Climate Change and Schelling’s inversion of Fichte’s “economic-teleological” principle

Two disappointing tidbits of news from the front lines of the climate war came my way this morning.

First, I learned that the US Department of State decided to contract out its recent environmental review of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline to a company called Environmental Resources Management. ERM happens to be “a dues-paying member of the American Petroleum Institute, big oil’s top lobbying group,” according to 350.org. Here is a sample of the sort of analysis ERM offers its big oil clients (like TransCanada, the co. building the Keystone XL pipeline):

Earth has already experienced, a modest increase in global average temperature of 0.8 °C since pre-industrial times. Nonetheless, even small variations in average conditions can have a big influence on extremes such as droughts and floods, as the world has witnessed over the last decade. As extreme weather events become more frequent, and climate change continues to modify operating environments, risks and opportunities will grow in importance for the [extractives] sector.

The extractives sector is considered critical in building a more sustainable global economy. Capital investments made today, whether into mining, conventional or unconventional oil and gas developments like shale gas and oil sands have the potential to secure the world’s future energy and resource demand for decades to come. Considering the long timescales and the importance of these investments, it would be negligent not to consider the steps necessary to make such projects resilient to future expected climate change related risks. A simple economic analysis almost always demonstrates substantial pay back on the investment necessary to make a project climate resilient.

So let me get this straight: ERM readily acknowledges that climate change is actually occurring, and then in the very next breath advises oil, gas, and coal companies whose product is causing said climate change to “consider the steps necessary to make [their extractive projects] resilient to future expected climate change related risks.” I assume they mean primarily two sorts of risk: that posed to mining/drilling infrastructure by extreme weather, and that posed by the American public coming to its senses about the existential severity of the climate crisis. The first risk is an easily solvable “engineering problem” (more on this in a moment). The second risk is solvable through political lobbying and mass disinformation campaigns. Even if the American pubic was able to come to its senses, its not clear that our president or congressional representatives would pass laws to protect us (and the rest of the earth community) from the very companies that bankroll their campaigns. Big oil knows that climate change will be severe enough to threaten its profit margin. Its response is not to invest in innovation or already existing cleaner alternative energy sources, but to dig in its heels by improving the “resilience” of its current business model (=get the fossil fuel out of the ground, to the market, and into the atmosphere as profitably as possible). They are even shameless enough to borrow an ecological term to describe their model.

The second tidbit of news comes from Exxon Mobil’s recent shareholder meeting. The CEO of the company, Rex Tillerson, had this to say in his speech during the event:

“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

Is anyone else having as much trouble with his myopically anthropocentric logic as I am? He went on to argue that “there’s no quick replacement for oil, and sharply cutting oil’s use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would make it harder to lift 2 billion people out of poverty,” according to Daily Kos. As if big oil shareholders give a damn about raising people out of poverty…After all, where would big oil build its poisonous, poorly managed refineries if there weren’t poor ghettos (like Richmond, CA)? Here’s Tillerson being interviewed about climate change last year at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations:

“Its an engineering problem,” he says. “We will adapt.” Perhaps the rich will adapt, but not until much of the world’s human and animal population has died off. Tillerson goes on to repeat his concern for all the poor people who so desperately need electricity. I admit, its not at all fair that the developed world gets to live in a technological wonderland while half the world’s population barely has enough rice to eat and has to shit in a hole. But how about we Americans help raise the rest of the world out of poverty by learning to live with it being darker when the sun sets, with carpooling, with fewer servings of meat per day? Human beings have only had cars and electricity for a century or so, and already these conveniences have become so necessary we’re willing to destroy the planet so everyone can have the experience of microwaving leftover pizza or being stuck in traffic? Why does the enterprise of human civilization necessarily have to involve trying to exterminate the non-human biotic community in order to replace it with a human-made technosphere?

Thinking about big oil’s role in climate change lead me to re-read two fascinating papers on Schelling. One is by Iain Hamilton Grant (‘The “Eternal and Necessary Bond Between Philosophy and Physics”: a repetition of the difference between the fichtean and schellingian systems of philosophy,’ Angelaki, No. 10, Vol. 1, (2005), 43-59). Grant argues that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie inverts the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle, which has it that because man cannot know nature in itself, he must remake it for himself. Schelling rejects the anthropocentric Kantian-Fichtean program that justifies treating nature as the raw material awaiting human capitalization by inverting transcendental idealism so it becomes transcendental physics, which has it that nature is not only product but productivity, a productivity that “is as active in geology as in [human] ideation” (Grant, 53). It is therefore not only human beings who act to shape a passive nature, since “nature is its own lawgiver” (Schelling, SW IV: 96). The human imagination is understood to be a potentialization of nature’s original creativity.

Big oil may be the most powerful expression of the Kantian-Fichtean “economic-teleological” principle on earth at this particular historical juncture. It is leading the fight to remake the planet in our own industrial image.

The other Schelling paper is by Jason Wirth (“Mass Extinction: Schelling and Natural History,” Poligrafi: Journal for Interdisciplinary Study of Religion. No. 61-62, Vol. 16 (2011), 43-63). Wirth’s book on Schelling (The Conspiracy of Life, 2002) is rather severely criticized by Grant for Fichteanizing Schelling by making it seem as though the latter prioritizes ethics over physics. I’ll have more to say about this validity of this charge at a later time. For now, I just want to direct you to this paper (hopefully you have access to it; I don’t have a PDF, sorry!) It seems clear enough to me that Wirth’s treatment of the philosophical significance of species extinction lines up with Grant’s: the extinction of species is a pretty strong counter-argument to idealism of the Kantian, Fichtean, or Hegelian variety.

Does it make sense to claim that the root of the climate crisis is metaphysical? Can attacking big oil at an ideological level actually do anything to hamper their business model? Might Schelling’s philosophical inversion of the “anti-physics” of so much modern thought provide at least a sense of self-understanding to those who discover more concrete forms of resistance?

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.