Recorded on Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA.
A note for those interested in American philosophy: my adviser, mentor, and friend Robert McDermott is editing a text to be published later this year by Lindisfarne Books entitled American Philosophy and Rudolf Steiner. It includes essays on Emerson, Thoreau, Peirce, James, Royce, Dewey, Whitehead, and a chapter on feminism. I’m currently copy editing several of the essays, and I would say they serve as a great introduction to Steiner’s thinking and are a testament to his relevance to the project of revitalizing philosophy. Contributors include McDermott, Gertrude Reif Hughes, Rebecca Kneale Gould, Frank Oppenheim, David Ray Griffin, Douglas Sloan, and Dan McKanan. I’ll be sure to let y’all know when it is available.
- Rudolf Steiner on Thinking (footnotes2plato.com)
- Rudolf Steiner and the Angelic Hierarchies (footnotes2plato.com)
- Rudolf Steiner on the Evolution of Consciousness and the Alphabet (footnotes2plato.com)
- Thinking with Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on my Bildung (footnotes2plato.com)
Everyone already knows Alfred North Whitehead’s over-cited remark about all of European philosophy being but a series of footnotes to Plato. If you’ve somehow forgotten its near exact wording, just follow Plato’s upward pointing finger to the top of this blog for a reminder.
Why near exact? I left out the descriptor “European…” that comes before “…philosophical tradition,” because, well, I’m American, and in many ways, so was Whitehead’s philosophy. In terms of philosophical style, Whitehead’s was not just another European footnote being tacked on the end of Plato’s corpus. His Platonism is reformed, having its origin in a New World. Whitehead’s views on Plato’s contributions to the philosophical tradition are a pithy summation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1850 essay on Plato. For Emerson, Plato’s corpus was “The Bible of the learned for twenty-two hundred years.” He goes on:
This citizen of a town in Greece is no villager nor patriot. An Englishman reads and says, “how English!” a German- “how Teutonic!” an Italian- “how Roman and how Greek!” As they say that Helen of Argos had that universal beauty that every body felt related to her, so Plato seems to a reader in New England an American genius. His broad humanity transcends all sectional lines.
Emerson then writes of the nature of philosophical influence:
Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.
And then about the tension within Plato’s soul between philosophy and poetry:
A philosopher must be more than a philosopher. Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.
Here, Emerson follows Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism (1800) in denying the Absolute to the philosopher in order to grant it to the artist (or rather, to the philosopher-poet). Emerson himself is best described as an essayist, though through the medium of the stylistic essay, he is able to quicken the spirit of philosophy in his readers as well as any in the tradition.
Plato was also a stylist. He wrote dialogues, always leaving the doctrines for his characters. His meaning is never on the surface, even when it comes from the face of Socrates. Plato himself tells us in a letter to Dion that “no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language…,” by which he means both spoken and written language. “[Setting] down [one’s views] in written characters” is especially denounced. Written words lay in their paper graves, still, silent. The reader’s questions and disputations receive no reply. Dialogue is impossible. Plato, of course, was a prolific writer. Were he alive today, might he be a blogger? These letters are publishable to every corner of earth in a near instant at the click of a button. They can be commented on and replied to by others just as easily. Dialogue becomes possible. But alas, the curved earth cannot be flattened onto a map, or a screen.
The Good/True/Beautiful (they are all one), for Plato, is more than a name or a definition, more than an image or even a knowledgable soul, though these, like the light of the sun, may eventually lead you back to the source. But the Ideal Reality of the One and All, Plato’s fifth thing, cannot be known with written formulas. There is no cheat sheet that can help you on a philosophy test. Esoteric philosophers always tell inside jokes: you had to be there to get it. “I gave the teaching,” says Plato, “on that one occasion and never again.”
On the testimony of Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus, we know that Plato’s secret unwritten teaching had something to do with the way, according to Iain Hamilton Grant, that “ideas themselves were composed of matter, hyle, or in other words of an indefinite multiplicity, duas aoristos, which has as its elements the great and the small, and as its form, unity, to hen” (Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, p. 56n8). If this is indeed the secret teaching, then how strangely inverted is the traditional European reading of Plato!
Emerson writes of the generative tension between the One and Many:
The mind is urged to ask for one cause of many effects; then for the cause of that; and again the cause, diving still into the profound: self-assured that it shall arrive at an absolute and sufficient one,- a one that shall be all. “In the midst of the sun is the light, in the midst of the light is truth, and in the midst of truth is the imperishable being,” say the Vedas. All philosophy, of East and West, has the same centripetence. Urged by an opposite necessity, the mind returns from the one to that which is not one, but other or many; from cause to effect; and affirms the necessary existence of variety, the self-existence of both, as each is involved in the other. These strictly-blended elements it is the problem of thought to separate and to reconcile. Their existence is mutually contradictory and exclusive; and each so fast slides into the other that we can never say what is one, and what it is not. The Proteus is as nimble in the highest as in the lowest grounds; when we contemplate the one, the true, the good,- as in the surfaces and extremities of matter.
Reading Plato is an infinite interpretive activity. So is reading Whitehead. Perhaps infinite interpretability is the mark of a philosopher-poet. Richard E. Jones here offers a reading of Plato and of Whitehead, qualifying their allegiance, perhaps only because his reading of Plato is superficial. But Jones’ discussion of Plato’s notion of the Receptacle is rather insightful. In Whitehead, this notion is only slightly reshaped to become the ultimate category of his own metaphysical scheme: Creativity. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead writes of Plato’s Receptacle that:
at the present moment, physical science is nearer to it than at any period since
Plato’s death. The space-time of modern mathematical physics, conceived in
abstraction from the particular mathematical formulae which applies to the
happenings in it, is almost exactly Plato’s Receptacle (192-193).
