Böhme and Schelling’s Cosmogenetic Theology

I’m getting to the end of Iain Hamilton Grant‘s book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. Though Grant doesn’t mention the influence, Schelling‘s search for the “unthinged” in nature was significantly aided by the cosmogony of German mystic Jakob Böhme (1575-1624). The following is an excerpt from a presentation I gave last year on Böhme. I hope to develop the similarities between he and Schelling’s thought in subsequent posts…


“An original antithesis of forces in the ideal subject of nature appears necessary to every construction.” -Schelling (Grant, p. 160).

“The transcendental philosopher says: give me a nature composed of antithetical activities, of which one reaches out to the infinite while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from this I will bring forth intelligence for you” -Schelling (Grant, p. 171).


The physicist Basarab Nicolescu, in his book Science, Meaning, and Evolution, distills the essence of Jakob Böhme’s cosmology of divine self-manifestation as “a threefold structure leading to a sevenfold self-organization of reality” (p. 90).

Böhme’s God is not Aristotle’s perfect unmoved mover, but dynamic and self-revelatory by nature. Böhme wrote many books attempting to describe his epiphanic vision of a God who cannot but overflow into creation. God in-itself, traditionally “God the Father,” is the mysterious abyss or ungrounded ground of pre-creation, and consists of the restless agitation of three principles—darkness, light, and fire (or sourness, sweetness, and bitterness, respectively). The light wants to expand and radiate, to become manifest, but the dark wants to remain hidden and self-contained. As a result of the internal friction produced by this self-contradiction, God ignites into flames, burning in what Böhme calls a “wheel of anguish.” The fire of the three restless principles generates heat, which is the first of God’s manifest qualities but the 4th in the sevenfold self-organization of reality. This heat sparks a flash of light, which becomes the force of love in search of itself, the 5th principle. Love finds itself through the reverberation of sound or tone, language or the Word, which is the 6th principle. The Word then becomes flesh, reaching fulfillment as body—God incarnate—completing the sevenfold series.

For Böhme, the cosmos is the body of God. He refers to stars as the “fountain veins of God.” It is as if he is saying that stars are a visible example of this sevenfold creator-creativity in action. This sevenfold series can be understood in a Hegelian sense as moments in the self-development of the whole, a whole that begins where it ends and that is already holographically present in each of its moments.

Cosmogenesis is, for Böhme, the divine’s attempt to find wholeness, and the human being participates in this attempt, our faith (or our opening to the creative and imaginal dimension of reality) acting as the food that nourishes God. Böhme’s cosmology places a heavy responsibility upon humanity, as the completion of the sevenfold cycle depends upon our active cooperation. Without our conscious participation, “the entire universe of the creation would disappear into chaos” (p. 89).


Schelling, like Böhme, locates the origin of the universe in the unmanifest darkness of antithetical powers at work in the Godhead, as yet unconscious. This dynamic darkness overflows itself, creating the phenomenal world, which develops through a sequence of stages (Stufenfolge) that provide for God’s increasing self-awareness through corporealization. God was not content to be in itself, since in itself divinity remains unmanifest and merely ideal; God took on the finitude of the sensory world in order to become for itself. Though nature does not begin, for Schelling, as body or bodies (universal substance or particular substances), it would appear that corporealization is nonetheless nature’s (or God’s) end.

Factish God(s)

The following is my comment posted in response to a blog by Sam Mickey about the potential of an object-oriented theology.

Postsecularity might also be termed “the After Age.” Perhaps the “end of history” is the beginning of an integral phase of civilization, where the transparent permeability of eternity and time, spirit and matter, reason and myth, art and earth is (re)collected. If “postsecularity” is not simply the return to mythic consciousness and static cosmology, though, what does it mean to leave the presentist philosophy of secular humanism and/or scientific naturalism behind? We need new some new paths to explore. I’m definitely in agreement that Harman’s object-orientation is an experiment in ontology that should be conducted in theology as well.
A few thoughts…
Factish gods remind me of the occult concept of an “egregore“, a sort of collective-thought form that incorporates individuals into decision patterns larger than their separate perceptuo-conscious awarenesses. This would seem to have more to do with a straightforwardly fetishized God than a factish God. The implication for occultism seems to be that fetish Gods (i.e., idols) are psychosocial fabrications and not true divinities. It may be helpful, then, to mark the difference between God as fetish and God as factish. The former involves the projection of soul onto inanimate objects or social forces, the later grants God its own “submergent” properties, in Harman’s terms, since God retains the capacity to act independent of any human projections (meaning God exists independently of its effects upon even the unconscious human psyche). An egregore is a fetish because it doesn’t exceed the sum of its psychosocietal relations: no society of psyches, no egregore. On the other hand, the Sun, as an object with both sensual notes and real qualities, is a factish God, since it is granted a molten core, or a soul, of its own. It would go on being itself even if all the psyches on the earth were to die.

Schelling’s Naturephilosophy and Hegel’s Exclusion of Geology

Will commented on “Schelling’s Geocentric Realism” to defend the position of Nature in Hegel’s Logic from its realist inversion. I wanted to make Iain Hamilton Grant‘s position on the matter available (from “Schellingianism & Postmodernity: Towards a Materialist Naturphilosophie“):

