I’m sharing some clips from a live video conference session a few days ago with students in my online course this semester, “Mind and Nature in German Idealism.”
Below is a draft of my panel presentation, titled “From Final Knowledge to Infinite Learning, with Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze.”
California Institute of Integral Studies was founded in 1968 by the integral philosopher Haridas Chaudhuri. Dr. Chaudhuri’s integral vision will function for me today as an invitation to re-envision education as an ongoing process whereby the the human and the cosmos are brought into ever-more intimate relation with one another:
“The more we understand the essential structure of the universe as a whole, the more we gain insight into the structure of [humanity]. The obverse is also true. The more we understand the essential structure of [the human], the more we gain insight into the unfathomable mystery of Being.” (The Evolution of Integral Consciousness, 85)
For the purposes of our panel on Experimental Philosophy and Pedagogy, I will interpret Dr. Chaudhuri’s insight in the following way: As integral philosophers, we must match our evolutionary cosmology with an evolutionary epistemology. And as integral educators, we must ground our epistemology in pedagogy. If we claim to know something as philosophers, how is it that we came to know it, and how are we to share and review this knowledge and our method of arriving at it with colleagues and with students? And as spiritual practitioners embedded in learning communities, how do we adapt our educational activities and our theory of learning to the fact of an ensouled, evolving cosmos? What is the purpose of the university in an evolutionary universe like ours?
In accepting Dr. Chaudhuri’s invitation to re-envision education in more integral terms, I turn for help to the philosophies of education of two other 20th century thinkers, Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze. In what follows I summarize each of their perspectives and attempted answers to these questions.
Almost thirty years ago, Deleuze described the transition from a “disciplinary society” where individuals were ruled by “environments of enclosure”—factories, hospitals, schools, prisons, etc.—to a “control society” wherein power is no longer localized in institutions but distributed across networks. We now have more access to information than ever before, but our every move is tracked by increasingly invasive surveillance technologies. We are surrounded by screens whose media content is tailored specifically to our desires. Pop-up ads appear on our smartphone before we even become conscious of our desire for the product being sold to us. We are no longer free individuals, but nodes in vast corporate-owned relational databases. Questions of the fragility of human freedom and of liberal democracy have come to the fore. In a recent op-ed in The Guardian, Yuval Noah Harari argues that in this new context, the idea of liberal freedom, the foundation of the modern West’s political and educational institutions, is make-believe and must be discarded. What we put in its place is not entirely clear. If the individual freedom imagined by liberalism has become an impossible fiction, how might we re-imagine our human potentials in the context of a new, more networked environment? How are educators to respond to this situation?
Whitehead articulated his pedagogical theory a century ago, when the coming collapse of disciplinary society was not yet fully apparent. Universities remained among the most powerful and important institutions in the world, a source of great hope for the future of the species. Times have changed, but his ideas for reforming education, which, as we will see, cannot be separated from his ideas for reforming metaphysics and cosmology, remain as relevant as ever. While at Harvard, he witnessed the founding of one of America’s first business schools. He suggested at the time that a great function awaiting American universities was to “civilize business” by cultivating “socially constructive” motives in business students. This, he hoped, would shape their motives such that the amassing of fortunes would be pursued not as an end in itself but as a means to the betterment of humankind. Things have not panned out as he’d hoped. As Deleuze put it in his essay on the rise of control societies, today’s schools have been delivered over to corporations to serve as perpetual training facilities. Their sole purpose is now to prepare children to join the workforce.
