freeing them within us first? Certainly, in his own way man is no less spellbound and transformed. Because of this, heaven sent higher beings from time to time, who were supposed to undo the spell within his inner being and to open up to him a glance into the higher world again with their wonderful hymns and magic charms. Most people, however, are completely captivated by external appearances and think that it is therein that it is to be found. Just as farmers creep round an old, destroyed, or enchanted castle with divining rods in their hands, or shine their lamps into chambers buried underground, and even go with crowbars and levers in the hope of finding gold or other valuables: so, too, does man go about nature, entering some of her hidden rooms and calling this search “natural science.” But the treasures are not covered by rubble alone; the treasures have been locked up in the very wreckage and rocks themselves by a spell that only another magic charm can undo. (23-24)

Schelling here hints at the connections only now becoming obvious to us (we the people of earth) between our way of knowing and our way of dwelling. Do we dwell on the earth? That seems obvious enough. But do we know earthily–that is, do we think nature heartily, with heart (the organ of imagination), rather than resentfully, with hatred for our fallen condition? Do we tell our theostories as if from nowhere (history), as if from an aerial vantage point looking back at earth as we flee from her terrors and repress our own humble origins from out of her soils? Or do we set our stories in place, telling them while firmly planted on this planet among its human and non-human people (geostory)?

Latour is asked at they end of his talk [1:09:00] a rather simple question: What of magic? He jokes that he was too fearful for his life to bring it up having recently learned of Edinburgh’s history of witch-hunting. I get the impression, though, that an earthly science would have more in common with the ancient relational knowledges of elemental alchemy and geocentric astrology than it does with the alienating informatics of modern techno-industrial capitalism.

“Just think,” continues Schelling’s doctor, “of nature’s many bright and beneficent strengths…

She still hasn’t forgotten that through man she shall be raised up further and freed, that even now the talisman still lies within him through which she will be redeemed. That is why she comes to man in thanks when he scatters seeds on the earth, tills and waters the wild and arid ground, and why she rewards him with extravagant abundance. It seems to me that her feeling for man is essentially one of friendship and often of sympathy…on her great path to the common good nature can perhaps only seldom take part in the fate and mood of an individual. But perhaps important changes have never happened in whole nations without there being a general shift in nature at the same time. History books are full of this; how many signs from heaven, in the air and on earth, have presaged these fateful times. Everything speaks to us and would so much like to make itself understood. (26)

Magic, according to the Whiteheadian poet Charles Stein, can be defined as “the art of producing ontological shifts in public.” I’m more and more convinced that Latour’s tactic is to bring magic back into the matter of science so as to better publicize its powers.

The Varieties of Causal Experience

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can't know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn't this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead's response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.

Constructive v. Critical Philosophy – Responding to Isabelle Stengers at CGU

Once it has begun to swallow the overwhelmingly wondrous fact of existence–that there is anything at all!–philosophy can perhaps catch its breath and ask the most fundamental question: what is there? From this comes the only slightly more specific questions: What is a thing? What is an idea? Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway spoke on Thursday night at Claremont Graduate University on behalf of certain risky abstractions pertaining to the reality of things and ideas, and of how they merge and diverge in the natures-cultures that constitute human sociopolitical life.

For Stengers, there are basically two approaches open to the questioning post-Kantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”, the second, “What can I know?” The former is speculative thinking, leaping across the gap in the circuit of perception between matter and mind by seeing into the web of relationships within which one is embedded. The latter, the critical approach, separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective activities. When the philosopher asks, “What can I know?”, she means to turn attention to the enduring conditions of subjective experience which shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the ongoing phenomena corresponding to the extra-subjective world. What the world is in itself, the realist’s question, begins to seem like a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos. Hubris, says Hume. Impossible, says Kant. Whitehead says not just that we can ask the first question, but that we must! Life is innately risky, because it is primarily a speculative affair.  As human creatures endowed with symbolic intelligence, we become with the spatiotemporal world of physical events and participate in the realm of eternal ideas. Like the plant-clothed entangled banks described in the final pages of Darwin’s Origin, the networks constituting the ecology of classrooms, books, images, and ideas (the philosopher’s habitat) are discernible, intelligible even, but these are definitely not actually separable one from the other, or explainable one in terms of the other. There is no dualism between mind and matter, or between discourse and nature, such that one might reduce to the other. For Whitehead, as for Stengers, propositions infect experience at all levels, from the electronic and protonic subjective forms of subatomic particles to the visual and auditory subjective forms of intelligent animals. Nature thinks about itself, whether it be the thought of hydrogen expressing the self-love that is gravity to give birth to stars or the thought of Einstein riding upon a beam of light, giving the power of the sun to earthly hands.

