Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophiy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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

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

Historical Background and Overview for “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

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

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

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

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

13 PR, 172.

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

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

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

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

Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.

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

174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.

175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

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

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

178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

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

180 Beiser, German Idealism.

181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.

183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.

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

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

186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.

187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.

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

197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking with Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on My Bildung and the Philosophy of Freedom

Part 1: Remembering Childhood

Until about age seven, children seem to be naturally aware of the reality of a world beyond their physical senses. As they age, most of them seem to lose touch with this deeper dimension of the world. According to the common sense of our materialistic age, this is because their once overactive imaginations eventually come to be properly educated so as to distinguish objective fact from subjective fantasy.

If I think back to my own childhood, it was around seven years old that I first understood that my mother would die. This made me so sad that I cried on and off for three days. On one of these days, I was so choked up and distraught that she had to leave work early to pick me up from my second grade class just a few minutes after the school bus had dropped me off in the morning. I told the teacher my tears were the result of a stomach ache, but really I just couldn’t bear but to spend every remaining hour by my mother’s side.

Given the new knowledge I had acquired, all of the sudden life had weight and became quite serious. The games I played in what now seemed to be the “inner” world of my imagination could no longer be taken seriously in the “outside” world of toil, tax, and tomb. It wasn’t long after awakening to the devastating fact that my mother would die that I began to pay attention, instead, to the fact that this meant I would eventually die, as well. This wasn’t exactly a sad thought. On the contrary, at first being confronted by my own death was a relief: if my mother died before me, at least my own death would eventually bring a stop to my grief. But my initially nihilistic response to the fact of my own death never fully satisfied me. The question was never closed in the same way that my mother’s death had come to seem. To the extent that I kept the question open and continued to contemplate the meaning of my own death, the grief I had needed to escape from resulting from my mother’s death was increasingly transformed into awe and wonder in the face of the wide world she had bore me into. Sadness became curiosity. Wonder carried me through grade school: I drank up as much natural science as I could, especially the cosmology of Hawking and the biology of Dawkins. By 15, I was beginning to speak up about what I perceived to be the blindnesses of “religion,” even calling myself an atheist. I began to forget about the mystery of death, though it was still hovering just behind and to the side of all the new knowledge I was acquiring. At 17, I was exposed to the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts. Prior to that point, I’d never explicitly studied “thoughts.” I’d only studied the pictures provided to me by popular science books about the way the outside world really is, despite whatever I may “think” about it. Quarks, quasars, genes, neurons… I believed these had to be the final real things of which the world was made. It could not be made of mere ideas, mere words! These, I thought, were prone to fantasy and illusion, while only physical things could be real.

It was these three thinkers who first made me aware of the power of the word to transform our consciousness of reality. Their inquiries into the freedom, the depth, the spontaneity, and the cosmic dimensions of the psyche drew my attention back again to the abiding mystery of death. Taking another look at death, this time as a portal rather than a pit or an abyss, all my scientific picture-knowledge of a machine-like world came to seem petty and stupid. None of it mattered, since the ego pretending to master it all was subject to death, and to the deeper, more creative and intelligent spiritual power that preceded my birth and will survive my death. As a result of passionately pursuing the threads of these men’s thoughts–and of philosophizing in my own right–death’s mystery opened out into my first glimpses of immortality. By 21, my idle curiosity about the world had been transfigured into a love, not only for my mother’s, but for the whole of the world-soul’s sacrifice for me. This I consider my opening to the “other side,” and it remains to this day, at least so long as I keep both love and death in mind while thinking into reality.

But it wasn’t until Rudolf Steiner, at age 23, that I found a truly coherent and practical way of thinking the relationship between life, death, and love. Nietzsche was too individualistic and iconoclast, Jung too metaphysically coy, and Watts a rascal-trickster whose only stated aim was to “entertain.” Steiner, on the other hand, provided a way of consciously seeing beyond the sense-bound limits of my materialistically educated soul and its fancied clock-work world. Nietzsche, Jung, Watts, and by this time many others, too, had succeeded in convincing me of the falseness of the film of mundane familiarity I had been raised to take for granted as real. But only with Steiner did I begin to realize that scientific knowledge of a reality beyond the sensible–on the other side of the threshold of death–is possible.

Part 2: Thinking with Steiner

Rudolf Steiner was a child with an extra-ordinary awareness of the spiritual world. Not only was he probably aware of the reality of his mother’s and his own death at seven, he was in touch with the ghost of a dead relative.1 This awareness did not subside as he became an adult, even after a comprehensive education in natural science and philosophy. His commitment to scientific thinking did not dispel as illusory the supersensory perceptions he had been experiencing since childhood, but on the contrary deepened and developed them. At 27, in 1888, he met the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence.