As a shorthand for his synthetic programme, as opposed to the Hegelian system as to mechanical reduction, Schelling offers, in his Philosophical Inquiries “potentiated”, “intensified” or “vitalised Spinozism”, from which, he goes on, “there developed a Philosophy of Nature” (1989: 22-3). Schelling “intensifies” Spinozist nature by dynamizing it, introducing dark, unconscious forces into its production that extend even to mind’s self-production as a natural product. Just as Spinoza’s Deus sive natura, ‘God and/or nature’, consitutes an inclusive disjunctive synthesis, so the intensified Spinozism of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is “merely one of [philosophy’s] parts”, a part which must be conjoined with the “philosophy of the idea” as laid out in the System of Transcendental Idealism. The crucial difference between this conjunction and Hegel’s global misconstrual of Kantian local synthesis is that Hegel will view the philosophy of nature as a teleological step towards the absolution of mere objecthood in mind’s self-recognition, whereas Schelling’s local and dynamic synthesis deploys the conjunction at the point of the loss of the idea’s conscious production as mind. In other words, if for Hegel, the identity of production and product is mind, for Schelling, the recognition of nature as product entails the isolation of the production of conscious mind, appearing to mind as the cessation of its own production. In Kantian terms, we might say that the recognition of the final form of the categorical imperative in the power of desire to manufacture the world confronts in nature the limitations of reason’s industrial jurisdiction. At the same time, however, natural production remains continuous and unconscious, so that the antinomy is one for consciouness alone. This break with phenomenological adequation, coterminous with the noumenal positing of nature as unconscious production (extending, it should be said, from the point of view of the philosophy of nature, even to the production of mind itself, so that in producing itself as mind, the mind is unconscious of itself as production; from these two senses of, we may derive the Freudian distinction between the dynamic and the descriptive, as the appendices to The Ego and the Id [Standard Edition XIX] call them), amounts simultaneously to the materialisation of this unconscious production as the dynamics of nature. Named by turns das Regellose (the unruly), evil, the basis, the primal chaos or ataxia of forces, this “irreducible remainder that cannot be resolved into reason” (1989: 34), this point marks the synthesis between mind and nature as antinomy (to be resolved, in concert with Kant, through the practical effort of will) and rulelessness, respectively. To take the materialist route cannot therefore be a metaphysical error, but can only be a practical one, an error which Schelling calls the “exalt[ation] of the basis over the cause” (1989: 41). But the price of maintaining what, for ease of exposition if too swiftly to be remotely accurate, we may call the Idealist route, is the perpetuation of the unresolvably antimonic chiasmus between nature and mind in unconsciousness. Schellingian idealism, then, does not entail the annihilation of materialism (on which the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason insists), but the regionalisation of mind with respect to matter, and the simultaneous explanation of the former in terms of the latter. For Schelling, mind does not represent nature, it confronts it as a product that antinomically cuts mind off from its own production.

Mind cannot comprehend Nature as an object, because Nature is not just a product or thing, but is the same productivity that makes possible our own consciousness of it as such. Nature is not mere externality; it is full of dynamic intention. Nature is creative, just as creative as the productive imagination underlying our conscious perception of an ordered, rational world. In fact, for Grant, productive Nature is the ground of human Nature, the source of our experience of produced nature (be it subjective/psychic or objective/somatic). Does this mean that the philosophical Absolute—rather than identification with object or subject, externality or internality, Nature or Spirit—is identification with productivity in general (be it human or natural)?

Grant points to Hegel’s “stupefying judgment” in S 339 of the Encyclopedia that geology has no philosophical relevance (p. 41, The Speculative Turn, 2011). Schelling’s generative naturephilosophy reveals Nature to be more than a present appearance, but a developmental process whose anterior layers of materialization, though hidden, condition subsequent layers. “If the actual involves genesis, then at no point do presently actual objects exhaust the universe” (ibid., p. 43). By arguing that Eternity excludes the past and the future, but is fully present now, Hegel turns the anteriority of the earth into into an abstract idea, rather than the condition of our present consciousness of it:

“Geology isn’t simply philosophically irrelevant to Hegel, but fatal to the eternity of the world, precisely because it necessarily posits an anteriority even to the becoming of the planetary object” (ibid., p. 44).

In other words, “no planet, no geology.” The geogenesis of the earth has provided the conditions making consciousness possible (Grant lists several of these conditions: “meteorological metastasis, chemical complexification, speciation, neurogony, informed inquiry…” [ibid., p. 45]).

The Psychoanalysis of Philosophy: Towards the Eroticization of Logos

The following is an essay written for a course called “post-secular Jewish emancipatory thought,” taught by Richard Shapiro in the Social and Cultural Anthropology department at CIIS.


In May of 2010, the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities at Middlesex University, Ed Esche, informed the philosophy department that its funding had been permanently revoked. Despite being widely recognized as one of the leading research centers on Continental philosophy in the world (and the only such center in the UK), the University administration determined that greater revenue would be generated if its financial resources were more efficiently allocated. The Dean remarked that, despite its excellent academic reputation, the department made no “measurable” contribution to the University.[1]

It seems that thinking has little role left to play in a hyper-capitalist society, where knowledge is a commodity and culture is sculpted by social engineers to entertain and persuade us. The advance of civilization marches onward, as Alfred North Whitehead put it, “by extending the number of important operations we can perform without thinking about them” (Introduction to Mathematics, 1911). Thinking is aimed at the negation of the given, the status quo: philosophy must strive to break free of the custodial role prescribed for it by the dominant culture. “Official philosophy,” where it is still permitted to exist as a legitimate “occupation,” is supposed to aid the scientist’s accumulation of instrumental knowledge by “[preventing] the waste of mental energy” (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1987, p. 202). Genuine philosophy cannot produce standardized knowledge to be packaged and sold for the corporate sponsored “enrichment of the mind” (Eros and Civilization, 1974, p. xxiii); rather, philosophy is a thinking which “refuses to capitulate to the prevailing division of labor and does not accept prescribed tasks…[It is] an effort to resist suggestion…[by giving] voice to the contradiction between belief and reality” (DE, p. 202). If education is now a business, philosophers no longer belong in universities. Philosophy is truth telling, not truth selling.

Industrial capitalism has not only come to disregard and downplay the disruptive effects of thinking. The free expression of Eros has also been undermined. Despite the much-vaunted sexual revolution of the 1960s, any release of instinctual energies is prescribed by the requirement that it be “satisfied within the framework of commerce and profit” (EC, xxiii). As a young person seeking liberation through education and the love of wisdom (philosophy), I am compelled by nature to construct a sensuous rationality capable of bringing forth a non-repressive civilization. Those in society granted the privilege of “spending” their time doing “nothing but” thinking are shrinking in number, so there is a special urgency to my present inquiry. What does it mean to do philosophy in a corporate economy happily perpetuated by a well-fed, well-entertained populace? Thinking is precisely thinking about nothing—thinking what is not, and so discovering what remains possible. Thinking is an activity without meaning within the context of consumption and production, since it emerges from the memory of an entirely different way of being. Thinking is the attempt to step outside the repressively comfortable circle of life-so-defined.

