Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
Thanks to Jeremy, Matt, and Ryan for hosting this dialogue!
Here’s the recording of a lecture that Becca Tarnas and I delivered last night for the Atlanta Astrological Society.
Here are some relevant links if you want a more in depth discussion on some of what I mention in this lecture:
If you live in the UK, or if you are traveling there this summer, I’ll be teaching for one of Schumacher College’s 3-week intensive courses Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd on the topic of evolution and spirituality. The description of my week is below. Also teaching week-long modules in this course are the ecologists Joana Formosinho, Andy Letcher, and Stephen Harding.
In the second week, Matthew T. Segall will introduce several important 19th and 20th century philosophical and theological responses to evolutionary theory—responses that remain as relevant as ever to any 21st century person trying to imagine a new mode of life for humankind on planet Earth. Though other relevant figures will also be discussed, we will focus on two thinkers in particular: 1) the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), including his organic re-embedding of mind in Nature as well as his proto-Jungian understanding of the revelation of God through the gradual evolution of the mythic consciousness of human beings; and 2) the British mathematical physicist turned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), whose panpsychist and process-relational cosmology represents one of the few comprehensive attempts to fully integrate the metaphysical implications of evolutionary theory (not to mention relativity, quantum, and complexity theories). The week will close with an exploration of the potential for a scientifically-informed spirituality responsive to the evolutionary adventure from out of which our species, our living planet, and the wider cosmos have emerged. Our human creativity, intelligence, moral insight, and aesthetic sensitivity are all expressions of a multibillion year lineage of cosmic ancestors; acknowledging this has profound ramifications for how we relate to ourselves, to our communities, and indeed, how we mould our very civilization.
CIIS is accepting applications for the Fall 2017 semester for a new online masters degree program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness with concentrations in Archetypal Cosmology, Integral Ecology, and Process Philosophy. I’ll be teaching mostly in the Process Philosophy Concentration. Check out the website for more information.
“Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.” –C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
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.
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.).
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.
Again, sorry for the lack of italics. I don’t know how to paste from Pages while keeping the formatting. For a PDF of the document (with italics in tact!), click: The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.
This section assesses the reasons for the contemporary resurgence of scholarly interest in Schelling. At least since the 1990s, after more than a century and a half on the shelf, Schelling’s corpus has been re-emerging “with increasing intensity” in the English speaking world.65 There are many reasons to reconsider Schelling’s philosophical oeuvre, but the current resurgence in interest seems to orbit primarily around his unique approach to the problem of nature, whether the nature of the cosmos, of the human, or of the divine.
In his prized 1809 essay Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling writes:
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.66
The non-existence of nature for thought in the modern period has had terrible consequences for human history and the natural world alike. From Descartes through to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, reason and science became increasingly self-castrating and solipsistic; “like the priests of the Phrygian goddess,” modern thought detached itself from the living forces of its natural ground.67
In his Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2005), Iain Hamilton Grant articulates the scientific and metaphysical consequences of ignoring nature, arguing that
deep geological time defeats a priori the prospect of [nature’s] appearance for any finite phenomenologizing consciousness.68
In other words, while the Kantian turn in the philosophy of science drained nature of ontological significance by defining it phenomenologically as “the sum total of appearing bodies,” the empirico-mathematical study of nature nonetheless came to reveal world-ages prior to the emergence of any consciousness for whom material nature could have made an appearance. Further, contemporary physics has de-corporealized (and so de-phenomenalized) matter in favor of a dynamic, field-theoretic understanding of natural forces. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie not only foresaw and helped to initiate these discoveries,69 it provides the new sciences of self-organizing systems with a more coherent and adequate metaphysical foundation than the old mechanistic atomism.70 Naturphilosophie’s principle aim is to articulate, in a systematic but non-reductive way, how it is possible that natural productivity (natura naturans), and not representational consciousness (cogito cogitans), is a priori. Grant suggests that Schelling was able to overturn the Kantian Revolution, not by outright dismissing the primacy of practical reason, but by literally grounding it in a “geology of morals” that transforms ethics into physics.71 The relevance of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie to the metaphysical foundations of contemporary natural science will be taken up again in a subsequent section.72
Some contemporary scholars, like Andrew Bowie in his Schelling and Modern European Philosophy (1993), dismiss Schelling’s later mythopoeic and theogonic speculations into the divinity of nature and the nature of divinity as “evidently dead,”73 while others, like Grant, simply ignore it. In The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), S. J. McGrath pays very close attention to Schelling’s Böhmian musings, but interprets them largely in a depth psychological, rather than cosmological or philosophical context. While I agree with McGrath that Schelling deserves credit for initiating a mode of inquiry into the unconscious that would later be developed by Freud and Jung, the ontological agnosticism of the depth psychological approach makes it inappropriate for an appreciation of Schelling’s philosophical project. Bruce Matthews, in his Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy (2011), documents the influence of the theosophists Philipp Matthäus Hahn and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger on Schelling, but his analysis leaves Schelling’s writing after 1804 unconsidered. Of the scholars who do engage with the later religious dimension of Schelling’s thought on its own terms, Joseph Lawrence does so with the most forceful and direct voice by highlighting the socioeconomic and ecological consequences of the secular erasure of God from human and cosmic nature. All that remains to guide humanity’s hopes and dreams once the public sphere has been inoculated against authentic religiosity is the myth of the market, which according to Lawrence,
