Recorded on Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA.
A lecture I gave earlier this week in a class at CIIS on Spirit and Nature.
Here is the audio of my presentation at the IWC last week in the philosophy of religion section:
Here is a PDF of the paper I read, titled “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy”
- 9th Annual International Whitehead Conference in Kracow, Poland (footnotes2plato.com)
Also, thanks to Leon over at afterxnature.blogspot.com for posting my presentation, as well.
Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).
In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”
Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.
Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).
If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.
But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)
I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:
The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.
My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).
Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.
Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.
Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.
Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.
In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”
Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:
Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:
- Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson (footnotes2plato.com)
- Neuroscientists plant false memories in the brain (web.mit.edu)
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead (footnotes2plato.com)
Something of a response to Levi Bryant/LarvalSubjects on “hylephobia.”
Schelling and Whitehead were speculative philosophers. This appellative, like that of metaphysician or theologian, may carry with it certain baggage that those of a skeptical or positivist bent are wont to do without. But aside from those epochal moments when thinkers are suddenly inspired by speculative imagination, or by the break through of concept creation, or the influx of divine logos, I can’t see any further sources of genuine philosophical insight. We may as well admit we don’t believe in these possibilities anymore and let philosophy die. It’d be more honest to just call our actual endeavor that of “linguistic analysis” or “skeptical reflection upon factual evidence” or “techno-scientific transformation of nature” or whatever.
Whitehead, for one, was not ready to lay wisdom in her grave. In The Aims of Education, he wrote:
“In my view the creation of the world is the ﬁrst unconscious act of speculative thought; and the ﬁrst task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.”
Schelling and Whitehead both attempted to philosophize in the context of revolutionary advances in science. For Schelling, it was electricity, magnetism, and chemistry. For Whitehead, it was evolutionary, quantum, and relativity theories. They strove not to contradict these scientific advances in order to protect the sanctity of the human soul, as we might interpret Kant’s project (“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”), but rather to understand the human psyche as an outgrowth of the dynamic natural world science was coming to know.
In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote:
“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.”
In Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), Schelling wrote:
“So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”
This continuity between mind and life, nous and physis, is the speculative philosopher’s wager. A speculative philosopher approaches philosophy both as a creative task and as a journey of discovery. Speculative philosophy relies as much on synthetic power of imagination as it does the analytic power of understanding, as much on feeling and desire as logic or theory. To speculate is to construct conceptual networks that tell meaningful stories concerning the course of natural history. For this reason, speculative philosophy will always have a mythical flavor. But I’d argue the root images and creative concepts seeded, sprouted, and grafted together by Schelling and Whitehead connect myth directly to the elemental powers of a dynamic and evolving nature. Their goal is not to explain nature as the design of deities (or Deity), but to reveal the way in which what get called deities in cultural stories are in fact just the creative dynamics of nature itself (e.g., gravity and light, earth and sun, etc.) operating at a higher power or potency. The physical tension between light and gravity in nature becomes the spiritual tension between love and evil in the realm of human culture (physical polarity^2=spiritual polarity).
In Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), Schelling writes:
“As a thunderstorm is caused in a mediated way by the sun but immediately by an opposing force of the earth, so is the spirit of evil aroused by the approach of the good not through a sharing but rather by a spreading out of forces. Hence, only in connection with the decisive emergence of the good, does evil also emerge quite decisively and as itself, just as, in turn, the very moment when the earth becomes for the second time desolate and empty becomes the moment of birth for the higher light of the spirit that was in the world from the very beginning, but not comprehended by the darkness acting for itself, and in a yet closed and limited revelation.”
Later in the same text, Schelling writes:
“Nature is the first or old Testament, since things are still…subject to the law. The human is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God also accepts nature and makes it into himself. The human is hence the redeemer of nature toward which all formation in nature aims. The world that is fulfilled in human beings is in nature as a dark, prophetic (not fully pronounced) word.”
- Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World (footnotes2plato.com)
- Climate Change and Schelling’s inversion of Fichte’s “economic-teleological” principle (footnotes2plato.com)
- “That Slightest Change of Tone Which Yet Makes All the Difference”: Science and Bodily Knowledge in Alfred North Whitehead (rockandrollphilosopher.wordpress.com)
- Thinking the Holocaust with Schelling… (footnotes2plato.com)
Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…
Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.
Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.
Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.
Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.
1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.
Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.
2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?
We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.
3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.
4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.
As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”
I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…
Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?“, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…
In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.
In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.
Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
I linked to Cain’s essay on Darwin in my last post on his theory of the psychedelic origins of religion. I wanted to comment on what he tries to do in the Darwin essay. His claim is that, post-Darwin, the old distinction between life and matter no longer holds; therefore, we are all more like undead zombies than living creatures. He even goes so far as to argue that Nature in its entirety must be some kind of Super Zombie.
