a talk delivered for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS.edu on Friday, January 29th, 2021.
Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
My friend and colleague Adam Robbert has just launched The Side View. There is a ton of content on the site already, including articles and podcasts. Listen to Adam’s short description of the site’s aim here.
Joshua Fields interviewed me last week for his podcast Neonosis.
I’m teaching an online graduate course called Mind and Nature in German Idealism this semester. Below I am sharing several diagrams that I’ve developed to depict Kant’s transcendental method as it evolves through the first three critiques, as well as Fichte’s radicalization of the Kantian project. I hope to continue developing this diagram to elucidate Schelling, Goethe, and Hegel’s approaches, but I’m not entirely sure what that will look like yet!
I’m headed back to the Symbiosis Gathering later this year. I’ll be offering a talk on the role of psychedelics–or “ecodelics” as author Richard Doyle refers to them–and the philosophical insights they engender that may be of service to steering through our planetary crisis.
When ingested in carefully crafted ceremonial containers, ecodelics reveal the deeper connections and interpenetration of all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They can allow us to remember, to reawaken to, the mysterious gift latent in each passing moment, a secret hidden in plain sight: that everything breathes together (as Plotinus said). Normally, ritualization is an gradual unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot transform itself from the roots up within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival into the 22nd century are slim.
Thank you, President Subbiondo. Thanks also to our Academic Vice President Judie Wexler, to our honorary degree recipients Angela Davis and Josef Brinckmann, and to all CIIS faculty and staff for the work you have done to make this day possible for me and for my fellow graduates.
I am a philosopher, which is not to say that I know the answer to every question, but that I tend to ask what some people may think of as annoyingly obvious questions. If you don’t also happen to have the philosophical itch, I hope you will forgive me for asking the following: What is a university? What are we doing here today, “graduating” from one? I’ll offer the simplest answer I can think of: a university is a community of learning, and we, as university graduates, are supposed to be learned to some degree or another.
Now, unfortunately, university education, especially in the humanities, is increasingly under threat in our country. I’ll let the great philosopher Martha Nussbaum (who teaches at the University of Chicago) set the scene: “nations all over the world will soon be producing generations of useful machines, rather than complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements. The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance.”
Our profit-driven economic system–the industrial growth society–has decided that science, technology, and engineering alone should shape the future (with barely a feigned nod to art, culture, wisdom, or a thorough grasp of history). As the late Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah put it, contemporary American universities, while they may on rare occasions still function as “instruments in the class struggle,” are increasingly being transformed into “wholesale knowledge outlets for consumer society.” The entire educational system is being re-designed to produce efficient, responsible corporate or state worker-consumers. In our present economy, we are told to seek a university education, not for culture or learning, not to become more sensitive human beings, but for job preparation. Even at CIIS, this reality cannot be ignored. We need jobs to survive, to eat, to pay rent, after all.
But for those of us who chose to come to CIIS, I believe something deeper than mere survival is motivating us. We came here to learn how to thrive; to learn how to heal the human psyche and body; to learn to philosophize; to learn the wisdom of the world’s various religions, spiritual paths, and indigenous ways of knowing; to learn about present possibilities for social and institutional change.
I might stop there, having basically read the names of the degrees on the diplomas that we are receiving today. But I want to probe a bit deeper for a moment. What is beneath these specializations? What is university learning really about at, well, the most universal level? I want to suggest that at the deepest level and in the most general sense, a university should help each human being find their unique role not only in society at this particular historical juncture, not only their profession in this particular job market, but their role in the ongoing evolution of the community of life on earth, 4 billion years in the making. The purpose of the university is to prepare us for life in the Universe, itself 14 billion years in the making. Universities should help orient us and to encourage us to become creative participants in this wondrous miracle we call existence. Yes, yes, earning a living is also important. But as the late geologian Thomas Berry suggested (and I paraphrase), “universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in a declining [industrial civilization,] or whether they will begin educating students for [what we hope is an emerging ecological civilization].”
CIIS is one of the few educational organizations to have taken the evolutionary crisis Berry is pointing to seriously. It has decided to be (and I quote from the mission statement): a “university that strives to embody spirit, intellect, and wisdom in service to individuals, communities, and the earth.” Such an unorthodox mission has not made it easy for this non-profit university to survive in an educational marketplace offering more prestige, technical training, and higher salary expectations. At several points going back to the founding in the 1950s of CIIS’s earlier institutional incarnation (the American Academy of Asian Studies) by the international trader Louis Gainsborough, this university has needed the generous philanthropic support of the business community to continue and expand its activities. The Academy’s dean in the early days, the well-known philosopher and mystic Alan Watts, reported that Gainsborough’s initial vision for the school was as an “information service” on Indian and Chinese religions. Watts, of course, made it clear that he and the other founding faculty (including Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Judith Tyberg) “had no real interest in this nonetheless sensible idea of an information service.” “We were concerned,” Watts says, “with the practical transformation of human consciousness.”
