“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Imagining the Cosmos: notes on my dissertation…

In the past year or so, the blueprint of my dissertation topic has gone through multiple iterations. Last year, while applying for my PhD studies at CIIS, I wrote a goal statement that still reflects the general theme I am envisioning. Now that I’m entering the last term of course work, I wanted to take the opportunity to further articulate the aim of my research.

When I composed my goal statement, I was as yet unaware of the Speculative Realist movement. It turns out that two of the philosophers I’d planned to bring into conversation with one another, namely Whitehead and Schelling, are right at the center of this still emerging school of thought. Despite the resurgence of interest in process thought and metaphysics more generally that this movement represents, there seems to be a gap in scholarship bringing process ontology and naturphilosophy into constructive cross-fertilization with what I’ll for now refer to as Western Esotericism. This may be a good place to focus my dissertation.

I’ve written somewhat extensively on the esoteric cosmology of Rudolf Steiner, specifically his understanding of the Imagination. For Steiner, the Imagination is an organ of perception, a window into the world of otherwise supersensible realities. As a graduate student, Steiner edited Goethe’s scientific writings. He argued that Goethe’s was a more adequate form of empiricism than that of his mechanistic contemporaries, since it granted the Imagination is proper role in the perception of the deeper archetypal patterns, or ur-forms, at work beneath natural phenomena. Perhaps Steiner’s ablest English-speaking interpreter, Owen Barfield, conducted a similar case-study of imaginative cognition on the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose thought is closely linked with Schelling’s, to the point of verging on plagiarism!–a charge examined by Barfield in What Colerdige Thought).

More recently, I’ve begun reading some of Henry Corbin’s work on Active Imagination and the mundus imaginalis. Like Barfield and Steiner, Corbin argues that modern philosophy has all but forgotten the important role of the intermediate imaginal plane between matter/sensation and mind/intellection. The result is a superficial fissure within philosophy itself, wherein idealists battle with realists, and rationalists with empiricists, over whose ultimately one-sided conception of the universe is valid.

Articulating an ontology of the Imagination seems to me to be a prerequisite for any truly coherent speculation on the nature of the Universe. Whitehead characterized his adventure in cosmology as an “imaginative leap,” and Schelling often drew connections between the work of the artist and that of the philosopher, suggesting that philosophy is a generative, rather than demonstrative activity. I think this makes a study of their respective approaches to cosmology fertile ground for an explication of the role of Imagination in speculative philosophy.

Redeeming Imagination as an organ of cognitive import, thereby correcting the bias of much modern positivistic thought that it produces only fantasy and illusion, will allow for the development of a more textured ontology that does not simply reduce reality to the domain/s of the material-sensible and/or the mental-intelligible. Jonael Schickler, whose life was cut short in 2005, argued in his dissertation that Steiner’s four-fold ontology of material, ethereal, astral, and spiritual planes clarifies many outstanding aporias in contemporary philosophy, including the relationship of life and consciousness to matter.

The major hurtle, as Schickler saw it, standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of this more complex picture of reality are the epistemological limits placed on human thought by the critical philosophy of Kant. Kant did not believe that human consciousness could develop beyond its normal capacities of sensory intuition and categoreal understanding. For him, the human soul was forever denied access to its own conditions of possibility, whether they be ultimately spiritual or material. Schickler, following Steiner, believed that the contemporary human being is still in the process of awakening to its higher spiritual capacities. The human is more an idea struggling to be realized than a being fixed in its current form. How far into Steiner’s account of this evolution of consciousness I will delve into in my dissertation remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that I will have to find a way beyond Kant’s epistemic skepticism. Schelling and Whithead will be of great service in this respect. And luckily, there is in Kant already the germ of an understanding of the mysterious role of Imagination in cognition.

If anyone has any suggestions or sources that might be of assistance, I’d greatly appreciate it!



9 responses to “Imagining the Cosmos: notes on my dissertation…”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar

    See Thomas Alexander’s work on a Deweyan theory of imagination, which also covers Peirce and James. He has two articles and a book, John Dewey’s Theory of Art, Nature, and Imagination: Horizons of Feeling (the title is mostly right). Both of these contain elements of process metaphysics that may be useful. Also, see Mark Johnson’s The Body in the Mind, which synthesizes a Kantian view of imagination (that he later progressively reconstructs) with contemporary cognitive science. His book Metaphors We Live By is more famous but less useful.

    I would put these on the “maybe checkout” list if you’re struggling, although there are not that many theories of the imagination that are both emergent naturalist and process friendly.

  2. Lucas D Avatar
    Lucas D

    Hi Matthew,

    I recommend having a look at the recent edition of the Goethe Yearbook which includes a special section on Goethe and Idealism:


    I particularly recommend Dalia Nassar’s article, “‘Idealism is nothing but genuine empiricism’: Novalis, Goethe, and the Ideal of Romantic Science”.

    (I can email you a copy if needed: lucas [.] dreier [at] gmail [.] com)

    Are you still working with Prof. McDermott? Perhaps we can discuss further by email…



  3. John Morales Avatar
    John Morales


    I genuinely wish you well with your dissertation.

    I may be a (fierce?) materialist, but I want first-rate opponents.

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