Steiner, according to his translator Michael Wilson,

“describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions.”2

Six years later, after the completion of his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom (1894) in an attempt to prove, using spiritual scientific methods (i.e., something like a phenomenology of thinking in every day life3), that the human being is a free spirit capable of true knowledge of the world and real love of others. Hartmann seems to have provided Steiner with precisely the adversarial resistance he needed in order to strengthen his own grasp of the issues at stake. He came to feel the desperate need for human beings to understand their own consciousness in a scientific way, for otherwise, science lacks a solid epistemological and ontological foundation. Science without such a foundation in genuine philosophy (i.e., the love of wisdom and the search for self-knowledge) is reduced to what Owen Barfield later called “dashboard knowledge,”4 a sort of technological means of manipulating physical phenomena without understanding their underlying spiritual causes. Ignorance of the work of spirit in ourselves and in nature has ethical implications, as well: global consumer capitalism and ecosystem collapse are the chief results of several centuries of ever advancing socio-techno-scientific5 power in the absence of spiritual wisdom.

Steiner wanted to show others not blessed with his innate clairvoyance how it is possible to achieve conscious knowledge of oneself as a spirit so as to act freely out of no other desire than that of love for the deed itself. In short, his aim in The Philosophy of Freedom is to teach us how to think beyond the limits of the brain by leading us to an immediate awareness of our own thinking.

“While observation of objects and processes, and thinking about them, are both everyday situations that fill my ongoing life, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state.”6

Without an intuition of the freedom of their own self-consciousness, the thinking of the average person reverts to mere “dashboard knowledge.” From the dashboard perspective of the sense-bound ego, the body becomes an automobile and the world a paved highway or parking lot to be driven over. Even consciousness itself becomes objectified into an electro-chemical neural correlate, something we can now medically modulate with pharmaceuticals and observe on computer screens using fMRIs. The philosophically naïve neuroscientist will argue that neurons are stimulus-response machines, and that the only reason we think a salmon, a pig, or a human being is any less determined than a rock is that we see the cause of the rock’s motion (being kicked) but not the cause of the thinking of these beings (neural activity), since their thinking takes place out of sight hidden within their skulls.7 Such a scientist forgets that it is only their own thinking that initially supplies them with this explanation. They thereby ignore the self-evidently spiritual nature of their own thinking activity by falsely explaining an inner noetic reality in terms of an outer appearance.

When the human scientist is not aware of their own thinking in a living way (i.e., as free), they have no other option but to conceive of the physical world as dead and deterministic.

“We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”8

The self-conscious, and so living thinking capable of finding nature Steiner would later come to call etheric. Etheric thinking intuits the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory appearances. Such thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the same living spiritual power underlying nature (natura naturans), that which is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off “external” nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive” as Whitehead called it,9 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of the sense-bound understanding. To think nature alive, our own thinking must come to life. Etheric thinking is not generated by the brain, and so is not limited to what the physical senses reveal about the external world. Etheric thinking is the expression of a higher dimensional process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain. Steiner calls this the etheric body, but the term “body” can be misleading to the extent that we are tempted to imagine something that exists in extended, three dimensional space.

The etheric “body” is a four dimensional entity, more aptly conceived of as an ongoing process than as a finished thing. It is best pictured, if we insist on picturing it at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside out to leave the living, breathing organism in its wake. Picturing it is impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal images seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

The mental pictures we form through brain-bound thinking are subjective, relative to our own perspective as distinct organisms separated from others and the world. My mother literally “bore” my organism into the world: I awaken initially as a hole in the world, a sort of split off part seeking reconnection with the whole. I find temporary reconnection through concepts, which struggle to complete the perceptual world by teaching me about the causes underlying its behavior. Eventually, if I am at all interested in thinking about my experience of the world, I end up tracing the causes of that experience back to my sensory organs and neural tissue, as though thinking we “in” the skull looking “out” through the senses at the world. Brain-bound thoughts stop at this picture, pretending to be satisfied with an explanation of thinking, a noumenal activity, in terms of something phenomenal. Such thinking falsely assumes one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon (i.e., that neural activity could explain “redness”), when what was sought were the causes of phenomenality itself.

