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

Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has a few new post up (HERE and HERE) about the contingently constructed concept of “nature” and about his own flavor of monistic materialism.

Bryant and I have argued in the past about his materialism and its lack of formal and final causality. I’ve been claiming that ideas and purposes are real, while he continues to argue that only corporeal things, their causal interactions, and the void in which they interact constitute real things. From his perspective, what we call qualitative forms or deliberate intentions are either alternative names for what are really entirely material activities (gene transcription, electro-chemo-neural synchronization, economic exchange, information transfer, etc.), or they are nothing.

I side with Whitehead in affirming the reality of eternal forms, not as existing independently of time and materiality, but as always already involved in what we scientifically know and religiously feel to be the process of cosmic animation. Materiality is animality. In every moment this actual universe is repossessed by the past and resurrected into the eternal possibilities of the future. We participate each second in the life divine, a cosmic life with total ethical memory and perfect aesthetic values, even if without demiurgic omnipotence (i.e., the divine that we all are has no transcendent power over a soulless materiality, since the divine simply is the soul of this universe–the divine may be omnipotent in another sense, only because it both effects and is affected by everything else which exists [see Plato’s Sophist, 247e, where he writes that “the definition of being is simply power”).

Our collective existence here on earth beneath the sky (as humans, dogs, cows, rats, snakes, banyans, ants, prokaryotes, proteins, molecules, etc., etc.) participates in more than what is materially present in some simply located separate slice of the Einsteinian space-time loaf. We exist in excess of any mathematically calculable grid. Each moment of actual becoming–each drop of experience–is temporally open to past and future. Each drop is the genetic precipitate of remembered acts called forth beyond habit into the life of everlasting divine forms and values. Every moment arises amidst the ingression of new possibilities given what it has already actualized. The present is pervaded by past and future, the soul linked materially to what it has been and spiritually to what it might become.

Form is not alien to matter, but is its very soul, the fire which animates it. Levi himself recently used the image of fire to describe materiality. This is a metaphor I am willing to follow quite far, so far as to suggest that embodiment acts as the soul’s athanor, and that the intensity of a body’s astrality (its ensoulment) depends upon the temperature to which it can be raised without too quickly consuming itself in the flames of its own metabolism. Bryant draws on the philosopher-poet Lucretius when he describes his ontology as consisting of nothing but material bodies, their interactions, and the void. I’d draw on Böhme and Schelling to suggest, in contrast to Bryant, that creative productivity, rather than this productivity’s arrested products or corporeal excretions (natura naturata), is ontologically fundamental. Productivity (natura naturans) is the ungrounded ground; not a substance or multiplicity of substances, but an unspeakable tension is at the base of all logos and all ontos. Schelling and Böhme describe this groundless source as a triune polarity between gravity and light. The polarity can become balanced, producing a star, a soul. The star shines outward even as it consumes itself from within. It can last for billions of years. This balance is a formal possibility actualized in the time of its shining. It dies when its time runs out, when its light sinks again into darkness. But in its death, the form achieves objective immorality and is passed on in the form of new forms: heavier elements which again, through the tension of gravity and light, come to life in ever new ways. Form is forever infecting everything with novelty.


Update: Bryant responds HERE

I’ve been reading Jason Wirth’s The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003). He describes on page 87 in Schellingian terms what I’ve argued here and in comments under Bryant’s response in Whiteheadian terms: that nature is not designed by a demiurge, since nature itself is the demiurge. Here is a link to p. 87 via Google books.



16 responses to “Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality”

  1. Gary Smith Avatar

    It seems to me that you and Levi Bryant are the same except that you enfold the future and the past into the present cosmic moment. Am I wrong?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      That’s not exactly as I see it. I don’t think the future is enfolded in the present moment so much as a future is intended in the present moment. The future is radically undetermined. What is present now is a set of definite possibilities for future actualization. Exactly what will unfold remains to be seen.

      Levi is a secular atheist and a naturalist. While I’ve written an essay defending a form form of “naturalism” in the past, it was a panentheistic naturalism derived largely from Whitehead (see HERE). Levi dismisses myth and embraces Enlightenment rationality. I am too much of a Romantic to jump on board that train (see HERE). Myth will always be a constitutive part of human personal and collective identity, so far as I can tell.

      There are other important differences between us. We are coming from very different places, so far as I can tell.

  2. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    Though I cannot speak for Matt, I am quite amazed that you’d think they are the same, and wonder if you’ve been reading Matt’s posts for long.