What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features–its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains–as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.
I wonder what Cain makes of Kant’s argument in the Critique of Judgment (sec. 75) about the impossibility of explaining living organization according to mechanical causes alone. He (famously or infamously, depending on your philosophical persuasion) claimed that natural science could never understand how even a mere blade of grass grew–that there could never be “a Newton of the grass blade.” Darwin, of course, has been championed by many biologists as precisely such a “Newton of the grass blade.” Many of a more scientistic persuasion have argued that, after Darwin, natural science definitively surpassed philosophy as the superior (if not the only genuine) mode of knowledge production.
Were Kant still alive, I imagine he would dismiss the triumphant claim of scientistic biologists to have explained life mechanistically as but a transcendental illusion. This despite all that has been learned since Darwin about biochemistry and genetics. Organisms display a form of circular causality that is not applicable to machines: in the case of organisms, the cause and the effect are both internal to the organism in question, whereas a machine’s cause is external to its effects. I’ve argued on many occasions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has more in common with William Paley’s argument from design than most modern biologists are willing to let on. Both Paley and Darwin understood organisms to be machines assembled by an outside “agent”; Paley believed the agent was God, while Darwin showed how Nature could do the same job (at least when analogized to human selection). But Darwin never claimed his theory could explain how organisms themselves were possible. The last paragraph of The Origin of Species defers to a Creator to account for how life may have been originally breathed into the first organism/s. His theory offers an account of organic speciation, not origination. Which is to say that he had to assume the existence of biological individuals for Nature to do the selective work he showed it could.
Post-Kantian thinkers like Goethe and Schelling took Kant’s transcendental claims about organisms to the next level by attempting to articulate how self-organization could be intrinsic to the universe (Kant had only shown that the human mind could not know how organisms were possible in the absence of self-organization, not that such organization was necessarily intrinsic to Nature). Alfred North Whitehead also developed an organic conception of the universe. Cain’s argument in favor of a zombie universe is one possible direction to take after Darwin’s erasure of the life/matter dichotomy. The other direction would be to accept something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism, whereby material bodies at every level of organization (from the atomic to the astral and galactic) are in some sense “alive.” I argued as much in my essay on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life (footnotes2plato.com)
- Fragments of a Romantic Theory of Evolution (footnotes2plato.com)
- Purpose in Living Systems (footnotes2plato.com)
“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
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.
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.).
Two disappointing tidbits of news from the front lines of the climate war came my way this morning.
First, I learned that the US Department of State decided to contract out its recent environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to a company called Environmental Resources Management. ERM happens to be “a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, big oil’s top lobbying group,” according to 350.org. Here is a sample of the sort of analysis ERM offers its big oil clients (like TransCanada, the co. building the Keystone XL pipeline):
Earth has already experienced, a modest increase in global average temperature of 0.8 °C since pre-industrial times. Nonetheless, even small variations in average conditions can have a big influence on extremes such as droughts and floods, as the world has witnessed over the last decade. As extreme weather events become more frequent, and climate change continues to modify operating environments, risks and opportunities will grow in importance for the [extractives] sector.
The extractives sector is considered critical in building a more sustainable global economy. Capital investments made today, whether into mining, conventional or unconventional oil and gas developments like shale gas and oil sands have the potential to secure the world’s future energy and resource demand for decades to come. Considering the long timescales and the importance of these investments, it would be negligent not to consider the steps necessary to make such projects resilient to future expected climate change related risks. A simple economic analysis almost always demonstrates substantial pay back on the investment necessary to make a project climate resilient.
So let me get this straight: ERM readily acknowledges that climate change is actually occurring, and then in the very next breath advises oil, gas, and coal companies whose product is causing said climate change to “consider the steps necessary to make [their extractive projects] resilient to future expected climate change related risks.” I assume they mean primarily two sorts of risk: that posed to mining/drilling infrastructure by extreme weather, and that posed by the American public coming to its senses about the existential severity of the climate crisis. The first risk is an easily solvable “engineering problem” (more on this in a moment). The second risk is solvable through political lobbying and mass disinformation campaigns. Even if the American pubic was able to come to its senses, its not clear that our president or congressional representatives would pass laws to protect us (and the rest of the earth community) from the very companies that bankroll their campaigns. Big oil knows that climate change will be severe enough to threaten its profit margin. Its response is not to invest in innovation or already existing cleaner alternative energy sources, but to dig in its heels by improving the “resilience” of its current business model (=get the fossil fuel out of the ground, to the market, and into the atmosphere as profitably as possible). They are even shameless enough to borrow an ecological term to describe their model.