In our historical moment, Whitehead’s pedagogical theory serves as an act of resistance against the corporate takeover of education. His theory is motivated by two related premises: (1) students are alive, and (2) the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development. Such development would naturally feed the growth of the species as a whole. But not only that. For Whitehead, “social construction” is not just a human activity, it is the aim of the universe, which is to say it functions at all levels—physical, biological, psychological, and even theological—to further the evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. Education works on our motives, builds our values. It is not just about memorizing rules, facts, and figures, and certainly, it is not just about job training. It is about intensifying our capacity to consciously participate in the realization of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Whitehead’s theory of education is a protest against dead knowledge and inert ideas. Inert ideas are merely received into the mind without having been tested, utilized, or brought into fresh combination. Education in inert ideas is not only useless, it is harmful. It assumes that the human mind is a dead instrument awaiting information, an assumption that ends up forming dead minds. Learning often requires rigor but should never become a chore. Learning is intrinsically enjoyable because the general ideas it engenders in us can bring understanding of that stream of events which pours through our life, which is our life. “There is only one subject-matter for education,” Whitehead tells us, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”
Whitehead describes education as a recurring cycle of romantic allurement, precise specialization, and free generalization. “We should banish the idea of a mythical, far-ff end of education,” he tells us. Education is not only a life-long but an infinite task. In Whitehead’s universe, if there is to be any immortality, it is only through profound education that we might become adequate to it. There is no final system to memorize because we do not inhabit a finished cosmos. Ours is a cosmogenesis. Whitehead’s novel process-relational ontology, ensouled cosmology, and imaginative pedagogical theory all arose together out the revolutions in 20th century mathematics and physics. The material world is not determined by eternal laws. The fact of the matter is that matter is an act. Which is not to say that it is an illusion; rather, matter is the result of an ongoing expressive activity. Here it becomes clear that Whitehead’s theory of education cannot be separated from his process-relational ontology. He is no idealist or “social constructionist,” as this term is usually understood; for him, construction is a cosmological activity rooted in a creative principle that precedes human beings and that we participate in. It follows that education is a cosmic activity, something the universe is doing through us, and simultaneously something that we as conscious beings are doing to the universe. As the Romantic philosopher-poet Novalis put it, “our vocation is the education of the earth.”
There is no end to education. It is an infinite task. Whitehead thus believed education should coincide with the cultivation of a reverence for the eternal present. “The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future.” “The foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (The Aims of Education).
In 1968, Deleuze published Difference and Repetition, a text that attempts to transform Kant’s transcendental method, which had claimed to provide a priori knowledge of the general form of all possible experience, into an initiatory approach to open-ended learning and concept creation that is responsive to actual occasions of experience. “It is from ‘learning,’” Deleuze tells us, “not from knowledge, that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn” (DR 166).
“When something occurs,” Deleuze and his coauthor Guattari elaborate elsewhere, “the self that awaited it is already dead, or the one that would await it has not yet arrived” (A Thousand Plateaus 198-199). There is thus, according to Deleuze, something both “fatal” and “amorous” about the learning process (DR 23). Education can be both destructive and productive of subjectivity. We are not the same subject before and after an occasion of learning. Learning is transformative.
Learning is thus more than mere imitation, more than a pre-established subject’s attempt to mirror a prefabricated knowledge. Imitation can be helpful in a secondary corrective way, but only after the learning process has already been initiated. How precisely this initiation occurs is difficult to spell out. Deleuze suggests that learning is instigated semiotically, by way of an encounter with signs. Learning is the interpretation of and response to signs, where the response does not resemble the sign but rather actively unfolds what is enveloped within it. We learn through differential repetition and not reproduction of the same, since each new encounter with a sign invokes a novel conceptual constellation in the learner aiming to unfold whatever the sign is enfolding. Deleuze gives the example of learning to swim: “the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs” (DR 23). Learning is as much a practical sensory-motor task as it is an intellectual or theoretical one. We learn only by transforming ourselves, body and soul. In learning, we are always becoming something else. Our faculties are pushed beyond their limits and forced to overcome themselves, synesthetically spilling into one another. Thinking conceives problems whose solutions can only be kinesthetically enacted (e.g., learning to swim), just as sensation presents problems whose solutions can only be thought (e.g., a child’s first encounter with a mirror). Thoughts become sensible; sensations become thinkable. Thus, Deleuze tells us, “learning always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind” (DR 165).
