Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) recently unpacked his position that object’s are “spacetime worms” (HERE). It got me thinking about the arguments that thinkers like Bergson and Whitehead had with Einstein regarding the philosophical implications of his equations. Bruno Latour spoke about this issue HERE. For Bergson, “time is invention or it is nothing at all,” while for Einstein, time is merely “a stubbornly persistant illusion.” Bergson experienced the universe as a creative evolution, while Einstein bracketed the evidence of his experience in favor of mathematical transformations on the Cartesian coordinate grid. Jayveeaitch posted a comment to Bryant’s piece wherein he linked to a wonderful essay about the precursors of relativistic time in Kant and Schelling (HERE). He unpacks Schelling’s position regarding the dynamic evolution of Nature in terms of Spirit’s self-externalization. The position requires that Schelling temporalize the eternal. After quoting Schelling’s Freedom essay,

[wherein Schelling writes:

Although man is born in time, he is created in the beginning of creation (the center). The act by which his life in time is determined does not itself belong to time, but to eternity, nor does it precede time, but moves through time (untouched by it) as an act by its nature eternal. Through this act man’s life extends to the beginning of creation; thus through it he is beyond creation as well, free and himself eternal beginning (259)],

Jayveeaitch responds with:

In Ages of the World, Schelling expansively elaborates on this inchoate conception of the ground or the center of creation firstly by stating that in the ground the individual creature originally exists in the mode of an archetype, as a kind of spiritual image, a pure determinate potentiality of body, spirit and soul awaiting, or rather, yearning for actualization. But the archetypes cannot actualize in the ground because there is neither space nor time in it to do so. As Schelling describes it, there is no true up or down or left or right or before or after in the ground. Rather, it is a kind of dimensionless, infinitely involuted singularity, a black hole within which three divine potencies (corporeal, spiritual, and psychic) circulate in an unending rotary motion, literally fighting over the locus of being. However, the very dynamism of the annular drive suggests some kind of temporality, and therefore some kind of before and after. As Edward Allen Beach points out, in the incorporation of “genetic principles into the very core of [his] ontology,” Schelling undertakes the temporalization of the eternal and the essential (P 112).

Schelling reads time, then, not as another extended dimension like space, but as the very potency of a spiritual process hidden in the core of every extended being. The 4th dimension isn’t an extended spacetime dragged behind or thrown out ahead of a being; rather, it is the internal principle of its genesis, the archetypal form “yearning for actualization” in a living body. The invisible form can never finally achieve full actualization (that would be death), and so instead it exhibits itself as the entelechy of the creature. This process of archetypal incarnation makes it appear in the physical plane of extension that the creature is always becoming other than itself, its material parts constantly replaced in time; but on the spiritual plane, the creature remains what it is because it dips into the eternality at the root of time. When in the Timaeus, Plato refers to time as “a moving image of eternity,” he is hinting at something very similar. We think of time as the universal background by which we measure the succession of events or the motion of objects; but if time is really eternity, and eternity is in all things, then time is the creative potency–the I AM!–powering the free decisions of every creature in the Universe.

Autopoiesis is a description, in physical terms, of a process that must also be understood spiritually (i.e., in archetypal terms). A living system possesses an identity that cannot be understood in terms of its parts alone. It is not just a machine, but a locus of self-concern [See Varela’s last paper, Life After Kant (2001), where he distances himself from the “machine” metaphor while arguing for the need to bring purposes back into biology]. The apparent wholeness of the organism is more like a “black hole” whose archetypal power maintains the being’s inner identity despite the ongoing chemical and physical transformation of its body. From this “hole,” infinite freedom enters the world to take on definite form. Rather than a spacetime worm, I’d offer the image of a torus to understand what organisms (or objects) really are. [For more on the relationship between toroidal dynamics and embodiment, see Logos of the Lived Body].

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can’t know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn’t this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead’s response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

I’m taking a course this semester on contemporary transpersonal theory taught by Prof. Jorge Ferrer and Prof. Jacob Sherman. Ferrer’s key text is Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001), wherein he tries to initiate a paradigm shift in transpersonal psychology beyond the neo-perennialist assumptions of its founders (e.g., Ken Wilber, Stanislav Grof, Abraham Maslow). In 2008, Ferrer and Sherman co-edited The Participatory Turn, which is an attempt to historically and methodologically ground the participatory approach initiated in Revisioning by applying it in the discipline of religious studies.

