I’m still in the planning phase of my dissertation on the ontology of Imagination, and as such am working to ferret out the most interesting aspects of my chosen site of inquiry. My research is focused on the ontology of Imagination, since my guiding thesis is that any perception of or reflection upon reality depends upon the mediating function it [Imagination] provides and performs. Imagination mediates between the transcendence of the intelligible world and the immanence of the sensible world. It is an agency of soul, an angel relaying messages between the translucent light of spirit and the corporeal darkness of material surfaces. In describing the role of Imagination in such a way, I am following 20th century thinkers like Henry Corbin, Owen Barfield, and Carl Jung. Corbin built on the metaphysical works of Persian mystics, especially Ibn ‘Arabi. Barfield’s ideas emerge out of a careful study of Rudolf Steiner and the English Romantics, especially Coleridge, for whom the human imagination was an imitation of the Divine Imagination. Jung’s understanding of Imagination is perhaps the most experientially grounded of the three (even acknowledging Coleridge’s experiments with opium), both as a result of his own sanity-shaking descent into the imaginal matrix of what he called the “collective unconscious” during the composition of The Red Book (~1914), and owing to his diagnostic work with the dreams and visions of thousands of psychoanalytic patients during the course of his long career.
In this post, I want to zoom in on one aspect of Imagination in particular, namely its relation to ethics. I began to explore the ethical implications of Imagination in an earlier essay by contrasting an ethics of love based in moral imagination with Kant’s more austere, ascetic approach to morality based in laws of Reason and the denial of desire. Kant provides an apt example of what becomes of post-Cartesian moral philosophy (i.e., philosophy that ignores the reality of Imagination): it inevitably splits itself into the two equally matched and equally shortsighted positions of rationalism and psychologism (Kant took the former route, while thinkers like Hume and Bentham took the latter). Without a means of mediating between the freedom of the thinking mind and its instantiation by a feeling body, ethicists can only remain logically self-consistent by adopting either one or the other of the extremes of the dichotomy “idealism vs. emotivism” (i.e., either rationalism or psychologism). Only a philosophy that appreciates the integrative role of Imagination in all its construction and critique can heal the spiritual wound responsible for so drastically dividing the ethical philosophies of modern humanity.
Though Kant certainly recognized the power of Imagination (calling it the most mysterious of the soul’s faculties), he finally assigned it a merely epistemological–rather than ontological, cosmological, or ethical–role as that which synthesizes the sensory manifold and connects percepts with their appropriate concepts. His morality was without Imagination, built upon a belief in an individual’s freedom to will that which Reason dictates. Only if the source of my actions transcends the images of my soul and the feelings of my body, be they pleasurable or painful, are they to be considered moral. An action is moral only if I am able, in good conscience, to consider it a universal law applicable to everyone, everywhere, every time. The subjective stake my embodied soul has in the world must be bracketed entirely, since disinterested duty based in abstract universalizability is the sole basis of Kant’s moral philosophy. This follows directly from the chasm his transcendentalism constructs between phenomena and things themselves. The Good is considered by Kant to be an Idea of Reason existing beyond all sensory perception and imaginal production, and so no feeling rooted in the passions of the body or image generated by the creativity of the soul, even if they be genuinely compassionate and love-imbued, can provide the conscience with moral guidance. Emotion-laded imagery, he believed, could only lead the soul astray from its divinely decreed duties.
In contrast to this, an ethical theory based in moral imagination defines moral action not as that which disinterestedly obeys universal law (nor, for that matter, as that which is ruled by a utilitarian calculus of psychological pleasure), but as that which is motivated by unselfish love of the beauty in others. If Imagination is given its proper place in moral philosophy, ethics and aesthetics can become wedded as aesthethics. To be fair to Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, he does at least approach a more integral account of the relationship between our judgment of the Beautiful and our conception of the Good. (It was this book that inspired Schelling’s attempt to overcome the duality between rational duty and sensual desire by transforming philosophical reflection into the poetry of Spirit.) Kant cautiously begins to suggest in this text that the apprehension of Beauty provides at least a symbol of Goodness, in that it reminds the self of that common sense (a.k.a., Imagination) actively harmonizing its own aesthetic judgments with those of others. Beauty points the soul to the profound sympathy hidden in the life of all things. Imagination, the sensus communis of the animate universe, helps to remind the individual soul of the immanent divine Love holding all things together in Goodness (the ancients knew this Love as the World-Soul; following Corbin, I would call it the mundus imaginalis). Moral imagination allows the self to place itself in the position–body and soul–of others, and indeed of all others. In other words, a redeemed Imagination can identify with any part of the universe and also with the whole universe. It does so through the power of Love.
