I’m winding down a cross-country road trip and had the pleasure of talking about it in the context of America’s larger political predicament with Jeremy and Ryan on their “Growing Down” podcast.
META-POLITICS – This is the first episode in a new conversation series between Layman Pascal and Matthew T. Segall. After touching on the deep strangeness of our time, and on the importance of finding a new post/metaphysical nexus for politics, religion, and ecology (a reintegration of the value spheres) Layman and Matt take up an extended reflection on meta-politics and the shape of a post-progressive political movement. They delve into such topics as developmental politics, the integral critique of modernity, the religious dimension of social movements, and a meta-progressive vision for social upgrade.
Above is my talk for the Jean Gebser Society conference held at the California Institute of Integral Studies the weekend of October 16th.
Title: The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help from Bergson and Whitehead
Abstract: Gebser suggests that the world-constituting reality of time first irrupted into Western consciousness with the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This was the first indication of an emerging mutation from the three-dimensional, Copernican world of the mental structure into the four-dimensional world of the integral structure. My presentation will critically examine Einstein’s role in this evolutionary initiation by situating his concept of a space-time continuum within its early 20th century context. While Einstein’s relativity theory played a central role in the 20th century revolution in physics, revisiting the debates he was engaged in with thinkers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead reveal that his perception of time was still obscured by the residue of the mental structure’s spatializing tendency. As Gebser remarked, we are “compelled to become fully conscious of time—the new component—not just as a physical-geometric fourth dimension but in its full complexity” (EPO, 288, 352). During his controversial debate with Bergson in Paris in 1922, Einstein argued that the former’s understanding of time as “creative evolution” was merely the subjective fantasy of an artist, and that, as a hard-nosed scientist, he was concerned only with the real, objective time made manifest by the geometrical reasoning of relativity theory. Bergson, for his part, argued that Einstein had mistaken a particular way of measuring time (i.e., clock-time) for time itself. Whitehead’s meeting with Einstein shortly after this debate with Bergson, though not as public, was no less significant. Whitehead similarly argued that the philosophical implications of Einstein’s brilliant scientific theory must be saved from Einstein’s faulty interpretation. My presentation will review these early 20th century debates about the nature of time in light of Gebser’s prophetic announcement of the birth of a new structure of consciousness. More than a century after Einstein’s theory was published, mainstream scientific cosmology still has not fully integrated the immeasurably creative character of qualitative time. I will argue that Bergson and Whitehead’s largely neglected critiques and reconstructions of relativity theory help show the way towards the concrete realization of Gebser’s integral structure.
Next week, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the role of Catholics in the ecological crisis. According to John Grimm (Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University), “Francis will likely bring together issues of social justice and economic inequity into relationship with our growing understanding of global climate change and environmental trauma.”
By drawing connections between ecology and social justice, the Pope will be offering an explicitly “integral” approach to ecology. “Integral ecology” is a perspective developed by Thomas Berry, Leonardo Boff, and more recently, by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman in their book by the same name.
Prof. Sean Kelly at CIIS has also been working to further flesh out the integral perspective on ecology. Sean, Adam Robbert, and Sam Mickey have a co-edited volume coming out soon with SUNY called The Varieties of Integral Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era that is sure to help move the conversation forward.
Of course, not everyone is excited about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical. Congressman and climate change denier James Inhofe (who, in a dark irony that speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with our dysfunctional government, is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) has told the Pope to stay out of the climate change discussion. With all due respect, Mr. Inhofe (and you aren’t due much), I’d appreciate it if you would stop butting into the scientific consensus on this issue with your fossil fuel fueled opinions.
There are 1.2 billion Catholics on this planet. I think ecologizing our civilization will surely require re-interpreting and mobilizing the Christian religion on behalf of the Earth. The resources for doing so are there in the tradition, even if somewhat buried and in need of remembering. I wrote an essay on Christian ecosophy a few years go in an effort to do some of this work of anemnesis.
[Update 6/15] An Italian newspaper has published a leaked draft of the encyclical. According to The Guardian:
At the start of the draft essay, the pope wrote, the Earth “is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her. We have grown up thinking that we were her owners and dominators, authorised to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.”
