I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).
The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:
The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.
During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.
The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.
This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.
Recommended reading prior to course start date:
1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)
2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)
Sharing an email response to a question I received about the possibility of explaining human consciousness computationally, and whether such explanations might be compatible with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual science.
I do not think the computational paradigm has much to teach us about the sort of Sophianic consciousness Steiner attempted to unveil. I summarized my thoughts on this in an essay back in 2012: https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/03/15/thinking-with-steiner-beyond-the-brain-reflections-on-my-bildung-and-the-philosophy-of-freedom/
The computational paradigm does have something to teach us, but it is not what proponents of computationalism may intend. What it teaches us, I think, is that human consciousness and the thinking activity at its root cannot possibly be understood as a merely computational or algorithmic operation, or as information-processing. If our consciousness was explainable as computation, then we would not be here to understand the explanation. We’d be robots who only talk as if they are conscious, as neuroscientist Michael Graziano suggests (I address his views and the computational paradigm more generally in my recent journal article on the place of consciousness in the physical world).
Thinking is a spiritual activity, an intuitive and transformational process, not merely the rearrangement or exchange of information between fixed transistor nodes in a finite network architecture. In other words, thinking is something we know from the inside and freely, not something that can be measured, objectified, or programmed. Even self-programming computers/machine learning algorithms cannot reproduce human consciousness. Human consciousness gives rise to such insights as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Heidegger’s Dasein, and Berkeley philosopher Hubert Dreyfus’ brilliant refutation of computational cognitive science in light of existential phenomenology (See his famous book What Computers Can’t Do, as well as the follow up, What Computers Still Cannot Do).
Human consciousness or Anthroposophia, like all spiritual entities, is an animate, intelligent, compassionate presence striving to participate in the further evolution of the world-process. Computers might be able to (re)program themselves, but they will never be conscious or be capable of thinking, never have aims other than those given them by their programmers. Computers are a product of thinking, not the other way around.
That said, the more we surround ourselves by screens and computer algorithms, the more our thinking becomes machine-like, the more we begin to imagine ourselves and other people as mere automatons. Thinking is not easy. Emerson as well as Steiner agreed that thinking is the hardest task in the world. But it is the task of our age.
Below is the draft of a foreword I’ve coauthored with Robert McDermott. The book, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World by Mario Betti, should be out later this year via Hawthorn Press. Betti’s book builds fruitfully upon the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. You can read Steiner’s original lectures on the topic of the 12 human worldviews here: https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA151/English/RSP1991/HCT991_index.html
Foreword to Mario Betti, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World
By Robert McDermott and Matthew T. Segall
February 4, 2019
Rudolf Steiner was one of the 20th century’s few true Renaissance men. While modern science, art, religion, politics, and philosophy continued to fall into increasing specialization, fragmentation, deconstruction, and narrow-minded conflict, Steiner labored tirelessly to create new integral approaches to education, agriculture, medicine, architecture, social reform, banking, visual and performance art, esotericism, and more, all inspired by a deep commitment to humanity’s spiritual potential. Mario Betti, a lifelong practitioner of Steiner’s anthroposophical method, has written a book that succeeds not only in its clear interpretation of a sometimes enigmatic thinker’s ideas but in its brilliant amplifications and applications of these ideas to our present day circumstances.
Betti offers his book as a stimulus or seed to support the growth of a still fledgling pluralistic society. Achieving a planetary humanity guided by freedom and love out of the ashes of the modern pathologies of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism, oligarchism, and terrorism (the list goes on) will require more than a shallow, relativistic multiculturalism that settles for mere tolerance. Betti draws on Goethe to remind us that tolerance can only be a temporary position. Genuine pluralism, Betti shows, requires more than toleration: it requires a willingness to engage the whole of our being in deep communication with and mutual affirmation of other worldviews. We must strive to reach across our differences through an inner development that is capable of seeing their holistic interdependence. Betti’s amplification of Steiner’s twelve worldviews is a profound aid in this effort of inner development. Significantly, it shows the dignity and merit of each way of seeing the world at the same time that it reveals the danger of exclusivism. Every worldview becomes false the moment it claims to be the whole of the world.
