Answering some queries about Whitehead

A college student emailed me with some questions about the technical details of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme as laid out in Process and Reality. I figured I’d post my response to him here since I haven’t been able to blog much lately and don’t want anyone to think I’ve given it up, and because some of this may be clarifying for other students of Whitehead. I didn’t include his questions, but you’ll get the gist of them anyway from my responses.

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1. From Whitehead’s perspective, the World-Soul, like every other actual occasion, has two poles, a mental/active and a physical/passive. Unlike every other (finite) actual occasion, the (infinite) World-Soul’s polarity is reversed, such that the mental precedes the physical. Whitehead refers to the mental pole of the World-Soul as the “primordial nature of God.” It is sort of like the cosmic genetic code, and can be thought of as the source of what physicists call the physical constants and talk about as though they were “finely tuned” just so as to make our universe, with its stars, galaxies, planets, life, and intelligence possible. This primordial genetic code is both mathematical and qualitative. Every last particle or bud of experience includes this genetic code within it, just like each of the cells in our body contains a complete copy of our genome. Whitehead also refers to this code as God’s (or the World-Soul’s) “initial aim.” This initial aim lures every last drop of experience in the universe toward that combination of as yet unrealized potentials that is most beautiful (as originally decided by the World-Soul). So yes, you might say the simplest particles behave as physicists say they do as a result of mathematical and qualitative comprehensions (or “contemplations,” as Plotinus put it) of the World-Soul’s initial aim/primordial nature.

2. I assume you mean to ask if “eternal objects” should be thought of as eternal Platonic forms or as universals or general norms that adjust with the universe’s evolution. For Whitehead, unlike for Plato (at least most of the time–Plato is hardly consistent in his dialogues), eternal objects do not strictly speaking “exist” at all. For Plato, eternal objects are the most real and contain the most existence. For Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality,” and so are literally nothing outside of their ingression into actual occasions of experience. In other words, Forms without Facts are empty. As the physical universe unfolds, the way each of the finite actual occasions making it up decides to actualize itself determines which eternal objects ingress. Eternal objects characterize “how” an occasion experiences its world. Whitehead describes eternal objects as “pure potentials” awaiting actualization. In themselves, eternal objects have no agency; they can only be realized or caused to ingress by the subjective decisions of actual occasions as to “how” they will experience the other occasions they objectify.

3. The constituents of actual occasions are other actual occasions. This is the paradoxical way that Whitehead settles the age old question of the one and the many. In the concrescence (or “growing together”) of each actual occasion, “the many become one, and are increased by one.” In other words, each present actual occasion is “made up” of its “prehensions” (or feelings) of other past, already actualized occasions (including itself). Present actual occasions are subjects for whom all past occasions are objects. So a presently concrescing actual occasion is composed of objectifications of past actual occasions. It is a unified subjective “now!” composed out of a past multiplicity of objects, adding itself upon the completion of its concrescence back to the multiplicity as a new object.

4. The building blocks of the universe are actual occasions, which are no more exclusively physical than they are exclusively mental. They are polarities, temporary equalizations of two infinitely opposed powers which we might call the powers of habit and of novelty. This is something like Spinoza’s polar monism, something like Leibniz’s monads, perhaps most like Schelling’s actants.

5. God is unique as primordial/mental, but God’s “consequent nature”/”physical pole” includes the experience of every actual occasion in the universe. Whitehead doesn’t want to exempt God from the same metaphysical categories that apply to all other actual occasions, but he does want to differentiate God (who is infinite) from finite occasions. He does this by reversing the polarity of the divine occasion.

Theoretical Perspectives on Etheric Imagination

The following is the “theoretical perspectives” section of my dissertation. It introduces the ether concept I am attempting to imaginally construct with the help of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.

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This dissertation argues that philosophical thinking, to eclipse the dualistic dogmas of today’s commonsense, must ally itself with the creative power of the etheric imagination. Why? Because every author is a poet, and to the extent that a philosopher grasps his tongue to speak or his pen to write, he becomes author and artist rather than simply reader or representer of Nature. The universe is not inertly given for representation: Nature, too, participates in varying degrees of animation and I-ness. The processual, or etheric, imagination approaches the task of philosophy primarily as a work of artistic interpretation of Nature’s inner life. Art, as Schelling puts it, becomes “at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy,” while “through the world of sense [Nature], there glimmers, as if through words the meaning, as if through dissolving mists the land of phantasy, of which [the philosopher is] in search.”25 Or as Steiner puts it, the philosopher’s artistic interpretation of Nature “appears as the herald of that lawfulness that the poet has grasped by listening to the world spirit within the depths of nature’s working. At this level, art becomes the interpreter of the mysteries of the world just as science is also, in a different sense.”26 Unlike the poet, who is all artist, the philosopher is also a scientist. The philosopher not only creates art, he discovers nature; he not only inscribes acts of mind, he reads facts of nature.

In describing the power of imagination in the work of Schelling and Whitehead as etheric, I aim not only to cross-fertilize the process tradition with Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body, but to creatively retrieve Schelling and Whitehead’s own cosmological ether theories.

Schelling shared the cosmological ether theory with most of his scientific contemporaries.27 He identified the infinite elasticity of the ether with the original polarity of forces animating both the one soul of the universe and the many souls within it.28 For Schelling, the ether is not just a scientific hypothesis about the natural world, it is the speculative philosophical postulate required to justify the pursuit of scientific knowledge of the physical world in the first place. If there were no organic unity to nature–if nature were not a self-organizing whole, but just a random assemblage of externally related parts–then we could never learn anything by way of natural scientific investigation. Schelling’s ether postulate secures the possibility of natural science by engendering a Naturphilosophie powered by etheric imagination, whereby the spiritual ether “in me” finds its point of indifference with the natural ether “out there.”29 Or as Schelling himself put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”30

The ether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetic phenomena until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.31 In 1919, Whitehead began articulating a cosmological ether theory as a direct response to Einstein’s replacement of the traditional “material ether” with a pre-given “space-time fabric.” In place of Einstein’s static ontology of space-time “tubes” pieced together out of static material instants, Whitehead constructed an “ether of events” on the basis of his own novel process ontology.32 “We must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material,” writes Whitehead, because “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.”33 “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”34 Whitehead’s evental ether is not the undetectable “shy ether behind the veil” thought to exist by 19th century physicists; rather, “the ether is exactly the apparent world, neither more nor less.”35 The ether, in other words, is that which gives experiential coherence and causal continuity to “the whole complex of events” constituting the universe.36 For Whitehead, as for Schelling, the ether is no mere scientific hypothesis about the mind-independent external world. Rather, it is a metaphysical principle constructed precisely to avoid “this unfortunate bifurcation” between subjective mind and objective nature by “[construing] our knowledge of the apparent world as being an individual experience of something which is more than personal.”37 “Nature,” Whitehead continues, “is thus a totality including individual experiences, so that we must reject the distinction between nature as it really is and experiences of it which are purely psychological. Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.”38

As for the esoteric conception of an ether body, although it did not originate with Steiner, he provides an example of a 20th century hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of modern science, not to mention his deep familiarity with German Idealist philosophy, make him among the best possible candidates for the type of comparative project I am attempting. Steiner, like Schelling and Whitehead, explicitly distinguishes his own use of the concept from the “hypothetical ether of the physicist.”39 The ether body is therefore not best imagined as an invisible gaseous substance floating around the physical body of an organism. To imagine the ether as an extended, three-dimensional body–even if a “subtle” body–is only to fashion an idol, to reflect upon a finished product instead of intuiting the creative process responsible for generating that product. An organism’s Ätherleib is then better imagined as a continually self-generating four-dimensional vortex of Ätherkräfte, or etheric forces. These forces are the non-spatial form-generating and form-remembering “agent-patients” of cosmic evolution.40 They are perceivable only to a self-cultivated (i.e., not innate or given by the birth of the physical body) etheric organ of affective thinking/intuitive intellection: the etheric imagination. The etheric imagination is not generated by the brain, but is rather the conscious expression of an otherwise unconscious morphogenic process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain and body.41 As a four-dimensional process, the activity of the Ätherkräfte that both generates the body and rises to consciousness as the etheric imagination is best pictured, if it must be pictured at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside-out to leave the living organism in its wake.

