Schelling’s and Shankara’s Nondual Visions [audio and video]

I was recently in dialogue with a friend and colleague at CIIS, James Barnes. We discussed the convergences and divergences in the thoughts of Schelling and Shankara. To what extent were both after a nondual philosophy? I suggested that Schelling ends up affirming a trinitarian view of Godhead that preserves differentiation (though still a differentiation-in-unity) for the sake of freedom and love, whereas more strictly nondual systems like Advaita Vedanta leave us having to deny these as, at best, relative possibilities, and at worst, falsehoods.

*Turns out I wrote “centripetal” and “centrifugal” in reverse in the chart in the video. The bottom black circle has a centrifugal movement, while the top white circle has a centripetal.



The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”

Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.

To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.

Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.

To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:

Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…

The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.

The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.

Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.

Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.

“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling [2007]).

Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.

“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).

Cosmopolitical Reflections on Economy, Society, and Religion


When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when to pay for the Vietnam War Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the reserve currency of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased around $3 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector?1 When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth’s ecology. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, in order to sustain its constant growth, the techno-industrial machine within which our daily lives take place must extract ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.). The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth’s ecology.

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant claim in 1992 that neoliberal capitalism had brought the “end of history,” our increasingly dire ecological situation, as well as the recent financial crisis, are forcing human civilization to entirely re-imagine its future from the ground up. Congress’ response to the financial crisis made it clear that government as we know it is no longer capable of serving the people. Politicians, it seems, are bought and sold like any other commodity in the market. By using tax dollars to bail out the banks, the US government in effect admitted that, while the 99% have to suffer the consequences of their risks and pay their debts, the super rich do not. The values of “democracy” and “capitalism” appear increasingly antagonistic, since the market has now completely swallowed the political sphere both in America and abroad: a consortium of transnational corporations, rather than the nation-state, now governs world affairs.

As the Occupy movement of late 2011 exemplifies, the result of Congress’ response has been to make revolutionaries out of average citizens, as more and more people are now beginning to reject the status quo to imagine radically new possibilities for human life on planet earth. In this essay, rather than attempting to wield the jargon of econobabble against global capitalism, as many ecological economists have tried,2 I will turn to emerging discourses within anthropology and cosmology in an attempt to put the current crisis in a larger historical context.3 Truly imagining a world after capitalism–a system which was created and is maintained largely by violence and the threat of violence4–will require thinking with entirely new categories. Without seeking out our roots in human and cosmic history through acts of counter-memory, we remain at risk of continuing to define ourselves according to the colonial logic of master and slave (as “owners of ourselves” and “masters of nature,” etc.) and to the capitalist logic of worker and consumer. To imagine the future, we must first remember the past.

It was with the publication of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 that Adam Smith effectively brought the modern discipline of economic science into existence.5 In order to distinguish economics from politics and ethics, he had to argue that property, money, and markets existed before governments and provided the very foundation of human society. In other words, in order to establish the autonomy, and indeed the priority of the economic sphere over all others (cultural, spiritual, political, etc.), Smith first had to argue for a peculiar theory of human nature based on

“the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes [and] Locke about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forth-year-old males who seemed to have sprung from the earth fully formed, [having then] to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”6

This is the infamous “social contract” theory, which supposes that human beings are essentially isolated, self-interested profit calculators who relate to one another primarily via the logic of exchange. The role of mothers in raising children is entirely ignored, as are familial and communal relations, since they do not operate according to the law of exchange. Society is said to have arisen only because of some primordial contract between otherwise atomized individuals, and government only to protect the soundness of money and contracts. Smith even went so far as to reduce conversation and language to a logic of exchange, a reduction later parodied by Nietzsche, who suggested that, if modern bourgeois values were made fully explicit, human thought itself must be understood to have emerged from our desire “to set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalences, to exchange things.”7

According to David Graeber, anthropologists have been trying to point out the utter falsity of this account of the origins of society for more than a century.8 In point of fact, contrary to the “just so” stories told by Smith and all economists since, we have not always been capitalists.

