Whitehead’s Quantum of Explanation: Thinking with Auxier and Herstein

“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein

“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein

Those looking for a proper review of their book should read George Lucas’ in NDPR. My thoughts are somewhat self-referential, as I am trying to sort through the intellectual earthquake unleashed within my mind as a result of reading this text.

Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.  

Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).

Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch. 

“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).

The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?

In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:

“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”

Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919], The Principle of Relativity [1920], and The Concept of Nature [1922]) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”

My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds. 

In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 

 


* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).

** see pgs. 101 and 180 of my dissertation

My dissertation as a Detective Novel and a work of Science Fiction

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul/an Ontology of Organism 

My dissertation examines the cognitive role of imagination in modern philosophies of nature since Descartes, focusing in particular on the nature philosophies of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead. I argue that the cognitive organ of etheric imagination grants the nature philosopher epistemic access to a process ontology of organism. Once this etheric organ of perception has flowered, the physical world of isolated objects in empty space apprehended by the reflective intellect is recognized to be merely the outer layer or final fruit (Natura naturata) of a living process that creatively forms itself again and again from the inside out (Natura naturans). 

I will follow Deleuze in construing the work of philosophical writing as part detective novel, part science fiction (Difference and Repetition, xx):

“By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where…they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of a certain ‘cruelty.’ They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come form themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere. This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter…Only an empiricist could say concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates.’” 

The detective novel part of my dissertation pursues an empirical encounter with what seems to be the most profoundly mysterious concept to have emerged in the history of philosophy: imagination. Its pro-fundity, or groundlessness, has repeatedly unsettled the major conceptual personas of philosophical history. Though there are notable exceptions (e.g., Schelling, Steiner, Whitehead), modern philosophers have tended to restrain the otherwise unruly force of imagination so as to prevent it from clouding their measured pursuit of clear and distinct truth. My dissertation treats the history of modern philosophy as a crime scene. In effect, modern philosophy since Descartes has committed “imagicide” by severing the erotic arteries assuring the rhythmic circulation between spirit and matter. The philosophical murder of imagination left modern philosophy in an impossible situation: if mind is entirely distinct and separate from nature, soul separate from corpse, I from not-I, etc., how can philosophers pretend to love Wisdom? If no synthesis can be woven between the ideal web of concepts “in here” and our percepts of real things “out there”—if the blood clot preventing the concrescence of thought and sense cannot be dissolved—then there is no love and no Wisdom to be had. Without the subtle mediations of imagination there is only confusion, which takes the form either of an exaggerated idealism (where nature becomes a mere shadow to be sublated) or a mistaken materialism (a materialism in name only that does not recognize itself as an idealistic dualism). These confusions are a result of the bifurcation of nature Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology sought to alleviate between the world of inner experience (“the dream”) and the world of physical theory (“the conjecture”). 

I aim to philosophically encounter the force of imagination not by unduly restraining it, but on the contrary, by amplifying its cognitive potentials. I do so by taking methodological and theoretical cues from Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.

The science fiction part involves an investigation into the ontological significance of the etheric dimension of nature. Framing my investigation are Steiner’s esoteric ether of formative forces, Schelling’s polarized ether of universal organization, and Whitehead’s mathematical ether of creative events. These ether theories are not “scientific” in the standard sense of being rooted in some experimental protocol. Fortunately, making concepts scientifically operational is not the philosopher’s role. And anyway, the ether theories articulated by Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead were not meant to compete with scientific evidence, but to philosophically interpret it. The concept of an etheric dimension of nature is not a hypothesis concerning a supposedly mind-independent reality that might be experimentally falsified; it is, rather, the empirico-transcendental condition for any scientific knowledge of nature at all (a condition of real, not possible experience, following Deleuze [Difference and Repetition, 285]). The major philosophical goal of my research on imagination and the etheric dimension of nature that it reveals is to assemble the evidences of the special sciences into a “likely story” or mythospeculative cosmology supportive of a non-modern ecological civilization. 

Historical Background and Overview for “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy”

I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.