I aim to think the possibility of reconciliation between Logos and Eros, between thinking and feeling. This will require more than the intellectual revolt of philosophical imagination against abstraction, but also the instinctual rebellion of youthful eroticism against repression. Capitalist society cannot be successfully countered by the explosive release of orgiastic impulse alone, since such explosions already find their approved expression in a multibillion dollar pornography industry; nor can even the most penetrating critiques of commodity fetishism outpace the wit of advertisers and the allure of personal electronics. Instead, mind and body must reunite for a new kind of fight against an enemy who has already penetrated the inner sanctum of our own soul. The enemy is not the government bureaucrat or corporate executive, but the machinations of “the system” of which they, too, are victims.

Philosophy must therefore join forces with psychoanalysis in order to liberate our human potential for joyful life from the surplus-repression of industrial capitalist civilization. Following Herbert Marcuse, psychoanalysis must be extended beyond the individual to include society, since today “the cure of the personal disorder depends more directly than before on the cure of the general disorder” (EC, p. xxvii).

What are the lessons of psychoanalysis for philosophy; which is to say, what has the thinking ego to learn from the unconscious soul? Freud would remind the philosopher that his supposedly logical thought processes originate in the memory of bodily gratifications and are driven forward by the impulse to recollect these same past gratifications (EC, p. 31). Because the ego is perpetually frustrated in its attempts to fully recall the past, it becomes increasingly offensive and antagonistic in pursuit of its objects (EC, p. 109). Thinking is not entirely free, but seems to act out of the unconscious necessity of the pleasure principle.  Thought must come to recognize its embodied context and to except the instinctual ground from which it emerges. But psychoanalysis, the science of the psyche, also has something to learn from philosophy, the art of the psyche.

The soul, says Aristotle, is the form of the body, and the body a broken version of the whole. The body is ruled by necessity, the death drive always drawing it back into blissful extinction in the inorganic realm. The soul still enjoys the pleasures of the dying body, but it also has a taste for something higher: the integral freedom of imagination, where desire can be made to coincide with gratification. The psyche exists midway between the freedom of the spirit and the feelings of the body. Its task is to integrate the ideas of the former with the reality of the later.  The imagination is the site of this integration, and its cultivated expression can transform unconscious necessity into conscious freedom.

Though Western philosophy has long championed Logos, Reason, or Spirit as the essence of Being, and therefore privileged production and mastery of nature over receptive participation, the Platonic tradition offers an alternative.  In the Symposium, Eros is described as the desire for wholeness and wisdom, rather than dominance. It reminds the ego of a time when subject and object had not yet split, and promises an eventual return to paradise. Similarly, in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the highest form of Reason is the opposite of the prevailing, Enlightenment conception of a subject always attempting to progress over and against an object. For Hegel, absolute knowledge is the result of a cyclical development culminating in “attained and sustained fulfillment, the transparent unity of subject and object” (EC, p. 116). Unfortunately, this fulfillment is spiritual, a freedom won only in the Idea and not in reality. “In reality, neither remembrance nor absolute knowledge redeems that which was and is” (EC, p. 119).

Marcuse argues that philosophy, despite its great spiritual protests, has been unable to overturn the dominant reality principle of Enlightenment rationality[2]. The sought after transformation of society requires more than the ontologization of Eros along side Logos; it requires a higher form of participation in nature won by the re-enchantment of culture, defined not as the rigidly enforced deflection and methodical sacrifice of libido (EC, p. 3), but as its fullest expression.

Enlightenment, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, “has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters” (DE, p. 1). “Yet,” they go on, “the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.” The liberation promised by the Enlightenment was to be accomplished by the disenchanting effects of an instrumental rationality capable of explaining and controlling nature (inner and outer) for the good of society. Directing our ever-increasing intellectual and material forces toward collective benefit, so the story goes, requires repressing the pleasure-seeking and boundary-dissolving instincts of our individual organism. This “social contract” of voluntary repression is supposed to be in service of life against death, freedom against slavery; but the contract is signed under duress, since neurotic guilt, rather than conscious love guides the forced choice. The rationalization of our organism by the dominant culture is accepted more as a punishment than a present. Having been thus “scientifically managed” (EC, xii) by society, we become thoroughly alienated from our labor, our pleasure, and our cosmic ground. Human life has been made into a mere means to the end of economic progress—progress measured in terms of the consumption of a resource base organized so as to artificially enforce scarcity (an issue to which I will return below).

If the world wars of the 20th century were not shocking enough to dispel the sacrificial myth of mythlessness underlying the rationale for industrial civilization, the worsening socioeconomic and ecological crises of the 21st century have all but fully exposed the madness of its attempt to scientifically master the life of the psyche and the earth.

The philosophical inquiry to follow will revolve around two related questions: 1) Can there be civilized life without repression? 2) Can there be scientific knowledge without disenchantment?


Approaching an answer to the first question will require unpacking the sociological implications of psychoanalysis. Marcuse’s philosophical reconstruction of Freud’s theory of “primary narcissism” will provide the conceptual basis upon which to critique the latter’s assumption that sociality begins only with human civilization. On the contrary, it will be argued that sociality is basic to nature, and that therefore civilized life need not be based upon a traumatic break within the individual psyche between the pleasure principle of the id and the reality principle of the super ego.

The second question is related to the first, in that the surplus-repression[3] governing industrial civilization objectifies both the human psyche and the natural world. Whereas mythical consciousness participates in an inherently meaningful cosmos no less animated than the human soul, scientific rationalism has separated meaning from intelligibility by transforming nature into a “mathematical manifold” (DE, p. 19) awaiting technological manipulation. In light of Marcuse’s discussion of the mytho-poeic and aesthetic dimensions of the psyche as potential avenues to overcoming the opposition of man and nature enforced by the instrumental rationality of the performance principle, it will be argued that any psychological reconciliation between the id and the super ego remains superficial without a concomitant cosmological reconciliation between the soul and the cosmos.

Instead of domination and mastery, civilization can be founded upon playful participation. Through the liberation of Eros and the emergence of a sensual rationality, the industrial performance principle and its image of ourselves and of nature as mere means can be challenged and transformed.

