A new revised and expanded edition of my book Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is now available in paperback and electronic versions.
Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.
Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:
Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:
“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”
This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.
*featured image above by Jakob Boehme
Schumacher College has decided to make my week on Schelling and Whitehead a stand alone course called “Physics of the World-Soul.” It will take place June 18-22. More information available at the link above.
Below is the draft of a paper I’ll present at next week’s International Whitehead Conference in the Azores. Feedback appreciated!
2017 International Whitehead Conference
Matthew T. Segall
The Place of Life in the Cosmos: Feeling the Origin of Organism
“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization” —Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 87).
“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 (Modes of Thought, )
“We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby [God’s] infinity is acquiring realization.” —Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, 277)
“To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet…such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism as a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherences of social life.” —Maturana and Varela (The Tree of Knowledge, 248)
This paper has been prepared for the “Whitehead and biology” track, but I will argue that a proper understanding of biology requires situating it, not only in relation to physics, but also in relation to psychology, anthropology, and indeed, theology. The universe, Whitehead recognized, does not come neatly packaged into the disciplinary silos of the modern research university. In addition to the cosmological scope of his organic realism, Whitehead also recognized the need for what today we might refer to as a participatory approach to studying the universe. The other thinkers I draw into conversation with Whitehead in this essay, including Friedrich Schelling, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Robert Rosen, are similarly participatory or enactive in orientation, as they recognize that, as Aaran Gare put it, “scientists must see themselves as part of the world they are striving to understand.” We are participants within the creative cosmos we are studying, participants who are actively contributing to or retarding the ongoing evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it. According to Varela and Maturana, ignoring this intimate connection isolates the human knower from the living world he or she is trying to know, as though “knowledge” existed in some transcendental realm beyond or before our concrete experience of embodied action in Nature: “to disregard the identity between cognition and action, not to see that knowing is doing…is not to see human beings as living entities.” It is not only in biology, psychology, and anthropology that researchers must become attuned to the interactive effects their own methods and attitudes have on the subjects of their study. The same attunement is required in physics and in theology. I will argue that a proper understanding of the place of life in the cosmos requires a way of studying Nature and even God that places ourselves within what we are trying to study (i.e., an endophysics and an endotheology). Whitehead allows us to see that even God lacks a “God’s eye view.” “There is an essence to the universe,” Whitehead tells us, “which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.” To rationally study the cosmos, then, is not to study it “objectively,” as if “from outside,” but rather to study it relationally, as we embodied minds find ourselves always in media res “in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” There is, in Maturana and Varela’s words, an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing,” such that “every act of knowing brings forth a world” and “everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence…We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth”
Life: Special Anomaly or Generic Principle?
With the founding of the modern, secular research university, biologists have for the most part come to approach life as an object of neutral scientific investigation. But now that the existential threat of planetary ecological collapse has dawned on our species, the study of life can no longer remain a merely theoretical affair. It must also become an ethical and spiritual concern of central importance to everything we do. Modern humans have technologically transformed the planet at every scale we are capable of measuring, forever altering the complex feedback loops that integrate geological, chemical, meteorological, and biological processes into a self-regulating Gaian superorganism. Our species now finds itself in a rather paradoxically tragic situation: humans, originally creatures of Earth, have created a second Nature, an artificial Earth that we thought made first Nature passive before our economic projects. Moderns assumed first Nature would patiently endure modern, industrial progress, but alas, we are witnessing “Gaia’s revenge” (Lovelock): our presumed status as creators is being rudely revoked as we realize we are just as vulnerable to extinction as any other of Earth’s creatures.
A properly cosmological and participatory study of organisms has now become a matter of life and death, something that of course still requires plenty of theorization, but which can no longer be approached in a disinterested or objective way (if it ever truly could be). The question, “What is life?,” is itself a rather recent invention in the history of humanity’s inquiries into the nature of things. Jonas argued that the inverse question, “What is death?” preceded it by many millennia. Primal people perceived the blooming, buzzing world around them as incontrovertibly animated, ensouled. They felt embedded within a generative cycle, wherein death surely existed, but as an interval between life and rebirth, rather than as life’s complete and utter annihilation. Jonas thus suggested that “panpsychism,” or the view that the world is alive, “is really the most natural view.” “To the extent that life is accepted as the primary state of things, death looms as the disturbing mystery. Hence the problem of death is probably the first to deserve this name in the history of thought.” All culture—all religion, art, science, and technology, and indeed our very humanness—may be a result of our becoming conscious of and responding to the problem of death. Our sense of who we are as human organisms and the driving force of all our meaning-making endeavors may be rooted in a desire to overcome the contradiction of death by somehow integrating it into the more primary process of life. Every human society, primal or modern, to the extent that it remains viable finds some cultural means of integrating death back into the life process.
Archaeological anthropologists know for sure they are dealing with human remains when they find them buried in graves. Burying the dead, preparing them for an afterlife of some kind, appears to be an essential feature of our species. Jonas describes the paradox by which the anomaly of death stood out for the primal, panpsychist imagination: “This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground.” It was only after the Copernican revolution, according to Jonas, that the “proportional place of life in the scheme of things” began to be questioned. Prior to this cosmological displacement of the living Earth from the center of things, it had never occurred to human beings “that life might be a side issue in the universe,” rather than “its pervading rule.” Galileo, Descartes, and Newton wielded the weapons of mathematical analysis to vanquish the central intuition of pre-modern cosmology—an indwelling World-Soul—thus ushering in a new world view, that of the clock-work universe designed by a transcendent demiurge. To the modern question, “What is life?,” came the modern answer: life is a mechanical corpse.
Five hundred years later, the emergence of the Anthropocene—a perspective on our planet that is perhaps even more consequential than Copernicus’ revolution—invites us to consider Jonas’ problem anew. It is no coincidence that just as we find ourselves entering the 6th great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, one which may claim our own species as one of its victims, philosophers are once again beginning to take seriously the prospect of panpsychism. Jonas was himself familiar enough with the Whiteheadian variety of panpsychism to remind his readers that taking the idea seriously does not mean setting aside centuries of scientific discovery by returning to Aristotelean physics. Whitehead was led to articulate his philosophy of organism in the early 20th century because physics itself had begun to outgrow the old mechanical world-picture (e.g., no more “simple location” in absolute space, no more “nature at an instant” in durationless time, no more “laws” of physics imposed from eternity, etc.). Unfortunately, many biologists continue to conceive of the object of their study as a rare anomaly within the physical universe, a universe otherwise empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws. Organisms, while exceedingly complicated, are thus thought to be ultimately reducible to their simpler component parts. They appear to be animate agencies, but really organisms are just another lucky combination of atoms falling in the void (or genes falling through the fitness gradient), the orphaned children of randomness and law, of Monod’s chance and necessity. Biologists are wary of letting go of the mechanical metaphor, as to do so puts them at risk of being dismissed as unscientific Romantics by their colleagues. Whitehead admitted that “the appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena”; “But,” he continues (writing in 1925), “at present there is no such system of concepts.” Even Albert Einstein, in a letter written to nuclear physicist-turned-biologist Leo Szilard, admitted that it was in dealing with living things that he most felt the primitiveness of contemporary physics. Robert Rosen refers to Einstein’s feeling about physics to amplify the feelings of another physicist-turned-biologist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s hunch, elaborated in his famous essay What is Life?, was that the study of organisms would teach us a new physics. In Rosen’s terms, the old physics, that of mechanistic reductionism, was not generic enough to account for living organisms:
organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.
Rosen’s theoretical biology, when allied with Whitehead’s process philosophy, re-establishes a place for the organism not only in biological science, which has contented itself too long with reductionistic methods, but in physics, too. Rosen’s theory of life’s place in the cosmos hearkens back to the intuition of another kindred thinker, Friedrich Schelling:
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.
Toward an Organic Ontology
Schelling, who Gare has pegged as a process philosopher rather than an idealist, developed his organic Naturphilosophie in the wake of Kant’s transcendental critique of metaphysics. Organism, for thinkers like Schelling, Whitehead, and Rosen, must be understood not as a special kind of entity contingently emergent from an inorganic Nature, but rather as a universal speculative principle characterizing Nature at both micro- and macrocosmic scales. Organism functions as a mediating concept integrating the modern dualisms of such seeming opposites as process v. substance, identity v. relationality, and body v. mind. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the dualism between Nature and freedom running throughout his system approached but did not finally achieve resolution in the idea of organism. Unlike merely mechanical Nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living Nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without the application of formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts (in this, organisms are analogous to Reason itself). Kant famously argued that mechanistic physics could never in principle explain the internal possibility of organic, that is, self-organizing, beings:
So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd…to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws…how even a mere blade of grass is produced (the ‘Newton of the leaf’).
Kant was in the end unable to overcome the epistemological dualism between conceptually determined phenomena and unknowable noumena that shaped his transcendental method. He thus applied organism merely as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to posit it as constitutive of Nature itself. He thought applying the concept in a constitutive way would require genius of a scientific sort, which he regarded as impossible. Only artists could attain the status of genius, according to Kant. Artists create art through intuitively participating in the creativity of organic Nature, expressing form by intuitively leaping to its wholeness without having to assemble it out of separate parts. In contrast, the reflective and objectifying mind of the scientist, transcendentally cut off from the living organization of the natural world, can only study and conceptually describe organisms piecemeal as dead mechanisms.