I believe the transformation of human consciousness is still the underlying concern of CIIS’s educational efforts. Jobs are important, yes. But the jobs that CIIS graduates want to work at to a large extent do not yet exist. The political parties that graduates of CIIS want to vote for do not yet exist. The world that graduates of CIIS want does not yet exist. Our role as graduates of this university is to play some part, small or large, mediocre or monumental, in the creation of new worlds. We don’t yet know what the future of life on this planet will look like, which is why I’ve pluralized “world.” We are called to participate with one another in the creation of new worlds. We should experiment with as many new world-formations and forms of consciousness as we can imagine, because the way forward is uncertain. Some of us may create something beautiful and enduring. Some of us may fail. If we are honest with ourselves, the entire human species may fail in its response to the present social and ecological crises. I don’t know, but I remain hopeful that, as the Indian yogi and integral philosopher Sri Aurobindo said, “By our stumbling, the world is perfected.”
I will leave you with a challenge. It is a challenge for my fellow graduates and for myself. I challenge us to continue to be of service to the evolution of this nation, of our species, of all species, and ultimately of the Universe itself. I challenge us, in whatever form our work in the world takes, to remain awake and engaged in the task of planetary transformation, to refuse to lose ourselves in the somnambulance of consumer culture. We cannot be sure where this journey will lead. All we can be sure of is our own intentions as active participants in the adventure. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing here? And we must never stop asking it. Is it merely to survive? To pay the bills? To play the lotto and strike it rich? I don’t believe so. According to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “The task of a university is the creation of the future.” As university graduates, this is now our task.
I’m giving another talk on Monday (9/29) on psychedelics (the last one was at Burning Man) as part of a panel discussion for the Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE) student group at CIIS. This one will focus on the psychedelic roots of philosophy, particularly as they relate to the Eleusinian mystery rites. I’ll paste some of my notes below.
Abstract: Since its origins in ancient Greece, Western philosophy has sought out solutions to psychological, cosmological, and ontological problematics. Nowadays, philosophical problems and their solutions tend to come in the form of written formulas. There is no doubt that language can have a profoundly mind-manifesting effect on its speakers and listeners, but ancient Greek philosophers did not limited themselves to alphabetic solutions: they also partook of chemical solutions. In this short presentation, I’d like to revisit the pharmacological roots of the philosophical tradition in ancient Greece, unpacking its still relevant insights into the nature of the human soul, the origin of the universe, and the ground of being.
My goal is to initiate an anemnetic revival of the long repressed psychedelic dimension of Western philosophy. Building on the work of scholars like Michael Rinella and Peter Kingsley, I’ll argue that the West, too, is historically rooted in a unique sort of shamanic practice that has been excised from our origin story in order to serve the dominant political narrative about the rise of disembedded Enlightenment rationality. Psychedelics are perhaps the most important spiritual technology available to philosophy, opening the doors of perception so as to allow for profound experiential insights into cosmogenesis and our human potential to become creative participants in its ongoing evolutionary expression.
I. What are psychedelics?
They are alchemical substances that, when smoked, snorted, chewed, injected, or transdermally absorbed, make human beings conscious of the Divine Imagination.
Terence McKenna on Divine Imagination: “I think of the Divine Imagination as the class of all things both possible and beautiful in a kind of reverse Platonism. The attractor is at the bottom of a very deep well into which all phenomena are cascading and being brought into a kind of compressed state. This is happening in the biological realm through the career of the evolution of life. It’s simultaneously happening in the world as we experience it within our culture, in history. History is the track in the snow left by creativity wandering in the Divine Imagination.” Terence equates Divine Imagination with Chaos, which he says “is not the enemy of order, but the birthplace of it.” (p. 7)
Reversed, inverted, or psychedelic Platonism?:Reading Plato in the context of the Eleusianian psychedelic rituals reveals that the standard reading of “Platonism” has it exactly backwards. What does it mean to say we are living inside a cave? Psychedelics reveal the play of images upon the cave wall to consciousness, they make us aware of illusion, of the aesthetic basis of experience. Can they also show us the way out of the cave? Are they just mind-altering chemicals that confuse the normal dualities of rational subjectivity, or can they also become alchemical solutions that infuse divine creativity into human souls, that awaken us to our highest human potential as conscious participants in cosmogenesis? I think they provided exactly this to the fathers of philosophy, Plato and Socrates. Psychedelics need philosophy, lest they allow us to rest in confusion. The West has its own shamanic, indigenous tradition. We can learn a lot from other cultural traditions, but we should not forget our own lineage in the process (I assume here that my audience is mostly White, or at least was raised within the context of Western civilization).
