Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

An important discussion continues to unfold in the comment section of this post over at Knowledge-Ecology. We are trying to figure out what metaphysical work Whitehead’s eternal objects do, among other things.

Here is my last comment:

I think Whitehead gives you withdrawal without returning to an ontology of substances. Adam and I have been trying to figure this out for months, and I will admit that Whitehead does sometimes seem to reduce occasions to their relations, since in time (and his is a process metaphysics after all), no occasion or society of occasions ever remains identical to itself. There are no enduring substances, only enduring societies.

However, withdrawal can be saved due to the technical features of Whitehead’s system. Whitehead risks a set of abstractions by analyzing an indivisible moment of concrescence into its component parts. An occasion can be said to be withdrawn from its relations at a certain point in the process: just before it passes over from a subject to a superject; precisely when its relations are self-characterized or decided upon as the complex character of eternal objects to be included in its experience, there and then it is withdrawn from every other occasion. At this slice of time in the process of concrescence, abstractly analyzed, the occasion is dipping below the surface into eternity while still riding upon the wave of time. The “who” experiencing the world in this or that way at the molten core of the occasion is God; and though allured by the world, and the world by it, God is withdrawn from direct contact with it. God isn’t making a totally free decision in any given occasion, since it must deal with the emotional consequences of prior occasions.

We should not forget Harman’s fascination with occasionalism.

We all want some kind of withdrawal… the question for me is whether we want to bring back substance ontology or theology in order to get it. I’d rather do theology, maybe only because I’m more of a Platonist than an Aristotelian.

Here’s a Platonist for you:

“…every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition. For…the more secretly it is understood, the closer it is seen to approach the divine brilliance. Hence the inaccessible brilliance of the celestial powers is often called by theology ‘Darkness.’”
– John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon

Bruno Latour – “Waiting for Gaia: composing a common world through political art”

Via Knowledge-Ecology, who linked to a barely audible mp3 of Latour’s recent talk at the French Institute in the UK recorded by Tim Morton. Thanks for the guerrilla media effort, Tim! I wish the Institute would release their high quality video for free!!

We should be absolutely floored by what Latour has to say here, in the sense of being knocked to our philosophical grounds, forced to think anew the metaphysical foundations we may have been presupposing. His call for political art in the anthropocene, for the composing of post-natural/post-cultural cosmograms by way of the triple representation of science, politics, and art, sounds to my ears a great deal like Panikkar’s cosmotheandric vision. Only for Latour, as for the postmodern psyche in general, human creativity (art) replaces the creativity of God. Or perhaps there has been no replacement; rather, creator and creature are no longer separated, but have been hybridized.

A whole geological age has been given to the human. We’ve measured up to and even surpassed the power of plate tectonics. What was once merely symbolic anthropomorphism has taken industrial strength steroids and become quite real. Global climate change is upon us. None of us, in isolation, is responsible. And so how are we to feel, Latour asks, about a crisis as large as the earth? How can I be rightly accused of a crime of such magnitude without feeling the least bit guilty? Without a moral body or planetary consciousness to take responsibility, climate change simply cannot be felt. It can only be denied–either outright as many conservatives have, or once removed, as those who have adopted an attitude of despondency, having no patience for the romanticization of nature.

Nature, it seems, is no more. Nor is culture. Gone are the Kantian days when we could stand in awe of the sublimity of the natural world while simultaneously raising ourselves morally above it. As Kant commanded, we have now all but manufactured the earth itself in an attempt to know it as ourselves. We have woven facts and fictions so tightly together into the dysenchanted tapestry of techno-capitalist civilization that it has become impossible to tell where culture ends and nature begins. The sublime has reappeared in cosmopolitical dress as the infinitely receding threads of actors tied to actors tied to actors composing our best theories of reality. It is doubtless a durable fabric, but we do not know where it began nor whether we can ever tie up all its loose ends.

Techno-science, by itself, is crazed, even demonic. It pretends ethics can be separated from knowledge, and research from politics. “What we used to call the humanities now composes our sanity,” says Latour. But the humanities, like the sciences, have gone the way of the Dodo. Nature and culture are at best endangered species. Latour prophecies their complete extinction, and indeed prays for their demise. We are a species gone mad, whether we like it or not. Whether caused by dementia or demonic possession, we are a species gone wrong and in need of angelic wisdom, of a message from the divine. But Gaia will not nurture us. As Latour suggests, it is now we who must nurture her. She is no more unified and loving, no more conscious of herself as an agent than human society is of itself.