Albert William Levy’s Philosophy and the Modern World, a particularly expert and readable account of 20th century philosophies, summarizes our present situation well:
…philosophical movements of the recent past are to be viewed as waves of successive reform beating upon an infinite shore, with each group of partisans committed to a conception of philosophy which assure them a virtual monopoly of its legitimate practice.… And to pragmatists, logical empiricists, and linguistic analysts alike, any alternative conception of what philosophy is rests upon a tragic mistake.1
Who would dare an attempt to overcome such differences of opinion, each supported by knowledge and powerful arguments? An ideal candidate would be a teacher whose thinking is lifted by creative pedagogy and artistic imagination. Mario Betti would appear to be such a teacher. Every page of this book reveals an author who teaches thinking as a contribution to individual lives, to relationships, and to a sane society. He is invested not in scoring philosophical points but rather in helping his readers cope with intellectual confusion and conflict.
Betti succeeds in his purpose by giving a positive account of twelve worldviews. He takes as his model Goethe who held in one view both universal harmony and plurality (8). We are led to appreciate that each worldview is convincing up to a point. His treatment of Idealism, for example, invites the reader to see that all reality is, or at least emerges from, ideas, from a realm that Plato described so convincingly. But then Betti draws on Aristotle, an equally brilliant and equally influential philosopher, to show the need for a more positive account of particulars, whether moments, thoughts, or objects. Betti refers to this combination of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy as Realism, the philosophy that occupies the topmost spot on the philosophical compass (more on this below).
In a similar way, the way of showing polarities, Betti makes a case for Rationalism, the philosophy of ethical order and proportion, and then shows how it virtually solicits its polar complement, the philosophy of Dynamism: structure needs process to be effective and process, in order to avoid chaos, needs structure. As an introvert needs at least a little extroversion to get through the day, and as melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments need at least a touch of choleric and sanguine temperaments, so does Psychism, a philosophy ready-made for psychology, need a little Phenomenalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the reality of external objects and events but is not sufficiently affirmative of the interior depths of the soul. “Psychism is the inner version of phenomenalism” (110). These pairs, furthermore, are not only complementary, as in two static halves that make a whole; rather, they need and benefit each other but also oppose each other—like individual and community, inner and outer, and of course, like gender. The twelve views are also like gender in that they exist not only as pairs of clearly demarcated opposites but as a spectrum with fluid boundaries, a perspective that contemporary social justice movements have made increasingly clear (134).
In addition to an emphasis on the conflict of worldviews, Betti emphasizes the importance of mutually enhancing polarities: “Each worldview is both a genuine opposite and an enhancement of its opposite” (110). By plunging downward into the domain of gravity, the Materialist worldview has produced marvels of human understanding like the periodic table of elements, just as the Spiritualist worldview has revealed its own “’levitating’ periodic table of spiritual elements”: the angelic hierarchies (151). While Materialism risks digging itself ever deeper into the sand like a crab, Spiritualism risks fleeing the Earth entirely. Such polar tensions are the engine of the evolutionary adventure that has produced all that we see around us and feel within us.
As was mentioned above, despite insisting on the equal value of each of the twelve views, Betti follows Steiner in giving pride of place to Realism. “All worldviews rest like a bud within [it],” as it is “the fundamental human outlook par excellence” (197). “Cognition,” Steiner tells us in his autobiography, “is not the depiction of intrinsic being but rather the soul living its way into this intrinsic being” (quoted by Betti on 205). In other words, an act of knowing is not an internal mental representation of an external physical world; rather, knowing is a participatory event that is immanent to the world-process itself. “If knowledge did not exist,” Steiner continues, “the world would remain incomplete” (quoted by Betti on 206). This is obviously not a naïve realism: it is a higher realization rooted in Steiner’s participatory approach to knowledge and reality. This higher or participatory Realism is a developmental culmination of the other eleven worldviews, whereby through a sort of alchemical transfiguration the distinct capacities of thinking, feeling, sensing, and willing (each emphasized by their respective worldviews) are etherialized into what Betti calls “a new earth substance” (209). In this primordial etheric life substance, Betti tells us, the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome so that human consciousness can be raised and transubstantiated by the power of the Logos-Christ.
Some readers may have trouble following Betti and Steiner at this point, as these are rather mysterious matters, to say the least. But Betti’s book succeeds at least in leading all spiritually striving individuals to the point where they are able to perceive the intrinsic value of all worldviews. At that point, it is up to each of us to discover the true integral potential of our human existence. “The whole world, apart from the human being, is an enigma,” Steiner tells us. “And the human being is its solution” (quoted in Betti on 206).
1 Albert William Levy, Philosophy and the Modern World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1959), 444-45.
“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein
“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein
Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.
Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).
Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch.
“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).
The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?
