Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.

Thanks to Adam for bringing this video to my attention.

Bruno Latour speaks above about how contemporary philosophy should re-interpret the verdict of the 1922 exchange between the metaphysician Henri Bergson and the physicist Albert Einstein. He finds a re-interpretation of this debate important especially in light of the new ecological constraints upon 21st century thinking.

Traditionally, it is reported that Einstein won out over Bergson, dealing a swift scientific blow to the authority of philosophical intuition in cosmological discussions. Most came away from the exchange between these early 20th century thinkers of “time” believing that Bergson had been unveiled as a psychologist or an artist pretending to understand science. For Einstein, there is no such thing as “philosopher’s time”–the living duration in which subject and object co-emerge, as Bergson might say; instead, Einstein marks two kinds of time: psychological time, which is a subjective illusion generated by relative motion, and physical time, which is objective reality existing eternally in the mind of God. He does exactly what Latour urges us not to: that is, he opposes theory to lived experience, the universal to the local.

The asymmetrical time of conscious existence, where egg shells only shatter and never reassemble, is deemed by Einstein to be illusory. The flow of physical time is deemed reversible, no matter what the psyche seems to suggest about the steady aging of the body and the inevitable approach of death. From Einstein’s geometer God’s perspective, the regret of living bodies in response to their past, and the anxiety in the face of their future, is for naught: the truth is, the future has already taken place, and at no moment along the way did a “hesitation” or a “decision” ever occur.

There is no “life” in Einstein’s cosmos: no possibility of growth toward novelty and no actuality of achieved habituality or decay; there is only the illusion of freedom amidst the stasis of eternity. Latour argues that Einstein represents a renewed attempt at Cartesian reductionism of nature, just this time with a more complex coordinate geometry of curved time-space. Einstein didn’t want to admit that the bifurcation he enacted between psyche and cosmos constitutes a set of metaphysical wagers. He backgrounded the metaphysical commitments of techno-science, since it was necessary to appear properly disinterested in an age of positivistic hyperbole. Nowadays, under the constraints of our ecological crisis, where the facts of nature and the values of psyche cannot be so easily separated, philosophy can regain its authority relative to techno-science by foregrounding the bifurcation of nature enacted by the latter and attempting to construct viable–by which I quite literally mean to say livable–metaphysical alternatives.

A relevant paper on Bergson’s argument with Einstein concerning special relativity and perception.

A.N. Whitehead, another process thinker heavily influenced by Bergson, also critiqued  Einstein’s interpretation of relativity. For more on this, see the section on space-time in my essay on contemporary physical cosmology (HERE: “Physics of the World-Soul”).

Following up on my post and Sam’s and Adam’s comments on Monday and Tuesday (6/13-15), Adam sent me a one word text message:


I have a few thoughts on this neologism I’d like to share.
This word carries a complex philosophical cargo, part cultural/artistic and part natural/machinic. Ethopoiesis carries the semantic weight of both Ethics (the science of behavior) and Poetry (the art of soul-making). It symbolizes the social no more or less than the individual, the whole no more or less than the part. It integrates these, or as Sam would say, leaves both society and individuality untouched. 

Ethos is habit, inhabitance, and inheritance of mind. Poiesis is mental novelty, the invention of new shapes of mind. An ethopoietic study of the kosmos is a study of behaving minds, which in space-time find incarnation as organized and evolving physical bodies (organisms). These bodies relate to one another ecologically, which is to say that they exist within a co-constituting network of physical, chemical, biological, and cultural signs. Non-ecological bodies, which do not relate ethically and which do not create themselves, are mere abstractions, signs without significance to anyone or anything. Physical reality can only be said to “behave” if its movements are habitual; that is, if physical bodies act together in conformance to past successes. If matter finds itself in motion only as a result of eternal laws externally imposed, then matter does not behave habitually in conformance with the past and in expectation of the future, but obeys necessarily what is eternal and unchanging. There is no evolution, no creativity, in this case. There is no habit or novelty, no ethos or poiesis, in a mechanical universe such as this.

So I think under one term, ethopoiesis, we can bring ecology, speculative ontology, participatory epistemology, ethics, poetics, psychology, and physics into a coherent conceptual envisagement of the polycrisis in which we find ourselves. Physics may seem an odd addition to this list, but I think physics must be read as co-constitutive of the real with ethics. Not that ethics trumps mathematico-empirical study of nature, but that our own ethical habits and inclinations cannot be separated from the natural behaviors responsible for having produced us. Somehow body and soul, physics and ethics, have to be depicted as the outer and inner aspects of a single process of realization. Ethopoiesis seems to me a good designator for such a mode of discourse, which in some sense is the result of a sustained reflection upon the implications of the Anthropic Principle.

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

Terrence Malick studied philosophy at Harvard before being awarded a Rhodes scholarship. After a short time at Oxford, he left without finishing his dissertation. His adviser there was the behaviorist Gilbert Ryle. Reportedly, he left Oxford because of a disagreement with Ryle concerning how to understand the concept of the “world” in 19th and 20th century Continental philosophers (principally, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein). Malick’s translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes was published by Northwestern University in 1969. He didn’t start making films until 1973.