More on Myth, Panentheism, and Participation…

Levi Bryant has posted a few more reflections on myth. I’ve pasted some of our discussion over on Larval Subjects below. Bryant also recently posted on what he calls “a-theism,” and I’m more inclined to follow him at least part way in what he suggests. I have a few caveats, however. I do interpret the Christ event (he calls it the Jesus event) as a transformational turning point in the myth of transcendence that structured monotheism in prior ages. I am not a theist (which Bryant defines as a form of the myth of transcendence, wherein an entity is imagined “that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things”); rather, I am a panentheist. God is immanent in all things. All things participate in divine transcendence. Such a transcendence within all things is my way of affirming the OOO postulate of withdrawal. The keystone concept in Christianity, that which makes it panentheistic in structure, is the incarnation, which I have unpacked in relation to speculative metaphysics herehere, and here. I would also want to challenge Bryant’s caricature of Plato. The notion of participation (methexis) is central to Platonic thought. Any simplistic account of Platonic forms merely in terms of their transcendence has failed to wrestle with this admittedly difficult concept, and unfortunately, has completely missed the boat (the boat that Plato labored to construct to carry transcendence into immanence, eternity into time). I’d direct interested readers to chapter 1 of The Participatory Turn (SUNY, 2008), “A Genealogy of Participation” by Jacob Sherman, especially pages 81-87.


Levi, Your definition seems to imply that the ancient Greek gods, for example, were not mythic in structure (they were not transcendent, they were finite in power and in virtue). What were they, then?

I’d argue that the concepts of transcendence and monotheism were invented relatively recently (around the axial period), while myth, especially in its more ritualistically embedded and mimetic forms, has been structuring human experience for tens of thousands of years.

Matthew, As I’ve already remarked to you in discussion, I think your definition of myth is overly broad and fuzzy. You treat narrative and myth as synonyms, which they aren’t. As for greek gods, in my readings of classical texts they’re regularly treated as eternal and we get the stories of origins and falls I describe throughout Greek and Roman literature. I always get suspicious when people refer to the “axial age”, but I’ll set that aside.

Levi, your definition in terms of mythic structure, rather than content, is helpful. Any definition of myth will be “fuzzy,” however, since mythic forms of consciousness are indeed dream-like and can only be falsified by the “clear and distinct ideas” of mental-rational definitions. I come from a school of thought (Gebser, Jung, and more recently, Bellah) in which myth is to be grasped on its own terms, more akin to poetry and story, rather than collapsed into the theoretical terms of rationality.

I think an important distinction can be made between the immortality of Greek gods and the eternality of a transcendent God. The former does not imply transcendence of the emotional tumult of human-like existence, while the latter does imply a great distance, absolute or not, from such confusion.

As for the Axial age, it has survived Jaspers’ initial formulation quite well and remains a key concept for many sociologists and scholars of religion. You might look into Robert Bellah‘s “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (2011).

Thinking in media res.

My Muse’s ideas remain mute to the world until given voice by the poet who courts her.  For this I use my mouth, my tongue, my teeth, and my lungs. As I inhale and prepare to name the world, it dawns on me that I have lost the ability to tell the difference between my thinking and my words.

A problematic statement: Thinking itself, the I behind the me I “use” language to call myself, cannot be written.

But then what did I just say? If my I cannot be predicated, if nothing at all can be said about it but what it says of itself as me, then what relation does my I bear to its body, other bodies, and the world?

An important confession: I cannot but think in media res. I am a bodying, a worlding. My thoughts are always already events in the world.

Language cannot be “used” like some kind of tool, because the me that is supposed to employ it is in fact (re)constructed in the act of speaking. Language is a technology, but in the ancient sense of techne, a craftwork or artworkrather than the modern sense of tool or machine.

Is not language the Archetype itself most fully incarnated into the material dimension, the Word become almost fully flesh and bone? I speak, therefore I am, and in speaking I become mediated, my consciousness awakened from the dream of solipsism into the pulsing, breading, bleeding matrices of inter-bodily co-existence.

