Climate Change and Schelling’s inversion of Fichte’s “economic-teleological” principle

Two disappointing tidbits of news from the front lines of the climate war came my way this morning.

First, I learned that the US Department of State decided to contract out its recent environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to a company called Environmental Resources Management. ERM happens to be “a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, big oil’s top lobbying group,” according to Here is a sample of the sort of analysis ERM offers its big oil clients (like TransCanada, the co. building the Keystone XL pipeline):

Earth has already experienced, a modest increase in global average temperature of 0.8 °C since pre-industrial times. Nonetheless, even small variations in average conditions can have a big influence on extremes such as droughts and floods, as the world has witnessed over the last decade. As extreme weather events become more frequent, and climate change continues to modify operating environments, risks and opportunities will grow in importance for the [extractives] sector.

The extractives sector is considered critical in building a more sustainable global economy. Capital investments made today, whether into mining, conventional or unconventional oil and gas developments like shale gas and oil sands have the potential to secure the world’s future energy and resource demand for decades to come. Considering the long timescales and the importance of these investments, it would be negligent not to consider the steps necessary to make such projects resilient to future expected climate change related risks. A simple economic analysis almost always demonstrates substantial pay back on the investment necessary to make a project climate resilient.

So let me get this straight: ERM readily acknowledges that climate change is actually occurring, and then in the very next breath advises oil, gas, and coal companies whose product is causing said climate change to “consider the steps necessary to make [their extractive projects] resilient to future expected climate change related risks.” I assume they mean primarily two sorts of risk: that posed to mining/drilling infrastructure by extreme weather, and that posed by the American public coming to its senses about the existential severity of the climate crisis. The first risk is an easily solvable “engineering problem” (more on this in a moment). The second risk is solvable through political lobbying and mass disinformation campaigns. Even if the American pubic was able to come to its senses, its not clear that our president or congressional representatives would pass laws to protect us (and the rest of the earth community) from the very companies that bankroll their campaigns. Big oil knows that climate change will be severe enough to threaten its profit margin. Its response is not to invest in innovation or already existing cleaner alternative energy sources, but to dig in its heels by improving the “resilience” of its current business model (=get the fossil fuel out of the ground, to the market, and into the atmosphere as profitably as possible). They are even shameless enough to borrow an ecological term to describe their model.

The second tidbit of news comes from Exxon Mobil’s recent shareholder meeting. The CEO of the company, Rex Tillerson, had this to say in his speech during the event:

“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Is anyone else having as much trouble with his myopically anthropocentric logic as I am? He went on to argue that “there’s no quick replacement for oil, and sharply cutting oil’s use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it harder to lift 2 billion people out of poverty,” according to Daily Kos. As if big oil shareholders give a damn about raising people out of poverty…After all, where would big oil build its poisonous, poorly managed refineries if there weren’t poor ghettos (like Richmond, CA)? Here’s Tillerson being interviewed about climate change last year at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations:

“Its an engineering problem,” he says. “We will adapt.” Perhaps the rich will adapt, but not until much of the world’s human and animal population has died off. Tillerson goes on to repeat his concern for all the poor people who so desperately need electricity. I admit, its not at all fair that the developed world gets to live in a technological wonderland while half the world’s population barely has enough rice to eat and has to shit in a hole. But how about we Americans help raise the rest of the world out of poverty by learning to live with it being darker when the sun sets, with carpooling, with fewer servings of meat per day? Human beings have only had cars and electricity for a century or so, and already these conveniences have become so necessary we’re willing to destroy the planet so everyone can have the experience of microwaving leftover pizza or being stuck in traffic? Why does the enterprise of human civilization necessarily have to involve trying to exterminate the non-human biotic community in order to replace it with a human-made technosphere?

Thinking about big oil’s role in climate change lead me to re-read two fascinating papers on Schelling. One is by Iain Hamilton Grant (‘The “Eternal and Necessary Bond Between Philosophy and Physics”: a repetition of the difference between the fichtean and schellingian systems of philosophy,’ Angelaki, No. 10, Vol. 1, (2005), 43-59). Grant argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie inverts the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle, which has it that because man cannot know nature in itself, he must remake it for himself. Schelling rejects the anthropocentric Kantian-Fichtean program that justifies treating nature as the raw material awaiting human capitalization by inverting transcendental idealism so it becomes transcendental physics, which has it that nature is not only product but productivity, a productivity that “is as active in geology as in [human] ideation” (Grant, 53). It is therefore not only human beings who act to shape a passive nature, since “nature is its own lawgiver” (Schelling, SW IV: 96). The human imagination is understood to be a potentialization of nature’s original creativity.

Big oil may be the most powerful expression of the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle on earth at this particular historical juncture. It is leading the fight to remake the planet in our own industrial image.

The other Schelling paper is by Jason Wirth (“Mass Extinction: Schelling and Natural History,” Poligrafi: Journal for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion. No. 61-62, Vol. 16 (2011), 43-63). Wirth’s book on Schelling (The Conspiracy of Life, 2002) is rather severely criticized by Grant for Fichteanizing Schelling by making it seem as though the latter prioritizes ethics over physics. I’ll have more to say about this validity of this charge at a later time. For now, I just want to direct you to this paper (hopefully you have access to it; I don’t have a PDF, sorry!) It seems clear enough to me that Wirth’s treatment of the philosophical significance of species extinction lines up with Grant’s: the extinction of species is a pretty strong counter-argument to idealism of the Kantian, Fichtean, or Hegelian variety.

Does it make sense to claim that the root of the climate crisis is metaphysical? Can attacking big oil at an ideological level actually do anything to hamper their business model? Might Schelling’s philosophical inversion of the “anti-physics” of so much modern thought provide at least a sense of self-understanding to those who discover more concrete forms of resistance?

Nihilism and Groundlessness: Towards a Gaian Praxecology?

I’ve just gotten around to reading Michael/ArchiveFire‘s post last September regarding a “post-nihilistic praxis.” 

It’s got me reflecting on what the “creaturely” might mean/be after the death of God (the Creator), or what the “facticity of matter” might mean/be after its traditional opposite, the activity of spirit, has been reduced by natural science or deconstructed by post-modern philosophy. What is the “creaturely,” the “material”? Can they have a definite meaning without consideration of the (real) nature of their opposites? Do they have a ground internal to themselves? Or are they groundless? I’d say not only spirit, but matter, too lacks an internal ground. They are both grounded outside themselves, by each other.