“Only if I could perceive how the percept of an object affects the percept of the subject, or–conversely–only if I could observe the construction of a perceptual form by the subject, would it be possible to speak like modern physiology and the critical idealism built upon it…The link between the subjective and the objective is not built…by any perceptible event. It is built by thinking alone.”10

When our thinking is permeated with spiritual life, we recognize the universality of the ideas underlying our individual mental pictures. I know longer stand apart from the world struggling to subjectively represent it. I do not think about ideas; rather, cosmic ideas think in me.11 An idea cannot be “mine”: ideas are universal and so belong to everyone or no one. Etheric thinking cannot be grasped with subjective percepts or objective concepts, since it is the source of both. From the Ether comes all conceptual intelligence in the mind and all conceptual intelligibility in nature. Either the mind and nature share in its One Life, or mind is imprisoned in the skull and nature ruled by death.

It is important here to mark the difference between ideas, concepts, and mental pictures. A mental picture is an inner representation of a percept. Mental pictures are already mixed with concepts, of course, but it takes free self-consciousness of supersensory ideas to realize this. Without etheric thinking, that is, consciousness remains unaware of its participation in the realm of ideas, becoming limited instead to sensory perceptions of the outer world and habitual responses regarding them. Many people speak of concepts and ideas as if they were mere words, scribbles on paper or sounds in the air. This is the mistake of nominalism. The nominalist forgets that logic, the universal laws of thinking, can never be reduced to the rules of some particular language. If logic were reducible to language, no free thoughts would ever be possible, since I’d only be able to parrot what I’d heard from others. Language is the husk of logic, the skin it is always outgrowing and transforming in its creative pursuit of the truth. similarly, mental pictures are not the limit of thinking’s knowledge of reality.

Thinking can reach deeper, since the same logos that thinks in me, grows and evolves in the cosmos. The Ding an Sich that remains always beyond the grasp of naive ego-consciousness becomes, with the cultivation of an imaginal organ of etheric thinking, identified with my own inner most nature (and thereby, with the true nature of all things).

Part 3: The School of Spirit

The dawning of my own self-consciousness occurred only once I had separated from my mother. Becoming aware of her mortality forever altered the sense of identity I had up to that point assumed. My feelings of immense sadness made life seem like a trap, a cruel joke with no escape. But as my awareness of my mother’s death shifted to an awareness of my own death, feelings of sadness became thoughts of wonder. The prospect of my own death raised all sorts of questions, questions that brought me beyond the subjectivity of my own feelings and into the objectivity of thinking. I realized that life was a deep mystery, and not a tragedy. As Socrates suggests in the Apology, wisdom begins in the knowledge of one’s own ignorance. When it comes to the matter of death, only the ignorant are fearful. For those properly prepared, death may turn out to be a blessing.

Wonder, and the learned ignorance it engenders, can be further cultivated in order to produce what Steiner called “spiritual science.” Spiritual science, unlike natural science, is not undertaken in abstraction from ethical concerns, since, as a way of knowing, it is “the power of love in spiritual form.”12 Spiritual science is a kind of active thinking that is also a loving.

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

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


1 5, The New Essential Steiner, ed. by Robert McDermott

2 viii, The Philosophy of Freedom transl. by Michael Wilson, 1970

3 Though also more than a phenomenology of the life-world, since Steiner sought to catch thinking in the act, as nous, rather than to simply track the phenomenal products of thinking (i.e., thoughts, images, etc.).

4 See Saving the Appearances, 1988

5 See The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001) by Alf Hornborg to learn about the links between bourgeois social relations, industrial machines, mechanistic science, and the ecological crisis.

6 31, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

7 15, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

8 25, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

9 See Modes of Thought (1938)

10 91-92, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

11 As Paul put it, “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).

12 133, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

Coleridge and Scientific Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Coleridge and Barfield on Life, Imagination, and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, Barfield explains,

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

As Coleridge himself put it, drawing on Plotinus,

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

What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought

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

“Josephine Spence

with love from

Owen Barfield

February 1984″

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

*                            *                           *                         *                       *                         *                         *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Bibliographia, Coleridge offers the following:

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

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

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

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

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


Imagining the Future with Owen Barfield: Towards a Participatory Turn

English: Photo of Owen Barfield


I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a contemporary, or at least late 20th century, audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once used to bind the generations together in pursuit of a common thread. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be authors themselves.

What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever [...] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”

“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:

Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.


In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–”severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.

“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).

Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”

This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining the Cosmos: notes on my dissertation…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards a Christological Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield


Quentin Meillassoux‘s lucid text, After Finitude (2008), comes at a time when Continental philosophy finds itself engaging more closely with what might be called  “poetico-religious” modes of thought. Rationality of the Cartesian sort has been thoroughly deconstructed, and no longer seems capable of providing what it once promised: a clear and distinct picture of the substance of the world as it exists outside and independent of the human soul. Meillassoux admits that Cartesianism seems to have become “irrevocably obsolete” (AF, p. 29), since, following Kant’s transcendental critique of the ontological argument (that the necessity of a concept for thought does not prove its existence in fact), the theological basis of Descartes’ knowledge of the ‘in-itself’ has been dissolved. Two centuries of post-Kantian reflection have carried his critique of our organ of knowledge even further, pointing to, among other things, the constitutive role of language for thought and the evolutionary origins of consciousness as factors severely limiting, if not outright denying, philosophy’s access to the Absolute. Whatever Reason, or Logos, is, contemporary philosophy has made it all but impossible to conceive of it in abstraction from the body and its cosmohistorical origins.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was well aware of the need to conceive of the cosmos and the soul in less dualistic terms, and did not shy away from rejecting religious dogmatisms that could not be squared with the findings of 20th century natural science. Neither were these conditions lost on Owen Barfield, who argued throughout his life that Romanticism’s poetico-religious conception of humanity’s relation to nature and divinity can and must “come of age” in our era. For him, “imagination,” the favored organ of Romantics, referred not to “the faculty of inventing fictions,” but rather that which,

at its highest level…[inherits] and [continues] the divine creative activity of the Logos,…the common origin of human language and consciousness, as well as the world which contains them (RM, p. 20).

Meillassoux argues formidably against such a “return of the religious,” lamenting that “the contemporary philosopher has completely capitulated to the man of faith,” since post-Kantian modes of thought have forced upon him the conclusion that, “if there is an ultimate truth, only piety can provide it, not thought” (AF, p. 47). A truly adequate response to Meillassoux in light of Barfield’s and Teilhard’s Christologies would require a longer study than I can provide in this short essay. My aim is to begin opening a few sites of inquiry into the poetico-religious mode Meillassoux so sharply, and perhaps unfairly, criticized by supplementing this mode’s seemingly pietistic justifications with a logic of incarnation. Faith need not be contrary to logic; rather, faith may be that which opens logic to being.

Beyond an Abstract Absolute

Though it is the Copernican revolution that Meillassoux marks as the decisive moment for modern philosophy—that moment when, following Kant, philosophy was led “to conceive of [the Copernican] de-centering in terms of thought’s unprecedented centrality relative to this same world” (AF, p. 118)—it was not until the end of the 18th century that the sciences of deep time began to reveal the paradox of ancestrality underlying his critique of post-Kantian correlationism. “By ‘correlation,’” writes Meillassoux, “we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (AF, p. 5). The force of the paradox of ancestrality articulated by Meillassoux consists in the fact that, according to the empirico-mathematical claims of geologists and astrophysicists, there is an asymmetrical relation between the being of the world and the world’s being thought, since a material substance of some kind must have existed prior to the emergence of either sentient life or conscious creatures capable of reflecting upon it. Being, therefore, precedes thought. But how could this be so? Short of hypostasizing the correlation, such that a Universal Mind is deemed to have been present to witness the accretion of the earth and the formation of life, it seems that the scientific understanding of cosmic evolution requires breaking the “correlational circle” tying consciousness and cosmos together. This break, according to Meillassoux, would release thought from its solipsistic contemplation of a “cloistered outside”—“an outside in which we’re trapped, only ever finding the correlates of our own acts of consciousness and language” (CAO, p. 6). A “Great Outdoors” might thereby be revealed to consciousness that is not only external to it, but persists entirely independent of it, existing ‘in-itself’ for no one and, even more radically, for no reason. Meillassoux’s Absolute is absolute precisely in that, though it is thinkable, it is indifferent to the light of Logos. It is omnipotent Chaos.

There are post-Kantian alternatives to Meillassoux’s experiment in thinking the Absolute independent of the correlation. Instead of locating the Absolute in an impersonal being outside of and indifferent to human consciousness, I will, with inspiration from Barfield and Teilhard, Christologize the Absolute by attempting to articulate how the ‘in-itself’ can become for us. A clearer picture of the problems of contemporary philosophy will be painted by situating it within the larger cosmohistorical arc of the evolution of consciousness, approaching the Absolute via a logic of incarnation. An incarnational logic challenges both the notion that the Absolute might be grasped through a formal or mathematical proof and the notion that irrational belief alone, no matter how fervent, might be enough to secure it. The realization of the Absolute as Christ demands the participation of the full suite of human faculties, including thinking, feeling, and willing. The philosophical pursuit of the Absolute is as much a theoretical as a practical and aesthetic adventure, since the mere thought of the Absolute would be empty unless this thought was correlative to a transformed perception of the world and carried with it a renewed moral calling to redeem it. In Christ, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful each participate, such that through the logic of incarnation Christ transforms not only our conceptual, but also our perceptual and physical registers of reality.