Abstractions, for Whitehead and Stengers, are lures for feeling. Each form of abstract description allows a different world to take shape before our imagination. We have no choice but to have speculative trust in our descriptions and the images they suggest, because we have no other basis for continuing the adventure of rationality. Contradictions and antinomies, which are oft met along the road of rational discourse, must be transformed into constructive contrasts. This transformation is the work of common sense, that most spontaneous and marvelous judge of truth, beauty, and goodness, and the light of our humanity. Not theory, but common sense, ought to be the final arbiter of our judgments. This is the Jamesian pragmatism and precursive trust that Whitehead and Stengers are committed to.

The Golden Rule of Whiteheadian philosophy of organism, according to Stengers, is that one ought never to offer abstractions that erase situatedness. Perhaps it is this very situatedness, the sense of being embedded in ecologies of meaningful matter, that generates the philosopher’s original sense of astonishment at the fact of being. Philosophy need not outgrow wonder in order to reveal the deeper nature of things. Its revelation in fact preserves wonder, opening our common sense to the adventure of a world in the making.


A response from 9macrina9:

PZ Myers’ will never believe in God

PZ Myers’ blog post:

Some excerpts from my comments (beginning around #403):

The sort of god PZ has decreed impossible to believe in has little in common with Augustine’s, or Plotinus’, or Aquinas’, or with any other great theologian’s God.

Natural science is epistemically closed to theological issues, not because they are unreal, but because the scientific method “works” precisely because it allows the scientist to bracket such ultimate metaphysical concerns to focus in instead on some specific slice of the observable universe. But just because science does not and should not enter such metaphysical terrain does not mean it should remain unexplored.

There is no experimental test for God, and no rational proof, either. The veracity of God’s existence is revealed only to the sufficiently prepared subject. Knowing God depends upon a psychological movement, or the development of a higher organ of perception within the soul; it has little to do with outward or external evidence. All the traditional attributes assigned to God (all-good, all-powerful, all-present, all-loving, etc.) are merely the intellect’s feeble attempt to analyze/rationalize what is essentially a unified transrational reality.

As Dante put it in the Paradiso: “The glory of the One who moves all things permeates the universe and glows in one part more and in another less. I was within the heaven that receives more of His light; and I saw things that he who from that height descends, forgets or cannot speak; for nearing its desired end, our intellect sinks into an abyss so deep that memory fails to follow it.”

What is “reason,” anyways? Is it really separable from imagination? I’m a bit of a Romantic, so I’ve always been drawn to Wordsworth’s take:

“[Imagination] is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.”

So far as I can tell, all human knowledge depends upon some act of imagination. Einstein wasn’t shy about admitting this. Nor was Karl Popper.

You’ve got to admit, reason itself is quite mysterious. Might it not even be referred to as supernatural? The knowledge gained by the scientist, if true, cannot without contradiction be collapsed into nature. How is it that the rational scientist claims the universe entirely lacks purpose and intelligence? What of the scientist’s own intelligence? Is it the one exception? When Kant tried to turn the eye of reason back upon itself, he discovered much of what the Medieval mind took for granted as true could not in fact be trusted. Reason, in the modern period, has become self-critical, and this is a good thing. But perhaps Kant prematurely limited the scope of human understanding. Perhaps intelligence creates and constructs as much as it discovers about reality, and can reach to knowledge of the things themselves (including God and the cosmos) through acts of imaginative inspiration (just as Einstein rode on a beam of light to grasp relativity).

I come here not to argue rationally about the validity of anything spiritual, only to offer an invitation… an invitation, that is, to a different way of experiencing reality. A way that scientific materialism marginalizes not as a result of scientific evidence or lack thereof, but because its methodological practices are all too often hypostasized into metaphysical principles, such that it denies the possibility of a more intelligent order at work in the natural world before it even begins investigating that world. The “world” of science, “Nature,” is defined as entirely external to and independent of the human mind (all modern science is essentially Cartesian in philosophical character). This is essential to science, which when properly practiced respects the insights of Hume and Kant, which is to say, it remains phenomenological. It simply deals with what shows itself to the senses and to bodily experience generally, not with what might ultimately underly these phenomena. Science becomes scientism when it denies the difference between phenomena and things themselves by suggesting that, for example, the findings of contemporary neuroscience have proven that consciousness–responsible for the lifeworld inhabited by human persons–is secreted from the electrochemical activity of the brain. In truth (and here I make a philosophical claim, not a scientific one), we do not know and have no immediate experience of the nature of the mind/brain interaction. Being conscious requires and is in fact operationally identical to being unaware of one’s own unconscious origins. Am I my neurons? Surely, but not only that. I am also a thinking, feeling, willing consciousness, and this I know from the inside out. It is self-evident. I know the natural worldperceptually, not rationally. I know it always “with” my body. Ultimate reality, the highest truths concerning spirit and nature, etc., would therefore be known not by way of empirometric science, but by our immediate psychological and sensory experience of being embedded the ongoing life of the universe. I offer an invitation to a way of being in the universe that depends upon a way of knowing the universe that scientific materialism displays ignorance of.

I’ll retreat back into my cloud of unknowing now.