The second tidbit of news comes from Exxon Mobil’s recent shareholder meeting. The CEO of the company, Rex Tillerson, had this to say in his speech during the event:
“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
Is anyone else having as much trouble with his myopically anthropocentric logic as I am? He went on to argue that “there’s no quick replacement for oil, and sharply cutting oil’s use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it harder to lift 2 billion people out of poverty,” according to Daily Kos. As if big oil shareholders give a damn about raising people out of poverty…After all, where would big oil build its poisonous, poorly managed refineries if there weren’t poor ghettos (like Richmond, CA)? Here’s Tillerson being interviewed about climate change last year at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations:
“Its an engineering problem,” he says. “We will adapt.” Perhaps the rich will adapt, but not until much of the world’s human and animal population has died off. Tillerson goes on to repeat his concern for all the poor people who so desperately need electricity. I admit, its not at all fair that the developed world gets to live in a technological wonderland while half the world’s population barely has enough rice to eat and has to shit in a hole. But how about we Americans help raise the rest of the world out of poverty by learning to live with it being darker when the sun sets, with carpooling, with fewer servings of meat per day? Human beings have only had cars and electricity for a century or so, and already these conveniences have become so necessary we’re willing to destroy the planet so everyone can have the experience of microwaving leftover pizza or being stuck in traffic? Why does the enterprise of human civilization necessarily have to involve trying to exterminate the non-human biotic community in order to replace it with a human-made technosphere?
Thinking about big oil’s role in climate change lead me to re-read two fascinating papers on Schelling. One is by Iain Hamilton Grant (‘The “Eternal and Necessary Bond Between Philosophy and Physics”: a repetition of the difference between the fichtean and schellingian systems of philosophy,’ Angelaki, No. 10, Vol. 1, (2005), 43-59). Grant argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie inverts the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle, which has it that because man cannot know nature in itself, he must remake it for himself. Schelling rejects the anthropocentric Kantian-Fichtean program that justifies treating nature as the raw material awaiting human capitalization by inverting transcendental idealism so it becomes transcendental physics, which has it that nature is not only product but productivity, a productivity that “is as active in geology as in [human] ideation” (Grant, 53). It is therefore not only human beings who act to shape a passive nature, since “nature is its own lawgiver” (Schelling, SW IV: 96). The human imagination is understood to be a potentialization of nature’s original creativity.
Big oil may be the most powerful expression of the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle on earth at this particular historical juncture. It is leading the fight to remake the planet in our own industrial image.
The other Schelling paper is by Jason Wirth (“Mass Extinction: Schelling and Natural History,” Poligrafi: Journal for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion. No. 61-62, Vol. 16 (2011), 43-63). Wirth’s book on Schelling (The Conspiracy of Life, 2002) is rather severely criticized by Grant for Fichteanizing Schelling by making it seem as though the latter prioritizes ethics over physics. I’ll have more to say about this validity of this charge at a later time. For now, I just want to direct you to this paper (hopefully you have access to it; I don’t have a PDF, sorry!) It seems clear enough to me that Wirth’s treatment of the philosophical significance of species extinction lines up with Grant’s: the extinction of species is a pretty strong counter-argument to idealism of the Kantian, Fichtean, or Hegelian variety.
Does it make sense to claim that the root of the climate crisis is metaphysical? Can attacking big oil at an ideological level actually do anything to hamper their business model? Might Schelling’s philosophical inversion of the “anti-physics” of so much modern thought provide at least a sense of self-understanding to those who discover more concrete forms of resistance?
I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.
This dissertation examines the metaphysics of imagination in the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead through the hermeneutical lens of a certain stream of Western esotericism. In describing the process-philosophical imagination as etheric, I aim in particular to cross-fertilize the process tradition with 20th century esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body. The concept of an ether body did not originate with Steiner, but he provides an example of a modern hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of natural science and deep familiarity with the esoteric history of philosophy, particularly German Idealism, make him among the best possible candidates for such a comparative project. The exact origins of the Western esoteric tradition are notoriously difficult to trace. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, esotericism’s beginnings “have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.”5 In her groundbreaking study of Renaissance hermeticism, Francis Yates argued that it was Issaac Casaubon’s post-Christian dating of hermetic texts supposed by Renaissance magi like Ficino to predate Moses that definitively “shattered at one blow” the entire conceptual edifice of the esoteric prisci theologi.6 In contrast to Yates, Garth Fowden makes the case that these early hermetic texts are more continuous with the Egyptian alchemical tradition than Casaubon realized.7 The question of the origin of any tradition is inherently controversial. The true source of the hermetic tradition is especially contested due in no small part to its penchant for religious hybridization. Rather than try to stake out a position in this controversy, my research into the weird family of esoteric traditions will proceed without any assumption of purity. Steiner is foregrounded only because of his familiarity with Schelling and modern science, not because his Anthroposophy is somehow the most “authentic” expression of esotericism.