He immediately makes clear, moreover, that unlike previous encyclicals, this one is directed to everyone, regardless of religion. “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet,” the pope wrote. “In this encyclical, I especially propose to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”
There is also a new trailer:
IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE PHILOSOPHY, COSMOLOGY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS PROGRAM, PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION DEPARTMENT, CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF INTEGRAL STUDIES
SAN FRANCISCO, CA ~ OCTOBER 16th–18th, 2015
CALL FOR PAPERS
In the winter of 1932, from a grammatical detail in the poetry of Rilke, Jean Gebser intuited an entire shift in the structure of western consciousness. Diaphanous, liberated from time, and free from the constraints of perspective, Gebser’s integral vision came to him in a “lightning-like flash of inspiration”. As he unfolded this seed, he later remarked that it bore “extensive similarities to the world-design of Sri Aurobindo”, whose work he was originally unaware of. Alongside Gebser and Aurobindo, thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (theology and palaeontology), Alfred North Whitehead (philosophy), and David Bohm (cosmology) would independently confirm the significance of Gebser’s integral vision. Such instances speak to the relevance of an integral reality beyond mere intellectual theory. Spanning the sciences and humanities, this conference seeks to explore the work of leading and neglected figures in the emergence of integral philosophy, past and present. By charting the “morphic resonances” that appear to exist among the works of diverse evolutionary and holarchical theorists, we aim to further Gebser’s commitment to a genuinely interdisciplinary methodology, and the rendering transparent of the integral world.
How has Gebser’s intimation of an emerging integral structure of consciousness directly influenced or been independently confirmed by the work of congenial thinkers?
In what ways can his account of integral consciousness be further fleshed out by the work of those who follow in his wake?
In what ways does Gebser’s overarching account of the evolution of consciousness illumine and enhance the contributions of these thinkers?
How have Gebser’s ideas been anticipated by currents within eastern and western philosophy of mind?
How do precepts and practices from the world’s esoteric lineages, ancient or modern, contribute to the realization of integral consciousness?
In what ways might Gebser’s work be legitimately criticized, refined, or revised?
To what extent has Gebser’s work been appropriated or misread, constructively or otherwise, by integral theorists?
The Gebser Society invites presenters to engage the conference theme, or topics pertaining directly to the work of Jean Gebser, from a multiplicity of disciplines and approaches. Please send a 300-word proposal describing your presentation, and a 150-word biographical statement, to:
Dr Aaron Cheak, President, International Jean Gebser Society, email@example.com
PROPOSAL ABSTRACTS DUE 30 JUNE 2015.
My friend Jeremy is the official blogger for ITC 2013 here in San Francisco. I’m completely with him in his call for a move away from integral theory as an assimilation of other ideas to a more decentralized and rhizomatic network-logic where the whole point of theoretical integration is to get ideas to evolve, which is to say, to have mutant babies with each other.
Adam/Knowledge-Ecology and I interviewed the integral philosopher William Irwin Thompson a while back. He recently posted a transcription of part of that encounter on his blog. Here’s a sample:
So imagine in a noetic polity that a girl is born, the very fact that she is a member of that polity would empower her to get an education, to go to a good school, to not starve on the street, to participate in the economic exchange of values with the idea that she’ll go on to contribute to her culture by creating Apple computers or new kinds of art or philosophy or technology, and that rather than being seen as a drain on the system, she makes a contribution. Recall that Reagan used to like to talk about welfare mothers in Chicago driving Cadillacs and living well while doing nothing but watching TV. This image comes from Reagan’s postwar TV culture of illusion and deception—Death Valley Days and Westerns. But in a post-television, post-national, post-market world, the culture would not be about passive consumption but participation in noetic polities through the growth of consciousness. Education becomes a primary institution of exchange in the same way that monasteries were in the Dark Ages.
One has to look at religion, economics and political structures as all part of this transition. Unfortunately, we’re living in the transition-state and we’re out of the event-horizon of the old basin of attraction, and we’ve entered the turbulent zone between two event-horizons, so we’re in for a very bumpy ride, because we haven’t yet entered the event horizon of the new cultural ecology of noetic polities. This transition probably won’t come easily, but will be characterized by die backs, pandemics, and ecological catastrophes, because for the past 40 years we’ve made all the wrong decisions, as you guys are aware. When Gore did not contest his plurality, but let the Supreme Court interfere with the election by supporting George W. Bush, we lost our last chance to avoid a catastrophic transition. Bush and the Neocons gave us the two trillion dollar war of Iraq and blocked the transition from economics to ecology as the governing science of a new planetary culture.
