Latour’s Space-Time Experiment: Thinking with Whitehead

Watch Olafur Eliasson and Bruno Latour re-enact the debate between Einstein and Bergson about space-time and the polarity between art and science. 

Though I first heard about Latour’s re-enactment of the Einstein-Bergson debate several years ago, I only uncovered the videos of this conversation while engaging in a FaceBook thread yesterday about Einstein’s bloc universe. Einstein famously claimed that time as we experience it is a mere psychological illusion. If we want the fact of the matter regarding real time, we must accept the verdict of the positive sciences. Einstein didn’t fess up to the covert metaphysic of bifurcation he was employing, and although Bergson wasn’t unable to get through to him on this point during their debate in 1922, other philosophers were listening.

Alfred North Whitehead agreed with Bergson’s critique of Einstein, though not with Bergson’s philosophical reconstruction of relativity. Whitehead developed his own alternative (philosophical and geometrical) formulation of relativity in a 1922 book The Principle of Relativity:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature (66).

Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived (Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5). Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education, 162-163). While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, contrary to Levi Bryant’s dismissal of Whitehead as an armchair philosopher who concocted “just so” stories with no empirical grounding (see the FaceBook thread), Whitehead’s innovation was to translate many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168). Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169).

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience” (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163). “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165).

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life (or for biotic existence in general, for that matter), is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141).

Reflections on Bruno Latour’s 3rd Gifford Lecture – “The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaia”

Latour marvels at the reverse symmetry of the discoveries of Galileo and Lovelock. Both transformed humanity’s perspective of the Earth (and itself) by pointing cheap instruments to the sky. In the 17th century, Galileo dissolved the lunar membrane that had separated heaven and earth. He expanded the laws of nature into the distant reaches of space, dislodging Earth from its cosmic perch. No longer unique, Earth became just another falling body obeying the universal law of gravity. In the 20th century, Lovelock’s discovery of Gaia put Earth at the center again. He disturbed the homogeneity of Galilean space  and re-established the uniqueness of the sub-lunary world. Earth was not simply one falling body among others; Earth is a living body. 

After Lovelock (and Latour), nature is no more. We live not in empty space, nor as “cosmonauts ensconced in spaceship Earth.” We live, earth-bound, within Gaia, subject to a new kind of geocentrism. She is a strange entity: neither a supernatural goddess or a unified organism. She has been improvisationally assembled over the course of billions of years through a series of contingent events whose effects have interlocked her processes into complex systems of planet-wide feedback. The only way to understand a creature of this type is mythically–that is, through narrative. Latour’s “geostory” is a non-human narrative fabric, a fabric woven of tectonic plates, meteorite impacts, and ice ages. Geostory foregrounds all the actors backgrounded by history. In an ontology of events, the past is understood as a story which could have been otherwise, a story whose endurance in the present depends on its constant re-telling. 

Having helped us to see the shifting shape of Gaia, Latour wonders: “What type of political animal does the human become after he has been coupled with an animated Gaia who is no longer natural?” Paradoxically, it seems the human will have to morph into a new shape just as the Earth is entering the Anthropocene. 

On to lecture 4…

[Conclusion] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead239

 “The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together–not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” -Whitehead240

“This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence generated the actual world as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” -Plato241

Whitehead suggests that Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus “are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought.”242 Although the Scholium provides “an immensely able statement of details” applicable to the deduction of truths within a specific domain of physical activity, its deductive prowess “conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.”243 Newton’s abstract conceptions of space, time, and matter as ready-made, and of eternal laws imposed by a transcendent designer, were undeniably useful, in that they provided the paradigmatic basis for two centuries of scientific progress. But the tremendous instrumental success of the Newtonian scheme had the practical effect of leading many to fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by overgeneralizing its simplified abstractions as if they could explain the full complexity of concrete reality. “The Scholium betrays its abstractness,” writes Whitehead,

by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of φύσις, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient.244

As was discussed in the prior section, Whitehead’s generalization of evolutionary theory requires that both potentiality and actuality be ingredient in any concrete depiction of nature. Nature as already produced, as natura naturata, as simply there and entirely actualized, provides only half the picture. Unlike the static cosmos of Newton, who Whitehead believes would have been confused by the modern doctrine of evolution, Plato articulated a cosmological scheme involving the emergence of order out of an original chaos, an account which already implicitly suggests an evolutionary process.245 There are aspects of Plato’s Timaeus that may seem foolish today, but “what it lacks in superficial detail,” according to Whitehead, “it makes up for by its philosophic depth.”246 This depth has allowed Plato’s speculative cosmology to outlast Newton’s more arbitrary construction. The theory of cosmogenesis offered by the latter, involving “a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe,” has been abandoned by contemporary physicists and process theologians alike as gratuitous.

Plato’s account of cosmogenesis, in contrast, avoids the Newtonian theory of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, the cosmos is said to emerge from the interplay of divine intelligence (νοῦς) and physical necessity (ἀνάγκη), such that the divine cannot violently command but must erotically persuade the cosmos to take shape out of chaos.247 The Greek word ἀνάγκη means not only “necessity,” but also connotes “need” or “urge”: apropos Whitehead’s creative retrieval of Plato’s scheme, this suggests that God, whose primordial conceptual pole is itself deficient in actuality, necessarily experiences a yearning after concrete fact.248 This yearning is productive of the consequent physical pole of God, which lovingly receives the freely actualized decisions of every finite occasion, no matter how discordant, into the harmony of its completed nature.249 “The action of God is its relation,” writes process theologian Catherine Keller,

–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath.250

Their are many other parallels to Whitehead’s cosmotheogony in Timaeus. The usual translation of one particularly relevant passage is as follows:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as was possible, and so he took over (παραλαμβάνω) all that was visible–not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion–and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order…251