Psychedelics transform the phenomenal content of our rational, waking, daytime consciousness into a play of images upon a cave wall. They call the very idea of “Reality” itself into question. What’s real? What’s virtual? How are we to tell the difference? They also throw the idea of the “Self” into question—not just the phenomenal surfaces of experience (sensory objects), but its transcendental depths (subjective concepts and intuitions unified by the apperception of the I). Psychedelics initiate us into the creative polarity of experience, revealing the way self and world, mind and reality, remain always in tension, never settling accounts so as to provide for some fixed foundation or taken for granted ground. Psychedelics make manifest to consciousness the groundlessness, the abyssal Chaos, that lies more or less hidden at the base of all things: (now)here we meet our maker, our mother. Such psychedelically induced auto-revelations of the origins of reality forces those initiated to become metaphysicians, doctors of the soul, who seek not to cure death (as physicians do), but to contemplate it endlessly. Philosophers (mistaken sometimes for claiming it to be a tomb) make a temple of the body, as though its very purpose and design was to manifest psyche, to make soul. Philosophy is Wisdom’s response to love. Love is what birthed us, it is our womb. Philosophy, then, is learning to die, which means learning to turn the body from a tomb into a temple. This was Socrates’ most important instruction to all lovers of wisdom, uttered at the birthplace of philosophy in an Athenian prison cell. Socrates, an initiate into the Eleusinian mystery religion (a lysergic acid fueled ritual), inaugurated the Western philosophical tradition while awaiting a heroic dose of hemlock. He was well aware that it was going to be a very intense trip.
Terence McKenna again on illusion and divine imagination: “ Psychedelics somehow change our channel from the evolutionarily important channel giving traffic, weather, and stock market reports to the one playing the classical music of an alien civilization. In other words, we tend to tune to the channel that has a big payback in the immediate world. It seems obvious to me that there are channels of the imagination that are not so tailored for human consumption…The Divine Imagination is the reality behind appearances. Appearance is simply the local slice of the Divine Imagination.” … “What psychedelics reveal is so intense and extreme an example that it argues strongly that the imagination is not the human imagination at all…The psychedelic experience at its intense levels goes beyond the terms of human motivation. It seems rather to enter an ontological reality of its own, one that the human being is simply privileged to observe briefly. A deep psychedelic experience says no more about a person’s personality than it does the continent of Africa. They are, in fact, independent objects. To my mind, the Divine imagination is the source of all creativity in our dreams, in our psychedelic experiences, in the jungles, in the currents of the ocean, and in the organization of protozoan and microbial life.” (p. 14-17)
Psychedelics direct our attention away from the instrumental concerns of survival (masses, positions, dimensions, etc.) and refocus it on the aesthetic dimensions of experience so we might learn not just to survive but to thrive.
II. What is the eucharist?
By invoking the eurcharist, I’m attempting to put psychedelics (which for much of the modern era have been displaced into the recreational arena) back into a ritual context. Re-ritualization is relatively straightforward, since we need only return to the models provided us by the ancient mystery religions. I’m going to focus on Eleusis since its mysteries are intimately bound up with the origins of philosophy. The precise nature of the annual rites at Eleusis were secret, but we can reconstruct a good deal of their meaning. They are thought to be a recapitulation of older, pre-Olympian goddess-worshipping rituals originating on the island of Crete. The major difference is that the older Cretan rites were celebrated publicly. Eleusis was an attempt to preserve these rites secretly, so as to protect them from the onslaught of patriarchy, which was uneasy, to say the least, with the implications of their psychedelically-induced revelations. These revelations offered insight into the mysterious death-rebirth cycle of plant life. The Eleusinian mystery rites were based on the myth of Demeter, mother earth, and Persephone, her daughter, who would become queen of the underworld after dining on a few pomegranate seeds while in hell with Hades. The myth is a symbolic representation of the seasonal shifts in vegetation (or perhaps these seasonal shifts are symbolic of the myth?).