His most recent release, The Tree of Life, could be summed up as a film-adaptation of the book of Job. The film opens with the Biblical lines: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4,7).

Malick manages to weave together the evolution of the universe and the mystery of human life into a single story of creation and destruction. As much an invitation to a spiritual experience as a coherent narrative, The Tree of Life situates the human within the vast expanse of cosmic time. First, we witness the birth and childhood of three boys in 1950s suburban America. Then, we are brought back in time to witness the original flaring forth, the formation of galaxies, the accretion of the solar system, the cooling of the earth, the emergence and evolution of life, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The human narrative then picks up again, depicting the existential struggles of the eldest boy, Jack, as he comes to reconcile himself with evil, death, and the hypocrisy of his authoritarian father. Unable to understand how such disorder could be allowed to exist in a divinely created world, he eventually comes to ask God, “if you’re not good, why should I be?”

It’s a uniquely insightful movie that will be cherished by the philosophically inclined.

I’ll leave you with Fr. Robert Barron’s commentary:

I’ve been struggling through Isabelle Stengers‘ newly translated book Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The first quarter of the book focuses primarily on Whitehead’s first explicitly philosophical text, The Concept of Nature (1920), in which he sets for himself the task of avoiding an account of nature based in a bifurcation between objective and subjective, or primary and secondary characteristics. On the one hand, there is the real world of atoms and molecules studied by physicists, while on the other hand, there is the apparent world of beautiful rainbows and delicious strawberries experienced by creatures lucky enough to be in the possession of something called a “mind.” This bifurcation is easily spotted in the abstractions mobilized by a number of contemporary scientific thinkers, especially Richard Dawkins. Listen to what he had to say earlier this year at a panel discussion on the essence of life (I’m particularly interested in what he says about “purpose” between the 4th and 5th minutes of the talk):

Dawkins’ on the essence of life

Purpose, from Dawkins’ point of view, is not a natural phenomenon, but an illusion produced by nervous systems, which themselves are the result of the differential selection of randomly mutating genetic molecules. Until brains evolved, nature was entirely without purpose or value, “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). According to this story, only once neural tissue came to be arranged in just the right way could the meaningful world celebrated by poets suddenly spring into existence (however illusory, or secondary it is). In what seems a miraculous flash, mind emerges out of nature: the sky becomes blue and the wind is no longer mute.

An evolutionary geneticist, Dawkins is trained to view the world through the abstractions of his particular discipline. As a result, his reasoning concerning the more general phenomenon of life succumbs to what Whitehead would later come to call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Living organisms, with all their spontaneity and experiential valence, become swarms of genetic algorithms blindly vying for passage into the next generation. The human world of aesthetic and ethical ideals becomes irrecoverably divided off from the physical world of mere mechanical motion. Whitehead laments the radical inconsistency underlying such an impoverished perspective on the nature of nature. For him, this inconsistency is characteristic of much modern thought, serving to distract and enfeeble it from the task of attaining a harmony of understanding.

We have “become content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points…”

…the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved. It is the fact, however you gloze it over with phrases (SMW).

In the final chapter of what is perhaps his best known book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins hammers home his bifurcated view of nature: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Only human beings, that is, are capable of rising above the purposeless mechanism to which all other entities are chained.

Dawkins was, until very recently, the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford, and most non-academicians come to understand evolution and the relation between science and religion by reading his books. The challenge for Whiteheadians, I think, is to make his “wild” ideas digestible by a wider audience. Our civilization is in desperate need of a less muddled and self-contradictory cosmology, one that can offer a robust alternative to the consumerism that neo-Darwinism implicitly legitimates.

Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story with the late Thomas Berry, has done a tremendous job domesticating Whitehead’s metaphysical approach, and I think his understanding of the role of science and the place of the human in the universe offers a sorely needed alternative to still reigning perspectives like that of Dawkins’.

Tim Morton drew my attention to this post about the demise of the humanities due to neoliberal economic policies grounded in the supposed truth of neurocomputational eliminativism.

I agree with Morton’s appraisal, that the eliminative materialism that seems to be gaining favor among philosophers (like Ray Brassier) offers little in the way of new theoretical accounts of consciousness or practical approaches to ethics, and so functions only to support conservatism. Eliminativists, of course, argue that “consciousness” is only a word, a meaningless vibration of molecules that makes sense to us because we’ve been duped by our habitual use of folk psychological language. In reality, there is no consciousness, only vectors of neural activation. Philosophers may have traditionally sought out the truth with the help of language, whether prosaic or poetic; but, the eliminativists assure us, human language produces only fictions. There is no such thing as consciousness, just as there is no such thing as a sunrise. Truth can only be found, if at all, in numerical relations derived from the computational activity of synapses.

Whitehead’s entire philosophical adventure is an attempt to avoid the “bifurcation of nature” produced by this sort of scientific materialism. Following his way of thinking nature and culture as different aspects of the same creative process, what is to prevent us from conceiving of neural interaction as semiotic in its own right? Human semiosis may be based in the fictional play of signifiers, and to that extent incapable of finally explaining its own conditions of possibility; but neural semiosis is no less messy and interpretive, no less groundless and playful. Semiosis, so far as I can tell, must go all the way down: meaning is not a human fabrication, but a natural phenomenon.

