UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the final draft accepted for publication under the revised title “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative.”

I’ve just finished drafting this article, which will hopefully be featured in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences focused on panpsychism. It still needs plenty of editing, but I’m sharing it here for those who want a sneak peak. Criticisms and suggestions definitely welcome.


Title: “Physicalism and Its Discontents: A Study in Whitehead’s Panexperientialist Alternative”

(150-200 words): This paper brings Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. This paper thus examines physicalism’s dominant strategies for explaining consciousness, including eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism, and concludes that the panpsychist alternative is superior. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.

Key words: panpsychism, panexperientialism, physicalism, emergence, experience, consciousness, process philosophy


The skull-crackingly hard problem concerning the place of consciousness in the physical universe has led an increasing number of analytic philosophers of mind to take seriously the panpsychist alternative to standard physicalism. Nonetheless, Brüntrup and Jaskolla note in their editors’ introduction to Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives that the usual response to the doctrine remains “an incredulous stare” (2017, 2). Perhaps the most forceful dismissal to date comes from Colin McGinn, who in a reply to Galen Strawson rejects panpsychism as “a comforting piece of utter balderdash” that only stoned hippies could believe (McGinn 2006, 93).

But an explanation for the emergence of consciousness in the universe known to physics has thus far proven elusive. Fundamental philosophical questions remain to be answered before the criteria for such a scientific explanation can even be established. For example, is consciousness essentially ‘real’ or ‘illusory’? That is, does it “have truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality,” as Alfred North Whitehead suspected (1929, 15), or is it a peripheral accident, a mere epiphenomenon emergent from blindly churning physiochemical processes that are otherwise well understood by natural science? Does consciousness evolve, and if so, does it intelligently influence the behavior of the organisms instantiating it? These questions are not merely theoretical or academic. They cut to the very core who and what we are, shaping our sense of what it means to be human.

Despite the initial incredulity it provokes, this paper argues that panpsychism—specifically Whitehead’s process-relational,  panexperiential version—provides a viable alternative to scientific materialism while also avoiding the philosophical excesses of dualism and idealism. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, panpsychism has a long and rich history stretching back to the origins of Western philosophy. Heraclitus opposed Parmenides’ vision of unchanging Being with the doctrine that ‘everything flows’ (panta rhea). Heraclitus understood the universe to be “an ever-living fire” (pyr aeizoon), making him not only the first recorded process philosopher but the first panpsychist, as well (Skrbina 2005, 29). Even in the early modern period, thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Gottfried Leibniz, often lauded for their important contributions to the emergence of the scientific worldview, continued to uphold some version of the doctrine. “Lucretius tells us what an atom looks like to others,” writes Whitehead, “and Leibniz tells us how an atom is feeling about itself” ([1933] 1967, 132). Skeptics may be tempted to excuse Bruno and Leibniz’s panpsychist eccentricity as an unthought residue of pre-modern animism. Once enlightened by the findings of contemporary physics and biology, surely these luminaries would happily have dispensed with the ‘primitive’ notion that atoms can feel? Perhaps not. What, after all, are we to make of Whitehead, another mathematical and philosophical genius who critiqued scientific materialism and arrived at his own variety of panpsychism not despite but because of the findings of contemporary physics and biology?

“There persists…[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being…[This] is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 17).

This paper brings Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism” ([1929] 1978) into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.

1. Why not Whitehead?: A Brief Historical Excursus

“Urge & urge & urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance & increase, always sex,

Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”

—Whitman (“Song of Myself”)

Understanding Whitehead’s process-relational approach to panpsychism (or panexperientialism, as David Ray Griffin has renamed it [Griffin 2008, 78]) first requires a bit of historical contextualization. While Whitehead’s early work with Bertrand Russell on the logical foundations of mathematics is widely acknowledged by analytic philosophers as seminal to the emergence of their school of thought, Whitehead’s later metaphysical speculations are for the most part either ignored or ridiculed. For example, W. V. Quine traveled to Harvard in the mid-1920s to study with the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica. After attending the lectures that became Science and the Modern World (1925), Quine acknowledged “a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great” but went on to admit that the notes he took were mostly full of doodles. “What [Whitehead] said,” Quine reports, “had little evident bearing on the problems that I recognized” (Quine 1985, 83). Another student of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Donald Davidson, was initially transfixed by his ideas, but later reflected that his encounter with Whitehead “set [him] back philosophically for years” by confirming his youthful “inclination to think that doing philosophy was like writing poetry” (Davidson 1999, 14). Not everyone was quite as sour on Whitehead’s speculations at Harvard. Ernest Nagel credited Whitehead with being one of the first to realize and attempt to address the metaphysical problems that were becoming “acutely pressing in the special sciences,” praising him for his “[sensitivity] to the advances of recent science as well to the ancient tradition that philosophy is the systematic study of being” (E. Nagel 1954, 154). But Nagel also noted “the severe abuse of language to which Whitehead is partial” (ibid.), a familiar (if not entirely fair) refrain among those who attempt to read him for the first time.

To round out this historical excursus, let us return to Nagel’s point about the special sciences. By the mid-1920s, the new quantum and relativity theories had already succeeded in demolishing the old mechanical philosophy of Nature by transforming matter into energy and merging space and time together with gravity. The classical explanations of Nature offered by a once confident scientific materialism no longer made any sense. A second scientific revolution was afoot. At the same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein led the logical positivists in a revolt against the excesses of British idealism by blowing up the bridge purporting to connect the metaphysical speculations of philosophers with the ultimate nature of things: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein 1922, 189). The physicists struggling to come to terms with the strange ontological implications of their discoveries could henceforth expect no help from philosophers. Whitehead’s own pathbreaking work on the application of mathematics to physics made him especially sensitive to Einstein’s relativistic revolution; he was also well aware of the concurrently unfolding quantum revolution. His sensitivity to the metaphysical earthquake underway in the physical sciences awakened Whitehead from the dogmatic slumber of the mechanistic paradigm. “What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation,” Whitehead asked, “when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?” (1925, 16). His Philosophy of Organism is a protest against the lifeless Nature imagined by Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, and a rejection of the narrow linguistic analysis and sterile logical positivism of his philosophical contemporaries. His is an attempt to make natural science philosophical again by asking whether physical causes and motions need be so violently segregated from the conscious reasons and emotions by which we apprehend them.

In Process & Reality: An Essay in Cosmology ([1929] 1978), Whitehead aims for nothing less than the construction of an organic system of the universe that not only brings quantum and relativity theories into coherence, but gathers up scientific truths, aesthetic feelings, and religious values into an integral vision of reality. It is true that Whitehead found it necessary to invent many new turns of phrase to accomplish this feat. He thus contrasts his speculative philosophical method with that of the “critical school” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 173), which for my purposes can easily be identified with the then just emerging analytic school of thought. This school assumes that humanity “has consciously entertained all the fundamental ideas which are applicable to its experience” and that “human language, in single words or in phrases, explicitly expresses these ideas” (ibid.). The critical or analytic school, Whitehead continues, “confines itself to verbal analysis within the limits of the dictionary” (ibid.). In contrast, Whitehead’s speculative method “appeals to direct insight, and endeavors to indicate its meanings by further appeal to situations which promote such specific insights. It then enlarges the dictionary” (ibid.). Whitehead credits analytic philosophy for its “delicate accuracy of expression,” but marks the main “divergence between the schools [as] the quarrel between safety and adventure” (ibid.).

Davidson worried about the adventurous Whitehead’s attempted alliance between speculative philosophy and mystical poetry. Both, according to Whitehead, make “reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words.” He continues: “If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” (ibid., 174). Davidson’s complaint may be short-sighted, however, especially once one has acknowledged the profound metaphysical problems that after nearly a century of careful analysis continue to plague not only the physical sciences but the philosophy of mind, as well. Hamlet was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth…”

While getting to the bottom of Whitehead’s chilly reception among analytic philosophers is not the aim of this paper, a few conjectures can be offered. After a celebrated first career as a mathematician, Whitehead’s untimely entry into philosophy in the mid-1920s can be read as heralding the more recent return to metaphysics both in the analytic and Continental traditions. Philosophers are finally catching up to the problems Whitehead was pointing out nearly a century ago. Perhaps it is just because his cosmological ideas initially emerged in the wrong season that they have remained buried in the snow. In addition to the unfortunate timing, Whitehead’s lack of easy classification is probably another reason for his neglect. Neither an analytic philosopher, nor a phenomenologist, Whitehead’s approach generally confounds partisans of both schools. That said, his process-relational philosophy has been creatively taken up by a number of friendly thinkers on the Continent (initially Henri Bergson (1999, 47), later Gilles Deleuze ([1968] 1994, 284-285; [1988] 1993, 76ff), and most recently Isabelle Stengers (2011) and Bruno Latour (2005). Whitehead’s thought also featured prominently in the Speculative Realism movement that swept through Continental philosophy beginning in late 2010 (Bryant et al. 2011; Harman 2018). He is perhaps best situated within the American pragmatist tradition stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, though even here the shoe pinches. Dewey is the only one who lived long enough to respond to Whitehead’s philosophy, which he praises for its organicism and experiential point of departure but criticizes for its mathematical residues (Schilpp 1941). In the end it must be admitted that Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is singular in its aims and conclusions. Any attempt to pigeonhole his thought into a school inevitably trivializes it. Of course, Whitehead himself generated a school, but there exist plenty of wild Whiteheadians who avoid any established orthodoxies, like Deleuze, Stengers, and Latour, or Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein (2017).

Finally, there is the issue of Whitehead’s inclusion of reformed conceptions of teleology and God in his cosmological scheme. For many philosophers and natural scientists, this rules out in advance any serious engagement with his ideas. Daniel J. Nicholson and John Dupré, for example, claim that the theological baggage of Whitehead’s process philosophy is a “liability” for thinkers with a naturalistic aim (2018, 7). But a closer look at Whitehead’s process-relational reformulations of purpose and divinity may reveal to those who rushed to dismiss them that Whitehead shares many of their criticisms of traditional natural theology. By the time God and teleology return from Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology, the former is no longer an omnipotent Creator but a creature of Creativity suffering with the rest of us, and the latter is no longer an eternal design imposed from beyond the world but an aesthetic lure immanent in the experience of each and every actual occasion in the world, whether that experience belongs to Shakespeare or “to the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 28).

My hope is that this paper brings Whitehead out of cold storage and at least thaws his ideas enough to get those unfamiliar with his Philosophy of Organism to consider the alternative it represents, not only to physicalism, but to dualism and idealism, as well. Despite Quine’s first impression, it may turn out that Whitehead has much to say about the problems faced by contemporary analytic philosophers, especially those who, against all odds, now find themselves affirming the panpsychist heresy.   

2. The Place of Consciousness in a Physical Universe

Serious conceptual difficulties await any philosopher attempting to understand the place of consciousness in the physical universe. David Chalmers’ well-known “hard problem of consciousness” (1995) is perhaps the most oft cited formulation of the impasse, but the basic problem goes back to Rene Descartes’ argument that a real distinction exists between a thinking or mental substance and an extended or material substance ([1647] 1982, 21]. While many contemporary physicists would be quick to dismiss Descartes’ idea of an immaterial soul as unscientific, his correlate idea of extended matter continues to shape the scientific imaginary of Nature as something explainable without remainder in purely mathematical terms. While Descartes faced the difficult problem of accounting for the relationship between two entirely autonomous substances, contemporary physicalists face what is arguably an even harder problem: how can extended matter in motion ever give rise to the seemingly interior experience of conscious thought and emotion? As Galen Strawson has pointed out, even if this “seeming” experience ends up being some sort of illusion, the seeming itself still demands an explanation: “any such illusion is already and necessarily an actual instance of the thing said to be an illusion” (Strawson 2018).

