Here’s a PDF of the version I submitted to the UMI database. I plan to substantially revise this before publishing it as a book sometime in the next year. But for now, I welcome feedback on the current draft.
I wanted to post a transcription of some reflections I shared during a medicine circle I participated in this past summer. Some of what came to me has had a big impact on my conceptualization of my dissertation thesis regarding the etheric (or plant-like) nature of Imagination.
It is such a privilege to speak later in the circle, just to be able to absorb everyone else’s experience before sharing my own. It is very grounding. Yesterday I hadn’t yet arrived, and so it was difficult for me to speak from my heart when I was sharing my intentions. I was still feeling uncertainty, wondering if I should be here, asking if I could afford this… I hadn’t yet allowed myself to accept that I had made the decision to be here. And then the rapé was offered. It literally blew the doubts and uncertainties out of my field of awareness and dropped me into what at first was just an intense somatic experience of numbness in my extremities. As that sensation subsided after a few moments, I reached a place of crystal clear clarity. I realized why I had decided to come here. The “reason” is not something I can explain rationally – it is more like a feeling of faithfulness. Later in the evening we drank the ayahuasca. After the first serving, I wasn’t experiencing very much. I felt pretty normal for the duration of that part of the ceremony. My mind was very active and the doubts came back again. I thought maybe this isn’t going to work, maybe this is going to be a long night. I wasn’t even nauseous – there was no change really in my consciousness. The chanting and ceremonial context certainly held me and gave me an experience but it wasn’t what I was hoping for entirely. Then I drank the second dose and it’s hard to tell how long it took, but it drastically altered my normal state of mind in a way I only became conscious of after the fact. At some point after drinking the second dose, maybe 30 minutes or an hour after, I became conscious again and realized I had been experiencing a vision of a beautiful infinitely-armed goddess who was dancing above me, lavishing me with love, care, and attention. I realized that I had been meditating on the question “who am I?” And yet until I became aware of it, I didn’t have any self-consciousness. There wasn’t an ego asking “who am I?”, it was just this experience of deepening into the mood or atmospheric feeling of this question and being answered by the presence of this pervasive feminine intelligence. Then we went outside. When I saw the stars the question that was orienting me shifted to: “what is this?”, “How is this possible?” Then I laid back and gazed at the night sky, holding that question. No immediate answer came. I was transfixed by its infinitude. Then [the shaman] invoked the spirit of the sky and that of the earth, at which point it became clear to me: “oh yeah, there is this too [patting the ground].” Then I found myself struggling for a moment to try to integrate the sky and the earth, their differences, the way they complement one another. And then the dried tobacco was passed around. I began meditating on plants as the essence of life. There are animals, too, but animals eat plants. So plants are what provide the foundation for all of life. I was just praying on the tobacco and realizing that plant life is what integrates earth and sky. Plants between earth and sky. The light of the sky summons the fertility of the earth and the child of their marriage is plant life. Then my mind kicked in and I wanted to understand more theoretically, “wow, how is that possible?” And then I realized I already know the answer, but that it’s not something I could explain in a scientific way. I’m holding the answer in here [points to chest]. Then I offered the tobacco to the fire and I realized that the reason life emerges is to experience the sacrifice of death. And that life is worth it even though when you’re born, the one thing that’s inevitable is that you are going to die. Somewhere in there is—maybe not the explanation—but at least the meaning or understanding I’ve been searching for. I realized that I knew the answer before I even asked the question.
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.
I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.
I welcome suggestions, critiques, sources, and/or extensions.
Basically, I’m doing a comparative study of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the esotericist Rudolf Steiner, and the mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead. In particular, I want to interpret their respective “etheric” ontologies (Schelling’s “world-soul/universal organizing principle,” Steiner’s “etheric formative forces,” and Whitehead’s “evental ether/Creativity”) as typical of the process-relational imagination.
The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.
Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.
I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.
I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?
My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolvebeyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.
In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.
The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.
These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.
So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts into physical expression. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly realities. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in this mundis imaginalis we may discover new forms of embodied praxis in congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.
I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).
I realized I posted the same section twice last week, so here is the real historical and overview section of my dissertation proposal.
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.
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.