President Coolidge said that the business of America is business. Now most college kids want to get a job and make their education mean something as an investment from their parents. They want to get an MBA from Harvard or Wharton, so our culture is still based upon the business model of economics. Congress is still filled with businessmen and lawyers. The governing politicians now won’t accept ecological science, hence their denial of global warming, despite the fact that every major scientist in the prestigious journal Nature affirms that global warming is real and not a plot of Euro-intellectuals to introduce Socialism. Climate change is real. David Orr even goes so far as to call our situation one of climate collapse. But Good ol’ Republican businessmen still insist that it is all a fraud, a scam. So our politicians are still trying to run this system with market theory and economics with good old-fashioned common business sense. They’re now trying to run universities as profit-making systems, and thus they are getting rid of the humanities the way they got rid of the classics 40 years ago. They are trying to get rid of intellectuals to mass-produce business, economics, and government majors. And to keep the Plebs happy, they invest more in sports and their required facilities than they do in the Humanities. So they are getting rid of literature, philosophy, and English—the kind of majors that encourage thinking instead of consuming. But here too, things are changing, because Creative Writing is now a consumers’ market and has been absorbed by the publishing and media industries. There are now literary journals that have no other purpose than to publish these artificial academic works in order to secure tenure for their A List writers. Creative Writing literature is like a yeast infection: it is a surface colony that parasitizes the reproductive system and gets in the way of the real thing. Writers should know things, so they should major in another subject from Astronomy to Zoology. The kind of liberal arts college education in which I studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona College fifty years ago is now no longer available or valued. You’re not going to get it at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
So that’s a big change in the notion of an educated citizenry. All the people who are now part of the government are the wrong kind of people for our global crisis. People like the McConnells and the Boehners–they don’t know what the hell is going on. So we are going to learn the hard way.
If we had listened to the first prophetic warnings in the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies–in all the work that Lindisfarne did 30 to 40 years ago–and even before that to Earth Day stuff in 1968, then we might have had leaders that were more open to a new world-view. Jerry Brown, when he was governor of California the first time, did listen and did come to some of our Lindisfarne meetings. Brown appointed people like Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and Rusty Schweickart who introduced new ways of thinking and new technologies of solar and wind and organic farming. Brown made the green architect Sim Van der Ryn to be state architect; so Brown did try to energize new ideas, but he was dismissed as “Governor Moonbeam” by the popular press–which is, of course, owned by the media corporations, of folks like Rupert Murdoch. Jerry Brown would go to a Zen monastery like Tassajara and meditate, and so the popular press ridiculed him. Jerry has a lot of problems, like the rest of us, but he did have a political sense that these issues were the wave of the future, so it will be interesting to see now that he is governor again how he handles this transition we are in.
But for sure the concreteness of markets, solid gold currency–all of these instruments are inadequate and are an application of the wrong geometry to the behavior of the system we’re in. So often times it is outlaws, poets, mystics, and philosophers who get a sense of what the new thing is—as Bucky Fuller with his global-thinking pirates pointed out.
Remember even when science was replacing religion at the time of Newton, most of those guys were Rosicrucians and hermetic mystics (in the way Francis Yates has explored), and they were pretty wacky and really far-out kind of guys. They weren’t just classical scientific materialists– that came later with materialists like Lavoisier. So there is often a whole lunatic fringe, or cutting edge group of people, out there who are beginning to express the transition, but they are not the people who are governing us, so there is a time lag.
The Spirit of Integral Poetry:
“Waring” the Symbolism of Organism
In the preface of his magisterial account of the evolution of consciousness, The Ever-Present Origin (1985), Jean Gebser warns of a crisis “of decisive finality for life on earth and for humanity,” a spiritual crisis heralding the end of the deficient mentality of the present age and the coming of an entirely transformed constellation of consciousness.1 Although his research points to manifestations of this new integral constellation of consciousness in a variety of disciplines–including mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, economics, music, architecture, and painting–Gebser highlights poetry in particular as necessarily at the forefront of his inquiry. An inquiry into the nature of poetry, past and present, “is the most instructive means for disclosing the respective consciousness structure.”2 Gebser quotes Alfred North Whitehead in support of such an inquiry, who suggests that “the most concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression” in poetry, and that it is to poetry that we must look “if we hope to discover the inward thoughts of a generation.”3
Poetry is the linguistically shaped and structured statement, by the human spirit, of a power rooted in the “primal depths of the universe.”4 Poetic statement, according to Gebser, is today under a new obligation to render origin perceptible to human awareness. Integral poetry, unlike its mythic and mental forerunners, cannot merely order the soul by contemplating the Muses, it must now raise humanity to the “order of the spirit.”5 Spirit, according to Valéry (whose poetry is cited by Gebser as an inception of the integral constellation) is not a “metaphysical entity,” but a “power of transformation.”6 The creative power of spirit, which is humanity’s consciousness of origin, cannot be captured by the dead prose of reflective thought. Spirit is alive and effective only in the transparency of poetic statements.
