Schellingian Reflections on Latour’s 2nd Gifford Lecture – “A Shift in Agency, With Apologies to Hume”

Latour is introduced by professor of physics Wilson Poon, who publicly confesses to being a great admirer of Latour’s work. Latour, thinly veiling how tired he is of the “Science Wars,” thanks him for the “rare confession”: “I don’t have many friends among physicists.” Poon contributes to a course at the University of Edinburgh on the relationship between Science and Religion, a favorite inter-disciplinary topic of my own. A quick google search turned up a sermon by Poon, titled “Giving Voice to Creation: A Christian Vocation in Science,” delivered at his local Episcopal Church in 2008. He speaks humbly on behalf of sand granules for their role in God’s creation (his scientific research specializes on fluid dynamics). Strange what can happen to natural scientists after they embrace a politics of nature…

In his second Gifford lecture, Latour rehearses David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Practicing the art of philosophical fiction, Latour re-constructs the history of philosophy (in much the same way that he helped reconstruct the Bergson-Einstein debate), wondering if Hume’s reflection on natural theology was really enough to stir the sage of Könisburg from his dogmatic dreaming, or if, in fact, he and all other Enlightened moderns are still sleeping, still spellbound by the pleonasm of natural religion, still stuck within the paradigm of design (by mechanistic de-animation or deistic over-animation), still paralyzed by the false split between science and religion, matter and spirit, fact and value, etc.

I haven’t read Hume’s dialogue since college, but Latour has made it seem like necessary re-reading. I’m particularly fascinated to expand Philo and Cleanthes’ discussion concerning the scope of analogical reasoning in cosmology. Is the universe more like an animal (a world-soul), or a plant (a giant vegetable)? Hume leaves the matter undecided, all the worse for the supposed speculative power of analogical reasoning. The Naturphilosoph is left wondering whether his imaginal methods of conversing with nature, namely correspondance and analogy, have any basis in reality. Hume argues that they cannot be justified. Poetic metaphors cast too wide a net to catch the certainties sought by calculative mathesis. This is no refutation of the power of imaginal methods; it is only to say that, if analogical reason and speculative philosophy are to be productive of knowledge, they can only achieve this result through a cognitive magic still too occult for conscious reasoning to dispassionately reflect upon (see Hume’s Treatise, i. Sec. 7). The possibility of reasoning about the cosmos analogically in a scientific way depends upon the possibility of scientific genius. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant defines genius as “the inborn predisposition of the mind through which nature gives the rule to art.” He grants genius to the artist, but denies it to the scientist, since for the latter, “rules that are distinctly cognized must come first and determine the procedure in it.” So whereas in artistic creation, the soul of the genius rises to a state of infinite free play that links it directly with the naturans of nature, in scientific research, the finite soul must work to mechanically imitate nature according to the limits of its own merely reflective organs of knowledge. The possibility of a Naturphilosophie capable of determining the animality or vegetality of the universe depends upon the possibility of scientific genius, on the possibility of what Gaston Bachelard has called the “material imagination.”

The material imagination is alchemical. Christian alchemists are both the agents and patients of the incarnation of Imagination. They seek not to understand the Trinity abstractly, in merely theological terms, but concretely, physically. They search for it, summon it, in plants and animals, in human communities, because they are called by it (this is Latour’s dynamic of co-relative construction between a people and an entity). They pay as much attention to the close at hand (their many neighbors) as to the far away (the one globe).

I’m reminded here of what Schelling has one of his own conceptual personae say in his non-modern dialogue concerning natural religion, Clara, Or on Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Here is a speech by the Naturphilosophic doctor to Clara about how modern philosophers have neglected the concrete elements of the cosmos in favor of the abstract forms of the spirit:

