Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse (draft)

The following was an early draft of a talk I gave in my own track at the Whitehead/Ecological Civilization conference in Claremont, CA. For video of the actual talk, click HERECosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse.001

This track has been given the task of re-imagining late modernity, and in particular, of re-imagining what John Cobb has called late modernity’s reductive monism. In my talk today, I want to try sketch a cosmopolitical alternative to late modernity’s reductive monism as part of an attempt to begin preparing us, at least in the realm of ideas and imagination, for a ecological civilization to come. My approach will not be systematic, but pluralistic. I aim to sketch an alternative to modernity by drawing out the metaphysical possibilities opened up by ontological pluralism. My method is one of philosophical “assemblage,” which Whitehead suggests should precede the stage of careful systematization. System comes later, after the owl of Minerva has flown (as Hegel has suggested), when we have time for careful reflection about details. Right now, matters are rather urgent and there is no time to fill in all the details. This is philosophy in a time of emergency. An old story is dying, and we need as many hints about the new one emerging as we can manage. It’s my hope that a people to come will find more room to breathe in the processual pluriverse I’ll attempt to sketch than modern people have found in their incoherently bifurcated and so alienating picture of a materialistic universe.

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I will draw, of course, on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the man of the hour. But also on William James, one of Whitehead’s most important influences. In addition I will build on the work of the contemporary French Whiteheadians Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

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Let’s begin by unpacking the title of the track a bit. To better grasp the metaphysical underpinnings of “late modernity,” maybe its best to start by comparing it with “early modernity.” Early modernity was dualistic: on one side of the ontological divide were rational subjects, who by freely entering into a social contract, became citizens in a democratic state; on the other side were mechanical objects, which by obeying universal causal laws, operated as part of a deterministic nature. Human society on one side, nonhuman nature on the other. Modernity thus began with a twin mission, what Latour refers to as the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern, 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters and owners of nature.

So what has happened? Why did late modernity become monistic, as Cobb describes it? For one thing, the 19th century brought the discoveries of geological deep time and evolutionary theory, both of which placed the human/nature dualism of the 17th century on far shakier ground. A metaphysical decision was made to reduce human beings to one side of the former ontological dualism, and so we have increasingly been understood as only a more sophisticated form of biological machine. The alternative way of establishing a human/nature continuity would have been to re-imagine nature as, like us, in some sense ensouled (an alternative we will explore momentarily).

Even more important in the collapse of dualism into monism, however, was the 20th century failure of communism. What many would consider to be our greatest hope of ending exploitation of humans by humans was outlasted by capitalism, which has since given up on modernity’s emancipatory mission and doubled down on domination. The failure of communism, neoliberal capitalists say, showed once and for all that human nature is basically selfish. Capitalists argue that domination and mastery of both human labor and natural resources through a kind of market monism is our only hope for an albeit quasi-civilized existence. Only the invisible hand of the market can assure the stability of civilization. Everything from politics to religion to education to healthcare should be given over to the free market, as though no other form of self-organization could help order our societies. As the Jamesian political scientist Kennan Ferguson describes it in his book Politics in the Pluriverse, late modernity brought a “shift in political science toward representing political actors as economic consumers. The increasing economism of political science has meant that many of the issues of interest to political philosophers–sovereignty, legitimacy, representation–have been recast as potential choices in a marketplace of ideologies, where voter/consumers are peddled competing brand names” (27). What’s clear is that the 20th century only led modernity to replace one war with another, the Cold War for the Warming War. Capitalism no longer faces another human enemy. It is now at war with Gaia.

As Latour says, “By seeking to orient man’s exploitation of man toward an exploitation of nature by man, capitalism has magnified both beyond measure” (Modern, 8). Our situation as late modern people is stated starkly by Latour: “between modernizing and ecologizing, we have to choose” (AIME, 8).

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Ecologizing our civilization will require re-imagining the philosophical assumptions underlying the modern worldview. “A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” I think I speak for all of us in this track, and perhaps for this entire conference, when I defend the simple thesis that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (Modes of Thought, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. Late modern market monism—by reducing earth to, at best a resource, and at worst a trash bin, and by reducing human beings to cogs in a technocapitalist profit machine—has gone even further, since it not only leaves no room for life, it actively seeks to exterminate it. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of modern philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die. Both dualism and monism have failed us. At this point, as Latour puts it, “we have to fight trouble with trouble, counter a metaphysical machine with a bigger metaphysical machine” (AIME, 22). I’m following Whitehead, James, Latour, and Stengers in proposing an alternative, more ecological metaphysical scheme.