Can there be civilization without repression? Or, as Freud’s corpus suggests, is the “free gratification of man’s instinctual needs…incompatible with civilized society” (EC, p. 3)? Marcuse argues that the human civilian need not be made into an instrument of labor, forced to delay self-gratification in order to toil for the survival of the whole. Such instrumentalization of the individual represents one possible, and particularly alienating mode of industrial enculturation. Nietzsche exposed the conceptual roots allowing for the perpetuation of this mode, which grow out of the “gigantic fallacy on which Western philosophy and morality [are] built”: that which mistakes contingent facts for essences, thereby making metaphysical principles out of historical conditions (EC, p. 121).

Freud’s reading of the relationship between the pleasure and reality principles is built atop the Darwinian notion of a “struggle for existence” resulting from the scarcity inherent to natural life. Freud offers a devastating critique of the idea of an rational individual so crucial to liberal political theory, but he nonetheless describes the origins of civilization through the emergence of a social contract based upon the idea that the human individual’s selfish desire for immediate gratification must be checked in order to safeguard the future happiness of society (EC, pg. 13). Civilization is deemed necessarily repressive, since unrestrained individual gratification would quickly lead to the collapse of the labor force that secures the resources vital to social organization.

However, Darwin’s understanding of scarcity and the struggle of each against all can be shown to have more to do with the capitalist economic conditions holding sway in 19th century England than it does with nature.[4] Scarcity, and the competitive model of social relations in which it results, is not rooted in the natural world, but is the result of an artificially controlled distribution of resources. What Freud and Darwin took to be the essence of nature was actually the result of a contingent form of economic organization. Rather than a war of each against all, post-Darwinian biology has come to recognize symbiosis as the rule, rather than the exception, in the natural world.[5]

Regardless of whether or not the state of nature is truly an out and out struggle, Marcuse argues modern technological advances have now made it possible to all but eliminate scarcity and scale back the need for industrial toil. That billions of people still go hungry and billions more sell their labor and leisure time to corporations can no longer be legitimated by the naturalization of scarcity and competition.

If scarcity is the result of capitalism, rather than its justification, the surplus-repression of civilization must also have historical, rather than biological causes. Marcuse unpacks Freud’s own understanding of instinct to reveal how Eros contains within itself the germ of a reality principle all its own. Unlike in some of Freud’s formulations, the performance principle of capitalism need not be understood as the only possible reality (EC, p. 45). As the example of artistic production proves, there may indeed be a “work-instinct” (EC, p. 84) that avoids alienation. Sociality, too, can emerge instinctually, through the still gratifying sublimation of aim-inhibited sexuality (EC, p. 82). A non-repressive civilization is possible, since there is a psychic force empowered by the pleasure principle of the id that is nonetheless capable of being made conscious: the imagination (EC, p. 140).

Imagination, says Marcuse,

links the deepest layers of the unconscious with the highest products of consciousness (art), the dream with the reality; it preserves the archetypes of the genus, the perpetual but repressed ideas of the collective and individual memory, the tabooed images of freedom (EC, p. 141).

The performance principle of industrial civilization divides the psyche into an ego interested in the usefulness of rationality, geared toward truthful representation and skillful manipulation of nature, and an unconscious id caught up in the useless daydreaming of imagination, absorbed in the childish fantasies of the pleasure principle. The birth of a truly free civilization will require the cultivation of imagination as an organ of perception, capable of giving intelligible and realistic form to the archetypal desires of the psyche. The split between the pleasure ego and the reality ego must be overturned so that the image-making capacities of the id are consciously granted their constitutive role in the formation of reality.  Contra Freud, the notion of a reality principle that avoids repression is not retrogression to an impossible subhuman past (EC, p. 147). The restoring of imagination to its proper role in the psychic construction of reality signals the coming of civilization’s most mature phase (EC, p. 150).

It is not simply that imagination must begin to play a role in our perception of reality; it is that the rational ego must come to recognize the freedom it already exercises in bringing forth a society dominated by the performance principle. The current structure of society is a contingently imagined product, not the natural and necessary result of trying to civilize unruly instinct. The implementation of the performance principle’s repressive norms has occurred slowly over the course of many generations, and so few individuals are aware of being subjected to it.  The primordial trauma responsible for characterizing the modern subject’s alienated way of being is normally buried in the collective unconscious.

“In the ‘normal’ development,” writes Marcuse,

the individual lives his repression ‘freely’ as his own life: he desires what he is supposed to desire; his gratifications are profitable to him and to others…Repression disappears in the grand objective order of things which rewards more or less adequately the complying individuals and, in so doing, reproduces more or less adequately society as a whole (EC, p. 46).

Only sustained contemplation and cultivated imagination can dig up what has been repressed, namely the existence of “an undifferentiated, unified libido prior to the division into ego and external objects” (EC, p. 168). Freud’s discovery of this pre-egoic stage of “primary narcissism” forced the retraction of an earlier theory claiming the primacy of the self-preservation instinct. As Freud described it, “the ego-feeling we are aware of now is…only a shrunken vestige of a far more extensive feeling—a feeling which embraced the universe” (ibid.).

Marcuse argues that the re-activation of this primary stage of libidinal identity with the universe, given the formation of a mature ego capable of integrating it, would produce a re-sexualized body no longer satisfied with being used as a “full-time instrument of labor” (EC, p. 201), and a sensualized reason, no longer satisfied with the objectification of nature. Through the process of the conscious cultivation of imagination, regression is made progressive (EC, p. 19), the entire personality becomes eroticized, and reality itself is transformed. This re-emergence of libido is more a spread than an explosion, according to Marcuse, “a spread over private and societal relations which bridges the gap maintained between them by a repressive reality principle” (EC, p. 202).

The narrow confines of acceptable sexual desire dictated by the performance principle are opened up, and sexuality is transformed into a cosmic principle: Eros. As in the Symposium, Eros is ontologized in recognition of the fact that “Being is essentially the striving for pleasure” (EC, p. 125).  This new way of inhabiting an eroticized body in a fundamentally pleasure-seeking world undoes the historically enforced repression responsible for the antagonistic separation between the spiritual and physical parts of our organism (EC, p. 210). The transformation of sexuality into Eros allows the pleasure principle to begin its own process of realization towards ever-more refined receptivity and sensuousness. These aims lead inevitably to “the abolition of toil, the amelioration of the environment, the conquest of disease and decay, [and] the creation of luxury”—all those effects long assumed to be impossible without severely restricting our natural inclinations (EC, p. 211). Work, defined by the performance principle as a necessary means to an end, is replaced by play, which takes pleasure in an activity for its own sake, even where its content is no different than work (EC, p. 215).