The phrase “took over” (παραλαμβάνω) is misleading if interpreted only actively and not also passively: in this case, as both taking over responsibility for forming, and at the same time receiving the givenness of chaos.252 This double sense of παραλαμβάνω mirrors Whitehead’s dipolar conception of divinity as both conceptually active in envisaging the abstractive hierarchy of eternal objects and physically passive in receiving the multiplicity of finite concrescent occasions into its everlasting concrescence. The divine, for both Whitehead and Plato, is not an all-powerful creator, but an all-preserving co-creator:

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.253

Although Plato attempts in Timaeus, and Whitehead in Process and Reality, to articulate the most rational account possible of the genesis of the universe, in the end they found it necessary, due to the obscurity of their topic, to speak mythically by telling a “likely story” (εικώς μύθος). The Greek word εικώς is sometimes translated as “probable,” meaning likely but not entirely certain (“it goes something like this…”). As with the translations above, this choice can be misleading. The translation of εικώς as “likely” conveys the superficial meaning of “probable,” but this rendering should not obscure the subtler meaning of “likeness,” closely associated with the Greek word for “icon” or “image” (εἰκών). In Plato’s cosmogenic myth, the universe is said to be the most beautiful image that it was possible for the divine to co-create. The beauty of a thing being a result of the noetic order and harmony it radiates, it follows that the divine had to find some way to imbue the cosmic image with intelligence. Because “νοῦς [intelligence] cannot be present in anything without soul [ψυχή],” the God made the universe as a living creature or animal (ζῷον), a being endowed with soul.254

It is at this point that a tension emerges in Plato’s story. Although not all-powerful, the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as a maker, or artisan. It is strange that the Cosmic Animal, or World-Soul, is said to have been made by the Demiurge, since normally living creatures are not fabricated by an artisan, they are born. This raises questions about how Plato conceives of divinity. “To find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough,” writes Plato, “and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.”255 There has been much commentary over the ages concerning the meaning of this double designation of the Platonic God as both “maker” and “father.” Plutarch’s interpretation is helpful, if not entirely elucidatory:

[In] the case of a maker, his work, when done, is separated from him, whereas the origination and force emanating from the parent is blended in the offspring…which is a…part of the procreator…[The] cosmos is not like products that have been molded and fitted together but has in it a large portion of vitality and divinity, which god sowed from himself in the matter and mixed with it.256

The Demiurge, then, is a maker, but a fatherly maker whose life force is wedded with that which has been brought to birth. Still, it seems awkward, to say the least, that the cosmos is said to have been born from a single male parent. Plato resolves this tension by introducing another cast member into his cosmogonic drama: the Receptacle (ὑποδοχή), or “wetnurse of all becoming.”257 Whereas the fatherly Demiurge is said to beget the beautiful form of the cosmos, the motherly Receptacle is said to bear it.258 Plato’s account of the Receptacle is meant to be an accessible image for a closely related, but far more obscure concept, that of the Khora (Χώρα). The Khora is described as the “third kind” mediating between the eternal being of the Ideas and the becoming of the cosmic image. “Its nature,” writes Plato,

is to be available for anything to make its impression upon, and it is modified, shaped and reshaped by the things that enter it…The things that enter and leave it are images of those things that always are [Ideas/ειδών], imprinted after their likeness in a marvelous way that is hard to describe…It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature [physis/φύσις] between them to their offspring.259

The Cosmic Animal or World-Soul, then, is the offspring of the khoric mother and eidetic father. While standard readings of Plato’s written corpus tend to fall into a two-world interpretation, where physical becoming is said to poorly imitate perfect metaphysical being, ambiguities in Plato’s account make it difficult to determine whether, in generating an ensouled cosmos, the separation between the eternal Ideas and the becoming of the physical cosmos is canceled.260 From Whitehead’s perspective, this ambiguity can be hermeneutically massaged to save Plato from the incoherence of dualism. After all, Plato himself explicitly disclaimed “the possibility of an adequate philosophical system” that might permit the “variousness of the Universe…to be fathomed by our intellects.”261 Whitehead’s reformed Platonism insists upon the worldly immanence of the divine, thereby erasing any ultimate separation between the Demiurge and the Receptacle. Instead, their supposed offspring, the World-Soul, is said to supply the universe’s harmonious tendencies through the dipolarity of its own nature. Conceiving of the World-Soul as an emanation issuing from a transcendent deity, as some Platonic interpreters have done, “obscures the ultimate question of the relation of reality as permanent with reality as fluent”; the coherence of Whitehead’s scheme requires, in contrast, that the Cosmic Animal be understood as a mediator, sharing in the natures of eternity and time alike.262 The Cosmic Animal is not a free creation of an acosmic divine architect, but a creature of Creativity.

Whitehead reads Timaeus as offering an account of a World-Soul

whose active grasp of ideas conditions impartially the whole process of the Universe…[and] on whom depends that degree of orderliness which the world exhibits.263

Without this active grasp by the living intelligence of the mediating World-Soul, the ideas would remain frozen and lifeless and would have no way of characterizing actuality or partaking in the creative process of cosmogenesis. Plato further describes the way the Cosmic Animal “contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.”264 As Whitehead puts it, the organic process of each actual occasion “repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.”265 It is this correspondence between the World-Soul and the varying grades of finite souls, including humans, that affirms the co-creative role of every organism, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “all [play] their part in conditioning nature by the inherent persuasiveness of ideas.”266 An erotic ferment inwardly permeates every creature, persuading all ever onward toward novel intensities of harmonic experience. In this sense, Eros, the divine element in the world, functions less to preserve stability than to evoke intensity.267 For example, even stars, our sidereal ancestors, are not everlasting: only by way of their sacrificial death could the heavier elemental creatures required for biological life have been brought forth. Similarly, the upward trend of biological evolution towards more complex species depends upon a selective process whereby the inability of an individual organism to adapt its way of life to changing circumstances “[entails] the death penalty for impertinence.”268 The cosmic desire for the intensification of experience is more powerful than the private fear of death. “It is in this way,” writes Whitehead,

that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph. This is the notion of redemption through suffering which haunts the world.269