Let us run through the various metaphysical options at play for those affirming standard physicalism, by which I mean any variation on the ontology that posits that the final real things (whether particles, fields, or some other mode of existence yet to be discovered by science) are passively enduring objects entirely devoid of subjective enjoyment and aim. When addressing the place of consciousness in Nature, physicalists generally draw upon three basic explanatory strategies: eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism. Many physicalists, in order to side-step patent absurdities, end up tacitly sliding back and forth between two or more of these positions in the course of their explanations of consciousness. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in how these terms are defined in existing literature, hence the need to offer accounts of each position as they are considered for the purposes of this paper.

a) Eliminativism

Eliminativism tries to deny the reality of consciousness outright, arguing that our folk psychological intuitions and self-reports about it are hopelessly misguided and need to be replaced by more mature neurophysiological or computational accounts. While Paul and Patricia Churchland are perhaps the most prominent contemporary defenders of this position (P. S. Churchland 1986; P. M. Churchland 1988), its origins can be traced back to Wilfred Sellars (1956) and Quine (1960). Quine’s reflections on the matter are especially relevant. He raises the question of whether eliminativism truly “repudiates” conscious experiences as factually mistaken, or whether it is meant as a theory identifying such experiences with physiological facts (Quine 1960, 265). He decides that there is no real distinction to be made in this case between explanation and identification. If the elimination of consciousness in favor of physiological processes is the same as the identification of consciousness with correlated physiological processes, all the sudden eliminativism starts to sound a lot like panpsychism, with the crucial qualification that the panpsychist refuses to grant brain matter any special ontological status, as though it instantiated experiential capacities not found to some degree in all physical processes. In Whitehead’s terms: “There’s nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 310). In other words, if Quine’s reading is right, Whitehead is also an eliminativist about that sort of consciousness that is imagined to be something extra in addition to physical processes.

More recently, a quasi-transcendental version of eliminativism has been defended under the label of “illusionism” (Frankish 2016). The idea is that we suffer inextricably from what Daniel Dennett calls a “user-illusion” (Dennett 2017, 222). There is really no one home inside, but because we are constitutively blind to the neural basis of our user-illusion, we cannot help but keep knocking on the door. The answer to all our knocking comes only as a bunch of mouth-squeaks signifying nothing (other than more squeaks). We are just a bunch of neurons and chemistry playing out an evolutionary algorithm. “We’re all zombies” (Dennett 2004, 67). Despite his critics, Dennett denies that his version of physicalism is eliminativist (Dennett 2017, 224). His philosophy is a good example of the way the most inventive physicalists end up combining aspects of multiple positions, sliding from eliminativism for questions of ontology to emergentism when it’s a question of the practical functionality of conscious will (Dennett 2003).

Hard core eliminativists like the Churchlands, or like the speculative realist philosopher Ray Brassier (2007), can at least be credited with bitting the materialist bullet by accepting that any physicalism worthy of the name leaves absolutely no room in the universe for anything like what most people mean by consciousness. For Brassier, eliminativism is not just a promising neuroscientific theory of consciousness but a tremendous opportunity for speculative philosophy. Philosophers, rather than acting as “a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem” by continuing to seek the restoration of a meaningful connection between human consciousness and the cosmic processes that generate it, should instead follow the logic of eliminativism to its admittedly nihilistic conclusions (Brassier 2007, xi). Even if attempts to restore meaning succeed in increasing our quality of life, Brassier still calls upon self-respecting philosophers to reject them, since “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living” (ibid.). The eliminativist position can be criticized as self-refuting, since it denies in theory what, short of suicide, one cannot deny in practice (though even the act suicide implies a conscious decision to kill oneself). How can one claim to hold to the view of eliminative materialism if the capacity for holding meaningful views of anything is precisely what the position purports to be eliminating? Brassier responds to the performative contradiction criticism by pointing out that the eliminativist project entails a rejection and replacement of the folk psychological view of ‘views’ or ‘beliefs’ assumed by its critics. Following Paul Churchland, Brassier reduces the propositional meanings and sentential beliefs of folk psychology to the “dynamics and kinematics” of neural activation patterns in the brain (Brassier 2007, 12, 15-17). What it is to hold a particular view (e.g., “Eliminativism is true”) is just for the relevant neural pathways to fire.

While panpsychism may initially affront the common sense of modern Western adults, eliminativism is an even bigger stretch. Of course, the common sense folk psychology of a particular era cannot be given the privileged position of determining metaphysical reality. Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism entails a radical revisioning of our common sense understandings of consciousness and propositional meaning. But it does not deny conscious experience outright. Philosophy can reform common sense without eliminating the very possibility of a meaningful life. According to Whitehead, “As we think, we live” (Whitehead, [1938] 1968, 63). Thinking is, after all, as natural to the life of a conscious organism as eating or breathing. If our philosophy cannot in the end be squared with the “overpowering deliverances” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 50) of experience and the “concrete affairs of life” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 80), it is a good sign that we have made a wrong turn somewhere in our abstract reasoning. This, at least, is how a pragmatic radical empiricist like Whitehead addresses the matter: “Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 13).

b) Epiphenomenalism

Epiphenomenalism claims there is room enough for consciousness to be somehow excreted by the brain, but only as a semi-transparent ghost or “inert spectator” (James 1890, 129) with no causal influence over the goings-on of the body or its proximal environment. As formulated most famously by Thomas Huxley, epiphenomenalism is the view that consciousness is “completely without any power…as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery” (Huxley 1875, 62). Epiphenomenalists at least acknowledge the irreducibility of our direct intuition of conscious experience. But assuming a broadly naturalistic and thus evolutionary framework (as Huxley and most contemporary defenders of the doctrine claim to) rules out accounts of epiphenomenal consciousness as sealed off from but nonetheless perfectly correlated with physical processes via a “pre-established harmony” (e.g., Leibniz). Any naturalistic account must explain the causal nexus between mental and physical processes, even if the causal relationships are said to move in only one direction, i.e., physical causes determining an epiphenomenal steam-whistle. Given the requirements of naturalism, the problem with epiphenomenalism is that it is incomprehensible how such a complex ghost-like consciousness could ever have evolved if it serves no function at all for the organism it haunts. If consciousness plays no active role in shaping an organism’s behavior, it cannot be selected for and thus has no role in biological adaptation (T. Nagel 2012, 44ff). As James argued more than a century ago, it is an absurd abuse of scientistic reasoning to assert in the same breath that, while consciousness exists, “all those manners of existence which make it seem relevant to our outward life are mere meaningless coincidences, inexplicable parts of the general and intimate irrationality of this disjointed world” (James 1879, 21). Not only is the view epiphenomenalist view incoherent, the opposed view, that consciousness to varying degrees depending on cerebral complexity “[exerts] a constant pressure in the direction of survival,” grants further plausibility to the Darwinian evolutionary story: “It is, in fact, hard to see how without an effective superintending ideal the evolution of so unstable an organ as the mammalian cerebrum can have proceeded at all” (ibid., 16).

The neuroscientist Michael Graziano attempts to avoid this problem with epiphenomenalism by redefining conscious awareness in neuroscientific terms as “attention” (Graziano 2019). While focusing on the ‘phenomenal properties’ of conscious awareness gives philosophers the impression that subjective experience is some sort of extra ethereal or nonphysical essence (e.g., private ‘qualia’), what Graziano calls an “attention schema” has been scientifically measured in brain-based computational terms (ibid.). The attention schema is the brain’s way of internally modeling certain aspects of its own activity, and our reports and claims about our own consciousness appear to correlate with it (ibid., 101). Graziano thus slides away from the hard problem of consciousness to ask a different question: what sort of neural computations allow us to make claims about supposedly conscious experiences? “In this theory,” writes Graziano, “the ghost in the machine, the consciousness inside us, is a topic of discussion among us only because our intuitions are informed by an attention schema, with its incomplete account of attention” (ibid., 103). While a supposedly ethereal essence would have no way of altering the behavior of an organism, the attention schema serves an adaptive function by monitoring, predicting, and controlling the brain’s attentional resources (ibid., 101). It performs this function in a purely physical way without the influence of any extra-physical consciousness.

While a Whiteheadian approach has its own reasons for being critical of the search for ethereal ‘phenomenal properties’ or private ‘qualia’ (see sections 3 and 4 below), Graziano’s neuroscientific slight of hand gets us no closer to understanding the place of consciousness in the physical world. To start with, consciousness is not merely “a topic of discussion” and cannot be reduced to the sentential claims we make about ourselves and our experience. Whatever else it is, conscious experience of oneself in a world is an immediately intuited concrete fact, not just a linguistic report about or computational model of a fact. Graziano admits he isn’t offering a philosophical answer for how consciousness arises in the brain, but he also implies that his properly scientific approach forces us to accept that “there is no meaningful answer to the question” (ibid., 97). We are just “a biological machine that claims to have a hard problem” (ibid., 96). We are brain networks running a linguistic program whose only power is that it can make claims about itself, statements about what it believes is going on and what its own and other people’s intentions are. These beliefs, claims, and intentions have no bearing on what is actually going on inside the skull or beyond it, since their meanings are epiphenomenal to computations in the brain and the motion of matter through spacetime.

A broader assumption baked into Graziano’s approach is that “the brain is an information processing device” (ibid., 95). This is stated as though it were a truth that neuroscience has discovered, but it is hardly that. It is a theoretical paradigm and a research program, that is, a framework for studying the brain as if it were a computer, not a fact about what the brain is. Other neuroscientists and philosophers of mind reject the computational approach and instead study brain activity from an enactive and embodied perspective (Varela et al. [1991] 2016, 44ff; Thompson 2007, 51ff). From an enactive perspective, speaking in terms of decontextualized and disembodied ‘information processing’ going on inside the skull neglects the extent to which meaningful information presupposes an experiential horizon within which it can be interpreted. Evan Thompson extends Gregory Bateson’s claim that “information is a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson [1972] 2000, p. 315), adding that information “is the making of a difference that makes a difference to somebody somewhere” (Thompson 2007, 57). Informational meaning is thus embedded not only in the complex dynamics of an experience-imbued brain, but in the sensorimotor networks of the body, and even extends out into the surrounding environment with which the organism is structurally coupled and has co-evolved.

c) Emergentism

Emergentism claims that consciousness suddenly appears in the universe whenever matter manages to arrange itself into the appropriate dynamical shapes. Some say a simple form of consciousness emerged with the first living cells (‘biopsychism’), while others claim these cells had to blindly organize themselves into large packs of neurons called brains before the light of consciousness could flicker on (‘cerebropsychism’). Still others insist that it was necessary for these brains to become sufficiently entangled in the symbolic network of a language before full-blown consciousness could explode onto the scene (‘anthropopsychism’).

There are weak and strong versions of emergence (Brogaard 2016, 131ff). The higher level capacities of a weakly emergent consciousness are at least in principle deducible from and thus in fact causally reducible to its lower level constituents. Once cognitive neuroscience discovers the relevant underlying brain mechanisms, complicated as they may be, the mystery of consciousness will be understood to have been only an artifact of our limited knowledge. Weak emergence thus presents an epistemological puzzle for physicalism to solve, rather than an ontological impasse forcing it to re-examine its premises. Of course, if weak emergentists do solve the engineering problem of how the brain makes the mind, it is difficult to see how they will avoid sliding back into epiphenomenalism.

Strongly emergent conceptions, in contrast, affirm the ontological novelty of consciousness above and beyond its physical components, even granting it downward causal influence upon the body and surrounding environment. Such a view at least refuses to explain away the evident facts and overpowering deliverances of conscious thought and intention, facts that law, politics, morality, religion, and practical life in general require; facts that even the endeavor to produce scientific knowledge itself necessarily presupposes, for what else is knowledge but a mode of consciousness? As Whitehead quipped, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (Whitehead [1929] 1958, 16). But unless it can explain how meaning and purpose arise out of mass and energy, strong emergentism lands us right back where Descartes left us nearly four centuries ago, with irreducible mind on one side, brute matter on the other, and no rational account of how they might relate to one another. Focusing on the gradual development of mental capacities from bacterial chemotaxis to Shakespearean poetry over the course of billions of years of biological evolution is an obvious strategy for narrowing this gap. But merely saying ‘evolution did it’ doesn’t cut it, since it wasn’t Darwinian evolution that gave rise to cellular life. Darwin’s theory of speciation by natural selection presupposes self-producing and reproducing organisms, it does not explain them. In Thompson’s terms, “natural selection is an emergent consequence of autopoiesis, not its cause”(2007, 212).

On the other hand, there is a wider definition of evolution than that assigned by Darwin. Whitehead was convinced that evolution had relevance for not just biology but all the sciences, including physics and cosmology. He imaginatively generalized Darwin’s theory such that evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations checked by environmental pressure became evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historical routes, whereby a particular occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the inheritance of efficient causes) are integrated with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the formal causes of variation) into some emergent enduring pattern of experiential value. Whitehead argued that materialism could not survive its encounter with evolutionary theory., since the former implies merely the “purposeless and unprogressive” rearrangement of externally related substances and their accidental properties, while “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 101). “The doctrine,” Whitehead continues, “cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (ibid.).

Information theoretic accounts of the gap between matter and life provide some hope for a pathway forward, but without incarnating information into the meaningful horizon of experience enacted by living organisms, research programs seeking to analogize brain activity to computation end up having to conceive of information processing as some sort of quasi-conscious homunculus hovering above the neurochemistry of the brain and steering it around. For example, neuroscientists regularly describe information processing in the brain as “goal relevant,” “selective,” and “sensitive” (Sy et al. 2015, 122), all terms implying intentionality and purposefulness, even though the presuppositions of mechanistic biology upon which computational neuroscience rests says such powers are impossible. Luckily, taking information seriously does not require “assuming that abstract properties have physical potency,” as Terrence Deacon put it (Deacon 2012, 192).