Smith argued that the market began with individuals bartering with one another, each hoping to get the better end of the deal: “I’ll give you three beaver pelts for 6 of your chickens.” Due to the problem of the “double coincidence of wants,”9 so the story goes, money was soon invented to make such exchanges easier. One would expect, based on Smith’s account of primitive barter societies, to find indigenous peoples across the world engaging in such exchange. But as early as the 1850s, anthropologists had already dispelled Smith’s make-believe portrayals of indigenous societies (he made up several erroneous stories about Native American bartering). Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, published descriptions of the economic practices of Iroquois Six Nations peoples: tribes stockpiled most goods in longhouses to be distributed according to need by councils of women.10 A stronger contrast with what was going on back in Glasgow would be difficult to imagine. Economists (aside from Marx and Engels) to this day continue to pay no attention to libraries full of such anthropological data.11 “Why?” asks Graeber:

“The simplest answer would be: for there even to be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes…it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that…simply does not exist.”12

Before he could claim to say something scientific about the objective nature of markets, Smith had to invent the subjectivity of the human beings who participated in them (much of this work had already been done for him by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke). He imagined human beings in the most abstract way possible, as disembedded individuals with no ties to culture, community, or land (other than that which they owned) and barely a trace of even having been born through a mother or into a family. This picture has little to do with how humans have lived for the majority of our species’ history.

Despite the more recent individualizing effects of money on human consciousness, we remain fundamentally social creatures who make decisions based upon a complex tapestry of interwoven value spheres, the economic/material only one among them. These individualizing effects began as early as 600BCE when coinage was invented simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, and they increased severalfold since the colonial era began around 1500CE. In our own era of globalized consumer capitalism, where money now mediates almost every one of our interactions with other people and the world, individuals are more likely than ever to buy into capitalism’s master narrative of exchange. But a closer look at history reveals that a counteracting tendency has always been in place.

In each region where money and markets first began to enter everyday life around 600BCE, one of the world’s great enduring wisdom traditions arose to challenge it: in India, Buddhism; in China, Confucianism; in Greece, Philosophy. Again, around 1500CE, as Europe left the Middle Ages to begin the planetary era of the capitalist empires, the Reformation emerged, at least initially, in opposition.13 It seems that religion and philosophy, as we know them, emerged as spiritual counter values in response to the increasing influence of the more materialistic economic sphere.

For the first time in history, popular uprisings during the Axial age were intellectually and/or spiritually motivated: “those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.”14 The poor weren’t simply angry about being put in debt, they felt they had moral knowledge of the injustices and therefore the ignorance of their oppressors, and were prepared to argue as much on rational and/or theological grounds.

On the other hand, religion and philosophy have also played into the hands of the logic of exchange by adopting its categories of thought. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as “[comparable] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”15 Primordial debt theorists like Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans go so far as to argue that debt itself began as a religious concept.16 They point to the Vedas as some of the earliest recorded reflections on the nature of debt. In the Satapatha Brahmana (composed around 700BCE), it is written:

“A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.”

Ancient Indian brahmins were already conceiving of human existence in terms of a business deal. The gods created us, and so we owe them a debt which can only be repaid with our lives (which is to say, it cannot possibly be repaid). We are in a similar situation with regard to our parents, according to the Vedas, and so must have our own children and be kind to strangers in order to have any hope of paying off our debt to them. The Brahmins, of course, were kind enough to accept taxes from the people on behalf of the gods.

The complicity of religion in tightening the stranglehold of the logic of exchange, despite its spiritual ideals, seems to present a problem. The transformative power of spiritual values like love, generosity, and reverence (etc.) seem to be among the few remaining counter values to the greed encouraged by the market, but how can the religious worldview be enacted outside the logic of exchange? In our postmodern context, spirituality has been even further co-opted by the market, as religion is increasingly treated as just another brand-name consumable meant to express our unique individuality. Not only has money corrupted politics, it has infested religion and spirituality, as well.

Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society through the mediation of monetary instruments. This mediation begins primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Max Weber’s analysis of the link between Protestantism and the capitalist work ethic are well-known, further problematizing the role of religion in countering the market.