Might we say that the need for a post-nihilistic praxis has arisen for (post)modernity precisely due to its encounter with groundlessness (i.e., the “unprethinkable,” the non-reason-able), both the groundlessness of spirit (=freedom) and the groundlessness of matter (=gravity)? The Modern project is driven by the feeling of vertigo associated with the Abgrund, which is to say the entire enterprise of Enlightenment society to manufacture a more hygienic “second nature” to replace the first has been driven by a sort of nihilism, a desire not only to kill an all good God but to kill an entirely feral Gaia, to replace him with our own intelligence (=techno-science) and to replace her with an entirely domesticated techno-oikos. A post-nihilistic praxis, or at least a rhetorical gesture towards one, seems to me to have been well expressed by Latour during his Gifford lectures. I tried my hand at such a praxis in this essay on what I’ve called Gaian praxecology


Latour annunciating his religion…

“Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, or How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate” (2004) by Bruno Latour

There is nothing extravagant, spiritual, or mysterious in beginning to describe religious talk in this way.We are used to other, perfectly mundane forms of speech that are evaluated not by their correspondence with any state of affairs either, but by the quality of the interaction they generate from the way they are uttered. This experience—and experience is what we wish to share—is common in the domain of “love-talk” and, more largely, personal relations. “Do you love me?” is not assessed by the originality of the sentence—none are more banal, trivial, boring, rehashed—but rather by the transformation it manifests in the listener, as well as in the speaker. Information talk is one thing, transformation talk is another. When the latter is uttered, something happens. A slight displacement in the normal pace of things. A tiny shift in the passage of time. You have to decide, to get involved: maybe to commit yourselves irreversibly. We are not only undergoing an experience among others, but a change in the pulse and tempo of experience: kairos is the word the Greeks would have used to designate this new sense of urgency.

Religion does not even attempt to race to know the beyond, but attempts at breaking all habits of thoughts that direct our attention to the far away, to the absent, to the overworld, in order to bring attention back to the incarnate, to the renewed presence of what was before misunderstood, distorted and deadly, of what is said to be “what was, what is, what shall be,”  toward those words
that carry salvation. Science does not directly grasp anything accurately, but slowly gains its accuracy, its validity, its truth-condition by the long, risky, and
painful detour through the mediations of experiments not experience, laboratories not common sense, theories not visibility, and if she is able to obtain truth it is at the price of mind-boggling transformations from one media into

the next. Thus, to even assemble a stage where the deep and serious problem of  “the relationship between science and religion” could unfold is already an imposture, not to say a farce that distorts science and religion, religion and
science beyond all recognition.


Iconophily is in continuing the process begun by an image, in a prolongation of the flow of images. St. Gregory continues the text of the Eucharist when he sees the Christ in his real and not symbolic flesh, and the painter continues the miracle when he paints the representation in a picture that reminds us of what it is to understand really what this old mysterious text is about; and I, now, today, continue the painter’s continuation of the story reinterpreting the text, if, by using slides, arguments, tones of voices, anything, really anything at hand, I make you aware again of what it is to understand those images without searching for a prototype, and without distorting them in so many information-transfer vehicles. Iconoclasm or iconolatry, then, is nothing but freeze-framing, interrupting the movement of the image and isolating it out of its flows of renewed images to believe it has a meaning by itself—and because it has none, once isolated it should be destroyed without pity.
By ignoring the flowing character of science and religion we have turned the question of their relations into an opposition between “knowledge” and “belief,” opposition that we then deem necessary either to overcome, to politely resolve, or to widen violently. What I have argued in this lecture is very different: belief is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science. Belief is patterned after a false idea of science, as if it was possible to raise the question “Do you believe in God?” along the same pattern as “Do you believe
in global warming?” Except the first question does not possess any of the instruments that would allow the reference to move on, and the second is leading the locutor to a phenomenon even more invisible to the naked eye than that of God, because to reach it we have to travel through satellite imaging, computer simulation, theories of earth atmospheric instability, high stratosphere chemistry, and so forth. Belief is not a quasi-knowledge question plus a leap of faith to reach even further away; knowledge is not a quasi-belief question that would be answerable by looking directly at things close at hand.

What I mean is that in the cases of both science and religion, freeze framing, isolating a mediator out of its chains, out of its series, instantly forbids the meaning to be carried in truth. Truth is not to be found in correspondence—either between the word and the world in the case of science, or between the original and the copy in the case of religion—but in taking up again
the task of continuing the flow, of elongating the cascade of mediations one step further. My argument is that, in our present economy of images, we might have made a slight misunderstanding of Moses’s Second Commandment and thus lacked respect for mediators. God did not ask us not to make images—what else do we have to produce objectivity, to generate piety?—but he told us not to freeze-frame, not to isolate an image out of the flows that only provide them with their real (their constantly re-realized, re-represented) meaning.
I have most probably failed in extending the flows, the cascade of mediators to you. If so, then I have lied, I have not been talking religiously; I have not been able to preach, but I have simply talked about religion, as if there was a domain of specific beliefs one could relate to by some sort of referential grasp. This then would have been a mistake just as great as that of the lover who, when asked “do you love me?” answered, “I have already told you so many years ago, why do you ask again?” Why? Because it is no use having told me so in the past, if you cannot tell me again, now, and make me alive to you
again, close and present anew. Why would anyone claim to speak religion, if it is not in order to save me, to convert me, on the spot?

Tolkien on mythopoetics

I just came across an apt addition to the discussion last week on myth and religion. In a letter to C. S. Lewis, Tolkien writes: “If God is mythopoeic, man must become mythopathic.”

Given that all forms of literalism as regards the scientific or spiritual nature of reality are to be rejected, the only remaining path to the achievement of knowledge of a living nature or faith in a living God is through a sensitivity to the poetic origins of meaning. To argue that, due to modern scientistic-mechanistic explanations, meaning can and should be recognized as a social farce or figment of the brain is to fall prey to a kind of transcendental illusion by forgetting that all such supposedly literal explanations depend upon a substrate of mythopoeia as the condition of their meaningful expression. Also, following on Tolkien’s statement, it’s become apparent to me that meaning isn’t just actively constructed or made (i.e., poiesis), it is passively sensed or felt (i.e., pathos). So perhaps both science and religion, in order to overcome the temptation of monological literalism which results from an overly active pursuit of technical control or spiritual certainty, might develop a more receptive practice of listening for divine revelations in the meandering and multifaceted meanings of nature.

Responding to Levi Bryant on the Question of Religion

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

Reflections on nihilism as a belief system

Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.

My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity” (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.

Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).