Schelling followed the spiritual potential if not the dead letter of Kant’s third critique by articulating an intuitive science capable of knowing organism as constitutive of Nature. According to Schelling, “the less merely reflective [that is, objectifying] thought we give Nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.” Schelling re-imagined Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a new inauguration of the transcendental method, releasing philosophy from the dualistic determinations and duties of pure and practical reason by rooting it instead in the aesthetic feelings of living organization. Philosophy, for Schelling, became “nature itself philosophizing/autophusis philosophia.” Rather than the categories of transcendental logic, Schelling saw living Nature as a priori. His question was no longer “What must mind be such that knowledge of phenomenal Nature is possible?,” but “What must real Nature be for a knowing mind to have emerged from it?” Toward the end of his life, despite his own best efforts, Schelling had to admit that feeling, “the so-called inner sense of the emotions and the changes that take place within ourselves…still very much needs a critique.” Whitehead’s philosophy of organism took up Schelling’s task: “to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.” The few pages Kant devotes to this in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” are, according to Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic.”
There is an intimate connection between such a critique of feeling and the construction of an organic or panpsychist cosmology. Though the essence of life cannot be known in a logically determinate way (i.e., what Rosen refers to as a Turing-machine simulable way), it can be felt intuitively in our own experience of being alive, of being a living being among other living beings. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of Nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:
So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living Nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.
The modern, mechanistic world-picture, which physics itself has outgrown, nonetheless continues to shape the imagination of many biologists. Biological organisms are understood to be reducible to their mechanical parts, as though living things are not really alive, but rather amount to little more than highly improbable chemical reactions. From Rosen’s perspective, the collapse of mechanistic cosmology means we must dispense with the idea that
the gradient from simplicity to complexity is only a matter of accretion of simple, context-independent parts, and the analysis of more complex systems is merely a matter of inverting the accretions that produced them.
Instead, in Whitehead terms, we must “reverse the process” typical of reductionistic explanation by construing the evolutionarily earlier forms of physical organization by analogy to the later, biological forms. There is now a new “physics of irreversible, non-equilibrium processes,” as Ilya Prigogine described it, allowing biologists to re-imagine organisms, not as dead machines, nor as machines imbued with an immaterial “vital force,” but completely natural, thermodynamically open, historically emergent, and irreducibly complex energetic events. It turns out that such self-organizing energetic events pervade the physical universe (e.g., atoms, stars, galaxies, etc.). This is what I take Rosen to mean when he says complex self-organization is generic and not specific. Following Whitehead’s analogical reversal of the typical form of evolutionary explanation, if biological organisms are alive, then ontological coherence requires that physical and chemical events also be understood as already somehow lively:
Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.
Organisms at every scale, whether particle, astrophysical, or biological, are precariously poised on thermodynamic gradients, surfing inner depths of feeling and lured by erotic potencies toward ever-more intense modes of existence. We might then say that ecology—the study of organisms and their co-evolutionary dynamics—should replace physics as the most generic science.
Whitehead’s organic realism is not without its critics, even among those who sympathize with major aspects of his project. Jonas, despite stating that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism
is the only rational alternative open to naturalism after the loss of the transcendental counterpole provided by dualistic metaphysics, in whose shelter alone an unadulterated ‘materialism’ in physics was rationally possible,
nonetheless remained concerned that Whitehead’s panpsychism leaves no room for the reality of death because it denies “the deep anxiety of biological existence” by telling “a story of intrinsically secured success.” Contrary to Jonas, I do not believe Whitehead’s metaphysics is just another elaborate denial of death. Whitehead’s panpsychism, on his own account, “is entirely neutral on the question of immortality,” understood in its traditional Christian sense as a personal afterlife. His account of biological organisms fully acknowledges that such complex forms of organization are fragile and dependent upon the “patience” of their environment for their enduring stability. Whitehead doesn’t simply establish life as the foundation of existence; rather, his dipolar account of process in terms of subjective immediacy and superjective immortality could be described as affirming the life-death-rebirth cycle itself as the central cosmic mystery. Jonas’ fascination with Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is not misplaced: Dasein’s being-toward-death is indeed constitutive of our being human. Death opens us to the heart of Being. Whitehead’s unapologetic return to metaphysics is not necessarily in conflict with Heidegger’s turn toward Existenz, since he engages in philosophical speculation not in order to master or cover over death, as ontotheology does, but instead to seek some reconciliation between life and death via a coherent account of their integration in and as creative process, or what he termed Concrescence. Whitehead described an actual occasion’s concrescence in terms of three cumulative phases of feeling: first, the creative intensity of many objectively given past actualities initiates a new actual occasion or throb of experience; second, this occasion seeks its own form of aesthetic satisfaction in an immediately enjoyed presentation of the objective manifold by unifying this manifold into its own unique subjective perspective on the universe; finally, the occasion, having achieved satisfaction of its subjective aim toward unity, perishes into superjective immortality, becoming another objective expression to be prehended in the concrescence of subsequent throbs of experience. This process, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one,” is iterated endlessly “to the crack of doom.” It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life. It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.” Note that while Whitehead’s ontological account of concrescence does include a kind of “immortality,” this should not be confused with the distinct, cosmological question of the status of the ontogeny of individual biological organisms after death. As mentioned above, Whitehead philosophy of organism is decidedly neutral on the question of ontogenetic or personal immortality.
But it cannot be denied that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of some modern and much postmodern philosophy. For Whitehead, beauty is the teleology of the universe. The concrescence of each actual occasion is goaded toward beauty by an indwelling Divine Eros. This Eros, also called the “primordial nature of God,” is inherited by the initial feelings of each occasion. But because actual occasions are still self-creative, the Divine Eros cannot determine the direction of Nature’s creative advance. Rather, by contributing to the initial phase of each concrescent occasion a graded envisagement of Creativity’s infinite value-potential as relevant to its finite situation, the Divine Eros lures occasions toward more intense actualizations of value-experience or beauty. Such actualizations are never assured, and any achievement of order is accomplished amidst a background of chaos that is forever threatening to shipwreck the endeavor. Whitehead rejects as fallacious the narrow religious conception of the universe as determined by some final order imposed by a transcendent, omnipotent God.
Despite its reformed, evolutionary character, Jonas, Varela, and Thompson do not go as far as affirming the cosmic teleology of Whitehead’s panpsychism. They restrict the scope of teleology to biological phenomena, arguing for a kind of immanent purposiveness at work at least in the self-production and sense-making of individual living organisms down to the level of single cells. Self-production or autopoiesis is said to differentiate an organism from an “indifferent physicochemical” environment, while sense-making turns this environment into a world of “biological significance.” They allow teleology entrance into nature only through the emergent centers of “concern” and need whereby biological organisms “affirm and reaffirm [themselves] in the face of not-being.”
Jonas, Varela, and Thompson here oppose the “otherwise neutral events” of external physics and chemistry governed by deterministic laws to the “internal norms” of biological organisms. Biological organisms, as sense-making, self-producing beings, are not posited as by any means exempt from the laws by which science understands the physical world, but nonetheless they are thought to add something not found in or entailed by these laws. From Thompson’s perspective, the new sciences of complexity, unavailable in Kant’s day, allow contemporary theoretical biologists to grasp this extra something in a more rational, scientific way. Jonas, Varela, and Thompson thus go further than Kant in affirming immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms.
Thompson (a former student of Varela’s and the only living member of this triad) has followed one line of the post-Kantian tradition’s development through Husserl to its culmination in Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology. He also draws on Jonas’ discussion of biological space and time, which is in effect an evolutionary extension of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic beyond the human to the subjectivity of biological organisms. Whitehead, on the other hand, tried to go back to Kant and invert his founding principles. As I’ve shown, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology is an attempt to construct a critique of pure feeling in place of Kant’s critique of pure Reason. Something very similar ended up happening within the Kantian tradition itself, not just via Schelling, but via Merleau-Ponty, whose late ontology of the flesh could be described as a transition from Kantian disembodied reason as epistemically foundational (with ontology bracketed) to embodied feeling as the ground of knowledge and existence. Perhaps Schelling, Whitehead, and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end. Nonetheless, Thompson remains suspicious of claims that the relations between even the most microscopic physical events are somehow experiential. He worries that this sort of speculative claim overshoots the transcendental limitations Kant placed on human knowing. I am compelled to follow Whitehead, however, in seeing Kant as having prematurely limited our intuitive capacity to participate in Nature’s inner life. Whitehead, perhaps with Kant or some of his transcendentalist inheritors in mind, rejected “the philosophic tradition” which has it that “there are set limitations for human experience, to be discovered in a blue-print preserved in some Institute of Technology.” He grants the usual limitations set by the social habits that happen to be dominant in each epoch, and by the difficulty of verbally expressing, and thus recalling or communicating, unusual experiences; but in principle he cannot “discern any reason, apart from dogmatic assumption, why any factor in the universe should not be manifest in some flash of human consciousness.” After all, though the task be difficult, the main task of philosophy is precisely that of translating into language what such flashes of insight reveal about the nature of the penumbral background encompassing our normal consciousness. In this way, philosophy strives to increase the generality of our metaphysical categories beyond their applicability to the tables and tea cups of our everyday experience. Hidden in ordinary experience, continues Whitehead,
there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.
The normally dim background of our embodied experience, that which our sensitive membranes are supposed to put us in touch with, is evidently not a mere neutral “not-being.” Whitehead beseeches us not to be too quick to artificially limit our capacity to experience the deeper causal vectors animating the cosmic life from which we derive and to which we return.
Despite its tendency to impose such limits, there remains much that is of value in the transcendental orientation, particularly when it has been transformed into embodied phenomenology. Thompson’s approach invites reductionists to become more reflexive about how their objective way of knowing brings forth a specific, limited domain of significance, a domain wherein only the mechanical aspects of living phenomena are detectable, and wherein all value, meaning, and purpose evaporates from view. By epistemically ruling out a “feeling for the organism” as unscientific, mechanistic biologists become numb to the physical purposes at work within the living processes of Nature. If, as Thompson puts it, “empathy is a precondition of our comprehension of the vital order,” where empathy means the “spontaneous and involuntary resonance of two living bodies with each other,” then knowing the living interiority of Nature requires coming to aesthetically resonate with it, to sense it, or sense with it, from the inside out. Whitehead, like Schelling, arrived at his organic realism by inverting Kant’s transcendental idealism so that intuitive feeling and aesthesis came to ground conceptual reflection and Reason. “The reaction of our own nature to the general aspect of life in the universe” is thus the primary experiential datum of and epistemological justification for Whitehead’s metaphysics.