Homer on this myth (a summary): “Persephone, playing in a meadow, came across a large and wondrous narcissus. As she reached for it, the ground gave way and the dark lord of the underworld, Hades, appeared on his golden chariot. He carried her off screaming to Zeus and the gods for help. Demeter heard her and rushed to find what had happened. For nine days she wandered the earth. On the tenth she appealed to the Sun who sees all in his daily travels. He reported that Zeus had given Persephone to his brother Hades to be his wife. Demeter, filled with grief, was angry. She removed all signs of her divinity and as an old woman walked the earth in quest of her daughter. At Eleusis she sat on the outskirts of town near a well; Clement of Alexandria noted that sitting on a well “is even now prohibited to those who are initiated, lest they should appear to mimic the weeping goddess.” Keleos’s four young daughters wanted to help her, and with their mother’s permission brought her home. Stepping onto the threshold, the old woman touched the roof beam with her head and a heavenly light filled the room. The family was filled with amazement and fear, but no one guessed she was a goddess. The girls’ mother, Metaneira, offered her fine chair, but Demeter waited in silence. Finally a waiting-woman offered a stool covered with white fleece. Demeter sat down, covered herself with her veil, and waited in silence, pining for her daughter. This refers to the silence of the mysteries and the fleece-covered stool on which the initiate sat. The waiting-woman induced Demeter to smile. Metaneira brought a goblet of sweet wine, but the goddess refused, requesting instead a drink of barley, water, and mint, referring to the mystery-drink. Later Metaneira gave Demeter her baby to rear. Demeter secretly fed the boy only the ambrosia of the gods, and at night concealed him in the embers of the fire, like a log. In this way he grew like a god, but Metaneira spied one night and shrieked at the sight of her son in the fire. Furious, Demeter snatched him out and exclaimed that he would have become ageless and immortal. Revealing herself as a goddess, she requested the people of Eleusis to build a great shrine in which she would instruct them in her rites. When the temple was finished, Demeter sat there pining for her daughter. Spring came but fields produced no growth, for heartbroken Mother Nature kept the seeds unsprouted in the ground. The human race would have perished, but Zeus took notice and one by one sent the other Olympians to summon her, but she spurned them all, inconsolable until she saw her daughter. Finally Zeus dispatched Hermes, guide of the souls of the dead, to entreat Hades to release Persephone. Hermes led her to the world above and Demeter ran to her, asking: “While you were in the underworld, surely you didn’t eat anything? For if you did, you’ll return for one-third of the seasons.” Persephone admitted she’d been tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, and therefore had to spend one-third of each year as queen of the underworld and two-thirds among the rest of the gods. Demeter released the power that caused seeds to sprout, grow, and produce blossoms and harvest. And before returning to the ranks of the immortals she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in the sacred mysteries.” (http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/me-savage.htm)
This myth is suggestive of a correspondence between the death/rebirth cycle of plants and the death/rebirth cycle of human beings. Just like plants move from seed, to stem, to bud, to flower, to fruit, and back to seed again, human souls grow from birth, through infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senility until death, at which point the soul leaves its temporary embodiment to become the seed for some future reincarnation. Like plants, human souls share in an immortality of sorts. In dying to our individual bodies, we live forever in the soul of the world. Eleusis (Eleuseos) literally means “the coming.” The child that Demeter was feeding ambrosia and placing in the fire to “grow like a god” is a hint of the divine child to come. In fact, there is more than a hint of the incarnation in the Eleusinian myth. It is a myth about the mystery of mortality, about the path through death to what lies beyond it.
The mystery rites at Eleusis took place over 9 days, symbolizing the 9 months of human gestation. Stages of major mystery ritual are symbolic of the archetypal perinatal matrices (Neptune—>Saturn—>Pluto—>Uranus).
Ingesting a psychedelic turns the world inside out, such that the soul extends beyond the skull to encompass us, while the seeming solidity of matter dissolves into the infinite plasticity of energy.
The Eleusinian ritual was an early form of the rite later celebrated by Christians as the Eurcharist. Demeter represented grain or bread for the Greeks. The annual rites also included invocations of Dionysius, another vegetation god, representing grapes or wine.
Terence on the psychedelic eucharist, the kykeon: “It has to be understood that psychedelics are a way to the Gaian mind. They are not metaphors for sacraments, they are real sacraments, and their efficaciousness can have political consequences.”
“Pharmakon” in Greek can mean both poison and remedy. In this sense, psychedelics are poison, in that they tend to catalyze ego death; on the other hand, they are remedies, in that it is only through the death of the ego that human beings are initiated into the true meaning of life and so are healed of the alienation that plagues the rational mind, which perceives itself as separate from the body, from earth, and from the wider cosmos.
