Haunted Platonism 4

Image: Salvador Dali, Corpus Hypercubus, 1954

In the previous part of this ongoing series we looked at Aristotle’s reception of Plato’s discovery of the equivocity of Non-Being in his late dialogue The Sophist. In the Metaphysics Aristotle declares that Non-Being can be said in three senses: the commonly understood meaning of something being simply false and not existing at all, a “categorical” sense in which negation simply means not this but something else, and, thirdly, on dynamei (Being in potentiality/virtuality), which is real but is not actual.

In this forth part of our series I am going to be looking at two “potential problems”, so we might say – historical outgrowths of Aristotle’s doctrine of potentiality/virtuality. As I will endeavour to show, in each case the real problem that emerges is the strange idea that on dynamei is a way of expressing different modes of existence in their own right that are radically different from our assumptions about “actual” beings. Historically the potential/virtual has been treated as lacking, as less real than that which is actual, as subservient to actuality, as a bank for producing actuality and little more. But there is also a radical underside at work in these traditions – and not in the manner that Deleuze, Bloch and 20th c. leftists would understand such things. Instead of waiting upon some great messianic disjunction to be poured out the bank of possibility, I instead propose a somewhat different radicality – the need to break with the assumed traditional abalietic (being-from-another) relationship that on dynamei has upon the actual. We are going to liberate the means of cosmic production so that they may at last appear an und für sich.

Potential Problem 1: Virtual Process.

What is “actuality?” In an obscure footnote to his 1812 Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle Thomas Taylor mentions a curious old legend that the philosopher Hermolaus once summoned the devil in order to learn the true meaning of the word entelecheia (actuality) in Aristotle’s De Anima.[1] It is not recorded whether he got a decent answer or not. Nonetheless, what we will try to say here concerning on dynamei as its own mode of non-existent existence may seem somewhat heretical, even devilish, to certain readers. We humbly beg their indulgence.

I think we must start with the overwhelming fact that when we think “actual” reality, what we mean, as did Aristotle, is the production of reique “things”. The potential is but an “idea” of what was always-already possible after the fact of its actualisation, as we saw with Aristotle and Bergson in part 3. On dynamei is simply a kind of process-mechanism for the production of res.

Nonetheless Aristotle also has this to say: “Potentiality is the beginning of movement or change, or, if internal [to something], otherness.”[2] To associate potentiality with Motion might at least lead us to consider whether there might be a second, distinct potentiality for events as well as one for res.  Motion, joining and conjoining ontics in events, must come from somewhere. However, I do not think that anyone has ever really managed to consider even this. They have approached it, but shied away at the last moment. Let us see.

I think we will start here. Once upon a time the word energeia did not mean “energy”, it meant actuality. Newton’s rewriting of the meaning of those key Aristotelian terms once associated with virtuality – potential and energy – most certainly caused a coiled fluidity to enter into their definition that had not been there before. After Newton energy has certainly never been the same again and neither has power. It always amuses me the way in which New Agers are so fond of the term when trying to articulate pre-modern understandings of numinous aspects of reality (spiritual energies, subtle energies) as if they were electricity. Much could of course be said here about the strange parochial “world feeling” of the Will-to-Power that has permeated Western thought since at least the irrational, univocal God of Occam, whose potestas absoluta begins the conversion of infinite potentiality into Absolute Power. We have still not yet come to the end of this cycle, not for all the pop and academic posthumanisms disappointed by the man-animal, that would hand the mana over to immanent economic, ecological and technological systems in his stead.

Alternately, the participatory God of Aquinas, who is instead purus actus (pure actuality), leaked on down in a parallel genealogy, through Cusa and Bruno, opening up an infinite creation to mirror the infinite God, even as Copernicus and Kepler could not take this step themselves. For Cusa all opposites infinitely coincide in God, rendering Him radically different from our experience of emanated creation in which an unfolded infinite otherness dominates. For the more ontologically naive Bruno, the coincidentia of the Cusan became a single cosmic divine substance in which infinite potentiality and infinite actuality coincide. That we have been cheated of some semblance of a Platonic “Cusan modernity”, last sighted in the parallel infinities of the Cambridge Platonists Henry More and Anne Conway, is of course one of this blog’s recurrent preoccupations.

With the troubling of the Newtonian “machine” cosmology at the start of the 20th c. we also see the simultaneous rise of process philosophies in which the term virtuality would reappear as a key symbol of thinking the world as flux and event. One example is Henri Bergson and his understanding of virtuality as a post-facto “idea” of emergence trying to keep up with the flow of things (see part 3). Another is Charles Sanders Peirce, who found a place for virtuality in his Pragmatism, but only in so far as he strangely distinguished it from potentiality, misreading Scotus’ use of the term to mean treating something as if it were real when in fact it is not.[3] When Scotus claimed that it would make no difference whether the sun were actually infinitely hot or only virtually infinitely hot he was talking about the potential for something to be so, but not necessarily ever be actualised. Having hogged all the capacity for warmth, everything else in the cosmos would be colder in comparison either way.[4]

As we emphasised in part 3, the whole point of the potential/virtual is that it is real – it’s just different. Nonetheless, the choice to translate Greek dynamis (power) into Latin in the Middle Ages sometimes using virtus, sometimes potentia, meant that the synonymity of these terms was perhaps destined to diverge. When we speak of something being “virtually impossible” or “virtual reality” today, what we mean is an as if – something that is almost the case, but not. “Virtually impossible”, taken in light of the old sense, is deliciously contradictory. Even in the 17th c. when Ralph Cudworth speaks of the “inconscious” as possessing “virtual intention”, it is hard to determine whether he means it acts as if it possessed intentionality but really does not, or whether he means that it has the potential to be elevated to actual conscious thought.

