Whitehead’s Quantum of Explanation: Thinking with Auxier and Herstein

“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein

“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein

Those looking for a proper review of their book should read George Lucas’ in NDPR. My thoughts are somewhat self-referential, as I am trying to sort through the intellectual earthquake unleashed within my mind as a result of reading this text.

Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.  

Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).

Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch. 

“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).

The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?

In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:

“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”

Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919], The Principle of Relativity [1920], and The Concept of Nature [1922]) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”

My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds. 

In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 


* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).

** see pgs. 101 and 180 of my dissertation

Reflections on Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the Consolations of Philosophy

Below is Lawrence Krauss from a recent interview in the Atlantic (Thanks to Jason/Immanent Transcendence for bringing this controversy to my attention):

Krauss: …Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them—

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Krauss just published A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing. In it he attempts to explain cosmogenesis mechanistically using quantum field theory, with the larger goal of explaining away the need for spooky theological or philosophical questions about the creation of the universe, such as”why?” Like Weinberg and Hawking, he thinks physics can now do without philosophy, since all the important philosophical problems have already been solved (by science): Life evolved. Mind is in your skull. And now, if we take Richard Dawkins’ word for it, matter has been explained as a random by-product of the laws of quantum fields. Dawkins writes in the afterword of Krauss’ book:

“Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.”

Philosopher of science David Albert wrote this review in the New York Times last weekHere is the last paragraph:

“…it ought to be mentioned, quite apart from the question of whether anything Krauss says turns out to be true or false, that the whole business of approaching the struggle with religion as if it were a card game, or a horse race, or some kind of battle of wits, just feels all wrong — or it does, at any rate, to me. When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.”

I have a lot of sympathy for Albert’s perspective here, though I’d not heard of him until now. After a quick google search, I’m feeling more inclined to check out his book on quantum physics and experience.  Here is Albert offering a Bergsonian/process take on the history of time in physics (top video).

As for Krauss, his disparaging comments regarding the discipline of philosophy were so off key that Dan Dennett forced him to offer an apology of sorts in Scientific American. I would have a hard time myself defending the academic discipline of philosophy as it has come to exist in today’s techno-scientifically driven universities. What I do feel a need to defend is the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Given my immersion in Schelling lately, what really interests me in this whole controversy is the relationship between philosophy and physics. How is Schelling’s Naturphilosophie relevant here? How would Schelling respond to this comment in Krauss’ recent “apology” piece?:

“When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.  In science, there are no authorities, and appeal to quotes from brilliant scholars who lived before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun, or that space can be curved, or that dark matter or dark energy exist do not generally inform our current understanding of nature.  Empirical explorations ultimately change our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not.”

Schelling would probably dismiss Krauss as a prekantian dogmatist who takes objective nature for granted without accounting for the subjective conditions of its appearance. Philosophically, Krauss has made very little progress in this respect. He has left himself, his own subjectivity, not to mention that of nature, out of his world-equation. It seems he is the one living before the Copernican Revolution (Kant’s).

Krauss has framed things this way: science progresses, while philosophy doesn’t, because science is based upon experimental trial in the real physical world. Fair enough. But the aim of philosophy was never to solve scientific problems; of course it isn’t going to “progress” in that respect. Philosophy is the love of eternal wisdom, of what cannot progress because it never changes. Put another way by Socrates (one of those ancient dudes too dumb to know about “dark matter”), philosophy is learning to die. A philosopher’s “progress” in loving wisdom and learning to die can only be measured one life at a time, and only by the one who is doing the dying. Its a personal matter, a concern to be contemplated only in the depths of one’s soul. On the other hand, as Max Planck famously put it, “science progresses funeral by funeral”; which is to say that science progresses generation at a time as individual scientists refusing to give up their cherished but stale paradigms slowly die off. Science is an impersonal process of knowledge accumulation. That is indeed what makes it special and uniquely valuable. It takes the epistemic weaknesses of finite personalities mostly out of the picture. But science doesn’t make the personal (or interpersonal) pursuit of wisdom in the face of death any less important, and certainly can never replace it with some impersonal techno-scientific methodology. Of course, I wouldn’t want to exempt philosophy from inquiring into impersonal matters. The universe has not only a personal, but an impersonal aspect, so philosophy certainly must include it in its cosmologizing. What is more impersonal than death, after all? At least, its impersonal until it happens to a loved one. Or until it happens to me. I’m really just trying to offer a helpful way of thinking about the difference between philosophy and science. As I said already, philosophy (at least as the ancients understood it) is a way of life. Science is a profession, a specialized discipline. As such it deserves high praise for all its accomplishments. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the good life, about how love wisdom despite death.