Deacon is a strong emergentist who tries to dispel the homunculus and de-etherealize information by describing it not as an extra essence added to the physical but in terms of the “absential” features of an incomplete Nature:

“A counterintuitive figure/background reversal, focusing on what is absent rather than present, offers a means to repair some of the serious inadequacies in our conceptions of matter, order, life, work, information, representation, and even consciousness and conceptions of value” (Deacon 2011, 44).

Information is just what is absent from physically present matter. It is not involved in the push and pull of causal efficacy, but instead ‘constrains’ these physical interactions, acting as a formal and final cause that ratchets physics (thermodynamics) up a contragrade organizational gradient into chemistry (morphodynamics), biology (teleodynamics), and eventually full-blown conscious thought (intentionality). Like the enactivists, Deacon limits information processing to the living world, denying ententionality to the physical and chemical realms. He grants morphodynamic systems the ability to ‘fall up’ negentropic gradients of complexity toward the telic informational processes of living semiosis, but rejects the idea of any aim or value or elán implanted in matter prior to the emergence of life. Telos is added later and not baked in. Not the creative evolution of organisms, but vacuous bits of matter with no internal values…hurrying through space” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 158) are fundamental for Nature.

It is here that the panpsychist integration of physics and experience goes further toward the naturalization of information by making sign interpretation, or in Whitehead’s terms, ‘prehension,’ an intrinsic part of cosmogenesis from the get go. Deacon criticizes Whitehead for projecting “micro humunculi” down to the level of quantum events, arguing that his panexperientialism obfuscates the need for an explanation of “why the [characteristics] of physical processes associated with life and mind [differ] so radically from those associated with the rest of physics and chemistry” (Deacon 2012, 79). Deacon admits that Whitehead in fact does offer an explanation for these differences in terms of the organizational complexity of enduring ‘societies’ of actual occasions of experience that emerge in the course of evolution. “Yet, if specific organizational complexity is what matters, then little explanatory significance is added by the assumption that some level of micro intentionality was suffused throughout all the component processes” (Deacon 2012, 78). While Deacon’s approach succeeds in narrowing the distance between physical causality and conscious intentionality, an explanatory gap still remains. Whitehead’s wager is that this gap is extreme enough to require fully undoing modern science’s “bifurcation of Nature” (Whitehead 1920, 30) by affirming that feeling or prehension is as intrinsic to natural processes as causality. Indeed, Whitehead’s experiential concept of prehension is meant to account for the very possibility of causal relation as such (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 164-165): prehension is what allows the real potentiality of the objectified past to pass back into the subjective immediacy of a new actual occasion of experience. Prehension is akin to the ‘information processing’ of computationalists, only it avoids the vagaries of their epiphenomenalism by rendering the detection of form as a process of feeling, thus embodying information in an experiential horizon. While his Philosophy of Organism does grant some degree of mentality to even the simplest of actual occasions, Whitehead’s panexperientialism doesn’t add anything extra to the natural world we find ourselves within: “the operation of mentality is primarily to be conceived as a diversion of the flow of energy” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 168). In other words, mentality is an absential constraint upon energy’s otherwise entropic tendency. Were this entropic tendency the final word in Nature’s becoming, we would not be here to regret the fact. Whitehead is thus attempting to render the true nature of the physical universe transparent to us as the ongoing aesthetic achievement of a vast nexus of experiential occasions: “these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 151). Quarks, photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and the like appear to be our most ancient ancestors, close to the “primate organisms” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 132) of our cosmic ecology. Out of their co-evolution emerged atoms, stars, and galaxies, all examples of the complex social achievements of actual occasions.. The evolution of these physical organisms proves that Nature’s capacity for emergent value and organizational complexity long predates the arrival of biological cells. These particle and astronomical organisms may be minimally or maximally conscious. The point is that at whatever scale it occurs, information processing is an experiential process, with the intensity of experience depending on the degree of integration of prehended data achieved by any given society of occasions.

3. The Physics of Experience: Avoiding Inflationary and Deflationary Accounts of Consciousness

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”
—Whitehead ([1938] 1968, 150)

If physicalists are willing to take seriously the idea that human beings might not really be conscious, perhaps they can grant that it is no more absurd to entertain the possibility that stars and galaxies have minds. If Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative turns out to have philosophical advantages over scientific materialism, perhaps we can learn to live with its mind expanding implications. After all, if materialism is true, we aren’t really alive, anyway. Another advantage of panexperientialism is that it can help philosophy avoid the excesses of Absolute idealism by not expanding mind too much.

Whitehead’s panexperientialism is an attempt to take consciousness at face value without unduly inflating or deflating its significance in the universe. The most inflationary accounts tend toward Absolute idealism, while the most deflationary tend toward eliminative materialism. The Kantian transcendental or critical approach views consciousness (with its categories of understanding and forms of intuition) as an a priori condition for knowledge of anything, including the physical world. It is thus an important compromise position, holding materialism at bay by preventing us from ever knowing anything about a mind-independent reality, while also checking the mind’s tendency to declare itself the ground of being. Kant admitted that via introspection we can only ever access an ‘empirical me,’ but he nonetheless posited a ‘transcendental I’ or Ego as the necessary correlate of everything thought or experienced, whether in myself (temporal intuition) or outside (spatial intuition). Kant’s transcendental Ego is no longer a clear and distinct substantial reality, as Descartes had imagined when he declared “I am a thing that thinks” (Descartes [1641] 1996, 24). So what is it? From James’ radically empirical perspective, the Kantian Ego “is simply nothing: as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show,” for if it be granted any other status, given Kant’s transcendental premises, there is little to prevent the Fichtean and Hegelian move to “call it the First Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if [we are] going up in a balloon whenever the notion of it [crosses our] mind” (James 1890, 365). The Kantian compromise is thus an inherently unstable position. It saves mind from ever being reduced to matter, but at the cost of leaving us in total ignorance regarding the transcendental ground of our own consciousness and the substantial reality of Nature. Philosophers are left poised in a vulnerable state of metaphysical indecision, only a moderate dose of nitrous oxide away from floating into the mania of Absolute idealism, and only a mildly depressive mood away from succumbing to eliminative materialism. Might Whitehead’s “organic realism” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 309) put philosophy on more solid experiential ground?

Presented with the general panpsychist hypothesis of a “pervasive perhaps ubiquitous” (Seager 2016, 229) subjectivity inherent in Nature, the first thing the incredulous tend to ask is whether the view entails that stones are conscious, or that tables and chairs stand at attention before us contemplating existence, or that spoons enjoy the flavor of the tea they stir. Few panpsychist philosophers actually uphold such views about stones and human artifacts, at least not without all the necessary qualifications (alchemists and astrologers notwithstanding). The proper panpsychist response to the skepticism of physicalists about the extent of mind’s reach into Nature is to ask whether it is really possible for them to conceive of their own consciousness as an illusion. For if the computational model of mind is true and experience contributes nothing to the functioning of the brain, if our consciousness is really just a complex set of what William Seager calls “bare recognitional capacities” evolutionarily elaborated “into a rich but delusive system of beliefs,” then when it comes down to it we human beings “are actually no more conscious than rocks” (Seager 2016, 231).

Which is more believable? That you and I are no more ‘alive’ than a pile of stones? That we and the stones are merely finite appearances in the eternal substance of the Absolute? Or that stones are more ‘alive’ than we think? From the perspective of Whitehead’s panexperiential organic realism, deflationary materialism and inflationary idealism are equally out of line. What, after all, does contemporary physics tell us about the materiality of a stone?: “[Vanished] from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures”; in short, physics has “[displaced] the notion of static stuff by the notion of fluent energy” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 309). Stones, understood scientifically, are thus more like attenuated energy events whose relative stability is the effect of reiterated vibratory patterns of activity. For Whitehead, “the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 168), though of course the emotional intensity realized in a stone is quite negligible due to the lack of any evolved organization for channeling and amplifying its scattered feelings into the more or less unified consciousness evident in animals. The physicist may retort that these patterns are merely mathematical equations and that we have no scientific basis for attributing experience or anything else concrete to the activity they describe. Indeed, many panpsychists are happy to admit that physics tells us only about the abstract aspects of matter and thus “can’t characterize the intrinsic nonstructural nature of concrete reality in any respect at all” (Strawson 2016, 85). In that case, it turns out ‘matter’ is among the most abstract ideas ever imagined by human minds. But in Whitehead’s way of thinking, this “divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 154). Energetic activity is not just a mathematical abstraction but an abstract description of something real: “Nature is full-blooded. Real facts are happening” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 144). Further, unlike some panpsychist readings of Russell’s neutral monism (Russell 1927), Whitehead’s process-relational rendering doesn’t claim experience is a ‘primary attribute’ or ‘intrinsic property’ of matter. This is because in Whitehead’s view, physics has moved beyond the substantialist view of matter, and talk of essential or accidental properties only made sense given such an ontology. The twentieth-century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics dispensed with the ideas of “simple location” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 51) and “nature at an instant” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 145). There are no simply located, instantaneously present material particles or configurations of material particles, just as there are no simply located, instantaneous experiential states or properties. Both energy and experience are activities with fuzzy boundaries, and our panpsychist ontology should reflect this fact. Yet the substance-property ontology is difficult to shake, even for the physicists who know very well that it no longer captures what their equations are describing. The substance-property mode of thought is pervasive in Western philosophy. Descartes, so critical of Aristotle for other reasons, is fully infected by it, and many contemporary analytic philosophers who similarly consider their thinking to be free of any unexamined tradition nonetheless continue to construe reality in its terms. This mode of thought comes naturally since it is woven into the subject-predicate grammar of most of our languages.  It is no surprise that Whitehead’s process-relational alternative is at first difficult to grasp.

While there was an “essential distinction between [substantial] matter at an instant and the agitations of experience,” with this conception of matter having been swept away, a door is opened to analogies between energetic activity and concrete experience (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 115). Experiences, like energy vectors, are intrinsically process-relational in that they always involve transition beyond themselves: they manifest in a “specious present” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 104) as a tension between the actualized facts of an inherited past and the potential forms of an anticipated future. Whitehead turns to our own lived bodies for a more concrete characterization of physical process, since it is the human body that “provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 115). In addition to the grammar of our language, our visual experience of the immediately presented world reinforces the scientifically mistaken idea that reality is composed of substances with qualities. The grey stone is one of Whitehead’s favorite examples: ancient Greek philosophers perceived “the grey stone” and from that simple observation “evolved the generalization that the actual world can be conceived as a collection of primary substances qualified by universal qualities” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 158). Modern natural philosophers beginning with Galileo elaborated this ontology into a conveniently bifurcated system of primary objective quantities (mass, velocity, dimensionality, etc.) and secondary subjective qualities (color, taste, value, etc.). Descartes’ mind/body dualism finished the job. Thenceforward it is not the stone that is grey, but the private quale of the perceiving subject that is grey. The stone itself is just an extensional lump obeying the fixed laws of gravity and chemical decay. Scrubbing Nature clean of all qualitative residues and tucking them safely away within conscious subjects allowed modern science to make truly remarkable progress explaining those aspects of Nature amenable to precise measurement and mathematical description (Goff 2017b, 12-14). But after a few hundred years of world-transforming progress, this powerful methodology still finds itself embarrassed by the hard problem. Consciousness appears to be “a strange intrusion into an otherwise well-behaved world” (Seager 2016, 234), though of course, it can hardly be said to have intruded if it was the methodology of modern science itself that initially excluded it from the physical world. Limited to the precise measurements afforded by strict sense-perception and to mathematical modeling, science finds no enjoyment, aim, or creativity in Nature, “it finds mere rules of succession” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 154). But this is because, by design, science deals with only half the evidence of human experience.

In addition to the relatively superficial affordances of sense-perception granted us by the five outward facing senses, what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 121), he also describes a more primordial form of bodily experience or “sense-reception” (ibid., 113-114) referred to as “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” (ibid., 120). It is this latter form of human experience that modern science has all but ignored. When our eyes are functioning normally, they are transparent to the world. Nonetheless, it is evidently true that we see with our eyes. Causal efficacy is the feeling of our eyes blinking when we pull back the curtains and the sunlight floods onto our face. Presentational immediacy is the view of the meadow out the window after our eyes adjust. While presentational immediacy grants us perception of the grey stone as a geometrically projected patch of color, causal efficacy grants us perception of the grey stone’s weight when we pick it up in our hand, of the way this weight influences the muscle fibers and nerve endings in our arm as, “by channels of transmission and of enhancement” (ibid., 119), its ‘weightiness’ is delivered to the presiding occasions of the brain wherein we consciously feel it. “It is the accepted doctrine in physical science,” Whitehead tells us,

“that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound doctrine, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the physical universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (ibid.).