{Update: check out the discussion surrounding Bryant’s dark ontology over at the Integral Post-Metaphysics blog.}

Reflections on Deleuze’s Engagement with Natural Science in D&R

In chapter V of Difference and Repetition, “The Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible,” Deleuze engages with the various scientific theories of 19th and 20th century thermodynamics, not by identifying his fictions with scientific facts, but by detonating the philosophical idea of “intensive depth” in range of the qualitative extensity studied in terms of the scientific concept of entropy. The scientific concept of entropy, when subject to the dogmatic image of thought, comes to be described as the universe’s smooth and continuous causal transition from an improbably heterogeneous past state into more probable homogeneous future state. Deleuze, it seems to me, wants to save the metaphysical implications of the concept of entropy from the physical reductionism of a still all too Cartesian science.

Some commentators, like Badiou and Joe Hughes (A Reader’s Guide, 2009), insist that Deleuze’s engagement with natural scientific concepts is purely metaphorical and not at all physical. Hughes writes (153):

“We therefore have to be careful about concentrating too much on the scientific notion of intensity. Deleuze is concerned with founding representation, not thermodynamics. He says of Nietzsche at one point in the chapter that ‘[i]t is true that Nietzsche was interested in the energetics of his time, but this was not the scientific nostalgia of the philosopher’ (D&R, 243). The same can be said of Deleuze. In the same way that Deleuze’s theory of Ideas was not fundamentally related to mathematics, his theory of intensity is not tied to thermodynamics (and his theory of individuation is not tied to biology). Deleuze is neither a scientist nor a philosopher of science. Science never leaves the realm of fact, but Deleuze is interested in the constitution of facticity itself. What is at issue in these discussions then is not the nature of intensity as it appears in science, or even of founding the scientific notion, but of drawing inspiration from science in order to develop a philosophical concept. ‘Intensive quantity is a transcendental principle, not a scientific concept’” (D&R, 240-241).

I must disagree with Hughes’ reading here. It is at best a partial reading. Partial because, when Hughes quotes Deleuze as saying that intensive quantity is transcendental and not physical, he shortens Deleuze’s sentence, which actually begins: “Energy or intensive quantity is a transcendental principle…” Deleuze is not just drawing inspiration from science, he is ungrounding representational interpretations of natural science to show that general concepts like “energy” in thermodynamics, “differential” in calculus, “gene” in biology, or “phoneme” in linguistics (D&R, 278) are really virtual intensive quantities which only become recognizable to scientific consciousness after they’ve been covered over by qualities and explicated in extensity. Far from turning to the natural sciences merely to extract their metaphorics, Deleuze critiques the naïve physicalism of these sciences in order to install the genetic power of the transcendental at the heart of nature itself.

Deleuze is trying to provide the natural science of his day with a metaphysics; but like Schelling (see Preface to Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature), he meant his metaphysics to come after physics, and not before it. By engaging with the natural sciences, Deleuze doesn’t mean to undermine them by applying transcendental limits to subjective knowledge; his transcendental empiricism aims to unsettle the clear and distinct categories of scientific representation by pointing to the ceaseless rumbling of a volcanic nature whose groundless ground (Abgrund) constantly disturbs the smooth surface features that allow for lawful generalization. The inner nature of the scientist, with all the truth and good sense of his inductive method, projects an external nature that circles and so repeats lawfully without undue difference. Deleuze’s philosophy of difference is a direct assault upon such a Cartesian science, on the way it covers over the implication of ideal intensities without affirming the virtual processes that remain behind or beneath these coverings, processes which Deleuze argues provide the conditions for the actuality of the qualitative extensities measured by the scientist. Deleuze’s differential concept of nature is spiralic: nature is groundlessly creative; it is eternally recurring but only by repeatedly disguising its own intensive depth; it is always spinning out of the general categories or circles of control posited by the spectating scientific Cogito. There is a ceaseless rumbling in nature that forms cracks in every smooth ground or sufficient reason that might pretend to hold back the transcendental volcano of virtual intensities, a rumbling forever forcing thought to think.

Historical Background and Overview for “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy”

I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.


This dissertation examines the metaphysics of imagination in the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead through the hermeneutical lens of a certain stream of Western esotericism. In describing the process-philosophical imagination as etheric, I aim in particular to cross-fertilize the process tradition with 20th century esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body. The concept of an ether body did not originate with Steiner, but he provides an example of a modern hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of natural science and deep familiarity with the esoteric history of philosophy, particularly German Idealism, make him among the best possible candidates for such a comparative project. The exact origins of the Western esoteric tradition are notoriously difficult to trace. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, esotericism’s beginnings “have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.”5 In her groundbreaking study of Renaissance hermeticism, Francis Yates argued that it was Issaac Casaubon’s post-Christian dating of hermetic texts supposed by Renaissance magi like Ficino to predate Moses that definitively “shattered at one blow” the entire conceptual edifice of the esoteric prisci theologi.6 In contrast to Yates, Garth Fowden makes the case that these early hermetic texts are more continuous with the Egyptian alchemical tradition than Casaubon realized.7 The question of the origin of any tradition is inherently controversial. The true source of the hermetic tradition is especially contested due in no small part to its penchant for religious hybridization. Rather than try to stake out a position in this controversy, my research into the weird family of esoteric traditions will proceed without any assumption of purity. Steiner is foregrounded only because of his familiarity with Schelling and modern science, not because his Anthroposophy is somehow the most “authentic” expression of esotericism.

In his introduction to The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Joshua Ramey laments the “general academic-philosophical prejudice” against esotericism, suggesting that this prejudice “constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture.”8 Ramey’s more pessimistic attitude is tempered by S. J. McGrath, who in the introduction to The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012) suggests that esotericism “is gaining respect in non-foundationalist academic circles” due largely to “the postmodern absence of authoritative arguments for continuing to exclude whole genres of Western literature from more canonically respectable studies in religion and philosophy.”9

Like the esoteric traditions, the process tradition has also found itself on the margins of the Western philosophical canon, and is only more recently being creatively retrieved by a number of academics across multiple disciplines. Most standard readings of the history of modern philosophy consider Schelling to be a mere stepping-stone between Fichte’s subjective and Hegel’s absolute idealism. Though usually characterized along with them as an “idealist” himself, I will follow thinkers like Iain Hamilton Grant10 and Arran Gare11 by situating Schelling within the process tradition as a thinker primarily of nature (be it human, divine, or cosmic nature).

Contemporary Schelling scholar Jason Wirth finds it regrettable that “many have long thought that we are done with Schelling, that he is a ‘dead dog.’”12 It seems that the only respectable academic tasks remaining are to “[dissect] the corpus of Schelling into its various periods and phases,…expose inconsistencies in his thinking, attach various isms to his arguments, [and/or to] situate him in some narrative within the history of philosophy.”13 More recently, however, due in some part to Wirth’s and Grant’s efforts, this sentiment seems to be shifting; as Wirth writes, “after more than a century and a half of neglect, Schelling’s time has come.”14 One of the principle reasons for this emerging Schelling renaissance, I’ll argue, is the relevance of his process-oriented Naturphilosophie to the task of re-thinking the relationship between humanity and earth in light of the planetary ecological crisis.

