Updated: May 29, 2022
Alan Chadwick and the Arcadian Garden: A Memoir and a Tribute
by Paul A. Lee
Platonic Academy Press 131 Spring St. Santa Cruz, California 95060
1997, for Charlene over a caffe latte
to be read as an online accompaniment to [amazon asin=1583945598&text=THERE IS A GARDEN IN THE MIND], Alan Chadwick and the Origins of the Organic Movement in California,
by Paul A. Lee North Atlantic Press, Berkeley, California, 2013
“Nature, too, mourns for a lost good.” - Schelling
Alan Chadwick and the Salvation of Nature was the working title of the book I intended to write about the UCSC Garden Project, until I changed my mind. It led me down a garden path I had misgivings about. I was afraid of losing my way. I was inspired by a sermon with that title by my teacher, Paul Tillich: “The Salvation of Nature”. He made reference to the then newly formed science of survival and the endangerment of just about everything–the end of nature and the end of us. It was the late ’50’s, when scientists announced the formation of such a group, as if science could get us out of the fix, although even they must have had doubts about any recovery given the responsibility science has for the predicament. It must have confirmed for Tillich his description of “the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society”, a phrase I learned from him that became, for me, a kind of negative mantra, a fancy way of referring to an obsessive preoccupation–the fate of the social order I had to call my own. Tillich makes clear that the scientists didn’t mean the survival of humans, or the survival of endangered species, or the oceans, or the forests, or the air–they meant the survival of the earth as we know it, our planet, largely ruled, as it is, by industrial society. It meant the fall of a very large order–bigger than the Roman Empire.
Tillich mentions how the first time things turned sour, in the Biblical myth of the flood, God regretted–the word used is “repented”– what had come to pass with creation and caused a flood to wipe out almost everything; now, this time, we are doing it to ourselves. It is the Flood the second time around with ourselves to blame. Tillich was the only one I knew who used the phrase–“the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society”–our society–what he called “the world above the given world of nature”, long before the science of survival was proposed or environmental awareness had taken on anything like a national character, after the Earth Day event in 1970.
His formulation stuck in my mind. As a world above the given world of nature, industrial society is a sub-world, a reduced world, where science and technology are in charge as agents of self-destruction, under the ideological sway of Physicalism, the opponent of Vitalism. Physicalism is the reduction of everything to physical and chemical properties; Vitalism argues for the integrity of organic nature against the reduction. Physicalism defeated Vitalism in the early 19th century and now Vitalism has re-appeared in the environmental movement and a host of allied movements, what could be called a Neo-Vitalist revolution. The struggle has been re-enjoined even though Physicalists, or most scientists, having enjoyed a century and more of victorious rule, are reluctant to admit it. They see themselves as servants of industrial society devoted to its continuation, no matter what the cost. Universities are where these servants of industrial society are trained.
This is a bleak view. No wonder that instead of destined to direct history we think it our fate to suffer it.
The Chadwick Garden opened my eyes to the bleak view of the deep conflict in the culture–industrial society and organic nature. Two trends in the history and philosophy of science–Physicalism and Vitalism turned out for me to be the best way to conceptualize this conflict.
I needed a key to exemplify the historical process of self-destruction in order to account for it, a descriptive case that told the story. I found it in the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict, a major issue in the history and philosophy of science, now largely forgotten or simply taken for granted.
The Physicalist takeover (1828) and the attempted and largely accomplished elimination of Vitalism, reveals the full scale of the predicament we are in. It was the major lesson I learned from the Chadwick Garden Project. The Physicalist take-over, in league with industrial society, still determines what counts for knowledge. Much of what follows will be devoted to describing and interpreting this conflict.
A line from Schelling stuck in my mind: “Nature, too, mourns for a lost good.” It was the line that came to me when I was told that Chadwick had died. He was the lost good. Tillich, a devoted student of Schelling, used to talk about how nature, as well as human beings, participated in the Fall. When God made the covenants, God made one with nature, as well as with human beings. The universe, as we know it, is involved in the dynamics of self-destruction or what the Bible calls the wrath of God. It is a larger theological issue than just the fate of industrial society, as a world above the given world of nature. The Greek word for the wrath of God, driving us to our self-destruction, is thymos, an old Homeric word, meaning wrath, rage, as well as courage and vitality. It is best symbolized by fire. In the biblical usage, it is our vitality directed against ourselves, driving us to self-destruction. It has prompted me to think about the tragedy of culture as the history of self-destruction, where all our effort, all our striving, stands under the curse of the Preacher–vanity.
The Apostle Paul had a lyrical vision of the bondage of nature under the curse of vanity–all creation groans with eager longing for redemption from decay and shares with us the message of salvation: it is a cosmic message. We know this groaning with sighs too deep for words.
I thought of the words of Schelling and the vision of the Apostle Paul when I got the word of Chadwick’s death. I was on the phone with Baker-roshi, my Zen priest friend and Abbott of Zen Center, who had taken Alan in to care for him after Alan had become ill with cancer, and he told me Alan had died. I put the phone down and was swept out of my home on a rush of mourning, a trajectory of some irresistible force that shot through me, as I burst out of the front door and into the front yard, where an invisible sky-hook came down and picked me up into the air for one enormous somersault of death, and then let me down again. In this burst of grief, this paroxysm of nature, I knew what nature had lost.
I have thought a lot about the salvation of nature and how bleak the prospect looks, so I dropped it from my title in favor of another image of nature–the Arcadian garden and the affirmation included in the slogan: Et in Arcadia Ego. After all, it was the slogan we had taken for our garden at the university, derived from Goethe’s “Italian Journey”, a motto from the 18th century, a retrospective affirmation of the goodness and sweetness of life. I wanted to express my gratefulness for the renewed affirmation many of us found in Chadwick’s gardens where ancient themes were restored and renewed. This is the power gardens have over us, because the garden is the symbol of the salvation of nature, where paradise is remembered and anticipated. Gardens are affirmations of the goodness of creation.
Tillich knew how to put it:
“The “garden” is the place where the curse upon the land is overcome. In it vegetable nature is liberated from chaos and self-destruction; “weed” there is none. This “”garden of the gods,” of which every human garden is a symbol and an anticipation, will reappear in the salvation of nature.”
Paul Tillich: The Meaning of Health
Chadwick’s Arcadian Garden was the place where the original affirmation of the unambiguous goodness of creation was made again–he gave us all a second chance. It was definitely a place where nature was healed, as well as those who practiced the method –I saw that with my own eyes and experienced it myself. Nevertheless, Chadwick, a force-fit almost everywhere he went, was most definitely a force-fit at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Force-fit is a pun, especially for those who suffered the brunt of Chadwick’s temper tantrums, the force of his fits. And yet, over forty years later, in spite of all odds against it, the Chadwick Garden is still there, albeit an unintegrated appendage to the University; a mute but eloquent testimony to the unresolved character of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict.
This story is the fate of organic nature generally–this fate of a Garden Project at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I tried to write this material in a conventional book form but I found that my mind skips unaccountably, otherwise known as free association and I always wound up with multiple books in a jumbled mess. The interview form released me from the serial order of paragraphs into chapters. I could just let it flow in response to simple questions I could put to myself. It made things easy because I knew all the answers. And I could speak in my personal voice rather than the neutrality of academic prose, although there is still plenty of that. (I am happy to note that the book: There Is A Garden In the Mind, Alan Chadwick and the Origins of the Organic Movement in California, will be published this year, 2009, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Chadwick’s birth, 1909.)
I could have concentrated exclusively on Chadwick and his work. I know that this aspect has been submerged in my own narrative of his influence on my life and thought which takes up the greater part of this interview. I hope the spirit he brought to Santa Cruz and transmitted to me is expressed in all I have to say in this tribute to him and this memoir of mine.
There are many acknowledgments to make. I hardly know where to begin. Thanks to everyone who has played a part in this effort to renew the integrity of organic nature in the glory of gardens. Never give up hope in the ultimate fulfillment of the Arcadian and Edenic paradise in the promise of the salvation of nature.
On the Interview
The interview was conducted from December, 1995, to April, 1997. It bears the brunt of that historical period with projects underway that never came to fruition, such as Ecotopia, a design strategy for the new millennium for Santa Cruz. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
Paul Lee was educated at St. Olaf College, where he studied philosophy with Howard Hong. He attended Luther Theological Seminary and the University of Minnesota and received his divinity degree (S.T.B.) and PhD from Harvard. He taught at Harvard in the humanities program and was Paul Tillich’s Teaching Assistant (1960–62). He has taught at MIT, UCSC, and as guest lecturer at a number of colleges and universities. He was denied tenure at UCSC, for not publishing, when Page Smith, who came to his defense, resigned in protest. They formed the William James Association, a nonprofit corporation, in Santa Cruz, in 1972, devoted to voluntary work service as a moral equivalent of war. Page Smith died in 1995.
Paul Lee was a member of the Board of the Citizens Committee for the Homeless, which he began in 1985, with Page Smith and Paul Pfotenhauer, now the Homeless Services Center. The Paul Lee Loft is named for him and provides shelter for over forty homeless clients.
He is Executive Director of United Services Agency, which he began in 1970, with the Rev. Herb Schmidt. He has scored Santa Cruz as Ecotopia, the ideal point of destination for the eco-tourist, a design strategy for the new millennium, with the aim of solving the problem of homelessness. This has not come to realization.
He has written two books on the homeless issue: The Quality Of Mercy, and Florence the Goose, both published by the Platonic Academy Press. He is finishing his book on Chadwick: There Is A Garden In the Mind, which should appear in late 2009, to celebrate the centennial of Chadwick’s birth. He has written a play: A Lullaby For Wittgenstein, which he has submitted to the Yale Drama Competition (2009) and he has almost completed his book on faith: Paul’s Letter to the Athenians, the letter St. Paul wished he had written but didn’t. He is working on a number of projects for his website, Ecotopia.org., with his grand daughter, Camille Zajac, Evan Schaffer and Bradley Allen.
He lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, Charlene, and happily gardens in his backyard, where the Tower of Jewels he got from Roy Rydell (Echium) have almost taken over. He still lives under the motto: Et in Arcadia Ego, which, roughly translated, means: Let my garden be my grave.
Et In Arcadia Ego
Trees, plants and flowers—of virtuous root: Gem yielding blossom, yielding fruit,
Choice gums and precious balm;
Bless ye the nosegay of the vale,
And with the sweetness of the gale
Enrich the thankful psalm.
Christopher Smart from A Song To David
The text for the Trial Proof for Alan Chadwick and Paul Lee of the UC Santa Cruz Student Garden Project - "A Broadside designed by Jack Stauffacher"
22 Jan. ’72 The Greenwood Press
Where did you first meet Alan Chadwick?