In his introduction to The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Joshua Ramey laments the “general academic-philosophical prejudice” against esotericism, suggesting that this prejudice “constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture.”8 Ramey’s more pessimistic attitude is tempered by S. J. McGrath, who in the introduction to The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012) suggests that esotericism “is gaining respect in non-foundationalist academic circles” due largely to “the postmodern absence of authoritative arguments for continuing to exclude whole genres of Western literature from more canonically respectable studies in religion and philosophy.”9
Like the esoteric traditions, the process tradition has also found itself on the margins of the Western philosophical canon, and is only more recently being creatively retrieved by a number of academics across multiple disciplines. Most standard readings of the history of modern philosophy consider Schelling to be a mere stepping-stone between Fichte’s subjective and Hegel’s absolute idealism. Though usually characterized along with them as an “idealist” himself, I will follow thinkers like Iain Hamilton Grant10 and Arran Gare11 by situating Schelling within the process tradition as a thinker primarily of nature (be it human, divine, or cosmic nature).
Contemporary Schelling scholar Jason Wirth finds it regrettable that “many have long thought that we are done with Schelling, that he is a ‘dead dog.’”12 It seems that the only respectable academic tasks remaining are to “[dissect] the corpus of Schelling into its various periods and phases,…expose inconsistencies in his thinking, attach various isms to his arguments, [and/or to] situate him in some narrative within the history of philosophy.”13 More recently, however, due in some part to Wirth’s and Grant’s efforts, this sentiment seems to be shifting; as Wirth writes, “after more than a century and a half of neglect, Schelling’s time has come.”14 One of the principle reasons for this emerging Schelling renaissance, I’ll argue, is the relevance of his process-oriented Naturphilosophie to the task of re-thinking the relationship between humanity and earth in light of the planetary ecological crisis.
The longstanding neglect of Schelling, especially in the Anglo-American academy, has not been without reason. There is indeed something strange and extravagant, even occult, about Schelling’s thought, at least when judged from within the intellectual strictures of modern academic philosophy. However, the severity of the ecological crisis has brought many of the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy into doubt,15 opening the way for a reconsideration not only of Schelling’s conception of an ensouled cosmos, but of a whole swathe of previously marginalized esoteric philosophical literature. Schelling’s approach to philosophy was deeply influenced by the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Philipp Matthäus Hahn, and Franz von Baader, which makes the cross-fertilization of the process and esoteric traditions sought in my dissertation all the more appropriate.
Though somewhat influential among American theologians during the later half of the 20th century, until quite recently Whitehead, like Schelling, has been neglected by academic philosophers. According to Michel Weber and Anderson Weekes, this neglect is largely the fault of Whiteheadians themselves, whose almost total focus on scholastic textual exegesis and lack of interdisciplinary outreach has threatened Whitehead’s ideas with extinction by creating the perception that they are only available “in fossil form.”16 Weber and Weekes’ negative assessment of the last half-century of Whitehead scholarship may be somewhat overstated, especially considering the many examples of interdisciplinary engagement in the work of Whiteheadian theologians like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Though there may have been an element of “scholasticism” that assumed the superior capacity of Whitehead’s technical system to conduct and translate interdisciplinary disagreement, the more probable reason for process philosophy’s academic marginalization is the fact that it conceives of nature as enchanted and takes notions like panpsychism and the existence of an encosmic divinity seriously.
Whether or not Weber and Weekes’ have overstated the insularity of the first wave of Whitehead scholarship, they represent part of a second wave of outsiders who are, as they put it, “storming the museum.”17 Another second wave Whiteheadian, Isabelle Stengers, argues that the Whiteheadian palette is currently being greatly enriched “by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education…in a singularly lively and tenacious way.”18 Rather than approaching Schelling and Whitehead as a museum curator, my dissertation will aim to breathe new life into their thought, to think with them towards a more imaginative philosophy of mind and of nature enriched by the speculative resources of esoteric wisdom.
According to McGrath, though the esoteric schools represent a diverse set of theories and practices, they are nonetheless “united by a common enemy: the desacralization of nature (material nature, human nature, cosmological nature) by techno-science and capitalist consumerism.”19 He argues that critiques of esotericism as “regressive,” “anti-modern,” and “anti-scientific” are misguided. Although esotericism shares modernity’s “impulse toward human amelioration through science,” it seeks this amelioration through an alternative conception of the human-cosmos relation: “Western esoteric nature-philosophy refuses to follow mainstream natural science and split mind from matter, spirit from animal, finite from infinite…Esoteric modernity is a road not taken in the history of science…a modern approach to nature which was openly rejected in the seventeenth century because it did not grant us the calculative control which techno-science demanded of the Western mind.”20 One of the major goals of this dissertation is to show that, along with Western esotericism, process philosophy also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of modernity no longer bent on the domination of human and earthly nature by alienated modes of theoretical and practical rationality. Both the esoteric and process traditions provide philosophy with a new way of seeing the universe–a way of seeing (i.e., the etheric imagination) which in turn may provide humanity with a new way of living in concert with the wider community of life on earth.