All that said, I am very interested in what Krauss has to say in his rebuttal to Albert about how quantum field theorists conceive of “nothing.” Krauss writes:

If all possibilities—all universes with all laws—can arise dynamically, and if anything that is not forbidden must arise, then this implies that both nothing and something must both exist, and we will of necessity find ourselves amidst something.  A universe like ours is, in this context, guaranteed to arise dynamically, and we are here because we could not ask the question if our universe weren’t here.   It is in this sense that I argued that the seemingly profound question of why there is something rather than nothing might be actually no more profound than asking why some flowers are red or some are blue.    I was surprised that this very claim was turned around by the reviewer as if it somehow invalidated this possible physical resolution of the something versus nothing conundrum.

Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying.   If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing’.  It may be that even an eternal multiverse in which all universes and laws of nature arise dynamically will still leave open some ‘why’ questions, and therefore never fully satisfy theologians and some philosophers.   But focusing on that issue and ignoring the remarkable progress we can make toward answering perhaps the most miraculous aspect of the something from nothing question—understanding why there is ‘stuff’ and not empty space, why there is space at all, and how both stuff and space and even the forces we measure could arise from no stuff and no space—is, in my opinion, impotent, and useless.

Krauss’ rejection of Leibniz’s famous question, “why is there something, rather than nothing?” reminds me a lot of Meillassoux in After Finitude. In the end, though, Krauss’ universe is made up of “stuff” and “space.” I don’t think it is inconsequential that he fails to mention time (be sure to watch Albert’s video linked above on time if you’ve read this far). It is the false spatialization of time that first sent physics astray from Naturphilosophie. Time is intensity, not extension. Krauss can’t help but picture the pre-big bang quantum vacuum of “no stuff and no space” as some kind of stuff in space. What if we temporalize the question of the nature of the physical universe, relating to it not as a given thing or set of things, but as an evolving community of life, a growing, changing, ensouled creature (ensouled, as in not just stuff in space, but an unfolding process)? All the sudden, the big bang is no longer an event which happened back then, 13.7 billion years ago. Creation is what the universe is still doing. Plato already intuited the fundamental presupposition of physical cosmology in Timaeus (Krauss’ formulation is but an obscure footnote): something (the limited) and nothing (the unlimited) have always already been mixed. This mixing constitutes the life of the universe as a moving image of eternity.

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Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation of our Being-on-the-Earth

By Matthew Segall

“Eco-phenomenology offers a methodological bridge between the natural world and our own, or rather the rediscovery of the bridge that we are and have always been but—thanks to our collective amnesia—have forgotten, almost irretrievably. It is not enough to disguise our forgetting; there is also a matter of remembering—remembering the earth.”

-Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (“Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself,” p. xx).

Phenomenology was laid down by Edmund Husserl as a path for thinking deeper than the superficial thought of objective natural science. It could be said that thought opens the world to human consciousness; thought, when spoken, builds the home I dwell in. Naturalism, on the other hand, prevents the blossoming of thought as the flower of the mouth by alienating consciousness from the body, from the earth, from the sky, and from the divine.

Heidegger says, “Being-on-the-earth…remains for man’s everyday experience that which is from the outset habitual…we inhabit it…” (MHBW, p. 349). It is, in other words, as easy to forget one’s earthly situation as it is to forget one is breathing. Earth is often taken for granted, becoming the unthought background of daily life. Commonsense is therefore naturalistic, paying attention only to the surface while forgetting the hidden face that lies beyond the horizon. As technological “advancement” swallows more and more of the lifeworld, consciousness finds itself falling deeper into exile from Being. Naturalism is a framework that conceives of the world, including the human body, as “consisting entirely of extensional properties related to each other within a causal matrix,” (EP, p. 3). There is nowhere for me—for consciousness— in the nature of naturalism.

