The Varieties of Naturalistic Philosophy

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, matrixreceptacle, 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).

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”

 

Margulis and the Psychedelic Eucharist

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.

Schelling on Nature, Humanity, and God (re-reading Iain Hamilton Grant)

Last year, some colleagues and I at CIIS participated in a panel discussion on Speculative Realism called “Here Comes Everything.” My lecture drew primarily upon Grant’s text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006). This summer, I’ve been doing research for a comprehensive exam on the recent resurgence of Schellingian philosophy (HERE is my reading list). I saved Grant’s book until last, since I think it provides the strongest case for Schelling’s contemporary relevance by foregrounding the extent to which his long life of philosophical creativity remained, from beginning to end, focused on the problem of nature.

What is the problem of nature? Grant locates this problematic in the Kantian revolution, when the transcendental gap between freedom and nature reduced nature to mere appearance, a phenomenal ghost lying in wait for the practical projects of human industrialism. “The whole of modern European philosophy has this common deficiency,” wrote Schelling in 1809, “that nature does not exist for it.” Grant suggests that, in adopting Aristotle’s “physics of all things,” rather than Plato’s “physics of the All,” Kant made it impossible to ground his transcendentalism in anything but the anthropocentric ethical projects of practical reason (p. 7). From Schelling’s perspective, this is hardly a ground at all, since the transcendental subject cannot account for the genesis of its own subjectivity. Kant isn’t blind to this problem, but is forced to posit a logical concept of ground as the supersensible substrate underlying both nature and freedom. Schelling is not satisfied with a merely logical ground, so he retreats from Kant’s Aristotelian approach to physics (what Grant calls somaticism) to pursue Plato’s physics of the All. Instead of conceiving of ground as an underlying substrate or substance, Schelling, following Plato, grounds subjectivity in the dynamic activity of matter itself. Schelling here inaugurates a form of process ontology that will later be picked up by Whitehead, though the latter seems unaware of the former’s contributions to his own project. Whitehead bypassed any explicit acknowledgement of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, going back to Plato himself to find in the Timaeus the same possibility for a physics of becoming that Schelling did.

“Nature is subject,” says Schelling, which is not to say that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that the human mind is a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know what we are?”

In his celebrated 1809 text, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling delves into traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological problems only to re-emerge, not with new answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that human reason is itself a recapitulation of the sublime tension of cosmogenesis itself: the eternal struggle between darkness and light. Our human freedom to choose good or evil, according to Schelling, irrevocably separates us from the animal kingdom. Evil isn’t an obedience to brute instincts that might draw us back into animality; no, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

This spiritual freedom of humanity should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, as this characterization would entirely miss the literally decisive importance of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity, since this implies some more original subjectivity which would employ freedom as a means. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. I am the freedom to choose good or evil, and nothing besides. There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of freedom. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. This is not some special human difference, some special capacity, as though our essence was just to be some other kind or species of natural being. Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very being of nature itself self-consciously, while other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming. Like the divine, humanity is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce ourselves in relation to some irreducible otherness within ourselves (i.e., evil). But unlike the divine, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected. Evil appears real precisely when a human being denies the evil in themselves to wage war against it in others. Schelling saw no hope in national politics, since the state is merely an evil made necessary by the fall. True human salvation lies elsewhere, in a democracy of spirits who freely chose the Good out of love, not due to fear of secular or religious punishment.

[final draft] Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead


Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, Whitehead

The Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden by Thomas Cole

“I am convinced that the supreme act of reason, because it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act; and that only in beauty are truth and goodness akin.–The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic force as the poet…Monotheism of reason and of the heart, polytheism of imagination and art, that is what we need!” -F.W.J. Schelling1

“[Philosophy has] to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear…we view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.” -A. N. Whitehead2

Preface

The aim of this essay is to sketch the striking similarities running through the thought of Plato (423-348 BCE), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), especially as they relate to the power of poetic imagination. At first glance, Schelling and Whitehead would seem to be representatives of disparate schools of philosophy: the former is normally considered an idealist, the latter, a realist. But this would be a superficial reading that misses the underlying unity of their reformed Platonism. As will become clear, the stated desire of each is to think the sensory manifold as a single universe; to wed Space and Time in the Thought of Eternity; to ground reality and ideality in one mediating power. Like Plato, Schelling and Whitehead crowned philosophy the science of sciences and the art of arts, the creative core of all civilization. What finally distinguishes the philosopher from the sophist, according to Whitehead (summarizing Plato), is the philosopher’s “resolute attempt to reconcile conflicting doctrines, each with its own solid ground of support.”3 But as will also become clear, both Schelling and Whitehead reformed Plato in imaginative ways, adding other voices to his corpus of dialogues as a goad to their spiritual renewal.

To begin with, it is not at all obvious that Schelling’s philosophy, taken as a whole, deserves the title of “idealism.” Martin Heidegger, for example, suggests that Schelling “drives German idealism from within right past its own fundamental position.”4 More recently, Dalia Nassar,5 Iain Hamilton Grant,6 and Jason Wirth7 have all contended that, despite his early allegiance to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s transcendental idealism, Schelling remains, in Wirth’s words, “first and foremost a thinker of the question of Nature.”8

As for Whitehead, Grant mentions him alongside Schelling as a promising example of speculative thinking “beyond the epistemological concerns of the philosophy of science,”9 an issue to which I will return below.10 George R. Lucas further cements this speculative affinity by reading Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a historical precursor to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.11 Though Whitehead never read much of the German idealists directly,12 he was deeply influenced by the British idealists John McTaggart and F. H. Bradley, going so far as to suggest that his own cosmology might be considered “a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.”13 Furthermore, Antoon Braeckman has indirectly linked Whitehead’s philosophical scheme to Schelling’s through the intermediary of the Schellingian philosopher-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose role in the formation of William Wordsworth’s aesthetic vision of nature is well known.14 Though he was familiar with Coleridge,15 the deepest impact on Whitehead came through the poetry of Wordsworth, which he study throughout his life. According to his daughter’s testimony, he would read The Prelude almost daily “as if it were the Bible, pouring over the meaning of various passages.”16

The philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, then, seem to spiral around a common intuition, namely that the division between the real and the ideal can and should be overcome through an act of poetic imagination. Before further unpacking the commonalities of their imaginative schemes, I will briefly outline the role of imagination in speculative philosophy as over and against critical philosophy.