Picturing the activity of the etheric forces is ultimately impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal image seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

According to Steiner, “We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”42 This statement is nearly identical to those of Schelling and Whitehead above. “So long as I myself am identical with Nature,” says Schelling, “I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life.”43 “As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature,” he continues, “nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”44 As we’ve seen, Whitehead similarly argues that understanding the life of the actual occasions of nature requires first becoming conscious of, and then imaginatively generalizing the etheric structure-dynamic underlying our own conscious experience too all the individualities of nature. Such generalization allows for the creation of an experiential category applicable to the etheric dimension of any actual occasion.45 Only the etheric imagination can intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of natura naturans, the inner dimension of nature that is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off external nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive,” as Whitehead called it,46 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of merely reflective sense-bound understanding. “Nature speaks to us the more intelligibly the less we think of her in a merely refelctive way,” writes Schelling.47 To think nature as living, our own thinking must come to life, must become etheric.

According to Owen Barfield, who along with Jonael Schickler will assist my retrieval of Steiner’s work, the forces of the etheric organ of perception can be understood as “imagination operating in reverse…Whereas imagination uses the spatial to get to the non-spatial, what the organic [etheric] force is doing is moving out of the non-spatial realm (the creative logos, if you like) to convert it into space–[it moves out] of the immaterial producing a material, spatial world…What the etheric does is, to put it crudely, convert time into space.”48

Like the “force of imagination” (a literal translation of Einbildungskraft), the formative-force of the etheric organ, when properly cultivated, can release the philosopher from the Kantian restrictions placed on knowing by opening the normally sense-inhered intellect to the sub-sensory “intensive depth” (Bortoft, 1996) or super-sensory “inner infinitude” (Adams and Whicher, 1982) of living Nature, there revealing the invisible creative forces animating her from within-out.

In the terms of Whitehead’s three-fold theory of perception, which my dissertation will explore in relation to the synthetic role of imagination, non-etheric perception of external nature via bare sensory universals and abstract laws is perception “spatialized” in the mode of “presentational immediacy,” while etheric perception of the creative life of the sub-sensory dimension is perception “temporalized” in the mode of “causal efficacy.”49 Whitehead’s third mode of perception, “symbolic reference,” imaginatively synthesizes our intuitions of space and time into the meaningful and coherent world of everyday life. The synthetic work (or play) of the force of imagination can be in service either to the maintenance of the habits of every day conscious experience (commonsense), or else to the creative disruption of those habits in favor of alternative imaginations of the flow of etheric time-space.

The etheric image-forces animating Nature and her organisms are autonomous; that is, they are I-beings in their own right. The etheric imagination which perceives them is then not simply the transcendental ground of the ego’s sensory intuitions of the physical world–it is the genetic principle of the universe itself, the poetic root of all life (more like a creative abyss than a stable ground). Unlike Kant’s transcendental faculties of understanding, reason, and judgment, which provide only the necessary universal conditions of possible (theoretical, ethical, or aesthetic) experience, etheric imagination provides the necessary conditions of actual experience (whether of truth, goodness, or beauty). Etheric imagination schematizes not only the formal or abstract, but the material and concrete dimensions of experiential reality–that is, it not only makes possible the universal and impersonal, it actualizes the unique and individual.

So what is real for the process-philosophical imagination? Following Whitehead, time, space, and causality come to be understood as emergent products of an evolving ecology of organisms. “External” and “internal” are the effect of a distinction drawn in what Coleridge referred to as secondary imagination by an individual living organism. Enveloping the many organisms is the one Cosmic Organism, or primary imagination, the ceaseless yearning for wholeness which is nothing other than Spirit’s abyssal desire for Itself.

The root images, or elemental forces, that for so long grounded the reality of the human organism were earth and sky. But since the Galilean-Newtonian “[cancellation] of the ancient dichotomy between earth and sky in the interest of universally valid laws,” and especially since satellization has technologically realized this once merely theoretical extra-terrestriality, what has become of humanity’s earthly embeddedness?50 Have we not become homeless? This may be the case, unless the once solid ground of earth is understood to have been superseded, not by the en-framing (Ge-stell) of technology, but by the ground-generating forces of etheric imagination, the creative abyss that pre-exists any apparent separation between the finite conditioned things in space and the infinite creativity of time.

Footnotes

25 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 231.

26 Steiner, Goethean Science, 93.

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

28 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384; Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 541-547.

29 According to Frederick Beiser, Schelling thereby “[reintegrates] the transcendental ‘I’ into nature” by showing how   human self-consciousness is a more intense expression of nature’s original etheric forces (German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 559).

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

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

32 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity (New York: Cosimo, 1922/2007), 36-38; Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 25.

33 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26.

34 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26. For more on Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s interpretation of relativity theory, see also my own Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013), 35-43 [http://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/physics-of-the-world-soul-whitehead-and-cosmology.pdf (accessed 5/1/2013)].

35 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 37.

36 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 66.

37 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

38 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

39 Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man, transl. by E. D. S. (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company Publishers, 1910), 28.

40 As “agent-patients,” these etheric forces are akin to Whitehead’s dipolar actual occasions, the “buds of experience” responsible both for the prehension of past form and the ingression of future form in the creative advance of nature.

41 Whitehead’s understanding of the relationship between the physiology of the brain and the ether of events leads him to suggest that the “nature” known to materialistic science “is an abstraction from something more concrete than itself which must also include imagination, thought, and emotion” (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 63).

42 Steiner, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, 25.

43 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

44 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

45 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.

46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938)

47 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 35.

48 Towards Interview, 1980, 9.

49 These two modes are akin to Jonael Schickler’s phenomenological account of the life of the concept in terms of physical inherence and etheric metamorphosis, respectively. Schickler’s account is unpacked in the literature review below.

50 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 160-161

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

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

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

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

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

13 PR, 172.

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

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

Returning to Whitehead…

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.

The Politics of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the Magic of Science

I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Part of her project is to dispel the myth that Bruno was burnt at the stake primarily for his heliocentrism and generally scientific and materialist attitude. This was certainly one of the Roman Inquisitions many accusations, but the real reasons the Church lit his public pyre were political.

…the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand…little attention was paid to philosophical or scientific questions in the interrogation…[instead, stress was laid] on Bruno’s religious mission. (p. 355)

His religious mission was to attend to the creation of the City of the Sun on Earth, which involved practicing the Hermetic arts of magic, astrology, and what after Jung we might call active imagination. This mission also had a political dimension, leading Bruno to ally with the likes of Henry of Navarro, who was to become King Henry IV of France. Bruno saw the potential for a universal reform of the Catholic religion in France, which was fresh off King Henry’s victory against the Spanish-backed Catholic League. Many heretical thinkers in 16th century Europe with more liberal views on religion were hoping Henry would bring peace to a continent ravaged by wars of intolerance. The Catholic Church, of course, had no interest in ceding its power to such a movement. The counter-Reformation was in full force.

Yates also tells the story of Tommaso Campanella, another Hermetic Magus who followed in Bruno’s footsteps by seeking to create the City of the Sun. Campanella lead a rebellion of Dominican monks against Catholic reformers in 1599.

But what did Bruno and Campanella’s religious mission have to do with new scientific ways of thinking and with the Copernican heliocentric theory? Campanella “praises Ptolemaeus and [admires] Copernicus, although Aristarchus and Philolaus were before him (in teaching heliocentricity)” (transl. Yates, p. 372). Both geocentric and heliocentric systems are upheld as worthy of study. Bruno’s primary reasons for holding to the heliocentric perspective were not mathematical or scientific (Ptolemy’s system was still more accurate than Copernicus’ at this point), but magico-symbolic and politico-religious. The return of the heliocentric theory was read by Bruno as an omen, a sign in the sky sent from God, prophesying the coming Golden Age when Europe would be ruled by Philosopher-Magi skilled in calling the winds of justice down to earth from the heavens.

