Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

Schelling’s Descendental Philosophy (and its Whiteheadian resonances)

Much of the rather fragmentary thoughts to follow were spurred by my reading of Jason Wirth’s wondrous little essay in the HUGE Palgrave Companion to German Idealism (2014), “Nature of Imagination: At the Heart of Schelling’s Thinking.” Based on the subtitle of his newly published book Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, and Imagination (2015), it looks like he continues to unpack many of the themes of this essay there. I would’ve read it already, but I’m hoping it will become more affordable (hardcover is $70 on Amazon).


Schelling has commonly been labeled an “objective idealist” and made historically relevant only as the stepping stone between Fichte’s “subjective” and Hegel’s “absolute idealism.” More recently, his work is being creatively retrieved by a number of thinkers who describe it as running distinctly against the idealistic grain of Fichte’s and Hegel’s philosophizing. These thinkers include Wirth, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ben Woodard, and Bruce Matthews.

Wirth claims in the second sentence of his essay that “one cannot do philosophy only by doing philosophy.” The philosopher, he says, must be in conversation with natural science, art, history, and religion. I agree that philosophy has no object unless it finds itself in dialogue with these other modes of thought, but this does not rule out the possibility that philosophy has a subject all its own. That is to say, philosophy as such has no object other than itself, the subject doing the philosophizing. The subject, the Self, is of course no ordinary thing or object–if it can be so labeled at all. The Self–the protagonist of all idealisms–is described by Fichte as an unconditioned (unbedingte) act rather than an objective fact. It is literally unthingable (un-ding-able), the transcendental ground of all conditioned things.

hole_into_the_abyss_by_theimmortalblackmage

Schelling does not deny the transcendental approach to philosophy. He only relativizes its claims to the Absolute by articulating a complementary approach that we might call descendental philosophy. Wirth deploys Deleuzo-Guattarian lingo to argue that, for Schelling, “Nature [is] the image of thought as such.” Recall that for D&G, the confrontation with Chaos is the precondition of philosophy. In Schelling, Chaos becomes the “abyss of freedom,” the “dark precursor” of thought, “that which is absolutely mobile…which is continually an Other, which cannot be held on to for a moment” (On The History of Modern Philosophy, 152). For Schelling, then, the prime subject-object of philosophical thought is not the Self, but the incomprehensible groundlessness preceding volitional egoity and objectified physicality alike. This groundlessness, this abyss, is unprethinkable (unvordenklichen). Whitehead referred to it as Creativity. This creative abyss before Self and Nature provides the groundless ground of Reason. The philosopher comes into contact with it in the sensuous world, the realm of aesthesis, hence the early Schelling’s claim that an “aesthetic act” provides the keystone of philosophy and the late Schelling’s defense of what he termed “metaphysical” or “higher empiricism.” According to Schelling, despite the fact that “everything in the sensuous world is grasped in number and measure,” this “does not therefore mean that geometry or arithmetic explain the sensuous world” (HMP, 147). Whitehead similarly argues that “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason” (Science and the Modern World, 179). The “higher empiricism” Schelling alludes to is not at all the positivistic empiricism of much modern science, wherein through “servile imitation” a reflective mind attempts to represent the forms of Nature as though these forms were “still born,” as Wirth puts it. Schelling’s is not a “high altitude” view of nature as a collection of objects mechanically governed by arbitrarily imposed mathematical laws. Rather, Schelling, like Whitehead, returns the philosopher to his or her concrete aesthetic encounter with Nature (to our prehension of Nature, in Whitehead’s terms). It is here that Nature’s natality, her creativity, shines through the superficial appearance of objective finitude. Our sensory experience, attended to in earnest, reveals itself to be infinite, sublime; it is only after reflective consciousness has manufactured for us a finite, ordered world that this infinity is obscured, covered over. In attempting to descend below the veil of intellectual reflection into the depths of the sensible, the philosopher puts their sanity at risk. According to Wirth, for Schelling “philosophy is the negotiation of madness, reason’s ongoing encounter with what resists reason.” In this way, Schelling reverses the typical orientation of philosophy toward the intelligible. Or at least he affirms that a certain kind of madness lurks within or behind intellect itself, giving it life. Intellect absent all madness would be mere mechanical understanding. Like Whitehead, Schelling is more concerned with keeping thought alive than with repeating stale truths of the merely logical sort (as Whitehead puts it, “in the real world, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true”).  