In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:
“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”
Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge , The Principle of Relativity , and The Concept of Nature ) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds.
In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks.
* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).
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
Here’s my talk from the INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality conference in Telluride, CO earlier this summer. It’s titled “Participatory Spirituality in an Evolving Cosmos”
I’ll be offering this course for the second time in Fall 2018 at CIIS.edu (the semester runs from late August through mid-December). Special students and auditors are welcome to enroll! Email me at email@example.com for more information about registration.
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.
A biographical piece published in the last issue of Being Human. Special thanks to my friend Max DeArmon for making this possible. See also this essay Thinking With Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on my Bildung and the Philosophy of Freedom.
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.
Wanted to share this before going to bed. Here are a few words about “the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner” from Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction Humboldt’s Gift:
It wasn’t that I minded giving information to honest scholars, or even to young people on the make, but I just then was busy, fiercely, painfully busy–personally and impersonally busy: personally, with Renata and Denise, and Murra the accountant, and the lawyers and the judge, and a multitude of emotional vexations; impersonally, participating in the life of my country and of Western Civilization and global society (a mixture of reality and figment). As editor of an important magazine, The Ark, which would probably never come out, I was always thinking of statements that must be made and truths of which the world must be reminded. The world, identified by a series of dates (1789-1914-1917-1939) and by key words (revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo – and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died). This is all terrifically relevant. For one thing, I may as well admit that I came back to settle in Chicago with the secret motive of writing a significant work. This lethargy of mine is related to that project–I got the idea of doing something with the chronic war between sleep and consciousness that goes on in human nature. My subject, in the final Eisenhower years, was boredom. Chicago was the ideal place in which to write my master essay on Boredom. In raw Chicago you could examine the human spirit under industrialism. If someone were to arise with a new vision of Faith, Love, and Hope, he would want to understand to whom he was offering it–he would have to understand the kind of deep suffering we call boredom. I was going to try to do with boredom what Malthus and Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill or Durkheim had done with population, wealth, or the division of labor. History and temperament had put me in a peculiar position, and I was going to turn it to advantage. I hadn’t read those great modern boredom experts, Stendhal, Kierkegaard, and Baudelaire, for nothing. Over the years I had worked a lot on this essay. The difficulty was that I kept being over come by the material, like a miner by gas fumes. I wouldn’t stop, though. I’d say to myself that even Rip van Winkle had slept for only twenty years, I had gone him at least two decades better and I was determined to make the lost time yield illumination. So I kept doing advanced mental work in Chicago, and also joined a gymnasium, playing ball with commodity brokers and gentleman-hoodlums in an effort to strengthen the powers of consciousness. Then my respected friend Durnwald mentioned, kiddingly, that the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner had much to say on the deeper aspects of sleep. Steiner’s books, which I began to read lying down, made me want to get up. He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man’s souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep. This made a very deep impression on me. The truth about sleep could only be seen from the perspective of an immortal spirit. I had never doubted that I had such a thing. But I had set this fact aside quite early. I kept it under my hat. These beliefs under your hat also press on your brain and sink you down into the vegetable realm. Even now, to a man of culture like Durnwald, I hesitated to mention the spirit. He took no stock in Steiner, of course. Durnwald was reddish, elderly but powerful, thickset and bald, a bachelor of cranky habits but a kind man. He had a peremptory blunt butting even bullying manner, but if he scolded it was because he loved me–he wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. A great scholar, one of the most learned people on earth, he was a rationalist. Not narrowly rationalistic, by any means. Nevertheless, I couldn’t talk to him about the powers of a spirit separated from a body. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had simply been joking about Steiner. I was not joking, but I didn’t want to be thought a crank. I had begun to think a lot about the immortal spirit. Still, night after night, I kept dreaming that I had become the best player in the club, a racquet demon, that my backhand shot skimmed the left wall of the court and fell dead in the corner, it had so much English on it. I dreamed that I was beating all the best players–all those skinny, hairy, speedy fellows who in reality avoided playing with me because I was a dud. I was badly disappointed by the shallow interests such dreams betrayed. Even my dreams were asleep. And what about money? Money is necessary for the protection of the sleeping. Spending drives you into wakefulness. As you purge the inner film from the eye and rise into higher consciousness, less money should be required. Under the circumstances (and it should now be clearer what I mean by circumstances: Renata, Denise, children, courts, lawyers, Wall Street, sleep, death, metaphysics, karma, the presence of the universe in us, our being present in the universe itself) I had not paused to think about Humboldt, a precious friend hid in death’s dateless night, a camerado from a former existence (almost), well-beloved but dead. I imagined at times that I might see him in the life to come, together with my mother and my father…hough I was about to leave town and had much business to attend to, I decided to suspend all practical activities for one morning. I did this to keep from cracking under strain. I had been practicing some of the meditative exercises recommended by Rudolf Steiner in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. As yet I hadn’t attained much, but then my soul was well along in years and very much stained and banged up, and I had to be patient. Characteristically, I had been trying too hard, and I remembered again that wonderful piece of advice given by a French thinker: Trouve avant de cher-cher – Valery, it was. Or maybe Picasso. There are times when the most practical thing is to lie down. …
Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death. There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents–whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species–all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought. As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence – one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer–has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful! Socrates tried to soothe us, true enough. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would be again as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves. On this obligation they don’t always make good. However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the esthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that. In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium: 1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn’t seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive. By this is implied that our world-view has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects. They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects. For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. 2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever–by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of non-caring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of “words, words, words,” of “Denmark’s a prison.”