 

Cosmological and Transcendental Imagination

Speculative, or cosmological imagination has been clearly differentiated from critical, or transcendental imagination, by contemporary Whiteheadian philosopher Isabelle Stengers.17 For Stengers, there are two basic approaches open for the questioning postkantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”; the second, “What can I know?”18 Answering the former question requires the spark of imaginative speculation, which leaps across the gap in the circuit of perception between mind and matter in an attempt to see into the sea of relationships within which one swims. The philosopher-seer risks propositions regarding the reality of nature’s ideality, hedging her bets on the synechological19 affinity of mind and nature. Given the precursive trust20 of the speculative philosopher, these cosmological propositions are liable to infect common sense experience, allowing new worlds to take shape in the social imagination.

The latter question (“What can I know?) characterizes the critical approach. It separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective reflection upon an external world. Questions of epistemology take center stage, questions of the a priori conditions of conscious experience that shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the phenomenal manifold corresponding to the external world. These are important questions to ask, but in the modern period, they have been over-emphasized, resulting in the solipsistic positivism of scientific materialism.21 Because the positivist has lost all precursive trust, what the world is in itself, the realist’s question, is dismissed as a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos.

To further differentiate the cosmological from the transcendental imagination, it may be helpful to personify each mode by linking it with its foremost historical exemplar. Plato’s philosophy, as interpreted by Schelling and Whitehead, is rooted in a cosmological conception of imagination, while the philosophy of Immanuel Kant is rooted in a transcendental conception of imagination.

Although, in Republic, Plato explicitly places “imagination” (eikasia) below the line dividing the soul’s cognitive powers,22 the straightforward translation of eikasia as “imagination” can be misleading in light of Schelling and Whitehead’s use of the idea. Eikasia is etymologically related to eikon, usually translated as “icon” or “image” in the context of Greek culture, but can also be translated as “idol” in the Biblical context. Eikasia could then better be called the power of “imaging,” of seeing images, in either of two modes: as images of things or as things themselves. Plato’s placement of eikasia below the divided line is meant to be a critique of idolatrous imagination, that which has fallen into duality, mistaking opinions regarding appearances of “what comes to be and passes away, but never really is”23 for the truth of what really is. Schelling would call this fallen mode of eikasia the merely reflective understanding, perceptually isolated from reality and so only able to relate to abstract concepts and finite sensory particulars.24

However, when the “imaging” soul is wise to Plato’s teaching in Sophist concerning “non-being”–that non-being is a kind of being–25 philosophical imagination can express itself through the poetic art of iconography, what neoplatonists like Proclus and Iamblichus will later call theurgy. Theurgy is a ritual technology capable of re-shaping the soul though the power of magical symbols.

Whitehead refers to Plato’s teaching of the being of non-being as “at once an extreme instance of the breakdown of language, and the enunciation of a profound metaphysical truth.”26 The difficult phrase points to the way linguistic propositions generate meaning, not only through discontinuous antinomies, but through constructive contrasts: words are not things, but nevertheless, the symbolic assembly of a string of words can illuminate the relations between things in unforeseen ways. Plato is himself skilled in poetic ritual, as is evident in the many mythopoeic “likely stories” articulated in his dialogues. Each such story is an image meant to be transformative of the soul’s erotic commerce with eternal Ideas. They function as initiatory rites revealing the inner nature of the divine imagination. In Timaeus, for example, Plato narrates the genesis of the universe as “a moving image of eternity,” inviting the individual psyche to be reminded of its analogical participation in the ever-lasting life and motion of the world-soul.27 The speculative imagination sees the moving image of the visible heavens and knows it to be the mirror of an invisible source.28

Plato’s was also a cosmomorphic imagination, seeking to transform experience of the sensible world by actively bringing it into harmony with the intelligence of Ideas. Schelling identifies this speculative mode of imagination with reason rather than the understanding, since it participates freely in both the finite and the infinite, and indeed, discovers the infinite in the finite.29 Speculative imagination is neither above nor below the divided line, but is the very power responsible for making the division in the first place. Imagination draws the line, being both productivity and product, activity and artifact.30

Even from Kant’s transcendental perspective, imagination is the most indispensable of the soul’s cognitive powers, mysteriously generating both sensibility and understanding.31 But for him, imagination emerges from a depth unreachable by the light of conscious will. Ideas of imagination are therefore reduced to determinate concepts of the merely reflective (i.e., unproductive) understanding,32 leading to “those insoluble contradictions which Kant set forth under the name of the antinomies.”33 These antinomies forbid the soul real knowledge concerning God, the cosmos, or even its own freedom, since in each case, critical reflection alone leads only to an aporia inherent to sense-bound understanding. The understanding, says Kant, “stretches its wings in vain, if it tries to soar beyond the world of sense by the mere power of speculation.”34

Schelling understands this alienation of the critical soul from the world as a “necessary evil,” a means to an end, since only through such a trial by separation can the soul become conscious of its imaginative power.35 Only if sense-bound conceptuality is treated as an end in itself does it become an “intellectual sickness.”36 The transcendental imagination, then, is not simply to be rejected as a false mode of mentality, but passed through as the first phase in the advance toward genuine philosophical knowledge.

In the next section, I will continue to explore the reformed Platonism of Schelling and Whitehead as it relates to the cosmological imagination, focusing more explicitly on the affinity of their respective philosophical schemes.