While the traditional religious response to the market can still be edifying, it seems our current situation calls for a radical re-visioning of religion’s cosmological basis. We must re-imagine the human being’s relationship to the cosmos as it has been conceived in the modern age. During the 19th century, mechanistic science analogized physical energy to the activity of the proletariat, defining it as the ability to do work. Carrying the analogy even further, it was supposed that energy must always pay a debt, due to heat loss, back to the cosmos. The thermodynamic concept of entropy is no doubt a crucial component of any critique of techno-industrial capitalism’s fantasy of unlimited growth on a planet of limited means, but the utilization of such socioeconomic metaphors by physicists betray the far reaching influence of the market even on science. In a society whose highest aspiration was not work, but play, one would expect to find descriptions of the activity of energy not only in terms of entropy, but also in terms of centropy. Energy would be, not blind toiling, but, as Blake suggested, “eternal delight.”

Religion and society themselves can be understood as having emerged from the human being’s innate proclivity to play. This is precisely the perspective offered by sociologist Robert Bellah in his recently published 700-page account of the Axial turn in the evolution of religion.17 The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival and economic exchange. In the course of daily life–the so-called serious world–we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements.”18 In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment.

One way to apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it suggests about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socioeconomic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. Gobekli Tepe, a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs by domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.”19 The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure that provided the people who constructed it with a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day. Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the Axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects upon its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was understood to be related to primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests had the free time for ritualized play. As we’ve seen, it was amidst such injustice that the religious instincts of humanity erupted in the form of the great Axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha).

Play is symbolic because, as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working.”20 The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life–of working–by pointing to an immortal realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently spoke to conservatives at a meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement: “How about you occupy a job?,” he said. “How about working?”21 Giuliani went on to compare the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity (i.e., industrial clock-time) before it can be monetized.22 The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues behind the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time…the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity…It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”23

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything is symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, as Weber suggested, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. Until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various Occupy encampments represents a non-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working with its logic of exchange and monetary idolatry.


1 This was the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world.

2 i.e., by commodifying the community of life on earth in terms of “ecosystem services,” etc.

3 “History” should here be read in both its sociocultural and evolutionary senses. See Big History (2008) by Cynthia Stokes Brown or The Universe Story (1992) by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme for examples.

4 David Graeber (366, Debt: The First 5,000 Years) suggests that the only thing holding the current global economic structure together is the threat of U.S. military power.

5 25, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

6 210, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

7 2.8, Genealogy of Morals

8 21, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

9 The person whose chickens I want may not want the beaver pelts I have to trade him.

10 29, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

11 395, n. 15, Debt The First 5,000 Years (2011). Most economics textbooks still account for the emergence of money according to some variation of Smith’s “myth of barter.”

12 33, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

13 The Catholic Church’s writs of indulgence were arguably the central grievance listed by Martin Luther in his 95 theses, written and posted in 1517. These writs were sold by papal representatives to those who wished to reduce their stay in purgatory by paying down their debts to God. In other words, the logic of exchange was so pervasive it even crept into our conception of the heavenly economy.

14 248, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

15 18:23

16 56, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

17 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

18 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011). (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz)

19 See the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins

20 8, Religion in Human Evolution (2011).


22 See the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 3,9, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

C. S. Peirce on Chaos and Law–On the Mystery of Naming the Real

After Nature/Leon has brought my attention to a review of a new book, Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism by Paul Forster. 

“[Peirce’s] opposition to nominalism motivated him as nothing else did and, as Forster shows, is central to his philosophical program. While Peirce’s argument against nominalism was strictly philosophical, his objection to it extended beyond logic to what he regarded as the undesirable consequences of nominalism for civilization. This gave Peirce a sense of urgency in his effort to provide a realist alternative for philosophy and science.”

To defend realism from nominalism and her four daughters (sensationalism, phenomenalism, individualism, and materialism), Peirce had to argue for the existence of true symbols conveying real things to actual minds. In order to prove that laws are real (which is also to prove that ideas are real), he had to account for the emergence of lawfulness out of chaos. Chaos had to be granted memory to account for its accidental acquisition of increasingly organized habits.

There are striking conceptual parallels here with James, Bergson, and Whitehead, not to mention Coleridge (who I’ve been studying of late).

Speaking of realism… What in scientific cosmology is real, and what is theoretical? What is the relation between naming and knowing? There seem to be real things in the universe that we have names for and yet do not understand (see video below). Some of cosmology is systematic, but much of it is still classificatory. Astronomers and physicists are often forced to give names to objects they haven’t yet grasped conceptually (that is, understood in a coherent way in connection with all other known laws and theories).

