The Poetics of Cosmogenesis, or Cosmopoiesis

Jason/Immanent Transcendence has asked me to offer a Whiteheadian take on his recent posts (two examples are HERE, and, especially relevant, HERE) concerned with such ideas as purpose, process, form, time, and chance in John Dewey. Jason has also recently written about a Deweyan approach to the place of values in nature while in conversation with Levi Bryant (HERE).

A. N. Whitehead appears to be the more cosmological thinker, Dewey the more epistemological. Their impact as thinkers is similar, since both put their abstract theorizing into play in the educational arena to great acclaim. Their theorizing about nature, and the nature of the mind, was equally rooted in the ontogenic aspect of nature, i.e., in nature’s unthingedness. Nature’s ontogenesis (like Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity), cannot be represented rationally, since it is the ground and condition of rationality. For this reason, Whitehead says of his cosmological scheme that it emerges originally from non-rational aesthetic and moral valuations, from an “imaginative leap” dependent upon the generative power of metaphor (Process and Reality, 4). Philosophy, for Whitehead, aims for “sheer disclosure” (Modes of Thought, 49), not deductive proof or logical demonstration (though logic is always a part of philosophy, it is not the whole). To approach the creative origin of being and the cosmos with logos, it is necessary to speak as this creativity (i.e., to speak poetically), since any thought about this creativity immediately converts the infinite originality of reality into a determinate totality, a closed world rent asunder into a transcendental subject reflecting upon finite objects, including itself. Representational or intentional thought–thought about things–when left to its own devices, leads to all the modern diseases of philosophy: nominalism, positivism, nihilism, etc.

If we’re seriously going to concern ourselves with the genesis of being and of nature, it is absolutely necessary that we learn to play with words. Without metaphor, we cannot even begin to approach such an unplaceable topic. Whitehead’s was an aesthetic philosophy, his theology poetic (e.g., here’s a post on Catherine Keller’s Whiteheadian theopoetics). We know that finite nature is a unified cosmos only because its overarching beauty has swayed us. Whitehead’s theodicy accounts for the reality of good and evil, of harmony and discord, on aesthetic grounds. The universe is a thing of beauty, but its origin is entirely unruly (or, as Jason might say, it is “ruled” by chance). Reality is rooted in (a priori) absolute freedom and amoral creativity; but this unruly reality has been (a posteriori) generative of cosmic beauty and personal love. The former freedom is the condition of possibility, the latter personality is the actualized fact. “In the beginning,” there was no distinction between time/habit/material memory and chance/novelty/eternal possibility. When we contemplate the sky here and now in the present, we experience a moving image of eternity; when we consider our body’s relation to the sky here and now, we experience the logos taking on flesh. Here and now habit and novelty are together begetting personality. Conscience is being created, an event which is forever changing the meaning of the original Creativity creating it, and of the Chaos that may in the future destroy it. Creativity and Chaos, like the morning and evening appearances of Venus, are merely different seasons of the same indifferent star. It is only from the present that metaphor can carry us beyond ourselves into the past or future.

I’ve grown tired, so I’ll end by letting Keats sing the tragic tune of our contingently harmonious cosmos. This the first two stanzas of “Endymion”:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.


The Universe as a Work of Art: Images of the Cosmos in Plato, Descartes, and Kepler

In his lecture series become book, Art as Experience (1934), John Dewey defines imagination, not as a specific faculty alongside others, but as “that which holds all other elements in solution” (p. 275). Imagination, according to Dewey, is a uniquely human power, rendering experience conscious through the mutually transforming fusion of old meanings with new situations.

“For while the roots of every experience are found in the interaction of a live creature with its environment, that experience becomes conscious, a matter of perception, only when meanings enter it that are derived from prior experiences. Imagination is the only gateway through which these meanings can find their way into a present interaction; or rather,…the conscious adjustment of the new and the old is imagination…There is always a gap between the here and now of direct interaction and the past interactions whose funded result constitutes the meanings with which we grasp and understand what is now occurring” (ibid.).

In preparation for a talk I’m giving at Burning Man in two weeks on “Platonic astrosophy,” I want to attempt to use Dewey’s understanding of the role of imagination in perception to make Plato’s vision of the Cosmos more accessible to the contemporary mind.

In the Republic, Plato ranks imagination quite low on his hierarchy of knowledge, since it is partially derived from sensory experience. For similar reasons, even though he praises astronomy for “[compelling] the soul to look upwards [leading it] from this world to another,” he nonetheless tells astronomers to “let the [visible] heavens alone” if they hope to “approach the subject in the right way” (book 8). This is because the Plato of the Republic chose to elevate the study of invisible geometrical harmonies known only by the intellect over and above the study of the motion of visible bodies through space. He recognized the same gap described by Dewey between direct perception and meaningful conception, or between sensing and thinking, but instead of calling upon imagination to bridge the gap, Plato often emphasized the difference. In the ancient world, a solution to the difficult problem of the planets had not yet been imagined. Plato was therefore skeptical of the merits of empirical observation in comparison to geometrical reasoning.