The ontologization of Eros has further consequences for modern science’s understanding of the universe. Contemporary physics defines energy as the ability to do work. This is no mere metaphor; it reveals that the established performance principle has infected the theories of even the hardest of the sciences. To the extent that nature is granted any “inner life” at all, its activity is believed to be that of forced, mechanical labor. Philosophical reflection upon the revelations of psychoanalysis leads not only to the liberation of man, but to that of nature, now free to display the wealth of its many forms before a more receptive subjectivity (EC, p. 190). Energy, as Blake put it, is no longer trapped in endless toil, but understood to be celebrating existence in eternal delight.

Thinking need not only be in the service of rationalization. It can also liberate. When the soul is freed to imaginatively perceive the natural possibilities of its existence, civilization is not imperiled, but greatly improved. If it were true that “the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt” (EC, p. 78), then the grand venture of our species would not be worth it. Only the unconscious memory of a promised paradise could have kept us toiling for so long. It is time this potential be made conscious.

[2] What Marcuse calls the “performance principle.”

[3] For Marcuse, surplus-repression refers to “the restrictions necessitated by social domination,” and is distinguished from basic repression, or “the modifications of the instincts necessary for the perpetuation of the human race in civilization” (EC, p. 35).

[4] “The theory of natural selection, it is said, could only have originated in England, because only laissez-faire England provided the atomistic, egotistic mentality necessary to its conception. Only there could Darwin have blandly assumed that the basic unit was the individual, the basic instinct self-interest, and the basic activity struggle. Spengler, describing the Origin as ‘the application of economics to biology,’ said that it reeked of the atmosphere of the English factory … natural selection arose … in England because it was a perfect expression of Victorian ‘greed-philosophy,’ of the capitalist ethic and Manchester economics.” -Himmelfarb, G., Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, W.W. Norton, New York, p. 418, 1962.

[5] See The Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis (1999).

Schelling’s Geocentric Realism

I’ve been reading Iain Hamilton Grant‘s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. He laments that most commentators treat Schelling as either a biocentric vitalist or a logocentric idealist. These characterizations ignore the extent to which his naturephilosophy corrects the eliminative idealism of Fichte’s and Hegel’s systems (which made nature’s externality entirely determined by intelligence) by grounding thought in nature itself.

Grant marks the antinomy of teleological judgment articulated in Kant’s third Critique (i.e., the mutual exteriority of nature and freedom) as the “axis” around which all subsequent philosophy has been organized (p. 17). Kant could not account for organic matter in mechanistic terms, so instead retreated into a transcendental account of the appearance of self-organization rather than a physical account of its ground. Schelling does not follow Kant’s aborted attempt to uncover some third mediating principle uniting life and mechanism; more radically, he locates their mutual source in the dynamic, unconditioned ground of nature itself.

“We require to know,” writes Schelling,

“how and why it [nature] originally and necessarily grounds everything that our species has ever thought about nature” (quoted in Grant, p. 1).

Accordingly, naturephilosophy is not representational, pointing to a physical world outside philosophy’s own grounding in the Absolute in an attempt to objectively describe it, but generative, in that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature” (ibid.). This is not as it may first sound, a physics wherein nature becomes a construction of the mind; rather, Schelling’s dynamic or genetic account of nature differentiates between “nature naturing” (natura naturans) and “nature natured” (natura naturata), or nature as process and as product, identifying philosophizing with a participation in the former.

For Schelling, the laws of the mind cannot be understood as accidental products of nature, or as transcendental forms stamped upon phenomenal nature by the understanding. Instead, these laws are discovered to be necessary expressions of nature itself. Kant is prevented from making such a move because of his Aristotelian definition of nature as the sum total of appearing things, or sensible bodies. Kant’s “corporealism” collapses the invisible activity of productive nature into the givenness of its sensible products, whereas Schelling founds his philosophy of nature in the unconditioned productive dynamism of a materiality prior to corporealization, a dynamism which gives rise to the conditioned things of the observable world. This is not, as it may again seem, a sort of two-world metaphysics attempting to account for the matter of physics in its own formal terms. Following Plato, Schelling defines matter as the invisible “mother of all things” capable of participating in the forms of the understanding, such that the transcendental becomes the dynamism of nature itself. In other words, all things think because nature is subject (p. 29).

Schelling challenges philosophy to conceive of its own natural ground, to find in the emergence of physical order the conditions of its own intelligence. In this sense, his naturephilosophy is geocentric, since it is the geogenesis of the earth itself which provides the a priori conditions (physical and physiological) for the later representation of it in consciousness (p. 48).

Grant’s characterization of Schelling presents an interesting case study along the way to a speculative realism, since his naturephilosophy overcomes Kant’s idealism by returning to the strange realism of Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s realism, or physics, is “strange” because he is normally considered the paradigm case of a two-world metaphysician (p. 20). But it is Plato’s account of the coming into being or genesis of the universe that reveals his commitment to an account of the Idea as a synthetic cause binding together being and becoming (p. 40). The invisible Idea does not contain the static blueprint of a visible thing, but “the dynamics according to which what moves itself and what is moved are combined” (p. 54). In other words, productive nature approximates the eternal realiztion of the Idea–it is the cause of the mixture between being and becoming underlying the genesis of the universe (p. 43). Since “becoming” is not an idea for Plato (all ideas are real beings), he posits a universal soul that works as a “homeostatic pilot” to dynamically balance the combined opposites.

“The emergence of the generated world,” writes Grant,

“challenges the senses to exceed their own genesis, [entailing] a ‘gaze fixed on what always is,’ on the Idea in nature, despite the Idea itself being necessarily non-sensible. It is precisely the excess of physical becoming over the phenomenologically accessible [i.e., while all sensible things are becoming, not all becoming is sensible] that prompts [Schelling’s] Timaeus essay’s epigraph: ‘to discover the producer and father of the universe is a great undertaking, and impossible to declare to all” (p. 44).