Teilhard’s Christological Science

“Until the dawn of the present era,” writes Teilhard,

one could say that man still had the illusion of living ‘in the open air’ in a universe that was penetrable and transparent. At that time there was no hard and fast boundary, and all sorts of exchanges were possible between the here below and the beyond, between heaven and earth, between relative and absolute…Then, with the rise of science, we saw the gradual spreading over everything of a sort of membrane that our knowledge could not penetrate (AE, p. 186).

The “dawn of the present era” can be equated with the beginning of post-Kantian thought. The impenetrable membrane can then be read as the transcendental limits Kant placed on human cognition. “I have found it necessary,” wrote Kant, “to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” After the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), it was no longer possible to access the beyond, or to participate directly in the angelic ecology tying heaven and earth together, since any supposed knowledge of things or beings outside the pre-established categories of the understanding and our sensory experience of time and space became but a transcendental illusion. The divine was no longer the source and telos of human concern for reality, but a regulative idea of practical reason—a possibility to be willed or believed in, but not a necessity deducible by the understanding or a being graspable by the senses.

Teilhard recognized and championed the post-Kantian discoveries of the new sciences of geology, biology, and astrophysics. But rather than accepting the Kantian or Cartesian paradigms that would wall off the conscious soul of man from the mechanisms of a soulless universe, Teilhard emphasized the extent to which the curvature of the universe is both geometric and psychic: out of the core of our own soul there grow fibers reaching back into the fabric of space-time itself. While Descartes would have us “irrevocably imprisoned” in a “thinking bubble,” Teilhard saw in the still maturing center of the human psyche evidence of the latest phase in a universal process of convergence underway throughout the organic and inorganic cosmos (AE, p. 189). For him, human thought is the result of a billion year yearning of the ‘without’ for the ‘within.’ He saw consciousness as the latest product of the axis of evolution toward deeper interiorization, the most recent rebirth of the whole (macrocosm) in the center (microcosm). To the adequately prepared subject, apparent in the cosmogenetic phenomenon revealed by science is also an anthropogenesis: “we are not an element lost in the cosmic solitudes…within us a universal will to live converges and is hominized” (HP, p. 7). The cosmos implies the anthropos for Teilhard, as though it were ‘finely-tuned’ just so as to eventually become conscious of itself. This is a perspective Meillassoux must reject not because it is anthropocentric, but because of his denial of causality in nature: there is no tuning at all, no self-organization, only what he calls the “stabilist illusion of sensible becoming” characterizing our shortsighted experience of empirical constants (AF, p. 83). Teilhard would agree that thinking about the universe in terms of fixed laws was shortsighted, since in an evolving cosmos, thresholds of complexity can be reached that irreversibly transform ontological and behavioral norms. Once the earth came to life around 4 billion years ago, its geological and atmospheric dynamics were entirely altered. Similarly, after only a few tens of thousands of years of human civilization, the living planet’s dynamics, relatively stable for the majority of its multi-billion year history, have been altered in just as radical a way. But in dismissing fixed causal law with Meillassoux, Teilhard does not then follow him by instating the total reign of chaos. The universe’s punctuated evolution can still be understood as obeying a logic of incarnation, following a general trajectory toward complexity and consciousness through pre-life, to life, to thought. The human species is not the end of cosmic evolution, however, but a potential vessel capable of incarnating the Spirit of Christ on earth. Anthropogenesis is, finally, Christogenesis.

Meillassoux’s speculative materialism emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human consciousness against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Teilhard’s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

Though he remains a correlationist of sorts, Teilhard acknowledges the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, disorienting us in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of [our] own self” (AE, p. 187). No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all. Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.”

Teilhard realized that the flourishing of our species depends upon bringing forth a new, scientifically and spiritually informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that would grind to a halt without the narrative renewal offered by each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provided him with only momentary condolence, if any at all. “The truth is,” he writes, “that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter” (HM, p. 8). Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (AE, p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world-shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos:

With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things—the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge (AE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and human consciousness are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that the cosmohistorical unfolding of the correlation is progressive and convergent. “The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long,” writes Teilhard, “but the axis and the arrow of evolution—which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation tends. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire (AE, p. 280).