Modern physics tells us that “the quiet extensive stone” is more complex than it at first appears to be. Were we able to apprehend the stone in a more direct way than that afforded by visual perception, it would reveal itself as a “society of separate molecules in violent agitation” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 78). Picking up the stone grants us no more insight into its inner life, but the feeling of its weight in our hand grants us a clue with profound metaphysical implications. Our consciousness is not separate from but “intimately entwined in bodily life” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 21). We consciously feel the stone because the human body, acting as an experiential amplifier, transmits the stone’s energetic activity along coordinated routes of actual occasions, accruing interpretive enhancements along the way, until the activity achieves final integration in a central occasion of experience. “The human body is thus achieving on a scale of concentrated efficiency a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness” found in the wider universe (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 119). Transmission of feelings within the body can thus be understood as analogous to the transmission of energy occurring in the rest of Nature. The body, after all, is part of and continuous with the rest of the external world, “just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 21).

Those seeking a truly naturalistic account of consciousness needn’t rush to deflationary explanations, whether eliminativist, epiphenomenalist, or emergentist. Such deflationary accounts would be understandable if the only alternatives available were dualism or idealism. Panpsychism, especially Whitehead’s panexperiential version, provides another option. It avoids the metaphysical travesty of dualism, the inflationary conjecture of idealism that “nature is mere appearance and mind is the sole reality,” and the deflationary conjecture of materialism that “physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 150). It begins its explanation of consciousness modestly by examining our intimate feelings of bodily inheritance, and it concludes that these feelings provide a clue as to the functioning of energy in the rest of Nature. The conclusion may seem strange at first, but the philosophical payoff might just be worth it.

4. The Combination and Decomposition Problems for Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism: Bugs, or Features for Whitehead?

The philosophical payoff of panpsychism is that it dissolves the hard problem of consciousness, giving experience its proper place in Nature without undermining the scientific image of the universe. Indeed, panpsychism may have important advantages over materialism for interpreting contemporary physical cosmology (Segall 2018).  But substance-property panpsychists have their own problem to deal with: the combination problem. Does Whitehead’s process-relational approach help solve it?

The solution to James’ original statement of the combination problem is already in James’ own statement: there is a 101st feeling, a “totally new fact,” and “the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together” (James 1890, 160). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, in particular his genetic account of mutually sensitive prehensions (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 235ff), is an attempt to make good on James’ psychological insight by building it out into a coherent cosmological scheme.

Whitehead is neither a micropsychist nor a cosmopsychist exclusively. He tries to have it both ways. There is a universal soul, a psyche of the cosmos, a God of this world, and there are countless creatures creating in concert with it. Creativity transcends both, it is the source of all evolving parts, wholes, bodies, and souls. For Whitehead the combination problem becomes a logic of concrescence, a way of thinking change as more than just the rearrangement of pre-existing parts or the fragmentation of a pre-existing whole but as a genuine becoming, as an “emergent evolution” or “creative advance” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 21, 30, 229) where neither wholes nor parts pre-exist their relations. Whitehead’s account of process is an account of combination and decomposition, of conjunction and disjunction. Process means the growing together of many objects into one subject, and the perishing of that subject back into many as a superject: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (ibid., 21). Concrescence is a cumulative process and not merely an additive one.

5. The Wonder Remains

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”

—Whitehead ([1938] 1968, 168-169)

Whitehead is thus clearly an emergentist rather than constitutive panpsychist (Goff 2017a, 114). But it’s not that human consciousness is breaking the laws of physics, it’s that Nature’s ‘laws’ are queerer than our mechanical models let on. Like Deacon (2012) with his absential constraints in an incomplete Nature, Whitehead’s knowledge of mathematical physics led him to reject the causal closure of physics. Laws are habits emergent from the social activity of actual occasions of experience, not divine decrees from heaven imposed upon dead matter. But unlike Deacon, Whitehead goes further by granting life and mind some subtle congress with things from the beginning of time. Indeed, without life and mind Nature would have no time to evolve. The laws of physics are indifferent to life, mind, and time, so the show would be over before it even began.

Human consciousness is the achievement of the human body. The human body is the organizational achievement of a nexus of experiential occasions stretching back billions of years through the evolution of life on Earth, the birth of our Sun and planetary system, and the fusion of quarks into baryons, back even to the birth of God (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 348). Consciousness is human physics. Our philosophical conceptions, moral decisions, aesthetic creations, and religious concerns are not violations of the laws of physics (which are really statistical habits, anyway), no more so than the emergence of stars and galaxies was a violation of particle physics, or the emergence of cellular life was a violation of geology. “[Nature] is never complete. It is always passing beyond itself” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 289).

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Below is a lecture recorded for the online course PARP 6060 02 – Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at CIIS.edu.

I first discuss the meaning of philosophy from a Whiteheadian perspective, then run through a brief history of philosophy as relevant to process thought (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Kant and his immediate successors), and finish by offering a few key perspectives from Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.

Many streams of thought flow into and give shape to PCC’s perspective on the Universe and our human place within it. One of these streams is the process-relational tradition. This tradition is most often associated with the 20th century mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), but many of Whitehead’s core insights can be traced back to the beginnings of Western philosophy in ancient Greece, and were carried forward and brilliantly developed by the German Idealists in the early 19th century. 

I hope my lecture helped give you some sense for the philosophical lineage that Whitehead drew upon and entered into dialogue with when he articulated his post-relativistic, post-quantum cosmological scheme in the 1920s and 30s. I have a feeling you agree, after reading the chapters I assigned from his book Modes of Thought (1938), that Whitehead is not an easy thinker to understand. But as someone who has been studying his work for almost a decade now, I can assure you it is well worth the effort to get to know the intimacies of his metaphysical scheme. Almost always it takes multiple readings to grok what he’s on about. All scientists employ instruments to aid them in their study. Philosophy’s instrument of inquiry, according to Whitehead, is language itself. Just like telescopes and microscopes, it takes a bit of practice to learn how to see with them. I encourage you to take Whitehead’s experiments in language seriously, even if they at first seem confusing. 

Whitehead boldly re-affirmed the grand tradition of speculative cosmology at a time when most academic philosophers were retreating from metaphysics into reductionistic materialism and logical positivism. Whitehead summed up the situation of his contemporaries: “…the science of nature stands opposed to the presuppositions of humanism. Where some conciliation is attempted, it often assumes some sort of mysticism. But in general there is no conciliation” (MoT 136). Modern science tells us we are matter in motion, while modern humanism insists we are free agents enjoying profound emotions. While the positivists busied themselves analyzing linguistic puzzles, pretending not to be metaphysical by ignoring the mind/matter dualism implicit in all their reasonings, Whitehead sought insight into creative depths as yet unspoken. Logical positivism attempted to reduce philosophy to the safety of settled science; Whitehead sought instead to engage philosophy as a poetic adventure in world-making. 

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done” (Aims of Education 164).

Whitehead’s cosmological vision is bold, but he may also deserve the title of humblest philosopher in history. “Philosophy begins in wonder,” he tells us. “And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains” (MoT 168). “How shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things,” he tells us elsewhere. “In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly” (PR xiv). For Whitehead, philosophy’s aim is to purify emotion by eliciting some increase of understanding, to correct the initial excess of subjectivity in our consciousness so as to grant us a more cosmic perspective on reality. “Purifying” emotion doesn’t mean eliminating it by replacing it with logic; even knowledge, for Whitehead, is a complex form of feeling. The goal of “knowing” is not to explain the All once and for all (impossible in the open-ended, creative cosmos Whitehead imagines), but to elucidate our experience so as to bring more of the Great Mystery’s beauty into our awareness. 

Philosophy is akin to imaginative art, Whitehead tells us. It is the endeavor to creatively reframe naive experience so as to intensify our enjoyment of the meaning and potential of our existence. None of this is to say that Whitehead ignores the importance of science: “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (The Concept of Nature 40). Whitehead turned to philosophical cosmology late in his life (after a illustrious 30 year career as a Royal Society elected mathematician) precisely in order to save 20th century natural science from incoherence. He wanted to provide physics with a new and more adequate metaphysical foundation after quantum and relativity theories spelled the end of the Newtonian paradigm.

“In the present-day reconstruction of physics fragments of the Newtonian concepts are stubbornly retained. The result is to reduce modern physics to a sort of mystic chant over an unintelligible Universe. This chant has the exact merits of the old magic ceremonies which flourished in ancient Mesopotamia and later in Europe. One of the earliest fragments of writing which has survived is a report from a Babylonian astrologer to the King, stating the favorable days to turn cattle into the fields, as deduced by his observations of the stars. This mystic relation of observation, theory, and practice, is exactly the present position of science in modern life, according to the prevalent scientific philosophy. The notion of empty space, the mere vehicle of spatial interconnections, has been eliminated from recent science. The whole spatial universe is a field of force, or in other words, a field of incessant activity. The mathematical formulae of physics express the mathematical relations realized in this activity. The unexpected result has been the elimination of bits of matter, as the self-identical supports for physical properties. At first, throughout the nineteenth century, the notion of matter was extended. The empty space was conceived as filled with ether…The more recent revolution which has culminated in the physics of the present day has only carried one step further this trend of nineteenth century science…Matter has been identified with energy, and energy is sheer activity; the passive substratum composed of self-identical enduring bits of matter has been abandoned, so far as concerns any fundamental description…The modern point of view is expressed in terms of energy, activity, and the vibratory differentiations of space-time. Any local agitation shakes the whole universe. The distant effects are minute, but they are there. The concept of matter presupposed simple location. Each bit of matter was self-contained, localized in a region with a passive, static network of spatial relations, entwined in a uniform relational system from infinity to infinity and from eternity to eternity. But in the modern concept the group of agitations which we term matter is fused into its environment. There is no possibility of a detached, self-contained local existence. The environment enters into the nature of each thing” (MoT 138).

Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is an attempt to integrate the latest scientific evidence with our moral, aesthetic, and spiritual intuitions regarding the ultimate nature of the Universe. Whitehead envisions the Universe as a creative becoming, a cosmogenesis. The creatures who inhabit his world are bound up together in an infinite web of evolving relations. Reason has often functioned to alienate humanity from its relations, but Whitehead offers another possibility. Whiteheadian rationality is guided by its commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself” (PR 4). To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of cosmic relationality. Any truth philosophy may seek can only ever be found here among us. 

I’m teaching another online graduate course for CIIS.edu this Fall (Aug-Dec) called Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul (PARP 6133). Here is the proposed syllabus.

Auditors and Special Students are welcome to enroll. Email me at msegall@ciis.edu for more information about how to do this.

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.




My dissertation defense is on Monday morning. I’ve just finished the “pre-defense” draft. I have until April 11th to finalize the published version. Below are the abstract, table of contents, and acknowledgements. 


  • Jacob Sherman, PhD, Chair
    Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies


  • Sean Kelly, PhD
    Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies



  • Frederick Amrine, PhD
    Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, German Department, University of Michigan




In this dissertation, I lure the process philosophies of F.W.J Schelling and A.N. Whitehead into orbit together around the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I argue that Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental aesthetic ontology provides a way across the epistemological chasm that Kant’s critiques opened up between experience and reality. While Kant’s problematic scission between phenomena and the thing-in-itself remains an essential phase in the maturation of the human mind, it need not be the full realization of mind’s potential in relation to Nature. I contrast Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental philosophy with Kant’s transcendentalism by showing how their inverted method bridges the chasm—not by resolving the structure of reality into clear and distinct concepts—but by replanting cognition in the aesthetic processes from which it arises. Hidden at the generative root of our seemingly separate human capacities for corporeal sensation and intellectual reflection is the same universally distributed creative power underlying star formation and blooming flowers. Human consciousness is not an anomaly but is a product of the Earth and wider universe, as natural as leaves on a tree. Through a creative interweaving of their process-relational orientations, I show how the power of imagination so evident in Schelling and Whitehead’s thought can provide philosophy with genuine experiential insight into cosmos, theos, and anthropos in the aftermath of the Kantian revolution. The two—anthropos and cosmos—are perceived as one by a common sense described in this dissertation as etheric imagination. This etheric sense puts us in touch with the divine life of Nature, which the ancients personified as the ψυχὴ του κόσμου or anima mundi.

