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

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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

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

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.

The following is an essay written for a weekend course taught by philosopher Jacob Needleman on Meister Eckhart the 26th and 27th of February 2011.


Meister Eckhart, Philosophy, and the Soul

By Matthew Segall

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win,

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,

To let the warm Love in!

Ode to Psyche by John Keats

When Love said that word, my soul mellted and flowed away. Where he comes in, I must go out!

-Meister Eckhart summarizing the Song of Solomon (5:2-7)

“When thought races ahead of Being,” writes philosopher Jacob Needleman, “a civilization is racing toward destruction” (WIG, p. 19). It takes a genuine philosopher to voice such a prescient insight, a being rare among mortals who for better or worse has awakened to his or her participation in the ancient current of world-historical becoming. Practicing philosophy requires more than contemplation, and more than learning. It is also an art: that of thinking (noiesis) and speaking (poeisis) the truth of Being.

To philosophize, one must first have tasted the stillness of eternity abiding within the soul, a treasure hidden deep beneath the ephemeral garments of space and time. The philosopher has felt the breath of God upon her ears and, upon hearing its wisdom, is overcome with love and possessed by the duty to convey its meaning to others. Nevertheless, despite all brushes with divinity, the philosopher remains adrift in an inherited stream of collective unconsciousness, a mortal destined to die like any other.

Philosophers are responsible for shaping the further course of earth evolution by informing and reminding Human Being of Divine and Cosmic Being. The life of the philosopher, at least traditionally, has been guided by the love of wisdom, even unto death. Unfortunately, these days universities employ more scholars of philosophy than philosophers. But no matter: wisdom always finds a way to be heard.

The short essay to follow will record my philosophical participation in what John Keats called “soul-making.” This, according to Keats, is the lost-sight-of purpose of the world, the reason for the body’s trials in time and sufferings in space. Spirit needs a home, but cannot dwell in matter alone. It is the poetic soul who prepares its abode. Both a sincere love for the True, the Beautiful, and the Good, and the sermons of the medieval sage Meister Eckhart, will guide me along the textual path to follow.

The crisis of our civilization is bigger than politics or ecology, more deep-seated than a new policy initiative or technological invention could hope to overcome. Any sufficiently sensitive soul must already have confronted the existential void at the heart of our techno-industrial civilization’s demented cosmology. As a sensitive soul and an aspiring philosopher, I’m compelled to pursue solutions to our collective situation not by offering new ideas or forms of thought, but by provoking new modes of consciousness.

Before I can begin to think and feel with Eckhart, a few distinctions must be drawn: 1) that between ideas about reality and real wisdom, and 2) that between the mind and the soul.

1) The mind is interested in the active manipulation and production of worldly things and ideas, while 2) the soul is called to the timeless task of becoming inwardly silent—without thinking or acting or entertaining any idea (ME, p. 96).  This silence, according to Eckhart, is not an end in itself, but is done in preparation for the birth of the Word of God within us, which is but another name for wisdom. In short, the mind thinks about reality, employing a multitude of ideas to mediate its encounter, while the soul patiently labors to beget the Real within itself.

The philosopher Owen Barfield once echoed Needleman’s warning for our civilization: “We are no longer capable of thinking deeply, because we think too quickly” (WA, p. 67). What is needed is a participatory and heart-centered, rather than an alienated and skeptical way of engaging the unknown depths of Being. The philosopher cannot hold the mystery of life at theoretical distance, but must approach questions concerning the essence of existence with the quality of gentle intimacy that Keats called “Negative Capability”: dwelling in uncertainty without rushing to cover over its ambiguities. Contemplation of God is the soul’s source of meaning, and while definite answers about the Ultimate may remain forever elusive, it is the act of asking—of opening oneself to the procreativity of Godthat may produce the desired transformation.

“Since the soul itself does not know, it wonders” says Eckhart, “and, wondering, it seeks, for the soul knows very well that something is afoot, even though it does not know how or what” (ME, p. 100).

Though it cannot see what it seeks, since vision always reaches out beyond it to external things, the soul retains “the power to hear the eternal word within” (ME, p. 108). The eye is the organ of the searching mind, while the ear is the agent of the loving heart.

Perhaps Eckhart’s most important teaching concerns the difference between the passivity of the ear and the activity of the eye. Though the soul is largely ignorant of what it nonetheless is intrinsically compelled to seek, such “divine unconsciousness” pacifies the soul of its pretensions, quieting all its faculties so that I may “discover the birth of God’s Son” within myself (ME, p. 107-108). The human soul’s passivity “is the chief of [its] actions,” while God “should both be active and passive in order that he may know and love himself in the soul, and the soul may know as he knows and love as he loves” (.ibid). Though “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18), the ears of an open-hearted soul make room for God’s Word to transform all the agents of the soul, so that “the eye with which God sees me” becomes “the same with which I see God” (Sermon IV). Creature and creator here unite in “one sight, one knowledge, and one life.”

Eckhart was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. As we have seen, he taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the restless activity of the desiring soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word to a receptive heart. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul—a recess to which there is no avenue of approach” (ME, p. 109).