As with Whitehead’s thought, Deleuze’s pedagogical insights cannot be separated from his metaphysical and epistemological innovations. Deleuze laments the way the philosophic tradition has tended to subordinate the learning process to the product of knowledge. Learning has been treated as a mere means, an intermediary leading us from ignorance toward its final cause: wisdom. The learner is likened to a rat in a maze, where the end goal is predetermined rather than needing to be invented anew in each pedagogical participant’s encounter with a problematic field. Learning intercedes only because the supposedly simple a priori essence of knowledge cannot be immediately recollected. For this orthodox philosophical tradition, it would be preferable if knowledge were transparently available from the start. Even Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit recounts the “extraordinary apprenticeship” of the learning process, nonetheless ends up subordinating this process to the absolute knowledge produced at the end. Deleuze points to Plato as an exception, as he is a transitional figure in the history of philosophy who, despite being tempted by the traditional dogmatic image of thought, still insisted that learning is an infinite rather than a merely preparatory task. Learning is for Plato the true transcendental condition of thought. Learning is initiatory, but not in a merely preparatory way. The initiatory trial of learning is always ongoing, always requiring the differential repetition of what has been learned: never the rote application of rules but always the novel unfolding of signs. Each wave is unique, requiring creative kinesthetic responses from our embodied minds. A seasoned surfer has not mastered the application of universal rules, but has become familiar with the profound synchronicity that unconsciously binds their bodily movements to the ocean’s rhythms.
What is education becoming in today’s networked control society? What is the role of the university in our increasingly imperiled planetary civilization? These are huge questions that I cannot pretend to have answered today. If universities are going to be vaporized into virtual campuses, can so-called “online education” successfully enact the integral pedagogical approach briefly explored here? I don’t know, but there are at least some positive signs.
Universities have long been driven by the desire to preserve and pass on the flame of knowledge won by past luminaries. This remains a noble and important responsibility, but perhaps today our most urgent task as university educators is to inspire hope by imagining and working to build futures worth living in. However, in so doing we must also cultivate a reverence for the present, for the eternal moment, for we can never leave this moment as if to inhabit some past golden age or future utopia. Integral philosophers like Chaudhuri, Whitehead, and Deleuze invite us to inhabit the profound and generative mystery of the learning process here and now. Everywhere and always learning remains an infinite task. Integral education is a life-long practice of participation in the creative energy of the cosmos. There is no final exam, though as Deleuze as well as Socrates and Plato knew, part of this participation is also learning to die. If education is preparation for anything we can only say that it is preparation for death. And the best way to prepare to die is to discover the best way of living well. This is the end that education should serve.
The search for final knowledge becomes a practice of infinite learning when knowing is placed back in the context of the eternal cosmic (re)cycle of life (and death). The human mind is not an instrument to be sharpened, a wax tablet to be informed, or a bird cage to be tamed. Each mind is rather a unique living personality seeking creative expression. Life itself is fundamentally a process of learning. It is creative rhythm, differential repetition, fractal reproduction. Life syncs with death, as death beats bodies into form, generating by eliminating what does not serve the growth of Life. Learning is the he(art) of Life.
Chaudhuri, H. (1977). The evolution of integral consciousness. Wheaton IL: Theosophical Publishing House.
Deleuze, Gilles. (1968/1994). Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. (Winter, 1992). “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in October, Vol. 59, pp. 3-7.
Deleuze, Gilles. Felix Guattari. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Whitehead, Alfred North. (1929). The Aims of Education. New York: The Free Press.
I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.
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.
If a pushy philosopher were to back me into a corner and force me to choose one or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, I would choose naturalism. But I’d find myself wanting to ask, as Socrates might, what is meant by “nature”?
Physics becomes metaphysics as soon as the word–”nature”–is pronounced. The logos of language of its own accord compels conscious creatures like us to ask the fateful question: “What is nature?” I’ve heard many definitions, each with its own interesting implications for any attempt to interpret experiential reality. Plato suggested that nature was the life of the All. Aristotle posited that nature was the sum total of phenomenal/physical beings. Descartes thought it was energetic vortexes circling in an extended plenum. Newton thought it was atoms colliding in the void of space (space, meanwhile, he considered to be the omniscient sensorium of God).