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This dissertation examines the metaphysics of imagination in the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead through the hermeneutical lens of a certain stream of Western esotericism. In describing the process-philosophical imagination as etheric, I aim in particular to cross-fertilize the process tradition with 20th century esotericist Rudolf Steiner’s conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body. The concept of an ether body did not originate with Steiner, but he provides an example of a modern hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of natural science and deep familiarity with the esoteric history of philosophy, particularly German Idealism, make him among the best possible candidates for such a comparative project. The exact origins of the Western esoteric tradition are notoriously difficult to trace. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, esotericism’s beginnings “have long been a matter of controversy and are still largely a subject of research. The more these origins are studied, the farther they seem to recede in the past.”5 In her groundbreaking study of Renaissance hermeticism, Francis Yates argued that it was Issaac Casaubon’s post-Christian dating of hermetic texts supposed by Renaissance magi like Ficino to predate Moses that definitively “shattered at one blow” the entire conceptual edifice of the esoteric prisci theologi.6 In contrast to Yates, Garth Fowden makes the case that these early hermetic texts are more continuous with the Egyptian alchemical tradition than Casaubon realized.7 The question of the origin of any tradition is inherently controversial. The true source of the hermetic tradition is especially contested due in no small part to its penchant for religious hybridization. Rather than try to stake out a position in this controversy, my research into the weird family of esoteric traditions will proceed without any assumption of purity. Steiner is foregrounded only because of his familiarity with Schelling and modern science, not because his Anthroposophy is somehow the most “authentic” expression of esotericism.

In his introduction to The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Joshua Ramey laments the “general academic-philosophical prejudice” against esotericism, suggesting that this prejudice “constitutes a symptomatic repression of the complexity of both the history of modern philosophy and the stakes of contemporary culture.”8 Ramey’s more pessimistic attitude is tempered by S. J. McGrath, who in the introduction to The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012) suggests that esotericism “is gaining respect in non-foundationalist academic circles” due largely to “the postmodern absence of authoritative arguments for continuing to exclude whole genres of Western literature from more canonically respectable studies in religion and philosophy.”9

Like the esoteric traditions, the process tradition has also found itself on the margins of the Western philosophical canon, and is only more recently being creatively retrieved by a number of academics across multiple disciplines. Most standard readings of the history of modern philosophy consider Schelling to be a mere stepping-stone between Fichte’s subjective and Hegel’s absolute idealism. Though usually characterized along with them as an “idealist” himself, I will follow thinkers like Iain Hamilton Grant10 and Arran Gare11 by situating Schelling within the process tradition as a thinker primarily of nature (be it human, divine, or cosmic nature).

Contemporary Schelling scholar Jason Wirth finds it regrettable that “many have long thought that we are done with Schelling, that he is a ‘dead dog.’”12 It seems that the only respectable academic tasks remaining are to “[dissect] the corpus of Schelling into its various periods and phases,…expose inconsistencies in his thinking, attach various isms to his arguments, [and/or to] situate him in some narrative within the history of philosophy.”13 More recently, however, due in some part to Wirth’s and Grant’s efforts, this sentiment seems to be shifting; as Wirth writes, “after more than a century and a half of neglect, Schelling’s time has come.”14 One of the principle reasons for this emerging Schelling renaissance, I’ll argue, is the relevance of his process-oriented Naturphilosophie to the task of re-thinking the relationship between humanity and earth in light of the planetary ecological crisis.

The longstanding neglect of Schelling, especially in the Anglo-American academy, has not been without reason. There is indeed something strange and extravagant, even occult, about Schelling’s thought, at least when judged from within the intellectual strictures of modern academic philosophy. However, the severity of the ecological crisis has brought many of the foundational assumptions of modern philosophy into doubt,15 opening the way for a reconsideration not only of Schelling’s conception of an ensouled cosmos, but of a whole swathe of previously marginalized esoteric philosophical literature. Schelling’s approach to philosophy was deeply influenced by the theosophy of Jakob Böhme, Friedrich Christoph Oetinger, Philipp Matthäus Hahn, and Franz von Baader, which makes the cross-fertilization of the process and esoteric traditions sought in my dissertation all the more appropriate.