How much happier most people would be, how much pointless longing would come to an end, how much easier would life be borne and relinquished, if everyone continually kept in mind that here anything divine is only appearance and not reality, that even whatever is most spiritual isn’t free, but arises only conditionally—that it is the blossom and here and there even the fruit, but not the trunk and the roots…[Instead,] they start with what is most general and spiritual and are thereby never able to come down to reality or particulars. They are ashamed to start from the earth, to climb up from the creature as if from a rung on a ladder, to draw those thoughts that are beyond the senses first from earth, fire, water, and air. And so they don’t get anywhere, either: their webs of thought are plants without roots, they don’t hang onto anything, like spiders’ webs do on shrubs or walls; instead, they float in the air and the sky like these delicate threads here in front of us. And yet they believe they can strengthen man thereby, even help advance the age that nevertheless suffers by the very fact that while one part has indeed sunk completely into the mud, the other has presumed to climb so high that it can no longer find the ground beneath it. (28)

Schelling sought, much like Latour, to bring the natural sciences back down to earth. Also like Latour, he engaged natural philosophy (what has since become ecology) as a work of political theology. As Latour mentioned in his first lecture, political theology is articulated in the trinitarian terms of theos, demos, and nomos, or God, people, and land. In his preface to Clara, Schelling composes his own work of philosophical fiction concerning how the moderns had set apart ancient (Aristotlean) metaphysics from their own transcendental epistemology (a veiled metaphysics founded on bifurcation):

Through its name the old metaphysics declared itself to be a science that followed in accordance with, and that to some extent also followed from, our knowledge of nature and improved and progressed from that; thus in a certain competent and sound way that is of service only to those who have a desire for knowledge, metaphysics took the knowledge that it boasted in addition physics. Modern philosophy did away with its immediate reference to nature, or didn’t think to keep it, and proudly scorned any connection to physics. Continuing with its claims to a higher world, it was no longer metaphysics but hyperphysics. Only now did its complete incapacity for its proposed aim emerge. Because it wanted to spiritualize itself completely, it first of all threw away the material that was absolutely necessary to the process and right from the very beginning it kept only what was spiritual…In this state of affairs there was indeed no other means of restoring philosophy than by calling it back to earth—albeit not from heaven, which it had renounced, but from that empty space in which it was suspended between heaven and earth. This happened through the philosophy of nature. Nevertheless, it was only to be expected from the general order and run of things that the spiritualizers of this time would clamor that this beginning was bringing philosophy down, denying everything spiritual, even denying what was holy and divine…Just because of that we declare that however far we may care to drive the edifice of our thoughts in what follows, we will still only have achieved something if the temple whose last spire disappears into an inaccessible light is, at its very deepest foundation, wholly supported by nature. (3-5)

Schelling’s “nature,” of course, is not the unified, undisputed, externalized nature of the moderns. Schelling’s nature is a dynamically evolving pluriverse of potencies. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is perhaps the first “post-epistemological science,” as Latour calls it: it is the first science to be done with the modernist images of spirit “in here” and nature “out there.” For Schelling, the human is the turning point between the physical and the spiritual. I quote the doctor at length:

