- Ecstatic Naturalism and Aesthetic Transcendentalism on the Creativity of Nature
Ecstatic naturalism and classical American philosophy both emphasize the creative possibilities of nature and expound metaphysical views in support of them. Ecstatic naturalism proposes that the creative transformations witnessed at the level of nature natured are sustained and empowered by nature naturing, which consists in innumerable “potencies.” This view has a historical precedence in Charles Peirce’s evolutionary cosmology, most notably in its cosmogonic stage of a “Platonic world” that consists in innumerable aesthetic potentialities. While Peirce’s cosmological position shares some affinities with ecstatic naturalism, it nonetheless proposes its own unique theoretical stance on the creativity of nature. By comparing the two philosophies, we may come to understand important doctrinal details on which they converge and diverge, and to see that Peirce’s cosmology has consequences for an “aesthetic transcendentalism” of nature that originates with his New England intellectual heritage that includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Sr., and other transcendentalists.
I. Peirce’s “Platonic World” and the Creativity of Nature1
In “The Logic of Continuity,” the final lecture of his 1898 Cambridge lecture series, Peirce features the Platonic world as an early stage of cosmogenesis. For Peirce, cosmogenesis is an evolutionary process that proceeds from “the vague to the definite,” or from the indeterminate to the determinate, with its ultimate origin being a master continuum of absolute vagueness or indeterminacy.2 The [End Page 55] origin of the universe is “the utter vagueness of completely undetermined and dimensionless potentiality,” or a pure possibility of “everything in general but of nothing in particular.”3 The Platonic world evolves from this initial state coming about by a determination or “contraction” of the pure possibility that is utterly vague.4 This new cosmogonic development is a “world of ideas” or “a continuum of forms” whereby each idea or form is subtly distinguished from the ultimate origin by being a “definite potentiality,” that is, a being that is “indeterminate yet determinable” in a certain way.5 Through further determination or contraction, the Platonic forms come to generate a world of existence populated by concrete actual things. Our world as we know it, “the existing universe with all its arbitrary secondness is an offshoot from, or an arbitrary determination of,” the Platonic world, and as such it is a “special existence,” a particular world where some forms have emerged into existence.6 Beyond Peirce’s cosmogony, the Platonic forms also feature more generally in his metaphysics, such as in the three realities or “Universes” of being, which are discussed in “A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God.” The Platonic forms correspond to the “Ideas” of the “Universe of Firstness,” which maintains its reality together with the “Universe of Secondness” consisting of brute actualities and the “Universe of Thirdness” consisting of signs.7 [End Page 56]
While the Platonic forms do not properly exist, they are real, and their realities are each defined by a particular “suchness” or positive sui generis character.8 One of the most important details about the forms is that their characters are aesthetic. As Peirce explains, the Platonic world is a varied collection of innumerable qualities and feelings:
We can hardly but suppose that those sense-qualities that we now experience, colors, odors, sounds, feelings of every description, loves, griefs, surprise, are but the relics of an ancient ruined continuum of qualities, like a few columns standing here and there in testimony that here some old-world forum with its basilica and temples had once made a magnificent ensemble. And just as that forum, before it was actually built, had had a vague under-existence in the mind of him who planned its construction, so too the cosmos of sense qualities which I would have you to suppose in some early stage of being was [as] real as your personal life is this minute, had in an antecedent stage of development a vaguer being, before the relations of its dimensions became definite and contracted.9
The cosmogonic role of the Platonic forms, thus, is to serve as primordial aesthetic potentialities from which the determinate qualities and feelings characterizing each natural phenomenon and state of...