Though somewhat influential among American theologians during the later half of the 20th century, until quite recently Whitehead, like Schelling, has been neglected by academic philosophers. According to Michel Weber and Anderson Weekes, this neglect is largely the fault of Whiteheadians themselves, whose almost total focus on scholastic textual exegesis and lack of interdisciplinary outreach has threatened Whitehead’s ideas with extinction by creating the perception that they are only available “in fossil form.”16 Weber and Weekes’ negative assessment of the last half-century of Whitehead scholarship may be somewhat overstated, especially considering the many examples of interdisciplinary engagement in the work of Whiteheadian theologians like Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Though there may have been an element of “scholasticism” that assumed the superior capacity of Whitehead’s technical system to conduct and translate interdisciplinary disagreement, the more probable reason for process philosophy’s academic marginalization is the fact that it conceives of nature as enchanted and takes notions like panpsychism and the existence of an encosmic divinity seriously.

Whether or not Weber and Weekes’ have overstated the insularity of the first wave of Whitehead scholarship, they represent part of a second wave of outsiders who are, as they put it, “storming the museum.”17 Another second wave Whiteheadian, Isabelle Stengers, argues that the Whiteheadian palette is currently being greatly enriched “by practitioners from the most diverse horizons, from ecology to feminism, practices that unite political struggle and spirituality with the sciences of education…in a singularly lively and tenacious way.”18 Rather than approaching Schelling and Whitehead as a museum curator, my dissertation will aim to breathe new life into their thought, to think with them towards a more imaginative philosophy of mind and of nature enriched by the speculative resources of esoteric wisdom.

According to McGrath, though the esoteric schools represent a diverse set of theories and practices, they are nonetheless “united by a common enemy: the desacralization of nature (material nature, human nature, cosmological nature) by techno-science and capitalist consumerism.”19 He argues that critiques of esotericism as “regressive,” “anti-modern,” and “anti-scientific” are misguided. Although esotericism shares modernity’s “impulse toward human amelioration through science,” it seeks this amelioration through an alternative conception of the human-cosmos relation: “Western esoteric nature-philosophy refuses to follow mainstream natural science and split mind from matter, spirit from animal, finite from infinite…Esoteric modernity is a road not taken in the history of science…a modern approach to nature which was openly rejected in the seventeenth century because it did not grant us the calculative control which techno-science demanded of the Western mind.”20 One of the major goals of this dissertation is to show that, along with Western esotericism, process philosophy also contains the seeds of an alternative conception of modernity no longer bent on the domination of human and earthly nature by alienated modes of theoretical and practical rationality. Both the esoteric and process traditions provide philosophy with a new way of seeing the universe–a way of seeing (i.e., the etheric imagination) which in turn may provide humanity with a new way of living in concert with the wider community of life on earth.

Imagination itself has had a rather tense, even tumultuous, relationship to philosophy going all the way back to Plato, who infamously denied poets entry to his ideal city.21 For many philosophers in the modern Western tradition, its ineffable, largely non-rational and often erotically charged powers were considered deeply suspect, both for epistemological and for ethical reasons–even when imagination played a central role in their own philosophical systems! For example, as Alexander Schlutz argues, even though Descartes “forcefully excludes imagination from his conception of the cogito,”22 he nonetheless draws upon its poetic powers repeatedly in his physical speculations, and even admits during his autobiographical narration in Discourse on the Method (1637) that “doubt itself…is a product of imagination.”23 Similarly, though Kant affirms imagination as an “indispensable function of the human soul,” he also denigrates it as “a potential source of madness, delusion, and mental derangement.”24 I will revisit the paradox of this “double gesturing” by the major figures in the history of philosophy throughout my dissertation, connecting it to the polar, oscillatory dynamism so characteristic of imagination. I will attempt to articulate a less ambiguous, esoterically-inflected approach to the philosophical imagination that is responsive to the challenges made evident by these major figures.

Footnotes

5 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV: Esotericism and Gnosticism.

6 Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), 400.

7 Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind (1986), 34-35.

8 Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, 6-8.

9 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 21.

10 Philosophies of Nature after Schelling (2006).

11 “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011.

12 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1. Wirth here employs the philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s epithet originally coined as a reference to Spinoza, a controversial figure in Germany at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a major influence on Schelling.