…shouldn’t we suppose that a divine law prescribed that nature should rise up first to man in order to find within him the point at which the two worlds are unified; that afterwards the one should immediately merge with the other through him, the growth of the external world continuing uninterrupted into the inner or spirit world?… Man would have lived both a spiritual and bodily life at the same time, even here; the whole of nature would have risen to heaven or to an enduring and eternal life in and with man. God did not want a lifeless or necessary tie (between the external and inner world), but a free and living one, and man bore the word of this link in his heart and on his lips. Thus the whole of nature’s elevation, too, depended on man’s freedom. It rested on whether he would forget what was behind him and reach toward what lay before him. Now, however, man reached back (how this happened and why God permitted it, I do not ask); man even called for and hankered back to this external world, and by stopping not only his own progress, but that of the whole of nature, he thereby lost the heavenly world. Whoever has seen with their own eyes what terrible consequences a constricted development has on the human body, a development that nature strongly desires; whoever has seen how a crisis in an illness remains, due to an inept treatment or to a weakness already present, making the crisis unmanageable, and how such a crisis immediately causes the body’s strength to relapse to a mortal frailty unfailingly resulting in death; whoever has seen this will be able to get a general idea of the destructive effects that the constriction of evolution suddenly entering in through man must have had on the whole of nature. The strength that had emerged fully and powerfully, ready to rise up into a higher world and to reach its point of transfiguration, withdrew back into the present world and consequently suffocated the inner drive toward life. This drive, though still like a fire enclosed within, now acted as a fire of pain and fear looking everywhere for an outlet because it was no longer possible for it to rise up. Any stage leading upward is delightful, but the one that has fallen is frightful. Doesn’t everything point to a life that has sunk downward? Have these hills grown just as they stand here? Has the ground that carries us come about by rising up or by sinking back? And, in addition, surely it’s not that a stable, constant order prevails here, but that chance, too, set in once the lawful development had been constricted? Or who will believe that the waters that so obviously have had an effect everywhere, that have severed these valleys and have left behind so many sea creatures in our hills, are the result of everything working in accordance with an inner law? Who will suppose that a divine hand has laid hard stone on top of slippery clay, so that the rocks would subsequently slide down and bury in terrible ruins not only the peaceful valleys dotted with people’s homes, but also the walkers happily going their way? Oh, the true ruins are not those of ancient human splendor that the curious seek out in the Persian or Indian deserts; the whole Earth is one great ruin, where animals live as ghosts and men as spirits and where many hidden powers and treasures are locked away as if by an invisible strength or by a magician’s spell. And we wanted to blame these powers that are locked up rather than thinking about freeing them within us first? Certainly, in his own way man is no less spellbound and transformed. Because of this, heaven sent higher beings from time to time, who were supposed to undo the spell within his inner being and to open up to him a glance into the higher world again with their wonderful hymns and magic charms. Most people, however, are completely captivated by external appearances and think that it is therein that it is to be found. Just as farmers creep round an old, destroyed, or enchanted castle with divining rods in their hands, or shine their lamps into chambers buried underground, and even go with crowbars and levers in the hope of finding gold or other valuables: so, too, does man go about nature, entering some of her hidden rooms and calling this search “natural science.” But the treasures are not covered by rubble alone; the treasures have been locked up in the very wreckage and rocks themselves by a spell that only another magic charm can undo. (23-24)

Schelling here hints at the connections only now becoming obvious to us (we the people of earth) between our way of knowing and our way of dwelling. Do we dwell on the earth? That seems obvious enough. But do we know earthily–that is, do we think nature heartily, with heart (the organ of imagination), rather than resentfully, with hatred for our fallen condition? Do we tell our theostories as if from nowhere (history), as if from an aerial vantage point looking back at earth as we flee from her terrors and repress our own humble origins from out of her soils? Or do we set our stories in place, telling them while firmly planted on this planet among its human and non-human people (geostory)?

Latour is asked at they end of his talk [1:09:00] a rather simple question: What of magic? He jokes that he was too fearful for his life to bring it up having recently learned of Edinburgh’s history of witch-hunting. I get the impression, though, that an earthly science would have more in common with the ancient relational knowledges of elemental alchemy and geocentric astrology than it does with the alienating informatics of modern techno-industrial capitalism.

“Just think,” continues Schelling’s doctor, “of nature’s many bright and beneficent strengths…

She still hasn’t forgotten that through man she shall be raised up further and freed, that even now the talisman still lies within him through which she will be redeemed. That is why she comes to man in thanks when he scatters seeds on the earth, tills and waters the wild and arid ground, and why she rewards him with extravagant abundance. It seems to me that her feeling for man is essentially one of friendship and often of sympathy…on her great path to the common good nature can perhaps only seldom take part in the fate and mood of an individual. But perhaps important changes have never happened in whole nations without there being a general shift in nature at the same time. History books are full of this; how many signs from heaven, in the air and on earth, have presaged these fateful times. Everything speaks to us and would so much like to make itself understood. (26)

Magic, according to the Whiteheadian poet Charles Stein, can be defined as “the art of producing ontological shifts in public.” I’m more and more convinced that Latour’s tactic is to bring magic back into the matter of science so as to better publicize its powers.

3 Replies to “Schellingian Reflections on Latour’s 2nd Gifford Lecture – “A Shift in Agency, With Apologies to Hume””

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s