    Here is a key principle that you note that is frequently overlooked by interlocutors:

    “I’d draw on Böhme and Schelling to suggest, in contrast to Levi, that creative productivity, rather than this productivity’s arrested products or corporeal excretions (natura naturata), is ontologically fundamental.”

    I only commonly see the reality of creativity acknowledged by 19th century Romantic philosophy (speaking more widely than idealism) and American philosophy, which shares that strain but also adds a strong Darwinian influence. That is, if evolution is possible then prima facie creativity is real. This is counter to perhaps all prior metaphysics.

  3. Gary Smith Avatar

    First off, I do want to say that I am somewhat confused by the panentheistic Escher-like ontological puzzle of the material world being in the Theos and the Theos being in the material world. Considerations about the incarnation and all that. So I going to leave that and speak of the Theos itself and its “relation” to time. Was it Hegel who wrote, “Das Sein des Geistes ist die Zeit”? Or time is the substance of mind (or spirit). I think even Levi Bryant would recognize the philosophical difficulty Time presents even for the rationally enlightened. When any of us think about time we are on the brink of poetry and “dark things”. Myth. As for Creativity working on the merely potential, that too is of the Truth that poetry and myth try to capture. Coming into the Light. Birth pangs. Thus time is also the Sublime insofar as it threatens thought with madness if one thinks too deeply about it. Surely a secular atheist also feels that.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      That Hegel aphorism reminds me of Samuel Alexander’s striking turn of phrase: “Time is the mind of space.” Alexander’s book Space, Time, and Deity was a major influence on Whitehead.

  4. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills


    In responding to you, Levi writes “The concept of formal causality only makes sense and is required if one advocates the view that there’s unformed passive matter awaiting form to give it structure.” I disagree and would like to know if your thinking aligns with mine on the issue. As I have been explicating for some time, another reason to argue for “form” other than for the Aristotelian reasons to which Levi alludes, is to argue for scholastic realism. This is to argue against nominalism, the idea that only particular things exsist, and therefore no general or universal statements can be made about anything that exists. If one adopts nominalism, many implications follow. So, when I advocate “form,” I am merely saying that there is some real structures and qualities (predicates) to a thing that have true generality and are not singular to that thing. I am not, contra Levi, arguing for “unformed matter,” which is a strictly Aristotelian view that you and I have been rejecting. Matt, you’ve posted a lot on Whitehead’s view, which is different from my more Peircean view, but I believe this can be said of both of us, no? Perhaps both of us would agree that a given “form” or structure is not absolute, but I’m not 100% certain that can be said of Whitehead, though it can be certainly said of Peirce as its an implication of his theory of synechism (continuity) relating to tychism (chance).

    If one accepts materialism, implying the existence that only the material exists, then true unviersality or generality is impossible, and one almost certainly embraces nominalism. For us robust realists, that is a reduction, and that is also a point that Deacon is making. That is, we are disagreeing with Levi’s claim that “While signifying systems can’t exist without electro-neural-chemical systems, we would learn next to nothing about a particular signifying system by studying neurology.” Signification can exist without these systems, though it may not be the kind of “signification” that one is familiar with from Frege’s logic; it is Peirce’s logic.

    Is not this ongoing issue beside the point? Or am I missing something? What is on point? I ask these question out of hermeneutic charity.

    A thought. Is Levi arguing for emergence without purposiveness? E.g., creativity without emergent teleology?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      I think we are on the same page here in regard to why formal causation is important. I haven’t argued with Levi over the issue of nominalism yet, but that is indeed what is at stake here. A given form is not absolute, since the occasion which actualizes it always could have realized itself otherwise. Even the structure of space and time is a contingency of our cosmic epoch for Whitehead.

      As I understand it, even if Levi wants to affirm a strict materialism, he still needs to offer an account of how matter forms itself. He also needs to account for how human scientists can understand this process of formation without recourse to anything like universal forms. I do believe he is arguing for the emergence of form in a universe absent all value and purposiveness. He says purposes evolve later on up the hierarchy of complexity, but are not there, even in proto-form, in the beginning. He wants to affirm that the purposes which emerge later in some forms of animal life are “real” and not simply teleonomic appearances. I’m not at all sure how he can say this. I am having a similar issue with Deacon’s argument for the emergence of purpose.

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        It is good to see that we agree on this.

        Yes, “forms” are a way to talk about university in addition to material particularity. We needn’t get caught up on the word “form” or “structure.” What you say about contingency is true for Peirce, but to my knowledge, Whitehead advances faaaaaaar beyond Peirce on these points.