 

The Platonic Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead

It should already be clear that Schelling and Whitehead each owe a huge intellectual debt to Plato. Whitehead characterizes the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and suggests that his own philosophy of organism is best understood as a contemporary rendering of Plato’s general point of view.37 Schelling studied Plato’s dialogues in the original Greek during his teenage years at seminary in Tübingen, dedicating many notebooks to their elucidation in which he creatively translated Plato’s words into his own. According to Bruce Matthews, these notebooks indicate “the determinative role this philosopher plays in the young Schelling’s intellectual world.”38

At other times, Schelling and Whitehead are also critical of Plato’s tendency to overplay the separation of the transcendent ideal from the immanent reality. Schelling tentatively agrees with Aristotle’s reproach of Plato’s merely logical formulation of the doctrine of participation,39 as if the doctrine could explain the actual coming into being of living things.40 Whitehead also admits that Plato tended to waver between the doctrine of participation by the persuasion of divine Eros and the doctrine of the imposition of “static, frozen, and lifeless” Ideas upon mute materiality according to the plan of an omnipotent divine Craftsman.41

Despite this wavering, Whitehead points to the genius of Plato’s definitive statement that “anything that affects or is affected by another has real existence.”42 Plato here sides with the doctrine of participation of Ideas as dynamically entertained by an immanent world-soul, a real medium, “connecting the eternality of being with the fluency of becoming.”43 This mediating principle is “the way in which Plato conceived the many actualities of the physical world as components in each other’s natures.”44 The medium is otherwise called the Receptacle, the “third kind” between universal Ideas and sensory particulars, the “wetnurse” providing a formless locus for Ideas to temporally incarnate.45 As Whitehead describes it, the Receptacle is “the matrix for all begetting… [transforming] the manifoldness of the many into the unity of the one.”46

This description suggests that Whitehead conceived of the ultimate notion of his own philosophy of organism, Creativity, as a result of dwelling upon Plato’s difficult but important notion of the Receptacle. Creativity is “that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”47

The one feature distinguishing Creativity from the Receptacle is that “it is divested of the notion of passive receptivity.”48 This distinction is due to Whitehead’s preference for the doctrine of Ideas as “lures of feeling,” rather than as molds forcibly stamped upon neutral and emotionless matter. In the jargon of his philosophical scheme, incarnate actual occasions, not abstract eternal objects, are ultimately responsible for deciding on the subjective form of their own concrescence.49

“It is to be noted,” says Whitehead,

that every actual entity, including God, is something individual for its own sake; and thereby transcends the rest of actuality. And also it is to be noted that every actual entity, including God, is a creature transcended by the creativity which it qualifies.50

The substance of each actual occasion, and of each individualizing society of occasions (i.e., each organism), is a creative power, a harmonization of a diversity of inherited forces seeking satisfaction in a definite ideal future. “The definition of being,” says Plato, “is simply power.”51 That being is essentially power implies that to be is to be in between.52 To be is to become together, to concresce. Nothing in the universe is external to anything else, since all occasions are internally related. Even the universal occasion, the world-soul or divine imagination, is not “a transcendent emanation,” but “a component in common” with the living bodies of the actual world.53

Creativity, like the Receptacle, provides “a unity [for] the events of Nature…by reason of their community of locus.”54 But unlike Plato’s Receptacle, which is essentially passive and formless, Whitehead’s Creativity contains its own forces of formation.

Schelling re-imagines the participatory moments of Plato’s dialogues for his own creative purposes, distilling them into what he calls Plato’s organic Urform. Like imagination’s mediation of the senses and the understanding, this Urform provides a “formula for thinking the productive relationship that holds between a unity and its parts.”55 The Urform is “not simply a form of our subjective understanding that we project onto the world, but…the productive structure of objective nature itself.”56 It could be likened to Goethe’s Urpflanze, raised from the botanical to the spiritual dimension. It is “the secret band” linking the individual soul’s imagination to the divine imagination of the world-soul.57 Schelling points to Plato’s articulation of the Urform in Philebus as “a gift of the Gods”58 granting human creatures participation in the divine intellectus archetypus.59 Schelling’s translation of Philebus 16c-e is as follows:

…the ancients (greater men and closer to the gods than us) have left the story behind, that everything which has ever [existed] emerged out of unity and multiplicity, in that it united within itself the unlimited and the limit: that thus we too in light of this arrangement of things should presuppose and search [in] every object [for] one idea.60

Schelling’s conception of the cosmos as the product of two dynamically polarized forces, one expansive and the other contractive, is the offspring of the Platonic Urform.61 These cosmogenic forces, the keystone of his entire Naturphilosophie, are alternatively characterized by Schelling in terms of the polarity between natura naturans (nature as subject, as productivity) and natura naturata (nature as object, as product).62 Whitehead marks an identical difference between “nature alive” and “nature lifeless.”63 The latter is nature viewed through a film of abstraction as mere extension lacking all quality and value. It is nature according to what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy,” a barren and solipsistic mode of sense-perception perfected by self-conscious human beings and mistaken by most philosophers for the most fundamental mode of perception. This mistake is Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”64 “Presentational immediacy” is the product of imagination in service of the reified “object-concepts” of the understanding.65 “Causal efficacy” is Whitehead’s term for the more fundamental mode of perception through directly bodily inheritance of nature’s emotional energies.66 Here imagination is productive and impossible to mistake for its finished products. Schelling would similarly see “nature lifeless” as nature filtered through the merely ideal concepts of the reflective understanding, with its limited perception by way of superficial sensation. For Schelling, “[nothing] is actual in the absence of imagination,” which is the power of productive intuition and absolute reason.67 “Nature lifeless” is then entirely deficient in actuality, an empty idol.

“Nature alive” is nature viewed with imaginative sympathy as permeated with emotional intensities and aesthetic aims. As a participant in living nature, the percipient occasion no longer simply experiences the universe’s beauty, but itself becomes an expression of this beauty. Natura naturans is nature before the Kantian epistemological bifurcation of its being into the mechanism of matter over and against the freedom of mind. At their generative core, each actual occasion, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”68 Mentality, in other words, is not the unique possession of human beings, but participates in all actual occasions (or “actants” as Schelling calls them), to greater or lesser degree depending on the complexity of each occasion’s form of individualized organization.69

In the next section of this essay, I will attempt to display the alchemical power of poetry in the process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead.