[eliminates] from view any acceptable alternative to the world of money and power, to which science itself has been subordinated.74
Lawrence admits that if the worldview of scientific materialism is deemed “the last rational, and so discussable option,” then Schelling’s mythopoeic, cosmotheological project “can indeed be declared dead.”75 Contra positivism, just because natural science has epistemic limits doesn’t mean the questions it leaves unanswered are not worth asking:
…the inability to answer a question within the framework of demonstrative science does not mean that the question cannot be answered but rather than it must always be answered anew.76
Lawrence defends Schelling’s prophetic call for a philosophical religion not because it offers some conclusive explanation for the nature and existence of reality, but because it allows us once again to ask ultimate questions, seeking not certainty about or mastery over nature, but redemptive participation in her creative powers of becoming.77
Instead of relenting to the deification of the market, which “leaves us with nothing to live for beyond personal desire,”78 Lawrence strives to realize Schelling’s demand that we transform ourselves “beyond the confines of self-interest [to] the possibility of a future in which what is right takes the place of what is right ‘for me.’”79 Without such transformation, the market will continue to reign with dire consequences for humanity and the planet. “The Earth does not have the carrying capacity for a universalized suburbia.”80 Lawrence’s concern for the social and ecological consequences of the secularization of nature is not uncommon among Schelling scholars.
Matthews (2012) begins his study of Schelling by dwelling on the ecological consequences of nature’s non-existence for human thought, arguing that Schelling’s
analysis of how subjectivism sets the theoretical stage for the actual destruction of our natural environment
is the most important reason for returning to his work.81 Indeed, many of Schelling’s recent commentators agree that the ecological emergency is directly related to the failure of modernity’s Kantian, positivistic understanding of nature and the “economic-teleological” exploitation of earth that it supports.82 Bowie, despite his discomfort with theology, is in agreement with Matthews and Lawrence that Schelling’s thought has become increasingly relevant precisely because it speaks to
the contemporary suspicion…that Western rationality has proven to be a narcissistic illusion…the root of nihilism [and] the ecological crisis.83
In The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters (1996), Slavoj Žižek looks to Schelling’s insights into the nature of human freedom in order to grasp how the possibility of an ecological crisis is
opened up by man’s split nature–by the fact that man is simultaneously a living organism (and, as such, part of nature) and a spiritual entity (and, as such, elevated above nature).84
If humanity were completely spiritual, we would be utterly free of material needs and so have no reason to exploit nature, while if we were simply animal, we would symbiotically co-exist within the circle of life like any other predator. But because of our split nature, and our spiritual propensity for evil, “normal animal egotism” has become “self-illuminated,…raised to the power of Spirit,” leading to an absolute domination of nature “which no longer serves the end of survival but turns into an end-in-itself.”85 This is the “economic-teleological” principle: exploitation of earth purely for monetary profit. The detachment of humanity’s spiritual nature from the living reality of its earthly ground has lead to the decimation of that ground. Many contemporary eco-philosophers blame anthropocentrism–the perceived superiority of humanity over any other species–for the ecological crisis, but Schelling’s position is subtler:
For Schelling, it is the very fact that man is ‘the being of the Center’ which confers upon him the proper responsibility and humility–it is the ordinary materialist attitude of reducing man to an insignificant species on a small planet in a distant galaxy which effectively involves the subjective attitude of domination over nature and its ruthless exploitation.86
The essence of human spirituality, according to Schelling, is freedom, the decision between good and evil. Humanity’s fall into hubris is caused by the elevation of our animal nature over all other living creatures. The fall is not a fall into animality, but an inversion of the spiritual principle of freedom leading to the elevation of the periphery (our creatureliness) above the Center (our divine likeness). Further discussion of Schelling’s understanding of human freedom will be taken up in a subsequent section.87
Given that Schelling’s insights into the essence of human freedom are genuine, it would appear that more anthrodecentric nihilism can only exacerbate the ecological crisis. We must take responsibility for our knowledge and power. Healing human-earth relations will require that humanity actualize its spiritual potential as the burgeoning wisdom and compassion of cosmogenesis: “Created out of the source of things and the same as it,” writes Schelling in The Ages of the World, “the human soul is conscientious (Mitwissenschaft) of creation.”88
Also among those commentators coming to Schelling in the context of ecological emergency is Arran Gare, who similarly argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie provides a way to
overcome the nihilism of European civilization…a nihilism that is reaching its apogee in the deification of the global market, postmodern fragmentation, and the specter of global ecocide.89
Gare goes on to argue that Schelling should be interpreted, not as an idealist, but as a Naturphilosoph responsible for producing “the first coherent system of process metaphysics.”90 Gare cites the third draft of Schelling’s die Weltalter (1815), where Schelling explicitly condemns idealism not only on philosophical, but on religious and scientific grounds, since it had reduced in turn both God and the natural world to