The longstanding neglect of Schelling, especially in the Anglo-American academy, has not been without reason. There is indeed something strange and extravagant, even occult, about Schelling’s thought, at least when judged from within the intellectual strictures of modern academic philosophy. However, the severity of the ecological crisis has brought many of the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy into doubt,15 opening the way for a reconsideration not only of Schelling’s conception of an ensouled cosmos, but of a whole swathe of previously marginalized esoteric philosophical literature. Schelling’s approach to philosophy was deeply influenced by the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Philipp Matthäus Hahn, and Franz von Baader, which makes the cross-fertilization of the process and esoteric traditions sought in my dissertation all the more appropriate.

Though somewhat influential among American theologians during the later half of the 20th century, until quite recently Whitehead, like Schelling, has been neglected by academic philosophers. According to Michel Weber and Anderson Weekes, this neglect is largely the fault of Whiteheadians themselves, whose almost total focus on scholastic textual exegesis and lack of interdisciplinary outreach has threatened Whitehead’s ideas with extinction by creating the perception that they are only available “in fossil form.”16 Weber and Weekes’ negative assessment of the last half-century of Whitehead scholarship may be somewhat overstated, especially considering the many examples of interdisciplinary engagement in the work of Whiteheadian theologians like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Though there may have been an element of “scholasticism” that assumed the superior capacity of Whitehead’s technical system to conduct and translate interdisciplinary disagreement, the more probable reason for process philosophy’s academic marginalization is the fact that it conceives of nature as enchanted and takes notions like panpsychism and the existence of an encosmic divinity seriously.

Whether or not Weber and Weekes’ have overstated the insularity of the first wave of Whitehead scholarship, they represent part of a second wave of outsiders who are, as they put it, “storming the museum.”17 Another second wave Whiteheadian, Isabelle Stengers, argues that the Whiteheadian palette is currently being greatly enriched “by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education…in a singularly lively and tenacious way.”18 Rather than approaching Schelling and Whitehead as a museum curator, my dissertation will aim to breathe new life into their thought, to think with them towards a more imaginative philosophy of mind and of nature enriched by the speculative resources of esoteric wisdom.

According to McGrath, though the esoteric schools represent a diverse set of theories and practices, they are nonetheless “united by a common enemy: the desacralization of nature (material nature, human nature, cosmological nature) by techno-science and capitalist consumerism.”19 He argues that critiques of esotericism as “regressive,” “anti-modern,” and “anti-scientific” are misguided. Although esotericism shares modernity’s “impulse toward human amelioration through science,” it seeks this amelioration through an alternative conception of the human-cosmos relation: “Western esoteric nature-philosophy refuses to follow mainstream natural science and split mind from matter, spirit from animal, finite from infinite…Esoteric modernity is a road not taken in the history of science…a modern approach to nature which was openly rejected in the seventeenth century because it did not grant us the calculative control which techno-science demanded of the Western mind.”20 One of the major goals of this dissertation is to show that, along with Western esotericism, process philosophy also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of modernity no longer bent on the domination of human and earthly nature by alienated modes of theoretical and practical rationality. Both the esoteric and process traditions provide philosophy with a new way of seeing the universe–a way of seeing (i.e., the etheric imagination) which in turn may provide humanity with a new way of living in concert with the wider community of life on earth.

Imagination itself has had a rather tense, even tumultuous, relationship to philosophy going all the way back to Plato, who infamously denied poets entry to his ideal city.21 For many philosophers in the modern Western tradition, its ineffable, largely non-rational and often erotically charged powers were considered deeply suspect, both for epistemological and for ethical reasons–even when imagination played a central role in their own philosophical systems! For example, as Alexander Schlutz argues, even though Descartes “forcefully excludes imagination from his conception of the cogito,”22 he nonetheless draws upon its poetic powers repeatedly in his physical speculations, and even admits during his autobiographical narration in Discourse on the Method (1637) that “doubt itself…is a product of imagination.”23 Similarly, though Kant affirms imagination as an “indispensable function of the human soul,” he also denigrates it as “a potential source of madness, delusion, and mental derangement.”24 I will revisit the paradox of this “double gesturing” by the major figures in the history of philosophy throughout my dissertation, connecting it to the polar, oscillatory dynamism so characteristic of imagination. I will attempt to articulate a less ambiguous, esoterically-inflected approach to the philosophical imagination that is responsive to the challenges made evident by these major figures.


5 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.

6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), 400.

7 Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986), 34-35.

8 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6-8.

9 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 21.

10 Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006).

11 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011.

12 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1. Wirth here employs the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s epithet originally coined as a reference to Spinoza, a controversial figure in Germany at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a major influence on Schelling.

13 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1-2.

14 Wirth, ed., Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), 9.

15 Schelling was ahead of his time in this respect, writing in 1809 that “The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 26).

16 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.

17 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.

18 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), 6.

19 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.

20 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.

21 Though of course, Plato’s relationship to imagination and poetry is not so cut and dry. He may have banished the poets from his Republic, but he himself was one of the most imaginative and poetic writers in the history of letters.

22 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.

23 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 77.

24 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.

Robert Romanyshyn’s “alchemical hermeneutics” as the foundation of a method in the participatory study of esotericism

Romanyshyn’s alchemical hermeneutics as the foundation of a method in the participatory study of esotericism

Robert Romanyshyn has developed a depth psychological method informed by hermeneutic phenomenology but ultimately rooted in alchemy. In approaching my research on the etheric imagination, I’ve turned to Romanyshyn’s method of alchemical hermeneutics because it allows for the retrieval of pre-modern esoteric wisdom in a post-modern academic context. An alchemical hermeneutics avails me of many of the same symbolic spells and metaphoric magic once invoked by ancient alchemists in the ritual performance of their ensouled universe stories. Romanyshyn has made it easier to become methodologically aware of the creative power of the very etheric imagination my historical research aims to discover. My study of esoteric philosophy can thus itself proceed by way of a magical method. As Fichte wrote, the sufficiently imaginative philosopher “has the power of telling his hearers in advance what he will produce in them and, if they will but understand him, the power of producing it.”57

Fichte, despite being a philosopher of absolute subjectivity, immediately adds to the above statement that he not only has the power to produce insight in his listeners, he has the power to do so “with certainty.” Philosophy has long been dreaming of an infallible, scientific method–a way of presenting its findings that would imitate geometry (more geometrico) so as to force any listeners to accept its objectively derived verdict. Romanyshyn argues that anxiety concerning the ambiguous presence of the subject in scientific work provides the principle motivation underlying “method” in the sciences.58 Scientific method in this sense becomes “technique” and is “designed to replace the presence of the researcher as subject.”59 In practice, such methods only succeed in repressing the “transference field”60 that inevitably emerges between a researcher and his or her work.

