S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
S.C. Hickman

Abyss radiance: Toward a Dark Realism

"Nihil est sine ratione....nothing is without a reason."
       - Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

"We have to allow the reality of force in physics." 
        - from the Theodicy, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

In his Theodicy Leibniz comes to a theory of finitude saying, "A fuller power to represent the universe is necessarily combined with dominance over an organized troop of members; for the mind knows the universe only in so far as the universe is expressed in its body.  That is what the finitude of the mind means."[1] He sees the objective universe of brute matter as devoid of mind, and "representation, in the required sense, is a mental act; brute matter can represent nothing, only mind can represent." [ibid. p. 23]

His theory of representation is seen as atomistic and in that sense based upon a correlation of all objects as bodies: "Each monad, if it is to be anything at all, must be a continuing finite representation of the universe, and to be that it must have a body, that is to say, it must have other monads in a permanent relation of mutual correspondence with it."[ ibid. p. 23] In some ways he was moving toward a fractal monadology: "The wonders revealed by that new miracle, the microscope, suggested what the intrinsic divisibility of space itself suggests—whatever organization is broken up, there will still be a minute organization within each of the fragments which remains unbroken—and so ad infinitum." Then he moves into the realm of a weird realism, a strangeness in which "the truth of things" is revealed in such a way that "each monad is simply its own mental life, its own world-view, its own thoughts and desires. To know things as they are would be simultaneously to live over, as though from within and by a miracle of sympathy, the biographies of an infinite number of distinct monads."[ibid. p. 25] 

In some sense of the word Leibniz was moving toward a dark materialism in which everything was alive, and nothing dead in the universe: 

"Every portion of matter can be thought of as a garden full of plants, or as a pond full of fish. But every branch of the plant, every part of the animal, and every drop of its vital fluids, is another such garden, or another such pool. [...] Thus there is no uncultivated ground in the universe; nothing barren, nothing dead. "(Monadology, §§67 & 69) 

In Leibniz's dark vitalism of "nothing barren, nothing dead" we are confronted with a living universe. But as Anthony Paul Smith tells us contemporary science is enveloped in a mechanistic view of Nature and refuses to acknowledge this Leibnizian "perversity of Nature."[2] He goes on to tell us that nature "appears to be purposely deviating from what is accepted as good, proper, or reasonable in democratic societies. Nature itself appears to be refusing to go away, to separate itself off from ‘culture’ and the human person, and insists on inhering to every part of culture and in every human person."(ibid.)

At the heart of Smith's essay is a conception of Nature that allows for the new principle of invariant vitalism: "...what if nature has at its very heart the resistance of death as the principle of an invariant vitalism?" His variant of speculative realism moves toward a panzoism with a "because there is no experience of nothing there must be something and this something is life for the universe must ultimately be a panfanatism or a panzoism – either death must reign or be subject to life – and since absolute death must necessarily be absolute nothingness only life exists."[ibid. p. 11] In this sense he is in agreement with Leibniz. In summing up his form of vitalism he states following Renaud Barbaras:

"The very heart of subjectivity is desire, the being-incomplete, and desire is always a desire for the world, which is to say for a continuation of experience. No longer can the world/earth simply be said to be the invariant of perception, for something lies even behind both world and earth. The name of this is being-incomplete which is the invariant principle – or life. Which is to say that the invariance of this vitalism, or the notion that there is something pushing material forward that is not reducible to mechanics, is this being-at-a-distance or being-incomplete of the world soul and organism of the earth..."[3]

Michael Austin, another Speculative Realist, tells us he affirms "a spectral vitalism, emphasizing the significance of quasi-beings, memories (which are not strictly human), and ghosts as opposed to the usual vitalistic emphasis on the strong, the dominant, the powerful. I’m more interested in the fact that there is often no clear/clean distinction between Being and Non-Being, and that that which “does not exist” in some sense still goes on living." [6] He goes on to quote Scott Lash's definition of vitalism from Theory, Culture, & Society:

"Vitalism is first and foremost essentially anti-mechanistic, typically anti-dualistic, and largely anti-humanistic. While mechanistic systems view causality as purely external (matter impacting matter for example), one of the principles of Vitalism is “self-organization”[5] (Lash 2006: 324), that is, “life” is irreducible to purely mechanistic properties and must be understood as the principle force of self-organizing material bodies: causality arises from within. There is also an important element of indeterminacy in Vitalism, as life is not predictable in the way a mechanistic determinism is."[6]

That F.W.J. Schelling rejected vitalism in favor of the absolute is a part of the history of philosophy, but as Nectarios G. Limnatis tells us what is more important in Schelling is that "realizing the gap between essence and existence, he never proceeds to relativize the absolute."[4] He goes on to tell us that Schelling "did not reject natural purposiveness but, to the contrary, incorporated natural into divine purposefulness."[ibid. p. 170]  Yet, as Joseph P. Lawrence, in a review of Iain Hamilton Grant's On an Artificial Earth: Philosophies of Nature after Schelling, says, "Dispensing with the sharp separation between organic and inorganic, Schelling unveiled in nature a material vitalism that rescues matter from the category of the inert and mechanical to which Kant and Fichte had relegated it. In this way, he understood nature as always more subject than object, the ground and condition of human subjectivity rather than simply the object of human reflection."[7] Lawrence concurs with Grant's reading of Schelling as a "material vitalist", saying,

"Schelling understands nature not through the inert particle, but through the forces that constitute it. Einstein's E=mc2 would have made sense to him, even though he was concretely familiar only with gravitational and electromagnetic forces and not with their more powerful subatomic counterparts. What Grant adds to the general vision of physical dynamism is the thesis (and, yes, this too is very much in Schelling) that nature itself is therefore history. Schelling not only anticipated what Darwin had to say about the evolution (and decline) of species, but he had already anticipated such contemporary thinkers as Stephen Jay Gould who go beyond Darwin by untying evolution from teleology. To the degree that the life-building forces within matter itself are always already geared toward excess, biological evolution is not a process aimed at the "fittest"."[ibid.]