Nonetheless, the nature of this mysterious power, and of its proper organ of perception-production, was in the end deemed unknowable by Kant. He was finally forced to construe the genius of his last critique as productive of merely regulative principles of judgment, rather than constitutive aspects of reality. (Unlike Schelling, he could not accept that “art is the only true and eternal organon and document of philosophy.”) Kantian philosophy remained enclosed within the circularity of self-consciousness and the dizzying dialectic of the transcendental deconstruction of all experience.
So long as Kant’s thoughts remain the limit of thought, I cannot fully Love another person because I cannot truly Know them (or better, because I cannot truly Know with them) by way of Imagination, our common sense. Aesthethics is a moral philosophy openly informed by the Truth of Imagination. It posits the Love of Beauty as the origin and shepherd of the Good. True knowledge is understood to be entirely dependent on the feeling of the Beautiful and the willing of the Good. Truth is enacted, not merely reflected. As Coleridge put it in Biographia Literaria (p. 76, speaking specifically of Jakob Böhme’s thought), only an imaginative philosophy succeeds in “[keeping] alive the heart in the head” (and, I might add, the art).
“All the products of the merely reflective faculty,” Coleridge goes on to say, “[partake] of death, and [are] as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which the sap [is] yet to be propelled from some root to which I [have] not penetrated.”
Ethical theory and practice must draw their sap from this root, or continue to suffer the downward spiral into nihilism of so much modern moral philosophy. The most philosophy can provide in regard to the Good Life without the rigorous cultivation of Imagination is but a system of consistent maxims or a series of laudable sentiments. Without full participation, body and soul, in the communis sensus, moral thought and moral action dissolve into the thin air of solipsism and aesethics remain impossible.
“While persons brought up within literate culture often speak about the natural world, indigenous, oral peoples sometimes speak directly to that world, acknowledging certain animals, plants, and even landforms as expressive subjects with whom they might find themselves in conversation. Obviously these other beings do not speak with a human tongue; they do not speak in words. They may speak in song, like many birds, or in rhythm, like the crickets and the ocean waves. They may speak a language of movements and gestures, or articulate themselves in shifting shadows. Among many native people, such forms of expressive speech are assumed to be as communicative, in their own way, as the more verbal discourse of our species (which after all can also be thought of as a kind of vocal gesticulation, or even as a sort of singing). Language, for traditionally oral peoples, is not a specifically human possession, but is a property of the animate earth, in which we humans participate. Oral language gusts through us–our sounded phrases borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. Laid out and immobilized on the flat surface, our words tend to forget that they are sustained by this windswept earth; they begin to imagine that their primary task is to provide a representation of the world (as though they were outside of, and not really a part of, this world). Nonetheless, the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and with the cosmos–a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to re-present the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world–and into deep and attentive presence with one another. This ancestral capacity of speech necessarily underlies and supports all the other roles that language has come to have. Whether we wield our words to describe a landscape, to analyze a problem, or to explain how some gadget works, none of these roles would be possible without the primordial power of utterance to make our bodies resonate with one another and with the other rhythms that surround us. The autumn bugling of the elk does this, too, and the echoed honks of geese vee-ing south for the winter. This tonal layer of meaning–the stratum of spontaneous, bodily expression that oral cultures steadily deploy, and that literate cultures all too easily forget–is the very dimension of language that we two-leggeds share in common with other animals. We share it, as well, with the mutter and moan of the wind through the winter branches outside my studio. In the spring the buds on those branches will unfurl new leaves, and by summer the wind will speak with a thousand green tongues as it rushes through those same trees, releasing a chorus of rustles and whispers and loudly swelling rattles very different from the low, plaintive sighs of winter. And all those chattering leaves will feed my thoughts as I sit by the open door, next summer, scribbling and pondering. These pages, too, are nothing other than talking leaves–their insights stirred by the winds, their vitality reliant on periodic sunlight and on cool, dark water seeping up from within the ground. Step into their shade. Listen close. Something other than the human mind is at play here.” -p. 10-12 from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010) by David Abram
I screamed so loud,
I could taste the sky.