Here is Ferrer talking to the Center for Spirituality and Health at the University of Florida in 2006:

In what follows, I’m drawing also from Ferrer’s recent essay in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “Participatory Spirituality and Transpersonal Theory: A Ten Year Retrospective” (2011).

Ferrer mentions what some evangelical Christian’s have begun calling the “scandal of pluralism”: the scandal being that the explosion of contemporary spiritualities raises the issue of how any one of them in particular could provide a fully accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality without implying that all of the others are off the mark. The perennialists get around this issue by suggesting each spirituality represents a different path up the same mountain. Their’s remains a universalist picture of religion, since one spiritual system can be measured relative to another based upon how high up the mountain it is. Despite the many faces of the mountain, and the diversity of paths winding up its slopes, there is only one peak: the perennialist judges each system according to the same altitudinal standard. Against the perennialist’s universalism, Ferrer, argues that the peak is a regulative principle used to guide cocreative inquiry into “the mystery,” rather than a ready-made position one can claim to have finally discovered for oneself. Ferrer therefore doesn’t reject universalism entirely, but adopts what he calls “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.” Pluralism leads inevitably into a performative contradiction, since the claim that all systems are relative is itself a universal claim. Ferrer suggests that the only way beyond the self-defeating contradiction of pluralism and the self-congratulatory exclusivity of universalism is to cultivate a form of spiritual judgement based upon pragmatic and transformational–not just ontological or metaphysical–criteria. I’ve so far proceeded with the working assumption that spiritual systems are primarily or exclusively concerned with metaphysics, with “providing an accurate depiction of the ultimate nature of reality.” This leaves out the practical, embodied, and indeed participatory dimensions of spirituality, those focused not just on the theoretical description of reality but also upon the moral transformation of that same reality. Part of what Ferrer is getting at, I think, is that we can overcome the tendency to privilege a particular tradition as paradigmatic and thereby untangle the the universalism-pluralism knot by engaging in a participatory form of inquiry open to the “dynamic and undetermined mystery or generative power of life, the cosmos, and/or the spirit.” Ferrer argues that “the mystery” is unlike the Kantian thing-in-itself, since his participatory approach “[refuses] to conceive of the mystery as having objectifiable pregiven attributes.” I become a bit confused here, since this seems to be a misreading of Kant, who would have agreed with this refusal in principle, even if in practice he offered some hints as to the nature of the supersensible (e.g., in the Critique of Judgment, he posits the idea of a purposeful organization of things as a regulative guide). Despite Ferrer’s professed resistance to characterizing the thing-in-itself in any way, he also goes on in the same essay to say: “I take the view that the mystery, the cosmos, and/or spirit unfolds from a primordial state of undifferentiated unity toward one of infinite differentiation-in-communion.” This perspective could be read as an inevitable result of Kant’s transcendental idealism as it was taken up and elaborated upon by thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling. Schelling’s organic philosophy, wherein a living and creative cosmos is the ongoing revelation of an infinite spirit, seems especially similar to the view Ferrer expresses above. Rather than pretend we can or should say nothing about the ultimate nature of reality, I think it is possible to preserve its essential mysteriousness while also engaging in the metaphysical and moral work required to effectively describe and transform it.

Ferrer’s comments in the above videos about the “pride of mind” are important. I certainly agree with him that education in the United States and Western world generally is almost exclusively intellectual, neglecting the vital energies of the body, the empathic wisdom of the heart, and the inspiration of the spirit. Philosophy education in particular might benefit from an understanding of the poetic basis of mind, the way in which language and verbal consciousness are rooted in song, and as such, emerge out of the breathing (spirit-imbued) body. The mind need not be in control of the body from a position beyond it; rather, the mind can be understood to be the life that moves through the body, analogous to the way wind passes through an aeolian harp. Mind, then, is not isolable from the body, but neither is it locally produced by the body. It flows through. When its flow is blocked by bodily trauma (e.g., when one of the harp’s string’s is snapped), thinking also becomes disfigured.

Much has been made of the confrontation between Ferrer and Wilber (HERE and HERE, for example). I’m just beginning to read the relevant material, but so far it seems to me that the differences between the two are real but largely overplayed. Ferrer tends to lean more toward a kind of pluralistic openness to “the mystery,” while Wilber tends more toward inclusivist perennialism. I am uncomfortable with aspects of Wilber’s developmental scheme, since it makes it all too easy to dismiss critics as being simply less developed than oneself. However, I do think consciousness can only be understood as an evolutionary process, that something like the historical dialectic described by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit is unfolding upon the earth. I am uncomfortable with such Western-centric schemes as they currently exist only because it seems there are multiple evolutions of multiple consciousnesses.