The early Husserl was as of yet unaware of his embodiment and being-on-the-earth and so concerned himself not so much with saving nature as such from naturalism, but with saving human consciousness from its nihilistic implications. As Brown and Toadvine put it, for many, Husserl’s phenomenology “is a reduction of the world to meaning, and of meaning to [human] subjectivity,” (ibid, p. xiv). While Husserl’s early work may be a noble attempt to preserve human freedom and values from the onslaught of scientism, it offers only a point of departure when it comes to bridging the gap between humanity and nature that lies at the root of the ecological crisis (perhaps his later work, explored below, goes further). It is clear that if a true eco-phenomenology is desired, it must reject naturalism not only to recover the meaning of human existence, but to recover the meaning of humanity’s being-on-the-earth.

I will attempt in this essay to uncover the roots of human consciousness in the earth—to recontextualize the human being as a being-on-the-earth. This excavation will require both a conceptual examination of the four most general categories of nature as conceived of by naturalism (space, time, matter, and energy), and an experiential exploration of how these abstractions are originally revealed to us as embodied earthlings. Before I actually begin, however, I must establish the possibility of the unearthing of experience by way of the phenomenological method by responding to an important criticism.

Phenomenology may be described, after Heidegger, as a mode of speech (logos) that lets things (phenomena) show themselves. Any return to the things themselves is thus always already in relation to language. Gregory Nixon (after Derrida) has argued, that “outside of language there is nothing to which we can directly refer, since all language is indicative only of itself,” (VFW, p. 258). If Nixon is correct, it would seem that all attempts to bridge the nature/culture gap in the service of alleviating the alienation of consciousness from earth must fail, as “knowledge outside of language [or culture] is literally unthinkable,” (ibid). Nixon’s view is that human conscious experience is the result of linguistic reflection, that “the consciousness we experience is possible only because we have culturally invented language and subsequently evolved to accommodate it,” (ibid, p. 257). He admits to the possibility of pre-linguistic, pre-cultural experience, but maintains that bringing it to consciousness has already changed it: to consciously experience anything, I must already have “drawn it into the inescapable web of the hermeneutic enclosure of language,” (ibid, p. 258).

Such a grim picture of language as “enclosed,” I believe, neglects its poetic potential to let things show themselves by opening us to an originary experience of our being-on-the-earth. Language need not be a sticky, solipsistic web of self-referential signs, but can, by re-establishing its relation to the body and what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” of embodied meaning, become a bridge that carries us back to the earth itself. Gendlin argues that “bodily experience cannot be reduced to language and culture…[because] our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interactional process that always exceeds culture, history, and language,” (UE). Experience is always more intricate than language, and while language can never contain the whole of our experience, it can aid in, as Gendlin puts it, “carrying forward” our meaning. Nixon’s sharp distinction between conscious human experience and unconscious pre-linguistic experience neglects the possibility of a liminal space in between, where a bodily feeling of what Gendlin calls the “responsive otherness” of implied meaning gives rise to the sentences we speak (NPCF). The implied meaning is never fully transformed into the words, but the words nonetheless carry it forward, thereby allowing meaning to develop and expand as new words come. In Gendlin’s view, “Words mean the change they make when they are said… The change happens implicitly in the situation,” (ibid.). Instead of reducing the meaning of a word to the other linguistic signifiers it points to, Gendlin’s way into language reveals that meaning arises out of the “implicit intricacy” of the bodily and inter-bodily situations in which words are spoken. Our knowledge of any given situation comes not from the words we use to describe it, but from the meanings these words imply for our sentient, situated bodies.

In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin,” (VI, p. 102). Philosophy must, if it hopes to remain alive in our dark age of amnesia, forego the habit of representing experience abstractly with arbitrary signs and instead rediscover a way of speaking poetically from experience, such that what is said sheds light on the subtleties of existence heretofore covered over by the sedimentary layers of language long dead.