Ontological pluralism is easy to define, but not as easy to understand. It is the metaphysical position which suggests that there are more than one, or two (or three, or any finite number…), of ways of being. Reality is the ongoing composition of a multiplicity of more or less overlapping modes of existence. We are so used to thinking of reality being unified, a finished One, that the possibility of its becoming many may at first seem like a terrifying prospect. To the extent that modern inheritors of the liberal tradition really understand it’s implications, it should be terrifying, since it dissolves all our hubristic certainties about ourselves and the world, about who and where we think we are. Part of the rationale behind the modern bifurcation of nature is that defining nature or matter as inert, dead stuff helped us establish our own identity as free agents. To challenge the inertness of nature, to recognize its agency, is also to challenge liberal notions of individual human freedom. Challenging these notions does not mean dismissing them–we are agents, too; but it does mean re-imagining the very foundations of individual identity and social contract-based politics.

There are less radical forms of pluralism, like cultural relativism or worldview pluralism. Everybody knows there are other ways of knowing, other cultural practices with their own psychological and even perceptual ways of representing reality; moderns accept that there are multiple views of the world. But what nobody doubts is that one world underlies all the views that humans can have of it. Many views, one world; many cultures, one Nature.

Ontological pluralism is not multiculturalism, but multinaturalism. Multiculturalism, as Latour points out, is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, they were also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Their Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted them access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections and superstitions.  Moderns sent their anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same universal laws belonging to the same physical nature must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to have discovered a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Latour describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Whitehead’s self-entitled “philosophy of organism” provides us with an example of a fully ecologized philosophy. Multinaturalism means neither science nor the universe it purports to study are ready-made unified wholes. There are as many sciences as there are natures. From a pluralist perspective, if wholeness is to exist, it must first be constructed and thereafter constantly maintained. Unity does not exist in advance of such composition. If any science qualifies as the science of “wholes”—and in a pluralist ontology, there are many wholes, not just One—it is ecology, which traditionally has been defined as the study of the relationship between organisms and environments. But in Whitehead’s scheme, the concept of an “environment” cannot just be taken for granted as a fixed, inorganic background. The environment is not, as Latour put it in his Gifford lectures on Gaia, “a mere frame devoid of any agency.” There is no Environment, there are only ever communities of other organisms. In an ontology of organism, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science.

An ontology of organism opens us to the possibility of cosmopolitics, a concept originally developed by Isabelle Stengers. Cosmopolitics has been articulated as a protest against what Whitehead calls “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of appearance and reality, experience and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things: “Everything perceived is in nature,” and everything in nature perceives. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it.

Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Cosmopolitics calls upon us to recognize that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community.

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If modernity has culminated in the bifurcation of mononaturalist Science and multiculturalist politics, then the emergence of a nonmodern, ecological and so ontologically pluralistic civilization will require the reinvention of both. Not only must ecology replace physics at the foundations of the natural sciences, it must replace economics at the foundations of the social sciences, as well.

Cosmopolitics is an attempt to do just that, to re-imagine scientific practices in more democratic terms, and to re-imagine politics in a way that acknowledges the need to invent ways of coexisting—not just with people of our own color, country, or culture, not even just with other humans—but with all earth’s creatures. To democratize science doesn’t mean facts should be determined by popular opinion; rather, it means recognizing that scientific activity is always undertaken upon a landscape shaped by socioeconomic interests and fraught with political implications. Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of buiding alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances; it is not, despite modern epistemic pretenses, the product of an objectifying gaze from nowhere. Stengers points out the tendency many modern scientists and technologists have to “defer to ‘politics’ decisions that would have to be made about the use of data and techniques produced in new labs: that use will be whatever ‘we’ decide it should be. But this ‘we,’ purely human and apparently decisional, will intervene in a situation that will already be saturated with decisions made in the name of technique, science, and rationality. Politicians will demand that experts tell them who ‘we’ are from the scientific point of view.” [personal example with Marvin Minsky from 2007; another example is Francis Collins and Obama announcing the Brain Initiative].

Whereas early modern dualism and late modern monism alike produced “expert” scientists who claimed to have unmasked with objective certainty a truth hidden from common sense experience, pluralism is an intrinsically diplomatic ontology.