an image, nay, an image of an image, a nothing of nothing, a shadow of a shadow…[arriving] at the dissolution of everything in itself into thoughts.91
Grant similarly challenges the mistaken assumption, popular since Hegel’s quip regarding “the night in which all cows are black,” that Schelling’s philosophy culminates in undifferentiated identity, arguing instead that he remained primarily a Naturphilosoph attentive to the contingent materiality of the actual world through every phase of his philosophical career.92 Frederick Beiser’s also claims in his German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism (2002) that Schelling, even in his writings during the so-called Identitätssystem phase, never wavered in his allegiance to Naturephilosophie:
Schelling says that the philosopher can proceed in either of two directions: from nature to us, or form us to nature; but he makes his own preferences all too clear: the true direction for he who prizes knowledge above everything is the path of nature itself, which is that followed by the Naturphilosoph.93
In his retrospective lectures On the History of Modern Philosophy in 1834, Schelling himself expressed his dismay that the phrase “identity system,” used only once in the preface of his 1801 text Presentation of My System of Philosophy, was interpreted as signaling a break with Naturphilosophie:
this designation was…used by those who never penetrated to the interior of the system to infer, or to make the uneducated part of the public believe, that in this system all differences, namely every difference of matter and spirit, of good and evil, even of truth and falsity, were annulled, that according to this system it was, in the everyday sense, all the same.94
It is not unlikely that Schelling is here referring at least in part to Hegel’s infamous joke in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), mentioned above, about the “night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black.”95 In a letter to Schelling dated May 1, 1807, Hegel claimed to have been aiming his jibe at the shallowest of Schelling’s followers, rather than Schelling himself. Even earlier, in his history of philosophy lectures at the University of Jena in 1805, Hegel is careful to distinguish Schelling from his poor imitators.96 Schelling asked that Hegel clarify his real position in a second edition, but the next printing contained no such addition. It was the last letter ever exchanged between the two former friends.97
Schelling’s emergence from the shadow of Hegel is due in no small part to the re-evaluation of this exchange by contemporary scholars. In his Schelling and the End of Idealism (1996), Dale Snow notes that Schelling had already addressed Hegel’s criticisms of the Identitätssystem in texts published as early as 1802.98 In his Further Presentations from the System of Philosophy (1803), Schelling himself criticized those who
see in the being of the absolute nothing but a pure night [and] a mere negation of multiplicity.99
Snow is lead to conclude that, despite never amending the preface, Hegel was probably sincere in his letter to Schelling in 1807.100 According to Jason Wirth, the two did meet again by chance 22 years later at a bath house in Karlsbad. Hegel wrote to his wife after the encounter that the two hit it off instantly “like cordial friends of old” as though nothing had happened.101 Schelling became increasingly critical of Hegel’s system after his death in 1831–or at least critical of what Hegel asserted his purely “negative” system was capable of deducing. Despite their differences (or perhaps because of them), Schelling probably wouldn’t have hesitated to apply his historical statement about the apparently opposed philosophies of Descartes and Bacon to Hegel and himself:
In this history of the human spirit it is easy to see a certain simultaneity among great minds, who from differing sides nevertheless are finally working towards the same goal.102
Whether Hegel’s polemical comment was directed at Schelling or not, its effect was that most histories of philosophy have come to place Hegel’s system at the pinnacle of the German Idealist project, with Schelling’s work seen as a mere stepping stone if it is mentioned at all. The difference between the philosophical approaches of Schelling and Hegel will be explored in a subsequent section.103
Rounding out the notable commentaries on Schelling’s philosophy are Bernard Freydberg’s Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now (2008) and Jason Wirth’s The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2011). Freydberg proposes that Schelling’s thought is receiving more attention today “due precisely to its untimeliness.”104 Schelling had a unique ability to integrate aspects of ancient and modern thought, producing a strange hybrid philosophy that offers a fresh way forward for a generation of thinkers tired of the postmodern ban on metaphysics.105 Freydberg also draws out the significance of Schelling’s dialogical method, a method first announced in a footnote in the Freedom essay:
In the future, [I] will…maintain the course…taken in the present treatise where, even if the external shape of a dialogue is lacking, everything arises as a sort of dialogue.106
Freydberg describes Schelling’s literary style in the Freedom essay, and in the later drafts of The Ages of the World, as participatory, more akin to “a map for a journey” than “a series of philosophical claims.”107
Wirth similarly argues that, with Schelling, “the question of style is not frivolous.”108 Schelling’s presentation of philosophy as a work of freedom makes it “as much art as science.”109 Schelling’s scientific art of dialogue begins always in media res, according to Wirth, such that in order to engage in philosophical composition, Schelling must first give over total authority over the course of a work’s self-development to the darkness of the Other.110 Wirth offers Schelling’s dialogical style as an example of the “deep difference” between his own and Hegel’s more abstract dialectical approach.111
In a chapter bringing Schelling into conversation with Sri Aurobindo, Wirth points to their treatment of the Indian spiritual traditions to further distinguish Schelling from Hegel.112 Unlike Hegel, who declared that India was “sunk in the most frightful and scandalous superstition,”113 Schelling cherished the Bhagavad-Gitā and even believed, according to Wirth, that “Greek philosophy should be considered a flower of South Asia.”114 In his introduction to Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), Wirth further suggests that Schelling’s “ecological sensitivity” and “receptivity to the call of the earth” represent philosophical possibilities “left largely unexplored by Hegel.”115
65 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 585.