Perhaps the most interesting return of Scholastic potentiality/virtuality in the early 20th c. is A. N. Whitehead’s “eternal objects”. In an effort to overcome the decaying Newtonian “climate of opinion” and replace it with a quantum organicism, Whitehead remade “pure potentiality” into a bank of intertwined possible entities that could be lured into actualisation by the communities of actual occasions (actual entities) that already are. Whiteheadese is never easy, but try we must. Most interestingly, as some have noted, the overlapping of the “eternal objects” in stored potentiality seems very much like a reworking of Plato’s late realisation in the Sophist of the koinonia (participation) of the Forms.[5]

 For Whitehead every actual occasion possesses both a “physical pole” that prehends or “feels” other actual occasions as well as a nascent “mental pole” that entertains and expects possibilities.[6] Thought begins to emerge for Whitehead with the consideration that things could turn out differently, that there might be or have been other possibilities. Even the stones contain a taste of such things, let alone the plants, animals and man. However, things are even more complex than this. To Whitehead the infinite “eternal objects” exist with God’s “subsequent pole” turned towards the world and its actualisation. Thus, when an actual occasion attempts to prehend possibility it is engaging in a “hybrid” prehension with God. This means a relationship in which the actual entity feels to a certain appropriate extent “the conceptual feelings of God” regarding what is possible – it “reproduces” God’s subjective prehension of things, because for God all is possible, but will not necessarily be actualised.[7]

This prehension of possibility with God is a different kinds of “hybrid” prehension from simply that which exists between two temporal actual entities directly prehending one another. This is even if these entities were a man and God, for example, and not simply the “communication” between two stones, a man and a stone etc.  One must here emphasise, of course, that in Whitehead’s occasionalism, God not only “persuades” the actualisation of eternal objects, but also physically prehends each and every actual occasion to its “satisfaction” (coming to equilibrium in a community as it actualises).We have a weak occasionalist God, who, at worst, simply “burns the chaff” in His endless work with already-actualised reality like the vengeful Ate of the Greeks, the karma of the Hindus. One can imagine Agamben and other left political theologians living in hope of a great Sabbath of oikonomic “inoperativity” to not take too kindly to such an idea.

As John Dewey famously put it, to read Whitehead’s Process and Reality is to entertain the strange possibility that somehow the 17th c. had gotten the better of the 20th. Whitehead is a very odd thinker, a Cambridge Platonist arrived too late, as I often like to put it. His hybrid prehensions and out of place occasionalist God might even seem somewhat reminiscent of a bizarre Renaissance concept called the “agglomeration of the centre” in which, in order to communicate, all relationships between res must pass through God on their way to one another. As Sergey Khoruyj explains:

“It stated that the connection between humans as well as human communities has the structure of a double act: it includes the connection of the first partner with God and then God’s connection with the second partner. This structure is represented again with the help of circle: all humans are points on the periphery of a Circle, whose centre is God; and the connection between any two of them, say (a) and (b), is represented by the two rays, one going from (a) to the centre, and the other from the centre to (b). Thus, any communication between individuals or communities is mediated by God. In our context, this model belonging to Nicolas of Cusa (15th c.) and Giordano Bruno (16 th c.) can be seen as a straightforward graphic expression and practical realization of the principle of the unity of Humanity and Heaven. Its core is the idea of the omnipresent mediation of God.”[8]

How beautiful indeed might it be to imagine a process theology in which nothing may take place without participating in the koinonic divine plenitude at every instance. Dietrich of Freiberg’s marvellous notion that, in their every action and eventual death, all of God’s creatures, the whole universitas of things, are returning to His plenitude is in some ways very similar. So Cusanus styled it, the divine plenitude is ontologically different from creation because it is a “compressed” One in which all opposites are reconciled. Emanated creation is simply an expansion, a different parallel mode, a remix of infinite possibility laid out differently.

 Today the idea of the One as “compressed” and creation as its “decompression” might seem to speak to us in informatic analogy. I have spoken about “information theology” in the past and found it rather tacky and shallow, but with all the recent talk of us apparently heading in to a “Whiteheadian century” of remixes and novelties, maybe there will come a time when something useful might be done with such language to re-express the old winding and unwinding of the plenitudinous centre. So too could Ralph Cudworth’s imagery of the dancing “world soul” converting the divine instructive music of God into a different communicative mode perhaps be expressed today using terms like noise and format conversion. We will leave such things to others, I feel. In the end as Souriau would say, one gets the God one deserves. As we will say later in this piece, our problem with the current “climate of opinion” of information theories and “complexity” and so on is not their enthusiasm for artefacts of a certain sort, but the flat boorishness of their assumption of the univocity of number, and with it, the univocity of Being. “Complexity” is simply not complex enough.