Because of a series of technological “advancements” and economic “developments,” I can now type my thinking into a laptop, which then teleports it around the world in an instant. Miniaturized by my laptop is the alphabet, an ancient technology still every bit as essential to our kind of consciousness as neurons and microchips. My mind accesses the meaning of this screen through the symbolic sounds my fingers have learned to play on the keyboard. My alphabetic computer becomes the condition for my thinking being heard (by myself and others). I think with it, and so my identity has hybridized with it. We are/I am a cyborg.

Whatever the Internet “is,” I think we can say with some assurance that it is already sutured into the human nervous system, and the planetary ecosystem, at a very deep level, so deep as to have fundamentally transformed what it means, materially and spiritually, to be an earthling. There is a computer consciousness binding the world together in an electrical co-presencing of faces and words, a digital concrescence of souls. Problem is these techno-human lines of communication are completely out of rhythm with the rest of the earthly and cosmic lines of force. Industrial civilization has turned up the volume of our technosphere’s speakers so loud, and so brightened the bulbs that light it, that the rest of the gaian ecosystem and galactic community can hardly be seen or heard anywhere on earth. At least not by human ears.

We are embedded, creatures within creation, each an individualized organ of world-perception, another unique example of the Cosmic Psyche’s desire to see deeper into a universe in which there is always more to see.

Think with the heart of the world, or there will be no earth worth living in.

William Irwin Thompson on the transformation of our economy

COLUMN – THINKING OTHERWISE – The Digital Economy of W. Brian Arthur | Wild River Review.

It would now appear that industrial and service economy “jobs” are disappearing at the same time that national currencies are in crisis and public universities and community colleges are being stripped of funds, so that they cannot take up the slack by employing the unemployed. We seem headed for a crisis greater than the Great Depression. The solution, it would seem to me, is not a propping up of the old economy through government bailouts but an entire restructuring of civilization.

On human terms, I fear this is not possible. Homo sapiens is just not that sapient. Earth Day began in 1968, but it was followed by forty-four years of reaction with Reagan, the Bushes, and now even Obama. I am afraid that we are in for a catastrophic transition and a massive dieback, unless you economists can come up with something that is not Business as usual. Germany and the U.S. came out of the Great Depression through war. As William James suggested, we need to come up with the moral equivalent of war.


American Academy of Religion in San Francisco: My schedule

The AAR is here in San Francisco this year. It has been difficult to weed out my schedule this weekend, since there are very few weeds! There are at least 5 events I’d like to attend in every time slot. But here is what I’ve been able to single out:

Friday at 4pm

Theme: Homo Symbolicus as Homo Religiosus: Symbolization in the Study of Religion

Randal Cummings, California State University, Northridge, Presiding

Eric Lane, California State University, Los Angeles

What Darwin and Science Owe to Religion

Kay Read, DePaul University

Homo-Who? Quetzalcoatl and Reading Aztec Visual Symbols

Greg Alles, McDaniel College

The Mountain as Symbol: On Difficulties and Possibilities in Studying Religious Symbolization

Jes Hollenback, University of Wisconsin

What Makes Symbols and Symbolization Such Powerful Agents of Transformation?


Rick Talbott, California State University, Northridge

Friday at 7pm

Theme: Raimundo Panikkar’s Christological Contribution

Xavier Gravend-Tirole, University of Lausanne and Montreal, Presiding

Christopher Denny, St. John’s University

Purusha Sukta / Nirvana / Holy Saturday: Alternative Paths to Spiritual Kenosis

Erik Ranstrom, Boston College

I Discovered Myself a Hindu: The Promise and Problem of Raimon Panikkar as a Source of Hindu Self-Understanding

Bob Robinson, Laidlaw College

An Evangelical Protestant Appreciation of Panikkar

J. Jayakiran Sebastian, Lutheran Theological Seminary

Fragmented Selves, Fragments of the New Story: Panikkar and Dalit Christology

Responding: Catherine Cornille, Boston College

Saturday at 8:30am

Join us for a special session exploring the transdisciplinary options for balanced and integrative approaches to Western Esotericism, while drawing attention to issues relating to the focus on disinterested empiricism as the sole acceptable method for the study of these topics. Integrative models and approaches combining scholarly rigor with imaginative and sympathetic engagement have been long established in many areas of the humanities and social sciences. Yet the question of scholarly overengagement with their topic continues to be a point of contention, while voices calling for channels of dialogue and mutual understanding between scholars and practitioners in order to better explore the application and potentials of such epistemologies are frequently met with suspicion in academic circles. In this session we seek to explore ways to build bridges of fruitful communication and mutual understanding between seemingly disparate voices and perspectives.