66 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Jeff Love and Johannes Schmidt, 26.
67 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations Into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 26.
68 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 6.
69 Consider, for example, Schelling’s influence on Hans Christian Ørsted’s discovery of electromagnetism in 1820.
70 Marie-Luise Heuser-Kessler, Die Produktivität der Natur: Schellings Naturphilosophie und das neue Paradigma der Selbsorganization in den Naturwissenshaften.
71 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 6, 199.
72 See section heading “Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences” below.
73 Andrew Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 5.
74 Joseph Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 14.
75 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 15.
76 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 17.
77 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 15-16.
78 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 18.
79 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 21.
80 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 16.
81 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 3.
82 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 3.
83 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 10.
84 Slavoj Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 63.
85 Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 63.
86 Žižek, The Indivisible Remainder, 88n70.
87 See section heading “The nature of human freedom” below.
88 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, xxxvi.
89 Arran Gare. “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization,” 26, 68.
90 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization,” 28.
91 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 106.
92 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 3-4.
93 Beiser, German Idealism, 489.
94 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 120.
95 Hegel, The Hegel Reader, trans. Stephen Houlgate, 52.
96 Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805-1806), http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hp/hpschell.htm, D:3 (accessed 7/27/2012).
97 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 587.
98 Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 187.
99 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 586.
100 Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 187.
101 Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” 587.
102 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 61.
103 See section heading “The difference between Hegel’s and Schelling’s system of philosophy” below.
104 Bernard Freydberg, Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now, 1.
105 See especially Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things: “The term ‘guerrilla metaphysics’ is meant to signal…my full awareness that the traditional cathedrals of metaphysics lie in ruins. Let the rubble sleep–or kick it a bit longer, if you must. But new towers or monuments are still possible, more solid and perhaps more startling that those that came before” (256).
106 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 72.
107 Freydberg, Schelling’s Dialogical Freedom Essay: Provocative Philosophy Then and Now, 3.
108 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 158.
109 Schelling, On Construction in Philosophy, trans. Andrew David and Alexi Kukuljevic, 269.
110 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 159.
111 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 216.
112 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 223.
113 Hegel, The Philosophy of Right (1820), Sec. 247, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/pr/prcivils.htm#PR248 (accessed 7/28/2012).
114 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 223.
115 Wirth, “Introduction,” Schelling Now, 5.
Part 1: Remembering Childhood
Until about age seven, children seem to be naturally aware of the reality of a world beyond their physical senses. As they age, most of them seem to lose touch with this deeper dimension of the world. According to the common sense of our materialistic age, this is because their once overactive imaginations eventually come to be properly educated so as to distinguish objective fact from subjective fantasy.
If I think back to my own childhood, it was around seven years old that I first understood that my mother would die. This made me so sad that I cried on and off for three days. On one of these days, I was so choked up and distraught that she had to leave work early to pick me up from my second grade class just a few minutes after the school bus had dropped me off in the morning. I told the teacher my tears were the result of a stomach ache, but really I just couldn’t bear but to spend every remaining hour by my mother’s side.