However, for now the most important matter is simply whether Whitehead ever managed to present the potential/virtual as anything more than simply something in thrall to the actual. The eternal objects seem trapped between the persuasion of the actual/subsequent pole of God and the “lure” of the communities into which they will be actualised. They still remain simply a way to explain where actual occasions come from and that is that.

Even Deleuze could not move beyond this binding of the virtual in his attempt to think in events rather than “things”. With Guattari in their late What is Philosophy? Deleuze curiously calls the event “the part that eludes its own actualisation in everything that happens”.[9] Disappointingly, however, just as Deleuze in The Logic of Sense of 1968 could not permit event to have its own distinct mode of existence, calling it simply “extra being” (see back here), in this late work in the early 1990s he still would only permit event, at most, to possess some “shadowy” addition or subtraction of its own to that which is actualised. He simply would not let it be free – to allow one ontological difference to be equivocally distinct from the other – nor the virtuality he sees as producing it. Chaotic virtuality becomes structured virtuality as it is lured towards the world of the actual and that is that.

Deleuze and Guattari tell us that what science does is move from potentialities to actualities, yet at the same time what it really desires is to carry off some of “the secret of the chaos behind it, the pressure of the virtual.”[10] Perhaps we might recall Voegelin’s observation after Bruno that what underlies modern “scientism” is the longing for base substance to be transmuted into desired phenomena. This Voegelin linked with the alchemical undercurrent in science, which remained far more obvious, so he believed, in the social sciences and their desire to force base human substance into their desired moulds. Deep down there is nothing necessarily “modern” about such a desire at all. It has been with the man-animal from the very beginning. Men wish the world to repeat reliably, they fear chaos they cannot structure. Like many other creatures on this odd little planet, they try very hard to find and make themselves an environment as liberated from existential anxiety as possible. Very little that happens only once is worth a great deal. Production must be re-production.

However, to return to the process thinkers of the early 20th c. what is particularly disappointing is that even one of our most important heroes, Étienne Souriau, was unable to think the virtual as something distinct from onticality. One should not overlook the fact that Souriau’s Different Modes of Existence presents an order of speculative modes arranged in relation to a proposed increase in degree of abaliety, or dependence upon other modes in order to exist. After the virtual we arrive at the synaptic – the mode of process and event – which, given the ordering of things, is implicitly at the service of the ontic modes – phenomenal, reique and syndoxic – far more than even the virtual. Nonetheless, by recognising that a proper devotion to the synaptic leads away from ontics, we can certainly say that Souriau more than redeemed the synaptic. The event is only just the conjunction and disjunction of ontics to the untrained eye. When beheld more fully, a terrifyingly alien aseity shines through – all Rests drop away in the flux of pure Motion. That he could not “free” the virtual, however, is a tragedy.

What then is to be done? I think that whether one should approach virtuality/potentiality as either an ontic or processual mode, in the end the problem remains that as a result its aseity, its very own essence as a distinct mode of being, must be sacrificed for the sake of the mere production of specimens of Motion or Rest. In light of this it is somewhat disappointing that Plethon added potentiality and actuality to Plato’s Five Most Important Things simply as consolation to Aristotle (along with the division of Motion into self-moving and moved-by-another), but did not do a great deal with these. However, rather than simply elevating these “extras” to the same position as the Five when we hardly yet know what even the Five might do, we should return instead to the Sophist and note that Plato there includes in the koinonia of Being anything and everything with the dynamis (capacity) to act upon or be acted upon.[11] Perhaps this is where Aristotle took his notion of on dynamei as existent Non-Being.

Here one might also recall that other great process philosophy of Powers, that of Schelling’s Ages of the World. Like Plato’s Five each of Schelling’s Powers bootstraps the others – one can separate them out through an ascetic experimental dedication to the modes of existence, but each always-already requires the others. One cannot be thought without also assuming the others too. In the end, no matter the cutting and suspension to catch a glimpse at some semblance of aseity, of pure ontological Sameness, we are faced with the eternal return of koinonia-in-the-last-instance, with the plenitudinous participation of the Powers, of coincidence and contrast forever seething, the winding and unwinding of a centre both everywhere and nowhere.

For us, then, potentiality and actuality remain products of the plenitude of the Five’s koinonia. They mean little more than that there are different modes of existence out there, some of which we can barely begin to guess at. That there may be all manner of phantasmic modes of Being that cannot “appear” before us is the beginning of thought, we shall wager, and not merely as bank of alternative possibilities that do not make the cut of being actualised. Deleuze, if anyone, was on the right track when he attempted to think the virtual as always possessing a “shadowy” part that eludes the actual. Perhaps we do not yet even vaguely know a jot of the strange, flitting phantasms at work that fill the cosmos, just outside the thin luminous band of our ens conceptuale.

Potential Problem 2: Virtual Matters.