Whitehead calls the process of erotic evocation of intensities by the World-Soul, whereby egoistic aims are sublimated by their inclusion in a greater whole, a “Supreme Adventure.”270 He describes the Adventure as an inverted renovation of Plato’s Receptacle, a “medium of intercommunication” necessary for the unity of all things.271 While the Receptacle is “void,” “bare of all forms,” “and abstract from all individual occasions,” the Adventure includes “the living urge towards all possibilities…[realizable by] the [actual] occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention.”272 The divine dimension of the cosmos, the World-Soul, is the “Great Fact” explicatory of our Supreme Adventure. As discussed above, the divine nature is dipolar, including a primordial and a consequent aspect, or as Whitehead also describes them, an “initial Eros” and a “final Beauty.” Whitehead’s poetic genius reaches its highest pitch when he reflects upon this Great Fact in the concluding lines of Adventures of Ideas:

It is the immanence of the Great Fact including this initial Eros and this final Beauty which constitutes the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civilization at its height. At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace:–That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies…In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.273

While the World-Soul’s primordial valuation of the multiplicity of eternal objects is unchanging “by reason of its final completeness,” its consequent feeling of the evolving multiplicity of actual occasions remains always incomplete.274 In this sense, although the community of finite organic occasions makes up the unity of the Cosmic Animal, the latter “is not a static organism”; rather, “[it] is an incompletion in process of production.”275 Process theologian Roland Faber has described Whitehead’s theology of becoming as an “eschatological ad-vent” wherein the divine is caught up in the always ongoing adventure of all that was, is, and will be.276 The ensouled universe is therefore best described not simply as Whole, or as One, but as an

open movement of wholeness that cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity.277

Whitehead’s emphasis on openness and diversity makes comparisons with neo-Platonist schemes of the emanation of the Cosmic Animal from the “One beyond being and non-being,” as Plotinus and Proclus often described it,278 rather troublesome. Nonetheless, physicist Simon Malin argues that Whitehead’s approach is in some ways complemented by such schemes, wherein a process of divine effulgence or “overflowing” leads to the ordered involution of a series of stages:

Thus the One produces Nous, Nous produces Soul, Soul produces nature, and nature produces the sensible world…In the case of the World Soul…it is the contemplation of the perfect intelligence and order of the Nous that gives rise, as a kind of unintentional overflow, to the order of nature.279

While some analogy can be drawn between the Nous and Whitehead’s conception of the primordial nature of God, in the emanationist scheme, the many actual occasions of the physical world are given no agency or co-creative role whatsoever, nor is God attributed with a consequent nature allowing it to become-with the many occasions of the world as our fellow-sufferer. Whitehead dismissed such overly rationalized schemes because they lack the experiential adequacy demanded by our religious intuitions of a God who feels and can be felt, and our aesthetic intuitions of a continually creative cosmos. “God is in the world, or nowhere,” writes Whitehead,

creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.280

The rationality of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme remains provisional, experimental, imaginative, and always pluralistic. It is an “adventure of hope,” not a search for the certainty of a final systematic theory that would “explain away” mystery.281 For Whitehead, not only does philosophy begin in wonder, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”282 Whiteheadian rationality is guided by a unwavering commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself.”283 To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of relationality. Instead of anxiously running from the abyssal chaos at the root of all things in search of the secure Ground offered by traditional accounts of a One beyond being, or an omnipotent Creator, Whitehead celebrates the “within-beyond” of a groundless “creative drive undermining any static dichotomy between cosmos and chaos.”284 God, a creature of Creativity like each of us, suffers and enjoys the unpredictable adventures of a chaosmos in which “everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”285


239 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 164.

240 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 106.

241 Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c.

242 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

243 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

244 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

245 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93, 95.

246 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

247 John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 91.

248 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 33.

249 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 349.

250 Keller, Face of the Deep, 198.

251 Plato, Timaeus, 30a.

252 Sallis, Chorology, 57.

253 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

254 Sallis, Chorology, 57-58.

255 Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

256 Plutarch, Platonic Questions, II, 1; quoted in Sallis, Chorology, 52n7.

257 Plato, Timaeus, 49a.

258 Sallis, Chorology, 58n14.

259 Plato, Timaeus, 50c-d.

260 Sallis, Chorology, 69-70.

261 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 52. Whitehead is here referring to Plato’s discussion in his Seventh Letter written to Dion’s followers.

262 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

263 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147.

264 Plato, Timaeus, 31a.

265 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 215.

266 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 148.

267 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 105.

268 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 112.

269 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350.

270 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294-295.

271 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

272 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 295.

273 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296.

274 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 345.

275 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 214-215.

276 Roland Faber, “De-ontologizing God: Levinas, Deleuze, and Whitehead,” in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, eds. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 222-223.

277 Roland Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos: For a More Deleuzian Whitehead,” in Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 158, 163.

278 Following Plato, Republic 509b and Parmenides 137cf.

279 Simon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012), 201-202.

280 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 297.

281 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42; Adventures of Ideas, 174.

282 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168.

283 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

284 Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos,” 165.