Schelling’s approach could also be called an empiricism of imagination. As Wirth says, “Schelling is through and through a thinker of the problem of imagination, of the emergence into image of that which itself has no image.” His aesthetic (un)grounding of philosophy destabilizes the Hegelian notion that philosophy ought to overcome itself by arriving at a finished “system of science.” Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an infinite creative task, not a finished system. Naturphilosophie is not a philosophy about nature but “Nature itself philosophizing” (autophusis philosophia). “None of our spiritual thoughts transcend the earth,” says Schelling. Unlike so much modern philosophy, Schelling puts Nature, rather than Mind, at the center of thought. Where modern philosophy put the human subject at the center, Schelling realized that the true subject of humanity is Nature herself: “Nature is a priori.” The human being is unique among earthly creatures in that it knows reality’s ground is incomprehensible. With this knowledge, we can either use our new found freedom to flee upwards by way of anti-physical idealistic transcendentalism, or we can fall deeper in love with cosmogenesis via a naturephilosophical descendentalism. The former option, freedom without love, quickly devolves into alienation. Idealists like Kant and Fichte tried to overcome this devolution by privileging practical over theoretical philosophy. To save the possibility of love between humans they had to deny the possibility of a loving knowledge of Nature. Schelling moved away from modern technoscience’s conception of knowledge as power in favor of what Goethe termed a “gentle empiricism,” or what might be called a loving knowledge. Rather than recoiling from the abyss of the sensible to a supposedly stable intelligible ground, as critical philosophy does, Schelling dives heart first into its radiant darkness. His is a creative, rather than a critical philosophy. Critical philosophy is not to be rejected, however. It is indispensable for clearing the way, for preparing thought for its encounter with the Real. But Reason alone cannot take us all the way. Schelling is clear on this point: “Without intellectual intuition, no philosophy!” The capacity for this sort of intuition, akin to artistic genius or mystical experience, depends on a certain character trait, Schelling tells us. As such, it cannot be taught to just anyone, as geometry or arithmetic can; it can, however, be developed in those with a heartfelt sense for the “nullity” of all finite knowledge. Because of his tendency to rest philosophical insight on the capacity for genius or mystical sensitivity, Schelling may fall victim to what Hegel referred to as the “Sunday’s Children” problem. Mystical experience (Greek: musterion) is “secret” experience, experience known only silently. As such it is difficult if not impossible to communicate about to those who have not encountered it for themselves. Whitehead similarly likens philosophy to “imaginative art,” implying that it is only a unique personality who can philosophize creatively (just as it takes a certain inborn ability to write inspired poetry or play beautiful music). Despite Hegel’s critique and insistence that philosophy must rest on a universal and easily teachable method (which itself may sway too far in the opposite direction), both Schelling and Whitehead were rigorous thinkers committed to sharing ideas in public. They simply rejected the idea that the creative abyss at the heart of Nature could be finally described or explained. As Merleau-Ponty suggested in his late lecture course on Whitehead, “Nature is always new in each perception,” even while it is “never without a past.” An ever-new Nature cannot be captured once and for all by any verbal statement or logical formula, no matter how dialectically sophisticated. As is said of Isis, Goddess of Nature: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my veil no mortal has yet uncovered.”