The pluralist responds to encounters with others under the assumption that reality is an ongoing and open-ended “geostorical adventure” of “planetary negotiation,” which is to say it is always in-the-making and never at rest in the possession of a isolated heroic knower. The ontological pluralist doesn’t falsely align fetishized ideas of “Science,” “Rationality,” and “Objectivity” on one side and oppose them to “belief,” “custom,” and “illusion” on the other. Instead of in every case sending in “the experts” to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky. Cosmopolitics is not cosmopolitanism, not rooted in the search for some abstract sense of universal humanity. The notion of “human rights” may have functioned in a liberatory way in some cases, but just as often, argues Stengers, it has served as a way of disqualifying those whose unique ways of life fail to fit the universal mold. Stengers criticizes this modern attempt to politically unify all peoples through an all too abstract notion of “humanity.” Such an attempt moves too fast, pretending to achieve in advance what can only be accomplished at the end, after much negotiation. As Latour puts it, “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.”

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Stengers links the failed notion of human rights to “the curse of tolerance,” the idea that so long as you keep your differences private, we can learn to live together in public. In other words, so long as you don’t take your own cosmology seriously and are willing to accept the strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double-bind of modernity, then we can tolerate one another’s abstract “right” to exist. So long, of course, as you stay over there, in your own neighborhood, and don’t force me to deal with the dissonance of such a strangely bifurcated image of reality too directly. For this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences. If there is to be a future cosmopolitical civilization, it will no longer accept the dichotomy between public and private life. We will have found a way to meet the challenge of inventing a means of living together within the same extended community. We will all have become diplomats, willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside it.

So what is the take home of this assemblage of nonmodern Whiteheadian philosophical ideas? What is the relationship between his metaphysical scheme and the ecologization of our species, of our civilization?

How can he help us transform our cities from gas guzzling machines into creative contributors to life’s flourishing? How are we to convert his cosmological theory into a cultural and political practice that leads us home again, that allows us to remember that we are earthbound creatures inhabiting and transversing a plurality of interrelated places co-evolving at a multiplicity of speeds. We do not inhabit a unified space-time field determined by universal laws. We are not made of some fantastical stuff called “matter,” the most abstract, insensible, confused idea I’ve ever heard.  What I am suggesting is that Whitehead’s speculative cosmovision evokes an alternative form of consciousness, provoking a re-imagination of modern subjectivity; Whitehead heralds the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth, as Berry calls it, or geostory as Latour refers to it. Whitehead’s words work upon our souls like alchemical catalysts. His books are a psychedelic pharmacopoeia, a remedy for sick minds. He is a philosophical diplomat: he heals the divisions of our intellectual histories, not by rushing to unify them into a Single System, but by giving each perspective, each contrast, its place in a organic community of interrelated drops of experience somehow managing to hang together as a whole, not by necessity, by right, by divine fiat, but because of the persuasive allure of beauty freely calling all creatures toward harmony and order, toward cosmos.

The natural world, the universe, the cosmos, Nature, etc., is not something we can continue to imagine as apart from, other than, the human world, the polis, society. The cosmos is just as political as we are, just as much a society of agents vying with one another for power, for access to energy, to food, to sex, to status and attention. 

Minding Time: Chronos, Kairos, and Aion in an Archetypal Cosmos

Notes for a brief talk I gave today at CIIS.

[Update (July 15, 2016): This talk was expanded into an article published in Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology]

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 “…what is time? Who can give that a brief or easy answer? Who can even form a conception of it to be put into words? Yet what do we mention more often or familiarly in our conversation than time? We must therefore know what we are talking about when we refer to it, or when we hear someone else doing so. But what, exactly, is that? I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.”

-Saint Augustine, Confessions (book 11, chapter 3) (~400CE)

One thing is for sure, whatever the ego thinks time is—whatever spell it tries to cast with its alphabetic magic to capture it—it will almost certainly miss the mark. Whatever time is, we should admit we are mostly unconscious of it. In fact, it seems to me that there is an intimate connection, perhaps even an identity, between time and the Jungian notion of the unconscious, a connection that archetypal cosmology obviously substantiates. Despite time’s unconscious depths and ineffability, I am after all a philosopher, and we love nothing more than to try to “eff” the ineffable.

