A college student emailed me with some questions about the technical details of Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme as laid out in Process and Reality. I figured I’d post my response to him here since I haven’t been able to blog much lately and don’t want anyone to think I’ve given it up, and because some of this may be clarifying for other students of Whitehead. I didn’t include his questions, but you’ll get the gist of them anyway from my responses.


1. From Whitehead’s perspective, the World-Soul, like every other actual occasion, has two poles, a mental/active and a physical/passive. Unlike every other (finite) actual occasion, the (infinite) World-Soul’s polarity is reversed, such that the mental precedes the physical. Whitehead refers to the mental pole of the World-Soul as the “primordial nature of God.” It is sort of like the cosmic genetic code, and can be thought of as the source of what physicists call the physical constants and talk about as though they were “finely tuned” just so as to make our universe, with its stars, galaxies, planets, life, and intelligence possible. This primordial genetic code is both mathematical and qualitative. Every last particle or bud of experience includes this genetic code within it, just like each of the cells in our body contains a complete copy of our genome. Whitehead also refers to this code as God’s (or the World-Soul’s) “initial aim.” This initial aim lures every last drop of experience in the universe toward that combination of as yet unrealized potentials that is most beautiful (as originally decided by the World-Soul). So yes, you might say the simplest particles behave as physicists say they do as a result of mathematical and qualitative comprehensions (or “contemplations,” as Plotinus put it) of the World-Soul’s initial aim/primordial nature.

2. I assume you mean to ask if “eternal objects” should be thought of as eternal Platonic forms or as universals or general norms that adjust with the universe’s evolution. For Whitehead, unlike for Plato (at least most of the time–Plato is hardly consistent in his dialogues), eternal objects do not strictly speaking “exist” at all. For Plato, eternal objects are the most real and contain the most existence. For Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality,” and so are literally nothing outside of their ingression into actual occasions of experience. In other words, Forms without Facts are empty. As the physical universe unfolds, the way each of the finite actual occasions making it up decides to actualize itself determines which eternal objects ingress. Eternal objects characterize “how” an occasion experiences its world. Whitehead describes eternal objects as “pure potentials” awaiting actualization. In themselves, eternal objects have no agency; they can only be realized or caused to ingress by the subjective decisions of actual occasions as to “how” they will experience the other occasions they objectify.

3. The constituents of actual occasions are other actual occasions. This is the paradoxical way that Whitehead settles the age old question of the one and the many. In the concrescence (or “growing together”) of each actual occasion, “the many become one, and are increased by one.” In other words, each present actual occasion is “made up” of its “prehensions” (or feelings) of other past, already actualized occasions (including itself). Present actual occasions are subjects for whom all past occasions are objects. So a presently concrescing actual occasion is composed of objectifications of past actual occasions. It is a unified subjective “now!” composed out of a past multiplicity of objects, adding itself upon the completion of its concrescence back to the multiplicity as a new object.

4. The building blocks of the universe are actual occasions, which are no more exclusively physical than they are exclusively mental. They are polarities, temporary equalizations of two infinitely opposed powers which we might call the powers of habit and of novelty. This is something like Spinoza’s polar monism, something like Leibniz’s monads, perhaps most like Schelling’s actants.

5. God is unique as primordial/mental, but God’s “consequent nature”/”physical pole” includes the experience of every actual occasion in the universe. Whitehead doesn’t want to exempt God from the same metaphysical categories that apply to all other actual occasions, but he does want to differentiate God (who is infinite) from finite occasions. He does this by reversing the polarity of the divine occasion.

The following is excerpted from my dissertation proposal, which is tentatively titled “Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling to Whitehead.” I’ll be posting more selections in the coming days. 


To become rooted in the etheric forces of imagination, the process philosopher must learn to think like a plant. Michael Marder’s “vegetal metaphysics”80 provides a contemporary example of the power of plant-thinking to (re)turn modern philosophy to its etheric senses. Marder’s critical account of the history of Western metaphysics exhaustively details philosophy’s theoretical incoherences and practical inadequacies as regards the vegetal dimension of reality. He shames Aristotle for the “violence” his formal logic of identity and non-contradiction “unleashed against plants,”81 diagnoses Hegel’s negative dialectic as a mere symptom of his “[allergy] to vegetal existence,”82 and regrets Husserl’s essentializing “failure to think the tree” itself.83

To be fair to these philosophers, Steiner’s four-fold ontology is an evolutionarily re-formulated version of Aristotle’s psychological anthropology as described in De Anima, wherein “physical…,vegetative, sensitive and intellectual souls” are each set to work within the whole human being.84 Husserl, like Steiner, was initiated into the intentional structure of consciousness by Franz Brentano, but ultimately both Steiner’s and Husserl’s etheric imaginations hearken to a form of post-Copernican geocentrism (“the original ark, earth, does not move”85). As for Hegel, Schickler points to Steiner’s mediating conception of a living ether circulating between mind and nature as a cure for his allergic reaction to the supposed linearity of plants (by which he understood them to be closer to crystals than to animals).86 Hegel’s dialectical logic forces him to leave the blind growth of plant-life outside the autopoietic circle of the Concept, thereby alienating a self-conscious mind from a dead, petrified nature.87 Unlike Hegel and the idealist tradition, who “[retreated] from the world of the senses” and so failed “to consider an ontology intrinsic to life,” Steiner “[cultivated] organs of cognition which [enabled] him to enter ever more deeply into” the etheric sub-dimension of the sensory world.88 In Marder’s terms, Steiner learned to think like a plant. “The plant sets free the entire realm of petrified nature, including mineral elements, if not the earth itself,” writes Marder.89