What interests me in Yates’ historical account is the way Bruno was both modern and non-modern in his Hermetic religion: modern in that he affirmed the infinite reality of the universe; non-modern in that an infinite cosmos is the necessary counter-postulate to an infinitely real God. Modern in that he saw the moral necessity of religious freedom, but non-modern in that he felt the universe (or earth-heaven continuum) must be inter-woven throughout with astral spirits and permeated by an anima mundi (or world soul). All the beings in the universe are magically linked through the soul of the world to one another, and also to the One God, who is beyond being. The One beyond being, infinite in itself, is necessarily in relation to the beings of Being. This relation takes place through a series of revelations, beginning with the heavens. God’s infinite Speech/Word is “stepped-down” into the songs of the spiraling stars and dancing planets, which Plato identified with the Cosmic Intelligence of the World Soul. This revelation of the One through and to the many continues through every individual creature of earth, which in its individuality contains in hologrammatic form the entirety of the cosmos. As an earlier Hermetic thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, had intuited, the universe, as a reflection of God, “is a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Yates ends his study on Renaissance magic by asking why it was that the scientific revolution of the 17th century began when it did. She speculates that the Renaissance Hermeticist’s new attitude concerning the place of the human being in the natural world re-directed the will, such that penetrating the secrets of the universe and coming to have mastery over nature no longer seemed so far fetched.

Behind the emergence of modern science there was a new direction of the will towards the world, its marvels, and mysterious workings, a new longing and determination to understand those workings and to operate with them. (Yates, p. 448)

Compare this attitude with that of the 3rd century Church father Tertulian, who argued that those interested in the workings of nature:

persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge their curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather [direct] to their Creator and Governor.

There is a vast difference between the mechanism and mathematics of thinkers like Mersenne and Descartes and the animism and magic of thinkers like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. But the transition between the two is not as clear cut as it would seem from our modern perspective. Like Bruno, many of the supposed fathers of the scientific revolution were deeply interested in occult knowledge. On Nov. 10th, 1619, while still a young man striving to discover a new foundation for knowledge, Descartes had a series of dreams and visions that he believed came from a higher source (Yates, p. 452). He began searching for the elusive Rosicrucian order (a Hermetic society) in Germany in the hope that they might help interpret his visions of a universal science of nature. He finally gave up in 1623 and returned to Paris, though some speculate that he actually did make contact with the secret society and had been initiated into the brotherhood. Kepler was also a rather transitional figure, having studied the Corpus Hermeticum quite closely alongside his astronomical research. Then there is the importance of alchemy to Isaac Newton, which is increasingly well-known: see especially Phillip Fanning’s recent book Isaac Newton and the Transmutation of Alchemy: An Alternative View of the Scientific Revolution (2009).

Yates points out that the early mechanists attempt to distance themselves from the magicians left them with a rather embarrassing problem: if nature was all mechanics, where did the knowing mind of the scientist fit in? The problem was especially pronounced and given its clearest formulation in Descartes infamous dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa. “This bad start of the problem of knowledge,” writes Yates, “has never been quite made up” (p. 454).

Yates goes on:

[The mechanists] may have discarded notions on mind and matter which, however strangely formulated, may be in essence less remote than their own conceptions from some of the thought of today. (p. 455)

Writing in the early 60s, she was well-aware of the paradigm shift continuing to unfold as a result of the quantum revolution:

It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An enquiry into both phases, and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of historical approach to the problems raised by the science of today than the line which concentrates only on the seventeenth-century triumph. Is not all science a gnosis, an insight into the nature of the All, which proceeds by successive revelations? (p. 452)

Might there be room in contemporary science for the return of the anima mundi?

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

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

Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.

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

174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.

175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

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

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

178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

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

180 Beiser, German Idealism.

181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.

183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.

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

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

186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.

187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.

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

197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/148/278 (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.)

A week and a half ago, Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted the first volley of our summer reading group on chapter zero of Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). In that chapter, Deacon introduced the key conceptual locus of the book, what he calls the absential features of living and psychic systems: “phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” (p. 3). The research programs of scientific materialism (neodarwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-eliminativism, etc.), he says, leave out the absential features of living and psychic systems, and so cannot account for the constitutive purposiveness and/or consciousness of these systems. Deacon is proposing to take the first steps toward a science capable of accounting for the absent elements of natural systems, elements I think it is safe to think of along the lines of Whitehead’s eternal objects (though Deacon doesn’t agree with me–I expand upon this already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE).

Since reading the first few chapters of Deacon’s book, I’ve come across several very critical reviews published in prominent places: HERE is Colin McGinn in the NY Review of Books getting Deacon back for ruining his vacation; HERE is Tom Bartlett nearly accusing him of plagiarism; HERE is Evan Thompson‘s slightly less damning review, but even he can’t help but finger-wave at Deacon for failing to even cite texts that clearly influenced him (like Thompson’s own Mind in Life (2007)), and for exaggerating the differences between his and Varela‘s solutions to the same problems. Deacon dismisses Varela’s (and Maturana’s) autopoietic philosophy of biology early on in chapter zero:

“in their effort to make the autonomous observer-self a fundamental element of the natural sciences, the origin of this self-creative dynamic is merely taken for granted, taken as a fundamental axiom” (p. 6).

Deacon cites Maturana and Varela’s work from 1980, and later (p. 311) cites Varela in 1992, which makes me wonder why he didn’t consider Varela’s work during the last 10 years of his life. The last paper he wrote (with Andreas Weber) before his death, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuals” (2002), goes a long way toward offering a solution to the same problems Deacon is exploring in his book. I think part of the problem here is that Varela, especially in his later work, is trying to uncover the ontological ground of nature, which is to say he is philosophizing, while Deacon refuses to accept a philosophical answer to the philosophical questions he is asking. He wants to find a way for natural science to answer it, since otherwise, the answer can only be “taken for granted…as a fundamental axiom,” as he puts it. Deacon will dismiss Whitehead’s cosmology for similar reasons by saying Whitehead sneaks mind and ententionality in at the beginning without explaining it. He “takes it for granted.” This strikes me as a refusal on Deacon’s part to think behind Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into thinking and extension. He fails to phenomenologically bracket the natural attitude in the way that Varela, Thompson, and Whitehead in his own way, are able to. They are just better philosophers, to put it bluntly. Natural science alone isn’t enough to think beyond substance dualism; it can’t possibly!, since natural science, as a mode of thought, is in fact founded upon a Cartesian ontology. As far as I can tell so far, Deacon seems to want an explanation in terms of extension alone, such that absential phenomena can be said to emerge out of a nature that remains essentially external. If we’re going to really do philosophy, which is to say, if we’re not going to shy away from the obscurities of ontology and the dark powers of cosmology, then we need to think our way behind the Cartesian construct of dead external “nature” observed by a physically absent intelligence. He claims to want to find a way to bring purpose and consciousness back into the scientific world-picture, but can Deacon really do this precisely by removing them from a now incomplete nature?

It remains to be seen…

As Jason already admitted, it is tough to continue plowing through 400 more pages of Deacon’s book having now plainly seen the problems pointed out by his reviewers. But I’m still willing to keep reading: at page 90, I remain interested to see where Deacon is headed. I’d like to understand the details of his argument regarding the emergence of life. If a few more chapters in it turns out that the writing becomes as torturous as McGinn alleges (“Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable”), or if it seems he is only repeating Varela and Thompson, then I might call it quits.

As I’ve agreed to do, let me turn now to a brief summary of chapter 2, titled “Homunculi.” A homunculi, as defined by Deacon, is

“a form of explanation that pretends to be offering a mechanistic account of some living or mental phenomenon, but instead only appeals to another cryptically equivalent process at some lower level” (p. 47).

Deacon goes on to discuss the explanatory use of homunculi in pseudo-scientific theories like preformationism and vitalism; but he also shows how even contemporary neuroscientists purporting to be reductionistic still ultimately rely upon homuncular rhetoric to frame their theories (see p. 52-53). Deacon admits that it is extremely difficult to explain anything living or ensouled without slipping in a “man-analogue,” or homunculus, at some lower level in order to get the ententional work done. Scientists should admit when they do this, says Deacon. Some do, offering explanatory “promissory notes” where particular mechanisms aren’t yet understood.