13 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (2003), 1-2.

14 Wirth, ed., Schelling Now: Contemporary Readings (2005), 9.

15 Schelling was ahead of his time in this respect, writing in 1809 that “The entire new European philosophy since its beginning (with Descartes) has the common defect that nature is not available for it and that it lacks a living ground” (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 26).

16 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.

17 Process Approaches to Consciousness in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Philosophy of Mind (2009), 2.

18 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), 6.

19 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.

20 McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (2012), 22.

21 Though of course, Plato’s relationship to imagination and poetry is not so cut and dry. He may have banished the poets from his Republic, but he himself was one of the most imaginative and poetic writers in the history of letters.

22 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.

23 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 77.

24 Schlutz, Mind’s World: Imagination and Subjectivity from Descartes to Romanticism (2009), 4.

Theoretical Perspectives on Etheric Imagination

The following is the “theoretical perspectives” section of my dissertation. It introduces the ether concept I am attempting to imaginally construct with the help of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.

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This dissertation argues that philosophical thinking, to eclipse the dualistic dogmas of today’s commonsense, must ally itself with the creative power of the etheric imagination. Why? Because every author is a poet, and to the extent that a philosopher grasps his tongue to speak or his pen to write, he becomes author and artist rather than simply reader or representer of Nature. The universe is not inertly given for representation: Nature, too, participates in varying degrees of animation and I-ness. The processual, or etheric, imagination approaches the task of philosophy primarily as a work of artistic interpretation of Nature’s inner life. Art, as Schelling puts it, becomes “at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy,” while “through the world of sense [Nature], there glimmers, as if through words the meaning, as if through dissolving mists the land of phantasy, of which [the philosopher is] in search.”25 Or as Steiner puts it, the philosopher’s artistic interpretation of Nature “appears as the herald of that lawfulness that the poet has grasped by listening to the world spirit within the depths of nature’s working. At this level, art becomes the interpreter of the mysteries of the world just as science is also, in a different sense.”26 Unlike the poet, who is all artist, the philosopher is also a scientist. The philosopher not only creates art, he discovers nature; he not only inscribes acts of mind, he reads facts of nature.

In describing the power of imagination in the work of Schelling and Whitehead as etheric, I aim not only to cross-fertilize the process tradition with Rudolf Steiner’s esoteric conception of the Ätherleib, or ether body, but to creatively retrieve Schelling and Whitehead’s own cosmological ether theories.

Schelling shared the cosmological ether theory with most of his scientific contemporaries.27 He identified the infinite elasticity of the ether with the original polarity of forces animating both the one soul of the universe and the many souls within it.28 For Schelling, the ether is not just a scientific hypothesis about the natural world, it is the speculative philosophical postulate required to justify the pursuit of scientific knowledge of the physical world in the first place. If there were no organic unity to nature–if nature were not a self-organizing whole, but just a random assemblage of externally related parts–then we could never learn anything by way of natural scientific investigation. Schelling’s ether postulate secures the possibility of natural science by engendering a Naturphilosophie powered by etheric imagination, whereby the spiritual ether “in me” finds its point of indifference with the natural ether “out there.”29 Or as Schelling himself put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”30

The ether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetic phenomena until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.31 In 1919, Whitehead began articulating a cosmological ether theory as a direct response to Einstein’s replacement of the traditional “material ether” with a pre-given “space-time fabric.” In place of Einstein’s static ontology of space-time “tubes” pieced together out of static material instants, Whitehead constructed an “ether of events” on the basis of his own novel process ontology.32 “We must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material,” writes Whitehead, because “Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events.”33 “On the old theory of relativity,” he continues, “Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events.”34 Whitehead’s evental ether is not the undetectable “shy ether behind the veil” thought to exist by 19th century physicists; rather, “the ether is exactly the apparent world, neither more nor less.”35 The ether, in other words, is that which gives experiential coherence and causal continuity to “the whole complex of events” constituting the universe.36 For Whitehead, as for Schelling, the ether is no mere scientific hypothesis about the mind-independent external world. Rather, it is a metaphysical principle constructed precisely to avoid “this unfortunate bifurcation” between subjective mind and objective nature by “[construing] our knowledge of the apparent world as being an individual experience of something which is more than personal.”37 “Nature,” Whitehead continues, “is thus a totality including individual experiences, so that we must reject the distinction between nature as it really is and experiences of it which are purely psychological. Our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself.”38