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words—even to our own innermost nature. Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult—nay, impossible!to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Word who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already in eternity. The difference between will and grace, between works and salvation, is here resolved. There is nothing to be done about Christ, because there is no time to do it. The Spirit is present when I am it, and absent when I’m not. Heaven requires no work, but nor is it bestowed by grace from beyond. Every human being already takes part in the immortal life as a being existing by virtue of Being, if only he might remember.

Socrates once said that philosophy is learning to die. Eckhart’s way of soul-making is to overcome death with love: “Death separates the soul from the body but love separates everything from the soul. It cannot endure anything anywhere that is not God or God’s” (ME, p. 124). Eckhart points us to the core of our soul, where God takes on the burdens and beauties of human nature so long as we are able to die to our personal selves for the love of others, whether foreign or familiar (ME, p. 126). Death is crucifixion upon the axes of space and time, but heaven is touched by neither: “The course of heaven is outside time—and yet time comes from its movements” (ME, p. 131).

What sort of teaching is it that demands we “be dead to everything” (ME, p. 132) to participate in divinity? Eckhart is not interested in knowledge about God generated by ideas in the mind; he seeks the wisdom of God granted only through transformation of soul. Curiosity concerning the creaturely things of time and space leads in many interesting directions, but it cannot lead to the Love and Wisdom of God, since to these there is no approach or access. An inward rebirth is necessary before the “secret spring” of the soul can give birth to Christ, the Word of God (ME, p. 127). This change is produced by the death of the ego to all things of this world, so as to love them each with disinterested equality. God is in all things, but the body-bound mind does not see the Spirit dwelling in the world because it cannot hear the voice of the Son amidst the noise of its many desires (ME, p. 131).

This teaching is harder than hell, but God sends messengers to aid us along the impossible path. Angels are the ideas of God, and born in our mind they bear the message of his coming. Part of their divine message is the identity of being and knowing, which for thousands of years has been the founding principle of the philosophical pursuit. But, as Eckhart reminds us, God’s being is transcendent, and so cannot be known by any mental faculty. The soul that, with the help of angelic persuasion, has discovered a likeness to God in the primal purity of its core, “where everything that can be named is sloughed off,” comes to the only knowledge of the divine that is possible: that by way of identification (ME, p. 142).

Eckhart reminds us of the teaching of the Scriptures, which points to three factors preventing a person from knowing anything about God: time, materiality, and multiplicity (ME, p. 151). Of course, learning to remember our likeness to God may still take time, as when fire tries to burn wood, the wood must be progressively warmed to the point of smoking and crackling before giving up entirely to the fire, since the two are at first so dissimilar (ME, p. 152). The materiality of language, both spoken and written, may also be an aid along the way to inner transformation. Just as the Word took on flesh to commune with humanity more intimately, thoughts must be uttered and recorded in the idiom of the day so as to convey the way of God to a soul whose agents are initially turned toward the world. The Word must first meet humankind in the world if it wishes to lead us toward heaven.

The soul is more a potential than a given perfection. Its magic must be made, its sacred soil cultivated by good will and faith in the beauty of truth before its divine destiny can flower. “Soul-making” is nothing less than the task of birthing God on earth, one individual at a time. Eckhart’s insights are an invaluable source of guidance for those on the path of transformation. He is a true metaphysician, offering healing prescriptions for those seeking that which lies beyond. And yet, he also points us to what is already at hand: “God is nearer to me than I am to myself” (ME, p. 129).


1) Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation translated by Raymond B. Blakney (1941)

2) What Is God by Jacob Needleman (2009)

3) Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield (2010)

For a little more than a week now, I’ve been engaging with Graham Harman‘s object-oriented approach to philosophy. I’m intrigued, but not yet convinced by his tactics. I still have questions about access, about epistemology. How do I know anything about mind-independent objects if their essence remains infinitely hidden? I’m forced to rely upon analogy, the most important tool in the Hermeticist‘s repertoire. All knowledge comes through analogy, as all things are connected, not directly, but analogically. It is metaphor that carries the mind beyond itself to the inner life of things. Harman recognizes this, as well, going so far as to suggest that not just the human mind, but things themselves come into contact with others by way of analogical relationship.

The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. He taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the ideation and imagination of the desirous soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul–a recess to which there is no avenue of approach.”

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words–even to our own innermost nature. And yet, there is a state of transformed consciousness which grants us participation in that of which and by which we are always being made. Like Harman’s objects, whose molten core recedes forever from view, Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult–nay, impossible!–to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Son of God who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already. We cannot grasp the inner life of things, because it lives already within us. Knowledge of things themselves, then, depends upon knowledge of ourselves (which is also knowledge, or love, of God).

Perhaps there is still a trace of occationalism in Harman… or at least, perhaps I cannot understand his tactics without God’s help.

“The saints see in God an idea, and in that idea all things are comprehended–and the same is true of God, who sees everything in himself.”

Eckhart continues:

“There is Truth at the core of the soul but it is covered up and hidden from the mind, and as long as that is so there is nothing the mind can do to come to rest, as it might if it had an unchanging point of reference. The mind never rests but must go on expecting and preparing for what is yet to be known and what is still concealed. Meanwhile, man cannot know what God is, even though he be ever so well aware of what God is not…As long as it has no reference point, the mind can only wait as matter waits for form. And matter can never find rests except in form; so, too, the mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it–the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause.”

Excerpts from Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation by Raymond B. Blakney