Aristotle refers to Plato’s secret teaching several times in the Metaphysics, hinting that it has something to do with the way intelligence participates in matter. Perhaps the viability of a speculative realism lies in a more explicit articulation of this secret.

The Ears, Eyes, and Mind of the Wor(l)d

What is language, and how did it evolve? The flurry of recent posts concerned with media ecology and the way the content of philosophical thinking depends upon the form in which it is expressed has redirected my attention to the significance of the Word. I think grammatically, which is to say that my alphabetic consciousness, whether text or hyper-text based, conforms to a preconscious regime of universally imposed rules of meaning. I cannot think but by assuming the meaningfulness of the public language given to me at birth. I cannot get beyond the givenness of this language in order to inspect its legitimacy. I can only explore it from within. Language has no outside. Truth, then, is a matter of coherence, rather than correspondence. Or at least philosophical thinking cannot begin but by having faith in the meaning-making capacity of its culturally inherited tongue.

Contra Brassier, intelligibility cannot be separated from meaning. Wisdom can be reached with logic, but logic itself originates in the songs of the mouth and the perception/passion of the h/ear/t. Science has telescoped vision and mathematized reason to reach distances divine in time, but it has not found chaos and disorder even at the edge of the universe. There, at the end of time as we know it, the scientific imagination witnesses the creation of space in itself. Mind you, this is not the creation of any thing in particular, but the creation of the very possibility of there being things at all. Scientific consciousness has now known its own conditions of possibility. Brassier believes this entails nihilism. He believes it despite his eliminativist ploy to elevate cognition beyond its contextual emergence out of “folk psychology,” or common sense. The fact is that our having come to see and to understand that our universe has a beginning in space-time is no demotion of the human being. The speculative claims of scientific investigation are still dependent upon the meaning of language (even if mathematical) and the sensuality of the body (even if technologically extended). Scientific cosmology is only disorienting if aesthetic participation in the phenomena it has revealed lags behind their cognitive theorization. Not only has human finitude been thought, it has been seen, and seen through! And what a sublime sight! We can witness the creation of our finite universe and know nonetheless that this universe is unbounded. Space is not inside of or given within a bigger space: it has no outside. Space is self-forming. The world is full of the Word.

Media Ecology and the Blogosphere

Knowledge Ecology blogged earlier today about the difference between blogging and publishing books, which has become an issue of contention within “the speculative realist movement,” so called, since Ray Brassier’s disparaging comment in an interview last year. Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant all chimed in with responses. Below is my response:

In light of McLuhan’s theory of how new media technologies develop by swallowing prior mediums (similar to Hegel’s Aufheben, no?), perhaps we 20-somethings, whose capacity to think and to communicate can hardly be understood in isolation from electronic media like the Internet, have a unique perspective on the matter.

Were we ever, strictly speaking, literate? I don’t think so. My consciousness may still have been forged by text, but not the printed word of prior generations. Electronic texts are hyper-texts that defy the logic of linear, rational consciousness characteristic of 18th and 19th century literacy. The word has been etherealized by the electronic medium of the blog and is no longer bound to the stubborn materiality of books, nor to the ideological conservatism of the publishing industry.

Hyper-text gives the word greater freedom in time and space, linking it to an increasingly planet-wide network of contexts whose informational resources are available for consumption at the speed of light.

It’s important to recognize, however, the way the Internet represents a sort of culmination of capitalism. On a trivial level, without capitalism and the military-industrial complex, the technological infrastructure that provides the material conditions for our ethereal exchanges would not exist; but on a deeper level, the blogosphere has made truth something to be competed for within a free market (at least free to those who can afford Internet access).

Of course, academic publishing may still provide the necessary hierarchy of expertise protecting well-researched truth claims from the laissez-faire democratization that can occur online. Like the blogosphere, however, these hierarchies are still only justified by the strength of their networks and alliances.

In the end, I prefer to feel the weight of the written word in my hand. Books may not be quite as ethereal a mode of expression as blogs, but their imposing permanence sometimes makes the former seem ephemeral.


Thinking and Sensing, Space and Time

Philosophy and science can be distinguished: the former is primarily concerned with thinking, the latter with sensing. This distinction is superficial, however, since there can be no pure science or pure philosophy; no pure concept or pure intuition. Phenomenologically, what exists is an interpenetration of cognitive action and carnal reaction, a vast network of felt contrasts between future-directed mind and past-detected matter (the feeling and the felt). Matter is always already differentiating and so taking on form, and difference is always already materializing and so becoming other than its form. The real is the different–which is not to challenge the metaphysical status of the principle of non-contradiction by wedging contradiction into the heart of the Absolute, but to affirm this principle by thinking the Absolute as a differentiating process that never exists as a whole in an instant and so cannot be in contradiction. Difference becomes without contradiction, which is why wholes can endure as parts of other wholes. If time froze, there would not even be nothing, since nothing is still a difference and so always having to re-conceive of itself as not being so.

Experience is not only the present-at-hand representation of objects (as in conscious creatures), it is also the ready-to-hand prehension of dying subjectivities. I cognitively grasp things in space only after things have aesthetically grasped me in time. Light gave rise to the eye in the living time of evolution; only afterward did physical space take on depth. Consciousness emerges in the non-contradictory difference between space and time, between presence/distance and past/future.

Owen Barfield on the inscape of the world.

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

Bruno Latour approaching an Object-Oriented Ontology

The following is another exchange with friend and colleague Adam Robbert in response to an essay by Bruno Latour. First, a short excerpt from the article “On Interobjectivity“:

Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the “micro” to the “macro.” For example the traffic control room for Paris busses does indeed dominate the multiplicity of busses, but it would not know how to constitute a structure “above” the interactions of the bus drivers. It is added on to those interactions. The old difference of levels comes merely from overlooking the material connections that permit one place to be linked to others…

My initial response:

Latour is refreshingly worldly and specific, especially in comparison to all the abstract metaphysics I’ve been reading lately. But the metaphysical issues stuck out at me nonetheless. What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual? I think an object-orientation levels out this dichotomy in a helpful way. There are social interactions all the way down, with social norms being contested at every opportunity by the things performing them. Formative causes (wholes/souls) are not the result of a pre-existing morphogenic field floating atop the merely bodily interactions at a lower level, but are entangled in these interactions, responsible to them, subject to their revolutionary transformations. I think there is still a certain mystery to how cells become animals, or how the Führer can bring a nation of individuals together against a common enemy. But this mystery is present at every level of ontology, rather than just the social or the animal (or the human). How do parts become wholes? How do wholes become parts? Is there any authentic/artificial boundary to be drawn between those wholes found in nature (like elements, organisms, solar systems, galaxies) and those fabricated by humans (nation-states, artifacts, identities)? I suppose it is helpful to make distinctions here, but not ontological dichotomies.