As for the esoteric conception of an ether body, although it did not originate with Steiner, he provides an example of a 20th century hermetic practitioner whose knowledge of modern science, not to mention his deep familiarity with German Idealist philosophy, make him among the best possible candidates for the type of comparative project I am attempting. Steiner, like Schelling and Whitehead, explicitly distinguishes his own use of the concept from the “hypothetical ether of the physicist.”39 The ether body is therefore not best imagined as an invisible gaseous substance floating around the physical body of an organism. To imagine the ether as an extended, three-dimensional body–even if a “subtle” body–is only to fashion an idol, to reflect upon a finished product instead of intuiting the creative process responsible for generating that product. An organism’s Ätherleib is then better imagined as a continually self-generating four-dimensional vortex of Ätherkräfte, or etheric forces. These forces are the non-spatial form-generating and form-remembering “agent-patients” of cosmic evolution.40 They are perceivable only to a self-cultivated (i.e., not innate or given by the birth of the physical body) etheric organ of affective thinking/intuitive intellection: the etheric imagination. The etheric imagination is not generated by the brain, but is rather the conscious expression of an otherwise unconscious morphogenic process that is itself responsible for generating the physical brain and body.41 As a four-dimensional process, the activity of the Ätherkräfte that both generates the body and rises to consciousness as the etheric imagination is best pictured, if it must be pictured at all, as an undulating torus fluidly turning itself inside-out to leave the living organism in its wake.

Picturing the activity of the etheric forces is ultimately impossible (since pictures are derived from sense experience of extended bodies), but the toroidal image seems to me better than imaging some kind of gaseous cloud floating around and guiding an otherwise mechanical physical body.

According to Steiner, “We can only find nature outside us if we first know her within us. What is akin to her within us will be our guide.”42 This statement is nearly identical to those of Schelling and Whitehead above. “So long as I myself am identical with Nature,” says Schelling, “I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life.”43 “As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature,” he continues, “nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”44 As we’ve seen, Whitehead similarly argues that understanding the life of the actual occasions of nature requires first becoming conscious of, and then imaginatively generalizing the etheric structure-dynamic underlying our own conscious experience too all the individualities of nature. Such generalization allows for the creation of an experiential category applicable to the etheric dimension of any actual occasion.45 Only the etheric imagination can intuit the formative forces flowing through the natural world behind or within its outward sensory surfaces. Such an imaginative thinking represents the individual’s discovery within themselves of the etheric forces of natura naturans, the inner dimension of nature that is always in dynamic motion, sloughing off external nature (natura naturata) like a snake shedding its skin. “Nature alive,” as Whitehead called it,46 never sits still long enough to be caught in the conceptual net of merely reflective sense-bound understanding. “Nature speaks to us the more intelligibly the less we think of her in a merely refelctive way,” writes Schelling.47 To think nature as living, our own thinking must come to life, must become etheric.

According to Owen Barfield, who along with Jonael Schickler will assist my retrieval of Steiner’s work, the forces of the etheric organ of perception can be understood as “imagination operating in reverse…Whereas imagination uses the spatial to get to the non-spatial, what the organic [etheric] force is doing is moving out of the non-spatial realm (the creative logos, if you like) to convert it into space–[it moves out] of the immaterial producing a material, spatial world…What the etheric does is, to put it crudely, convert time into space.”48

Like the “force of imagination” (a literal translation of Einbildungskraft), the formative-force of the etheric organ, when properly cultivated, can release the philosopher from the Kantian restrictions placed on knowing by opening the normally sense-inhered intellect to the sub-sensory “intensive depth” (Bortoft, 1996) or super-sensory “inner infinitude” (Adams and Whicher, 1982) of living Nature, there revealing the invisible creative forces animating her from within-out.