Having thus established that language, despite the fact that its inauthentic and naturalistic use can and has obscured the life-world, nevertheless possesses the potential to become what Heidegger, after Hölderlin, called “the flower of the mouth” (thereby re-connecting human experience with the soil out of which it was born and will return), I can now proceed to uncover the earthly roots of consciousness by phenomenologically grounding the naturalistic abstractions of space, time, matter and energy in bodily (and earthly) experience. If I succeed, consciousness will no longer seem a transcendental ego precariously, if at all, related to an objective, external nature, but will have become a unique flower blossoming out of a living planet.


Rilke, speaking of those in poverty—of the homeless—writes:

“Has the earth, then, no room for them?

They need only, as a tree does,

a little space in which to grow.”

(RBH, p. 229).

If we follow a Cartesian (or early Husserlian) path of thought, pure consciousness “in here” comes to be directed toward extended objects “out there.” Consciousness is always of or about objects. The shortcoming of this way of thinking is that it covers over an original experience of the spatiality of our being-on-the-earth. As a Cartesian ego, extended space seems to be an object “out there.” Yet, as Kant realized, space cannot be conceived of objectively, but functions for the ego as a form of intuition pre-structuring all experienced objects. It might be said that Kant took the first steps toward a phenomenological account of space by showing how extension is not simply given to an entirely aloof subject; rather, the subject actively provides space as a form of intuition. But Kant’s account remains an abstract conception too tied up in the tired language of tradition to let space show itself originally in experience. While he reveals the necessity of space for experience, he fails to adequately account for the relationship between space, the body, and the earth.

Returning to immediate experience, space appears as the possibility for bodily movement. I do not at first encounter space, but rather sense the possibility of moving from here to there. Any such movement of my body from one place to another, before it is travel through empty space, is walking across stable ground. This ground is the earth. As David Abram says, paraphrasing the later Husserl, “the earth itself is not in space, since it is the earth that, from the first, provides space,” (SS, p. 42). So much is implicit in this most radical of statements that it would pay to dwell upon it, dwell in the double sense of think it deeply and live within it. How is our experience of space transformed by remembering the constitutive role played by the ground beneath our feet?

Before exploring the answer, it should be made clear just how radical Husserl’s claim is in comparison to the naturalistic attitude of science, which sees earth as one among many planetary objects suspended in the void. Since the Copernican Revolution, the centrality of earth has come into question and the lifeworld has given way to a concept of nature as independent of experience. No other scientific finding is more responsible than the heliocentric theory for creating the apparent disagreement between perception and reality. Descartes would, a century after Copernicus, reify this disagreement into an ontological chasm separating subject from object, rational intellect from experiencing body (SS, p. 43).

Returning again to the question posed above, it appears that the scientific conception of space as a container is groundless, the product of uprooted reflection. Space is not that which provides the possibility of extended matter; rather, the earth provides the “un-get-around-able” materiality that makes space a possibility (EP, p. 157). Space is not simply given, but is born out of the earth and our experience as earthlings dwelling on its spherical surface.

Husserl writes that, “the original ark, earth, does not move,” (SS, p. 42). By this, he seems to imply that earth, as the source of both space and life, provides the basis out of which later scientific abstractions are derived. The earth provides the unmoving mark (unmoving only because its movement carries us) that allows the body to perceive motion relative to itself. Though it is undoubtedly true that the earth orbits the sun, the ability to understand such a truth rests in a more primordial experience of being-on-the-earth. As our bodies are of the earth, so too is space of the body. As Heidegger says, “I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it,” (MHBW, p. 359). Distance depends on where we stand in relation to one another, and is not a function holding true of any “space” independent of our relation. The earth is not in space with the other planets and the sun, but participates with them in providing space for one another.

As an example of the relativistic space articulated here, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the sun and the other planets from the surface of the earth remains the same regardless of our conception of how they are actually related to earth. There is, therefore, no conflict between perception and reality so long as it is acknowledged that any explanation of experience arises out of that experience. The discovery of earth’s position in the solar system does not contradict our experience as earthlings; it merely deepens our experience of the dimensional possibilities of space as provided by earth. We say the sun rises as we say the eye sees, and neither is wrong even while both are incomplete. It must be added that the earth shows itself to the sun and that the eye is seen.