Romanyshyn draws on Martin Packer and Richard Addison’s Entering the Circle: Hermeneutic Investigation in Psychology (1989) by suggesting that philosophers and psychologists have had only two “traditional twins” to draw from in pursuit of a method that apes the sciences: rationalism and empiricism. “In both stances,” they write, “method is considered a matter of procedure or technique, involving analytical operations that require no involvement of human judgment and valuation.”61 Romanyshyn, like Schelling and Whitehead, opts for a third way beyond the simple opposition between empiricism and rationalism by articulating an imaginal approach to philosophical hermeneutics.

For Schelling, it may seem at first that idealism would be preferred over empiricism, but even in his early System of Transcendental Idealism (1800),62 he already understood how these apparently distinct philosophical schools represent the dependently co-arising active/intellectual and passive/sensory poles of imagination. Imagination always oscillates between the ideal and the real without settling on either as primary.63 From Whitehead’s perspective, both the empiricist and the rationalist branches of modern epistemology stem from an identical set of related mistakes: 1) the assumption that the five senses are the only definite “avenues of communication” between human experience and the external world, and 2) the assumption that conscious introspection is our sole means of analyzing experience.64 The first mistake is to ignore the fact that “the living organ of experience is the living body as a whole.”65 This “living organ” is etheric imagination, capable of perceiving the creative advance of nature through a sub-sensory mode of experience referred to by Whitehead as “causal efficacy.” The second, related mistake is to ignore the way that conscious introspection, though it “lifts the clear-cut data of sensation into primacy,” for that very reason “cloaks the vague compulsions and derivations which form the main stuff of experience.”66 Whitehead’s speculative philosophical method, like Romanyshyn’s psychologically-informed method of alchemical hermeneutics, attempts to draw its data not only from the clear and distinct ideas of conscious attention, but from the unconscious depths of psychosomatic experience.

Rather than attempting to remove the subject from research by repressing the transference field between researcher and work, an alchemical hermeneutics is ever attentive to the depths of the unconscious psyche, depths ranging “from the personal through the cultural-historical and collective-archetypal to the eco-cosmological realms of the psychoid archetype.”67 Contrary to those who cling to the solar rationality of consciousness by dismissing the unconscious as purely irrational, Romanyshyn affirms the capacity of the unconscious to think in its own lunar way, a way of thinking the ancients believed was reflective of the lumen naturae, the “light of nature.” Despite the daytime brightness of our egoic consciousness, we still ultimately live within the unconscious of nature and so remain at least dimly aware of nature’s “dark-light.”68 Just as Plato suspected in Timaeus, the soul is active in perception due to a dark-light that streams from the eyes to meet the day-light reflected off of material things. Before the “dayenglish” of our spoken signs, “dark precursors” silently run ahead of conscious meaning to dissolve and coagulate the meaning of things themselves. The meaning of the world, like language itself, is encrypted. If words, sentences, and stories lose their living spirit, language dissolves into letters, mere bones lying still in a silent crypt. An alchemical hermeneutics approaches imaginative work as a magical, theurgical practice–a practice capable, with proper cultivation, of raising the dead letter to its spiritual meaning.

Romanyshyn etymologically links “method” to the images of a path or a journey. When one articulates a method, they are mapping out the journey to be taken from a place of not knowing one’s topic to the place of coming to know it.69 A researcher’s chosen method already incarnates and enacts his beliefs about his subject. The “transference field” that emerges between a researcher and his work is a function of these beliefs and the metaphors deployed to support them. “Method is a perspective that both reveals a topic and conceals it,” writes Romanyshyn.70 Whitehead similarly suggests that, while “theory dictates method,” method provides the criteria determining in advance what can count as evidence in support of the theory.71 This means the researcher must remain hermeneutically sensitive to the way the metaphors deployed by his theoretical method have their generative roots in the polarity between identity and difference. The goal is to maintain a tension between these poles in the deployment of metaphors, without allowing them to slacken such that one or the other pole becomes the sole focus of one’s theory.72 If identity becomes the focus, the researcher becomes trapped in a sort of literalist realism, while if difference becomes the focus, he becomes trapped in relativism. It follows that we should not ask whether a theoretical method is true or false; rather, we should remain ever-attentive to the scope of its pragmatic application in the elucidation of experience.73

Hermeneutics is the method of choice whenever an ambiguous experiential topos, like etheric imagination, is the site of one’s interpretative activity. Romanyshyn links hermeneutics to the phenomenological practice of distinguishing between a text’s “presence” and “meaning.”74 This practice involves following the way meaning unfolds through repeated acts of turning and returning to the text. “Within the embrace of this circle of understanding, the knower approaches a text with some foreknowledge of it, which in turn is questioned and challenged and amplified by the text, thereby transforming the knower who returns to the text with a different understanding of it.”75 The hermeneutic circle of interpretation is a never-ending and so infinite task whereby the reader and the text entire a “spiral of engaged confrontation.”76 In the context of Schelling and Whitehead’s etheric process philosophies of nature, the researcher must be understood not only to turn and return to the latent meaning of historical texts, but also to find himself immersed in the sub-sensory textures of the physical cosmos, encompassed by the elemental forces of earth and sky informing our experience of the visible world. “The time of merely historical faith is past,” writes Schelling, “as soon as the possibility of immediate knowledge is given. We have an earlier revelation than any written one–nature. It contains archetypes which no one has yet interpreted, whereas the written ones have long since received their fulfillment and exegesis. If the understanding of that unwritten revelation were inaugurated, the only true system of religion and science would appear, not in the miserable garb pieced together out of a few philosophical and critical conceptions, but at once in the full significance of truth and nature.”77