Table of Contents

Abstract iv
Acknowledgements vii
Prologue — Imagining Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos in Post-Kantian Process Philosophy 2
Chapter 1 — Kant as Guardian of the Threshold of Imagination 9
1.1 Whitehead, Schelling, and the Aftermath of Kant 16
1.2 The Kantian Mode of Thought 24
1.2.1 Thinking 27
1.2.2 Desiring 38
1.2.3 Feeling 42
Chapter 2 — Descendental Philosophy and Aesthetic Ontology: Reimagining the Kantian Mode of Thought 55
2.1 Aesthetic Ontology and Nietzsche’s Confrontation with Nihilism 70
2.2 Aesthetic Ontology in Sallis’ Elemental Phenomenology 95
2.3 Aesthetic Ontology in Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism 99
Chiasmus — Schelling and Whitehead’s Descendental Aesthetic: Crossing the Kantian Threshold 111
Chapter 3 — The Inversion of Kant: From a Mechanistic to an Organic Cosmology 132
3.1 The Refutation of Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism”: From Subject-Substance Correlation to Process-Relational Creativity 150
3.2 From Geometric Conditions of Possibility to Genetic Conditions of Actuality 167
Chapter 4 — Etheric Imagination in Naturphilosophie: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul 177
4.1 Traces of the Ether in Kant’s Opus Postumum 181
4.2 Etheric Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead 192
4.3 Nature Philosophy as “Spiritual Sensation” 201
4.4 Etheric Imagination and Vegetal Metaphysics 209
Epilogue — Incarnational Process Philosophy in the Worldly Religion of Schelling, Whitehead, and Deleuze 230
References 254


Without the intellectual encouragement and personal friendships of Jake Sherman, Sean Kelly, Fred Amrine, Brian Swimme, Robert McDermott, Eric Weiss, Elizabeth Allison, and Rick Tarnas, this dissertation could not have been written. Thanks to each of them, and also to the entire community of students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program for sharing their philosophical passion and for the conversations that helped spark many of the ideas expressed in what follows. Thank you, finally, to my fiancée Becca for her inspiring imagination, for her encouragement, and for her patience as I labored over drafts of this text for so many consecutive weeks.

I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

I welcome suggestions, critiques, sources, and/or extensions.

Basically, I’m doing a comparative study of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the esotericist Rudolf Steiner, and the mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead. In particular, I want to interpret their respective “etheric” ontologies (Schelling’s “world-soul/universal organizing principle,” Steiner’s “etheric formative forces,” and Whitehead’s “evental ether/Creativity”) as typical of the process-relational imagination.
solis6The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.

Below is another section of my dissertation proposal. More to come…


John Sallis begins his Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (2000) by regretting the Husserlian phenomenological tradition’s tendency to subordinate imagination to pure perception in an effort to “[protect] the bodily presence of the perceived from imaginal contamination.”208 Sallis argues that the force of imagination cannot be reduced without remainder to the “image-consciousness” studied by phenomenology, since it is primarily deployed at the generative roots of conscious experience where the intentional ego finds itself ecstatically undone by the powers of the World-Soul and the sublime depths of the elemental cosmos. For Sallis, there is “a more anterior operation of imagination” than mere fancy or superficial imagining, an operation beyond the horizontal limits of consciousness and so “constitutive even for perception”: “If such a deployment of the force of imagination should prove already in effect in the very event in which things come to show themselves,” writes Sallis, “then perhaps one could begin to understand how, at another level, imagination could issue in a disclosure pertinent to things themselves.”209

The phenomenological tradition’s theoretical image of imagination as “no more than the self-entertainment of conjuring up images of the purely possible” is derived, according to Sallis, from the modern age’s largely instrumentalist commonsense, whereby important decisions concerning the future are made “based merely on calculation and prediction” without concern for their aesthetic or ethical implications.210 Imagination, reduced to its merely recreative function, is deemed to work only with one’s personal memories and fantasies without any deeper participation in the sub-sensory history or super-sensory destiny of the evolving universe. For today’s materialistic commonsense, “the very relation of imagination to time comes to border on the inconceivable.”211 Sallis’ sense for the constitutive role of imagination in synthesizing the experience of past and future in a living present allies him with the process tradition. In his Ages of the World project, for example, Schelling attempted to narrate the past, discern the present, and intimate the future ages of the World-Soul by coming to experience a recapitulation of these ages within his own soul.212 Jason Wirth, Schelling’s translator, suggests that the unfolding of such an experience within the soul might allow thinking to become “the same…as the autopoietic movement of time,”213 thereby re-establishing the profound connection between mind and nature known to all pre-modern peoples, though now in a modern, evolutionary context. “Created out of the source of things and the same as it,” writes Schelling, “the human soul is conscientious [Mitwissenschaft] of creation.”214

For Whitehead, every actual occasion, whether atomic, anthropic, or galactic in scale, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”215 The exercise of imagination via the ingression of eternal objects orients a concrescing actual occasion of experience to the real possibilities available to it in the future. Whitehead’s process ontology provides a coherent account of the interplay of both final causality (lure of the future) and efficient causality (pressure of the past) in nature, thereby making the relation of human imagination to evolutionary time conceivable once again.

After critically situating his inquiry into imagination in relation to the phenomenological tradition, Sallis cautiously lauds the legacy of Romanticism. “Cautiously” because he notes the tendency of contemporary culture to waver indecisively between dismissiveness and empty valorization of the “almost unprecedented inceptiveness and intensity” of Romantic thought and poetry.216 It is as if the accomplishments of this era, though almost universally appreciated, are too beautiful to be true, and so the Romantic vision of the world persists today only as a fantastic dream. Sallis calls upon his contemporaries to look again at the “almost singular texts” of the Romantics, to reread them slowly and carefully so as to allow “their provocative force to come into play.”217 The continued relevance of the process tradition to which Schelling and Whitehead belong (as well as the esoteric tradition I aim to cross-fertilize with them) is closely bound up with the fate of the Romantic tradition. Sallis’ attempt to retrieve the radical implications of the Romantic imagination is therefore essential to my research.

Is the Romantic vision of the world too beautiful to be true? Sallis turns to the poet John Keats to get a handle on the way that imagination is said to possess “a privileged comportment…to truth.” “What the imagination seizes as Beauty,” writes Keats, “must be truth–whether it existed before or not.”218 Imagination’s comportment to the truth of beauty is then twofold, establishing itself in both the beauty of what already is, and the beauty of what is not yet but might be made so. “The truth may have existed before the establishing,” writes Sallis, “in which case the establishing would consist in…remembering it; or the truth may not have existed before the establishing, in which case the establishing would consist in…originating the truth, or, in Keats’ idiom, creating it.”219 Sallis reads Keats’ statement as an expression of the paradoxical nature of imagination, enabling it to seize beauty as truth in a simultaneously “originary” and “memorial” way, a kind of creative discovery. The logic of imagination in this sense is not bound by the law of non-contradiction, but hovers between opposed moments allowing contradiction to be sustained.220 “Schelling expresses it most succinctly,” according to Sallis, when he writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism that it is only through imagination that “we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory.”221

Perhaps the most important consequence of imagination’s ability to generate polarity by hovering between contraries rather than allowing them to degenerate into dualistic opposition is that the all too familiar subordination of the sensible to the intelligible world must be radically reformulated. Again, Sallis draws on Keats, who calls us to look upon the sensory world with an imaginal passion or creative love whose reflected light, “thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense.”222 The truth of Beauty is not perceived abstractly as by an intellect seeking “a fellowship with essence,”223 but rather by an etheric sense which wreathes “a flowery band to bind us to the earth.”224 The true world is not to be found in “the clear religion of heaven,”225 but in the “green world”226 of earth.

Like Keats’ “novel sense” engendered when imagination is lovingly seized by the true light of Beauty, Whitehead speaks of the “basic Eros which endows with agency all ideal possibilities.”227 In Whitehead’s philosophical scheme, intelligible essences become the ideal possibilities or conceptual feelings evaluated by the mental pole of a concrescing occasion. No longer distant unmoved movers, these Ideas erotically yearn for immanent realization, for incarnation in an actual occasion of experience. Ideas act as lures for feeling generative of “novel senses,” thereby creatively shaping the purposes of individual actual occasions. The creative advance of the universe is driven forward by the integration of the real feelings of the physical pole (prehensions of past actualities) with the ideal feelings of the mental pole (ingressions of future possibilities): Novelty, in other words, “results from the fusion of the ideal with the actual:–The light that never was, on sea or land.”228

The light Keats and Whitehead speak of is perceivable only with the power of etheric imagination, the novel sense that, if it becomes common, can heal the bifurcation of nature instituted by modern scientific materialism. “Nature knows not by means of science,” writes Schelling, “but…in a magical way. There will come a time when the sciences will gradually disappear and be replaced by immediate knowledge. All sciences as such have been invented only because of the absence of such knowledge. Thus, for instance, the whole labyrinth of astronomical calculations exists because it has not been given to humanity immediately to perceive the necessity of the heavenly movements, or spiritually to share in the real life of the universe. There have existed and there will exist humans who do not need science, through whom nature herself perceives, and who in their vision have become nature. These are the true clairvoyants, the genuine empiricists, and the men who now describe themselves by that name stand to them in the same relation as pretentious demagogues stand to prophets sent from God.”229

Sallis connects Keats’ reversal of the typical philosophical evaluation of intelligible originals as truer than sensible images to Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “I beseech you, my brothers,” Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, “remain true to the earth!”230 In his account of “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” Nietzsche traces the historical development of the dualism between the True and the apparent world from Plato, through Christianity, to Kant. Finally, in Nietzsche’s day, the subordination of appearance to Truth had come to be refuted: “The true world–we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one perhaps?…But no! with the true world we have also done away with the apparent one!”231 The return to the sensible called for by Sallis, Keats, and Nietzsche, and Whitehead and Schelling in their own way, is then not a simple reversal that would place appearances above intelligibles. Such an inversion would be nonsensical. Rather, the very dichotomy must itself be overcome so as to provide an entirely new interpretation of the sense of the sensible.232 Sallis suggests that this new orientation to the sensory world will require also a new orientation to logos, to speech. His work toward a “logic of imagination” is largely an attempt to reconstruct the sense of speech so that it is no longer “subordinated…to an order of signification absolutely anterior to it.”233 In other words, rather than the meaning of speech being thought of as a derivative of some preconstituted intelligible order, this meaning is to be brought forth out of the sense of the sensible itself. “What is now required,” writes Sallis, “is a discourse that would double the sensible–interpret it, as it were–without recourse to the intelligible.”234 Instead of the old dichotomy between the intelligible and the sensible, Sallis turns to elemental forces like earth and sky for philosophical orientation: “Distinct both from intelligible άρχαί [archetypes] and from sensible things, the elementals constitute a third kind that is such as to disrupt the otherwise exclusive operation of the distinction between intelligible and sensible. At the limit where, in a certain self-abandonment, philosophy turns back to the sensible, this third kind, the elemental…serves to expose and restore the locus of the primal sense of vertical directionality, on which was founded the sense of philosophical ascendency, indeed the very metaphorics of philosophy itself. One recognizes the Platonic image of the cave is not one image among others; rather, in the depiction of the ascent from within the earth to its surface where it becomes possible to cast one’s vision upward to the heaven, the very translation is enacted that generates the philosophical metaphorics.”235

Sallis admits that such a logic of imagination, in that it “[disturbs] the very order of fundamentality and [withdraws] from every would-be absolute its privileging absolution,”236 places philosophy in a somewhat unsettled, even ungrounded, position. Indeed, Nietzsche’s call to return to our senses by being true to the earth is not an attempt to erect a new foundation for philosophy on more solid ground. Nietzsche sought a new beginning for philosophy in the groundless world of becoming–the world of “death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth.”237 Even the earth is made groundless by the geological forces slowing turning it inside out. Nietzsche subjected all prior philosophers to the earthquakes of his hammer, showing mercy only to Heraclitus, perhaps the first process philosopher, for challenging Parmenides’ emphasis on static Being. Heraclitus declared instead that all things flow.