It seems the electromagnetic age needs a Goethe who can rewind what has today become a much extended spectrum of “colors.” What is the electromagnetic spectrum? What does it mean that we are using technological sensory extensions to detect a whole spectrum of things beyond the phenomenal reach of our biological senses? If the stars are not only material, but semiotic, then what hieroglyph might they be painting for our eye? Of course, the eye, too, must be seen as part of the symbol. “There is nothing in external nature but is an emblem, a hieroglyphic, of some thing in us,” says Emerson.


Thinking with Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on My Bildung and the Philosophy of Freedom

Part 1: Remembering Childhood

Until about age seven, children seem to be naturally aware of the reality of a world beyond their physical senses. As they age, most of them seem to lose touch with this deeper dimension of the world. According to the common sense of our materialistic age, this is because their once overactive imaginations eventually come to be properly educated so as to distinguish objective fact from subjective fantasy.

If I think back to my own childhood, it was around seven years old that I first understood that my mother would die. This made me so sad that I cried on and off for three days. On one of these days, I was so choked up and distraught that she had to leave work early to pick me up from my second grade class just a few minutes after the school bus had dropped me off in the morning. I told the teacher my tears were the result of a stomach ache, but really I just couldn’t bear but to spend every remaining hour by my mother’s side.

Given the new knowledge I had acquired, all of the sudden life had weight and became quite serious. The games I played in what now seemed to be the “inner” world of my imagination could no longer be taken seriously in the “outside” world of toil, tax, and tomb. It wasn’t long after awakening to the devastating fact that my mother would die that I began to pay attention, instead, to the fact that this meant I would eventually die, as well. This wasn’t exactly a sad thought. On the contrary, at first being confronted by my own death was a relief: if my mother died before me, at least my own death would eventually bring a stop to my grief. But my initially nihilistic response to the fact of my own death never fully satisfied me. The question was never closed in the same way that my mother’s death had come to seem. To the extent that I kept the question open and continued to contemplate the meaning of my own death, the grief I had needed to escape from resulting from my mother’s death was increasingly transformed into awe and wonder in the face of the wide world she had bore me into. Sadness became curiosity. Wonder carried me through grade school: I drank up as much natural science as I could, especially the cosmology of Hawking and the biology of Dawkins. By 15, I was beginning to speak up about what I perceived to be the blindnesses of “religion,” even calling myself an atheist. I began to forget about the mystery of death, though it was still hovering just behind and to the side of all the new knowledge I was acquiring. At 17, I was exposed to the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts. Prior to that point, I’d never explicitly studied “thoughts.” I’d only studied the pictures provided to me by popular science books about the way the outside world really is, despite whatever I may “think” about it. Quarks, quasars, genes, neurons… I believed these had to be the final real things of which the world was made. It could not be made of mere ideas, mere words! These, I thought, were prone to fantasy and illusion, while only physical things could be real.

It was these three thinkers who first made me aware of the power of the word to transform our consciousness of reality. Their inquiries into the freedom, the depth, the spontaneity, and the cosmic dimensions of the psyche drew my attention back again to the abiding mystery of death. Taking another look at death, this time as a portal rather than a pit or an abyss, all my scientific picture-knowledge of a machine-like world came to seem petty and stupid. None of it mattered, since the ego pretending to master it all was subject to death, and to the deeper, more creative and intelligent spiritual power that preceded my birth and will survive my death. As a result of passionately pursuing the threads of these men’s thoughts–and of philosophizing in my own right–death’s mystery opened out into my first glimpses of immortality. By 21, my idle curiosity about the world had been transfigured into a love, not only for my mother’s, but for the whole of the world-soul’s sacrifice for me. This I consider my opening to the “other side,” and it remains to this day, at least so long as I keep both love and death in mind while thinking into reality.

But it wasn’t until Rudolf Steiner, at age 23, that I found a truly coherent and practical way of thinking the relationship between life, death, and love. Nietzsche was too individualistic and iconoclast, Jung too metaphysically coy, and Watts a rascal-trickster whose only stated aim was to “entertain.” Steiner, on the other hand, provided a way of consciously seeing beyond the sense-bound limits of my materialistically educated soul and its fancied clock-work world. Nietzsche, Jung, Watts, and by this time many others, too, had succeeded in convincing me of the falseness of the film of mundane familiarity I had been raised to take for granted as real. But only with Steiner did I begin to realize that scientific knowledge of a reality beyond the sensible–on the other side of the threshold of death–is possible.