We met at the Cowell College Fountain, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, sometime in the Spring of 1967. It would be better to ask what it was like–he hit me like a ton of bricks, although the impact was felt later, partly because of the force of his temper, which did not show up right away. Freya Von Moltke warned me about it. He was impressive. A great shock of hair, fine features, enormous hands, tall and dramatic in bearing, he carried himself like a ballet dancer. In terms of looks, he was a cross between Samuel Beckett, Ronald Reagan, and Danny Kaye. He was a stickler for deportment and elocution, because he had been a professional actor on the British stage and toured with a theatre company in South Africa. For some who weren’t taken in by him he was a complete ham. He appeared to be in awe of professors but it was more of an act, a kind of formal deferential courtesy. He always made a point of calling me “Professor Lee”; privately, his nickname for me was “Sausage”, a term popular among actors, which I detested.
How did you meet?
I had started a Garden Project, completely off the top of my head. I must have anticipated meeting Chadwick; it’s the only reason I can think of why I had the impulse. “Impulse” is a lead word in the Rudolf Steiner vocabulary and Chadwick gardened in the Steiner tradition of Biodynamics, so the word easily comes to mind. Chadwick turned out to be the “imp” in that impulse, let me tell you. I thought of certain influences later that had some bearing on the impulse. I wasn’t really interested in gardening, although “Flower Power” was in the air, wafting down from Haight Ashbury. I was interested in the idea of a garden. I was busy teaching philosophy, religious studies and the History of Consciousness, an innovative graduate program, but something, an impulse, prompted me to found a garden on the campus: The Student Garden Project.
So you acted on the impulse?
I organized a walk with the Chancellor–Dean McHenry–who turned out to be an old farm boy, whose father planted by the moon; he was sympathetic and willing to play along. We went for a walk through part of the campus with about seventy-five people to look for a possible garden site. I remember carrying my daughter, Jessica, on my shoulders. It was the first time we walked out behind the campus into the rough and beautiful landscape that had been fenced off with No Trespassing signs.
And then Chadwick arrived, as though on schedule?
Weeks later, on schedule, indeed, the fulfillment and the reason for my impulse. I wanted a garden and here came the gardener, as if providentially arranged.
Who told you about him?
Countess Freya Von Moltke, who was visiting the campus.
Who is Freya Von Moltke?
She is a very special person, the widow of Helmuth Von Moltke, the great resister to Hitler, who was executed near the end of the war for conspiring about the future of Germany in the famous Kreisau Circle. She heard I wanted to start a garden and Chadwick was on the way to visit her in Santa Cruz. She said: “I hear you want to start a garden.” I said, “Yes, Countess.” So she told me a remarkable man who was a gardener was coming and she would set up a meeting with Chadwick the day he arrived for his visit.
They were friends?
They had known one another in South Africa, where Freya fled after the fall of Germany, at the end of the Second World War. Chadwick was at the Admiralty Gardens in Cape Town, if I remember correctly. Freya gave him to me as a gift and he was received in the same spirit. I had no plan, no resources, I thought the thing would spontaneously combust and we’d have a garden. And it did. Chadwick was the spontaneous combustion.
Can you point to the influences working on you?
There were three that come to mind:
1. George Huntston Williams had been my Church History professor at Harvard Divinity School and he had written a book: Wilderness and Paradise, tracing the motifs of desert and garden in the history of Western thought with sources in the Bible. I helped him a little and he mentioned my name in his acknowledgments, the first time my name appeared in print. The second half of the book is about the origins of higher education in America, acting out the motifs of wilderness and garden, when pioneers from the East Coast went out into the wilderness to sow the seeds of a garden and start a school. So the book is a scenario of what happened historically as a result of the biblical themes. I wanted to plant a garden on this new campus to commemorate the origins of a school in this spirit. I had no idea what I was up against.
2. Donald Nicholl and I shared an office at Cowell College in the fall of 1966. He was a visiting professor of history from England and had a rare sense of the fate of the human spirit at an institution like UCSC. He worried about how any kind of real community could happen under the reign of the obtuse bureaucrat and bent upon the training of servants for industrial society. He gave a lecture: “A Sense of Place” about the British poet and artist, David Jones, and it had an impact on me in its relevance for Santa Cruz. We had a long talk before he left to return to England about how “lacerated” he was, in the sense of Dostoievsky, over the spiritual vacuity of the campus. He planted the seed.
3. Page Smith was the deep motivational source, the guiding spirit of Cowell College, where I taught the first year before moving to Crown College. He was the reason Freya Von Moltke was visiting the campus, but there is a long story here which I will go into later. It goes back to the Civilian Conservation Corps and Camp William James, a leadership training camp for the Corps, where Page was the Director, in 1940. At UCSC, Page was a major influence in his bearing on the spirit of the place: he put his stamp on Cowell College as the first Provost of the first college. We had a five year grace period and then the institution clicked into place–it was almost perceptible.
What do you mean by “the click”?
I had the same experience of “the click” when I read: The Way Of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler. There is a moment in the novel where your worst fears are realized, a perceptible click, when the children of the parents, so vital and spontaneous in their youth, suddenly become as restricted and repressed as the adults. Donald Nicholl intuited and predicted this “click” and he was right. It can happen’ to institutions just as it happens to people. Max Weber called it the “routinization of charisma”.
Was there anything to prepare you for this experience?
I remember talking to someone at the Harvard Coop about going to Santa Cruz to teach and he asked: Do you know anything about the California ssssystem?” He hissed the ‘s’, as though it was a snake in the grass. I said “no”. It was my first warning.
What prepared you for wanting to start a garden?
I come from Norwegian immigrant farmers, my ethnic background on my father’s side, although I was a city boy, raised in Milwaukee, with no ostensible affinity for gardening, let alone farming, although farming left an indelible impression on my father. It formed him in a way that never left him even though he became a doctor.
Do you regret it–joining the faculty of UCSC and eventually being denied tenure?
Of course, it ruined my academic career. Once bounced, it is almost impossible to find another job–the denial of tenure becomes a stigma. Page Smith, as I said, departed with me in 1972, so that was a consolation. We thought the Garden Project should have been equal to a bad book, in terms of publish or perish, but we were wrong. Years later, Page wrote Killing the Spirit, his indictment of higher education. We were on the same wave length on that one, along with our colleague, Mary Holmes, Professor of Art History at UCSC. She was also part of the Chadwick network and we eventually formed a trio, leading a downtown discussion group called the Penny University, which Page and I started, over twenty years ago, in 1973. Now Jim Bierman, Professor of Theatre Arts, has joined us, after Page’s and Mary’s death.
How was Mary Holmes part of the Chadwick network?
She gave Chadwick his first place when she was living out on Empire Grade. A small cottage. It was perfect for him. Then he bounced about until he found a more permanent place, although Chadwick was impossible to live with. The University eventually gave him an apartment at Cowell College. He acted up. Whenever you flushed the toilet, for instance, the noise in the pipes was orchestrated just to set Chadwick off, he couldn’t stand the sound of the water flowing through the pipes. A faculty couple we know, with two boys, lived in the apartment upstairs from Chadwick. He terrorized them if they flushed the toilet after 5:00 pm. It was absurd. She was the only one I know who said “Good” when I told her Chadwick had died.
But you were very moved by his death?
He had a Pieta of Raphael and a Shakespeare Sonnet, Number 15, pinned up next to his bed.
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay, To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.
He put up a vase of flowers and kneeled down next to the bed to pray. And he died.
So there were all these connections?
I can easily catalogue them. Let’s give it a try. Page and Eloise Smith, Donald and Dorothy Nicholl, Roy and Francis Rydell, Jack and Josephine Stauffacher and The Greenwood Press. Eva Fosselius. Michael Stusser. John Powell. Phil Armour. Stephen Decatur. Rory. Jim and Beth Nelson. Michael Zander. Kate Stafford. Will David. Tom Whitridge. Ann Arnold. Ann Fabian. Angie Kuper. Linda Jolly. Ramon Chavez. John Dotter. Chris and Stefanie. Jodi. Agaja. Allen York. Craig Siska. Putney and Perry. Alfred Heller. Filoli. Sim Van der Ryn. The Farallones Institute. Sunset Magazine. Huey Johnson and Nature Conservancy. Richard Wilson and Covelo. Betty Peck and Saratoga. Bernard Taper and the New Yorker Magazine. John Jeavons and Ecology Action. Francis Edmunds and Emerson College. The Homeless Garden Project. The Farm Apprentice Training Program. Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. The Greens and Deborah Madison. E. F. Schumacher. Edmund Brown, Jr. Frank Davidson. The Civilian Conservation Corps. Boyd Homer. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Freya Von Moltke. Rolf and Elsa Von Eckartsberg. Camp William James. The Peace Corps. The Zen Center. Richard Baker. Virginia Baker. Acacia. Wendy. Sir George Trevelyan. Paolo Soleri. Paul Hawkin. Stuart Brand. The Whole Earth Catalog. Louis and Virgina Saso. Kent Taylor of Taylor’s Herb Garden. Fukuoka. Robert Rodale. Wendall Berry. Jim Robertson and the Yolla Bolly Press. The Wild Thyme Restaurant. The Whole Earth Restaurant. Count Helmuth Von Moltke. Kreisau, Pudleston, Richard Senior, etc.
It turns out to be a big memory network and these are names that just come to mind in the moment. I’m so sorry I can’t remember everyone. They know who they are. And I don’t know the half of it. These are all connections I could draw and everyone has their story.
Didn’t Findhorn–the famous garden in Scotland–also begin out of a Steiner impulse about the same time?
Did you ever think of yourselves as Findhorn West because of the tie to Rudolf Steiner and Biodynamics?
Of course, but only later. We didn’t know about Findhorn at the time. Chadwick kept quiet about Steiner, although his influence was indicated through Biodynamics. Francis Edmunds visited a number of times. He was the Principal of Emerson College, the Rudolf Steiner College, in Forest Row, England, where they had a biodynamic training center under Koepf. So that was more of a professional tie than Findhorn. In 1976, I was in residence at Emerson for a month and gave lectures. They sat in stunned silence for a very long time after I gave my Physicalist/Vitalist spiel, showing where Steiner fit in the historical context of the defeat of Vitalism, which made a big impression on me. It was the most amazing response I have ever had.
Was there any reciprocity between The Garden Project and Emerson?
We eventually sent student apprentices there for additional training.
But no interchange with Findhorn?
