Distilling my dissertation topic—>Etheric Imagination in an Ontology of Organism: Towards a Planetary Philosophy

First, a few orientating quotations from the thinkers I will be boiling together in the alchemical vessel of my dissertation.


“…if we had the choice between empiricism and the all-oppressing necessity of thought of a rationalism which had been driven to the highest point, no free spirit would be able to object to deciding in favor of empiricism. Empiricism itself, then, allows a higher way of looking at things, or can be grasped from a higher perspective than the received, or, at least since Kant, the usual concept grasps it, which expels everything intelligible not only beyond the concepts of the understanding, but originally and first of all beyond all experience. Hence the now usual explanation that empiricism denies everything supernatural, but this is not the case. Because it is empiricism, it does not necessarily for that reason deny the supernatural, neither does it assume the legal and moral laws and the content of religion as something merely contingent, namely in the sense that it reduces everything to mere feelings, which themselves would only be the product of education and habit, as Hume admittedly did, who, by the way, asserted the same thing in relation to the sort of necessity with which we link cause and effect in our thoughts. There is even a higher and a lower concept of empiricism. For if the highest goal, which philosophy can, by general consent even of those who up to now think differently, certainly reach, is precisely to grasp the world as freely produced and created, then philosophy, with regard to the main thing it can achieve, or precisely by reaching its highest goal, would be a science of experience; I do not mean in the formal sense, but I do mean in the material sense, that what is highest for it would itself be something experiential in nature. If up to now, then, that national difference with regard to philosophy really exists, then this rift initially only shows that the philosophy in which humankind could recognize itself, the truly universal philosophy, does not yet exist. The truly universal philosophy cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy, even if it is perhaps on the way to it…It would be wrong, really wrong, then, to want to call back those other [French and English speaking] nations from the doctrine of empiricism which they pursue to such great advantage in other areas; for them this would indeed be a retrograde movement. It is not up to them, it is up to us Germans, who, since the existence of Naturphilosophie, have emerged from the sad alternative of a metaphysics which floats in the air, lacking any foundation (that they rightly make fun of) and an infertile, arid psychology–it is up to us, I say, to develop the system, which we may hope to grasp and to reach, the positive system whose principle, precisely because of its absolute positivity cannot itself be knowable a priori any more, but only a posteriori, to the point where it will flow together with that empiricism which has been expanded and purified to the same extent” -F. W. J. Schelling, last lines from On the History of Modern Philosophy (~1833).


whitehead“A self-satisfied rationalism is in effect a form of anti-rationalism. It means an arbitrary halt at a particular set of abstractions.” –A. N. Whitehead, from Science and the Modern World, p. 201. 


“Our bodily  experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term. The internal functioning of a healthy body provides singularly few sense data, primarily associated with itself. When such sense data appear, we send fro a doctor. They are mostly aches and pains. And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me. In what does this intimacy of relationship consist? The body is the basis of our emotional and purposive experience. It determines the way in which we react to the clear sensa. It determines the fact that we enjoy sensa. But the eye strain in sight is not the eye sight. We see with our eyes; we do not see our eyes. The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…So long as nature was conceived in terms of the passive, instantaneous existence of bits of matter, according to Newton or Democritus, a difficulty arises. For there is an essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience. But this conception of matter has not been swept away. Analogous notions of activity, and of forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience. This conclusion must not be distorted. The fallacious notion of passive matter has by a reaction led to a distorted account of human experience. Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not its existential essence. The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness. Clear, conscious discrimination is an accident of human existence. It makes us human. But it does not make us exist. It is of the essence of our humanity. But it is an accident of our existence. What is our primary experience which lies below and gives its meaning to our conscious analysis of qualitative detail? In our analysis of detail we are presupposing a background which supplies a meaning. These vivid accidents accentuate something which is already there. We require to describe that factor in our experience which, being a matter of course, does not enter prominently into conversation. There is no need to mention it. For this reason language is very ineffective for the exposition of metaphysics. Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience. Its basic expression is–Have a care, here is something that matters! Yes–that is the best phrase–the primary glimmering of consciousness reveals, something that matters. This experience provokes attention, dim and, all but, subconscious. Attention yields a three-fold character in the “Something that matters.” “Totality,” “Externality,” and “Internality” are the primary characterizations of “that which matters.” They are not to be conceived as clear, analytic concepts. Experience awakes with these dim presuppositions to guide its rising clarity of detailed analysis. They are presuppositions in the sense of expressing the sort of obviousness which experience exhibits. There is the totality of actual fact; there is the externality of many facts; there is the internality of this experiencing which lies within the totality. These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other. There is the whole fact containing within itself my fact and the other facts. Also the dim meaning of fact–or actuality–is intrinsic importance for itself, for the others, and for the whole. Of course all our terms of speech are too special, and refer too explicitly to higher stages of experience. For this reason, philosophy is analogous to imaginative art. It suggests meaning beyond its mere statements. On the whole, elaborate phrases enshrine the more primitive meanings.” -A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 114-118


“What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions,

namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent.” -A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, ch. 2.