Of all the different modes of existence Souriau outlines, he has the least to say – barely two pages– on the virtual.[12] What he does have to say, in keeping with the artistic purpose of his ontological adventure, primarily concerns the manufacture of artefacts. Virtual ontics lie hidden in materials, dependent upon the builder or artist to be able to perceive them for them to be actualised. For Souriau perception of virtual ontics is even more important than their actualisation: the bridge that can be imagined from a heap of timber but is never built is more real for him that the bridge that is begun but is abandoned or fails. What Souriau is talking about is a kind of artistic studium or discipline for looking at the world. I am distinctly reminded of an old friend of mine who developed “pallet vision” when he was looking for spare timber to make garden beds and furniture. He could spot a decent pallet anywhere, even when just absent-mindedly driving along the highway at high speed.

Souriau’s understanding of the virtual belongs not to Bergson (whom he knew well), nor mediaeval Scholasticism (which he also knew well), but simply Aristotle’s Metaphysics, in which the imagery of base materials potentially containing statues and pots is ubiquitous. This leads into a very particular problem that has haunted the Aristotelian and Neoplatonic traditions for thousands of years – the confusion of the existent Non-Being of the virtual with qualityless “prime matter”. When Aristotle first properly addresses virtuality in the Metaphysics he does so in relation to the problem of composition and mereology. That which is potential is all about “of”.[13] A statue is of stone – therefore stone contains a potential statue. But what is stone made of? How far can such a regress of composition be pushed? In the Metaphysics Aristotle does not seem to have pushed protē hylē (prime/first matter) any further “downwards” than the Empedoclean four elements.

However, for Aristotle’s influential commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias this was not nearly good enough. Alexander read Aristotle’s “prime matter” in the Metaphysics using a number of passing statements in the Physics concerning the way in which matter without any Form seemed to at once be eternal and yet always destroyed in some sense every time it gains Form.[14] What in effect is being destroyed is its inherent lack, but not it itself. Thus, Alexander read Aristotle as posing that there was in effect a single, eternal, material substrate in existence defined by its inherent lack yet receptibility of Form.[15] Curiously, Aristotle in book lambda of the Metaphysics argues precisely against any such single, universal material substate, particularly in relation to the theories of Anaximander, Anaxagoras and Democritus.[16] To the Stagirite the diversity of things that exist could not possibly come from a single substrate. There has to be an infinite number of individual substances.

Alexander’s “prime matter” was adopted by the “eclectic” Neoplatonic thinkers of late antiquity, in particular Plotinus, who, in his second Ennead’s fourth and fifth tractates on matter and potentiality largely just accepts and tries to expand the Alexandrian reading. However, what is more interesting is that Plotinus attempted to draw Aristotelian matter back towards Plato’s concept of the Khora/Receptacle, that strange “third thing” in the Timaeus, on which we have had much to say in our work in the past. In the Physics Aristotle had indeed read the Khora of Plato as matter, but he had also realised that it was not quite that – it was at very least also a way of trying to express space on its own strange terms.[17] Nonetheless, Aristotle found the idea of non-dimensional matter, substances and potentiality a far better way to talk about the emergence of things and, for the most part, the Khora simply disappeared from history until the 20th c. when Whitehead proposed that it was an intuition of spacetime and Heidegger and Derrida returned to it in consideration of it as a forgotten example of ontological difference.

As we have argued before with Heidegger and Derrida, what the Khora seems to represent is a different mode of existence outside our usual conception of things. One that can only be approached analogically through “bastard reasoning”, as Plato puts it. For Plotinus this “bastard reasoning” of Plato’s is simply taken to mean the inherent lack in matter – nothing can be said of it because it is aoristos (indefinite) and deprived of Form.[18] Indeed, at the very bottom of the Great Chain of Being matter is regarded as the least real of all aspects of reality. It is purely potential for it exists only in order to be actualised into all things. It is a “flying absurdity” or “decorated corpse”, so he famously phrases it – a form of existent Non-Being that is phantasmic, barely even there.

Plotinus even goes as far as to say that matter’s indefiniteness distresses the soul to the point that it must immediately impose Form on it when it perceived it: “as if it were in fear of being outside the realm of Being and could not endure to stay for long in Non-Being.”[19] The habitual reader of our blog might recall our recent mention of the concept of “Neroplatonism” – the “Gnostic” fear of matter being granted a horrible, alien agency of its own. A truly erudite reader might also immediately think of the terrifying pools of prime matter in Nick Harkaway’s wonderful science fiction novel the Gone Away World that seek out and subsume the forms of entities wherever they can find them.[20]

In spite of all this, Plotinus balked at the possibility of denying the existence of matter outright, a position he seems to have been rather scared of and may have even met among Platonists.[21] As to whether some now-lost Platonic thinkers denied matter because they simply didn’t like it (in keeping with Plotinus’ horror), or, perhaps, because they knew that the Khora was not quite simply matter, so Aristotle and his successors imagined it, is impossible to tell. It is then thus rather fascinating, but also disheartening, that a thousand years after Alexander, when we come to Averroes’ commentary on Metaphysics lambda, that he mistakenly summarises Aristotle’s three kinds of Non-Being as the simply false, the potential, and – instead of the “categorical” – that of matter.[22]

Nonetheless, it is under the digestion of the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian traditions in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages that the roots of modern “materialism” begin to emerge. As Ernst Bloch shows in Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left there is a profound line of descent that leads down from the materia universalis (universal matter) of Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron) and his Fons Vitae (Font of Life) to Scotus, Bruno and Spinoza.[23] Combining elements of Aristotle, Neoplatonism and Stoicism, Avicebron argued for a living cosmology of matter all the way down. Plotinus’s emanationism certainly speaks of a noetē hylē (intellectual matter) and theia hylē (divine matter) that compose souls and aspects of higher reality. But long before Ficino’s translation of Plotinus into Latin in the 15th c., Avicebron’s work had already long since arrived in Western Europe where its hylozoism was interpreted in accordance with that strange favourite old problem of ours – that the Greek word for matter, hylē, is also the word for wood.