David Hume, though not mentioned in Marder’s historical account, had his own bout of vegetal thinking in the midst of composing his Dialogues on Natural Religion, dialogues in which Cleanthes at one point is made to deploy an ontophytological critique of Philo’s over-determined analogization of the universe to an animal. Unlike an animal, argues Cleanthes, the universe we experience has “no organs of sense; no seat of thought or reason; no one precise origin of motion and action.” “In short,” Cleanthes jests, “[the universe] seems to bear a stronger resemblance to a vegetable than to an animal.”90 Cleanthes’ does not really believe the universe is a self-generating plant, he only suggests as much in order to undermine the credibility of Philo’s animal analogy.91 Philo responds by accepting the critique of the animal analogy, but then opportunistically turns the relative credibility of the vegetable analogy against Cleanthes’ own argument for design: “The world plainly resembles more…a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom,” says Philo. “Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles…generation or vegetation…In like manner as a tree sheds its seed into the neighboring fields, and produces other trees; so the great vegetable, the world, or this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds, which, being scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds.”92 Philo, of course, is no more sincere in his vegetal speculations than Cleanthes was in his. He doubts whether philosophy will ever have enough data to determine the true nature and cause of the universe. In the intervening two centuries since Hume published his Dialogues, mathematical and technological advances have allowed scientific cosmology to drastically expanded and complexify the range of data available to assist the natural philosopher’s speculative imagination. Modern scientific cosmology, especially when interpreted in light of the organic process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead, with their emphasis on self-organization and evolutionary emergence, only seems to have made the reality of Hume’s giant vegetable more probable.

Marder’s “plant-nature synecdoche,” which posits that plants are “the miniature mirror of phusis,” has only become more scientifically plausible in the intervening centuries since Hume’s vegetal conjecture.93 Why, despite the breadth of his “ontophytological” deconstruction of Western metaphysics, Marder makes no mention of Hume’s imaginatively generative double gesturing toward plants, I do not know.

Hume, of course, was not the first to philosophize about the vegetal life of the universe. That honor belongs to Plato, who wrote in Timaeus that the philosopher is a “heavenly plant” or “heavenly flower.” “We declare,” Plato has Timaeus say, “that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us–seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant–up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the divine power keeps upright our whole body.”94

The next to carry forward Plato’s plant-thinking was Plotinus, into whose philosophy Marder writes that “there is no better point of entry…than the allegory of the world–permeated by what he calls ‘the Soul of All’–as a single plant, one gigantic tree, on which we alongside all other living beings (and even inorganic entities, such as stones) are offshoots, branches, twigs, and leaves.”95 Plotinus’ World-Tree grows from a single inverted root. The inverted root of the World-Tree is an image of the ever-living One that, though it “gives to the plant its whole life in its multiplicity,”96 itself remains forever “unaffected by the dispersion of the living.”97 Neither Marder, Whitehead, or Schelling accepts Plotinus’ emanational monism. Marder calls for an “anarchic radical pluralism,”98 a title which could just as well describe Whitehead and Schelling’s process ontology. Nonetheless, though they reject monism in favor of pluralism, all three carry forward Plotinus’ root image of an organic, vegetal universe.

Marder, like Schelling and Whitehead, conceives of nature “as suffused with subjectivity.”99 He likens the life of the plant (phutō) to the whole of nature (phusis), arguing that plant-life “replicates the activity of phusis itself.”100 “Phusis,” continues Marder, “with its pendular movement of dis-closure, revelation and concealment, is yet another…name for being.”101 Hume had Philo argue against the plausibility of divining the nature of the whole based on an acquaintance with its parts,102 but in daring to ontologize the vegetal life of the whole of nature (making its “life” more than a “mere” metaphor), Marder displays his allegiance to the ancient hermetic principle of correspondence: “as it is above, so it is below; as it is below, so it is above.”103