Deacon then moves into a discussion of final causality, cautioning us not to take the misstep leading to Intelligent Design, where unexplained phenomena (e.g., life and mind) are explained by reference to an absent designer. While it is standard practice for scientists to create homuncular “black boxes” to stand in for not-yet-understood physical mechanisms, these are regarded as I.O.U’s, not permanent solutions. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it posits a designer as “a permanently unopenable black box” (p. 62). Deacon rightly sees such a position as an attack upon “the very logic and ethic of the scientific enterprise” (p. 61). As I recently suggested in a comment to Levi Bryant, I’d say the I.D.ers are wrong in what they (attempt to scientifically) affirm (i.e., “God did it”), but right in what they deny (i.e., that scientific materialism can ever explain life or consciousness).

Deacon then makes some important comments about the popular oversimplifications regarding the biological role of DNA. See, for example, Dawkins’ recent book review, where he continues to argue that organisms are just survival machines for selfish genes (as he has done for almost 40 years, despite major conceptual shifts in mainstream biological science), as though the DNA molecule were the only real level of causal agency in the biosphere (see also Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s review of Dawkins and our exchange in the comments). As Deacon makes clear, homuncular explanation is alive and well in contemporary neodarwinian accounts of life. Neodarwinian fetishizations of DNA ignore the fact that the “information” involved in living organization cannot be simply located in specific molecules, since in metazoan creatures, this information is

“ultimately embodied in the elaborate patterns of interaction among cells and how these affect which genes get expressed. The vast majority of structural information is generated anew in each organism as an emergent consequence of a kind of ecology of developing cells…patterns of gene expression depend on patterns of embryo geometry, and changes of gene expression influence embryo geometry in cycle upon cycle of interactions” (p. 69).

This is not a new critique of genetic reductionism (Thompson offers a nearly identical critique of DNA in Mind in Life, only he argues DNA can’t even play the role of “programmer” in single-celled organisms; Richard Lewontin offers another similar critique in this lecture from 2004). Still, it remains an important criticism worth repeating.

After briefly beating the dead horses, Fodor, Chomsky, and Pinker, for their blatantly homuncular account of cognition in terms of a “language of thought,” Deacon moves on to express his dissatisfaction with the panpsychism that some quantum-information theorists have been lead to. He then all too briefly unpacks Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a scheme he says is “probably the most sophisticated effort to  make twentieth-century physics compatible with teleological principles” (p. 77). Deacon agrees that something like a process ontology is necessary to solve the problem of ententional phenomena in nature: all physical events must be understood to be in some sense “incomplete” in themselves, and therefore dependent upon absential causes. But he doesn’t think Whitehead finally explains why life and mind seem so different from inanimate matter.

As I’ve attempted to articulate elsewhere, it all depends what we mean by explanation. Whitehead’s philosophizing, if we are willing to follow him, shifts the problem set, such that the universe is understood as always already alive, always already intelligent. The scientific materialist’s questions: from where comes life, from where mind?–become irrelevant. A new set of questions arise, questions Deacon hits on, concerning specific organizational differences between grades of societies of actual occasions. (Dis)solved are old questions arising only from a Cartesian picture of the world. From Whitehead’s point of view, it makes no sense to ask where experience and value come from. Without them, there would simply be nothing, so we may as well ask where matter comes from. It is no less mysterious a question from Whitehead’s point of view. Whitehead’s universe is bound up in a single soul, not bifurcated into intelligent scientists looking out upon extended bodies for the ateleological mechanisms that might explain them. Deacon is asking questions that cannot be answered from the ontological paradigm within which he is asking them. His questions, should they be solved, can only lead him to a cosmological re-orientation along the lines offered by Whitehead.

Earlier in the chapter, Deacon writes that “since the Renaissance, the concept of efficient cause has become the paradigm exemplar for all fully described conceptions of cause in the natural sciences” (p. 59). Perhaps he should have said “since the Scientific Revolution.” More characteristic of the Renaissance are accounts of nature in terms of the anima mundi by alchemical thinkers like Ficino and Paracelsus (James Hillman explores this theme masterfully). If we’re going to preserve formal and final causes in nature, I don’t see any way around recognizing it as ensouled. Either the universe itself thinks and wills (serving as the participatory ground of any organism’s thinking and willing), or, as Jason has been pointing out for a while now, we’re left with a form of nominalistic anthropocentrism, where special human consciousness projects general structures/forms and purpose/finality onto an otherwise dumb, numb nature.

The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”

Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.

To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.

Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.

To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:

Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…

The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.

The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.

Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.

Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.

“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling [2007]).

Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.

“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).

More Reflections on James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology

Building on what was said here last week:

 

View of Mont Ventoux from Mirabel-aux-Baronnies.

Mont Ventoux

James Hillman’s psychology, above all else, aims to remind the modern Western psyche of its roots in the Renaissance. To illustrate his methods, he dwells upon the lives of Renaissance figures like Petrarch, “the first modern man…perhaps…the first psychological man.”1 Most cultural historians focus on Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 as the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance resulting from his discovery of the spirit of “Man.” Jean Gebser, for example, marks the moment as the dawning of humanity’s conscious mastery of extended, perspectival space as over and against an increasingly interiorized soul life.2 Hillman, who has little patience for often inflated “peak experiences” championed by the humanistic psychologist Abe Maslow, draws attention instead to the significance of Petrarch’s descent. It is not a result of “highs,” but rather the survival of depressive “lows” that determines the true worth of a person.3

Upon reaching the summit, Petrarch opens Augustine’s Confessions randomly and reads the lines:

“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains…the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by…”4

Stunned by the synchronicity, Petrarch realizes his calling in life is to look inward so as to “know thyself,” as Thales put it many centuries before Augustine. Most historians here refer to the decisive shift to the study of “Man,” to the beginning of the humanities as a distinct discipline separate from theology or natural philosophy. Hillman’s psychological project, on the other hand, is founded upon the dehumanization of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that Petrarch uses the Latin animus when recounting his experience on Mt. Ventoux,5 Hillman insists that it was essentially a deepening into soul. He points to an earlier sentence in the same section of the Confessions which discusses the infinite depths of memory, “the soul’s imaginative faculty,” and argues that

“The revelation on Mont Ventoux opened Petrarch’s eyes to the complexity and mystery of the man-psyche relationship and moved him to write of the marvel of the soul, not the marvel of man.”6

In light of the diverse array of scholarly interpretations of Petrarch’s transformative experience atop Mt. Ventoux, it seems all that can be said for certain is that it generated within him an irresolvable, yet creative, tension between spiritual transcendence and soulful immanence. He felt, perhaps more powerfully than anyone alive around him or before him, the smallness of his ego in relation to the depths of psyche and of cosmos.

English: Illustration of Petrarch's Triumph of...

Petrarch's triumph of death

There is a certain tragedy in Petrarch’s discovery, a certain dis-ease, since after the mutation in consciousness he initiated, the soul became vulnerable to a whole new set of pathologies. No longer swallowed whole by the earth and sky, the human soul began to feel utterly unlike the world around it. More than anything else, Renaissance philosophers like Petrarch, and later, Ficino, contemplated death.

“Yet the more occupied with death, the more these humanists thought, built, wrote, painted, sang.”7

Death became their muse, and in this way Renaissance philosophers hearkened back to Socrates and Plato, who rather than empiricizing or biologizing the soul like Aristotle, sought to dwell upon the shadows cast by the living body, to descend into the underworld in search of metempsychotic transformation. The soul was identified with the death principle instead of the life principle, and in that way “the first metaphor of human existence” was seen through: “that we are not real.”8 The “skin encapsulated ego” (as Alan Watts put it) is a fantasy of soul.

“No longer is it a question of whether I believe in soul, but whether soul believes in me, grants me the capacity to have faith in it, in psychic reality.”9

If Hillman were a metaphysician, he’d have to say that the final real things are images, fantasies of soul. Not facts, but fictions are the stuff out of which reality is woven. Or at least, if facts be our focus, they must be psychologized into acts, the poetic creations of soul. Like Teilhard de Chardin in the preface to The Human Phenomenon (itself a profound metaphysical work), Hillman dubiously claims early in Re-Visioning Psychology that he is not a metaphysician. In fairness, perhaps it would be truer to his intentions to call him a “meta-psychologist” always in search of an ensouled cosmology. After all, his skepticism regarding metaphysics as it has been articulated in the modern West is well-founded. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth leads to the repression of the ambiguities and paradoxes of soul-making in the valleys of the world.