Imagination itself has had a rather tense, even tumultuous, relationship to philosophy going all the way back to Plato, who infamously denied poets entry to his ideal city.21 For many philosophers in the modern Western tradition, its ineffable, largely non-rational and often erotically charged powers were considered deeply suspect, both for epistemological and for ethical reasons–even when imagination played a central role in their own philosophical systems! For example, as Alexander Schlutz argues, even though Descartes “forcefully excludes imagination from his conception of the cogito,”22 he nonetheless draws upon its poetic powers repeatedly in his physical speculations, and even admits during his autobiographical narration in Discourse on the Method (1637) that “doubt itself…is a product of imagination.”23 Similarly, though Kant affirms imagination as an “indispensable function of the human soul,” he also denigrates it as “a potential source of madness, delusion, and mental derangement.”24 I will revisit the paradox of this “double gesturing” by the major figures in the history of philosophy throughout my dissertation, connecting it to the polar, oscillatory dynamism so characteristic of imagination. I will attempt to articulate a less ambiguous, esoterically-inflected approach to the philosophical imagination that is responsive to the challenges made evident by these major figures.
5 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.
6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), 400.
7 Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986), 34-35.
8 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6-8.
9 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 21.
10 Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006).
11 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011.
12 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1. Wirth here employs the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s epithet originally coined as a reference to Spinoza, a controversial figure in Germany at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a major influence on Schelling.
13 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1-2.
14 Wirth, ed., Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), 9.
15 Schelling was ahead of his time in this respect, writing in 1809 that “The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 26).
16 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
17 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
18 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), 6.
19 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
20 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
21 Though of course, Plato’s relationship to imagination and poetry is not so cut and dry. He may have banished the poets from his Republic, but he himself was one of the most imaginative and poetic writers in the history of letters.
22 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
23 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 77.
24 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
Below is another section of my dissertation proposal…
In What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between a singular pedagogy of the concept and a universal encyclopedia of the concept.155 What does it mean to say that Deleuze’s philosophical method is pedagogical, rather than encyclopedic? It means that philosophical concepts are not catalogued in advance, they are individually invented as needed to dissolve the poorly posed problems that emerge in the course of research.156 In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze makes a similar distinction between learning and knowledge.157 Knowledge is the memorization of specific facts and general laws that can only pretend to final comprehension, while learning is the incarnation of Ideas, an ongoing apprenticeship to problematic concepts that initiates one into the sub-sensory creativity of paradox. “Philosophers are always recasting and even changing their concepts,” Deleuze writes. “Sometimes the development of a point of detail that produces a new condensation, that adds or withdraws components, is enough. Philosophers sometimes exhibit a forgetfulness that almost makes them ill. According to Jaspers, Nietzsche ‘corrected his ideas himself in order to create new ones without explicitly admitting it; when his health deteriorated he forgot the conclusions he had arrived at earlier.’ Or, as Leibniz said, ‘I thought I had reached port; but…I seemed to be cast back again into the open sea.’”158 In his preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze describes his method of writing from a place of ignorance; like Leibniz, he is always beginning again, lost at sea. Deleuze writes: “How else can one write but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other. Only in this manner are we resolved to write. To satisfy ignorance is to put off writing until tomorrow–or rather, to make it impossible.”159
The philosopher can only begin in media res, like Odysseus, lost at sea. He first finds itself there at the elemental limits of things, at the oceanic horizon of earth with only the starry heavens as a compass. He first task is to steady his metaphysical gaze upon these limits, thereby stilling the nausea associated with rootlessness. His final task is an infinite one, not merely to steadily “hover between heaven and earth,” or to “drop anchor permanently in some safe cove,” but to “dare to meet the truth freely,” without fear “of shipwreck on the rocks or sandbars”; the philosopher, continues Schelling, must “risk everything, desiring either the whole truth, in its entire magnitude, or no truth at all.”160
The philosophical researcher must accept that he can only begin writing in muddled confusion of poorly posed problems. This is the initial condition of the philosopher after the end of philosophy, when the history of philosophy, with all its truth and good sense, no longer claims authority over thinking. The history of philosophy no longer provides today’s thinkers with a steady stairway to the heaven of eternal ideas. Though it is true, as Whitehead suggests, that “philosophy is dominated by its past literature to a greater extent than any other science,”161 my attempt to philosophize anew must find a way to allow this history to function as collage does in painting: like a palette of personalities available for dramatizing concepts in response to the problems that matter today.162