Topics include:

  • Legitimate ways of knowing: experiential knowledge and/or symbolic perception.
  • How can we learn from each other? Bridging the practitioner- scholar divide
  • Is history and discourse analysis enough?
  • Paradigms for integration and applied transdisciplinary methodology

Saturday at 4pm

Laura Hobgood-Oster, Southwestern University, Presiding

Theme: Animality, Hybridity, Divinity: Donna Haraway’s Technoscientific Revisioning of the Religious Subject

Jennifer Thweatt-Bates, Newark, NJ

Donna Cyborgs, Dogs, and Jesus: The Worldly and Religious Figures Haraway of Donna Haraway

Sam Mickey, California Institute of Integral Studies

Farfetchings for Respecting Species: Postsecular Posthumanities and the SF Mode

Amy Brown, University of Florida

Donna Haraway’s Philosophy as a Challenge to Individualism in Evolutionarily-derived Environmental Ethics

Marti Kheel, University of California, Berkeley

Donna Haraway’s “Species Encounter”: Reciprocity or Dominion?

Donna Haraway, University of California, Santa Cruz

Sunday at 9am

Theme: Elemental Theology and Feminist Earth Practices

Whitney Bauman, Florida International University, Presiding


Rosemary R. Ruether, Claremont Graduate University

Starhawk, Earth Activist Training


Marion S. Grau, Graduate Theological Union

Jone Salomonsen, University of Oslo Heather Eaton, Saint Paul University

Sunday 10:30am

Theme: Rethinking Secularism

Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Social Science Research Council, Presiding

A discussion of Rethinking Secularism, a recently published volume co-edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen. The so-called “resurgence” of religion in the public sphere has forced scholars to reconsider both classical theories of secularization and a range of contemporary secular assumptions. Presenting groundbreaking work from an interdisciplinary group of leading scholars, Rethinking Secularism surveys these efforts and helps to reframe discussions of religion in the social sciences by drawing attention to the central issue of how “the secular” is constituted and understood.


Robert N. Bellah, University of California, Berkeley

Saba Mahmood, University of California, Berkeley


Craig Calhoun, Social Science Research Council and New York University

Mark Juergensmeyer, University of California, Santa Barbara

Sunday at 1pm

Theme: A Conversation with Robert Bellah on Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Mark Juergensmeyer, University of California, Santa Barbara, Presiding

The distinguished sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, will respond to comments on his massive new book Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2011), which traces the development of human culture from the Paleolithic period to the Axial Age and offers a new theory on the origins of religion.


Jonathan Z. Smith, University of Chicago

Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago


Robert N. Bellah, University of California

Sunday at 7pm

Theme: Our Final Hour: Can Our Species Determine the Fate of the Earth?

Martin J. Rees, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and Astronomer Royal, is one of the world’s leading theoretical astrophysicists. His contributions to our understanding of cosmic phenomena have been exceptionally broad-based, and his pioneering research has engaged with the origin of cosmic structures and the long-term future. He has also speculated about concepts of multiverse, complexity, apparent “fine tuning,” and other fundamental questions where science interfaces with philosophy and theology. Rees has spent much of his career as professor of astrophysics and cosmology in Cambridge, and served as president of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010. He has been an eloquent presenter of scientific ideas to general audiences, with numerous articles, books, and broadcasts to his credit, and has increasingly engaged with issues of science policy. Most recently he delivered the 2010 Reith Lectures for the BBC, a series of talks exploring the ethical challenges facing science in the 21st century.

Monday at 9am

Theme: Plotinus and Islamic Platonism

Douglas Hedley, University of Cambridge, Presiding

John Bussanich, University of New Mexico

Plotinus on Karma and Rebirth

Shatha Almutawa, University of Chicago

Religiophilosophical Narratives: Plato in Rasa’il Ikhwan Al-Safa

Samir Mahmoud, University of Cambridge

The Problem of the One and the Many: Ibn ‘Arabi’s Divine Names and Proclus’s Henads