 

Towards a Poetic Form of Philosophy

Whitehead points to Percy Shelley and Wordsworth as the most emphatic witnesses of the Romantic reaction against the scientific materialism that divorced aesthetic values from nature. These values, “[arising] from…the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts,” were reduced by mechanistic natural philosophy to merely secondary qualities accidentally inhering in some more primary collection of material particles.70 Shelley’s and Wordsworth’s reaction was to apotheosize imagination and its poetic expressions.71

According to Shelley, poetry is

the center and circumference of knowledge, the root and blossom of all other systems of thought…that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.72

Contemporary speculative philosopher and scholar of Romanticism, Timothy Morton, was recently asked where poetry begins.73 In answering, he turned Shelley’s metaphor upside down by suggesting that “rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poem.” Poetry doesn’t begin with human art, but in nature (natura naturans) itself. Human poetry is the flowering of earth. Said otherwise, imagination is an “elemental power,” “not ‘mine’…but…an alien ‘force’ in me.”74

“What we speak of as nature,” says Schelling, continuing the alchemical metaphor,

is a poem lying pent in a mysterious script. Yet the riddle could reveal itself, were we to recognize in it the odyssey of the spirit, which marvelously deluded, seeks itself, and in seeking, flies from itself.75

The alchemical Magnum Opus involves precisely such a circulatory psychophysical movement between seeking and fleeing, fusing and separating, assimilation and differentiation, eventually culminating in the purified Philosopher’s Stone, the coincidentia oppositorum.76 The alchemist’s soul becomes the a mirror of material processes, “always [manifesting] itself indirectly, as something other than itself.”77 Schelling’s philosophical scheme, according to Matthews, is founded upon “a decentered Self” whose consciousness is rooted in the genetic history of the larger totality of geological strata.78 This totality represents an “unprethinkable”79 past of subterranean forces, whose structure, though it cannot be logically demonstrated, can be imaginatively (re)generated. Schelling’s approach to philosophy is not demonstrative, but generative, in that it abandons traditional philosophical pretensions to deductive proof and formulaic certainty. “To philosophize about nature,” says Schelling, “means to create nature,” that is, to create after the manner of nature as subject (natura naturans).80 Or as Grant puts it, when “I” think nature, “what thinks in me is what is outside me.”81

Whitehead also abandons the pursuit of the abstract demonstration of truth: “…philosophy, in any proper sense of the term, cannot be proved. For proof is based on abstraction.”82 The role of philosophy, instead, is “to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet,” and thereby to “increase our penetration” even where “we can never fully understand.”83 Ultimately, “the aim of philosophy is sheer disclosure” and the production of “self-evidence.”84 Philosophy, for Whitehead, as for Schelling, begins and ends in a wonder at “the fact of creation and existence itself,” a fact best expressed poetically.85

“There is the one all-embracing fact,” says Whitehead, “which is the advancing history of the one Universe.”86 The one advancing Universe is simultaneously a social fact concerning the novel togetherness of the community of actual occasions. In Schelling’s terms, “there is but one absolute work of art, which may indeed exist in altogether different versions, yet it is still only one, even though it should not yet exist in its most ultimate form.”87 It should not yet exist in its ultimate form because the universe as a whole is an ongoing creative process, a cosmopoiesis, rather than an already finished product. The Universe, itself a poem, “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”88

Schelling and Whitehead both forged their philosophical imaginations by reading the dialogues of Plato. Despite the “old quarrel between poetry and philosophy,”89 Plato’s infamous ban of Homeric poetry from his ideal republic was not based on a rejection of poetry as such, but on a distaste for lyric and epic poetry that depicted the Gods as immoral. Plato’s true desire was simply to replace traditional poetry with his own novel form of theoretical poetry, consisting of hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people.90 Shelley said of Plato the poet that “the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.”91 The aim of Plato’s poetry was to “kindle a harmony” in imagination by reminding the soul of the measured rhythms of reason asleep within in. “What is commonly called theoretical reason,” says Schelling, “is nothing else but imagination in the service of freedom.”92 Plato recognized that poetry is an indispensable element in the formation of a free society’s values. Similarly, Whitehead suggests that “both [philosophy and poetry] seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization.”93

In the context of his own age, Whitehead looked in particular to the nature poetry of the Romantics, which, like philosophy, functions primarily as a critic of specialized scientific abstractions on behalf of common sense and concrete experience:

Remembering the poetic rendering of our concrete experience, we see at once that the element of value…of being an end in itself…must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event. Value is an element which permeates through and through the poetic view of nature. We have only to transfer to the very texture of realization in itself that value which we recognize so readily in terms of human life. This is the secret of Wordsworth’s worship of nature.94

From Schelling’s perspective, poetry and philosophy are also akin, but they should not be simply identified. Like philosophers, poets and other creative artists may sometimes be “in possession of the idea of absolute truth and beauty,” but unlike philosophers, they remain unconscious of this fact “precisely because they are possessed by it.”95 Schelling refers to poets and creative artists as mouthpieces of the Gods, but suggests they only display Ideas in particular external things, like poems and paintings, while philosophers “exhibit the archetypes of things in and for themselves…in an inward way.”96

It would seem, then, that traditional poets, like the polytheistic myths they sung, were still largely embedded in an unconscious nature. Though this universe is undoubtedly vibrantly glimmering with the values of intrinsic reality, it has not yet become the conscious poetry of spirit. It has not yet attained philosophy, “the poetic gift…reiterated to its highest power.”97

 

Conclusion

For Schelling, “a system is completed when it is lead back to its starting point.”98 If, as Plato suggests, philosophy begins in wonder, then, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”99 Schelling called for a new philosophical mythology, a “likely story” capable of directing the aesthetic and moral aims of human civilization.100 Whitehead, too, recognized the need for myth, since “there is no escape” from the inherited societal customs which form the given facts of human experience.101 As Plato realized, human beings are capable of no more than likely stories, since we are “like” God, made in the divine image, and not Godself. This likeness still grants us a tremendous degree of imaginative freedom. Though “there is no such fact as absolute freedom,” since as both Whitehead and Schelling argue, freedom presupposes necessity,102 the self-consciousness of human beings nonetheless “rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified.”103 Every grade of actual occasion is both “in time” and “out of time” by virtue of its physical and mental poles, but self-conscious human occasions participate more fully in God’s primordial envisagement of the Eternal Ideas.104 “The importance of [the human] as the supreme example of a living organism is beyond question,” says Whitehead.105 But even so, the goal of philosophy is not to further alienate humanity from its earthly garden, but to heal the human soul’s self-inflicted wound. The redemption of the soul through the skilled application of the medicine of true poetry is the Romantic project for philosophy. By consciously enacting the magical power of poetry, the philosopher is, like the alchemical physician, able to “[operate] not only on his patients’ bodies but on their imaginations.”106