“You are the future,

the red sky before sunrise

over the fields of time.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes

that rise from the stuff of our days—

You are the deep innerness of all things,

the last word that can never be spoken.”

-Rilke (RBH, p. 177)

Before moving on from space to time, it should be noted that each of the categories under examination are only separable in the abstract. Space and time form a single continuum in lived experience, and though space alone was considered in the prior section, time was implicated in every step.

Time is perhaps the most elemental of experiential elements, not easily covered over by the forgetfulness of the naturalistic attitude. The physical conception of time as a linear series of causally symmetrical instants entirely neglects what, after David Wood, may be called the “plexity,” or complex relationality, of our embodied experience (EP, p. 213). Time-as-lived is asymmetrical, meaning it flows irreversibly from past to future, unlike the equations of physics.

Lived time, when situated on the earth, becomes not only an irreversible unfolding, but an unfolding coordinated by a variety of interwoven planetary rhythms, such as the day/night cycle and seasonal shifts. The rhythms give time a certain experiential texture, such that it becomes tied up in the very substance of existence, rather than being an arbitrary measure of homogenous change.

Clocks measure, but it is not time that they catch—for the clock itself is aging, too embedded in the stuff of time to provide a fixed point of reference. Time knows no fixed points, as experience endures: the body moves not from one discrete moment to the next, but carries with it the events of the past into a present always opening to the possibilities of the future. The present is not a bare “now,” an instantaneous “here,” nor is it a rudderless raft pushed along by the current of the past. The present is endlessly pregnant with the past, perpetually giving birth to the future. What is born becomes again the seed for further unfolding.

Space and time reunite in our being-on-the-earth not through a spatialization of time, but a temporalization of space. Space finds its origin in place, and place in the temporality of an event. I am here, breathing with/as the rhythms of time, in what is always a place becoming, a happening. Never does my being here cease to become in time, as my situation is temporal before it is spatial. I arrive at a café as I have the same way on many a day, but because the past I carry with me today differs, so too does my experience of the café. Similarly, the earth as spherical place provides spatial depth only thanks to the tempo of time. The earth was once a cloud of dust, and only after time allowed it to take shape could it provide a place for space to surround.


Rilke writes, again of the homeless:

“Is there by the banks

of the pond’s deep dreaming

no where they can see their faces reflected?”

(RBH, p. 229).

The aforementioned formative influence of time in the shaping of the earth should not be taken to mean that the substance of the earth, matter, is merely a passive recipient of spherizing form. This conception of matter as raw stuff shaped by immaterial ideas has a long history in Western thought. The ordinary naturalistic attitude conceives of matter as inert and objective, something that exists extended in space. But as we saw above, matter is not “in” space, but when given time and present in sufficient mass (relative to sensate beings arising from its body), provides space. The formative influence of time should be understood as being of the same substance as the materiality of the earth itself. The spherical shape of the earth is an echo of the primordial “un-get-around-able” essence of materiality.

Materiality conceived naturalistically appears as the flat, extended surface of earth (at least until recently when a view of earth was revealed “from” space) and the closed surfaces of all the bodies upon it. The interior of surfaces (i.e., the sentience of bodies) is neglected by such a forgetful way of thinking (and dwelling in) the world.

Perceived via the self-sentience of the body, materiality is the weight of our own inner existence—that which embeds us in what would otherwise remain a world of mere surfaces but for the fold that is our face and the clearing it opens for us to behold and be held by the earth. The human body is not the whole of our mass, or even wholly our own, but a temporary gift from the mass of the mother earth to which we belong. The reason matter and mind, or the body and human consciousness, have been so opposed to one another for much of the history of philosophy may be uncovered in the precarious relationship between our identity (our face) and materiality conceived naturalistically (surfaces as such).

Jacques Lacan described the human ego as the human being’s internalized image of itself as reflected in a mirror. The ego is, in other words, my idea of what I look like from the outside, as a surface. But if it is true that matter is the “un-get-around-able,” then this egoic identity always remains a fantasy. I cannot fully identify with my skin-bounded body, because there is always a topological gap that prevents my internalizing it as a complete body. Materiality cannot be fully thought precisely because we are ourselves material.