The hermetic principle of circular correspondence between the one above and the many below is not simply an abstract mental concept. It is a magical symbol whose power is enacted not only in the ideal meanings of the mind, but in the living movements of nature. These movements are made most obviously apparent by the mystery of the seasonal life-cycle of the plant realm. Though Hume clearly recognized that plant-life presented a definite limit to traditional metaphysical speculation, he remained uninitiated into the death/rebirth mystery esoterically encrypted in this vegetal threshold. Whitehead also invoked the hermetic principle by balancing Plato and Plotinus’ preferential treatment of the One with his own more Heraclitian “Category of the Ultimate.” Creativity is an ultimate category that dissolves the classical metaphysical dichotomy separating the single supreme Creator from its many subsidiary creatures. “Creativity,” writes Whitehead, “is the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact. It is that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”104 Through this process of creative advance from disjunction to conjunction, a novel entity is created not present in the prior dispersion. “The novel entity,” continues Whitehead, “is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the disjunctive ‘many’ which it leaves; it is a novel entity, disjunctively among the many entities which it synthesizes. The many become one, and are increased by one.”105 The many down below thereby enter into and pass through the one up above, just as the one up above enters into and passes through the many down below. Schelling also creatively inherits the hermetic principle of correspondence by analogizing the metaphysical polarity of the many below and the one above to the physical pulsation–the “systole” and “diastole” rhythm–of living nature. “The antithesis eternally produces itself,” writes Schelling, “in order always again to be consumed by the unity, and the antithesis is eternally consumed by the unity in order always to revive itself anew. This is the sanctuary, the hearth of the life that continually incinerates itself and again rejuvenates itself from the ash. This is the tireless fire through whose quenching, as Heraclitus claimed, the cosmos was created.”106 Schelling offers the telling example of a tree to show how this cosmogenetic rhythm resonates through the whole to the parts and back again: “Visible nature, in particular and as a whole, is an allegory of this perpetually advancing and retreating movement. The tree, for example, constantly drives from the root to the fruit, and when it has arrived at the pinnacle, it again sheds everything and retreats to the state of fruitlessness, and makes itself back into a root, only in order again to ascend. The entire activity of plants concerns the production of seed, only in order again to start over from the beginning and through a new developmental process to produce again only seed and to begin again. Yet all of visible nature appears unable to attain settledness and seems to transmute tirelessly in a similar circle.”107

Schelling is not only one of a handful of philosophers to escape deconstruction by Marder’s vegetal anti-metaphysics, he even earns Marder’s praise for defending the continuity between life and thought.108 Schelling suggests that “every plant is a symbol of the intelligence,”109 and that this symbolic intelligence finds expression precisely in the plant’s power of “sensibility,” which–even when the pendulum of organic nature has swung toward its opposite but complimentary pole of “irritability”–remains the “universal cause of life.”110 The whole of nature being organic, its supposedly inorganic material dimension is therefore described by Schelling as only one half of the universal polarity between gravity and light, where light as the formal/ideal force exists in dynamic tension with gravity as the material/real force. What appears at first to be inorganic matter, when considered in its full concreteness as always already conditioned by the universal communicability of light, is really just the germ of organic life.111 As an illustration of the life-producing relationship between gravity and light, Schelling offers the example of the electromagnetic connection between earth and the sun responsible for calling forth plant-life out of the planet.112 Steiner similarly remarks that any attempt to understand the inorganic, mineral dimension of earth independently of the plant-life it supports will remain hopelessly abstract: “Just as our skeleton first separates itself out of the organism,” says Steiner, “so we have to look at the earth’s rock formations as the great skeleton of the earth organism.”113 Steiner further argues that the cultivation of etheric imagination will allow the philosopher to come to see “the plant covering of our earth [as] the sense organ through which earth spirit and sun spirit behold each other.”114 The mineral and plant realms are to earth what the skeletal and sensorial organs are to the human body. As Plotinus wrote, “earth is ensouled, as our flesh is, and any generative power possessed by the plant world is of its bestowing.”115

A process philosophy rooted in the power of etheric imagination requires an inversion or reversal of our commonsense experience of the universe. It is as if the world were turned inside out, or as if we were walking upside down upon the earth, with our head rooted in the ethereal soil of formative forces streaming in from the cosmos above, our limbs yearning for the living ground below, and our heart circulating between the two in rhythmic harmony. Rather than stretching for the abstract heights of the intelligible as if to steal a glimpse of heaven, the force of etheric imagination returns philosophy’s attention to earth, and to the roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds of plants, earth’s most generous life forms, and indeed the generative source of life itself. Thinking with etheric imagination is thinking with a plant-soul. Plant-souls, according to Marder, partake of a “kind of primordial generosity that gives itself to all other creatures, animates them with this gift,…allows them to surge into being, to be what they are.”116

Heraclitus’ oft cited fragment 123–“nature loves to hide” (phusis kryptesthai philei)–should not be understood as a negation of the generous growth of the plant realm described by Marder.117 As with the natural world, there is more to Heraclitus’ paradoxical statement than first meets the eye. The earliest recorded use of phusis in ancient Greek literature is in Homer’s Odyssey, where it refers specifically to the “magic” and “holy force” of the molü plant given by Hermes to Odysseus to keep his “mind and senses clear” of Circe’s sorcery. The molü plant grows duplicitously into “black root and milky flower” and can be safely uprooted only by the gods.118 As we’ve seen, then, phusis suggests not only a tendency toward concealment in the darkness of the soil, but also a tendency toward revelation in the light of the sun. As is typical both of the plant-life of nature and of the semantic structure of his sentences, there is an underlying duplicity to Heraclitus’ fragment. Understanding the poetic meaning of his occult philosophy, or of a plant’s process of growth, is impossible without cultivating a logic of etheric imagination. The logics of techno-scientific manipulation and abstract conceptual analysis, in attempting to uproot and expose the etheric dimension of mind and nature to total illumination, succeed only in making it perish.119 Instead of objectifying nature, etheric imagination approaches it hermeneutically (i.e., with Hermes’s help), not by “[shying] away from darkness and obscurity,” but by letting plants “appear in their own light…emanating from their own kind of being.”120 Marder’s plant-thinking approaches a logic of imagination, in that he aims to begin his vegetal philosophizing, not from the purified perspective of disembodied rationality, but in media res, always in the middle of things: “To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and of darkness…is to…refashion oneself–one’s thought and one’s existence–into a bridge between divergent elements: to become a place where the sky communes with the earth and light encounters but does not dispel darkness.”121