Given the new knowledge I had acquired, all of the sudden life had weight and became quite serious. The games I played in what now seemed to be the “inner” world of my imagination could no longer be taken seriously in the “outside” world of toil, tax, and tomb. It wasn’t long after awakening to the devastating fact that my mother would die that I began to pay attention, instead, to the fact that this meant I would eventually die, as well. This wasn’t exactly a sad thought. On the contrary, at first being confronted by my own death was a relief: if my mother died before me, at least my own death would eventually bring a stop to my grief. But my initially nihilistic response to the fact of my own death never fully satisfied me. The question was never closed in the same way that my mother’s death had come to seem. To the extent that I kept the question open and continued to contemplate the meaning of my own death, the grief I had needed to escape from resulting from my mother’s death was increasingly transformed into awe and wonder in the face of the wide world she had bore me into. Sadness became curiosity. Wonder carried me through grade school: I drank up as much natural science as I could, especially the cosmology of Hawking and the biology of Dawkins. By 15, I was beginning to speak up about what I perceived to be the blindnesses of “religion,” even calling myself an atheist. I began to forget about the mystery of death, though it was still hovering just behind and to the side of all the new knowledge I was acquiring. At 17, I was exposed to the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts. Prior to that point, I’d never explicitly studied “thoughts.” I’d only studied the pictures provided to me by popular science books about the way the outside world really is, despite whatever I may “think” about it. Quarks, quasars, genes, neurons… I believed these had to be the final real things of which the world was made. It could not be made of mere ideas, mere words! These, I thought, were prone to fantasy and illusion, while only physical things could be real.
It was these three thinkers who first made me aware of the power of the word to transform our consciousness of reality. Their inquiries into the freedom, the depth, the spontaneity, and the cosmic dimensions of the psyche drew my attention back again to the abiding mystery of death. Taking another look at death, this time as a portal rather than a pit or an abyss, all my scientific picture-knowledge of a machine-like world came to seem petty and stupid. None of it mattered, since the ego pretending to master it all was subject to death, and to the deeper, more creative and intelligent spiritual power that preceded my birth and will survive my death. As a result of passionately pursuing the threads of these men’s thoughts–and of philosophizing in my own right–death’s mystery opened out into my first glimpses of immortality. By 21, my idle curiosity about the world had been transfigured into a love, not only for my mother’s, but for the whole of the world-soul’s sacrifice for me. This I consider my opening to the “other side,” and it remains to this day, at least so long as I keep both love and death in mind while thinking into reality.
But it wasn’t until Rudolf Steiner, at age 23, that I found a truly coherent and practical way of thinking the relationship between life, death, and love. Nietzsche was too individualistic and iconoclast, Jung too metaphysically coy, and Watts a rascal-trickster whose only stated aim was to “entertain.” Steiner, on the other hand, provided a way of consciously seeing beyond the sense-bound limits of my materialistically educated soul and its fancied clock-work world. Nietzsche, Jung, Watts, and by this time many others, too, had succeeded in convincing me of the falseness of the film of mundane familiarity I had been raised to take for granted as real. But only with Steiner did I begin to realize that scientific knowledge of a reality beyond the sensible–on the other side of the threshold of death–is possible.
Part 2: Thinking with Steiner
Rudolf Steiner was a child with an extra-ordinary awareness of the spiritual world. Not only was he probably aware of the reality of his mother’s and his own death at seven, he was in touch with the ghost of a dead relative.1 This awareness did not subside as he became an adult, even after a comprehensive education in natural science and philosophy. His commitment to scientific thinking did not dispel as illusory the supersensory perceptions he had been experiencing since childhood, but on the contrary deepened and developed them. At 27, in 1888, he met the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, with whom he had already had a long correspondence.
Steiner, according to his translator Michael Wilson,
“describes the chilling effect on him of the way this philosopher of pessimism denied that thinking could ever reach reality, but must forever deal with illusions.”2
Six years later, after the completion of his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Steiner published The Philosophy of Freedom (1894) in an attempt to prove, using spiritual scientific methods (i.e., something like a phenomenology of thinking in every day life3), that the human being is a free spirit capable of true knowledge of the world and real love of others. Hartmann seems to have provided Steiner with precisely the adversarial resistance he needed in order to strengthen his own grasp of the issues at stake. He came to feel the desperate need for human beings to understand their own consciousness in a scientific way, for otherwise, science lacks a solid epistemological and ontological foundation. Science without such a foundation in genuine philosophy (i.e., the love of wisdom and the search for self-knowledge) is reduced to what Owen Barfield later called “dashboard knowledge,”4 a sort of technological means of manipulating physical phenomena without understanding their underlying spiritual causes. Ignorance of the work of spirit in ourselves and in nature has ethical implications, as well: global consumer capitalism and ecosystem collapse are the chief results of several centuries of ever advancing socio-techno-scientific5 power in the absence of spiritual wisdom.
Steiner wanted to show others not blessed with his innate clairvoyance how it is possible to achieve conscious knowledge of oneself as a spirit so as to act freely out of no other desire than that of love for the deed itself. In short, his aim in The Philosophy of Freedom is to teach us how to think beyond the limits of the brain by leading us to an immediate awareness of our own thinking.