Schelling and Whitehead share an intuition about eternity’s participation in time, and about God’s participation in Nature. “Nothing comes into being in time,” writes Schelling. “Rather, in each thing time comes into being immediately from eternity into the new…The beginning of time is in each thing, and, indeed, each thing is the same as the eternal beginning. Each particular comes into being through this cision through which the world comes into being” (Weltalter, 79). Like Whitehead, Schelling sees each actual entity as inwardly resonant with eternity, or what Whitehead called the primordial nature of God. The primordial nature is the original rhythm or first song sung by the divine poet that still resounds within each temporal being. It is through our intellectual intuition that we can hear this silent song–“silent” because it provides the ground-tone for our entire existence, its humble humming hardly noticeable but for special moments of mystical insight. God is “the poet of the world,” as Whitehead puts it, the cosmic myth-maker or speaker of secrets gently guiding us toward Nature’s hidden meaning. Whitehead’s primordial nature of God is what is most ancient in Nature and what reveals itself in the present as the promise of a future. According to Wirth, “Nature is the life of imagination.” I’m reminded of William Blake’s statement “to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.” Blake also describes imagination as “spiritual sensation,” which might be a helpful way of rendering “intellectual intuition” in English. In Schelling, imagination (Einbildungskraft) is the movement of the infinite into the finite (and back again). 

The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help From Bergson and Whitehead

Above is my talk for the Jean Gebser Society conference held at the California Institute of Integral Studies the weekend of October 16th.

Title: The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help from Bergson and Whitehead

Abstract: Gebser suggests that the world-constituting reality of time first irrupted into Western consciousness with the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This was the first indication of an emerging mutation from the three-dimensional, Copernican world of the mental structure into the four-dimensional world of the integral structure. My presentation will critically examine Einstein’s role in this evolutionary initiation by situating his concept of a space-time continuum within its early 20th century context.  While Einstein’s relativity theory played a central role in the 20th century revolution in physics, revisiting the debates he was engaged in with thinkers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead reveal that his perception of time was still obscured by the residue of the mental structure’s spatializing tendency. As Gebser remarked, we are “compelled to become fully conscious of time—the new component—not just as a physical-geometric fourth dimension but in its full complexity” (EPO, 288, 352). During his controversial debate with Bergson in Paris in 1922, Einstein argued that the former’s understanding of time as “creative evolution” was merely the subjective fantasy of an artist, and that, as a hard-nosed scientist, he was concerned only with the real, objective time made manifest by the geometrical reasoning of relativity theory. Bergson, for his part, argued that Einstein had mistaken a particular way of measuring time (i.e., clock-time) for time itself. Whitehead’s meeting with Einstein shortly after this debate with Bergson, though not as public, was no less significant. Whitehead similarly argued that the philosophical implications of Einstein’s brilliant scientific theory must be saved from Einstein’s faulty interpretation. My presentation will review these early 20th century debates about the nature of time in light of Gebser’s prophetic announcement of the birth of a new structure of consciousness. More than a century after Einstein’s theory was published, mainstream scientific cosmology still has not fully integrated the immeasurably creative character of qualitative time. I will argue that Bergson and Whitehead’s largely neglected critiques and reconstructions of relativity theory help show the way towards the concrete realization of Gebser’s integral structure.

Bergson, Henri ; philosophe français (prix Nobel de Littérature 1927) ; Paris 18.10.1859 - 4.1.1941. Photo, v. 1928. Année de l'évènement: 1928 Année de l'oeuvre: 1928 © akg-images

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Changing of the Gods

Becca on her dad Richard Tarnas’ new film “Changing of the Gods,” featuring on-screen host John Cleese.

Becca Tarnas

There are moments in life when you feel deeply grateful for the family you were born into. I’m blessed to have had many such moments, but I’m feeling it with particular poignancy of late. Throughout most of my childhood and teens my father was busy writing the book Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View. In my family it was known simply as “the Book.” While I knew my dad was an astrologer and cultural historian, it wasn’t until after I finished my undergraduate degree that I came to find my own scholarly path aligned so closely with his, drawing me into the world of archetypal cosmology, depth psychology, and philosophy.

As a child I was able to see the years of work and research that went into creating Cosmos and Psyche, and the moment of familial pride and gratitude I am now feeling arises from…

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