In the 15 brief minutes I have with you, I want to introduce, with help from the Ancient Greek language, 3 different modalities of temporality, or rather, I want to introduce you to 3 Gods, each with a powerful hand in shaping our experience of time:  Chronos, Kairos, and Aion. In concrete experience, each mode appears to me at least to be co-present and interwoven; I only separate them abstractly to help us get a better sense for the anatomy of time. Of course, we should remember all the while that “we murder to dissect” (Wordsworth).

I therefore humbly ask for the blessing of the Gods of time as I embark on this short journey into their meanings. May you grant us entry into your mysteries.

A Brief History of (the Idea of) Time: 

1. Plato suggests in the Timaeus that time is brought forth by the rhythmic dancing of the Sun, Moon, and five other planets then known upon the stage of 12 constellations. Through the cooperative and friendly circling of these archetypal beings, eternity is permitted entry into time. Time, in other words, is said to emerge from the harmonious or regular motion of the heavens—motion regulated by mathematical harmonies. Plato’s ancient vision of a perfect cosmic order had it that the motion of the 7 known planetary spheres was in mathematical harmony with the 8th supraplanetary sphere of fixed constellations, that the ratios of their orbits added up to one complete whole, finding their unity in what has been called the Platonic or Great Year (known to us today as the 26,000 year precession of the equinoxes). This highest of the heavenly spheres was the God known to the ancients as Aion.

2. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s idea of time as produced by motion. Aristotle argued that time couldn’t possibly be produced by motion, because motion itself is something we measure using time. Motion can be fast or slow, he argued, but time always flows at the same rate. Time is simply a way of measuring change. Aristotle’s conception of time, then, is chronic, rather than aionic. His was the beginning of the scientific view of time as a merely conventional measurement, rather than a cosmic motion, as with Plato.  

3. Galileo’s view of the universe was, on the face of it, a complete rejection of Aristotle’s physics. Remember that Aristotle still held a teleological view of chronological time: an apple falls to the ground, for Aristotle, because it desires to do so, because earth is its natural home; for Galileo, nothing in the apple compels it to fall, it is simply a blind happening working according to mechanical laws. Galileo, like Newton and Descartes, rejected the idea of purposeful, meaningful time. Time became for them merely a function in a differential equation. In a sense, then, though the early scientists rejected Aristotle’s view of teleological time, they only further formalized Aristotle’s view of time as a measure of motion. Time became t, a variable quantity used to calculate the precise velocity of material bodies through space.

4. Einstein’s theory of relativity revealed how time and space are intimately related, since, strange as it may seem, as speed increases, time slows. But still, time is understood not on its own terms, but is reduced to a linear, easily measurable and quantifiable function. The reduction of time to Chronos may have begun with Aristotle, but was carried to new extremes by modern materialistic science.

5. Today we know things are quite a bit more chaotic than earlier thinkers, including Plato, let on: we live in a chaosmos, not a perfect cosmos; an open spiral not a closed circle. The orbital periods of the planets shift ever so slightly as the years pass, and the “fixed” stars are actually not fixed at all. Our universe is very strange, and measuring time is no easy matter. Even merely chronological time is extremely counter-intuitive: A day on Venus, for instance, is longer than a Venusian year.

Everything is spinning around everything else. Time is then not a moving image of eternal perfection; rather, time is what happens when divinity loses its balance and gets dizzy. But don’t worry, there is nowhere to fall over in the infinite expanses of space.

Time comes in three modalities:

Minding Time, Chronos, Kairos, Aion
1. Chronos
 (chronic time/Saturn): quantitative, homogeneous, secular time. The modern age has entirely succumbed to the rule of chronic time. Chronic time is empty, passing meaninglessly and without narrative arc. Chronic time is mere conventional measurement, a means of counting time so as to be able to use it as we see fit for our private economic or public political ends, as something to be “spent” (time is money) or “wasted” (time is a resource). Chronic time is laid out on a grid upon which unremarkable change can be plotted; it is time as materialistic physical science knows it, where the past is imagined to be no different ontologically from the present or the future (that is, there is no creativity, no teleology). Chronic time is utterly indifferent to what happens, a passive background rather than an active and interested participant. With Chronos, the temporal situation is indifferent to the subject. Chronic time is ruled by death anxiety: Chronos is the time of the ego.