We didn’t know about Findhorn, even though we were contemporaries. It was a kind of morphic resonance, I suppose. They were more airy-fairy, with devas lurking behind the plants and huge vegetables you could choke on. We were more practical and had to cope with a fairly conventional academic institution, although UCSC had a reputation for being far-out. We were the far-out, I’m afraid, even though we played down the Steiner connection for political reasons. Even so, we were branded as a cult, just because Chadwick planted by the moon and eschewed the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in his affirmation of the organic in his use of compost for soil fertility. That’s how ideologically touchy it was. It was Paul Hawkin who wrote the book on Findhorn and then when he located in San Francisco, took an interest in Chadwick and decided to start Smith and Hawkin in order to import the Bulldog tools Chadwick used.
You mean just launching an organic garden was far-out?
An Agriculturalist Emeritus, that’s how he signed it, which I took to mean ‘Old Fart’, wrote a letter to the Vice-Chancellor of Agricultural Sciences at UC, complaining about a cult that had fixed itself on the campus at Santa Cruz and wanted it shut down immediately because they didn’t use chemicals which was against the scientific approach the University was supposed to promote. The Vice- Chancellor, I think his name was Kendrick, wrote back and said it would be a better learning experience not to shut it down but to let the students watch stuff die because they didn’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. I thought that was pretty Solomonic.
But Chadwick employed another system as well: the French Intensive.
The French Intensive system was almost a shield or screen for the Biodynamic aspect. Steiner is like a carefully guarded secret you only find out about if you are interested in the occult or the esoteric, which means digging under the surface. It is an interesting issue, now that I think about it, as it relates to the discussion of “occultation” in Heidegger’s discussion of the Greek word for truth–aletheia--which he translates as “unconcealedness”, an almost unintelligible English rendering, although it simply means that what is revealed is still concealed, if you can take that in, as if remembering what is still forgotten or mostly forgotten. “Garbled” might be an interesting way of putting it. “Lost in translation”. Hide and seek. Anyhow, the Steiner system was definitely an occultation, with the French Intensive acting as a front. It was a great amalgamation of two systems.
So the scientific establishment at the University would have opposed, in principle, any “occultation” no matter how effective or meaningful, especially an occult form of food and flower production.
You would think they could have chilled out over that one, but not so. I laugh now over a surreptitiously occult garden sneaking in under the unsuspecting noses of the Physicalists, most of the scientists on the campus, who were sleeping at the switch.
What do you mean?
Well, I remember going to dinner at a colleague’s home and a chemist, one of the guests, stepped it off with me as we proceeded in to dinner and telling me that the garden had done more to ruin the cause of science than anything else on the campus. I was dumbfounded. What was the cause of science that an organic garden should ruin it? I would like to underline the importance of this moment because of the consequences as it sent me into a lifelong quest for the answer. I know now what I would have answered then. It was the first moment in my eventual discovery of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict. I’ll bet he was an organic chemist, complaining about an organic garden as if he owned the word, which is the argument between Physicalism and Vitalism. So you have to understand the rubrics of the argument to catch the drift–the two paradigms in conflict–the Physicalist and the Vitalist–personified by the experimental laboratory organic chemist and the organic gardener.
You mean Kenneth Thimann and Chadwick?
Exactly. One was my boss at Crown College–an internationally renowned experimental laboratory botanist and the other was the organic gardener I had hired. One had won at the expense of the other–historically– and grave and disastrous consequences followed for all concerned. Thimann represented the Physicalist botanist and chemist and Chadwick the Vitalist organic gardener. They embodied the two conflicting paradigms. The conflict has a clearly delineated history. I have studied it for a long time: the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict in the system of the sciences, from 1828 to the present, although it has earlier roots in Galileo and the rise of modernity, when mathematical physics began to call the shots, by way of the mathematization of nature, carried through from Galileo by Descartes and Newton and the rest of the early Physicalists.
So the garden opened up a critical view of modern science?
That it did, indeed. I don’t mind science as science, which I define in a large sense as ruled cognition, cognitive work with propositional content, but the definition of science has hardened into experimental laboratory protocols under the pressure of the immense success of physics and chemistry, in alliance with mathematics, the so-called hard sciences. This is the reference point for what counts for knowledge ever since the Physicalist takeover. Every other kind of knowledge is a descending path from there. You begin to lose your way in the social sciences and by the time you get to the humanities, forget about it. It’s like climbing the Tower of Babel, or the Pit of Babel, as in Kafka?s Parables.
The natural sciences? Why `natural’?
“Natural” is a little misleading, isn’t it? Especially if you know their role in undermining organic nature. A sea change occurred in the definition of nature under the influence of modern natural science. They should be called the Material Sciences. It would go a long way to clearing up the confusion.
What would that sea change be?
Originally, nature, the Greek word physis or phusis, meant “what grows”, what emerges in organic nature, a garden, a plantation. I first learned this from Rosenstock-Huessy in a section on “Nature”, in an essay on “Liturgical Thinking”:
“Physic meant “plantation” in Greek; Plato called God a planter or physis! The word comes from a verb, which means “living growth”! Physics, however, in the Renaissance, became what it is today: the science of dead matter. For the first time in the history of thought, dead matter was held to have preceded living growth. In a living universe, too, we may have to cope with corpses. But the mechanical “natural science” after 1500 tried to explain life out of its corpses by making nature primarily a concept of dead mass in space! Only recently have we discovered that the term “nature” between 1500 and 1900 was used in a sense or with an accent unheard in any other epoch: mass, quantity, space, i.e., dead things, filled the foreground of scientific thought. Physics was held to “explain” chemistry, chemistry biology, biology psychology, psychology theology! Dead things were to explain the living. This new horrid degradation of the term “nature” itself made all personality values appear as the result of some drop of adrenalin in the glands.” p. 3
To continue the line of thought, hyle, the word for matter, which is what underlies physis, originally meant forest. The latter I learned from a remarkable book: Forests, by Robert Pogue Harrison. Even he has to press home the point when he says:
“Let us repeat that: hyle is the Greek word for forest.”
These are such important steps rather buried in linguistic considerations that bells and whistles should go off emphasizing the points. I hope you see what I mean. After Newton and Galileo and the new physics of the Renaissance, the word nature–took on what appears to be an opposite meaning: nature took on the meaning of “dead things in space”, under the influence of geometry, where Galileo is the reference point. So the word for nature, a plantation, physis, becomes dead things in space, mathematical physics, and the word for forest, hyle, becomes matter, the underlying dead stuff of the dead things in space, a kind of dead substratum. If you can digest this issue without spitting it out you have one of the cenral points in my line. Then came Organic Chemistry, with the fatal blow, the argument that synthetics or laboratory productions, are equal to what is produced by organic nature. You see, once dead things in space took hold, they started making them in labs, and then in factories, also known as “plants”. Factories are called plants as a result of this seachange in terminology and perception. You can hardly keep a straight face.
So this is at the basis, this conflict in definition, of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict?
To go back to the first paragraph in the quotation from Rosenstock-Huessy which we could pause for a long time, to reflect on what he says, echoed in countless other passages by other authors. The science of dead matter needs elucidation which is easy to give. My favorite source is the book by E. A. Burtt: The Metaphysical Origins of Modern Science. You see, so much of this is buried in the literature. You can tease it out and find the pithy quotes to elucidate the case but you have to retrieve them from their context. The shift of meaning in given words, as described, with the key terms, physis and hyle, tells the tale. Who controls the definitions? Who decides? What side do you take in the conflict over meaning and the conflict in interpretation? Take the following as an example. I worried about this conflict in interpretation when I entered the herbal industry as a second career after leaving the University. Physic is an old word for medicine or herbal therapy, which still carries the old meaning of natural products of organic nature that cure and heal. And materia medica was another one, an old term for herbal medicine. Why materia? Harrison answered that for me, as well. Here is what he says:
“Yet there is one word that Aristotle could not avoid using when he spoke about the unspeakable–hyle. He is the first to give the word its philosophical meaning of “matter.” But hyle in Greek does not originally mean matter, it means forest. The cognate of hyle in Latin is silva. The archaic Latin word was sylua, phonetically close to hyle. It is strange that the Romans should have translated the Aristotelian hyle with the word materia when the Latin language possessed such a cognate. But even the word materia did not stray very far from the forests. Materia means wood–the usable wood of a tree as opposed to its bark, fruit, sap, etc. And materia has the same root–yes, root–as the word mater, or mother.” (p.28).
I also noticed the point in a book that means a lot to me in my work on Santa Cruz as ecotopia: The Architecture of Paradise, by William Alexander McClung:
“Hyle, Aristotle’s term for the chaos that is informed by nous, or mind, literally means “forest”, so Virgil … signifies by silva a psychic realm of violent and primitive passions.” p. 16.
There is a line of thought that goes something like this–when we moved out of the forest and founded cities, the forests became the forbidden place of the fearsome, the uncanny, the demon haunted. In fact, the psychic realm represented by forests is thymos and epithymia, the dynamic realm of the passions which have to be repressed and suppressed in city life in order for people to order their lives. This is the remarkable line of thought developed by Harrison in his book. I was delighted to read about this meaning of hyle as I had guessed this or intuited it when I was trying to think of hyle as `root’, in terms of the “vital roots” of herbal medicine. I picked up the thread when I tried to think about the meaning of “materia medica“, the traditional term for herbal medicine: the hyle of the physic. Why materia, I thought. It was as though I could hear these old connotations reverberating in the word. Medicinal herbs are the vital roots of what grows in the forests. And I would like to add here that Aristotle’s father was an herbalist and a court physician so that Aristotle learned about materia medica, or herbal medicine, from his father and carried it into his thought which is materially grounded in the nature of things, the famous conflict between Aristotle and Plato on the problem of mathematical forms which Aristotle is said to have brought down to earth from Plato’s heaven of ideas. I blush to admit that I have been working on an herbal cookbook in the tradition of Aristotle: Being and Thyme. I have hoped to spark a new national cuisine based on culinary herbs where herbs are featured instead of throwaway accompaniments, like parsley.
So just as the Latin binomials for medicinal herbs gave you the legendary origins of the herbal tradition in Ancient Greece, you have also found the key terms in the shift of meanings according to your theme.
And don’t forget–thymos–my guardian word in all of this etymological retrieval.
So this shift is what you call a move from an ontology of life to an ontology of death?
Yes, terms I picked up from Hans Jonas and Tillich. They make the same point when they refer to the elimination of psyche from psychology under the sway of reductive behaviorism.
You seem to be interested in the history of conflicts: organic gardening versus laboratory chemistry, herbal medicine versus industrial or synthetic medicine, and so on.
Conflicts tell the story. In a way, the old conflicts between the oral and the rational/literate cultures, the conflict between poetry and philosophy, the conflict between “the ancients” and “the moderns”, the conflict between sapientia (wisdom) and scientia (science), the conflict between the so-called cultural or spiritual sciences (geisteswissenschaften) and the natural sciences (naturwissenschaften), as well as what is called the warfare between science and religion, are involved here. It is a big debate. These conflicts represent the larger theoretical level. I like bringing it down to the case level of Physicalism and Vitalism in terms of the content of the structure of scientific revolutions when the major revolt in the early decades of the l9th century took place, say, with the formation of the Physicalist Society in Berlin, on the heels of the artificial synthesis of urea.