Adam at Knowledge-Ecology has posted some reflections on the issues at stake in the confrontation between philosophical realism and philosophical materialism. Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) and Michael (Archive-Fire) place their bets on materialism, while Graham Harman (Object-Oriented Philosophy) and Steven Shaviro (Pinocchio Theory) prefer realism. This isn’t the whole story, however. When we shift to the issue of withdrawal (i.e., the accessibility of things), Shaviro, Bryant, and Michael all line up in opposition to Harman by arguing for the contingent, rather than absolute untouchability of things.This way of slicing the ontological opinion pie means that I remain most sympathetic to Shaviro’s way of thinking things.

I reject absolute materialism for the same reason I reject absolute idealism: these -isms only function semantically as productive concepts when they remain in dialectical tension with one another. Ultimately, they represent a coincidentia oppositorum, which is to say that, if you carry materialism to its logical conclusions, you only end up arriving at the premises of the idealist, and vice versa. As abstractions, these -isms seem mutually exclusive; but in practice, you can’t have one without the other, at least not if the philosophical sensibility in question is to avoid tilting at windmills as if they were the fiercest of giants. The physical sciences, for example, continue to assume a materialist ontology even while the majority of the mathematicians responsible for its theoretical structure remain committed Platonists. Similarly, the deep structure of Hegel’s supposedly absolute idealism provides the conceptual engine that still powers much contemporary Marxist materialism. Not to mention the profound influence on Hegel of Jakob Boehme’s incarnationalist doctrine of Geistleiblichkeit (that cosmogenesis is the ever-more adequate corporeal expression of divinity).

Adam is careful to avoid playing into any simplistic bifurcation of materialism from realism by suggesting that both -isms have shown themselves to be capable of successful deployment in the proper circumstances. At times, he seems to lean towards the realism of strange materialism. This leaning would seem to put Adam shoulder to shoulder with Bryant, who deploys a rather paradoxical materialism. The concept of matter succeeds, Bryant argues, precisely because neither philosophy or science have any idea what matter really is. I am not sure whether Bryant means to suggest that philosophy/science will never have insight into the nature of matter, or whether these simply do not have such insight as of yet. If he doesn’t mean the latter, then I fail to see how his position ultimately differs from Harman’s concerning the absolute withdrawal of things. If the “matter” of Bryant’s materialism withdraws from all attempts to think it, why call it materialism?

I affirm a relational ontology, but I do not do so in order to deny the reality of withdrawal. Following Whitehead, I am in pursuit of an ontology of autonomous organisms always already in relationships of mutual transformation. Organisms are radically open and promiscuous objects, always touching others as they are touched themselves; but even amidst this intersticial flesh of ecosystemic relations, individual organisms withdraw again and again in creative moments of subjective satisfaction. If this were not the case, the freedom and novelty of individual decision could not exist, since everything would be entirely conditioned, overwhelmed by its contact with everything else. A world where everything is fully deployed in its relations is a world where nothing happens to anybody because everything is happening everywhere, all the time. Instead of a naive holism, I seek to describe an ontology and enact a cosmos where hetero-erotic objects exist in transformative relation to one another’s auto-erotic subjectivity. Such dances between organisms (an organism, I’d suggest, could be thought of as both a subject and an object of experience) are perhaps best described ecologically (here I follow Adam). I may have more in common with the Whitehead of Science and the Modern World than that of Process and Reality, since rather than an ontology divided into actual occasions and eternal objects, I’d want to preserve a more concrete account of the real in terms of organism [on the other hand, we could just say that the division between actual occasions and eternal objects is metaphysically basic, while organism is cosmologically basic]. The life that emerges between organisms is where all the action is, whether that action is abstractly characterized as exclusively psychical or physical. Psyche and Physis ought to be complementary, rather than contradictory elements in any coherent cosmology. What Harman calls “endo-ontology,” I might characterize as the study of the way subjects transform one another into new objects. Such productive transformation is a result of the generativity of organisms, their tendency to reproduce with one another.