Only by finding its vegetal roots can philosophy become planetary, true to the earth and to the plant-like, etheric forces of imagination. But because the etheric imagination is in fact ungrounded, its plant-like growth becomes inverted: it has “underground stems” and “aerial roots,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it.122 Or, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, the properly rooted philosopher imagines “a tree growing upside down, whose roots, like a delicate foliage, tremble in the subterranean winds while its branches take root firmly in the blue sky.”123 For Bachelard, the plant is the root image of all life: “The imagination [must take] possession of all the powers of plant life,” he writes. “It lives between earth and sky…[it] becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes a universe, which makes a universe.”124

Marder argues that “plants are resistant to idealization,”125 which is just another way of saying that the plant-realm is the etheric receptacle of Ideas, the resistance providing matrix that, in the course of evolutionary history, gradually raises unconscious nature to consciousness of itself as spirit. Etheric imagination is the esemplastic power through which eternal Ideas become incarnate in the concrescing occasions of the world, like seeds taking root in the ground, growing skyward through branch, leaf, flower, and fruit, only to fall again into the soil to be born again, and again… Marder’s “post-metaphysical task of de-idealization” makes him especially attentive to the association between the aesthetic power of plant-life (particularly flowers) and the pathos of death: flowers–“the free beauties of nature,”126 as Kant called them–have since the beginning of history been customarily “discarded along the path of Spirit’s glorious march through the world,” “abandoned” and thereby “freed from dialectical totality.”127 “In contrast to the death borne by Geist,” continues Marder, plant-life can become “neither mediated nor internalized.”128 Idealist philosophy is therefore always in a rush to “[unchain] the flower from its organic connection to the soil and [put] it on the edge of culture as a symbol of love, religious devotion, mourning, friendship, or whatever else might motivate the culling.”129 The end result of modern idealist rationality’s “thorough cultivation” and “biotechnological transformation” of plant-life is “a field of ruins.”130

The “economic-teleological” principle guiding modern rationality–whereby, for example, “trees in and of themselves have no worth save when turned into furniture”131–is largely the result of Kant’s failure to grasp the life of nature as more than a merely regulative judgment of the understanding: while he found it acceptable for human subjects to think the internal possibility of nature as organic, he refused to grant that life could be understood as constitutive of nature itself. “It is absurd,” Kant writes, “to hope that another Newton will arise in the future who would explain to us how even a mere blade of grass is produced.”132 It followed that the only avenue open to reason in its untamable desire to know nature was by way of the “economic-teleological” principle, whereby the philosopher of nature, in order to know his object, “must first manufacture it.”133 In order to avoid the deleterious ecological effects of modern rationality, which in its techno-capitalist phase has succeeded in turning the entire planet into mere raw material awaiting consumption, it is necessary to return to and to heal the simultaneously vegetal and sensorial repression from which this rationality stems.134

The repression of vegetal existence, according to Marder, began as early as Aristotle, who was willing to grant of plants, due to their lack of both locomotion and perception, only that they “seem to live.”135 This seeming life of plants, which from the perspective of the formal logic of Aristotle presented a taxonomic problem (i.e., are plants ensouled, or not?), from the perspective of a logic of imagination (no longer subject to the principle of non-contradiction) reveals precisely what has been repressed by so much of Western metaphysics: that it is towards the ambiguous ontology of plant-life that philosophy must turn if it hopes to discover the aesthetic ground of sensory experience. Aristotle does finally grant a kind of life to plants by pointing to their nutritive capacity (to threptikon), which in animal life is homologous to the haptic sense (i.e., touch).136 Touch is the basis of all aesthesis, only subsequently becoming differentiated into the other specialized senses.137 In light of the vegetal origins of sensation, Marder is lead to wonder “whether the sensory and cognitive capacities of the psyche, which in human beings have been superadded to the vegetal soul, are anything but an outgrowth, an excrescence, or a variation of the latter. The sensitivity of the roots seeking moisture in the dark of the soil [or leaves seeking light in the brightness of the sky]…and human ideas or representations we project, casting them in front of ourselves, are not as dissimilar from one another as we tend to think.”138

Whereas Kant argued that “real metaphysics” must be “devoid of all mixture with the sensual,”139 Marder suggests that the idealist reduction of plant-life to dead linear crystals140 “[survives] in human thought in the shape of Kantian immutable categories and forms of intuition to which all novel experiences must in one way or another conform.”141 Instead of forcing lived experience to obey the crystalline categories of thought, Marder’s plant-thinking, akin to the logic of etheric imagination guiding my dissertation, “destroys the Procrustean bed of formal logic and transcendental a priori structures–those ideal standards to which no living being can measure up fully.”142

The plant-thinking of etheric imagination breaks through the crystalline molds of “dead thought”–what Bergson called “the logic of solids”143–to bring forth instead a plastic logic, a way of thinking-with the creative life of nature, rather than against it.144 Whereas in a crystalline logic of solids, thought “has only to follow its natural [intrinsic] movement, after the lightest possible contact with experience, in order to go from discovery to discovery, sure that experience is following behind it and will justify it invariably,”145 in a fluid logic of plastics, thought becomes etheric, overflowing the sense-inhered intellect’s a priori categorical antinomies and pre-determined forms of intuition to participate in the imaginal life of cosmogenesis itself. “A theory of life that is not accompanied by a criticism of knowledge,” according to Bergson, “is obliged to accept, as they stand, the concepts which the understanding puts at its disposal: it can but enclose the facts, willing or not, in preexisting frames which it regards as ultimate.”146 The plasticity of etheric imagination, on the other hand, preserves the unprethinkability of the creative advance of nature by remaining “faithful to the obscurity of vegetal life,” protecting it from the searing clarity of crystallized rationality.147

Like Marder and Bergson, Schelling refuses to accept modern rationality’s inability to know the life of nature. For Schelling, after the Kantian revolution, philosophy began to deal “with the world of lived experience just as a surgeon who promises to cure your ailing leg by amputating it.”148 Instead of amputating the life of nature, Schelling attempted to reform philosophy’s bias toward abstraction by returning it to its senses. He strove to root philosophy in “that which precedes the logos of thinking,” namely, “an aesthetic act of poesis” paralleling the creative naturans that underlies the dead naturata of the natural world.149 Schellingian philosopher Bruce Matthews likens the imaginative act at the generative root of Schelling’s philosophy to “the explosive power of the sublime.” “This initial moment of aesthetic production,” continues Matthews, “provides us with the very real, but very volatile stuff of our intellectual world, since as aesthetic, this subsoil of discursivity remains beyond the oppositional predicates of all thought that otherwise calms and comforts the knowing mind.”150

Marder’s plant-thinking, like Schelling’s logic of etheric imagination, “rejects the principle of non-contradiction in its content and its form.”151 “The human who thinks like a plant,” continues Marder, “literally becomes a plant, since the destruction of classical logos annihilates the thing that distinguishes us from other living beings.”152 Unlike modern rationality, which is said to be self-grounding, plant-life is open to otherness, dependent on something other than itself (i.e., earth, water, air, and light). In the same way, etheric imagination receives its power from the elemental life of nature. It is no longer “I” who thinks nature; rather, “it thinks in me.” Or as Schelling put it, the philosopher who is properly attuned to nature becomes “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia).”153


80 Michael Marder’s blog posts entitled “The Philosopher’s Plant”: http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/plato-s-plane-tree, as well as Deleuze and Guattari on “tree” (ATP, 12, 18)

81 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 21.

82 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

83 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 75-78.

84 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 162.

85 Edmund Husserl, “Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature,” trans. Fred Kersten, in Husserl, Shorter Works, ed. Peter McCormick and Frederick A. Elliston (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 222-33.

86 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 124-126.

87 See Petrified Intelligence: Nature in Hegel’s Philosophy by Alison Stone (New York: SUNY, 2005).

88 Schickler, Metaphysics as Christology, 143.

89 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 127.

90 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), VI.

91 Cleanthes really believes the universe to be a law-abiding machine designed, built, and maintained by a perfect God.

92 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion (1779), VII.

93 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 120.

94 Plato, Timaeus, 90a-b.

95 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant’” (2013), http://www.project-syndicate.org/blog/the-philosopher-s-plant-3-0–plotinus–anonymous–great-plant (accessed 4/24/2013).

96 Plotinus, Ennead III.8.10, 5-15.

97 Marder, “The Philosopher’s Plant 3.0: Plotinus’ Anonymous ‘Great Plant.”

98 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 58.

99 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 35.

100 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28; Both “plant” and “nature” derive from the same Greek prefix (phuo-) and verb (phuein), meaning “to generate,” or “to bring forth.”

101 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28-29.

102 Hume, Dialogues on Natural Religion, VI.

103 The Emerald Tablet. 

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

105 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

106 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 20-21.

107 Schelling, The Ages of the World, transl. Jason Wirth (New York: SUNY, 2000), 21.

108 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 157.

109 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 122.

110 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, 146.

111 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 186.

112 Schelling, First Outline of the System of a Philosophy of Nature, 185-186.

113 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (accessed 4/23/2013).

114 Steiner, The Spirit in the Realm of Plants, transl. by G. F. Karnow (Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1984); http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/19101208p01.html (accessed 4/23/2013).

115 Plotinus, Ennead IV.2.27.

116 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 46.

117 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 28.

118 Odyssey, Book 10, lines 328-342.

119 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

120 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 30.

121 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 178.

122 A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15

123 Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 85

124 Poetic Reverie, 85

125 Marder, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, 13.

126 Kant, Critique of Judgment.

127 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

128 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 126.

129 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 123.

130 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 128.

131 Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy: Life as the Schema of Freedom, 4; Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, I/7, 18.

132 Kant, Critique of Judgment, §75.

133 Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Echkart Förster, 240.

134 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 22.

135 Emphasis added. Aristotle, De anima, 410b23.

136 Aristotle, De anima, 413b1-10.

137 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 38.

138 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 27.

139 Kant, De mundi sensibilis atque intelligibilis forma et principiis; AK II, 394, transl. Bruce Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 4.

140 Hegel considered plant growth to be linear, like crystals, whereas proper animals are elliptical in their movements (see pages 32-33 above).

141 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 163.

142 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

143 Bergson, Creative Evolution, transl. by Arthur Mitchell (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005), xvii.

144 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 166.

145 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xviii.

146 Bergson, Creative Evolution, xx.

147 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 173; For more on Schelling’s concept of “the unprethinkable,” see page 51 below.

148 Schelling, System der Weltalter: Münchener Vorlesung 1827/28 in einer Nachschrift von Ernst von Lasaulux, ed. by Siegbert Peetz (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1990), 92.

149 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5.

150 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 5

151 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

152 Marder, Plant-Thinking, 164.

153 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11:258.


Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead239

 “The religious insight is the grasp of this truth: That the order of the world, the depth of reality of the world, the value of the world in its whole and in its parts, the beauty of the world, the zest of life, the peace of life, and the mastery of evil, are all bound together–not accidentally, but by reason of this truth: that the universe exhibits a creativity with infinite freedom, and a realm of forms with infinite possibilities; but that this creativity and these forms are together impotent to achieve actuality apart from the completed ideal harmony, which is God.” -Whitehead240

“This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence generated the actual world as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” -Plato241

Whitehead suggests that Newton’s Scholium and Plato’s Timaeus “are the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought.”242 Although the Scholium provides “an immensely able statement of details” applicable to the deduction of truths within a specific domain of physical activity, its deductive prowess “conveys no hint of the limits of its own application.”243 Newton’s abstract conceptions of space, time, and matter as ready-made, and of eternal laws imposed by a transcendent designer, were undeniably useful, in that they provided the paradigmatic basis for two centuries of scientific progress. But the tremendous instrumental success of the Newtonian scheme had the practical effect of leading many to fall into the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by overgeneralizing its simplified abstractions as if they could explain the full complexity of concrete reality. “The Scholium betrays its abstractness,” writes Whitehead,

by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of generation, of φύσις, of natura naturans, which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely, and completely, there, externally designed and obedient.244

As was discussed in the prior section, Whitehead’s generalization of evolutionary theory requires that both potentiality and actuality be ingredient in any concrete depiction of nature. Nature as already produced, as natura naturata, as simply there and entirely actualized, provides only half the picture. Unlike the static cosmos of Newton, who Whitehead believes would have been confused by the modern doctrine of evolution, Plato articulated a cosmological scheme involving the emergence of order out of an original chaos, an account which already implicitly suggests an evolutionary process.245 There are aspects of Plato’s Timaeus that may seem foolish today, but “what it lacks in superficial detail,” according to Whitehead, “it makes up for by its philosophic depth.”246 This depth has allowed Plato’s speculative cosmology to outlast Newton’s more arbitrary construction. The theory of cosmogenesis offered by the latter, involving “a wholly transcendent God creating out of nothing an accidental universe,” has been abandoned by contemporary physicists and process theologians alike as gratuitous.

Plato’s account of cosmogenesis, in contrast, avoids the Newtonian theory of creatio ex nihilo. Instead, the cosmos is said to emerge from the interplay of divine intelligence (νοῦς) and physical necessity (ἀνάγκη), such that the divine cannot violently command but must erotically persuade the cosmos to take shape out of chaos.247 The Greek word ἀνάγκη means not only “necessity,” but also connotes “need” or “urge”: apropos Whitehead’s creative retrieval of Plato’s scheme, this suggests that God, whose primordial conceptual pole is itself deficient in actuality, necessarily experiences a yearning after concrete fact.248 This yearning is productive of the consequent physical pole of God, which lovingly receives the freely actualized decisions of every finite occasion, no matter how discordant, into the harmony of its completed nature.249 “The action of God is its relation,” writes process theologian Catherine Keller,

–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath.250

Their are many other parallels to Whitehead’s cosmotheogony in Timaeus. The usual translation of one particularly relevant passage is as follows:

The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as was possible, and so he took over (παραλαμβάνω) all that was visible–not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion–and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order…251

The phrase “took over” (παραλαμβάνω) is misleading if interpreted only actively and not also passively: in this case, as both taking over responsibility for forming, and at the same time receiving the givenness of chaos.252 This double sense of παραλαμβάνω mirrors Whitehead’s dipolar conception of divinity as both conceptually active in envisaging the abstractive hierarchy of eternal objects and physically passive in receiving the multiplicity of finite concrescent occasions into its everlasting concrescence. The divine, for both Whitehead and Plato, is not an all-powerful creator, but an all-preserving co-creator:

He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.253

Although Plato attempts in Timaeus, and Whitehead in Process and Reality, to articulate the most rational account possible of the genesis of the universe, in the end they found it necessary, due to the obscurity of their topic, to speak mythically by telling a “likely story” (εικώς μύθος). The Greek word εικώς is sometimes translated as “probable,” meaning likely but not entirely certain (“it goes something like this…”). As with the translations above, this choice can be misleading. The translation of εικώς as “likely” conveys the superficial meaning of “probable,” but this rendering should not obscure the subtler meaning of “likeness,” closely associated with the Greek word for “icon” or “image” (εἰκών). In Plato’s cosmogenic myth, the universe is said to be the most beautiful image that it was possible for the divine to co-create. The beauty of a thing being a result of the noetic order and harmony it radiates, it follows that the divine had to find some way to imbue the cosmic image with intelligence. Because “νοῦς [intelligence] cannot be present in anything without soul [ψυχή],” the God made the universe as a living creature or animal (ζῷον), a being endowed with soul.254

It is at this point that a tension emerges in Plato’s story. Although not all-powerful, the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus is described as a maker, or artisan. It is strange that the Cosmic Animal, or World-Soul, is said to have been made by the Demiurge, since normally living creatures are not fabricated by an artisan, they are born. This raises questions about how Plato conceives of divinity. “To find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough,” writes Plato, “and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.”255 There has been much commentary over the ages concerning the meaning of this double designation of the Platonic God as both “maker” and “father.” Plutarch’s interpretation is helpful, if not entirely elucidatory:

[In] the case of a maker, his work, when done, is separated from him, whereas the origination and force emanating from the parent is blended in the offspring…which is a…part of the procreator…[The] cosmos is not like products that have been molded and fitted together but has in it a large portion of vitality and divinity, which god sowed from himself in the matter and mixed with it.256

The Demiurge, then, is a maker, but a fatherly maker whose life force is wedded with that which has been brought to birth. Still, it seems awkward, to say the least, that the cosmos is said to have been born from a single male parent. Plato resolves this tension by introducing another cast member into his cosmogonic drama: the Receptacle (ὑποδοχή), or “wetnurse of all becoming.”257 Whereas the fatherly Demiurge is said to beget the beautiful form of the cosmos, the motherly Receptacle is said to bear it.258 Plato’s account of the Receptacle is meant to be an accessible image for a closely related, but far more obscure concept, that of the Khora (Χώρα). The Khora is described as the “third kind” mediating between the eternal being of the Ideas and the becoming of the cosmic image. “Its nature,” writes Plato,

is to be available for anything to make its impression upon, and it is modified, shaped and reshaped by the things that enter it…The things that enter and leave it are images of those things that always are [Ideas/ειδών], imprinted after their likeness in a marvelous way that is hard to describe…It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature [physis/φύσις] between them to their offspring.259

The Cosmic Animal or World-Soul, then, is the offspring of the khoric mother and eidetic father. While standard readings of Plato’s written corpus tend to fall into a two-world interpretation, where physical becoming is said to poorly imitate perfect metaphysical being, ambiguities in Plato’s account make it difficult to determine whether, in generating an ensouled cosmos, the separation between the eternal Ideas and the becoming of the physical cosmos is canceled.260 From Whitehead’s perspective, this ambiguity can be hermeneutically massaged to save Plato from the incoherence of dualism. After all, Plato himself explicitly disclaimed “the possibility of an adequate philosophical system” that might permit the “variousness of the Universe…to be fathomed by our intellects.”261 Whitehead’s reformed Platonism insists upon the worldly immanence of the divine, thereby erasing any ultimate separation between the Demiurge and the Receptacle. Instead, their supposed offspring, the World-Soul, is said to supply the universe’s harmonious tendencies through the dipolarity of its own nature. Conceiving of the World-Soul as an emanation issuing from a transcendent deity, as some Platonic interpreters have done, “obscures the ultimate question of the relation of reality as permanent with reality as fluent”; the coherence of Whitehead’s scheme requires, in contrast, that the Cosmic Animal be understood as a mediator, sharing in the natures of eternity and time alike.262 The Cosmic Animal is not a free creation of an acosmic divine architect, but a creature of Creativity.

Whitehead reads Timaeus as offering an account of a World-Soul

whose active grasp of ideas conditions impartially the whole process of the Universe…[and] on whom depends that degree of orderliness which the world exhibits.263

Without this active grasp by the living intelligence of the mediating World-Soul, the ideas would remain frozen and lifeless and would have no way of characterizing actuality or partaking in the creative process of cosmogenesis. Plato further describes the way the Cosmic Animal “contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.”264 As Whitehead puts it, the organic process of each actual occasion “repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm.”265 It is this correspondence between the World-Soul and the varying grades of finite souls, including humans, that affirms the co-creative role of every organism, no matter how seemingly insignificant: “all [play] their part in conditioning nature by the inherent persuasiveness of ideas.”266 An erotic ferment inwardly permeates every creature, persuading all ever onward toward novel intensities of harmonic experience. In this sense, Eros, the divine element in the world, functions less to preserve stability than to evoke intensity.267 For example, even stars, our sidereal ancestors, are not everlasting: only by way of their sacrificial death could the heavier elemental creatures required for biological life have been brought forth. Similarly, the upward trend of biological evolution towards more complex species depends upon a selective process whereby the inability of an individual organism to adapt its way of life to changing circumstances “[entails] the death penalty for impertinence.”268 The cosmic desire for the intensification of experience is more powerful than the private fear of death. “It is in this way,” writes Whitehead,

that the immediacy of sorrow and pain is transformed into an element of triumph. This is the notion of redemption through suffering which haunts the world.269

Whitehead calls the process of erotic evocation of intensities by the World-Soul, whereby egoistic aims are sublimated by their inclusion in a greater whole, a “Supreme Adventure.”270 He describes the Adventure as an inverted renovation of Plato’s Receptacle, a “medium of intercommunication” necessary for the unity of all things.271 While the Receptacle is “void,” “bare of all forms,” “and abstract from all individual occasions,” the Adventure includes “the living urge towards all possibilities…[realizable by] the [actual] occasions of the advancing world each claiming its due share of attention.”272 The divine dimension of the cosmos, the World-Soul, is the “Great Fact” explicatory of our Supreme Adventure. As discussed above, the divine nature is dipolar, including a primordial and a consequent aspect, or as Whitehead also describes them, an “initial Eros” and a “final Beauty.” Whitehead’s poetic genius reaches its highest pitch when he reflects upon this Great Fact in the concluding lines of Adventures of Ideas:

It is the immanence of the Great Fact including this initial Eros and this final Beauty which constitutes the zest of self-forgetful transcendence belonging to Civilization at its height. At the heart of the nature of things, there are always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy. The Adventure of the Universe starts with the dream and reaps tragic Beauty. This is the secret of the union of Zest with Peace:–That the suffering attains its end in a Harmony of Harmonies…In this way the World receives its persuasion towards such perfections as are possible for its diverse individual occasions.273

While the World-Soul’s primordial valuation of the multiplicity of eternal objects is unchanging “by reason of its final completeness,” its consequent feeling of the evolving multiplicity of actual occasions remains always incomplete.274 In this sense, although the community of finite organic occasions makes up the unity of the Cosmic Animal, the latter “is not a static organism”; rather, “[it] is an incompletion in process of production.”275 Process theologian Roland Faber has described Whitehead’s theology of becoming as an “eschatological ad-vent” wherein the divine is caught up in the always ongoing adventure of all that was, is, and will be.276 The ensouled universe is therefore best described not simply as Whole, or as One, but as an

open movement of wholeness that cannot be united by any rational account [because it] harbors the Eros of unpredictable novelty and incommensurable diversity.277

Whitehead’s emphasis on openness and diversity makes comparisons with neo-Platonist schemes of the emanation of the Cosmic Animal from the “One beyond being and non-being,” as Plotinus and Proclus often described it,278 rather troublesome. Nonetheless, physicist Simon Malin argues that Whitehead’s approach is in some ways complemented by such schemes, wherein a process of divine effulgence or “overflowing” leads to the ordered involution of a series of stages:

Thus the One produces Nous, Nous produces Soul, Soul produces nature, and nature produces the sensible world…In the case of the World Soul…it is the contemplation of the perfect intelligence and order of the Nous that gives rise, as a kind of unintentional overflow, to the order of nature.279

While some analogy can be drawn between the Nous and Whitehead’s conception of the primordial nature of God, in the emanationist scheme, the many actual occasions of the physical world are given no agency or co-creative role whatsoever, nor is God attributed with a consequent nature allowing it to become-with the many occasions of the world as our fellow-sufferer. Whitehead dismissed such overly rationalized schemes because they lack the experiential adequacy demanded by our religious intuitions of a God who feels and can be felt, and our aesthetic intuitions of a continually creative cosmos. “God is in the world, or nowhere,” writes Whitehead,

creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.280

The rationality of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme remains provisional, experimental, imaginative, and always pluralistic. It is an “adventure of hope,” not a search for the certainty of a final systematic theory that would “explain away” mystery.281 For Whitehead, not only does philosophy begin in wonder, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”282 Whiteheadian rationality is guided by a unwavering commitment to relationality, whereby “there is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself.”283 To search for a “beyond” is to violate the rationality of relationality. Instead of anxiously running from the abyssal chaos at the root of all things in search of the secure Ground offered by traditional accounts of a One beyond being, or an omnipotent Creator, Whitehead celebrates the “within-beyond” of a groundless “creative drive undermining any static dichotomy between cosmos and chaos.”284 God, a creature of Creativity like each of us, suffers and enjoys the unpredictable adventures of a chaosmos in which “everything happens for the first time, but in a way that is eternal.”285


239 Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 164.

240 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 106.

241 Plato, Timaeus, 30b-c.

242 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

243 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

244 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

245 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93, 95.

246 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 93.

247 John Sallis, Chorology: On Beginning in Plato’s Timaeus (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 91.

248 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 33.

249 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 349.

250 Keller, Face of the Deep, 198.

251 Plato, Timaeus, 30a.

252 Sallis, Chorology, 57.

253 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

254 Sallis, Chorology, 57-58.

255 Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

256 Plutarch, Platonic Questions, II, 1; quoted in Sallis, Chorology, 52n7.

257 Plato, Timaeus, 49a.

258 Sallis, Chorology, 58n14.

259 Plato, Timaeus, 50c-d.

260 Sallis, Chorology, 69-70.

261 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933/1961), 52. Whitehead is here referring to Plato’s discussion in his Seventh Letter written to Dion’s followers.

262 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

263 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147.

264 Plato, Timaeus, 31a.

265 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 215.

266 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 148.

267 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 105.

268 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 112.

269 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 350.

270 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294-295.

271 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

272 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 295.

273 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 296.

274 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 345.

275 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 214-215.

276 Roland Faber, “De-ontologizing God: Levinas, Deleuze, and Whitehead,” in Process and Difference: Between Cosmological and Poststructuralist Postmodernisms, eds. Catherine Keller and Anne Daniell(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 222-223.

277 Roland Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos: For a More Deleuzian Whitehead,” in Secrets of Becoming: Negotiating Whitehead, Deleuze, and Butler (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), 158, 163.

278 Following Plato, Republic 509b and Parmenides 137cf.

279 Simon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012), 201-202.

280 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 297.

281 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42; Adventures of Ideas, 174.

282 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168.

283 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

284 Faber, “Surrationality and Chaosmos,” 165.

285 Borges, “Happiness,” 441.