Though Gebser draws on Ernst Cassirer’s research into mythic consciousness several times in The Ever-Present Origin, he ultimately finds his thinking one-sided, “indirectly [affording] more insight into rational…than into…mythical thinking.”7 Keeping Gebser’s criticism in mind, Cassirer’s perspective on the symbolic form of language is nonetheless instructive. Summarizing the Romantic philosophies of Herder, Schelling, and W. von Humboldt, Cassirer writes:
“…the essence of language never resides in those elements isolated by abstraction and analysis, but solely in the spirit’s eternally repeated endeavor to make the articulated sound an expression of thought.”8
This conception of language as a holistic activity or process, rather than an isolable sequence of elements amenable to reflective analysis, is essential to Romantic philosophy. In the context of Gebser’s structural scheme, “philosophy” may not be the best term to describe what the Romantics were up to. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, sought to transform philosophy into “transcendental poetry,” a form of thought that is no longer the expression of an individual artist or thinker, but becomes “the universe itself, the one work of art which is forever perfecting itself.”9 Novalis similarly suggested that poetry is the measure of a work’s truth and reality.10
The perspectival basis of philosophy, according to Gebser, ties it to the ego and its dualistic forms of ontological, phenomenological, or existential representation: “The age of systematic philosophy of an individual stamp is over.”11 What is needed are not more philosophemes, but eteologemes. Eteon is a Greek word meaning both “true” and “real.” Eteology is a form of statement that is more than magically evocative, mythically contemplative, or mentally explanatory; it is “being-in-truth,” allowing origin to shine through all the structures, making them transparent in the present by sustaining the verity of the whole.12 The Romantics, in seeking to transform philosophy into poetry, were after precisely such a systatic mode of thinking. “When lovers–and the poets–[are realized to be] far more learned than the scholars are,” writes Novalis, “and tales and poetry provide to real world-history the guide,” then “world to free life can return.”13 This, for Gebser, is a description of the aperspectival world.
In turning to the Romantics’ poetic eteology, I hope to build upon the irruptions of integral consciousness that their work exemplifies. Gebser does not dwell upon the Romantics as especially evident of the mutation into aperspectivity, but nor does he deny it. In what follows, I will draw upon Romantic eteology as it evolved through the 19th and into the 20th century. I will begin by briefly unpacking the founding principle of Romantic thought: organism. I will then end by pointing to Gebser and Rilke’s Christopoietic vision as perhaps the most effective means of spiritual transformation.
Cassirer marks the linguistic philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, an early Romantic and major influence on the development of Goethe, as
“the transition from the older rationalistic concept of ‘reflective form,’ which dominated the philosophy of the Enlightenment, to the Romantic concept of ‘organic form.’”14
Language, for the Romantics, is an organism. This is not a metaphor and is to be understood quite literally, as for Herder, “language is never made, but grows in a necessary process from within.”15 Organism is here to be understood not as a specific kind of phenomenon or singular fact of nature, but rather as a “universal speculative principle,” a “medius terminus” integrating the mental-rational dualisms of such seeming opposites as temporal process v. eternal idea, and “the unconscious growth of nature” v. “the conscious creation of spirit.”16 In Kant’s last critique, the dualism between nature and freedom running throughout his system similarly approaches resolution in the idea of organism.17 Unlike merely mechanical nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without applying formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts. Kant, of course, was in the end unable to overcome the dualism implicit in his system, since he applied organism as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to assert it as constitutive of nature itself. He felt this would require genius of a scientific sort, something he believed was only achievable by artists. An artist intuitively creates her object, while a scientist must empirically and deductively discover his. The reflective mind of the scientist, according to Kant, is cut off from the creative workings of the natural world and so can only uncover them piecemeal as dead mechanisms. Schelling followed the spirit, if not the letter, of Kant by arguing that the symbolically sensitive scientist could know organism to be constitutive of nature. According to Schelling, it was the creative imagination which, long ago, invented the symbolism
“that we need only interpret in order to discover that the less merely reflective thought we give nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”18
The scientist, like the artist, can imaginatively participate in the creative processes at the root of organic nature, there uncovering, in a flash of insight, the holistic patterns that, afterward, can be conceptually analyzed into mathematical laws. Schelling overcomes Kant’s dualism by integrating mind and nature systatically as organism.