Martyn Smith, Lawrence University

Ibn Khaldun and Neoplatonic Views of the Soul 

Monday at 1pm

Theme: Ritual, Time, and Magic Wheels: Studies in Indian and Tibetan Tantra

Richard K. Payne, Graduate Theological Union, Presiding

Ronald M. Davidson, Fairfield University

Early Buddhist Tantras and the Smārta Quotidian Manuals

Lewis Doney, University of London

Buddhist Time and Tantra in Early Tibetan Historiography

Manuel Lopez, University of Virginia

The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Buddhism During Tibet’s Dark Age

Eric Fry-Miller, Indiana University

Dreaming of Magic Wheels, Flames, and Bliss: Understanding the Transformation of Candali Practice in the Drigung Kagyu 

Monday at 4pm

Theme: Western Esotericism and Material Culture

Cathy Gutierrez, Sweet Briar College, Presiding

Egil Asprem, University of Amsterdam

Technofetishism, Instrumentation, and the Materiality of Esoteric Knowledge

Shawn Eyer, John F. Kennedy University

The Use of Tracing Boards and Other Art Objects as Physical Aids of Symbolic Communication in the Rituals and Practices of Freemasonry

Stephen Wehmeyer, Champlain College

Conjurational Contraptions: “Techno-gnosis,” Mechanical Wizardry, and the Material Culture of African American Folk Magic

Henrik Bogdan, University of Gothenburg

“Objets d’Art Noir”, Magical Engines, and Gateways to Other Dimensions: Understanding Hierophanies in Contemporary Occultism

Joseph Christian Greer, Harvard University

Storming the Citadel for Knowledge, Aesthetics, and Profit: The Dreamachine in Twentieth Century Esotericism

Monday at 6:45pm

Theme: New Horizons in Religion and Ecology

At this reception hosted by the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS, San Francisco), meet with others interested in the study of religion and ecology. Four CIIS faculty—Elizabeth Allison, Robert McDermott, Jacob Sherman, and Brian Swimme—will briefly introduce a new CIIS MA and Ph.D. level program of study in Religion and Ecology.

Tuesday at 9am

Theme: The Viability of Metaphysical Realism

Stephen Bush, Brown University, Presiding

Rose Ann Christian, Towson University

The Ethics of Belief and Belief About Ethics: William Kingdon Clifford at the Metaphysical Society

Laura Weed, College of Saint Rose

Metaphysical Realism after Quantum Field Theory: a New Look at No-thingness

William Lane Craig, Biola University

The Viability of Metaphysical Realism about Abstract Objects

Michael Slater, Georgetown University

Pragmatism, Theism, and the Viability of Metaphysical Realism

Reich speaks at #Occupy Cal

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich speaks at Occupy Cal in Berkeley yesterday (Nov. 15th):

One thing that really sunk in: if the Supreme Court ruled that money is speech and corporations are people, then our government must also protect the rights of ordinary Americans to speak, and indeed, to speak in non-traditional ways (i.e., with their bodies in public tent cities) that enable them to garner the large audience necessary to make them capable of competing with corporate advertising.

Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture

I’m giving a brief presentation in a course on Christianity and Ecology with Prof. Jacob Sherman on Thursday. In what follows, I’ll try to sketch out what I’d like to say. I plan to briefly summarize the cosmotheandric potential of Robert N. Bellah’s recent tome, Religion and Human Evolution (2011). Bellah develops an account of the evolution of religion in the larger context of the evolution of the universe, earth, species in general, and humans in particular. His accounts of the unfolding of the universe and of pre-human life, though, are brief and perhaps inadequate. While interesting and even true, I’m not sure his uncovering of the mythoi woven into Chaisson’s and Dawkins’ scientific cosmologies is enough to provide readers with a deep sense of orientation in regard to the Fact of Cosmogenesis. Admirably, what he has succeeded in doing is disorienting us in regards to what we thought science was supposed to be telling we “moderns” about “nature.” Bellah, like Bruno Latour, shows how we have never been modern; that is, the West has never gone without myth and religion. As Hegel put it, “those moments which the spirit appears to have outgrown still belong to it in the depths of its present.” To the extent that we are aware of the presence of the past, we avoid being possessed by it. Nor has the West ever been in relation to a neutral and valueless “nature.” Nature is a modernist fiction, the product of capitalist economics and colonialist politics: both are forms of mythologically possessed culture (ideology) that seek to exploit the resources of whatever can be overpowered (lumber, oil, nature) or outsmarted (labor, soul, human nature).