Sounds like the old C. P. Snow routine on the “two cultures” conflict.
This is the best example of the larger theoretical level, which never got to the historical case. In other words, the old two-culture debate that C.P. Snow made famous is where the scientific hegemony erupted and the debate was enjoined, except Snow turned it around and made the humanities guys feel ashamed because they didn’t keep up with the developments of science. They didn’t know the third law of thermodynamics. Now there is a whole school of literature and science to make up for this and it is an interesting development. Marjorie Nicholson was an early anticipation of this. But Snow touched the nerve of the issue and it was a cause celebre for a while even though the discussion never cut to the quick, but remained on the academic level of the sciences versus the humanities. I saw all this at first hand when I taught humanities at M.I.T.
So you are really interested in the political ideology of science.
All of this is germane in terms of a big discussion of what counts for knowledge and who counts! Snow was talking about University culture where the split and the consequent disadvantages are most pronounced–the split between the humanities and the natural sciences, with the social sciences as a kind of disputed buffer in between. The takeover by the Physicalists was so wholesale no one seems to notice anymore. Why shouldn’t it be obvious to everyone how knowledge is organized and structured at a University and the power relations that this entails, as well as the history of it? Well, it isn’t. In spite of all the effort to expose it, there is a kind of conspiracy of silence–the show must go on, although there is a growing literature on the subject now that institutions of higher learning have turned into research centers. A recent book: The Last Professor tells the story even though it is still a story to be told, although there have been a lot of stabs at it. The contraries line up in such a way as to expose the problem–Physicalist/Vitalist; experimental lab/botanic garden; artificial synthesis/organic nature, the sciences versus the humanities, etc.
Is there a tell-tale reference point in the story?
The artificial synthesis of urea, in 1828, has been the classic reference point as the historical triumph of Physicalism over Vitalism. There is a straight line from there to the “elimination of metaphysics” by the Logical Positivists in the philosophy of Physicalism, a slogan that became their battlecry, a clever move to mask their own metaphysical position and to assume the argument with Vitalism was won as a foregone conclusion.
Hold on. You jump from an experiment in chemistry and the origins of what is called Organic Chemistry to Logical Positivism.
Can you give a little background?
They are directly related. The urea experiment is credited with the defeat of Vitalism. That is the main historic point. It takes almost a century for the philosophical foundations of the experiment to show up in the school of the Vienna Circle under Carnap, a kind of mop-up of the gains of Physicalism. The movement goes from the Physicalist Society in Berlin to the Logical Positivists in Vienna. Logical Positivism is just another name for the Philosophy of Physicalism, which is how the Circle members thought of themselves. They were in charge. They were going to establish the foundations of modern science on a system of mathematical logic to which all right thinking scientists could subscribe–it was the 20th century version of a ma thesis universalis, an effort begun by Leibniz and Descartes to develop a universal calculus or system of signs on which to ground the sciences in terms of a mathematical foundation.
So the Logical Positivists play a key role in your sketch.
They have always represented to me the hardening of the arteries of the Physicalist position, so they are a good place to look as a reference for the Physicalist victory over Vitalism, which is what the Positivists meant regarding the elimination of metaphysics. For metaphysics read Vitalism. They tried to shift the argument to mathematical logic which hardly anyone understands. It was like Von Neumann telling Shannon to use the term “entropy” in information theory because no one knew what it meant and he would always have an advantage in any discussion.
The irony is that the Positivists hosted Kurt Godel, as a student in their midst, who wrecked their whole program with his undermining the foundations of mathematics, which, according to the expectations of the Physicalists, was going to provide the ssure and certain foundation for a unified science. Godel pulled the rug out from under their pretensions with his incompleteness theorems and his undecidability problem. He’s one of my heroes. I corresponded with him and even talked to him on the telephone in a memorable conversation.
I can see that we are going to have to unpack much of this, which for you seems obvious, but for the uninitiated is pretty obscure. We don’t have to go into it now, but be prepared to elaborate on the points you make. You jumped rather fast from the reference point–the artificial synthesis of urea–to Godel?
I know. I have lectured on this for so long it is second nature to me. The sequence is very clear and I can delineate the moves, as well as the supporting literature. It is the consequence of decades of study on my part–it is my line of thought. The whole point of this book, this interview, is to get it off my chest. Books are divestitures. I’ve been carrying this load for a long time.
It interests me that you talked to Godel? Before you answer, I think it should be mentioned that Kurt Godel, who, as you say, came out of the Logical Positivist Circle under Carnap, was probably the foremost mathematical logician of the 20th century You called him at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Research?
Yes. I had already written to him after I was told he had formulated a new proof for the existence of God, in the tradition of Leibniz. I had heard about it from Jay Greenberg, a mathematician friend at Crown College, at UCSC. I can still remember the moment when we were chatting in the hallway outside the steno pool and he told me Godel had developed a new proof for the existence of God. It had a great impact on me.
What year was it?
The year was 1970. I immediately realized “Godel’s Proof “ could make existence a predicate again, and refute Kant, who more or less commanded the field with his view that existence is not a predicate so there were no valid logical proofs for the existence of God, given the finite limitations of the human mind.
This sounds like a technical problem within philosophy–logical proofs for the existence of God. I don’t see what you mean by Kant’s notion that existence is not a predicate, either.
This is a classic problem in philosophy, but it has had profound implications for the meaning of existence in the 20th century. I see the roots of existentialism in this problem in Kant. For Kant, existence is a term empty and devoid of meaning. It is just a word with no predicative value, more or less what Quine says about being–it is just the function of an arbitrary variable–which is what it looks like when you look at how the word “is” is used in any sentence, just like this one. According to Kant, existence is always assumed and therefore the word existence doesn’t add anything to what is already assumed. To say the table exists doesn’t add anything to the concept of a table the existence of which is already assumed to exist if only in thought. You might as well say the table tables. And if you say the table exists, the thought doesn’t suddenly appear in time and space as a tangible or empirical thing. Kant used the illustration of money. Imagine a hundred dollars (thalers) as in the concept of a hundred dollars. Now say the hundred dollars exists. Dollars don’t suddenly appear in your pocket, so what good does it do to say they exist when existence is already assumed in the thought of a hundred dollars. Therefore, existence is not a predicate. It doesn't add anything to what is already assumed.
So you think this deflating of existence actually sets up the problem of existence in the late 19th and 20th century in the movement of thought known as Existentialism.
Well, if you want a philosophical background, this is it for me–I see it as an extension of the theme of the “Kantian recoil”. He bracketed existence in his transcendental idealism which Husserl continues in his transcendental phenomenology. The recoil is a powerful metaphor for the problem as if existence became too hot to handle in the emerging industrial society. So existence became a thing, a means of production in the labor market, a commodity to buy at a starvation wage. I have always been vexed by this issue, which I see as part of the origins of Existentialism, as if Kant recoiled from existence for some reason, with strange consequences. Heidegger says as much when he talks about the Kantian recoil from the unknown root of the transcendental imagination, which is where I picked up this theme.
How is anyone to understand these issues unless they have some prior understanding of these themes? You act as though these buzz words are common parlance.
I know they are peculiar to a philosophical context. It’s true that I have picked them out as symbolic of the issues. Kant “recoils from the unknown root”, as Heidegger puts it. When I read about the Kantian recoil, I thought I had found a clue to my thematic which made existence problematic, a theme that haunts the last century and a half–from Schelling and Kierkegaard to Sartre and Heidegger. And “the unknown root” is the metaphor for my concern over organic nature. It is probably a good clue to what Heidegger means by “unconcealedness”, the unknown root that is closer to us than we are to ourselves, all too familiar and yet unknown. If this is the case, then I can interpret this arcane or obscure line in Heidegger–his interpretation of the Greek word for truth–aletheia. It is a meditation on the fate of the vital root of existence in the 20th century, as the heritage of Kiekegaard, whom I definitely prefer to Heidegger and whom Heidegger himself revered. Envied even.
And this carries through to Godel’s Proof for the Existence of God.
I thought Godel’s Proof for the Existence of God would be a new point of departure for philosophy. In other words, to find the root again. I was wrong in terms of any major impact, because it has been thirty years since he formulated the proof and not only do few people know about it at all, it hasn’t made any impact except for a few Godel scholars. Godel was right when he made it clear that his proof was a technical issue in the history of mathematical logic, following Leibniz. He didn’t know what I was talking about in terms of its historical significance when we spoke on the telephone. In fact, a rumor was circulated that this proof was an example that Godel was nuts. There was a period in his life when he was mentally ill. He was exceptionally paranoid and was institutionalized for a while. He thought he was going to be poisoned. I could make hay on this, but I’m going to pass.
I don’t understand. Let what pass?
Oh, I was just thinking that here is the most famous mathematical logician of the 20th century, trained in the school of Logical Positivism, undermining their entire program, formulating a proof for the existence of God, as if to rub it in, and then worrying about being rubbed out. It’s too much. He almost starved to death because he thought he might be poisoned. It is reminiscent of Simone Weil and her Waiting For God or the Need For Roots and Beckett making a play out of it. Waiting For God- oh! Simone starved herself to death out of despair over World War II. They were all waiting for Godel/Godot to finish the proof.
You mean Carnap could have hired a hit man. But you were interested in the Proof and wrote to Godel about it.
I was trying to put together a Journal for the History of Consciousness Graduate Program, called Thymos, my favorite Greek word, meaning spirit or courage or vitality. So I wrote to Godel and asked him if I could publish his Proof. I thought if I could publish his Proof, it would get me tenure, as if only an argument for the existence of God could save me. He wrote back and said it was incomplete, which some people thought was funny, as Godel was already famous for his Incompleteness Theorem. It was like waiting for Godot, only here it was Godel, to finish the Proof. Kierkegaard has great things to say about waiting for someone to finish such a proof in his critique of Hegel. Godel did say something even I thought was funny, when he wrote to me: “what does theology have to do with consciousness?”
What did he mean by that?
Well, I was looking at the Proof within the context of the history of philosophy and the history of Western culture and he thought of it as a technical exercise in the tradition of Leibniz. He didn’t seem to get the implications of what he had done outside of professional mathematical logic. I should say that one has to be very careful about these issues and not extrapolate from them willy-nilly, as I tend to do. Godel is very technical and at a level I cannot aspire to. So these are just musings on my part.