Alphabetic technology and Alchemical technology: Plato was living amidst a crisis in consciousness brought about by a mutation in his media ecology: the older analog technology of speech was being augmented by the more recently invented digital technology of alphabetic writing. Psychedelics make both the limits and the power of oral or written language very apparent…
Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (trilogues of McKenna, Sheldrake, and Abraham).
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere by Richard Doyle
Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens by Michael Rinella
Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.
The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.
Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.
The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.
It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.
Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.
Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.
The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.
I’m headed halfway around the world today to present a paper at the IWC in Poland. Roland Faber, Catherine Keller, Herman Greene and others will be giving talks. I’ll do my best to record and/or live blog during their remarks.
I’ll be presenting a paper in the religion section on the secularization of God in Whitehead and Deleuze. I’ll post the final draft sometime this weekend and a recording of the Q and A next week.
There was a period of about 3 months back in college when Wittgenstein was all I could read (this essay emerged out of that period). His genius had infected me. I was sure his solutions had dissolved all my philosophical problems (indeed, I thought he’d cured me of philosophy). Of course, back in college, I had only just begun to construct philosophical problems for myself. At that point my collection was minuscule. The most confusing of my two or three problems was the so-called “mind/body” problem–a problem that Wittgenstein’s words seemed to be working therapeutically upon like a sore knot in my semantic musculature. In time, however, I came to learn of many new problems… like the “body/body” problem, and the “zombie” problem, and of course the “I/me” problem… Wittgenstein was never refuted or surpassed for me, far from it! But his solutions began to fade from memory as unforeseen philosophical problems continued to multiply. Even if Wittgenstein did in some sense solve the “mind/body” problem for me, the new problems which emerged began to seem less like stiff muscles and more like the growth of new appendages or new organs of perception.
I liked Harman’s reflections on style in philosophy so much I thought I’d paste them here. They are originally from this interview by Brian Davis conducted last year.
BD: Michel Serres has said “philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices… Not only must philosophy invent, but it also invents the common ground for future inventions.” Much of your work can be seen as an effort to develop a philosophy that gets beyond critique and analytical thought and instead seeks to develop a sort of creative or generative philosophy. In this project you place a special emphasis on style. What is the role of style and aesthetic experience in a creative project?
GH: We recognize a new philosophy when we hear the sound of a new voice, not when we hear a series of propositional statements that we happen to regard as accurate. Everyone knows this experience. You pick up a book by a philosopher you’ve never read before, and within a few pages you’re thinking “this is the real deal,” even before you’ve fully understood the content of what they’re saying, and even if you explicitly reject much of what you are reading.
Why does it work this way? Because there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice.
This cannot be faked simply by making contrarian propositions, since contrarians are always parasites on the status quo. The contrarian aims at causing shock and dismay among other people. He or she (but the contrarian is usually a “he”; it’s a predominantly male vice, just like fistfights) simply wants to draw the attention of other people by reversing the conventional wisdom on this or that point. The original thinker has no interest in doing this, because here the primary motivation is not to shock other people; at best, this is an intermittent practical tactic. Instead, the primary motivation is to break out of the closed circle of stale options and sink one’s teeth into the real and draw nourishment from it.
Some see it differently. Some think that philosophy should result in a set of correct propositions about the world. And as a general rule, they think it is they themselves who possess more of these correct statements than anyone else. As a result, they tend to become dogmatic enforcers of their own favored orthodoxy. They denounce everyone else as ideologues even though they are usually the world’s greatest ideologues themselves. They have no hard-won taste for the originality that may be at odds with their own dogmas, but from which almost everything of value is obtained.
This is the key role of style in philosophy, no less important here than it is in the arts. The style of an artist or writer is something deeper than the sum total of works that they happen to have produced. Other Shakespeare plays could have been written (and may in fact have been written but not yet discovered), but they would have to be animated by that Shakespeare style. Heidegger is not a sum total of propositions, but a voice. His propositions often contradict one another, as is true of all thinkers. But the voice is always lying there underneath, animating all the contradictions.
Everything in the world has a style. You can see an apple from different angles at different times, but there’s a certain style of the apple underneath its various profiles. But we’re speaking of philosophers. Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims.
Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.
No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism'” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).
As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.
If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).
“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas
Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):
Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.
And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:
Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.
I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.
I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree.
Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):
The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.
*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).
- Böhme and Schelling’s Cosmogenic Theology (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality (footnotes2plato.com)