Part 2: Thinking with Steiner

Rudolf Steiner was a child with an extra-ordinary awareness of the spiritual world. Not only was he probably aware of the reality of his mother’s and his own death at seven, he was in touch with the ghost of a dead relative.1 This awareness did not subside as he became an adult, even after a comprehensive education in natural science and philosophy. His commitment to scientific thinking did not dispel as illusory the supersensory perceptions he had been experiencing since childhood, but on the contrary deepened and developed them. At 27, in 1888, he met the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence.

Steiner, according to his translator Michael Wilson,

“describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions.”2

Six years later, after the completion of his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom (1894) in an attempt to prove, using spiritual scientific methods (i.e., something like a phenomenology of thinking in every day life3), that the human being is a free spirit capable of true knowledge of the world and real love of others. Hartmann seems to have provided Steiner with precisely the adversarial resistance he needed in order to strengthen his own grasp of the issues at stake. He came to feel the desperate need for human beings to understand their own consciousness in a scientific way, for otherwise, science lacks a solid epistemological and ontological foundation. Science without such a foundation in genuine philosophy (i.e., the love of wisdom and the search for self-knowledge) is reduced to what Owen Barfield later called “dashboard knowledge,”4 a sort of technological means of manipulating physical phenomena without understanding their underlying spiritual causes. Ignorance of the work of spirit in ourselves and in nature has ethical implications, as well: global consumer capitalism and ecosystem collapse are the chief results of several centuries of ever advancing socio-techno-scientific5 power in the absence of spiritual wisdom.

Steiner wanted to show others not blessed with his innate clairvoyance how it is possible to achieve conscious knowledge of oneself as a spirit so as to act freely out of no other desire than that of love for the deed itself. In short, his aim in The Philosophy of Freedom is to teach us how to think beyond the limits of the brain by leading us to an immediate awareness of our own thinking.

“While observation of objects and processes, and thinking about them, are both everyday situations that fill my ongoing life, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state.”6

Without an intuition of the freedom of their own self-consciousness, the thinking of the average person reverts to mere “dashboard knowledge.” From the dashboard perspective of the sense-bound ego, the body becomes an automobile and the world a paved highway or parking lot to be driven over. Even consciousness itself becomes objectified into an electro-chemical neural correlate, something we can now medically modulate with pharmaceuticals and observe on computer screens using fMRIs. The philosophically naïve neuroscientist will argue that neurons are stimulus-response machines, and that the only reason we think a salmon, a pig, or a human being is any less determined than a rock is that we see the cause of the rock’s motion (being kicked) but not the cause of the thinking of these beings (neural activity), since their thinking takes place out of sight hidden within their skulls.7 Such a scientist forgets that it is only their own thinking that initially supplies them with this explanation. They thereby ignore the self-evidently spiritual nature of their own thinking activity by falsely explaining an inner noetic reality in terms of an outer appearance.

When the human scientist is not aware of their own thinking in a living way (i.e., as free), they have no other option but to conceive of the physical world as dead and deterministic.

“We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”8

The self-conscious, and so living thinking capable of finding nature Steiner would later come to call etheric. Etheric thinking intuits the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory appearances. Such thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the same living spiritual power underlying nature (natura naturans), that which is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off “external” nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive” as Whitehead called it,9 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of the sense-bound understanding. To think nature alive, our own thinking must come to life. Etheric thinking is not generated by the brain, and so is not limited to what the physical senses reveal about the external world. Etheric thinking is the expression of a higher dimensional process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain. Steiner calls this the etheric body, but the term “body” can be misleading to the extent that we are tempted to imagine something that exists in extended, three dimensional space.