2. Kairos (kaironic time/Uranus)- qualitative, heterogeneous, seasonal, archetypally informed time. Kaironic time is full of potential, such that it beckons us to participate in special moments more pregnant than others. Kairos reveals to us that there are certain times when the order of things, the cosmos, the would-soul, is attempting to persuade we human souls to participate in the unfolding of events in a particular way, times when a certain mood descends as though from heaven to characterize earthly events. Kairos allows for a “subject-situation correlation.” Kaironic time introduces novelty into the banality of linear, chronic time. It is time as “creative advance,” to use A.N. Whitehead’s phrase. It is timeliness. We might even refer to the planetary archetypes as kairoi, as principles of timeliness, rulers of the different ways eternity puts on the dress of time. When we ask, “what time is it?”, we receive an answer in chronic terms; when we ask “what kind of time is it?”, we receive an answer in kaironic terms. If Chronos is the time of the ego, Kairos is the time of the Soul.

3. Aion (aionic time/Neptune)- unbounded, sacred or eternal time. Aion is time as a moving image of eternity, as an eternal circle that, when we contemplate it, grants us eternal life. Aion is time as experienced by the archetypes themselves (rather than, as with Kaironic time, when the archetypes spill out of eternity to participate in our more mundane experience). Aionic time is a sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. Aionic time is our immeasurable movement of experiential intensification toward our unique but no less cosmic destiny. If Chronos is the time of the ego, and Kairos is the time of the Soul, Aion is the time of the Self.

Minding time means learning to participate again, to collaborate with the stars in the making of meaningful time. Without the promethean aid of astrology, the texture of time would remain invisible to our mind’s eye, its music inaudible to our heart’s ear. Astrology makes time sensible, meaningful, and moral. The archetypal astrological perspective teaches that each of us expresses our own time signature; transits make us aware of how our own psychic rhythms attune to planetary rhythms. Each of our beating hearts is a microcosmic Sun, which is to say that we are each at the center of our own mini-universe. Time doesn’t just happen to us, we help generate its meaningful passage. Only chronic time seems to happen to us, while kaironic time requires our participation. Aionic time dissolves any difference between what happens to us and what we make happen.

One practical way forward for our civilization would be to consider the difference between Conventional and Cosmological calendars: Ancient peoples tended to have calendrical systems based upon natural or cosmic rhythms (the Egyptians started their year with the periodic flooding of the Nile, for example). Modern people have introduced calendrical systems that are more mathematically regular, but bear little if any relationship to the cosmos itself (the Roman Empire introduced the Gregorian calendar, whose year begins arbitrarily on Jan 1, a date which doesn’t’ correspond to any significant cosmological or ecological event, for example). Today the modern world measures time in merely conventional terms, reducing it to a cultural construct. If we are to re-invent ourselves and bring forth a more ecological civilization, turning again to the cosmos for our sense of timing will be one of the most crucial steps.

Video of my lecture: an introduction to German Idealism/Romanticism

Below is my lecture on German Idealism and Romanticism given yesterday (Sept. 30) for MA students enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness course at CIIS.

Returning to Whitehead…

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.

The Politics of Renaissance Hermeticism, and the Magic of Science

I’ve been reading Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Part of her project is to dispel the myth that Bruno was burnt at the stake primarily for his heliocentrism and generally scientific and materialist attitude. This was certainly one of the Roman Inquisitions many accusations, but the real reasons the Church lit his public pyre were political.

…the legend that Bruno was prosecuted as a philosophical thinker, was burned for his daring views on innumerable worlds or on the movement of the earth, can no longer stand…little attention was paid to philosophical or scientific questions in the interrogation…[instead, stress was laid] on Bruno’s religious mission. (p. 355)

His religious mission was to attend to the creation of the City of the Sun on Earth, which involved practicing the Hermetic arts of magic, astrology, and what after Jung we might call active imagination. This mission also had a political dimension, leading Bruno to ally with the likes of Henry of Navarro, who was to become King Henry IV of France. Bruno saw the potential for a universal reform of the Catholic religion in France, which was fresh off King Henry’s victory against the Spanish-backed Catholic League. Many heretical thinkers in 16th century Europe with more liberal views on religion were hoping Henry would bring peace to a continent ravaged by wars of intolerance. The Catholic Church, of course, had no interest in ceding its power to such a movement. The counter-Reformation was in full force.

Yates also tells the story of Tommaso Campanella, another Hermetic Magus who followed in Bruno’s footsteps by seeking to create the City of the Sun. Campanella lead a rebellion of Dominican monks against Catholic reformers in 1599.