Thompson agrees that a more generic view of nature than the mechanical one is possible. In his more recent work, he has pursued a post-physicalist, non-dualist perspective, arguing that “physical being and experiential being imply each other [and] derive from something that is neutral between them.” He explicitly leaves the door open to panpsychism and neutral monism and suggests they may have advantages over neurophysicalist reductionism. Neutral monism is a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had an important influence on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of a “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s panexperientialism. But how can something “neutral” give birth to a creative cosmos of living organisms? It is this problem that led Whitehead to generalize the insights of James’ radically empirical psychology (which has much in common with embodied phenomenology) into a panpsychist cosmology. If experience goes all the way down, the challenge is to find some description general enough to avoid anthropomorphism but vectored and telic enough to still count as experiential. Whitehead threads the needle with his concept of prehension. Physical prehensionality, where memory and anticipation are present already in germ, thus becomes the precursor of biological intentionality (which itself is the precursor of conscious reflection). There is thus no neutral reality: for Whitehead, to be real is already to be the realization of some modicum of value, as “aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization.”
Placing Life Back in the Cosmos
There are clear parallels between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and the new paradigms of theoretical biology put forward by thinkers like Jonas, Rosen, Varela, and Thompson. There are also important differences regarding physical ontology, panpsychism, and the proper scope of teleology. My main motivation for bringing these thinkers into conversation with Whitehead is to lure those already critical of the idea that mechanistic reductionism offers an adequate account of life into the more constructive project of imagining a viable metaphysical alternative. If living organization is taken seriously and given its proper place in the cosmos as ontologically generic, then our scientific conception of the universe requires a thorough re-imagining. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image or cosmic metaphor guiding natural scientific investigation. Epistemologically, feeling (in the expanded, Whiteheadian sense) must be granted an enhanced status as our primary mode of relation to the life of the cosmos, such that a rational cosmology comes to mean the same thing as a relational one.
 See Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001) or Participation and the Mystery (2017). See also Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn (2008)
 Arran Gare, “Approaches to the Question ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology” (2008), Cosmos and History Vol 4, No 1-2.
 The Tree of Knowledge, 248
 Process and Reality, 4
 Process and Reality, 50.
 The Tree of Life: The Biological Roots of Human Cognition by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Shambala, 1998), 25-26.
 Under the political and economic conditions of late capitalism, theoretical understanding has itself largely taken a backseat to instrumental manipulation with an eye toward military applications or corporate profits.
 The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7.
 The Phenomenon of Life, 8.
 The Phenomenon of Life, 9.
 The Phenomenon of Life, 8-9.
 The mechanistic world-picture is rooted in a Faustian bargain, that where religious worship of God had apparently failed to defeat death, technological mastery of Nature might succeed. Ernest Becker famously argued that all human culture is ultimately in service to an elaborate “immortality project.” While pre-modern societies had religious means of achieving a sort of symbolic immortality, modern societies have replaced appeals to God with science and technology, which are, we are told by Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists, on the verge of providing us with real immortality. For Becker, both theologically and technologically oriented societies are driven by the same denial of death. Pre-moderns sought the shelter of the Church and the grace of the Mass to grant them some taste of transcendence, while moderns dream of terraforming Mars or, less grandiosely, surf Amazon and Facebook and through the miracle of transubstantiation turn data into a consumable goods. The “thoughtless Prometheanism” of modern techno-capitalism is for Becker only a turbocharged version of the premodern “immortality project.” It is rooted in the same “rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creaturely limitations” (The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1975, 85).
 In Clive Hamilton’s terms, the Anthropocene marks the discovery of a new phenomenon hitherto unknown to science: “the appearance of this new object, the Earth System, has ontological meaning. It invites us to think about the Earth in a new way, an Earth in which it is possible for humankind to participate directly in its evolution by influencing the constantly changing processes that constitute it. It therefore brings out the conception of a joint human-earth story” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 21).
 The Phenomenon of Life, 2. Though of course there is plenty to be gained through a careful study of many of The Philosopher’s ideas, Whitehead decisively rejects Aristotle’s substance-quality ontology in favor of a process-relational one.
 I would ask my scientific colleagues, perhaps already tempted to dismiss the panpsychist cosmology I am peddling, to provide me with even a single example of a scientific theory that does explanatory work without invoking metaphor. Quantum and relativistic phenomena are notoriously difficult to explain in common language, since they appear at first to do violence to our habitual ways of perceiving and conceiving of visible nature. Many modern physicalists therefore prefer to treat them as purely mathematical theories. I ask my scientific colleagues again, what is the meaning of a mathematical equation without that most powerful of metaphorical symbols, “=”? See Logos of the Living Earth: Toward a Gaian Praxecology for more on the place of metaphor in science: https://footnotes2plato.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/
 Science and the Modern World, 97.
 Quoted in Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 7.
 Essays on Life Itself by Rosen, 9.
 p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000
 On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.
 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics” by Aaran Gare, Cosmos and History, Vol 7, no. 2, 2011.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 128-129, 215.
 Quoted by Rosen, Essays on Life Itself, 35.
 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988), 35.
 Quoted in Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.
 Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Schelling, 168.
 Process and Reality, 113.
 Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 268.
 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.
 Essays on Life Itself, 36.
 The Function of Reason by Alfred North Whitehead, 15.
 The End of Certainty (1996) by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 3.
 To be complex is not just to be “complicated,” but, in Rosen’s terms, to be noncomputable or nonsimulable (Essays on Life Itself, 17, 37).
 Science and the Modern World, 150.
 The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, 96.
 Religion in the Making, 107.
 Science and the Modern World, 119.
 This mystery is affirmed in most primal world views, as well as in Vedic and Buddhist traditions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rather unique in its denial of any form of rebirth, though there are exceptions (e.g., Origen, Rudolf Steiner). Thompson made the following comparison of panpsychist conceptions of creaturely death to Buddhist conceptions of death: “Panpsychism implies that, as an entirely natural matter of fact, aspects or elements of consciousness—not creature consciousness but more primitive or basal, constituent forms of consciousness—remain present after biological death. Indeed, the idea that creature consciousness at death undergoes a kind of phenomenal dissolution into constituent phenomenal elements—an idea central to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of the dying process—may make more sense from a panpsychist perspective than from a neurophysicalist one” (“Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf).
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.
 Process and Reality, 228.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.
 One form of immortality an individual can possess is achieved through its participation in and contribution to the larger cosmic personality or the divine milieux which shelters its experience. In the end, Whitehead and Jonas converge rather intimately on the question of the possibility and nature of immortality. Indeed, Jonas was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s processual account of God’s relationship to the world (see The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas by Christian Wiese, p. 126). Interested readers should compare the final pages of The Phenomenon of Life in the chapter “Immortality and the Modern Temper” to Whitehead’s late essay “Immortality.”
 Process and Reality, 111.
 Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.
 Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.
 Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 152-153.
 Mind in Life, 129.
 Hamrick and Van der Veken’s Nature and Logos argues as much
 Blog exchange on July 16, 2013: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/07/16/phenomenology-and-ontology-merleau-ponty-whitehead-and-the-flesh-of-the-world/
 Even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the Opus Postumum), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may have been a result of Schelling’s influence.
 Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 134-135.
 Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 132.
 Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, referring to Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1984).
 Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 165.
 I referred to this Schellingian-Whiteheadian reversal as “descendental” philosophy in my dissertation, Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.
 Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Immortality,” 102.
 Waking, Dreaming, Being, 105.
 Thompson, “Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf
 For more on the difference between prehensionality and intentionality, see my dissertation Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead, 143.
 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 94.
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
COSMOTHEANTHROPIC IMAGINATION IN THE POST-KANTIAN PROCESS PHILOSOPHY OF SCHELLING AND WHITEHEAD
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
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
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.
Thanks to milliern for his commentary on and reflections about an exchange Professor Corey Anton, myself, and others have been having on YouTube. I’m reposting my comment to him below:
I wanted to offer a few clarifications of my own position. I don’t normally think of myself as a “Heideggerian,” though I suppose most people who take the time to really read Heidegger are irrevocably transformed in some way. I’m one of those who has spent considerable time with his texts and ideas. While he has changed the way I think, I’ve nonetheless come to differ with him (as I understand him) in important ways. I’m not at all convinced that ‘human’ being, or Dasein, is the only significant mode of being. Nature, too, is significant. In fact, like Schelling, I would say the significance of human being could only be derived from that of Nature’s original being. Nature is a priori, not mind. Nature generated mind; mind is but a higher potency of Nature’s subjectivity. So I’m more Schellingian than Hedeggerian. If Heidegger spoke of a “groundless ground,” it’s because he was a close reader of Schelling, who more than a century earlier had recorded his encounter with das unvordenkliche (“the unprethinkable”). I don’t think this “groundless ground” should be identified with the Kantian transcendental ego or ding an sich. The groundless ground, the abyss or abgrund (a term Schelling borrowed from the esotericist Böhme), is the mother of both phenomena and noumena. Das Unvordenkliche is not born of the phenomenal-instrumental nature known to physicists and biologist. Nor is it born of the Ego, as in the Fichtean interpretation of Kant. Rather, like Spinoza before him, and Whitehead after him, Schelling distinguished between Natura naturans and Natura naturata. The former is Nature ‘naturing,’ the latter Nature ‘natured.’ The former is process, the latter is product. The former is alive, the latter is dead. Schelling’s Nature is not the external/extended material world of law-abiding physical particles that is supposed to exist by mathematical physicists. His Nature is not a ground, but a creative abyss. To know such a world, you must not march off to explain and control it as though it were entirely made up of plainly visible bodies,–as modern techno-scientific materialism has–, you must humbly seek to understand and communicate with its mostly invisible sensitivities (i.e., with its soul).