“While observation of objects and processes, and thinking about them, are both everyday situations that fill my ongoing life, the observation of thinking is a kind of exceptional state.”6
Without an intuition of the freedom of their own self-consciousness, the thinking of the average person reverts to mere “dashboard knowledge.” From the dashboard perspective of the sense-bound ego, the body becomes an automobile and the world a paved highway or parking lot to be driven over. Even consciousness itself becomes objectified into an electro-chemical neural correlate, something we can now medically modulate with pharmaceuticals and observe on computer screens using fMRIs. The philosophically naïve neuroscientist will argue that neurons are stimulus-response machines, and that the only reason we think a salmon, a pig, or a human being is any less determined than a rock is that we see the cause of the rock’s motion (being kicked) but not the cause of the thinking of these beings (neural activity), since their thinking takes place out of sight hidden within their skulls.7 Such a scientist forgets that it is only their own thinking that initially supplies them with this explanation. They thereby ignore the self-evidently spiritual nature of their own thinking activity by falsely explaining an inner noetic reality in terms of an outer appearance.
When the human scientist is not aware of their own thinking in a living way (i.e., as free), they have no other option but to conceive of the physical world as dead and deterministic.
“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.”8
The self-conscious, and so living thinking capable of finding nature Steiner would later come to call etheric. Etheric thinking intuits the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory appearances. Such thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the same living spiritual power underlying nature (natura naturans), that which is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off “external” nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive” as Whitehead called it,9 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of the sense-bound understanding. To think nature alive, our own thinking must come to life. Etheric thinking is not generated by the brain, and so is not limited to what the physical senses reveal about the external world. Etheric thinking is the expression of a higher dimensional process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain. Steiner calls this the etheric body, but the term “body” can be misleading to the extent that we are tempted to imagine something that exists in extended, three dimensional space.
The etheric “body” is a four dimensional entity, more aptly conceived of as an ongoing process than as a finished thing. It is best pictured, if we insist on picturing it at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside out to leave the living, breathing organism in its wake. Picturing it is impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal images seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.
The mental pictures we form through brain-bound thinking are subjective, relative to our own perspective as distinct organisms separated from others and the world. My mother literally “bore” my organism into the world: I awaken initially as a hole in the world, a sort of split off part seeking reconnection with the whole. I find temporary reconnection through concepts, which struggle to complete the perceptual world by teaching me about the causes underlying its behavior. Eventually, if I am at all interested in thinking about my experience of the world, I end up tracing the causes of that experience back to my sensory organs and neural tissue, as though thinking we “in” the skull looking “out” through the senses at the world. Brain-bound thoughts stop at this picture, pretending to be satisfied with an explanation of thinking, a noumenal activity, in terms of something phenomenal. Such thinking falsely assumes one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon (i.e., that neural activity could explain “redness”), when what was sought were the causes of phenomenality itself.
“Only if I could perceive how the percept of an object affects the percept of the subject, or–conversely–only if I could observe the construction of a perceptual form by the subject, would it be possible to speak like modern physiology and the critical idealism built upon it…The link between the subjective and the objective is not built…by any perceptible event. It is built by thinking alone.”10
When our thinking is permeated with spiritual life, we recognize the universality of the ideas underlying our individual mental pictures. I know longer stand apart from the world struggling to subjectively represent it. I do not think about ideas; rather, cosmic ideas think in me.11 An idea cannot be “mine”: ideas are universal and so belong to everyone or no one. Etheric thinking cannot be grasped with subjective percepts or objective concepts, since it is the source of both. From the Ether comes all conceptual intelligence in the mind and all conceptual intelligibility in nature. Either the mind and nature share in its One Life, or mind is imprisoned in the skull and nature ruled by death.
It is important here to mark the difference between ideas, concepts, and mental pictures. A mental picture is an inner representation of a percept. Mental pictures are already mixed with concepts, of course, but it takes free self-consciousness of supersensory ideas to realize this. Without etheric thinking, that is, consciousness remains unaware of its participation in the realm of ideas, becoming limited instead to sensory perceptions of the outer world and habitual responses regarding them. Many people speak of concepts and ideas as if they were mere words, scribbles on paper or sounds in the air. This is the mistake of nominalism. The nominalist forgets that logic, the universal laws of thinking, can never be reduced to the rules of some particular language. If logic were reducible to language, no free thoughts would ever be possible, since I’d only be able to parrot what I’d heard from others. Language is the husk of logic, the skin it is always outgrowing and transforming in its creative pursuit of the truth. similarly, mental pictures are not the limit of thinking’s knowledge of reality.
Thinking can reach deeper, since the same logos that thinks in me, grows and evolves in the cosmos. The Ding an Sich that remains always beyond the grasp of naive ego-consciousness becomes, with the cultivation of an imaginal organ of etheric thinking, identified with my own inner most nature (and thereby, with the true nature of all things).
Part 3: The School of Spirit
The dawning of my own self-consciousness occurred only once I had separated from my mother. Becoming aware of her mortality forever altered the sense of identity I had up to that point assumed. My feelings of immense sadness made life seem like a trap, a cruel joke with no escape. But as my awareness of my mother’s death shifted to an awareness of my own death, feelings of sadness became thoughts of wonder. The prospect of my own death raised all sorts of questions, questions that brought me beyond the subjectivity of my own feelings and into the objectivity of thinking. I realized that life was a deep mystery, and not a tragedy. As Socrates suggests in the Apology, wisdom begins in the knowledge of one’s own ignorance. When it comes to the matter of death, only the ignorant are fearful. For those properly prepared, death may turn out to be a blessing.