In a popular question and answer work attributed to Duns Scotus titled De Rerum Principio the materia universalis became a great tree, stretching from deep dark chthonic roots all the way up through the world until, at the very tips of its branches, it blooms into intellectual and divine matter. One great substance is all that is needed. Giordano Bruno was certainly rather appreciative of this arboreal image and mentions it in his magnum opus of the One – Cause, Principle and Unity. [24] The Nolan famously found the traditional view of matter as purely receptive and passive as equally wanting as the conventional Scholastic belief after Aristotle that there was a plurality of substances (see back here, in detail here and most recently here). The habitual reader of our work might remember Bruno’s imagining of the cosmos as a giant slug, here extending and giving form to itself while retracting it elsewhere in its “agglomeration of the centre”. He or she might also recall our recent essays on Margaret Cavendish, who also outlined a pan-materialistic cosmology. Modern materialism, as we often insist on our blog, was has far much more to do with the immanentisation of Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Scholastic oikonomia than simply the revival of ancient atomism by Gassendi, Hobbes and Toland.

The pan-material tree also winds its way down into the alchemical mysticism of Jacob Boehme, though Bloch is likely correct that by this time the idea’s origin in Avicebron had long been forgotten. Today of course the Deleuzian imagery of the creeping, cloning horizontality of the yam rather than that of a tree is a lot more popular, a sort of sad predictable flattened end to the Great Chain of Being that had slowly been ongoing for centuries. Nevertheless, like Hegel and Whitehead it is the strange antique quality of so many of the ingredients in Deleuze that make him even worth talking about as far as I’m concerned. Although Catherine Pickstock poses that there is a Brunonian undercurrent behind Deleuze’s mysterious “Dark Precursor” that retroactively organises events, perhaps the divine explosive force of opening called Schrack (gap, terror) found in Jacob Boehme’s Hermetic cosmology would have been a far more direct and obvious comparison. As Deleuze says:

“Thunderbolts explode between different intensities, but they are preceded by an invisible imperceptible dark precursor, which determines their path in advance, but in reverse, as though intagliated.”[25]

 So a translator of Boehme puts his Schrack concept, also calling it flagrat (it burns):

“It is, as I may term it, the magical fire-breath, whereby the powers either of light or darkness are dismayed… it is the pregnant echo of the sound of eternity.”[26]

The only thinker who seems to have realised the deep similarities between Boehme and Deleuze is Mark Bonta, who regards the former as a precursor of the “God of complexity” – even if Deleuze never seems to mention Boehme.[27] However, Bonta is likely onto something regarding the influence of occultists such as Malfatti on the young Deleuze. Sometimes I find all this “complexity” lark rather coy. If we mean grace, sorcery, God, or spirits at very least let us say grace, sorcery, God or spirits. There is no one capable of being upset by such things today whom it is worth caring a jot about. As Ralph Cudworth perceptively declared, rather than materialism as the banishment of superstition, the origins of ancient materialism bely a “pneumatophobia” – a terror of spirits, the need to mendaciously deny and keep them down.[28]

But the phantasmic dimensions of reality cannot simply be waved away. The spooks pool and gather and get clogged in the machinery. The great clean engine must eventually break down, even those Deleuzian “desiring machines” that apparently only work by cutting “flows” and endlessly breaking down. We live in a little world ever-conscious of its own importance. Every potential problem and novelty is analysed into oblivion. The real horror, however, is not that something like climate change or whatever can be seen coming from miles off and that no one is doing anything, nor that all the World Historical Events turn out to be non-events. It is perhaps that no matter how clever we are, we might never be able to perceive what is gumming up the works. We will never be able to detect and decry that which undermines our little machine and pretend that we could have saved it or transformed it if the right potentialities had been grasped. If anything, Deleuze and Guattari were dead right about one thing – the “asignifying”. There are all manner of communications and prehensions at work that we will never be able to perceive and understand, far beyond simply Guattari’s consideration of the endless quiet inhuman work of computer algorithms that has become rather de rigueur in recent years.[29]

Admitting the phantasms that do not and perhaps cannot “appear” is but the tip of the iceberg. The exit from such a bind as ours concerning hylomorphic “materialism” is rather obvious: to return to the position that Plotinus dreaded – the wholesale denial of the existence of “matter”. There is no need for it, nor substances of any sort either. Averroes simply should have filed it under Non-Being-as-false when he had the chance. We instead accept that there is Motion and that there is Rest and Same and Other and Being, and that they come in many variations. The koinonia is a participatory, analogical series of echoes and non-identical repetitions and analogies – a massive interplay of obscured dynamis. This is all that is necessary to begin our adventure. Instead we return to the Khora, that strange X-marks-the-spot that jams all attempts to nail it down, that refuses to be matter, that is bottomless and points everywhere else but itself in search of a poetic answer to the order of things. We speculatively chip away at an ens reale much larger than our thin, luminous field of vision.