We might also reframe the question by asking about the proper relationship between the logos which asks and the nature which responds. From this there may emerge important epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical queries, none of which are anything like the pursuits of the specialized natural sciences. These methods of inquiry pose their own kinds of problems and devise their own kinds of solutions, solutions which, though they are relevant (we hope!), still differ greatly from the kinds of solutions sought out by physicists and chemists.
“The recourse to metaphysics,” says Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena” (The Concept of Nature, 29).
Once the question of nature has been asked, it seems we come to find ourselves in a strange and imaginal land. Appearances can no longer be taken for granted as real. Knowledge comes to seem unfounded. Plato wrote from such a mythical place of not-knowing in the Timaeus, even daring to offer several names for it including chora, matrix, receptacle, nurse, and nurturer. He depicted this matrix hovering between the being of invisible forms and the becoming of visible matter, able to take on any definite form and thereby grant it birth into the physical realm, while itself always remaining formless. I interpret Plato’s nurturing “third kind” between the eidos and chaos not as a fantasy land, but as the event-place of reality’s eruption into concrete experience. Necessary ideas and contingent matter are both abstractions from the real. The real comes to be always in-between.
To even frame a polemic around the dichotomy “naturalism v. supernaturalism,” no matter whether one’s aim to choose the atheistic or theological option, is already to implicate oneself in a logic of transcendence, since each term is defined only by its exclusion of the other. A more friendly inquiry (born out of intellectual philia rather than intellectual polemos) was that of Spinoza, who thought not in the exclusive terms of either God or Nature, but in the integral terms of both God and Nature.
Approaching the metaphysical problems posed by naturalism philosophically, rather than polemically, allows one to delight in the multiplication of possibilities and in the intensification of wonder, rather than in the rush to simplify and explain.
Levi Bryant recently offered some thoughts, and some fighting words, on behalf of the naturalistic interpretation of reality (Skholiast has responded in a way that contextualized Bryant’s remarks for me quite nicely). Bryant’s real enemy in these posts is the Continental tradition of philosophy, which he suggests was founded in the 19th century as an anthropocentric reaction against the tremendously technologically successful (but psychologically traumatizing) scientific naturalism first developed in the 16th century. Bryant’s naturalism has three major requirements: 1) no supernatural causes, 2) no metaphysical telos, 3) culture must be natural. A implication of these requirements is that materiality and insensate efficient forces are to be the only real factors operating anywhere in the natural world. Bryant also rejects the idea of nature constructed in the imaginations of reductionists, eliminativists, and positivists, preferring his own “machine-oriented ontology.”
As I said at the beginning, if the dilemma were posed as such, I’d also want to pursue naturalist over supernaturalist accounts of reality. I think Bryant has rightly avoided the blunders of the other ideas of nature floating around among materialists. His alternative materialist ontology is of great interest to me, if only because on some level I do enjoy the creativity that can be unleashed by polemic (“War is the father of all things…” Heraclitus). For the past four of five years of my graduate study at CIIS, I have had a handful of guides helping to shape my initial approach to questions concerning the nature of nature. Of this handful, I’ve grown most familiar with the voices of Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Joseph Schelling. As far as naturalisms go, I’d toss as many of their books into my metaphysical wagon as my horses are able to carry. Spare me your universal acids and logics of extinction, I’ll take an originally duplicitous nature animated by a mytho-logic of creativity.
Of course, the journey through the dessert of the real cannot be completed only by imbibing the spilt ink of dead names. Thoughts must boil up from out of the heat of my own blood and words must be uttered from out of the air of my own lungs. I’m working on it… But let us not forget this is also a conspiracy. Though we wage war with symbolic soldiers on paper battlefields, we still think our thoughts, breathe our words, and take our earthly steps together. There need be no polemic between a machine- and an organic-orientation toward reality if we are able to approach their proper relation in a friendly (i.e., a philosophical) way. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to account for both the appearance of mechanism and the reality of organism. He writes:
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists (On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and DevelopmentVI, 70.)