His emphases upon death and depth are not simply a matter of coming down to earth from the heights of the sky, however, since for Hillman the planets are gods “by means of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”10 His turn away from the methods of the modern metaphysician to the therapy of the ancient “Doctors of Soul” is not a retreat from the cosmos, but the longing for the renewal of “relations with archetypal principles personified by the planets of the pagan pantheon.”11 Like Plato, Hillman longed to relate to the universe as a living creature, a being ensouled. His dwelling upon individual death is meant to remind the living soul of its embeddedness in and dependence upon the anima mundi, the soul of the world.

“If we could reoriginate psychology at its Western source in Florence, a way might open again toward a meta-psychology that is a cosmology, a poetic vision of the cosmos which fulfills the soul’s need for placing itself in the vast scheme of things.”12

The problem for the disenchanted metaphysician is not that Truth is “merely” fiction–that the real is forever beyond the mind’s conceptual grasp–but that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! The literalistic mind’s attempt to explain the real can never be completed. It is for this reason that the metaphysician has so often failed the polyphonic psyche by repressing its desire for soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men…who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem.’”13

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia.14 Existence then becomes, not a problem to be solved, but a pathos to be deepened into in search of insight.

Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions by paying attention to the power of archetypes to recursively shape both the creation of theories and the discovery of facts: an archetype is both a way of seeing and a thing seen. True to the etymological meaning of “fact” (from the Latin facere: “to do”), Hillman implores us to ask: What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?”

The metaphysician must situate himself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is story; theory is a special kind of myth. Where literalisms (whether of the metaphysically scientific or religious sort) would replace–or paste over–the given with their favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics (or meta-psychology) drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown.'”15

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. In making his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit as well a poetic basis of the universe.16 He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos.”17 He then asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence, concluding that we have lost the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world and world to soul. We lack the requisite organ of perception: the “imaginational heart.”18

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived.”19

The heart is no mere pump. Neither is the heart the organ of personal sentiment or subjective feeling. For Hillman, the heart is the seat of the imagination, the microcosmic Sun around which all the world’s meaning revolves.20 It is through the heart that the individual finds their point of entry into the anima mundi. To perceive with the heart is to “[hear] the confession of the anima mundi in the speaking of things.”21 This is a form of aesthesis, of “breathing in” the world, that un-Lockes perception from the chains of prosaic empiricism and places the soul’s horses22 before Descartes’ rationalistic reductionism.

1 Re-Visioning Psychology, 195

2 The Ever-Present Origin, 12-15

3 Re-Visioning Psychology, 66

4 X,8

5 Richard Tarnas, personal correspondence, 12/29/2011

6 Re-Visioning Psychology, 196

7 Re-Visioning Psychology, 206

8 Re-Visioning Psychology, 209

9 Re-Visioning Psychology, 50

10 Archetypal Process, 220

11 Re-Visioning Psychology, 202

12 Anima Mundi, 110

13 Archetypal Process, 218

14 (ibid.)

15 Archetypal Process, 220

16 Archetypal Process, 221

17 Archetypal Process, 225

18 The Thought of the Heart, 7

19 Archetypal Process, 225

20 The Thought of the Heart, 28

21 The Thought of the Heart, 48

22 See Plato’s Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus

The Copernican Odyssey: From Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or from the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The following is a rough draft of a presentation I will be giving next week as part of a panel discussion on the philosopher Richard Tarnas’   Archetypal Cosmology. Tarnas’ essay entitled Two Suitors: A Parable may aid the reader’s comprehension of what I articulate below.

——————————————————————————————-

The Copernican Odyssey: From Copernican Illumination through Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The 20th Century philosopher, Samuel Alexander (a major influence on Whitehead) articulated what could be said to be the basic metaphysical formula underlying archetypal cosmology: “Time is the Mind of Space.”

Time, for Plato, is a “moving image of eternity,” a living copy of God. Like Alexander, Plato often related Time to the World-Soul, that intermediating matrix that allows invisible eternal forms, or archetypes, smooth passage into the visible motions of the animated physical world. When Plato looked to the heavens he perceived in their hidden harmony the very source and destiny of cosmic history. Time, he intuited, must be created and ordered by the movement of the spheres. Even two thousand years later, planetary motions and qualitative time were still seen to be intimately connected: Copernicus only began his reform of astronomy as a result of being asked by the Church to reform the calendar for liturgical purposes. Without an accurate calendrical sense of the rhythms of time, religious rituals could not tap into and participate in the life cycles of the cosmos and so could not keep humanity synced up with the sky.

By the death of Newton(about 200 years later in 1727), cosmic time was well on its way to being reduced to a uniform mathematical magnitude devoid of all texture and qualitative meaning. Newton himself went to a lot of trouble attempting to calculate the exact date of the crucifixion and of end of days, which suggests that the calendar had already lost its deeper cosmic significance by becoming over-literalized (though to be fair, he did still think it had something to do with lunar cycles). When it came down to it, time, for Newton, was just a constant background rate of change against which the rate of all motion could be measured. Time was t, an algebraic function in a differential equation.

Less than a century later, Kant, who today remains so influential that we might simply refer to him as The Philosopher (as the ancients referred to Aristotle) preserved qualitative time from total annihilation, but only by sequestering in within human subjectivity as a form of inner intuition. Plato’s forms, once living cosmic powers, became for Kant fixed concepts within the human mind with no intrinsic relationship to the dead material objects they supposedly represented. Human consciousness was meaningful, qualitatively rich, and intelligent; but the soulless world upon which it gazed-whether it looked vertically to the sky or horizontally around the earth-was thought purely in terms of mechanism.

The picture painted by Kant is not so clear cut, however; he never suggested that the universe actually is a giant machine. He only argued that the human mind is unequipped to grasp it intellectually in any other way. He speculated, especially in the Critique of Judgment, about the possibilities of some supersensible substratum responsible for the organic formation of the visible world (e.g., the World-Soul), but remained in the end unable to defend such a view with the science and logic available in his day.

By the first few decades of the 20th century, things had changed dramatically: relativity and quantum theories destroyed the Newtonian clock-work universe with even more force than Copernicus’ discovery had shattered the static crystalline spheres of the ancient world.

Physicist Sir James Jeans remarked late in his life that

“Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”

The quantum revolution, in this sense, overturned the mechanistic pretensions of Newtonian science and made possible new forms of empirical, experimental, and experiential participation in the cosmos.

The Western mind has thus come full circle, such that the true spiritual meaning of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory now becomes clear. By astronomically de-centering the earth, Copernicus initiated a mutation in consciousness that simultaneously severed humanity from and sutured it to the solar logos—severed by exiling us from the cyclical-seasonal rhythms of the cosmic womb of geocentrically arrayed constellations; and sutured by lifting the earth into heaven in order to perceive its and the other planet’s motions from the perspective of the Sun. Both the light and the shadow of modernity here come into focus: the excellence of our intelligence was finally able to solve the millennia-old problem of the planets; but as a result of this solution, the Sun no longer could be understood to die into the underworld each night and each winter or to be reborn each morning and each spring. The synchronistic stories within which earth was embedded, especially the death and rebirth of the Sun and Moon, were revealed to be a hoax, an illusion of the senses. Instead, the Sun remained a hero undescended and unrisen; an invincible god unburdened by (e)motion of any kind; a distant, objective observer. This provides a telling analogy for the hubris of the newly empowered solar ego whose great flash of insight had lead it to forget or repress its shadow by pushing the death-rebirth mystery into unconsciousness.