How does one begin the proper cultivation of such “bastard reasoning”? I think, at very least, by returning to an analogical symbolism in the tradition of Nicholas Cusanus for whom God’s relation with creation was best expressed through analogy of mathematical proportion. Cusanus gives us thought experiments such as imagining an infinitely long circumference (creation) and then to imagine, more impossible still, the circle that would go with it (God). He has us try to think the emanation from the One down through all of creation by following a pattern: 1 to 4 add up to 10, and 10 to 40 add to 100, 100-400 to 1000, 1000-4000 to 10,000. Giordano Bruno, praising the Cusan as “the inventor of geometry’s most beautiful secrets” applied such analogies to his own conceptions of the One as a single substance with its centre everywhere and nowhere, a mathematical “profound magic” in which it is shown that all opposites coincide. [30] For Cusanus all our thoughts or “conjectures” of things contain an unreconciled otherness. We can never totalise how things are. We most certainly cannot directly express anything of the One without complete contradiction.

In his fascinating book The Analogical Turn, Johannes Hoff returns to the ideas of Nicholas Cusanus as a forgotten alternative to both the modern preoccupation with “realism” and post-modern decay into pop-cultural arealism, For Hoff what is paramount is Cusanus’ 15th c. criticisms of the then emerging desire by Renaissance artists to represent the world as realistically as possible from the perspective of a viewer looking in at a 3d scene. However, what is most interesting is Hoff’s thesis that Cusanus would have been deeply suspicious of that other great modern preoccupation – the attempt to produce a single “univocal” mathematics capable of representing everything. He writes:  

“Cusa did not deny the possibility of representing a circle, for example, with a polygon composed of a potentially infinite number of sides and internal angles, or a curved line with a potentially infinite, countable set of discrete, straight lines. It is certain that he would have been delighted to discover how well modern calculus works. He only insisted that the coincidence of opposites cannot be approximated on the level of rational comparisons (coincidentiam vitandum), and that, consequently, mathematical comparisons can only provide us with conjectures and not precise descriptions of our analogical world.”[31]

The question, however, is where one is to go after Cusanus. As I often intimate, I think that something of his forgotten analogical modernity survived in the Cambridge Platonists. Here one might recall that Henry More was responsible for coining the concept of a “fourth dimension”, which he called “essential spissitude.” More’s extra dimension was a result of an attempt to overcome the Cartesian dualism he at first embraced, but increasingly found lacking. If Descartes had sharply divided the world into the two substances of mind and body – the former lacking all extension, the latter extended in three dimensions – More’s move was to consider the possibility that there could be a fourth spiritual dimension folded up and penetrating almost infinitely the other three dimensions. Anne Conway was to take this up and transform it into a cosmology of infinitesimal, penetrable, infinitely potential “desiring monad” spirits as a replacement for matter. By doing so perhaps she finally “completed the system” of Neoplatonic materialism – she gave “phantasmic” matter the phantasms it deserved.

Curiously, although More is now almost wholly forgotten today, “spissitude” is still occasionally utilised to express the strange extra dimension of 4d shapes such as the hypercube or tesseract, which we are unable to perceive directly. The best we can do is to convert them down to 2d or 3d nets. We are like the poor little shapes in Flatland trying to understand things far beyond our ens conceptuale. Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that using the same simple univocal mathematic shapes can be scaled up and theorised in far many more dimensions than four – all the way up to the monstrous 10d dekeract and beyond- no term for any dimension after the fourth ever really seems to have been coined. Several months ago I even asked a geometer about this. He simply replied that once they get above four there’s not a lot one can say about them really.

Instead a rather different “fourth dimension”, that of space-time, has proven far more fruitful in the past century along with the addition of the many involuted “string theory” dimensions thereafter. That in spite of these no one has yet found a “grand theory of everything” to solve all the problems engendered by the quantum and relativity cosmologies is perhaps not nearly as honestly strange as the simple basic fact that there are two completely different ways of thinking dimensionality beyond the third. What has a tesseract after all to do with time?

Here we might emphasise Hoff’s judgement that Cusanus would have gotten much out of the calculus, but very likely would have retained strong reservations about Leibniz’s belief a single algebraic mathematics could overcome the division between geometric and equational approaches to mathematics. As Hoff says, in many ways the discovery of mathematical “incompleteness” in the 20th c. bears Cusanus out. One might recall that in the 17th c. there was still a profound gap between what geometry and equational mathematics could do. Newton’s teacher, Isaac Barrow, even declared that equations were worthless and that everyone should simply stick with Euclidean geometry. Similarly, one cannot help but imagine that More and Conway would have very much enjoyed learning about hypercubes and string theory dimensions, but would have also wanted to very much know in which one all the ghosts and souls are kept. They would have come away rather disappointed one feels.