285 Borges, “Happiness,” 441.

[The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

“In the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas…[The universe is] passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” -Whitehead114


The main outlines of the doctrine of evolution, on Whitehead’s reading, must be “[absorbed]…as the guiding methodology of all branches of science.”115 Grasping the transdisciplinary significance of evolution requires the “negative capability” mentioned earlier, a willingness to consign oneself to the speculative risks Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has proposed for thinking. Because all our knowledge depends upon abstraction, the point is not to avoid it but to do it gently, such that our knowing leaves the concrete life of the world unharmed and intact. Whitehead’s contribution to the philosophical integration of the special sciences and their abstract domains of relevance is derived from what he calls his method of “imaginative generalization.” Metaphysics is the imaginative attempt to express in language the most general features of experience, and therefore, of nature. Every special science devises its own instruments: the instrument of metaphysics, the science of sciences, is language.116 Like physics, metaphysics should be undertaken as an experimental practice, only the experiments are to be performed on language itself. “The success of the imaginative experiment,” according to Whitehead, “is always to be tested by the applicability of its results beyond the restricted locus from which it originated.”117

In the case of the connection between evolutionary theory and the new physics, Whitehead’s experiment is to imaginatively generalize Darwin’s specialized concepts of variability, reproduction, and inheritance, such that evolution comes to describe the activity of self-organizing entities at every scale of nature, no longer just the biological. In this sense, as was mentioned earlier, biology becomes the study of the evolution of the larger organisms, while physics becomes the study of the evolution of the smaller organisms.118 “I am…a thoroughgoing evolutionist,” says Whitehead,

…Millions of years ago our earth began to cool off and forms of life began in their simplest aspects. Where did they come from? They must have existed in potentiality in the most minute particles, first of this fiery, and later of this watery and earthy planet.119

Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 demonstrates that “mass [is] the name for a quantity of energy considered in relation to some of its dynamic effects”; this leads, according to Whitehead, to the displacement of matter by energy as the most fundamental concept in physics. But what is energy other than

the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings…[a structure] that depends on the notion of the functioning of an organism?120

That is, if energetic activity is to be understood in its full concreteness, and not just as mathematical functions in an abstract equation, then some reference must also be made to the mental functions of the self-realizing but prehensively interrelated creatures of the actual world (i.e., to purposeful organisms in an ecology). Whitehead explains:

Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive…[and] there is material [or energy]…which endures. On the organic theory, the only endurances are structures of activity, and the structures are evolved [units of emergent value].121

After Whitehead’s imaginative generalization, evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations under selective pressure becomes evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historically organized routes, whereby a specific occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the cause of structural inheritance) become synthesized with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the source of structural variation) into some enduring pattern of experiential value. In other words,

There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact.122

These processes of evolutive concrescence “repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature.”123 Whereas in the Darwinian version of the theory, a pre-existent environment of inert material in empty space is considered to be the sole source of selective pressure, in the Whiteheadian version, organisms are understood to be co-creators of their own environments.124 Also, whereas in the Darwinian theory the competitive struggle for existence is considered the primary engine of evolution, in the Whiteheadian version, cooperative interaction becomes the essential factor for long-term survival. Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.”125 Whitehead offers a descriptive example of the evolution of atomic ecologies:

Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.126

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory threw Earth into motion, thereby turning the medieval world upside-down, under the new requirements of the evolutionary theory, the sturdy mechanistic cosmos of modernity has been turned inside-out, revealing an organic cosmogenesis creatively advancing through emergent stages of organization. Cosmogenesis, resting on the infinite potential of literally nothing (i.e., the quantum vacuum), has since its eruption been rushing toward more and more complex forms of realization over the course of billions of years.

Cosmic evolution began with the “primordial Flaring Forth,” after which the earliest generation of primate organisms emerged out of the “cosmic fecundity” of the quantum vacuum.127 In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this fecundity finds its place as the ultimate principle of his metaphysical scheme: Creativity. Creativity is “universal throughout actuality,” such that it eternally pervades creation to infect each and every one of its creatures with sparks of potentiality.128 As the geologian Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme suggest,

Though the originating power gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago, this realm of power is not simply located there at that point in time, but is rather a condition of every moment of the universe, past, present, and future.129

In Whitehead’s scheme, even God is creaturely, and therefore conditioned by the power Creativity. As discussed in the last section, Creativity is also conditioned or concretized in turn by God’s all-embracing valuation of the multiplicity of potentialities, thereby providing each finite organism with erotic lures encouraging the sort of harmonious functioning that has lead to the stages of enduring societal organization characteristic of the universe.130

Whitehead’s organic primates–or, speaking metaphysically, actual occasions–cannot be understood in isolation; like all biological creatures on Earth, with both their ecological relations in the present and their evolutionary relations in the past, primate organisms are bound together as co-creators in a multiform cosmogenetic community, all of which emerged from one original unfathomably powerful energy-event. “At the base of the serene tropical rainforest,” write Berry and Swimme,

sits this cosmic hurricane. At the base of the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, a microcosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billion galaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. The nature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related to the nature of this primordial Flaring Forth.131

The primitive beings which first emerged from the Flaring Forth have come since Whitehead’s day to be known by the standard model of particle physics as the muon and tau leptons, along with the charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks, collectively called the fermions.132 These fundamental organisms have mostly evolved, or decayed, since the Big Bang into the more familiar electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up (as organelles, so to speak) the larger atomic organisms of the periodic table of elements. Left out of this picture are the bosons, or force carriers, like gluons, photons, and the as yet undetected graviton. In Whitehead’s organic terms, bosons and fermions can be described according to the two types of vibration, “vibratory locomotion” and “vibratory organic deformation.”133 Organic deformation describes the wave-like aspect of primate organisms (i.e., their continuous transition, or duration, of realized pattern, as felt from within), while locomotion describes the particle-like aspect (i.e., their discontinuous epochal realizations, as felt from without).

The entire genus of atoms did not appear all at once. Prior to the assistance of the higher-level activity of stars (i.e., the process of stellar nucleosynthesis), no elemental organisms heavier than hydrogen and helium were able to stabilize out of lower-level energetic activities. But before stars could emerge, hydrogen and helium had to collect into huge swirling clouds, which became galaxies.134 At the center of these early galaxies there emerged black holes (whose gravity was so intense not even light could escape), further securing the next stage of evolutionary complexity. According to astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, the influence of “energy feedback” from these early black holes played a crucial role in forming the stars and planets making up the universe we know today.135 Star formation was first catalyzed as a result of the rapid revolution of the black holes at the center of galaxies, which generated gravitational density waves that “shocked clouds of hydrogen and helium to condense rapidly into thousands of stars at a time.”136 Had this rapid process of star formation continued unabated, the raw hydrogen and helium gas of most of the galaxies in the universe would long ago have become far too hot to form any new stars.137 Fortunately, the energy feedback effects of supermassive black holes has kept star formation in check. In effect, the eating habits of black holes allow them to act as cosmic thermostats, “making sure the porridge of intergalactic matter is not to hot and not too cold.”138 Black holes have played a fundamental role in the evolutionary adventure that gave rise to our present cosmic ecology.139 According to Scharf,