    2. larvalsubjects Avatar

      Yes Jason, I’m a nominalist and believe that mathematical and logical generality is only a syntactic phenomena. I don’t see that as a “problem”, but as a real feature of the world. I would also disagree with the thesis that signification can exist without these systems.

      As for Matt’s question about how “matter forms itself”, this is already an odd question that begs the question. Matter doesn’t “form itself”. It is always already formed. That form can take new forms as a result of interactions between new entities, but there’s just no such thing as unformed matter. Again Matt reveals way in which the analogy to the craftsman works in his thought. He’s the one under the burden to show that there is unformed matter, not me.

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills


        If you argue that logical generality is a syntactic phenomenon, then you implicate yourself in an anthropocentrism that likely ensnares you in the correlationism from which you seek to escape. How can your transcendental argumentation not invoke the equivalent of abductive criteria, which would ensnare you, as otherwise your methodology begs the question? That is, if you accept nominalism, then you cannot say much about metaphysics because that would require a generalization, and since you also reject anthropocentrism, you have almost no options left.

        You commit fallacious reasoning when you insist that Matt must demonstrate that there is “unformed matter,” because that is a red herring as no one is making that claim. I am really surprised that you continue obviously fallacious forms of reasoning, and I discuss this in a post on my blog. I mention this so directly, despite the unseemliness of a confrontation, because further discussion cannot be productive unless that obstacle is overcome. It does not require capitulation, but announcement of a disagreement and moving on to another topic, in which case I think we’re at the “moving on” stage. Moreover, you display an anti-religious prejudice rather than sound logic.

        As for the point about nominalism, the issue is central as you cannot explain certain phenomena without a massive brute assumption about existence, and many alternative positions are completely untouched by your counter-arguments as they do not apply. I recommend holding your nominalism more tightly, but at least recognizing the implications of it and how the methodology that you use implicates you in anthropocentrism despite your claims otherwise. Yes, the logics that Matt and I discuss are counter-intuitive, which is a statement about our culture rather than the truth, but the explanatory abilities of these positions go much farther than I’ve seen from you.

        I do not affirm mathematical generality, and I am certain that what I mean by “signification” is not what you mean. Beside the point. Finally, I argue for the reality of generals and have not seen a successful counter-argument from you, as our last discussion ended with you just shifting burden to another level of analysis without grounding it. I could give you one–maybe even three–as I’ve discussed viable counter-arguments on my blog.

      2. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills


        Let me repeat my core argument that I posted on my blog awhile ago that explains the problem of methodology that, prima facie, Levi must overcome.

        Given a standpoint of scholastic realism, which argues against the post-Kantian positions of most continentals, for which there are excellent arguments, abduction as an inference is no longer simply reducible to anthropocentrism. If one accepts the contrary, nominalism, then abductive inference is simply reducible to anthropocentrism given the necessity of abductive criteria.

        “Form” is a logical tool arrived at via abduction, and it offers an explanation for real phenomena that many opponents either do not explain or explain away, such as explaining intentionality or qualitative consciousness. A “form” does not exist, and not “form” or “general descriptive category of reality” is particular. All matter is “formed,” for both Matt and myself, but you, Levi, cannot use the word “form,” “structure,” etc. without equivocation since you deny real generality. I’ve discussed ways out of this problem on my blog, but you seem to want it both ways. Feel free to cite pages of your works that would correct me.

  5. mary Avatar

    Anselm Kiefer, who in part is inspired by the meaning of the alchemic works of Robert Fludd, uses a wide variety of substances in his paintings that refer to the cosmic transmutations of matter subject to precise temperatures, tensions, coherings and disintegrations; dust , ash, glass, slag of metals such as lead, gold leaf, wood and wire…….. One of his paintings he named “Athanor”

    for the same reason ; the divine communion recognized as creativity , internal and eternal to all events….. and , in his painting, the human and stars formed in such continuity.
    In reading essays about Schelling, the paintings of Kiefer so often come to mind.

  6. Jay Landar Avatar

    I would argue for the eternal transformation of human concepts into cosmic forms and cite the recent transit of Venus across the face of the sun as an example. The event is at once a corporeal reality, a symbolic truth and a transmutation of human experience. Taking the climbing rose as one of the forms of Venus you can picture the flower rising up and finally blossoming within the disc of the sun. The image serves to show how human consciousness transcends itself through yearning and effort, to unite with its divine progenitor. Venus achieves this within the frame of the cosmos. Humanity needs to take the message from symbols like these. The message is that concepts serve no purpose merely spliced together on the level of the earth – they have to achieve a new astrality through their innate power of climbing. Learn from Venus – the very soul of beauty and truth!

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