Maybe these sudden illuminations of mine were an effect of the metaphysical changes I was undergoing. Under the recent influence of Steiner I seldom thought of death in the horrendous old way. I wasn’t experiencing the suffocating grave or dreading an eternity of boredom, nowadays. Instead I often felt unusually light and swift-paced, as if I were on a weightless bicycle and sprinting through the star world. Occasionally I saw myself with exhilarating objectivity, literally as an object among objects in the physical universe. One day that object would cease to move and when the body collapsed the soul would simply remove itself. So, to speak again of the lawyers, I stood between them, and there we were, three naked egos, three creatures belonging to the lower grade of modern rationality and calculation. In the past the self had had garments, the garments of station, of nobility or inferiority, and each self had its carriage, its looks, wore the sheath appropriate to it. Now there were no sheaths and it was naked self with naked self burning intolerably and causing terror. I saw this now, in a fit of objectivity. It felt ecstatic.
I had no book to read, I took this opportunity to meditate briefly. The object I chose for meditation was a bush covered with roses. I often summoned up this bush, but sometimes it made its appearance independently. It was filled, it was dense, it was choked with tiny dark garnet roses and fresh healthy leaves. So for the moment I thought “rose,” “rose” and nothing else. I visualized the twigs, the roots, the harsh fuzz of the new growth hardening into spikes, plus all the botany I could remember: phloem xylem cambium chloroplasts soil sun water chemistry, attempting to project myself into the very plant and to think how its green blood produced a red flower. Ah, but new growth in rosebushes was always red before it turned green. I recalled very accurately the inset spiral order of rose petals, the whitey faint bloom over the red and the slow opening that revealed the germinating center. I concentrated all the faculties of my soul on this vision and immersed it in the flowers. Then I saw, next to these flowers, a human figure standing. The plant, said Rudolf Steiner, expressed the pure passionless laws of growth, but the human being, aiming at higher perfection, assumed a greater burden–instincts, desires, emotions. So a bush was a sleeping life. But mankind took a chance on the passions. The wager was that the higher powers of the soul could cleanse these passions. Cleansed, they could be reborn in a finer form. The red of the blood was a symbol of this cleansing process. But even if all this wasn’t so, to consider the roses always put me into a kind of bliss. After a while I contemplated something else. I visualized an old black iron Chicago lamp post from forty years back, the type with a lid like a bullfighter’s hat or a cymbal. Now it was night, there was a blizzard. I was a young boy and I watched from my bedroom window. It was a winter gale, the wind and snow banged the iron lamp, and the roses rotated under the light. Steiner recommended the contemplation of a cross wreathed with roses but for reasons of perhaps Jewish origin I preferred a lamp post. The object didn’t matter as long as you went out of the sensible world. When you got out of the sensible world, you might feel parts of the soul awakening that never had been awake before.
Whenever Thaxter and I met we had at least one intimate conversation. I spoke freely to him and let myself go. In spite of his eccentric nonsense, and my own, there was a bond between us. I was able to talk to Thaxter. At times I told myself that talking to him was as good for me as psychoanalysis. Over the years, the cost had been about the same. Thaxter could elicit what I was really thinking. A more serious learned friend like Richard Durnwald would not listen when I tried to discuss the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. “Nonsense!” he said. “Simply nonsense! I’ve looked into that.” In the learned world anthroposophy was not respectable. Durnwald dismissed the subject sharply because he wished to protect his esteem for me. But Thaxter said, “What is this Consciousness Soul, and how do you explain the theory that our bones are crystallized out of the cosmos itself?”