Though Lacan’s mirror stage may be necessary for further development, our perspective on ourselves may become more authentic if the locus of identity widens from our individual body to the earth-body. Only recently have photographs of the earth from space given humanity the opportunity to inhabit it as our own body, just as the infant is given the opportunity to identify with its body after being placed before a mirror. The difference is that identification with the sphericality of the earth requires embracing the “un-get-around-able” materiality of our existence, unlike identification with a planar image reflected upon a mirror. The mirror image gives a false impression of wholeness, as its flat surface shows only as much as can be shown to it. The earth, on the other hand, provides a genuine face (not a surface) that more authentically grounds identification in a sense of wholeness not found in flattened images. In this way, my bodily identity can come primarily from the face of the earth, and only secondarily from my image of myself as an earthling living on its surface.

Questioning who I am is first a question of Being itself, and as such has an undisclosed origin that can never be fully articulated because it is always already assumed (the “is” in the question “what is Being?” must already be understood). But we are forgetful of this implicit understanding, and so we are lead, in answering the question, to settle on identifying with our own inverted image (an outside, made superficially because incompletely, inside). Objectifying nature alienates consciousness from its own naturalness, hampering its ability to fully be. But the very same naturalistic attitude that covered over our relationship to Being and lead to the false identification with the ego also ignited the rockets that took us beyond the senses to the stars, turning our eyes back upon the body of the earth for the first time so that we might rediscover the meaning of being home.

Being-on-the-earth is also being of the earth, identifying with its living materiality. Earth becomes Gaia when we become again as children, regaining our primordial attunement to the life of things, though now an attunement that is expressed through speech like flowers reaching from the soil to the sky. In this way, language becomes a bridge built to carry we mortals back to the earth, and from earth, with creative inspiration, to the divine. As Rilke says to the earth, “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse,” (RBH, p. 121).


“And weapons against all that breathes,

In an incessant pride, the human being carries;

In torment he consumes himself

And the flower of his peace,

The tender one, does not bloom long.”

– Hölderlin (from “Das Mench”)

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because to think in terms of the naturalistic conception of energy already enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such,” (MHBW, p. 320). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (ibid, p. 317). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way (as a “calculable coherence of forces,” ibid, p. 326) is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” (ibid, p. 321).

Energy becomes, for the naturalistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth is inhabited instrumentally. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

We do not realize that our technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. We risk losing touch with our own poetic roots in the soil and with the inspiration that lifts our language to new heights. Ours is a crisis not only of the ecosystem, but of the humanity dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, the human being will become a mere battery for the machines that replace us, homeless upon a dead earth.


“This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly.

-Rilke (RBH, p. 173).

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” MHBW, p. 340), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger (as well as Husserl), scientific naturalism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought-forth technology. The great success of the scientific/naturalistic approaches is not the result of the metaphysical truth of their objectivism, but rather of the practical value of their methods. This method, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, has depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for our human existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given us the opportunity to truly stand watch over this earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. We cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny had to be lived out—our process of maturation could not be prematurely reversed. But in a typical enantiodromic twist, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of either destroying or saving the earth. For the first time, we can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath our feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (MHBW, p. 351). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars, whose divine energies remain forever out of reach of we mere mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute,” (RBH, 167). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say, and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.


SS -Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage. 1997.

EP – Brown, Charles S. and Toadvine, Ted (Ed.). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. SUNY Press: Albany. 2003.

NPCF – Gendlin, E.T. (2004). The new phenomenology of carrying forward. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 127-151. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2228.html

MHBW – Krell, David Farrel (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper: San Francisco. 1977.

RBH – Macy, Joanna and Barrows, Anita. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Penguin Group: New York. 1996.

VI – Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press: Chicago. 1969.

UE – Roger Frie (Ed.). Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge. 2003

VFW – Varela, Francisco and Shear, Johnathan (Ed.). The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness. Imprint Academic: Bowling Green. 1999.