The etheric “body” is a four dimensional entity, more aptly conceived of as an ongoing process than as a finished thing. It is best pictured, if we insist on picturing it at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside out to leave the living, breathing organism in its wake. Picturing it is impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal images seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

The mental pictures we form through brain-bound thinking are subjective, relative to our own perspective as distinct organisms separated from others and the world. My mother literally “bore” my organism into the world: I awaken initially as a hole in the world, a sort of split off part seeking reconnection with the whole. I find temporary reconnection through concepts, which struggle to complete the perceptual world by teaching me about the causes underlying its behavior. Eventually, if I am at all interested in thinking about my experience of the world, I end up tracing the causes of that experience back to my sensory organs and neural tissue, as though thinking we “in” the skull looking “out” through the senses at the world. Brain-bound thoughts stop at this picture, pretending to be satisfied with an explanation of thinking, a noumenal activity, in terms of something phenomenal. Such thinking falsely assumes one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon (i.e., that neural activity could explain “redness”), when what was sought were the causes of phenomenality itself.

“Only if I could perceive how the percept of an object affects the percept of the subject, or–conversely–only if I could observe the construction of a perceptual form by the subject, would it be possible to speak like modern physiology and the critical idealism built upon it…The link between the subjective and the objective is not built…by any perceptible event. It is built by thinking alone.”10

When our thinking is permeated with spiritual life, we recognize the universality of the ideas underlying our individual mental pictures. I know longer stand apart from the world struggling to subjectively represent it. I do not think about ideas; rather, cosmic ideas think in me.11 An idea cannot be “mine”: ideas are universal and so belong to everyone or no one. Etheric thinking cannot be grasped with subjective percepts or objective concepts, since it is the source of both. From the Ether comes all conceptual intelligence in the mind and all conceptual intelligibility in nature. Either the mind and nature share in its One Life, or mind is imprisoned in the skull and nature ruled by death.

It is important here to mark the difference between ideas, concepts, and mental pictures. A mental picture is an inner representation of a percept. Mental pictures are already mixed with concepts, of course, but it takes free self-consciousness of supersensory ideas to realize this. Without etheric thinking, that is, consciousness remains unaware of its participation in the realm of ideas, becoming limited instead to sensory perceptions of the outer world and habitual responses regarding them. Many people speak of concepts and ideas as if they were mere words, scribbles on paper or sounds in the air. This is the mistake of nominalism. The nominalist forgets that logic, the universal laws of thinking, can never be reduced to the rules of some particular language. If logic were reducible to language, no free thoughts would ever be possible, since I’d only be able to parrot what I’d heard from others. Language is the husk of logic, the skin it is always outgrowing and transforming in its creative pursuit of the truth. similarly, mental pictures are not the limit of thinking’s knowledge of reality.

Thinking can reach deeper, since the same logos that thinks in me, grows and evolves in the cosmos. The Ding an Sich that remains always beyond the grasp of naive ego-consciousness becomes, with the cultivation of an imaginal organ of etheric thinking, identified with my own inner most nature (and thereby, with the true nature of all things).

Part 3: The School of Spirit

The dawning of my own self-consciousness occurred only once I had separated from my mother. Becoming aware of her mortality forever altered the sense of identity I had up to that point assumed. My feelings of immense sadness made life seem like a trap, a cruel joke with no escape. But as my awareness of my mother’s death shifted to an awareness of my own death, feelings of sadness became thoughts of wonder. The prospect of my own death raised all sorts of questions, questions that brought me beyond the subjectivity of my own feelings and into the objectivity of thinking. I realized that life was a deep mystery, and not a tragedy. As Socrates suggests in the Apology, wisdom begins in the knowledge of one’s own ignorance. When it comes to the matter of death, only the ignorant are fearful. For those properly prepared, death may turn out to be a blessing.

Wonder, and the learned ignorance it engenders, can be further cultivated in order to produce what Steiner called “spiritual science.” Spiritual science, unlike natural science, is not undertaken in abstraction from ethical concerns, since, as a way of knowing, it is “the power of love in spiritual form.”12 Spiritual science is a kind of active thinking that is also a loving.

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of the teachings of a Socrates or a Jesus. 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 by confronting death, 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.

As a child, I was 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. As we have seen, this is the etheric 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 passageway 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 one with the Word.


1 5, The New Essential Steiner, ed. by Robert McDermott

2 viii, The Philosophy of Freedom transl. by Michael Wilson, 1970

3 Though also more than a phenomenology of the life-world, since Steiner sought to catch thinking in the act, as nous, rather than to simply track the phenomenal products of thinking (i.e., thoughts, images, etc.).

