Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead

Schelling and Whitehead were speculative philosophers. This appellative, like that of metaphysician or theologian, may carry with it certain baggage that those of a skeptical or positivist bent are wont to do without. But aside from those epochal moments when thinkers are suddenly inspired by speculative imagination, or by the break through of concept creation, or the influx of divine logos, I can’t see any further sources of genuine philosophical insight. We may as well admit we don’t believe in these possibilities anymore and let philosophy die. It’d be more honest to just call our actual endeavor that of “linguistic analysis” or “skeptical reflection upon factual evidence” or “techno-scientific transformation of nature” or whatever.

Whitehead, for one, was not ready to lay wisdom in her grave. In The Aims of Education, he wrote:

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.”

Schelling and Whitehead both attempted to philosophize in the context of revolutionary advances in science. For Schelling, it was electricity, magnetism, and chemistry. For Whitehead, it was evolutionary, quantum, and relativity theories. They strove not to contradict these scientific advances in order to protect the sanctity of the human soul, as we might interpret Kant’s project (“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”), but rather to understand the human psyche as an outgrowth of the dynamic natural world science was coming to know.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote:

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.”

In Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), Schelling wrote:

“So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”

This continuity between mind and life, nous and physis, is the speculative philosopher’s wager. A speculative philosopher approaches philosophy both as a creative task and as a journey of discovery. Speculative philosophy relies as much on synthetic power of imagination as it does the analytic power of understanding, as much on feeling and desire as logic or theory. To speculate is to construct conceptual networks that tell meaningful stories concerning the course of natural history. For this reason, speculative philosophy will always have a mythical flavor. But I’d argue the root images and creative concepts seeded, sprouted, and grafted together by Schelling and Whitehead connect myth directly to the elemental powers of a dynamic and evolving nature. Their goal is not to explain nature as the design of deities (or Deity), but to reveal the way in which what get called deities in cultural stories are in fact just the creative dynamics of nature itself (e.g., gravity and light, earth and sun, etc.) operating at a higher power or potency. The physical tension between light and gravity in nature becomes the spiritual tension between love and evil in the realm of human culture (physical polarity^2=spiritual polarity).

In Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), Schelling writes:

“As a thunderstorm is caused in a mediated way by the sun but immediately by an opposing force of the earth, so is the spirit of evil aroused by the approach of the good not through a sharing but rather by a spreading out of forces. Hence, only in connection with the decisive emergence of the good, does evil also emerge quite decisively and as itself, just as, in turn, the very moment when the earth becomes for the second time desolate and empty becomes the moment of birth for the higher light of the spirit that was in the world from the very beginning, but not comprehended by the darkness acting for itself, and in a yet closed and limited revelation.”

Later in the same text, Schelling writes:

“Nature is the first or old Testament, since things are still…subject to the law. The human is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God also accepts nature and makes it into himself. The human is hence the redeemer of nature toward which all formation in nature aims. The world that is fulfilled in human beings is in nature as a dark, prophetic (not fully pronounced) word.”


9 Comments Add yours

  1. Alex Savory-Levine says:

    One thing I like about Schelling’s “Philosophical Investigations”, which like you I regard as continuous with his earlier works on the philosophy of nature, is that it explains human conflicts in terms of opposition of forces in nature (what you call “the physical tension of light and gravity”). I would criticize Schelling for not also trying to illuminate how conflict that occurs in nature (what Darwin calls “the struggle for existence”) translates into human affairs. Schelling’s philosophy of mythology and revelation, which he worked on for a long time later in his career, is perhaps the most vulnerable to the criticism. It might sound like I’m attempting to revive the Sonderweg thesis but mythmaking may have played a role in the creation of the holocaust. An example is Nietzsche’s use of the image of the “blonde beast”.

    1. Yeah you raises an important point. As I see it, we can’t avoid mythmaking, for better or worse. The most dangerous myths are the ones that claim not to be myths.

      1. dmfant says:

        “The most dangerous myths are the ones that claim not to be myths”
        hey MDS, how did you go about researching such a conclusion?

      2. Using the tools of ideological critique…?

      3. dmfant says:

        hmm, not sure how that gets to what is actually occurring off the page and out in the field so to speak, what’s the ‘acid” test?
        James Hillman was big on this idea that we are doomed to act out whatever we took literally but couldn’t really explain to me (or offer an example) how we might do/choose other than believe what we do believe, always an interesting experience to try and genuinely doubt (or even somehow hold loosely) what seems just so (Jung was right to speak of a “transcendent” function in so much that such gestalt-shifts in orientation come from the workings of the not-I tho he was quite off in seeing this as more than further evidence for un-conscious but all-too-human functions)
        More recently Simon Critchley has been asking (after Wallace Stevens) if we might be called/held/driven by a supreme/imperative fiction that we know to be a fiction but as far as I know has failed to come up with a working prototype.

      4. I’m familiar with Critchley’s conception of politics as a “poetic task,” and of power as at least partially a matter of the “fictional force” that succeeds in constituting a socius as a demos. He does give some prototypes of this, the most powerful of which come out of the Christian anarchist tradition. As for how we can manage to grasp beliefs as beliefs, I think there is still some hope of recovering the Hellenic capacity for reflexive political catharsis through dramatic performance. I’m not suggesting a simple return to the Athenian Dyionisia festivals, since it seems that the Athenians failed to learn the lessons their poets were trying to teach, or at least learned them too late. But as Critchley argues, we need to reactivate the fictional force of public festival and political art. If we can enact our myths through ritual public celebration, rather than in the privacy of our living rooms and during our trips to the shopping mall, we might place ourselves in a better position to recognize the poetic basis of our worldviews. Literalism seems to be a result of feeling threatened, isolated, lonely, insecure… Public carnival-esque celebration could be one way of massaging these feelings.

      5. And of course there are literal “acid tests” that can reliably generate gestalt-shifts in orientation by amplifying the normally backgrounded set and setting of belief-obsessed/idolatrous ego consciousness. Again, I’m not advocating a simple return to Greek mystery religions. But certainly modern cultures suffer from a near total lack of cosmologically grounded individual and collective initiation rites.

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