The science fiction of the 20th c. ruminated hard to the point of exhaustion on the idea of other dimensions as “other worlds” – parallel universes in which history turns out otherwise, or time or some other feature works very differently, even worlds for the disenchanted in which God “really exists”. However, more than anything, all this seemed to express was a shunting sideways of a dying infinite cosmos of infinite possibilities. It is as though people were trying to save its spirit from a ham-handed univocal mathematics with little to say except that our universitas was simply a million light years of the same, dull flatness in all directions.

 That the parallel universe became a bigger and bigger part of science fiction in the late 20th c. to make up for the decline of naïve Space Age speculation about all the strange, alien planets we would visit by 1990, is simply trivial. That even the journey to the “parallel” Other World ended up giving way to simply the naff aestheticism of the “New Weird” – Miéville and so on – in which no explanation for the rules of the Other World nor its relation to our own are necessary any longer, is a rather sad thing indeed. Miéville’s The City & The City was perhaps the last true work of the Other World, but one cannot help feel that it amounted to little more than taking a rusty old Borgesian toy out of the attic, blowing the dust off and turning it over, before, once again, putting it back into storage when the novelty value had worn off. As the net attests in endless boorish abundance, we have long since eaten any pretence of a High “postmodernism” of learned allusion (Calvino, Borges, Eco, Pavic etc done and dusted and now dusty). All we are left with is simply the attempt to render a e s t h e t i c s bright enough for the momentary passing ruse that we really do have something deep, wonderful, even holy, going on.

Long ago I reached the point where if the blurb on the back of a book mentioned a “parallel universe” I would not read it. If, even worse, it sounded like something to the tune of Moby Dick-but-with-giant-moles I would not even vaguely go within ten yards of the damn thing. What I had noticed, even as a kid, was not only had Space disappeared from speculation, but so too had Time. It was this that caused me in great consternation to return to the origins of speculative fiction to try to deduce what it was even for, from Lucian and Plutarch, to the early modern genius of Margaret Cavendish, Cyrano de Bergerac and others. In coming weeks I will have quite a bit more to say on such things.

Either we must try to re-enchant Space and Time, or, we must decide to be done with them for good in favour of something else at least as equally fecund. This will take work. That someone like the Marxist Miéville considers the most radical thing to be the turning of negative theology upon the future, blacking it out and silencing it completely,[32] should tell us a great deal indeed about just how bad things are. It should tell us not merely about a certain species of progressivist terror at the undead remains of naïve beliefs in techno-optimism and the inability for language to change the world, but also about being unable to escape the trap of a flat, immanent ontology. That Miéville mentions Cusanus and his docta ignorantia in passing (along with Palamas, Pseudo-Dionysius and a number of others), but does not understand that what Cusanus was getting at was the analogical relationship between different infinite realities – God and creation – is unsurprising. If, as Voegelin and Spengler and so too Blumenberg suspected, modernity turned the negative theology away from God towards the immanent to birth its infinite derailing of the world, it is also unsurprising that it should just end up a weak, defensive negative dialectics in the end – a “just keep saying no”.

I have said it before, and I will say it again, that someone like Mencius Moldbug could naively outline a theory of his own reactionary future Utopia (VR prisons and all), but the left now remains almost wholly unwilling to shit or get off the pot concerning any image of Utopia is, for want of any other reasonable way to express it, fucking absurd. For all the righteous “wokeness” of Americans especially of late, rare indeed is any consideration of what sort of world it’s all supposed to be for. Twitter grinds away like a mighty set of external PMC reproductive organs, churning out soldier-chatterers for the great eternal present. One wonders if the rush of getting a few naughty boys cancelled now and then can really make up for being completely spastic in time before massive capitalist interests, climate change, the decaying death rattle of the American Post-War Boom, and an inability to gain any species of cultural traction with the average peasant in the street. In the next couple of weeks, I feel, we are going to have to bite the bullet and put our own eccentric Distributist-Guild Socialist hand of cards on the table properly at long last, if only because at this point any attempt at thinking a just future, no matter how naive and silly, is better than nothing.

For now, however, I will leave the reader with this. If in our consideration of a “lost Cusan modernity” and the problems of analogical representation in art and mathematics we were to locate a work most fitting for our cause, perhaps we should need look no further than Salvador Dalì’s marvellous 1954 Corpus Hybercubus, in which Christ is pictured crucified upon the 3d net of a tesseract. One imagines that Cusanus would have found this a most spectacular vision of things, he for whom Christ’s divine aspect could but be grasped intuitively. Through Christ we are shown a window into an ontological otherness that can only be conceptualised analogically. Such indeed is the best of our “bastard reasoning” before the ens reale. This is the sort of thing that we are after. Amen.

Crucifixion | फोटो शेयर छवियाँ

A final note for now: there is another third “potential problem” – the potentiality of hexis (habit/disposition) in Aristotle and its legacy down through Cudworth, Ravaisson and Bergson. However, as this post is already too heinously large for its own good, I fear that problem three will have to wait until we come to the long-deferred, third, and final portion of our essay on the Averroist unity of the intellect: Chameleons in the Archives.


[1] Thomas Taylor, A Dissertation on the Philosophy of Aristotle, Robert Wilks, London, 1812, p. 418.