Neither cosmological evolution nor the economics and politics of modernity are the focus of Bellah’s book. I’d say Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story (1993) is a good book to turn to for a sense of cosmic reorientation. Latour does a great job orienting us (we, the religious) in so-called modern times (or, we hope, non-modern). Bellah, on the other hand, articulates a non-modern, post-secular anthropology of religion up to and including the Axial period. Religion, for Bellah, has to do with those beliefs and practices related to non-ordinary experiences of the sacred. Of course, “the notion of non-ordinary reality, though widely held among a variety of peoples, might appear to be ruled out for modern consciousness” since moderns believe such realities to be “the mistaken beliefs of earlier cultures” (p. 1). I think this is where Bellah needs Latour’s critique of modernity in order to secure his definition of religion. Unless it can be shown that the moderns are mistaken about “nature” and about “culture,” then no defense of religious realities, or of the ontological import of non-ordinary experience, is possible.

Bellah is careful to point out that science, just as much as religion, is forced to invite us into non-ordinary realities in order to convey its truths. The world of daily life is not the world of bosons and quarks, nor that of incarnation and atonement. Art, too, opens a door into the beyond; a work is transcendent though never independent of its place and time of making. Some even say art, more than the tired orthodoxies of science and religion, is what civilization needs to renegotiate its catastrophic ecological situation. I’d suggest that these three cultural spheres (the differentiation of which Wilber calls the dignity of modernity) need to be re-integrated in a trans-disciplinary way (not pre-disciplinary), such that aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology (or art, religion, and science) are assembled into a single, complex cosmotheandric hypersphere.

Bellah moves us in this direction by rooting culture in play. Play opens us into a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realties that are engaged in during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of our mortal lives (birth, near death, death, spiritual visions, etc.). A certain degree of work will always be necessary to survive, but the question remains what we are to survive for. If not play, then what? And what does it mean that play, and the creative efflorescence it provides, is at the existential core of our lives? I believe a connection can be made here to Imagination, to the way meaning is enacted, or imaginally bodied forth, rather than passively discovered in a pre-existing world (i.e., “nature”). There is no meaning here unless we are willing to play, to make present what is not here. Imagination is where immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. Religion, like science and art, is born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

Latour reminds us not to stray too far from the cosmos in our search for the religion of humanity:

“a religion that has abandoned the cosmos has made itself irrelevant from the start…My contention is that religion could have been the best way to protect evolution against any kidnapping (any search for overarching [modern religious] meaning or [modern scientific] optimum), providing we expand a little further what we mean by the creativity of organisms” (p. 470, “Will non-humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology” (2009) in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute).

When Latour speaks of the creativity of organisms, he references Alfred North Whitehead, for whom organisms make up the whole of the physical cosmos from hydrogen atoms and solar systems to wild flowers and primates. (In Whitehead’s fully worked out metaphysical system, organisms are understood to be societies composed of anorganic actual occasions intrarelated via the geometrical projection of an intensive hierarchy of eternal objects. Cosmologically, it is more helpful to speak of organisms.)

In accepting the philosophy of symbolic forms behind anthropologist Cliff Geertz’ study of religion, Bellah runs the risk of re-inscribing the all too modern dichotomy between symbolism and organism (another way of dividing “culture” and “nature”). This dichotomy is perhaps more pronounced in Ernst Cassirer’s work on culture (discussed here). Was the non-human world without meaning until humans, using symbolic language, successfully transformed pointless playfulness into full blown cultural practice? If Bellah is unwilling to remain open to the possibility of a pansemiotic, panexperiential cosmos, wherein energy itself is “eternal delight” disporting in time, then his approach fails finally to uphold the cosmotheandric potential I believe it nonetheless flirts with.

Esotericism and the Academy at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco

Phoenix Rising at the AAR Meeting Saturday Nov. 19th!.

Some of these papers look great. The problem of how to traverse the disciplinary boundary between esoterica and academia is one I will face in my own dissertation. Is it possible to integrate imaginal and rational modes of consciousness, to harmonize sacral and critical attitudes of inquiry? Can one study the arts of magic and alchemy, the sciences of astrology and theology, and remain at an academic distance? Is it possible to feign objectivity when one’s object of inquiry is that out of which inquiry itself emerges?

It is precisely the Imagination, the Muse, the indwelling spirit that brings the subject of objects into focus for us. Subject and Object are both creations of Imagination, or Psyche. Inner and Outer are both modes of Imagination. What some call an Outer Object is really a Mage, that is, a Moving Image in the Eternal Mind’s I. Psyche is All.