Similarly, from the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, physics and chemistry do not study the non-living components of living ecologies; rather, they are themselves the study of living ecologies at scales other than the biological, tracking the migratory behavior of electrons and protons rather than gnats and zebras. I hearken back to the original meaning of the Greek word physis here, which did not refer to the motion of dead stuff through empty space, but to the growth of living form in teleological time. “Life,” in the context of the organism-oriented ontology I’m trying to construct, is not bios but zoö, where the latter comes to designate existence as such. What exists as such are living organisms.
Bryant denies to naturalism anything but material and efficient causality. I am not aware of any coherent interpretation of quantum physics based solely on material and efficient causation. Nor am I aware of any coherent explanation for biological phylo- or ontogenesis that does not employ at least formal if not also final causes. Unless we are willing to ignore much of “what we are aware of in perception” (Whitehead’s definition of the nature studied by science), it is hard not to grant more than the blind conveyance of forces to nature. To be fair, Bryant does think biological purposes can emerge on accident out of the evolutionary algorithm. Human ideals are emergent realities, new features of the world. I’d argue that telos is no accident, but rather, like life, it is of the very essence of existence. To exist is to be a reason. Nature is not aimless, but nor is its telos designed by a transcendent demiurge. Nature is a creative process of birth and perishing persuaded into enduring patterns of harmony by a participating Eros. Harmony is not a metaphysical necessity, though both Creativity and Eros are. Cosmic harmony is an achievement, the contingent result of the values of a society of organisms characteristic of a particular cosmic epoch. Cosmos need not always emerge from chaos; yet it tends to.
Bryant leaves open the possibility that the world’s great religious teachers might have important metaphysical lessons to teach us. One of my projects has been to try to argue for the relevance of religious imaginaries in combatting precisely the sort of anthropocentrism that Bryant claims naturalism vanquishes (see for example this essay on a Christian spiritual response to the social and ecological crises of our day).
Here is Prof. Corey Anton lecturing on the recently deceased Lynn Margulis’ bio-philosophy.
Towards the end of her book (co-authored with Dorian Sagan) What Is Life?, Margulis offers an analysis of the role of psilocybin in the evolution of mammalian consciousness.
She brings up the usage of psychedelic fungi in ancient mystery cults just after sharing Socrates’ warnings about the drug-like effects of writing. I’ve written about the relationship between psychedelic (al)chemistry and Plato’s/Socrates’ views on language as a pharmakon recently. I draw on Richard Doyle’s thesis in Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the history of human evolution, carrying natural selection and sexual attraction beyond themselves into religion, and from religion on into scientific discovery and artistic creation. Altered states of consciousness have always been at the generative core of human civilization. Art, religion, and science are novel modes of production never before seen in the history of earth. Humans are doing something new now. Which doesn’t mean we aren’t still things. We are things with powers unheard of in the world until now. We are the thing that thinks things (science) and things thinking (art), and that can, under special circumstances, think itself thinging. Almost always, we remain unable to think ourselves thinging, unable to catch the “I” in the act of “am-ing.” We simply act without knowing how or why, making up our reason for acting afterwards depending on the moods and emotions that happens to be coursing through us when the need (social/legal or moral/psychological) for a justification of some past action arises. Much institutional religion (in its modern forms, Christian televangelism and the civil religion of 24-hour cable news) seems to function sociologically by providing us with hope and solace despite the existential shame and guilt we feel as a result of knowing we don’t know how or why we act the way we do. We are each of us liars since the first words that came out of our mouths. “I am”? But who am I? The special circumstances that allow the “I am” to experientially concresce (that is, allow the substantial self to emerge and dissolve fluidly–to flow through and across its own and others boundaries freely) are cultivated by carrying ourselves into philosophical modes of mind. Philosophy is a way of life and a way of writing. Increasingly, due to the invisible divine hand of the market, it has been reduced to a way of writing without life, publishing for pay. And often we don’t even get to own our own writing! Philosophers are lucky enough even to finds jobs at all in these waning days of capital.