“Method,” writes Deleuze, “is the means of that knowledge which regulates the collaboration of all the faculties. It is therefore the manifestation of a common sense or the realization of a Cogitatio natura, and presupposes a good will as though this were a ‘premeditated decision’ of the thinker.”163 Contrary to the pretense of a scientific method seeking certain knowledge, a pedagogical method is attentive to the fact that “learning is, after all, an infinite task.” For Deleuze, “it is from ‘learning,’ not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn.”164 This pedagogical transcendental is not based on Kant’s fixed table of logical categories, the a priori conditions for all possible knowledge of objects, but rather on an experimental set of aesthetic categories, the genetic conditions for new becomings-with objects. Deleuze mentions Whitehead’s categoreal scheme as an example of the new transcendental aesthetic, where unlike representational categories, it is not only possible experience that is conditioned, but actual experience. He calls Whitehead’s categories “phantastical,” in that they represent novel creations of the imagination never before encountered by philosophers.165 For Whitehead, because each experient is a perspective on the world and an element in the world, the categories of an experientially adequate philosophical scheme must elucidate the “paradox of the connectedness of things:–the many things, the one world without and within.”166 In other words, while Whitehead accepts modern philosophy’s focus on the self-created perspective of the subject–that, in some sense, the world is within the subject (as in Kantian transcendental idealism)–he holds this insight in imaginative polar unity with the common sense presupposition that the subject is within the world. This refusal to remove subjective experience from the world of actual entities bring’s Whitehead’s panexperientialism very close to Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism.
The mind is not the only problem solver; it is not the intelligent observer and manipulator of a stupid and passive nature. The etheric formative forces driving nature’s evolutionary “education of the senses” are just as creative and problematically arrayed as are the imaginative forces shaping the historical education of the human mind. As Deleuze argues, “problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions. As a result, ‘learning’ always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind.”167 Mind is simply a more complexly folded nature. The proper maintenance of their conscious complicity depends upon what Deleuze calls the “education of the senses,” by which he means the raising of each power of the imagination to its limit so that their mutual intra-action quickens the whole into the creation of difference in itself. The path of the learner is “amorous” (we learn by heart), but also potentially fatal,168 since the creation of difference–though free from the anxieties of method, free of having to know with certainty–for precisely this reason always risks the creation of nonsense, or worse, the descent into madness. But in the end, the researcher must take these risks, since “to what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?”169 Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism does not privilege the faculty of thought, as does Kant’s transcendental idealism. While thought concerns itself with the domains or levels of virtuality (what Whitehead refers to as the hierarchy of eternal objects, or definite possibilities), it is the faculty of imagination that “[grasps] the process of actualization,” that “crosses domains, orders, and levels, knocking down the partitions coextensive with the world, guiding our bodies and inspiring our souls, grasping the unity of mind and nature.”170 Imagination, continues Deleuze, is “a larval consciousness which moves endlessly from science to dream and back again.”171 Deleuze’s faculty of imagination is no mere conveyer belt, transporting fixed categories back and forth along the schematic supply line between thought and sensation. By bringing the imagination face to face with the wilderness of existence, Deleuze forces it to rediscover the wildness within itself. Faced with what Schelling called “the unprethinkable” (das Unvordenkliche)172 sublimity of the elemental forces of the universe, the imagination becomes unable to perform its domesticated role in service to the a prioris of the understanding. “That which just exists,” writes Schelling, “is precisely that which crushes everything that may derive from thought, before which thought becomes silent…and reason itself bows down.”173 It is upon confronting the unprethinkability of these elemental forces that “imagination finds itself blocked before its own limit: the immense ocean, the infinite heavens, all that overturns it, it discovers its own impotence, it starts to stutter.”174 But, continues Deleuze, imagination’s sublime wounding is not without consolation: “At the moment that imagination finds that it is impotent, no longer able to serve the understanding, it makes us discover in ourselves a still more beautiful faculty which is like the faculty of the infinite. So much so that at the moment we feel our imagination and suffer with it, since it has become impotent, a new faculty is awakened in us, the faculty of the supersensible.”175
Like Whitehead, who wrote in The Concept of Nature that “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena,”176 Deleuze’s pedagogical metaphysics quickens the philosophical imagination’s powers into “a harmony such that each transmits its violence to the other by powder fuse.”177 Rather than converging on a common sense, Deleuze’s education of the senses approaches the point of “para-sense,” where “thinking, speaking, imagining, feeling, etc.” overcome themselves to create new forms of perception responsive to encounters with paradoxical Ideas and capable of incarnating them as meaningful symbols through a process of learning.178 Deleuze would here seem to approach Steiner’s spiritual science, where it is thought that “there slumber within every human being faculties by means of which individuals can acquire for themselves knowledge of higher worlds.”179 Like Steiner, Schelling’s understanding of the Idea’s gradual incarnation in the course of an evolutionary cosmogenesis leads him to argue that “the time has come for a new species, equipped with new organs of thought, to arise.”180