The Receptacle is closely connected, for Plato, to both place (topos) and space (chora). It is also nearly identified by both Plato and Whitehead with the World-Soul. It is the living matrix within which the universe experience itself as a diversifying unity. It is a difficult concept to grasp. The difficulty is made plainly evident in Jones’ discussion, towards the end of his essay (p. 12-13), on Whitehead’s attempt to envision the concrescence of the divine by way of an integration of its primordial and consequent natures:
The general tone [of the last chapter of Process and Reality, “God and the World”] becomes more poetical than analytical and, despite the many
differences between these two philosophers, often reflects the similar instances in Plato where the metaphorical and poetic serve to engage one’s imagination in an aesthetic rather than elucidatory manner.
For several years now, I have from time to time engaged in philosophical debate with commenters over at Pharyngula (the atheist and biologist PZ Myers‘ well-traffic blog). It is often impossible to maintain a civil discussion or sympathetic reflection about the topic at hand (usually having to do with the ontology of life, the meaning of consciousness, or the role of spirituality/religion in contemporary society) because our complete lack of shared assumptions about the world quickly causes the conversation to degenerate into defensive ideological posturing. Myers (and the Sentinels who patrol his site always ready to beat back the vitalist and mysterian “trolls” who dare question scientific orthodoxy) displays a way of thinking that is perhaps the best contemporary example of what Alfred North Whitehead called scientific materialism. This mode of thought prevents its possessors (or those it possesses) from practicing what Keats once called “negative capability.” Negative capability could be described as the power or potency of the human imagination to think without acting, i.e., to contemplate the possibility of something without assuming its actuality. To practice philosophy, itself a spiritual and imaginative activity, one needs to have mastered this negative capability.
A recent post by Myers, wherein he ridicules the notion of “spiritual exercises” for atheists, illustrates well the conceptual blockage preventing scientific materialists from considering anything other than deterministic mechanical laws in their explanations of the natural world. Myers writes of spiritual exercises, like meditation, visualization, and breath work, that:
“…they are physiological exercises. They do not manipulate ‘spirit,’ they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of ‘spiritual’…”
Myers thinks he is able to discard the notion of “spirit” quickly and easily as a relic of pre-scientific dualism; but I think his concept of “spirit” is deeply confused. He seems to imagine “spirit” as some sort of super-matter, a subtler kind of extended substance capable of reaching in from the outside to direct physiological activity. He rightly dismisses this caricature of “spirit” in one clause , only to implicitly re-affirm it in the next !
Who, exactly, changes the physical state of the brain? The language here is difficult, and some may argue that philosophy simply plays with the infinite ambiguity of linguistic reflexivity until all discernable meaning becomes entirely obscured. But if one is capable of any degree of philosophical sympathy with the likes of such difficult thinkers as Kant, Ficthe, Schelling, Hegel, Steiner, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson, James, Whitehead, etc., I think it becomes rather obvious that the sublimity of feeling resulting from consciousness’ attempts to understand its own conditions of possibility (whether cranial or celestial) lead straight into what can only be called “spirituality.” “Spirit” is an easily misunderstood word referring to one’s own present consciousness. It is the “I” that knows who it is, the “will” who intends, regrets, and foresees. Spirit is that in the physiologist that experiences the feeling of knowing the structure and function of the brain. A thinker cannot reduce his or her own thinking to the structure and function of the brain without a performative contradiction.
This defense of spirit as irreducible to matter is not a plee for dualism. On the contrary, it is an attempt to provide the mechanistically minded with an opportunity to discover the deeper meaning of what even their own language cannot help but admit. Spirit and matter are not opposites, but complementaries: the two faces of a single, creative process.
One possible antidote to the self-erasure of scientific materialism is the organic cosmology of the Romantics, for whom nature was visible spirit, and spirit invisible nature. I won’t try to say it better than Emerson, who in Nature, writes:
Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass…The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. Thus, “the whole is greater than its part;” “reaction is equal to action;” “the smallest weight may be made to lift the greatest, the difference of weight being compensated by time;” and many the like propositions, which have an ethical as well as physical sense. These propositions have a much more extensive and universal sense when applied to human life, than when confined to technical use…This relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so is free to be known by all men. It appears to men, or it does not appear. When in fortunate hours we ponder this miracle, the wise man doubts, if, at all other times, he is not blind and deaf;
—— “Can these things be,
And overcome us like a summer’s cloud,
Without our special wonder?”
for the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it. It is the standing problem which has exercised the wonder and the study of every fine genius since the world began; from the era of the Egyptians and the Brahmins, to that of Pythagoras, of Plato, of Bacon, of Leibnitz, of Swedenborg. There sits the Sphinx at the road-side, and from age to age, as each prophet comes by, he tries his fortune at reading her riddle. There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms; and day and night, river and storm, beast and bird, acid and alkali, preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God, and are what they are by virtue of preceding affections, in the world of spirit. A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit. The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.”
“A mechanic is driven by his work all day, but it ends at night; it has an end. But the scholar’s work has none. That which he has learned is that there is much more to be learned. He feels only his incompetence. A thousand years, tenfold, a hundredfold his faculties, would not suffice: the demands of the task are such, that it becomes omnipresent; he studies in his sleep, in his walking, in his meals, in his pleasures. He is but a fly or a worm to this mountain. He becomes anxious: if one knock at his door, he scowls: if one intimate the purpose of visiting him, he looks grave.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, October 1845