Then I wrote to him again after I intuited that he had written the proof of the existence of God to ground Einstein’s unified field theory. He and Einstein were great pals at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. After Einstein retired he still went to the Institute every day just to walk home with Godel, he had such esteem for him. He didn’t answer my reply, so I had an occasion to call him one time when I was visiting a friend in New York who had a brother teaching economics at Princeton. She was on her way to visit her brother. She is a wonderful photographer, so I told her to get in touch with Godel–the smartest man in the world, next to Einstein, and take his picture. She told me to set it up. Well, I hadn╒t expected that. So I called the Institute and asked for Herr Professor. He said “hello”. I said: “Professor Godel?” He said: “Yes.” I said: “This is Professor Lee. Do you remember me? I wrote to you about your Proof for the Existence of God?” “Yes.” “Did you get my second letter?” “Yes.” “Was I right about Einstein’s field theory.” “Yes.” Then we chatted briefly about the issue as I saw it and I could tell that he didn╒t know what I was talking about, so I stopped, and said: “Can my friend, Adelaide, come and photograph you?” “No.” “Why not, she is a wonderful photographer.” “I have three perfectly good photographs of myself.” That stopped me. So I said good-bye. This also was funny because there is a very famous photograph of Godel, by Arnold Newman, a very famous photographer, sitting next to a large empty blackboard, as if posed by Sy Twombley, who is famous for his slightly erased blackboards, one of which my friend, Earl McGrath once owned and which I enjoyed looking at over the dinner table.
So, what did you make of it?
Godel confirmed my hunch about Einstein and we had a nice conversation. He was wary about my embroidering his proof, as I said, which he saw as a technical issue in logic. The reason he hadn’t published it, I found out later, was that he didn’t want to make it seem that he was a believer. Can you beat that?
Didn’t you tell this story to Octavio Paz?
Yes, I met him a few days later in Cambridge, through my friend, Bob Gardner. We had dinner together and were having an espresso afterwards at Paz’s apartment and I told him the story and when I got to the punch line about the proof for the existence of God, Paz spilled his espresso in his lap. I thought, ah ha, the poet is startled about existence becoming a predicate again.
It was a dramatic moment. I had a similar experience with Buckminster Fuller. He came into my Wild Thyme Restaurant, in Santa Cruz, and I sat down and wanted to discuss Godel with him. He had never heard of him. I was somewhat dumbfounded, so I gave him my Godel spiel. He had a young student in his party who got so excited, he kept jumping up and down and hollering–did everyone understand the importance of what I was saying. I was rather pleased that he thought I was so smart but I started to think I didn’t even get it, when he got up and ran out. I was a little worried about him and went to check and he was booking a flight to Princeton the next day. He wanted to show Godel some scheme he had in his pocket that he refused to show me. I never found out what happened. This is material for a Kierkegaard or a Kafka or a Beckett. In any event, as far as I’m concerned, Godel wrecked the Positivist plan to unify science in the philosophy of Physicalism, one of the greatest dumb-down efforts in the history of modern thought, and I am grateful to him for that.
Can you elaborate?
The Physicalist/Vitalist conflict taught me what was at stake in the deep cultural conflicts of the 20th century, in terms of our introducing an organic garden with a tradition going back through Steiner to Goethe, a tradition that had been discounted, refuted, and rejected for over a century and a half. In current parlance, Vitalism was so politically incorrect as to be almost ludicrous. The University, as the servant of industrial society, stood for Physicalist science, not for organic gardening, let alone a tradition that went back through a clairvoyant (Steiner), to a poet (Goethe), who thought he was smarter than Newton. We had stepped right into the conflict without knowing anything about it at the time. It was nothing less than a struggle over what counts for knowledge and the direction a culture should take. The trend was in favor of industrial society, even though in its late stage of self-destruction, which only very few were willing to admit. Looking back, it is easy to see how the cards were stacked against a vision of organic integrity and representatives of the old culture, like Goethe. All you have to do is listen to Schubert’s “Songs of Goethe” and his lieder cycles and you have the music for the end of European culture–swan songs. They are filled with the pathos of the realization of the end. Goethe knew it all too well.
Sung by Fischer-Dieskau, of course. And Chadwick represented this old culture, which is what made him unique. But wait a minute. First you talk about the self-destruction of industrial society and then you skip to the destruction of old European culture.
Sorry. Industrial society was built upon the ruins of the old culture. It also helped destroy what it superseded. Look at what happened in England: from verdant fields to mill towns. Vitalism was a name for what was lost–the integrity of organic culture. Many sensitive individuals at the time anticipated it. They could see it coming, like a storm cloud on the horizon. They were already looking back, as it were, over the loss of Western culture, as if looking back on a great garden that was to be abandoned. The slogan throughout Europe was Et In Arcadia Ego, a retrospective affirmation of the goodness and sweetness of life in a culture that was about to die. A voice from the tomb: “I am in Arcadia”. Curtains. It was a life and death struggle, the throes of which we are still in up to our ears, a struggle for the soul of the 20th century. And now the 21st where it hangs in the balance.
Time is running out.
Goethe suffered a nervous collapse over it and he was not alone. Jacob Burckhardt saw what was coming. Nietzsche went mad over it. It is exactly what he meant by the death of God. Max Weber, one of the greatest minds of Germany, fell into an unaccountable depression and sat looking out the window picking at his fingers. William James had an apparitional visitation of pure despair. Strinberg. Ibsen. Hamsen. Munch. As I mentioned, this is the Existentialist motif, this lament over the place of the person and the life of the spirit in technical and industrial society. Husserl was one of the most penetrating commentators on the Physicalist takeover as developed in his famous Vienna Lecture and his essay: “The Crisis Of Western Science”. Soren Kierkegaard, some decades before, knew it in the depths of his being and produced the greatest literary achievement as a cultural critique: the end of Christendom. Kafka continued the meditation even to the point of writing parables in the tradition of Kierkegaard. All of this presentiment segues into Existentialism and a full-scale revolt against Industrial Society which turns a person into a thing, a loathsome thing, like Gregor Samsa, who doesn’t go to work one day.
How does this relate to Chadwick? Was he a Luddite?
That’s not a bad association, if you think of the Luddites as the protest against industrial society. There is a book I mean to read I just noticed in the New York Times today: Kirkpatrick Sale: Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age. Chadwick was the representative of organic integrity and against all of the denial and exploitation and manipulation of organic nature. He was a unique hold-out against the overwhelming trend of industrial society. He knew the meaning of organic integrity and he wanted to smash the notion that synthetics were “equal in dignity” to organic nature, the great swindle in the decline of authentic taste. He knew that soils were alive and nurtured by living organisms not by synthetic fertilizers loaded with synthetic urea. And this was all on the level of food–what persons put in their mouths. I remember how he jumped on the quote from Robert Graves, in a speech he gave at MIT, about the decline of taste as symptomatic of the decline of culture: “The decline of a true taste for food is the beginning of a decline in a national culture as a whole. When people have lost their authentic, personal taste, they lose their personality and become instruments of other peoples’ wills.” Chadwick would often begin a talk with this quote and then refer to strawberries.
Oh, come on! If you think the supermarket stuff and the effort to develop a berry for shelf life is to be compared to a true organic berry then you still have to be converted or you have lost your sense of taste. But I have to admit that strawberries are now part of the organic movement and it is possible to get edible strawberries again. We pick strawberries with our friends, the Kubeks, on a farm in Northern Michigan every summer, and it is a sacramental event. I’m of Norwegian ancestry and a good strawberry to a Norwegian is a gift from God, practically equal to the pearl of great price, what cheese is to the French. On a visit to relatives in Norway, when I was a teen-ager, I went to a carnival and saw a Norwegian, who had won a pint of strawberries at some booth walking around and savoring them. It is an unforgettable image.
Wilderness waters would be another example. Rolf and Elsa Von Eckartsberg and Chadwick and I, went on a wilderness trek up in the Trinity Alps, above Covelo, in Northern California, and the waters up there were the waters of life. They were baptismal waters, so radiant with the vital power of being. I have never forgotten it. In fact, I saw a new meaning to Heraclitus’ saying: “You can’t step into the same waters twice.”
Because they were such vital waters?
Exactly. Once was enough! Although someone recently told me that those waters are gone; they are polluted and you can’t drink them without worrying about some parasite.
So you took these experiences into a cultural analysis encompassing the last two hundred years and more.
Listen to this quote from Goethe, where he prophesies the impending barbarism in the destruction of Old Europe:
“Mankind will grow more astute and more perceptive, but not better, happier, or more vigorous–not permanently, at least. I see a time coming when God will not enjoy it any more, when he will have to smash everything once again, to rejuvenate his creation. I feel sure that everything tends in that direction, and that the starting time and hour of the rejuvenation period are already appointed in the distant future. But there will be plenty of time yet.”
Quoted in Karl Lowith: Nature, History, and Existentialism.
He said that on October 23, 1828, maybe on the same day as the discovery of synthetic urea, anyhow, the same year. Isn’t that amazing. You know they met once, Goethe and Woehler, in a rock shop in Frankfort. I think Goethe intuited that he had met Faust in the flesh and went home and finished his poem. This is one of the most amazing encounters in the history of thought as far as I╒m concerned. Goethe and Woehler. It is worthy of a play.
And how does this relate to Chadwick? Is this your replanting the vital root of existence theme, what Goethe calls rejuvenation?
Yes. Here’s another quote, this one from Lewis Mumford:
“One day a book will be written that will expose the contradictory workings of mechanism and vitalism as profound religious influences from the sixteenth century onward. This book will show that even while the mechanical complex was consolidating its control, it was being modified willy-nilly by the growing appreciation of organic nature in every aspect: witness the better regimen of child-care, hygiene, and diet introduced by the Romantic movement, mainly through Rousseau’s writings, if not his practice; witness the growing interest in play and sport which modified the harsh attitude toward such relaxation introduced by Calvinism and utilitarianism: witness the kindly teaching practices introduced by Froebel’s Children’s Garden (Kindergarten)–the precise antithesis of Comenius’ mass-organized drill-school; while at the same time the growing love of nature expressed itself in zealous amateur gardening, in landscape design, in rural sports, and outdoor exercises–hunting, fishing, rambling, mountain-climbing. In some degree these activities cushioned the impact of mechanization, and for over a century they have been opening the way for a more organic culture. When that book is written it will show further how this growing appreciation of all that distinguishes the world of organisms from the world of machines gave rise, at a given point in the nineteenth century, to a fresh vision of the entire cosmic process. This vision was profoundly different from the one offered by those who left out of their world picture the essential qualitative attribute of life: its expectancy, its inner impetus, its insurgency, its creativity, its ability at singular points to transcend either physical or organic limitations. The name given to this new vision of life was bestowed belatedly, only when it began to be systematically pursued: it is now known as ecology.”