Like the Inner and Outer, Time and Space are both productions of the Cosmos. The ensouled Cosmos.

Cosmos Is Psyche. Which is to say that Psyche is not just eternal objects in an abstract Mind, but actual occasions of concrete experience and embodied existence. Archetypes, strictly speaking, do not exist without appetites and enjoyments, without living and playing fully intermixed with the created world.

research papers for graduate courses on Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser, and Christianity and Ecology

I’m enrolled in two courses this semester here at CIIS. The first is taught by Prof. Eric Weiss; the second by Prof. Jacob Sherman. We’re well into the second week of November already, so its time to start fleshing out my term papers.

Weiss’ course is on the evolutionary schemes of the 20th century cultural philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser. Alfred North Whitehead has also been a near constant companion in our class discussion. Cassirer is famous for articulating the notion of symbolic forms, which could be defined as the various shapes of consciousness that have held sway over human society during the long course of its development, from early magico-mythic to late techno-scientific forms. Cassirer distinguishes mythic, artistic, linguistic, historical, religious, and scientific symbolic forms, among others. Each has its own characteristic way of interacting with the world and of making meaning of it. Cassirer does not suppose that we pass through each form, leaving the prior forms behind as we ascend to more scientific–that is, truer–modes of apprehending reality. Rather, he is quite aware of the extent to which even science remains a cultural activity, embedded in and dependent upon the symbolic webs of meaning that have accumulated and complexified since human beings first began to dance in ritual celebration beneath the stars.

Gebser, whose only translated work The Ever-Present Origin is perhaps the most profound text I’ve yet to read, lays out a scheme not unlike Cassirer’s. His picture of the evolution of human beings distinguishes 4 mutations connecting 5 structures of consciousness: the archaic, the magic, the mythic, the mental, and the integral. What is different about Gebser is the unabashedly spiritual and cosmological scope of his project. While Cassirer only claims to be speaking about the evolution of human culture, Gebser is explicit about the ontological reach of consciousness into the very structure of space-time itself. In other words, like any good Kantian, Cassirer limits himself to speaking about human access to reality, while Gebser explodes the cognitive limits of transcendentalism in order to bring forth an entirely new way of knowing, namely, integral-aperspectival consciousness. Integral consciousness is “aperspectival” in that it is not limited to the partial perspective of spatially-oriented mental consciousness, a consciousness unable to perceive the whole because of its deficient apprehension of concrete time as mere abstract succession. Gebser refers to this deficiency as the false spatialization of time, which turns what is in fact a spiritual intensity into a material extensity (i.e., lived time becomes clock-time). This is where Whitehead comes in. Gebser mentions his process philosophy as a possible inception of the new integral structure. In his critiques of Humean and Kantian accounts of experience, Whitehead unpacks his doctrine of causal efficacy. Experience in the mode of causal efficacy has been entirely overshadowed by modern philosophy’s obsession with another, more abstract and alienated mode of experience: presentational immediacy.

In my essay for this course, I want to explore the possibility that presentational immediacy, a mode of experience Whitehead suggests is only available to especially complex organisms, is in fact a capacity that developed quite late even in human beings. I think the deficient form of mental-rational consciousness currently reigning (though it is increasingly fragmented and in an obvious state of decay) only became possible as presentational immediacy took on an increasingly dominant role in human experience. Gebser’s other structures (archaic, magic, and mythic) can be characterized by their instinctuality and lack of reflective capacity, and by the absence of a distinction between “appearance” and “reality” so characteristic of the mental structure. I will attempt, in this essay, to unpack the changing relationship between presentational immediacy, causal efficacy, and the hybrid mode of experience, symbolic reference, as human beings move through each of the structures articulated by Gebser and Cassirer. In the course of this analysis, I hope to both integrate Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness with Whitehead’s cosmology, and further draw out the differences between Cassirer’s Kantianism and Gebser and Whitehead’s participatory realism.