A lover in the lockup gave Renata a classic floozy opportunity for free behavior. Because of my habit of elevating such mean considerations to the theoretical level it will surprise no one that I started to think about the lawlessness of the unconscious and its independence from the rules of conduct. But it was only antinomian, not free. According to Steiner, true freedom lived in pure consciousness. Each microcosm had been separated from the macrocosm. In the arbitrary division between Subject and Object the world had been lost. The zero self sought diversion. It became an actor. This was the situation of the Consciousness Soul as I interpreted it. But there now passed through me a qualm of dissatisfaction with Rudolf Steiner himself. This went back to an uncomfortable passage in Kafka’s Diaries pointed out to me by my friend Durnwald, who felt that I was still capable of doing serious intellectual work and wanted to save me from anthroposophy. Kafka too had been attracted by Steiner’s visions and found the clairvoyant states he described similar to his own, feeling himself on the outer boundaries of the human. He made an appointment with Steiner at the Victoria Hotel on Jungmannstrasse. It is recorded in the Diaries that Steiner was wearing a dusty and spotted Prince Albert and that he had a terrible head cold. His nose ran and he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nostrils with his fingers while Kafka, observing this with disgust, told Steiner that he was an artist stuck in the insurance business. Health and character, he said, prevented him from following a literary career. If he added theosophy to literature and the insurance business, what would become of him? Steiner’s answer is not recorded. Kafka himself of course was crammed to the top with this same despairing fastidious mocking Consciousness Soul. Poor fellow, the way he stated his case didn’t do him much credit. The man of genius trapped in the insurance business? A very banal complaint, not really much better than a head cold. Humboldt would have agreed. We used to talk about Kafka and I knew his views. But now Kafka and Steiner and Humboldt were together in death where, presently, all the folk in Stronson’s office would join them. Reappearing, perhaps, centuries hence in a more sparkling world. It wouldn’t have to sparkle much to sparkle more than this one. Nevertheless, Kafka’s description of Steiner upset me.
the view, if you cared for views, was remarkable. I was very good myself at putting other people on to views for the purpose of absenting myself. Below, Fifth Avenue glowed with Christmas decorations and the headlights of the jammed traffic, solid between the Seventies and the Thirties, and shop illuminations, multicolored, crystalline, and like the cells in a capillary observed through a microscope, elastically changing shape, bumping and pulsatory. All this I saw in a single instant. I was like a deft girl, scooping all the jacks before the ball bounced back. It was as it had been with Renata last spring when we took the train to Chartres, “Isn’t that beautiful out there!” she had said. I looked and yes, it was indeed beautiful. No more than a glance was necessary. You saved yourself a lot of time that way. The question was what you were going to do with the minutes gained by these economies. This, I may say, was all due to the operation of what Steiner describes as the Consciousness Soul.
“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s his angle on Goethe?” “Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata. But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other–entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe–the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out that Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!” “There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?” “Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue. “Charlie! Not now,” said Renata. Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charles’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim. “Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the US Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance–wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.” “People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.” “Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s all been really spooky.” “I wish you’d finish what you started to say,” Thaxter turned again to me. “It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart–I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which there are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher? “Ah, that guy again,” said Renata. “Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?” “No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.” “It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.” It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling–her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat-though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like “Figaro, Figaro.” Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ’em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, “You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia”?”
Now Renata was, as a biologically noble beauty, in a false category–Goya’s Maja smoking a cigar, or Wallace Stevens’ fretful Concubine who whispered “Pfui!” That is she wished to defy and outsmart the category to which she was assigned by common opinion. But with this she also collaborated. And if there is one historical assignment for us it is to break with false categories. Vacate the personae. I once suggested to her, “A woman like you can be called a dumb broad only if Being and Knowledge are entirely separate. But if Being is also a form of Knowledge, one’s own Being is one’s own accomplishment in some degree…? “Then I’m not a dumb broad after all. I can’t be, if I’m so beautiful. That’s super! You’ve always been kind to me, Charlie.” “Because I really love you, kid.” Then she wept a little because, sexually, she was not all that she was cracked up to be. She had her hang-ups. Sometimes she accused herself wildly, crying, “The truth! I’m a phony! I like it better under the table.” I told her not to exaggerate. I explained to her that the Ego had emancipated itself from the Sun and it must undergo the pain of this emancipation (steiner). The modern sexual ideology could never counteract this. Programs of uninhibited natural joy could never free us from the universal tyranny of selfbood. Flesh and blood never could live up to such billing. And so on.
