Introduction to Process Philosophy

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

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. 

My Online Course this Fall: PARP 6133 – Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology

I’m teaching another online graduate course for 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 for more information about how to do this.

New Online Masters Degree in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness

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.




Pre-Defense Dissertation Draft Completed

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.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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.

John Sallis’ Logic of Imagination as an Example of Etheric Imagination

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.

Michael Marder’s Vegetal Philosophy as an Example of Etheric Imagination

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”:, 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),–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); (accessed 4/23/2013).

114 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); (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.