The stars became buds of light on my tongue,
And the clusters of galaxies
Poured into the tangled sinews of my brain.
I became one of billions of sons,
All circling the heavens
In praise of our life.
I was alone;
My father and my mother
And though brother and sister spun beside me,
Our wandering was without course;
Our wishes were without wisdom.
We were blind;
We had not been raised
By the stories of ages.
We had come of age
In a time of tragedy
And of sober revelation.
I screamed so loud,
I could taste the sky,
And I cried so long
That a sea of sadness
Nearly washed away the world
From the valley of my soul.
I saw, as I swallowed the horizon
And unspun the earth from the sun,
That the future cannot be held
But by a bleeding heart.
For the survival of our species,
I prophecy our death:
And when we rise again,
The earth will smile like Zeus
And heaven will shine its light
Upon each and all of us
I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.
Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…
- The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant (footnotes2plato.com)
- Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism (footnotes2plato.com)
I’ve just watched a good chunk of Shaviro’s lecture at OOOIII. I agree with his premise concerning the fork in the philosophical road between eliminativism and panexperientialism created by speculative realism’s anti-correlationism [See Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post for a refreshingly novel perspective concerning the supposed courageous soberness of eliminativism]. There is no middle ground here; Meillassoux‘s dilemma concerning the meaning of ancestrality and extinction for human thought can only be resolved through the negation/elimination of thought/meaning or the hypostatization/eternalization of thought/meaning. Shaviro does, however, end his talk by leaving the door open to some kind of integration between eliminativism and panpsychism. He doesn’t make this connection, but to my mind, such an integration would look a lot like a processual panentheistic scheme, wherein the ouroboric universe is perpetually birthing/dying, both wholly and incompletely divine at once (whereas panpsychism proper suggests pantheism–a determined, already completed universe/divinity, and eliminativism suggests atheism–the death not simply of God, but also of Man and Cosmos). I aspired to something like this integration here (see especially the sections on the logics of incarnation and of extinction): Thinking the Correlation with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Owen Barfield
Here is one of my earlier takes on eliminativism: The Myth of Eliminativism
Bourdain says the analogy between animal and human flesh (PETA: “you eat cow, eh? so would you eat human meat, too?”) is the last irrational wail of the animal rights activist. His response: “If I were two weeks out on the life boat, hell yeah I would!” Gill then makes an especially poignant response about how we are all already eating other people (their labor, their emotional well-being, their air and water, etc.). He then says, if he is honest, he really doesn’t give a fuck about animal suffering.
I am left wondering if these popular chefs/food critics are not consciously parodying themselves. I can only hope that they are at least aware of the way that their big media personas reflect the decadence and ethical decay of consumer capitalist society, with its autistic ‘relationship’ with the rest of the community of life on earth.
I ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I can’t justify it ethically. Not only my eating the turkey flesh, but my eating a “product” (a living creature) produced in an unsustainable industrial factory. Plants receive their energy directly from the Sun, and when we eat them, we are eating the light of our local star at only one remove. Animals receive their energy from plants and other animals, two or three levels removed from the Sun’s physical energy. In an esoteric sense (which for me has a lot to do with Rudolf Steiner), the situation might be construed this way: Eating other animals, as some humans and non-humans do, is eating a being who was ensouled. This behavior seems to me to represent the confusion of a spiritual with a physical reality. Christians might call this the Fall. In some ways, however, I think “the Fall” was evolutionarily inevitable, at least if you take a Teilhardian perspective on evolution. Life has always been hell bent on complexification, a process wherein matter continually transcends itself by adding new organismic rungs to its thermodynamic ladder to heaven. Bacteria began by eating the solar-and earth-heated chemicals around them, then quickly graduated to eating other bacteria, which then hitched a ride in the guts of larger protists who ate them, who in turn supported larger and more neurologically complex creatures who ate them, and so on… Matter “cried out and raised itself to spirit” (as Hegel put it, echoing Luke 19:40) by learning to more effectively (i.e., symbiotically) eat itself.