By bringing hermeneutics to bear on alchemy, Romanyshyn aims to make the research process as receptive as it is reactive. By bringing alchemy to bear on hermeneutics, he aims to allow the researcher to be content to linger in reverie before immediately turning to critical analysis. Romanyshyn writes: “Alchemical hermeneutics is a way of remaining present to the fact that the wholly and holy other is present in the complexes that haunt our concepts, as well as in the myths that haunt our meanings, in the dreams that haunt our reasons, in the symptoms that haunt our symbols, in the fantasies that haunt our facts, in the fictions that haunt our ideas, and in the images…that dwell in events.”78 In this sense, alchemical hermeneutics aims to return the critical mind to its virginal state, such that Sophia and Hermes can stand beside one another: “To let Sophia join Hermes in the hermeneutic act challenges the usual position of the critical ego-mind in the research process,” writes Romanyshyn. “Alchemical hermeneutics is a joint affair, an animated hermeneutics of reveries and hospitality akin to the kind of presence that the alchemists and soror mysitca of old brought to their work.”79 Schelling calls the “mystical sister” of his own modern alchemical philosophy Beauty: “finally the idea which unites all, the idea of beauty, the word taken in the higher platonic sense. I am convinced that the highest act of reason…is an aesthetic act, and that truth [Hermes] and goodness [Sophia] are united like sisters only in beauty–The philosopher must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet. The people without aesthetic sense are our philosophers of the letter. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy.”80

As in alchemy, the key to an imaginal process philosophy is to continually “dissolve and coagulate,” since the goal is not to arrive at some final meaning as a solution, but to continually dissolve the meanings that emerge until the deeper soul of the work has been heard.81 We can be sure myth is operating unconsciously whenever we read a philosopher claiming self-certainty in method and meaning. To make myth consciously, we must engage the process of knowing poetically, which is to say, we must approach philosophy imaginatively. This means re-searching not for explanation, and not simply for understanding, but primarily for transmutation of both self and world. In service to such transmutation, an alchemical hermeneutics takes seriously not only conscious thoughts and sensations, but unconscious feelings and intuitions. In other words, all four of Jung’s psychological functions, or imaginal powers, are brought to the table (thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuiting). As an imaginal method, alchemical hermeneutics begins at the root of these four functions: imagination, which is not simply the common sense, but rather the protean organism without organs underlying each sense organ’s specialized function.82

Romanyshyn lists seven characteristic of an alchemical hermeneutic83:

Creative- it remains open “to whatever emerges from the ongoing dialogue between researcher and topic;

Dialogical- it seeks not a self-certain monological deduction or formal proof, but an other-hospitable con-spiracy capable of discovering truth not only through “complete speech” but through active listening (Hermes married to Sophia);

Imaginative- it “gives primacy to the invisible, an invisible that lends all sensible phenomena an other, supersensible reality”;

Aesthetic- it encourages writing poetically from experience, or writing that arises out of experience, rather than writing about experience;

Hierarchic- it “transmutes everything visible into symbols,” thereby “saving the appearances” of things by returning them to their original form (akin to Henri Corbin’s mystical method of “ta’wil”). “Maybe all our attempts at re-search,” writes Romanyshyn, “are sacred acts whose deep motive is salvation or redemption. Maybe all our research re-enacts the Gnostic dream of the fall of soul into time and its desire to return home”;

Spiritual- research can and must become an aspect of the individuation process;

Recreational- it is never finished, an infinite task, an ongoing play with others, with ancestors, those who shepherd the work. Akin to alchemical “meditatio” where the practitioner engages in inner dialogue with someone unseen.



57 Fichte, The Basic Traits of the Present Age (1804), transl. by Fritz Marti, introduction to On the Unconditioned, 18.

58 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 208.

59 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 209.

60 The “transference field” is “the alchemical vessel in which the complex researcher and the unfinished business in the soul of the work are mixed” (Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 227).

61 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 27.

62 Before his later differentiation between negative, rationalistic philosophy, and positive, “metaphysically empiricist,” philosophy.

63 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 70.

64 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 225.

65 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 225.

66 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 226.

67 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 210. The “psychoid,” following Jung, is “the place where consciousness matters and matter is ‘conscious’” (Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 255).

68 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 256.

69 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 215.

70 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 212.

71 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221-222.

72 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 213.

73 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.

74 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 221.

75 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 221.

76 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

77 Schelling, Philosophical Inquiries into the Nature of Human Freedom transl. by James Gutman (Peru, Illinois: Open Court, 1936), 98.

78 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 226.

79 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

80 “Oldest System Program of German Idealism”

81 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 233.

82 See my discussion of Deleuze’s “body without organs” in relation to the synthesis of the faculties.

83 Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher, 265-271.


William Irwin Thompson on Planetary Transformation

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology and I interviewed the integral philosopher William Irwin Thompson a while back. He recently posted a transcription of part of that encounter on his blog. Here’s a sample:

So imagine in a noetic polity that a girl is born, the very fact that she is a member of that polity would empower her to get an education, to go to a good school, to not starve on the street, to participate in the economic exchange of values with the idea that she’ll go on to contribute to her culture by creating Apple computers or new kinds of art or philosophy or technology, and that rather than being seen as a drain on the system, she makes a contribution. Recall that Reagan used to like to talk about welfare mothers in Chicago driving Cadillacs and living well while doing nothing but watching TV. This image comes from Reagan’s postwar TV culture of illusion and deception—Death Valley Days and Westerns. But in a post-television, post-national, post-market world, the culture would not be about passive consumption but participation in noetic polities through the growth of consciousness. Education becomes a primary institution of exchange in the same way that monasteries were in the Dark Ages.

One has to look at religion, economics and political structures as all part of this transition. Unfortunately, we’re living in the transition-state and we’re out of the event-horizon of the old basin of attraction, and we’ve entered the turbulent zone between two event-horizons, so we’re in for a very bumpy ride, because we haven’t yet entered the event horizon of the new cultural ecology of noetic polities. This transition probably won’t come easily, but will be characterized by die backs, pandemics, and ecological catastrophes, because for the past 40 years we’ve made all the wrong decisions, as you guys are aware. When Gore did not contest his plurality, but let the Supreme Court interfere with the election by supporting George W. Bush, we lost our last chance to avoid a catastrophic transition. Bush and the Neocons gave us the two trillion dollar war of Iraq and blocked the transition from economics to ecology as the governing science of a new planetary culture.