“Philosophy,” says Schelling, “was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge,” and upon rising to the heights of self-conscious spirit, will “flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which [it] took [its] source.”107 The only difference between the original and final forms of the philosophical imagination is that, after the long labour of its journey into alienation has ended, the final form carries with it the hard won knowledge of “The feeling of life endless, the great thought/By which we live, Infinity and God.”108 Along with its original innocence, the imagination has in the end what it did not possess in the beginning: self-knowledge and moral freedom. The evil of alienation–“of nature and history rent asunder”109–works as an athanor, or alchemical fire, upon the soul, transmuting the mercury of intellectuality into the gold of spiritual love,110 a love, according to Wordsworth,

Which acts, nor can exist/Without Imagination, which in truth,/Is but another name for absolute strength/And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,/And reason in her most exalted mood.111

In the imaginative philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, Plato’s speculative Urform of unity in multiplicity is rediscovered to again become the “eternal unchanging characteristic of every investigation.”112 This intuition of the unity of the real and the ideal, of the infinite in the finite, brought to fruition, not only redeems the human soul of its internal strife; the rekindled imagination becomes also the Redeemer113 of the external114 universe:

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope…that [it] will also be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God…the whole of creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.115

Notes

1 F.W.J. Schelling, “The Oldest Program toward a System in German Idealism,” qtd. and tranl. by David Krell, The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing of God (Bloomignton: Indiana University Press, 2005), 24-25.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933), 155.

3 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

4 Martin Heidegger, trans. Joan Stambaugh, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985), 4.

5 Dalia Nassar, “From a Philosophy of Self to a Philosophy of Nature: Goethe and the Development of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie,” in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92:3 (2010), 304-321. Nassar suggests that Schelling broke with Fichte largely as a result of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s influence.

6 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (New York: Continuum, 2008). Grant complains that contemporary scholarship on Schelling’s philosophy pays “scant attention…to the deep vein of naturephilosophy running through it” (3).

7 Jason Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” in Philosophy Compass 6/9 (2011), 585-598.

8 Wirth, “Resurgence,” 594n6.

9 Grant, After Schelling, vii, ix.

10 See p. 5.

11 George R. Lucas, Jr., The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 1989), 25-26.

12 Alfred North Whitehead, Essays in Science and Philosophy (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 116.

13 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1978), xiii.

14 Antoon Braeckman, “Whitehead and German Idealism: A Poetic Heritage,” in Process Studies 14:4 (1985), 265-286.

15 See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 79.

16 Mary A Wyman, “Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science in Light of Wordsworth’s Poetry,” in Philosophy of Science 23 (1956), 283.

17 Isabelle Stengers, “Serializing Realism,” a talk at the Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project, entitled “Metaphysics and Things: New Forms of Speculative Thought,” at Claremont Graduate University on 12/2/2010.

18 See also Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 224.

19 See C.S. Peirce, ed. Justin Buchler, Philosophical Writings of Peirce (Mineda: Dover, 2011), 354. “Synechism is that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in phillosophy.”

20 See William James, ed. by John J. McDermott, “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Radical Empiricism,” in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977), 740.

21 See Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 125-130

22 Ch. IV. Eikasia is below the divided line because it relates only to sensory appearances in the world of becoming, remaining ignorant of the ideal realm of eternal being.

23 Timaeus 28a.

24 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Peter Heath, System of Transcendental Idealism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 73.

25 Sophist 241d.

26 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

27 Timaeus 37c-e. See also the Hermetic analogy: “As above, so below.”

28 “Mirror,” in Latin, is speculum.

29 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

30 See Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 29, 145. “Geometry proceeds, in that it sets out, not from theorems, but from postulates…it demands that reflection itself bring forth [the line] in productive intuition, which it certainly would not do if the genesis of a line could be conveyed through concepts.”

31 See Critique of Pure Reason, in The Essential Kant (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1970), 96.

32 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York: Dover, 2005), 59, 142.

33 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

34 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 287.

35 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Bruce Matthews, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, transl. Bruce Matthews (New York: State University of New York, 2007), 17-18.

36 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, ed. K.F.A. Schelling (Stuttgart-Augsberg: J.G. Cotta, 1856-64), 14. Transl. by Bruce Matthews.

37 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.

38 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 2011), 21.

39 See Parmenides.

40 Schelling, Positive Philosophy, 159-160.

41 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147-148.

42 Sophist, 247. Quoted in Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 119.

43 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

44 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

45 Timaeus, 49a.

46 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

47 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

48 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

49 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

50 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

51 Sophist, 247e.

52 See Symposium 202 on metaxy and Eros.

53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

54 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 187.

55 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 22.

56 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 131.

57 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, 55.

58 Philebus 16c.

59 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

60 Quoted in Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 23.

61 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

62 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Keith R Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (New York: State University of New York, 2004), 202.

63 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 127-169.

64 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 51-55.

65 See Wolfgang Smith, Science and Myth: What We Are Never Told (San Rafael: Sophia Perennis, 2010), 58.

66 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 122.

67 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 72.

68 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.

69 Schelling, Philosophy of Nature, 5-6, 39-40.

70 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 81-84.

71 See Percy Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” and William Wordsworth, The Prelude. 

72 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

73 “Interview with Timothy Morton” on 2/25/12, http://eeevee2.blogspot.com/2012/02/interview-with-timothy-morton.html (accessed 5/8/12).

74 Susanna Lindberg, “On the Night of the Elemental Imaginary,” in Research in Phenomenology 41 (2011), 157.

75 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 232.

76 See Patrick Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (London: Penguin, 2002), 135-154.

77 Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, 143.

78 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 28.

79 See F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Jason Wirth, The Ages of the World: (fragment) from the Handwritten Remains: Third Version (c. 1815) (New York: State University of New York, 2000), 12.

80 Quoted in Grant, After Schelling, 1.

81 Grant, After Nature, 158.

82 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

83 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 50-51.

84 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

85 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168 and Positive Philosophy, 73.

86 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

87 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

88 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

89 Republic, 607b.

90 See Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 389-395.

91 Shelly, “A Defense of Poetry.”

92 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 176.

93 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

94 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

95 F.W.J. Schelling, Bruno, or On the Natural and Divine Principle of Things (New York: State University of New York, 1984), 132. See also Plato’s Apology 22c-e.

96 Schelling, Bruno, 132.

97 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 230-231.

98 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

99 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168. See also Plato’s Theaeteus 155d.

100 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232-233.

101 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 63.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 133; Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 203-204.

103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 161.

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 248.

105 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 24.

106 Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964), 151.