…I devoted long hours to Steiner meditation and did my best to draw close to the dead. I had very strong feelings about this and could no longer neglect the possibility of communication with them. Ordinary spiritualism I dismissed. My postulate was that there was a core of the eternal in every human being. Had this been a mental or logical problem I would have dealt logically with it. However, it was no such thing. What I had to deal with was a lifelong intimation. This intimation must be either a tenacious illusion or else the truth deeplyburied. The mental respectability of good members of educated society was something I had come to despise with all my heart. I admit that I was sustained by contempt whenever the esoteric texts made me uneasy. For there were passages in Steiner that set my teeth on edge. I said to myself, this is lunacy. Then I said, this is poetry, a great vision. But I went on with it, laying out all that he told us of the life of the soul after death. Besides, did it matter what I did with myself? Elderly, heart-injured, meditating in kitchen odors, wearing Renata’s cloak in the biffy–should it concern anyone what such a person did with himself? The strangeness of life, the more you resisted it, the harder it bore down on you. The more the mind opposed the sense of strangeness, the more distortions it produced. What if, for once, one were to yield to it? Moreover I was convinced that there was nothing in the material world to account for the more delicate desires and perceptions of human beings. I concurred with the dying Bergotte in Proust’s novel. There was no basis in common experience for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And I was too queerly haughty to take stock in the respectable empiricism in which I had been educated. Too many fools subscribed to it. Besides, people were not really surprised when you spoke to them about the soul and the spirit. How odd! No one was surprised. Sophisticated people were the only ones who expressed surprise. Perhaps the fact that I had learned to stand apart from my own frailties and the absurdities of my character might mean that I was a little dead myself. This detachment was a sobering kind of experience. I thought sometimes how much it must sober the dead to pass through the bitter gates. No more eating, bleeding, breathing. Without the pride of physical existence the shocked soul would surely become more sensible. It was my understanding that the untutored dead blundered and suffered in their ignorance. In the first stages especially, the soul, passionately attached to its body, stained with earth, suddenly severed, felt cravings much as amputees feel their missing legs. The newly dead saw from end to end all that had happened to them, the whole of lamentable life. They burned with pain. The children, the dead children especially, could not leave their living but stayed invisibly close to those they loved and wept. For these children we needed rituals – something for the kids, for God’s sake! The elder dead were better prepared and came and went more wisely. The departed worked in the unconscious part of each living soul and some of our highest designs were very possibly instilled by them. The Old Testament commanded us to have no business with the dead at all and this was, the teachings said, because in its first phase, the soul entered a sphere of passionate feeling after death, of something resembling a state of blood and nerves.
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 the “theoretical perspectives” section of my dissertation. It introduces the ether concept I am attempting to imaginally construct with the help of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.
This dissertation argues that philosophical thinking, to eclipse the dualistic dogmas of today’s commonsense, must ally itself with the creative power of the etheric imagination. Why? Because every author is a poet, and to the extent that a philosopher grasps his tongue to speak or his pen to write, he becomes author and artist rather than simply reader or representer of Nature. The universe is not inertly given for representation: Nature, too, participates in varying degrees of animation and I-ness. The processual, or etheric, imagination approaches the task of philosophy primarily as a work of artistic interpretation of Nature’s inner life. Art, as Schelling puts it, becomes “at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy,” while “through the world of sense [Nature], there glimmers, as if through words the meaning, as if through dissolving mists the land of phantasy, of which [the philosopher is] in search.”25 Or as Steiner puts it, the philosopher’s artistic interpretation of Nature “appears as the herald of that lawfulness that the poet has grasped by listening to the world spirit within the depths of nature’s working. At this level, art becomes the interpreter of the mysteries of the world just as science is also, in a different sense.”26 Unlike the poet, who is all artist, the philosopher is also a scientist. The philosopher not only creates art, he discovers nature; he not only inscribes acts of mind, he reads facts of nature.
In describing the power of imagination in the work of Schelling and Whitehead as etheric, I aim not only to cross-fertilize the process tradition with Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body, but to creatively retrieve Schelling and Whitehead’s own cosmological ether theories.