“Here for the first time,” writes Schelling,
“there emerged from [the symbolic imagination’s] sacred obscurity that ideal being in which the mind supposes concept and deed, design and execution, to be one…So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”19
Schelling’s integration of concept/deed and design/execution is another way of expressing Gebser’s warning to avoid collapsing the integrated process/effect of systasis into something merely effected, “for if we do we reduce it to a causal system.”20 Further, Schelling’s eteology of organism, and his participatory approach to knowledge, are clear exemplifications of what Gebser refers to as synairetic thought-perception. Synairesis is a mode of thought-perception that integrates and makes systatically present the respective modes of each structure of consciousness: mental system, mythic symbol, and magic symbiosis all become transparent to one another.
These examples should make it clear that the integral structure of consciousness, along with its characteristic form of systatic statement, was attempting to break through in the Romantic’s organic philosophy, or rather eteology. Organism heals the conceptual dualism responsible for the fragmentation hampering the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Through the symbolism of a properly living–that is, poetic, rather than prosaic–language, origin can be brought to consciousness.
Cassirer, belying the rationalistic bias attributed him by Gebser, argues that “we cannot conceive of any real thing except under the conditions of space and time.”21 If this were true, an awareness of origin would be impossible, as would true creativity, which for Gebser “is not bound to space and time.”22 From Cassirer’s mental-rational perspective, experience can only be measured, and so understood, within the bounds of space and time. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for Kantian rationalists like Cassirer is accepting the arationality of genuine creativity. Creativity “reveals the limitations of understanding,” since its effects on the evolution of consciousness are largely “spontaneous, acausal, and discontinuous,” and cannot be grasped systematically.23
Despite Gebser’s criticism of Cassirer, he nonetheless goes a long way toward developing the mode of thought-perception characteristic of the integral structure of consciousness, as I will attempt to show below.
Gebser notes that creativity has a largely psychic emphasis, and warns that this makes all statements about it partial.24 Because of its basis in the psyche, exploring the mythic consciousness of the symbolic imagination is perhaps the best angle of approach available to us if we hope to better integrate its energies.
Symbolism is at the very center of Cassirer’s philosophy of culture. He argues that it is precisely symbolic imagination and intelligence that distinguish the human being from the rest of the animal kingdom.
“The principle of symbolism, with its universality, validity, and general applicability, is the magic word, the Open Sesame! giving access to the specifically human world, to the world of human culture.”25
In a way at least approaching the Romantic’s expansive application of organism beyond particular cases to encompass the whole of the universe, Cassirer employs symbolism to account for the entirety of the cultural world. He again draws upon Herder to claim that even the reflective mode of thinking characteristic of the mental-rational structure of consciousness is entirely dependent upon its symbolic roots.26 To the extent that Cassirer is open to the Romantic’s synairesis of language as a living organism (thereby overcoming the dualisms of deficient mentality) his thinking is on the way to aperspectivity.
“The true concept of reality,” he writes,
“cannot be squeezed into the form of mere abstract being; it opens out into the diversity of the forms of spiritual life…In this sense, each new ‘symbolic form’…constitutes, as Goethe said, a revelation sent outward from within, a ‘synthesis of world and spirit,’ which truly assures us that the two are originally one.”27
Cassirer’s use of the term “synthesis” is a red flag for Gebsarians, but his firm grasp of the original integrality of spirit and world suggests that, though he may have lacked the systatic terminology to express it, he did not lack an intuition of its meaning. In a discussion surrounding the Kantian dualism between mind and nature, Cassirer goes on to offer a startlingly integral formulation of the evolution of consciousness. I quote him at length due to the importance of this statement:
“From the standpoint of [Kant’s] antithesis it would seem to follow that the richer the symbolic content of [a] cultural form becomes, the more its essential content must diminish. All the many images do not designate, but cloak and conceal the imageless One, which stands behind them and towards which they strive in vain. Only the negation of all finite figuration, only a return to the ‘pure nothingness’ of the mystics can lead us back to the true primal source of being. Seen in a different light, this antithesis takes the form of a constant tension between ‘culture’ and ‘life.’ For it is the necessary destiny of culture that everything which it creates in its constant process of configuration and education removes us more and more from the originality of life. The more richly and energetically the human spirit engages in its formative activity, the farther this very activity seems to remove it from the primal source of its own being.”28