Wonder, and the learned ignorance it engenders, can be further cultivated in order to produce what Steiner called “spiritual science.” Spiritual science, unlike natural science, is not undertaken in abstraction from ethical concerns, since, as a way of knowing, it is “the power of love in spiritual form.”12 Spiritual science is a kind of active thinking that is also a loving.
Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of the teachings of a Socrates or a Jesus. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego by confronting death, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me and out the other side. Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.
As a child, I was taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. As we have seen, this is the etheric body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a passageway to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become one with the Word.
1 5, The New Essential Steiner, ed. by Robert McDermott
2 viii, The Philosophy of Freedom transl. by Michael Wilson, 1970
3 Though also more than a phenomenology of the life-world, since Steiner sought to catch thinking in the act, as nous, rather than to simply track the phenomenal products of thinking (i.e., thoughts, images, etc.).
4 See Saving the Appearances, 1988
5 See The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001) by Alf Hornborg to learn about the links between bourgeois social relations, industrial machines, mechanistic science, and the ecological crisis.
6 31, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995
7 15, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995
8 25, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995
9 See Modes of Thought (1938)
10 91-92, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995
11 As Paul put it, “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).
12 133, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, transl. by Michael Lipson, 1995
Poetry as soul-making
Strictly speaking, what I want to talk about today does not exist, or at least if it does, remains for the most part unconscious to the rational, waking ego’s daylight gaze. Nonetheless, I’m forced to call this unknown phantasm something, and the name ‘imagination’ seems to suit it fine. Imagination is that matrix of possibility somewhere between the Real and the Ideal. Imagination is the engine of human life, the shaper of our desires and performer of our ideals. Jung called it the Psyche, Jesus called it Christ, Plato called it the Good. These are ‘large’ words. ‘Heavy’ words. Their meaning is saturated, so much so that it overflows and all but defies comprehension.
Talking about the imagination is a lot like talking about silence, since every time I speak a sentence, I blow out the candle warming the perceptuo-image of my organismic experience with words I learned in school. I turn the reality of the light of the Real into the shadows of my educated mind’s finite ideas.
The Psyche is a philosophical invention. Or at least, whatever I say about her becomes a philosophical invention. I prefer the term imagination as a metaphysical ultimate, much in the sense that Whitehead employs the term creativity. I cannot be sure what I mean when I call it, ‘imagination,’ in the same way I am never quite sure what I mean when I say I.
Jung, The Red Book (Liber Primus, fol iii(r)):
“When you say that the place of the soul is not, then it is not. But if you say that it is, then it is. Notice what the ancients said in images: the word is a creative act. The ancients said: in the beginning was the Word. Consider this and think about it. The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.”
Schelling: “nature is the unconscious poetry of the spirit”
Blake: “The imagination is the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever”
Blake thought every honest person is a prophet. (Poetry not a unique skill, but a universal endowment).
What I want to say cannot be said, but if I am able I will here attempt to display it. I cannot describe for you the myths within which we live and breathe, but I can enact them for you here upon the state. If we are lucky, I will invoke common fields of feeling, and the ideas in each of our private minds will receive a shared sense of being. A concept is a common field of feeling, something which grasps us in an environment and calls us to attention. A conception is not an idea in an individual mind. It is an event in the world. I speak in order to call attention to something that is always already there—always already here. It “is” silence, the absence of speech, of presence, of world, of order, of Logos. The silence is the supreme meaning, the promise of perfect meaning. Derrida spoke of the messianicity of language, the need to be hopeful about the final word that is always to come. Our conversations can never be settled, we must always agree to meet again, or sever.
Jung (Liber Primus, iii(v)):
“The meaning of events is the supreme meaning, that is not in events, and not in the soul, but is the God standing between events and the soul, the mediator of life, the way, the bridge and the going across. My soul is my supreme meaning, my image of God, neither God himself nor the supreme meaning. God becomes apparent in the supreme meaning of the human community.”
The poetic imagination is not a highly prized and rare skill, but an essential aspect of every literate soul’s life-process.
Shakespeare, A midsummer’s night dream:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-12).
Plato was not trying to annihilate or deconstruct poetry, as such; he was calling the Homeric psyche into a more intimate relation with itself, into a tighter coiling of consciousness upon itself. Prior to Plato, the Logos had only collective, mythological significance. After Plato, it’s meaning was given to men. Aristotle swallowed the songs of ages, turning the rumors of orality into the rhetorico-physical description (not prediction) of categorical schemes and logical analyses. But St. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that the letter kills; only the spirit gives life. Aristotle’s impersonal poetics can be inwardized, or personalized, even further. Not philosophical description, but poetic participation becomes the goal of our soul’s incarnation.