My organismic/ecological ontology has theological implications. I reject the notion that speculative philosophy should imagine itself to be made in the image of a spectator God (a “Kosmotheoros” to use Merleau-Ponty’s term) who stands above the world to observe it as if from outside. God is an organism like every other, suffering and celebrating the ongoing birth of the cosmos just as deeply as any other living being. The only difference between God and finite organisms is that God suffers the whole. It is not impossible, however, for a finite organism to experience its infinity in a gesture of cosmic compassion, since the panentheist God here depicted is all in all.

As Rumi put it,

Let the drop of water that is you
become a hundred mighty seas.

But do not think that the drop alone
becomes the Ocean—
the Ocean, too, becomes the drop!

I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a 20th century audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once bound the generations together. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be co-authors of themselves.

What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever […] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”

“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:

Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.


In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–“severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.

“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).

Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”

This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….

Continuing the discussion that begin on Knowledge-Ecology earlier today, here are some highly speculative reflections after reading the first few pages of Graham Harman‘s Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005) again:

I’m reminded that we must deal with more than the absolute difference between objects and relations, but that between an object and itself. Objects withdraw not just from other objects, but from themselves.

“Objects withdraw absolutely from all interaction with both humans and nonhumans, creating a split between the tool-being itself and the tool-being as manifested in any relation. And along with this rift between objects and relations, objects are also split in themselves between their sheer unity as one object and their multiplicity of traits” (p. 5).

He goes on in ch. 6 to talk of the “ether”/”solar wind”/”vicar” connecting objects with each other. Despite the withdrawal of their “inner life,” they continue to “nurture or damage one another in every instant” (p. 73).

What does it mean to say an object withdraws from all of its relations if that same object withdraws also from itself? What, in the end, withdraws?

“In the sensual sphere, there is a difference between the banana as a single intentional object and the banana as a set of sensuous qualities. But there is also a lower floor of being, where we find a difference between the real banana as a single private reality, and that same real banana considered as a multitude of real attributes, quite apart from any relation that other entities may have with it” (. p. 77).

So there is an apparent banana, the appearance of that banana, a real banana, and a bundle of real banana qualities. This is Haman’s quaternity, a structure he admits may at first seem “bizarre.” With the second duality between the real banana and its many real qualities, he aims to describe “vacuous actualities,” objects never fully deployed in the world. This is a metaphysical, and not a physical, description. Which is to say that he of course realizes that the physical banana would be destroyed by digestion, or at least its matter transformed into something else, but nonetheless argues that the metaphysical banana–the idea/form of the banana–withdraws from digestion. It withdraws because many of its real qualities are not at all touched by chemical processes in the stomach. What does the dark stomach care about the pale white color of banana flesh?

Harman’s difficult to understand “vicarious cause” needs to account for more than just relations between one object and other objects, but the relations between an object and itself. The inner life of an individual object is itself some kind of dynamic “ether” that is never quite completely what it is (more like a power, as Iain Hamilton Grant might say). Harman calls this ether the “glue of the universe,” that which “binds macrocosm and microcosm alike” (p. 93). The ether provides this glue despite the fact that nothing ever really touches anything else, since all anything else can really feel is the pain or pleasure of the bleeding wound of quaternal crucification.

Carl Jung, from the Red Book

Harman outs himself as an occasionalist metaphysician, though he claims his recapitulation of this traditionally theological position can succeed without theology. Whitehead’s God function is, ultimately, what allows everything in the universe to touch. Whitehead assumes the cosmic solidarity provided by God’s Love is just as powerful, and metaphysically relevant, as the creative differentiation achieved by finite occasions. Finite occasions do withdraw from each other in Whitehead’s system, making them distinct individuals; but this private subjectivity is only a single phase in concrescence, a partial description of the fully crucified occasion known as a banana. For Harman, it is never just a banana, but a complexio oppositorum between a real banana, a sensual banana, a real banana’s qualities, and a sensual banana’s qualities. For Whitehead, the concrescence of any given banana-occasion into ONE banana also includes God, whose Love transfigures the ongoing inner life of the occasion into something cosmic, lifting it from the deadly cross of private time and space into the etheric dimension of universal feeling. Harman leaves out God and so of course ends up seeing radiant vacuums everywhere instead of little Christs. But perhaps the difference is merely nominal.

Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology has been in discussion with Michael at Archive Fire regarding the varieties of withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. Below I’ve pasted my comment in response to Adam’s post:

I’ve just read Michael’s piece, and I agree with your assessment of the shortcomings of materialism. Materialism, as you’ve defined it (following Whitehead), only acknowledges the settled past of the universe, ignoring the ongoing process of evolution into the future. What is matter, anyways? Is it quarks? Is it atoms? Is it stars, cells, or animals? In one sense, it is all of these things, each of which has emerged at a certain point in a still ongoing irreversible evolutionary process. In another sense, it is none of these things, since materiality in general must be the creative process underlying the emergence of each of these specific forms. As such, we can never finally know what matter “is,” since it is impossible to predict what specific forms it will take in the future. Nonetheless, matter certainly is something. Perhaps it is this “something”–let’s call it the creativity of matter–that withdraws from every attempt to finally know it. Granted, this is a notion of withdrawal unlike Harman’s, since it points to something general underlying the appearance of any object, rather than something essential to an individual object.

I disagree with Michael’s account, specifically when he uses the example of digestion. When I eat an apple, the apple itself is not what interests my stomach. What interests my stomach are the nutrients necessary to maintain my body’s metabolism. Everything else that went into the apple is discarded as waste. And this is just the physical level; on the psychical level, the sweetness of the apple is only relevant to my tongue, the redness of it only relevant to my eyes, the smoothness to my skin, etc. These qualities are not “touched” by my stomach or the process of digestion. They are withdrawn from it. This is much like Harman’s favorite example of fire not burning cotton. It is a really compelling example of the meaning of withdrawal in the case of particular entities.

I remember when I first started reading Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics I was seeing Plato’s notion of forms everywhere. I’ll have to go back and do my homework to substantiate this, but it does seem to me that the eternal “form” of an apple is something like what Harman means by its withdrawn substance. Plato thought we had more than aesthesis when it comes to building up knowledge of a thing; which is to say that, though we cannot know the real apple using our senses, we can intuit its essence using the higher faculties of the soul. The soul, as Aristotle said, is potentially all things. So though the essence of the apple withdraws from our senses, we still know it intuitively by becoming it, by psychically participating in its form. This is how the pre-Kantian ancients would have thought of it, anyway.

Here is an intriguing article in Wired magazine by Jonah Lehrer. He reflects upon the implications of an experiment attempting to gauge the cognitive significance of nakedness. It looked at how our attribution of agency to others is effected by what they wear and how attractive they are. The results: Pictures of the faces of men were more likely than those of women to be thought of by others (male or female) as rational agents, while those pictures which included bodies of attractive men, and especially of attractive women, were usually judged less capable of agency, but more capable of feeling.

Lehrer introduces the concept of the “redistribution of mind,” the leakage of our theory of cognition out of the head and into the feelings of the whole body. This is especially interesting to me. It suggests that mind is not a disembodied rational agency located at some vanishing point behind or before the material world, or pulsing around in a bundle of very special neurons in the pre-frontal cortex somewhere, but rather it is that which emerges between erotically charged bodies in living/experiential spaces and times. Mind is erotic, a relationship, a process of co-determination and mutual transformation of one with another.

Such an embodiment account of mind still makes agency a bit of a mystery in a world of creatures otherwise swimming in and so conditioned by their experience of other creatures and the outside world. We have to reach into the realm of the spiritual if we hope to find a way out of the dilemma of agency.

Lehrer closes the article by referencing Plato:

“the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.”

In the Republic, Plato actually offers a trinitarian and not a dualistic anatomy of the soul. There were the rational and the erotic organs, and a spiritual organ to harmonize the two. In other words, there was a rational soul to tell our bodies “no,” making us skeptical of appearances we don’t trust; there was an erotic or appetitive soul to tell our bodies “yes!” to appearances (other sexy bodies); and there was a spiritual soul to judge between the two in any given case. The spiritual soul is the agent, the one who decides, if all goes according to plan, whether to step back and think (rational soul) or step forward and act (appetitive soul).

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of the relationship of thinking, feeling, and willing to the physiology of the body. It is helpful, I think, to read Steiner’s esoteric perspective right alongside the secular materialism of Wired magazine. It makes the shock of disbelief in the one over the other even more intense, though I can’t say for sure which approach makes more sense to you.