But what did Bruno and Campanella’s religious mission have to do with new scientific ways of thinking and with the Copernican heliocentric theory? Campanella “praises Ptolemaeus and [admires] Copernicus, although Aristarchus and Philolaus were before him (in teaching heliocentricity)” (transl. Yates, p. 372). Both geocentric and heliocentric systems are upheld as worthy of study. Bruno’s primary reasons for holding to the heliocentric perspective were not mathematical or scientific (Ptolemy’s system was still more accurate than Copernicus’ at this point), but magico-symbolic and politico-religious. The return of the heliocentric theory was read by Bruno as an omen, a sign in the sky sent from God, prophesying the coming Golden Age when Europe would be ruled by Philosopher-Magi skilled in calling the winds of justice down to earth from the heavens.

What interests me in Yates’ historical account is the way Bruno was both modern and non-modern in his Hermetic religion: modern in that he affirmed the infinite reality of the universe; non-modern in that an infinite cosmos is the necessary counter-postulate to an infinitely real God. Modern in that he saw the moral necessity of religious freedom, but non-modern in that he felt the universe (or earth-heaven continuum) must be inter-woven throughout with astral spirits and permeated by an anima mundi (or world soul). All the beings in the universe are magically linked through the soul of the world to one another, and also to the One God, who is beyond being. The One beyond being, infinite in itself, is necessarily in relation to the beings of Being. This relation takes place through a series of revelations, beginning with the heavens. God’s infinite Speech/Word is “stepped-down” into the songs of the spiraling stars and dancing planets, which Plato identified with the Cosmic Intelligence of the World Soul. This revelation of the One through and to the many continues through every individual creature of earth, which in its individuality contains in hologrammatic form the entirety of the cosmos. As an earlier Hermetic thinker, Nicholas of Cusa, had intuited, the universe, as a reflection of God, “is a sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

Yates ends her study on Renaissance magic by asking why it was that the scientific revolution of the 17th century began when it did. She speculates that the Renaissance Hermeticist’s new attitude concerning the place of the human being in the natural world re-directed the will, such that penetrating the secrets of the universe and coming to have mastery over nature no longer seemed so far fetched.

Behind the emergence of modern science there was a new direction of the will towards the world, its marvels, and mysterious workings, a new longing and determination to understand those workings and to operate with them. (Yates, p. 448)

Compare this attitude with that of the 3rd century Church father Tertulian, who argued that those interested in the workings of nature:

persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge their curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather [direct] to their Creator and Governor.

There is a vast difference between the mechanism and mathematics of thinkers like Mersenne and Descartes and the animism and magic of thinkers like Bruno, Campanella, and Robert Fludd. But the transition between the two is not as clear cut as it would seem from our modern perspective. Like Bruno, many of the supposed fathers of the scientific revolution were deeply interested in occult knowledge. On Nov. 10th, 1619, while still a young man striving to discover a new foundation for knowledge, Descartes had a series of dreams and visions that he believed came from a higher source (Yates, p. 452). He began searching for the elusive Rosicrucian order (a Hermetic society) in Germany in the hope that they might help interpret his visions of a universal science of nature. He finally gave up in 1623 and returned to Paris, though some speculate that he actually did make contact with the secret society and had been initiated into the brotherhood. Kepler was also a rather transitional figure, having studied the Corpus Hermeticum quite closely alongside his astronomical research. Then there is the importance of alchemy to Isaac Newton, which is increasingly well-known: see especially Phillip Fanning’s recent book Isaac Newton and the Transmutation of Alchemy: An Alternative View of the Scientific Revolution (2009).

Yates points out that the early mechanists attempt to distance themselves from the magicians left them with a rather embarrassing problem: if nature was all mechanics, where did the knowing mind of the scientist fit in? The problem was especially pronounced and given its clearest formulation in Descartes infamous dualism between the res cogitans and the res extensa. “This bad start of the problem of knowledge,” writes Yates, “has never been quite made up” (p. 454).

Yates goes on:

[The mechanists] may have discarded notions on mind and matter which, however strangely formulated, may be in essence less remote than their own conceptions from some of the thought of today. (p. 455)

Writing in the early 60s, she was well-aware of the paradigm shift continuing to unfold as a result of the quantum revolution:

It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics. An enquiry into both phases, and their interactions, may be a more fruitful line of historical approach to the problems raised by the science of today than the line which concentrates only on the seventeenth-century triumph. Is not all science a gnosis, an insight into the nature of the All, which proceeds by successive revelations? (p. 452)

Might there be room in contemporary science for the return of the anima mundi?