Unlike Kant’s mechanized Newtonian universe, Schelling perceived the earth and her creatures, the sun, planets, and other stars–yes as mathematically ordered–, but also as animate gods, as living beings creative of beautiful worlds. Where scientific materialism sees only dead nature (that is, nature natured), organic realism (what I refer to Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophies of nature as) perceives nature naturing. What is unprethinkable about ourselves and about the world is this ongoing creative process–call it “cosmogenesis,” call it “Creativity,” call it “the One and All,” or God, if you want. Whatever “It” is, it’s before subject and object. It is before mind and matter. Schelling is usually lumped in with the idealists, but it was Heidegger himself (in his lectures on Schelling’s 1809 book on human freedom) who first suggested that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie in fact subverted the entire German Idealist project from the inside out. I’d argue he has more in common with the radical empiricist James than with any idealist, and especially with James’ philosophical inheritor at Harvard, the mathematical adept turned cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead.
Speaking of which, I noticed you are interested in Einstein, ether, space-time, etc…. I wonder if you’ve run across Whitehead’s alternative ether theory (the “ether of events” or “extensive continuum”)? I’ve written about it HERE. I’d be curious to know your take on his organic cosmological scheme.
I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.
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.
The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.
A few days ago, I decided to re-read Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809). It’s a reasonably short text of about 75 pages, so I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in the past year. The text’s key conceptual innovations regarding the essence of freedom (which Schelling defines as the scission between good and evil) are as difficult to understand this time as they were when I first read it. Reading Heidegger’s treatment of it a few months ago was helpful (HERE), but perhaps also somewhat misleading given my preference for Iain Grant’s reading, which emphasizes the priority of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (HERE). Schelling’s obscurity regarding human freedom does not seem to be just an accident of his presentation. Rather, obscurity is constitutive of his topic. Indeed, you might say Schelling’s task in this text is the impossible one of bringing darkness itself to light.
“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
The trigger for the experience was the children’s memorial. I descended by stairway into a dark space, within which I first encountered a dozen or so photographs of children who had been killed in camps, followed by a wall of candles fitted with mirrors that reflected each flame’s image hundreds of times as it receded into the infinite darkness. The name and place of birth of murdered child after murdered child was read over a speaker.
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
Two disappointing tidbits of news from the front lines of the climate war came my way this morning.
First, I learned that the US Department of State decided to contract out its recent environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to a company called Environmental Resources Management. ERM happens to be “a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, big oil’s top lobbying group,” according to 350.org. Here is a sample of the sort of analysis ERM offers its big oil clients (like TransCanada, the co. building the Keystone XL pipeline):
Earth has already experienced, a modest increase in global average temperature of 0.8 °C since pre-industrial times. Nonetheless, even small variations in average conditions can have a big influence on extremes such as droughts and floods, as the world has witnessed over the last decade. As extreme weather events become more frequent, and climate change continues to modify operating environments, risks and opportunities will grow in importance for the [extractives] sector.
The extractives sector is considered critical in building a more sustainable global economy. Capital investments made today, whether into mining, conventional or unconventional oil and gas developments like shale gas and oil sands have the potential to secure the world’s future energy and resource demand for decades to come. Considering the long timescales and the importance of these investments, it would be negligent not to consider the steps necessary to make such projects resilient to future expected climate change related risks. A simple economic analysis almost always demonstrates substantial pay back on the investment necessary to make a project climate resilient.
So let me get this straight: ERM readily acknowledges that climate change is actually occurring, and then in the very next breath advises oil, gas, and coal companies whose product is causing said climate change to “consider the steps necessary to make [their extractive projects] resilient to future expected climate change related risks.” I assume they mean primarily two sorts of risk: that posed to mining/drilling infrastructure by extreme weather, and that posed by the American public coming to its senses about the existential severity of the climate crisis. The first risk is an easily solvable “engineering problem” (more on this in a moment). The second risk is solvable through political lobbying and mass disinformation campaigns. Even if the American pubic was able to come to its senses, its not clear that our president or congressional representatives would pass laws to protect us (and the rest of the earth community) from the very companies that bankroll their campaigns. Big oil knows that climate change will be severe enough to threaten its profit margin. Its response is not to invest in innovation or already existing cleaner alternative energy sources, but to dig in its heels by improving the “resilience” of its current business model (=get the fossil fuel out of the ground, to the market, and into the atmosphere as profitably as possible). They are even shameless enough to borrow an ecological term to describe their model.
The second tidbit of news comes from Exxon Mobil’s recent shareholder meeting. The CEO of the company, Rex Tillerson, had this to say in his speech during the event:
“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
Is anyone else having as much trouble with his myopically anthropocentric logic as I am? He went on to argue that “there’s no quick replacement for oil, and sharply cutting oil’s use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it harder to lift 2 billion people out of poverty,” according to Daily Kos. As if big oil shareholders give a damn about raising people out of poverty…After all, where would big oil build its poisonous, poorly managed refineries if there weren’t poor ghettos (like Richmond, CA)? Here’s Tillerson being interviewed about climate change last year at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations:
“Its an engineering problem,” he says. “We will adapt.” Perhaps the rich will adapt, but not until much of the world’s human and animal population has died off. Tillerson goes on to repeat his concern for all the poor people who so desperately need electricity. I admit, its not at all fair that the developed world gets to live in a technological wonderland while half the world’s population barely has enough rice to eat and has to shit in a hole. But how about we Americans help raise the rest of the world out of poverty by learning to live with it being darker when the sun sets, with carpooling, with fewer servings of meat per day? Human beings have only had cars and electricity for a century or so, and already these conveniences have become so necessary we’re willing to destroy the planet so everyone can have the experience of microwaving leftover pizza or being stuck in traffic? Why does the enterprise of human civilization necessarily have to involve trying to exterminate the non-human biotic community in order to replace it with a human-made technosphere?
Thinking about big oil’s role in climate change lead me to re-read two fascinating papers on Schelling. One is by Iain Hamilton Grant (‘The “Eternal and Necessary Bond Between Philosophy and Physics”: a repetition of the difference between the fichtean and schellingian systems of philosophy,’ Angelaki, No. 10, Vol. 1, (2005), 43-59). Grant argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie inverts the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle, which has it that because man cannot know nature in itself, he must remake it for himself. Schelling rejects the anthropocentric Kantian-Fichtean program that justifies treating nature as the raw material awaiting human capitalization by inverting transcendental idealism so it becomes transcendental physics, which has it that nature is not only product but productivity, a productivity that “is as active in geology as in [human] ideation” (Grant, 53). It is therefore not only human beings who act to shape a passive nature, since “nature is its own lawgiver” (Schelling, SW IV: 96). The human imagination is understood to be a potentialization of nature’s original creativity.
Big oil may be the most powerful expression of the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle on earth at this particular historical juncture. It is leading the fight to remake the planet in our own industrial image.
The other Schelling paper is by Jason Wirth (“Mass Extinction: Schelling and Natural History,” Poligrafi: Journal for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion. No. 61-62, Vol. 16 (2011), 43-63). Wirth’s book on Schelling (The Conspiracy of Life, 2002) is rather severely criticized by Grant for Fichteanizing Schelling by making it seem as though the latter prioritizes ethics over physics. I’ll have more to say about this validity of this charge at a later time. For now, I just want to direct you to this paper (hopefully you have access to it; I don’t have a PDF, sorry!) It seems clear enough to me that Wirth’s treatment of the philosophical significance of species extinction lines up with Grant’s: the extinction of species is a pretty strong counter-argument to idealism of the Kantian, Fichtean, or Hegelian variety.
Does it make sense to claim that the root of the climate crisis is metaphysical? Can attacking big oil at an ideological level actually do anything to hamper their business model? Might Schelling’s philosophical inversion of the “anti-physics” of so much modern thought provide at least a sense of self-understanding to those who discover more concrete forms of resistance?
I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.
This dissertation examines the metaphysics of imagination in the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead through the hermeneutical lens of a certain stream of Western esotericism. In describing the process-philosophical imagination as etheric, I aim in particular to cross-fertilize the process tradition with 20th century esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body. The concept of an ether body did not originate with Steiner, but he provides an example of a modern hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of natural science and deep familiarity with the esoteric history of philosophy, particularly German Idealism, make him among the best possible candidates for such a comparative project. The exact origins of the Western esoteric tradition are notoriously difficult to trace. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, esotericism’s beginnings “have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.”5 In her groundbreaking study of Renaissance hermeticism, Francis Yates argued that it was Issaac Casaubon’s post-Christian dating of hermetic texts supposed by Renaissance magi like Ficino to predate Moses that definitively “shattered at one blow” the entire conceptual edifice of the esoteric prisci theologi.6 In contrast to Yates, Garth Fowden makes the case that these early hermetic texts are more continuous with the Egyptian alchemical tradition than Casaubon realized.7 The question of the origin of any tradition is inherently controversial. The true source of the hermetic tradition is especially contested due in no small part to its penchant for religious hybridization. Rather than try to stake out a position in this controversy, my research into the weird family of esoteric traditions will proceed without any assumption of purity. Steiner is foregrounded only because of his familiarity with Schelling and modern science, not because his Anthroposophy is somehow the most “authentic” expression of esotericism.
In his introduction to The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Joshua Ramey laments the “general academic-philosophical prejudice” against esotericism, suggesting that this prejudice “constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture.”8 Ramey’s more pessimistic attitude is tempered by S. J. McGrath, who in the introduction to The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012) suggests that esotericism “is gaining respect in non-foundationalist academic circles” due largely to “the postmodern absence of authoritative arguments for continuing to exclude whole genres of Western literature from more canonically respectable studies in religion and philosophy.”9
Like the esoteric traditions, the process tradition has also found itself on the margins of the Western philosophical canon, and is only more recently being creatively retrieved by a number of academics across multiple disciplines. Most standard readings of the history of modern philosophy consider Schelling to be a mere stepping-stone between Fichte’s subjective and Hegel’s absolute idealism. Though usually characterized along with them as an “idealist” himself, I will follow thinkers like Iain Hamilton Grant10 and Arran Gare11 by situating Schelling within the process tradition as a thinker primarily of nature (be it human, divine, or cosmic nature).