Schelling shared the cosmological ether theory with most of his scientific contemporaries.27 He identified the infinite elasticity of the ether with the original polarity of forces animating both the one soul of the universe and the many souls within it.28 For Schelling, the ether is not just a scientific hypothesis about the natural world, it is the speculative philosophical postulate required to justify the pursuit of scientific knowledge of the physical world in the first place. If there were no organic unity to nature–if nature were not a self-organizing whole, but just a random assemblage of externally related parts–then we could never learn anything by way of natural scientific investigation. Schelling’s ether postulate secures the possibility of natural science by engendering a Naturphilosophie powered by etheric imagination, whereby the spiritual ether “in me” finds its point of indifference with the natural ether “out there.”29 Or as Schelling himself put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”30
The ether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetic phenomena until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.31 In 1919, Whitehead began articulating a cosmological ether theory as a direct response to Einstein’s replacement of the traditional “material ether” with a pre-given “space-time fabric.” In place of Einstein’s static ontology of space-time “tubes” pieced together out of static material instants, Whitehead constructed an “ether of events” on the basis of his own novel process ontology.32 “We must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material,” writes Whitehead, because “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.”33 “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”34 Whitehead’s evental ether is not the undetectable “shy ether behind the veil” thought to exist by 19th century physicists; rather, “the ether is exactly the apparent world, neither more nor less.”35 The ether, in other words, is that which gives experiential coherence and causal continuity to “the whole complex of events” constituting the universe.36 For Whitehead, as for Schelling, the ether is no mere scientific hypothesis about the mind-independent external world. Rather, it is a metaphysical principle constructed precisely to avoid “this unfortunate bifurcation” between subjective mind and objective nature by “[construing] our knowledge of the apparent world as being an individual experience of something which is more than personal.”37 “Nature,” Whitehead continues, “is thus a totality including individual experiences, so that we must reject the distinction between nature as it really is and experiences of it which are purely psychological. Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.”38
As for the esoteric conception of an ether body, although it did not originate with Steiner, he provides an example of a 20th century hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of modern science, not to mention his deep familiarity with German Idealist philosophy, make him among the best possible candidates for the type of comparative project I am attempting. Steiner, like Schelling and Whitehead, explicitly distinguishes his own use of the concept from the “hypothetical ether of the physicist.”39 The ether body is therefore not best imagined as an invisible gaseous substance floating around the physical body of an organism. To imagine the ether as an extended, three-dimensional body–even if a “subtle” body–is only to fashion an idol, to reflect upon a finished product instead of intuiting the creative process responsible for generating that product. An organism’s Ätherleib is then better imagined as a continually self-generating four-dimensional vortex of Ätherkräfte, or etheric forces. These forces are the non-spatial form-generating and form-remembering “agent-patients” of cosmic evolution.40 They are perceivable only to a self-cultivated (i.e., not innate or given by the birth of the physical body) etheric organ of affective thinking/intuitive intellection: the etheric imagination. The etheric imagination is not generated by the brain, but is rather the conscious expression of an otherwise unconscious morphogenic process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain and body.41 As a four-dimensional process, the activity of the Ätherkräfte that both generates the body and rises to consciousness as the etheric imagination is best pictured, if it must be pictured at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside-out to leave the living organism in its wake.
Picturing the activity of the etheric forces is ultimately impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal image seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.
According to Steiner, “We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”42 This statement is nearly identical to those of Schelling and Whitehead above. “So long as I myself am identical with Nature,” says Schelling, “I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life.”43 “As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature,” he continues, “nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”44 As we’ve seen, Whitehead similarly argues that understanding the life of the actual occasions of nature requires first becoming conscious of, and then imaginatively generalizing the etheric structure-dynamic underlying our own conscious experience too all the individualities of nature. Such generalization allows for the creation of an experiential category applicable to the etheric dimension of any actual occasion.45 Only the etheric imagination can intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of natura naturans, the inner dimension of nature that is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off external nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive,” as Whitehead called it,46 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of merely reflective sense-bound understanding. “Nature speaks to us the more intelligibly the less we think of her in a merely refelctive way,” writes Schelling.47 To think nature as living, our own thinking must come to life, must become etheric.
According to Owen Barfield, who along with Jonael Schickler will assist my retrieval of Steiner’s work, the forces of the etheric organ of perception can be understood as “imagination operating in reverse…Whereas imagination uses the spatial to get to the non-spatial, what the organic [etheric] force is doing is moving out of the non-spatial realm (the creative logos, if you like) to convert it into space–[it moves out] of the immaterial producing a material, spatial world…What the etheric does is, to put it crudely, convert time into space.”48
Like the “force of imagination” (a literal translation of Einbildungskraft), the formative-force of the etheric organ, when properly cultivated, can release the philosopher from the Kantian restrictions placed on knowing by opening the normally sense-inhered intellect to the sub-sensory “intensive depth” (Bortoft, 1996) or super-sensory “inner infinitude” (Adams and Whicher, 1982) of living Nature, there revealing the invisible creative forces animating her from within-out.