This repression is cosmic in extent, and so requires humanity to enter into a form of personal and collective psychoplanetary therapy, which is just another name for archetypal cosmology. We must rediscover the Soul of Time in the archetypal rhythms of the planetary spheres. Unlike the skeptical Kantian consciousness which we are attempting to transform, ideas must no longer be hidden away in the private recesses of the human mind. The ideas, the forms, the archeptypes and ordering patterns of the visible world, are not projected upon that world by our consciousness, but discovered there in the motion of the heavens, in the growth of plants, in the flight of birds, and the songs of poets. But the planets in particular are the most potent communicative organs of the invisible because all-encompassing World-Soul; they distill the meaning of the Archetype, the Idea, most clearly, since they circle overhead providing a universal background for our particular earthly endeavors. They are the closest image humans have of the Transcendent, the Pleroma, Reality.

In order to correct our characteristically modern hubristic over-emphasis on the Sun (an important but not all-determining influence), the archetypal significance of the outer, transpersonal planets is especially important.

Uranus is in one sense is misnamed, reflecting its role as trickster (i.e., Prometheus), but in another sense is aptly named, since only with its discovery did the human soul breakthrough the threshold of personal death (i.e., Saturn) in order to be initiated into the libratory and immortal wisdom of heaven. The discovery of Uranus, the patron saint of astrology, represents the cutting of the 7 strings of the planetary marionette, and the release of the puppet: from that point forward, the human spirit was free to dance, or not, with the song of the spheres.

Neptune reminds the alienated ego that, despite all its frightened and anxious thrashing, it remains embedded in a nurturing cosmic womb of untold proportions.

And Pluto, the furthest planet from the Sun, is no less powerful for its great distance: it communicates the death-rebirth mystery that the heliocentric re-orientation had temporarily hidden from view, thereby correcting the hubris of the conscious ego by bringing it back into touch with its chthonic source.

Earth, too, must not be forgotten, since she is the planet whose destiny it is to reconcile the others, to integrate their powers into one Self. Consider the strange synchronicity expressed by solar eclipses: the Sun and Moon are the same size, but only from the perspective of Earth. Perhaps this is why Plato elevated geometry above all other sciences, since Earth truly is the measure of all things.

In closing, I will leave you with a short excerpt from one of Kepler’s works on astrology:

“There is a much more noble and miraculous unity of the sky and the earth than the material one. This unity is incapable of doing anything material. It is formal. It moves through forms in this world below, and it does not do so simply through the mute forms, as are found in stone and bone, but rather through the spiritual powers, through soul, through reason — indeed through the grasping of the most subtle things that are present in the whole geometry of things. For earthly creatures are so constituted, that they might thus be capable of channeling the celestial realm.”

Archetypally, astrology is the science of the Night, while astronomy is the science of the Day. Geometry, in the Platonic sense, can unite the two by reminding the sun-worshipping astronomer of the meaning of their embodied earthly perspective. Astrology is concerned more with Wisdom than with Knowledge; it involves participation in what could be called the non-ordinary reality of playful spirit. Knowledge, on the other hand, is concerned with the ordinary time and space of the toiling body, where energy (the cause of motion, and so of time) is defined as the ability to do work. From an astrological perspective, energy is not, or at least not only, work, but, as Blake said, is also “eternal delight.” Energy as eternal delight reflects a cosmic process that is ensouled and archetypally alive.

Speculative Philosophy and Incarnationalism in Whitehead and Meillassoux

I’ve just finished Whitehead’s lectures on the philosophy of religion, published as Religion in the Making (1926). He intended these lectures to “show the same way of thought” displayed in his lectures a year earlier, published as Science and the Modern World, only this time directed at religion. The last several thoughts expressed by Whitehead in these lectures, some of which will be quoted momentarily, brought my mind immediately to the implications of Meillassoux’s way of thinking the inexistence of God. At first glance, the two thinkers appear diametrically opposed in method and in aim. But I am increasingly convinced that there is a covert process theology hiding in the margins of Meillassoux’s texts; or at least that these texts will come to record his eventual conversion to some form of incarnationalism (or what I’ve elsewhere called Christological realism). Meillassoux’s philosophy is an account of the world-process, of that which is and is not, in terms of what is absolutely contingent: hyper-chaos. Whitehead’s philosophy is inclusive of Meillassoux’s hyper-chaos (termed creativity), but it is perhaps most clearly characterized by his panentheistic cosmology. Whitehead is explicit about the metaphysical function of God in the world, while Meillassoux has thus far only speculated on the moral function of God’s future act of world redemption. With the deepening of speculation into the real comes an appreciation, I have found, not only of the “physically wasting” aspect  of the universe, but also the “spiritually ascending” (RitM,  p. 144). Meillassoux appears to agree, even if he has only suggested God’s existence as a future possibility. Whitehead goes further in articulating a cosmological scheme in which God is the primordial and everlasting actuality; but he does not, in so doing, ignore contingency:

“[The Universe] is thus passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measure 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. The present type of order in the world has arisen from an unimaginable past, and it will find its grave in an unimaginable future” (ibid.).

Extinction is here given its due. But for Whitehead, the arche-fossil is always also a zoö-fossil (as Jacob Sherman put it in his lecture on Meillassoux earlier this year). “The world lives,” says Whitehead, “by its incarnation of God in itself” (ibid.). The world lives. Our daily life is the gift–the miracle–of divine incarnation. We do not merely inherit the past as a mute necessity, but breathe its feelings through the divine element in our experience, “[clothing its] dry bones with the flesh of a real being,” receiving the pains and purposes of its life anew within ourselves (Process & Reality, p. 85). The achievements of times past seem to recede into infinite darkness, but God remembers everything by giving to the passage of finite matters of fact an immortality of spirit.

Knowledge of ancestrality, from an explicitly incarnational perspective, is recognized to be possible only given the felt presence of the World-Soul or Cosmic Christ–that Life which breathes through all things to connect the (dis)orders of the past (chaos) with the order of the present (cosmos) (i.e., which redeems all injustices through the harmonizing power of Love). The omniscience of omnipotence, or absolute knowledge of contingency foretold by Meillassoux leads inevitably, not to nihilism, but to the spiritual realization of omnibenevolence, of the Love that “is before all things,” and in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). If this analysis is correct, Meillassoux only dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

In his lecture series become book, Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey defines imagination, not as a specific faculty alongside others, but as “that which holds all other elements in solution” (p. 275). Imagination, according to Dewey, is a uniquely human power, rendering experience conscious through the mutually transforming fusion of old meanings with new situations.

“For while the roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment, that experience becomes conscious, a matter of perception, only when meanings enter it that are derived from prior experiences. Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings can find their way into a present interaction; or rather,…the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination…There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring” (ibid.).

In preparation for a talk I’m giving at Burning Man in two weeks on “Platonic astrosophy,” I want to attempt to use Dewey’s understanding of the role of imagination in perception to make Plato’s vision of the Cosmos more accessible to the contemporary mind.

In the Republic, Plato ranks imagination quite low on his hierarchy of knowledge, since it is partially derived from sensory experience. For similar reasons, even though he praises astronomy for “[compelling] the soul to look upwards [leading it] from this world to another,” he nonetheless tells astronomers to “let the [visible] heavens alone” if they hope to “approach the subject in the right way” (book 8). This is because the Plato of the Republic chose to elevate the study of invisible geometrical harmonies known only by the intellect over and above the study of the motion of visible bodies through space. He recognized the same gap described by Dewey between direct perception and meaningful conception, or between sensing and thinking, but instead of calling upon imagination to bridge the gap, Plato often emphasized the difference. In the ancient world, a solution to the difficult problem of the planets had not yet been imagined. Plato was therefore skeptical of the merits of empirical observation in comparison to geometrical reasoning.

In Timaeus, he writes:

“That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.”

Despite his seeming desire to affirm an experiential gap, rather than an imaginal bridge, the Plato of Timaeus goes on to offer a “likely story,” or mythopoeic narrative, concerning the generation of the heavens. Given Plato’s doctrine of anemnesis, discussed at length in Meno and Phaedo, I want to suggest that Plato actually did articulate an imaginal function meant to bridge the cognitive gap between appearance and reality.

The soul, according to Plato, is “the oldest and most divine of all things” (Laws). It participates in the eternal, and so all the soul’s learning while incarnated in an earthly body is really a form of remembrance of knowledge that was already present in it from eternity.