In the early pages of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser repeatedly reminds his readers that the evolution of consciousness is not a continuous progression: “Progress is..a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, origin.”29 Clearly, Cassirer’s understanding of the evolution of symbolic forms is congruent with Gebser’s. However, by suggesting that only a “return” to the “pure nothingness” of the mystics allow us to break through veil of culture, Cassirer remains tied to the absolutist tendencies of the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Instead of avoiding regression into mysticism by overdetermining philosophy through eteology, thereby allowing origin to break through into consciousness, Cassirer restricts himself to the role of the rationalistic philosopher, forgoing the spiritual possibility because forgetting the physical actuality of his own “being-in-truth”/“a-waring/”verition” “of” origin.30 The longing of his soul to find perfection in the concretion of “his” spirit is tragically blocked, as he pretends to “[find] fulfillment only in the sharpness of the concept and in the clarity of ‘discursive’ thought.”31
Cassirer’s thought ultimately remains anthropocentric because it rests upon an unbridgeable ontological chasm between nature and culture. Such a chasm can, in the end, only produce a disintegrated cosmology and an alienating politics. His allegiance to scientific naturalism as the “clearest” and so most “useful” symbolic form prevents Cassirer not only from understanding, but from ethically “becoming-with” the organism/s of the world. “Becoming-with” is a term invented by contemporary Whiteheadian Donna Haraway to signal the need for a strong dose of “animal phenomenology” to correct for the anthropocentrism of deficient mental techno-science. Her work is a call to an intensified consciousness of the “lively knottings that tie together the world.”32 Though Cassier remained consistently fascinated by an intuition of organism as the symbol of symbols, he was met and blocked by the guardians of the physical sphere, namely space and time. He could not grasp and turn the magic key that poetically opens humanity to the presence of origin and the possibility of a truly integral civilization.
Cassirer’s understanding of symbolism leads him to posit an external “nature” as the material “given” to culture for spiritualization. His discussion of alchemy in the last chapter of An Essay on Man displays a lack of acquaintance with the transmutational modes of consciousness instigating the living words of the Romantic symphilosophers/sympoets.33
Cassirer admires the calculative power of mental-rational science as an advance over the “half-mythical language..full of obscure and ill-defined terms” he says makes up the alchemical-magical (and, we might add, astrological) corpus.34 Gebser warns about the eventual cosmopolitical cost of the quantifying mode of knowledge production, pointing to the distressing unconscious power of the deficient concepts of mass and measure over our conscious lives.35 The mytho-magical language of pre-Enlightenment consciousness is rejected by Cassirer in favor of the rationality and instrumental value of numerical systems. He writes of the gradual mathematization of chemistry that, by the time of the periodic table of elements, had “learned to speak a quantitative language.” The qualitative phenomenology of each element was thought to be entirely deducible from a knowledge of its atomic number.36 The work of Ilya Prigogine on the irreversibility of chemical organization has since made the spontaneous, non-deducible qualitative character of elemental processes more than apparent.37 Like alchemy, Prigogine’s is a chemistry sensitive to the creativity of time, while Cassirer’s 19th century conception is frozen in the spatial fixities of the deficient mental structure of consciousness.
Unlike Cassirer, Gebser recognizes the extreme danger of psychic atomization resulting from an obsession with quantity by drawing our attention again to the poetic statements of Novalis:
“When number and numeral cease to be
a power o’er the creaturely…
where light and shade conjoin once more
to the true clarity of lore…
then can one cryptic word commence
to drive the topsy-turvy hence.”38
The spiritual realization of the symbolism of organism (cryptically alluding to both the life and death-poles of the soul39) allows for participation in the becoming of the whole cosmos, in both its spatio-temporal and time-free aspects, beginning with the local planetary ecology of which we are a living member. In order to make transparent Cassirer’s categorically-bound philosophy, where the world is manufactured by the concepts and systems of our deficient industrial understanding, we must become conscious of the congruence between cosmogenesis and anthropoiesis. The new obligation of poetry is to raise the human soul above all 9 Muses40 by transfiguring their unconscious cosmogenic energies into consciousness of the spiritual history of the world.
“Poetry as history is the account of events…effected by creativity,”41 creativity as the common origin of the structure of both psyche and cosmos. Integral consciousness is imaginatively aware of the planetary bodies as the acategorial organs of the world-soul governing the life of the whole. This cosmic psyche is clothed as the sky witnessed from earth, and as such is intimately interwoven with the collective histories and personal stories of humanity. It is not only culture that is mutating with the integral constellation of consciousness, in other words, but the cosmos, as well:
“[The earth] is a star among stars, just as humans are only humans among other human beings. On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s.”42
In the mythopoetic language of archetypal cosmology,43 Cassirer’s individual soul, though it has grasped the truth, beauty, and goodness of Mercury, Venus, and the Sun, has yet to integrate and so make transparent the psychic symbolism of the other planets, most significantly Jupiter (space) and Saturn (clock-time). Integral consciousness bursts the limits of space and time through the transformative power of the creative imagination, ruled by the trans-egoic planets Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune, respectively.