Contemporary Schelling scholar Jason Wirth finds it regrettable that “many have long thought that we are done with Schelling, that he is a ‘dead dog.’”12 It seems that the only respectable academic tasks remaining are to “[dissect] the corpus of Schelling into its various periods and phases,…expose inconsistencies in his thinking, attach various isms to his arguments, [and/or to] situate him in some narrative within the history of philosophy.”13 More recently, however, due in some part to Wirth’s and Grant’s efforts, this sentiment seems to be shifting; as Wirth writes, “after more than a century and a half of neglect, Schelling’s time has come.”14 One of the principle reasons for this emerging Schelling renaissance, I’ll argue, is the relevance of his process-oriented Naturphilosophie to the task of re-thinking the relationship between humanity and earth in light of the planetary ecological crisis.
The longstanding neglect of Schelling, especially in the Anglo-American academy, has not been without reason. There is indeed something strange and extravagant, even occult, about Schelling’s thought, at least when judged from within the intellectual strictures of modern academic philosophy. However, the severity of the ecological crisis has brought many of the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy into doubt,15 opening the way for a reconsideration not only of Schelling’s conception of an ensouled cosmos, but of a whole swathe of previously marginalized esoteric philosophical literature. Schelling’s approach to philosophy was deeply influenced by the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Philipp Matthäus Hahn, and Franz von Baader, which makes the cross-fertilization of the process and esoteric traditions sought in my dissertation all the more appropriate.
Though somewhat influential among American theologians during the later half of the 20th century, until quite recently Whitehead, like Schelling, has been neglected by academic philosophers. According to Michel Weber and Anderson Weekes, this neglect is largely the fault of Whiteheadians themselves, whose almost total focus on scholastic textual exegesis and lack of interdisciplinary outreach has threatened Whitehead’s ideas with extinction by creating the perception that they are only available “in fossil form.”16 Weber and Weekes’ negative assessment of the last half-century of Whitehead scholarship may be somewhat overstated, especially considering the many examples of interdisciplinary engagement in the work of Whiteheadian theologians like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Though there may have been an element of “scholasticism” that assumed the superior capacity of Whitehead’s technical system to conduct and translate interdisciplinary disagreement, the more probable reason for process philosophy’s academic marginalization is the fact that it conceives of nature as enchanted and takes notions like panpsychism and the existence of an encosmic divinity seriously.
Whether or not Weber and Weekes’ have overstated the insularity of the first wave of Whitehead scholarship, they represent part of a second wave of outsiders who are, as they put it, “storming the museum.”17 Another second wave Whiteheadian, Isabelle Stengers, argues that the Whiteheadian palette is currently being greatly enriched “by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education…in a singularly lively and tenacious way.”18 Rather than approaching Schelling and Whitehead as a museum curator, my dissertation will aim to breathe new life into their thought, to think with them towards a more imaginative philosophy of mind and of nature enriched by the speculative resources of esoteric wisdom.
According to McGrath, though the esoteric schools represent a diverse set of theories and practices, they are nonetheless “united by a common enemy: the desacralization of nature (material nature, human nature, cosmological nature) by techno-science and capitalist consumerism.”19 He argues that critiques of esotericism as “regressive,” “anti-modern,” and “anti-scientific” are misguided. Although esotericism shares modernity’s “impulse toward human amelioration through science,” it seeks this amelioration through an alternative conception of the human-cosmos relation: “Western esoteric nature-philosophy refuses to follow mainstream natural science and split mind from matter, spirit from animal, finite from infinite…Esoteric modernity is a road not taken in the history of science…a modern approach to nature which was openly rejected in the seventeenth century because it did not grant us the calculative control which techno-science demanded of the Western mind.”20 One of the major goals of this dissertation is to show that, along with Western esotericism, process philosophy also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of modernity no longer bent on the domination of human and earthly nature by alienated modes of theoretical and practical rationality. Both the esoteric and process traditions provide philosophy with a new way of seeing the universe–a way of seeing (i.e., the etheric imagination) which in turn may provide humanity with a new way of living in concert with the wider community of life on earth.
Imagination itself has had a rather tense, even tumultuous, relationship to philosophy going all the way back to Plato, who infamously denied poets entry to his ideal city.21 For many philosophers in the modern Western tradition, its ineffable, largely non-rational and often erotically charged powers were considered deeply suspect, both for epistemological and for ethical reasons–even when imagination played a central role in their own philosophical systems! For example, as Alexander Schlutz argues, even though Descartes “forcefully excludes imagination from his conception of the cogito,”22 he nonetheless draws upon its poetic powers repeatedly in his physical speculations, and even admits during his autobiographical narration in Discourse on the Method (1637) that “doubt itself…is a product of imagination.”23 Similarly, though Kant affirms imagination as an “indispensable function of the human soul,” he also denigrates it as “a potential source of madness, delusion, and mental derangement.”24 I will revisit the paradox of this “double gesturing” by the major figures in the history of philosophy throughout my dissertation, connecting it to the polar, oscillatory dynamism so characteristic of imagination. I will attempt to articulate a less ambiguous, esoterically-inflected approach to the philosophical imagination that is responsive to the challenges made evident by these major figures.
5 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.
6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), 400.
7 Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986), 34-35.
8 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6-8.
9 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 21.
10 Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006).
11 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011.
12 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1. Wirth here employs the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s epithet originally coined as a reference to Spinoza, a controversial figure in Germany at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a major influence on Schelling.
13 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1-2.
14 Wirth, ed., Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), 9.
15 Schelling was ahead of his time in this respect, writing in 1809 that “The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 26).
16 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
17 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.
18 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), 6.
19 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
20 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.
21 Though of course, Plato’s relationship to imagination and poetry is not so cut and dry. He may have banished the poets from his Republic, but he himself was one of the most imaginative and poetic writers in the history of letters.
22 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
23 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 77.
24 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.
A small sample to wet your appetite:
As directly as possible, Idealism is that philosophy that affirms the reality of the Idea. The point is not that any account of reality must be from the standpoint of the Idea, of the Ideal, or that the conceptual is insuperable, as for example McDowell has it; but rather that reality is incompletely furnished unless the Idea is included in it. Idealism is therefore eliminative just when the Idea is accounted the species of which other entities – usually nature or matter, but also appearances – are genera. Nothing in this case is or can be on the far side of the concept. This is eliminative in that it doesn’t allow that the Idea be the Idea while nature be nature; rather the one must become an instance of the other, and the problem is exactly the same whether posed from the perspective of eliminative idealism or eliminative materialism. Idealism, when not eliminative, it seems to me – and I am particularly fond of pointing to some of its less read exemplars, such as Bosanquet or Pringle-Pattison – does not seek to account for one thing in terms of another, but for each thing exactly as it is. Such a view is evident in the fact that, for example, Plato’s auto kath’auto has less to do with Kant’s Ding an sich than with a simpler “itself by itself”: it is a causal account of subjectivityindependent of consciousness, or the “it-attractor” by which whatever becomes becomes what it is.
Below I’ve written a paper using the ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead to construct a secular divinity. For Deleuze, this is an especially serious act of buggery on my part. Deleuze of course approved of that method in his own projects, but I wonder if he would approve of the baby jesus child that I’m trying to make him have in this paper. I’m directing Deleuze’s demand that we philosophers think immanently by believing in the world toward an interpretation of the Christian religion and faith. This is exactly what Whitehead does in Adventures of Ideas where he looks to the martyr Jesus for the exemplification of something that the philosopher Plato first divined as an ideal. Plato made a world-historical intellectual discovery, as Whitehead puts it, or as Deleuze would say he created a concept that has continued to reverberate across the ages. Where traditional monotheistic theologists create a concept of divinity as a transcendent and omnipotent imposer of form and order and law upon an entirely separate derivative world, with Plato you have the idea of divine immanence in the world working through persuasion–through desire, eros, beauty, and love–to transform the world “slowly and in quietness,” as Whitehead puts it, rather than by hurling thunderbolts from heaven. Plato invented a new idea of God working within the world as love, which is a kind of power, but not the power of brute force. God is no longer a creator who shapes the whole thing from outside. Rather, God is involved in, caught up with the process of cosmogenesis and spatiotemporal becoming, such that the world is as necessary for the nature of God as God is for the nature of the World…
“Behold, I am making all things new.”
The purpose of this essay is to unpack Deleuze’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions to the task of re-thinking religion in an increasingly fenced in, post-everything world no longer certain of its own secularity.1 “The secularization of the concept of God’s functions in the world,” argued Whitehead in 1927, “is at least as urgent a requisite of thought as is the secularization of other elements in experience.”2 With a similar sense of urgency, Deleuze (and Guattari) argued in 1991 that, in an age when “we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world,” philosophy’s most pressing task is to “give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks,” modes of existence which renew “[belief] in this world, in this life.”3 Deleuze’s emphasis on immanence as against transcendence, on this world as opposed to the next, should not be read as a blanket dismissal of spiritual practice. On the contrary, for Deleuze, the creative thinking demanded by philosophical inquiry invites infinite cosmic forces into the finite mind, making philosophy akin to an “initiatory…spiritual ordeal.”4 Philosophers are those who dare to welcome such dangerous forces, risking not only their academic reputations,5 but the habit-formed security of their egos. Philosophers do not simply reflect ideas, they allow ideas to enter into and transform them:
This is because one does not think without becoming something else, something that does not think–an animal, a molecule, a particle–and that comes back to thought and revives it.6
Deleuze calls for a radical break with all forms of commonsense–whether it be religious, artistic, philosophical, or scientific–through the intercession of concepts with personalities who are willing to continually confront the absolute horizon of the plane, and so who are able to fold the infinite movements of Nous and Physis back into one another “in such a way that the plane of immanence is ceaselessly being woven, like a gigantic shuttle.”7 Philosophy, unlikes dogmatic religions, does not paint the firmament on an umbrella, rather it “[tears] open the firmament and [plunges] into the chaos.”8 As we will see, however, philosophy’s role is to not only to descend into the underworld, but to return with the good news.