Although Sallis articulates his logic of imagination largely in the context of Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism, Whitehead’s aesthetically-oriented process ontology may provide a more consctructive example of how to philosophize after the “True world” has become a fable. In Contrast to Nietzsche’s more demolitional approach, you might say Whitehead philosophizes with a paint brush. For Whitehead, the dichotomy between appearance and reality is not as metaphysically fundamental as has been assumed from ancient Greek philosophy onwards.238 The over-emphasis of this dichotomy is based upon the misleading notion that perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” is the basis of experience, when in fact, perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” is more primordial. Another way of phrasing it would be to say that, instead of seeing consciousness as the highly refined end product of a complex process of experiential formation rooted in the vague feelings of the body and the emotional vectors of its environment, philosophers have made the clear and distinct ideas of conscious attention their starting point. “Consciousness,” writes Whitehead, “raises the importance of the final Appearance [presentational immediacy] relatively to that of the initial Reality [causal efficacy]. Thus it is Appearance which in consciousness is clear and distinct, and it is Reality which lies dimly in the background with its details hardly to be distinguished in consciousness. What leaps into conscious attention is a mass of presuppositions about Reality rather than the intuitions of Reality itself. It is here that the liability to error arises.”239 The main error of traditional philosophy has been to overemphasize the metaphysical importance of the clarity and distinctness of conscious attention. “[We] are conscious of more than clarity,” writes Whitehead. “The importance of clarity does not arise until we have interpreted it in terms of the vast issues vaguely haunting the fullness of existence.”240 Whitehead argues that this overemphasis on clarity, already in germ in ancient Greece, eventually lead, in the modern period, to the disastrous separation of mind from nature and the related doctrine of “physical matter passively illustrating qualities and devoid of self-enjoyment.”241

“In the discussion of our experience,” writes Whitehead, “the first point for notice is the superficial variability in our clear consciousness of qualitative detail. [It] results from an effort of concentration and elimination. Also it is never sustained. There is always a flickering variation, varied by large scale transference of attention. Consciousness is an ever-shifting process of abstracting shifting quality from a massive process of essential existence. It emphasizes. And yet, if we forget the background, the result is triviality…The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted.”242

Whitehead avoids this modern bifurcation of nature by not organizing his philosophizing around the clear sensa and distinct ideas projected before his conscious attention. He vastly expands the speculative scope of his adventure in cosmology by beginning to philosophize in media res, caught amidst the passions of bodily inheritance streaming in from the depths of space and time, lured forward by the ideal possibilities yearning to flow back into the world. There is a kind of “intellectual intuition” at the generative root of Whitehead’s cosmology, an initiatory experience of the cosmic crucifixion eternally binding the Idea to space and time. Whitehead himself suggests as much when, in The Concept of Nature (1919),243 he approvingly quotes Schelling’s account of intellectual intuition: “In the ‘Philosophy of Nature,’” writes Schelling, “I considered the subject-object called nature in its activity of self-constructing. In order to understand it, we must rise to an intellectual intuition of nature. The empiricist does not rise thereto, and for this reason in all his explanations it is always he himself that proves to be constructing nature. It is no wonder, then, that his construction and that which was to be constructed so seldom coincide. A Naturphilosoph raises nature to independence, and makes it construct itself, and he never feels, therefore, the necessity of opposing nature as constructed (i.e., as experience) to real nature, or of correcting the one by means of the other.”244 Whitehead’s intellectual intuition of nature leads him to imaginatively generalize the archetypal dynamics of his own experience so that they can be applied to the experience of actual occasions of every grade. Causal efficacy finds its analogue in the initial “physical pole” of a concrescing occasion, while presentational immediacy is related to the final “mental pole.” In Whitehead’s universe, there is no longer any passive matter lacking experience whose qualities are projected onto it by conscious animals. Rather, the final real things are actual occasions and the entire universe is a living organism.

Whitehead, as well as Schelling, Sallis and company, do not prescribe any simple inversion of the traditional subordination of the sensible world of earthly existence to the intelligible heaven of divine Ideas. Both Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Schelling’s Naturphilosophie provide examples of the generative power of a new organ of philosophical perception (or intellectual intuition)–the etheric imagination. This organ dissolves the bifurcated consciousness of the spatially frozen intellect by sensorily opening to the “becoming of Being,” to the ingressions of eternity into the aesthetic (e)motions of organic time. In the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, not even God escapes becoming: “God is a life, not merely a Being,”245 as Schelling writes. In the final chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality, he imagines how a merely “primordial” God (i.e., God as original Being or perfect Act beyond all beings) would remain buried in the eternal ground of unconscious darkness like a dormant seed unless it was drawn forth by the light and wisdom of a “consequent” pole. Schelling agrees with Whitehead when he writes that “Being becomes aware of itself only in becoming.”246 God must thereby everlastingly integrate original action and complete passion: God is beyond all beings while at the same time becoming-with all beings. As Schelling argues, “Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, one which is common to all mysteries and spiritual religions of earliest time, all of history would be incomprehensible; scripture also distinguishes periods of revelation and posits as a distant future the time when God will be all in all things, that is, when he will be fully realized.”247

Neither Schelling nor Whitehead seek to invert Plato; they seek only to truly understand the mystery his philosophy attempts to convey. Plato’s philosophic method was rooted in the generation of problematic encounters between appearances and reality. His philosophical investigations were spiritual exercises which in his own day and for many centuries after proved liberating both for individual souls and for political bodies. But his initiatory Idea of eternity’s participation in the (e)motions of the World-Soul degraded, for the idolatrous moderns, into the nonsensical idea that an active and intelligent mind “in here” must attack and overcome a blind and stupid nature “out there.” “It is here,” writes Whitehead, “that the prominent epistemology of the modern centuries has been so weak. It has interpreted the totality of experience as a mere reaction to an initial clarity of sensa [via presentational immediacy]. The result is that the reaction is limited to the data provided by the sensa … the mass of our moral, emotional, and purposive experience is rendered trivial and accidental.”248 This idea was first formalized by Galileo into the doctrine of the primary and secondary qualities: Primary qualities are the real, mathematizable aspects of nature accessible only to the intellect (as mediated by telescopes and calculators), while secondary qualities are appearances projected onto primary things/numbers by the contingently evolved sensory organs of the body. Things/numbers are said to determine the necessary and universal laws of mechanistic physics, while organic appearances (species with their attendant psyches) are said to transform haphazardly in the blind struggle for existence. “Things” are here equivalent to Whitehead’s notion of abstract “scientific-objects” constructed in the course of scientific investigation. These abstract objects, according to Whitehead, “embody those aspects of the character of the situations of the physical objects which are most permanent and are expressible without reference to a multiple relation including a percipient event.”249 “Numbers” are not themselves scientific-objects, rather they are “formulae for calculation [which] refer to things in nature,” while “scientific objects are the things in nature to which the formulae refer.”250

It has been known since at least Plato that, to learn the laws of nature, it is best to study the motions of the stars overhead. As for planet earth, down here there are no things/numbers. Down here are only occasions of experience, incandescent tear drops of a creatively dying divinity, an ever-complexifying entanglement between eternal Ideas and actual events. Things/numbers are real enough “up there” in the abstract space of calculation. But here on earth, where we are, a thing is but a distant flickering in the sky. The geometers have forgotten that all measurement begins with geo- and remains planted on the planet. A thing’s trail can be traced, but we always tell the star’s tale with the soil beneath our feet, swallowed by the weight of our inherited bodies, overwhelmed by the fate of our enculturated minds. It is not only the heavens who are spinning; it is we, too. What we see “out there” is an imaginal achievement of the World-Soul whose organs extend from quarks through human beings and trees out to stars and galaxies. All of it is here with us when we are there with it.

Sallis’ attempt to articulate a “logic of imagination” that brings logos down to earth, returning it to its senses, can further assist my reading of Schelling by making the challenges of translation explicit. I am not a fluent reader of the German language, which may be an important reason not to write on Schelling. However, even if I cannot claim expertise in German, I believe I have been able to familiarize myself with what is at stake philosophically in the translation of certain key words, not the least of which are Einbildungskraft (which Sallis translates as “force of imagination”) and Schelling’s neologism Ineinsbildung (which Coleridge translates as “esemplastic power”). For Sallis, translation is not simply the problem of carrying meaning from one language over to another; it is a problem internal to each language, the problem of signification itself. That is to say, even if I were to draw upon only English-speaking authors, the problem of the translation of their “true meaning” would remain. When there are no longer any pre-constituted intelligible signifieds for the sense of a language to signify, logos can no longer be grounded in Reason but must instead find its footing in “the sense of the sensible.”251 The classical sense of translation, where two different languages are said to signify the same transcendent signified, is no longer credible.252 A logic of imagination thus calls for the creation of a novel philosophical style, a new linguistic idiom or rhetorical flowering that “[lets] the discourse engender sense in and through the very movement in which it comes to double the sensible.”253 Rather than approaching the problem of translation, then, as that of carrying over the original meaning of Schelling’s German texts, I will approach the sense of Schelling’s (and the other German authors in his milieu’s) work not just in an attempt to “to teach philosophy to speak English,”254 but also to irreversibly disrupt any sense of a presupposed purity or simple identity to “the English language.” As the English translator of Schelling’s early essays on transcendental philosophy, Fritz Marti, has written, “Philosophy is not a matter of denominational schools, nor does it have one sacred language. Whatever is philosophically true ought to appeal to man as man. Therefore every philosophical formulation demands translation and retranslation. This is why philosophy has a genuine history. Religious words seem timeless. Philosophy demands perpetual aggiornamento. It must be up-to-date. Its truths are reborn by translation.”255 Philosophy, that is, requires constant updating. It remains always unfinished, always lacking the logical completeness of a definitive translation, not because it is pointless or would then come to contradict itself, but because its task is infinite. The telos of philosophy is not wisdom, the goal is not to be wise; rather, the philosopher’s telos is eros, the love of wisdom, becoming-with her instead of replacing her with himself. If the generative form of all philosophy is the absolute I, then the living content of philosophy must be “an infinity of actions whose total enumeration forms the content of an infinite task.”256

I will not encounter Schelling’s German texts as a fluent reader of his language, and so must depend largely upon the sensitivities of certain translators. Even so, in proceeding by way of a logic of imagination, I’ve learned that the problem of translation was already internal to my own language. For this reason, my reading of German (as well as French, Latin, Greek, …) texts is part of an attempt to take English to the very limits of its sense, to philosophize in a style rooted in a logic of imagination, rather than a logic of designation.257 “The truly universal philosophy,” writes Schelling, “cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy.”258

In my reading of Schelling and Whitehead, I will draw attention to the creative “errors” in their translations of their own philosophical predecessors. I will also attend to the paradox of creative plagiarism exemplified in the poet-philosophers who carried this new process philosophy of imagination from Europe to England to America. “This is the constant ambiguity of the notion of origin,” writes Deleuze, “Origins are assigned only in a world which challenges the original as much as the copy, and an origin assigns a ground only in a world already precipitated into universal ungrounding.”259


208 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 14.

209 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.

210 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.

211 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

212 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxv.

213 Schelling, Ages of the World,  p. 136n5.

214 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxvi, transl. by Jason Wirth. In a footnote Wirth adds that his translation of Mitwissenschaft as “conscientious” is meant “to evoke at least three senses of the Latin conscientiæ: joint knowledge, consciousness, as well as the ethical sense of the conscience” (136n5).

215 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.

216 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

217 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

218 The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:183-87.

219 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 17-18.

220 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 161.

221 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 4.

222 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 808.

223 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 779.

224 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 7.

225 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 781.

226 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 16.

227 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210.

228 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 211.

229 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. vii. “Kritische Fragmente,” p. 246; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.

230 Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, in vol. VI 1 of Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 9. Transl. by John Sallis.

231 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 465.

232 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.

233 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 23.

234 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.

235 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 173.

236 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 21.

237 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 462.

238 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 209.

239 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 270.

240 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.

241 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210, 212.

242 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.

243 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 47.

244 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. iv. “Ueber den wahren Begriff der Naturphilosophie” (“On the True Concept of Naturphilosophie”), 96; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.

245 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

246 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

247 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

248 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147.

249 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.

250 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.

251 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 32.

252 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 36.

253 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 34.

254 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 35.

255 Schelling, The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), transl. and comm. by Fritz Marti (London: Bucknell University Press, 17-18).

256 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 50.

257 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 122, for more on how the images of imagination withdraw from simple designation by words. A logic of designation assumes an original meaning exists that might be successfully indicated in the lingo of another language, while a logic of imagination endlessly blurs the distinction between an original and its copies.

258 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, 190.

259 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 202.

The following is excerpted from my dissertation proposal, which is tentatively titled “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling to Whitehead.” I’ll be posting more selections in the coming days. 