The transformative, orgiastic power of Pluto is anxiety-producing for the time- and space-bound ego of mental-rational consciousness, as yet uninitiated into death by the 7 planetary gates written of by Dante.44 Pluto is the Dionysian “original chaos of human nature”45 that Cassirer sought to restrain by the ordering influence of Apollo.46 Order is not to be given up in favor of chaos, nor intuition in favor of instinct, but to the extent that the psyche remains anxiously bound to the measure and mass of calculative thinking, it fails to pass through the death-rebirth mystery initiated by Pluto and so remains deficient in mentality. All organisms are born and die. The mental-rational human organism is conscious of its own mortality, but not yet conscious of its connection to origin. The anxiety ruling over the ever day life of contemporary humanity is a symptom of the ego’s unwillingness to transform.
“Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver.”47
In another work of magisterial scope, Religion in Human Evolution (2011),Robert N. Bellah sums up our present predicament by comparing the secular “world of daily life…based on a fundamental anxiety…arising from the knowledge and fear of death”48 to the world of “religious knowing” generated by “the feeling of an infinite Whole.”49 The former is rooted in “standard time and standard space,” while the later is made efficacious by “the capacity for symbolic transcendence,” for going beyond the “dreadful immanence” and “mechanical necessity” of ordinary space and time.50 Bellah, like Cassirer, recognizes the centrality of symbolism, but in recognizing the capacity for the symbolic imagination to transcend the finitude of measurable space-time to participate with spirit in cosmogenesis, Bellah spiritualizes and makes conscious what for Cassirer remains merely the psycho-cultural projection of the collective unconscious.
The Angel of Death and the Coming of Christ
The debilitating anxiety of the mental-rational ego in the face of death prevents it from becoming aware of the ever-presence of origin, effective in both the life- and death-poles of the soul. Catherine Keller, another contemporary Whiteheadian, evinces the psychic demand of the integral structure of consciousness by comparing the finite ego’s relationship to the universe with the book of Job. Job, the archetypal human of the post-fall phase of creation, is called by YHWH to intensify the symbolic “horizon of what our little body-brains can know”:
“The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us within an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begin to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.”51
Keller attempts to draw our attention both to the mortal limits of rational knowledge and the immortal reaches of aperspectival faith. She suggests that YHWH “is challenging Job’s readiness to stir the destructive forces of chaos”52 in service of the ongoing transformation from a suffering organism into a living symbol of origin, from flesh into Word. Job’s is the story of the initial emergence of the unconscious spirit buried in the primal depths of the universe into concrete and personal presence.
Indeed, says Keller,
“Job already whirls toward an ecological theology of the Whiteheadian sort, in which human becoming looks cramped and cancerous–unless we collude more wisely with the elements, the plants, the beasts and each other.”
In learning to “become-with” the threads of life the bind the world into a whole, Job redeems his fallen state.
“Where were you,” asks YHWH of Job,
“before I laid the foundation of the world…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? [Did you] enclose the sea with doors when, bursting forth, water went out from the womb; When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves stop.’?”53
Gebser points to the symbol of Christ as the first answer to YWHW’s call, representing immunity to resubmergence in the tumultous and anxiety-ridden animality of the depths of the soul.54 In Christ, the Creator becomes conscious of the life of its own creation, the poet aware of his craft. YHWH enters into space and time, is crucified as Jesus, and reborn as the living symbol and original organism of creation.