Yes, we are still things. But we are not just heads of cattle, not just anything. Nothing is just anything. A cow, a blade of grass, a clump of soil, a star in heaven–each is radically different and yet still rhyzomatically the same. Nobody knows what a thing is, how it works, or why it works that way. “No-one knows what a body can do” (Deleuze‘s Spinozist formula).
Margulis quites Maurice Blanchot on page 189 of What is Life?:
Yes, happily language is a thing. It is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist.
In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”
In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”
Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.
To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.
Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.
To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:
Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…
The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.
The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.
Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.
Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”
Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.
“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling ).
Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.
“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).
- Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Activity: Socrates, Jesus, and the Wisdom of Love (footnotes2plato.com)
- What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought (footnotes2plato.com)
I’ve been asked to think about thinking, and to write about it. I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the middle of this kind of mess before, and so I’ll admit right off the bat that I cannot be sure which comes first, the thinking or the writing. Maybe my writing is just the trace of an ever-advancing spirit; or maybe my spirit–that in me which thinks–is just a character in a story, a name, given me by the people and the language into whose care I was thrown at birth. Heidegger spoke of being thrown, of waking up in the midst of the world in wonder of its historical depth, and of one’s own impending death. When and if my spirit advances, it does so thinking of such things.
Philosophy, according to Socrates, is learning to die. Not the loving metempsychosis of the Phaedrus, nor even the eros of the Symposium or the grand design of the Timaeus contains the secret of the Platonic teaching. The secret is in the Apology, where Socrates is sentenced to be executed and Plato first falls in love with Wisdom (and so begins to philosophize). The polis, it seems, will never understand the philosopher; to the extent that the people of the city do understand, they tend to take offense. Thinking is not taken kindly by ignorant people awash in gossip and stories. They cannot bear to look at what thinking reflects. It is a mirror too bright with the light of the Good. It blinds their sense-bound egos. They prefer the flat shadows of the cave wall to the eternal depths of the spirit. Socrates willingly accepted the verdict of the polis that he should die, and in so doing raised thinking forever above popular opinion regarding the meaning of ego death.
Death is always my own. I die alone, just as I think alone; though of course I leave loved ones behind after I die, and my thoughts, especially if spoken or written, become events in the world contributing to the new stories that spread in my wake. We can only tell stories, after all, even if we are thinkers, philosophers. Stories are the blood shared between souls, the sea that gives our spirit buoyancy during its passage through this life between birth and death. Though Socrates died to the stories of the city to be born a philosopher, he still believed Wisdom had a chance to enlighten the citizens of some future Athens. He did not give up on humankind. He became a teacher, a caretaker of souls awaiting the death of their bodies on earth and the birth of their spirits in heaven.
Socrates taught thinking, which is no easy task, since thinking is always one’s own. It cannot be taught like multiplication tables or proper spelling. To learn to think, I must remember how to do it for myself, to draw its power up out of my own soul-life. All that a teacher can offer are likely stories which might inspire a student to draw up wisdom from the as yet still waters at the bottom of their own soul. “Know thyself,” says Socrates. Look for the mirror within yourself, see the face beneath your persona reflected back at you: at first, it appears as the face of death, but in truth it is the Image of God.
There was another lover and teacher of Wisdom who walked the earth a few centuries after Socrates. His name was Jesus. He was born into the stories of Jerusalem instead of Athens, a Jew and not a Greek, but his teachings reach beyond any city. Jesus stood before a woman and asked for water out of the well (John 4):
Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” […] The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”
Jesus the Christ offered the drink of eternal water, the truth of the spirit, a Wisdom not bound by the laws of any city on earth. He offered the woman the gift and grace of God’s Love. I cannot think how such a gift should be possible with the sense-bound intellect. The reality of the Christ Event (as Rudolf Steiner called it) remains indecipherable to the abstract reflection of my ego. It requires faith, some say. But perhaps there is yet a way to know?
