Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Foreword to an upcoming anthroposophical book on twelve ways of seeing the world

Below is the draft of a foreword I’ve coauthored with Robert McDermott. The book, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World by Mario Betti, should be out later this year via Hawthorn Press. Betti’s book builds fruitfully upon the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. You can read Steiner’s original lectures on the topic of the 12 human worldviews here:


Foreword to Mario Betti, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World

By Robert McDermott and Matthew T. Segall

February 4, 2019


Rudolf Steiner was one of the 20th century’s few true Renaissance men. While modern science, art, religion, politics, and philosophy continued to fall into increasing specialization, fragmentation, deconstruction, and narrow-minded conflict, Steiner labored tirelessly to create new integral approaches to education, agriculture, medicine, architecture, social reform, banking, visual and performance art, esotericism, and more, all inspired by a deep commitment to humanity’s spiritual potential. Mario Betti, a lifelong practitioner of Steiner’s anthroposophical method, has written a book that succeeds not only in its clear interpretation of a sometimes enigmatic thinker’s ideas but in its brilliant amplifications and applications of these ideas to our present day circumstances.

Betti offers his book as a stimulus or seed to support the growth of a still fledgling pluralistic society. Achieving a planetary humanity guided by freedom and love out of the ashes of the modern pathologies of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism, oligarchism, and terrorism (the list goes on) will require more than a shallow, relativistic multiculturalism that settles for mere tolerance. Betti draws on Goethe to remind us that tolerance can only be a temporary position. Genuine pluralism, Betti shows, requires more than toleration: it requires a willingness to engage the whole of our being in deep communication with and mutual affirmation of other worldviews. We must strive to reach across our differences through an inner development that is capable of seeing their holistic interdependence. Betti’s amplification of Steiner’s twelve worldviews is a profound aid in this effort of inner development. Significantly, it shows the dignity and merit of each way of seeing the world at the same time that it reveals the danger of exclusivism. Every worldview becomes false the moment it claims to be the whole of the world.

Albert William Levy’s Philosophy and the Modern World, a particularly expert and readable account of 20th century philosophies, summarizes our present situation well:

…philosophical movements of the recent past are to be viewed as waves of successive reform beating upon an infinite shore, with each group of partisans committed to a conception of philosophy which assure them a virtual monopoly of its legitimate practice.… And to pragmatists, logical empiricists, and linguistic analysts alike, any alternative conception of what philosophy is rests upon a tragic mistake.1

Who would dare an attempt to overcome such differences of opinion, each supported by knowledge and powerful arguments? An ideal candidate would be a teacher whose thinking is lifted by creative pedagogy and artistic imagination. Mario Betti would appear to be such a teacher. Every page of this book reveals an author who teaches thinking as a contribution to individual lives, to relationships, and to a sane society. He is invested not in scoring philosophical points but rather in helping his readers cope with intellectual confusion and conflict.

Betti succeeds in his purpose by giving a positive account of twelve worldviews. He takes as his model Goethe who held in one view both universal harmony and plurality (8). We are led to appreciate that each worldview is convincing up to a point. His treatment of Idealism, for example, invites the reader to see that all reality is, or at least emerges from, ideas, from a realm that Plato described so convincingly. But then Betti draws on Aristotle, an equally brilliant and equally influential philosopher, to show the need for a more positive account of particulars, whether moments, thoughts, or objects. Betti refers to this combination of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy as Realism, the philosophy that occupies the topmost spot on the philosophical compass (more on this below).

In a similar way, the way of showing polarities, Betti makes a case for Rationalism, the philosophy of ethical order and proportion, and then shows how it virtually solicits its polar complement, the philosophy of Dynamism: structure needs process to be effective and process, in order to avoid chaos, needs structure. As an introvert needs at least a little extroversion to get through the day, and as melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments need at least a touch of choleric and sanguine temperaments, so does Psychism, a philosophy ready-made for psychology, need a little Phenomenalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the reality of external objects and events but is not sufficiently affirmative of the interior depths of the soul. “Psychism is the inner version of phenomenalism” (110). These pairs, furthermore, are not only complementary, as in two static halves that make a whole; rather, they need and benefit each other but also oppose each other—like individual and community, inner and outer, and of course, like gender. The twelve views are also like gender in that they exist not only as pairs of clearly demarcated opposites but as a spectrum with fluid boundaries, a perspective that contemporary social justice movements have made increasingly clear (134).

In addition to an emphasis on the conflict of worldviews, Betti emphasizes the importance of mutually enhancing polarities: “Each worldview is both a genuine opposite and an enhancement of its opposite” (110). By plunging downward into the domain of gravity, the Materialist worldview has produced marvels of human understanding like the periodic table of elements, just as the Spiritualist worldview has revealed its own “’levitating’ periodic table of spiritual elements”: the angelic hierarchies (151). While Materialism risks digging itself ever deeper into the sand like a crab, Spiritualism risks fleeing the Earth entirely. Such polar tensions are the engine of the evolutionary adventure that has produced all that we see around us and feel within us.

As was mentioned above, despite insisting on the equal value of each of the twelve views, Betti follows Steiner in giving pride of place to Realism. “All worldviews rest like a bud within [it],” as it is “the fundamental human outlook par excellence” (197). “Cognition,” Steiner tells us in his autobiography, “is not the depiction of intrinsic being but rather the soul living its way into this intrinsic being” (quoted by Betti on 205). In other words, an act of knowing is not an internal mental representation of an external physical world; rather, knowing is a participatory event that is immanent to the world-process itself. “If knowledge did not exist,” Steiner continues, “the world would remain incomplete” (quoted by Betti on 206). This is obviously not a naïve realism: it is a higher realization rooted in Steiner’s participatory approach to knowledge and reality. This higher or participatory Realism is a developmental culmination of the other eleven worldviews, whereby through a sort of alchemical transfiguration the distinct capacities of thinking, feeling, sensing, and willing (each emphasized by their respective worldviews) are etherialized into what Betti calls “a new earth substance” (209). In this primordial etheric life substance, Betti tells us, the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome so that human consciousness can be raised and transubstantiated by the power of the Logos-Christ.

Some readers may have trouble following Betti and Steiner at this point, as these are rather mysterious matters, to say the least. But Betti’s book succeeds at least in leading all spiritually striving individuals to the point where they are able to perceive the intrinsic value of all worldviews. At that point, it is up to each of us to discover the true integral potential of our human existence. “The whole world, apart from the human being, is an enigma,” Steiner tells us. “And the human being is its solution” (quoted in Betti on 206).


1 Albert William Levy, Philosophy and the Modern World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1959), 444-45. 


Back to teach at Schumacher College in April 2019: “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.

Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:

Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:

“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”

This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.


*featured image above by Jakob Boehme

Diagramming German Idealism

I’m teaching an online graduate course called Mind and Nature in German Idealism this semester. Below I am sharing several diagrams that I’ve developed to depict Kant’s transcendental method as it evolves through the first three critiques, as well as Fichte’s radicalization of the Kantian project. I hope to continue developing this diagram to elucidate Schelling, Goethe, and Hegel’s approaches, but I’m not entirely sure what that will look like yet!