4 See Saving the Appearances, 1988

5 See The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001) by Alf Hornborg to learn about the links between bourgeois social relations, industrial machines, mechanistic science, and the ecological crisis.

6 31, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

7 15, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

8 25, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

9 See Modes of Thought (1938)

10 91-92, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

11 As Paul put it, “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).

12 133, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995

Coleridge and Scientific Realism

I’m continuing to read Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought (1971) with great excitement. Barfield includes two short chapters entitled “Ideas, Methods, Laws” and “Coleridge and the Cosmology of Science” wherein he attempts to say a bit about how Coleridge’s dynamic philosophy might be brought into conversation with contemporary natural science.

It would be helpful, before getting into Coleridge’s scientific method, to look at perhaps the two most influential philosophers of science in the last century. In their own ways, both Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper articulated anti-realist accounts of scientific knowledge. For Kuhn, what we know about the universe always depends upon the paradigm from within which experiments are designed and their data interpreted. There may appear to be something like progress within a given paradigm during periods of normal science. But once revolutionary science is taken into consideration, it becomes clear that there can be no epistemological basis for the assumption that “changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth” (p. 170, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1996). Science is not about approaching some fancied total representation of nature, but about intersubjective coordination.*

For Popper, a scientific theory can never be proven true, but only falsified through experiment. In the end, all scientific knowledge remains hypothetical, a fancied construction of the world by a human mind in such a way that action in the world based upon it proves advantageous or at least more interesting. In this way, science “progresses” through something like Darwinian natural selection by finding some way to “fit” with the experimental reality of one’s socio-historical moment. He affirms a sort of creativity in the world and in human thought, but in the end finds no place where the two–cosmos and psyche, nature and history–ever fully meet up and connect.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), Popper writes:

“Science does not rest upon rock-bottom. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were, above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down into any natural or ‘given’ base; and when we cease our attempts to drive our piles into a deeper layer, it is not because we have reached firm ground. We simply stop when we are satisfied that they are firm enough to carry the structure, at least for the time being” (quoted by Barfield on p. 247, n. 29.).

Popper argues that there can be no logic to the origination of new theories or paradigms in science; rather, some “irrational element” or “creative intuition” must come into play. It is here that he comes closest to Coleridge’s alchemical method by recognizing the coincidence of science, art, and nature in the creative discovery of truth:

“Science must begin with myths, and with the criticism of myths; neither with the collection of observations, nor with the invention of experiments, but with the critical discussion of myths, and of magical techniques and practices. The scientific tradition is distinguished from the pre-scientific tradition in having two layers. Like the latter, it passes on its theories; but it also passes on a critical attitude towards them. The theories are passed on, not as dogmas, but rather with the challenge to discuss them and improve upon them” (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, 1963).

Coleridge would agree with Popper on this point, that theories are like myths when they are first taken up by a thinker. They are stories whose tale the scientist cannot take for granted have already reached their end; they must continue to tell the story, and to tell it in an experientially verifiable way, for the theory to remain a live option. The student of science must learn the secrets of the scientific initiates by practicing their experimental arts for himself, testing them, improving them. Coleridge writes:

“Every physical theory is in some measure imperfect, because it is of necessity progressive; and because we can never be sure that we have exhausted the terms or that some new discovery may not effect the whole scheme of its relations…” (Treatise on Method).

But there the similarities end, since Coleridge defended a realist account of scientific knowledge by grounding it in an intuition of the real, while Popper limited knowledge to abstract hypothesis and model building. The difference between them, you could say, is that Popper never took the Shellingian leap across the Kantian regulative/constitutive divide announced in the Critique of Judgment. What Popper means by “rationality,” Coleridge identifies as “fancy” or “understanding.” These latter two modes of knowing are contrasted with “Reason” or “Imagination,” in that the former only passively rearranges the given facts of sense perception (à la Locke or Hume), while the latter actively reach into phenomena to poetically intuit their supersensory causes. Kant’s transcendentalism goes beyond the empiricists in that he recognizes the active role of the understanding in shaping sensory perception. He intuited Reason within himself, ordering and systematizing his and humanity’s ideas about reality into a regulative system, but he still could not finally bridge the gap between aesthesis and ontos, between logos and pathos, between what shows itself and what, hidden, shines. Kant, and after him Popper and Kuhn, could not find the place where conscious light and cosmic darkness meet up and coincide. The light shines in the darkness, but the dark does not see the source of the light. Light originates, if light it be (the Kantian can’t be sure theoretically that they are free, even if practically they are forced to affirm it), always from beyond the finite immanence enacted by a Kantian poetics, whereas for a Coleridgian poetics, light originates always from within and is pregnant in everything. Science is the conscious spirit in humanity knowing the secret spirit in the cosmos. As Coleridge says in chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, paraphrasing Schelling:

“…grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelllgences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you.”

