Vitalism in Philosophy: “The stars are the fountain veins of God.” -Böhme

Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.

No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism'” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).

As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.

If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Jonah Dempcy offered a critical response to Bryant’s mechanistic cosmology, building on an excerpt from the cultural historian Richard Tarnas‘ book Cosmos and Psyche (41):

“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas

Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):

Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.

And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:

Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.

I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.

I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree. 

Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):

The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.

*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. terenceblake says:

    It is interesting to note that the “naturalism” that Bryant opposes to “vitalism” is precisely the picture of Nature One condemned by Bruno Latour in his Gifford lectures as being an illusory artefact based on an erroneous view of both religion and science.

  2. This post does a good job of directly revealing the link between a naturalism devoid of any deeper meaning that would be attached to the life that one is living (if the one reading this is in fact alive), and nihilism. This attitude and most often hidden belief is far more pervasive than is widely acknowledged. The writers you quote seem like a good lead into this investigation.
    I’ve been very concerned over Levi Bryant’s materialism binge he’s been on lately. My take is that he’s already found his processual and significant method in Lacan and, like Marx inheriting Hegel’s dialectic, now dreams out loud about getting everyone onboard (or at least “the humanities”) with his materially real analysis. These concepts are profoundly fruitful, and many would lend well to certain areas in the humanities, but they are born of scientific inquiry and need to be translated diplomatically. The cause for my concern is that he is a good writer and is right on with much of his analysis, but then insists on a strict naturalism in the end. This naturalism and its supplemental reactive atheism teaches us to continue trusting the expert.

  3. Michael- says:

    Great post Matt. I’m not sure why Levi is so against all forms of vitalism?

    I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?

    My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolve beyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.

    1. Hey Michael,

      Sorry for the rather tardy reply. Not sure why I didn’t respond to your important questions back in Feb.

      I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we ‘need’ a “root image” (Goethe called them ‘Ur-Phänomen’; Jung and Hillman called them ‘archetypes’; Tarnas calls them ‘planetary aspects’), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. The ur-images of earth and sky encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of life itself behind the body poetically shapes it from within. Life itself is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the ground. These images are the roots–not only the transcendental but also the material conditions–of our very coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in imagery? If its the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real chaos underlying the ideal (i.e., rationally represented) cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, to Zen meditation? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.

      So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly reality. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in the mundis imaginalis, we may discover new forms of congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.

      I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to re-imagine the metaphysical roots of our earthly reality.

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