The Logic of Incarnation

Meillassoux writes of the necessity of incarnation for the transcendental subject: “Granted, the transcendental is the condition for knowledge of bodies, but it is necessary to add that the body is also the condition for the taking place of the transcendental” (AF, p. 25). He goes on to conclude that subjectivity is instantiated, rather than exemplified, by the body, meaning that embodiment is the “non-empirical condition of [thought’s] taking place” (ibid.). Without the body, there could be no such thing as thinking, and so no human being. Teilhard would not disagree, but would add that it is precisely in the reflective, or transcendental, consciousness emerging from the complexity of the human cardio-metabolic-nervous system that the divine finds a suitable portal into the phenomenal world. For God to become man through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ requires a true mediation of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the material. The human being has the potential, through the development of transcendental consciousness, to participate in the incarnation of the Word, since only by “taking place at the heart of the world” (ibid.), by living and dying as a physical creature, can the Creator instantiate his eternal love for creation. To love infinitely, God first had to become finite, to enter the horizon of the world. Jesus was not a heavenly example sent by God for men to poorly imitate, but the first historical manifestation of the, until then, dormant Christ-impulse dwelling within the human being. Christ “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2), but in becoming flesh and walking among us, also carries God into the present and brings hope for the future redemption of earth. God’s omnipotence makes possible the incarnation by “dissolving the apparent contradiction between His complete identity and His difference with His Son” (AF, p. 41). Meillassoux argues that the mystical register within which this statement, and the incarnation itself, is meaningful depends upon the hypostatization of the correlation, such that the possibility of incarnation is justifiable or dismissible not due to the facts of the world ‘in itself,’ as depicted by reason and science, but rather due to the sublime fact that there is a world ‘for us’ at all, a world that carries with it at least the potential for beauty and goodness.

Theology, after Kant, became speculative reflection upon the transcendental conditions of creation, a “faith seeking understanding” (Aquinas: “fides quaerens intellectum”) of creation’s sufficient reason. For Meillassoux, such reflection is fallacious, since, he argues, it is thinkable that the world has come to be for no reason. The world is no more significant, despite its potential for aesthetic and moral order, than any of the evidently contingent facts occurring daily within it. Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason” is a result of his conception of the Absolute as Chaos, a being of pure power without desires or ideals. Teilhard’s picture of the universe is not without chaos, since his vision of evolution leaves room for the local randomness of evolutionary groping. But instead of ignoring or marginalizing cosmos in favor of chaos, Teilhard accounts for the global arc cosmogenesis by understanding it as the gradual incarnation of the Logos into matter through the power of love. Even upon meeting the seemingly absurd resistance of death, love is able to transform it into the necessary condition of the world’s redemption. In this sense, the love at work in the logic of incarnation is impossible to understand absent the “logic of extinction.”

Without becoming mortal, a disembodied divine being has no need of love, since no separation exists between it and another. Death, then, is the condition for the possibility of agape, or divine love. The power of God is in the service of the wisdom and love of Christ, without whom the creation would spiral blindly into chaos. The logic of incarnation brings Logos into mortal flesh, giving meaning even to death and extinction, since it is only by confronting the possibility of annihilation that the true significance of life becomes apparent. On Teilhard’s reading of the cosmological, geological, and biological evidence, in the human, the universe has grown a heart and a mind and is now evolving consciously into the Omega toward which it has always already been bending.

The Logic of Extinction

“The will to know,” according to Ray Brassier, Meillassoux’s translator, “is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction” (NU, p. 239). Even if consciousness survives in some form 4.5 billion years from now, the inevitable death of the sun will annihilate any life still remaining on earth. Acknowledging the truth of extinction, for Brassier, means not only accepting that consciousness will not be, but that it already is not: “the subject of philosophy must recognize that he or she is already dead.” Brassier argues, against Nietzsche, that despite life being the precondition of thought, the former cannot be privileged over the latter without underestimating the profundity of the challenge posed to life by the will to know (NU, p. 222). Even if life’s only meaning is to survive, knowledge of extinction eradicates even this minimal sense of purpose. There is no reason for conscious life, according to Brassier, since, following Meillassoux, he reads post-Copernican science as having ratified the diachronicity of thinking and being, exposing thought’s contingency for being: “although thought needs being, being does not need thought” (NU, p. 85).

Meillassoux argues, as we’ve seen, that post-Kantian philosophy has failed to fully reckon with the scientifically verified (or at least not yet falsified) asymmetry between being and thought, or the universe and consciousness. He coined the term “correlationism” to mark the philosopheme operative in all thinking that denies the possibility either of a universe that existed in itself prior to consciousness or that might exist in itself after the extinction of consciousness. That consciousness has emerged is an entirely contingent fact with no underlying reason whatsoever, according to this scheme.

So long as we believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things (AF, p. 82).

