Cosmic Self: a Uni-Verse

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It is with my own self-consciousness that I must begin… but I will confess, I am not yet certain of my own beginning, or even of my own uncertainty. Already I seem to have said too much: “I am”–how do I know that? Do I really exist? Can I claim self-consciousness as “my own” if I do not know whether “I am”? I remain a mystery to myself. Sometimes I am whole, other times hollow. I meet the uncanny reflection of myself alternately with ecstasy and with anxiety. Self-consciousness is thinking become aware of itself, but thinking is not yet knowing. Perhaps I cannot begin with myself. I must turn to the thoughts of others. Rene Descartes discovered himself a thinking thing by doubting all cognition and all perception, of others and of the world, leaving only an empty knower behind. Immanuel Kant created the transcendental unity of apperception, bringing together, at least in time, knower and known, self and world, subject and object. Mind here finds its identity with itself, but from things, from bodies and spaces external to itself, it becomes entirely alienated. Kant may have awakened the human spirit to its freedom, but he did so only by severing its connection with the apparently mechanistic laws of the universe. To myself, and to others, thinking remains a mystery. But what of that which acts between self and other, that erotic destabilizing force all but ignored by Descartes and Kant, despite their claim to be philosophers. The force of love: too slippery to be categorized, too sublime to be secured. It is desire, eros, that connects the soul to the world, linking freedom with necessity. Thinking is desiring. The desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of the expanding universe. I intend as it extends. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what lies beyond the edge of time: the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. An inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. In itself, the world remains incomplete; but through intuitive thinking, I will its wholeness. The desire to think erupts because Being is not complete in itself. Being wills also to become for itself. Substance desires to be Subject, as Hegel says. Or, as Schelling put it, “Nature should be the Spirit made visible, Spirit the invisible Nature.” I not only intuit, but am involved in the creative evolution of the universe ever onward into a wholeness never finished because always being born. In my soul, matter finds its maker in the image of Spirit. Here, I reach the still point of eternity at the center of earth around which all the heavens revolve.

The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it; or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32

Footnotes

1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

Whitehead’s Endo-Theology

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time:  Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.

Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…

I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).

In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.

Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.

Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an ancient accident of Creativity.

Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequential natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities into a whole.

While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.

Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology)

Michael/Archive Fire and Adam/Knowledge Ecology are at it again, working to sort through the material, semiotic, and ideational strands of the cosmic mesh to figure out what is real and what isn’t. In both positions, I detect a desire for ecological realism, the sort of realism where Santa Claus, mountain pine beetles, global capitalism, black holes, and strawberries are each considered to be real causal actors, each in its own unique way. But only Michael explicitly argues that a certain set of these actors–ideas–should ultimately be understood as secondary effects of causes operating at a more basic level–that is, (vibrant, dynamic) physicality. I agree with Michael that ideas are embodied and enacted, that they cannot play a causal role in the creative advance of nature without being ingredient in some definite occasion of socially organized experience. But I do not think it follows that this obvious co-relationality between ideas and living bodies implies that ideas, or indeed minds (in some non-Cartesian/post-Whiteheadian sense of the word mind) are epiphenomenal to technologically mediated physiological activity. As Whitehead says, the things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal, just as the things which are eternal arise by their participation in the things which are temporal. There is a relation of co-emergence, of dependent origination, between timeless potentials and actual occasions. … Ideas and Minds do not operate independently of material signs and living bodies. They do not exist without leaving symbolic traces and a heat signature. But it does not follow that they are not real things. If anything is a “thing,” ideas are things. I need to take a detour into Whitehead’s account of perception before returning to the thingliness of ideas… (a thing here would be an object in Harman’s lingo). In Whitehead’s lingo, we would say that a given thing (actual entity) withdraws from its prehensions by other things precisely because if it were not in some way withdrawn from these prehensions, there would not be anything definite to distinguish it from other entities to make it “just this entity here-now.” Ideas, in Whitehead’s lingo, are conceptual prehensions. We could also call them abstract feelings of future possibilities. For most occasions of experience, physical feelings of past actualities predominate over conceptual feelings of future possibilities. Still, all occasions include a mix of physical with conceptual feelings: nowhere in the universe are there events unfolding in a purely repetitive way, without any appetitive adjustment. Granted, in the inorganic societies studied by physicists, novelty is negligible enough to ignore in equations describing the behavior of the universe is timespans relevant to human existence. In longer timescales (i.e., more than 13.7 billion years ago), it seems the “laws” of physics can no longer account for visible nature without making room for the possibility of radical novelty/extreme negentropy “before” the “beginning” of time. Even at the level of quantum events, the appetition for novelty is present. If it were not, the universe never would have transformed from superheated plasma into living protoplasm or human minds. The formation of the first atoms, and certainly the first stars, already provides evidence of the universe’s desire to out run the past by incarnating ever new forms of organization. Human consciousness is only a more extreme expression of this same desire. Implanting experience and ideality into the most fundamental features of reality is an attempt to account, in one general metaphysical scheme, for the evolution of the organizational complexity of nature from plasma to person. It is an attempt to avoid the traditional metaphysical bifurcation between appearance and reality that has plagued Western philosophy the formalization of Aristotle’s substance-predicate logic. Bifurcated metaphysics either reduce the person to the plasma (materialism), or the plasma to the person (idealism); either way, half of nature has been lost. For those more complex social canalizations of experiential occasions associated with we thoroughly mediated human souls and our technological societies, prehension is predominantly conceptual, with physical prehension fading into irrelevance. The great danger of unchecked intelligence is that it forgets its bodily roots in the rhythms of the brain, heart, and lungs and its cosmic source in the rhythms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, and the Moon. By forgetting its source in the soil between earth and sky, intelligence dismembers itself and the ecology to which it belongs. Becoming deaf and blind to the material-semiotic flows tenuously tying it to the network of others living within and amongst it, it loses contact with the erotic and aesthetic lifeblood its life depends on. Intelligence is driving our species into extinction, and taking a lot of others with us. I think I can understand why Michael has such a distaste for the notion that ideas are just as real as bodies. He writes:

