As a result of the past two years of study toward a MA degree in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness, my mind has been so stretched—both inward into the depths of my own soul and outward into the endless expanse of the cosmos—that distilling a specific dissertation topic for my PhD research will be extremely difficult. I’d like it to be focused enough to make a serious contribution to future philosophical scholarship, but general enough to be accessible to a wider, non-academic audience. Accomplishing both of these goals will require paying close attention to detail, but also to transdisciplinary methods of research. I will also need to develop a language that is both philosophically nuanced and poetically evocative.
As for the topic itself, much of my thinking as of late has drawn my attention to the role of imagination in perception and reflection, and the potential for its intentional cultivation to open up as yet supersensible realms of experience. Philosophers and poets like Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and J.W. von Goethe will no doubt play huge supporting roles as my research develops. Another major influence has been the Swiss-born philosopher Jonael Schickler, whose only published work, “Metaphysics as Christology: An Odyssey of the Self from Kant and Hegel to Steiner” was finished a few days before his untimely death at the age of 25 in a train accident in the UK. I have only just begun to read the text, but it is almost as if Schickler laid the groundwork for the same project I had been conceiving of pursuing, thereby allowing me to stand upon his shoulders to further develop the thesis.
The thesis, simply stated, is that the alienation of the modern self from both the spiritual and the natural world is a result of a dialectical process, or an evolution of consciousness, whose culminating moment is nothing short of the complete incarnation of the Word. One of the main issues I hope to clarify in my dissertation is how and why the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution occurred. The arguments in Charles Taylor’s monumental work, “A Secular Age,” will be of great service to me here, as he there brilliantly articulates why the disenchantment of the universe and the rejection of traditional religious authority are the result, not of the epistemological discoveries of science reflecting a supposedly indifferent and mechanical natural world, but rather of shifting moral attitudes concerning the autonomy and freedom of the self. As Rudolf Steiner similarly argues in many lectures, what is significant about modern science is not the picture it has painted of the natural world, but the self-development it has allowed to take place within the human soul. Fully incarnating into matter required of the human being that it find spirit not as something given by the outer world, but as something achieved by an inner will.
I will further attempt to argue that only by developing supersensory organs of perception (such as imagination and intuition) can humanity continue its evolutionary journey back to spiritual wholeness. The philosophers and poets mentioned above tapped into and re-enlivened the Wisdom and Beauty at the core of the Western tradition in a way that hasn’t been equaled before or since. I’m well aware of the tremendous influence the ideas of these geniuses have already had on our culture, but I think there is much that has gone underappreciated. I’m most interested in the relationship these thinkers attempted to articulate between mind and nature, a relationship that both held the human being in highest esteem as the pinnacle of natural evolution and at the same time recognized the beauty and worth of nature in its own right. It was the human imagination, they argued, that, when fully realized, not only allows us to appreciate the universe, but that literally creates the universe. This idea would not have been possible to articulate prior to Kant’s so-called “Copernican Revolution,” wherein the true constitutive power of the mind was first recognized. No longer could the human mind be understood as a mirror of nature; instead, the mind’s own categories and ideas determine in the first the way nature appears to us.
The post-Kantian philosophers were not satisfied with Kant’s formulation, however. They struggled to overcome the Cartesian legacy that Kant’s dualism between appearance and reality still upheld. Nature could only be understood as mechanism so far as Kant was concerned, the notion of a purposive, organismic universe being but a “regulative principle” of the understanding. In other words, because of the inherent limitations of the human mind (i.e., the categories of the understanding and sensory intuitions), Kant believed we were forever alienated from the natural world around us. We were free, autonomous selves, but we could never understand how this freedom was possible in an entirely mechanical universe of dead matter in motion. Schelling and Hegel were not satisfied with the limitations Kant placed on the mind. Schelling in particular looked to the imagination’s unconscious creative capacities for a way beyond the static and dualistic categories of the understanding. Coleridge further developed this approach, developing what we might call a science of the imagination. So far as he was concerned, imagination is the mediator between spirit and matter. Our positivistic and materialistic age has had a dramatic effect not just on how we think about nature, but on how we perceive it. Coleridge recognized this, and so sought not only philosophical articulation of a re-enchanted cosmology, but also to develop a method of poetic entrance into the hidden significance of all that appears before us. Matter seems at first to be merely surface, but for the Romantics, these surfaces are actually signs pointing beyond themselves to something spiritual.
To sum up, my research goal is primarily to try to flesh out and make relevant once again the Romantic conception of nature as a symbol of the divine. Only a renewed sense of imagination (which is perhaps quite literally a new organ of perception) will allow us to recognize material appearances as an expression of spiritual realities lying beneath. I not only want to explore the implications of this idea as it relates to the dualism between mind and nature, but also between mind and mind. I find great importance in what Steiner calls “moral imagination,” which is our ability to see below the surface of human persons to their true spiritual essence. Matter is spirit’s way of expressing itself, of creating worlds by way of imaginative participation in the becoming of nature. I hope to articulate and participate in this adventure during the course of my dissertation, thereby rediscovering the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Western tradition that so sorely needs a renewed sense of its earthly mission.
As well as developing my dissertation, I’d like to hone my teaching skills, as there is no other vocation I can currently conceive myself pursuing. Ideas are not a private affair, so far as I am concerned. They are like stars whose very existence depends upon the radiance and warmth they share with the beings around them. Teaching is a necessary part of study and learning, and I cannot wait to fully embody the role of professor, not only for the challenge it presents to my own intellectual and spiritual development, but for the time-honored lineage of cultural transmission it will allow me to participate in.
What do you think?