Nonetheless, the industrial diet cannot be justified. It has taken the necessary carnage of the evolutionary process and exploited it to produce an unsustainable amount of surplus gustatory pleasure. It misses the mark that evolution is aiming at (i.e., it is sinful). Unlike plants, which do not have an astral body (as Steiner calls the soul) and feed only on the locally supplied light of our planet’s star, animals feed (spiritually) also on the light of distant (in space and time) extraterrestrial stars. When we eat animals, we are killing not only the work of our local parents (the Sun and the Earth), but also the work of our great, great grandparents, our eternal ancestors in heaven. The non-chalant eating of animals (raised and killed industrially) is not only physically unsustainable and biologically unethical, but also spiritually blasphemous.
I’m not yet midway through a thick tome by Prof. Robert J. Richards at the University of Chicago entitled The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (2002). It is soaked in personal details, the trysts and tears of the friends and lovers responsible for generating a literary and philosophical movement in late 18th and early 19th century Germany. Richards also provides a thorough account of the intellectual development of several figures, including Schelling.
His treatment of the relationship between Schelling’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution has been especially helpful. Despite the mischaracterizations of some scholars, who had it that Schelling denied the physical descent of species in favor of some metaphysical ordering (p. 299), Schelling was an early proponent of the notion of the historical transformation of life through the ages (see On the World Soul). But his conception of evolution was organic, rather than mechanistic. Like Kant, Schelling dismissed the notion that life, either at the species or individual level, could be understood absent some principle of self-organization, or “archetypal creative force” (p. 305). In a well-cited epilogue, “Darwin’s Romantic Biology,” Richards reveals the genesis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection in a conception of a cosmos “divinized” by archetypal forces. Darwin was an avid reader of the Schellingian biologist, Alexander von Humboldt, of whom he wrote in his diary “like another Sun illumines everything I behold” (Beagle Diary).
“The sensitive reader of Darwin’s works,” writes Richards,
“a reader not already completely bent to early-twenty-first-century evolutionary constructions, will feel the difference between the nature that Darwin describes and the morally effete nature of modern theory” (p. 553).
After reading On the Origin of Species for myself several years ago, I’d already gotten the sense that Darwin was not the reductionistic mechanist thinkers like Dawkins and Dennett make him out to be. Richards’ research has functioned as a further corrective to their intellectual revisionism.
The first few paragraphs:
Not a great deal of literary historical scholarship has been devoted to examining the connections between science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the romantic literature produced during this period. Instead, “literary history” has “drawn principally on the fellow humanities of philosophy and history” and only “superficially…on the history and philosophy of science” to develop an essentially incomplete and unidisciplinary account of the Romantic period. As Nancy Easterlin succinctly points out, scholars in the “humanistic research paradigms have remained largely immune to the influence of science”, maintaining the “two-cultures tradition, by virtue of the body of knowledge they adopt—and…by what they implicitly exclude—to frame our understanding of” literary and other “written works.” The recent works of such literary historians as Alan Richardson and Trevor Levere, however, has started to address this elision in literary history by mapping out the connections between literary Romanticism and neurological scientific discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Levere’s study demonstrates how the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment “made ‘mechanical’ a term of abuse, with both poets and scientists “dismissing it in favour of ‘organic.’Richardson, similarly, in British Romanticism and The Science of The Mind, aims to show how scientists in the period of approximately 1770-1880 departed from the dualist understanding of language and cognition, and embarked upon a more holistic and universalized vision of the ‘embodied’ individual, complete with a totalized and yet organically differentiated brain.