Giving up on ‘ideas’ as objects helps us understand what Wittgenstein and Derrida and Rorty (and the Buddha and Lao Tsu among others) wanted to teach us, in the sense that conceptuality – and by extension all knowledge – is intrinsically undecidable, unstable and ephemeral. And this insight has some very serious political, existential and philosophical implications.

I agree completely that conceptuality is often undecidable. Reality usually always out runs our everyday descriptions. But on some rare occasions, like those concocted in the laboratory by experimental physicists, the conceptual structure of reality becomes decidable to an uncanny degree of accuracy as formal mathematical descriptions are found to correlate with natural processes. These descriptions remain approximations, of course, since they are never purely conceptual. It needs to be said, to balance Michael’s denial of conceptuality, that sensuality is no less unstable and ephemeral. Prehension, since it always carries a mix of physical and conceptual factors, is necessarily abstraction. If it were not abstraction, each actual entity would contain every other actual entity within itself in such a direct way that there would be no way to tell any two actual occasions apart. Without eternal objects/ideas to mediate between the mutual prehensions of particular actual occasions, their particularity would become meaningless: all time and space would collapse into an instantaneous null-point. Pure conceptual knowledge is as undecidable as pure sensation. It is only when creatively contrasted that something actual can emerge.

Philosophy and the City

A few good posts on the polis recently.

One by Adam Robbert.

Another by Bill Thorn.

Re-thinking politics is something most Athenian citizens never had to do. They had common categories to guide them in the agora, as well as comedy and tragedy to form and re-form their feelings for them at the theater. But then Socrates started taking philosophical walks along the Ilissus with the city youth, asking them about Love and the Soul. He started asking about Goodness and drinking wine with them, telling stories about Beauty. He inspired a generation of intellectual critics of the city’s traditional ways. The comics laughed at him. The courts did not. He found himself called to testify. He was convicted of atheism and sentenced to death.

Philosophy is inherently disturbing to the ruling classes of all but the most ideal societies. It under-minds the politician’s sense of identity by forcing him to consider the ground of his own powers of persuasion, to reflect upon his own reasons for exercising power. This throws him into conflict with himself, a crisis of consciousness as well as conscience. Politicians always have to pretend not to have internal conflicts, not to have contemplative thoughts. They are to be creatures of immediate action only, of instinctual oughts.

Socrates was accused of being a sort of magician, a pharmakeus, charming the young with his psychedelic speech. I think philosophy, if it is to remain relevant and effective, must play a similar role in politics today. It is risky, of course. Bruno was burnt at the stake for practicing political magic. Cornel West was chased out of Harvard by Larry Summers for practicing theological sorcery on behalf of the poor and working classes. Not many academics and intellectuals take magic seriously anymore. Politicians and business leaders certainly do, which is perhaps why they have all the power in our society.

Wisdom bombs threaten to persuade people not to shop, to organize in public places for the purposes of self-governance, to protest the material conditions of their spiritual imprisonment. Philosophy is lobbing gnosis grenades into public places as often as possible. Philosophy bears the torch and is the light of every free mind. Philosophy shares with the polis a secret, that the ordered motion of the stars above is a sign from heaven, there to remind people what is Beautiful and Good here on earth below.

