Dark Vitalism 5/10 – Erebian Nature


/5/ – The strange process of thought is thought to do more ungrounding then it does or, in other words, the process of thought pushes the onto-epistemological distinction towards one or the other in regards to nature. These two strands of thinking are captured by Pierre Hadot’s Promethean vs Orphic nature. For the former nature is something completely knowable, or eventually knowable, as the source and matter for techne.  For the Orphic approach nature is a monist being which must be worshipped/protected. In both cases nature is already unbalanced by the supposedly limitless power of thought, or the human, to determine nature ontologically and epistemologically. For both approaches humanity stands apart from nature.

First a brief overview of the changing concept of nature:

The Classical view of Nature, that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics which was generally accepted up through the Medieval tradition, functioned as a kind of inarticulate dynamism with entities such as Fate or the One working as the ontological engine.  This dynamism centers on the question of a fundamental cause, or set of causes, of Aristotle’s four causes (material, efficient, formal, and final), or of Plato’s world soul following from the demiurge. In the classical view, nature is something that humans are immersed in without nature existing as a separate being. In this sense, the question of being and thinking is obscured.

Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle’s inauguration of the modern conceptualization of nature replaced the focus on causes and teleology with that of laws. Boyle also marked the transition from alchemy to chemistry. Bacon and Boyle’s formalization was an attempt at limiting overly speculative takes on nature following from the classical/scholastic/medieval tradition. Through empirical observation Bacon and Boyle attempted to rid the concept of Nature of its metaphysics replacing it with the tools of observation and the methods of rationalism. This conception is also further developed by Hume.

Following from these laws Descartes and Malenbranche set up Nature as an ideal exteriority or ideal being. Descartes replaced the traditional dyad of matter and form with extension and rejected the finalism of earlier forms of nature as producing objects towards a particular end.  Malenbranche’s occasionalism argued that God was the causal link between objects and phenomenon. Spinoza’s formulation indexes the divinity of Malenbranche whereas Leibniz’s monism made use of the laws of modern science.

Kant’s critical work which threw down the gauntlet between the empirical and rationalist philosophies, put forth a Humanist conceptualization of Nature, or of Nature as Construction. Kant’s Nature functioned simultaneously as a grand noumenon (a seemingly infinite being, indexing the rationalists, and unknowable because of the limits of human thought and not infinite in itself) and as phenomenal in that it is sensed as an extension of phenomenal objects (thereby indexing the work of the empiricists).

Schelling’s Romantic form of nature attempted to undo the formal division of nature by Kant which Schelling saw as ignoring the non-phenomenal aspects of nature (namely fields and forces).  Whereas Schopenhauer saw Schelling as merely muddying the difference between Kant and Hume, Schelling was performing a Kantian critique on Kant himself. Where Kant critiqued Hume for not providing an empirical ground for the non-empirical capacity of receiving impressions, Schelling likewise critiqued Kant for being unable to provide a transcendental ground for the transcendental ideal of the subject itself as Adrian Johnston notes (ZO, 73).

Now to bring romanticism to the Orphic and Promethean split.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is easily the most well known example of German Romanticism (both aesthetically and philosophically). Romanticism is often equated with naivete, with what Pierre Hadot names the Orphic tendency in nature, of a mystical nature, in opposition to Promethean nature, where nature is exploitable. In his college notes on Nature, Merleau-Ponty suggests that the romantics sought a reconciliation with nature (p. 135). Contrary to MP, I would say that while some Romantics sought out a return-to-nature, this return did not mean reconciliation or, what they pursued was not a balance between the human and nature but, as Schelling worked to do, wanted to construct a nature in which human’s fit – neither as its sheer torturer (Bacon) nor as its devout monk (Spinoza).

This complication is easily seen in Kant. Both the promethean and orphic tendencies towards thinking nature are already unbalanced or otherwise disrupted from their inception. That is, in both cases humans must always-already we cut off from nature to see nature as a thing to be worshipped or as a thing to be exploited. This division is (albeit not perfectly) perpendicular to the Rationalist/Empiricist divide which Kant attempted to seal/circumvent/obliterate.

Instead of Schelling’s spectrum Kant, as Iain Grant has vigorously argued, constructed a system of bodies where, contrary to opinion, Schelling did not respond with a purely organicist or animal like universe (which one can see in Oken but even here the allegorical weight is obvious) but instead, as  in Grant’s introduction to On the World Soul in Collapse VI, organicized mechanism.

The Promethean/Orphic split might be replaced by an Erebian nature, a dark nature which fills all the places of the  world and through which we must all pass. We do not stand apart from nature but only attempt to vainly (and phenomenologically) enframe it.


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