Whitehead, for his part, has Jamesian tendencies that would at first glance seem to ally his philosophical efforts to the pragmatic interests of commonsense. “The philosophy of organism,” he wrote, “is an attempt, with the minimum of critical adjustment, to return to the concepts of ‘the vulgar.’”9 Whitehead made this comment in the context of a skeptical attack on behalf of commonsense experience mounted against the mechanistic abstractions of Newton (who dismissed the mathematically-naïve sense-based opinions of “the vulgar”) and the transcendental abstractions of Kant (who opposed derivative sensory appearances to ultimate substantial reality). Whitehead was well aware of the danger of hyperbole.10 In this case, however, it seems he fell prey to the danger of understatement. The “critical adjustment” his cosmology requires of the opinions of modern people can hardly be described as “minimal.” By the time Whitehead has finished his adventure in cosmologizing, not only will God have become creaturely, but energy vectors will have been transformed into emotional currents and atoms will have been endowed with life. Further, the very substance of the soul, the continuity of personal identity, will have become but a precariously linked “route of presiding occasions…[wandering] from part to part of the brain,” always vulnerable to dislocations and interruptions which “in primitive times [were] interpreted as demoniac possession.”11 Rather than having been made in heaven by God and beginning life fully-formed and eternally the same, the soul comes to matter to us precisely because it is what is always at risk, “what might be captured, reduced to wandering, enslaved.”12 No longer given as one, already whole, the soul becomes a social value to be achieved, a swarming community of larval subjects needing to be repeatedly composed or concresced out of the chaosmic raw materials of life (i.e., intensive percepts and affects). “Being a soul” in Whitehead’s process ontology is deeply problematic, even dangerous, because one never simply is but must become-soul. “Losing one’s hold [going mad],” in the context of Whitehead’s psychology, “becomes…the paradigmatic disaster, or else…the precondition of any initiation or any spiritual transformation.”13 It would seem that neither the traditional theologian nor the classical physicist, much less the average modern business owner, government employee, or homemaker, could feel at home in such a strange Whiteheadian universe! Both Deleuze and Whitehead generated concepts rooted in non-ordinary problematics, which is to say that the solutions distilled by their concepts problematize naïve egoic subjectivity by acting as alchemical catalysts that alter not only the contents of conscious thoughts, but the unconscious imaginative background of thought itself, thereby repositioning thinking on some as yet undetected plane of immanence. They are hermetic thinkers whose philosophizing sought not rational explanation, but the instigation of worldly renewal and the intensification of the depth of aesthetic experience. It is important in this context to forge connections between their efforts to creatively transform commonsense experience and the wider projects of establishing coherent social values and just political institutions. Deleuze’s philosophy has been criticized for being “politically irrelevant” by Peter Hallward due to its perceived “otherworldliness.”14 Isabelle Stengers has also criticized Deleuze’s tendency to celebrate the adventures of solitary, heroic creators who fearlessly dive into chaos while at the same time downplaying the conditions provided by their habitat and their inevitable need for social recuperation upon returning to consensual reality:
…all creators have learned [what] makes them able to “dive” without being swallowed. A dive cannot be improvised, but demands equipment. Unlike those who may happen to “sink” into chaos, creators are those who know what they experience “matters,” and that they will be able to recount something of what has happened to them, that is to come back…even from the land of the dead.15
Stengers’ contrasts Deleuze’s celebration of unhinged creativity with Whitehead’s tremendous respect for history and continual emphasis upon the importance of acquiring new habits in a way that is sensitive to the habitat they depend upon. “Each task of creation,” writes Whitehead, “is a social effort, employing the whole universe.”16 While Hallward’s claim may or may not be justified, Stengers’ modest Whiteheadian corrective to Deleuze’s penchant for skinny dipping in the Acheron allows us to receive much insight and inspiration from the latter without forgetting the perhaps more pertinent imperative of the former regarding the worldly responsibility of the philosopher:
…[to] seek the evidence for that conception of the universe which is the justification for the ideals characterizing the civilized phases of human society.17
When it comes to the influence of the mainline religious traditions of the West upon philosophy, both Whitehead and Deleuze lob devastating rebukes. Whitehead’s ire is almost always directed at the “idolatrous” habit of conceiving of God along the lines of an all-powerful imperial ruler or distant unmoved mover.18 “Religion,” writes Whitehead, “has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination.”19 Deleuze also mocks the idea of a “great despot” or “imperial State in the sky or on earth” typical of monotheistic commonsense.20 While this particular habit of religious thought is deemed dispensable, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison religious values outright, despite calls by the modern-minded to found civilization instead upon the abstractions of mechanistic science:
Unfortunately for this smug endeavor to view the universe as the incarnation of the commonplace, the impact of aesthetic, religious, and moral notions is inescapable. They are the disrupting and the energizing forces of civilization.21
In particular, Whitehead points to the “Galilean origin of Christianity” as an example of a non-despotic religious persona: Christ. Christ “neither rules, nor is unmoved,” but “dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.”22 Deleuze also singles out Christian philosophy, both for praise and for disparagement. Those pre-modern Christian philosophers (like Cusa, Eckhart, and Bruno) who were bold enough to challenge church authority and risk their lives by injecting at least a dose of immanence into Physis and Nous still refused in the end to “compromise the transcendence of a God to which immanence must be attributed only secondarily.”23 Later modern Christian philosophers (like Pascal and Kierkegaard), though they were still men of faith, created concepts that recharged, rather than diminished, immanence. They were
concerned no longer with the transcendent existence of God but only with the infinite immanent possibilities brought by the one who believes that God exists.24
Deleuze suggests that, in the modern period, belief replaced knowledge as the dominant image of thought.25 The “will to truth” that had guided philosophy for so long lost its viability, as with the new technical power of modernity came also a crippling epistemic skepticism, an inability to grasp truth outright. No longer could the productivity of thought be “guaranteed in advance by the inherent connection between the good and the true”; rather, Deleuze believed that philosophical thought in the modern period required “trespass and violence,” treating the thinker of thought not as a trustworthy friend, but as an enemy.26 Truth is now to be inferred at best, tracked with suspicion but without certainty. The new plane of belief is not simply destructive or crippling, however: it is also the condition for the possibility of new forms of mental and physical experience. As with the Christian thinkers of immanence, Deleuze emphasized the “unforeseeable directions of thought and practice” that belief makes possible, directions to be judged not based on the object of a belief, but on a belief’s effect.27 A related feature of modern philosophy for Deleuze results from thought’s encounter and struggle with the unrepresentable natural forces underlying perceptual and affective experience, forces which paradoxically “must but cannot be thought.”28 Given modern thought’s confrontation with the infinite forces of the universe, its concepts can no longer be understood to represent a stable reality or to mirror a harmonious nature; rather, “what matters…in an idea is…the range of experimental possibility it opens onto.”29
Whitehead shares with Deleuze a sense for the importance of experimental thinking. In the context of religious experimentation, asking whether or not God really exists becomes irrelevant. What becomes important is the sort of thoughts and practices that belief in God makes possible for the believer, and for the society to which the believer belongs. “The power of God,” writes Whitehead, “is the worship He inspires.”30 “The fact of the religious vision,” he continues,
and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.31
The “religious vision,” as Whitehead understands it, “gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension,” providing life with “something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.”32 The vision, though aesthetically and emotionally ultimate, cannot be monopolized by the limited doctrines of any religion in particular. It can be said, however, that the rising or falling tide of each religious tradition through the ages depends upon the ability of its concepts, symbols, rituals, myths, architecture, and personae (etc.) to inspire worship in such a way that the intuition of God is called forth naturally from spiritual recesses deeper than can be rationally understood.33 The psychology of modern civilization, from Whitehead’s point of view, has little patience for the traditional image of God as an omnipotent dictator. In this respect, such images are “fatal,” since “religion collapses unless its main positions command immediacy of assent.”34
More often than any religious image per say, Deleuze’s target is the illusion of transcendence as such, which results whenever we “[interpret immanence] as immanent to Something.”35 The illusion of transcendence resonates with 3 other illusions, or “thought mirages”: 1) universality, which results when the immanent planomenon is conceived as immanent “to” a concept, 2) eternity, which results when we forget that concepts must be created and are not waiting in the sky for thinkers to discover, and 3) discursiveness, which results when concepts are reduced to logical propositions.36 These illusions become a thick fog obscuring the plane of immanence, condemning the philosophical and religious thinker alike to continually grasp after immanence as though it might be made immanent “to” something, whether it be “the great Object of contemplation [the neo-Platonic One], the Subject of reflection [the Kantian transcendental subject], or the Other subject of communication [the Husserlian intersubjective transcendental].”37 The plane of immanence cannot itself be thought, since it provides the very condition for thought.38 Whenever a thinker believes he has thought the plane, we can be sure he has only contemplated, reflected, or communicated an idol.