In the terms of Whitehead’s three-fold theory of perception, which my dissertation will explore in relation to the synthetic role of imagination, non-etheric perception of external nature via bare sensory universals and abstract laws is perception “spatialized” in the mode of “presentational immediacy,” while etheric perception of the creative life of the sub-sensory dimension is perception “temporalized” in the mode of “causal efficacy.”49 Whitehead’s third mode of perception, “symbolic reference,” imaginatively synthesizes our intuitions of space and time into the meaningful and coherent world of everyday life. The synthetic work (or play) of the force of imagination can be in service either to the maintenance of the habits of every day conscious experience (commonsense), or else to the creative disruption of those habits in favor of alternative imaginations of the flow of etheric time-space.
The etheric image-forces animating Nature and her organisms are autonomous; that is, they are I-beings in their own right. The etheric imagination which perceives them is then not simply the transcendental ground of the ego’s sensory intuitions of the physical world–it is the genetic principle of the universe itself, the poetic root of all life (more like a creative abyss than a stable ground). Unlike Kant’s transcendental faculties of understanding, reason, and judgment, which provide only the necessary universal conditions of possible (theoretical, ethical, or aesthetic) experience, etheric imagination provides the necessary conditions of actual experience (whether of truth, goodness, or beauty). Etheric imagination schematizes not only the formal or abstract, but the material and concrete dimensions of experiential reality–that is, it not only makes possible the universal and impersonal, it actualizes the unique and individual.
So what is real for the process-philosophical imagination? Following Whitehead, time, space, and causality come to be understood as emergent products of an evolving ecology of organisms. “External” and “internal” are the effect of a distinction drawn in what Coleridge referred to as secondary imagination by an individual living organism. Enveloping the many organisms is the one Cosmic Organism, or primary imagination, the ceaseless yearning for wholeness which is nothing other than Spirit’s abyssal desire for Itself.
The root images, or elemental forces, that for so long grounded the reality of the human organism were earth and sky. But since the Galilean-Newtonian “[cancellation] of the ancient dichotomy between earth and sky in the interest of universally valid laws,” and especially since satellization has technologically realized this once merely theoretical extra-terrestriality, what has become of humanity’s earthly embeddedness?50 Have we not become homeless? This may be the case, unless the once solid ground of earth is understood to have been superseded, not by the en-framing (Ge-stell) of technology, but by the ground-generating forces of etheric imagination, the creative abyss that pre-exists any apparent separation between the finite conditioned things in space and the infinite creativity of time.
25 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 231.
26 Steiner, Goethean Science, 93.
27 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul,” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.
28 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384; Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 541-547.
29 According to Frederick Beiser, Schelling thereby “[reintegrates] the transcendental ‘I’ into nature” by showing how human self-consciousness is a more intense expression of nature’s original etheric forces (German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 559).
30 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.
31 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.
32 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity (New York: Cosimo, 1922/2007), 36-38; Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 25.
33 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26.
34 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26. For more on Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s interpretation of relativity theory, see also my own Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013), 35-43 [https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/physics-of-the-world-soul-whitehead-and-cosmology.pdf (accessed 5/1/2013)].
35 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 37.
36 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 66.
37 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.
38 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.
39 Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man, transl. by E. D. S. (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company Publishers, 1910), 28.
40 As “agent-patients,” these etheric forces are akin to Whitehead’s dipolar actual occasions, the “buds of experience” responsible both for the prehension of past form and the ingression of future form in the creative advance of nature.
41 Whitehead’s understanding of the relationship between the physiology of the brain and the ether of events leads him to suggest that the “nature” known to materialistic science “is an abstraction from something more concrete than itself which must also include imagination, thought, and emotion” (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 63).
42 Steiner, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, 25.
43 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.
44 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.
45 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.
46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938)
47 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 35.
48 Towards Interview, 1980, 9.
49 These two modes are akin to Jonael Schickler’s phenomenological account of the life of the concept in terms of physical inherence and etheric metamorphosis, respectively. Schickler’s account is unpacked in the literature review below.
50 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 160-161