Deleuze’s pedagogy of the concept and problematic method of enduring within the symbolic fields constellated by encounters with Ideas is especially relevant to my research on the process philosophical tradition, since, according to Deleuze, “problems are of the order of events–not only because cases of solution emerge like real events, but because the conditions of a problem themselves imply events.”181 For Whitehead, as for Deleuze, “the ultimate realities are the events in their process of origination.”182 Whitehead calls this process of origination concrescence. Concrescence refers to the process of “growing together” whereby “many become one and are increased by one.”183 Each individual concrescing event, according to Whitehead, “is a passage between two…termini, namely, its components in their ideal disjunctive diversity passing into these same components in their [real] concrete togetherness.”184 Similarly, Deleuze describes the incarnation of a problematic Idea as an event that unfolds in two directions at once, along a real and an ideal axis: “At the intersection of these lines,” writes Deleuze, “–where a powder fuse forms the link between the Idea and the actual–the ‘temporally eternal’ is formed.”185 Whitehead’s evental ontology, wherein eternal objects intersect with actual occasions in the process of concrescence, can be read in terms of Deleuze’s account of the incarnation of Ideas, whereby concrescence becomes a temporary solution achieved through the condensation of the fragmentary multiplicity of past actualities and future possibilities into a precipitated drop of unified experience. The problematically condensed occasion of experience cannot endure in its unity long since it is perpetually perishing into objective immortality, leading “the solution to explode like something abrupt, brutal and revolutionary,”186 becoming experiential debris to be gathered up again by the occasions that follow it.
Deleuze also describes incarnating Ideas as a two-faced expression of both the power of love (the ideal principle which seeks to progressively harmonize the fragmented times of past and future to form a unified “temporally eternal” solution) and the power of wrath (the real principle which angrily condenses these solutions until they explode, creatively issuing in revolutionary new problems). He argues that the most important aspect of Schelling’s process theology is his consideration of these divine powers of love and wrath, where love relates to God’s existence and wrath to God’s ground.187 Schelling conceives of both love and wrath as positive powers which therefore do not simply negate one another as opposed concepts in a Hegelian dialectic of contradiction, where wrath would struggle with love before both were sublated in some higher Identity. Rather, the eternal encounter between divine love and divine wrath leads to their mutual potentialization into a dynamic succession of evolutionary stages in nature (Stufenfolge). “These two forces [infinitely expanding love and infinitely retarding wrath], clashing or represented in conflict, leads to the Idea of an organizing, self-systematizing principle. Perhaps this is what the ancients wanted to hint at by the soul of the world,” writes Schelling.188
For Deleuze, “Ideas no more than Problems do not exist only in our heads but occur here and there in the production of an actual historical world.”189 Ideas are not simply located inside the head. Nor can Ideas be entirely captured inside the grammatical form of a logical syllogism, even if that syllogism is dialectically swallowed up and digested in the course of history by an Absolute Spirit. Even though the primary instrument of speculative philosophy is language, Ideas should never be reduced to propositions, nor should philosophy be reduced to the labor of “mere dialectic.”190 Dialectical discussion “is a tool,” writes Whitehead, “but should never be a master.”191 According to Schelling, the age old view that “philosophy can be finally transformed into actual knowledge through the dialectic…betrays more than a little narrowness.”192 That which gets called from the outside “dialectic” and becomes formalized as syllogistic logic is a mere copy, “an empty semblance and shadow” of the authentic mystery of the philosopher, which, for Schelling, is freedom. Freedom is the original principle underlying both mind and nature, the archetypal cision generative of all Ideas through the “secret circulation” between the knowledge-seeking soul and its unconsciously knowing Other.193 The authenticity of the philosopher’s “inner art of conversation” depends upon this doubling of the soul into I and Other through an act of imagination. Without this imaginal doubling, the original cision of freedom is repressed and philosophy devolves into the formulaic dialectical refinement of the customary sayings and conceptual peculiarities of contemporary commonsense.194
Dialectic leads at best only to a kind of Urdoxa, or original opinion: “The dialectic,” writes Deleuze, “claims to discover a specifically philosophical discursiveness, but it can only do this by linking opinions together. It has indeed gone beyond opinion toward knowledge, but opinion breaks through and continues to break through. Even with the resources of an Urdoxa, philosophy remains a doxography. It is always the same melancholy that raises disputed Questions and Quodlibets from the Middle Ages where one learns what each doctor thought without knowing why he thought it (the Event), and that one finds again in many histories of philosophy in which solutions are reviewed without ever determining what the problem is (substance in Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz), since the problem is only copied from the propositions that serve as its answer.”195
As Whitehead describes it, “the very purpose of philosophy is to delve below the apparent clarity of common speech”196 by creatively imagining “linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed.”197 Whitehead’s adventure of Ideas, like Schelling’s and Deleuze’s, is not a search for some original opinion, or for the “complete speech” (teleeis logos) of encyclopedic knowledge.198 Ideas are not merely represented inside an individual conscious mind, they are detonated in the imaginal depths of the world itself. Exploding Ideas seed symbolic vibrations that echo along the cosmic membrane (or “plane of immanence”) and unfold at the level of representational consciousness as a profound complicity between mind and nature: Ideas generate synchronicities.