To become rooted in the etheric forces of imagination, the process philosopher must learn to think like a plant. Michael Marder’s “vegetal metaphysics”80 provides a contemporary example of the power of plant-thinking to (re)turn modern philosophy to its etheric senses. Marder’s critical account of the history of Western metaphysics exhaustively details philosophy’s theoretical incoherences and practical inadequacies as regards the vegetal dimension of reality. He shames Aristotle for the “violence” his formal logic of identity and non-contradiction “unleashed against plants,”81 diagnoses Hegel’s negative dialectic as a mere symptom of his “[allergy] to vegetal existence,”82 and regrets Husserl’s essentializing “failure to think the tree” itself.83

To be fair to these philosophers, Steiner’s four-fold ontology is an evolutionarily re-formulated version of Aristotle’s psychological anthropology as described in De Anima, wherein “physical…,vegetative, sensitive and intellectual souls” are each set to work within the whole human being.84 Husserl, like Steiner, was initiated into the intentional structure of consciousness by Franz Brentano, but ultimately both Steiner’s and Husserl’s etheric imaginations hearken to a form of post-Copernican geocentrism (“the original ark, earth, does not move”85). As for Hegel, Schickler points to Steiner’s mediating conception of a living ether circulating between mind and nature as a cure for his allergic reaction to the supposed linearity of plants (by which he understood them to be closer to crystals than to animals).86 Hegel’s dialectical logic forces him to leave the blind growth of plant-life outside the autopoietic circle of the Concept, thereby alienating a self-conscious mind from a dead, petrified nature.87 Unlike Hegel and the idealist tradition, who “[retreated] from the world of the senses” and so failed “to consider an ontology intrinsic to life,” Steiner “[cultivated] organs of cognition which [enabled] him to enter ever more deeply into” the etheric sub-dimension of the sensory world.88 In Marder’s terms, Steiner learned to think like a plant. “The plant sets free the entire realm of petrified nature, including mineral elements, if not the earth itself,” writes Marder.89

David Hume, though not mentioned in Marder’s historical account, had his own bout of vegetal thinking in the midst of composing his Dialogues on Natural Religion, dialogues in which Cleanthes at one point is made to deploy an ontophytological critique of Philo’s over-determined analogization of the universe to an animal. Unlike an animal, argues Cleanthes, the universe we experience has “no organs of sense; no seat of thought or reason; no one precise origin of motion and action.” “In short,” Cleanthes jests, “[the universe] seems to bear a stronger resemblance to a vegetable than to an animal.”90 Cleanthes’ does not really believe the universe is a self-generating plant, he only suggests as much in order to undermine the credibility of Philo’s animal analogy.91 Philo responds by accepting the critique of the animal analogy, but then opportunistically turns the relative credibility of the vegetable analogy against Cleanthes’ own argument for design: “The world plainly resembles more…a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom,” says Philo. “Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles…generation or vegetation…In like manner as a tree sheds its seed into the neighboring fields, and produces other trees; so the great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which, being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds.”92 Philo, of course, is no more sincere in his vegetal speculations than Cleanthes was in his. He doubts whether philosophy will ever have enough data to determine the true nature and cause of the universe. In the intervening two centuries since Hume published his Dialogues, mathematical and technological advances have allowed scientific cosmology to drastically expanded and complexify the range of data available to assist the natural philosopher’s speculative imagination. Modern scientific cosmology, especially when interpreted in light of the organic process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead, with their emphasis on self-organization and evolutionary emergence, only seems to have made the reality of Hume’s giant vegetable more probable.

Marder’s “plant-nature synecdoche,” which posits that plants are “the miniature mirror of phusis,” has only become more scientifically plausible in the intervening centuries since Hume’s vegetal conjecture.93 Why, despite the breadth of his “ontophytological” deconstruction of Western metaphysics, Marder makes no mention of Hume’s imaginatively generative double gesturing toward plants, I do not know.

Hume, of course, was not the first to philosophize about the vegetal life of the universe. That honor belongs to Plato, who wrote in Timaeus that the philosopher is a “heavenly plant” or “heavenly flower.” “We declare,” Plato has Timaeus say, “that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us–seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant–up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the divine power keeps upright our whole body.”94

The next to carry forward Plato’s plant-thinking was Plotinus, into whose philosophy Marder writes that “there is no better point of entry…than the allegory of the world–permeated by what he calls ‘the Soul of All’–as a single plant, one gigantic tree, on which we alongside all other living beings (and even inorganic entities, such as stones) are offshoots, branches, twigs, and leaves.”95 Plotinus’ World-Tree grows from a single inverted root. The inverted root of the World-Tree is an image of the ever-living One that, though it “gives to the plant its whole life in its multiplicity,”96 itself remains forever “unaffected by the dispersion of the living.”97 Neither Marder, Whitehead, or Schelling accepts Plotinus’ emanational monism. Marder calls for an “anarchic radical pluralism,”98 a title which could just as well describe Whitehead and Schelling’s process ontology. Nonetheless, though they reject monism in favor of pluralism, all three carry forward Plotinus’ root image of an organic, vegetal universe.

Marder, like Schelling and Whitehead, conceives of nature “as suffused with subjectivity.”99 He likens the life of the plant (phutō) to the whole of nature (phusis), arguing that plant-life “replicates the activity of phusis itself.”100 “Phusis,” continues Marder, “with its pendular movement of dis-closure, revelation and concealment, is yet another…name for being.”101 Hume had Philo argue against the plausibility of divining the nature of the whole based on an acquaintance with its parts,102 but in daring to ontologize the vegetal life of the whole of nature (making its “life” more than a “mere” metaphor), Marder displays his allegiance to the ancient hermetic principle of correspondence: “as it is above, so it is below; as it is below, so it is above.”103

The hermetic principle of circular correspondence between the one above and the many below is not simply an abstract mental concept. It is a magical symbol whose power is enacted not only in the ideal meanings of the mind, but in the living movements of nature. These movements are made most obviously apparent by the mystery of the seasonal life-cycle of the plant realm. Though Hume clearly recognized that plant-life presented a definite limit to traditional metaphysical speculation, he remained uninitiated into the death/rebirth mystery esoterically encrypted in this vegetal threshold. Whitehead also invoked the hermetic principle by balancing Plato and Plotinus’ preferential treatment of the One with his own more Heraclitian “Category of the Ultimate.” Creativity is an ultimate category that dissolves the classical metaphysical dichotomy separating the single supreme Creator from its many subsidiary creatures. “Creativity,” writes Whitehead, “is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”104 Through this process of creative advance from disjunction to conjunction, a novel entity is created not present in the prior dispersion. “The novel entity,” continues Whitehead, “is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one.”105 The many down below thereby enter into and pass through the one up above, just as the one up above enters into and passes through the many down below. Schelling also creatively inherits the hermetic principle of correspondence by analogizing the metaphysical polarity of the many below and the one above to the physical pulsation–the “systole” and “diastole” rhythm–of living nature. “The antithesis eternally produces itself,” writes Schelling, “in order always again to be consumed by the unity, and the antithesis is eternally consumed by the unity in order always to revive itself anew. This is the sanctuary, the hearth of the life that continually incinerates itself and again rejuvenates itself from the ash. This is the tireless fire through whose quenching, as Heraclitus claimed, the cosmos was created.”106 Schelling offers the telling example of a tree to show how this cosmogenetic rhythm resonates through the whole to the parts and back again: “Visible nature, in particular and as a whole, is an allegory of this perpetually advancing and retreating movement. The tree, for example, constantly drives from the root to the fruit, and when it has arrived at the pinnacle, it again sheds everything and retreats to the state of fruitlessness, and makes itself back into a root, only in order again to ascend. The entire activity of plants concerns the production of seed, only in order again to start over from the beginning and through a new developmental process to produce again only seed and to begin again. Yet all of visible nature appears unable to attain settledness and seems to transmute tirelessly in a similar circle.”107

Schelling is not only one of a handful of philosophers to escape deconstruction by Marder’s vegetal anti-metaphysics, he even earns Marder’s praise for defending the continuity between life and thought.108 Schelling suggests that “every plant is a symbol of the intelligence,”109 and that this symbolic intelligence finds expression precisely in the plant’s power of “sensibility,” which–even when the pendulum of organic nature has swung toward its opposite but complimentary pole of “irritability”–remains the “universal cause of life.”110 The whole of nature being organic, its supposedly inorganic material dimension is therefore described by Schelling as only one half of the universal polarity between gravity and light, where light as the formal/ideal force exists in dynamic tension with gravity as the material/real force. What appears at first to be inorganic matter, when considered in its full concreteness as always already conditioned by the universal communicability of light, is really just the germ of organic life.111 As an illustration of the life-producing relationship between gravity and light, Schelling offers the example of the electromagnetic connection between earth and the sun responsible for calling forth plant-life out of the planet.112 Steiner similarly remarks that any attempt to understand the inorganic, mineral dimension of earth independently of the plant-life it supports will remain hopelessly abstract: “Just as our skeleton first separates itself out of the organism,” says Steiner, “so we have to look at the earth’s rock formations as the great skeleton of the earth organism.”113 Steiner further argues that the cultivation of etheric imagination will allow the philosopher to come to see “the plant covering of our earth [as] the sense organ through which earth spirit and sun spirit behold each other.”114 The mineral and plant realms are to earth what the skeletal and sensorial organs are to the human body. As Plotinus wrote, “earth is ensouled, as our flesh is, and any generative power possessed by the plant world is of its bestowing.”115

A process philosophy rooted in the power of etheric imagination requires an inversion or reversal of our commonsense experience of the universe. It is as if the world were turned inside out, or as if we were walking upside down upon the earth, with our head rooted in the ethereal soil of formative forces streaming in from the cosmos above, our limbs yearning for the living ground below, and our heart circulating between the two in rhythmic harmony. Rather than stretching for the abstract heights of the intelligible as if to steal a glimpse of heaven, the force of etheric imagination returns philosophy’s attention to earth, and to the roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds of plants, earth’s most generous life forms, and indeed the generative source of life itself. Thinking with etheric imagination is thinking with a plant-soul. Plant-souls, according to Marder, partake of a “kind of primordial generosity that gives itself to all other creatures, animates them with this gift,…allows them to surge into being, to be what they are.”116

Heraclitus’ oft cited fragment 123–“nature loves to hide” (phusis kryptesthai philei)–should not be understood as a negation of the generous growth of the plant realm described by Marder.117 As with the natural world, there is more to Heraclitus’ paradoxical statement than first meets the eye. The earliest recorded use of phusis in ancient Greek literature is in Homer’s Odyssey, where it refers specifically to the “magic” and “holy force” of the molü plant given by Hermes to Odysseus to keep his “mind and senses clear” of Circe’s sorcery. The molü plant grows duplicitously into “black root and milky flower” and can be safely uprooted only by the gods.118 As we’ve seen, then, phusis suggests not only a tendency toward concealment in the darkness of the soil, but also a tendency toward revelation in the light of the sun. As is typical both of the plant-life of nature and of the semantic structure of his sentences, there is an underlying duplicity to Heraclitus’ fragment. Understanding the poetic meaning of his occult philosophy, or of a plant’s process of growth, is impossible without cultivating a logic of etheric imagination. The logics of techno-scientific manipulation and abstract conceptual analysis, in attempting to uproot and expose the etheric dimension of mind and nature to total illumination, succeed only in making it perish.119 Instead of objectifying nature, etheric imagination approaches it hermeneutically (i.e., with Hermes’s help), not by “[shying] away from darkness and obscurity,” but by letting plants “appear in their own light…emanating from their own kind of being.”120 Marder’s plant-thinking approaches a logic of imagination, in that he aims to begin his vegetal philosophizing, not from the purified perspective of disembodied rationality, but in media res, always in the middle of things: “To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and of darkness…is to…refashion oneself–one’s thought and one’s existence–into a bridge between divergent elements: to become a place where the sky communes with the earth and light encounters but does not dispel darkness.”121

Only by finding its vegetal roots can philosophy become planetary, true to the earth and to the plant-like, etheric forces of imagination. But because the etheric imagination is in fact ungrounded, its plant-like growth becomes inverted: it has “underground stems” and “aerial roots,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it.122 Or, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, the properly rooted philosopher imagines “a tree growing upside down, whose roots, like a delicate foliage, tremble in the subterranean winds while its branches take root firmly in the blue sky.”123 For Bachelard, the plant is the root image of all life: “The imagination [must take] possession of all the powers of plant life,” he writes. “It lives between earth and sky…[it] becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes a universe, which makes a universe.”124