107 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

108 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIII, quoted in M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 118.

109 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

110 Valentin Tomberg, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, transl. by Robert Powell (New York: Penguin, 2002), 194.

111 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIV, quoted in Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 118.

112 Philebus 15d.

113 See Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 119-122.

114 The redeemed universe is the universe understood according to Whitehead’s doctrine of internal relations (see p. 10 above).

115 Romans 8:19-22.

In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

Philosophy Blogging, OOO/SR, Nihilism, and God

It is difficult to describe the effects of the blogosphere on consciousness, especially when the information communicated via blogs pretends to be philosophical. The blog, as a medium, has not yet been swallowed as radio by TV, or the printed word by the digital hyperlink, and so gaining perspective on its effects remains difficult. We’re still in it, like a child in her mother’s womb. I think by the graces of, and so cannot yet understand, this electronic medium. I think the obscurity of the blogosphere’s effects are magnified for academic philosophers, since there are no disciplinary boundaries carving it up in order to assure that interlocutors play the same language games (which is what always happens at university conferences). Academic philosophy, as practiced at conferences and published in journals, is usually myopically specialized. Arguments take place within some narrow field of relevance, while the truly important questions of life on earth remain backgrounded. This is, of course, a caricature. But so long as we are caricaturing, let us hear from Alan Watts:

“This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence. It’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what. He would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.”

Even where philosophy begins not with pretense, but with the love of wonder and the desire to know the nature of things, it remains subject to the effects on consciousness of the variety of species of media used to communicate it. Modern consciousness, despite its claim to have dropped sophistry for science,  learns to think only given the cognitive augmentation provided by the alphabet.* Postmodern consciousness, similarly, thinks by the graces of the blogosphere, the apogee of the electronic medium. The democratization of information has now become at least technologically feasible, if not politically actual. I don’t think the rise of the blog signals the end of the university (or at least I should hope not), but it does mean that the individual is now shouldering a good deal more of the weight of human knowledge than before.

I am in graduate school myself, though I attend CIIS, an academically marginalized school started by an Indian yogi in the middle of the New Age capital of the world (Watts was once on the faculty). It is impossible for me to escape this context, even though I aim to think individually much in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment…” –Self-Reliance

Thought does not take place in a vacuum, however. Philosophy is not best done alone in the woods. Institutions, with all due respect to the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, are an indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. The blogosphere is alluring to me because it is both individualizing and institutionalizing. It is a distributed institution of localized individuals, each capable of participating in the co-production of a planetary ecology of ideas, images, and symbols unhindered by the disciplinary boundaries of traditional universities.

This is the ideal, at least. All of this meta-reflection on philosophy blogging is by way of introduction to some final thoughts in response to what is by now old news, namely the discussion surrounding nihilism and theology that took place earlier this month amongst OOOers. Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Adam RobbertJason Hills, Tom SparrowLeon Niemoczynski, and others all took part.

More recently, Kris Coffield over at Fractured Politics has posted a summary and some suggestions. I wanted to clarify some assumptions he makes regarding my position.

I have argued that, without some divine function (whether of the theist, pantheist, or panentheist variety), ideas and meanings can have no reality in the universe. I make this claim in order to remain metaphysically consistent, not because I think atheism is immoral. Obviously, atheists can still be ethical people, operating in the world with meaning, purpose, and even humanitarian idealism. I would never dispute this. What I have argued is that atheists who are also scientific materialists/naturalists risk falling into blatant contradiction unless they are able to articulate how thinking, feeling, and willing (faculties normally associated with consciousness) remain possible despite their metaphysical commitment to a thoroughly non-teleological, disenchanted cosmology. If it is the case that the universe operates according to efficient causality alone (as most materialists traditionally assert), then how is it that human beings are capable of entertaining ideas and engaging in meaningful projects? The validity of scientific knowledge rests upon the assumption that the thoughts and purposes of scientists are real. The atheistic materialist is left with two options in order to remain consistent with this assumption: either ideas and meanings are uniquely human capacities not present in the rest of the universe, or human consciousness itself is an epiphenomenal illusion that neuroscience will eventually explain in mechanistic terms. I think both of these options are inadequate: emergentist dualism is too anthropocentric, and eliminativist monism is too mechanomorpic. I maintain that the human soul is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe because the universe is ensouled. Whitehead’s panentheist conception of God functions in a way similar to the World-Soul as described in Timaeus; only, instead of actively shaping passive matter as Plato’s demiurge, Whitehead’s dipolar God bends the infinitely diversifying flow of Creativity into the finite occasions of a unifying Cosmos (and is bent, in turn, by these same occasions).

Coffield argues that, despite my apparent support of the anthrodecentric tendencies of OOO, I am “ultimately unable to escape” a human-centric ontology. He continues:

“Even if the noosphere is more putatively sophisticated than the nonhuman objectsphere (a debatable point), it does not follow, from an object-orientation, that the relations of the former should be given precedence over the latter. Instead, as Levi Bryant has previously indicated, existence entails perpetual differentiation, such that to be is to differ. Thus, the very concept of a singular noosphere or inanimate objectsphere is conceptually shaky, and any entity inserted to bridge the sides of this infinitely regressive binary—God, game, golden goose, or Gandalf—is rendered, to borrow Morton’s word, irrelevant.”

Much of the philosophizing I do on this blog reflects my struggle to steer clear of all binaries by weaving Wisdom’s wandering story into a differentiated whole. There are many objects, many perspectives, both human-related and not. In calling them all objects, I aim to think the Absolute, or the identity of identity and difference. My philosophizing is a cosmologizing, and in that sense, all my thinking is in the service of anthropogenesis. I aim to cosmologize the human by anthropomorphizing the Cosmos. Perhaps this sounds tautological, but if we think in terms of process or genesis instead of being or ontos, the Anthropic Principle becomes among the most profound of metaphysical insights. Anthropos is already implicit in Cosmos, not because our particular species represents the supreme achievement of the universe, but because thinking has always been a more than human activity rooted in the nature of reality itself.