The soul is said to forget its divine origins as a result of the trauma of physical birth. During birth, the soul descends from eternity to earth through the heavenly spheres of time. Once on earth, the now embodied and half-aware soul gazes back into the sky in awesome wonder. From childhood on, the soul dimly intuits its true birthplace in the stars, but only a lifelong dedication to the philosophical contemplation of the geometric motions of the stars and planets can finally cure the soul’s forgetfulness. This is why Plato praises the study of the stars as a divine science (let us call it “astrosophy”).

Just as Dewey suggests that the imagination unites the old with the new, the already experienced with present experience, Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis allows the embodied experience of the beauty of the present sky to act on the soul so as to remind it of the knowledge lying dormant in it from eternity.

Plato’s reasoning goes something like this: if the visible universe is intelligible, then it must be a work of art. Its beauty is thus the sensible sign of its creation by an invisible intelligence. In Timaeus, Plato seems to hold to two contradictory opinions on the nature of the creation and its creator. He suggests on the one hand that the universe is a “living thing” continually birthed out of a formless maternal Receptacle, or World Soul. On the other hand, he suggests that the universe is a “crafted thing,” the mere imitation or copy of an Idea, formed by a paternal demiurge into a “moving image of eternity.” The universe is conceived of as having both a mother and a father, both an immanent bearer who participates in its coming-to-life and a craftsman who orchestrates it from beyond; it remains unclear, however, how the two are to be married.

At this point, I’m forced to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that even “the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him” (journal entry, Oct. 1845).

Instead of looking to Plato for a further account of the maternal and paternal aspects of creation, let us turn to two early modern thinkers influenced, in the own way, by Plato: Descartes and Kepler. Their differences as regards the proper study of the Cosmos may provide us with a way forward. Both were Platonic in the sense that they believed in the transcendent origin of mathematics, but the similarity ends here. Descartes invented a way to translate geometric figures into algebraic equations, thereby enabling abstract measurement of the geometrically continuous by way of the numerically discrete. Kepler, on the other hand, did not think algebra was relevant to the study of cosmology:

“I do not treat these matters by numbers or by Algebra, but by the investigation of Spirit; my interest in these matters is not for keeping a ledger but for explaining the cause of things” (Harmonices mundi, 1619).

Descartes, aligning himself more with Plato’s paternal notion of creation, found evidence of a transcendent cause in his innate knowledge of geometric form. His own cognitive activity as a mathematician, in other words, was understood to be the effect of his having been created in the image of a divine craftsman. Kepler’s approach, in contrast, suggests a more maternal notion of creation, where participation in the archetypal pattern given expression by the heavens reminds the human soul of its embeddedness in the World Soul. For Kepler, the musical harmony of the spheres grounds geometry in the experience of beauty rather than in the intelligibility of abstract numbers.

In short, while Descartes thought the universe was an imitation of mathematical formalisms in the mind of an absent demiurge, Kepler saw it as the body of God, a living symbol of divinity. Philosophical contemplation of the heavens, for Descartes, leads to demonstrative knowledge of their eternal algebraic form; for Kepler, it leads to generative participation in the same life presently animating them…

I hope this admittedly oversimplified characterization of these thinkers was at least somewhat illustrative of the tension inherent in the Platonic worldview. I think a more developed account of the ontological role of imagination will help to marry the masculine and feminine poles of Plato’s cosmology.

Whiteheadian Panentheism and Ralph Pred’s “Onflow”

I’ve just been skimming Ralph Pred’s naturalization of Whitehead’s process-experiential ontology (see Onflow: Dynamics of Consciousness and Experience, 2005). Pred attempts to naturalize Whitehead by explaining away the need for any divine function in cosmogenesis, but in critiquing Whitehead’s speculative scheme, Pred focuses exclusively on the unconscious, primordial nature of God, leaving unmentioned the conscious pole of the Universe: God’s consequent nature. Instead of placing Creativity (infinite potentiality) into relation with God (determinate actualization), Pred believes he has found a “less interpretive name for the ultimate” (p. 180): a unified stream of experiential becoming called “onflow.” For Pred, onflow “is less susceptible [than Creativity/God] to a reading in terms of divine purposiveness, or an evolutionary accrual of value” (p. 181). This is certainly true, but I wonder why –if we are indeed to adhere to a radical empiricism as articulated by Pred– “divine purposiveness” and “accrual of value” are not considered to be ingredients in the experiential habitat humanity has inherited from the prior evolution of the world. An ordered creation has emerged and continues to develop; we live in a civilized cosmos, albeit one enduring amid a background of death, chaos, and inertia. Still, these negative elements thus far remain the background. The love of life and existence continue to win out over ignorance, hatred and extinction. The present Universe appears to be in the most complex and radiant state it will ever achieve in its macrocosmic evolutionary history, coincidentally just as human consciousness is gaining the technological capacity to scientifically study it. In several billion years, according to some astrophysicists, the inflation of space between galaxies will have accelerated beyond light-speed, meaning that even if a future alien civilization becomes technologically capable, it would never see any evidence of its own intergalactic history. But entropy is more extravagant a metaphysical ultimate than Creativity given the circumstances of our current cosmic moment. Yes, human civilization is bringing about the 6th Mass Extinction Event, the first in 65 million years; even so, more biodiversity exists today than ever before in our planet’s history. We have every reason to believe, given that so many mass extinctions have occurred before on this planet, that life on earth will survive and continue to flourish.

The speculative imagination can discover the divinity at the base of actuality only if the philosopher is able to think through the grave implications of her own incarnation. Philosophy is, first and foremost, learning to die. Only after encountering the Mystery of death can the embodied soul awaken its supersensory organs of imaginative and intuitive perception, granting it participation in the everlasting World-Soul. Only then does the Universe openly display itself as an ongoing achievement of spiritual expression, a scintillating symbol of the divine mind at work in the world. My body and its ego will die, but the soul of the world will go on. This ongoingness, and the objective immortality of the experiential valuation of each and every occasion, is God’s consequent nature.

Pred maintains that human valuation and aesthetic enjoyment can be accounted for without God, solely by the “hybrid feeling of self [and] the memory and imagination, stirred by aim in the concresence in question” (p. 178). Whitehead’s panentheism, in contrast, reflects his desire to affirm the highest aspirations of the human spirit. In Process and Reality (p. 31-32), he writes:

 “[The primordial, non-temporal accident] is here termed ‘God'; because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.”

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I do think Pred argues convincingly that one need not adopt Whitehead’s fully-deployed panentheistic metaphysics to recognize the value of a “concrescual approximation.” One can remain agnostic on the issue of a divine function while still accepting the reality of meaning and purpose in human life. But I also believe the human soul is capable of directly experiencing the divine function in the world, of feeling the eternal aims of God as they embrace the process of infinite creativity and lure chaos toward cosmos.

Plato and Astrosophy: The Wisdom of the Sky

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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Scholarship has been unable to determine who the true writer of Epinomis was, but it is generally assumed that the text available to us today is either what remains of an unfinished wax-tablet manuscript left behind by Plato at his death in 347 BCE, or is an extra chapter added later by a student of Plato’s, the astronomer Philip of Opus, who is known to have transcribed the first 12 books of Laws after his teacher’s death. Whatever the case may be, we can at least say that the dialogue provides us with perhaps the earliest example of a Platonic answer to the central question of philosophy: what must a mortal know in order to be wise?

In the dialogue, a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian are said to come together to discuss that which is more important than their respective forms of political organization: namely, Wisdom. Epinomis seems more than just a clerical, but a highly significant title for a Platonic dialogue, since certainly what should come after (“éπι”) the laws (“νομίς”) of one’s local polis is a discussion of the universal principles from which all human laws are derived by way of feeble mimicry.

Plato wrote the Laws only after the political utopia he outlined in the Republic had failed to materialize in 4th century Syracuse. It represents the opinion of an older, more cynical thinker for whom the notion of rule by virtuous philosopher-kings came to be replaced by the “second-best” rule of constitutional law. With the addition of the Epinomis as a 13th chapter, Plato’s younger idealism is allowed to shine through the wear and tear of age. In it, he (or his student) points to the importance of an understanding of the harmonious motions of the heavens, because they transcend the petty disagreements of earthly men and so provide all with a publicly apparent source of Wisdom.