The fact that there are any galaxies like the Milky Way in the universe at this cosmic time is intimately linked with the opposing processes of gravitational agglomeration of matter and the disruptive energy blasting from matter-swallowing black holes. Too much black hole activity and there would be little new star formation, and the production of heavy elements would cease. Too little black hole activity, and environments might be overly full of young and exploding stars–or too little stirred up to produce anything.140

Galaxies and black holes can be understood as analogous to massive cellular systems, where the regulative role of the black hole is akin to that of the central nucleus of a cell. Like all other organisms, galaxies appear to have a finite life-span, beyond which they can no longer produce new stars. The nested feedback loops at work to secure the self-organizing dynamics of a biological cell are obviously far more complex and adaptive than the simpler feedback exhibited by black holes; but nonetheless, the general analogy seems to hold.


114 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Edinburg: Cambridge University Press, 1926/2011), 100, 144.

115 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

116 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11.

117 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.

118 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

119 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 277.

120 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 96.

121 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.

122 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 88.

123 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.

124 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 105.

125 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104.

126 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104-105.

127 Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992/1994), 21.

128 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

129 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 17.

130 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

131 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 21.

132 Lederman, The God Particle, 62.

133 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 121-125.

134 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

135 Caleb Scharf, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos (New York: Scientific American, 2012), 210.

136 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.

137 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 202.

138 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 143.

139 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 164.

140 Schwarf, Gravity’s Engines, 204.

[Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103


Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104

In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,

was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106

Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,

Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108

Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110

Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.

Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that

it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112

Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.


103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.

104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.

105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.

106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.

108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.

109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.

110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.

111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.

112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.

113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead's Philosophy of Science] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science

“The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen–all one brightening for gods immortal and for mortal men on plow lands kind with grain.” -Homer25

“God invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding.” -Plato26

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.” -Whitehead27

For ancient poets like Homer, the sun was a being of tremendous spiritual significance. The immense beauty of its rising and setting brought forth a dramatic display of the abiding moral harmony underlying the cosmos. For ancient philosophers like Plato, the sun was similarly a sign of the highest Good, but its visible light was thought to be only partially responsible for the shower of colors drenching earth and sky. Participating in the sunlit phenomena of the outer world was an inner noumenal light emanating from the eyes. Plato suggested that this inner light flows gently outward through the eyes from a psychic fire kindred to that animating the sun. It meets and coalesces with the light of the sun (or at night, the moon and stars) to bring forth the beauty and splendor of the universe.28 Plato’s was a participatory account of our knowledge of nature, such that soul and world were understood to synergetically intermingle in each act of perception. He considered the eyes the noblest of the senses, “source of supreme benefit to us,”

in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of [the heavens] has lead to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time and opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe.29

Not only was Plato’s cosmology inclusive of perceptual experiences in its definition of nature, it felt divine eros and saw eternal eidos at work throughout the cosmos. The circling stars, sun, and moon were considered to be living gods, humanity’s wisest teachers. In his survey of European history, Whitehead places Plato at the center of the first great period of intellectual development, a period with deep influences on all subsequent thought.30 In the main, Plato’s cosmological scheme and account of visual perception, as articulated most profoundly in the dialogue Timaeus, reigned among Europe’s intelligentsia for more than 1,500 years.31 It was not until the height of the scientific revolution in the 17th century that his participatory premises were rejected by the next wave of great geniuses.

“In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”32 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”33 The new analytic methods of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton succeeded in breaking the bond between the numinosity of the soul and the phenomenality of the world, bifurcating nature into two distinct substances, the material and the mental. Humanity’s understanding of its relationship with the universe underwent a fundamental transformation.

Three hundred years later, despite the evidences of modern physical science, the average 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” argued Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”34 The warmth and hue of a sunset, continues Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”35 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names of consciousness. Plato’s insight into the erotic coupling of inner/spiritual light with outer/physical light has been degraded into the dualistic modern theory of “two natures…one the conjecture and the other the dream.”36 Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our personal experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the impersonal cause of that experience (the conjecture).

Following upon Galileo’s initial bifurcation of nature, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern scientific materialism. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical elegance of Copernicus’ heliocentric model (as improved upon by Kepler) made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanisms of the extended things (res extensa) of nature, a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion. Religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the unearthly substance of the soul, providing moral guidance for existentially troubled thinking things (res cogitans) like us. Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal dimensions of reality.37

In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. By 1850, the values of industrial capitalism, justified by the mechanistic cosmology of scientific materialism, had infected much of the Western world, forever altering traditional forms of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and religious practice. “[All] thought concerned with social organization,” writes Whitehead,

expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt.38

Today, at the peak (if not the beginning of the decline) of humanity’s technoscientific mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology capable of guiding the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium is just beginning to take root. Still, our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing–constructed on the metaphysical assumption of the bifurcation of subject and object, fact and value, meaning and matter–threatens the continued existence of the community of life on earth.

Beginning in the early 1920s, Whitehead interrogated modern science and industrialism, not to dismiss them,39 but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to Stengers, this question is not an attempt to condemn scientific materialism for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather

a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.40

Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of natural philosophy is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science to be that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature otherwise: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”41 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”42 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”43 it implies, waiting eagerly to see in what way it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to the values of actual life. Materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability44 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain secrete consciousness?”, or “what sort of thing is curved space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology and philosophy of science require the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, causality, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the relevance of both quantitative patterns and qualitative perceptions in the passage of nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to replace concrete experience with abstract explanation. In this sense, Whitehead’s scientific method can be compared with Goethe’s “gentle empiricism,” which similarly rejected mechanical explanations, instead pursuing nature’s reasons by learning to participate more fully in the archetypal patterns interwoven with experience itself.45 “The divergence of [scientific] formulae about nature from the appearance of nature,” argues Whitehead, “has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character.”46

Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into shadow. In what way does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that

the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.47

Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the so-called “hard problem” of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”48 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the speculative wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead’s philosophy of science is trying to spell out. For now, says Whitehead, “we leave to metaphysics the synthesis of the knower and the known.”49 Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: a coherent foundation for our scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s re-imagined point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”50 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.

Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.51

If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of scientific explanation cannot itself be scientifically explained. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-aesthetic) qualities. Instead of turning science against commonsense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”52 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.53 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,

that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.54

The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The photon is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his or her perception of light as a result of certain replicable experiments, laboratory technologies, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The photon, as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the creative advance of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.55 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.56 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s aesthetic encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to provide such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.57 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged instrumentally, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature, rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature.

Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and commonsense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.58 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a participatory mode of attending to nature–a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally manipulated by an alienated technoscientific mode of knowing. Instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms cannot be characterized merely by mass, extension, and velocity; they are creatures enjoying the value of their own experience, which itself is initially inherited from the feelings of others. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are individual living organisms, each dependent on their relationships to others for their continued existence as themselves.

By the late 1920s, Whitehead had given up on the problems that framed his earlier inquiry into the philosophy of science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. “Riskier” because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”59 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” The imaginative enjoyment of the poet and the intellectual reflection of the theoretician resulting from the beauty of the setting sun must themselves be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Mind must find its foothold in the midst of things themselves, an inhabitant of nature and not its transcendental knower. In the next section, I further unpack Whitehead’s venture beyond the philosophy of science into the formidable project of constructing a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.


25 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Double Day, 1961), bk. 3, lines 1-4.

26 Plato, Timaeus, 47b-c.

27 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 178.

28 Plato, Timaeus, 45a-d.

29 Plato, Timaeus, 47a

30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 38.

31 Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21. Plato’s cosmology’s only serious challenger was Aristotle.

32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.

33 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.

34 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, transl. Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1623/1957), 274.

35 Galileo, The Assayer, 274.

36 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964), 31.

37 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious function as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm (see Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20). Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (see ibid., 45).

38 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181.

39 “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 40).

40 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.

41 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.

42 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

43 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

44 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

45 Zajonc, Catching the Light, 203.

46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.

47 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.

48 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.

49 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.

50 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.

51 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.

52 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

53 Or in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.

54 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

55 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.

56 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.

57 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.

58 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.

59 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

[Introduction] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

“…how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” -Whitehead1

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” -Whitehead2

This essay is written in preparation for my dissertation, tentatively titled Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. In this forthcoming dissertation, Alfred North Whitehead’s and Friedrich Joseph Schelling’s voices will play starring roles in my own attempt to re-construct the philosophical basis for a viable planetary civilization. Special attention will be paid to the methodological role of imagination in both scientific theorization and religious mythopoeia. Raimon Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric experience,” wherein Universe, God, and Human are the truine ultimates in terms of which experiential reality is to be interpreted, will provide the imaginative background guiding my philosophical speculations.3

In this essay, I will focus on Whitehead’s organic cosmology, but Schelling’s and Panikkar’s conceptions of reality will never be far from my mind. The title of this essay is itself a nod toward Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, which seeks to integrate humanity’s ancient spiritual longing for wisdom and compassionate consciousness with its modern scientific knowledge of an evolutionary cosmos.

The important place of philosophy, from Whitehead’s similarly anthropocosmic perspective, is that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences. It follows that:

Philosophy is not one among the sciences with its own little scheme of abstractions which it works away at perfecting and improving.4

Rather, the philosopher is always at work attempting to harmonize the abstract sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology), both internally among themselves, and more generally with our deep moral intuitions and aesthetic feelings regarding the archetypal values inherent to the universe. In this sense, Whitehead sees philosophy’s principle import to be “the fusion of religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.”5

One of the major premises of this essay is that contemporary scientific cosmology has passed into an epicyclic phase of theoretical development.6 The present disorganized assemblage of scientific hypotheses regarding the fundamental laws and material components of the universe has left contemporary cosmology on the verge of a paradigmatic shift whose existential significance may surpass even that of heliocentrism or evolutionism (though it will need to include rather than contradict these paradigms). Whitehead was among the first initiates into this new cosmological story, but grasping the novelty of his vision also requires remembering the insights of the ancients, even if in a modern context. This essay therefore situates Whitehead’s animate cosmology in the context of the larger historical arc of Western natural philosophy dating back to Plato. It also bring’s Whitehead’s philosophy of organism into conversation with several components of contemporary scientific cosmology–including relativistic, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories–in order to both exemplify the inadequacy of traditional materialistic-mechanistic metaphysics, and to display the relevance of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme to the transdisciplinary project of integrating these theories and their data with the presuppositions of civilized society. This data is nearly crying aloud for a cosmologically ensouled interpretation, one in which, for example, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological.7

Almost a century ago, Whitehead warned that if physicists did not begin to reassess the outdated imaginative background of mechanistic materialism in light of their own most recent cosmological discoveries, the scientific enterprise would as a result “degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses.”8 Despite the conceptual revolutions of the 19th and 20th century (e.g., evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories), scientific materialism remains the de facto natural philosophy of Western civilization. It imagines the universe as

irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations…in itself…senseless, valueless, purposeless…following a fixed routine imposed by external relations.9