In Timaeus, he writes:

“That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.”

Despite his seeming desire to affirm an experiential gap, rather than an imaginal bridge, the Plato of Timaeus goes on to offer a “likely story,” or mythopoeic narrative, concerning the generation of the heavens. Given Plato’s doctrine of anemnesis, discussed at length in Meno and Phaedo, I want to suggest that Plato actually did articulate an imaginal function meant to bridge the cognitive gap between appearance and reality.

The soul, according to Plato, is “the oldest and most divine of all things” (Laws). It participates in the eternal, and so all the soul’s learning while incarnated in an earthly body is really a form of remembrance of knowledge that was already present in it from eternity.

The soul is said to forget its divine origins as a result of the trauma of physical birth. During birth, the soul descends from eternity to earth through the heavenly spheres of time. Once on earth, the now embodied and half-aware soul gazes back into the sky in awesome wonder. From childhood on, the soul dimly intuits its true birthplace in the stars, but only a lifelong dedication to the philosophical contemplation of the geometric motions of the stars and planets can finally cure the soul’s forgetfulness. This is why Plato praises the study of the stars as a divine science (let us call it “astrosophy”).

Just as Dewey suggests that the imagination unites the old with the new, the already experienced with present experience, Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis allows the embodied experience of the beauty of the present sky to act on the soul so as to remind it of the knowledge lying dormant in it from eternity.

Plato’s reasoning goes something like this: if the visible universe is intelligible, then it must be a work of art. Its beauty is thus the sensible sign of its creation by an invisible intelligence. In Timaeus, Plato seems to hold to two contradictory opinions on the nature of the creation and its creator. He suggests on the one hand that the universe is a “living thing” continually birthed out of a formless maternal Receptacle, or World Soul. On the other hand, he suggests that the universe is a “crafted thing,” the mere imitation or copy of an Idea, formed by a paternal demiurge into a “moving image of eternity.” The universe is conceived of as having both a mother and a father, both an immanent bearer who participates in its coming-to-life and a craftsman who orchestrates it from beyond; it remains unclear, however, how the two are to be married.

At this point, I’m forced to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that even “the acutest searcher, the lovingest disciple could never tell what Platonism was; indeed admirable texts can be quoted on both sides of every great question, from him” (journal entry, Oct. 1845).

Instead of looking to Plato for a further account of the maternal and paternal aspects of creation, let us turn to two early modern thinkers influenced, in the own way, by Plato: Descartes and Kepler. Their differences as regards the proper study of the Cosmos may provide us with a way forward. Both were Platonic in the sense that they believed in the transcendent origin of mathematics, but the similarity ends here. Descartes invented a way to translate geometric figures into algebraic equations, thereby enabling abstract measurement of the geometrically continuous by way of the numerically discrete. Kepler, on the other hand, did not think algebra was relevant to the study of cosmology:

“I do not treat these matters by numbers or by Algebra, but by the investigation of Spirit; my interest in these matters is not for keeping a ledger but for explaining the cause of things” (Harmonices mundi, 1619).

Descartes, aligning himself more with Plato’s paternal notion of creation, found evidence of a transcendent cause in his innate knowledge of geometric form. His own cognitive activity as a mathematician, in other words, was understood to be the effect of his having been created in the image of a divine craftsman. Kepler’s approach, in contrast, suggests a more maternal notion of creation, where participation in the archetypal pattern given expression by the heavens reminds the human soul of its embeddedness in the World Soul. For Kepler, the musical harmony of the spheres grounds geometry in the experience of beauty rather than in the intelligibility of abstract numbers.

In short, while Descartes thought the universe was an imitation of mathematical formalisms in the mind of an absent demiurge, Kepler saw it as the body of God, a living symbol of divinity. Philosophical contemplation of the heavens, for Descartes, leads to demonstrative knowledge of their eternal algebraic form; for Kepler, it leads to generative participation in the same life presently animating them…

I hope this admittedly oversimplified characterization of these thinkers was at least somewhat illustrative of the tension inherent in the Platonic worldview. I think a more developed account of the ontological role of imagination will help to marry the masculine and feminine poles of Plato’s cosmology.

Research notes on the pragmatisms of James and Dewey

continuing research for my dissertation

I’ve been enjoying Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (2001). With an insightful synopsis of American history from the Civil War until about WWI as the backdrop, Menand traces the intellectual development of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Recent conversations with Jason Hills about the intersections of philosophy and religion have left me hungering for a better understanding of the pragmatisms of Peirce, James, and Dewey. My interest in pragmatism is primarily a result of dissertation research into the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, whose process-relational ontology owes much to these three men, especially James.