Rudolf-Steiner4“Our earth today has a quite particular configuration and form. Let us go back in the evolution of the earth. It once had a completely different form. Let us immerse ourselves…still further back: we come there to ever higher temperatures, in which metals were able to flow all around as water runs along today. All the metals have become these veins in the earth because they first flowed along in streams. Just as lead is hard today and quicksilver is fluid, so lead was at one time fluid and quicksilver will one day become a solid metal. Thus the earth is changeable, but man has always participated in these various evolutions. In the ages of which we have spoken, physical man as yet was not in existence. But the etheric body and astral body were there; they could live in the higher temperatures of that time. The sheaths gradually began to form with the cooling process, enveloping man. While something new was always being formed in man during the earth’s evolution, something correspondingly new had also been formed outside in nature. The rudiments of the human eye had first arisen in the Sun evolution. First the etheric body formed itself and this again formed the human physical eye. As a piece of ice freezes out of water, so are the physical organs formed out of the finer etheric body. The physical organs were formed within man while outside the earth became solid. In every age the formation of a human organ took place parallel with the formation of a particular configuration outside in nature…One only understands man when one can recognize the connections between the human being and the forces of nature. ” -Rudolf Steiner


My aim in this dissertation is to draw indications from each of these thinkers in an attempt to articulate an alternative ontology unhampered by the bifurcation of nature plaguing modern thought. Modernity need not be rejected; rather, an alternative form of modernity is possible, rooted not in Kantian skepticism or Hegelian idealism, but in Schellingian naturalism and Whiteheadian radical empiricism. Drawing on Steiner and the Western esoteric tradition, I will argue that the Kantian limits placed on human understanding and experience can be overcome through the cultivation of new organs of perception. The ontological insights of a process-relational ontology of organism are achieved through the higher speculative empiricism of the etheric imagination. Etheric imagination grants the process philosopher perceptual access to the formative forces unfolding organized beings from the inside out. Etheric imagination is in this sense not in the business of fantasy or make believe, but is an organ of genuine conceptual and perceptual import in tune with natural processes that unfold below the level of ordinary rational waking consciousness. The mechanical ontology underlying scientific materialism stems from misplaced concreteness, whereby abstract models of physical activity are made to fill in for the experienced reality of said activity. Such a scientific materialism, though it claims to be empirical, is really a confused idealism, in that it dismisses experiential reality as a mere dream, replacing it with an explanation based on the conjectured mechanical processes lying beneath experience that somehow cause it.

Along with Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead, I plan to draw on several other thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze , John Sallis, Bruno Latour, and Michael Marder.

Rough breakdown of dissertation

1. Historical Outline on emergence of bifurcated image of nature in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes (through Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel). Argue for alternative modernity building on Bruno, Cusa, and other esoteric thinkers discussed by Steiner in Mystics After Modernism.

2. Epistemology of etheric imagination as an esoteric organ of perception. Build on phenomenology, enactivism, and participatory theory as epistemic first steps toward an ecological ontology, or ontology of organism.

3. Ontology of organism reveals the plant-like (or etheric) texture of experiential reality. Build on Marder’s vegetal metaphysics, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, and Sallis’ elemental phenomenology of earth and sky.

4. Cosmological significance of etheric forces underlying physical phenomena. Unpack Schelling’s, Steiner’s, and Whitehead’s ether theories.



4 thoughts on “Distilling my dissertation topic—>Etheric Imagination in an Ontology of Organism: Towards a Planetary Philosophy

  1. I really find inspiration in Schelling and Whitehead but I have a hard time with Steiner. He invented all kind of occult things that I might be poetic insights clothed in garbage science.

    1. Steiner does seem to be a mixed bag, but despite his weirdness, he created so many successful social forms and approaches to art (biodynamic agriculture, threefold social order, Waldorf schools, eurhythmy, etc.) that I’m inclined to take him seriously even when I can’t quite understand what he means. Jonael Schickler puts it well in his dissertation on Hegel and Steiner: “Ironically, it is through the discoveries of clairvoyants and mystics such as Steiner, the paradigmatic madmen of history, that a way of overcoming the insanity by which self-knowledge is withheld from us might be found. It might, in short, take such a madman to help restore us to sanity” (116).

  2. Grateful for these quotations and your distillation of the dissertation topic. I have read only fragments of these authors, except for Nicholas of Cusa (cited through Steiner), Nicola Cusano they call him in Italy. I have read most of his mystical writings in a fine one-volume English translation, plus (in Latin) his De Pace Fidei (Religio una in Rituum Diversitate, “Religion is One but Differs in its Rites”), where he draws inspiration from Blessed Ramon (Raymond) Llull, and anticipates Landino et al. of Florence’s Platonic-Hermetic Academy. Drop these names in a footnote or excursus of your dissertation (which promises to be epochal!).

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