Philosophy of the Human in Whitehead and Schelling (response to Knowledge-Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology just posted a fine reflection on the place of the human in nature. Below is my response.

I think there is an elephant in the room here. Just before the line you quote in Modes of Thought, Whitehead says “In mankind, the dominant dependence on bodily functioning seems still there. And yet the life of a human being receives its worth, its importance, from the way in which unrealized ideals shape its purposes and tinge its actions” (27). He is giving us a hint about the essence of the human: the human is that being capable of actualizing its own ideals. In other words, we not only feel the creative freedom of the universe as an element in our individual concrescence (like all other occasions), we grasp this freedom as a fact constitutive of our very selves. It is a difference in degree that may as well be a difference in kind. Other occasions are “free” to the extent that they are distinct realizations of the creative advance into novelty; but only the human knows that it is free, only the human can withdraw from time and glimpse into the eternal mind of God to envisage as yet unrealized values. Other beings receive their values without conscious decision. Humans can make their own values. What is really characteristic of our special sort of freedom is our capacity for good and evil. Does it make sense to conceive of evil in the non-human universe? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. Granted, some, like Nietzsche, would say these categories, good and evil, make no sense in the human universe, either. Nietzsche is brilliant, but I don’t think civilization, be it modern or non-modern, can survive without fully accepting the responsibility of the knowledge of good and evil. We are free and we know it.

Whitehead goes on in the next paragraph of MoT to offer a very ancient typology of four “aggregations of actuality,” or what might be called forms of society: (1) inorganic actualities, dominated by the statistical average, (2) vegetation, dominated by growth and survival, (3) animal actualities, possessed of full blown emotionality, and in some higher order cases, ethicality, (4) human actualities, where for the first time full blown morality and religion appear. Whitehead admits that something like morality is already present in other mammals, but “religion” is uniquely human. What is religion? We might take a look at another text of his, Religion in the Making (I’ve done a little research on this HERE), but in MoT he suggests it has something to do with “[emphasizing] the unity of ideal inherent in the universe” (28). Religion, in other words, is humanity’s attempt to freely and consciously participate in the divine love (Eros) luring all things toward greater and greater expressions of Beauty.

I’ve just finished reading Schelling’s last published work (1809, two years after Hegel’sPhenomenology, and something of a response), considered by most Schellingians to be his masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. Its a short work, well worth the read. He does something very interesting in this text, situating human beings at the apex of nature for sure, but not in the way we Moderns are used to. Nature, and not the human, is the original transcendental subject. Humanity is the most archetypal product of nature’s subjectivity. It is a very complex picture that he tries to paint, involving a God who suffers, a philosophical soul who rises to God’s suffering, and the destiny of the universe driven by Love (you’ve heard similar stories in Teilhard, and indeed in Whitehead)… I can only leave you a small sample here. Schelling writes, “this dark principle [the capacity for evil] is active in animals as well as in all other natural beings, yet it is still not born into the light in them as it is in man: it is not spirit and understanding but blind craving and desire; in short, no fall, no separation of principles is possible here where there is still no absolute or personal unity. The conscious and not conscious are unified in animal instinct only in a certain and determinate way which for that very reason is unalterable. For just on that account, because they are only relative expressions of unity, they are subject to it, and the force active in the ground retains the unity of principles befitting them always in the same proportion. Animals are never able to emerge from unity, whereas man can voluntarily tear apart the eternal bond of forces.” Schelling then quotes his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

Additional comment:

When Schelling talks about the severing of the principles, he is talking about the dark and light principles of Being itself. These are ontological categories that structure everything in existence. Darkness is the contractive force, that which withdraws; light is the expansive force, that which reveals. In the human, these ontological forces seem to become capable of disequilibrium as a result of our freedom. We can attempt to elevate the dark over the light, which can never ultimately succeed, but in the attempt, we become fallen. Being itself seems to rupture and fall to pieces. The human-caused ecological crisis is still perfectly “natural,” but indeed it seems that one natural being has fallen and is taking vast swaths of earth with it into the depths of non-existence.


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