The Pentagon Of Power, “The Organic World Picture”, Lewis Mumford, p. 385
So the Chadwick, Steiner, Goethe tradition was what Mumford was talking about? And your book is that book?
Yes, as far as I’m concerned, although I would be surprised if Mumford had Steiner explicitly in mind. He could have been thinking about Frank Lloyd Wright. This interview is about that book: There Is A Garden In the Mind.
So Chadwick was your wild hair in terms of the University?
Unwittingly, with Chadwick, we had brought a neo-Vitalist critique–the renewal of organic nature–right into the imperialist, hegemonic, stronghold of the Physicalist victory, like I say, under their unsuspecting noses–the Science Establishment of the University of California. Had they been forewarned or realized what was happening, they would have shot Chadwick on sight, or bagged him and dropped him in Winnemucca. The Garden was a Trojan Horse. Chadwick was our Achilles, only with a Bulldog spade, instead of an ash spear. He had the temperament of an Achilles, so the comparison is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The word for that kind of temperament is thymos, a peculiar blend of vitality and rage or wrath. As I said, it’s my favorite word. The wrath of God is thymos, creative and destructive, purging and renewing. There was something of the Old Testament Prophet in Chadwick. He liked to rant.
Physicalists are what you call scientists?
It’s a code word for me. Physicalism is a characterization of a specific philosophy of science which I consider generic as a general ideological position. There is a cluster of associated names and positions, all related under the Physicalist banner–determinism, empiricism, mechanism, materialism, positivism, scientism, etc. They all have their respective characterizations and should not be confused with each other but they all represent the trend. As I have mentioned, it came to prominence in the 19th century and found its major expression under Rudolf Carnap and the Logical Positivists, in Vienna, at the turn of the century, and before them, in Comte, and the Philosophes, in France. Saint Simon is the most absurd, only because he is so extreme in his views about the new priesthood–the monks of science. But, more formally, the trend refers to the Physicalist refutation of Vitalism and the rejection of the Vitalist argument in behalf of the integrity of organic nature. This is shorthand for a very long retrieval of the issue. It is my scholarly domain–the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict in the system of the sciences, from 1828, to the present, although, as does Husserl, it can be taken back to the network of Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Kant. The Physicalist/Vitalist conflict is the great key, not to everything, but to practically everything. It is the deepest conflict in our culture.
What is some of the literature on the subject?
Johannes Merz has done the overview in his two volume work on science and philosophy in the 19th century. It is very instructive in a kind encyclopedic way. Ernst Cassirer discusses it in his: The Problem of Knowledge. Erich Voegelin has the hardest hitting critique of it in an essay: “The Origins of Scientism”, and he continues the discussion in his Anamnesis. Husserl is brilliant on the issue in his famous essay: The Crisis of Western Science. Polanyi discusses it in his book: Personal Knowledge. And, of course, Kuhn did the formalistic critique in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, without, unfortunately, ever mentioning the historic case that nails his theme. But what would you expect from someone who did his work under the auspices of the Physicalists, namely, Carnap, so Kuhn was in the Physicalist camp, which is why he assumes the victory without mentioning the historic case that illuminates his thesis, the victory, the revolutionary victory of physicalism over vitalism.
But hasn’t science superseded this old conflict? It sounds old hat.
That’s a good question. In some ways “yes” and in most ways “no”. There is this perception that cracks have opened in the Physicalist ranks, there’s no question about that. Arthur Koestler’s last book: Janus, A Summing Up, has a good discussion of the cracks. Immunology, one of my favorite subject matters, plays a role here, especially in terms of immune memory. Koestler was very cognizant of that as a Vitalist surd in a Physicalist science. But it is piecemeal, at best. The tired old ideology of Physicalism is like a secret bolshevism of Western science, with its attendant apparatchiks, all in a row.
Much of Koestler’s authorship has a Neovitalist drift. The Ghost In the Machine is one title that comes to mind. As well as The Sleep Walkers. He had an unusual grasp of the issues you adumbrate.
It would take some organizing to indicate the literature on the debate. Here’s a quote by Adolf Meyer, who, in 1934, saw Physicalism and Vitalism as merely “worthy old ideologies” that no longer have any real theoretical validity:
“One cannot escape the impression that these highly respected ideologies have fallen behind in the development of the special biological disciplines; in any case they have nothing more to teach those who pursue them. Vitalism negates the modern Galilean-Newtonian-Kantian ideal of a mathematical natural science and thereby robs biology of unquestionably fruitful possibilities of knowledge, while mechanism degrades it to a special and meaningless appendage of theoretical physics.” p. 212
It is vexing to science to have this debate continue. There has even been an attempt to debunk the urea legend as a spurious piece unworthy of its reputation as responsible for the defeat of Vitalism. Not so. The conflict is very deeply imbedded in our culture of industrial society. Once you see the significance of the Physicalist victory over Vitalism, you understand the grounds for the environmental protest and especially the Earth First gang who are the neo-Luddites.
You mean Environmental Studies smacks of a covert Neo-Vitalism?
That’s one way to put it and so it is grudgingly tolerated by the power-block of Physicalists who are still in charge and call the shots. They refuse to believe that this old dead view reared its ugly head and had to be accommodated. They simply had to acquiesce to the political pressure of the Environmental movement and open up a new subject matter. The representatives of what should be a brand of neo-Vitalism –Environmental Studies–have to suck up to the Physicalist scientists in order to gain some self-respect, which is like pandering to the enemy, so it is a very contradictory situation to be in.
This is a snide way to put it.
It is difficult to remain emotionally neutral on the issue when there is so much at stake. Careers are ruined because of the interest one takes in certain themes or points of view.
Can you give an example?
I encouraged students to ask scientists if they were Physicalists or Vitalists just to register the look on their faces. They found one closet Vitalist in biology, who admitted to secret Vitalist sympathies. He was a botanist. It would be interesting to study the conflict and the impact on careers. It goes all the way to the conflict between Christianity and secularism. Page Smith and I always referred to Rosenstock-Huessy as a prime example of being scapegoated by the University establishment. He had a notable career at Dartmouth, but within the ranks he was rejected by modern scholarship even though he was one of the best ever. He shows up the split as well as anyone. When he was at Harvard, the elder Schlesinger said either he goes or I go. So they kicked him out. He was too much of a Christian for Schlesinger, Sr.
Didn’t Page Smith have a hard time getting into Harvard just because he was his student at Dartmouth.
Yes, they rejected him at first, but he managed to get in under a different subject. His career as a narrative historian put him under attack by the establishment historians who had no interest in the big picture as opposed to monographic studies. He was ostracised.
Any other examples?
Socio-biology is another good example. I just read E. O. Wilson’s autobiography: Naturalist. His title is an example of his bravery, because it is an example of Vitalism. Rachel Carson was a Naturalist, which immediately struck me as her booby prize appellation because of her Vitalist sympathies.
And you mention Agnes Arber as another example.
Yes. I remember broaching the subject to Kenneth Thimann, the Provost of Crown College, at UCSC, who hired me, and he said, “Oh, yes, Vitalism, what was that woman’s name?” And he meant Agnes Arber. That was a tell-tale response. It reminds me of my looking up Vitalism to see what was in the literature and there was Hilda Hein and I thought, I’ll bet she’s a Roman Catholic, and she was.
So, what about E. O. Wilson?
He tells the story of how biologists at a major conference tried to vote the subject matter of socio-biology out of existence. They wanted to out-law it so nobody could do it any more. Can you believe it? Margaret Mead got up and shook her cane at everyone to protest this rear guard reaction of conservative Physicalists to a new field that looked too neo-Vitalist even for biology. She valiantly carried the day. The vote lost by a narrow margin. This is for me a prime example of the problem. On the other hand, you have many scientists who manage to negotiate the territory without losing their soul–they find a balance in their work that overcomes the split.
What about Rupert Sheldrake and his offer of a monetary prize for experiments that confirm his morphemic resonance theory?
That’s a good one. I have always worried about the terms for such an offer. I still hold with Polanyi that a conversion is necessary even to look at the facts. We have a local psychologist at Cabrillo, our community college, who has offered a small award for any evidence that would confirm a psychic event just to parade his scepticism. Obviously, he wouldn’t know a ghost if he saw one. The effort to try to demonstrate the superiority of organic farming to industrial farming is another sad commentary. But, I suppose, it’s a game that must be played in the world of contending ideologies. I might mention a complex of literature that portends a new appreciation of what got lost with rejected vitalism. Ralph Abraham has introduced me to it in his work on the quantum vacuum and consciousness. One of the key figures is Irvin Laszlo and I have just started reading him. It is too complicated to comment on here and I am at the beginning of my attempt to study and understand it, but it picks up on my introduction to Dirac decades ago and the theme of the monopole which I immediately thought might be the physics the old vitalists lacked. We can get to more on this later. The important theme is the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict.
So the Chadwick Garden opened up this conflict for you?
Yes, Chadwick represented the lost or rejected Vitalist tradition, in need of recovery. He brought it to the campus when he broke through the Physicalist hardpan with his Vitalist spade and started an organic garden. The key word is “organic”. It so happened that the Provost of Crown College, where I taught, was Kenneth Thimann, whom I mentioned, a renowned Physicalist Botanist, what should be an oxymoron, but for the scientific revolution. His domain was the experimental lab. He did the work on Agent Orange, the Vietnam defoliant, which was a little hard to swallow even as a defining symbolic piece of work for a Physicalist. He was the precise counterpart to Chadwick, the Vitalist Gardener, right within the field of botany, if you include horticulture and agriculture. It was a point I could not miss. They personified the split. It is remarkable to me, now that I review these themes, what shook out under their example. I had a world-renowned Physicalist botanist, as my boss, the head of my college, and Chadwick, who, according to E. F. Schumacher was “the greatest gardener in the world”, my Newton of the grassblades.
So they defined the problem you have now spent decades working through. Vitalism, for you, means the integrity of organic nature?
Well, I say that, but now that you ask, not exactly. Nature doesn’t need an ‘-ism in defense of it’s own vitality. Vitalism is a position within the system of the sciences, an ideological stance, opposite to Physicalism and the reduction of all living things to their physical and chemical constituents. Vitalism is the affirmation and defense of organic nature against the reductionist stance of Physicalism, which thought that “life-force” or “vital force” were nonsensical combinations of words, with no defensible reality, no physics or chemistry to back it up. There was no physics or math for the “life-force”; therefore, it was thought to be “metaphysical”, in the bad sense of the word, which came to be almost every sense of the word–empty and vain speculation without empirical confirmation. Metaphysics became associated with spiritualism, as in Ouiji Boards. Vitalism is the ghost in the machine. It sounds abstract, but it is a very real issue. I am hesitant about the word ‘integrity’, but I don’t have a better term. The vital root of organic nature would be a good metaphor.
But you see the artificial synthesis of urea as the key point in the undermining of organic integrity and the refutation of Vitalism.
When Vitalism was refuted, the organic collapsed into the inorganic. Organic integrity was subverted when you could simulate it in the lab from inorganic sources. Chemical structures were all you needed to know and they were reciprocal. Once they were determined you could artificially synthesize anything found in organic nature from inorganic sources. This is a key point because the Physicalists argued that inorganic simulation or synthesis was identical to organic nature. Organic nature faded into the background in favor of the experimental lab. It brought about a cluster of words that are confused with the organic, said to be identical to the organic, and so on, such as artificial and synthetic and virtual. They are approximation substitutions for the real thing. Physicalist science proclaimed it and people bought it.
This, for you, is the Big Lie, as you call it, the identity of the synthetic and the organic.
Yes. It comes down to Tang is Orange Juice and all such swindles. I found this quote from Descartes: “All the things which are artificial are natural as well.” (Prin. Phil. 4.203) Lachterman refers to this pairing of mechanization and symbolization as the advent of radical modernity, an effort of outwitting “Nature”. “From now on the “natural” will be measured by its accessibility to artifice”. The Ethics Of Geometry, p.125.
Was Steiner aware of this split and the significance of the urea experiment?
I’m glad you asked. Yes, he was. Here is a particularly penetrating quote from his quite remarkable history of philosophy:
“An example that shows how the results of natural science took on forms that could be of a deeply penetrating influence on the conception of the world is given in Woehier’s discovery of 1828. This scientist succeeded in producing a substance synthetically outside the living organism that had previously only been known to be formed within. This experiment seemed to supply the proof that the former belief which assumed that certain material compounds could be formed only under the influence of a special life force contained in the organism, was incorrect. If it was possible to produce such compounds outside the living body, then one could draw the conclusion that the organism was also working only with the forces with which chemistry deals. The thought arose for the materialists that, if the living organism does not need a special life force to produce what formerly had been attributed to such a force, why should this organism then need special spiritual energies in order to produce the processes to which mental experiences are bound? Matter in all its qualities now became for the materialists what generates all things and processes from its core.” The Riddles of Philosophy, p. 263-4
So the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict is a deep split in our culture?
I think it is the deepest split in our culture. It is certainly a key to the split. I have organized my thought around it.
What other example could you give?
It sets up a confusion in authentic taste, as Robert Graves points out. Tang is confused as orange juice. Add the sense of smell. Are synthetic scents (perfumes) the same as organic scents? No. Aroma therapy fights in defense of the healing power of organic herbal essences against synthetics. As a Platonist, I have to laugh over the notion of “synthetic essences”, another oxymoron, if I ever heard one, although it is a version of an issue that concerned Socrates, when he wondered about the essence of slime. Sartre has a fix on this in his phenomenology of slime. I can hardly believe I know such stuff.
I see how tangled it gets.
But it works right on down the line. Herbal medicine versus synthetic drugs; aroma therapy with organic essences of herbs versus synthetic perfumes; artificial fertilizers versus organic compost; synthetic fibers versus cotton and wool and linen; my grandmother, Ome, I called her, I am amazed to report, sold synthetic vanilla and synthetic flavorings–orange, grape, cherry, etc., made by a little chemical factory in Milwaukee where she worked. Customers would come up the back steps and buy bottles out of her kitchen. She always had a quart of synthetic juice in the fridge. My mother always hid the fact from her mother that she preferred genuine vanilla to the synthetic stuff. Maybe that’s where I first picked up the distinction. I’m sure it is.
How about a cotton versus a dacron or nylon bathing suit?
OK, ok. I worried about the logic, especially when I found George Washington Carver arguing for “the synthetic” as another order of God’s creation. That threw me. He was a very affirmative guy.
You suspected he had developed medicinal uses for the peanut.
In fact, he had found a medicinal use for peanut oil–polio. He was so inventive about the uses of the peanut, he made it his life’s work. Over one hundred uses, if I remember rightly. Some were medicinal and then I get his affirmation of the synthetic as another order of creation. Like I said, that threw me. I had already been worrying about a theology of the inorganic, which Tillich calls for. A theology of the inorganic stumped me and then I find the quote from Carver about a theology of the synthetic. Stumped again.
It would be interesting to know if people who are allergic to perfume are also allergic to synthetic scents and not organic ones.
I don’t know if this has been pursued, although one would think so, given the problem of environmental sensitivities and the onslaught on the immune system.
Can you give another example of the Physicalist/Vitalist split?
Here is one of my favorites: Vitalist Ode and Physicalist Oath. The split goes through Freud and characterizes the conflict in his career and in his authorship, very representative of the times. Freud goes to a public lecture, as a young man, and hears the lecturer recite: “Goethe’s ‘Ode To Nature’.” He is so moved, as he tells this story in his Autobiography, he decides on his career in that moment–to enter the medical sciences in order “to unveil nature’s mysteries”. A rather tell-tale phrase. Sounds to me like indelicately lifting the chemise of a goddess, in fact, the goddess, Natura, the subject of the Ode. Ironically, he enters the laboratory of Bri cke and has to take the Physicalist Oath. According to Julian Jaynes, the Oath was taken in blood! The Oath was already one of my favorite themes even before I found that out.
Taken in blood?
Taken in blood. Freud moves from the Vitalist Ode to the Physicalist Oath! How symbolic of the issue! I would characterize the mixed discourse in Freud’s authorship as his inability to deal with this split which goes through him. He had a nervous breakdown over it. It is deeper than the cocaine issue, which is interpreted as the great crisis in Freud’s career. No, it is the Physicalist/Vitalist Crisis.
So, for you, the crisis is marked by four stages: 1. the Ode to Nature, 2. the Blood-Oath of the Physicalists, and the Fliess Period, and, 3. after the Cocaine Episode, precipitating his nervous breakdown, 4. the Founder of Psycho-analysis and the rediscovery of consciousness, especially the unconscious.
He wrote a monograph on cocaine which he thought would make him famous. He was wrong. Instead, he was kicked out of the experimental lab. Erikson calls this Freud’s “psychosocial moratorium”, a neat phrase. He is forced to analyze himself in his distress and out of this self-analysis psychoanalysis is born, but the mixed discourse persists, the mixed discourse of Physicalism and Vitalism. Paul Ricoeur has the best discussion of this mixed discourse in his Freud and Philosophy, a book I was proud to edit. He calls it the conflict between “energetics” and “hermeneutics”, or the conflict between a “play of forces” and a “play of meanings”. It is a version of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict. There is much to be said about this, including the strange fate of the Ode.
You helped edit Ricoeur’s book?
I worked on the English with my friend, Denis Savage, who translated it. Ricoeur is an old friend of mine. We met at Harvard. I heard him lecture and liked the way he said “spot”; it sounded like a champagne cork going off, which, for a Frenchman, is pretty good. He was lecturing on the symbolism of evil, which, eventually, became one of his best books under that title. I did my thesis on Freud at Harvard under Erik Erikson and that set me up for Ricoeur and my help with his book on Freud. I also consider him to be the successor to Tillich in terms of philosophical theology and his philosophy of finitude, what he calls “Fallible Man.” He was given the Paul Tillich chair at the University of Chicago, which confirms this.
So, you think Freud exemplifies the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict?
It goes straight through him. His nervous breakdown is symptomatic of this conflict in the culture. He wanted to make a career in the Physicalist lab after taking the Oath, formulated by Brucke and DuBois Remond, and he is dismissed and has to re-discover the psyche, from the unconscious to the conscious, after consciousness had been eliminated from scientific psychology as a Vitalist entity: the ghost in the machine. The history of psychoanalysis as a science is riddled with this burden of refuted and rejected Vitalism and the dilemma of consciousness in an industrial society ruled by Physicalism. Consciousness had become psycho-physics with an emphasis on the physiology of perception, a specialty of Helmholtz. Freud partly broke away from this straight-jacket, but he had to pay the price in terms of psychoanalysis as a suspect science, rather like Wilson’s difficulty with sociobiology, when the hard-liners try to close ranks and draw a line in the sand.
So this accounts for your interest in Freud’s Letters To Fliess.
Freud’s Project For A Scientific Psychology, is one of the items in the letters he sent to Fliess. This only came to light in the early fifties and became for me a critical piece in the Physicalist tradition. It was Freud trying to develop a Physicalist theory of consciousness and even he thought it was a force fit. He never gave up Physicalist models: electrical, hydraulic, chemical, mechanical, topological. But he transcended them. Erik Erikson wrote a critical review of the correspondence when it was published which is very insightful. I foolishly traded my copy of the correspondence some years before, when I was at Luther Theological Seminary, for a beautiful hand knit black v necked sweater. Now there is a new edition.
You mean he was still theorizing from the neurone.
He was trying to develop a neuronic concept of consciousness–it defined the field–the attempt at an anatomical or molecular theory of consciousness. It turned out to be as banal as Oparin, as leaps go.
You mean qualitative leaps?
Don’t forget that point. “The Project For A Scientific Psychology” has always represented the watershed for Freud. He calls it a golem, this little consciousness-machine; kick it and maybe it will run, the switch was stuck, this qualitative leap in the neurone. Behaviorism is Physicalist psychology on the condition of the elimination of consciousness, which is psychology without the psyche. Try as he did with his mechanist models, Freud could never make the rediscovery of consciousness fit in with strict science because Physicalism naturally precludes consciousness. That’s how dumb it is.
The leap is too qualitative. What about Goethe’s Ode?
It is a rather odd story. Goethe didn’t compose the Ode, but he thought he had. It entered his authorship uncritically, you might say, when he included it in his canon late in life. It was an old Orphic Hymn to the goddess Natura. Goethe thought he had composed it. That’s what happens when you write a lot, I guess. And if you’re that good you confuse your own stuff with Orphic Hymns. This is a good story in terms of grist for my mill, because it involves Rudolf Steiner. I mean where would you stick him in? He is the Editor of Goethe’s Scientific Writings in the Goethe Archive and he finds this Ode and did the literary-critical work on it showing that Goethe didn’t write it.
It was an Orphic source? Remind me, what is Orphism?
The religion of Orpheus. It is a strong mythical tradition in the West, part of the Platonic Theology. It was a reformation of the Dionysiac orgies–enthusiasm in the service of the god. It has an affinity with Christianity in terms of the Shepherd of Being, a wonderful mythical figure of speech that Heidegger picked up, and the salvation of nature where the lion lies down with the lamb to listen to the songs.
Isn’t that one of your main interests–the Platonic theology?