“The forces which are at work inside my body”, suggests Rudolf Steiner,

“…are the same as those which exist outside. Therefore I am really identical with the objects; not, however, “I” in so far as I am a perception of myself as subject, but “I” in so far as I am a part of the universal world process […] The universal, primordial Being permeating all humanity thus takes hold of us through our thinking. Life within reality, filled with thought content, is at the same time life in God.” –Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, p. 98 and 236

I do not think that the noösphere should take precedence over the non-human universe, because I do not conceive of the universe as lacking in νοῦς or ψυχή. The noösphere is a cosmic event, something the whole of Gaia is doing in conjunction with the solar system and galaxy within which it is nested. God, or the World-Soul (ψυχή κόσμου), is not irrelevant to philosophy if the philosopher hopes to think the Cosmos. If, as Bryant suggests, “to be is to differ,” then it is nihilism, indeed, that we are left with. Not that I want to homogenize the individualities of reality; I would just rephrase Bryant’s important insight: “to become is to differ.” Process philosophy is then an attempt to identify and re-enact the divine aim of creative differentiation, to participate in its latent holotropic tendencies by uncovering the divine presence in all temporal things. Only then does the Universe become a reality.

Coffield continues:

“If nihilism fears really are concerns over the implications of anthrodecentrism (a clever term coined by Segall) for value judgement, then demonstrating the capacity for deriving value under realist conditions may allay anxiety about affirmations of meaninglessness, making the more radical articulations of object-oriented ontology mare palatable. Crafting a coherent variant of anthrodecentric normativity can be accomplished, in one sense, through an appeal to naturalistic realism…[or] a radically flattened version of natural selection [productive of] moral norms consonant with an instrumental social rationality, wherein moral arrangements that impede group interests animate the potential for unrest, creating feedback that promotes the development of norms aligned with social rationality.”

In order to avoid being misunderstood as advocating subject-centrism over object-centrism, or unity over variety, or hierarchy over ecology, I should further unpack my cosmotheandrism. Attempts to naturalize our moral needs/wants in this way seems to me to be a form of greedy reductionism neglectful of the extent to which the ultimate values of the Universe pre-exist the species level, since it is these values (like Beauty, Goodness, and Truth) that provide the metaphysical condition for the possibility of local accomplishments of normativity. Reducing morality to an accident of social and/or natural selection does not lead to moral realism, but to relativism. If we seek an object-orientation in ethics, then value must be rooted in the world process itself. Our human characteristics are microcosmic inflections of the divine character of the macrocosm.

This microcosm-macrocosm relation is not deterministic or coercive, such that God becomes responsible for every decision made by human beings or any other organism. The World-Soul is not a universal tyrant, but a poet, who, “with tender patience [leads] it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Whitehead goes on:

“God and the World are the contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast […] God and the World stand over against each other, expressing the final metaphysical truth that appetitive vision and physical enjoyment have equal claim to priority in creation. But no two actualities can be torn apart: each is all in all. Thus each temporal occasion embodies God, and is embodied in God. In God’s nature, permanence is primordial and flux is derivative from the World: in the World’s nature, flux is primordial and permanence is derivative from God. Also the World’s nature is a primordial datum for God; and God’s nature is a primordial datum for the World. Creation achieves the reconciliation of permanence and flux when it has reached its final term which is everlastingness—the Apotheosis of the World. Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. In their unity, they inhibit or contrast. God and the World stand to each other in this op-posed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (ibid., p. 348-349).

—————————————————-

*The alphabet begins with A. A is for aleph, א, which to a mystic’s ear symbolizes to the polar unity (or Trinitarity) of God:

“The letter can been seen as being composed of [1] an upper yud, [2] a lower yud, and [3] a vav leaning on a diagonal. [1]The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while [2]the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. [3]The vav (“hook”) connects the two realms.” –Wikipedia

Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

SR/OOO and Nihilism: a response to Harman and Bryant

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.

OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds

Adam Robbert and Graham Harman have both posted responses to my post about the anthrodecentrism of object-oriented ontology.

I think Adam’s summary of my position as regards the relationship between divinity, nature, and humanity is quite accurate. He chose Raimon Panikkar‘s term “cosmotheandrism” to describe my approach. I’m definitely sympathetic to this characterization and have worked Panikkar’s ideas into several essays on panentheism.

Harman responded in particular to my assertion that OOO needs to articulate its anthropological and theological foundations to avoid spiraling into nihilism.

He writes:

Since footnotes2plato doesn’t seem inherently opposed to the OOO project, I assume that when he says that “OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications,” he doesn’t mean that the way to do this is by restoring human being to its previous grandiose eminence. I don’t think footnotes2plato means that nihilism automatically results from putting all beings on the same footing, and if he did mean that I would argue against it.

I don’t think, after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, that philosophy should or can re-instate humanity as God’s uniquely chosen species, singled out from all other life. I also don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology. It all depends on how we construe the relationship between Cosmos and Anthropos. The species Homo sapiens is not identical to the Anthropos; rather, the latter represents the ideal toward which our species, like all other life, is striving. I follow much ancient Hermetic thought in construing the Anthropos as an archetype active throughout the Cosmos, a potential form of manifestation that, at least on our planet, has been most closely approximated by Homo sapiens. I, like Teilhard de Chardin, think there is a direction to evolution, a curve toward greater complexity and consciousness expressed through deeper interiority. Given enough time, and as a result of the influence of divine lures, the Universe tends to evolve the capacity for a deeper feeling of Beauty, a clearer sight of Truth, and a stronger will for Goodness. I think overcoming nihilism requires articulating a coherent “cosmotheandric” scheme, wherein the role of the human is to more fully realize its potential as a representative of the Anthropos on planet Earth.

I need to unpack some of these thoughts further, but I’m running out the door now. More soon!

Cosmos, Anthropos, and Theos in Harman, Teilhard, and Whitehead

Knowledge-Ecology has written a reflection upon finishing Graham Harman’s new book The Quadruple Object.

Adam writes that “OOO is greatly enriching our sense of cosmos, whilst (somewhat) impoverishing our sense of anthropos.”

I’ve had similar reservations about Harman’s anthrodecentrism (if I may diagnose it): Harman and the Special Magic of Human Knowledge.