Marder argues that “plants are resistant to idealization,”125 which is just another way of saying that the plant-realm is the etheric receptacle of Ideas, the resistance providing matrix that, in the course of evolutionary history, gradually raises unconscious nature to consciousness of itself as spirit. Etheric imagination is the esemplastic power through which eternal Ideas become incarnate in the concrescing occasions of the world, like seeds taking root in the ground, growing skyward through branch, leaf, flower, and fruit, only to fall again into the soil to be born again, and again… Marder’s “post-metaphysical task of de-idealization” makes him especially attentive to the association between the aesthetic power of plant-life (particularly flowers) and the pathos of death: flowers–“the free beauties of nature,”126 as Kant called them–have since the beginning of history been customarily “discarded along the path of Spirit’s glorious march through the world,” “abandoned” and thereby “freed from dialectical totality.”127 “In contrast to the death borne by Geist,” continues Marder, plant-life can become “neither mediated nor internalized.”128 Idealist philosophy is therefore always in a rush to “[unchain] the flower from its organic connection to the soil and [put] it on the edge of culture as a symbol of love, religious devotion, mourning, friendship, or whatever else might motivate the culling.”129 The end result of modern idealist rationality’s “thorough cultivation” and “biotechnological transformation” of plant-life is “a field of ruins.”130

The “economic-teleological” principle guiding modern rationality–whereby, for example, “trees in and of themselves have no worth save when turned into furniture”131–is largely the result of Kant’s failure to grasp the life of nature as more than a merely regulative judgment of the understanding: while he found it acceptable for human subjects to think the internal possibility of nature as organic, he refused to grant that life could be understood as constitutive of nature itself. “It is absurd,” Kant writes, “to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who would explain to us how even a mere blade of grass is produced.”132 It followed that the only avenue open to reason in its untamable desire to know nature was by way of the “economic-teleological” principle, whereby the philosopher of nature, in order to know his object, “must first manufacture it.”133 In order to avoid the deleterious ecological effects of modern rationality, which in its techno-capitalist phase has succeeded in turning the entire planet into mere raw material awaiting consumption, it is necessary to return to and to heal the simultaneously vegetal and sensorial repression from which this rationality stems.134

The repression of vegetal existence, according to Marder, began as early as Aristotle, who was willing to grant of plants, due to their lack of both locomotion and perception, only that they “seem to live.”135 This seeming life of plants, which from the perspective of the formal logic of Aristotle presented a taxonomic problem (i.e., are plants ensouled, or not?), from the perspective of a logic of imagination (no longer subject to the principle of non-contradiction) reveals precisely what has been repressed by so much of Western metaphysics: that it is towards the ambiguous ontology of plant-life that philosophy must turn if it hopes to discover the aesthetic ground of sensory experience. Aristotle does finally grant a kind of life to plants by pointing to their nutritive capacity (to threptikon), which in animal life is homologous to the haptic sense (i.e., touch).136 Touch is the basis of all aesthesis, only subsequently becoming differentiated into the other specialized senses.137 In light of the vegetal origins of sensation, Marder is lead to wonder “whether the sensory and cognitive capacities of the psyche, which in human beings have been superadded to the vegetal soul, are anything but an outgrowth, an excrescence, or a variation of the latter. The sensitivity of the roots seeking moisture in the dark of the soil [or leaves seeking light in the brightness of the sky]…and human ideas or representations we project, casting them in front of ourselves, are not as dissimilar from one another as we tend to think.”138

Whereas Kant argued that “real metaphysics” must be “devoid of all mixture with the sensual,”139 Marder suggests that the idealist reduction of plant-life to dead linear crystals140 “[survives] in human thought in the shape of Kantian immutable categories and forms of intuition to which all novel experiences must in one way or another conform.”141 Instead of forcing lived experience to obey the crystalline categories of thought, Marder’s plant-thinking, akin to the logic of etheric imagination guiding my dissertation, “destroys the Procrustean bed of formal logic and transcendental a priori structures–those ideal standards to which no living being can measure up fully.”142

The plant-thinking of etheric imagination breaks through the crystalline molds of “dead thought”–what Bergson called “the logic of solids”143–to bring forth instead a plastic logic, a way of thinking-with the creative life of nature, rather than against it.144 Whereas in a crystalline logic of solids, thought “has only to follow its natural [intrinsic] movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably,”145 in a fluid logic of plastics, thought becomes etheric, overflowing the sense-inhered intellect’s a priori categorical antinomies and pre-determined forms of intuition to participate in the imaginal life of cosmogenesis itself. “A theory of life that is not accompanied by a criticism of knowledge,” according to Bergson, “is obliged to accept, as they stand, the concepts which the understanding puts at its disposal: it can but enclose the facts, willing or not, in preexisting frames which it regards as ultimate.”146 The plasticity of etheric imagination, on the other hand, preserves the unprethinkability of the creative advance of nature by remaining “faithful to the obscurity of vegetal life,” protecting it from the searing clarity of crystallized rationality.147

Like Marder and Bergson, Schelling refuses to accept modern rationality’s inability to know the life of nature. For Schelling, after the Kantian revolution, philosophy began to deal “with the world of lived experience just as a surgeon who promises to cure your ailing leg by amputating it.”148 Instead of amputating the life of nature, Schelling attempted to reform philosophy’s bias toward abstraction by returning it to its senses. He strove to root philosophy in “that which precedes the logos of thinking,” namely, “an aesthetic act of poesis” paralleling the creative naturans that underlies the dead naturata of the natural world.149 Schellingian philosopher Bruce Matthews likens the imaginative act at the generative root of Schelling’s philosophy to “the explosive power of the sublime.” “This initial moment of aesthetic production,” continues Matthews, “provides us with the very real, but very volatile stuff of our intellectual world, since as aesthetic, this subsoil of discursivity remains beyond the oppositional predicates of all thought that otherwise calms and comforts the knowing mind.”150

Marder’s plant-thinking, like Schelling’s logic of etheric imagination, “rejects the principle of non-contradiction in its content and its form.”151 “The human who thinks like a plant,” continues Marder, “literally becomes a plant, since the destruction of classical logos annihilates the thing that distinguishes us from other living beings.”152 Unlike modern rationality, which is said to be self-grounding, plant-life is open to otherness, dependent on something other than itself (i.e., earth, water, air, and light). In the same way, etheric imagination receives its power from the elemental life of nature. It is no longer “I” who thinks nature; rather, “it thinks in me.” Or as Schelling put it, the philosopher who is properly attuned to nature becomes “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia).”153


80 Michael Marder’s blog posts entitled “The Philosopher’s Plant”: http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/plato-s-plane-tree, as well as Deleuze and Guattari on “tree” (ATP, 12, 18)

81 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 21.

82 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

83 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 75-78.

84 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 162.

85 Edmund Husserl, “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” trans. Fred Kersten, in Husserl, Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 222-33.

86 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 124-126.

87 See Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy by Alison Stone (New York: SUNY, 2005).

88 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 143.

89 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 127.

90 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), VI.

91 Cleanthes really believes the universe to be a law-abiding machine designed, built, and maintained by a perfect God.

92 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779), VII.

93 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 120.

94 Plato, Timaeus, 90a-b.

95 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant’” (2013), http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/the-philosopher-s-plant-3-0–plotinus–anonymous–great-plant (accessed 4/24/2013).

96 Plotinus, Ennead III.8.10, 5-15.

97 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant.”

98 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 58.

99 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 35.

100 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28; Both “plant” and “nature” derive from the same Greek prefix (phuo-) and verb (phuein), meaning “to generate,” or “to bring forth.”

101 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28-29.

102 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion, VI.

103 The Emerald Tablet. 

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

105 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

106 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 20-21.

107 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 21.

108 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 157.

109 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 122.

110 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, 146.

111 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 186.

112 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 185-186.

113 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (accessed 4/23/2013).

114 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (accessed 4/23/2013).

115 Plotinus, Ennead IV.2.27.

116 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 46.

117 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28.

118 Odyssey, Book 10, lines 328-342.

119 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

120 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

121 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 178.

122 A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15

123 Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 85

124 Poetic Reverie, 85

125 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 13.

126 Kant, Critique of Judgment.

127 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

128 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

129 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 123.

130 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 128.

131 Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom, 4; Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/7, 18.

132 Kant, Critique of Judgment, §75.

133 Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Echkart Förster, 240.

134 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 22.

135 Emphasis added. Aristotle, De anima, 410b23.

136 Aristotle, De anima, 413b1-10.

137 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 38.

138 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 27.

139 Kant, De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis; AK II, 394, transl. Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 4.

140 Hegel considered plant growth to be linear, like crystals, whereas proper animals are elliptical in their movements (see pages 32-33 above).

141 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 163.

142 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

143 Bergson, Creative Evolution, transl. by Arthur Mitchell (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), xvii.

144 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 166.

145 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xviii.

146 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xx.

147 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 173; For more on Schelling’s concept of “the unprethinkable,” see page 51 below.

148 Schelling, System der Weltalter: Münchener Vorlesung 1827/28 in einer Nachschrift von Ernst von Lasaulux, ed. by Siegbert Peetz (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1990), 92.

149 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5.

150 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5

151 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

152 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

153 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11:258.


“A good maxim,” writes Nietzsche,

is too hard for the teeth of time, and all the millennia cannot succeed in consuming it, though it always serves as nourishment…(Human, All Too Human).

Pierre Hadot, in his essay on the history of the idea of nature, The Veil of Isis (2006), leads his reader through 2,500 years of Western philosophical discourse, all of which could be read as a creative (mis)reading of Heraclitus’ maxim: “Phusis kruptesthai philei.” What Heraclitus actually meant by this statement (which, literally translated, says “Nature loves to hide”) is difficult to uncover. Hadot speculates that the most faithful reading of the aphorism is something like: “that which causes birth tends to cause death,” or similarly, “that which causes things to appear tends to make them disappear.” Such statements are typical of the paradoxical style of Heraclitus, for whom nature is an ever-living fire. This cosmic fire is constituted by a strife of opposites, which find dynamic wholeness in the continual flow of all things.

For ancients and moderns alike, nature was thought to contain secrets, or hidden reasons, that, if uncovered through magical, mathematical, or mechanical means, could empower and ennoble humanity. During the Scientific Revolution, attempts were made to “save the appearance” of natural phenomena by devising hypothetical accounts of the underlying causes responsible for producing their visible effects. Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis was not initially interpreted by the Church as a threat, since it was understood to be a sort of useful fiction that in no way restricted the omnipotent intellect of God, whose actual cosmic design was beyond human comprehension. Even Descartes was careful to limit his mechanistic explanations of phenomena by saying that these explanations simply aimed to reproduce the visible effects of nature without necessarily achieving these effects in the same way as the Creator. The Greek word for mechanics, mēkhanē, signifies “trick” or “ruse”; initially, then, applying the practical art of mechanical engineering (and the ancients were not as ill equipped in this art as is often thought) to the phenomena of nature was considered to be a kind of “trick” that enabled humans a limited degree of prediction and control over her processes. Only later, as, following the great successes of Newtonian mechanics, God came to be imagined as a retired engineer, was the ancient notion of “saving the appearances” replaced by the more modern notion of explaining appearances through mechanical causes. Eventually, theological speculation no longer seemed relevant to scientists. Laplace could dismiss God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Rather than a useful analogy between artificial and natural processes, nature was explicitly identified with mechanism.

This identification was not complete, however. Machines are intelligently designed, even if by the finite intelligence of human beings. They therefore operate as a result of more than just material and efficient causes, but also due to formal and final causes. Even if an omnipotent divine will is no longer a compelling explanation for the existence and organized growth of nature, there is undoubtedly still something about the causality of natural beings that remains mysteriously withdrawn.

How are we to conceive of this withdrawal in our contemporary context? Religious and secular explanations both being unconvincing, where is philosophy to turn for an adequate account of the nature of nature?

At the end of the preface to The Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty writes:

The world and reason do not present a problem; let us say, if you will, that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them, and there can be no question of dissipating it by some solution. It is beyond solutions.

“True philosophy,” he continues, “is relearning to see the world.” Merleau-Ponty seems to be suggesting that what is needed is a form of seeing as comfortable with obscurity as it is with clarity. Nature is not a big secret that one day, through technical trickery or prosaic definition, might be finally unveiled. The being of nature is dark and withdrawn, even while its essence shines forth in an infinitely diverse array of colors and forms.

Nature is an indefinite series of enveloping veils, that, if removed in step, would lead back to the ground of being, which, for Schelling, is the cosmic anguish of a divinity that cannot escape its own ipseity. All the order and beauty of the manifest cosmos emerges from the “sacred shudder” of this unconscious God in response to its own uncanny existence. Nature seeks, through the development of its envelopment,

to show the Eternal as if in a mirror the most concealed thoughts of what lies innermost within its own self, thoughts that it itself does not know (Ages of the World, 2nd draft).

Nature, then, is the withdrawal of God from itself, the Othering of Self such that selfhood can come to exist in relation to itself, to know itself, even if this knowing remains forever mysterious. For the logician, this is entirely irrational, since the Eternal cannot be other than itself without being contradictory. For the poet, this paradox is the light of Truth herself at play in time.