In my own paper, I aim to elaborate on the accounts generated by Richardson and Levere by closely examining the way in which Samuel Taylor Coleridge interacted with new neurological principles proposed by Romantic scientists of the mind. More innovatively, I aim to show that Coleridge’s underlying motivation for rejecting certain scientific models of the mind, while avowing others, is related to the potential Coleridge sees in neurological models to demean the position of poetic language and imagination. I have chosen to focus specifically on Coleridge and his text, Biographia Literaria, for three interrelated reasons. Firstly, Coleridge’s changing critical stance toward scientific knowledge about the mind reflects the distinctive shift in Romantic scientists away from Enlightenment principles. The veracity with which Coleridge’s initially opposed the relation of science and poetry, and his trenchant rejection of David Hartley’s scientific programme, for instance, contrasts significantly with Coleridge’s ultimate view that “scientific learning was essential to the writing of an epic poem.” Secondly, Coleridge’s bias “toward the centrality of language”, and his initially intransigent attitude regarding the “transcendental subject” of the poet – that “only a profound philosophical mind could hope to achieve poetic greatness” – illustrates Coleridge’s view that poetry and science alike should both direct themselves to a “discovery or statement of truth.” Lastly, I will show that Coleridge’s unique self-experimentation with the unconscious sensations of the body, evinced most clearly throughout Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (but further illustrated by Coleridge’s self-experimental praxis in composing poems such as Kubla Kahn) provides a fascinating insight into Coleridge’s conception of the poetic and “organic” imagination while demonstrating his close association with science, more generally.
Knowledge-Ecology recently posted his lament about the scientific ignorance of GOP presidential candidate Gov. Perry, who denies both evolution and climate change. Adam also mentioned his support for Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal.
I might also count Dawkins as a political ally, but not as a cosmological ally. And since I, like Adam, struggle to avoid separating cosmos and polis, in the end I have to critique Dawkins as quickly as I do Perry. Jung said he was glad he was not a Jungian; I think Darwin would say something similar were he alive today. Dawkins represents a minority position in the ecology of ideas circulating in the rather large academic aquarium of the contemporary life sciences. His assertion that “natural selection” explains life, the universe, and everything seems no less fundamentalist to me than creationism. Darwin assumed much about the nature of reality in order to offer an account of the origin the variety of species. His assumptions were empirically justified, I’d agree, but not theoretically explained. His conception of life-itself is quite Romantic (yes, in the capital “R” sense; see Robert Richards’ work on the influence of Schelling and Goethe on Darwin). Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection assumes self-producing/autopoietic organisms capable of reproduction (E. Thompson makes this case convincingly in “Mind in Life”). Natural selection, in the neo-Darwinist genocentric context that Dawkins employs it, offers no explanation whatsoever even for how genes can produce individual living cells, much less animals or a potentially freely creative, self-reflective species like us. Creationists may not know how to rationally articulate their intuition that scientific materialism is inadequate, nor even how to rationally construct an alternative account of cosmogenesis; but nonetheless, their intuition is correct. Civilization cannot survive without a more adequate answer to the Biggest Question.
An audio/visual collage, from the days of Wilson when sheep roamed the White House lawn to the days of Bush, when politics had already been fully transformed into pageantry.
Follow me to the desert,
Sing with me
Until I lose my mind;
Dance with me,
Until my body unwinds,
And my feet no longer touch the ground,
And all that’s left of time
Is the sound of wind shaping sand.
Build with me a temple,
Share with me your sacred,
And conceive within me
The meaning of the stars above.
I can taste the sky
In your smile,
Will you hold me?
Will you make me whole?
Who are you,
From how high have you come down
To this earth,
And to what heights will we go
when I die?
Help me to remember the smell of grace,
The incense of eternity
That guides the faithful home from their fallenness.
I have forgotten your name,
I cannot see the color of your eyes
In the darkness of this sightless night.
Show me your glory
In the warmth of other faces.
Reveal to me the angel of God
In every voice I live to hear.
Let me be burnt to dust,
Let my embers rain down
To rejoin the earth,
And release my spirit
To the heavens.