The pure immanence of the philosophical planomenon can be likened to the friend, i.e., Wisdom, She who provides the condition for the possibility of philosophy.39 The friend is the paradigmatic “conceptual persona” of philosophy. Conceptual personae, according to Deleuze, have a “somewhat mysterious…hazy existence halfway between concept and preconceptual plane, passing from one to the other.”40 In the case of the friend, it must be asked what it could mean to become friendly if the friend had not once been, and could not become again, a stranger. On the philosophical planomenon, the friend and the stranger, the thought and its thinker, never engage in discussion with one another. Discussion is useless to philosophy, since all a discussion implies is that concepts have been mistaken for propositions, as if they could be deliberately expressed in sentence form (the illusion of discursiveness).41 Once the discursive mirage has captured a thinker, thought can only circle about itself in dialectical pursuit of a shallow truth extracted from the agonism of opinion.42 The more interesting dialectics end in aporia (Plato’s aporietic dialogues and Kant’s table of antinomies); or even more interestingly, they swallow up opposed opinions into the absolute as necessary moments in the historical unfolding of the eternal concept (Hegel). But there can be no dialectic that resolves itself in absolute identity–this would mean the end of philosophy (which is why Hegel claimed no longer to be a philosopher, but to have become wise). Both the friend and the stranger are necessary illusions for philosophy: philosophy, in other words, “requires this division of thought between [friend and stranger].” The philosophical creator of concepts must remain divided against himself at the same time that he befriends the image of thought projected in the division. The progress of philosophy depends upon a philosopher’s willingness to dwell within (without becoming immanent “to”) continual crises of agonism and reconciliation, meeting therein a proliferation of strange friends and friendly strangers. Deleuze writes:
It is as if the struggle against chaos does not take place without an affinity with the enemy, because another struggle develops and takes on more importance–the struggle against opinion, which claims to protect us from chaos itself.43
To dwell in crisis is no easy task. But this is the task required of a modern thinker, especially a Christian philosopher who has accepted the risks of thinking God’s immanence. To secularize the concept of God, as Whitehead and Deleuze demand, is to uncover “thought’s relationship with the earth,”44 to dig up what has been buried beneath the foggy illusions of transcendence estranging humanity from its home. To think with the earth is still a creative act; but it is also a matter of recovery, or resurrection, and of uncovering, or apocalypse.45
Christian philosophy’s paradigmatic conceptual persona is Christ, “the Word” who “became flesh and dwelt among us.”46 At first blush, He may seem, like other personae, to possess a less than incarnate, hazy existence somewhere between the immanence of the plane (matter/earth) and the transcendence of the concept (spirit/heaven). As John said, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”47:––Traditional theology has all too often emphasized Christ’s transcendence, making Him more spirit than human (and making humanity more sinful than blessed).
Despite His initially ghostly outline, Christ’s ideality cannot be understood to be in any way abstract: He is rather an (the?) intercessor, the seed of a peculiarly Christian mode of thinking. “A particular conceptual persona,” writes Deleuze, “who perhaps did not exist before us, thinks in us.”48 Of Christ it is said that He both was in the beginning before us and will be in the end after us. His omnipresence lays out a uniquely immanent image of thought based on incarnation. The Christian plane of immanence demands a creation of concepts whose central problematic, or spiritual ordeal, is death, and whose solution, should it be realized, is an earthly form of resurrection. The Christian planomenon is unique because it is founded upon the birth, death, and resurrection of God on earth, which is to say it depends upon the possibility of the becoming-immanent of transcendence itself. Only then can the Christian thinker become inhabited by living thinking. “My old self,” writes Paul,
has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.49
Like the philosophical friend, Christ’s teachings can appear strange. “I tell you,” He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”50 How can an earthly human being–normatively tied to family, friend, race, and nation–possibly live up to such an impossible, indeed infinite, demand? It is a demand that does violence to opinion and breaks with all commonsense. Nonetheless, this demand provides the peculiarly Christian problematic, an ordeal whose resolution requires becoming-incarnate, and thereby participating in bringing about an as yet unrealized providential plan(e), “on earth, as it is in heaven.”51 This is the strangeness of the “Galilean origin” of Christianity mentioned by Whitehead, where the transcendent power of divine coercion is replaced by the immanent love of divine persuasion. While Whitehead did not believe it possible, or even desirable, to construct a doctrinal unity out of the world’s diversity of religions, he did believe
that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook.52
In other words, while humanity will certainly continue to disagree as to the particular qualitative aspects of religious facts and their proper moral interpretations, some coordination of these facts along a single plane of immanence may at least be attempted. Whitehead’s cosmological candidate for the ultimate religious theme is Divine Eros. His philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” 53 Given humanity’s recently seized god-like powers of technology, sustaining our planetary civilization would seem to depend upon the realization of such a secular “earth ethos.” Our civilization is in dire need of a world-renewing metaphysical consensus regarding the divine nature. If we are unable to believe in the divinity of the world, our collective behavior runs the risk destroying that world. The spirit of religion, though it is from time to time “explained away, distorted, and buried,” has never once entirely left us, according to Whitehead, “since the travel of mankind towards civilization.”54 Whenever religion takes flight from worldly concerns, it is the sure sign of a world nearing its end.
Whitehead traces the gradual realization of the concept of divine immanence through a “threefold revelation” stretching approximately twelve hundred years: 1) it begins in Athens with a intellectual innovation by Plato, 2) then passes into Jerusalem where the person of Jesus Christ exemplified the apocalyptic (ἀποκάλυψις- to “un-cover”) power of Plato’s concept, 3) and finally it culminates in a metaphysical interpretation of these events generated during the formative period of Christian theology.55
Whitehead regularly praises Plato’s depth of intuition. Just as often, he admits Plato’s failure to achieve a coherent overall statement of his conceptual scheme: “the greatest metaphysician, the poorest systematic thinker.”56 It is for one concept in particular, though, that Whitehead was lead to crown Plato “the wisest of men”: the idea that
the divine persuasion [Eros] is the foundation of the order of the world, but that it could only produce such a measure of harmony as amid brute forces [Chaos] it was possible to accomplish.57
It was this idea, conceived in principle by Plato, that the person of Jesus Christ was to reveal in actual deed. Though the historical records of His life are scattered and inconsistent, “there can be no doubt,” writes Whitehead, “as to what elements…have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:
The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory.58
Finally, it was the early Church fathers who made the first sustained effort to grope towards a coherent account of God’s persuasive agency in the world.59 The major fruit of their labor was the doctrine of the trinity (the mutual immanence of the theos-anthropos-cosmos multiplicity); more specifically, their most important contribution was the direct statement of the divine immanence in the world in the third person of the trinity. Unfortunately, despite this theological statement, the Church fathers failed to attain adequate metaphysical generality because they still exempted an infinite God from the categories applicable to the finite actual occasions involved in the becoming of the spatiotemporal world.60 Like Plato in many of his written dialogues, they were unable to disavow the notion of a derivative physical world poorly imitating the Ideas eternally realized in the mind of a disincarnate God.
Deleuze’s work has been read as an attempt to “overturn” Plato.61 In any attempt to “overturn” Plato it should be remembered that little more is required than continuing to “turn over” Plato–as in continuing to turn over the pages of his dialogues to be reminded that, like Whitman, he is large and contains multitudes.62 As Emerson put it:
the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him.63
Plato was equal parts poet and philosopher. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Reading him, like reading the metaphysical experiments of Whitehead or Deleuze, is an infinite interpretive activity. For Whitehead, the entire history of European philosophy can be safely characterized as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”64 This despite the fact that Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language.” “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced.65 Written words lay in their parchment graves, still, silent, and dead. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s unwritten secret teaching had something to do with the way that
ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen.66
If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato! Deleuze’s reading destroys the Platonic two-world theory of perfect ideas poorly copied by sensory images, but he is allured by Plato’s alternative conception of the idea of pure Difference. Where Aristotle reduces difference to that derived from the commonsense comparison of similars, understanding Plato requires risking the sanity of one’s mind in pursuit of the dark, difficult, and dangerous idea of Difference in itself. For Plato, individuals are not constituted by their substantial forms, or by their special determinations of a genus, as they are for Aristotle; nor is knowledge of individuals constituted by generalizations from a series. Rather, Plato’s is an ontology of singularity, where knowing an individual (be it ideal or actual) requires directly intuiting its uniquely authentic line of descent, rather than representing, identifying, or abstracting its general form. As Ramey puts it, “Knowledge is not a matter of generalization but of participation.” He continues:
The claim to participation is not simply the claim to be identified as a member of a class or token of a type. It is a claim to have passed a test or to have a basis for one’s claim. The difference between the just and the unjust, pretenders to justice and authentic stewards of justice, is not a difference between any two, but an internal and constitutive difference. It is the difference an ‘immediate fact’ of participation makes…It is the selection of an icon from within a prodigious field of idols, false images.67
The difference is initiatory, “acquired by each person on their own account.”68 That is, it has to do with undertaking the descent into the chaos of the underworld and returning to tell the tale. Philosophy without initiation would quickly turn stale and become abstract. Without stories to perform on infinite plane(s) stretching beyond the relative horizons of commonsense experience, a philosopher’s concepts cannot catch fire, nor acquire the persuasive life of personality. Once the journey into the darkness of pure Difference has been undertaken, in the difficult idea one has partaken are discovered signs of its ingression into the light of physical appearance: like a flower blooming, the idea incarnates out of earthly soil. “What man of sense,” writes Plato of his pedagogy of the concept,
would plant seeds in an artificial garden, to bring forth fruit or flowers in eight days, and not in deeper and more fitting soil?69
After the Christian-Platonic initiation, the world is transfigured into a problematic network of occult icons whose meaning can only be uncovered intuitively by the mental magic of talismanic thinking. Ideas are traced into appearances as signs, moments of discontinuity in extensive physical time-space out of which the intensive oddity of self-reference emerges.70 These recursive oddities unfold themselves into the physical plane, erupting as problematic forces requiring of the flesh-hewn mind not new representations of a supposedly extra-bodily world, but self-immolation through constant death and resurrection. Thinking is an ecstatic, violent act, always killing the neurons which support it, “making the brain a set of little deaths that puts constant death within us.”71
Deleuze’s Plato creates concepts not only iconically, but ironically, in that he never claims to represent an idea as true, but only to participate in an idea as “a way of problematizing, a manner of posing questions.”72 Deleuze pushes his Platonism as far away from any two-world caricature as possible by positing, according to Ramey,
the genesis of mind in direct encounters with imperceptible forces of perception, moments when the subtle and elusive patterns of difference and repetition animating life force the mind to interpret and even to create.73
Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s immanental reading of Christianity, along with their reading of Plato’s participatory doctrines of Persuasion and Difference, provides a world-renewing medicinal brew sorely needed in the contemporary world. Deleuze writes of the “medicinal thought” of a people to come who, according Ramey,
would, at an eschatological limit, have passed beyond the segmentation of knowledge in art, science, and philosophy in some as-yet-unrealized integral life of knowledge, such as that long dreamt of in the esoteric tradition of mathesis universalis.74
For Deleuze, mathesis is “a thinking of incarnation and individuality,”75 a form of symbolic knowing that allows for the discovery (and creation) of life’s (and death’s) deepest secrets. Knowledge of life’s individuating tendency, its power to repeatedly differ from itself, reveals how “the whole [can symbolize] itself in each individual.”76 Initiation into such knowledge would not only empower individual decision and action, but could rejuvenate the social and political life of civilization. We await the people to come who will be capable of completing creation through the incarnation of this Christogenic “body without organs.”77 “If you want to make a new start in religion,” writes Whitehead, “you must be content to wait a thousand years.”78
1 Perhaps even post-apocalyptic. See Sam Mickey’s attempt to “compost” the territorialized “postal discourses” of disintegral thought in his dissertation, Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology, (2012), 321cf [http://search.proquest.com/docview/1017705422?accountid=25260 (accessed 12/17/2012)].