Sherman’s course is focused both on why the ecological crisis emerged out of the Christian cultural matrix and on how this same matrix may enable Western humanity to respond to it. We’ve been reading quite widely in the field of religion and ecology. My favorites thus far are Thomas Berry’s New Story, Matthew Fox’s creation spirituality, Wendell Berry‘s and Norman Wirzba’s agrarian Christianity, and Leo Boff’s liberation theology. I’ve also read Robert N. Bellah‘s new book Religion in Human Evolution to help me write a paper for this course, as I think the ecological crisis forces us to ask a larger question concerning not just the role of Christianity, but religion more generally. A religious response to the ecological crisis requires that we first unpack the relationship between science and religion, and between mythic and secular reality. I think ecology, on its own, has much to teach us all, Christian or not. But the combination of Christianity and ecology changes everything, since in the Christian context we are dealing with a Creation and not simply a haphazardly existing cosmos. Ecology is the study of our home; unless our home is hallowed, how can we live in it peacefully and joyously? In my paper, I hope to use Bellah’s thesis regarding the role of play in human evolution to critique modern industrial society’s anxiety driven obsession with work. The role of religion in our ecologically troubled time is to re-imagine not only what’s worth living for, but what’s worth working for. What we need now is a renewed sense of how to play with seriousness. What ought we to be doing with our time here on earth together? Industrial civilization has its answer. Christianity has another. The two are not compatible in the least. My task in the essay for this class will be to articulate what a consciousness of Creation brings to ecology and to respond to the challenges presented by scientific cosmology to “Creationism.” In short, I think authentic science (i.e., the gentle empiricism of Goethe, or the naturphilosophie of Schelling) is fully compatible with cosmotheandric accounts of the creative universe. When scientists like Hawking and Dawkins say that science has made it all but impossible (or at the very least unnecessary) to believe in a Creator, I think they are expressing the industrial values of late capitalism more so than that of science, in its pure, disinterested form. Industrial capitalism has a vested interest in maintaining a cosmological picture in which owners hire workers to remake an otherwise dead and purposeless world in their own image. If the world is God’s Creation, “private property” becomes a pragmatic shorthand at best, blasphemous at worst.

What is Enlightenment? – a response to Levi Bryant

Bryant posted recently about how he would define the notion of “Enlightenment.” I agree with part of what he has to say, in that clearly Enlightenment does concern the bursting forth of critique. Where we seem to disagree is on the extent to which critique can ever lift itself entirely above the mythopoietic structure of the cultures to which it belongs and out of which it came. Here is my response to him:

So “mythic” modes of consciousness are “immature” across the board? Are you arguing that the Enlightened are those grown ups who have entirely transcended myth to live in the full light of Reason? Or would you admit that story and narrative are essential and inevitable factors in all human knowledge of self and world?

To my mind, the Enlightenment represents a new awakening to (or remembrance of) a 2,500 year old axial form of mythospeculation that is not only reflexive (as the Greek tragedies and Jewish prophecies were), but now also self-reflexive. Individuals begin to step into their own authority as legitimate grounds for reasons. They need no longer draw explicitly on gods or kings or even kin when they argue for an essential rightness, or goodness, or truth concerning the world. Truth needs no intermediary. Of course, individuals always implicitly draw on ancient traditions of interpretation when they reason, whether they are deriving a mathematical formula in a lab, protesting for their freedom in the streets, or reading the first verses of John’s gospel at their bedside.

The Enlightenment didn’t do away with transcendence or myth. The Enlightenment offered us a new myth, the myth of mythlessness, and a new transcendence, that of Theory and Science. God was killed, but the Mind of Man was crowned in Its place.

I don’t think we need more Enlightenment. We don’t need more myth, either.
We need to integrate theory and story. We are more than merely rational beings. Rational intelligence emerges only within a matrix of culture and symbolism and finds its bearings amidst the stories sustained by this matrix.

Certain passions have haunted and lead us to cruelty, no doubt; but other passions provide the heart’s very reasons for living, “reasons that reason doesn’t know.”

I’m all about the Light.

But let’s not forget that the most brilliant lights casts the darkest shadows.


Update: the discussion continues over at Knowledge-Ecology.

To sum up:

Levi and I seem to be disagreeing about whether myth penetrates to the level of ontology, or whether it is merely an epistemic limit or veil that can be removed and discarded after logical, scientific thought has revealed the pure light of truth hiding behind it. Myth need not be a limit to thought; it can provide a doorway to the infinite if we do not allow it to collapse into narrow literalisms and closed ideologies.

Speculative philosophy is the telling of what Plato called “likely stories,” open-ended accounts of what may be the case, all known things considered.