As a result of Kant’s influence, known or unknown, most contemporary philosophers of science believe human thought has access only to concepts derived from generalizations of sensory experience. Theories and laws are therefore considered to be abstract models of reality in the mind, rather than the mind’s participation in the ideal structure and formal power of reality itself. Some philosophically unsophisticated materialistic scientists have not even understood Kant’s injunction; they still do not know how to see through the transcendental telescope he invented, and so they cannot see their own influence on their observations of the world. They assert that their fancied model is in fact the reality, that the sun clearly rises and sets while the earth remains centered and still. In this way, they conceive of the unperceivable in terms of something perceivable; that is, they fancy that they can explain one phenomenon in terms of some other, unseen phenomenon. An “unseen phenomenon” is, of course, a contradiction in terms. As Barfield puts it, such scientists ignore the implications of post-Kantian epistemology, that “the ultimate explanation of phenomena cannot itself be phenomenal” (126). Such an explanation must be formal, or noumenal, which is not a contradiction for a philosophy of science aspiring to realism if the “real is the rational, and the rational the real,” as Hegel put it (whom Coleridge read, but not extensively). If reality is to be intelligible to us, it must itself already be intelligent. The causes and laws of the cosmos must be identifiable by powers and ideas in the mind as powers and ideas.
Coleridge defines Ideas, as opposed to concepts, in several ways. They are that which allows us to see the Universal in the Particular, and the Particular in the Universal. He also defines Ideas by way of an example:

“to the ideas of Kepler, the Correlates of the Law of the Planetary Orbits contrasted with the conception of Ptolemy–who began with the phaenomena, the apparent Motions, as data–and then sought to take them as that he might take the all together–i.e. concipere, capere haec cum illis–and the Conception or synopsis of a plurality of phaenomena so schematized as to shew the compatibility of their co-existence, is THEORY–a product of the Understanding in the absence or eclipse of IDEAS, or Contemplations of the Law, and hence necessarily conditioned by the Appearances, and changing with every new or newly discovered Phaenomenon, which Theory always follows never leads–while the law being constitutive of the phaenomena and in order of Thought necessarily antecedent, the Idea as the correlative and mental Counterpart of the Law, is necessarily prophetic and constructive–et Solem dicere falsum Audet, and turns the contradiction of the Senses into proofs and confirmations of its Truths” (a notebook quoted by Barfield on p. 238, n. 59).

Coleridge, in order to avoid the idolatry of much contemporary science, which presupposes some inanimate basis beneath all phenomena (e.g., Popper’s murky swamp water), carefully distinguishes between concepts of the understanding, on the one hand, and ideas of reason, on the other. Concepts are derived retroactively based on generalizations from particulars; they are rules derived from past events, from nature conceived of as already made (natura naturata). Ideas are Reason’s way of participating directly in the laws, or powers, of nature in the act of making itself (natura naturans). As a realist, Coleridge thinks the task of science is to seek

“that knowledge in which truth and reality are one and the same, that which in the ideas that are present to the mind recognizes the laws that govern in Nature if we may not say the laws that are Nature” (80, Treatise on Logic II, emphasis mine).


*As Latour will later suggest, Science is about building alliances with actors across increasingly global networks. Latour, of course, takes us beyond anthropocentric relativism in a way that Kuhn did not. Latour moves toward realism by arguing that, in order to perform and defend their facts, scientists have to build alliances not only with other scientists, and with military, civilian, or private funders, but also with autonomous and responsive lab mice, microscopes, particle colliders, satellites, solar flares, electrons, and ice bergs. Science is a cosmopolitical activity–something the cosmic community is co-directing with human beings.