Steiner’s Anthroposophy is an attempt to bring the spiritual in the human to meet the spiritual in the universe. It is Christian in religious orientation, but also teaches a science of the spirit. It is not a gnostic path, per say, but it nonetheless seeks to overcome the limits imposed upon human cognition by the philosophy of Kant. Anthroposophy seeks knowledge of the spiritual world through direct experience in that world. The philosopher-poet S. T. Coleridge made much of the difference between “the Understanding” and “the Reason,” a distinction he said he learned from Kant. Steiner expands upon this difference, noting that the Understanding, and the abstract concepts through which it relates to the world, is supported also by another relation, the Reason, that:
“…does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary consciousness. But [this relation to Reason] does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a ‘concept.’ An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense-perception, but which does not became a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.” (from p. 55 of The Case for Anthroposophy (2010), ed. and transl. by Owen Barfield)
Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of Socrates’ or of Jesus’ teachings. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me (and out the other side). Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.
The stories of modern cities are materialistic. Stale and deadening. We are taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. He calls it the etheric, or body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a door to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become the Word.
- Speculative Philosophy and Incarnationalism in Whitehead and Meillassoux (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Spirit of Integral Poetry: “Waring” the Symbolism of Organism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Uncovering the Unconscious (with Jung, Gebser, and Steiner) (footnotes2plato.com)
Adam over at Knowledge Ecology posted some thoughts in response to my last blog on the concept of Life. I suggested that one way of distinguishing the human from other kinds of being is that we can contemplate abstractions like life-in-itself, and therefore also, death-in-itself.
Adam writes the following:
I think this is worth discussing further, and while I think Matt is on the right track here, I also want to ask: what does it mean that elephants perform burial rituals for both other elephants and other species such as the rhinoceros (as Bekoff says is the case)? Is there some contemplation of the meaning of “life itself” and its inevitable end result in death? It seems that elephants in this case are contemplating not just their own life cycles, but also acknowledging that such cycles are a property for living beings in general, which would in a way hint that they are contemplating the meaning of life not just “for them.” Of course, I am speculating, but I think its worth thinking about. Elephants partaking in the aporia of the life/death mystery? Thats the kind of question I’m interested in. More to come, Im sure.
Adam is right, Homo sapiens are not the only mammals who have some inkling of their own mortality. Elephants mourn dead members of their group, and apparently, other species as well (I’d like to know a bit more about that!).
Then there are chimpanzees:
I think I’d still argue that, while other animals can mourn their dead, they are still mourning particular beings, rather than contemplating life-in-itself. After all, even human scientists only recently came to grasp the significance of extinction, the death of an entire species. But then again, this raises an interesting line of inquiry… there is nothing inherent to our biological constitution that makes us aware of death, since children only gradually come to understand mortality, often with great emotional difficulty. And if we take Socrates seriously, even fully enculturated adults are in the dark in regards to contemplating the true nature of death. Perhaps it would be more helpful, if also a bit more mystical, to conceive of the “Human” or “Anthropos” as a transbiological, archetypal potential not monopolized by the Homo genus, but available to a wide variety of complex earthlings, particularly mammals? To be human, then, would mean to be capable of contemplating the meaning of death; but “Human” as an ideal that a number of biological species, including elephants and chimps, participate in to varying degrees.
There is a lot more to be explored and unpacked here. Plenty of occultists (especially Rudolf Steiner) have suggested that there is an intimate link between thinking and dying, and that somehow consciousness is always already an awareness of spirit, or that which is beyond this body. There is also a rich tradition of Hermetic speculation about the Anthropos and its evolutionary relation to the human animal and the rest of the earth community.
I’ll close this admitedly aborted inquiry for now with an few words of Georges Bataille’s cited by Thacker in After Life:
And the spirit is so closely linked to the body that the latter never ceases to be haunted by the former, not even at the limit, the point where spirit is never more present than when death reduces it to the status of a thing… In this sense, the corpse is the most perfect affirmation of the spirit. It is even the essence of the spirit to reveal the definitive powerlessness of death, in the same way that the cry of that corpse is the supreme affirmation of life. (Theory of Religion, p. 54).