“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Responding to Michael about Root Images in the Philosophy of Nature

Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.

I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.

Michael writes:

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

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

In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.


The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.

These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.

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

I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).



10 responses to “Responding to Michael about Root Images in the Philosophy of Nature”

  1. noir-realism Avatar

    I think what Michael meant by decisional might be something like what Laruelle means when he argues that all forms of philosophy are structured around a prior decision, and remain constitutively blind to this decision. The ‘decision’ that Laruelle is concerned with here is the dialectical splitting of the world in order to grasp the world philosophically.

    Niklas Luhmann used another term in much the same way: ‘distinction’. That we make distinctions or cuts out of the world between one set of criteria and another. For him modernism internalized this into self-reflexive distinction between self/other, etc. producing second-order observation.

    Just a couple of examples, not sure if that helps….

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for the Lauruelle primer. I suppose I prefer a Schellingian “scissional” to a Hegelian “decisional” philosophy in that case.

      Luhmann’s concept of “distinction” appears identical to Maturana’s and Varela’s. I’m not sure if this concept would fit in either a scissional or decisional philosophy. “Distinction” as M and V use it requires only a bio-phenomenological method, whereas both scissional and decisional philosophies are after a full-blown speculative ontology.

  2. billrosethorn Avatar

    I have to agree that we have no alternative to the play of imagery in speaking of the cosmos. Attending to the machinery of matter-energy is too a move in the game of cosmic description or explanation, albeit with a more naturalist/scientific grounding. But I do not think that the root image must be the ur-symbol for either the earth or the cosmos or the things themselves. All signification demands a linguistic intervention on the part of a cultural actor with a choice of imagery from their cultural field of possibilities.
    The root image seems to imply a base or an origin, a place where everything was once whole and full. In choosing the image of thought at this moment of writing, we have the option of the rhizome instead of the root. The observable complexity of flights, flows and growth has been aided by scientific experimentation and we cannot go back to the root anymore. The transcendence from things themselves to the symbol, or vice-versa, is central to both scientific machines and cosmic-egg spiritualism, but the rhizomatic mode ignores this dichotomy in favor of immanent becomings.
    We should be very careful of the traps of a perfect past as well as a future foundation as full. We are stuck with the earth but she was only full in mythological origin-stories; now she is a cybernetic controller as disinterested in her children as the scientist in the lab is with her religious background outside the lab.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      There certainly is no perfect past. Even if there was a pure origin, their’d be nothing to distinguish it from the present, since the root images that are alive for us today are no less “original” than those which may have come before. Not all roots become trees; and even where they do, not all trees are straight (there are plenty of examples of queer trees in Golden Gate park: http://justsusan.smugmug.com/Flora/Trees/i-VjG36t9/0/L/SF%20032-L.jpg). In this sense, roots are rhizomatic and always different/ciating. Root images are more magical than mythical, though I think narrative captures their tendency to twist in unruly ways better than logic or science (for more on the distinction between magic, mythic, and logic, see: https://footnotes2plato.com/2010/12/25/uncovering-the-unconscious-towards-an-integral-psychology/).

  3. Jason Hills Avatar


    Yep. This is a basic concept in hermeneutics under the term “root metaphor” and such. Consciousness is “narrative” (per structure of experienced meaning) and “metaphorical” (per inference in phenomenological semiotics), and thus trying to root out metaphor, mythos, narrative, etc. just replaces one with another. Oh, but with a shiny new name.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Semantic gardening, at least in the philosophical commons, will always be a controversial undertaking. One person’s sacred nectar is another’s unwanted weed. I’m focusing on root images because I’m hoping to get closer to the imaginary background or common topos that we all share as earthlings. Not an easy task, but I enjoy getting my hands dirty.

  4. sam Avatar

    This rehabilitation of the ontological and cosmological force of imagination is extremely important work. I always enjoy reading your work on that topic. In gratitude, a small donation…my two cents.

    Cent 1: It’s definitely worth checking out Deleuze’s writings on the crystal-image (Cinema 2), which is both seed and environment/universe. In terms of the three syntheses of time in D&R: by reflecting and refracting the virtual (2nd synthesis), the crystal leads to a fracture of the “movement-image” (habit, 1st synthesis), and that crack in the seed of the crystal discloses a time-image that opens up the future (3rd synthesis, pure and empty form of time).

    Cent 2: I remember some postcolonial theorist proposing that roots are always already on the move (diasporic), so roots are also routes.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Sam,

      Thanks for your recent thoughts on place in Whitehead and Deleuze, as well! I hope I can attend your presentation at the PACT conference.

      I’m hoping to read Deleuze’s Cinema books ASAP, thanks for the reminder.

      Roots as diasporic… I dig it.

  5. Towards a new root image in natural science… – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] account for the observable facts of physics or of biology. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image, and formal and final causation must be reincorporated into a more adequate naturalistic […]

Leave a Reply to sam Cancel reply

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: