Responding to Levi Bryant on the Question of Religion

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

Fragment of a Dialogue: A Walk to Imagination’s Limits

This is an incomplete project that I may not be able to pick up for a while. Thought I’d post the fragment. It was inspired by Schelling’s dialogue Bruno.


A Walk to Imagination’s Limits

Chroma: We have chosen a wonderful evening to set out on a walk along the riverside. Don’t you think so, my friends? At the pace of our saunter, the sun should be setting in the western horizon just as we approach the edge of the waterfall to watch. It will be a glorious sight!: the sovereign sun swallowed by night, leaving the earth dark and the sky dotted with foreign stars. Then the silver moon will float above us, reflecting just enough light upon the ground to guide our journey home. May the beauty of the scene heal our souls of the wound that parts them from the world!

Phōsphoros: It is a charming night here along the river’s edge, I agree; but your enthusiasm for the scene surprises me.

Have you forgotten that the beauty of the sky is an appearance? The truth is that the light of your own sight is the source of its sublimity. In you lives the cause of heaven’s laws, from you space projects out to meet earth’s horizon. The world’s beauty is by your imagination made and in it displayed. The scene is in the seer!

Katoptron: What strange symphony has come over you, Chroma? And you, Phōs, have fallen happily in love with yourself, possessed by the mad ravings of a match-lit mind! You give your eyes too much credit. They are mirrors, reflecting the beauty of this scene and not creating it. The sun is the seen’s creator, not your eyes.

Both of you appear to be already drunk on moonlight, as if you’d never seen the day turn to night before. Tell me, Chroma, why you’ve dragged me out of the city for a walk into the woods? What is it you wanted to discuss with us so urgently that it could not wait until the morning over a cup of tea and a muffin?

Chroma: My friends, do not begin to quarrel so quickly! I have asked you to join me on this walk so that we might discuss an important matter, even the most important matter. We’ve left the electric lamps and paved roads of the city in order to find a higher light and a richer soil to bring ‘the sacred seed of philosophy to its fullest flower.’1 We’ve set out at dusk so that we might be ‘granted the favor of seeing beauty in its brightest splendor and not be blinded by the sight.’2 Look how the sun is slowly draining color from space as it turns ever nearer the horizon. Blue and white are becoming yellow and orange, and soon will fade to black.

Phōsphoros: So you’ve taken us on a beautiful walk in an attempt to soften our opinions of your mystical religion? If you are hopping to convince us of the divinity of philosophy, I will cheer you. But truly, we are each divinities with our own philosophical religions! Have you forgotten my recent argument concerning the multiplicity of philosophies, that wisdom finds as many unique expressions as she has lovers?

Chroma: I have not forgotten it. I grant you that love comes in a variety of species, but there is finally only one eternal vine of philosophy. This sacred seed of wisdom has taken root in me and desires that I speak on her behalf. I may be madly in love, even beside myself in ecstasy, but nonetheless, I am thinking more truly tonight than ever before. I desire to prove to you that ‘there is but one world, one plant, as it were, wherein everything that exists is merely leaves, or blooms, or fruit.’3 This proof will depend on the wisdom within me proving contagious.

Katoptron: I’ve heard only lunacy so far this evening from both of you. What magic charms have you brought along, Chroma, that might produce such an effect upon my thought? Mere words will hardly do!

Chroma: I speak of a sickness that carries its own cure, of a medicine that heals the body of birth and the soul of death. I do not expect to ‘express the inner essence of the eternal in mortal words,’4 a trick difficult even for Hermes. Rather, my intention in leading us along the river as the sun falls is to raise our spirits to holy contemplation of the beauty of creation. Not by my speech alone, but in concert with the songs of the flowing waters here below and the spheres up above, I hope to heal that oft forgotten wound that wrestled wisdom from our midst so long ago. Look just there! Naked Venus is burning bright with passion that we might succeed!

Phōsphoros: She burns bright tonight, indeed. But tell us, Chroma, what are these true thoughts you hope to plant in us concerning the unity of philosophy? For plant them is all you can hope to do. Only I can water them.

Chroma: I speak to you this evening with Venus, the setting sun, the rising moon, and soon, the chorus of all the stars as my witnesses. I will attempt to reconcile both your philosophies, logically consistent though each may be on its own, with the one true science of wisdom, whose logic meets no contradiction either within itself or from outside.

You, Phōs, defend the truth of the transcendental imagination; while you, Kato, defend that of the physical universe. If I succeed with my integration, you will each come to see that wisdom herself is neither ideal or real, nor a mixture of both, but rather a third thing in which the two become one. To love wisdom is to ‘uncover the original metal of truth, as it were, the prime ingredient in the alloys of all individual truths, without which none of them would be true.’5 Shall I continue?

Phōsphoros: I will at least listen; but though my fondness for you is great, Chroma, it will not be enough on its own to convince me to split any philosophical gold distilled along the way with Kato!

Katoptron: I have no need for Phōs’ fool’s gold, since its shine is golden only in his mind.

I will continue to listen to your sermon, Chroma, so long as you’re sure you’ve correctly diagnosed me. Why don’t you first let Phōs and I sing the praises of our respective positions?

Chroma: Thank you for indulging me, gentlemen. Kato is right. Before we turn to my great work of reconciliation, I should hear again from each of you, since it has been several weeks since our last meeting. Let us slow our pace and steady our pulses, for our only hope of conveying thoughts to one another is to remain attuned to the heart’s rhythms. Phōs, you are like a lamp, creatively generating light from within, while you, Kato, are like a mirror, faithfully reflecting light from without. Kato, perhaps you can begin by defending your view of the primacy of the physical?

Katoptron: Though it would be rhetorically easier to speak second, I will profess my philosophy first so as not to burden Phōs, who already has the challenge of making the false appear true.

Phōsphoros: I will gladly play the tortoise in this a race.

Chroma: Kato, play the hare then, and express your philosophy to us succinctly and with swiftness, so that Phōs can also speak before we reach the waterfall.

Katoptron: I am hardly prepared for a detailed accounting of the evidence. I can only begin by reminding you each of the vast body of scientific data and the theoretical consensus supporting a physicalist cosmology. Whether or not my philosophical appeal to you this evening is persuasive, the weight of scientific knowledge still remains for you to accept or refute.

You speak of healing the soul of death, Chroma, but the only way to do that is to cure the soul of itself! The soul simply does not exist, only the body. The human body has evolved through a few billion of years of natural selection, and before that emerged out of the activity of chemical gradients in the primeval sea. Hundreds of millions of years before there was water on the surface, the earth was a fireball of molten rock, freshly accreted from a cloud of dust orbiting around the early sun. Billions of years before that, all the matter in the solar system, and in the universe, was contained in a point of energy no bigger than a photon.


1 F. W. J. Schelling, Bruno, or On the Natural and Divine Principle of Things (New York, State University of New York Press, 1984), 203.

2 Schelling, Bruno, 222.

3 Schelling, Bruno, 208.

4 Schelling, Bruno, 199.

5 Schelling, Bruno, 221

Petals Rising

I forgot about this short poem I penned back in August on the inside of the back cover of Ramey’s book after sitting on a bench intending to read in a rose garden in Golden Gate Park. It seems relevant to some of what I’ve covered above:


I stand here watching

rose petals fall.

I pick up a fallen flower.

I see

the beauty of this rose

in falling petals;

the light of that sun

in burning plasma.

This rose


only petals curling

from an unseen center.

This living rose


an eternal idea whose light

spirals brightly out of a

still silent stem.

Gradually arriving in time–

instantly arising in space–




to show itself,

curling into colored folds,

descending into death,

dissolving into soil.

Once arising,

now falling away,

it is again




This living rose,

just like

the Living God,

is a dance of veils:

in the glances of many

passing faces,

one by one,

God and the rose reveal their lightness.

In the end,

last petal fallen,

all that is left

is you.

You are the breathing of the world

inward to thought,

outward to being;

You are a cosmic force

from beyond

the earth.

To be you,

to be this rose,

to be this rose in you,

or you in this rose,

is to be between ecstasies.

The essence of this rose

is the scent released

by its corpse

into sun-warmed air,

there lifted from my hand

and delivered the stars above my head.

Cosmic Self: a Uni-Verse


It is with my own self-consciousness that I must begin… but I will confess, I am not yet certain of my own beginning, or even of my own uncertainty. Already I seem to have said too much: “I am”–how do I know that? Do I really exist? Can I claim self-consciousness as “my own” if I do not know whether “I am”? I remain a mystery to myself. Sometimes I am whole, other times hollow. I meet the uncanny reflection of myself alternately with ecstasy and with anxiety. Self-consciousness is thinking become aware of itself, but thinking is not yet knowing. Perhaps I cannot begin with myself. I must turn to the thoughts of others. Rene Descartes discovered himself a thinking thing by doubting all cognition and all perception, of others and of the world, leaving only an empty knower behind. Immanuel Kant created the transcendental unity of apperception, bringing together, at least in time, knower and known, self and world, subject and object. Mind here finds its identity with itself, but from things, from bodies and spaces external to itself, it becomes entirely alienated. Kant may have awakened the human spirit to its freedom, but he did so only by severing its connection with the apparently mechanistic laws of the universe. To myself, and to others, thinking remains a mystery. But what of that which acts between self and other, that erotic destabilizing force all but ignored by Descartes and Kant, despite their claim to be philosophers. The force of love: too slippery to be categorized, too sublime to be secured. It is desire, eros, that connects the soul to the world, linking freedom with necessity. Thinking is desiring. The desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of the expanding universe. I intend as it extends. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what lies beyond the edge of time: the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. An inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. In itself, the world remains incomplete; but through intuitive thinking, I will its wholeness. The desire to think erupts because Being is not complete in itself. Being wills also to become for itself. Substance desires to be Subject, as Hegel says. Or, as Schelling put it, “Nature should be the Spirit made visible, Spirit the invisible Nature.” I not only intuit, but am involved in the creative evolution of the universe ever onward into a wholeness never finished because always being born. In my soul, matter finds its maker in the image of Spirit. Here, I reach the still point of eternity at the center of earth around which all the heavens revolve.

The Poetry of Philosophy: Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision of Nature in Light of Whitehead’s Cosmological Scheme

The aim of this essay is to read the nature poetry of William Wordsworth in light of the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, such that the epistemological and cosmological implications of the former are brought more fully into philosophical view. According to Victor Lowe, it is probable that no other man, save Plato, shaped the imaginative background of Whitehead’s outlook quite as profoundly as Wordsworth.1 This influence makes the task of this short essay far easier, since so much of what Whitehead labored to give clear conceptual expression to in his own work was originally awakened in him by the feeling for the universe that vibrates off the pages of Wordsworth’s poetry. In this sense, the task of this essay is the opposite of Whitehead’s: to translate the basic outlines of his philosophical scheme back into the cosmic visions and archetypal visitations expressed in Wordsworth’s verse.

One of the defining characteristics of Romantic literature is its exaltation of the figure of the philosopher-poet, the one who unveils the way in which, as Keats put it, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”2 The famous friendship and intimate artistic collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth provides an example of two minds who, while considered alone are great in their own right, considered together as a single mutually formed and imaginatively alloyed soul surely surpass the genius of any claimant of the title philosopher-poet to come before or after. According to Owen Barfield, the friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth both “exemplified the contrast” and “deepened the affinity” between the poles of imagination, namely, self )–( world, or again, spirit )–( nature.3 Reconciling these two imaginative forces in one person is all but impossible, since “the finite activity of poetry, like every other motion, still requires a predominance, however slight, of the one pole over the other.”4 Coleridge had a more philosophical bent, tending toward reverential reflection upon the high station of spirit, while Wordsworth was easily charmed by the every day and more sensitive to the living depths of the natural world. Though Coleridge proved himself on occasion capable of penning the sublimest poetry, it could be said that, as a result of his philosophical tutelage, Wordsworth became the greatest of his poetic achievements. Indeed, Whitehead writes of Coleridge that, despite being influential in his own day, when considering “those elements of the thought of the past which stand for all time…[he] is only important by his influence on Wordsworth.”5

Wordsworth is perhaps the most esteemed nature poet in the history of the English language. For Whitehead, he is the chief exemplar of the Romantic reaction against the abstract mechanistic picture of nature fostered by the scientific materialism of the 17th and 18th centuries. He cites the famous line, “We murder to dissect” with qualified approval, agreeing with Wordsworth that “the important facts of nature elude the scientific method” even while he, a mathematical physicist as well as a philosopher, believes the specialized abstractions of natural science need not necessarily leave nature lifeless.6 Science can and should be reformed. Mechanistic science of the sort championed by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and Laplace commits the fatal sin of bifurcating nature, isolating its objective mathematizable aspects by pealing away its sensual and moral layers, layers which found their home in a soul now entirely sealed off from the outside world. Concerning the ethereal hues of a sunset, the sweet fragrance of a primrose, or the melodies of a thrush the poets are all mistaken: from the point of view of scientific materialism, nature is “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly.”7 Contrary to the general thrust of natural science since its birth in the 17th century, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme is an attempt to systematize Wordsworth’s emphatic witness to the fact that “nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values, and that these values arise from the culmination…of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts.”8 In the jargon of his metaphysics, Whitehead saw in Wordsworth’s poetry “a feeling for nature as exhibiting entwined prehensive unities, each suffused with modal presences of others.”9 Hidden within this one short cryptic sentence are the major categories animating Whitehead’s entire cosmological system, including “actual occasions,” “eternal objects,” “internal relations,” and “concrescence.”

Before moving on to unpack Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, it is important to note that his allegiance to Wordsworth and the Romantic reaction is not at all to say that he has sided with subjectivism or idealism over the objectivity of science. The danger in aligning oneself against the mathematical abstractions of mechanistic science is that one rushes too quickly to adopt the opposite extreme, elevating personal emotion and individual will to such unwarranted heights that the entirety of the visible universe is made to seem a private projection, a mere appearance dependent upon the constructive activity of my mind. Wordsworth’s absorption in living nature–“an inmate of this active universe,”10 as he put it–all but inoculated him against this subjectivist over-reaction; but there are a few occasions when Wordsworth seems almost to become infected by other strains of the Romantic bloodstream, especially those emerging in the orbit of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Whitehead strongly positioned himself in opposition to Kantian, Fichtean, and Hegelian forms of idealism which can be read as attempting to derive the concrete and contingent existence of the universe from the abstract universal categories of thought.11 Not incidentally (considering the influence of Schelling on Wordsworth through the intermediary of Coleridge), the relationship of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is far more congenial, since unlike for Kant and Hegel, for Schelling “Nature is a priori.”12 Whitehead pithily suggests that his approach “aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”13 In Kant’s first critique, experience is either translatable into conscious rational knowledge (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas/representations” of geometrical space and time), or it is no experience at all. The vague but overriding feelings of nature’s creative rhythms and physical purposes always scintillating along the fractal horizons of consciousness are ignored in order to secure the certain knowledge of the rational, waking ego.14 The abyssal complexities of our aesthetic encounter with the sublime are left for the 3rd critique, the Critique of Judgment, but even here, where Kant’s powers reach their highest pitch, he pulls up short of the erotic receptivity that may have reconnected him with the animate intelligence of the cosmos. In book XI of The Prelude, as if speaking directly to Kant, Wordsworth pays homage to the “animation and…deeper sway” of nature’s soul while warning against the “narrow estimates of things” resulting from rational critique: “suffice it here/To hint that danger cannot but attend/Upon a Function rather proud to be/The enemy of falsehood, than the friend/Of truth, to sit in judgment than to feel.”15

While for Kant, “the world emerges from the subject,” for Whitehead, “the subject emerges from the world.”16 Whitehead’s conception of subjectivity is such that the order and meaning of our experience is originally given to us by the order and meaning of the surrounding actual universe. “[The subject] is not productive of the ordered world, but derivative from it.”17 Whitehead’s object-to-subject account of the formation of experience may seem too strict a rule for Wordsworth’s imaginative epistemology to obey, since for the latter the senses must be free to half-create and half perceive the world, as he suggests in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This reversal of the vector of experience may at times prove to be a true tension in the two men’s outlooks, a tension worth untangling if only to discover a deeper commonality.

It would be an unfair reading of Whitehead, based on his reaction to much of German idealism, to neglect the extent to which his epistemology is fully awake to the creative and participatory role of the imagination in evaluating and synthesizing the facts of the actually existing world. His criticisms of idealistic accounts of perception result primarily from the mistaken prioritization of a derivative mode of perception, “presentational immediacy” over the truly primitive mode, “causal efficacy.” Presentational immediacy is a highly advanced form of experience available to conscious human beings. Dominated by the eyes (“The most despotic of our senses”18), it gives us a certain degree of reflective distance from the causal flow of cosmic vectors of inter-bodily emotion. These vectors, felt through the more original mode of perception, causal efficacy, generate the “mysterious presence of surrounding things”19: for example, the “voluntary power instinct” of the brooding Cliff that made the young Wordsworth’s hands tremble while rowing back to shore in his stolen skiff.20 Without the enlivening passion of causal efficacy, presentational immediacy becomes a fallen mode of perception, detached and cut off from intimacy with nature, her inner life reduced to the external relations of dead objects floating in outer space. Without the reflective disinterest of presentational immediacy, causal efficacy would swallow up our consciousness into the “dim and undetermin’d sense/Of unknown modes of being” that haunted Wordsworth for days after he returned the skiff to its mooring-place.21 Whitehead describes a third, hybrid mode of perception called “symbolic reference,” which plays a role akin to the synthesizing imagination, able to skillfully interweave physical prehensions with mental conceptions in order to produce heightened forms of aesthetic enjoyment and moral appetition. In Whitehead’s jargon, mental conceptions are also prehensions, or feelings, but instead of feeling concrete matters of fact, they feel eternal objects, or abstract forms of possibility. Whereas causal efficacy is “the hand of the settled past in the formation of the present,” presentational immediacy is the “[projection which] exhibits the contemporary world in its spatial relations.”22 Through the mixed perceptual mode of symbolic reference, habits of imagination are gradually acquired which bring forth the taken for granted world of every day experience.23 It is the synthesizing activity of this mode that Wordsworth refers to when he writes of how “The mind of Man is fram’d even like the breath/And harmony of music. There is a dark/Invisible workmanship that reconciles/Discordant elements, and makes them move/In one society.”24 A skillful poet is able to consciously moderate the synthetic activity of symbolic reference, “to keep/In wholesome separation the two natures,/The one that feels [causal efficacy], the other that observes [presentational immediacy].”25

It would be a superficial reading of Wordsworth to ignore the degree to which he wavers in his assigning of precedence to either the mental or physical poles of experiential reality. Just a line below his statement in Tintern Abbey about the creative element in perception, he writes of being “well pleased to recognize/In nature and the language of the sense,/The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse/The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul/Of all my moral being.” He finds that his mind is not only necessarily tied to his sensual encounters with nature (as it is for Kant), but that the language of sense has birthed and raised to maturity even the purest of his ideas from out of the womb of nature herself. Elsewhere, Wordsworth writes of the way a mountain range “By influence habitual to the mind/…shapes/The measure and the prospect of the soul.”26 Further conforming to Whitehead’s object-to-subject reading of the vector of experience, he writes: “From nature doth emotion come, and moods/…are nature’s gift.”27 But it could still be asked: is Wordsworth speaking here in a psychological or in an ontological register?

Whitehead’s characterization of Wordsworth’s poetry as exhibiting a sensitivity to the interpenetrating “prehensive unities” of nature, “each suffused with modal presences of others,” is meant to classify him as an ontologically committed panpsychist. His poetry is overflowing with hymns to the Anima Mundi, with references to the “the Life/ of the great whole,” and to the way “every natural form, rock, fruit or flower/…Lay bedded in a quickening soul.”28 Even here, however, just as Wordsworth appears to fully confirm his cosmological orientation, the tension of the poles of spirit and nature begin vibrating, as if hovering in superposition. Does Wordsworth mean that all these natural forms lay bedded in his quickening soul? In the same lines from The Prelude cited above, he could be read as congratulating himself for rousing nature from her sleep: “To every natural form…/I gave a moral life, I saw them feel,/Or linked them to some feeling…/…all/That I beheld respired with inward meaning.”29 But just a few lines later, Wordsworth again reverses the vector of his experience back from the idealistic to the cosmological pole, finding his mind “as wakeful” to the changing face of nature “as waters are/To the sky’s motion,” becoming to her activity as “obedient as a lute/That waits upon the touches of the wind.”30 Perhaps Wordsworth’s tendency to waver on this issue betrays one of the key differences between a visionary poet, focused on capturing the vividness of each fading moment, and a systematic philosopher, focused on characterizing the ultimate generalities characterizing all experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of the present essay, many parallels could also be drawn between Whitehead’s conception of a dipolar divinity and Wordsworth’s visions of the World Soul, “the Imagination of the whole.” Briefly, like all other actual occasions, Whitehead’s God has two poles, an intellectual/mental and an emotional/physical. Unlike all other actual occasions, God’s primordial pole is intellectual rather than physical, consisting in an evaluative ordering of all eternal objects. This ordering serves to condition the unfolding of the universe by making relevant novelties available to the concrescence of each finite occasion of experience. These finite occasions are free to make their own decisions and evaluations, but these decisions are made amidst the set of possibilities provided by the wisdom of God. Through God’s consequent pole, the creative becoming of the physical world is taken back up into divine experience as through a loving embrace to be harmonized with God’s primordial nature. To quote Whitehead at length: “God’s role is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. 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.”31 The everlasting pulsations of divine concrescence are the macrocosmic analogy of Wordsworth’s autobiographical journey from childhood paradise, through the impairment and on to the final restoration of Imagination. “From love, for here/Do we begin and end, all grandeur comes,/All truth and beauty, from pervading love,/That gone, we are as dust.”32


1 Understanding Whitehead (1962), 257.

2 “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819).

3 What Coleridge Thought (1971), 90.

4 WCT, 90.

5 Science and the Modern World (1925), 79.

6 SMW, 79-80.

7 SMW, 55.

8 SMW, 84.

9 SMW, 80.

10 The Prelude (1805/1970), 27.

11 Process and Reality (1929/1979), 89.

12 First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (1799/2004), 198. Nature here is natura naturans, the generative abyss from which all finite form arises and into which it dies; this is akin to Whitehead’s category of ultimate generality at the base of all actuality, Creativity.

13 PR, 172.

14 Modes of Thought (1938/1966), p. 74-75.

15 The Prelude, 209.

16 PR, 172.

17 PR, 113.

18 The Prelude, 210.

19 SMW, 80.

20 The Prelude, 12.

21 The Prelude, 12.

22 Symbolism (1927/1955), 50.

23 UW, 184.

24 The Prelude, 10.

25 The Prelude, 238.

26 The Prelude, 125.

27 The Prelude, 218.

28 The Prelude, 37.

29 The Prelude, 37. Italics are mine.

30 The Prelude, 37-38.

31 PR, 525.

32 The Prelude, 233.

The Power of Adjectives: Two Poems on Imagination by Patrick Lane and P. K. Page

“Albino Pheasants” (1977) by Patrick Lane 

At the bottom of the field
where thistles throw their seeds
and poplars grow from cotton into trees
in a single season I stand among the weeds.
Fenceposts hold each other up with sagging wire.
Here no man walks except in wasted time.
Men circle me with cattle, cars and wheat.
Machines rot on my margins.
They say the land is wasted when it’s wild
and offer plows and apple trees to tame
but in the fall when I have driven them away
with their guns and dogs and dreams
I walk alone. While those who’d kill
lie sleeping in soft beds
huddled against the bodies of their wives
I go with speargrass and hooked burrs
and wait upon the ice alone.

Delicate across the mesh of snow
I watch the pale birds come
with beaks the colour of discarded flesh.
White, their feathers are white,
as if they had been born in caves
and only now have risen to the earth
to watch with pink and darting eyes
the slowly moving shadows of the moon.
There is no way to tell men what to do…
the dance they make in sleep
withholds its meaning from their dreams.
That which has been nursed in bone
rests easy upon frozen stone
and what is wild is lost behind closed eyes:
albino birds, pale sisters, succubi.

Sestina for Pat Lane After Reading ‘Albino Pheasants’  (1978) by  P. K. Page 

Pale beak…pale eye…the dark imagination
flares like magnesium. And but, pale flesh
and I am lifted to a weightless world:
watered cerulean, chrome-yellow, light
and green, veronese – if I remember – a soft wash
recalls a summer evening sky.

At Barro de Navidad we watched the sky
fade softly like a bruise. Was it imagination
that showed us Venus phosphorescent in a wash
of air and ozone? – a phosphorescence flesh
wears like a mantle in bright moonlight,
a natural skin-tone in that other world.

Why do I wish to escape this world?
Why do three phrases alter the color of the sky
the clarity, texture even, of light?
What is there about the irrepressible imagination
that the adjective pale modifying beak, eye and flesh,
can set my sensibilities awash?

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagintion
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet. If I were to wash
everything I own in mercury, would imagination
run rampant in that suddenly silver world –
free me from gravity, set me floating sky-
ward – thistledown – permanently disburdened of my flesh?

Like cygnets hatched by ducks, our minds and flesh
are imprinted early – what to me is light
may be dark to one born under a sunny sky.
And however cool the water my truth won’t wash
without shrinking except in my own world
which is one part matter, nine parts imagination.

I fear flesh which blocks imagination,
the light of reason which contracts the world.
Pale beak…pale eye…pale flesh…My sky’s awash.


I’m particularly fascinated by the role of adjectives in these poems, a role explicitly thematized by Page (“what is it about the irrepressible imagination that the adjective…can set my sensibilities awash?”). J. R. R. Tolkein, a philologist as well as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, discusses the liberating power of adjectives in his short essay, “On Fairy Stories,” from which I will quote at length. Speaking of mythology, after declaring that “Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret,” since truly it is “modern European languages [that] are a disease of mythology”, Tolkein writes:

The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

As Page and Tolkein both attempt to articulate, the human imagination makes us potential sub-creators – participants in the ongoing poetry of creation. The magic of our incarnate minds is borne principally through language, which skillfully crafted, can shift not only our thoughts about the world, but our very perception of the world. An imaginative phrase can “change the waves or particles of light” not of some other fantasized world, but of this world.

I’m reminded again, in connection with the creative power of adjectives, of Alfred North Whitehead‘s eternal objects. In human beings, whose mental capacities “rise to the peak of free imagination” (Process and Reality, 161), adjectives like green or pale allow us to bring forth novel perceptual worlds not determined by past actualities. See HERE, HERE, and HERE for some of my other recent reflections on eternal objects.

[final draft] Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead

Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, Whitehead

The Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden by Thomas Cole

“I am convinced that the supreme act of reason, because it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act; and that only in beauty are truth and goodness akin.–The philosopher must possess as much aesthetic force as the poet…Monotheism of reason and of the heart, polytheism of imagination and art, that is what we need!” -F.W.J. Schelling1

“[Philosophy has] to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear…we view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.” -A. N. Whitehead2


The aim of this essay is to sketch the striking similarities running through the thought of Plato (423-348 BCE), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), especially as they relate to the power of poetic imagination. At first glance, Schelling and Whitehead would seem to be representatives of disparate schools of philosophy: the former is normally considered an idealist, the latter, a realist. But this would be a superficial reading that misses the underlying unity of their reformed Platonism. As will become clear, the stated desire of each is to think the sensory manifold as a single universe; to wed Space and Time in the Thought of Eternity; to ground reality and ideality in one mediating power. Like Plato, Schelling and Whitehead crowned philosophy the science of sciences and the art of arts, the creative core of all civilization. What finally distinguishes the philosopher from the sophist, according to Whitehead (summarizing Plato), is the philosopher’s “resolute attempt to reconcile conflicting doctrines, each with its own solid ground of support.”3 But as will also become clear, both Schelling and Whitehead reformed Plato in imaginative ways, adding other voices to his corpus of dialogues as a goad to their spiritual renewal.

To begin with, it is not at all obvious that Schelling’s philosophy, taken as a whole, deserves the title of “idealism.” Martin Heidegger, for example, suggests that Schelling “drives German idealism from within right past its own fundamental position.”4 More recently, Dalia Nassar,5 Iain Hamilton Grant,6 and Jason Wirth7 have all contended that, despite his early allegiance to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s transcendental idealism, Schelling remains, in Wirth’s words, “first and foremost a thinker of the question of Nature.”8

As for Whitehead, Grant mentions him alongside Schelling as a promising example of speculative thinking “beyond the epistemological concerns of the philosophy of science,”9 an issue to which I will return below.10 George R. Lucas further cements this speculative affinity by reading Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a historical precursor to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.11 Though Whitehead never read much of the German idealists directly,12 he was deeply influenced by the British idealists John McTaggart and F. H. Bradley, going so far as to suggest that his own cosmology might be considered “a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis.”13 Furthermore, Antoon Braeckman has indirectly linked Whitehead’s philosophical scheme to Schelling’s through the intermediary of the Schellingian philosopher-poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose role in the formation of William Wordsworth’s aesthetic vision of nature is well known.14 Though he was familiar with Coleridge,15 the deepest impact on Whitehead came through the poetry of Wordsworth, which he study throughout his life. According to his daughter’s testimony, he would read The Prelude almost daily “as if it were the Bible, pouring over the meaning of various passages.”16

The philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, then, seem to spiral around a common intuition, namely that the division between the real and the ideal can and should be overcome through an act of poetic imagination. Before further unpacking the commonalities of their imaginative schemes, I will briefly outline the role of imagination in speculative philosophy as over and against critical philosophy.


Cosmological and Transcendental Imagination

Speculative, or cosmological imagination has been clearly differentiated from critical, or transcendental imagination, by contemporary Whiteheadian philosopher Isabelle Stengers.17 For Stengers, there are two basic approaches open for the questioning postkantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”; the second, “What can I know?”18 Answering the former question requires the spark of imaginative speculation, which leaps across the gap in the circuit of perception between mind and matter in an attempt to see into the sea of relationships within which one swims. The philosopher-seer risks propositions regarding the reality of nature’s ideality, hedging her bets on the synechological19 affinity of mind and nature. Given the precursive trust20 of the speculative philosopher, these cosmological propositions are liable to infect common sense experience, allowing new worlds to take shape in the social imagination.

The latter question (“What can I know?) characterizes the critical approach. It separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective reflection upon an external world. Questions of epistemology take center stage, questions of the a priori conditions of conscious experience that shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the phenomenal manifold corresponding to the external world. These are important questions to ask, but in the modern period, they have been over-emphasized, resulting in the solipsistic positivism of scientific materialism.21 Because the positivist has lost all precursive trust, what the world is in itself, the realist’s question, is dismissed as a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos.

To further differentiate the cosmological from the transcendental imagination, it may be helpful to personify each mode by linking it with its foremost historical exemplar. Plato’s philosophy, as interpreted by Schelling and Whitehead, is rooted in a cosmological conception of imagination, while the philosophy of Immanuel Kant is rooted in a transcendental conception of imagination.

Although, in Republic, Plato explicitly places “imagination” (eikasia) below the line dividing the soul’s cognitive powers,22 the straightforward translation of eikasia as “imagination” can be misleading in light of Schelling and Whitehead’s use of the idea. Eikasia is etymologically related to eikon, usually translated as “icon” or “image” in the context of Greek culture, but can also be translated as “idol” in the Biblical context. Eikasia could then better be called the power of “imaging,” of seeing images, in either of two modes: as images of things or as things themselves. Plato’s placement of eikasia below the divided line is meant to be a critique of idolatrous imagination, that which has fallen into duality, mistaking opinions regarding appearances of “what comes to be and passes away, but never really is”23 for the truth of what really is. Schelling would call this fallen mode of eikasia the merely reflective understanding, perceptually isolated from reality and so only able to relate to abstract concepts and finite sensory particulars.24

However, when the “imaging” soul is wise to Plato’s teaching in Sophist concerning “non-being”–that non-being is a kind of being–25 philosophical imagination can express itself through the poetic art of iconography, what neoplatonists like Proclus and Iamblichus will later call theurgy. Theurgy is a ritual technology capable of re-shaping the soul though the power of magical symbols.

Whitehead refers to Plato’s teaching of the being of non-being as “at once an extreme instance of the breakdown of language, and the enunciation of a profound metaphysical truth.”26 The difficult phrase points to the way linguistic propositions generate meaning, not only through discontinuous antinomies, but through constructive contrasts: words are not things, but nevertheless, the symbolic assembly of a string of words can illuminate the relations between things in unforeseen ways. Plato is himself skilled in poetic ritual, as is evident in the many mythopoeic “likely stories” articulated in his dialogues. Each such story is an image meant to be transformative of the soul’s erotic commerce with eternal Ideas. They function as initiatory rites revealing the inner nature of the divine imagination. In Timaeus, for example, Plato narrates the genesis of the universe as “a moving image of eternity,” inviting the individual psyche to be reminded of its analogical participation in the ever-lasting life and motion of the world-soul.27 The speculative imagination sees the moving image of the visible heavens and knows it to be the mirror of an invisible source.28

Plato’s was also a cosmomorphic imagination, seeking to transform experience of the sensible world by actively bringing it into harmony with the intelligence of Ideas. Schelling identifies this speculative mode of imagination with reason rather than the understanding, since it participates freely in both the finite and the infinite, and indeed, discovers the infinite in the finite.29 Speculative imagination is neither above nor below the divided line, but is the very power responsible for making the division in the first place. Imagination draws the line, being both productivity and product, activity and artifact.30

Even from Kant’s transcendental perspective, imagination is the most indispensable of the soul’s cognitive powers, mysteriously generating both sensibility and understanding.31 But for him, imagination emerges from a depth unreachable by the light of conscious will. Ideas of imagination are therefore reduced to determinate concepts of the merely reflective (i.e., unproductive) understanding,32 leading to “those insoluble contradictions which Kant set forth under the name of the antinomies.”33 These antinomies forbid the soul real knowledge concerning God, the cosmos, or even its own freedom, since in each case, critical reflection alone leads only to an aporia inherent to sense-bound understanding. The understanding, says Kant, “stretches its wings in vain, if it tries to soar beyond the world of sense by the mere power of speculation.”34

Schelling understands this alienation of the critical soul from the world as a “necessary evil,” a means to an end, since only through such a trial by separation can the soul become conscious of its imaginative power.35 Only if sense-bound conceptuality is treated as an end in itself does it become an “intellectual sickness.”36 The transcendental imagination, then, is not simply to be rejected as a false mode of mentality, but passed through as the first phase in the advance toward genuine philosophical knowledge.

In the next section, I will continue to explore the reformed Platonism of Schelling and Whitehead as it relates to the cosmological imagination, focusing more explicitly on the affinity of their respective philosophical schemes.


The Platonic Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead

It should already be clear that Schelling and Whitehead each owe a huge intellectual debt to Plato. Whitehead characterizes the European philosophical tradition as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and suggests that his own philosophy of organism is best understood as a contemporary rendering of Plato’s general point of view.37 Schelling studied Plato’s dialogues in the original Greek during his teenage years at seminary in Tübingen, dedicating many notebooks to their elucidation in which he creatively translated Plato’s words into his own. According to Bruce Matthews, these notebooks indicate “the determinative role this philosopher plays in the young Schelling’s intellectual world.”38

At other times, Schelling and Whitehead are also critical of Plato’s tendency to overplay the separation of the transcendent ideal from the immanent reality. Schelling tentatively agrees with Aristotle’s reproach of Plato’s merely logical formulation of the doctrine of participation,39 as if the doctrine could explain the actual coming into being of living things.40 Whitehead also admits that Plato tended to waver between the doctrine of participation by the persuasion of divine Eros and the doctrine of the imposition of “static, frozen, and lifeless” Ideas upon mute materiality according to the plan of an omnipotent divine Craftsman.41

Despite this wavering, Whitehead points to the genius of Plato’s definitive statement that “anything that affects or is affected by another has real existence.”42 Plato here sides with the doctrine of participation of Ideas as dynamically entertained by an immanent world-soul, a real medium, “connecting the eternality of being with the fluency of becoming.”43 This mediating principle is “the way in which Plato conceived the many actualities of the physical world as components in each other’s natures.”44 The medium is otherwise called the Receptacle, the “third kind” between universal Ideas and sensory particulars, the “wetnurse” providing a formless locus for Ideas to temporally incarnate.45 As Whitehead describes it, the Receptacle is “the matrix for all begetting… [transforming] the manifoldness of the many into the unity of the one.”46

This description suggests that Whitehead conceived of the ultimate notion of his own philosophy of organism, Creativity, as a result of dwelling upon Plato’s difficult but important notion of the Receptacle. Creativity is “that ultimate principle by which the many, which are the universe disjunctively, become the one actual occasion, which is the universe conjunctively.”47

The one feature distinguishing Creativity from the Receptacle is that “it is divested of the notion of passive receptivity.”48 This distinction is due to Whitehead’s preference for the doctrine of Ideas as “lures of feeling,” rather than as molds forcibly stamped upon neutral and emotionless matter. In the jargon of his philosophical scheme, incarnate actual occasions, not abstract eternal objects, are ultimately responsible for deciding on the subjective form of their own concrescence.49

“It is to be noted,” says Whitehead,

that every actual entity, including God, is something individual for its own sake; and thereby transcends the rest of actuality. And also it is to be noted that every actual entity, including God, is a creature transcended by the creativity which it qualifies.50

The substance of each actual occasion, and of each individualizing society of occasions (i.e., each organism), is a creative power, a harmonization of a diversity of inherited forces seeking satisfaction in a definite ideal future. “The definition of being,” says Plato, “is simply power.”51 That being is essentially power implies that to be is to be in between.52 To be is to become together, to concresce. Nothing in the universe is external to anything else, since all occasions are internally related. Even the universal occasion, the world-soul or divine imagination, is not “a transcendent emanation,” but “a component in common” with the living bodies of the actual world.53

Creativity, like the Receptacle, provides “a unity [for] the events of Nature…by reason of their community of locus.”54 But unlike Plato’s Receptacle, which is essentially passive and formless, Whitehead’s Creativity contains its own forces of formation.

Schelling re-imagines the participatory moments of Plato’s dialogues for his own creative purposes, distilling them into what he calls Plato’s organic Urform. Like imagination’s mediation of the senses and the understanding, this Urform provides a “formula for thinking the productive relationship that holds between a unity and its parts.”55 The Urform is “not simply a form of our subjective understanding that we project onto the world, but…the productive structure of objective nature itself.”56 It could be likened to Goethe’s Urpflanze, raised from the botanical to the spiritual dimension. It is “the secret band” linking the individual soul’s imagination to the divine imagination of the world-soul.57 Schelling points to Plato’s articulation of the Urform in Philebus as “a gift of the Gods”58 granting human creatures participation in the divine intellectus archetypus.59 Schelling’s translation of Philebus 16c-e is as follows:

…the ancients (greater men and closer to the gods than us) have left the story behind, that everything which has ever [existed] emerged out of unity and multiplicity, in that it united within itself the unlimited and the limit: that thus we too in light of this arrangement of things should presuppose and search [in] every object [for] one idea.60

Schelling’s conception of the cosmos as the product of two dynamically polarized forces, one expansive and the other contractive, is the offspring of the Platonic Urform.61 These cosmogenic forces, the keystone of his entire Naturphilosophie, are alternatively characterized by Schelling in terms of the polarity between natura naturans (nature as subject, as productivity) and natura naturata (nature as object, as product).62 Whitehead marks an identical difference between “nature alive” and “nature lifeless.”63 The latter is nature viewed through a film of abstraction as mere extension lacking all quality and value. It is nature according to what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy,” a barren and solipsistic mode of sense-perception perfected by self-conscious human beings and mistaken by most philosophers for the most fundamental mode of perception. This mistake is Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”64 “Presentational immediacy” is the product of imagination in service of the reified “object-concepts” of the understanding.65 “Causal efficacy” is Whitehead’s term for the more fundamental mode of perception through directly bodily inheritance of nature’s emotional energies.66 Here imagination is productive and impossible to mistake for its finished products. Schelling would similarly see “nature lifeless” as nature filtered through the merely ideal concepts of the reflective understanding, with its limited perception by way of superficial sensation. For Schelling, “[nothing] is actual in the absence of imagination,” which is the power of productive intuition and absolute reason.67 “Nature lifeless” is then entirely deficient in actuality, an empty idol.

“Nature alive” is nature viewed with imaginative sympathy as permeated with emotional intensities and aesthetic aims. As a participant in living nature, the percipient occasion no longer simply experiences the universe’s beauty, but itself becomes an expression of this beauty. Natura naturans is nature before the Kantian epistemological bifurcation of its being into the mechanism of matter over and against the freedom of mind. At their generative core, each actual occasion, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”68 Mentality, in other words, is not the unique possession of human beings, but participates in all actual occasions (or “actants” as Schelling calls them), to greater or lesser degree depending on the complexity of each occasion’s form of individualized organization.69

In the next section of this essay, I will attempt to display the alchemical power of poetry in the process ontology of Schelling and Whitehead.


Towards a Poetic Form of Philosophy

Whitehead points to Percy Shelley and Wordsworth as the most emphatic witnesses of the Romantic reaction against the scientific materialism that divorced aesthetic values from nature. These values, “[arising] from…the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts,” were reduced by mechanistic natural philosophy to merely secondary qualities accidentally inhering in some more primary collection of material particles.70 Shelley’s and Wordsworth’s reaction was to apotheosize imagination and its poetic expressions.71

According to Shelley, poetry is

the center and circumference of knowledge, the root and blossom of all other systems of thought…that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life.72

Contemporary speculative philosopher and scholar of Romanticism, Timothy Morton, was recently asked where poetry begins.73 In answering, he turned Shelley’s metaphor upside down by suggesting that “rooting and blossoming are themselves a kind of poem.” Poetry doesn’t begin with human art, but in nature (natura naturans) itself. Human poetry is the flowering of earth. Said otherwise, imagination is an “elemental power,” “not ‘mine’…but…an alien ‘force’ in me.”74

“What we speak of as nature,” says Schelling, continuing the alchemical metaphor,

is a poem lying pent in a mysterious script. Yet the riddle could reveal itself, were we to recognize in it the odyssey of the spirit, which marvelously deluded, seeks itself, and in seeking, flies from itself.75

The alchemical Magnum Opus involves precisely such a circulatory psychophysical movement between seeking and fleeing, fusing and separating, assimilation and differentiation, eventually culminating in the purified Philosopher’s Stone, the coincidentia oppositorum.76 The alchemist’s soul becomes the a mirror of material processes, “always [manifesting] itself indirectly, as something other than itself.”77 Schelling’s philosophical scheme, according to Matthews, is founded upon “a decentered Self” whose consciousness is rooted in the genetic history of the larger totality of geological strata.78 This totality represents an “unprethinkable”79 past of subterranean forces, whose structure, though it cannot be logically demonstrated, can be imaginatively (re)generated. Schelling’s approach to philosophy is not demonstrative, but generative, in that it abandons traditional philosophical pretensions to deductive proof and formulaic certainty. “To philosophize about nature,” says Schelling, “means to create nature,” that is, to create after the manner of nature as subject (natura naturans).80 Or as Grant puts it, when “I” think nature, “what thinks in me is what is outside me.”81

Whitehead also abandons the pursuit of the abstract demonstration of truth: “…philosophy, in any proper sense of the term, cannot be proved. For proof is based on abstraction.”82 The role of philosophy, instead, is “to find a conventional phraseology for the vivid suggestiveness of the poet,” and thereby to “increase our penetration” even where “we can never fully understand.”83 Ultimately, “the aim of philosophy is sheer disclosure” and the production of “self-evidence.”84 Philosophy, for Whitehead, as for Schelling, begins and ends in a wonder at “the fact of creation and existence itself,” a fact best expressed poetically.85

“There is the one all-embracing fact,” says Whitehead, “which is the advancing history of the one Universe.”86 The one advancing Universe is simultaneously a social fact concerning the novel togetherness of the community of actual occasions. In Schelling’s terms, “there is but one absolute work of art, which may indeed exist in altogether different versions, yet it is still only one, even though it should not yet exist in its most ultimate form.”87 It should not yet exist in its ultimate form because the universe as a whole is an ongoing creative process, a cosmopoiesis, rather than an already finished product. The Universe, itself a poem, “is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.”88

Schelling and Whitehead both forged their philosophical imaginations by reading the dialogues of Plato. Despite the “old quarrel between poetry and philosophy,”89 Plato’s infamous ban of Homeric poetry from his ideal republic was not based on a rejection of poetry as such, but on a distaste for lyric and epic poetry that depicted the Gods as immoral. Plato’s true desire was simply to replace traditional poetry with his own novel form of theoretical poetry, consisting of hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people.90 Shelley said of Plato the poet that “the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive.”91 The aim of Plato’s poetry was to “kindle a harmony” in imagination by reminding the soul of the measured rhythms of reason asleep within in. “What is commonly called theoretical reason,” says Schelling, “is nothing else but imagination in the service of freedom.”92 Plato recognized that poetry is an indispensable element in the formation of a free society’s values. Similarly, Whitehead suggests that “both [philosophy and poetry] seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization.”93

In the context of his own age, Whitehead looked in particular to the nature poetry of the Romantics, which, like philosophy, functions primarily as a critic of specialized scientific abstractions on behalf of common sense and concrete experience:

Remembering the poetic rendering of our concrete experience, we see at once that the element of value…of being an end in itself…must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event. Value is an element which permeates through and through the poetic view of nature. We have only to transfer to the very texture of realization in itself that value which we recognize so readily in terms of human life. This is the secret of Wordsworth’s worship of nature.94

From Schelling’s perspective, poetry and philosophy are also akin, but they should not be simply identified. Like philosophers, poets and other creative artists may sometimes be “in possession of the idea of absolute truth and beauty,” but unlike philosophers, they remain unconscious of this fact “precisely because they are possessed by it.”95 Schelling refers to poets and creative artists as mouthpieces of the Gods, but suggests they only display Ideas in particular external things, like poems and paintings, while philosophers “exhibit the archetypes of things in and for themselves…in an inward way.”96

It would seem, then, that traditional poets, like the polytheistic myths they sung, were still largely embedded in an unconscious nature. Though this universe is undoubtedly vibrantly glimmering with the values of intrinsic reality, it has not yet become the conscious poetry of spirit. It has not yet attained philosophy, “the poetic gift…reiterated to its highest power.”97



For Schelling, “a system is completed when it is lead back to its starting point.”98 If, as Plato suggests, philosophy begins in wonder, then, “at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”99 Schelling called for a new philosophical mythology, a “likely story” capable of directing the aesthetic and moral aims of human civilization.100 Whitehead, too, recognized the need for myth, since “there is no escape” from the inherited societal customs which form the given facts of human experience.101 As Plato realized, human beings are capable of no more than likely stories, since we are “like” God, made in the divine image, and not Godself. This likeness still grants us a tremendous degree of imaginative freedom. Though “there is no such fact as absolute freedom,” since as both Whitehead and Schelling argue, freedom presupposes necessity,102 the self-consciousness of human beings nonetheless “rises to the peak of free imagination, in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified.”103 Every grade of actual occasion is both “in time” and “out of time” by virtue of its physical and mental poles, but self-conscious human occasions participate more fully in God’s primordial envisagement of the Eternal Ideas.104 “The importance of [the human] as the supreme example of a living organism is beyond question,” says Whitehead.105 But even so, the goal of philosophy is not to further alienate humanity from its earthly garden, but to heal the human soul’s self-inflicted wound. The redemption of the soul through the skilled application of the medicine of true poetry is the Romantic project for philosophy. By consciously enacting the magical power of poetry, the philosopher is, like the alchemical physician, able to “[operate] not only on his patients’ bodies but on their imaginations.”106

“Philosophy,” says Schelling, “was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge,” and upon rising to the heights of self-conscious spirit, will “flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which [it] took [its] source.”107 The only difference between the original and final forms of the philosophical imagination is that, after the long labour of its journey into alienation has ended, the final form carries with it the hard won knowledge of “The feeling of life endless, the great thought/By which we live, Infinity and God.”108 Along with its original innocence, the imagination has in the end what it did not possess in the beginning: self-knowledge and moral freedom. The evil of alienation–“of nature and history rent asunder”109–works as an athanor, or alchemical fire, upon the soul, transmuting the mercury of intellectuality into the gold of spiritual love,110 a love, according to Wordsworth,

Which acts, nor can exist/Without Imagination, which in truth,/Is but another name for absolute strength/And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,/And reason in her most exalted mood.111

In the imaginative philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, Plato’s speculative Urform of unity in multiplicity is rediscovered to again become the “eternal unchanging characteristic of every investigation.”112 This intuition of the unity of the real and the ideal, of the infinite in the finite, brought to fruition, not only redeems the human soul of its internal strife; the rekindled imagination becomes also the Redeemer113 of the external114 universe:

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope…that [it] will also be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God…the whole of creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.115


1 F.W.J. Schelling, “The Oldest Program toward a System in German Idealism,” qtd. and tranl. by David Krell, The Tragic Absolute: German Idealism and the Languishing of God (Bloomignton: Indiana University Press, 2005), 24-25.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1933), 155.

3 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

4 Martin Heidegger, trans. Joan Stambaugh, Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985), 4.

5 Dalia Nassar, “From a Philosophy of Self to a Philosophy of Nature: Goethe and the Development of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie,” in Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 92:3 (2010), 304-321. Nassar suggests that Schelling broke with Fichte largely as a result of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s influence.

6 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (New York: Continuum, 2008). Grant complains that contemporary scholarship on Schelling’s philosophy pays “scant attention…to the deep vein of naturephilosophy running through it” (3).

7 Jason Wirth, “Schelling’s Contemporary Resurgence,” in Philosophy Compass 6/9 (2011), 585-598.

8 Wirth, “Resurgence,” 594n6.

9 Grant, After Schelling, vii, ix.

10 See p. 5.

11 George R. Lucas, Jr., The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 1989), 25-26.

12 Alfred North Whitehead, Essays in Science and Philosophy (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 116.

13 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1978), xiii.

14 Antoon Braeckman, “Whitehead and German Idealism: A Poetic Heritage,” in Process Studies 14:4 (1985), 265-286.

15 See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 79.

16 Mary A Wyman, “Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science in Light of Wordsworth’s Poetry,” in Philosophy of Science 23 (1956), 283.

17 Isabelle Stengers, “Serializing Realism,” a talk at the Fourth International Conference of the Whitehead Research Project, entitled “Metaphysics and Things: New Forms of Speculative Thought,” at Claremont Graduate University on 12/2/2010.

18 See also Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 224.

19 See C.S. Peirce, ed. Justin Buchler, Philosophical Writings of Peirce (Mineda: Dover, 2011), 354. “Synechism is that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in phillosophy.”

20 See William James, ed. by John J. McDermott, “Ethical and Religious Dimensions of Radical Empiricism,” in The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977), 740.

21 See Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 125-130

22 Ch. IV. Eikasia is below the divided line because it relates only to sensory appearances in the world of becoming, remaining ignorant of the ideal realm of eternal being.

23 Timaeus 28a.

24 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Peter Heath, System of Transcendental Idealism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 73.

25 Sophist 241d.

26 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 222.

27 Timaeus 37c-e. See also the Hermetic analogy: “As above, so below.”

28 “Mirror,” in Latin, is speculum.

29 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

30 See Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 29, 145. “Geometry proceeds, in that it sets out, not from theorems, but from postulates…it demands that reflection itself bring forth [the line] in productive intuition, which it certainly would not do if the genesis of a line could be conveyed through concepts.”

31 See Critique of Pure Reason, in The Essential Kant (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1970), 96.

32 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (New York: Dover, 2005), 59, 142.

33 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.

34 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 287.

35 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Bruce Matthews, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, transl. Bruce Matthews (New York: State University of New York, 2007), 17-18.

36 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, ed. K.F.A. Schelling (Stuttgart-Augsberg: J.G. Cotta, 1856-64), 14. Transl. by Bruce Matthews.

37 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 39.

38 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy (New York: State University of New York, 2011), 21.

39 See Parmenides.

40 Schelling, Positive Philosophy, 159-160.

41 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 147-148.

42 Sophist, 247. Quoted in Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 119.

43 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 120.

44 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 134.

45 Timaeus, 49a.

46 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

47 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

48 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

49 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

50 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 88.

51 Sophist, 247e.

52 See Symposium 202 on metaxy and Eros.

53 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 130.

54 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 187.

55 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 22.

56 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 131.

57 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke I/2, 55.

58 Philebus 16c.

59 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

60 Quoted in Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 23.

61 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 132.

62 F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Keith R Peterson, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature (New York: State University of New York, 2004), 202.

63 Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 127-169.

64 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 51-55.

65 See Wolfgang Smith, Science and Myth: What We Are Never Told (San Rafael: Sophia Perennis, 2010), 58.

66 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 122.

67 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 72.

68 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.

69 Schelling, Philosophy of Nature, 5-6, 39-40.

70 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 81-84.

71 See Percy Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” and William Wordsworth, The Prelude. 

72 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

73 “Interview with Timothy Morton” on 2/25/12, (accessed 5/8/12).

74 Susanna Lindberg, “On the Night of the Elemental Imaginary,” in Research in Phenomenology 41 (2011), 157.

75 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 232.

76 See Patrick Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (London: Penguin, 2002), 135-154.

77 Harpur, The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, 143.

78 Matthews, Schelling’s Organic Form of Philosophy, 28.

79 See F.W.J. Schelling, transl. Jason Wirth, The Ages of the World: (fragment) from the Handwritten Remains: Third Version (c. 1815) (New York: State University of New York, 2000), 12.

80 Quoted in Grant, After Schelling, 1.

81 Grant, After Nature, 158.

82 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

83 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 50-51.

84 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

85 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168 and Positive Philosophy, 73.

86 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 150.

87 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

88 Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”

89 Republic, 607b.

90 See Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 389-395.

91 Shelly, “A Defense of Poetry.”

92 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 176.

93 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

94 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

95 F.W.J. Schelling, Bruno, or On the Natural and Divine Principle of Things (New York: State University of New York, 1984), 132. See also Plato’s Apology 22c-e.

96 Schelling, Bruno, 132.

97 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 230-231.

98 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

99 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168. See also Plato’s Theaeteus 155d.

100 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232-233.

101 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 63.

102 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 133; Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 203-204.

103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 161.

104 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 248.

105 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 24.

106 Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964), 151.

107 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 232.

108 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIII, quoted in M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), 118.

109 Schelling, Transcendental Idealism, 231.

110 Valentin Tomberg, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, transl. by Robert Powell (New York: Penguin, 2002), 194.

111 Wordsworth, The Prelude XIV, quoted in Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 118.

112 Philebus 15d.

113 See Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, 119-122.

114 The redeemed universe is the universe understood according to Whitehead’s doctrine of internal relations (see p. 10 above).

115 Romans 8:19-22.