[to Benjamin Bailey] “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness – to compare great things with small – have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody – in a delicious place – by a delicious voice, felt over again your very Speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul – do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so – even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high – that the Protrotype must be here after – that delicius face you will see. What a time! I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on Sensation partly on thought – to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind – such an one I consider your’s and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things.”
“Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder.”
WHERE’S the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him!
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.
[to Shelly on Aug. 16, 1820]
“And is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion, whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards? I am picked up and sorted to a pip. My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk. You must explain my metaphors to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.”
[February 14-May 3, 1819]
The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven–what a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul making” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception –they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God –how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation–This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years–These three Materials are the Intelligence–the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming theSoul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and vet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible– I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School–and I will call the Child able to read, the Soulmade from that school and itshornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence–This appears to me faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity–I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it–there is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me–the Salvation of Children–In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without an identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart–or seat of the human Passions…
[May 3, 1818]
… axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same Steps as the Author –I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done-… Until we are sick, we understand not;–in fine, as Byron says, “Knowledge is sorrow,” and I go on to say that “Sorrow is Wisdom”–and further for aught we can know for certainty! “Wisdom is folly”… I compare human life to a large mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me–The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think–We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle –within us–we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere,we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the-head heart and nature of Man–of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression–whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open–but all dark–all leading to dark passages–We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote “Tintern Abbey” and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior [to] us…
[February 3, 1818]
My dear Reynolds,
It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth&c should have their due from us. but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist– Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself–Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven,and yet want confidence to put down his half seeing… Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.-How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this.
[February 27, 1818]
My dear Taylor,
… In Poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their center. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance-l” Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all…
Plato on poetry:
Republic X (p. 1211/606e), after suggesting poetry leads us to enjoy the sufferings of others, as in Homer’s tragedy, Socrates says to Glaucon:
“…When you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, an that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason… in view of the nature of poetry, we had reason to banish it from the city earlier, for our argument compelled us to do so. But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy, which is evidenced by such expressions as ‘the dog yelping and shrieking at its master,’ ‘great in the empty eloquence of fools,’ ‘the mob of wise men that has mastered Zeus,’ and the ‘subtle thinkers, beggars all.’ Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises. But, be that as it may, to betray what one believes to be the truth is impious… we’ll allow its defenders, who aren’t poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. Indeed, we’ll listen to them graciously, for we’d certainly profit if poetry were shown to be not only pleasant but also beneficial… if such a defence isn’t made, we’ll behave like people who have fallen in love with someone but who force themselves to stay away from him, because they realize that their passion isn’t beneficial. In the same way, because the love of this sort of poetry has been implanted in us by the upbringing we have received under our fine constitutions, we are well disposed to any proof that it is the best and truest thing. But if it isn’t able to produce such a defense, then, whenever we listen to it, we’ll repeat the argument we have just now put forward like an incantation so as to preserve ourselves from slipping back into that childish passion for poetry which the majority of people have. And we’ll go on chanting that such poetry is not to be taken seriously or treated as a serious undertaking with some kind of hold on the truth, but that anyone who is anxious about the constitution within him must be careful when he hears it and must continue to believe what we have said about it.”
“Unlike simple narrative, mimesis poses a particular psychic danger, because as the speaker of the narrative one may take on the character of literary persona in question. It is as though the fictionality of the persona is forgotten; in acting out a part one acts the part, and then one begins to act (in “real life”) as the character would act. One does not actually take oneself to bethe fictional character; rather, the “model” or pattern of response or sentiment or thought one has acted out when “imitating” the character becomes enacted. There is no air-tight barrier between throwing yourself (especially habitually) into a certain part, body and soul, and being molded by the part; no firm boundary, in that sense, between what happens on and off the stage. By contrast, Socrates argues, a simple narration preserves distance between narrator and narrated…..He is asserting, though without filling out the psychological mechanisms in the detail for which one would wish, that from childhood up, mimesis shapes our images and our fantasies, our unconscious or semi-conscious pictures and feelings, and thereby shapes our characters, especially that part of our nature prone to what he thinks of as irrational or non-rational.” –Stanford Encyclopedia
“on the one hand, poetry promotes intrapsychic conflict; on the other, it keeps us unconscious of that conflict, for the irrational part of our psyche cannot hear reason’s corrections. That is why poetry, with its throbbing rhythms and beating of breasts, appeals equally to the nondescript mob in the theater and to the best among us. But if poetry goes straight to the lower part of the psyche, that is where it must come from.” -J. Lear, “Inside and outside the Republic,” in his Open Minded (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 240
Walt Whitman from Song of Myself:
Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of the earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.
Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus “Endless Trace” (trans. Chris Bamford):
But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, your over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers’. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds, you still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace. Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners.