Transcendence, Pathos, and the Romance of Science



2009 SAAP discussion paper submission






Numerous modern thinkers have focused upon experiences which refuse any easy assimilation into ontological or rational categories.  The purpose of this essay is to highlight some of the major forms this trend has taken within both Continental and American philosophy.  I will argue that the latter is not only free of some of the unhealthy pathos of the former, but offers a more integrative vision- one which heals the gulf between the urge for transcendence on the one hand and the quest of the empirical sciences on the other.  The poetic naturalism of Loren Eiseley is offered as particularly vibrant example of this tendency within the American tradition.  Along the way, the ideas of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, James, and Benjamin Paul Blood (a “pluralistic mystic”) make their appearance.






I. Introduction

Over the past two hundred years, philosophy has enjoyed a love affair with experiences which overflow and exceed our cognitive and perceptual capacities.  We might call this the encounter with transcendence, the undergoing of an event for which no set of ideas may prepare us or contain.  The yearning for philosophical closure, on the other hand, has been labeled by many recent philosophers as totalization.  This is our attempt to integrate each jot and tittle of empirical fact within the scope of the understanding, to achieve either a Spinoza-like view from eternity, or at a minimum, to conceive being as thoroughly transparent to the disinterested purview of reason.  Needless to say, the two tendencies are at odds with each other, and have been so throughout the entire history of the West.

In the pages which follow, I follow two trajectories of this tension.  I begin with its expression in the European intellectual tradition.  Pointing out some problems found therein, I proceed to herald another, more auspicious direction long underway within the currents of American philosophy.  Finally, I present the scientist and author Loren Eiseley as the culmination of this tendency as well as its finest illustration.  


II. The Forms of Transcendence.

Among the pioneers of the anti-totalizing tendency in modern times is Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish father of existentialism and Protestant neo-orthodoxy.  The shipwrecking of the mind’s defenses against theological truth is front and central to his far reaching influence, enough to justify the spiritual connotations of the term “transcendence.”  Even the varieties of this experience not overtly religious exude a hint of the numinous, to borrow a term from a great phenomenologist of religion.[1]  It should be reminded that Kierkegaard is in fact heir to a long and venerable heritage, one stemming from Luther and Pascal and stretching all the way back to the personal and passionate testimonies of Paul and Augustine.  Nevertheless, it is through the rich and near-exhaustive descriptions of human subjectivity found throughout Kierkegaard’s writings that so much recent appreciation for the forms of transcendence, both religious and secular, derive. 

Tertullian, an early Church leader and apologist for Christianity, spoke of the clash between the rational maxims of Athens and the otherworldly pieties of Jerusalem long before the birth of religious existentialism.  Kierkegaard’s notorious “leap of faith” is this same tension dusted off and dressed for battle against the legions of Hegelian idealists encamped throughout the nineteenth century.  Where Hegel sought to subsume religion under the all-embracing formulas of philosophy, Kierkegaard directed his considerable gifts for irony and parody against such pretensions, placing instead the central narrative of Christianity where it belonged:  A stumbling block for the metaphysician, an offense to the logician.  If Christianity had become too easy for the denizens of late modernity, the gadfly of Denmark has raised the stakes ever since.  God had become man in what is rightfully called the Paradox, and never again would the trials and temptations of the Christian life be mistaken for a simple birthright.

An even more influential concept is the irreducibility of the self, a theme symbolized in Kierkegaard’s classic parable of the man who builds a mansion only to live in the janitor’s quarters next door.  The mansion is the philosopher’s massive edifice of thought, and the choice to live in such a meager residence is the ignoring of the full range of human experience for the interests of the system.  Kierkegaard’s writings are full of parodies of absent minded professors who attempt to squeeze themselves into their speculative visions, bumbling Munchausens who lift themselves up by the bootstraps and defy the laws of gravity.  The joke is a confusing of two different orders of reality:  The finite and the conceptual, that which is in a state of becoming and that which is static and unchanging.  There is no better summary than Kierkegaard’s most lauded quote:  While life can only be understood backwards, “it must be lived forwards.”[2]

            There are yet other forms of anti-totalization which derive from the Danish master- those which have awarded European thought a reputation for a certain darkness, an infatuation with moods in which the profound borders the pathological.  The author of works like The Sickness Unto Death and The Concept of Dread would introduce an appreciation for what Karl Jaspers would later call the boundary or limit-situations of human existence.  These include such austere emotions as anxiety, guilt, and the anticipation of death.  I will end this section on the last of these.

            We have already acknowledged that the system builder, for Kierkegaard, has the audacity to include humanity within his or her conceptual scheme.  The obvious result must be the substituting of the human being as an idea, a Platonic essence of “man” for the concretely existing individual person.  Existentialist literature offers the rejoinder that abstract men and women must suffer abstract deaths, an amusing fact to anyone who has had to confront their own mortality.  “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal”[3] reiterates Ivan Ilyich from his old college text, a last gasp of desperation before ending his attempts to suppress his terminal condition.  But Caius is not a man, he is Man in general, “man” as the premise of the philosopher’s syllogism.  In coming to terms with his own finitude, Tolstoy’s epitome of the bourgeois careerist is rudely awakened to the difference between an abstraction and a living biography:  “Had Caius ever rioted at school when the pastries were bad?  Had he ever been so much in love?”[4]  Here as always, the first and greatest of the existentialists makes this distinction quite clear:  “Perhaps dying is also something in general for systematicians…but for me, dying is by no means something in general.”[5]           


III. Pathos.

            Boundary or limit-situations comprise a hole in the system, a resistance to the mission of completing a closed and coherent explanation of everything.  But abstractions are not the only target here.  Throughout the Continental tradition is the equating of totalization with a form of shallowness and complacency, a relaxing and wasting of the energies and tensions required for the more genuine and rigorous styles of human existence.  Once more, Kierkegaard takes the role of lead. 

            In one of his most important works, the Danish philosopher draws a distinction between what he calls objective approximation and subjective appropriation.  The latter is, in Kierkegaard’s own words, “an infinite, personally interested passion for one’s eternal happiness.”[6]  In other words, true Christian faith.  This is what he also labels “subjective truth,” our whole mode of being rather than an item or object of knowledge.  It is a choice made not only in the dearth of such knowledge, but against all knowledge previous- or, stated elsewhere, one made “out on 70,000 fathoms of water.”[7]  This is a radical decision to compliment a newer, more passionate comportment to reality, a decision after which the self is forever transformed. 

Compared to subjective truth, objective approximation is a flatter, more banal project.  This is truth as approximated rather slowly and collectively, one weaned through the perpetual gathering and systematizing of ideas.  It is a practice seemingly devoid of the same level of personal investment, and certainly without the risk and excitement of crisis or climax in the life of the individual.  Not surprisingly, Kierkegaard also linked this piecemeal and more humdrum approach to truth to his perception of the state of humanity in late modernity.  The system-builder and consumer of objective knowledge is a symptom of a much deeper malaise:  That of one who overlooks the personal and the subjective because he or she has yet to achieve these things.  What Kierkegaard has in mind here is the person who has never learned to step outside the common herd of humanity, the cog in the impersonal machinery of society, the corporate slave, “a copy, a number, a mass man.”[8]      

             This association of objective knowledge with banality and conformity, even a kind of low-grade brutality, would cast a long shadow over much recent European thought.  One of its most influential philosophers would follow directly in this vein, employing Kierkegaardian categories of human existence as a means for inquiring into the meaning of being.  For Martin Heidegger, time as it is lived concretely is what grants access to ontological truth, not the intellectually conceived units of measurement known as “clock-time.”  It is by coming to terms with our finitude through which Being is revealed, not the axioms and arguments of traditional metaphysics.  Here, after two and a half millennia, the Platonic privileging of disinterested rationality over concrete experience has been flipped right on its head.

            Everywhere, Heidegger’s theological training is evident.  The lonely and abandoned human being is made to hearken “the call” of being.  Inauthentic humanity is fallen.  The anxious and future-oriented person, the sign of authenticity, is essentially a de-theologized eschatological vision borrowed from the Epistles of Paul.[9]  The switch from the inauthentic to authentic forms of existence occurs in the “blink of an eye” (augenblick) or the moment when eternity enters into time (the kairos).  Technically, Heidegger was a secular thinker.  But streaming throughout every stage of his work is a virtual torrent of religious passion, a dual inheritance of Catholic scholastic mysticism and Protestant existential commitment.  Throughout the rest of his career, these influences, both contemplative and existential, would play out in interesting ways.    

            The rather heroic and stark characteristics of authenticity would be heightened in the middle stages of Heidegger’s work, the period shortly after his famous “turn” (the kehre).  This time however, the existentialist categories are no longer modalities of the individual but broadened to encompass whole communities.  The German nation is here the very embodiment of destiny, a people squeezed between the collective and mechanized men of American and Russia.  The latter are commercial cultures, societies defined by the unrestrained dominance of science and industry.  Technology is the ultimate dehumanizing force, a power which homogenizes experience and levels cultures.  Heidegger’s writings are pervaded by a sort of Teutonic romanticism, a rebellion against the cosmopolitan sensibility he perceived as the epitome of everything puerile and deracinated, a form of life cut off from the deeper springs of ontology. 

The later Heidegger, perhaps embarrassed by these extremes (as well his well-publicized political misadventures), would deem his early work too anthropomorphic and humanistic.  From one subjective extreme, he would overcompensate with what can only be called a mystical quietism of being.  Interspersed with some truly penetrating insights into art, poetry, and the history of ideas, Heidegger would plead for the need to retrieve Meister Eckhart’s notion of gelassenheit- the simple “letting be” through which the West can overcome its current nihilism.  The enemy however remains the same:  “Calculative thinking” and the manipulative approach to reality typified by science and technology.

 It should be mentioned that Heidegger’s earliest remarks on science are found in the preface to his earliest masterpiece, Being and Time.  These are brief passages which claim that the worth of the sciences is found not in the data which they collect but in how well they re-examine their most fundamental premises.  The Anglo-American tradition would take fifty years to catch up and speak of “paradigm shifts.”  In the later Heidegger however, things are quite different.    

How do we realize Heideggarian thought from within our technological and information-centered culture?  Perhaps there is no hope for us, we who are neither the German populace of Heidegger’s tumultuous times nor the of a natives pre-industrial age.  Do we consciously reverse or abandon this life of science and industry?  But it is helpless in Heidegger’s later thought, since we did not make these things and are simply products of a history not humanly created.  Being has unrolled itself through the ages, beginning with its revelation through the Pre-Socratics and then gradually concealing itself into the grayer, barer objects of physics and chemistry.  Everything may appear de-theologized, but this vision is dark, absolutist, and apocalyptic in tone.  Perhaps, as Heidegger stated in an interview, “only a god can still save us.”[10] 

There is a certain schizophrenia present in the life of one who admires the thought of Kierkegaard and Heidegger- brooding existentialist and rooted ontologist respectively.  Much of the fabric of our modern life is not only derivative over the kinds of experiences they promote, but positively destructive of them.  It occasionally seems that the thinkers of the Continent have sought to outstrip one another in how sharply they can set their philosophical visions against all that is mainstream and definitive of the modern world.  There is something cruel and frivolous in this endeavor, but also pointless.  One of Kierkegaard’s most memorable stories is that of his discovery of his mission as an author.  Smoking a cigar in a café and reflecting on the age of the railroad and the telegraph, the father of existentialism sought to compensate for the increasing easiness of his place and time:  “I comprehended that it was my task”, explains Kierkegaard, “to make difficulties everywhere.”[11]  The result is discernable throughout much of the thought of the twentieth century:  A linking of the urge for transcendence with a kind of anti-bourgeois posturing. 


IV. An Open Universe.

            “Of all the non-European philosophers,” states William Barrett in his still-classic Irrational Man, “William James probably best deserves to be labeled an Existentialist.”[12]  At first glance, Barrett’s judgment seems quickly vindicated.  James was many things:  An sympathizer of the religious life who championed “The Will to Believe,” a psychologist who shed light on the structure of consciousness as a volitional and embodied affair, a philosopher whose works constitute an open war on Hegelian idealism, an author whose words shine with the personal intensity of a life in perpetual struggle against depression and paralyzing anxiety.  Indeed, there is much here which parallels the lives and ideas of many great Continental thinkers.

            But there is a difference with James, that which sets him apart from the European tradition (with the exception of Bergson) and places American philosophy in an entirely different category.  For Kierkegaard, it is the self which defies the system, for thinkers like Levinas it is ‘the other.”  For James it is neither our subjectivity nor the glance of another human being which alone eludes the static categories of traditional metaphysics, but a cosmos itself in the making.  “The actual universe is a thing wide open,” argues James, “but rationalism makes systems and systems are closed.”[13]  From the evolutionary cosmology of Pierce to the inception of process metaphysics (Whitehead was deeply influenced by James), the author of Pragmatism is a key player in another, very distinctive branch of Western thought.   

            Closely aligned with James’s concept of an open universe is his defiant pluralism.  From Royce and Bradley, to his own father’s Swedenborgian mysticism, James had more than his share of exposure to the age-old philosophical and religious tendency to envision the world of sense experience as either derivative or an outright illusion.  The realm of individual things, according to this perspective, is comprised of nothing but incomplete fragments of a greater whole; a veil or curtain screening the mind from its real source and home within a deeper and undifferentiated unity.  This is the “one” of monism, the ontological juggernaut whose onslaught no idiosyncratic particular or finite thing can withstand.  It is for the purpose of shielding the latter that James runs on the scene with a resounding “hands off,” an expression used too frequently throughout his writings to cite. 

Considering the clash between monism and pluralism to be “the most pregnant of all the dilemmas of philosophy,” some of his most compelling passages are devoted to outlining what is at stake in this struggle.[14]  To affirm a universe composed of many things, one unfinished and shot through with contingencies of all stripes, is to affirm the value of personal and collective effort.  To declare the sterile abstractions of the rationalist to be the only reality is to uphold the contemplative over the active life, to place more value on passive resignation than self-assertion.  James’s underlining motivation was therefore a moral one.

There is no lack of bravado in this preference of action over contemplation, a heroic sensibility akin, perhaps, to the existentialists.  And James, it is well known, possessed a life-long interest in religion, mysticism, and psychic phenomena.  So does his vision of an open and pluralistic universe make a real difference after all?

Here it is useful to turn to the work of his friend and mutual influence:  Benjamin Paul Blood.  The self-made poet and thinker of Amsterdam, New York is best known for his use of nitrous oxide gas as a tool for mystical experience.  Wherein experimentation with nitrous oxide and other chemicals was common among nineteenth century intellectuals, Blood departs from the mainstay of other drug-inspired mystics in his switch from a Hegelian monism to a more vigorous, empirically-flavored pluralism.  The idea of a pluralistic mystic was music to James’s ears, an effective counter to the world-abnegating pantheisms so predominant among the mystical traditions of the world- from the Upanishads to Meister Eckhart.  It is of no small significance that his last published essay was on Benjamin Blood, and titled (not surprisingly) “A Pluralistic Mystic.”  “I confess that the existence of this novel brand of mysticism,” affirms James, “has made my cowering mood depart.  I feel now as if my own pluralism were not without the kind of support which mystical corroboration may confer.”[15]                        

            At one point in Pluriverse, his second work, Blood introduces a concept he calls the Midst.  It is worthwhile here to suffer through his cryptic and elusive prose: 

…the actual is ever at a turning point, the Midst…

But as we must see, in the demonstration of the relativity and ideality of size by the microscope, our determinations of size are limited by material agents; our ordinary Midst, or actuality, is contingent upon our inventional progress, variously with the telescope and the microscope.  (While our greatest telescopes still leave the fixed stars so that the orb and its orbit are focused as but a motionless point, with the “infinite” still beyond, so the best microscope still raises the question whether in the infinitesimal direction, there is any creature so small but another creature lives upon it…

As Truth, pursuing the infinite divisibility of matter, dives into Democritus’ bottomless well, so, following the increasing length of the telescope, she diminishes the probability of intelligent and intelligible comprehension, and prompts all thought to fall back upon the actuality and practicality of the Midst as our only reality…[16]


Exploding the totalizing perspective quite literally from the inside, Blood asserts that to exist is to be between; to discover oneself as hedged in, on all sides, by a reality which exceeds the limits of the senses.  The Midst is the fundamentally situated character of the human condition, the “turning point” of the actual as one standing place within a cosmos stretching endlessly beyond and beneath us.  Peering through the lens of our most advanced scientific instruments, a tiny bit of this distance is bridged- only to hint, teasingly, at a greater horizon forever one step outside our grasp. 

 Essential to Blood’s pluralism is not only its expansive, centrifugal character (at one point arguing that the outward thrust of gravity is effective disproof of monism- lest the cosmos shrivel up into “a conglomerate ball”) but its inherently de-centered nature.  “The rims of the philosopher’s spectacles seem to determine a monism in his outlook,” a Oneness ultimately imposed on the universe by the arrogance of the metaphysician.  Reality is instead “a multiverse of cosmopolitan, democratic and uncentred continuity.”[17]  Some of Blood’s most eloquent passages describe a universe without centrality of design, where form and pattern arise in an organic manner, crystallizing from lower-level and unconscious processes rather than imposed purposefully from without.                                        

              It is the culmination of Blood’s vision however which earns him the title of a mystic.  Achieved through the aid of a narcotic, what is gained is neither a jumble of hallucinations nor some deep Gnostic secret, but simple awe in the face of existence, an Emerson-like rejoicing in the wonder of the ordinary.  Anticipating Huxley’s famous mescaline adventure in The Doors of Perception, the result is a new clarity, a cleansing of the senses, an awakening to “the primordial, Adamic surprise of life.”[18] 

            There is no unity with the Divine here, and nothing which departs from the world of work and life.  Central to the Midst is the awareness which settles upon those brought before the limits of the understanding.  It is as if the sea of darkness which fringes all hereto inherited knowledge, all future knowledge, seeps in to pervade the objects and features of the everyday with an aura of mystery, a sense of the sacred.  What Blood seeks to draw our attention to with his “anaesthetic revelation” is a truth hanging always just under our nose, one quite literally overlooked in the quest for the rare and the radical so typical of the bohemian and the intellectual.

            This intuition is, of course, not a rational one.  But it is not in opposition to rationality either.  Rational knowledge is itself an island adrift in the midst (in The Midst) of the unknown, and a life in communion with transcendence is found in no other place than where the wave of fresh experience continually breaks upon the beach of accumulated understanding.  Transcendence is part and parcel of the process of knowledge acquisition, neither mystical in the typical sense of the term, nor set apart in some realm or set of activities sharply opposed to the sciences.  This is the case even if the topic at hand just is mysticism or the supernatural.      

All of this is perfectly exemplified in James.  The Varieties of Religious Experience, for all of its descriptive beauty, is no call for a return to pre-scientific kinds of thinking.  James’s rich catalogue of conversion stories and mystical testimonies is nothing less than an attempt to widen the sciences from the inside, to force respectable intellectuals and philosophers to acknowledge a broader range of human experience.  It is an ally in the fight against reductivist views like “medical materialism” (which conceives all religious experience to be neural disorders), not against the art of objective inquiry.

Along the same lines, it is telling that James later regretted not re-titling “The Will to Believe” as the “Right to Believe.”  This seminal essay is no license for the arbitrary and the subjective, but simply a justification for believing where time and reason have reached their boundaries as well as the recognition that some truths require us to meet them halfway.  Likewise, if we laugh at James’s lifelong infatuation with psychic phenomenon, we do so by ignoring the spirit in which he approached the subject.  The reality of telekinesis and séances had no more claim for James than any other hypothesis.  “And no less a claim” adds his most recent biographer.[19] 

            James’s most famous statement from The Varieties is that our rational consciousness is separated from other modes of perception only “by the filmiest of screens.”  Against all of the above, this claim takes on yet another layer of significance.  The search for experiences which elude the limits of cognition requires neither an escape into the dogmas of theology nor a defiance of reason.  To live on the frontier where knowledge continually confronts the unfamiliar is, in fact, the very mission and meaning of the scientific life.

            At this point, some might feel that such a life still lacks the depth of experience outlined in the first two sections of this essay.  The purpose of the next section is to provide evidence to the contrary.     


V. A Romantic Naturalist.

            In one of his essays on fallibilism, Peirce describes approvingly Newton’s image of humanity in the age of science.  In contrast to those who know the latter through its effects, we are, according to the British giant of the enlightenment, like children picking up stones off a beach all the while facing an ocean of the unexplored.  The analogy “remains substantially as true as ever,” states Peirce, “and will do so though we shovel up the pebbles by steam shovels and carry them off in car loads.”[20]

            Loren Eiseley, arriving a century after Peirce, would spend a lifetime bearing witness to this same picture.  To read through his works is to be finished once and for all with the stereotype of the scientist as the modern equivalent of the cloistered Scholastic; the arid metaphysician retooling the edges of other men’s systems, though substituting shiny beakers for dusty syllogisms, conquest over nature in place of the great chain of Being.  One will search the pages of his books and essays in vain for even the slightest hint of mastery, whether cognitive or technological.  For here instead is one long record of a mind assessing humanity’s tiny gains against a cosmos bursting out of its comprehension in every imaginable direction.  But equally present is the uprooted and searching character of the human psyche, its tendency to launch itself up the beachfront of discovery and hurtle itself against the far limits of thought.  The anthropologist, according to Eiseley:

…saw life rushing outward from an unknown center, just as today the astronomer senses the galaxies fleeing into the infinity of darkness.  As the spinning galactic clouds hurl stars and worlds across the night, so life, equally impelled by the centrifugal powers lurking in the germ cell, scatters the splintered radiance of consciousness and sends it prowling and contending through the thickets of the world.[21]    


            It is almost a misdiagnosis to attribute literary talent to Eiseley, for these are direct confessions rather than descriptions, and are pregnant with the reality to which they refer.  That the search for objective and confirmable knowledge should be imbued with such passion shocks only those who know next to nothing about the lives of great scientists.  Even when Eiseley is drawing upon other thinkers, we have to remind ourselves that we are reading the work of a naturalist and not religious literature.  Or better:  It is due only to our failure of imagination that we still draw such a distinction.  Here we find a direct, if more eloquent repetition of Peirce’s thoughts on science:

Einstein, it is well known, retained a simple sense of wonder; Newton felt like a child playing with pretty shells on a beach.  All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist.  It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories, that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.[22] 


            Eiseley’s own work vacillates between something resembling a Buddhist-like astonishment before the ineffable and the more somber and steady testimony of the pilgrim.  It is in some places elegiac, even ecstatic, and other places gloomy.  Whether describing how flowers have changed the face of the earth or stammering before the question of the origins of sentient life from inanimate matter (and finding no answer), breadth of information is here married to more than depth of insight:  It includes much that is personal, even heartbreaking.  “Whoever touches this book,” proclaims Walt Whitman, “touches a man.”  As with a great American poet, so with a great American scientist.

            A series of reflections on the ice ages is transformed by Eiseley into a meditation on finitude:

Has the earth’s glacial winter, for all our mastery of science, surely subsided?  No, the geologist would answer.  We merely stand in a transitory spot of sunshine that takes on the illusion of permanence only because the human generations are short.[23]                   


            There is occasionally an apocalyptic feel to Eiseley’s observations.  His infatuation with the ice ages does not end with that long period of history, for dispersed throughout his writings are found intimations of a day when human beings will once again commune with rats and dogs in the rubble of the great cities.  There is indeed profound darkness here, and not only in the unforeseeable future and the half-buried past, but surrounding and enveloping the present.  The unknown creeps just beneath our illusion of control, and seeps through to haunt all that is presumably safe and familiar.

In a way it is the fear of the tide, the night tide, I call it, because that is the way you come to feel it—invisible, imperceptible almost, until it is looked for—and yet, as you grow older you realize that it is always there, swirling like vapor just beyond the edge of the lamp at evening and similarly out to the ends of the universe.  Or at least it gives you that kind of sensation—a need to huddle in somewhere with a light.

Maybe that is the real reason why men string lamps far out into country lanes…[24]             


            There are too many incidents of this otherness in Eiseley’s work to list.  They are typically embodied in our encounters with other species, and always at unexpected moments.  It can be the flurry of snow-white pigeons soaring past a New York City window, or a large and oily rat making a silent but unnerving appearance at a polite dinner party.  “Light the lights, I always say, but I have found that even this is no real security—not in the night.”[25]  His illustrations of the true precariousness and fragility of civilization, of our safety nets and facades of security, reads like a horror novel. 

            But this darkness does not go unmatched in the writing of Eiseley.  On occasion, our meetings with other beings can call out from us moods and states of being which exceed and overflow the requirements of raw survival and instinct.  Sitting upon an abandoned whiskey crate, Eiseley describes a feeling of love reaching out from himself to a number of animals playing on the edge of a beach.  “And the love was meaningless,” he explains, “as the harsh Victorian Darwinists would have understood it or even, equally, those harsh modern materialists.”[26]  Eiseley counts these moments as our only real means of exceeding the boundaries of the mind and the senses, an empathy to bridge our isolation not only from other species, but to distances forever beyond our scope.  There is something neo-Christian in these intuitions, but never severed from his naturalism.  Love, for Eiseley, is never an excuse to exercise artistic license after the substance of an essay is complete.  In what is yet another parallel to other American philosophers, love is no mere human emotion but an evolutionary force, an irreducible principle of nature.[27]     

Beneath these stirring descriptions and narratives is a coherent ontology, a working framework through which Eiseley collects and stratifies his observations and insights.  There is nothing of the tendency to totalize here, no pretenses towards intellectual completion or final explanations.  But this is more than a result of realizing the limits of our knowledge.  It is due to a lifetime of ruminating over the fact of evolution, whether recounting long stretches of his life as a bone hunter or writing books on the explosive impact of Darwin on the intellectual history of the West.[28]

            Eiseley is in good company here; the notion of a fluid cosmos has been a staple of American thought from Emerson to the disciples of Whitehead.  But it is the place of humankind in Eiseley’s scheme which highlights the very real connection between process philosophies and thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.  Humanity itself is a species in the making.  Possessing an unfinished quality, we are ourselves in process, bridges to something else.[29]  While this may sound trite to anyone already exposed to evolution, what is particularly striking is how this transforms us, according to Eiseley, into a kind of pilot project or experimental edge to an ever-changing system of life.  Within each of us is part of that “brooding, but creative void” out of which everything novel emerges.[30] 

            Eiseley’s depiction of the scientific life, even at its most sublime, is never a glorification of its finished results.  Too often, we are obsessed with technology and innovation for shallow, even pathological reasons.  To seek to understand ourselves and the cosmos is one thing, but our era “turns outward, as if in the flight from self of which its rockets have become the symbol.”[31]  There are passages in Eiseley which could have come from Heidegger:  “The roar of jet aircraft, the ugly ostentation of badly designed automobiles, the clatter of the supermarkets could not lend stability nor reality to the world we face.”[32]  At his most effective, we hear our own innermost voices in Eiseley’s condemnation. 

            But there is a difference between Eiseley and philosophers like Heidegger.  Heidegger’s mature thought is anti-science and anti-humanistic in tone and content.  That of Eiseley is a profound humanism, just one bordered on all fronts and invaded by something more.  Eiseley, even at his most otherworldly, seeks to broaden rather than demonize the scientific life: 


I remain oppressed by the thought that the venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with a certain interior expansion, an ever-growing universe within, to correspond with the far flight of the galaxies our telescopes follow from without.[33] 


This is indeed a call for a deeper awareness to accompany our explorations.  But the general tenor of his thought is that such an awareness is made possible through rather than despite our telescopes.  Such an “interior expansion” should include rather than ignore the contributions of philosophers everywhere, integrating their insights within a larger and more inclusive project.  Thinkers like James and Eiseley have incorporated the urge for transcendence without either departing from or degrading the spirit of the empirical sciences. 


Works Cited.


Barrett, William.  Irrational Man.  (1962).  New York:  Anchor Books.


Blood, Benjamin Paul.  Pluriverse; An Essay in the Philosophy of Pluralism.  (1920). 

Boston:  Marshall Jones Company.


Eiseley, Loren.  Darwin’s Century.  (1961).  New York:  Anchor Books.



Eiseley, Loren.  The Firmament of Time.  (1960).  New York:  Atheneum.


Eiseley, Loren.  “The Illusion of the Two Cultures.”  From The Star Thrower.  (1978).  New York:  Times Books.


Eiseley, Loren.  “The Inner Galaxy.”  From The Star Thrower.  (1978).  New York:  Times Books.


Eiseley, Loren.  The Night Country.  (1971).  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press.


Eiseley, Loren.  “The Star Thrower.”  From The Star Thrower.  (1978).  New York:  Times Books.


Eiseley, Loren.  “TheWinter of Man.”  From The Star Thrower.  (1978).  New York:  Times Books.


Heidegger, Martin.  Being and Time.  (Jon Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, trans).  (1962).  Harper and Row:  New York.


Heidegger, Martin.  Der Spiegel Interview.  (Maria P. Alter and John D. Caputo, trans.)  From The Heidegger Controversy (Richard Wolin, ed.)  (1993).  Cambridge:  The MIT Press. 


Heidegger, Martin.  An Introduction to Metaphysics.  (Ralph Manheim, trans.) (1959).  New Haven:  Yale University Press.


James, William.  “A Pluralistic Mystic.”  From Essays in Philosophy.  (1978).  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.


James, William.  A Pluralistic Universe.  (1996).  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press.


James, William.  Pragmatism.  From Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth.  (1975).  Harvard University Press:  Cambridge.


James, William.  Some Problems of Philosophy.  (1996).  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press.


James, William.  The Varieties of Religious Experience.  (1958).  New York:  Mentor.


Kierkegaard, Soren.  Papers and Journals:  A Selection.  (Alastair Hannay, trans.)  (1996).  New York:  Penguin Books.


Kierkegaard, Soren.  Philosophical Fragments.  From Philosophical Fragments; Johannes Climacus.  (Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, ed. and trans.)  (1985).  New Jersey:  Princeton University Press. 


Kierkegaard, Soren.  The Sickness Unto Death.  (Howard Hong and Edna Hong, trans)  (1980).  Princeton University Press:  New Jersey.


Kisiel, Theodore.  The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being & Time.  (1995).  Los Angeles:  University of California Press. 


Otto, Rudolf.  The Idea of the Holy.  (John W. Harvey, trans.)  (1958). 

New York:  Oxford University Press.


Peirce, Charles Sanders.  Philosophical Writings of Peirce.  (Justus Buchler, ed.)  (1955).

New York:  Dover Publications, Inc.


Richardson, Robert D.  William James; In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.  (2006).  New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company.


Tolstoy, Leo.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  (Lynn Solotaroff, trans.)  (1981).  New York:  Bantam Classic.


Whitehead, Alfred North.  Adventures in Ideas.  (1967).  New York:  Free Press.



[1] Rudolf Otto, Idea of the Holy.

[2] Papers and Journals: A Selection, pg. 161.

[3] The Death of Ivan Ilyich, pg. 79.

[4] Ibid, pg. 79.

[5] Concluding Unscientific Postscript, pg. 167.

[6] Ibid, pg. 33.

[7] Ibid, pg. 204.

[8] The Sickness Unto Death, pg. 34.

[9] See Theodore Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time

[10] Der Spiegel Interview (1966).


[11] Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

[12] Pg. 18.

[13] Pragmatism, pg. 20.

[14] Some Problems of Philosophy, pg. 114.

[15] “A Pluralistic Mystic.”  From Essays in Philosophy, pg. 173.

[16] Pluriverse, pg. 80-1. 

[17] Pluriverse, pg. 73.

[18] Ibid, pg. 235.  Blood claims to quote Xenos Clark here, a friend and fellow explorer of the drug experience.  James employs the same quote in The Varieties of Religious Experience (pg. 300), though he attributes the expression to Blood’s “latest pamphlet”: Tennyson’s Trances and the Anaesthetic Revelation. 

[19] The biographer is Robert D. Richardson.  William James; In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, pg. 100.

[20] “The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism”, from the Philosophical Writings of Peirce, pg. 53.

[21] “The Star Thrower.”  From The Star Thrower, pg. 177.

[22]  “The Illusion of Two Cultures.”  From The Star Thrower, pg. 276.

[23] “The Winter of Man.”  From The Star Thrower, pg. 204.

[24] The Night Country, pg. 34.

[25] Ibid, pg. 35.

[26] “The Inner Galaxy.”  From The Star Thrower, pg. 309-11.

[27] See Peirce’s essay  “Evolutionary Love.”

[28] See The Night Country, and Darwin’s Century respectively.

[29] “The creature existing now—this serpent, this bird, this man—has only to leave progeny in order to stretch our a gray, invisible hand into the evolutionary future, into the nonexistent.”  “The Lethal Factor” from The Starthrower, pg. 252.

[30] The Night Country, pg. 195-6.  In a similar spirit, Whitehead states:  “It is a false dichotomy to think of Nature and Man.  Mankind is the factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of nature.”  Adventures of  Ideas, pg. 78.

[31] The Night Country, pg. 72.

[32] The Firmament of Time, pg. 129.

[33] “The Inner Galaxy”, from The Star Thrower, pg. 298.