Jesus said: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”55
Gebser marks water as the symbol of the life-pole of the soul, while the “siren-like angels” of Rilke’s poetry are its death-pole.56 Christ integrates the creativity of the former with the “perpetual plenitude” of the later, allowing the poet to both drink the wisdom of the past and “ware” the wisdom of the present.57 Rilke writes of Christ, who for the ego appears indistinguishable from the siren-like angel “deep inside the doors of the dead,” that “he obeys, even as he oversteps the bounds” of space and time.58
I quote Rilke’s poem Sonnets to Orpheus at length, for these words mark a crucial event in the dateless history of spirit’s creativity:
“To praise, that’s it! Called to praise, he came like ore out of the silence of stone. Oh, his heart’s a perishable press of a wine that’s eternal for men…Only one who’s also raised the lyre among shades may return unending praise with warning…Look at the sky…Even the linking of stars is a lie. But for a while now let’s be happy to believe the symbol. That’s enough…Hail to the spirit who can link us: because we live in symbols, really. And with tiny steps the clocks walk beside our primal day…Dare to say what you call apple. This sweetness that condenses first so in the taste that’s so tenderly intense it may become awake, transparent, double meaning, clear, bright, earthly, ours–O knowledge, feeling, joy–immense!…Deep down, the oldest tangled root of all that’s grown, the secret source they’ve never seen…Branch pushing branch, not one of them free…One! oh, climb higher…higher…Yet they still break. But this top one finally bends into a lyre…Do you hear the New, Master, droning and throbbing? Its prophesying promoters are advancing. No hearing’s truly keen in all this noise; still, now each machine part wills its praise. See, the Machine: how it spins and wreaks revenge, deforms and demeans us. Since its power comes from us, let it do its work and serve, serene…Even if the world changes as fast as the shapes of clouds, all perfected things at last fall back to the very old. Over what’s passing and changing, freer and wider, your overture is lasting, god with the lyre. Pain’s beyond our grasp, love hasn’t been learned, and whatever eliminates us in death is still secret. Only the Song above the land blesses and celebrates…But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, you over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds. You still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace! Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners…Breath, you invisible poem! Steady sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being. Counterpoise in which I rhythmically become.”59
While mental philosophy demands explanation (literally, spatialization, or laying out on a plain so as to expose), poetic statement integrates the dimensionality of space and time by making the whole transparently present. Poetry awakens us to origin without the need of argumentation or systematic conception. It “[steadies the] sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being,” as Rilke says. In such verse, the ego-fixed soul find’s its way through the mystery of death and is born again into the eternal life, now not of the waters, but of the spirit. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” 60
1 p. xxvii, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
2 p. 317, ibid.
3 p. 94, Science and the Modern World (1932)
4 p. 316, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
5 p. 327, ibid.
6 p. 326, ibid.
7 p. 246, note 8, ibid.
8 p. 160, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. I: Language (1955)
9 p. 156, An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer (1944)
11 p. 309, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
13 quoted on p. 307, ibid.
14 p. 153, An Essay on Man (1944)
16 p. 154, ibid.
17 See The Critique of Judgment (1790)
18 p. 35, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988)
19 p. 36, ibid.
20 p. 310, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
21 p. 42, An Essay on Man (1944)
22 p. 313, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
25 p. 33, An Essay on Man (1944)
26 p. 39-41, ibid.
27 p. 111, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)
28 p. 113, ibid.
29 p. 41, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
30 See p. 352-356, ibid.
31 p. 113, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)
32 p.vii, When Species Meet (2007)
33 For example, Friedrich Schlegel, who sought “a whole new epoch of science and art” based in the alchemy of creative communion with others of similar nature. His historical scholarship “served as [a] newly fashioned key to unlock the secrets of man and nature.” -p. 20, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert J. Richards
34 p. 215, An Essay on Man (1944)
35 See p. 129-143, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
36 p. 216, An Essay on Man (1944)
37 See The End of Certainty (1997)
38 quoted on p. 306, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
39 See Gebser’s discussion of the polarity of the poetic soul, given life by the Muses and death by the angels on p. 322 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985). This will be discussed more below in connection with Rilke’s poetry.
40 p. 318, ibid.
41 p. 320, ibid.
42 p. 541, ibid.
43 For an example of what poetic philosophy becomes when art, science, and myth are successfully integrated, see Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas. Gebser seems to hint at the need for a renewed astrological orientation on p. 135 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985).
44 p. 320, ibid.
45 Friedrich Schlegel, quoted on p. 161 of An Essay on Man (1944)
46 p. 163, ibid.
47 p. 134, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
48 p. 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)
49 p. 6, ibid.
50 p. 9, ibid.
51 p. 131, Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming (2003)
52 p. 134, ibid.
53 Job 38:4-8
54 p. 89, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
55 Revelation 21:6
56 p. 320, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
58 verse 5, series 1, Sonnets to Orpheus (1955)
59 verses 7-26, series 1 and verse 1, series 2, ibid.
60 See John 3:6
- The Difficulty of Christianity (a response to ProfessorAnton) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture (footnotes2plato.com)
- Thinking in media res. (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Post-Copernican Odyssey from the Kantian Psyche to the Tarnasian Cosmos (footnotes2plato.com)