Harman’s is an ontology that re-orients our human-centricity relative to objects in general, such that objects become full, autonomous participants in the cosmic drama right along side us. Humans are not ‘up ahead’ of objects in general, not the leading edge of evolution; neither are they any closer to Being than every other being. Harman’s is a sorely needed intervention into the philosophies of access currently dominating the Academy, especially in light of the difficulties faced by phenomenology and scientific naturalism alike when it comes to devising an actionable ethical response to an increasingly inevitable natural/ecological catastrophe. But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe (I’m thinking more of Brassier than Harman here), I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications. Whitehead’s cosmic realism/object-orientation is brought into harmony with the fact of his own conscious knowing of the universe; but this scheme only holds together if, as Whitehead speculates, God’s primordial aims and consequent feelings are ingredient in our human experience, such that we become fully conscious of God’s envisagement of and suffering in the Universe. Meillasoux may not actually be so far from suggesting something similar to this polar Whiteheadian God.

I think a realism as regards Cosmos requires a realism in regard to Anthropos and Theos as well. Otherwise our conception of the Cosmos becomes impoverished, and our ethics dwell on passion (suffering) instead of compassion (love). Whitehead does bring God fully into relation with the World, and even though he is fully invested in the adventure of rationality precariously supported by our civilization, in the end he seems to deny human Consciousness any special role in the drama of creation. Eventually, our species may simply go extinct, making way for some as yet entirely unimaginable adventure in Creativity upon the Earth. Perhaps machines are awaiting the nuclear disaster that makes most organic life on this planet impossible, just as mammals once hid in the shadows of the dinosaurs to await their chance to rule the world.

Teilhard plays up the importance and inevitability of Consciousness a bit more, but only because it is the necessary condition for Christogenesis. Why is the Human really so important for Teilhard? Because like Matter for Life, and like Life for Thought, the Human provides the womb within which the Cosmos is able to turn in on itself again, gaining a deeper dimension of interiority (more vision, more feeling). Human consciousness (which in actuality is a collective phenomenon–in its full deployment is the Noosphere, the Planetary Mind) is the birthplace of Christ.

There is one point in particular where I think Harman implicitly recognizes the unique capacity of the Human. Are we not the only object who is capable of conceiving of “real,” as opposed “sensual” objects? Are we not the only things in the world who know the world withdraws from us and from itself, that things are always more than they at first appear to us to be? Are we not, in short, the only sort of object that can have an object-oriented metaphysics? Fire always thinks it is burning the paper, but it is only burning what was already fiery in the paper. It seems like a good place to start recognizing the “special magic” of the Human is our capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the sublime, our ecstatic participation in the infinite, our comprehension of the fire’s finite prehension of the paper.

Imagining the Cosmos: notes on my dissertation…

In the past year or so, the blueprint of my dissertation topic has gone through multiple iterations. Last year, while applying for my PhD studies at CIIS, I wrote a goal statement that still reflects the general theme I am envisioning. Now that I’m entering the last term of course work, I wanted to take the opportunity to further articulate the aim of my research.

When I composed my goal statement, I was as yet unaware of the Speculative Realist movement. It turns out that two of the philosophers I’d planned to bring into conversation with one another, namely Whitehead and Schelling, are right at the center of this still emerging school of thought. Despite the resurgence of interest in process thought and metaphysics more generally that this movement represents, there seems to be a gap in scholarship bringing process ontology and naturphilosophy into constructive cross-fertilization with what I’ll for now refer to as Western Esotericism. This may be a good place to focus my dissertation.

I’ve written somewhat extensively on the esoteric cosmology of Rudolf Steiner, specifically his understanding of the Imagination. For Steiner, the Imagination is an organ of perception, a window into the world of otherwise supersensible realities. As a graduate student, Steiner edited Goethe’s scientific writings. He argued that Goethe’s was a more adequate form of empiricism than that of his mechanistic contemporaries, since it granted the Imagination is proper role in the perception of the deeper archetypal patterns, or ur-forms, at work beneath natural phenomena. Perhaps Steiner’s ablest English-speaking interpreter, Owen Barfield, conducted a similar case-study of imaginative cognition on the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose thought is closely linked with Schelling’s, to the point of verging on plagiarism!–a charge examined by Barfield in What Colerdige Thought).

More recently, I’ve begun reading some of Henry Corbin’s work on Active Imagination and the mundus imaginalis. Like Barfield and Steiner, Corbin argues that modern philosophy has all but forgotten the important role of the intermediate imaginal plane between matter/sensation and mind/intellection. The result is a superficial fissure within philosophy itself, wherein idealists battle with realists, and rationalists with empiricists, over whose ultimately one-sided conception of the universe is valid.

Articulating an ontology of the Imagination seems to me to be a prerequisite for any truly coherent speculation on the nature of the Universe. Whitehead characterized his adventure in cosmology as an “imaginative leap,” and Schelling often drew connections between the work of the artist and that of the philosopher, suggesting that philosophy is a generative, rather than demonstrative activity. I think this makes a study of their respective approaches to cosmology fertile ground for an explication of the role of Imagination in speculative philosophy.

Redeeming Imagination as an organ of cognitive import, thereby correcting the bias of much modern positivistic thought that it produces only fantasy and illusion, will allow for the development of a more textured ontology that does not simply reduce reality to the domain/s of the material-sensible and/or the mental-intelligible. Jonael Schickler, whose life was cut short in 2005, argued in his dissertation that Steiner’s four-fold ontology of material, ethereal, astral, and spiritual planes clarifies many outstanding aporias in contemporary philosophy, including the relationship of life and consciousness to matter.

The major hurtle, as Schickler saw it, standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of this more complex picture of reality are the epistemological limits placed on human thought by the critical philosophy of Kant. Kant did not believe that human consciousness could develop beyond its normal capacities of sensory intuition and categoreal understanding. For him, the human soul was forever denied access to its own conditions of possibility, whether they be ultimately spiritual or material. Schickler, following Steiner, believed that the contemporary human being is still in the process of awakening to its higher spiritual capacities. The human is more an idea struggling to be realized than a being fixed in its current form. How far into Steiner’s account of this evolution of consciousness I will delve into in my dissertation remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that I will have to find a way beyond Kant’s epistemic skepticism. Schelling and Whithead will be of great service in this respect. And luckily, there is in Kant already the germ of an understanding of the mysterious role of Imagination in cognition.

If anyone has any suggestions or sources that might be of assistance, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Thinking etho-ecology with Stengers and Whitehead

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

Process Ontology in Schelling and Whitehead

In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.

I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.

This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.

In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:

Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.

Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.

“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.

In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.

Towards an Eco-Ontology

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
———————————————
Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.