In a handwritten letter to Charles Hartshorne, dated Jan. 2, 1936, Whitehead wrote:

“European philosophy has gone dry, and cannot make any worthwhile use of the results of nineteenth century scholarship. It is in chains to the sanctified presuppositions derived from later Greek thought…My belief is that the effective founders of the renaissance in American philosophy are Charles Peirce and William James. Of these men, James is the analogue to Plato, and Peirce to Aristotle, though the time-order does not correspond, and the analogy must not be pressed too far…James’ pragmatic descendants have been doing their best to trivialize his meanings in the notions of Radical Empiricism, Pragmatism, Rationalization. But I admit James was weak on Rationalization. Also he expressed himself by the dangerous method of overstatement.”

Whitehead wrote in Process and Reality that all of Western philosophy could be described as a series of footnotes to Plato, and so for him to refer to James as the American Plato is no small praise. Whitehead’s metaphysical project could be described as an attempt to generalize James’ somewhat unsystematic psychological insights. In Thinking With Whitehead, Isabelle Stengers suggests that James’ relation to religious belief was primarily emotional, while for Whitehead it was primarily conceptual. The former had a psychological need to believe, while the latter arrived at the necessary doctrine of a divine function in the world as a result of systematic reflection.

In my conversations with Hills, I’ve positioned myself as a philosopher seeking justification for religious faith. This places me somewhere in between James and Whitehead. I think faith has an underappreciated cognitive importance: it represents the exercise of an organ of perception that usually lies dormant in the philosophical soul. I follow poet-philosophers like William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in suggesting that this organ is the Imagination. Cultivating it opens the soul to an experience of supersensible realities the philosopher would otherwise remain blind to.

In The Metaphysical Club, Menand discusses the influence of Coleridge’s Christian philosophy on the young Dewey. In the late 1870s, Dewey took a course with the Transcendentalist Henry Torrey at the University of Vermont. Torrey, according to Menand, was, “academically speaking, the direct descendent of James Marsh,” who was the former chair of philosophy at Dartmouth College and a great admirer of Coleridge’s philosophy. In 1832, Marsh published an edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection, adding a substantial introductory essay. The book essentially argues that Christianity (at least a poetico-mystical interpretation of it) is consistant with philosophical reflection. Dewey read Marsh’s edition in Torrey’s class, and reportedly was quite enthusiastic about the synthesis it pulled off. Many years later, Dewey remarked that it was “my first Bible” (Menand, p. 252). 

In 1882, Dewey began studying at Johns Hopkins University with George Sylvester Morris, another Transcendentalist. As a student, Morris had studied theology, but after reading Hume’s dialogues on religion, he had a crisis of faith and was unable to finish seminary. He studied philosophy in Germany for two years before returning to teach in the States. By the time Dewey began studying under him, he had overcome Humean empiricism and was “a full-fledged Hegelian” (Menand, p. 265).

Hegel is described by Menand as having “completed the revision of Kant that Fichte and Schelling had begun” (p. 263). This is the standard reading of most scholars, but I think Iain Hamilton Grant successfully brings Schelling out of Hegel’s shadow in Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008) by showing that, in fact, his was a distinct philosophical project. Menand elsewhere credits Schelling with having influenced the erroneous views of the creationist biologist Louis Agassiz, which doesn’t do much for Schelling’s reputation among contemporary scientists.

At any rate, Dewey took to Hegel for the same reasons he took to Coleridge (whose philosophy, it should be added, was largely lifted from Schelling). In 1930, Dewey wrote that Hegel answered

“a demand for unification that was doubtless an intense emotional craving, and yet was a hunger that only an intellectualized subject-matter could satisfy…[T]he sense of divisions and separations that were, I suppose, borne in upon me as a consequence of a heritage of New England culture, divisions by way of isolation of self from the world, of soul from body, of nature from God, brought a painful oppression–or, rather, they were an inward laceration… Hegel’s synthesis of subject and object, matter and spirit, the divine and the human, was…no mere intellectual formula; it operated as an immense release, a liberation. Hegel’s treatment of human culture, of institutions and the arts, involved the same dissolution of hard-and-fast dividing walls, and had a special attraction for me” (The Later Works, 1925-1953, vol. 5, p. 153).

I’m realizing that my desire to do background research on Whitehead may be more involved than I originally expected. Dewey is just as interesting as James, and Whitehead credits both as influences in the opening pages of Process and Reality. I’m encouraged by the links between Dewey and Coleridge, Schelling and Hegel, since I’d already planned to include them in my dissertation. I’ve ordered James Marsh’s edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection and will be posting on it soon…