Such a picture of ultimate reality leaves no room for life or consciousness. It seems likely that this metaphysical oversight is among the reasons for (post)modern civilization’s ecological and socio-economic crises. A coherent philosophy of nature has yet to take root among civilization’s intelligentsia. Several centuries from now, if historians still exist, and if a new image of reality and with it a new civilization are in the process of flowering, the 20th century will stand out not only for its world wars and widespread environmental devastation, but for its disorienting scientific discoveries (like relativity and quantum theories) and the earthshaking technological inventions which resulted (like the atom bomb and the microchip). For a century, the greater part of the thinking heads of our civilization have been distracted by the electronic gadgetry and wartime glory afforded by technoscience.10 This distraction has allowed them to overlook the philosophical incoherence of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead, one of the handful of historically sensitive scientists to grasp what was happening, wrote in 1925 that “The progress of science has now reached a turning point”:

The stable foundations of physics have broken up…The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? …[Science] must become philosophical.11

The incoherence of mechanistic materialism stems from its neglect of the importance of harmonizing our theoretical knowledge of nature with the presuppositions of our ethical values, artistic projects, and spiritual aspirations. Unlike any of humanity’s premodern cosmologies, modern scientific materialism has been predicated upon a metaphysical bifurcation separating human consciousness from the surrounding cosmos. This dualism between consciousness and cosmos is the fatal flaw at the core of modern scientific cosmology. Whitehead’s philosophy of science is characterized by the attempt to correct for the widespread deployment of the fundamental fallacy of bifurcation, along with its daughter fallacy, that of misplaced concreteness. In effect, modern science has sacrificed intuitive understanding of the concrete passage and organic unity of the actual universe for the abstract knowledge of its mathematical formulae and mechanical models. No other fallacy occupied Whitehead’s critical attention more than the bifurcation of nature: as we will see, he initially wandered out of mathematical physics and into the arena of full-fledged metaphysical cosmology precisely in order to integrate what had become dissociated. “Coherence,” writes Whitehead, “is the great preservative of rationalistic sanity”12; without it, neither cosmology nor civilization would be possible.

Despite the need for greater philosophical coherence in contemporary scientific cosmology, many leading physicists are growing increasingly impatient with philosophers. “For most of the twenty-five centuries since written history began,” writes Freeman Dyson, “philosophers were important…”

They had a deep influence in the practical worlds of politics and morality as well as in the intellectual worlds of science and scholarship…Compared with the giants of the past, [twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers] are a sorry bunch of dwarfs…So far as the general public [is] concerned, philosophers [have become] invisible.”13

Dyson at least has hope for the future importance of philosophy, if only it becomes willing to ask the big questions once again. Other physicists have become outright dismissive of the entire enterprise of philosophy. “Philosophy is dead,” writes Stephen Hawking, because it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”14 Lawrence Krauss similarly argues that much of contemporary philosophy suffers from “intellectual bankruptcy”15:

When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.16

Like Hawking and Krauss, Stephen Weinberg is also of the opinion that scientists need not take the complaints of philosophers seriously:

To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is to tell a tiger in search of its prey that all flesh is grass [...] with or without [philosophers], we will continue to [search for scientific explanations of natural phenomena].17

In response to such criticisms, it must first be said that Whitehead was well aware of the danger of supposing that our present definitions, whether they be in the language of mathematical physics or of metaphysical ontology, somehow already contain all the words, phrases, or formulae applicable to the analysis of experiential reality: he called this supposition “The Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary.”18

We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details.19

For Whitehead, the role of philosophy is akin to that of poetry: to introduce novel fundamental ideas and verbal expressions as an aid to the ongoing adventure of civilization.20 This obviously makes philosophy’s goals a great deal broader than those of physics; but as I hope to spell out in the course of this essay, it is essential to the health of civilization that lines of communication between philosophy and science remain open and mutually informative. Whitehead, a mathematical physicist by training, had just as much criticism for the habits of his own discipline as for philosophy. He placed the blame for the sorry state of both disciplines primarily on the process of professionalization, which pushes society’s brightest minds to become narrow-minded specialists and technicians with little interest or respect for anything but the operational abstractions of their own field. The fragmentary proliferation of technoscientific disciplines during the 19th and 20th centuries mostly discouraged grand attempts at integration akin to those of philosophers past. “Sometimes it happens,” writes Whitehead,

that the service rendered by philosophy is entirely obscured by the astonishing success of a scheme of abstractions in expressing the dominant interests of an epoch.21

Whitehead’s approaches to philosophy and to science are not typical of his age. A natural born integralist, he came to them from several angles at once: as a mathematician seeking truth in harmonious pattern, as a physicist attempting to describe the fundamental forces of nature, as a pragmatic educator searching for a viable pedagogy, and as an ally of the Romantic poets in their protest against abstraction on behalf of the concrete values inherent to the universe. According to contemporary interpreter Isabelle Stengers, Whitehead’s central concern is precisely modern science’s

lack of resistance to the intolerant rule of abstractions that declare everything that escapes them frivolous, insignificant, or sentimental.22

Much of the hostility directed at philosophers by the physicists mentioned above would seem to be a result, not only of their lack of resistance, but of their outright celebration of the power of abstractions to explain away the depths of mystery inherent to lived experience. In contrast to the triumphant attitude fostered by scientific materialism, Whitehead does not look to natural science, or to philosophy, for reductive explanations. Rather, his philosophizing seeks “direct insight into depths as yet unspoken.”23 The purpose of philosophy is not to explain away mystery, but to add to it “some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”24

As an aid to understanding the radical novelty of Whitehead’s mature cosmological scheme, it is important to first grasp the essential features of his early reflections on the history and philosophy of science. It is to these reflections that the next section turns.


1 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), xiv.

2 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 168.

3 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being (New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 34.

4 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 83.

5 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 15.

6 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 124.

7 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

8 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

9 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

10 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011], 11).

11 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23 (italics mine). By way of comparison, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was similarly an attempt “to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically” (Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797/1988], 5).

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

13 Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books (November 8, 2012), 20.

14 Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

15 Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: The Free Press, 2012), xiv. Krauss claims to bring “nothing”–traditionally a topic for metaphysical speculation–into the purview of natural science such that it can be used to explain the creation of the universe materialistically (i.e., as the result of blind chance and causal necessity without meaning or purpose). I return to his ideas in a later section in connection with Terrence Deacon’s less reductionistic scientific characterization of “nothing” in Incomplete Nature (2012).