Eliminativism is the worst kind of reductionism, that motivated by the technoscientific desire to predict and control everything for the sake of a more efficient capitalist market. As I tried to touch on in my last post, there is quite literally a world of difference between a mystery and a problem. Consciousness is not a problem that might be solved through some kind of reverse engineering, but a mystery whose very contradictoriness (it cannot be found since it is that which is seeking, even though this very statement unveils much about its nature) constitutes the worldliness of our lives. Without this mystery, there is no world, no meaning, no aesthetic or ethical value. This is not to say, mind you, that eliminativism is a threat to the meaning of human life. It is itself just another mythos, albeit an alienating and destructive one. It is ironic that, just as biologists are awakening to the current anthropogenic mass extinction event, someone like Brassier, inspired by eliminativism, would embrace a logic of extinction as the only valid form of philosophical reflection (I must thank Adam for pointing this out).

“A good maxim,” writes Nietzsche,

is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment…(Human, All Too Human).

Pierre Hadot, in his essay on the history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006), leads his reader through 2,500 years of Western philosophical discourse, all of which could be read as a creative (mis)reading of Heraclitus’ maxim: “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” What Heraclitus actually meant by this statement (which, literally translated, says “Nature loves to hide”) is difficult to uncover. Hadot speculates that the most faithful reading of the aphorism is something like: “that which causes birth tends to cause death,” or similarly, “that which causes things to appear tends to make them disappear.” Such statements are typical of the paradoxical style of Heraclitus, for whom nature is an ever-living fire. This cosmic fire is constituted by a strife of opposites, which find dynamic wholeness in the continual flow of all things.

For ancients and moderns alike, nature was thought to contain secrets, or hidden reasons, that, if uncovered through magical, mathematical, or mechanical means, could empower and ennoble humanity. During the Scientific Revolution, attempts were made to “save the appearance” of natural phenomena by devising hypothetical accounts of the underlying causes responsible for producing their visible effects. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was not initially interpreted by the Church as a threat, since it was understood to be a sort of useful fiction that in no way restricted the omnipotent intellect of God, whose actual cosmic design was beyond human comprehension. Even Descartes was careful to limit his mechanistic explanations of phenomena by saying that these explanations simply aimed to reproduce the visible effects of nature without necessarily achieving these effects in the same way as the Creator. The Greek word for mechanics, mēkhanē, signifies “trick” or “ruse”; initially, then, applying the practical art of mechanical engineering (and the ancients were not as ill equipped in this art as is often thought) to the phenomena of nature was considered to be a kind of “trick” that enabled humans a limited degree of prediction and control over her processes. Only later, as, following the great successes of Newtonian mechanics, God came to be imagined as a retired engineer, was the ancient notion of “saving the appearances” replaced by the more modern notion of explaining appearances through mechanical causes. Eventually, theological speculation no longer seemed relevant to scientists. Laplace could dismiss God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than a useful analogy between artificial and natural processes, nature was explicitly identified with mechanism.

This identification was not complete, however. Machines are intelligently designed, even if by the finite intelligence of human beings. They therefore operate as a result of more than just material and efficient causes, but also due to formal and final causes. Even if an omnipotent divine will is no longer a compelling explanation for the existence and organized growth of nature, there is undoubtedly still something about the causality of natural beings that remains mysteriously withdrawn.

How are we to conceive of this withdrawal in our contemporary context? Religious and secular explanations both being unconvincing, where is philosophy to turn for an adequate account of the nature of nature?

At the end of the preface to The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The world and reason do not present a problem; let us say, if you will, that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them, and there can be no question of dissipating it by some solution. It is beyond solutions.

“True philosophy,” he continues, “is relearning to see the world.” Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting that what is needed is a form of seeing as comfortable with obscurity as it is with clarity. Nature is not a big secret that one day, through technical trickery or prosaic definition, might be finally unveiled. The being of nature is dark and withdrawn, even while its essence shines forth in an infinitely diverse array of colors and forms.

Nature is an indefinite series of enveloping veils, that, if removed in step, would lead back to the ground of being, which, for Schelling, is the cosmic anguish of a divinity that cannot escape its own ipseity. All the order and beauty of the manifest cosmos emerges from the “sacred shudder” of this unconscious God in response to its own uncanny existence. Nature seeks, through the development of its envelopment,

to show the Eternal as if in a mirror the most concealed thoughts of what lies innermost within its own self, thoughts that it itself does not know (Ages of the World, 2nd draft).

Nature, then, is the withdrawal of God from itself, the Othering of Self such that selfhood can come to exist in relation to itself, to know itself, even if this knowing remains forever mysterious. For the logician, this is entirely irrational, since the Eternal cannot be other than itself without being contradictory. For the poet, this paradox is the light of Truth herself at play in time.

In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.

I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.

This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.

In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:

Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.

Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.

“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.

In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.