It follows that Ideas, for Whitehead as for Deleuze, “are by no means essences,” but rather “belong on the side of events, affections, or accidents.”199 As Steven Shaviro writes of Whitehead’s “eternal objects,” they ingress into events as “alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise.”200 Ideas, that is, are tied “to the evaluation of what is important and what is not, to the distribution of singular and regular, distinctive and ordinary.”201 “The sense of importance,” writes Whitehead, “is embedded in the very being of animal experience. As it sinks in dominance, experience trivializes and verges toward nothingness.”202 The Western philosophical tradition’s obsession with pinning down general essences instead of open-endedly investigating particular experiences–its emphasis on asking “what is…?” instead of “how much?,” “how?,” “in what cases?” in its pursuit of Ideas–has fostered only stupidity, erroneousness, and confusion.203 “Ideas emanate from imperatives of adventure,” writes Deleuze, not from the banality of encyclopedic classification.204 The mistaken identification of Ideas with dead essences has lead to the inability of modern philosophy to grasp the utter dependence of rationality on “the goings-on of nature,” and to the forgetfulness of “the thought of ourselves as process immersed in process beyond ourselves.”205
Despite the shared conceptual emphasis of much of Deleuze’s, Schelling’s, and Whitehead’s philosophical work, Deleuze’s dismissive attitude toward methodological knowledge in favor of a culture of learning may at times fall prey to Whitehead’s “fallacy of discarding method.” Though Whitehead was critical of tradition-bound and narrow-minded methodologies as well (as is evidenced by his corresponding “dogmatic fallacy”), he distances himself from philosophers like Nietzsche and Bergson (perhaps Deleuze’s two most important influences) because they tend to assume that intellectual analysis is “intrinsically tied to erroneous fictions” in that it can only proceed according to some one discarded dogmatic method.206 “Philosopher’s boast that they uphold no system,” writes Whitehead. “They are then prey to the delusive clarities of detached expressions which it is the very purpose of their science to surmount.”207 “We must be systematic,” continues Whitehead, “but we should keep our systems open [and remain] sensitive to their limitations.”208
155 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 12.
156 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 16.
157 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 164.
158 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 21-22.
159 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.
160 Schelling, “Of the I as Principle of Philosophy” (1795) in The Unconditioned in Human Knowledge (1980), 64.
161 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 229.
162 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xxi.
163 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.
164 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 166.
165 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 284-285
166 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.
167 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 165.
168 Deleuze, Difference & Repetition, 23.
169 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 192.
170 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.
171 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 220.
172 “Das Unvordenklichkeit” is, according to Dale Snow, “one of the most difficult German expressions to translate.” He suggests it might be “somewhat clumsily…rendered as ‘the unpreconceivability of Being,’ implying that there is always that in reality which will remain beyond thought” (Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism (New York: SUNY, 1996), 235n8. My translation of “das Unvordenkliche” derives from Bruce Matthews, who renders it as “that before which nothing can be thought” (Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom (New York: SUNY, 2011), 28.
173 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Matthews, II/3, 161.
174 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=65&groupe=Kant&langue=2 [accessed 4/26/2013].
175 Deleuze, Kant seminar (4/4/1978); http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=65&groupe=Kant&langue=2 [accessed 4/26/2013].
176 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
177 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 193.
178 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 194.
179 Steiner, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds, ch. 1 [http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA010/English/RSPC1947/GA010_c01.html]).
180 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, Philosophies, 55.
181 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188.
182 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.
183 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.
184 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 236.
185 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 189.
186 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.
187 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809).
188 Schelling, On the World Soul, transl. by Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 145.
189 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 190.
190 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.
191 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 228.
192 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.
193 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvi.
194 Schelling, Ages of the World, xxxvii.
195 Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, 80.
196 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.
197 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 227.
198 See Glenn Magree, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, intro.
199 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 187.
200 Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, 40.
201 Deleuze, Difference and Reptition, 189.
202 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 9.
203 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 188-190.
204 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 197.
205 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 8.
206 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.
207 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.
208 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 6.
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”: http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/plato-s-plane-tree, 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), http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/the-philosopher-s-plant-3-0–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); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (accessed 4/23/2013).
114 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (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.