Lawrence tells us that Schelling's physics was not only speculative but was also "a specifically Platonic physics that endeavors to understand that which is darkest and most obscure: matter itself. ... Being is to be thought in its becoming. Behind nature as product, Schelling seeks to disclose nature as pure productivity."[ibid.] Andrew Bowie tells us that Schelling, for this reason is not a vitalist, or an irrationalist, he goes on,"Schelling's basic strategy is therefore to cut the Gordian knot by insisting that all of nature be thought of in inherently dynamic terms, as a 'productivity'. What we encounter in empirical nature are 'products'. The particular sciences deal with these 'products', which appear fixed and can be subsumed under rules."[8]

Bowie affirms that Schelling rejected the vitalist conception of life-force, and details it with a statement from Schelling where he explains his position as follows:

"...in living processes chemical processes are demonstrably overridden, which requires a principle that transcends the  laws of chemistry and if this process is now called life-force, then I would assert against this that life-force ... is a completely contradictory expression if it is taken in this sense. For we can only think of a force as something finite. But no force is finite in terms of its nature unless it is limited by an opposed force. Hence, when we think of a force(as we do in matter), we must also think of an opposed force."[ibid. p. 37]

It is just here that Bowie comes to the strength of his argument telling us that "the essence of a thing is the concatenation of forces which it is, not something else beyond this concatenation. The opposing forces in nature which are observable via their effects when they encounter each other require that within which they relate to each other, which cannot be a force and which is, in consequence, 'absolutely outside the limits of empirical research into nature'. The play of forces at this level makes life possible, which is therefore not something added externally, but is the immanent movement of this play, upon which there can be no external perspective." [ibid. p. 37] It is at the point that Bowie aligns Schelling's ideas with those of the modern scientist Prigogine's on non-linear dynamics in which the "processes of energy dissipation can also be constructive, despite the inevitable increase in entropy."[ibid. p. 38] This leads Schelling beyond the mechanistic principle of entropy toward the idea of 'self-constitution':

"The process of self-constitution is ... not just an ephemeral marginal phenomenon in a course of nature which is otherwise determined, but contains the 'primal ground of all reality', for mechanisms... can be created by orgainising processes, whilst organising processes, on the other hand, cannot arise mechanically. Self-organisation must be the primary process not only of mind but of all of nature." [ibid. p. 38]

In our own time there is a movement toward a neo-vitalist materialism, a process philosophy,” rallying around such thinkers as Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Schelling, Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others. Reality is fundamentally unfixed for such thinkers, who claim that objects are the products of a more primordial process of becoming, which is connected to historical variations of matter, will, or drive.[9] Ben Woodward in his Dark Vitalism makes reference to both the classical view of Nature and Schelling's Naturephilosophy stating that "Nature is simultaneously a productivity and an infinite set of products responsible for the generation and capability of human subjects and their capacity to think."

If dark materialism engages with matter at the thresholds of its annihilation and disappearance beyond the topographies of ‘base materialism’ and at the very edges of forms of thought where the objects, things, Things and no-things on which it depended exert their independence, then how does dark vitalism, or invariant vitalism emerge from the ground of this impossible possible world? Darkness, in matter, energy, ecology and life itself, in black holes in the universe and in the mind, emerges as baseless and founding, exterior and interior at once. It leaves thought in the void, enabling disruptions and speculative realignments of diverse concepts and the real itself, reshaping not only the world of ideas but also the very order of things.[10]

As Schelling once said: "This is the incomprehensible base of reality in things, the indivisible remainder, that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved in understanding but rather remains eternally in the ground. The understanding is born in the genuine sense from that which is without understanding. Without this preceding darkness creatures have no reality; darkness is their necessary inheritance. ... Man is formed in the maternal body; and only from the obscurity of that which is without understanding grow luminous thoughts.[11]


1. Theodicy, G.W. Leibniz p. 23
2. Collapse II, ‘The Mother of God – the Damp Earth’: A Sophic Phenomenology of Invariant Vitalism
3. What the Hell is Invariant Vitalism?
4. German Idealism and the Problem of Knowledge, Studies in German Idealism Springer (2008) p. 169
5. Lash, Scott. 2006. “Life (Vitalism)” in Theory, Culture, & Society (SAGE Publications) Vol. 23 (2-3): 323-349.)
6. Reviving Vitalism: Definitions and the Difference between ‘Cold’ and ‘Spectral’
7. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
8. Schelling and modern European philosophy: an introduction
9. Wikipedia article: Speculative realism
10. Dark Materialsm
11. Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and Matters Connected Therewith (1809)

Tags: dark materialism, philosophy, speculative realism

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