I’ve been asked to think about thinking, and to write about it. I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the middle of this kind of mess before, and so I’ll admit right off the bat that I cannot be sure which comes first, the thinking or the writing. Maybe my writing is just the trace of an ever-advancing spirit; or maybe my spirit–that in me which thinks–is just a character in a story, a name, given me by the people and the language into whose care I was thrown at birth. Heidegger spoke of being thrown, of waking up in the midst of the world in wonder of its historical depth, and of one’s own impending death. When and if my spirit advances, it does so thinking of such things.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, is learning to die. Not the loving metempsychosis of the Phaedrus, nor even the eros of the Symposium or the grand design of the Timaeus contains the secret of the Platonic teaching. The secret is in the Apology, where Socrates is sentenced to be executed and Plato first falls in love with Wisdom (and so begins to philosophize). The polis, it seems, will never understand the philosopher; to the extent that the people of the city do understand, they tend to take offense. Thinking is not taken kindly by ignorant people awash in gossip and stories. They cannot bear to look at what thinking reflects. It is a mirror too bright with the light of the Good. It blinds their sense-bound egos. They prefer the flat shadows of the cave wall to the eternal depths of the spirit. Socrates willingly accepted the verdict of the polis that he should die, and in so doing raised thinking forever above popular opinion regarding the meaning of ego death.

Death is always my own. I die alone, just as I think alone; though of course I leave loved ones behind after I die, and my thoughts, especially if spoken or written, become events in the world contributing to the new stories that spread in my wake. We can only tell stories, after all, even if we are thinkers, philosophers. Stories are the blood shared between souls, the sea that gives our spirit buoyancy during its passage through this life between birth and death. Though Socrates died to the stories of the city to be born a philosopher, he still believed Wisdom had a chance to enlighten the citizens of some future Athens. He did not give up on humankind. He became a teacher, a caretaker of souls awaiting the death of their bodies on earth and the birth of their spirits in heaven.

Socrates taught thinking, which is no easy task, since thinking is always one’s own. It cannot be taught like multiplication tables or proper spelling. To learn to think, I must remember how to do it for myself, to draw its power up out of my own soul-life. All that a teacher can offer are likely stories which might inspire a student to draw up wisdom from the as yet still waters at the bottom of their own soul. “Know thyself,” says Socrates. Look for the mirror within yourself, see the face beneath your persona reflected back at you: at first, it appears as the face of death, but in truth it is the Image of God.

There was another lover and teacher of Wisdom who walked the earth a few centuries after Socrates. His name was Jesus. He was born into the stories of Jerusalem instead of Athens, a Jew and not a Greek, but his teachings reach beyond any city. Jesus stood before a woman and asked for water out of the well (John 4):

Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” […] The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

Jesus the Christ offered the drink of eternal water, the truth of the spirit, a Wisdom not bound by the laws of any city on earth. He offered the woman the gift and grace of God’s Love. I cannot think how such a gift should be possible with the sense-bound intellect. The reality of the Christ Event (as Rudolf Steiner called it) remains indecipherable to the abstract reflection of my ego. It requires faith, some say. But perhaps there is yet a way to know?

Steiner’s Anthroposophy is an attempt to bring the spiritual in the human to meet the spiritual in the universe. It is Christian in religious orientation, but also teaches a science of the spirit. It is not a gnostic path, per say, but it nonetheless seeks to overcome the limits imposed upon human cognition by the philosophy of Kant. Anthroposophy seeks knowledge of the spiritual world through direct experience in that world. The philosopher-poet S. T. Coleridge made much of the difference between “the Understanding” and “the Reason,” a distinction he said he learned from Kant. Steiner expands upon this difference, noting that the Understanding, and the abstract concepts through which it relates to the world, is supported also by another relation, the Reason, that:

“…does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary consciousness. But [this relation to Reason] does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a ‘concept.’ An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense-perception, but which does not became a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.” (from p. 55 of The Case for Anthroposophy (2010), ed. and transl. by Owen Barfield)

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of Socrates’ or of Jesus’ teachings. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me (and out the other side). Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.

The stories of modern cities are materialistic. Stale and deadening. We are taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. He calls it the etheric, or body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a door to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become the Word.

For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.

A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:

“…they are physiological exercises. [1]They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ [2]they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”

Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause [1], only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next [2]!

Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.

This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.

One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:

Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;

—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”

for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”

More reflections on PZ Myers, science, and philosophy… 


Adam at Knowledge-Ecology has posted a reflection on the need for an object-oriented ecology (what’d I’d call an ecological ontology, or, following Whitehead, a philosophy of organism). Adam agrees with my comment about the moral significance of techno-capitalism’s assault on Gaia, writing that “this moment is, ecologically, what slavery was, sociologically.”