Such a belief in reason (or in meaning), according to Meillassoux, is logically unnecessary, since there is no reason that reason must be ontologically foundational. Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason only follows from the belief in a perfect and eternal God whose essence is to exist, and who could not but create the best of all possible worlds. Meillassoux, in contrast, seeks an absolute that is unreasonable because purely chaotic, and argues that nothing is necessary, not God, consciousness, or even the endurance of scientifically verified physical laws. In other words, everything is contingent, and this contingency is not merely a transcendental statement concerning the limits of human understanding and experience, but a speculative statement about the nature of reality itself. For Meillassoux, asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” is not a silly or unanswerable question: the answer is “no reason.” This is Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason,” a result of thinking through the logic of extinction without also discovering its corollary, the logic of incarnation. He attempts to devise an argument to dispel the sense of wonder provoked by Leibniz’ question in order to prevent the eclipsing of philosophy by religion. But the wonder persists, since consciousness continues to find itself alive to wonder where it has come from and where it shall go. The dialogue between philosophy and religion therefore continues.

Barfield and Participation

“I believe,” writes Barfield,

that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is, that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element in its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two (SA, p. 167).

Barfield is best known for his articulation of the evolution of consciousness, which is a concept subtler than the history of ideas usually offered in its stead. The former is not simply concerned with the progress of thought generated as each age responds to the problems of its predecessors, but with a change at the level of perception, and indeed a transformation in how the world itself is brought forth for consciousness. Like Teilhard, Barfield is an unabashed correlationist who directly confronts the difficulties spelled out by Meillassoux. Meillassoux suggests that, precisely to the extent that he has been “de-Christianized” by rejecting the “metaphysical pretension that [the Christian] belief system [is] superior to all others,” the inheritor of the Western tradition has opened the door to the complete relativization of truth (AF, p. 48). In our post-secular, post-Kantian context, according to Meillassoux, all belief systems are equally legitimated as potential paths to the Absolute, so long as they don’t claim to be rational.

Instead of rejecting the structure of history as revealed in Christianity, Barfield recognizes the way in which the emergence of the scientific method is itself the result of the logic of incarnation. The world alienation and disenchantment brought about following the Scientific Revolution are not the nullification of the Christian mythos, but the culmination of Spirit’s fall into matter. If Barfield is right, in the future, it will become “impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word” (SA, p. 164).

The contingent origins of mind out of life, and life out of matter, are the crux of Meillassoux argument for the priority of being in relation to thought. Barfield is well aware of the paradoxes of ancestrality, but instead of making non-sense of them by breaking the correlational circle, he opens up a more coherent possibility. Even the most devout scientific materialists (for whom the Kantian counter-revolution may as well never have occurred) are forced to employ a “crypto-noetic” vocabulary in order to overcome the absurdity of a “pre-perceptual past” (WA, p. 165). “Information” is now an indispensable concept for physicists and biologists alike; “decision-making” capacities are attributed to sub-atomic particles; chemical activity is said to follow order-generating “rules.” This hidden correlationism within science itself makes suspect Meillassoux’s evocation of the scientific perspective in order to secure his speculative materialist argument.

From a Barfieldian perspective, if after all secondary, or subjective qualities, are removed from matter, only number (or, if you like, “information”) remains, then materialists have no reason to believe that earth, prior to life and thought, existed in anything like the solid, physical state it today appears to be in. Solidity becomes as much a secondary quality as color, sound, or value. To his credit, Meillassoux does not insist on extension or solidity when referring to matter for similar reasons, but only to its mathematical properties. But he fails to realize the implications of this admission. Given that the physicality (or spatial extension) of matter is no longer essential to it, what reason does the materialist have for insisting on the physical origins of consciousness? The body may be necessary for our kind of consciousness without being its sufficient condition. If what we call matter is really the result of the underlying numerical relations between unseen dynamic forces, does this not imply the reality of some disembodied consciousness capable of holding these relations, or ideas, in mind? Meillassoux explicitly denies this possibility: “we know nothing of [an] eternal or disembodied subject” (CAO, p. 3); but his logic seems nonetheless to rest on such an eternal subject’s reality.

In the way that Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness, the relevant question is no longer “how did matter make consciousness?” but rather, “how did consciousness ever come to be so intimately tied up with matter?” (WA). This shift in emphasis is a result of Barfield’s thoroughly participatory approach, which has it that being exists for thought, and vice versa, not in a relation of asymmetrical dependence but of co-creative evolution. From this perspective, Copernicus’ heliocentric insight represents not simply “a new idea of the relation between man and nature [or thinking and being],” but rather “an idea of the new relation between them” (WA, p. 178).  The Copernican de-centering of human consciousness in relation to the cosmos was not simply a scientific correction of a primitive age’s misperception; it was thought entering into a new, mutually transforming relationship with being, thereby ushering in a new epoch in the history of the world.