President Coolidge said that the business of America is business. Now most college kids want to get a job and make their education mean something as an investment from their parents.  They want to get an MBA from Harvard or Wharton, so our culture is still based upon  the business model of economics. Congress is still filled with businessmen and lawyers. The governing politicians now won’t accept ecological science, hence their denial of global warming, despite the fact that every major scientist in the prestigious journal Nature affirms that global warming is real and not a plot of Euro-intellectuals to introduce Socialism. Climate change is real. David Orr even goes so far as to call our situation one of climate collapse.  But Good ol’ Republican businessmen still insist that it is all a fraud, a scam. So our politicians are still trying to run this system with market theory and economics with good old-fashioned common business sense.  They’re now trying to run universities as profit-making systems, and thus they are getting rid of the humanities the way they got rid of the classics 40 years ago.  They are trying to get rid of intellectuals to mass-produce business, economics, and government majors. And to keep the Plebs happy, they invest more in sports and their required facilities than they do in the Humanities. So they are getting rid of literature, philosophy, and English—the kind of majors that encourage thinking instead of consuming. But here too, things are changing, because Creative Writing is now a consumers’ market and has been absorbed by the publishing and media industries. There are now literary journals that have no other purpose than to publish these artificial academic works in order to secure tenure for their A List writers. Creative Writing literature is like a yeast infection: it is a surface colony that parasitizes the reproductive system and gets in the way of the real thing. Writers should know things, so they should major in another subject from Astronomy to Zoology. The kind of liberal arts college education in which I studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona College fifty years ago is now no longer available or valued. You’re not going to get it at the Iowa Writers Workshop.


So that’s a big change in the notion of an educated citizenry. All the people who are now part of the government are the wrong kind of people for our global crisis. People like the McConnells and the Boehners–they don’t know what the hell is going on. So we are going to learn the hard way.


If we had listened to the first prophetic warnings in the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies–in all the work that Lindisfarne did 30 to 40 years ago–and even before that to Earth Day stuff in 1968, then we might have had leaders that were more open to a new world-view. Jerry Brown, when he was governor of California the first time, did listen and did come to some of our Lindisfarne meetings. Brown appointed  people like Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and Rusty Schweickart  who introduced new ways of thinking and new technologies of solar and wind and organic farming. Brown made the green architect Sim Van der Ryn to be state architect; so Brown did try to energize new ideas, but he was dismissed as “Governor Moonbeam” by the popular press–which is, of course, owned by the media corporations, of folks like Rupert Murdoch.  Jerry Brown would go to a Zen monastery like Tassajara and meditate, and so the popular press ridiculed him. Jerry has a lot of problems, like the rest of us, but he did have a political sense that these issues were the wave of the future, so it will be interesting to see now that he is governor again how he handles this transition we are in.


But for sure the concreteness of markets, solid gold currency–all of these instruments are inadequate and are an application of the wrong geometry to the behavior of the system we’re in. So often times it is outlaws, poets, mystics, and philosophers who get a sense of what the new thing is—as Bucky Fuller with his global-thinking pirates pointed out.


Remember even when science was replacing religion at the time of Newton, most of those guys were Rosicrucians and hermetic mystics (in the way Francis Yates has explored), and they were pretty wacky and really far-out kind of guys. They weren’t just classical scientific materialists– that came later with materialists like Lavoisier. So there is often a whole lunatic fringe, or cutting edge group of people, out there who are beginning to express the transition, but they are not the people who are governing us, so there is a time lag.

Theoretical Perspectives on Etheric Imagination

The following is the “theoretical perspectives” section of my dissertation. It introduces the ether concept I am attempting to imaginally construct with the help of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.


This dissertation argues that philosophical thinking, to eclipse the dualistic dogmas of today’s commonsense, must ally itself with the creative power of the etheric imagination. Why? Because every author is a poet, and to the extent that a philosopher grasps his tongue to speak or his pen to write, he becomes author and artist rather than simply reader or representer of Nature. The universe is not inertly given for representation: Nature, too, participates in varying degrees of animation and I-ness. The processual, or etheric, imagination approaches the task of philosophy primarily as a work of artistic interpretation of Nature’s inner life. Art, as Schelling puts it, becomes “at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy,” while “through the world of sense [Nature], there glimmers, as if through words the meaning, as if through dissolving mists the land of phantasy, of which [the philosopher is] in search.”25 Or as Steiner puts it, the philosopher’s artistic interpretation of Nature “appears as the herald of that lawfulness that the poet has grasped by listening to the world spirit within the depths of nature’s working. At this level, art becomes the interpreter of the mysteries of the world just as science is also, in a different sense.”26 Unlike the poet, who is all artist, the philosopher is also a scientist. The philosopher not only creates art, he discovers nature; he not only inscribes acts of mind, he reads facts of nature.

In describing the power of imagination in the work of Schelling and Whitehead as etheric, I aim not only to cross-fertilize the process tradition with Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body, but to creatively retrieve Schelling and Whitehead’s own cosmological ether theories.

Schelling shared the cosmological ether theory with most of his scientific contemporaries.27 He identified the infinite elasticity of the ether with the original polarity of forces animating both the one soul of the universe and the many souls within it.28 For Schelling, the ether is not just a scientific hypothesis about the natural world, it is the speculative philosophical postulate required to justify the pursuit of scientific knowledge of the physical world in the first place. If there were no organic unity to nature–if nature were not a self-organizing whole, but just a random assemblage of externally related parts–then we could never learn anything by way of natural scientific investigation. Schelling’s ether postulate secures the possibility of natural science by engendering a Naturphilosophie powered by etheric imagination, whereby the spiritual ether “in me” finds its point of indifference with the natural ether “out there.”29 Or as Schelling himself put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”30

The ether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetic phenomena until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.31 In 1919, Whitehead began articulating a cosmological ether theory as a direct response to Einstein’s replacement of the traditional “material ether” with a pre-given “space-time fabric.” In place of Einstein’s static ontology of space-time “tubes” pieced together out of static material instants, Whitehead constructed an “ether of events” on the basis of his own novel process ontology.32 “We must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material,” writes Whitehead, because “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.”33 “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”34 Whitehead’s evental ether is not the undetectable “shy ether behind the veil” thought to exist by 19th century physicists; rather, “the ether is exactly the apparent world, neither more nor less.”35 The ether, in other words, is that which gives experiential coherence and causal continuity to “the whole complex of events” constituting the universe.36 For Whitehead, as for Schelling, the ether is no mere scientific hypothesis about the mind-independent external world. Rather, it is a metaphysical principle constructed precisely to avoid “this unfortunate bifurcation” between subjective mind and objective nature by “[construing] our knowledge of the apparent world as being an individual experience of something which is more than personal.”37 “Nature,” Whitehead continues, “is thus a totality including individual experiences, so that we must reject the distinction between nature as it really is and experiences of it which are purely psychological. Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.”38

As for the esoteric conception of an ether body, although it did not originate with Steiner, he provides an example of a 20th century hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of modern science, not to mention his deep familiarity with German Idealist philosophy, make him among the best possible candidates for the type of comparative project I am attempting. Steiner, like Schelling and Whitehead, explicitly distinguishes his own use of the concept from the “hypothetical ether of the physicist.”39 The ether body is therefore not best imagined as an invisible gaseous substance floating around the physical body of an organism. To imagine the ether as an extended, three-dimensional body–even if a “subtle” body–is only to fashion an idol, to reflect upon a finished product instead of intuiting the creative process responsible for generating that product. An organism’s Ätherleib is then better imagined as a continually self-generating four-dimensional vortex of Ätherkräfte, or etheric forces. These forces are the non-spatial form-generating and form-remembering “agent-patients” of cosmic evolution.40 They are perceivable only to a self-cultivated (i.e., not innate or given by the birth of the physical body) etheric organ of affective thinking/intuitive intellection: the etheric imagination. The etheric imagination is not generated by the brain, but is rather the conscious expression of an otherwise unconscious morphogenic process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain and body.41 As a four-dimensional process, the activity of the Ätherkräfte that both generates the body and rises to consciousness as the etheric imagination is best pictured, if it must be pictured at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside-out to leave the living organism in its wake.