The Athenian begins the dialogue by offering an insight articulated by Gautama Buddha more than a century earlier (483 BCE), that, basically, life is suffering:

“I say it is impossible for men to be blessed and happy, except a few ; that is, so long as we are living : I limit it to that. But one may rightly hope to attain after death all the things for whose sake one may strive both in life to live as nobly as one can and in death to find a noble end. What I say is [973d] no subtle doctrine, but a thing that all of us, Greeks and foreigners alike, in some way perceive — that from the beginning existence is difficult for every living creature : first, partaking of the state of an embryo, then again, being born, and further, being reared and educated — all these processes involve a vast amount of toil, [974a] we all agree.”

Wisdom, then, begins to dawn upon the human soul only after she has realized that life is full of suffering, that happiness and blessedness are impossible until she has dealt squarely and honestly with the traumas of birth and death. The death-rebirth mysteries at Eleusis into which Plato was initiated provided the ancient Greek soul with an opportunity to die in spirit before dying in flesh. The philosopher’s task upon being reborn is to integrate the vision of heaven and immortality with their participation in political life on earth. This is no easy task.

The Athenian continues:

“the soul firmly believes and divines that in some fashion she has [Wisdom], [974c] but what it is that she has, or when, or how, she is quite unable to discover. Is not this a fair picture of our puzzle about wisdom and the inquiry that we have to make?”

As Plato articulates in the 7th letter, wherein he reflects on his failed experiment in Syracuse, Wisdom cannot be finally attained through verbal discussion of names, through written formula, or through sensory experience of any kind. All that can be said for certain is that the soul knows that Wisdom is possible for herself, that it is asleep within her and can sometimes be awakened through the application of the proper technique (i.e., philosophy).

The Athenian then runs through the various technologies employed by human intelligence: the cultivation of land and the production of food, the building of homes and the smithing of various tools and weapons, artistic reproduction like poetry and painting, the arts of sailing and of medicine. He concludes that none of them are productive of wisdom, since each deals only in conjecture and opinion. The only technique productive of Wisdom–the only way to become “a wise and good citizen, at once a just ruler and subject of his city, in tune with himself and the world as well”–is the study of the heavens, of the stars and the cosmos, the ordered motion of which is responsible for “[giving] number to the whole race of mortals [976d].”
The Athenian suggests that the rhythmical motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets through the sky taught the human soul to count and to record time. Modern paleoanthropology lends some support to this idea, since one of the earliest known forms of writing consisted of notches carved into bone fragments to record the phases of the moon. This science of seasonal time learned by contemplating the motions of the heavens, he argues, provides the foundation of every other technique that has subsequently been acquired through the exercise of human intelligence. “Thanks to these celestial events,” he says,

“we have crops, the earth bears food for all living things, and the winds that blow and the rains that fall are not violent or without measure. If on the contrary anything turns out for the worse, we must not blame God [who orders the heavens and provides for their participation in earthly events], but humans, for not rightly managing their own lives [by living in harmony with the seasonal motions of the planets] [979a].”

At this point in their search for Wisdom, the Athenian, the Cretan, and the Spartan agree that they will need to pray for the guidance of God himself if they hope to understand the true meaning of the planetary spheres and the process of their generation. Philosophy here becomes beholden to the power of faith. The seekers of wisdom pray that they might be granted Her council, that the Soul of the World might speak within their humble and open hearts.

The Athenian then says, “as a whole, soul is older than any body. Do you recall? You surely must remember.” He adds to his anamnesiac appeal that the celestial spheres are to be considered “living things…endowed with the finest body and the best and happiest soul [980d].” Either these spheres are indestructible, or “each of them is content to possess such a vast length of life that they could never possibly demand more [982a].”

Wisdom, the Soul of the World whose voice is made audible in the Song of the Spheres, is embodied by Plato’s Fifth element, also mentioned in Timaeus and his 7th letter. Soul is without name or color or shape or weight, no more made of fire than it is earth; rather, it is the invisible intelligent force underlying the harmonious activity of the other Four elements.

“Let us suppose,” suggests the Athenian,

“that [the divine stars and the creatures of the earth] are two kinds of living things, that both are visible, the one made entirely, as it might seem, of fire, the other of earth, and that the earthly kind moves in disorder, while the one of fire moves in perfect order. Now what moves in disorder (which is exactly how the kind of living things around us behave for the most part) we ought to consider unintelligent. But if something has an orderly path in the heavens we should treat that as powerful evidence of its intelligence. For if it always proceeds in its course uniformly and without variation, and always acts and is affected in the same way, it gives ample evidence of intelligent life. The necessity of the soul that possesses intelligence is by far the most powerful of all necessities. For it is a ruler, not a subject, and so ordains its decrees. When a soul reaches the best decision in accordance with the best intelligence, the result, which is truly to its mind, is perfectly unalterable…Humans should admit as evidence of the intelligence of the stars and this entire movement of theirs, the fact that they always do the same things, because they are doing what was decided an astonishingly long time ago and do not change their decision back and forth, sometimes doing one thing and at others doing something else, wandering and changing their orbits. This opinion of ours is the exact opposite of what most people believe–that because they do the same things uniformly they do not possess soul. The crowd has followed the fools in supposing that the human race is intelligent and alive because it undergoes change, whereas the divine is unintelligent because it remains in the same orbits. But in fact a person can adopt views that are finer, better and acceptable, and could have understood that whatever always operates uniformly, without variation, and through the same causes is for that very reason to be regarded as intelligent. Such a person could also understand that this is the nature of the stars, the finest of all things to behold, and further that moving through their march and dance, the finest and most magnificent dance there is, they bring to pass what all living things need [982a-e].”

The Athenian establishes that one Life moves through all things earthly and astral, that a single invisible Soul animates each and all. Even if the visible planetary spheres are but the elemental images of Wisdom, rather than the eternal gods themselves, still “no other image will appear more beautiful or more widely shared by all humans than these [984b].” He goes on to discuss the role of various atmospheric mediators, or daemons (i.e., angels and demons), who facilitate communication between gods and humans:

“…some of them have had various types of encounters with humans, whether through dreams in sleep or in audible communications through divine voices or prophecies to certain people whether healthy or ill or even at the point of death. The resulting beliefs affect both individuals and communities and have been the origin of many religious rites for many people and will be in the future as well [985c].”

Religious revelation, in this sense, is true, a fact about the Universe that reason must take into its consideration of the whole. But revelation must be checked through comparison to the meanings of the visible motion of the stars and planets, since “the worst people are those that do not dare to declare to us the gods that really do appear to us [985d].” Private, inner revelation is not enough. The words of God’s messengers must be plainly present for all to see and hear. The sun, moon, and other planets are these words, publicly available to all with ears to hear and eyes to see. Each one of them “contributes to the perfection of the visible cosmos established by the most divine law of all [986c].” In this way, the science of the heavens, astrology (which is not other than astronomy for Plato), is said to have provided humanity with God’s true revelation of Wisdom.

The Athenian summarizes what Plato treats more fully in Timaeus concerning the character of the 8 “powers,” or “orbits.” The first 7 appear to move to the right (from East to West), while the 8th, the cosmic sphere of fixed stars, appears to move to the left (from West to East). By holding together and harmonizing the different movements of the 7 inner spheres with the stable identity of the outer 8th, the World Soul creates time, perpetually birthing the visible Universe as “a moving image of eternity.” Through the unifying animation of the World Soul, all things in heaven and earth are made full of gods (991d).

Without the study of the heavens, according to the Athenian, “no one in cities will ever become happy [992a].” A true participatory democracy, where every person is both ruler of themselves and subject of their civilization–each full members of the Nocturnal Council capable of contemplating the true meaning of the morning sun–requires that all be initiates into the Mysteries of the Sky.

“Let no Greek ever fear that being mortal we should not concern ourselves with the divine Universe. We should have quite the opposite thought; the divine [i.e., the Cosmos] is never without intelligence nor is it at all ignorant of human nature, but it knows that if it teaches we will follow along and learn what we are taught [988b].”