Latour’s call to let objects back into sociology is related to what I was struggling to express earlier today in my blog about the mutually untranslatable (or at least folded and obscured) layers constituting reality. Latour writes on p. 240: “Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro.'” The relation to my thought was that certain objects exist only for other objects at the same level, and the narratives and social life they compose are only locally relevant. Sometimes these local layers come into contact with objects on other layers, whether more directly or more peripherally, and are able to narratively co-exist.

For instance, through the techniques developed by Claude Shannon, the language of human beings was translated into the informational terms of electronic beings to be amplified and mobilized at the speed of light across the world. These worlds, the human and the electronic, now co-exist narratively (though it is an asymmetrical co-existence, since humans seem to know more about what electrons mean than electrons know about what we mean).

But without a material link or trace of translation, one layer of beings cannot step outside its network of relations to grasp some ontologically more foundational macro-level ruling over all the local relations within it. This is the limit to knowledge placed on an object oriented knowledge. It is not an ultimate limit, though, since it leaves open the possibility that translational links to higher levels as yet undreamt of could be found.

Adam’s reply:

It seems to me that an appropriate compliment to any speculative practice or ontological schematizing (I think both words are still better than metaphysics) is almost always anthropology or political science. Metaphysics does baffling things to the brain (at least to this brain) and it is definitely helpful (essential?) to engage with sociological issues as Latour does, not just for the mental balancing this provides but more centrally because the whole point of studying ontology is in fact to be of service to the world by thinking through its basic structures carefully. Without a socio-political dimension ontology is for me bankrupt (though this doesn’t mean we have to reduce our ontological speculation to what we consider to be social or political). Latour is one of those few individuals who can handle both socio-historical issues and ontological ones with skill and competence.

Thinking through Latour’s paper on interobjectivity is difficult precisely because of the points you are raising (“What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual?”) If we, as Latour suggests, are able to extend the notion of society to nonhuman actors, then the question becomes whether or not we should think of human societies as different only in kind than in nature from other types of nonhuman societies. Historically this question seems to be a reductionist black hole (“its all nature,” “its all culture”). In this context appealing to naturalism or relativism is beside the point.

A flat ontology, which describes all objects/actors as equally “real” also leaves much to be desired in this regard. Even breaking up the flatness by distinguishing between “real” and “sensual” qualities does not push the notion of an ontology of politics far enough- though perhaps the inevitable negotiations between the real and the sensual does constitute a basis for considering social negotiations to be present on a cosmological level. OOO [object-oriented ontology], I think, is hard at work filling in the gaps, and there is definitely much more work to be done here.

Then there is the more mainstream view of someone like E.O. Wilson who writes:

“But what is Nature? The simplest possible answer is also the best: Nature is that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone.”

It becomes clear that the human/nature dichotomy is not a particularly helpful framework at this stage in the game, but none the less it goes to show how much more specific and accurate we could be in producing a realist (not just materialist) account of ecological relationships between the human and nonhuman world, and perhaps more crucially in this context, in accounting for ecological relationships on internal and external levels between nonhuman actors themselves. Wilson’s above statement would only make sense if ecology asserted itself as the study of the relationship between humans and their environment, but of course ecology is the study of organisms and their environments. Wilson’s odd claim in the above paragraph can be read as the consequence of hundreds of years of correlationist thinking- even a renowned scientist who studies the objective relationships between nonhuman organisms and their environments manages to lump the whole planet into two distinct categories- “nature” and “humans!” This strikes me as an ideological fallacy given that the biologist is the one for whom a real nonhuman world is the most central cornerstone of their worldview! That one can suggest that “Nature” can only be defined in the negative, as anything not human, implies that humans are the only ones capable of having an experience of a real world, a strange moment of cognitive dissonance indeed. I also find it quite plausible to consider the notion that the biologist and the ecologist do not necessarily have to engage in ecological thinking in order to perform their functions as scientists.

I suppose the question becomes which ecological schema one uses to understand concepts like evolution, culture or nature. For the niche-construction theorist for example the organism is constantly transforming its environment both mechanically by burrowing or building nests and so forth, and chemically by breathing out/secreting transformed chemical compounds that feed back into larger ecocyles. In this respect it is not just humans who are posed the question “what did Nature look like before I got here?” but it is in fact a question, perhaps not posed, but at least present, as a component of any organism’s relation to its environment. Strictly speaking, “environments” do not exist without organisms to surround, just as there can be no organism without an environment. Evolution is a historically contingent process for all organisms. For humans and for any other creature that would record its own history, this contingency is simply doubled by the fact that not only is our own developmental and evolutionary biology a historically contingent process, but the methods we use to interpret and structure our knowledge of those processes are also historically contingent- perhaps greatly more so. Thus I think it reasonable that, in their own species-specific way, all creatures experience a “Nature for me” versus a “Nature in itself” interpretive dilemma. I suppose any claim that humans and other organisms are in some way alike in their interpretive processes requires some disclaimer or permit which states “I have not partaken in the deadly sin of anthropomorphism” but I mean my comments more as thought excercises than as literal truisms (though I do find the possibility of amoeba debating the merits of an enlightenment view of nature over a romantic one rather entertaining- someone call Pixar!).