We can’t go into that now, it would take all our time, but the Eden/Arcadia themes exemplify it. Athens and Jerusalem, Jesus and Socrates, Paul and Dionysius the Areopagite, Orphism and Christianity, these correspondences and relations are my chief interest. Tillich showed me the way in his Columbia University. Lectures: Biblical Religion and the Search For Ultimate Reality. I was a summer student at Union Theological Seminary when he gave the lectures. I was so excited I could hardly breathe. He put the two cultures together for me and they have only become stronger ever since, although when I want a corrective cold shower I re-read Rosenstock-Huessy.
It helped you overcome the Humpty-dumpty problem. the split in the culture which is hard to put together again, But let’s go back to the Orphic Hymn.
I have a great footnote on it from Curtius’ European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages:
“Natura is cosmic power. She stands between Zeus and the gods, governs marriage and generations, and through her complaint can intervene in the course of history. Claudian is here close to a late antique theology which has been best preserved for us in the Orphic hymns, a collection made in the third or fourth century by an unknown author, presumably in Egypt or Asia Minor. The tenth hymn is dedicated to Physis. Over eighty predicates of the goddess are compressed into its thirty hexameters. She is the age-old Mother of All; father, mother, nurse, sustainer, all-wise, all-bestowing, all-ruling; regulator of the gods; creator; first-born; eternal life and immortal providence. This universal goddess is not the personification of an intellectual concept. She is one of the last religious experiences of the late-pagan world. She possesses inexhaustible vitality. But what varied masks the Orphic Physis can assume! Among Goethe’s writing on the natural sciences there is a celebrated “Fragment on Nature,” which first appeared anonymously in 1782 or 1783 in the “Tierfurter journal,” which was circulated in manuscript. Goethe writes to Knebel (March 3, 1783) that he is not the author. A few weeks later Frau von Stein announces that the fragment is by Tobler, of Zurich, who had visited Weimar in 1781. In 1828 Goethe saw it again. On May 24 he wrote to Chancellor von Muller: “Although I cannot remember composing these observations, they are quite in accord with the conceptions to which my mind then soared.” Georg Christoph Tobler (1757-1812), however, had translated the Orphic hymn into hexameters. The fragment which appeared in the “Tierfurter Journal” is an analysis and amplification of this translation–with additional matter from Shaftesbury.” pp. 106-7.
See what I mean in terms of what is revealed by an Ode to Nature? I simply introduce this as part of the scholarly record. Such references and texts can be adduced endlessly, as we speak.
Do you have other examples of the Physicalist/Vitalist conflict?
Yes, what Goethe called the Urpflanze or urplant, a kind of metaphysical principle of plant evolution, what I call “the vital root of existence as we mentioned, in terms of the Kantian recoil, a suggestive way of translating urplant and transposing a botanical concept into a metaphysical one as a way of suggesting the symbolic background of Goethe’s quest.
Well, you’re getting a little ahead of me. Let’s back up a bit. Chadwick was a Vitalist in his affirmation of organic nature. Say some more about that.
Think of organic gardening and farming as opposed to industrial or synthetic chemical gardening and farming and the respective methods and procedures they represent. It all turns on soil fertility, organic quality, or organic compost versus synthetic urea. The key is organic as opposed to artificial in the development of synthetic soil additives in terms of fertilizers and pesticides. There is a world of difference, which many people want to play down or disguise. Here’s what Bette Midler has to say about compost: “My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap.”
You should get a picture of her with her compost pile. My sister-in-law used to play tennis with her. I could ask her. Joseph Beuys thought compost piles were works of art. I have a picture of one of his art piles. And my old friend, Ernst Winter, I have to mention him here, ran a biodynamic training center in Austria in an old castle or schloss and when he had to give it up and move all he took were his compost piles.
It’s part of the key. Synthetic urea is the basic component in artificial fertilizers and goes back to the actual experiment Physicalists refer to in the refutation of Vitalism. The experiment conducted by Friedrich Woehler in 1828. Everyone who knows me knows this date.
There is nothing like a date.
I found the discussion in the literature as though waiting for me. It explained everything. A date. An experiment. A chemist. A place. A refutation. A defeat. Bingo. The key reference point for my account.
What is the importance of 1828?
I have nailed all my fortunes to this date. It is my main bet. It is the year of the inception of Organic Chemistry, the chemistry of artificial synthesis, the subversion of the integrity of organic nature, the defeat of Vitalism, the triumph of Physicalism, the victory of industrial society, and the problematic of synthetics and artificial productions.
The artificial synthesis of urea?
It is the year in which Friedrich Woehler artificially synthesized urea in Germany. It is the year Vitalism was refuted and everything shifted to Physicalism There were a few hold-outs, like Albert Schweizer, in darkest (Vitalist) Africa–he was practically driven there in his defense of reverence for life, which could be understood as a Vitalist version of the defense of organic integrity, undermined in his time. He is a symbolic figure in this context. He went into penitential retreat over the conflict and the crisis in Europe.
There were others, as you mentioned, especially Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bergson, in France, and his elan vital, and Whitehead, in this country, and his process philosophy, after he had had his fill of Bertrand Russell. Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, and organic architecture, but the trend shifted overwhelmingly in favor of Physicalism and the reduction of all living entities to their physical and chemical constituents. It was all that mattered, pardon the pun. You might as well defend arguments for the existence of God, as defend the Vitalist integrity of organic nature, after 1828. The path was laid out and pursued with ruthless determination. They meant business, hence the blood oath.
I don’t understand. You mean the integrity of organic nature was logically undermined? Can you explain that further?
Logically and then practically. Organic chemistry and industrial society in cahoots. Until Woehler, it was thought you needed an organ to get an organic product; in this case a kidney, to get urea, the nitrogen waste part of urine. Woehler heated up an inorganic substance–ammonium cyanate–and at 100 degrees c., he thought he got organic urea. Guess what he said?
Urea! I found it!
That was it?
That was it. The Archimedian point in the conflict with Vitalism. and the triumph of industrial society. It not only was bought at the price of Vitalism, it was the foundation for the formulation of the notorious blood oath for all of the initiates: “So Help Me Helmholtz!” There was so much blood shed they eventually dropped the Oath as a condition for becoming an Experimental Laboratory Scientist. It was assumed as a matter of course.
I’m kidding. But there was an Oath, taken in blood; that I know, from Julian Jaynes. How he knew, I don’t know. He mentions it in his famous book: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Hard to beat for a title. A Loyalty Oath of Physicalists, taken in blood, to smoke out any closet Vitalists who were caught crossing their fingers behind their back. It is reminiscent of the McCarthy inspired Loyalty Oath of the 1960’s, which haunted academics and made many cave in. The Physicalist Loyalty Oath already had been in effect without much attention. As I said, it was assumed you had taken it even if you hadn’t heard of it. Now we would call it a Mission Statement. The key deformation subject is Organic Chemistry, my favorite oxymoron, the chemistry of artificial synthesis. The double-talk gives it away. There is a tell-tale deformation in language when some major obfuscation is needed in order to obscure or dumb-down the issues and confuse things. Here it is the obfuscation between the organic and the inorganic, thanks to the blur of carbon compounds in-between.
In between what?
In between the organic and the inorganic. The distinction collapsed. Chemists like to tell you that artificial doesn’t mean artificial and synthetic doesn’t mean synthetic. Or that synthetic is identical to organic. That’s another good one. The Big Lie of Physicalism. It’s worthy of a TV Blooper Series. Even Linus Pauling fell for it with Vitamin C, arguing the identity of chemical structure, although I was told recently that he conceded, late in life, the difference between organic and synthetic. Until then, he bought the Tang is Orange Juice line, which follows from factories are plants. I always get my biggest laugh from that one–when they started calling factories plants. Why can’t you make orange juice down at the plant? It is funny, when you think about it, until you get to the squash court in Chicago, where they smashed the atom and took the risk of destroying the universe. That event became the absolute zero point for me.
Aren’t you writing a play about the smashing of the atom?
I’ve thought a lot about it and I actually started a play, with music by the Kronos Quartet, but I haven’t carried it out. The account of Arthur Holly Compton, who headed the project, lends itself to a play, so I put him on the witness stand and incredulously interrogate him. “What do you mean you decided not to tell the Chancellor of the University of Chicago of the risk of destroying the universe and assumed the responsibility on your own?” Questions like that. I became obsessed with the smashing of the atom as the apotheosis of the Physicalist victory when I found out that Fermi was worried about a possible wayward reaction. So he did the math for it in order to determine the risk factor which for me is the mathematical formula for the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society.
You could add that formula to the formula for synthetic urea. So you are fascinated by the chance they took?
Of course. Compton mentions in his memoirs, Atomic Quest, that the worry was there from the start. A nuclear chain reaction, liberating enormous energy might be uncontrollable and blow up those who attempted it. In later calculations, Compton made an error corrected by Kistiakowski–it was a question of straightforward thermodynamics which Compton had used before in calculating the forces that explode flash bulbs in photography. “It is to me a matter of no small interest that the same theoretical formula includes equally a tiny flash bulb and a hydrogen bomb.” p.58. Do you mind if I expand on this some? It is a very telling example of the power of science and technology to destroy the universe.
O.K. Expand away. Then go back to Woehler.
Oppenheimer, who had been recruited to the project, gathered a group of scientists in Berkeley, in 1942, to discuss how the bomb might be made to explode and what its effect would be. He was worried enough to journey to Chicago to see Compton who had gone up to his summer cabin in Northern Michigan, not too far from where my wife and I spend our summers at Cisco Point. He called Compton who invited him to come up to the lake.
“1 will never forget that morning. I drove Oppenheimer from the railroad station down to the beach looking out over the peaceful lake. There I listened to his story. What his team had found was the possibility of nuclear fusion–the principle of the hydrogen bomb. This held what was at the time a tremendous unknown danger. Hydrogen nuclei, protons, are unstable, for they could combine into helium nuclei with a large release of energy. To set off such a reaction would require a very high temperature. But might not the enormously high temperature of an atomic bomb be just what was needed to explode hydrogen? And if hydrogen, what about the hydrogen of sea water? Might the explosion of an atomic bomb set off an explosion of the ocean itself?
Nor was this all. The nitrogen in the air is also unstable, though in less degree. Might it not be set off by an atomic explosion in the atmosphere? These questions could not be passed over lightly. Was there really any chance that an atomic bomb would trigger the explosion of the nitrogen in the atmosphere or of the hydrogen in the ocean? This would be the ultimate catastrophe. Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!”
Compton and Oppenheimer agree that unless a “firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or the sea, these bombs must never be made.” Then comes Compton’s appraisal. “In due time, the calculations gave the firm result that while the nuclei of hydrogen are indeed unstable, the conditions under which they can explode are far removed from anything that can be brought about by atomic explosions. In this sense atomic explosions are safe.”
The key phrase is “far removed”. Not to mention “safe”, now that we know better in terms of the disposal problem of nuclear waste.