2 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), 207.
3 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 74.
4 Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012), 2.
5 See Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6: There exists a “general academic-philosophical prejudice against the threatening proximity of intuitive, mystical, or even simply more emotional modes of mind to the cold calculations of pure reason…”
6 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 42.
7 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 38, 89, 177.
8 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 202.
9 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 72.
10 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 7: “The chief error in philosophy is overstatement.”
11 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 107-109.
12 Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 443.
13 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 443.
14 Peter Hallward, Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006); quoted in Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 226n9.
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 272.
16 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 275.
17 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 105.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
19 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 192. The contemplative conception of God as unmoved mover is obviously not as crude; what it lacks is the emotional and moral intensity required to engender religious vision.
20 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 43.
21 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 19.
22 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
23 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 45.
24 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74.
25 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 53.
26 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton(London: Continuum, 1994/2004), 139.
27 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 13.
28 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16.
29 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 16-17.
30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.
31 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 193.
32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191-192.
33 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 133.
34 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 191.
35 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 45.
36 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 49-50.
37 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 51.
38 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 37.
39 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 3.
40 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 61.
41 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 22, 28.
42 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 79.
43 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 203.
44 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
45 These Christological concepts can be read in parallel to Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical concepts of “reterritorialization” and “deterritorialization” (What Is Philosophy?, 69-70).
46 John 1:14.
47 John 1:5.
48 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 69.
49 Galations 2:20.
50 Matthew 5:44.
51 Matthew 6:10.
52 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 161.
53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343.
54 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
55 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
56 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 166.
57 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 160.
58 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167.
59 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 167-169.
60 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 169.
61 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Ch. 4: “The Overturning of Platonism,” 112cf.
62 See Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” section 51.
63 Journal entry, Oct. 1845.
64 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.
65 Ironically, of course, as Plato was himself a prolific author.
66 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006), 56n8.
67 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 118.
68 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946), 147.
69 Phaedrus, 276c-277a.
70 Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 21-22.
71 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 216; Curiously, Christian esotericist Rudolf Steiner says almost the same thing: “The chief characteristic of ordinary thinking is that each single act of thinking injures the nervous system, and above all, the brain; it destroys something in the brain. Every thought means that a minute process of destruction takes place in the cells of the brain. For this reason sleep is necessary for us, in order that this process of destruction may be made good; during sleep we restore what during the day was destroyed in our nervous system by thinking. What we are consciously aware of in an ordinary thought is in reality the process of destruction that is taking place in our nervous system” (Lecture: 1st May, 1913; http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/OccSciOccDev/19130501p01.html [accessed 12/16/2012]).
72 Deleuze and Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, 121.
73 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 125.
74 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 89.
75 Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” 143.
76 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 98.
77 Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004), 102; see also Ramey’s discussion of Cusa’s anthropocosmic Christology (The Hermetic Deleuze, 236n29).
78 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 172.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” foreword to Johann Malfatti de Montereggio, Mathesis, Or Studies on the Anarchy and Hierarchy of Knowledge (Paris: Editions Du Griffon D’Or, 1946).
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Deleuze, Gilles Difference and Repetition, transl. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 1994/2004).
Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense (London: Continuum, 1990/2004).
Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006).
Hallward, Peter. Out of this World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation (London: Verso Books, 2006).
Ramey, Joshua. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (London: Duke University Press, 2012).
Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). Whitehead, A. N. Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960).
Whitehead, A. N. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978).
Whitehead, A. N. Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961).
Whitehead, A. N. Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968).
Everyone already knows Alfred North Whitehead’s over-cited remark about all of European philosophy being but a series of footnotes to Plato. If you’ve somehow forgotten its near exact wording, just follow Plato’s upward pointing finger to the top of this blog for a reminder.
Why near exact? I left out the descriptor “European…” that comes before “…philosophical tradition,” because, well, I’m American, and in many ways, so was Whitehead’s philosophy. In terms of philosophical style, Whitehead’s was not just another European footnote being tacked on the end of Plato’s corpus. His Platonism is reformed, having its origin in a New World. Whitehead’s views on Plato’s contributions to the philosophical tradition are a pithy summation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1850 essay on Plato. For Emerson, Plato’s corpus was “The Bible of the learned for twenty-two hundred years.” He goes on:
This citizen of a town in Greece is no villager nor patriot. An Englishman reads and says, “how English!” a German- “how Teutonic!” an Italian- “how Roman and how Greek!” As they say that Helen of Argos had that universal beauty that every body felt related to her, so Plato seems to a reader in New England an American genius. His broad humanity transcends all sectional lines.
Emerson then writes of the nature of philosophical influence:
Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.
And then about the tension within Plato’s soul between philosophy and poetry:
A philosopher must be more than a philosopher. Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.
Here, Emerson follows Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) in denying the Absolute to the philosopher in order to grant it to the artist (or rather, to the philosopher-poet). Emerson himself is best described as an essayist, though through the medium of the stylistic essay, he is able to quicken the spirit of philosophy in his readers as well as any in the tradition.
Plato was also a stylist. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language…,” by which he means both spoken and written language. “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced. Written words lay in their paper graves, still, silent. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. Dialogue is impossible. Plato, of course, was a prolific writer. Were he alive today, might he be a blogger? These letters are publishable to every corner of earth in a near instant at the click of a button. They can be commented on and replied to by others just as easily. Dialogue becomes possible. But alas, the curved earth cannot be flattened onto a map, or a screen.
The Good/True/Beautiful (they are all one), for Plato, is more than a name or a definition, more than an image or even a knowledgable soul, though these, like the light of the sun, may eventually lead you back to the source. But the Ideal Reality of the One and All, Plato’s fifth thing, cannot be known with written formulas. There is no cheat sheet that can help you on a philosophy test. Esoteric philosophers always tell inside jokes: you had to be there to get it. “I gave the teaching,” says Plato, “on that one occasion and never again.”
On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s secret unwritten teaching had something to do with the way, according to Iain Hamilton Grant, that “ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen” (Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, p. 56n8). If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato!
Emerson writes of the generative tension between the One and Many:
The mind is urged to ask for one cause of many effects; then for the cause of that; and again the cause, diving still into the profound: self-assured that it shall arrive at an absolute and sufficient one,- a one that shall be all. “In the midst of the sun is the light, in the midst of the light is truth, and in the midst of truth is the imperishable being,” say the Vedas. All philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence. Urged by an opposite necessity, the mind returns from the one to that which is not one, but other or many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety, the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other. These strictly-blended elements it is the problem of thought to separate and to reconcile. Their existence is mutually contradictory and exclusive; and each so fast slides into the other that we can never say what is one, and what it is not. The Proteus is as nimble in the highest as in the lowest grounds; when we contemplate the one, the true, the good,- as in the surfaces and extremities of matter.
Reading Plato is an infinite interpretive activity. So is reading Whitehead. Perhaps infinite interpretability is the mark of a philosopher-poet. Richard E. Jones here offers a reading of Plato and of Whitehead, qualifying their allegiance, perhaps only because his reading of Plato is superficial. But Jones’ discussion of Plato’s notion of the Receptacle is rather insightful. In Whitehead, this notion is only slightly reshaped to become the ultimate category of his own metaphysical scheme: Creativity. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead writes of Plato’s Receptacle that:
at the present moment, physical science is nearer to it than at any period since
Plato’s death. The space-time of modern mathematical physics, conceived in
abstraction from the particular mathematical formulae which applies to the
happenings in it, is almost exactly Plato’s Receptacle (192-193).
The Receptacle is closely connected, for Plato, to both place (topos) and space (chora). It is also nearly identified by both Plato and Whitehead with the World-Soul. It is the living matrix within which the universe experience itself as a diversifying unity. It is a difficult concept to grasp. The difficulty is made plainly evident in Jones’ discussion, towards the end of his essay (p. 12-13), on Whitehead’s attempt to envision the concrescence of the divine by way of an integration of its primordial and consequent natures:
The general tone [of the last chapter of Process and Reality, “God and the World”] becomes more poetical than analytical and, despite the many
differences between these two philosophers, often reflects the similar instances in Plato where the metaphorical and poetic serve to engage one’s imagination in an aesthetic rather than elucidatory manner.