I think it’s a sad state of affairs when a scientist like Wilson has to resort to an almost dogmatic naturalism in order to refute an equally dogmatic anti-realist position. I understand Wilson’s assertion of “Nature” to be a call to recognize the world’s own objectivity – surely a worthy cause – in the context of the continued onslaught of postmodern philosophies that claim no such objective world can exist. But these two poles must be abandoned for both do damage to a genuine ecology of the real (perhaps an ecological realism?), which in my opinion is what Latour is aiming for. Latour paves a way out of naturalism and relativism, his notion of interobjectivity alongside of various new approaches to evolution such as Niche-Construction Theory (NCT) are promising endeavors in articulating a more comprehensive view of ecology- one that would take multiple perspectives seriously as ontological positions and not just as epistemological variations on an incomprehensible reality. I also agree that ontological distinctions need to be made, whilst avoiding ontological dichotomies. I am compelled by the thought that the notion of ecology can produce the kind of ontological stratification that these issues require. I think a three-fold model of ecology (what I’ve been calling Nature, Media and Knowledge), coupled with a four-fold approach to actors (objective, subjective, participatory and object-oriented) could clear some of this up. I’m excited to see how all of this develops.

My subsequent response:

I would want to preserve the more general category “metaphysics,” because there are at least three modes of ontological schematizing that are different enough to deserve their own sub-categories: there is ontology, the study of the Being of beings; there is onticology, the study of beings; and there is cosmology, the study of the relation between Being and beings.

I think ontology touches politics most closely through cosmology, and so a cosmopolitics is definitely the right route to take in thinking the relation between Being and beings (mysticla or revelatory relations?), and that between and among beings themselves (political relations). A cosmopolitics would require that the human/universe divide be demoted from a unique ontological chasm to just another ontic example of a tension that exists between sensuality and reality for all finite beings. But this still leaves the other mode of ontological schematizing, that concerned with Being itself. The concept of infinity broke open the medieval conception of Being as a static perfection. The modern and postmodern conception of Being, if such a concept can still be said to effectively exist, is uncertain, alienated, and skeptical: ontology has been associated with mere dogmatism or naïveté. But for a cosmopolitics to be possible, not only must a society’s conception of beings be democratic, its approach to the study Being must be constructive (not merely transcendental or critical). Dogmatic theism is here no more helpful than atheism, since without some positive conception of Being, beings will always lack the full individual reality that prevents each one from being exhausted by its relations to others. Democracy requires that there be a relation between creator and each individual creature; otherwise what is the sameness that each being participates in allowing us to call our ontology “flat”? What is the common though subterranean topology that all things share if not Being? Infinity demands a conception of Being as non-All, as incomplete but always in the process of completion (like Whitehead’s God). This leaves each being room to transform, to surprise itself and others by undoing and overcoming the restrictions leveled upon it by its qualities and relations. Being holds all beings in ontic co-existence while also infinitely distinguishing each being from its relations. Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic of particular–>universal–>individual is relevant here: beings would be lost in their own solipsistic particularity without any universal relation to Being; only through this relation do beings become true individuals.

Society still seems to pose a problem in the above scheme, since somehow many beings on one level exist in enduring relationships that produce a single being on another level (as in multicellular animals). Cells provide the matter that receives the form of the animal, while on an adjacent level, molecules provide the matter that receives the form of each cell. Which is the true society, the molecules or the cells? Is an animal-being more real, or more complete, than a molecule-being? Is it more “complex,” in Latour’s sense of being composed of more simultaneous interactions? If these part/whole and matter/form relations continue indefinitely into the micro- and macrocosm, measures of complexity seem arbitrary. Is everything really form, or really matter? Is society a superorganism obeying a necessity higher than any of its replaceable subjects, or is it the accidental cumulative effect of the activity of individuals? Perhaps society can no longer refer to a relation among the same, but must include relations between beings on varying levels of emergence. This would entail the ecologization of the concept of society, which I think may be more to the point than Latour’s “naturalization” of society/”socialization” of nature.

The Spirit of Intrahuman Dialogue: A Meditation

The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.


“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.

Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?

Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?

Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.

The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).

But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being[1]), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.

The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.

This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).

Works Cited

1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

2. Panikkar, Raimon.

—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist    Press.

—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.

[1] I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.

Teilhard de Chardin and the Christ-Cosmos Correlation

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

“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).

In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all.

Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon (1999)  to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos.

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

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.

“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution–which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

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

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


Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…

…the meaning of disaster…

Some of my thoughts concerning the still unfolding tragedy in Japan…


I take up philosophy largely to defend meaning and cosmos from the nihilism and chaos at the root of much contemporary thinking. But I am reminded by this catastrophe that the earth’s order and harmony is proved by an exception: ruptures in nature’s rhythm like earthquakes and tsunamis are the inevitable result of a planet with a highly differentiated, still developing physiology. The crust floats atop a liquid mantel, and so the ground upon which we build our cities will never be the dead rock that industrial civilization assumes it is. The rocks, and the ocean, have a life of their own running parallel to humanity’s. The life of such non-human objects exists on a level whose purposes are not necessarily equivalent, or even translatable, into our human sensibilities. It seems that there is indeed an immanent reality to chaos. Chaos (or sheer, relentless Creativity) is the condition of all conditions, but without (an incarnate) God, there would be no reason for anything determinate to occur. There could not be particular facts, nor the special fact of my own facticity, without a divine determiner to bring infinite possibility into finite manifestation. That there is an earth–this earth–is evidence of Reason (proportion, measure, etc.), experiential proof that beauty is alluring for the Real (that the Real is not just in-itself, but for-itself). It is also true that there exist many overlapping and non-overlapping layers of relation and non-relation amongst the beings of this earth, each layer of beings remaining hidden from the other until it ruptures and makes contact with adjacent layers, variably destroying or enlivening the beings discovered there.

The people of Japan are the victims of mistranslation, not the irredeemable sufferers of a world lacking all meaning. If anything, we live in a world of excess meaning. Meaningful communication often begins with contentious discord until different worlds are able to discover overlapping truths; or one world converts the other, through violence or artistry, into itself. Industrial civilization has averted its gaze rather forcefully from many of earth’s other layers of meaning, ignoring the surprising semantic ferocity of nature due to a false sense of technological mastery. Modern techno-scientific materialism is based on the mistaken assumption that all of nature’s voices can be translated into the ontologically privileged equations of the human marketplace.

If philosophy is not just an exercise in self-consolation, perhaps there is some logic to the above. I suppose that it is finally prayer that consoles, and not thought, since the latter is sometimes morally ruthless in its determinations.

Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.