The Scientific Revolution in some sense represents the climax of the evolution of consciousness, that historical moment when Spirit first fully recognized its distinctness from matter. Descartes is perhaps the most articulate thinker to experience the tremendous existential force of this new condition by ontologically separating the res cogitans from the res extensa. The separation was so radical that it seemed all but impossible to understand how the two might relate, leading Kant to declare that knowledge of the supersensible conditions underlying thought was impossible, not only in fact, but in principle. By articulating the transcendental conditions of knowledge, Kant created a situation in which Spirit could only enter further into the body and the world in pursuit of a solution to its dualistic situation.

If we are able to inquire into Spirit’s, or consciousness’, situation as Barfield was, we realize that

We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world (HGH, p. 18).

As all philosophers since Kant, Barfield is unable to conceive of the physical world independent of the participation of consciousness in its evocation (SA, p. 12). As modern science has forced us to expand our understanding of the universe, philosophy and religion have been forced to intensify the reach of the human spirit.


In the final pages of Owen Barfield’s fictional dialogue, World’s Apart, the narrator (Burgeon, a philologist) shares a letter from one of the seven other participants (Hunter, a theologian) received a week after their wide-ranging conversation had ended. Along with thanking Burgeon for organizing a successful experiment in cross-disciplinary conversation (in which an engineer, a physicist, a teacher, a biologist, an analytic philosopher, and a psychiatrist also took part), Hunter shared a strange and obscure dream that was provoked by the discussion. The dream involved three distinct humanoid figures that appeared and disappeared in turn, each bearing their own verbal message. The first had a round box with two holes in it for a head, with “light blazing out of its eye-holes in all directions” (p. 275). The words “Subjective Idealism” were associated with this figure. The second figure had the head of a lion with an emphatic mane that spread out, ray-like, in a way emblematic of the sun. Associated with this figure were the words “The Key of the Kingdom.” The third and final figure appeared without any head at all, carrying only the message “The Kingdom.” “In spite of the touch of alarm,” concludes Hunter, “the whole dream, from beginning to end was somehow “like a breeze blowing from excellent places, bearing health” (p. 276).

The dream, though enigmatic, would seem to be a symbolic summation of Barfield’s entire philosophy. The contemporary thinker must begin his or her pursuit of Wisdom from within, as a free individual mind (Subjective Idealism). This subjective beginning is then strengthened by the Christ-impulse (The Key to the Kingdom), transforming its inward light into the light of the universe. Finally, the individual mind is entirely taken up and absorbed into the eternal life of a redeemed cosmos (The Kingdom).

The dream sequence reveals the Christological foundation of Barfield’s thinking. For him, the truth of reality, if there be one, is revealed in Christ. Philosophy without Christ can think only the skeleton of the Absolute, leaving the blood and guts of the world in the margins of its treatises. Without the logic of incarnation (which is both a practice and a theory), spirit is unable to reconcile itself with sensation or gain the reign of its will, and though in thought it may grasp the formal structure of the thing-in-itself, it cannot feel its warmth or see its light. Faith need not be in opposition to knowledge, for is that movement that prepares and opens the soul to the incarnation of the Logos.

Works Cited

  1. Barfield, Owen. History, Guilt, Habit. 1979. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  2. Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning. 1977. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  3. Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. 1988. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.
  4. Barfield, Owen. World’s Apart. 2010. Barfield Press: Oxford, UK.
  5. Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound. 2010. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, UK.
  6. Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. 2009. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York, NY.
  7. Meillassoux, Quentin. “Contingency and the Absolutization of the One.” 2010. A lecture delivered at the Sorbonne for a symposium called “Metaphysics, Ontology, Henology.”
  8. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Activation of Energy. 1978. William Collins Sons: London, UK.
  9. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter. 1978. Williams Collins and Sons: London, UK.
  10. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. 1999. Sussex Academic Press: Portland, OR.

Owen Barfield on the inscape of the world.

“When we speak… about consciousness, about the point at which consciousness arose and so forth, we are speaking not merely about human nature, as we call it, but also about nature itself. When we study consciousness historically, contrasting perhaps what men perceive and think now with what they perceived and thought at some period in the past, when we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself, and not simply changes in the human brain. We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.” -Owen Barfield (History, Guilt, Habit, p. 18).

Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and Soul-Making

The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.


Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul

By Matthew Segall

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

-Ode to Psyche by John Keats

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

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

“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.

To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.

Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.

The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.

The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.

Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.

1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96).  This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.

The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of Godthat may produce the desired transformation.

“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).

Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.

Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”

Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.

Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).

What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).

This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).

Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.

The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).


1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)

2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)

3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)