In the terms of Whitehead’s three-fold theory of perception, which my dissertation will explore in relation to the synthetic role of imagination, non-etheric perception of external nature via bare sensory universals and abstract laws is perception “spatialized” in the mode of “presentational immediacy,” while etheric perception of the creative life of the sub-sensory dimension is perception “temporalized” in the mode of “causal efficacy.”49 Whitehead’s third mode of perception, “symbolic reference,” imaginatively synthesizes our intuitions of space and time into the meaningful and coherent world of everyday life. The synthetic work (or play) of the force of imagination can be in service either to the maintenance of the habits of every day conscious experience (commonsense), or else to the creative disruption of those habits in favor of alternative imaginations of the flow of etheric time-space.

The etheric image-forces animating Nature and her organisms are autonomous; that is, they are I-beings in their own right. The etheric imagination which perceives them is then not simply the transcendental ground of the ego’s sensory intuitions of the physical world–it is the genetic principle of the universe itself, the poetic root of all life (more like a creative abyss than a stable ground). Unlike Kant’s transcendental faculties of understanding, reason, and judgment, which provide only the necessary universal conditions of possible (theoretical, ethical, or aesthetic) experience, etheric imagination provides the necessary conditions of actual experience (whether of truth, goodness, or beauty). Etheric imagination schematizes not only the formal or abstract, but the material and concrete dimensions of experiential reality–that is, it not only makes possible the universal and impersonal, it actualizes the unique and individual.

So what is real for the process-philosophical imagination? Following Whitehead, time, space, and causality come to be understood as emergent products of an evolving ecology of organisms. “External” and “internal” are the effect of a distinction drawn in what Coleridge referred to as secondary imagination by an individual living organism. Enveloping the many organisms is the one Cosmic Organism, or primary imagination, the ceaseless yearning for wholeness which is nothing other than Spirit’s abyssal desire for Itself.

The root images, or elemental forces, that for so long grounded the reality of the human organism were earth and sky. But since the Galilean-Newtonian “[cancellation] of the ancient dichotomy between earth and sky in the interest of universally valid laws,” and especially since satellization has technologically realized this once merely theoretical extra-terrestriality, what has become of humanity’s earthly embeddedness?50 Have we not become homeless? This may be the case, unless the once solid ground of earth is understood to have been superseded, not by the en-framing (Ge-stell) of technology, but by the ground-generating forces of etheric imagination, the creative abyss that pre-exists any apparent separation between the finite conditioned things in space and the infinite creativity of time.

Footnotes

25 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 231.

26 Steiner, Goethean Science, 93.

27 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.

28 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384; Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 541-547.

29 According to Frederick Beiser, Schelling thereby “[reintegrates] the transcendental ‘I’ into nature” by showing how   human self-consciousness is a more intense expression of nature’s original etheric forces (German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism, 559).

30 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.

31 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.

32 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity (New York: Cosimo, 1922/2007), 36-38; Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press, 1919), 25.

33 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26.

34 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 26. For more on Whitehead’s philosophical critique of Einstein’s interpretation of relativity theory, see also my own Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013), 35-43 [https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/physics-of-the-world-soul-whitehead-and-cosmology.pdf (accessed 5/1/2013)].

35 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 37.

36 Whitehead, The Principles of Natural Knowledge, 66.

37 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

38 Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 62.

39 Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man, transl. by E. D. S. (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company Publishers, 1910), 28.

40 As “agent-patients,” these etheric forces are akin to Whitehead’s dipolar actual occasions, the “buds of experience” responsible both for the prehension of past form and the ingression of future form in the creative advance of nature.

41 Whitehead’s understanding of the relationship between the physiology of the brain and the ether of events leads him to suggest that the “nature” known to materialistic science “is an abstraction from something more concrete than itself which must also include imagination, thought, and emotion” (Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, 63).

42 Steiner, Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path: A Philosophy of Freedom, 25.

43 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

44 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

45 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 221.

46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (1938)

47 Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 35.

48 Towards Interview, 1980, 9.

49 These two modes are akin to Jonael Schickler’s phenomenological account of the life of the concept in terms of physical inherence and etheric metamorphosis, respectively. Schickler’s account is unpacked in the literature review below.

50 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 160-161