16 Krauss, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in Scientific American (April 27, 2012), (accessed 11/15/2012).

17 Stephen Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Vintage Books, 1993), 21-22.

18 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 173.

19 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 89.

20 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

21 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 136.

23 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

24 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168-169.

PDF of “Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology” [and Table of Contents]

Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

II. The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science

III. Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

IV. Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

_a. The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

_b. Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

_c. Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

V. Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul
Wordle: Whitehead and Cosmology

“Logic of Imagination: The Expanse of the Elemental” by John Sallis

I just finished John Sallis‘ latest book:

It was my first experience of his writing, which was lucid and even rose to imaginal and inspired heights in places. I haven’t read continental phenomenology in a while, though thinkers like Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty definitely shaped my entry into academic philosophy as an undergraduate. What I loved about Sallis’ project was his sense for the elemental. He distinguishes natural and cosmic elementals from finite things, since unlike finite things (the ontic), elementals are not subject to the law of noncontradiction and so can’t be distinctly (i.e., conceptually) determined. They are unruly and obey no logic, unless it be a logic of imagination. To the extent that he succeeded in articulating the look of natural and cosmic elementals as they are projected into the subject by the sublime sights and sounds of earth, sky, sea, and stars, Sallis is able to break free of the anthropocentrism so characteristic of the phenomenological tradition. Sometimes his focus on the earthly and cosmic awakens a sense for the spiraling schema he hopes to trace through imagination. Other times I have no sense of what he is talking about; his logic becomes loopy. Still other times he falls back into his phenomenological training, lifting the human off the earth and making it the transcendental condition of earth and cosmos (what of the fact that geo- and cosmogenesis are the conditions of human consciousness?). Transcendental phenomenology has been critiqued by object-oriented speculative realists for being too subject- and/or human-oriented. I think there are aspects of this object-oriented critique, by Bryant, Brassier, and others, that seem to hit their target with Sallis, but I’ll refrain from saying more until after I’ve also read Chorology and Force of Imagination.

Sallis’ history of formal logic includes the contributions of Aristotle, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Cantor, Whitehead, Russell, and Gödel, among others. He provides a clear and compelling summary of what is at stake in the development of logic from ancient into modern philosophy. After the “end of philosophy” as prophesied by Nietzsche and hammered home by Heidegger, Sallis tries to root logic, if not in the disincarnate order of the intelligibles, then in the imaginal life of speech itself as it is encompassed by the wondrous universe. Like the presocratic physiologists, Sallis tries to turn to the elemental, a word whose original Greek sense he regrets can but barely be heard by the modern ear. In Sallis’ lingo, there are natural elementals (earth, sky, storms, etc.), proper (i.e., to humans) elementals (birth, death, language, etc.), and cosmic elementals (galaxies, black holes, dark energy, etc.). Each elemental opens into an infinity, bringing forth a abyssal space within and before which finite things come to show themselves and then pass away.

Due to the speech proper to humans (our language), Sallis at times also seems to want to join Socrates on his “second sailing” (Phaedo 99d) by turning primarily to the sound of Logos (λόγος) and away from the sense of Physis (φύσις) in his philosophizing. This tendency is checked by his commitment to a “logic” of imagination that hovers between the false dichotomies of intelligible v. sensible, subjective v. objective, interior v. exterior, etc.

The last chapter of his book, titled “Elemental Cosmology,” attempts to turn back to the physical, but there Sallis discovers only the theoretical objects of natural science: “dark energy,” “dark matter,” “black holes,” etc. He quotes several physicists cautioning the lay reader that these words should not be mistaken for an actual understanding of the phenomena in question. The are just empty designations for what remain fundamental mysteries requiring further observation. It is here that I think the phenomenological effort to bracket the scientific picture of the world falls short of what a full scale speculative reconstruction of the cosmological data would be capable of effecting. Of course, considering that much of physics and cosmology is written in mathematical formula, such a reconstruction would beg the question concerning how one is to transition between mathematical and philosophical discourse. Sallis is aware of this problem. For my part, I still need to study the issue more closely.

[Rough Draft] “The Re-Emergence of Schelling” – The nature of human freedom

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

The Nature of Human Freedom

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”232 This does not imply that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.233

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re-emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature herself.
 The human freedom to decide for good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial cision of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their participation in original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader:

it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.234

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, since this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I just am the freedom to decide for good or evil, and nothing besides. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom–which in fact is not mine at all, since it is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.235 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin–the natural human propensity to do evil–is a necessary side-effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom in which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure our own particularity and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.236

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.237

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature herself; further, because she remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of herself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. Our present state-supported techno-capitalist empire is justified only by the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.238 Schelling characterizes secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”239 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno-science.240 After all, evil doers can be quickly destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric medication, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day–untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self-grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s self-contradictory elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.241

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the simple solutions and small pleasures of techno-scientific consumerism. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.242

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.243 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there was no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”244 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which, in the consumer capitalist context, offer an untold number of options for temporary escape and diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.245

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.246 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.247 Though he was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels during the Berlin lectures late in his life,248 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.249 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”250 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least

ensure that the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.251

Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.252

True human salvation cannot lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil appears real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”253 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”254 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.255 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”256 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.257

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.258 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.259

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.260 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.261

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological complexities of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to “democratic” capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.262


232 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

233 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

234 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

235 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

236 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47,

237 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

238 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

239 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

240 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

241 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

242 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

243 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

244 Schelling, Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

245 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

246 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

247  Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

248 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

249 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

250 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

251 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

252 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

253 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

254 Matthew 5:39.

255 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

256 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

257 John 3:5.

258 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

259 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

260 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

261 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

262 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.

My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.

Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:

“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).

But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.

I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.

On to some of Michael’s specific comments:

We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.

Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).

Michael goes on to speak of the

“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.’”

The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.

There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.