Picturing the activity of the etheric forces is ultimately impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal image seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

According to Steiner, “We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”42 This statement is nearly identical to those of Schelling and Whitehead above. “So long as I myself am identical with Nature,” says Schelling, “I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life.”43 “As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature,” he continues, “nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”44 As we’ve seen, Whitehead similarly argues that understanding the life of the actual occasions of nature requires first becoming conscious of, and then imaginatively generalizing the etheric structure-dynamic underlying our own conscious experience too all the individualities of nature. Such generalization allows for the creation of an experiential category applicable to the etheric dimension of any actual occasion.45 Only the etheric imagination can intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of natura naturans, the inner dimension of nature that is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off external nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive,” as Whitehead called it,46 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of merely reflective sense-bound understanding. “Nature speaks to us the more intelligibly the less we think of her in a merely refelctive way,” writes Schelling.47 To think nature as living, our own thinking must come to life, must become etheric.

According to Owen Barfield, who along with Jonael Schickler will assist my retrieval of Steiner’s work, the forces of the etheric organ of perception can be understood as “imagination operating in reverse…Whereas imagination uses the spatial to get to the non-spatial, what the organic [etheric] force is doing is moving out of the non-spatial realm (the creative logos, if you like) to convert it into space–[it moves out] of the immaterial producing a material, spatial world…What the etheric does is, to put it crudely, convert time into space.”48

Like the “force of imagination” (a literal translation of Einbildungskraft), the formative-force of the etheric organ, when properly cultivated, can release the philosopher from the Kantian restrictions placed on knowing by opening the normally sense-inhered intellect to the sub-sensory “intensive depth” (Bortoft, 1996) or super-sensory “inner infinitude” (Adams and Whicher, 1982) of living Nature, there revealing the invisible creative forces animating her from within-out.

In the terms of Whitehead’s three-fold theory of perception, which my dissertation will explore in relation to the synthetic role of imagination, non-etheric perception of external nature via bare sensory universals and abstract laws is perception “spatialized” in the mode of “presentational immediacy,” while etheric perception of the creative life of the sub-sensory dimension is perception “temporalized” in the mode of “causal efficacy.”49 Whitehead’s third mode of perception, “symbolic reference,” imaginatively synthesizes our intuitions of space and time into the meaningful and coherent world of everyday life. The synthetic work (or play) of the force of imagination can be in service either to the maintenance of the habits of every day conscious experience (commonsense), or else to the creative disruption of those habits in favor of alternative imaginations of the flow of etheric time-space.

The etheric image-forces animating Nature and her organisms are autonomous; that is, they are I-beings in their own right. The etheric imagination which perceives them is then not simply the transcendental ground of the ego’s sensory intuitions of the physical world–it is the genetic principle of the universe itself, the poetic root of all life (more like a creative abyss than a stable ground). Unlike Kant’s transcendental faculties of understanding, reason, and judgment, which provide only the necessary universal conditions of possible (theoretical, ethical, or aesthetic) experience, etheric imagination provides the necessary conditions of actual experience (whether of truth, goodness, or beauty). Etheric imagination schematizes not only the formal or abstract, but the material and concrete dimensions of experiential reality–that is, it not only makes possible the universal and impersonal, it actualizes the unique and individual.

So what is real for the process-philosophical imagination? Following Whitehead, time, space, and causality come to be understood as emergent products of an evolving ecology of organisms. “External” and “internal” are the effect of a distinction drawn in what Coleridge referred to as secondary imagination by an individual living organism. Enveloping the many organisms is the one Cosmic Organism, or primary imagination, the ceaseless yearning for wholeness which is nothing other than Spirit’s abyssal desire for Itself.

The root images, or elemental forces, that for so long grounded the reality of the human organism were earth and sky. But since the Galilean-Newtonian “[cancellation] of the ancient dichotomy between earth and sky in the interest of universally valid laws,” and especially since satellization has technologically realized this once merely theoretical extra-terrestriality, what has become of humanity’s earthly embeddedness?50 Have we not become homeless? This may be the case, unless the once solid ground of earth is understood to have been superseded, not by the en-framing (Ge-stell) of technology, but by the ground-generating forces of etheric imagination, the creative abyss that pre-exists any apparent separation between the finite conditioned things in space and the infinite creativity of time.


25 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 231.

26 Steiner, Goethean Science, 93.

27 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.

28 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384; Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 541-547.

29 According to Frederick Beiser, Schelling thereby “[reintegrates] the transcendental ‘I’ into nature” by showing how   human self-consciousness is a more intense expression of nature’s original etheric forces (German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 559).

30 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.

31 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.

32 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity (New York: Cosimo, 1922/2007), 36-38; Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 25.

33 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26.

34 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26. For more on Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s interpretation of relativity theory, see also my own Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013), 35-43 [ (accessed 5/1/2013)].

35 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 37.

36 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 66.

37 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

38 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

39 Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man, transl. by E. D. S. (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company Publishers, 1910), 28.

40 As “agent-patients,” these etheric forces are akin to Whitehead’s dipolar actual occasions, the “buds of experience” responsible both for the prehension of past form and the ingression of future form in the creative advance of nature.

41 Whitehead’s understanding of the relationship between the physiology of the brain and the ether of events leads him to suggest that the “nature” known to materialistic science “is an abstraction from something more concrete than itself which must also include imagination, thought, and emotion” (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 63).

42 Steiner, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, 25.

43 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

44 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

45 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.

46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938)

47 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 35.

48 Towards Interview, 1980, 9.

49 These two modes are akin to Jonael Schickler’s phenomenological account of the life of the concept in terms of physical inherence and etheric metamorphosis, respectively. Schickler’s account is unpacked in the literature review below.

50 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 160-161