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics, V. 12.1019a.

[3] Charles Sanders Peirce, “Virtual” in James Baldwin, Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, MacMillan, New York, 1902, pp. 763-4.

[4] Duns Scotus, Ordinatio, I. 2.1.qu. 1.3.

[5] Dorothy Emmet, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism, Macmillan, London, 1966, pp. 127-139 on the influence of the Sophist on Whitehead concerning the mutual “participation” of the Forms as the pursuit of the true philosopher. Cf. Plato, Sophist, 252a-4a, 259d. 

[6] A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, New York, 1978, §165 (p. 108).

[7] Ibid, §377 (p. 247).

[8] Sergey Khorujy, “Multiple Modernities and Spiritual Practices,” Institute of Synergetic Anthropology, 5th July 2015, p. 5 available from the link here: http://synergia-isa.ru/?p=12324 

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchill, Verso Books, New York, 1994, p. 156.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Plato, Sophist, 247e.

[12] Étienne Souriau, The Different Modes of Existence, trans. Erik Beranek and Tim Howles, Univocal, Minneapolis MN, 2015, pp. 156-8.

[13] Aristotle, Metaphysics, IX.7.1049a. Note that protē hylē is mentioned here at line 25.

[14] Idem, Physics, privation of form in matter: 191a13, 201a4; privation as an accident: 190b27; perishes with respect to its privation but is eternal and imperishable itself: 192a25-8.

[15] Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Aristotle’s Metaphysics 2 &3, trans. William E. Dooley and Arthur Madigan, Bloomsbury, London and New York, 1992, esp. pp.  44-6.

[16] Aristotle, Metaphysics, XII. 2.1069b.

[17] Aristotle, Physics, 209a31-209b. Aristotle mentions here that according to Plato’s “unwritten doctrines” there was a different theory of space and the reception of Form than that outlined in the Timaeus. However, he does not go into it. Perhaps, indeed, as some have suspected Plato also had an alternate theory of the Forms Big and Small concerning space and place, but this has been lost.

[18] Plotinus, Enneads, II.4.10, 12. Cf. Plato, Timaeus, 52b2.

[19] Plotinus, Enneads, II.4.10.

[20] Nick Harkaway, The Gone Away World, Random House, London, 2008.

[21] Plotinus, Enneads, I.8.15, II.4.11.

[22] Averroes, Ibn Rushd’s Metaphysics: A Translation with Introduction of Ibn Rushd’s Commentary of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Lam, trans. And intro. Charles Genequand, Brill, Leiden, 1986, §1449 (p. 86). Cf. Aristotle, Met, XII.2.1069b where the fact that there are three kinds of Non-Being is mentioned in passing.

[23] Ernst Bloch, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left, trans. Loren Goldman and Peter Thompson, Columbia University Press, New York, 2019, pp. 58-66f. See: Solomon ibn Gabirol [Avicebron] The Font of Life, trans. John A. Laumakis, Marquette University Press, Milwaukee WI, 2014.

[24] Giordano Bruno, “Cause, Principle and Unity, ” in Cause, Principle and Unity and Essays on Magic, eds Richard J Blackwell and Robert de Lucca, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2004, p. 38. Cf. Duns Scotus, Quaestiones Disputatae De Rerum Principio, Qu. 8 art. 4 ap. Ernst Bloch, Avicenna, p. 64; Jacob Boehme, Aurora, trans.John Sparrow, John Streater, London, 1656, preface art 2. Text accessible here.

[25] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Continuum, London and New York, 1994, pp. 145-6.

[26] Clifford Bax (?), “Postscript by the Translator,” in Jacob Boehme, The Signature of All Things and Other Writings, J. M Dent and Sons, New York, 1912 reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2008, pp. 234-5.

[27] Mark Bonta, “Rhizome of Boehme and Deleuze: Esoteric Precursors of the God of Complexity,” SubStance 39.1, 2010, pp. pp. 62-75. Cf. Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze, Duke University Press, London 2012 that has almost nothing to say about Boehme, though it does very much understand and embraces the theory of a “Gnostic return in modernity”.

[28] For a great and easily accessible summary of of Cudworth’s attacks on ancient materialism see: Jonathan McCormack, “The Christian Platonist Cudworth on materialism and atheism – by D. Hedley,” 21 July 2020. Click here.

[29] On the “asignifying” see the chapter on Maurizio Lazzarato in McKenzie Wark, General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century, Verso, London and New York, 2017, esp. pp. 84-7.

[30] Nicholas of Cusa, Metaphysical Speculations, trans. Jasper Hopkins, Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis, 1998-2000, “De Beryllo (On [Intellectual] Eyeglasses),” Vol. I, pp. 790-838, “De Cojecturis (On Surmises),” Vol II, pp. 161-297. Cf. Giordano Bruno, “Cause, Principle and Unity,” pp. 97-9.

[31] Johannes Hoff, The Analogical Turn, Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa, William B Eerdmans. Cambridge UK, 2013, p. 67.

[32] China Miéville, “Silence in the Debris: Towards an Apophatic Marxism,” Salvage, 2nd April 2019, https://salvage.zone/in-print/silence-in-debris-towards-an-apophatic-marxism/

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