What the world needs now is something like what Isabelle Stenger’s called etho-ecology. The corporate governance of earth is destroying the place faster than human persons can even comprehend. Our imaginations are simply not big enough to grapple with the consequences of the long-term havoc we are reaping.

The question of the coming century is not whether corporations should be people, but whether the earth and all her creatures are people, too.

In a recently posted essay on Christian Ecosophy, I referred repeatedly to angels. Though they are as prevalent in today’s popular imagination as they ever were in the past, the secular intelligentsia tend to dismiss them as relics of our pre-scientific childhood. I think it is important that lines of communication be opened between secular materialists and esoteric spiritualists (for lack of a better term), and by mentioning angels I don’t mean to alienate those with an otherly enchanted worldview. However, the outright dismissal of the intelligence behind the powers that assist in the creation, maintenance, and renewal of our universe is an unjustified form of chronological snobbery. Modern cosmology prefers to speak the precise language of mathematics, but what is to prevent us from understanding the equations of physics as abstract representations of the otherwise supersensible activity of spiritual beings? What, in other words, is to prevent us from linking that which is intelligible in the universe to that which is itself intelligent?

Modern science, influenced by Cartesian dualism, tends to restrict intelligence to the human soul alone, denying its operation in the surrounding cosmos, which is thought of as merely intelligible (because designed by a transcendent God; or, in secularized form of Cartesianism, because constructed according to transcendent Laws) and not itself intelligent.

Angels are divine instruments of creation, the supersensible organs of God at play in and as the manifest world. Jewish traditions dating back to Philo and later elaborated in Kabbalah, and Neo-Platonic traditions dating back to Pseudo-Dionysius, suggest that angels are organized hierarchically according to a series of emanations. Building on this tradition, the 20th century philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner suggested that the angelic hierarchies consist of 3 levels with 3 beings each, and a final, incomplete level consisting of two beings. All of the levels ultimately come forth out of the unifying Trinity. Steiner says that one can begin to understand these beings by analogy to the human I’s relationship to the limbs of the body. When all goes well, the I is able to direct the body to carry out its will by accomplishing activity in the world. The I cannot work without the body, just as God cannot work without the hierarchies.

The first hierarchy consists of the Seraphim/Spirits of Love, the Cherubim/Spirits of Harmony, and the Thrones/Spirits of Will. Steiner describes how space, time, and matter (originally a subtler form of light) are brought forth by these especially powerful beings (see Occult Science). The second hierarchy consists of the Dominions/Spirits of Wisdom, the Mights/Spirits of Movement, and the Powers/Spirits of Form. These beings awaken the material substance generated by the first hierarchy, allowing it to take on living form and organization. Yahweh and the Elohim, the central gods of the Old Testament, are said by Steiner to be Powers. Yahweh’s placement in the second hierarchy reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s remark that “the only thing wrong with Yahweh is that he thinks he’s God.” The third hierarchy consists of Archai/Spirits of Time, Archangels/Spirits of Fire, and Angels/Sons of Life. These are the celestial beings closest to the souls of earthly humanity. The Archai influence the character of whole historical ages (i.e., the Zeitgeist). The Archangels form the various folk-souls/nations that comprise the diverse human species (not the same as race, since people of different races can belong to the same folk-soul). Angels shepherd individual human lives, aiding our conscience in its quest toward things divine. The fourth and final level of the hierarchies is composed of the Spirit of Freedom and the Spirit of Love, both of which await their full realization by human beings on earth.

This way of thinking about the universe and humanity requires stretching the imagination beyond its predominantly materialistic habits of thought. It would be inappropriate to simply take Steiner’s (and others’) declarations as true without having perceived their meaning for oneself. Christianity, for Steiner, is not a path rooted in belief, but in knowledge. His epistemology (see Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path) emerged after a careful study of Goethe’s method of natural science and rests upon the cultivation of normally dormant organs of perception. These higher organs of perception, namely Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, allow the knower to participate in realities deeper than ordinary sensory perception of the surfaces of physical objects. No groundbreaking scientific discovery has been made without the assistance of such supersensible faculties. When we engage the world according to Steiner’s spiritual scientific method, we do so in search of divine messengers.