On reading Plato…

Everyone already knows Alfred North Whitehead’s over-cited remark about all of European philosophy being but a series of footnotes to Plato. If you’ve somehow forgotten its near exact wording, just follow Plato’s upward pointing finger to the top of this blog for a reminder.

Why near exact? I left out the descriptor “European…” that comes before “…philosophical tradition,” because, well, I’m American, and in many ways, so was Whitehead’s philosophy. In terms of philosophical style, Whitehead’s was not just another European footnote being tacked on the end of Plato’s corpus. His Platonism is reformed, having its origin in a New World. Whitehead’s views on Plato’s contributions to the philosophical tradition are a pithy summation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1850 essay on Plato. For Emerson, Plato’s corpus was “The Bible of the learned for twenty-two hundred years.” He goes on:

This citizen of a town in Greece is no villager nor patriot. An Englishman reads and says, “how English!” a German- “how Teutonic!” an Italian- “how Roman and how Greek!” As they say that Helen of Argos had that universal beauty that every body felt related to her, so Plato seems to a reader in New England an American genius. His broad humanity transcends all sectional lines.

Emerson then writes of the nature of philosophical influence:

Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

And then about the tension within Plato’s soul between philosophy and poetry:

A philosopher must be more than a philosopher. Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.

Here, Emerson follows Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) in denying the Absolute to the philosopher in order to grant it to the artist (or rather, to the philosopher-poet). Emerson himself is best described as an essayist, though through the medium of the stylistic essay, he is able to quicken the spirit of philosophy in his readers as well as any in the tradition.

Plato was also a stylist. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language…,” by which he means both spoken and written language. “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced. Written words lay in their paper graves, still, silent. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. Dialogue is impossible. Plato, of course, was a prolific writer. Were he alive today, might he be a blogger? These letters are publishable to every corner of earth in a near instant at the click of a button. They can be commented on and replied to by others just as easily. Dialogue becomes possible. But alas, the curved earth cannot be flattened onto a map, or a screen.

The Good/True/Beautiful (they are all one), for Plato, is more than a name or a definition, more than an image or even a knowledgable soul, though these, like the light of the sun, may eventually lead you back to the source. But the Ideal Reality of the One and All, Plato’s fifth thing, cannot be known with written formulas. There is no cheat sheet that can help you on a philosophy test. Esoteric philosophers always tell inside jokes: you had to be there to get it. “I gave the teaching,” says Plato, “on that one occasion and never again.”

On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s secret unwritten teaching had something to do with the way, according to Iain Hamilton Grant, that “ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen” (Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, p. 56n8). If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato!

Emerson writes of the generative tension between the One and Many:

The mind is urged to ask for one cause of many effects; then for the cause of that; and again the cause, diving still into the profound: self-assured that it shall arrive at an absolute and sufficient one,- a one that shall be all. “In the midst of the sun is the light, in the midst of the light is truth, and in the midst of truth is the imperishable being,” say the Vedas. All philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence. Urged by an opposite necessity, the mind returns from the one to that which is not one, but other or many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety, the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other. These strictly-blended elements it is the problem of thought to separate and to reconcile. Their existence is mutually contradictory and exclusive; and each so fast slides into the other that we can never say what is one, and what it is not. The Proteus is as nimble in the highest as in the lowest grounds; when we contemplate the one, the true, the good,- as in the surfaces and extremities of matter.

Reading Plato is an infinite interpretive activity. So is reading Whitehead. Perhaps infinite interpretability is the mark of a philosopher-poet. Richard E. Jones here offers a reading of Plato and of Whitehead, qualifying their allegiance, perhaps only because his reading of Plato is superficial. But Jones’ discussion of Plato’s notion of the Receptacle is rather insightful. In Whitehead, this notion is only slightly reshaped to become the ultimate category of his own metaphysical scheme: Creativity. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead writes of Plato’s Receptacle that:

at the present moment, physical science is nearer to it than at any period since
Plato’s death. The space-time of modern mathematical physics, conceived in
abstraction from the particular mathematical formulae which applies to the
happenings in it, is almost exactly Plato’s Receptacle (192-193).

The Receptacle is closely connected, for Plato, to both place (topos) and space (chora). It is also nearly identified by both Plato and Whitehead with the World-Soul. It is the living matrix within which the universe experience itself as a diversifying unity. It is a difficult concept to grasp. The difficulty is made plainly evident in Jones’ discussion, towards the end of his essay (p. 12-13), on Whitehead’s attempt to envision the concrescence of the divine by way of an integration of its primordial and consequent natures:

The general tone [of the last chapter of Process and Reality, “God and the World”] becomes more poetical than analytical and, despite the many
differences between these two philosophers, often reflects the similar instances in Plato where the metaphorical and poetic serve to engage one’s imagination in an aesthetic rather than elucidatory manner.